[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 publishing—contract 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…