Saturday, January 27, 2024

"If she had not been careful": MONICA REDLICH, Cheap Return (1934)

If she had not been careful, she might soon have realised the unflattering truth that Antony had thrown her over for somebody else: however, she was careful, and as soon as the turmoil in her mind began to grow calmer, she settled down to think things out in her accustomed manner.

Jan Forrester's ability to "think things out" is the central focus of Cheap Return, the first novel (of four) by Monica Redlich, who was later the author of several travel-oriented books as well as two children's books I quite enjoyed. But for Jan, "thinking things out" means either romantically justifying whatever she has done or tragically bemoaning how cruel life has been to her.

It's the story of a young girl in London, having just finished at a women's college and taken a flat of her own, who has her first love affair—with, rather unfortunately for her, the young author of a scandalous novel (called Blithe Morass, no less), a twit who still lives with his mother but harbors predictably self-serving fantasies of free love and breaking with bourgeois morality. Jan is young and silly, rather self-absorbed and rather deluded in imagining herself to be special and a cut above her friends. In other words, I fear, a very ordinary girl, or indeed person—I found myself more than once recalling myself at her age, and felt uncomfortable recalling what an arrogant idiot I was too. See these two lines, for example:

A middle-aged couple opposite looked at her, or through her, from time to time, and Jan let them see the kind of books she read.

Looking round the table, Jan perceived that she was the best-looking person sitting at it.

I certainly did the former a few times, and if I didn't usually think about being handsome, I definitely thought—without any justifiable reason at all—that I was somehow more sophisticated and interesting than those around me. Sex has the weird distinction of being the thing that every generation thinks they're the first to discover, and the boundaries of sexual morality may very well only exist so that young people can feel naughty and special in overstepping them. It certainly has that effect on Jan.

So I read most of
Cheap Return thinking it a strikingly realistic (if not overly charming or entertaining) portrait of being young and stupid, and I still think it's surprisingly effective read that way. I was even praising Redlich to myself for being bold enough to look honestly and realistically at a heroine who has nothing special to recommend her (and a few strikes against her). But by the end (SPOILER ALERT, I should say, as if anyone will have a chance to read it for themselves unless they get to the British Library too!), when Jan has had a good spanking (metaphorically speaking), but has come through with all her self-justifying abilities and delusions intact, having apparently learned nothing, it occurred to me that the whole thing might have been intended as a satire—mocking Jan's silliness in a sort of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes type style. This is pretty strongly supported both by contemporary reviews and by a passage near the end when Jan, freshly dumped and trying to rebuild burnt bridges, decides—for appearances sake—to see a friend's priest for advice and reports on the meeting thus:

As Jan had expected, Father Pyx did not understand. … In other ways, too, he had been very short-sighted. He had counselled her against all sorts of faults which were the very ones she was most free from. Self-deception, for example.

No reader could have reached page 272 of Cheap Return and not laughed at that. But if the book as a whole was meant to be hilarious, it didn't work very well for me. Perhaps because Jan's delusions are too innocent and too common (ahem!) for me to want to mock her too harshly? I do wonder, though, what Redlich's father, the rector of Little Bowden in Leicestershire, thought of her young heroine's tawdry weekend in Brighton! Did he wonder how autobiographical it was?

One thing I did like in Redlich's portrayal of Jan, and that I found unusual for a novel published in 1934, and by a very young female author as well—is that she portrays Jan as apparently quite enjoying the sexual aspect of her relationship with Antony. Not explicitly expressed, of course, but clear enough, and it's refreshing that Redlich didn't feel obligated to make Jan's shameful dallying all bleak and depressing. It sounds as though they had rather a lot of fun, and as she doesn't end up pregnant either (the other plot twist one might have expected), I'd be inclined to say she should be thankful and chalk it all up to experience!

There are two descriptive passages in Cheap Return that I just have to salvage from the sands of time and share with you. Irresistible little glimpses of a lost world. First, a slice of life in the old reading room of the British Museum:

The Museum Reading Room, as usual, was full of strange sights. At each spoke of the great wheel of desks, among all the ordinary, diligent people, sat two or three freaks of such magnitude that even a Fleurallan student could not fail to notice them. An Indian sat in turbanned dignity, reading Elinor Glyn. A very, very fat woman was writing letters with a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica open in front of her. The man who was doing a dictionary was playing snap with his little white cards. Another man, much bearded, had six small flags of various colours pinned on to a card, and was also amusing himself. The free-love couple, bronzed and open-necked, were consulting an A.B.C. Everywhere, impassive, rubber-soled, and slightly vacant, moved the officials with stacks of books. The air was a delicate grey, the dome dim and high: and in the middle of the wheel, the pages of the catalogues flapped and cracked and rustled ceaselessly, as if a gardener were brushing up dead leaves.

And then, the now almost unfathomable luxury of a first class train journey in the 1930s (Mr. and Mrs. Albert Spender are the couple's aliases):

The porter stowed away their bags, and ushered them into a magnificent Pullman. Jan remembered that Antony had said they would do the thing in style, and tried hard to look as though she took her surroundings for granted. They had an armchair each, with a table between them, and the attendant brought her a special footstool. She turned on the little table-lamp to see if it worked: which it did. There was an oldish woman level with her, with much bosom and many pearls upon it. In another seat was an old gentleman with very yellow boots, reading Country Life. There was an important-looking business man, condescending to a much less important-looking one, in the fourth corner; and that, with Mr. and Mrs. Albert Spender, was the lot. Jan felt for Antony's hand under the table. It seemed a long time before the train started. She took a few furtive glances at the hidden lights, and the wall decorations in inlaid wood that made the Pullman so beautiful: then she looked out of the window at the surging, third-class mob on the platform, making little grimaces to show Antony that she realised how dreadful they were.

I see now that I had similarly ambivalent but intrigued feelings about Redlich's third novel, No Love Lost, back in 2019 (see here). I have her second novel, Consenting Party, also published in 1934, on my Kindle from our British Library orgy last year, so I'll be curious to see if I find it peculiar and interesting and not entirely satisfying as well. Or if you prefer Redlich's lighter fair, I wrote about her second children's book, Five Farthings, here—it was on a brainstorming list I did of possibilities for a batch of Furrowed Middlebrow children's titles, and I wish someone would reprint it and Jam Tomorrow as well.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

"Humiliatingly Victorian": AGNES ROSEMARY COOPER & MARY WELLER (as RAMSAY BELL), The Lake of Ghosts (1940)

On just such a night, thought Elizabeth, had the barge been sunk ... it was ridiculous to think like that, just because Signor Baldini had told the story with such evident enjoyment ... probably he had merely been savouring the opportunity of showing off his excellent English. … The woods on the right of the path were like a solid wall of blackness, felt rather than perceived. She wished tall Professor Cobb, instead of poor little Mr. Blacker, were between her and that eerie darkness ... anything might be happening in there ... it was a perfect setting for a murder, or the re-enacting of some ancient scene of violence. …

Here's another book that I flagged years ago and have only just got round to, from my last batch of British Library titles. At the time, I only knew that it was about a woman archaeologist encountering intrigue and danger at a dig in the Apennines. I like mysterious doings, I like archaeology, and I like a strong, career-minded heroine, so what was not to like? 

Let me tell you.

Agnes Rosemary Cooper and Mary Weller published four novels in as many years under the joint pseudonym Ramsay Bell. I've recently researched them a bit more. Dragon Under Ground (1937) is about a young woman who witnesses a crime and enlists two young men to save her from the baddies (a critic called the plot weak but noted there was no lack of excitement). To Joanna (1938) features another young woman mixed up with jewel thieves and murder, and Dangerous Promise (1939) features the surprising adventures of a young woman trying to pick up her fiancĂ©’s passport from his flat, oblivious to the shady business with which he’s involved. Any one of those might have piqued my interest if I'd come across them first. But it was, for better or worse, The Lake of Ghosts which first caught my eye.

I did finish this novel, which is not something I always do these days if I'm not engrossed. I did consider abandoning ship a couple of times, though. Lake is reasonably well-plotted, at least in the beginning, so an element of intrigue kept me going, as well as the idea of a first century Roman pleasure boat, ordered sunk mid-orgy with all parties (or partiers, as it were) on board, by no lesser figure than Caligula (probably jealous of others having fun without him), having been rediscovered in an isolated Italian lake and in the process of being excavated. Young Elizabeth Lane has been sent to the scene as the English expert, to analyze and record the finds, and arrives to find a rather surly group of Italian workmen, bossed by a rugged Scotsman, Fergus McKinnon. Her fellow camp residents include an Italian archaeologist/playboy, Marco Dulciti, American scholar Professor Cobb, an engineer, Herbert Blacker, and his aging would-be sex kitten wife Polly, and their magnificently spoiled daughter Tam. Nearby, there's the wealthy owner of the land, one Signor Baldini, his practical middle-aged cousin Miss Fitzgerald, and a beautiful young niece Consuelo. Elizabeth also finds a growing tension in the camp—the workers have become restless and discontented. (It's so hard to get good help nowadays.)

Things escalate quickly. There are attempts on Fergus's life (about 50, it seemed, though perhaps it was not quite so many), a near rape of Elizabeth, and the murder of the would-be rapist, a workman who had been recently fired from the dig. These events initially helped keep things moving, but ultimately became rather repetitive, and the authors seemed to believe that suspense and intrigue are enhanced by constant agonizing and hand-wringing among their cast of characters (crisis, agonizing, recovery, crisis, agonizing, recovery, and so on). Oh, and there's the discovery of a temple to Diana in the woods nearby, and Elizabeth swears she has seen sacred rites going on by the overgrown altar.

And here we have the crux of my problem with the novel. Elizabeth. We are assured (repeatedly, ad nauseum even) how professional and independent she is. Why, we are told, she had spent months on previous digs without ever so much as recalling for a single instant that she's a woman, so little do men and romance matter to her. And she will have none of your superstitious nonsense, thank you very much, as she is utterly rational and practical and no nonsense. And unemotional! Gracious, how we are reassured that she is not one to let her emotions control her.

Well, the quote above, in which she's already giving herself the creeps imagining violence and rituals when nothing has even happened yet, comes from about 30 pages into the novel, so you can only imagine how it plays out from there. And the moment she lays eyes on brawny, red-headed Fergus, whatever sort of independent career woman she may have been before, she's just a tedious heap of quivering jelly now (though for a long time she irritatingly refuses to admit it to herself):

It was the blow she had received, she decided, which had made her think and act so strangely. By morning she would be her old detached, unruffled self again.

A bit later, she reassures herself again:

She seemed to be making a deplorable habit of thinking through her emotions—one normally quite foreign to her.

Sure thing, sister.

The weird disconnect between how Elizabeth sees herself and how she really is actually reminded me of the governess in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. But alas, "Ramsay Bell" lacks James' subtlety and complexity. Here, Elizabeth just ends up seeming like a deluded doormat that one would like to shake if one felt it was worth it. One scene in particular made me nearly wonder about her sanity. When she is nearly raped by a former workman seeking revenge on Fergus, her determination to see herself as unphased by anything becomes darn near pathological:

Even as she fought against the wave of faintness which was the result of intense relief, she was conscious of an obscure anger against herself for reacting to the situation in a manner so completely and humiliatingly Victorian.

I'm pretty sure even the toughest, most practical woman is allowed to feel shaken by an attempted rape, and the fact that Elizabeth doesn't seem to give herself that permission comes to seem utterly bizarre. At any rate, let's say I found it difficult to be invested in her as a heroine.

The solution to all the intrigue at the site is rather anticlimactic too. I had a whole ending of my own worked out, involving a person or persons desperate to prevent something else from being discovered in the lake if the boat is excavated (bodies in cement, perhaps? an ill-gotten treasure trove?), and therefore trying to force the abandonment of the site. However immodest it might seem, I have to say that my ending was far better than Ramsay Bell's, which involves superstitious terror:

He has allowed his emotions to become involved until he is now convinced that when Lupus's barge is raised, the evil which once flourished upon it will be let loose again, and will sweep over and utterly destroy the good people for whom he believes himself responsible.

Said evil, of course, being people <whispers> having sex? There’s certainly something humiliatingly Victorian going on here.

Monday, January 8, 2024

PAULINE WARWICK, Diana's Daughter (1931) (aka The Girdle of Venus)

Lately I seem to have been, even more than before, in pursuit of light, funny frolics, and one thing that I've learned is that the perfect balance struck by D. E. Stevenson's Miss Buncle's Book, Ruby Ferguson's Apricot Sky, or Noel Streatfeild's Susan Scarlett novels (especially the early ones) is a lot harder to achieve than it might as first appear. I recently wrote about how seductive Betty Trask/Ann Delamain sounded from reviews and blurbs, and how neither of her books that I sampled quite managed to strike that balance. Pauline Warwick sounds similarly irresistible in contemporary publicity, and produced similarly ambivalent results for me.

Diana's Daughter (which sounds enormously more charming under its British title, The Girdle of Venus) is an entertainingly sprightly romance about a young woman who is forced to leave Oxford due to her mother's finances, and who is determined to avoid the silliness and irresponsibility that romantic love drives other women to, instead focusing on getting back to Oxford to finish her degree and have a productive single life making the world a better place. Well, we know how she would likely fare at that in any romantic novel anyway, but here her chances are rendered nil by the fact that she's wearing the aforesaid girdle of Venus, an ancient gold artifact retrieved (i.e. plundered?) from an archaeological dig and reputed to have mystical powers to make everyone and their dog and several cousins fall in love with its wearer (in this case, Patience).

Patience spends much of the novel trying to dodge advances from every man she meets, and she is generally an enjoyable character to follow about, though she becomes impossibly prudish and irritating about a wealthy cousin's attempted infidelity from her husband. (I'm afraid I'm inclined to feel that if a man is silly enough to marry a flibbertigibbet, then a) he deserves what he gets, and b) it's profoundly misguided to fling oneself into the fray desperately trying to prevent his trampy wife from leaving him—far better to facilitate her exit and hope he has better luck next time!) The tale is good-humored enough, particularly early on when Patience is being admirably and amusingly independent-minded. There are a few chuckles here and there before things get a bit melodramatic, and the novel offers a bit of armchair travel as Patience is hired as an archaeologist's secretary and travels with him to Constantinpole (the book must be set minutes before the name changed to Istanbul). But overall I'm afraid I found it much more lackluster than my description here probably makes it sound. Warwick's characters are not so entertainingly eccentric, nor so well-developed, as those of Dorothy Lambert at her best, and the plot's not as rollickingly entertaining as a Molly Clavering, nor did I care as much about the characters as in one of Streatfeild's Susan Scarlett romances. 

That said, I can imagine giving Warwick another try, and another novel of hers, Background to Primula (1932), is available from Hathi Trust, so perhaps my feelings will change.

Oddly enough, Warwick and Trask have more in common than their inclusion in my "Pleasant Enough if You're Snowbound in a Remote Hotel with No Books (and No Imminent Murders to Solve)" category. Like Trask, Warwick apparently had a prize named after her for best romantic fiction. The prize was being awarded in the 1960s at least, though apparently no longer—and not to be confused with the more recent Warwick Prize given by Warwick University. One begins to wonder: Just how many literary prizes named after forgotten authors might there be?

I couldn't find a cover image of Diana's
, but how charming does this one look?
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