Friday, September 15, 2017

My share of disappointments

With the Big Book Sale looming next week, I thought I'd make my last post before the sale a sort of cautionary tale, in an effort to reign in my wilder impulses and avoid replacing our sofa with piles of books.

As I've mentioned here before, the flipside of some of the fascinating, joyfully obscure discoveries I've made in my pursuit of obscure authors is the occasional disappointment of books and authors that don’t live up to their potential. All that glitters is indeed not gold.

For a long time, I didn't really discuss the books I'd read but didn't love, figuring that since I'm generally blowing layers of dust off of these books to begin with, or noting from library cards that the books haven't been checked out since 1948, I might just as well keep quiet and simply let the dust gather on the books again, rather than pointing out their weaknesses. But lately, especially since I've often shared snippets of promising reviews or blurbs, and since I know that some readers of this blog enjoy making their own voyages into the obscure in search of buried treasure, and since no one else is likely to write about these books any time soon, I thought I might just as well allow my disappointments a post of their own every now and then.

I'd still ask you to bear in mind that other readers might feel very differently about these books (I always think about my dislike of Rebecca and everyone else's love for it whenever I start imagining that everyone will agree with my take on a book). But with that in mind, here goes…


SYBIL CAMPBELL LETHBRIDGE, Misfits (1920)


I had been on the lookout for books by this hard-to-find author ever since coming across very promising reviews of her later novels Gnats and Camels (1924) and The Wild Feather (1933). They sounded charming and fun, and so when this book recently appeared at a reasonable price on Abe Books, I jumped on it. Sadly, though, this tale of a young woman who puts off all her suitors due to the influence of a possessive cousin who wants to keep her for her own companion proved to be surprisingly lifeless and heavy-handed. Lots of pop psychology about the poor middle-aged spinster cousin quickly started to wear on my patience, and what seemed sure to be a sparkling romantic comedy soon became too dull to continue with. I read only a bit over 50 pages before moving on to greener pastures.


MARY GRIGS, Bid Her Awake (1930)


An even more promising review of this one proved irresistible to me:

There is dignity here [said the Bookman], and beauty as well. It is the story of a conflict between two sisters, the imperious Alix and the shy suddenly transfigured Susan, and the latter's brief excursion into love. It is an air for muted strings that Miss Grigs gives us, with little dancing notes of gaiety in it, and a sombre theme. So quietly is it done that the insensitive reader may fail to perceive the artistry with which it is composed; though he cannot fail to be charmed by the effect so subtly created.

Library slip for the copy of Bid Her Awake I managed to get
hold of--fresh from Alcorn A&M University in Mississippi,
and apparently not checked out since 1947?

What could be more my style than a quiet little novel about the tensions between two sisters? And it certainly had more of interest about it than Misfits did. The portrayals of Alix and Susan have some subtlety, and Grigs is clearly aware of the ways in which family relationships can limit or stifle one's identity. Susan's feelings while spending a rare weekend away from Alix are believable:

This sudden removal from Alix and all the associations of her life had the effect of making her feel a different person; quick to influences and moods that before had passed her by, and ready with a confident delight to play whatever role might be cast for her in this amusing play.

Predictably, Alix—long accustomed to be the protector and supporter of the awkward, inept Susan—is threatened by Susan's surprise love affair. And sadly, neither sister ever really came alive for me, and I made a rare decision to scrap the book two-thirds of the way through (usually if I've made it that far, I have an "in for a penny, in for a pound" attitude, but this time I put the book aside "temporarily" for something more enjoyable and simply never picked it up again).


ANNA GORDON KEOWN, Mr Thompson in the Attic (1933)


This one I abandoned much earlier in my reading—as with Misfits, I only made it about 50 pages in with Mr Thompson. Who would imagine that a grown-up school story with my namesake as a main character would be so unenjoyable? I reviewed Keown's earlier novel The Cat Who Saw God (1932) soon after I started blogging (see here), and although I enjoyed it more or less I expressed some reservations about Keown's poetic style (she was a poet before she turned to fiction), which sometimes dragged the story to a halt. Perhaps I've only become older and crankier since then, because here the ornate prose and insistent philosophizing made me give up after only a bit of effort, and I've sadly concluded that I need not pursue Keown's other two even-harder-to-find novels. Those who like more poetic and ponderous prose, however, rather oddly mixed with what seems like it should be (but never quite becomes) a cheerful, humorous plot, might enjoy her work.


MARJORIE MACK, Velveteen Jacket (1941)

It's a rare and sad occasion when one of my absolute favorite discoveries of the year and one of my least favorite attempted reads of the year are by the same author, but that's the case with Velveteen Jacket, the only other adult novel by the author of the wonderful, lovely The Red Centaur, which I reviewed here. Mack later published several books for children under her married name, Marjorie Dixon.

Both Red Centaur and Velveteen Jacket are focused mainly on children and childhood, but while Red Centaur makes elegant and subtle use of a young girl's perceptions and misunderstandings of adult carryings-on during two summers spent in Brittany, and presents them in completely believable, unsentimental prose, Velveteen Jacket is so weighed down with sentimentality and so unrealistic in its portrayal of a young boy that I couldn't wade through more than the first two or three chapters.

My theory is that in Red Centaur Mack was relying on her own experiences—if not of time spent in Brittany, at least her experiences of being a little girl observing the adults around her—while in Velveteen Jacket she relied on all sorts of sentimental stereotypes of boyhood that had, for me at least, not the faintest ring of truth. Add to this that the entire premise of the story is that an elderly man, the devoted gamekeeper of a noble, idealized, apparently absolutely perfect country squire, is remembering the growth of their boyhood friendship while waiting beside the squire's deathbed, and the schlock and silliness is running rampant.

But do try to read Red Centaur if you can! It's a shoe-in for my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen this year.


MARJORIE STRACHEY, The Counterfeits (1927)

I feel a bit bad for including this one on my list of disappointments, since my inspiration for finally tracking it down was that bookseller Jon S. Richardson was kind enough to email me out of the blue with his recent catalogue, which included the first picture I've seen of the book's original cover. It was a striking image indeed, and though the book's price tag was well out of my range ($465, indeed!), the image undoubtedly helped Jon sell the book immediately—several times over, in fact, as he later reported.


On the other hand, since Jon has sold the book with no difficulty, I suppose I don't need to feel too bad for being lukewarm on the book itself. Jon's description was terribly enticing: "a satire of Bloomsbury and Virginia's friends by Lytton's sister, even VW recognized herself as Volumnia Fox, novelist of Bloomsbury, plus all the Slade school friends, etc. etc." And indeed, the Bloomsbury scenes were quite entertaining. The trouble, however, was the alternating flashbacks to the main character's wartime experiences and ill-fated romance, which felt rather overwrought and romance novel-ish to me. But if you're an aficionado of all things Woolf (even somewhat judgmental portrayals of her and her pals), then dust off your library card or start saving money for the next time Jon has a copy available!

And even if you're not a die-hard aficionado, you may want to email Jon at yorkharborbooks@aol.com to get on the mailing list. He and his wife Peggy specialize in Bloomsbury-related items, and his catalogues are worth seeking out even if one can only fantasize about owning the delightful books he comes across!


HILDA HEWETT, Farewell Solitude (1942)

And last but not least (though it's a close race), this one wasn't quite as bad as Velveteen Jacket, but it was enough to demonstrate for me that Hewett was a wildly uneven author. Her later novel So Early One Morning (1948) is another of my favorite discoveries of the year, which I raved about here, and the even later A Week at the Seaside (1955) was a weaker but still enjoyable little holiday novel, which I discussed here. I've also just finished Kaleidoscope (1947), which was really delightful, and which I know Shirley at Greyladies books enjoyed (see our correspondence about Hewett in the most recent issue of The Scribbler).

Ah yes, this jogs my memory a bit...
for better or worse

But, wow, her debut novel is a different ball of wax. Sadly, I read it a while back and was feeling lazy about making notes (and no doubt rather uninspired by any redeeming qualities in the novel), but I remember an irritating artist and lots of romance novel angst, not nearly compensated for by the occasional appearance of realistic, entertaining child characters that show glimmers of Hewett's future strengths.

I still have one Hewett novel that I haven't yet read, her fifth, called Never Come Back (1944). I know a reader commented recently that she'd read Hewett's sixth, Dancing Starlight (1945), and enjoyed it very much, so here's hoping that Hewett had already realized her best strengths the year before.



And that's that. Me at my most negative and disgruntled. But have no fear, I'll undoubtedly be back to unrestrained adoration in the near future...

Friday, September 8, 2017

The pitter-patter of half a million books

Note: To those of you who noticed an anomalous 4-year-old post in your blog feed yesterday, sorry for the confusion. I was adding tags to all the whole book sale posts so I could have a handy link to them all below, and voila! Somehow the 2013 date on one of them got changed so that it appeared as a brand new post. No idea what happened, and I couldn't do it again if I tried. Oops!

There's been a long, terrible drought in the realm of book sale posts on this blog, but at long last the clouds are a-gatherin'!

Sadly, the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library announced at last year's autumn Big Book Sale that they were discontinuing the spring book sales they had held for several years. (Perhaps they were just too depressed after the election last year to get themselves together for a spring sale?) It's been a hard, dreary road to this year's sale, but we are finally nearly there. The member preview is coming up in less than two weeks, on September 19th, and the public days are September 20-24. Although the preview is exciting and fun, I can also note that volunteers continue putting out boxes and boxes of additional books even on the later days of the sale, so it's definitely still worth visiting even if you can't make the preview (or don't feel you can afford a membership).


If you happen to be in the Bay Area, you should really make it a priority. I've posted about my experiences at the sales for several years now—see here to take a stroll down memory lane—and it's always a thrilling, albeit slightly crazy, adventure. I've heard that people actually travel from miles—and even states—around to visit this sale, and with good reason!

Full details about the sale are available here. And there's a fascinating video I'd never seen before, showing the massive setup for the sale, here.



Of course, if you live in the U.K. or Australia or South Africa and have foolishly determined to be practical and not spend thousands of dollars in order to find some wonderful book bargains (there's no accounting for people's priorities…), then fear not, I'll be happy to share my own experiences here soon. In fact, I might just get a bit of a first-hand glimpse of this year's setup. Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

IDA GANDY, Staying with the Aunts (1963)


This one was a library book sale acquisition a year or two back, and it has the unique (for this blog) characteristic of being readily available in inexpensive second-hand copies, having been reprinted, along with at least two more of Gandy's books, by Sutton Publishing in 1989.

I think I picked up this book because it reminded me of Gwen Raverat's marvelous Period Piece, which I wrote about here. And while I can't say that Gandy's book is as good as Raverat's (which let's face it is in a class by itself), it is nevertheless quite entertaining and provides similarly revealing glimpses of Victorian life.



Gandy's memoir is focused on recalling the times she and her siblings spent visiting her five spinster aunts near the New Forest. There are a number of humorous moments, but Gandy really isn't trying to be as hilarious as Raverat. Indeed, some of what Gandy the adult is able to understand about what she witnessed as a child is quite poignant. For example, there is Aunt Margaret, the artistic sister, who frequently retires to her room to work on her masterpiece. Over time, it becomes clear that this painting will never be completed:

On the days when inspiration failed she might be seen wandering about the rose-garden in a floppy hat with a deep black veil fluttering down behind, while she snipped off dead roses and looked unusually bent and forlorn. What would have happened had she ever truly finished 'The Wings of the Morning' it is impossible to guess. But the sad truth must be told. What started, I think, as a genuine inspiration, with a certain ethereal quality in the upward-sweeping clouds, became at last a heavy, lifeless picture that could never be finished because the initial impetus had run out long ago. And so it was with Aunt Margaret herself.

Elsewhere Gandy has noted Aunt Margaret's surreptitious gluttony at the tea table, all the while maintaining that she has little appetite. But now we get a glimpse of the frustration for which she is compensating:

Twice in talking of Aunt Margaret I have used the words 'if only'—if only this, if only that. But the biggest 'if only' may perhaps have been her rejection—or her parents' rejection—of her single proposal of marriage. When she was still young an expert arrived to clean the Gainsborough. Encouraged by her interest in his work and by her artistic talent he asked her to marry him. What her personal feeling for him may have been is unknown, but at all events she acquiesced in the decision that a girl in her position could not ally herself with a picture-cleaner.

Had she accepted his proposal the horrid metamorphosis that overtook her might have been averted. As it was, malice and a natural tendency to greed increased. Each week, in the solitude of her bedroom, she devoured a pound of clotted cream sent from Cornwall. Dante, Milton, Ruskin, stood untouched on her shelves. Venus rose unnoticed behind the tulip tree. 'The Wings of the Morning' grew dusty on its easel. Yet still she tried to keep alive an illusion that she moved in an ethereal world that few could enter.


Most of the chapters of the book focus on Gandy's personal recollections of her aunts, and they are interesting and charming. But the final chapter tells of what she learned after inheriting a large number of letters from the sisters' home after the last aunt's death. The letters provide her with some of the missing pieces in her aunts' lives, and this passage, about the stern Aunt Selina, is for me the most poignant of all:

We had often puzzled over why she buried herself so much in her little den, why we heard her laugh so rarely, why she always seemed to be wrestling with God when she prayed. These early letters provided an unhappy clue. For in them I found a saddening picture of a small helpless child washed and beaten by the fierce wave of evangelism that had engulfed her mother and her aunts at this time.

Her mother, just recovered from severe illness, describes herself as 'a brand snatched from the burning', begs her sister to pray that she has not been chastised in vain … .

She was at this time a happy, busy young woman of twenty-eight. Not content with her own conversion she turns her anxious attention on 'little Lin', barely four years old, and talks to her of the 'heinousness of sin'. In this she is backed up by her eldest sister-in-law, then staying at Baverstock. This aunt records in her confession-book her joy at seeing 'the dear child so softened by grace for the sin of disobedience that she was overcome by tears that checked her utterance of "Forgive me, Lord, for Thy dear Son, The ills that I this day have done" ... May she be an example to her dear little sisters, and, cherished by the dews of the Spirit, become a Tree of Righteousness.'

This pious hope reminded me of how I used to liken my Aunt to a closely-clipped evergreen that bore no flowers.

Selina's mother couldn't have become more of a walking, talking Victorian stereotype if she had tried!

Staying with the Aunts is a quick and enjoyable read, and if you have an interest in Victorian family life and in the way children understand and misunderstand the generations that go before them, you may well want to check it out. Gandy's other books include a memoir of her own childhood, A Wiltshire Childhood (1929), Round About the Little Steeple: The Story of a Downland Village and Its Parson in the Seventeenth Century (1960), and The Heart of a Village: An Intimate History of Aldbourne (1975), all of which were also reprinted by Sutton. When the memoir or history urge next hits me, I may have to check out some of those. Gandy also published a couple of earlier children's books, which was enough to qualify her for inclusion on my list. 

One little tidbit that I enjoyed in reading this book. Gandy's father was the vicar of Bishop's Cannings, and somewhere along the way he finds himself preaching part of the time in Salisbury Cathedral. I don't pretend to know the ins and outs of church structure or responsibility, or exactly why he would have temporarily been giving services in Salisbury, but regardless, it gives Gandy a vague connection to Edith Olivier, who lived in Salisbury with her canon father. Gandy doesn't specify the dates, so it's hard to know if they would have known one another or even known of one another, but loving Salisbury Cathedral as I do, it's always fun to read about people getting to hang out there.

I should also mention that the illustrations, by Lynton Lamb, are quite charming and sometimes very amusing. I particularly liked this portrayal of one of the children viewing Aunt Margaret's masterpiece—look closely at the expression on her face.


I also like this one of the aunts tucking up their dresses on a walk to keep them from getting mud-spattered.


And finally, just one more quotation that shows the changing mores between Gandy's elderly aunts and her own generation:

Sunday at home was one thing; at Eling quite another. To begin with, apart from a ban on tennis and croquet, we could play such games and read such books as we pleased in our Wiltshire vicarage. But there was quite a storm when we took Ludo from the Blue Room cupboard and were caught in the very act of throwing the dice. At home we read what we pleased, but the Aunts only allowed stories with a high moral purpose. The Fairchild Family was a particular favourite of theirs and this posed us with an awkward problem. For my mother always treated it as a humorous work and read it aloud with the sole object of extracting as much amusement as possible from its more ludicrous passages. But the Aunts took it in perfect seriousness.

Has anyone read The Fairchild Family? I recall attempting it at one point, having come across another mention of it somewhere, and very quickly throwing in the towel…

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Missing that special "je ne sais quoi" (BARBARA WORSLEY-GOUGH, EILIS DILLON)

Here are two books—one quite obscure, the other not nearly so hard to find—that are really perfectly fine, but didn't inspire me to rave about them in my usual style.


BARBARA WORSLEY-GOUGH, A Feather in Her Cap (1936)

This is another book that's been on my TBR list for ages, ever since I came across some reviews of Worsley-Gough's work when I was researching her for my list. She published nine novels in all, including two mysteries—Alibi Innings (1954), which has the relatively unique characteristic of being set in the world of cricket, and Lantern Hill (1957), which seems to take place in the pop music industry. The other novels all appear to be cheerful romantic comedies. A Feather in Her Cap, Worsley-Gough's fourth novel, was the low-hanging fruit, as our local library could easily acquire it.


As you can see from the jacket flaps, which were, happily, glued inside my library copy of the book, the plot revolves around a group of perky, well-to-do young Brits travelling to Salzburg, Austria for a music festival. There's the glamorous Delia Temple-Cheyne and her somewhat elusive husband Rupert. There's David Herald, who is allowed to worship Delia and frequently serve as her companion at parties without ever getting too close, and Helen Garland, whose mother is a passionate defender of women's rights but who is herself perhaps a bit more traditional than she'd like to think. And there's Joanna Nichols, a flighty but fun-loving girl, and Michael Park, a slightly surly young man trying to disentangle himself from Helen's mistaken belief that he has fallen for her. 


These six young people also encounter Miss Talbot, a prudish friend of Helen's mother's, Mr. Wiggins, a schoolmaster, the cynical American Baroness Birkendorf-Speed and her gigolos, and the fabulously wealthy Venetia, a glamorous friend of Delia's, whose carelessly casual mothering of "the Heir" seems to content him more than his nurses's fussing. Not to mention the controlling Frau Hofer, who runs their hotel and has definite ideas of how illicit romances should be conducted (even if, as in this case, the parties in question aren't actually romantically involved).


The plot is silly and romantic, full of misunderstandings and youthful exuberance. It's entertaining and sometimes hilarious. In fact, it's a bit like Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises crossed with a screwball comedy. One could see Carole Lombard and Cary Grant in it. And yet, although that sounds like the perfect sort of novel to make me giggle away a Saturday afternoon, there was something missing here. It was a little like watching a well-done school production of Shakespeare, with all the edgier scenes removed and the students charming and smart but somehow lacking charisma. When I started reading it, I expected to find it impossible to put down, but in fact I found it perfectly easy to put down for almost any other distraction.

Considering the time in which this novel was published, and the fact that the festive travellers must pass through Nazi Germany on their way to Salzburg, it's perhaps a little surprising how little any of them are concerned. They mock Hitler a bit, and joke about how any kind of fun is "verboten" in Germany, but ultimately they take the political situation as casually as fun-loving youngsters generally do. One of the Baroness's gigolos does exclaim, "That frightful National Socialism—all that barbarity! It makes me quite ill to think of it," but then cheerfully goes on about his business. And Helen's mother, paying a visit late in their trip, bemoans the fact that Hitler hasn't made the trains runs perfectly on time.

Perhaps the library copy I read was once read by an
as-yet-undiscovered Hollywood starlet or two?

I'll try to give you one giggle from this novel, however. I admit to rather enjoying Venetia's off-hand approach to child-rearing, though today it would certainly lead to the involvement of Child Protective Services. Here's her description of her drive, infant in tow, across Europe:

Venetia, feeling that Michael had not been included sufficiently in the conversation, turned to him and added confidentially "You'd hardly believe how inconvenient a baby is when you're trying to make a good day's run over indifferent roads. The Bentley has bucket seats in front, and at anything over sixty I thought the Heir would bounce out. Finally I put him on the back seat by himself, and put the tonneau-cover on, and bored some holes in it so that he could breathe, and that plan worked far better. The only difficulty was that I forgot to declare him at the frontier, and the German Customs people made a hellish fuss when they found him, and insinuated he was a German baby and that I was smuggling him out of the country. I don't know which of us was the more furious. But I won."

Michael was so much astonished by Venetia's view of her maternal responsibilities that he could find nothing to say except: "Wasn't he suffocated?"

"Of course he wasn't," Venetia replied indignantly. "Do you suppose that I should be sitting here calmly telling this story against the Heir if I had happened to suffocate him? He could breathe perfectly well. The holes in the tonneau-cover were quite large. I made them with a pair of pliers."

I did have such high hopes of Worsley-Gough as perhaps another Elizabeth Fair-esque discovery. But alas, I don't think she is. Back to the drawing-board, or rather, back to the TBR list!



EILÍS DILLON, Sent to His Account (1954)

This was one of the books I picked up on our trip to the U.K. last year. If I remember correctly, it was one of two books I picked up at the charity shop by Winchester Cathedral (which, in all fairness, I might have missed completely, had Ruth, aka Abbeybufo, not been very kindly showing us around that day and guided us right by the bookshop). It was reasonably priced, and how could I have resisted it with its intact dustjacket.


Sent to His Account, as some of you will know, is the second of Dillon's three mysteries, after Death at Crane's Court (1953) and before Death in the Quadrangle (1956), after which she focused on writing non-mystery novels and continuing to write children's fiction. A few years ago, Rue Morgue reprinted all three of her mysteries, and it appears that they are now all available in e-book format as well. I also happened across Dillon's novel The Head of the Family (1960) at one of the Oxfams I visited in the U.K., so you might hear about that one in the future.



Sent to His Account is a perfectly enjoyable mystery. Impoverished Miles de Cogan suddenly finds himself the only heir to a sizable Irish estate, a considerable improvement over the room he's currently renting, complete with cranky landlady. I liked his reaction to hearing some of the details of the inheritance:

"How much?"

"I beg your pardon? Oh, yes, yes." He fumbled among his papers again. "Ah, yes, here we are. First, there is Dangan House-a fine place. I've stayed there from time to time. Not much land—less than two hundred acres." Miles had once tried to have a window-box, but Mrs. Doran had put a stop to it.

Miles happily gives up his old life and takes up the life of a squire, envisioning improvements for the workers on his estate, for the village encompassed by it, and for the village mill that's not being run to its full potential. The complication is a local import from Dublin, a businessman whose plan to open a roadhouse has met with violent disapproval, and when he is found dead of cyanide poisoning in Miles's sitting room, the idyllic new life Miles has planned is considerably disrupted.

There are some interesting portrayals of class tensions here, some entertaining characters, and some very enjoyable humor. It's also interesting to see Miles begin to put his positive changes to work in the village. Sent to His Account was, for me, a considerably better read that A Feather in Her Cap. Yet somehow there just wasn't any real spark here for me either. Is it just that I like my mysteries a little more off-beat, à la Gladys Mitchell? Or perhaps I just prefer mysteries with female protagonists. True on both counts, of course, so others without such biases may want to check this one out. At any rate, I'll be interested to sample The Head of the Family and see how Dillon handles her non-mystery fiction.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

RUMER GODDEN, A Candle for St Jude (1948) & Cromartie vs. the God Shiva (1997)


I only finally wrote about Rumer Godden here back in February (wow, time flies), when I finally got round to reading the wonderful China Court. I've read a good many of her other books before I ever started blogging, so she had never turned up here, despite being one of my favorite authors. But recently, I finally turned to two of her books that I had never felt compelled to sample before. The first of these was also the first of Godden's dance-themed books that I've experienced.

I love my vintage paperback edition
of this book, so can't help sharing it with you

I think I always imagined that, not being particularly interested in ballet, I would find her dance books less interesting or enjoyable than her other novels, but in fact I found Candle just as difficult to put down as any of her other books. If it's perhaps not, for me, absolutely in the top tier of Godden's novels, it's still very, very good. The aging Madame Holbein, once a great dancer herself, now a great teacher, can be added to the many inspiring women characters Godden created (I picture a film version, with a marvelous opportunity for an older actress—hmmmm, who should it be?), and the dynamic between her and the young dancers—her favorite, who is letting her ego get the best of her, and the brilliant student Madame resents, perhaps, for being too good—is fascinating.


Of course, as much as anything, it's Godden's unique and compelling style that makes the book succeed. I love her description of the poor theatre dressmaker:

Miss Porteus wore a little hard black velvet pincushion pinned to the left breast of her dress in the shape of a heart. To her niece, Lollie, it seemed that it was Miss Porteus' heart, withered and worn, stuck with sharp pins. Madame would have added, "Filled with sawdust instead of good red blood," but that was too old a thought for Lollie, who worried about her aunt.

And then there's this passage, which evokes the passage of time that Godden explored so eloquently in A Fugue in Time and would again in China Court:

Tomorrow Archie would dart, every nerve alive in a tumultuous effort to please, his eyes hot and dry, his cheeks burning, his heart beating like a clapper with excitement. It happened again, in every season, with every performance, with each entrance of each dance. Time passes, that is what they say, but that is what it doesn't do, said Madame. In each one, with each one, Madame lived through it again. It left her exhausted, but that was why she lived.

After Candle, I went on and read a couple of other books, but Godden's siren song soon proved too strong.


After enjoying Fugue and China Court so much, I had immediately placed an order for a couple more of the new-ish Virago editions of her work, so there was Cromartie vs. the God Shiva waiting patiently on my TBR shelf, seducing me into picking it up.

Cromartie was Godden's last book, published in 1997 (I hadn't quite registered that she published anything that late). It's set mostly in India where a young London attorney is investigating the background behind the theft of a valuable Hindu sculpture from a once-grand hotel, and is loosely based on a real case in which a similar sculpture was siezed by police as stolen as it was being examined in a museum. His resulting romance, and the details of his investigations, however, are pure fiction.



The book is enjoyable—it's hard for me to imagine anything by Godden not being that—and satisfying enough. It's just on a smaller, less complex scale than much of her earlier work, and therefore I suspect it won't linger in my memory for quite so long. But if you've exhausted most of Godden's work, and just can't bear not to have her humane, thoughtful authorial voice in your head yet again, Cromartie vs. the God Shiva may be just what the doctor ordered.

Monday, August 7, 2017

LORNA REA, Six Mrs Greenes (1929)


Many of my reviews this year have been of books I've been meaning to read for ages, which have just gradually, patiently made their way to the top of my TBR list. But this one was a more spontaneous addition to my recent reading. I got an email from Nicola Slade, whose blog is here and whose mystery novels set in Winchester are now calling my name as well. Apart from letting me know she'd been enjoying the new Elizabeth Fair titles from Dean Street Press, Nicola was also kind enough to recommend two of her favorite, quiet, obscure titles from my period, which she thought I'd enjoy. The other title she mentioned was Catherine Cotton's Experience (1920), and it's been added to the TBR list as well, but something utterly superficial about Lorna Rea's name and the intriguing title Six Mrs Greenes made that the immediate choice.

The premise lives up to the intriguing title. The officious and imminently dislikable Mrs Rodney Greene has summoned the other five Mrs Greenes to her home for a dinner party that, in addition to bringing three generations of Mrs Greenes together, will also serve to celebrate newlywed Jessica's arrival into the family (though it will mainly, like most other things in Mrs Rodney's life, allow her to bully and stage manage everyone else). The novel is divided into six sections, each around 50 pages and each dedicated to one of the Mrs Greenes, whom we come to know and (sometimes) like.

A family tree at the beginning of the book helps keep them all sorted. First and foremost, there's elderly Mrs Greene, matriarch of the family, the Mrs Greene, slightly cantankerous (one doesn't envy her companion, Miss Dorset, who has a tragic past of her own) but somehow likable, still mourning the loss of her husband years before and sometimes a bit shaky on the distinction between past and present:

When she was tired she talked to herself, and her talk was a jumble of names. Her sons, her grandsons, her granddaughter, her granddaughter's husband, jigged about in her brain. They formed groups, advanced towards her in a solid phalanx, broke up and receded again. The pattern of their comings and goings was shot with pleasure at some remembered incident, or again with intense irritation that found vent in mumbled phrases. "She's always been a stupid woman."

We catch some glimpses of her feelings toward the other Mrs Greenes, particularly her two daughters-in-law, about whom she minces no words, but more poignantly we feel her sense of lingering loss:

"When a woman has lived with her husband and loved her husband for over fifty years, she shouldn't live on after him. She's only a cripple. There's no place left for her, and no power. I saw one of my sons marry a girl I didn't like, and the other a girl I despised. I lost Edwin in the war, and Edwin's son soon after. Geoffrey and I were old; we were on the shelf, but we still had our place in life. Now Geoffrey's dead, and I'm lost. I'm Grannie and Great-grannie; I'm an old woman, to be humored and treated kindly and encouraged, and taken here and there for her own good, but I'm not Mrs. Geoffrey Greene. She's dead."

She also thinks the idea of a dinner with all the Mrs Greenes is misguided:

"There'll we be, three widows and three wives, each of us supposed to stand for something, and the whole idea quite false. I'm not an old Greene grandmother any more than Edith is a Greene mother and Jessica a young Greene wife; I'm Margaret Hill, and Jessica is Jessica Deane, and we married men of the same name and the same blood, but nobody but Edith would ever expect that to link us up in a chain."

But the dinner's misguidedness doesn't make getting to know these women less intriguing. Apart from the Mrs Greene, there's her sister-in-law Sarah, Mrs Hugh Greene, likewise at a loss since her husband's death and childless as well, who finds comfort in her beloved nephew and his wife (on her side of the family, not Greenes). Presumably, it's Edith, Mrs Rodney Greene, imperious, shrewish, and emotionally needy, whom Mrs Greene merely doesn't like, and Dora, Mrs Edwin Greene, already a whiny martyr even before the loss of her husband in World War I and her son to a tragic accident, whom she despises. Then there's the current, modern generation, Edith's two daughters-in-law, Helen, Mrs Geoffrey Greene, an artist who furiously resists the traditional limitations of marriage but falls in love with Geoffrey anyway, and Jessica, Mrs Hugh Beckett Greene, the energetic newlywed. There's also Edith's daughter Lavinia, who is not a Mrs Greene but who seems to be Mrs Greene's favorite among her descendents and who seems to play an important role in the novel, possibly a symbolic one.


Following the six main sections, there's a short closing section of the novel. It was a bit anticlimactic to find that this section didn't actually include the women's dinner together, but perhaps that would have been asking too much. Rather, it features Edith's final preparations, a visit from Lavinia, and a slightly bewildering comment by Lavinia which ends the novel. I won't give it away, as it's the last line of the book, but it was intriguing enough that I'm going to have to go back and do some re-reading to figure out what on earth Lavinia means by it.

Perhaps it's best that the dinner itself be left to the reader's imagination. Indeed, it's hard to imagine the dinner living up to all the drama that has led into it. Apart from that, however, the novel made for some wonderfully entertaining reading. If the women occasionally seem a bit like types—the tough, resilient older women, the shrew, the martyr, the bohemian, and the perky young flapper—rather than fully developed, unique characters, I can't say that I gave it more than a passing thought. I picked the book up and didn't put it down again until I my eyes were too sleepy to focus or my lunch break was over, which is a pretty good recommendation in itself.

My thanks to Nicola for bringing Lorna Rea more centrally to my attention. She has been included on my Overwhelming List for some time now, but I had no details about her work. It turns out that Six Mrs Greenes was her first novel, followed quickly by three more—The Happy Prisoner (1931), Rachel Moon (1932), and First Night (1932)—and one story collection, Six and Seven (1935), after which she appears to have fallen silent, though she lived for another forty years.

I had already come across a Bookman review of First Night, which I believe is a textbook example of "damning with faint praise," but I have to admit that it rather makes me want to read the book and see where Rea got to with her writing…

As amusement "First Night" is excellent if ephemeral. It scintillates where it should, in the foyer, broadens into humour in the pit, touches sentiment in the gallery, and generally varies in mood and in tempo as the elf of Miss Rea's imagination insinuates himself into the breasts and brains of author, actor, critic, first-nighter and all the other cleverly drawn theatre-goers to whom she introduces us. It has almost as many good points as it has pages—brilliance, wit, humour, atmosphere, emotional skill, verve, gaiety. But there it ends, in brief amusement—the only end it could possibly serve. One looks in vain for anything more than an almost photographic record with its inevitable shallowness. Yet cleverness rarely or never keeps company with profundity and, superficial though it may be, one is grateful for such lively diversion and vivid portraiture as are here.

I could disagree with all sorts of assumptions in the review, but overall it sounds pretty irresistible, doesn't it?

Then, while poking around a bit for this review, I came across this capsule review of The Happy Prisoner in, of all places, the Wisconsin Library Bulletin:

Lorna Rea, the author of Six Mrs. Greenes, writes a delicate little novel of a girl who, because she was deaf, had been shown only the beautiful side of life. When she is suddenly cured of deafness she is so hurt by the world as it really is that she gladly retreats into her own again. The technique is that of the short story, full of idealistic pathos. Attractively illustrated with wood engravings.


And I discovered that the Spectator (after, I should note, an utterly condescending dismissal of Elizabeth Cambridge's Susan and Joanna, along the usual masculine party lines) dismissed Rea's story collection as "tepid and banal," and added that "while Miss Rea will tell you all about the interior decoration of her heroines' flats, she tells you nothing about their characters." Well, I'm sure some of you will agree that this too sounds intriguing!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Wish-fulfillment fantasies (MABEL ESTHER ALLAN, MONICA REDLICH)

I recently dived into some children's fiction that I've had on my shelves for ages. For whatever reason, I haven't done a lot of reading in that area in the past few months, but suddenly the urge seemed to hit me and in rapid succession I read several of the books from my shelves. I originally thought I'd mention all of them briefly, because I know some of you are or might in the future be fans of the authors, but it seems I have so much to say about the first two that they make a post by themselves.


I've been doing quite a bit of reading of MABEL ESTHER ALLAN's books in the past few years, and I can't even quite recall whether she first came to my attention because of Greyladies publishing some of her previously unpublished adult fiction, or whether it was because of Girls Gone By publishing some of her children's books. Whichever it was, my interest was quickly piqued and I quickly read all the books both publishers had reprinted and still wanted more, which led to me tracking down this lovely copy of Changes for the Challoners (1955), one of her fairly early family stories that Girls Gone By haven't got round to yet. (They can be readily excused, since Allan wrote over 200 books in all, and they have continued publishing more of her work in the past year or two—see here—but at this rate it will take them a good long time still.)

It could just be my perverse love for the most obscure books over those that are readily available, but I have to say that as much as I've enjoyed other of Allan's books, Changes might well be my favorite so far. And I actually don't think it can be entirely perversity, since even the merest outline of the plot—young girl moves to fictional city of Francaster, lives in old house backing onto abandoned shop in the city's medieval high street, makes friends with young aspiring archaeologist, and goes in search of lost Roman ruins—would fairly obviously (at least to anyone who read my post about our trip to England and Scotland last year) be quite enough to make me salivate.


Sure, it's all a bit of a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Charming, outgoing Perry goes out exploring on her first evening in Francaster and promptly rescues Charles from the storehouse he's got himself locked in while looking for evidence of Roman columns. They become fast friends, he shows her around town, and they rescue Laura, who has fallen into the river while boating with her cousin Gareth, and now they're a solid foursome. Record time for establishing a circle of friends in a new locale!

So no, it's not always terribly realistic. But as someone who would love little more than to relocate to a town like Francaster, it's a marvelous fantasy indeed. I would even be excited about unearthing previously unknown evidence of the old Roman settlement, though admittedly I'd prefer to do it with little physical effort and without getting overly dirty. Or having to dig.


There's a further subplot about Perry's sister Greta, who is only a bit older but has reached that awkward age when she thinks she should only care about fashion and shopping and acting sophisticated. When their cousin Angeline, the same age as Greta, arrives, Perry decides to blackball Angeline from the adventures she has with her friends, in the hopes that Angeline will make friends with Greta and make her cheerful rather than elegantly melancholy. But of course, Angeline has other ideas.

Knowing Mabel Esther Allan a bit, I had a feeling that Francaster would have been based on a real city, so I poked around a bit, and indeed, a listing on the Peakirk Books website asserts that it was closely based on Chester. All the descriptions of walking on the city walls and in the narrow medieval streets had me picturing York while I read (which no doubt made the fantasy more vivid, since Andy and I had already decided, after our trip, that York is precisely the city we'd like to move to, preferably without having to rescue people from rivers in order to make friends), but I'm sure the folks at Peakirk Books know more than I do. Which means I need to add Chester to our list of places to visit on our next trip…

From Changes, I moved on to what I now realize is another wish-fulfillment fantasy for me. MONICA REDLICH's Five Farthings (1939) is about a young girl who moves with her family to London (oh, the horror!) in order for her father to get medical care (for some odd illness that is conveniently serious enough to keep him in hospital for several months—while young Vivien and the rest of the family familiarize themselves with London and learn independence and self-confidence—yet trivial enough to never affect his cheerful mood or inspire any real concern).


The children stumble across the perfect flat for the family, which—as if the book were written only to fulfill my fondest wishes—just happens to be a mere block or two from St. Paul's, in the heart of the City. The following exchange will surely give anyone who knows about London real estate today a slightly bitter chuckle:

'And it wouldn't be any dearer than Kensington, would it?' added Vivien.

'It might even be cheaper,' said Mrs Farthing. 'I've always heard that City rents are fairly low.'

Young Vivien decides to keep house for the family so that their mother can go out to work while their father is happily ailing in hospital. The keeping house part is not so much a part of my fantasies, but in her spare time Vivien allows me to live vicariously by stumbling across a lovely small (fictional) church, learning that it, like St. Paul's, was designed by Christopher Wren, and exploring the city to find more of Wren's churches and other historic buildings. For part of this process, she has the assistance of a kindly man she meets in one of the churches, who happens to work for a nearby publisher:

He took her to the old, old church of St Bartholomew's in Smithfield, to Gray's Inn and Staple Inn and Lincoln's Inn Fields, to the Roman Bath tucked away a few yards behind the Strand, and down to the Embankment Gardens to see the beautiful water-gate designed by Inigo Jones three hundred years ago.

Although the book itself is quite cheerful, this paragraph, and some of the other churches and building mentioned, led me to a melancholy wondering about the fates of said structures within a year or two of the book's publication. I had to poke around a bit, and at first glance was happy to see that all the structures seem to still exist, but on further reading I discovered that St Bartholomew's and Gray's Inn, at least, along with St Bride's Church, which Vivien visits elsewhere in the book, were all significantly damaged or outright gutted during the Blitz, though apparently the famous spire of St Bride's, second only to St Paul's, did survive. (I also learned, for what it's worth, that the "Roman Bath" near the Strand is apparently likely not a bath at all, but a cistern from the 1600s, but it still looks interesting and it did survive the Blitz. These are the interesting tidbits one can only get from reading fiction.)


But apart from this melancholy distraction, Vivien goes on to fulfill my fantasies by becoming further entangled with the publishing world. Having dabbled just a bit myself in publishing, I loved the part where she learns about jacket blurbs:

'Well,' he went on, 'a blurb is the bit about a novel or some other book which makes you convinced that you must read it immediately. You know—"This dramatic life of William the Conqueror is as thrilling as any detective story,'' or "The everyday disasters of matrimony are sketched in with a light and witty touch." That sort of thing.'

'Oh, are those blurbs? I've often thought how difficult they must be to write.'

'They are. They're ghastly. Sackville's a genius at it, but it nearly makes him sick every time.'

I can't say that writing blurbs makes me sick, exactly, though I have agonized a bit about some of them. On the other hand, I'm hardly a genius at it either.

Five Farthings makes a very charming, entertaining family story, and a very charming fantasy about London life just before the war. And believe it or not, at the time that I first acquired it, it was actually still available from Margin Notes Books. Then, it sat on my shelf for two years, and of course there's now no mention of it on their site. Dammit. But I happened across my copy second-hand, so there is hope!

I have to leave you with one passage of the novel that would likely be considerably revised if it appeared in a new novel today. It's about nothing more shocking than a game Vivien and her siblings play of calling dibs on each of the unusual urban dwellers they come across. But in the chapter called "Queer People," it is just slightly jarring to modern ears:

'I'll tell you what, Vivien—I 'm going to start a collection.'

'What of?'

John propped his elbows on the marble-topped table.

'Of queer people we meet—un-ordinary people. In fact it can be a competition, if you like. Yes, that's even better. We each get a mark for any one we meet who the other agrees isn't ordinary. We'd have Dinah in it too, of course. What do you think of that?'

Vivien was not quite sure. It was a good idea, in its way—but collecting queer people was her own special province, as an author looking for material. She did not much care to share so important a matter with two irreverent children.

However, John was busy elaborating his idea.

'We ought to start fair, so I won't bag that old woman,' he said magnanimously. 'We'll begin to-morrow. Let's say that the first person to claim a Queer, after two at least of us have been talking to him (to the Queer, I mean), gets a point if the other one agrees. Wouldn't that do?'

I can't possibly add anything to that.
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 furrowed.middlebrow@gmail.com. I do want to hear from you!