Thursday, June 29, 2023

What might have been: Henrietta and others

Ever since the sudden, tragic loss of Rupert a few months ago, and the (much lesser but still rather melancholy) untimely end of our Furrowed Middlebrow publications, I've known that at some point I wanted to share a bit of what we had been working on or planning for the future. It's a slightly masochistic thing to do, writing about projects that will now never come to fruition (and perhaps a rather boring thing for you to read, since these titles, sadly, will NOT be, as I always gleefully announced, "coming soon"). But it's perhaps both a therapeutic exercise for me and also—I might hope against hope—a bit of encouragement for some other worthy publisher to take these titles on.

Some of you likely guessed, from my coy posts about it last year, that the big project I was working most feverishly and excitedly on was a new and much more complete edition of JOYCE DENNYS's marvelous Henrietta letters. As I wrote about then, I had managed to obtain—largely from the wonderful British Newspaper Archive online, but also partly via my visit to the Bodleian at Oxford last year—the truly complete Henrietta articles from The Sketch, and realized that the two collections originally published in the 1980s, Henrietta's War and Henrietta Sees It Through, represented only roughly 40% (!!) of the Henrietta material that Dennys actually published at the time. 

I've always loved those books—Dennys's lightly fictionalized, cheerful, funny accounts of wartime and postwar adventures and mishaps in a thinly-veiled version of her real-life home in Budleigh Salterton—and had already read them several times. So I couldn't have been happier than when reading the very substantial number of "lost" articles, all completely new to me, including many additional pieces from the war years as well as a full year and a half's worth of articles which appeared between May of 1945 and October of 1946, taking Henrietta and her friends through the final days of war and into the joys and trials of peacetime, and Dennys's revisiting of the characters for several months in 1954-5, providing a lovely reunion with old friends another decade further along (and featuring Henrietta's budding, but occasionally uneven, career as a playwright)—none of which appeared in the original books. I was in heaven, and wasted no time suggesting to Rupert that we do an expanded "director's cut" in three volumes (tentatively titled Henrietta Goes to War, Henrietta on the Home Front, and Henrietta's Peace), which would have been able to include roughly 80% of the original material, double that of the two existing volumes. 

I had dreaded having to identify the 20% that we still wouldn't have had room for even in our expanded edition, but I have to admit, much as I adore Henrietta and friends, some of the cuts were surprisingly obvious. I would, for example, have had little regret about leaving out several articles dedicated to the behavior of a seagull family on a neighboring rooftop… One might very reasonably feel awestruck at the fact that Dennys was able to produce these articles, first weekly and then every two weeks, for the entire duration of the war and beyond, with virtually no gaps, along with her activities as a wife, mother, and active community member. But the Mr. and Mrs. Seagull chronicles show us that, yes, even she had occasional difficulties coming up with fresh material! 

These weak spots were few and far between, however, and the bulk of the "new" material was every bit as good as that I already knew. I also took note of the edits Dennys herself had made for the 1980s versions, by comparing the books to the original articles, and decided to follow her lead in removing occasional snippets that must have seemed to her a bit too negative or cranky in retrospect. (She made several edits, for example, to jokes or comments about the numerous escapees from more heavily bombed areas, who were the butt of much good-natured humor throughout the articles, but occasionally, in the original, were treated to the slightly sharper edge of Henrietta's tongue as well. I felt I got a glimpse of Dennys herself in her urge to cut text that veered ever-so-slightly toward nastiness, to leave only good humor and high spirits behind.) 

Much harder than cutting text, then, was trying to select only one illustration to use for each article (as opposed to three in the original Sketch publications). There's a lot of very amusing illustrations created by Dennys that most people haven't seen, and of course this is also true of her other books—which, naturally, we were also planning to reprint. The Henrietta books would have been the most work to prepare for release, but we had also acquired rights to Dennys's three "Dose" books—Mrs Dose, the Doctor's Wife (1930), Repeated Doses (1931), and The Over-Dose (1933)—which I reviewed here, her memoir And Then There Was One (1983), reviewed here, and, most excitingly of all, the one Joyce Dennys book that might very loosely be called a novel (or at least novella), Economy Must Be Our Watchword (1932), which Simon Thomas of Stuck in a Book had graciously lent to us for scanning, as he seems to possess one of the only surviving copies in the world. We hoped to use illustrations from each book, in artfully colorized form, for our covers, not unlike what was done with the original 1980s hardcover editions. I do hope another publisher will still go forward with a Henrietta director's cut!

A few images that might have
worked for covers

I've recently remembered/discovered (the older I get, the more often the two are indistinguishable), coming back a bit from my self-imposed isolation, that I have several unposted book reviews in draft form, from before the events of the past months. These include a review of
Economy, which was on hold until I could make the official announcement of our Joyce Dennys batch, as well as reviews of at least two other novels—one an adult novel by well-known children's author ELEANOR FARJEON and the other by the distinctly not known KATHERINE DUNNING—that I had definitely on my shortlist to reprint if at all possible. Both of them are among my all-time favorite finds, and I think I was holding off on publishing the reviews until we'd had a chance to look at rights. Some other reviews just got into a backlog for one reason or another. In all, I think there are about eight, so it looks like I am back to blogging for the next few weeks, as I polish up and publish those. I hope you'll enjoy them, even if there's no immediate prospect of reprints of them.

Of course, I had quite a list of other "potential" titles held in store. We would undoubtedly have moved forward—finally!—with the six other Molly Clavering novels, now at last in my hot little hands (though I have to admit my reading of the 1920s titles so far has been a bit disappointing—perhaps more on that to come). I was, as you know if you read several of my reviews after our British Library/Bodleian trip last October, deeply engaged in reading more novels by DOROTHY LAMBERT, perhaps not-so-secretly in hopes of putting together a whole batch of her charming work (oh, I do hope someone does that someday!). We had confirmed rights to add no lesser name than RUMER GODDEN to our list, with the inexplicably out-of-print A Candle for St. Jude. I was pushing to get to MAUD BATCHELOR's absolutely delightfully The Woman of the House (1934, reviewed here) into print as soon as possible. And just before Rupert's passing we had discussed possibly doing a batch of FM mysteries, to include (if all the logistics worked out) the delightful Gory Knight (reviewed here) and possibly the likes of SHEILA PIM and/or JOAN COGGIN, whose witty and domestic comic-mysteries deserve more readers than they have.

But there, that's quite enough moping about over things that can't be helped. I rather think that writing this has helped me clear the decks a bit, metaphorically speaking, and start thinking about future projects—as well as appreciating, yet again, all that Rupert and I were able to accomplish (though the nitty gritty of it was of course more his doing than mine). Those future projects naturally include our return to the British Library this September, for which a list of books to get hold of has already begun to grow alarmingly. So perhaps I'm not quite finished blogging yet…

In the shorter term, in the coming weeks I'll be sharing those already drafted reviews, including some real treasures. Hope you enjoy!

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