Thursday, December 22, 2022

A miss is as good as—oh, whatever: Two disappointments

The search for treasure among "lost" authors is always a hit or miss process, even when you've coveted the books for a long time. You win some, you lose some, but I feel I should get better about documenting even the misses, in case someone somewhere someday is searching for information about them, so here, on a slightly downbeat note, are a couple of books from our recent library visits that, vanishingly rare as they surely are, were hardly worth unearthing.

On the other hand, ouch! This first one really hurts.

P. Y. (Phyllis Yvonne) BETTS, French Polish (1933)

I struggled with this one for longer than I usually would, trying hard to like it, before giving up 70 or so pages in. This was genuinely my #1 "Most Wanted" book for our library visits, and I felt sure it would be a winner. The first reference to it I came across, quite a few years ago, described it as "a funny and sharply observed novel about a girls’ finishing school", which sounds like it was written specifically for me, and a 2005 article by Christopher Hawtrey in Slightly Foxed (see here, paywall), which I only discovered more recently, described the author's pleasure in reading the book in the British Library. Betts is also somewhat known for her only other published work, a memoir called People Who Say Goodbye (1989), published a remarkable 56 years after her debut.

All of which is to show how biased I was in the book's favor when I started reading, to give you an idea of my sorrow when it turned out that
French Polish and I are simply not a match, and to show clearly, as always, that different readers will have different reactions and I don't pretend that my view is any more legit than anyone else's. 

The novel, published when Betts was only 24 years old, is, as described, set in a Swiss finishing school (the title stemming from the fact that the girls are particularly at work polishing their knowledge of French). It is—seemingly irresistibly—populated by an array of young women who are, in turn, sarcastic, witty, brilliant, horny, battling pudginess, rebellious, and, in at least one case, offering up highly questionable Latin translations, as well as several mistresses with similarly varied personalities. The girls are primarily British, with a couple of virulently racist Americans, and the two described as "the Brazilians" are, it turns out, not from South America but merely, according to their classmates, living incarnations of Angela Brazil characters.

There are some brilliant descriptions, and some genuine chuckles:

Madame spoke with energy, and her cheeks shook a little as she talked. From time to time small drops of water shot out of her mouth, described shining parabolas under the lamplight, and lighted here and there upon the table. Penelope and her plate were beyond the range of this bombardment, which she enjoyed watching.

There's also quite a lot of discussion of race, some just genuine curiosity on the part of sheltered young women, some horrifyingly racist. It's clearly in part intended to be a wry examination of racial attitudes, and although there are some cringe inducing scenes, in all likelihood Betts meant to satirize the racist attitudes rather than propagate them. You have to give her credit for stampeding forward onto ground angels would have feared to tread. The arrival of the school's first African student, Linga Longa, and her interaction with a well-to-do guest is at times funny, though often merely flinch-inducing, and also too witty by half even for those who aren't put off by its racial parody. Publishing-wise, I have to be frank that I wouldn't touch this book with a ten foot pole in the climate of the 2020s, but as a reader that isn't even my main problem with it. 

It's all very, very clever. It seems to have been written by a clever adolescent girl with quite a lot of brilliant observational skill and wit. I think the trouble for me is that adolescent wit, however clever and even (occasionally) giggle inducing, tends to wear after a while. It's all clever. Every single line is clever. Relentlessly clever. Exhaustingly clever. Tediously clever. One wonders if Betts didn't write another book for more than half a century because she was simply worn out. It seems certain that she herself must have found these characters hilarious, and I have no doubt there would be a few appreciative readers for the book if it were more readily available, but alas—and certainly not from lack of trying—I'm not one of them.

A. R. [AGNES RUSSELL] & R. K. [ROSE KIRKPATRICK] WEEKES, Clairefontaine (1941)

I didn't have nearly as much emotional investment in this book as I did in French Polish, but I did hope it would turn out to be a jewel. I've had it on my "consider" list ever since coming across a snippet review calling it an "adventurous romance about girl secretary to rich divorced English bibliophile in Ruritania. Agreeably told with light holiday atmosphere." I was ambivalent about the Ruritania part, but I thought just perhaps—if approached in a sufficiently tongue-in-cheek way by the Weekes sisters—it might be up my alley. 

It started off rather promisingly. Hyacinth Carey (I couldn't read her name without a grimacing Patricia Routledge flashing into my head, but I tried to get past that) has lost her secretarial job due to her boss having poisoned his wife (!!), and is finding it hard to find new work due to her association with him. As the novel begins, she tells her mother about an unsuccessful job interview in which a German employer had tried to kiss her:

"I hope you cuffed him?"

"No-o-o. Just went away."

"Then I hope you went with dignity!"

"No-o-o. Not very. Fell over a broom on the stairs."

"Noodle!" said Mrs. Carey, "you would."

Okay, that's promising, right? Finally, an agency calls her with a job with one Frances Ashley Hope in the fictional (and utterly implausible) country of Neuberg. This turns out to have been a misunderstanding—agency assumed employer was a women, employer assumed it was clear he wanted a male secretary. Hyacinth discovers that Francis (not Frances) has been in the papers for having seduced a woman and refused to marry her, after which she committed suicide (women get quite a raw deal in the background of this novel). Both sides agree to make the best of things, with Hyacinth wearing her frumpiest clothes and geekiest glasses to prevent any attempted seduction—she utters to herself the puzzling line "I look as if I went every day to the B.M.", which lost me—anyone know what this means? [I can't believe that in a post in which I actually mention the British Library, I didn't put it together that this reference was to the British Museum (former home of the British Library)! Thank you to the commenters below who pointed it out and reminded me of the chilly temperatures of the reading rooms.]

The descriptions of Neuberg are ludicrous—"a little state which had remained a century behind the times, where the peasantry still wore the silver chains and velvet jackets of their ancestors, and where the Prince's rule was absolute and no one knew what was going to happen from one day to the next." And nestled right in the middle of a Europe already seething with Hitler and Mussolini? Right. But I was still willing to attempt to suspend disbelief, until the story shifted to a young Brit Hyacinth met at the border and his hopeless love affair and competition with another suitor who … and then I fell asleep. I'm sure it all comes together in the end, but after reading 60 pages, I gave up, bored to tears and ready to get back to Dorothy Lambert. 

I can't help wondering if any of the Weekes' other romantic adventures would work better for me (though the Ruritanian theme seems to recur in many of them, and I may simply be allergic to the pollen of Ruritania), but this one, at least, was another dud. Alas.

So there it is. All that glitters isn't gold, even at the British Library.


  1. "I look as if I went every day to the B.M." I understand it to refer to the British Museum, and probably the reading room; and as all researchers know, that requires warm and worn clothes, thus she is making herself unattractive and scholarly.

    1. Oh that makes perfect sense. I can't believe I didn't get that, especially given that I was just there (and remembering to bundle up)! Thanks!

  2. Could B.M. in this context mean "British Museum"? Although I wouldn't think that dressing in an unattractive manner is a requirement for those who spend a lot of time in the British Museum (which makes me think of Amelia Peabody, a character invented by author Elizabeth Peters.)

    1. Excellent logic, Jerri. The unattractive attire implication stems from the chilly temps in the reading rooms for preservation of delicate materials, requiring researchers to wear thick warm clothes.

  3. I'm sorry that these books were disappointments, but I still enjoyed reading your reviews a great deal!

    1. Thank you! It's kind of fun being negative now and then...

  4. I find even your less than positive reviews entertaining and educational. Thanks!

  5. I did enjoy these reviews of failures, too!

  6. Oh thank you, Scott, for reading (even partly) these books for us to we don't have to.

    There's nothing like a bad book to let us get down and dirty with a review. I tend to hold back on Goodreads, except when I'm so ticked off with the reading time wasted that I have to warn others.


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