Saturday, March 11, 2023

The Ides of March

I know we're actually still a few days away from the official Ides of March, but as out of whack as the world feels these days, it's not impossible to imagine that it arrived this year on March 6th by mistake, with all its sense of tragedy intact. As many of you already know, that was the day that Rupert Heath, founder of Dean Street Press, my friend and inspiring collaborator on the Furrowed Middlebrow series (not to mention his trailblazing work with others rediscovering Golden Age mysteries and other fiction and non-fiction as well), died suddenly of a heart attack, only a little over a month after the sudden death of his beloved wife Amanda. Rupert's sister Victoria has written a wonderful obituary for him here, which is uplifting and devastating in equal parts. Rupert was only 54.

It's difficult to know how to write about the loss of someone I had never actually met face-to-face, though we worked closely (I typed "we have worked closely" and am suddenly pained and distinctly pissed off to have to correct the verb tense) together for seven years, in some periods of intense effort emailing each other a dozen times in a day. Most of the time, both of us were equally, geekily excited about the work and how much it mattered to get it right, and having fun with the fact that we were lucky enough to be doing it.

And of course, I had the luxury—for a long time only fantasized about—to be excited about working (in however modest a way) "in publishing" purely because Rupert, apparently fairly spontaneously, had handed it to me on a platter. From the depths of my blog archive, I went back to look at a post I vaguely remembered having written but hadn't looked back at in years. This is my announcement that the fantasy was becoming reality and the first Furrowed Middlebrow books were in the works. It gives me a rather desolate feeling to read it now, but at the same time, what an amazing experience it has all been.

If it's difficult to know how to write about the loss of someone one never met, it's likewise difficult to know how to grieve for them, though grieving I certainly am. I've had many lovely emails from readers and colleagues in the past few days—you who understand how attached one can be even to people known only "virtually". Every morning since learning the news, I have, first thing in the morning, as always, checked my email and caught myself expecting to have one from Rupert. For seven years, it was always exciting and fun to have Rupert's name in my inbox, even if he was writing with bad news about the rights for books I hoped we might reprint (though, with Rupert's acumen, contacts, and professionalism in the business, it rarely was bad news: oh, how I will treasure the memories of receiving emails from him confirming that we could move forward with the likes of Stella Gibbons, or Margery Sharp, or D. E. Stevenson). I imagine I'll keep expecting that email for a long time to come.

I don't want to go on being all maudlin, and I have a feeling that Rupert would have hated such a tone, but I will say I very much regret now that we didn't get a chance to know each other better on a personal level. He sang (and played ukelele!)? He headed an Oscar Wilde appreciation society at school? He once wrote an article about French chanteuses? Clearly, we had more we could have discussed! What fun it would have been to have a pint with Rupert (and Amanda, who was a fashion expert and offered invaluable advice on some of our book covers, most recently our Susan Scarlett reprints, in which fashion was a major concern). Perhaps this is a lesson, if we need it after the past few chaotic years, in taking the time to delve deeper with the special people we come across, make it meaningful, make it count, and not assume that you can always get to know them better later.

I know many of you are wondering about the future. I am sorry to say that this does certainly mean there will be no more Furrowed Middlebrow reprints to come, though Rupert and I had had lots of great ideas for future projects. I will likely post a bit about some of those in the future (I expect that the blog will go on, though exactly how is, as they say, TBD), but for now, I am simply happy to report that the 96 (!!) Furrowed Middlebrow titles already in print will remain available. I'm delighted that they will remain as a testament to Rupert's passion, curiosity, and collaborative spirit. I might also, perhaps a little smugly, note that, when Rupert offered me the wonderful opportunity of working with him back in 2014, our line of reprints of (primarily) rather cozy middlebrow fiction was a bit of an anomaly. Today, the middlebrow is at least a bit more mainstream than it was, and there are a number of small publishers engaged in similar kinds of projects of rediscovery, not to mention some major publishers actively scouting for neglected, deserving works. As heartbreaking as this week has been, it's some comfort to know that the work will go on, and that we may have played our small part in ensuring that it does.

Friday, February 10, 2023

"Murder will be committed in this house": MABEL BARNES-GRUNDY, The Two Miss Spreckles (1946)

[Before getting on (finally) with a new review, I wanted to apologize for disappearing the past few weeks. There was a lot going on, both good and bad. Everything is fine with me, but in the busy-ness of it all blogging just sort of slipped down my list of priorities. I should also say that I am well aware that we are very much past any expected deadline for an announcement of new Furrowed Middlebrow titles. This was initially due to the usual issues that can arise in publishingcontract finalizations, the complexities of the project we were working on, etc.but has now very sadly been extended indefinitely by a personal tragedy faced by Rupert at Dean Street Press. Some things are more important than work, even when that work involves preparing lovely books to be enjoyed by wonderful readers, but we are sorry for keeping you all hanging. In lieu of an announcement, however, I hope to at least get back to providing new reviews here and there...]

"We are getting on nicely, aren't we, Euphemia?"
"No. Murder will be committed in this house before we have finished with our paying-guests, or my name is not Euphemia Speckles."

Mabel Barnes-Grundy wrote in the neighborhood of two dozen light, mostly humorous, mostly romance-themed novels between the beginning of the 20th century and 1946, when this, her final novel, appeared. And I'm ashamed to say that although many of the earlier books are out of copyright in the U.S. and readily available online, I've not read any of those, because I was so obsessed, for the past several years, with getting hold of two of her final, wartime novels—Paying Pests (1941) and The Two Miss Spreckles (1946). Of the latter a review told me it was about two middle-aged sisters in Bath taking in boarders seeking haven from the war (much to the horror of the older, stodgier sister). Of the former, I knew nothing but the obvious clue in the title and that it too was set during the war. Now, thanks to our British Library visits, I'm happy to say that I've finally read the latter and sampled the first few chapters of the former. (For anyone interested, a third MBG novel published during the war, Mary Ann and Jane (1944), is actually set in the 19th century and so was of less passionate interest, though it may well come onto my radar down the road.)

Poor Unity Speckles, the younger of the two titular sisters in The Two Miss Spreckles, has long lived in the shadow and under the authority of the imposing Euphemia, though despite this there is genuine affection between the sisters. As so often in these sorts of stories, we learn that Unity's one chance at romance—a man with the unfortunate name of Onions (jokes about the Speckles/Onion union producing shallots as offspring)—was stifled many years ago by Euphemia and their mother, and they have lived in stately, if slightly decaying, conservative glory in Bath's Royal Crescent.

Mabel must have loved that
her publisher misspelled
the title of Mary Ann and Jane

But as the novel begins, a combination of Unity's frustration with her drab existence and the poking and prodding of young Jennifer Warwick, great-niece of a friend of the family, trying to stir the sisters up to their wartime responsibilities, causes them—much against Euphemia's instincts—to make the momentous decision to take in lodgers as an alternative to evacuee children (a similar motivation to that of characters in Dorothy Lambert's
The Stolen Days, which I discussed a while back). As a result, the Misses Speckle are soon uneasily providing accommodation to the argumentative Miss Poldyke (nicknamed by neighbors "the War-horse"), the fluttery Mrs. Moorfen ("the Glow-worm"), and fashion conscious Mrs. Nimmits ("the Peacock"), each of whom present unique challenges.

When I started reading, I was a bit uncertain of the book, even after years of looking forward to it. Something about the tone didn't seem right—maybe Mabel was a bit cranky writing it (she was in her late 70s and the fatigues of war must have been wearing, so she was certainly justified)—and there was some uneasy humor on a couple of occasions—wishing glibly for people to have mood-improving stays in concentration camps, for example, to make them better appreciate their situations (at a time, surely, when MBG and her publisher should have known enough about the camps to know they weren't funny in any context). But once the scene and the characters were established, with Euphemia almost too well established as cranky and sometimes even a bit close to deranged, and the paying guests have moved in, it began to flow rather irresistibly and I had to surrender my more critical standards and just enjoy the ride. It also ultimately flirts a bit too much with sentimentality for my taste, so it's not an absolute favorite, but it was nevertheless a very pleasant wartime frolic.

Barnes-Grundy obviously had quite an interest in hotels and boarding-houses as settings. In addition to these two novels from the war, at least two earlier works, Sally in a Service Flat (1934) and Private Hotel—Anywhere (1937), would seem to have similar settings. I thought it was odd, nevertheless, that she would have used the "paying guests/pests" theme twice in her wartime novels. Reviewing the opening of Paying Pests, however, it turns out that while The Two Miss Speckles looks at the theme from the standpoint of the reluctant hosts bringing strangers into their home, Paying Pests shifts the perspective and features a young woman narrator evacuating with family members to paid quarters in quieter settings, no doubt encountering discomforts and complications living in other people's homes. It will pretty certainly be on my wish list to get hold of again should I make a return visit to the British Library…

And I do think I'll have to get round to sampling one of MBG's earlier novels now. Perhaps A Thames Camp (1902), described as "a wife's gossipy diary of outings on the Thames and at the seaside"? Hmmmm…

Friday, January 13, 2023

Gung-ho business women: MADGE SMITH, Jam Every Day (1957) & CLOTILDE GRAVES (as RICHARD DEHAN), Maids in a Market Garden (1894)

"Anyway, we can't sell Orchards! Sell Orchards! Mum, how can you?"
"Everybody is selling these big houses," said her mother, "nobody can afford to keep them up. Look how difficult it is to keep these big rooms decently warm! We never thought about fuel in the old days, but now you just can't do it."

You might be forgiven for thinking this sounds very like a passage from a Mabel Esther Allan tale, and indeed, with the old house that can no longer be maintained and several spunky girls with lots of energy and ideas for saving it, it could just about be. Jam Every Day was shared with me a while back by my Fairy Godmother (whom I haven't mentioned a lot recently but who is still very much in the picture and occasionally sharing wonderful books and dustjacket scans with me), and it was a charming, fluffy break recently when I needed one.

The residents of the impractical Orchards, located in lovely Devon (which I now know personally is lovely!), are the Sieviers—Clare, the oldest, who has been delicate and is still insistently treated as an invalid by their mother; Celia, just finishing high school and furiously resisting her mother's plans to send her to a finishing school; Deborah (Deb), fourteen, just as gung-ho as her sisters; Celia's friend Bunny; and their widowed mother, who yearns for her days as the belle of the ball and wants the same glamour for her daughters, who disappoint her by preferring working in the dirt and the kitchen and starting a business selling jam. There's also Lady Hoxleigh, Celia's surprisingly practical, well-to-do godmother, who serves the story by providing some needed funding, but perhaps more importantly by derailing Mrs. Sievier's plan to send Celia to a finishing school and then taking Mrs. Sievier out of the way altogether while the girls' business is getting started.

Jam Every Day also includes three
charming illustrations by Ruth Murrell

None of the story of Orchards' revamping is remotely plausible, though there are some details about jam-making which I can't personally attest to but which seem to come from personal knowledge on the author's part. Implausible as it is, though, it's entertaining and enjoyable, with even a bit of a discovery of treasure at the end to round out the Mabel Esther Allan resemblance. There's also an appearance from the girls of
Seldom Seen (1954), an earlier (similarly implausible, similarly enjoyable, similarly impossible to find) tale which Smith co-wrote with her sister Cicely Fox Smith and which I enjoyed back in 2019 but never got round to reviewing.

Yet, despite it's unrealistically idyllic portrayal of the girls' business ventures, Jam honestly still manages to be a bit more plausible than Maids in a Market Garden, a much earlier gung-ho business women tale set, this time, in beautiful, if distinctly rustic, Cornwall (I'm inadvertently recreating our recent trip with my reading). Reading a bit about Clotilde Graves, who mainly published under her Richard Dehan pseudonym and mostly seems to have written rather dreary pot boilers (at least one or two of which seem to be primarily remembered for their condescending racism), one might almost imagine she had feminist leanings—there's a strikingly modern-looking author pic of her with cropped hair and a sassy-looking attitude that would do her justice on a Hollywood red carpet even today. But judging from Maids, which I've wanted to read for several years due to my interest in tales of women starting businesses (from Dorothy Whipple's High Wages to Dorita Fairlie Bruce's The Serendipity Shop), one might be mistaken for reading too much into a haircut.

Clotilde Graves

Indeed, the six impoverished women who, having been scammed out of much of their money in London, decide to become market gardeners on the ramshackle property of one of the women, certainly look like budding feminists when the novel begins. They were attempting, in London, to work toward the improvement of the situation of women, and on establishing their gardening business vehemently vow that no men shall be allowed to play a role—least of all a romantic one. It all seems most promising, and it starts out energetic and entertaining, just as I'd hoped.

Then, for some reason known only to herself, Graves immediately sets out to undermine all of that and turns the story into an eccentric but structurally typical romance of the Mills & Boon ilk, though with a couple of pairings so enormously unlikely that they might have given even M&B pause. Most of the women instantly turn to mush at the first glimpse of a man, and are safely married off in the end, and often by the second half I simply gave up on telling the women apart, so similarly idiotic was their behavior. Obviously, feminism doesn't have to mean not getting married, but these young women are so like dominoes, tumbling with increasing rapidity as the end of the novel approaches, that I felt Graves was actually making a mockery of their feminist impulses, and it left a sour taste indeed. Ick.

Add to this that, as we are too familiar with from other novels of the time, all the local yokels speak in thick dialect that took a bit of work of unpack (and was, for the most part, not worth the unpacking, as they're not given much character except some "golly gee willakers" type comments on the women's behavior and an occasional sort of "noble savage" soliloquy). An odd amount of time is spent on a religious revival gathering in which much heavy-handed religious philosophy is delivered (in glorious dialect, no less), and there's a final adventure with a tragic outcome that is so absurd that it left me cold—surely the dead man was destined from the beginning for a tragic end as a result of daring to love a woman who was so clearly above him?—after which I was breathing a sigh of relief to
finally reach the end of this one. (It really did feel like "finally", though it's actually a rather short book.) Often, I don't finish books that don't grab me, but the trickery here was that Maids started out charmingly, and it wasn't till past the halfway point that I came to wish I could reclaim the wasted time of reading it.

Sadly, it's Maids, in the public domain and readily available online, that can easily be tracked down for reading, should you wish to suffer the fate I have suffered. Jam Every Day, which, despite being giddily implausible, is quite a lot more enjoyable, is also, as mentioned above, quite difficult to find these days. Thus, thanks are due again to my Fairy Godmother!

Sunday, January 8, 2023

"Steal it out of the chaos": DOROTHY LAMBERT, The Stolen Days (1940)

"It's very unsettling," sighed Christina. "One really doesn't know what to do about things just now."
"What sort of things?" inquired Angela.
"Well, the Flower Show, for one thing. And William is so proud of the dahlias, it would be a dreadful blow if anything were to happen—"
"Oh, dahlias!" retorted Angela scornfully. "My dear Christina, what do dahlias amount to? Now if the Tennis Tourmanet at Cairnderry were blotted out, that would be a rotten blow."

Christina Monroe is the sort of joyless, incompetently bossy busybody who should, for the good of all, be parachuted into the desolate expanse of Antarctica in her nightgown. Or, as her mother (!) memorably puts it at one point, "One of these days someone will murder you, and then we shall have a little peace."

Christina, along with her brother Simon, live with their mother at Culsharg, an impractically large, drafty house in the Scottish countryside. Christina manages the house in her own unique way, while widowed Mrs. Monroe has been driven by Christina's stubborn belief in her mental and physical infirmity into sequestering herself in two large rooms upstairs—only occasionally putting in a hand to influence things when Christina's influence grows too disastrous for everyone involved.

Not too surprisingly, the beginning of World War II (frivolously under discussion in the quotation above) is one of the occasions when Mrs. Monroe must step in to fix Christina's mess. Christina decides that, at all costs, Mrs. Monroe must be kept from the inconvenience of evacuees, so she instead invites long-alienated extended family—out of the frying pan, indeed! Already in the house are Christina's long-suffering brother Simon, Mrs. Munroe's granddaughter, Angela, and her husband Michael—both frivolous and irresponsible, eager to get back to the party scene in India, but blocked by the war, Mrs Johnston the cook (a particular friend of Mrs Munroe's), Effie, the maid, and William, the gardener. Under Christina's master plan, new arrivals soon include Elspeth and Andrew Meiklejohn, Mrs Munroe's sister and brother-in-law ("distinctly a blight"), and their daughter Aily, a classic marriage-hungry Lambert joke butt; Judith Savile, another granddaughter invited with her neglected young son, Timothy; and Jill Meredith, a cheerful, practical young woman send by Judith in her place to take care of Timothy and give Judith her freedom from motherhood. Naturally, disruption and discord result, almost everyone behaves badly, and, as the "Phony War" drags on filled with anxiety and anticlimax, Mrs. Monroe (finally) takes charge and, shall we say, cleans house in classic diva style.

I had a blast with this novel and had trouble putting it down. It's very much in funny, "early days of wartime" mode, but it's also got a rather darker, biting edge to it. Mrs Monroe, though giving the ghastly houseguests their due (not unlike Odysseus) and bringing about happy endings where deserved, is a bit of a battle-axe herself, and her attitudes toward her family may make her a bit of a rough heroine to love wholeheartedly (how did her family get so awful, one might wonder, and does she not bear any responsibility for it?), but she's certainly entertaining to watch in action if you don't take it too seriously. It's also difficult to have a lot of sympathy for the family, and when we see Christina self-righteously herding everyone to the cellar at the sound of a siren (which turns out to be a lonely cow making her desires known), it's easy to see why Mrs. Monroe might joke about her getting murdered. (It's also interesting to note that here, as in many other wartime writings, the decision of whether to retreat to the shelter or stay cheerfully in bed is one that reveals depth of character—the terrible people scurry for shelter, the nobler ones laugh it off.)

By the way, the title of the novel comes from Jill's philosophy in dealing with the uncertainties of war, which struck me as rather appropriate to today's uncertainties:

"Well, there's no time at present," she explained, in a halting fashion as if she were trying to settle a problem in her own mind. "The days come and go, but somehow there is no definite to-morrow. You can't say 'To-morrow we'll do—oh, anything,' but if to-morrow comes and is a day that you can do something and enjoy it—why, that's what I call a 'stolen day'. I seize on it and hold on to it—steal it out of the sort of chaos that the weeks have become."

Here's wishing you all lots of stolen days in 2023!

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