Thursday, October 26, 2023

"Anything is possible": NOREEN BOND, Hide Away (1936) & Take Care (1938)

"You know, that's a coincidence that no one would dare to use in a novel," Martin interrupted musingly.
"Nonsense," Miles retorted. "In the kind of novels I write, anything is possible. I shall use the situation in my next."

When I completed the last update of my main author list, I still hadn't come across any details about the two novels written by one Nancy Helen Beckh under the pseudonym Noreen Bond. But something finally led me to dig a little deeper, and I came across short reviews of both which might have been calculated to pique my interest. Of Hide Away, the Aberdeen Press & Journal wrote: 

Here is an unusual story—unusual not for its plot but for its heroine, a tomboy girl of eighteen, in an age of sophisticated young ladies of that age. On Susan's tomboy activities depends the solving of the mystery of "Hydeways," the house next door, and the unravelling of the various causes which have kept Colin Spencer tied to an invalid chair when he might have been living a normal useful life. Through all the mystery runs their delightful love story. The characters are unusual in a crime story, but bear the stamp of verisimilitude.

We shall come back in a moment to what on earth the reviewer could have been thinking using the term "verisimilitude" for anything at all in this novel (Bond/Beckh clearly identified with her author character, Miles, in the quotation above), but for now we proceed to the Nottingham Journal's review of Take Care

Her heroine, Gillian Trevor, almost down and out, with two and ninepence in her pocket in a London boarding house, suddenly has mystery thrown in her path by a fellow boarder who reveals himself as a detective engaged on a jewel robbery case. Gillian enters into the scheme with her eyes open. She takes a job as caretaker [take care, get it?] in a lonely country house. Here she meets a cosy old lady, a taciturn young man, Peregrine, the ginger cat and some surprising adventures.

"Surprising" is quite the understatement, but at least this reviewer doesn't suggest there's anything realistic about it. These snippets were, at any rate, enough to make me seek out both books on our recent visit to the British Library, on the calculation that they might be irresistibly silly, energetic jaunts, and although I can't begin to claim that either turned out to be a treasure—or even irresistible—I have to say they were both pleasant enough to read. Not very far off from Mabel Esther Allan's girls' adventure stories. 

Hide Away
features a daft criminal conspiracy worthy of Agatha Christie at her most paranoid, though the heroine—perky enough to have been drawn straight from a Chalet School story—is fun to spend some time with, even if she often seems more like twelve than eighteen. Take Care features the more mature Gillian, who is plucky and brave and independent enough to rise (at least slightly) above the bonkers plot, involving a lost will, stolen jewels, and heaven knows what else.

Both books make every possible use of the most unfathomable coincidences, so that even a reader predisposed to generously suspend disbelief will surely be rolling her eyes. The Chalet School's flood and fire rescues have nothing on these tales! One half expects a villain to be taken out by a well-aimed meteorite. I can't sum up the plots without spoiling a dozen or so coincidental developments, so I'll just say that, daft as they are, a certain charm and skillful plotting kept me reading through both of them. I have a tendency to toss books aside if I become even slightly bored (soooooo many books, so little time), so that will have to stand as the best praise I can offer.

But I do have to single out one thing from the latter novel. The opening pages of Take Care, in a rather startling bit of—yes, shock of shocks—realism, contains one of the best portrayals I've seen in middlebrow fiction of poverty and hunger. Gillian has left a teaching post after an unpleasant scene and come to London to find work, but it's the Depression and work is scarce, she falls in between the types of workers being sought, and she is down to her last pence, running out of money for rent despite having been on a starvation budget for several days. She walks to delay her pathetic evening meal as long as possible, and to pass the time without the entertainment she can't afford:

When she reached Piccadilly everything looked blurred and grey. Waves of faintness swept over her but she stared hard into a tobacconist's window till the gay packets resumed their proper shape and colour. It would be too awful if she fainted here. Quite obviously it was time she had something to eat, but the thought of the long hours ahead before she could reasonably go to bed made her struggle on. 

If she walked very slowly up Regent Street and made herself look in every window it ought to take nearly an hour. She'd go up the left-hand side because the curve of the street made it longer and there weren't so many places where food was displayed.

One can't help but think that Bond/Beckh must have witnessed or personally experienced some impoverished days herself in order to so effectively capture the feeling. From this point on, there's no glimmer of realism to be found in the book, but the opening pages were really striking and even moving, and make me wish that Bond, who was in her mid-30s when she published these novels (from the tone I had imagined her a precocious author just out of school), had kept on writing, and focused a bit more on the things she knew first-hand, rather than on ludicrous adventures. There was certainly potential there, and who knows where she might have got to?


  1. How interesting to have such a realistic passage and then into the world of coincidence! Did anyone get stranded on a rock by the incoming tide? That always seemed to happen in every Chalet School book I read!

  2. They both sound fun! And I am jealous - when I visited the British Library a year ago, they were having computer issues and I couldn't request any obscure books to read. Have you read Mabel Esther Allen's memoir? It is very charming, especially as to her love of New York and her confession about also being a book collector.


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