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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