Friday, November 25, 2022

"Nothing short of turning a hose on her": DOROTHY LAMBERT, Redferne M.F.H. (1929) and Aunts in Arcady (1930)

"Well, we've got a lot of Free State soldiers on the train,'' he explained, "so anything may happen any moment. If you hear shooting get under the seat; there'll be stray bullets and broken glass."
He paused and looked at Joyce, who was gazing at him, wide-eyed with excitement.
"Why, you look as if you were enjoying the prospect!" he cried in surprise.
"I am!" she answered, eager-eyed. "It's too thrilling for words!"

Aunts in Arcady is another of the Dorothy Lambert titles I was recently able to get from my British Library/Bodleian odyssey, and it sounded so amusing that I jumped into it immediately after All I Desire, which I enthusiastically reviewed here. I also wanted to sample one of her earliest works, as I've mostly read later novels. But as I was reading, I kept coming across references to previous events and a character named Redferne who didn't appear in Aunts, so when I finished that book I knew it was time to go back to Redferne M.F.H., Lambert's debut novel (I think—Elizabeth, Who Wouldn't appeared the same year, but I believe came after Redferne) of which I've had a scan from the generous Grant Hurlock for a while. I had put off reading Lambert's earliest works—several of them published by Mills & Boon—for fear that they wouldn't live up to the later ones. To some extent that has turned out to be the case, but I found both books entertaining anyway.

Of the Lambert novels I've read so far—about eight or nine now, I think—Redferne is indeed the most traditionally "romantic", with a bit of gushiness here and there and a focus on a rather drab (to my taste) but "passionate" couple, as well as the slightly more entertaining couple who will appear again in Aunts. It's also surely the most action-packed Lambert, with gunfights and kidnappings and even some cattle rustling to liven things up!

I don't have a detailed knowledge of the history of the Irish "troubles", though I really should, but there's lots of unrest in Redferne between the Free State soldiers and the Republicans (not the least of it that Lady Hermione Hamilton's Daimler has been stolen by the latter), and it adds to the interest a bit. Lambert herself had Irish roots, so when she writes about the damage done, in relation to one dominating character, the imposing matriarch Madam O'Callaghan, it seems to ring poignantly true:

Her courage, moral and physical, was a local legend; her dauntless defiance of Free-Stater or Republican, whoever happened to offend her, or seize opportunities for loot, or, as more frequently happened, tried to wrest her ancestral acres from her grasp, was only equalled by her entirely efficient handling of any situation that arose, night or day, during the numerous crises of the civil war that raged spasmodically round and about Kilbarrahan, offshoots of the greater war that was laying Ireland in smoking ruins and general misery and desolation.

Sadly, the book is also rather heavy on horses, foxes, and the Hunt, which did not add to its interest for me (though I realize it might for some). Redferne has been hired by wealthy Sir Thomas to to be the master of the hunt this year, as he is recovering from a leg injury and can't do it himself. It's this handsome Redferne who has a torrid on-again, off-again romance with the wealthy Desmonds' tumultuous daughter Clodagh (ho-hum). We also meet the O'Briens—Donough, Malachi, and Patricia—the frisky aforementioned Madam O'Callaghan, the stern Lady Hermione and her niece the Hon. Joyce Aylmer, who is in the doghouse (occasionally literally) for refusing to marry a tawdry but distinctive suitor and has been sent to Ireland to be kept, effectively, in solitary confinement (not solitary enough, however)—all of whom will reappear more memorably, but often inconsistently (see below), in Aunts.

I won't summarize the plot beyond saying that it's competently but for the most part unremarkably executed. Lambert is clearly staying fairly close to romantic traditions here, not quite ready to strike out into her later originality and eccentricity, and her delightful sense of humor doesn't spring up nearly often enough—though Mrs Parke-Leverette, an old flame of Redferne's, who arrives in town to complicate matters, is a bit of an exception. She's a melodramatic and talkative woman, as both Lady Desmond ("My dear," she said to Clodagh, "once she started talking nothing short of turning a hose on her would have stopped her; a most remarkable woman, I'm sure, but very tiring.") and Sir Thomas ("Gad!" said Sir Thomas, closing his eyes, "What a woman! What a heart! But, by Gad, what a tongue!") separately note.

Aunts is much more entertaining—even by this her third or fourth novel, Lambert and her publishers must have realized that more wit and less bodice-heaving was where her strength as an author lay. But it's rather strange taken as a sequel to Redferne M.F.H. Madam O'Callaghan, who is quite formidable but rather frisky in the first novel, is here a matriarch of the most conservative order, while Lady Hermione, who played that constricting role in the first novel, is a sort of posh free spirit who facilitates the romances in Aunts. They simply aren't the same characters at all. Did Lambert get confused which one was which? Or did she just assume no one would notice? Other characters seem to have evolved considerably in the ensuing year as well…

In this novel, Colin and Hilary Conyngham-Smith—offspring of one of those mad do-gooders of the type authors loved to skewer around this time, with her committees and plans for the betterment of those less fortunate, who of course would be perfectly happy if she'd simply leave them alone—escape their mother to come to Ireland with the excuse of visiting their long lost aunt, who happens to be none other than Madam O'Callaghan—the sister who remained in Ireland, while their mother moved to England and got thoroughly middle-class. Once there, Colin and Hilary immediately fall in love with Ireland, have some amusing adventures with their temperamental automobile, and soon meet the charming O'Briens and the Hon. Joyce, and the stage is set for romance, as well as some havoc caused by the vicar's wife, Mrs. Purcell, who should hurled from a nearby tower, and her two marriage-frantic "gels", niece Boo and daughter Pansy.

Aunts in Arcady is a big improvement over Redferne, apart from the character inconsistencies and the lack of any gunfights or kidnappings, but it still contains three or four pages of really excruciating romantic bosh at about the midpoint, just after some grotesque BS about horsemanship proving that Colin is a Real Man (slightly undercut by the fact that though he's a Real Man when it comes to horses, he is hopeless at managing the car, for which only Hilary has a flair). Apart from that, however, the romantic leads are all likeable, at least, and there's some genuine chuckles here, as when the two alienated sisters finally reunite:

"I see, Caroline, that, in spite of your highly over-civilised existence, ordinary common or garden education appears to be your weak point still. You were never able to spell or—"

"I can't say I notice any difference in you either, Augusta," snapped Mrs. Conyngham-Smith. " You were always celebrated for your carping criticisms, and I see you['re] as prehistoric as ever."

It's a bit rough around the edges—Lambert was still trying her wings, I felt—but it's got enough of her sharp wit and clever characters for me to have eaten it up like candy. Not sure these two would be at the top of my list for Lambert reprints—I suspect there's much better still ahead, as I plan to explore some of her WWII novels next (yippee!)—but I did enjoy reading these.

Friday, November 18, 2022

"Cut off their heads now and then": F. M. MAYOR (as MARY STRAFFORD), Mrs. Hammond's Children (1901)

"I can't much see the use of Kings and Queens ('Sha-a-ame!'); but if you have Kings and Queens, I think it's a good thing to cut off their heads now and then as a warning. I can't remember about Charles I's father, but I expect he was a bad man, and of course Charles II was a beast; he let the Dutch beat us.

Then there was James II. I expect he would have had his head cut off too, only he ran away. I had a lot of other things to say, but as I can't read my paper, I shan't say any more."

"Of well, Mr. Speaker, I mean, I do think my honourable friend does talk rubbish."

It's not really playing fair to select my opening quote from "The Hammond Parliament", the penultimate story in Mrs. Hammond's Children, as it will likely make the book (impossible to find outside the British Library, as I can attest) seem more consistently irresistible than it really is. But it is true that this story, in particular, in which the Hammond children enact a parliamentary debate unlike any other, was very nearly worth the trouble I went to to finally be able to read the book.

I have absolutely
yearned to read this book for over a decade now, since first discovering F. M. Mayor's three gorgeous novels—The Third Miss Symons (1913) and The Rector's Daughter (1924) in particular, but also to a lesser degree The Squire's Daughter (1929). This was Mayor's first book, written under the pseudonym Mary Strafford in 1901 and never reprinted, and it's vanishingly rare now. (For most of that time, I was also lusting after a novella she wrote in 1914 called Miss Browne's Friend, but happily that was reprinted by the redoubtable Michael Walmer last year and proved as intriguing and satisfying as expected.) It does seem, given the acknowledgement Mayor deserves (though often still doesn't get) as a major author of the early 20th century, that this title too should be widely available. That said, I must also confess that if I had gone to the British Library only to find this book, I might have felt a bit let down.

When Mrs. Hammond's Children first appeared, it seems to have been marketed as a children's book, but when Janet Morgan wrote her introduction to the Virago edition of The Squire's Daughter, she referred to it as a collection of stories about children—“based on the relations among children and the kindnesses and cruelties they practise on one another.” Having read it at last, I'm still not absolutely sure how I would describe it. It's written very much in the sort of arch, moralistic tones of the children's fiction of the turn of the century, which makes some of the stories slightly hard going for an adult reader in 2022, but I also felt that the language itself is not necessarily aimed at children—Mayor's prose was already taking flight here and there—and its themes are rather subtle for a book to be read to young'uns. It's a bit "neither fish nor fowl", but perhaps all the more interesting to scholars for that reason.

"The Hammond Parliament", which is very entertaining and at times hilarious, was for me the best story of the seven here. "The Bosom Friends", about a pretentious friend of Milly's who should have been exposed on a hillside at birth, who makes Milly self-conscious about the family's relative lack of affluence until Milly Learns an Important Lesson (caps are mine, but they're surely implied in the text), has some quite amusing moments as well, though it's a bit weighted down with sentiment. "A Foreign Cousin", in which the Hammond children are rather beastly to their German cousin only to have a crisis at Christmas and peace made at last, has some high points as well despite its syrupy tones and unjustified length. "His Excellency the Sirdar", about the sad fate of the family's guinea pig, is strikingly accurate about children's behaviors and their changeability, but not completely engrossing for me. And "The End of All Things", the concluding story, about children getting older and putting away childish things, and the feelings of their younger siblings about it, is rather poignant, and very intelligently observed (as is all the book), and I like the concluding paragraph especially:

Indeed, I find it difficult to recognise my old friends in these very great and superior persons. I am sure they will no longer find me worthy of their company, so I take this opportunity of bidding them good-bye.

Ultimately, a mixed bag then. But I'm very glad I was finally able to read this missing piece from Mayor's too-sparse oeuvre, and it's of particular interest for those interested in well-observed books about children. It might be just a touch too sweet and pretty for my taste (apart from the advocacy for regicide, that is), but your mileage may well vary. And it's certainly essential that scholars should be able to include this work in their overall assessment of Mayor.

I should add, the illustrations are credited to one Alice Strafford—presumably, given Mayor's author pseudonym, a sister of the author, and one F. H. S. Shepherd.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Delightful novel, dire title: DOROTHY LAMBERT, All I Desire (1936)

So, I am back, and, invigorated by my time in England—and especially my British Library and Bodleian experiences—determined to turn over a new leaf, with more disciplined reading (let's face it, for me, any discipline at all will be an improvement) and shorter reviews (a likely story) that I might even succeed in posting more frequently (yeah, right). We will see how that turns out, but I'm off to a decent start because I do have a new review for you!

*      *      *

Hermia was discovering how inconveniently small the world was and wondered fretfully how it was that the very people she would have wished to avoid if she had remembered their existence should happen to inhabit the small and insignificant neighbourhood which she and Jeremy has selected for its remoteness from the world.

Readers might similarly wonder, at least in passing, at the odds of not one but two figures from romance writer Hermia Carlisle's slightly scandalous past in India turning up in the isolated English village of Holm Street, to which she has retreated with her daughter Jeremy (there's a story behind that name, of course) for absolute peace and quiet to write her books. But if they're at all like me, they won't fret about the implausibility for long, since the results are so completely delightful.

I've been meaning to get back to reading Dorothy Lambert (author, of course, of the wonderful Much Dithering, reprinted by Dean Street Press) for years, but her books are so hard to track down that I've been limited in my ability to do so. Happily, our recent trip to the British Library has opened up the prospects quite a lot, and it happens that—despite it's absolutely dire title (I'm already coming up with possible alternate titles in case we were to reprint it—something I usually disapprove of but which in this case would surely be justifiable!)—this was the first one I dived in to. As soon as I started reading, I knew I was in for a treat.

Hermia Carlisle, the widowed author of torrid romances set in exotic locales ("using the vast stores of her romantic past as subject matter for highly coloured novels"), is surely a very funny caricature of Lambert herself, à la Dame Agatha's Ariadne Oliver. One of my favorite scenes in the novel is one in which she gets herself roped into various commitments relating to the W.I.'s upcoming Shakespeare Festival, because she's working out a "situation" for a new novel in her head and just politely keeps saying yes.

Apologies for the angle here!

Of course, Hermia and Jeremy don't find Holm Street as restful as expected—in large part due to the presence there of Major Piers Southcote, an old flame from India whose heart she broke, and the thoroughly terrible Mrs. Fenwick, who "had long been regarded as a blight and a pestilence by her children" and who, alas, has a long memory in regard to Hermia's in
teractions with Mr. Fenwick in India. But there's also an array of other entertaining villagers, including the requisite vicar and his wife; Mr. Marsh, a wealthy shop-owner, and his family, who have decided to take up country life, including their maritally predatory daughter Chrissy, referred to by Daphne Fenwick as "the Marsh Mallow"; and the irresistible Mrs Maycock, proprietor of the village shop and gossiper-in-chief, who is proud of Mrs Carlisle's achievements and hopes her fame will lead the village to glory like Byron did the Lake District ("or it might have been Tennyson"), and who isn't afraid of speaking her mind:

"I like Major Southcote," said Mrs. March shrewishly, "but I'd never let a daughter of mine go away for a whole day alone with him."

"Very likely not," agreed Mrs. Hogbin; "he's never asked them, has he? Sugar, lemons, and ginger, you said?"

What luck that this is the Lambert novel I turned to first of my British Library stash, because it is possibly my favorite of all of hers that I've read, not excluding Much Dithering (which is saying quite a lot!), and has made me even more excited about reading other of her works.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

What I did on holiday (2022 edition)

Well, we did it.

Andy and I have officially survived the most logistically complicated vacation of our lives, and it was, if you'll pardon the expression, bloody wonderful. Amazingly, too, it mostly went off without a hitch, allowing for a couple of rainy days (which are certainly to be expected in England in October).

Heaven on earth

I don't think a detailed summary of what we did is possible for me at this point, with my rather frazzled brain, but perhaps a brief listing will have you sufficiently hyperventilating.

Westminster Cathedral

We began with three days in London (Tate Britain, Sky Garden, Westminster Cathedral, the Hardy Tree at Old St. Pancras, All Saints, and of course the British Library).

Shibden Hall, familiar to fans of HBO's Gentleman Jack

Then we took the train to York, where we got a car and made our way to Lincoln, Durham, Castle Howard, and Shibden Hall (home of Anne Lister of Gentleman Jack fame), among other things. 

Breathtaking Lincoln Cathedral

We drove from York to Oxford, taking in the delightfully ramshackle Little Moreton Hall and the wonderfully somber Lichfield Cathedral (plus a drive-by of Samuel Johnson's birthplace) along the way. 

Blenheim Palace selfie

A brief visit to Blockley to consult Father Brown

Cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral (happily no
basilisk to be seen the day we were there)

Dining hall at Hogwarts, er, I mean Christ Church

Rollright Stones

A break for tea in Burford

During several days in Oxford, we took in (apart from Oxford itself—and the magnificent Bodleian, of course) Blenheim Palace, several Cotswold villages (Blockley to visit Father Brown, Bourton-on-the-Water, Northleach, and Burford), the Rollright Stones (didn't know they existed until a recently-read Gladys Mitchell put them on my radar), Stratford, Gloucester, and Tewkesbury. 

Wells Cathedral (whoa)

The famous scissor arches at Wells

Glastonbury Abbey, during a brief break
in the rain

Drove Oxford to Lyme Regis, with stops at Wells and Glastonbury Abbey (alas, it was pissing down rain, so we had to abandon hopes for the Tor). I attempted (with rather limited success) to recreate Meryl Streep's dramatic scene on the Cobb from The French Lieutenant's Woman, and the weather cooperated magnificentlyto the extent that we couldn't venture more than a few steps onto the Cobb without fear of recreating Louisa's fall in Persuasion.

I tried. The top one is Meryl, if you can't tell...

From Lyme Regis (naturally a gorgeous day now that we had to leave), we ventured to Greenway House (Dame Agatha's old haunt), then, on a rather random whim of mine to visit an "atmospheric" medieval village, drove to South Zeal on the edge of Dartmoor, before checking in to our hotel in Exeter.

Our tour guide took us a bit out of our way for
a better few of Godrevy Lighthouse. Love to Ginny!

Port Isaac, familiar from Doc Martin

Alas, the doc declined to see me

Tintagel Castle

Arthur contemplating a puddle

On to Cornwall for two jam-packed full-day tours (Tintagel [wow], Port Isaac to visit the Doc and have a genuine Cornish pasty, the Bedruthan Steps, St. Michael's Mount, Mousehole, Lamorna Cove [wink wink], the Merry Maidens, and the lesser-known but even more wonderful Boscawen-un stone circle nearby.

Finally, back to London for a return visit to the British Library, a saunter through the National Gallery (sans tomato soup), and to The Mousetrap (great fun), then boarded the plane and went into a state of emotional and physical collapse from which we are only now beginning to emerge. But don't ever tell an American "you can't do all that". We might take it as a dare.

Somehow in the midst of all that constant going, we had a wonderful time and were consistently eager and thrilled to see so many wonderful things. And no one died as a result of our driving on the left for ten days—though we may have shrieked a bit along the way and a couple of our fellow drivers might have had a scary moment or two…

There might have been a book shop visit here and there as well.

Somehow these made it
home in my bags

Of those pictured, I managed to read five already, on trains and flights and in our hotel rooms at night. I was mainly focused on mysteries (including discovering a new love for Edmund Crispin when I came across
Love Lies Bleeding on one of my first bookshop visits, and proceeded to stock up on three more before we left), but also read, and loved, Sally on the Rocks, by Winifred Boggs, from the British Library Women Writers series, curated by none other than Simon Thomas (see below).

One of the highest points, for me, a humble book geek, was getting to become a verified reader at both the British Library and the Bodleian at Oxford. Astonishingly, they did not just laugh in my face and ask security to escort me out when I applied. Surely if there's a heaven, it's quite a lot like these libraries. You can just make a list of the books you've coveted for, oh, say a decade or so without the slightest hope of ever finding them, submit requests for them, and … they just … bring them to you! It's the most amazing thing, and I will be revisiting those times in spirit in the coming weeks as I report on some of the books I've been able to read as a result of these astonishing nirvanas. Stay tuned for that.

A conservative first stack at the Bodleian, as I
had some legit research too that I'm not sharing yet

2nd Bodleian visit. The greed grows.

First British Library visit. Restraint is gone.

2nd British Library visit. Joyous mayhem.

The other big high point was getting to meet up with several online friends—in Oxford, with the brilliant Sue Sims and Hilary Clare, compilers of the immortal Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories and my particular advisors on British Library and Bodleian etiquette, being seasoned pros themselves; in Stratford-upon-Avon, with the charming Liz Dexter, whose blog here you already know, and with whom I hit a couple of very productive charity shops; in Witney (just down the road from "Thrush Green"), with the ubiquitous and aforementioned Simon Thomas, who very kindly brought a copy of Sally on the Rocks as a gift, thus providing additional the joyful train reading mentioned above; and in "atmospheric" South Zeal, with Avis Judd, who brought along several vintage women's magazines she'd come across, with perhaps a couple of hitherto-unknown women writers in them—woohoo!—and also personally showed me the fascinating "menhir", or standing stone, built into the wall of the Oxenham Arms, where we had a cider and a lovely chat.

Lunch in Oxford with Hilary Clare and Sue Sims

Lunch and book shopping in Stratford with Liz Dexter

Lunch and publishing talk in Witney with Simon Thomas

Book chat and a pint in South Zeal with Avis Judd

We had such fun with all of these folks, and meeting them gave us a very pleasing sense of belonging, even if we're not quite natives. Thank you so much to Sue, Hilary, Liz, Simon, and Avis for making time for us. Although modern technology is likely destroying the world in many ways, it also provides such a unique joy in enabling us to to meet kindred spirits even when far from home.

Poorly-lit geek with prehistoric menhir

BTW, the best food of the trip, hands down, was a Himalayan restaurant called Taas, just down from our hotel in York (2a-4 Bootham to be exact). I love Indian and Himalayan food, so I'm not a newby, but there were divine flavors in this food that I've never tasted before. I'm
yearning for more, but alas, York is generally a bit far to go for dinner—even for an American...
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!