Monday, November 27, 2023

"You're just the very person": ANN STAFFORD & JANE OLIVER, Cuckoo in June (1935)

Cousin Dorothy clutched me by the arm and murmured: "Kit, dearest, why didn't I think of it before? You're just the very person ... "
I thought of Bazaars and Sales of Work and Committees and Church Charities and the devil and the deep sea. But Cousin Dorothy went straight on. "It's about Verity, darling. We're so worried. I simply must tell you from the very beginning ... "

And this is how Kit Findlay, who worries that she's a bit past it now that she's in her thirties (!!), gets pulled in to take her rather shallow, flirtatious young cousin Verity first halfway across Europe, and then, since Verity finds charming men everywhere she goes (even a tiny village in the Swiss Alps), back to her brother Benjamin's idyllic farm in Hampshire. As Kit puts it:

A good deal has been said and written about the trials and joys of dodging chaperones, but as far as I remember, very little about the arduous amusement of not letting oneself be dodged.

First they go to stay with charming Tante Hélène in Rouen, meeting handsome John Hobart on the train, who has the darnedest knack for popping up in unlikely places. When he pops up once too often, Kit, against the advice of Tante Hélène (who might see more than they give her credit for), rushes Verity off to the Alps, where Herr Albrecht, a climbing aficionado, takes a bit too much of an interest. So before long it's back to the farm with young, handsome brother Benjamin (what could go wrong?), only to find that John Hobart has established a riding club nearby. The comedy continues with riding lessons and tennis tournaments, Verity at the end of a few months is a rather different person, and Kit may find that she is too…

This is all great fun and good for chuckles at various points. In particular, the pair's train journey had me giggling quite a lot, particularly as I realized that I am indeed thoroughly English in my heritage—just as my genealogy would suggest—as I completely relate to Kit's contempt for people who hate fresh air. Here are a few memorable excerpts:

I saw at once that we weren't going to be lucky. One glance at the woman settling herself into the corner by the door made me sure we had one of the Window-Shutters: she hadn't those check clothes and double-chins for nothing.

The elderly body with the hatpins seemed to be asleep, for her head was rolling about as if someone had wrung her neck. But she managed to mumble thanks when Verity said she could put her feet on the opposite seat if she liked, while she was in the corridor. It was a relief to hear her speak after watching that wobbling head in the eerie light from the corridor and wondering whether people ever did die of a night in the train as well as feeling like it.

After a while I began to wonder where Verity was, and whether it would be a good plan to try and wash now before the corridor filled with refined people pretending they had come out to see the fields of France and less refined ones rattling the door of the Toilette at the end.

I read and very much enjoyed Stafford & Oliver's other three early collaborations—see here and here—last year, but when I acquired a copy of Cuckoo in June (at rather a hefty cost—let's not talk about that), I opted to save it on my TBR, reluctant to finish their fun authorial teamwork (both Stafford & Oliver went on to publish many more novels individually, and even went back to collaborating, under the pseudonym Joan Blair, on a number of romance novels, but these clearly have a very different tone from the four early works published under their own names). But having recently grown a bit fatigued with reading photographed books on my Kindle (some of the pics sadly demonstrating all too clearly that my hands have grown shakier as I get older), I plucked it off the shelf and settled in to enjoy. It's a perfectly charming read, and I wish Handheld Press (who reprinted the earlier Business as Usual) or some other publisher would bring the remaining three titles back into print.

This book, too, is remarkable because it "has the distinction of being the first modern novel published with hand-coloured plates; it has eight pictures in colour, and in addition there are numerous line-drawings." Ann Stafford's drawings are as delightful as ever here, and the ones with colour do add a certain dazzle.

Friday, November 17, 2023

"I've had a lot of bother with you myself": ELLA MONCKTON, August in Avilion (1940)

"Don't you remember she called me a fool when I married you?''
"You probably were then," Tim agreed. "I've had a lot of bother with you myself."

Seventeen years after disowning her niece, surly Aunt Amabel has a change of heart, seeing what a success Jane Gates has made of her marriage to Tim, a once starving artist who is now making a good living for Jane and their four children. Aunt Amabel's amends amount to leaving Jane her old family home, a sizeable but ramshackle and long-neglected house called Avilion, on the (apparently fictional?) Perra Cove in Cornwall, near the town of Camford. Practically as soon as she informs Jane of her legacy, Aunt Amabel conveniently keels over, and Jane, with characteristic determination, decides she'll overcome the obvious drawbacks and make a summer home there for her family (at least if she can rid herself of the Pollitts, the house's caretakers, "a couple of trolls" who feel the property doesn't properly belong to Jane).

As some of you will have already guessed, this sets us up for a fun family holiday story not unlike (if perhaps not as polished as) Ruby Ferguson's Apricot Sky, which as you know I particularly love. Tim remains stuck in London on a decorating gig for most of the novel, but in the meantime we come to know their children—Jeremy, Eleanor, Michael, and Jennifer—who have clearly been raised in laid-back artistic style, but who are mainly level-headed and responsible, if vividly imaginative. Arthur Royston, a friend of Jeremy's frequently neglected by his squabbling parents, soon arrives, along with Benjie, former nurse and now Jane's trusty right hand woman. Later, it becomes still more of a house party, as Hilda Morris, Jane's diva friend, grown bored with her own artist husband, arrives in a snit, along with Nils, a writer seeking inspiration in a nearby shack, and Jane's stodgy, judgmental brother Peter, loathed by the children for his philistine sportiness and intolerance. Then there's Robin Oakley, grandson of Aunt Amabel's solicitor, and infatuated with Jane from the moment he greets her at the train station. 

What follows is a perfectly charming, often funny, and very eventful holiday story, including a dramatic fire rescue, traumatic diving lessons, a possible haunting, thunderstorms, a backyard brawl over Hilda, and neighborhood scandals launched by the vicar's wife ("In a few plain words, Alfred, those people living at Avilion House are NUDISTS!"). Oh, and of course there's the children's games on the theme of Camelot, in which all the characters find themselves, knowingly or not, cast in prominent roles (Peter—unknowingly—as Mordred, of course). If it's sometimes a bit rough around the edges and unfocused, meandering from one event to the next with very little overarching plot, you know me well enough to know that's not a problem for me. In fact, I was enjoying it so much that I did that thing where you start rationing the remaining pages to make a book last longer. It still didn't last long enough. This one will definitely go on my list to re-read at some point when my world needs a bit of brightening.

The only scene I felt might startle modern readers was one in which all the children are reported to be smoking cigarettes as they plot their next move, to which Jane replies only "Little beasts! I hope they're sick." Naturally, the children are gloriously unsupervised most of the time as well, in keeping with the times and the conventions of children's fiction (but what fun would it be to read about well-supervised kids?!).

Ella Monckton seems to have published mostly children's fiction, often for very young children but also including the part-school girls' story Left Till Called For (1937), the most readily available of her books (and quite pleasant if not particularly remarkable—I read that one before setting my sights on August at the BL). August in Avilion seems to have been marketed more as an adult novel, and contains some slightly more adult concerns and focus on adult relationships, but I'd say it really falls, mood-wise, more into the realm of children's fiction, and indeed I've only just discovered that it appears to be a sort of sequel to one of Monckton's earlier children's titles, The Gates Family (1934), described as set in "the Bohemian household of an artist in Kensington." Food for thought for the next trip to the British Library!

I haven't thoroughly researched Monckton yet, but a web search revealed she was the wife of artist and illustrator Clifford Webb (who illustrated many of her books). They seem to have lived in Kensington themselves, so one wonders how much she is playing with real-life events in these books. One can only hope their real life was anywhere close to as cheerful as their fictional lives.

I seem to have a definite affinity for "adult" novels written by children's authors. Noel Streatfeild's Susan Scarlett novels, E. Nesbit's The Lark, not to mention Rumer Godden, Kitty Barne, Frances Hodgson Burnett's Making of a Marchioness, Richmal Crompton, Eleanor Farjeon's Miss Granby's Secret, and indeed even Ruby Ferguson, whose pony stories have a lingering fame—all authors best known for children's writing who have given me great fun in books they wrote for grownups. It's almost a subgenre of its own, which perhaps deserves more attention…

Monday, November 6, 2023

Highlights of the “lost” update (2 of 2)

Back with one more post to mention some of the most intriguing authors that I added to my main list last year, but didn’t get around to telling you about at the time. If you missed the previous post about this, see here, and for the complete list of the new authors added in this update, see here.

This post will be a little embarrassing, as well, because I actually have, in my hot little hands as it were, books by practically all of these authors, but of course I mostly haven’t got round to reading them yet. But looked at another way, this is great news for my reading over the next few months. Every cloud, etc.

For example, I have Take Cover! (1939), the second of three novels published by MARJORIE DEANS, who was also a screenwriter and translator. Take Cover! deals with the Munich Crisis and the reactions of various London residents, and proved too intriguing for me to resist. Her earlier novel, Not With Me (1937), deals with a doubting clergyman and his family, but I haven’t found details about her last, Men Don't Know (1946). Deans also published Meeting at the Sphinx (1946), a glitzy book about the filming of Caesar and Cleopatra with Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh. Among her screenwriting credits were several adaptations of George Bernard Shaw plays.

Also the author of three novels was
BETTY INSKIP. Her debut, The Ravelled Sleeve (1929), sounds like a cheerful romance and is waiting patiently on my TBR. Step to a Drum (1931) was described as "a picture of life through the eyes of an essentially modern girl", and Pink Faces (1939) was set in Austria before the rise of the Nazis. Tragically, Inskip died of complications from childbirth at the age of 39, right at the end of WWII.

was the name used for a single novel, Whistle Me Over the Water (1944), described by the Observer as "a romantic story of a love-crossed land-girl with a spy chase to finish. Dreamily readable—like a cathedral close tea-shop." Yep, couldn’t resist that either, but I haven’t read it yet. Her publisher's archive says the name is the pseudonym of a Mrs. Gammie, but she has not been further identified.

I succumbed to temptation with regard to the one book I could track down by DIANA ROLFE, author of five humorous novels about the high society hunting crowd. Good Huntin' (1939) is on my TBR and looks very promising. The others are Plain Sailin' (1940), Maiden Stakes (1947), Ministering Angels (1948), and Period Portrait (1949). More to come about her…

remains unidentified despite having published history and biography as well as at least two novels. The Passing Hours (1935), about the residents of a London suburb, including a girls' school, had to be added to my collection, while The Gods in Conflict (1949) deals with a young girl's stay with a German family in 1939. The Mystery of Mary Lafarge (1951), a retelling of a famous 1840 murder case, is sometimes referred to as a novel and sometimes as non-fiction. Among her historical works are A Distant Summer (1946), about Queen Victoria's state visit to Paris in 1855, The Prodigal Father (1951), about Alexandre Dumas both pere and fils, The Age of Worth (1954), about the couturier to the Empress Eugénie, Napoleon and Mademoiselle George (1958), and The Hundred Days (1964), about Napoleon's 1815 campaign. Her first publication was a children's title, Fanny Penquite (1932), described as an "exquisite", "vivid", "delightful" tale of a little girl's death and ascent to heaven. Color me a touch skeptical about that one…

I was quite intrigued by descriptions of G. M. T. (Grace Muriel Tempé) PARSONS’s two novels. The Dove Pursues (1933) is about the young daughter of a Norfolk rector who falls hopelessly in love with a tutor, while Laura (1978), which only appeared more than 40 years later but may have been written earlier, is again set in Norfolk around the turn of the century and follows a young girl's attempted rebellion against conventions. A Guardian review noted of the latter (which I have on my TBR list) that "under the quiet surface it is saying as much as The Nightflower or The Women's Room, or for that matter the effusions of Erica Jong, about the plight of women in a society that thinks that freedom is first of all the right of men, and that the other sex can only have the left-overs from that right." Indeed! Parsons was herself a schoolteacher in Surrey.

I’m not sure what to expect from EVE ORME, but the title and wartime setting of her debut, There's Something About a Soldier (1942), proved too much for me to resist. First Light (1943) is also set during WWII, and The Fruit of Action (1944) deals with an Englishwoman who marries a German just before World War I. She wrote nine novels in all, as well as a play and Magic Mountain (1945), an account of a trip through the Himalayas with her husband, an officer in India. She suffered from arthritis and wrote two books about her experiences, My Fight Against Osteo-Arthritis (1955) and Reflections of an Arthritic (1956).

Someone (I can’t remember who, but thank you in advance anyway) told me I’d enjoy Achachlacher (1936), by EMMA L. MENZIES, about life in a Scottish manse. The novel is in three parts and appears to have first been published in three short segments. The 1936 edition collecting all three segments contains the message: "Copies of the book may be had from Mrs. Menzies, High Manse, Tobermory, Isle of Mull." It was her only book.

As I’ve commented here recently, authors best known for children’s fiction often write the most interesting fiction for adults, which is why, without reading either, I have accumulated two novels by ROSEMARY HARRIS. She’s particularly famous for her historical children’s trilogy set in ancient Egypt—The Moon in the Cloud (1968), which won that year's Carnegie Medal, The Shadow on the Sun (1970), and The Bright and Morning Star (1972). But she also wrote eight novels for adults, including The Summer House (1956) and Venus with Sparrows (1961), the latter of which is about an aging beauty who starts a finishing school for girls and provides unconventional advice. A friend has also recommended that one. Harris had a varied life, studying art and design, working with the Red Cross in World War II, and subsequently working as a picture restorer, book reviewer, and reader for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Her father was Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, who achieved considerable prominence leading the RAF in World War II. 

I often have uneven results with historical fiction, but somehow the description of PAULA BATCHELOR’s Bed Majestical (1954, aka If This Be Virtue)—about a young girl trying to preserve her virtue at the court of an 18th century German Grand Duke—seemed enticing for me. Batchelor’s only other novel was Angel with Bright Hair (1957), which seems to be about the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. One review states that the first draft of her first novel was written at age 15, while another says that she wrote her novels because she found most historical fiction unsatisfactory. In 1956, she was reportedly married to a schoolmaster and had two small sons.

I also have mixed luck with novels from very early in my time frame, but on the other hand they’re often available for downloading online. MRS. HORACE TREMLETT wrote over a dozen novels, most apparently humorous in tone and some set in British-occupied Africa (also not a strong selling point for me). But Looking for Grace (1915) deals with a woman who receives news of her husband's death from his colleague, who assures her that his final words were about "Grace" (not, alas, her name). Said wife then sets out to locate said woman. Potential there? We’ll see. In addition to her novels, Tremlett also published a travel book, With the Tin Gods (1915), about Nigeria.

JOANNA FEVEREL’s only novel, Nothing Lasts (1933), features young love in a boarding-house. That’s the sum total of my knowledge of it, but something inspired me to request it at the British Library recently, so more to come about it soon I hope.

Nina Warner Hooke

Acquiring one book by an author and not reading it is one thing; acquiring a whole trilogy and still not reading it is at a different level. But alas, that’s what I’ve done so far with
NINA WARNER HOOKE, whose trilogy of humorous novels about young people in the 1930s—Striplings (1933), Close of Play (1936), and Own Wilderness (1938)—garnered comparisons to Wodehouse and was later turned into a successful play. I will get round to sampling them soon (yadda yadda yadda). Of her other titles, Home Is Where You Make It (1952) is a memoir about two Londoners creating the home of their dreams from a row of derelict hovels, while Darkness I Leave You (1956) was described as "a rip-roaring melodrama set appropriately in Victorian England", and Deadly Record (1958) appears to be a crime novel and was also adapted for the stage. In later years, she published several children's books—The Starveling (1958, aka White Christmas and The Snow Kitten), about "how a homeless kitten melts the sad cold heart of a spinster" (awwww), Pepito (1978, aka Little Dog Lost), A Donkey Called Paloma (1981), and The Moon on the Water (1982). The Seal Summer (1964) appears to be a memoir about her interactions with a friendly wild seal during one summer holiday.

I didn’t quite realize just how many of these authors I had books by until I started putting together this post, but at last we come to five authors whose work I haven’t yet acquired (but they do seem to have potential). KATHERINE & HELEN BEATTY were the authors of a single novel, Winter Wind (1946), described as "vivid pen pictures of life in rural Antrim." The authors were sisters, and a review of the book mentions that Katherine died before the book’s publication—perhaps Helen finished a book the two had begun, or possibly the publication was delayed due to World War II. At any rate, Helen doesn’t appear to have continued writing on her own.

ROSEMARY EDISFORD published a single novel (or possibly biography, depending which review you consult), A Picnic in the Shade (1958), about an eccentric family in a country home. A contemporary review says she was living at Kidmore End in South Oxfordshire, but I’ve not been able to locate any records for her, suggesting that the name is a pseudonym. If the family home she wrote about was in Kidmore End, it might well have been Kidmore House?

The daughter of mystery writer John G. Brandon (author of the British Library Crime Classics reprint A Scream in Soho) was GRANIA BRANDON, who published a highly-praised novel, Upon This Rock (1936), about a show business family in the early 20th century. It was on my long list for the British Library, but alas didn’t quite make the cut this time around. Brandon later turned her attentions to children's fiction with a series of tales about a family-run circus, beginning with Sengler's Circus. One final story for children was The Prews Go North (1956), "about a delightful family who go to live in a derelict farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors." Despite her father's prominence, official records of Grania are difficult to find, apart from the fact that she was living in London when her first book appeared and in Essex with her parents on the 1939 England & Wales Register.

In some ways, HONOR CROOME would belong on a Canadian version of my list, but since she didn’t emigrate until she was an adult, I’m adding her as a Brit. She was a journalist and economist as well as the author of five novels. Her first three novels were written while living in Canada during WWII. O Western Wind (1945), based on her family's own experiences of getting settled first in the U.S. and then Canada, was highly praised by Elizabeth Bowen. You've Gone Astray (1945) is about two friends in the 1930s up to the beginning of the war, while The Faithless Mirror (1946), set in wartime Ottawa, deals with difficulties between a brother and sister. The Mountain and the Molehill (1955), set in a Swiss girls' school, was based in part on Croome's own experiences. And The Forgotten Place (1957) deals with a woman coming to terms with her childhood by visiting her mother's country house, now divided into flats. Croome also published several highly-regarded introductory texts on economics, and for a time in the 1930s, she was political secretary to first female MP Nancy Astor.

And last but not least among intriguing additions to my list is WINIFRED AGAR, who published two novels—Living Aloud (1938), a biting, critically acclaimed satire of Bright Young Things, and Mermaids Sleep Alone (1940), which appeared after she had evacuated to the U.S. with her children. Agar was born in Buenos Aires to mixed Irish/American/British parents, married a Brit and lived most of her adult life in London.

Whew! So that’s that for my update from last year. I have actually done some work already on yet another update, and we’ll see how long that one takes me…

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