Friday, February 25, 2022

The Scarlett Woman, Part 2: NOEL STREATFEILD (as SUSAN SCARLETT), Murder While You Work (1944) & Pirouette (1948)

My lovely Greyladies edition of Murder

Judy sat staring out of the railway carriage window. Of course there was a war on, but could any train that was trying at all really dawdle the way this one was doing?

Now that I've got started reading and writing about Susan Scarlett (see here), I find that I can't stop, and in light of world events in the past few days it seems wise not to stop.

I read these two recently in a continuing desire to avoid any contact with reality. If I wouldn't say that these two are quite as good overall as Clothes-Pegs and The Man in the Dark, which I wrote about last time, they were still marvelously effective at getting my mind off the news.

Murder While You Work is one of two Susan Scarletts that are explicitly set during wartime (along with Summer Pudding, which I wrote about here ages ago). It's also Streatfeild's one attempt (to my knowledge) at a more or less straightforward murder mystery. So it might seem odd to say that this might have been the perfect Susan Scarlett novel if not for the damned murders, but that is indeed how I felt about it. 

Our heroine, Judy Rest, arrives in the village of Pinlock to take up her new work in a munitions factory. On the train, she makes the acquaintance of Nick Parsons when he rescues her dropped lipstick (quite valuable under wartime circumstances), who, it turns out after the two engage in some extremely careless talk, is also engaged in top secret work at the same factory. Nick, the only surviving son of the formidable Lady Parsons, whom we shall meet and come to love later on ("I was the child who was too delicate to live. And now look at the damn thing. The sole survivor."), warns Judy that he's heard disturbing things about her new billet, wherein a suspicious death has recently occurred. Da-da-da-DUM.

Judy is admirably unflappable, however (if a complete dolt when it comes to romance, as we shall see), and becomes fond of elderly, recently-widowed (in peculiar circumstances) Mrs. Former and her daughter Rose, though distinctly less fond of Clara Roal, Mrs. Former's niece, who is angry and disgruntled and more than a bit shady. Clara's son Desmond is a problem too, an eight-year-old with developmental or mental health issues that manifest in his apparently nonsensical speech and tendency toward cruelty. 

And then more murders occur. Unfortunately.

Judy is charming and intelligent and capable (except in regard to love, but that works itself out, of course), Nick is witty and brave and appropriately admires Judy for her capacities as well as her looks, and the wartime setting allows Streatfeild to pack the book with fascinating detail from her own experiences. All of that I loved, and to use my favorite expression for this type of reading, the pages turned themselves. I devoured it as readily as I am capable of inhaling a tub of cookies and cream ice cream, and I assure you that my capabilities in that area are impressive.

What, then, could possibly be wrong? It's just that the murder plot is purely an annoying interruption of an otherwise entertaining frolic. It's perfectly obvious from the beginning who the murderer is, it's the why and how that are (slightly) mysterious, and the victims are (breaking the golden rule of cozy mysteries) likable and harmless. One victim we only hear of, as he is dead when the novel opens, but the next is a sweet, charming supporting character that we have grown to like. Not to mention a dog… [cringe emoji]

If only instead of a boring murderer there might have been just an annoying person that Judy and Nick had to maneuver around. One gets the sense Streatfeild wanted to show off her knowledge of psychological issues by portraying a psychopath, but I could have lived without that display. There's also Desmond, whose portrayal is perhaps accurate from a psychological standpoint but is quite insensitive by today's standards (including a single use of the "r" word, along with various other only slightly less grating descriptions). His behavior is monstrous, but one can quite see how he got there and feel sad for his grotesque neglect.

Those reservations aside, however, the novel is an absolute delight. Nick's plucky mother, Lady Parsons, in herself makes up for most of the negatives, as for example in discussing her faithful housekeeper's fortunate age:

Dibble was my personal maid before the war, but now she does everything. Up till the war was declared Dibble went on from year to year being thirty-nine, and then suddenly, when registration started, she came to me one morning and laid her birth certificate on my desk and there she was fifty-two. Of course I said nothing about the thirty-nine, I was too thankful. I just said, 'Isn't that splendid, Dibble!' and she said, 'Yes, my lady,' and we've never mentioned it since."

The tidbits and interactions in the munitions factory are also a delight, as when Judy is instructed about maintaining the proper rhythm with her lathe ("The girls in this group say that 'White Christmas' just swings it nicely"). So while the unfortunate murders may keep this from being my favorite Susan Scarlett, it still lands fairly high up in the pile.

Next up:

The rather lush original cover (never
mind the mildew stains)

"I've been watching you. Ever since you came to my school I've said to myself, 'There's something in that child which one day may, if she works, flower.' I'm now going to give you a chance to show the world what you can do. When I give a chance to one of my dancers I'm giving into their hands my reputation and the reputation of my school and of my ballet. Dancing is not, as with some of the other arts, a matter of short inspiration and quick effects; dancing is a vocation. A girl whom I choose to star as much gives her life to dancing as a novice entering a nunnery gives her life to religion."

Pirouette might land a little further down the pile for me—it's beginning to seem to me that the later Susan Scarlett novels have more angst and less cheerful energy than the early ones—and its focus on an 18-year-old ballet dancer on the cusp of stardom gives it a bit more of a feel of Streatfeild's children's books too, though it does contain a more or less effective romantic element. But of course center stage here is the ballet interest, and Streatfeild's intricate knowledge of a ballet company and of the dreams and frustrations of young dancers (and of the tyrannical instructors and directors who threaten to derail their lives). That's what makes this a page-turner despite it's unremarkable leading lady.

Judith Nell has been working and striving for success all her life, though this proves to have been as much due to her mother's own frustrated ambitions and her ceaseless pressure on Judith as to Judith's own wishes. Love in the Mist, the final Susan Scarlett novel, which I haven't yet reviewed, has a silly, misguided mother, no doubt, but Pirouette has one that should be promptly smothered with a pillow. Streatfeild's interest in obsessive and problematic personalities sometimes leads her to create exaggerated caricatures instead of characters, and Olive is a mother only a, er, masochist could love. Obsessed with Judith's success in a field she aspired to, Olive is at the point of completely ignoring her other children—Peter, having difficulty adjusting to life after serving in the war, and young Tim, in danger of getting involved in a gang because he feels neglected, not to mention her husband John, who has humored her in her obsessive attention to Judith but is now reaching the end of his rope. 

Original back cover

Of course, Judith falls in love with Paul, the brother of a fellow dancer, who is heading off to a good job in Rhodesia in a few months and wants to take her with him—just as she gets her big break in a starring role.

Some readers will cringe a bit at the book's ultimate attitude on the question of career vs. marriage and children, but of course no one can fairly expect radical political attitudes from a romance novel (though, expected or not, they have been known to creep in). As Paul sees it, "It was a damn' silly life, the ballet, sure to let her down in the end. Nobody wanted a wife with a career; it would be a far better thing if she could be persuaded to throw the whole thing up." And the irony of her father saying that Judith must make up her own mind about things as he advises Paul how to manipulate her is worthy of a cynical laugh.

But despite that, the tale has some irresistible elements. There's a delightful scene in which Prudence and Olga, two of the ballet company's stars, are deliciously catty to each other in a restaurant in front of their respective romantic interests. And one can't help but wonder if Streatfeild is making use of personal experience in the scene in which young Nadia, Paul's sister, having trained all her life for stardom but now heartbreakingly grown too tall, gives Madame Tania a brilliant telling-off that she won't soon forget. Those moments are well worth the bits of handwringing between Judith and Paul and Olive, and a plot that one can see coming a mile off.

Since I now have all the Susan Scarlett books waiting patiently on my shelves, and since the world news sure as hell isn't getting any better, I imagine I'll be reading more of them soon. Here's hoping they're all as entertaining as the ones I've read, even if none of them are likely to astonish me with their plot twists!

Friday, February 18, 2022

The Scarlett Woman: NOEL STREATFEILD (as SUSAN SCARLETT), Clothes-Pegs (1939) & The Man in the Dark (1940)

It has recently come to my attention, through mentioning the Susan Scarlett novels on Twitter (@furrowedmiddle, if you haven't found me there yet), that many people are still unaware of the books' existence. Even passionate fans of Noel Streatfeild's children's books don't always know that she also wrote for adults, and even those who know she wrote novels for adults (16 by my count under her own name) often don't know about her 12 pseudonymous "romances", written just before, during, and for a few years after World War II. These were all reprinted by Greyladies Books a decade or so ago, but the new editions are now out of print.

These novels were light fiction, about which Streatfeild herself seemed to feel considerable embarrassment (they were never included in any of her official bibliographies), with relatively ordinary and more or less predictable romantic or light melodrama plots. The definitive website about Streatfeild, essential for fans (see here), notes that "[b]oth Angela Bull [Streatfeild biographer] and Nancy Huse [author of a critical text on Streatfeild's work] agree that Noel's romances use very conventional plots, and there is nothing to distinguish them from the general mass of books in this style."

Ah, but here I beg to differ.

It's true enough that you are unlikely to be astonished by any of the plot developments in these books—most can be summed up as cheerful takes on the adage about the course of true love never running smooth. It's true that most of them are fairly frivolous and even downright silly in terms of their plots, and that some are surprisingly conservative in regard to gender roles and career women. It's even true that many of the characters are obviously good or bad and get their just desserts accordingly, as one would expect from any bit of fluffy fiction.

BUT … they are also written by Noel Streatfeild, and they bear some of her unmistakable strengths, however little effort she may have put into them and however eagerly she disowned them in later years. She was too skillful a writer not to pour herself even into what she considered bits of fluff. She provided them with intriguing settings and situations and fascinating details that stem from her own personal experiences (war work, modeling, the film industry, theatre, ballet). And she couldn't help but people them with charming, likable (and loathable) characters who interact in lively, entertaining ways and are portrayed in psychologically astute ways even when behaving according to the romantic formula.

And what's more, by contrast with much of Streatfeild's "literary" fiction for adults—the novels she didn't disown—the Susan Scarlett novels tend to be cheerful and energetic, the perfect antidote for COVID blues or general malaise. I wouldn't recommend sampling Luke or I Ordered a Table for Six (to name two of her novels under her own name) as an antidote to anything, unless you're feeling too cheerful and would like to cut yourself down to size… (Though The Winter Is Past, by contrast, is absolutely lovely—I wrote about that one here).

I wrote about one of the Susan Scarlett novels, the wartime Summer Pudding, way back in 2014 (see here), but last October or November something brought them back to mind and I realized they were exactly what I needed to get through the winter. I promptly fleshed out my existing collection, so that I now have all 12 titles, and have been happily submerging myself now and again in their charm. So, to combat the lack of attention that has been paid to these novels, I present you with two of my favorites from my recent reading/re-reading.

First up, one of the first of the Scarletts, Clothes-Pegs (both it and Sally-Ann appeared in 1939):

"Goodness, how awful. Now me—I'm going to be the most famous doctor in the world, and Lisa is going to be a terrific woman flyer. And there's you just wants babies!"

Annabel was sorry her tastes were such a bore; but even to keep the good opinion of Lisa and Ann she could not change them. She didn't want to do anything grand.

Seventeen-year-old Annabel Brown has taken a job in the sewing room at Bertna's, a high-end dressmaker, to help her family's finances. When one of the "mannequins" employed downstairs quits unexpectedly, Tania Petoff, the shop's owner, decides to try lovely Annabel in her place, to the chagrin of her catty fellow models Elizabeth and Freda, who rather entertainingly take out their frustrations on her:

Freda would walk up and down beside her. Her eyes snapping over Annabel's figure.

"You're looking like a sack of coals. That aristocratic-slink has been dead for years. Do keep your back straight. Did you think you were going to a funeral in that dress? Miss Petoff designed it to dance in."

A third fellow model, Bernadette, is kinder, but has some secrets of her own…

Annabel's new position and improved status lead to tensions in her close-knit family, and even more problems arise when she catches the eye of wealthy Lord David de Bett, and the ire of dreadful Lady Octavia Glaye, who is keeping David in reserve as a potential future husband. Things take their course after Annabel has a wardrobe malfunction:

"Do you live permanently in yellow evening frocks and court gowns, or have you anything else?"

Annabel laughed shakily.

"Of course. My own clothes."

"Then go and put them on. Lovely ladies who fall over their trains need cocktails to restore them. And that's just what I'm going to take you to have."

Later on, Octavia drags David to Annabel's home for tea, hoping the realities of her drab little existence will put him off. Foolish girl! But who could resist the reaction of Annabel's mother, Ethel, to the fearsome Octavia:

"Dear me," thought Ethel, "don't care for her. Pity, with that lovely face. Looks like the Virgin on that church calendar we had last Christmas. Got a fit of sulks like Lorna gets. Liver, like as nor." If it was liver, she was sorry for Octavia, but she was not going to have her or anybody else spoiling Sunday tea. She gave her a friendly nod, as if she had said something nice, and turned to David.

There will be no surprises in how things turn out, but there's so much charm in the way it's all told that I found it irresistible, and the details of the dress shop are themselves worth the price of admission (with some lush descriptions of gowns, if that's your cup of tea). "Literary" it may not be, by Streatfeild's own standards, and it certainly doesn't resolve any of the world's problems. But great fun it certainly is, and quite effective at keeping those problems at bay for a few hours.

From there, I turned to 1940's The Man in the Dark, in which 26-year-old Marda Mayne agrees to move into the household of wealthy former racing car driver James Longford, blind as a result of an accident several years before, to serve as a companion to his newly-orphaned 17-year-old American ward, Shirley Kay. James has completely isolated himself since losing his vision, dismissing himself as "a useless bit of waste," and he wants Marda to provide for Shirley's needs so that he need not be bothered with her and can continue to stew in his own juices.

The plucky, practical Marda takes James' rather intimidating household staff in her stride:

"Yes, and then I'll go over Miss Kay's rooms with either you or the housekeeper."

The butler, as though watching the placing of a couple of coffins in the hall, watched the taxi-driver put down Marda's two suitcases. He waited till she had paid the man and shut the door, then he turned to her.

"There is no housekeeper, Miss."

From his voice it sounded as if the housekeeper had been strangled and her body put in the cellar; it nearly made Marda giggle.

Shirley turns out to be flirtatious scamp, but the two young women become fast friends. Naturally, they also make progress in loosening James up from his relentless self-pity, and Marda gains an unexpected ally from the aforementioned butler in an unexpected way. But the trio will have to brace themselves when James' self-absorbed, manipulative sister Vera—who sees James' fortune as destined for her own bank account—announces a visit:

"What's she like?"

Shirley considered.

"Well, I'd say outwardly she was like a cow suffering from flatulence, but inside I guess a couple of knives have nothing on her."

Again, you won't need three tries to guess how it all ends up, but getting there is like consuming bon-bon after bon-bon without gaining an ounce. It's a charming frolic with a touch of Streatfeild's usual psychological depth even in its less likable characters.

I've already devoured a couple more of these tasty morsels, but this is quite enough for one post, so most likely more to come soon.

Friday, February 11, 2022

MOLLY CLAVERING (as Marian Moffatt), Welcome Stranger (1955) (aka Like One of the Family)

Most of you know by now that Dean Street Press has published, as Furrowed Middlebrow books, most of the fiction by Molly Clavering that was published in book form. We are lacking a few of her titles for the very respectable but still frustrating reason that we have so far been unable to get hold of copies of them. I hope we'll be able to rectify that ultimately—fingers crossed! But those who have followed my writings about Clavering closely will know that in addition to her novels published in book form, Molly published at least 24 more novels in The People's Friend, first as serials in the magazine, then reprinted in later years as "pocket novels"--small format magazine issues of about 130 closely-printed pages. These mostly appeared under the name Marian Moffatt.

Now, far be it from me to be obsessive about anything (ahem), but I've been on a quest for years now to track down any or all of these pocket novels. Particularly since we've reprinted Molly's other novels, my search has become even more intense. So, you can imagine how I felt when some of these titles came up on eBay recently—four of them in all, alongside quite a stack of other PF publications that are likely to be of considerably less interest to me. Of course, I spent way too much and acquired the whole heap.

I promptly dived into the one which seemed the most promising, a family story set in a Scottish village and following the effects on the Baxter family–widowed Myna Baxter, her daughters Norma and Barbara, and son Joe—of the arrival at Ivy Lodge of an orphaned cousin, pretty young Sally Forrest. Sally, of course, is sweet and kind and innocent, and becomes fast friends with Barbara as well as attracting the attention of Joe. But Norma, still bitter as a result of an immature engagement to neighbor Eric Johnstone, the breakup of which she blames on his brother Murray, is bitterly jealous of Sally's every move. Sally goes to work at the local wool mill, managed by attractive Ben Lumsden, where Norma is in charge of the secretarial pool, and Sally promptly gets on as her talents in design are recognized. Add to this that every character in the novel seems to be in love with another character, but to assume that that character is in love with someone else, and fireworks are assured.

This all sounds quite like a classic Molly Clavering plot, with ample room for the comedies of errors and local color she does so well. But I was oh so saddened to find that its simply … not. Although it has some of the charms of Clavering's better work, and is plotted well enough that I had no trouble finishing it, there's really almost no trace of the vivid local color that she does so well. The setting is mostly confined to a very drab office environment and the Baxters' home life—even when Sally is lost in the woods during a picnic, we get little but the melodrama and angst of the various characters. There's also, tragically, no real humor, none of the slightly rowdy comedy Molly does so spectacularly well elsewhere, and very little description of the countryside or of day-to-day life in a Scottish village.

Perhaps worse, though, is that Molly here relies far too heavily on the trope of the bitter girl, Norma, who begins to seem genuinely deranged in her pettiness and jealousy, so that it's hard to forgive her even when she (finally) has her inevitable change of heart. Not to mention that Sally in her sweetness is in danger of seeming like a doormat. There's also too much reliance on the endless romantic misunderstandings. Misunderstandings, of course, are a classic plot device, and can be used to great effect for comedic purposes and entertainment value, but here Clavering gets little mileage out of them, and the story just plods along as each boring and implausible new misunderstanding comes along.

This tale was first serialized in The People's Friend in 1955, under the title Like One of the Family, and 1955 was also the year that Molly published the wonderful Dear Hugo in book form. The following year she would release Near Neighbours, one of her very best novels. So she was in her prime as a storyteller when she submitted this one to PF. I can only assume that perhaps PF's guidelines, or perhaps the demands of serialization, proved too limited for Molly's natural talents, but what a disappointment it has been. Imagine if there had been 24 more novels all as good as her books!

But never fear, I will soon be sampling the other three pocket novels I've acquired, though perhaps with less enthusiasm than I approached this one. Where Love Leads was actually published a year earlier (the year Molly published Because of Sam), while With Hands That Heal first appeared (as The New Matron) in 1964, two years after her final book publication, and As Blows the Wind dates from 1971, five years before she apparently stopped writing altogether. Perhaps one of these will pleasantly surprise me?

Friday, February 4, 2022

"The sea could wash all malison away": E. H. YOUNG, Caravan Island (1940)

 'D'you know what a Greek once said?'

'No. What?' said Stephen.

'He said the sea could wash all malison away.'

'Did he?'

'Yes. Let's go and see if he was right.'

'Malison,' Stephen said to himself. He thought he knew what that meant, but he made a mental note to look it up in the dictionary when he went home.

For perfect reading when I was a bit under the weather for a few days recently, I couldn't have done better than plucking this book off the shelf. And what's more, I'm happy to say, having recently labeled a kind gift from Kathy Reed a "miss" (see here), that this was an earlier gift from her, so I am making up in my love for this one for my lack of enthusiasm for the other.

I've long been a fan of E. H. Young's brilliant writing for adults, and Dean Street Press and I have even reprinted her superb 1930 novel Miss Mole as a Furrowed Middlebrow book. Her 1947 novel Chatterton Square has also been reprinted in the British Library's women writers series curated by Simon Thomas. So I've been meaning for ages to get around to sampling her two children's titles, Caravan Island (1940) and River Holiday (1942). I think I mentioned that intention a while back, and so when Kathy came across this one, she very kindly sent it along.

Hugh and Laura (Young doesn't seem to have given them last names) have been eagerly looking forward to a camping trip with their parents. But the day before they are to set out, their father breaks his leg. After some lukewarm attempts to "camp" in their back yard, Hugh and Laura are foisted onto their slightly older cousins Cicely and Stephen, who have already made plans to go camping and caravaning on a Scottish island with their lively young Aunt Judith. They're none too pleased to have their younger and rather less adventurous cousins tagging along, and it will put a crimp in their plans to move from one campsite to another every few days. Hugh and Laura are perhaps a bit spoiled and overprotected, and are surprised by Aunt Judith's distinctly un-motherly, un-smothering approach to child care. She gives the children considerable latitude, and trusts them not to do anything too reckless. Tensions among the children gradually dissipate in the excitement of climbing, bathing, and the work of the farm near which they camp.

Caravan Island
is a quiet, charming little book—descriptions of Scottish countryside and gentle, entirely plausible adventures (no Nazi spies or smugglers' caves, no falling down mineshafts or death-defying rescues from burning buildings), activities that children really would get up to on a holiday in Scotland. The most harrowing moments involve getting lost on a mountain in a thick mist and coming into too close contact with an angry bull. It's a bit like a children's version of The Fortnight in September in that sense, and becomes rather like taking a delightful, restful, but thoroughly enjoyable holiday oneself (which was just exactly what the doctor ordered when I was feeling poorly).

As one would expect from Young, who did such brilliant work in her fiction for adults, the characters of the children are beautifully done. The four youngsters all have clearly defined personalities—Hugh a bit pugnacious with a slight tendency toward dishonesty, Laura meek and easily frightened but with a flair for the domestic, Cicely bold and practical and going after what she wants, Stephen intellectual and unsure of himself—and these are developed well, with some evolution, in the course of the book, though happily they all remain very much themselves at the end, just perhaps a bit more mature and knowledgeable. (For anyone who reads the book, I am obviously Stephen, and perfectly content with that.)

Where Young's inexperience in writing for children might perhaps come through a bit is in the story's tendency to rely a bit too much on lessons learned. It's not heavy-handed about it, but certainly all four children (and even Aunt Judith herself) have to confront their own weaknesses and learn from them, which occasionally felt just a bit on the didactic side. It's overall tone might also be a bit sweet for some readers—alas, not much subversive humor allowed here, the lack of which might be a bit surprising in the creator of the lusciously subversive Miss Mole. But the charm of the story's peaceful events, the vividness of the characters, and the marvelous setting more than made up for that for me.

Despite the general lack of hilarity, there are some delightful moments here and there. Aunt Judith gets a bit "Miss Mole-like" in her attitude to paths up mountainsides:

A path on a mountain was, to the aunt, like singing lovely poetry to a vulgar tune or behaving improperly in a church. It was true that, without a path, some people would never get up a mountain at all, but that, she said, was either a misfortune they had to bear or a stupidity they could overcome if they chose.

And particularly of interest for the less adventurous among us is Young's concern for allowing Laura to keep her peaceful domesticity. I assumed at first that she would of course come out of her shell and learn to be adventurous, but despite some pressure from the other children, she knows exactly who she is and sticks to it steadfastly. There's a funny but also touching scene with Mr. Firth, a friend of Aunt Judith, which I have to quote at some length:

'Come and learn to swim,' he said.

'No, thank you,' Laura said politely.

'Don't you want to?''

'I'd like to know how, but I don't want to learn.'

'Ah,' said Mr. Firth grimly, 'that's the state of mind of a great many people. You'll be sorry, you know, one of these days.'

'But not for a long time,' she said, smiling at him pleasantly.

He sat down beside her. 'But suppose,' he said, 'you were in a shipwreck.'

'I'm never going in a ship.'

'You'll have to go in one to get home.'

'Oh dear! So I shall. But,' she added anxiously, 'it's quite a nice little safe one, isn't it?'

'Oh, yes, yes,' Mr. Firth said hastily. 'I was thinking you might some day want to go to America or Australia.'

'Not at all,' Laura said firmly.

'You're not much like your aunt, are you?' he asked with disapproval.

'She isn't my aunt.'

'Isn't she? I'm afraid I don't know which of you's which yet.' And that, thought Laura, was entirely Mr. Firth's own fault, but she did not say so. 'Well,' he tried again, 'suppose you saw somebody in difficulty in the water, a baby perhaps.'

'No,' Laura said, and she shook her head. 'There'd be a father or mother if there was a baby.'

'Oh then, I give you up,' he said and this was exactly what Laura wanted.

I'm not quite as quiet and unadventurous as Laura (and utterly lack her domestic skills), but I think it's lovely that Young felt the importance of portraying and dignifying such a character, even alongside the brave and industrious Cicely who provides a different kind of female role model.

Indeed, for me, Caravan Island is a book to wash all malison away. And naturally, I've already ordered a copy of River Holiday

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