Friday, March 25, 2022

OMG! OMG!: Coming this summer as a Furrowed Middlebrow book from Dean Street Press

If I were brave (or foolish) enough to look back at all of my previous announcements of forthcoming Furrowed Middlebrow titles, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that each time I've said I was more excited than I had ever been before about our new titles. Surely by now you'd think my head would have exploded from overstimulation.

But I'm going to say it again this time, and I don't think you'll have any doubt that I'm telling the truth. This is the kind of announcement I've long dreamed of making. Previously unpublished novel by an author I adore and am so proud to have been able to get back into print? OMG indeed.

On my year end Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen a few months ago, my top spot went to a book I couldn't yet reveal. It had been a completely unexpected revelation to me, as I had received an email in mid-December from the heirs of one of my favorite Furrowed Middlebrow authors (they're all favorites, of course, but this one holds a special place for me indeed, as I know she does for many of you), with the news that a previously unpublished novel, long thought to have been lost, was now found, and would I like to read it?

Holy &@#$, yes please!

And far beyond the excitement I felt at reading a "new" novel from an author I loved was the realization, as I was reading, that it was bloody wonderful. I couldn't put it down, and as I reached the last chapter or two, I was in terrible suspense as to whether it could end as well as it had started. (It did.)

Yes yes yes, Furrowed Middlebrow, for heaven's sake, shut up and tell us what you're on about!

The book in question is...

The Marble Staircase, by none other than the incomparable and irresistible Elizabeth Fair.

[pause for suitable shrieks and exclamations]

The envelope in which the manuscript
was discovered by Fair's heirs

It's just oh so lovely. Shall I say just a bit about the plot? Twist my arm.

In the mid-1950s, Charlotte Moley, a widow who has long been a bit browbeaten by her grown daughter and very traditional mother ("Charlotte could be likened to grit in their smooth-running lives"), receives an unexpected inheritance from an old friend with whom she once spent idyllic holidays in Italy. The larger-than-life Mrs. Gamalion leaves her a house in the village of Nything (based, almost certainly, on Lytham in Lancashire, where the Fair family sometimes spent holidays), a bit the worse for wear but sufficient to awaken fantasies in Charlotte of leaving her old life behind and making a fresh start. As she explores the village and the house containing Mrs. Gamalion's belongings, memories of their times in Italy return...

I don't want to say too much, so I will simply add that when I described it to Rupert at Dean Street Press, in what was undoubtedly an annoyingly giddy, hyperventilating sort of email, I said it was like All Passion Spent crossed with The Enchanted April and filtered through the sensibility of Penelope Lively. You may, of course, describe it in your own way, and happily you will have the chance to do just that before too long, as we have bumped another planned title out of the way in order to release The Marble Staircase with our summer 2022 batch of titles (exact release date coming soon, along with announcements of our other summer titles, for which lingering contract revisions are flying back and forth as you read these words).

The opening paragraph of The Marble Staircase

To add to this title's fascination, while first assumptions might be that The Marble Staircase was Fair's final novel, perhaps rejected by her publisher as times changed, snippets from Fair's diaries which were shared with me by her heirs suggest a more complex story. She mentions working on the novel (perhaps initially titled The Italian Legacy and, later, The Beautiful View) at least as early as January 1958, not long after the appearance of her fifth novel, A Winter Away, and more than two years before her final published novel, The Mingham Air, appeared. The longer-than-usual gap between the publications of Winter and Mingham may well suggest that Fair was initially at work on Staircase but that she was experimenting with different structures and alternative ways of telling her story.

Staircase is, structurally, a more complex novel than Fair's other work, with its shifts from the present time in Nything to Charlotte's shimmering recollections of the Italy of 25 years earlier. Fair's diary suggests that she initially planned to devote the first part of the novel to Charlotte's and Mrs. Gamalaion's time in Italy, and the latter part to Charlotte's present attempts at a new life, but she decided later that the two sections should be interwoven and allowed to resonate more fully with each other. A more challenging project, no doubt, and one that must have required considerable work and planning. 

We have no evidence that Fair ever submitted The Marble Staircase to her publisher. Perhaps she remained unsatisfied with it, or planned to return to it for further revisions. Perhaps she felt it was taking too long and put it aside to write The Mingham Air. However, the manuscript we have is certainly complete, and however extensive the reworking and revising she had done, this is clearly a more or less final edit, with only minimal handwritten corrections of small errors. I'm obviously a bit biased, but if she did have lingering doubts about the success of her experiments, I can't imagine that many readers will share them.

Whew! I'm so relieved to be able to share this most exciting event at last, and I can't wait for you to be able to read and savor the book. 

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Hold on to your hats!: Big announcement coming tomorrow...

Remember that mystery title that disrupted my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen at the last possible moment last December and became my favorite book of the year? "An unpublished novel, previously thought to have been lost, by a favorite author."

I didn't expect it to take three months before I could tell you about it, but at long last you're about to find out what it was.

And when you'll be able to read it for yourself...

Stay tuned for the big big BIG announcement tomorrow. I think you'll be as thrilled as I was. Hold on to your hats indeed!

Friday, March 18, 2022

The Scarlett Woman, Part 3: NOEL STREATFEILD (as SUSAN SCARLETT), Babbacombe's (1941) & Poppies for England (1948)

Just for a moment or two on her second day in the shop she sat down. A fellow-junior, called Jenny, gave her a horrified dig in the ribs.
"I say, get up before Mrs. Nunn or Miss Jones see you."
Beth sprang up.
"I thought we were allowed to sit. I mean I thought it was the Shop Act or something that we had to have something to sit on."
Jenny laughed.
"So they say, but it doesn't work out that way. You won't get sacked for sitting, but if you sit you'll get the sack."

For quite a while in my Susan Scarlett reading—both a decade or so ago when Greyladies first rediscovered them and more recently in my use of them to avoid reality—I resisted Babbacombe's. It has one of my least favorite plot elements—the utterly vicious, unredeemable, scheming girl who thinks herself "all that" and really should have been exposed on a hillside at birth. This was obvious even from the Greyladies blurb, and it led me to select other Scarlett titles instead. But it turns out this was a bit of a false alarm. Although there is such a character here, she is given delightfully little airtime, and her scheming is so obviously hopeless and without effect that one needn't really notice her at all.

The name of this character, however, will be quite familiar by the end of this post, as Streatfeild seems to have had a liberal recycling policy when it came to character names. Don't confuse the Dulcie of Babbacombe's with the Dulcie we'll meet in Poppies for England. But by all means do wonder if Streatfeild had at one time known someone named Dulcie and liked memorializing her every time she had a female character who was a pain in the neck.

At any rate…

Lovely young Beth Carson is just out of school and starting her first job at Babbacombe's department store, where her father has worked for donkey's years. Beth is pure as the driven snow, naturally, and always follows daddy's orders as far as knowing her place and keeping to it, but she can hardly be blamed for tripping over a charming young man's dog at the train station, can she? And how could she have helped getting trapped in an elevator with the same man a few days later, and giving him a piece of her mind about his attitudes, before learning that he just happens to be David Babbacombe, the ne'er-do-well son of the store's wealthy owner? How could she possibly have known that her careless words would inspire him to take a new lease on life? And is it her fault if he insists upon seeing her again despite her determined rejections due to knowing her place, etc.? 

Starting work at Babbacombe's at about the same time as Beth, but as a lowly elevator girl, is Beth's useless cousin Dulcie, who has just been dumped on the Carsons by her aunt who raised her and has now had quite enough of her. Dulcie is spoiled, has some of her own money, and is a cheap glamour queen who fancies herself a seductress. But fortunately for the reader, she, like the Wicked Witch of the West, has no power here except as a minor irritant.

It all unfolds just as you'd expect, and the Carsons and Babbacombes are a delight to hang around (though a threatened-blindness subplot involving Beth's brother might well seem a bit too familiar from The Man in the Dark). As obvious and silly as it all often is, somehow—and who knows how Streatfeild does it, particularly seeing as how she was clearly to some extent "phoning in" these Susan Scarlett novels—it all rings true enough to make the novel a delightful frolic, and here as in the other novels we get wonderful details, this time of the day-to-day running of a department store, including Beth's efforts as a saleswoman, a nefarious shoplifter (and the surprising methods of a store detective), the strenuous running about of a junior, and the rigorous expectations of employers of the time for their staff. Not to mention a fairly thorough run-down of appropriate tips to staff after a stay in a country house—you never know when that might come in handy!

From the department store we move, in Poppies for England, to the stage, a subject Streatfeild knows well:

This one week's holiday was all that most of the audience could get, they were free for one week from food queues, housework and even, for many hours a day, the care of their children. It was a week of absolute rest, but everybody in the audience knew that outside the camp lay the hard, difficult world of 1946.

We're in the rather provincial theatrical world of a holiday camp for families in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The Corners and the Binns are show business families who are on the verge of dire straits due to the lack of jobs and the fact that both Arthur Binns and John Corners have spent much of the past several years as POWs in Japan. But the crisis is averted when they manage to adapt a show they conceived in their prison camp (sure, why not?) for the entertainment needs of vacationing families. All summer performing in the holiday camp, and with all their meals and accommodation provided, is quite a luxury after the difficult years of the war.

Dulcie Corners (there's that name again) has been the only member of the family with steady employment, but even she has been rather in a rut in the chorus of a West End show with no hope of stardom. She's ambitious, but also, of course, a bit of a diva, and when she sets her sights on the show's pianist and composer, Tom Pollard, gets not a flicker of interest out of him, then discovers that his interests really lie with Nella Binns, a dancer with real talent but no ability to "put herself over", danger signs start flashing.

Not a great image, but fun to see
the original cover

You can more or less imagine the rest, but the main attractions here are twofold, or perhaps threefold. There's a lush array of details of wartime and postwar life. For example, there's Alice Corner's concerns that John must feel rather lost in the family's inside jokes, having been gone for several years:

It was difficult; she and the three children had such a wealth of things they shared, it was hard not to get talking and cut him out of a conversation. Silly, wartime jokes. That time Dulcie got under the table when the flying bomb hit the end of the street, and that time she had stood in a queue for two hours to buy strawberries, only to find that she was in the wrong queue and had fetched up at that peculiar chemist who had such odd things in his window that she always looked the other way when she passed, and that time when the house was blasted and they stayed for a week with the Binns, and that time when the Binns lost their windows and part of the roof and stayed nearly four months with them.

Even the song which becomes the hit of the show and gives the book its title is inspired by the war: "An airman had told him that the crimson streak of poppies was one of the loveliest things he knew coming home from a bomb raid."

Then, of course, there's wonderful details of the problems and perils of putting on a stage show, obviously grounded in Streatfeild's exact knowledge of that life. Just little details that she must have added by instinct shine with the ring of truth, as when Muriel Binns, who has added some pounds due to the stresses of wartime (oh, how I can relate), worries about her figure and the subtleties of an audience's reactions—"An out-and-out laugh she could stand, but never a snigger." 

And finally, family stories are of course one of Streatfeild's best strengths as well, and the dynamics between the Binns and the Corners are completely charming. The Dulcie we meet this time is merely difficult and ambitious, not inhuman like the one in Babbacombe's, and the only really unfortunate element of this novel appears on the final page, with a rather unfortunate final line of "romantic" dialogue which might be seen as misogyny even though it's clearly intended as both humorous and loving. Some readers may find it jarring, others probably won't notice, but although I take it in the spirit it was intended, I rather wish it were worded a bit differently.

Similarly in terms of language, there's some unintentional irony in Dulcie's early comments on Tom's inexplicable lack of response to her charms: "Nobody can be like that really, can they? I mean, all men like women in the end, don't they, like all girls grow up to like boys?" And later: "I don't believe it's queer of me. I believe it's Tom that's queer."

Probably best if I refrain from comment…

Friday, March 11, 2022

"Perhaps not only the house destroyed": DOROTHY CLEWES, I Came to a Wood (1956)

I could see her quite plainly, but her face was turned away, looking out over the fields. Heronswood must have been destroyed during the war, I thought, the words had been spoken so bitterly. And perhaps not only the house destroyed—

I read and reviewed several of Dorothy Clewes' novels for adults (she was more famous for her children's fiction) back in 2020 (see here) and enjoyed them enough to be inspired to create "wants" on Abe Books for her other novels that I couldn't get hold of. When I awoke one morning three or four months ago to the news that a copy of I Came to a Wood had finally appeared for sale, I didn't hesitate, and after a typical delay before I could find time to read it, I recently spent a happy weekend with it.

Ford Neilson, 40-ish and recovering from a heart attack with three months of rest and lack of stress, goes for a drive into the scenic surroundings of his town, hitherto unexplored because he was working all the time (hence the heart attack). He comes across an idyllic spot once occupied by a stately house, of which barely any trace remains now, and there meets a charming young American woman, Frea Blake, walking a friendly dog, whose eagerness gives Ford a return of his palpitations. Frea helps him, and he feels an immediate affinity for her (of course). He returns to the site on another day, seeking a second meeting, but this time encounters her aunt, Dorcas Blake, a bestselling novelist with a mysterious connection to the missing house.

Dorcas invites her back to her village nearby, where he meets John and Jencie, a young couple with two energetic children and a third on the way, blissfully happy except for the presence of Frea, an old flame of John's, who has determined to win him back. (The connections of all the characters are rather complicated or else I was rather dense—it took a long time for me to grasp that Dorcas is living next door to John and Jencie, treated as one of the family, but her niece is American, because John and Jencie are first cousins, children of siblings one of whom emigrated to the States while the other remained in England, and John and Frea grew up together in the U.S. Married first cousins might make us cringe a bit these days, but this scenario is a considerable improvement to my first, mistaken belief that Frea was desperately in love with her own brother…). 

Since all of this wasn't sufficient drama for Ford, he also becomes involved in a blackmail attempt against a close friend's son, which has implications for the friend himself, and encourages said friend's daughter in her ambition to be a writer, though her later encounter with Dorcas, one of the most amusing passages in the book, might not quite fall under the heading of "encouragement" but I'm sure could undoubtedly be seconded by lots of writers working today: 

"Oh, but she was wonderful," Lyn said. "She said it was because my writing was good she was going to say everything she knew to discourage me. She said I could prepare myself to be disappointed and disillusioned, to have worth-while effort spurned and see work without merit taking the prizes. I would slave for long hours on writing that might never see the light of day and if it did be crushed with misery at the way it was received, or more often ignored. And in any case, in ten years' time, thanks to radio and television, there'd be nobody left who could read."

"She certainly gave you a pep-talk," I said.

"She said not to expect to make any money, real money; and if l did I'd find there were dozens of little people who could immediately think of a thousand ways of taking it off me. And if I still felt like taking up writing as a career after that—there was no career like it in the world."

At the risk of sounding like one of the condescending male critics who so often damned the books I love most with faint praise (or like Queenie Leavis, which might be worse), I would have to say that I Came to a Wood is definitively a "nice" novel. It's a light melodrama peopled primarily with nice characters, with some tragic circumstances casting shadows from the past, but none overly threatening now, a hint of mystery, and two nice families who come entertainingly into the plot. It's not played for laughs, but there's also not so much hand-wringing as to be offputting for me, and the characters are likable and feel like real people (with the exception of Ford's first-person narration, which is far more sensitive and understanding of women—not to mention noticing of decor and fashion—than any heterosexual man who has ever breathed air). 

I enjoyed the book (and there's a brief recurrence of the main characters from The Blossom in the Bough, Clewes' earlier novel which I enjoyed even more), but I felt it never quite came alive and fulfilled its potential. This was one of Clewes' final efforts at writing adult fiction, and her more lucrative career as a children's author had already begun, so perhaps she felt distracted or less passionate than previously, or perhaps it was the challenge of using a male narrator, not quite successfully, that drags this one down a bit. Leaving it merely a pleasant and "nice" story, but, alas, not a buried treasure.

Friday, March 4, 2022

"Not for the likes of you": VIOLET TREFUSIS, Prelude to Misadventure (1942)

At length, hunger made me draw up in a village called Joubert, which appeared to be doing an extremely self-conscious imitation of an Utrillo, with its duck's-egg blue shutters, denuded plane trees, black-shawled housewife emerging from the baker carrying a loaf of bread a yard long under her arm. Where, I inquired of this person, could I have lunch? Her face was dry and wrinkled like the earth in drought, her eyes, blue as two little pieces of ice in a rut, were full of pride and prophecies. "I know of a place," she said darkly, "but it is not for the likes of you" (one felt that she was satisfying the feud of a life-time).

Regular readers will know that over the past several months I've been enthusiastically devouring all the novels in English by Violet Trefusis. And when I learned that our library's interlibrary loan services were fully operational again, this was one of the first titles I rushed to request. It was described as a collection of reminiscences published in honor of the Free French not long after Violet had had to leave France when the Nazi occupation began.

Sadly, the book was a bit of a disappointment for me overall. Many of the pieces were very clearly written for those "in the know" about French high society and politics of just before the invasion. Violet presents capsule profiles of various figures, some disguised with false names, and, sadly, she proves the virtues of the old adage, "show, don't tell". Violet, by contrast, tells and tells and tells, often in the form of analogies to literary characters or classical mythology, and very rarely shows, so that even when she shifts her focus momentarily to such high-profile figures as Colette or Jean Cocteau, I confess I was thoroughly bewildered as to what she was saying about them!

This is not to mention that she quotes numerous passages in French throughout—naturally anyone who is not an utter philistine understands French!—some of which my languishing knowledge of the language could unpack, but some of which would have taken me until 2028 had I not skipped ahead. A quibble for those non-linguists among us.

There were, happily, a couple of pieces which proved more entertaining and justified my efforts in getting hold of the book. "Invasion" deals with Violet's adventures in getting out of France, which initially consisted in taking herself to Dax, a small resort near Bayonne, where her mother, the famous Mrs. Keppel, had chosen the brink of invasion as the perfect time to take a cure. In this piece, Violet is more grounded in details of actual events, not merely noting that Cocteau is rather like a daffodil (I made that one up, but it's not unlike the kinds of things she says), so it's actually quite entertaining, and culminates with their embarcation from Saint-Jean-de-Luz en route to Portugal: 

There was quite an embarras de richesses of the things that could happen to us in the meantime: (a) bombs from above; (b) submarines from below; (c) Gestapo from Bordeaux who were about to occupy all the ports of France. Each had his favourite calamity, mine was the submarine.

"Yesterday" also has some excellent moments, as Violet reminiscences about life in France before the invasion. She discusses finding her home in Seine-et-Marne, in part due to a suggestion from none other than Marcel Proust, and notes that "At the moment of writing I know for a certainty that several members of the German General Staff are comfortably installed there. I prefer not to dwell on this."

She also throws in one of her delightful phrases that I hope I shall remember forever:

It was freezing. The cold always makes me feel gay and cruel, like a chandelier.

I learned a French expression which I also want to retain. Apparently, in the Midi, when one consumes a particularly delicious beverage, one might say "c'est le petit J├ęsus en culotte de velours" (i.e. It's the baby Jesus in velvet pants). And we also hear in some detail about an absolutely bonkers party Violet decided to host, on a whim, at the Eiffel Tower. Do they still rent out the tower for parties, one wonders?

Sadly, though, it's rather all downhill from "Yesterday". There's "Made in Germany", a rather unpleasant rant about the evils of the Nazis. "Kensington in Russia" is a bland discussion of the silliness of the last tsar and tsarina of Russia, and "Balkan Portias" deals with prominent Romanian ladies in Paris, and is also very much for those in the know (and also about how like daffodils, or whatever, these women were).

The most interesting piece in the latter part of the book is surely "Meet Mussolini", in which Violet assures us that she was the last Englishwoman granted an audience with Mussolini and describes the experience. This description is amusing at times, but largely rather self-absorbed, and her notice to the effect that she was an admirer of Mussolini early on and is writing this piece based on her knowledge then and not on the terrible things Hitler has since led him to do seems rather disingenuous.

The book closes with a final, short but bizarrely baroque piece called "Ben Ben Strikes", about, well, something about Queen Elizabeth and clocks and Essex, maybe a kind of "England shall survive" piece, but for all I know perhaps a metaphor for the making of fettuccine alfredo or an allegory for playing tennis in Fiji. I couldn't really say. When she focuses on events and characters, Violet can be an absolutely brilliant writer, but when she gets abstract, it's time to run for the hills.

So, a few charming high points here, interspersed with some seemingly random assortments of elegant-sounding words that had me thinking of my shopping list more than about the Free French. If you were thinking of frantically attempting to get hold of this book, you may wish to bear this in mind...

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