Sunday, August 13, 2023

“No useful purpose would be served by remaining in a vertical posture”: HUMPHREY PAKINGTON, Four in Family (1932)

[I'm actually not even sure now when I drafted this review. It might be a few years ago now. Initially, I wanted to sample more of Pakington's books before raving about this one, and then I think I just had trouble fitting it in. Y chromosome and all... But better late than never!] 

The guests left the Deanery at an hour consonant with the evening engagements of a Cathedral City, and Mrs. Hodge, feeling that no useful purpose would be served by remaining in a vertical posture, intimated shortly afterwards that she desired to assume a position of horizontality.

I know there are few things more shocking than Furrowed Middlebrow writing about a male author, but you know that pure silly humor is like heroin for me, so how could I possibly resist a book with passages like this one?

Brad Bigelow at Neglected Books got to Humphrey Pakington way ahead of me, writing about him here quite a few years ago. But it has taken me longer, undoubtedly because of my incorrigible bias against the Y chromosome. So far I’ve only read this, Pakington’s first novel, but suffice it to say that this one could quite easily have been written by any one of several of my favorite women writers from E. M. Delafield to Carola Oman, perhaps with some help from Groucho Marx.

Four in Family is one of those lovely books that has no real overarching plot, but it primarily focuses on the Warmstrys--Robert and Helen and their four children Elizabeth, Crispin, June and Laura--who move to the country as their financial position improves. Robert is liberal-leaning, but finds himself confronted with the more conservative standards of the “County” and Helen’s yearning to be accepted. They must particularly play up to Colonel and Susan Canfield, the latter the self-styled mover and shaker of local social life, whose uptight sense of what is and is not “done” Pakington milks for all its comedic worth. The Dean and his sister, not to mention a Rector and a Bishop, figure in the proceedings, as do the hoity-toity Eaton-Shrubsoles, poor Miss Wilson from Ferry Cottage, who only gets invited to things when an extra woman is needed, and the Pilbeams, family friends also striving to find their place in the hierarchy.

Undoubtedly a Brit of Pakington’s time (and perhaps today) would recognize the various gradations of class in these characters better than an oblivious Yank, but it’s quite entertaining enough just seeing them all struggling to impress or beat down each other, and fortunately no subtle understanding of social structures and strictures is necessary to get the jokes.

Without any major overarching plot, Pakington is free to indulge in the most elaborate and entertaining set-pieces, such as the dialogue between Robert and Helen as they try to work out the precise language of the newspaper announcement of their move to the country. It takes several pages in all, but here's a sample:

"Can't you see that 'gone into residence' is impossibly pompous?"

"It's what the Canfields put when they came into Warnedon, Robert."

"Ah, but Warnedon is much more of a place than this, and the Canfields are much bigger people than we are, or think they are—and it's very different when one 'comes into' a place, as you call it. I should just say 'arrived at'."

"Very well, dear, but I think 'arriving' sounds rather sudden, as if we hadn't been expected."

There's an absolutely epic scene of the complications that ensue in Helen's efforts to ensure an equal balance of men and women at her first dinner party in the country—that and the party itself fill the better part of two hilarious chapters which in themselves are worth the price of admission.

And even more fun comes a few chapters along when Laura plans a house party that has at least one guest sleeping in a dressing room on a camp bed. I particularly loved the party games she insists upon, especially one in which she shows fragments of photos of famous figures' faces and the challenge is to guess who it is. Unsurprisingly, the results vary quite a lot—here's just a sample:

"Mummy, how on earth were we to know it was Queen Mary, with only a tiny bit of cheek showing?" cried June.

"You weren't supposed to know," said Elizabeth.

"Then why not cover the photograph up altogether? I'd got Mr. Henry Ford for that one."

"Why Ford?" asked the Rector. "Why not Morris?"

"Why not anyone?" said June.

"I had got William Morris for number eight," said Uncle William.

"You've made it much too difficult, Mummy," said June.

"I don't think so at all, dear. They seemed quite easy to me."

"That's all very well, but you saw them all first: who's number three?"

"Number three," said Helen, "is the Archbishop of Canterbury."

"By jove," said Robert, "I was close that time! I put Edith Sitwell. Did you spot the Archbishop, Rector?"

"Er, no, not exactly, but I've got him down later. I suppose I could count a half for that."

"What did you put for that, Miss Porter?" asked Elizabeth.

"I seem to have made some mistake," said Miss Porter; "I have been putting down the names of the photographers. I put Bassano for that one, but I see how you play now."

"It's all right, Miss Porter," said William Pilbeam, "I think you'll be as near as any of us."

At a later dinner party given by June in her new home, we encounter the dreadful Lady Langley, whose "medley of impertinences and insults" shifts from one victim to another as each is rescued in turn:

Mrs. Hodge, released from the jaws of the inquisition, dragged her mangled form into a corner to be solaced by the familiar chatter of her friend Lady Papworth, who was a bird-like little woman in black and white with an interest in the mission-field.

Pakington also has some fun with his local place names too, most prominently the Abbot's Bottom (a dip in the landscape), which gets quite a lot of amusing play. But my personal favorite is the church of St. Alice-in-the-Skittle-Alley.

It’s all absolutely terrific good fun, without any redeeming social or moral value whatsoever, which is right up my alley. Despite his Y chromosome, I’ve ordered a couple more of Humphrey Pakington’s novels and will be judiciously using them as needed for some sprightly literary uplift.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

"A shattering present": KITTY BARNE, Mother at Large (1938)

[Here's another unpublished short review written late last year and now retrieved from my archives. Hope you enjoy it!]

"What a family! Uncle Robert's much the same as ever—he never was a great piece of work. I gather he is seldom there. One daughter is a rabbit, poor soul; nerves or glands or something of the kind. The other, Veronica, is attractive enough—she's captured John all right. She looks quite another kind of person. A gossipy old lady perched beside me for a moment and told me she had been abroad for three or four years; she said it in the sort of intense voice that hints as Pasts. But no one with that mother could have a past, or a future, or anything but a shattering present."

Two families—the charming, artistic, informal Symonds family and the stuffier, well-to-do, and rather more troubled Maxwell-Lindsays— neighbors who have just discovered a distant familial connection, come together with dramatic results when the two young Symonds twins are asked to sing at Mrs. Maxwell-Lindsay's party, after which 19-year-old John has an accident that requires him to stay at the Maxwell-Lindsay's house for several weeks (as so often tends to happen), where he therefore has ample time to fall naively but head-over-heels in love with Veronica, six years his senior, who "has a Past".

The type of middlebrow fiction I most love—humorous, domestic-themed, romantically inclined, a bit on the cozy side—is not calculated to give me a lot of gasp-out-loud plot developments. Often, I could quite confidently place bets about more or less how a novel's plot will end up (though I am sometimes pleasantly surprised by exactly how it gets there), and this doesn't subtract from my reading pleasure any more than knowing, when reading a mystery, that the murderer will ultimately be found out and justice will prevail takes away from the fun of the unravelling. Which made it all the more exciting when I came to page 198 of Mother at Large, Kitty Barne's debut novel, and absolutely gasped in shock and delight, loudly enough that Andy came from the other room to confirm I hadn't maimed myself.

I won't spoil anything about it, because should you be able to get your hands on this novel (or go to the British Library to read it), you should be able to gasp as well (do it quietly if you're at the BL, please), but although this was a slightly darker development than the climax of Doris Langley Moore's
A Game of Snakes and Ladders (and this novel overall isn't quite so masterly and brilliant as Moore's), I haven't had such a satisfying gasp/laugh moment since reading that book.

Here, we have a prime example of the monstrous mother theme that was so popular among women writers of this period (I can't help wondering if a powerful Ph.D. dissertation couldn't be written about the sources of this prevalent theme—the changing times, the evolving roles of women, generational rebellion, efforts to liberate oneself from previous norms, etc.). Or in this case I should really say "monstrous Madre", as that's what Mrs. Maxwell-Lindsay's shell-shocked, beaten-down offspring call her. As we meet the family here, "Madre" has convinced herself, thanks to a fortune-teller's premonition, that she will die before the end of June of the current year, and her plans for her impending decease make her even more of a nightmare than usual—driving Gwen nearly to a breakdown and threatening to reveal Veronica's secrets.

I've read and enjoyed several of Kitty Barne's books—she is perhaps best known for her excellent children's book She Shall Have Music and its sequel (for grownups) While the Music Lasted, the latter reprinted by Greyladies a few years back. Like her more famous in-law, Noel Streatfeild (who reportedly encouraged Barne to start writing), Barne is quite good at creating believable family dynamics and entertaining characters. Mother at Large perhaps settles sometimes a bit too much into melodrama for my taste—the hand-wringing over Veronica's scandalous past is certainly realistic for its time, but a little tedious to read about these days—and the structure seemed a little unsteady to me—we start out with the likeable Symonds family (with whom I might have preferred to stay for the entire novel), but they soon all but vanish from the novel while we focus on the Maxwell-Lindsays. None of that kept me from happily turning pages, however, and the resolution of the tale is rather intriguingly unexpected, leaving open at least the possibility that all the characters (even Madre) will end more happily than they began.
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