Saturday, August 27, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 5, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I tried to carry off the situation lightly."

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

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