Friday, July 28, 2023

"So coolly silent, so vast and beautiful": KATHERINE DUNNING, The Spring Begins (1934)

[Another unpublished review written some time last year, following a very kind communication from a Dunning fan, as described below. I held off publishing it until we'd got round to considering the rights situation, but it's one of my favorite finds as a blogger and, indeed, my best claim to having found a truly great (in a literary sense) "lost" masterpiece.] 

But wasn't it silly, standing there waving her arms up and down and watching her big white nightgown moving so unreally in the darkness around her? If she just turned quickly on her toes like the children did when they were pretending to be fairies blown through the garden by the wind, her nightgown fled out away from her, leaving her body bare and light against the air. But it was not delicate or nice to think of herself as naked. It was all right from her head down to the top of her collar, and from her knees down to her toes she was flesh and blood again, but in between there was nothing at all—just a conveniently sized dummy's model on which to hang her blue gingham frock and white apron.

This extraordinary novel, undoubtedly influenced by Woolf if a bit less radically experimental, takes place in and around the home of the well-to-do Kellaways, a family perhaps not unlike Woolf's Ramsays from To the Lighthouse. But here, by wonderful contrast with Woolf, the Kellaways themselves remain firmly in the background, rather ethereal supporting characters in the small dramas of which the lead actors are two of the Kellaway's young servants and a young neighbor, a classic impoverished gentlewoman, working as governess for the local vicar.

But while The Spring Begins evokes To the Lighthouse, it goes well beyond Woolf's areas of expertise in its focus on servant girls and their burgeoning sexuality—neither topics dear Virginia would have been able to address so vividly and convincingly as Katherine Dunning does here. Perhaps you might say this is To the Lighthouse crossed with Picnic at Hanging Rock, though that hardly sufficiently describes its seductive charms.

There's the lovely Lottie, raised in an orphanage, in awe of her "betters" and thoroughly terrified of men due to the horrors gleefully described by the stern Nurse (a sort of opposite of Juliet's nurse, obsessed with morbid fantasies of brutality against women), yet vividly awake to the nature and people around her. She could most clearly be a Woolf character, with her intense responses to everything from sunshine and flowers to the morning light or the way her nightgown billows around her. And alongside the horrors Nurse has warned her about is the figure of George, an employee on the estate, who doesn't seem such a monster… It's a delight to be inside Lottie's head:

At the edge of the sea Lottie halted, and spread out her hands a little. She was utterly alone, here by the sea's edge. Behind her was the sand, pale and cool-looking now, and the dark trees that guarded the house.

She drew in a long deep breath. It was heavenly here, so coolly silent, so vast and beautiful with the evening's stillness. Out further from the land the sea grew coloured with a pink that glanced lightly off the glistening water and changed and broke a little with each of the water's smooth, scarcely noticeable, movements.

Well, this would not do. This was not the way to find the baby's toy. The blessed little love! She went down on her hands and knees and began running her fingers over the sand. One of the other children might have trodden it beneath the loose surface. But she could not find it anywhere, though she searched over a large area. And now what would Nurse say to her?

Then there's racy, sensual Maggie, the scullery maid, who has always kept herself a "good girl" but finds herself submitting to the lusty gardener whose passion for her, among other satisfactions, lends her an unprecedented sense of dignity in her constant scrubbing and sweeping and in her poor treatment by a scornful, never-satisfied Cook. She's an earthy girl, who knows her own mind even when her mind is overruled by her body, and it's hard not to love her as well. 

And there's Hessie, a "plain" young woman, impoverished middle class, constantly thinking of what is proper and acceptable behavior as a result of her mother's obsession with gentility. Hessie is a bit older than the other two protagonists, and has grown desperate for love both as a result of terrible loneliness and because of the impending marriage of her younger sister. Hessie's is the most difficult head to be inside—neurotic and needy, pathetic and insecure—and yet it's impossible not to be moved by her struggles to escape her cage. She convinces herself that Mr. Saul, a clergymen, is attracted to her, though it is crystal clear to the reader that he is barely aware of her existence, as when she answers a telephone call while working in the vicar's home:

"I'm afraid Mr. Benson is in the garden, but I could take a message."

"Thanks, but I'll answer this myself."

Really there were moments when Mr. Benson was almost rude. There was no need to push her aside like that. Mr. Saul had sounded as if he had wanted to go on speaking to her. The way he had said "Hessie?" and then as though a light had dawned on him, he had added lingeringly, "Oh yes, Hessie!"

The lives of these three main characters rarely overlap and they are only vaguely aware of one another (though Hessie stares enviously at Lottie's youthful beauty once at a picnic). But they are thematically interwoven because all three are at a stage of awakening sensuality and desire, though in wildly varying ways. 

Although we fear for all three women now and again (Mrs. Kellaway's brother, Andrew, clearly takes an interest in Lottie, Maggie risks a pregnancy that would savage her life, and who can say what Hessie might be driven to do?), Dunning admirably resists the Woman-as-Victim theme a lesser writer might have invoked. Instead, the brutal murder of an unknown maid while Lottie is with the Kellaways on holiday stands in for the harsh reality that could have been awaiting any of our three vulnerable heroines. I was in such suspense at times about their fates, and was nearly giddy to find that all three get happy endings of a sort, in keeping with their personalities, though Hessie's is, as one would expect, the most ambivalent.

I can hardly express how passionately I loved this novel that is itself so quietly and beautifully focused on passion. These women, though acted upon by employers, neighbors, family members, and the sometimes degrading situations of their work, are, if not in control of their own destinies (surely no one is really that), at least primarily driven by their own desires and needs, which is unbelievably refreshing in a novel of this period. All three women, though completely different in their experiences, are allowed their dignity and their sense of themselves, even while frightened or threatened or driven nearly to hysteria. We know them, and know how they have come to where they are. Even Hessie, whose mind is the most agonizing to see inside, as she delusionally convinces herself of the desire and admiration of every man she meets, is fighting a rather noble battle to free herself from her mother's repressive prudishness and class sensibility. We see her move from blind acceptance of her mother's gentility to gradual rebellion against some of those sacred precepts, and it's rather heroic, if no less painful, to witness.

Because Dunning's heroines are so perceptive and aware of their surroundings, we get fascinating details of the running of a country house and the lives of servants, as well as small town life and class awareness. Not to mention the marvelous realistic details that make the family's day at the beach very like experiencing the beach yourself—you can feel the sea breeze as Lottie does, and the sand getting uncomfortably into crevices, the waves breaking, children laughing, Nurse nagging. You can feel Hessie's constraining clothes, Maggie's aching muscles, and Lottie's anxiety and excitement when George appears.

This is a really brilliant, wonderful book—one of the best "lost" works I've come across as a blogger (!!)—and I owe a debt of gratitude to Roderick Barman, an historian and scholar from British Columbia, for contacting me to recommend the book. I had come across a mention of it years ago in a review, and had had it flagged ever since as possibly of interest (along with literally hundreds of others), but Roderick's rave recommendation inspired an immediate Interlibrary Loan request and an eager reading of the book as soon as it arrived. Dunning also wrote three other novelsStephen Sherrin (1932), Whatever the Heart Appoints (1950), and The Bright Blue Eye (1952)—which Roderick very kindly gifted to me after he'd read them. He felt that none of them lived up to The Spring Begins, and I have to agree, though both of the latter were enjoyable and intriguing in their own way, and Kathy, a good friend of this blog, fell in love with The Bright Blue Eye, As I value her judgment highly, I may have to have a second look at that later, very different and more lighthearted work.

Friday, July 21, 2023

A literary conundrum?: ANONYMOUS (but clearly E. M. DELAFIELD), The Bazalgettes (1935)

[Another previously unpublished review written some time last year.]

This anonymous novel of the years 1870-76 is something of a literary conundrum and will, we believe, cause much discussion. When it came to us the style seemed faintly familiar and we suspected who might have written it. It seemed to us well worth publishing, both as a literary curiosity and also because it is interesting to see a theme that might well have been chosen by the most modern of present-day novelists treated in the Victorian manner.

Such was the note from the publisher when The Bazalgettes, or Folly and Farewell appeared anonymously in 1935. Indeed, one feels sure that they must have "suspected who might have written it," since the royalty checks were presumably written to someone, but some critics seemed to have played along with the mystery, suggesting that perhaps it was a lost work by the likes of Charlotte Yonge or Rhoda Broughton. I suspect that very few critics really believed this entertaining melodrama of misguided marriage was of Victorian origin. Surely all but the most gullible would have realized it was by a contemporary author. But the question was who? 

I came across this novel when I was pouring through reviews from 1935 in search of interesting unknown authors or new details about books I already knew. It's something I used to do more regularly, but have got back into recently—just selecting a year from my range and a publication that regularly did book reviews, and pouring through them on the glorious British Newspaper Archive. So I was first introduced to The Bazalgettes almost as a contemporary would have been—as an anonymous work that might be contemporary or might genuinely be Victorian. But as soon as I decided to see if any copies were available, the mystery was quickly resolved.

Of course, I have the advantage of having read several of E. M. Delafield's other works, which some of the predominantly male critics commenting on the novel might not have had. But I have to say there are quite a few clues within the novel that any Delafield fan would have picked up. Just choosing a passage a random, how about this as a clue?:

Her devotion, which begins by touching Margaret, is rapidly approaching the stage when its only effect is to énerver her almost beyond endurance.

Oh, that distinctive, wry slippage into French! 

The novel begins in Austen-esque mode, with Margaret Mardon, the oldest of two sisters hitherto believed unmarriageable by their terrible, tantrum-ridden father, discussing with her aunt her surprising engagement to the much older and well-to-do Mr. Bazalgette. Said aunt wastes no time in sharing her feelings about the decision:

'I cannot tell you at all unless you will give me your full attention. Only—only—pray do not think me very foolish, Aunt, but I had so very much rather that you did not look at me.'

'I am to give you my full attention, I am not to think you very foolish, and you had so very much rather that I did not look at you. Well, I can undertake to gratify your first and your third requirements.'

Suffice it to say the marriage does turn out rather foolish, as Mr. Bazalgette is conservative and elderly in his views and activities, and Margaret finds her only pleasure in trying to coax his brow-beaten children from his previous marriage into some semblance of happy childhood. At least, that is her only pleasure until Mr. Bazalgette's adult son Charlie, whose existence has only just been revealed to Margaret, arrives on the scene for a visit…

Having discovered that the novel was by Delafield (and doesn't seem to be widely known by readers as part of her oeuvre), I of course had high hopes for it. I couldn't say those hopes were entirely fulfilled, though my lack of experience with Victorian melodrama may mean I'm not its ideal target audience. However, I did keep reading, and enjoyed it for the most part, though it sinks quite a long way into gushy sentimentality in the final section (possibly amusing and perhaps satirical for those who know more about the Victorian novels Delafield was channeling, but not quite so entertaining for me as the lighter, more humorous sections earlier on).

But even if this didn't fulfill my secret fantasies of a Provincial Lady in Victorian England, I still enjoyed reading The Bazalgettes, and what's more I suspected that many of you might not know about the book—or who really wrote it!

Thursday, July 13, 2023

"They sinned. Need one say more?": ELEANOR FARJEON, Miss Granby's Secret (1941)

[Another review from my archives which never got published here. This one I was definitely holding off on publicizing until we could confirm rights and move forward on reprinting it. It's one of my all-time favorite discoveries, and I hope someone else will get round to reprinting it soon.] 

How much did Aunt Addie know?

How much did she feel?

I wouldn't usually begin a review with the final two lines of a novel, but in this case they're uniquely appropriate, and not at all a spoiler, since this entire clever, unexpectedly satisfying novel is clearly about—as well as leaving open to each reader's interpretation—just how much Aunt Addie did know.

Aunt Addie is better known to the world at large as Adelaide Granby, the fabulously successful author of 49 volumes of Victorian purple prose—gushing, melodramatic romantic fiction. Upon her death in 1912, flowers and cards pour in, including one particularly lavish set "From Stanislaw", whom her independent-minded, suffragette grand-niece Pamela confidently asserts to have been "darling Aunt Addie's Grande Passion." 

Rather to Pamela's surprise, she also inherits both Aunt Addie's childhood home and a stack of secret papers, which includes both diaries from Aunt Addie's youth and her first novel, written long ago when she was only 16 and inspired by the love of her life, entitled The Bastard of Pinsk. ("Bastard", 16-year-old Adelaide was convinced, referred to "A very noble Hero of Royal Blood"—she is gracious enough to provide a glossary of terms, which also includes "Pimp", "An exquisite Young Gentleman of Fashion", and "Wore", a woman "who has been worn by Life".)

We, the reader, explore these documents along with Pamela, as well as her conversations with Alicia Linton, Adelaide's old governess who aided and abetted her romance, now residing in a Home for Gentlewomen in Surbiton, and Ada Dancey, daughter of Adelaide's maid and butler, who will play an important role in the unraveling of Aunt Addie's secret (if unravelled it be), to try to find the real-life source of Adelaide's romantic sensibility.

Now, despite some very enticing contemporary reviews of this book, when I saw that it included a 200-page novel-within-a-novel, an attempt at a bodice-ripper by a young girl with a clearly limited understanding of just how bodices get ripped, I confess I had a distinct sinking feeling. I don't typically get on well with novels within novels to begin with (even the universally praised Magpie Murders proved too distracting for me), and I feared that the Young Visiters-type humor would wear thin in much less than 200 pages, however intriguing I found the surrounding narrative from Pamela's perspective. But I have to admit that Eleanor Farjeon (well-known for her children's fiction, but rarely acknowledged for her adult novels—more on that below) pulled it off. The Bastard of Pinsk, though certainly containing some wonderful jokes at the expense of poor Adelaide's ignorance (I couldn't stop giggling at the lines "They sinned. Need one say more?" followed by a footnote "Mem: Find out.-A.G.", and the novel ends with three sisters all expecting the departed Bastard's children at any moment—within hours, perhaps, or even after several years!), is actually a rollicking little page-turner, full of drama, secret identities, and plentiful romance. It's quite genuinely entertaining (with perhaps a bit of a satire on Georgette Heyer?), and in the context of the framing plot with Pamela investigating Adelaide's past, it's surprisingly effective.

I don't want to give the impression that the novel is entirely comic, either. Its structure might evoke A. S. Byatt's Possession, while it's perspective is a curious melding of The Young Visiters and Elizabeth Taylor's Angel, with more than a hint of the nostalgia of Ruby Ferguson's Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary. And yet it ends up producing effects all its own—humor at the expense of Addie's teenage romanticism and ignorance is leavened by a surprisingly touching story told in her naïve way; the acidity that Taylor brought to her portrayal of a silly writer of tortured romances is here rendered as a compassionate attempt to understand an oversheltered Victorian girl's experience of love; and the nostalgia for a simpler time that Farjeon must have intended as part of her 1941 novel's appeal (the brief author bio at the end notes that Miss Granby's Secret was written in a bomb shelter in London) is also undercut by the thoroughly modern Pamela's advocacy of progressive causes (initially the Vote, then others once that is achieved) and her gobsmacked horror at how sheltered and smothered Aunt Addie had been. 

I love novels that can't quite be nailed down. This book is sentimental, yet brutally honest, nostalgic for and horrified by the sentiments of the past, romantic and political, hilarious and poignant, all at the same time. I couldn't begin to say what perspective ends up dominant, as I imagine it could well be quite different for different readers. And as to how much Aunt Addie knew and felt, and whether Stanislaw really was a "Grande Passion", each reader will ultimately have to decide that for themselves as well. I could see the novel triggering some fascinating discussions of what makes a love "real" and how much one really needs to know to experience it…

One final quote, from the opening of The Bastard of Pinsk, which I found doubly humorous because, though clearly a joke involving Addie's ignorance of certain words, it might read rather like a news story about any number of contemporary politicians: 

These beauties were the wards and heirs of their great-uncle, Lord Tarletan of Braddon Hall and elsewhere. Lord Tarletan was a well-known lecher in London, where he enjoyed a wide and broad-minded acquaintance covering every class of society, from pimps to M.Ps.

I often seem to find that authors better known for children's books turn out to be surprisingly entertaining authors of novels for grownups. Margery Sharp, E. Nesbit, Ruby Ferguson, Noel Streatfeild, Verily Anderson, just among those we've reprinted, plus the likes of Rumer Godden, Dodie Smith, and doubtless numerous others I'm forgetting, all wrote entertaining novels for adults as well as their often more famous children's books. So I've meant to get round to Farjeon's adult novels for a long time now. She was quite well-known for her children's books (largely, if I'm not mistaken, for younger children), but also published a number of novels, particularly during World War II, for whatever reason. She was also, as many of you may know, the daughter of a major Victorian novelist, Benjamin Farjeon, and the sister of prolific mystery writer Joseph Jefferson Farjeon.

[Sadly, since drafting this review, I've got hold of several more of Farjeon's novels for grownups, and the magic has not yet repeated itself. Secret manages a delicate balance of themes, as mentioned above, but the others I've sampled have tended more toward coyness or cutesyness. This one, however, remains one to treasure.]

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

JOYCE DENNYS, Economy Must Be Our Watchword (1932)

[This is one of several unposted reviews I recently discovered in my archives. I had been saving this until after we announced our reprints of Joyce Dennys, but I hope you'll still enjoy seeing it even though the reprints are no longer happening.]

"Mind you, I'm not blaming you, it's not the fault of your class that your educations have been neglected, and you've been brought up as helpless as new-born babes, and believe me, m'Lady, you have the heart-felt sympathy of practically all the classes, except the out-and-out Bolshies, of course, who are just as uneducated as you, and therefore unable to see both sides of a question."

I had been absolutely lusting to read this book for nearly a decade, since Simon at Stuck in a Book mentioned it casually here and then Danielle at A Work in Progress tracked it down and reviewed it here. Alas, I think that the two copies they were able to track down might well be the only extant copies in our galaxy, so I had nearly given up on ever getting hold of it. But last year, when Rupert and I started to think about releasing a batch of Joyce Dennys titles (now, obviously, not happening), we decided we should also reprint her charming memoir and the three rather daft "Dose" books (which I reviewed here), and that somehow, by hook or by crook, we had to get hold of this one as well and make it available to more readers.

Happily, neither hook nor crook were needed, for Simon at once agreed, very kindly and graciously, to lend his copy to Dean Street Press for scanning. (Thank you again, Simon!)

I was delighted to finally read all about the impossible Lady Macassar—known affectionately as Petal—and her long-suffering husband Hilary, who decide that they must economize to make ends meet in the dark days of the financial crisis of the early 1930s. Hilary puts into place some sound economical measures—retreating to their country estate (which I could totally get on board with) and taking up market gardening (perhaps not quite so much enthusiasm from me, though I'm happy to help with watering), with the willing help of Mrs. FitzHerbert, wife of the local vicar, and Mrs. Brown, the doctor's wife, whom Petal finds loathsomely dull. (The Henrietta letters which appeared in The Sketch during World War II were surely just a gleam in Dennys' eye when she was writing Economy, but it's lovely to think that the superficial, pretentious Petal's tedious, dull Mrs. Brown could be the same thoroughly lovable Henrietta Browne who would burst on the scene a few years later.)

But Petal's ideas are just a bit less practical than her husband's. Her decision to get rid of some of the maids and dump the extra work on Cook, for example, gets her the memorable talking to with which this post begins (followed by suggestions of night classes set up specially to train the formerly wealthy on basic life skills). And her inspiration to go to work as an assistant at a London hat shop, in which she was formerly a key investor, is a particular disaster (especially for the shop's existing assistant, poor Miss Filmer), and results in considerable insult to the "horse-faced" Duchess from whom Petal has been hoping to receive an important invitation.

Petal's adventures go from implausible to utterly ridiculous, but they are always amusing and frequently hilarious, in that sort of arch, campy, Noel Coward-y, P. G. Wodehouse-y way. Although the story is narrated by Petal herself, her obliviousness, vanity, and selfishness are of course the butt of the joke. One of my favorite set pieces is when Petal and Hilary invite the Penningtons for dinner, Petal ready to condescend for all she's worth over occupying their old home:

The other people who are coming are the Penningtons. They used to own Westlands, but had to sell it. I'm sure they will be interested to see all the improvements we have made in the place. I'm afraid it will make them feel terribly jealous, for they live in a wretched little bungalow at the top of the hill now and keep chickens.

But Petal is rather taken aback by Mrs. Pennington's version of the sale:

"When Jimmy came back and told me he'd sold Westlands to some of the new—to some very rich people, I felt like Christian when the load fell off his back."

And she's shocked by their laughing suggestion, when Hilary mentions having removed their family crest from the mantlepiece, that they might take it and hang it over their hen-house door.

Economy is the closest Joyce Dennys came to writing a novel, as the Dose books are more like short sketches united by a theme and the Henrietta series is in the form of a diary and presumably at least partly autobiographical. One would wish, having read this book, that she had tried her hand at fiction again, but as we know from the Henrietta saga, she did have other things keeping her busy!

Thanks again to Simon for making my long-held wish come true. I hope another publisher will soon discover the joys of Joyce and do her work the justice it deserves...

NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at I do want to hear from you!