Sunday, December 31, 2023


I almost decided to scrap my Dozen post this year. Following Rupert's , tragic death in March, my reading for much of this year went off the rails. There were several months when I was reading anything and everything but middlebrow fiction, which reminded me too much of our collaborations, so the number of really interesting discoveries I made in that field this year was down considerably from my norm—though happily my interest in the middlebrow revived by the time of our return visit to London and the British Library in September. (This was before the terrible cyberattack, of course—I've felt particularly bad in the past weeks for those researchers who come from faraway places, having planned and saved their pennies for the trip, to do work that can only be done at the British Library, and then have arrived to find they can do nothing. And how awful for the librarians and staff who have to deal with their stress and disappointment when they are frustrated themselves that they can't help them.)

Even a couple of days ago, I thought, no, I just can't be bothered with a list. It's too depressing this year. But then today I finally took a look at the list of books I've read this year, and I thought, well, maybe I could at least write about some of those I enjoyed the most. And then—by cheating just a bit and including three books I only finally posted about this year despite reading them earlier, as well as including not one but two representatives of the Y chromosome—I realized that, even if the competition wasn't as fierce as usual this year, I had come up with a pretty darned respectable list of twelve books I enjoyed most. I also frankly felt that I owed it to you loyal readers, who were so supportive of my obscure reading habits when I had doubts a few months back!

And so here we are…

One thing I turned to quite a lot this year, in my avoidance of middlebrow fiction, was mystery. In addition to those mentioned below, I polished off my too-long-delayed reading of Edmund Crispin's novels, which I loved, enjoyed some more George Bellairs, discovered Clifford Witting, whom I look forward to reading more of, giggled over one very zany thriller by American Elliot Paul, and, following our trip to Japan in April, quite enjoyed Okamoto Kido's The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hashichi. I even fell prey to the Agatha Christie estate's relentlessly clever marketing and read Marple: Twelve New Mysteries, and very much enjoyed it (my favorite stories were Lucy Foley's and Val McDermid's, for best capturing the feel of the "real" Miss Marple, with Ruth Ware's coming in next, but even the very untraditional ones—Miss Marple navigating the streets of New York or doing Tai Chi in Hong Kong—were highly entertaining and just what I needed to escape for a while. Of all the unlikely things, Chateaubriand's memoirs proved surprisingly distracting as well (I have volume 2 lined up to start before long)!

But here, for better or worse, are my top 12 reads of the year.

The Secret of Chimneys (1925)

Discovering that there was one Christie novel I had somehow never read—in 40 odd years of reading and re-reading her work—and then discovering that it's a really delightful, fun adventure story that I shall now want to re-read regularly, should really probably rank higher than #12 on my list. On the other hand, I suspect you might have heard of Christie before, so she's not exactly a discovery… I'll just say that, though I tend to avoid the very early Christie because they tend to be a bit tediously perky and/or a bit dull for me, this one is certainly an exception. Silly, yes, but very charmingly so.

The Theft of the Iron Dogs (1946)

I confess I've flirted with Rivett/Lorac for the past couple of years, since the British Library started reprinting them, and my mileage has varied. I was underwhelmed by one earlier in the year, and enjoyed but didn't love Death of an Author over the summer. I was about to write her off altogether, but we were in the British Library shop in September, there was a 3-for-2 sale, this was hot off the presses, and I couldn't resist. And I absolutely loved it. One of several she set in rural Lancashire, including Fell Murder, which I'm saving with anticipation, and Crook o' Lune (1953), which I read and also loved when we got home. Though I found the mystery quite effective, it was almost unnecessary, so fascinating are the farming characters and the rural life described. I've also since very much enjoyed her wartime Murder by Matchlight (1945), and I've grown attached to Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald, so I am now a solid (if selective) Rivett fan—and all thanks to the BL's clever marketing and the irresistible smell of a brand new book's pages!

Jane Carberry Investigates (1940)

Beryl Symons had already published a number of one-off thrillers and some romance when she created her own version of Miss Marple and wrote five novels about her. It's not too difficult to tell them apart however. Jane Carberry is a wealthy and glamorous middle-aged spinster with a brother who is Deputy Commissioner of Police and an arch nemesis in the Belgian police, who seems to make a habit of arresting Jane for the crimes she gets herself mixed up in but doesn't actually commit. Symons must have known Belgium well, as most of the books seem to involve Jane jetting back and forth from London. I can't ravely recommend it (I've only read this one so far, but I seem to have come across the others at the BL…)—it's ridiculous and implausible and there's no "detection" or "investigation" at all, only ludicrous coincidences and Jane stumbling into the middle of jewel thefts and murders and making everyone suspect her. But it reminded me just enough of Mrs. Pollifax to make me want to read more. I promise to properly review one of these soon-ish.

9) MARGARET MASTERMAN, Gentlemen's Daughters (1931)

Finally, a book I actually reviewed, and only recently! A quiet, charming little school story—marketed for adults, but could easily be enjoyed by all fans of the genre—about a girl's intellectual growth and sense of independence. Gently humorous, entirely plausible and realistic, and sensitively and subtly told.

8) ANN STAFFORD & JANE OLIVER, Cuckoo in June (1935)

Elder spinster (in her 30s, no less!) gets stuck with trying to keep her frivolous younger cousin away from men, first by taking her across Europe and then by hiding her away on her brother's farm. Cheerful, funny, and no substance whatsoever, but suffice it to say love is in the air and the farm is no place for either young woman to hide. Illustrated with Stafford's delightful drawings—hand-colored, even!

7) EMORY BONETT, A Girl Must Live (1936)

Unscrupulous, gold-digging Gloria Lind narrates her machinations to win an Earl at the expense of her fellow gold-digging chorus girls. Pure silly fun à la Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or How to Marry a Millionaire, with fashion elements to fulfill any fashionista's dreams, and charming illustrations by Anna K. Zinkeisen.

6) JANE BIRD, By Accident (1935)

Two mysterious newcomers to an English village provoke speculation, intrigue, and romance. Comic and tragic by turn, but with a lovely, life-affirming spirit, this was an impulse purchase and impulse read, and the impulse paid off this time.

5) A. A. MILNE, Four Days' Wonder (1933)

This was a gift from my friend Kathy, who sent it for Christmas as one of her own absolute favorites. I couldn't help diving in right away, and then of course I couldn't stop reading. I know I read Milne's Red House Mystery years and years ago, but I'd never read anything else, a fact I'll clearly have to address. Surely no one does silly, laugh-out-loud funny dialogue better. A murder mystery, albeit without the murder, and a rollicking good time throughout. Thank you, Kathy! 

4) HUMPHREY PAKINGTON, Four in Family (1932)

There's no better purely silly frolic on this list (unless it's #2 below, or perhaps #3, or maybe #5) than this early (first) novel from Pakington, a successful and fairly prolific author in his day who has been as thoroughly forgotten as any middlebrow woman. It's delightfully giggle-inducing throughout, a difficult thing for an author, however clever, to maintain. I mention this because a friend and I have each read some later Pakington and found him uneven, to say the least. I have high hopes for The Roving Eye, another 1932 effort, but even if Four is his only perfect comedy, it's better than most authors ever manage to accomplish even once.

3) ELLA MONCKTON, August in Avilion (1940)

A bit rough around the edges, like a less polished Apricot Sky, but pure delight nonetheless, and it was just what the doctor ordered for a mood-lifter. A charming and funny family holiday in Cornwall, with the somewhat unusual but lovably eccentric family of an artist. "I was enjoying it so much that I did that thing where you start rationing the remaining pages to make a book last longer. It still didn't last long enough."

2) ELEANOR FARJEON, Miss Granby's Secret (1941)

A novel within a novel, a format I usually shy away from, but in this case loved so much it hurt. The Bastard of Pinsk is an unpublished manuscript written by 16-year-old Adelaide Granby, later a bestselling Victorian author of gushingly romantic, purple prose and now deceased. The manuscript is read by Adelaide's suffragette grand-niece, along with her aunt's diaries, as she speculates about the mystery man who may have been "darling Aunt Addie's Grande Passion." It's hilarious, but also touching, in its very clever examination of what a sheltered, repressed Victorian girl could have experienced of passion, and if you don't giggle at least once on every page, I'll eat my hat. (I don't actually wear a hat, so I'll just have another dark chocolate digestive biscuit instead.) 

1) KATHERINE DUNNING, The Spring Begins (1934)

Perhaps a bit more serious #1 than usual this year, but this gorgeous thing deserves all the attention it can get. Heavily influenced by Woolf, but don't shy away if you're not a Woolf-hound because it's also more accessible and more down-to-earth, with it's focus on three young women just at the point of discovering men and sexuality. Two of them are servants, the other an impoverished gentlewoman, and their experiences and sensibilities couldn't be more different, but Dunning has so much to say about the vulnerability of women and the liberation they can find for themselves (sometimes). Don't tell anyone, but I might like it even better than Mrs. Dalloway!

That's that for this year. What were your favorite obscure reads this year?

Happy New Year to all of you lovely readers! Good heavens, let's hope 2024 is better than 2023…

Friday, December 22, 2023

"You're nothing but a mean beast!": MARGARET MASTERMAN, Gentlemen's Daughters (1931)

"And now to finish," there was a throb in her voice, "let us put on the screen the patron of our Society, and show a picture of our gallant Prince."
She retired with dignity into the darkness and tapped upon the floor. There was a click from the magic lantern and a gasp from the school; and Miss Blenkinsop turned round to meet the contented gaze of an aged cart-horse with his head half buried in his nose-bag.

It's a bit deceptive to use one of the only laugh-out-loud funny passages from a novel to introduce it. Gentlemen's Daughters, set at Redcliffe, a middling girls' boarding school that has only recently become aware of its own mediocrity, is actually a surprisingly quiet, subtle story interspersed with moments of levity. If I had been expecting a raucous comedy about school life by a resentful former student getting her own back, or a scandalous insight into the secret lives of schoolgirls, I would have been disappointed indeed. What I found instead was something perhaps less rollicking and crowd-pleasing overall but also more memorable and even touching.

As the story opens, Joan Roxton and her friends are meeting on the train back to Redcliffe for a new term. They find there a bit of a shakeup, with a new form mistress, Miss Jackson (soon known as Jakie), and more rigorous standards for their work. Jakie clearly has influence with the headmistress, and the school begins to buck up under her new ideas. She establishes a Girl Guide company, and Joan and some (but not all) of her friends are inspired and awestruck by her. Over time, however (the novel takes place over several years as Joan progresses through the school), she becomes a bit too eager to achieve glory and encourages her favorites, including Joan, to use her own history essays as models for their own—i.e. to copy them. 

The growing tension over the essays, as quiet as it is and interspersed with other day-to-day events, is the key turning point in the novel. Joan feels uneasy about it, but feels she can't question Jakie, and her friends are happy to be eased through their essay-writing difficulties. The scene in which Joan finally reaches a breaking point ("Miss Jackson, you're nothing but a mean beast!"), in large part because another, meeker girl has attempted to resist the cheating and been cowed into submission, is a satisfying and climactic moment, but what's most interesting about it is that it's not really an in-your-face kind of getting back at the villain scene. Jakie isn't a bad person, or even necessarily a bad teacher, and she really has greatly improved the school, but she is merely human and a bit narcissistic, and has allowed her ambitions for the school to cloud her judgment. Joan triumphs, with an essay she has written herself, and has crucially learned how to think for herself, but one might ironically say that she only triumphs because Jakie has taught her to how to, and in some way inspired her resistance. [Oh, these profound thoughts are hurting my head.]

This pivotal scene is only about halfway through the novel, and Joan's development continues with her unexpected advocacy for a girl who is a universal outcast in the school because she refuses to "play the game". That sounds very Chalet School, but it comes across with a bit more subtlety, as it gradually dons on Joan that the real world's standards aren't the same as the school's (her aunt meets this girl, Peggy, and immediately acclaims her the best of Joan's friends, when they aren't even quite, yet), and that she has the (exhilarating and terrifying) ability to make her own decisions.

Really, the entire novel reads much like an actual school story—particularly if one imagines it written by someone with the subtlety and sensitivity of, say, Josephine Elder. It's interesting to think why some books are marketed for adults and other for children. Possibly, Margaret Masterman's publisher just felt it was going to be a hard sell for schoolgirls—a quiet story about a girl learning to think for herself? No spies? Epidemics? No burning buildings, even? On the adult list then! And it would no doubt be an even harder sell today, with fewer possible readers who have experienced boarding school themselves. But it is a rather lovely little book.

And although there are indeed no burning buildings, there is perhaps the next best thing—a fire drill, the unique Redcliffe style of which is reported in one of Joan's letters home:

Last night we had a fire practice. In the middle of the night a bell rang and we thought we would pretend to be asleep. But the Worm woke us and banged on the door, and Buckie was making an awful noise on the gong, so we put on the light. Then Birds rushed up and said we mustn't do that because the light was supposed to have fused. So we went downstairs to the landing where there was a label marked Fire. Then the Worm said that was quite wrong because it was there the fire was raging. So we had to go upstairs again and down the other stairs to the hall, where names were read out in a thrilling voice, and all the staff were there in their dressing-gowns. Then we went to bed.

I enjoyed the book well enough to investigate Masterman's other two novels. The Grandmother (1934) seems to be a humorous tale of an eccentric family ruled over by a tyrannical matriarch, set in an English resort town. And in Death of a Friend (1938), Masterman appears to have turned to a more or less straightforward mystery, with a killer on the loose among a group of Friends and a gentle, elderly Quaker woman as her amateur detective (which certainly is an intriguing premise). Neither likely to be acquirable outside the British Library, but duly noted for whenever our next trip is…

Saturday, December 16, 2023

"You could trot a mouse on it": D. M. LARGE, The Open Arms (1933)

The small, spray-drenched village of Derrybeg emerged from the period of strife known in Ireland as "the troublesome times," with two smoke-blackened ruins, and with an entirely new and firm belief that the less said on the entrancing topic of politics, the better. A new spirit had been born in Derrybeg during those hectic years—the spirit of caution. The old days, in which political views were aired on every possible occasion, and with complete confidence, seemed then to have passed for ever: men glanced uneasily at each other, and they talked of something else.

For this opening passage, and a number of others like it scattered throughout, I would happily have paid the price of admission for The Open Arms. Although in many ways this is a light and fluffy comedy about a woman who determines to turn her home in an isolated Irish village into what she imagines will be a lushly profitable hotel, this novel, like Large's later, WWII-era novel The Quiet Place, which I reviewed here, makes occasional fascinating mentions of the history and tensions in Ireland in the 1930s. (It also has a lot in common with the latter novel, which was also about a boarding house, so Large wasn't above recycling plots, though one gives us a peacetime look at Ireland, the other a wartime look.)

There's precious little real plot here, apart from the preparation of the hotel and the slightly bumpy visits of the first guests, but there are quite a few chuckles and some charming, silly villagers to enjoy. I liked Large's gentle mockery of English attitudes towards Ireland, in reference to a letters received by an Englishman living in the village:

One of Pat Turner's aunts on his father's side, continued to picture her adventurous nephew in the act of dodging from the shelter of one Irish wall to the haven of another, in order to escape the hail of bullets that, she was convinced, played all the time about his innocent head.

(Though for that matter, in Dorothy Lambert's Redferne M.F.H., which I reviewed here, characters really do shelter from hails of bullets in Ireland.)

But the most fun of all, for me, were two Irish expressions that popped up and made me laugh. Have you heard these? 

First, a reference to tea that was so strong "you could trot a mouse on it".

And then, a servant referring to her cranky employer: "Didn't she ate the face off of meself the very one way."

I'm currently trying to think of ways to utilize these expressions in my work conversations.

Saturday, December 9, 2023

BETTY TRASK (as ANN DELAMAIN), Mabel Has Mink (1950) & Merry Widows Waltz (1943)

If one researches her books by looking through contemporary reviews and snippets in ads, Betty Trask, who also published as Ann Delamain (as in the case of both books mentioned here), can sound every bit as alluring and glowing with potential as the likes of Dorothy Lambert or Elizabeth Fair. Humorous romances, often with small town or village settings, with eccentric and varied characters—you know these are like opium to me. But having sampled a couple of her books—the first an inexpensive copy found on Abe Books, the second one pursued all the way to the British Library—I have to say, reluctantly (and probably without having given up completely yet), that she's not quite living up to that potential for me.

The blurb for Mabel Has Mink would undoubtedly have pulled me in (and simultaneously annoyed me a bit—see exclamation points), even if it hadn't been virtually the only affordable copy of one of her novels:

Not many writers could rivet the reader's sympathetic attention so closely to a heroine over sixty. [!!!]

But Ann Delamain does just that. Mabel, with a forcefulness and vitality years behind her age dominates the villagers and keeps her two sisters firmly up to the standards of "good" families in which all three had formerly been domestically employed. The story is concerned with Paddy Howland, whom Mabel, in service with the Howland family, had practically brought up. For him she would—and did, make every sacrifice.

The blurb goes on to reveal most of the plot developments, but I'll cut it off on the off chance that anyone actually comes across a copy (but yes, Paddy is as selfish and irritating as even this brief mention makes him sound). 

In short, this is a sort of tragicomic, 1950s precursor to Keeping Up Appearances, with Mabel Barter as a sixty-something aunt of Hyacinth Bucket. It's difficult (especially for an American) to grasp all of the implied or suggested class differentiations that Mabel recognizes, but it's clear that Mabel sees herself as considerably more genteel than the two sisters she lives with, not to mention the rest of the villagers in Ringerton—first because the family she was in service with was such a very superior one, but also due to the fact that she was soon advanced to the more prestigious position of nurse/governess. (Scholars interested in class distinctions could do worse than perusing this novel.)

Betty Trask (aka Ann Delamain)

The novel describes what happens when her former charge comes back into Mabel's life with a possibly shady young wife whose money never seems to run out, and Mabel becomes obsessed with her dear boy once again, and just as determined as ever to keep him on the straight and narrow and hold him to the old-fashioned standards she still associates with her upper-class employers. There are certainly some amusing and entertaining moments, though I'm not sure Mabel (any more than Hyacinth Bucket herself) is able to entirely "rivet the reader's sympathetic attention"—she's generally amusing, but also a bit exhausting and (like Hyacinth) hardly a person one would want to endure having tea with! But it's also true that I couldn't stop reading till the end, because it really wasn't clear how this atypical plot was going to resolve itself. In the end, though, I would say that it was pleasant and highly readable, but not a book to inspire joyous re-reads.

Trask/Delamain's writing was charming enough, however, that another not-very-informative blurb ("A story of refugees who tried to bring the sunshine, the laughter, gaiety, and music of Old Vienna to a small English country town") forced me to track another of her novels, Merry Widows Waltz, all the way to the British Library… 

Over the years, sampling various less-than-addictive forgotten titles run across in my research, I've gradually determined the need for a unique subcategory of middlebrow novels, though I'm afraid I haven't a very snappy name for it yet. The "Pleasant Enough if You're Snowbound in a Remote Hotel with No WiFi and No Other Books (and No Imminent Murders to Solve)" moniker is perhaps a bit clunky, but it does capture the gist of the feelings such books inspire.

Merry Widows Waltz, for which I had held out high hopes based on that blurb, seems to fit this category (PEIYSIARHWNWANOB(ANIMTS) for short), as have a few other books sampled recently. (I should note right from the start that I didn't finish reading this one—I got about halfway before getting distracted by more enticing reads, so I don't claim this as any kind of definitive review, only a report of my experience.)

A light-hearted wartime village comedy focused on (presumably Jewish, but only presumably—see below) Austrian refugees from Hitler was, in retrospect, probably unlikely to fully pan out—though I wrote here a while back about Rose Allatini's surprising success at drawing a joyful, life-affirming humor from the situations of Jewish refugees in her delightful Family from Vienna (1941). I might have been unfairly expecting a duplicate of that pleasure here. 

Trask's tale centers on two widowed sisters, Toni Wessler and Anna Sieding, arrived in the small town of Pinsford from relative wealth and sophistication in Vienna. Anna is self-absorbed and superficial and on the hunt for a new husband, while Toni is more sensitive and responsible and tries to smooth over the disruptions caused by Anna and make the best of things (they might almost be Susan Scarlett characters). Toni's husband was dead of a heart attack just before the war began, while if there was a reference to the cause of Anna's loss, I seem to have missed it, but neither are overly distressed by their loss ("Toni put on a touch of the scent she had always used when she was married to her Siegfried, whose greatest value as a husband was his tact in ceasing, at just the right moment, to be one"). They are, however, distressed by their less affluent position in London, taken in (supposedly as secretaries, but work is, shall we say, not in the forefront) by a fellow immigrant, the formidable Hélène Moore, who years before had had the foresight to marry a wealthy Englishman and set up as the gracious lady of the manor.

The two widows have the expected difficulties settling into English village life and English cultural norms, and manage to arouse in turn antagonism, light scandal, and more than one of the local beaus. It sounds delightful, I know, and it truly is pleasant enough, but overwritten and overly wordy—Trask may have been under pressure to keep up her quota of books under both her Delamain pseudonym and her real name, amidst the pressures of wartime life, and it often felt like she was, to paraphrase Truman Capote being bitchy about Jack Kerouac, not so much writing as typing—feverishly, perkily, but ultimately without much direction or sufficient interest. As a side point, I have to wonder if publishers during WWII, with paper shortages and all, insisted on looooooooooooonnngggg paragraphs? Walls of words in tiny print—I've noticed the depressing tendency before, and it here certainly affected my level of interest.

I found it a bit difficult to really care for the characters here as well, and part of that might stem from their bewildering and invisible background. It feels as though the author specifically wanted to avoid any suggestion that the widows (or Hélène herself) might be Jewish, though it's hard to imagine what else they could possibly be. They seem unlikely to have engaged in passionately anti-Nazi political activism either. And yet they are clearly refugees, having left many of their glamorous belongings beyond when hastily leaving the country. They give the impression of having left the country because the Nazis were just a bit too gauche for their taste, or because in wartime they were having difficulty obtaining the best kind of streudel… It seems the author is trying to have her, er, streudel and eat it too—use the then-familiar trope of refugees adapting to new situations, but carefully obscure any of the trauma that would have put them in the situation in the first place. She wanted frivolous, silly, superficial refugees with no worries but finding fun and romance, and as a result, the characters don't ever seem as real or alive as even a middlebrow comedy would reasonably require them to be.

That said, if I had been unexpectedly snowbound etc., and Merry Widows Waltz the only entertainment available, I would undoubtedly have been quite content to finish it and enjoy it. With lots of other of enticing books breathing down my neck, though, I moved on to other things and opted not to worry how it all turned out (more or less happily, I'm sure).

Despite my luke-warm feelings here, I do have one more Trask title (under her own name this time) among my British Library treasures—Only the Best (1935) is set in a department store—shades of Babbacombe's, I fervently hope?

I have to note that Andrew Hall has created a fascinating webpage to share his research on Trask here, and I owe grateful thanks to him as well for discovering in the process that Trask and Delamain were one and the same author—until he emailed me his findings, I had two separate entries for them. One fact Andrew discusses on his page is that, as obscure as Trask's own books have become today, a book award was established in her name in 1984, the Betty Trask Prize, and is still awarded to this day, including to some prestigious and recognizable authors whom Andrew mentions (though he also notes that the Society of Authors, who administer the prize, have long ignored the criteria she specified). But at least her name lives on. Even if her books don't…

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Nothing but a sense of humor: JANE BIRD, By Accident (1935)

"Do you believe in anything, Susan?"
"No. Nothing. Except a sense of humour."

This book rather inconsiderately jumped the queue in my TBR, ahead of a few hundred other titles that have been waiting in line for years. But I only just came across this author in my research a few weeks ago, and although the only thing I knew about this novel (the first of only two by Bird, whose real name was Dame (!) Dorothea Croft, née Mavor) was a rather short and uninformative blurb from the Observer (see below), some instinct kicked in and I not only ordered the one affordable copy but also plunged right into it as soon as it arrived.

The blurb mentions both comedy and tragedy, but for the first 100 pages of
By Accident, I felt happily confident that it was merely a light-hearted frolic of a novel—a village romance along classic lines, a bit silly, without much substance, and including such instantly recognizable characters as Mr. and Mrs. Barton, the ghastly, sanctimonious busybodies who should be smothered with pillows, their spoiled, neurotic, drunken son Nigel, the astonishingly absent-minded but perfectly lovable Vicar, his erratic servant Emma who occasionally goes on a bender in mourning for one or another of her lost husbands, not one but two mysterious new arrivals to the village, and Susan, a perky, no-nonsense heroine who is often, however reluctantly, at the center of village affairs.

100 pages in, however, the tragedy began to make itself felt alongside the development of two separate romances, and it became a bit more melancholy and meaningful. I was worried at first that the difficulties—involving particularly the health problems of both of the village's new mystery residents, a fragile dress shop owner and a smashed-up former flying ace—would sink into melodrama. Both are soon enmeshed in romances with villagers; one will face a tragic end, while the other's future happiness is to be hoped for but not necessarily assumed. But in fact the author is able to keep things nicely in balance, with (just as the blurb stated) the tragic elements occurring alongside the comic, just as in real life.

The author would have been 38 when this novel appeared, with a husband and two young sons (she appears on the 1939 England & Wales Register perhaps evacuated from Hampstead, where she seems to have lived much of her life, to Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex, with the boys and their nurse–of course giving her profession as "unpaid domestic duties" rather than mentioning the two novels published in recent years). No obvious evidence of trauma in her own life, then (her husband outlived her), though of course who can know what else she'd been through? But she seems to have had some very practical, stoic wisdom about the ups and downs of life, as shown in the quote opening this review (a philosophy to which I staunchly hold) and in this rather acerbic exchange between Susan and her young friend (and former beau) Robin toward the end of the novel:

"You have to pay for everything."

"I should say so. And not only that. It's spot cash, and no credit. And when you've paid in full, you can't keep what you've paid for, and anyway it doesn't last, even if you could keep it. If that isn't a ghoulish way of doing business! I ask you!"

But this is a rare cynical moment in characters who, for the most part, make the best of things, and therefore the novel never became depressing even in its sad moments. It's not a perfect novel (Bird seems to have been more amused by the Bartons' sanctimonious ravings than I was, and lets them go on too long, on too many occasions, though they bring about their own punishments in the end), but it was surprisingly satisfying over all, and has a tone all its own, far more memorable than I expected. I would love to proceed to the author's only other novel, Both Hands (1936), but alas it's nonexistent in libraries and the only copy on Abe Books at the moment is $200+ and I don't yearn for it quite that much… Alas, another woman whose very significant potential as a writer seems to have petered out, perhaps due to lack of encouragement or simply lack of time.

But lest I leave you thinking the novel isn't primarily cheerful, a couple of glimpses of its humor. First, a passage from very early on, channelling some distinct Barbara Pym energy:

It was nine o'clock in the evening, and the church clock had just struck sixteen. Susan was coming back from the village hall, where a show of vegetables was being arranged together with a display of jealousy and malice.

And then, poor Emma, refusing to accept, in a drunken stupor, that she had stumbled into the wrong house (let's overlook for now the fact that, were she a real person, Emma would certainly belong in rehab—as well as the distinct possibility that the delightful old Vicar might be suffering dementia…):

Mr. Binks silently appeared through a baize door. He regarded the figure of Emma, making a hazardous ascent of the staircase, with mild surprise. He looked a question at Susan, with an expressive glance.

"She blew in as I was going out," Susan explained. "She's mistaken the house."

"No I haven't," snapped Emma. "You have."

Mr. Binks proved quite equal to the situation. He went up the few stairs which Emma had so far managed, and steered her firmly down again. She had started to giggle, which added to her uncertainty of direction.

"I'll have to see her home," said Mr. Binks, "or she'll never arrive."

"What impertinence!" Emma laughed. "I can't go home alone with you. It was a fog that led to my first marriage."

"You need not worry this time," replied Mr. Binks stiffly.

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