Saturday, May 21, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 14, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that was a long time ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 6, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disappointed and disconsolate she wandered off into the rain.


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!