Saturday, 31 December 2011

End of Year Book Meme

It's time to accept that I'm not going to finish another book before the end of the year.  Here are 2011's facts and figures:

How many books read in 2011?
75, 35 of which are reviewed here.  
Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?
45 fiction, 30 non-fiction; I've read more non-fiction this year.
Male/Female authors?
14 male authors and therefore 61 female authors; about the same proportion as last year.   The books by male authors were almost all non-fiction.
Favourite book read?
Books that have really resonated with me this year include Anna Richards' Little Gods, Olivia Laing's To The River, Rebecca Hunt's Mr Chartwell and E.H. Young's Miss Mole.
Least favourite?
Vita Sackville-West's The Dark Island, although its preposterousness was quite enjoyable in some ways.
Oldest book read?
F. Anstey's Vice Versa, a favourite of E.M. Delafield's, first published in 1882 and now available again from Victorian Secrets (disclaimer - my partner runs Victorian Secrets!)
A tie between David Waller's The Perfect Man and Barbara Hardy's Dorothea's Daughter, both published by Victorian Secrets in December 2011.

Longest book title?
Not counting titles with post-colon suffixes, it is a tie:  Diana Athill's Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, which I see I have failed to review but is excellent and highly enjoyable; and another Victorian Secrets title, Notable Women Authors of the Day by Helen C. Black.
Shortest title?
Taste by Kate Colquhoun, a history of British food.
How many re-reads?
10 re-reads among the 75.
Most books read by one author this year?
Oddly, it's Sue Limb, since I read all four books in her Bad Housekeeping series.  Susan Hill comes next with three titles.  But no single author has particularly dominated this year.
Any in translation?
None this year. 
And how many of this year’s books were from the library?
About 20, which is fewer than last year.  I have been better about relying on libraries for frivolous reading material, however - and have read and enjoyed a few books I'd probably never have bought.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Tortoiseshell Cat by Naomi Royde-Smith

This is the first novel of the prolific Naomi Royde-Smith, who published a large number of novels, plays, non-fiction and anthologies, as well as working as a reviewer,  but now appears to be pretty much forgotten; she doesn't even have a Wikipedia page.  Royde-Smith was part of interwar London literary society, intimately involved with Walter de la Mare and Rose Macaulay, making the obligatory appearance in Virginia Woolf's diary (Woolf didn't like her).  In her fifties she seems to have made a lavender marriage with a rather younger actor, which was by all accounts a success.  All in all, she sounds like a quirky character, and this certainly comes across in The Tortoiseshell Cat.

The novel concerns Gillian Armstrong, a young woman trying to make a career out of no particular skills or aptitudes, living with her sister Lilac at the Mordaunt Club, a Chelsea residence for unmarried or widowed women.  Gillian has travelled a great deal with her late father, but is thoroughly innocent; watching Lilac work to fascinate her young man, she is both faintly shocked and uncomprehending.  Her first job, at the rather shambolic Pelham House school for girls, comes to an abrupt but anticipated end when the headmistress finds she has been quoting Theopile Gautier to the girls; her next job, as private secretary to nouveau riche, eccentric Lady Bottomley, is more successful.  A Pelham House pupil, Jane Bird, has a crush on Gillian; after Jane has left school, she seeks Gillian's friendship and introduces her to Larry Browne, an artist and his flatmate, Heinrich.  The eponymous cat helps Gillian meet a fellow Mordaunt Club resident, Victoria Vanderleyden, and V.V. in turn to meet Peter and Heinrich.  After Lilac makes a successful marriage to Lady Bottomley's son Toby, a complicated web of relationships will be woven between Gillian, V.V., Jane, Larry and Heinrich that Gillian will find increasingly difficult to understand and to unravel.

Gillian feels strongly, and has a powerful sense of her need to make her own life, but has little comprehension of the origin or meaning of her feelings, or of the effect their expression will have on others.  She is powerfully drawn to V.V., but luxuriates in feelings of affection and V.V.'s tender attentions without examining them.  She is fascinated by the fey Heinrich, who tames sparrows and mice, but is unable to understand the seriousness that lies beneath his faun-like persona.  Only when tragedy marks her life will she begin to understand the implications of her actions and the decisions she has made.

Royde-Smith's novel is written for the most part in a sharply entertaining style which reminded me of Ronald Firbank; the humour is often constructed by Gillian's surreal environment and the odd, oblique ways in which the characters express themselves.  There are some very funny individual characters, particularly the incomprehensible headmistress of Pelham House, who cannot construct a full sentence, and the epitome of bad taste, Lady Bottomley, whose Knightsbridge house is full of the ugliest objects and who has filleted the saucy bits out of her son's copy of Swinburne with a sharp pair of scissors.  The twist into tragedy is a little awkward in this context.  The book's depiction of lesbian and gay characters is fairly explicit, especially to the modern reader - V.V.'s endless series of friends with men's names is a rare pre-Well of Loneliness reference to lesbian subculture - but like other novels of the period, the conclusion is essentially conservative.  However, it's still an enjoyable novel that would appeal to admirers of early Evelyn Waugh (another Firbank fan) and Stella Gibbons's satires of bohemian life.  There is a print-on-demand edition of this novel currently available but Royde-Smith seems ripe for wider rediscovery, and an obvious choice for a Persephone edition.

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Blotting Book by E.F. Benson

This little 1908 novel is the story of a murder; rather unexpected from E.F. Benson who I know best for the Lucia books.  Morris Assheton is a young man from a wealthy background; his inheritance is held in trust until his twenty-fifth birthday, unless he marries before that date.  The trustees are Mr Taynton and Mr Mills, the family solicitors.  Mr Taynton is an agreeable, avuncular sort; charitable, religious and fond of his routines, he contrasts with the much pricklier Mr Mills.  Beneath the surface, however, they are more alike, since they have made some ill-advised speculations with Morris's money, hoping for personal profits.  When it becomes clear that Morris is in love, and likely to marry, Taynton becomes alarmed.  Can he buy enough time to restore Morris's inheritance, ensure his reputation and his prospects for a comfortable retirement?

The novel is set in Brighton, where I live, and many of the locations are still recognisable, although the murder scene, a quiet path over the downs from Falmer to Brighton, is much less rural nowadays and probably less conducive to violent crime.  Benson's book is not really a whodunit - it's fairly obvious who the murderer is - but it still makes use of typical tools of the genre.  Letters, railway timetables, calendars and the eponymous blotting book are all either clues or misdirections.  Again, while the book doesn't include the psychological analysis you get in Golden Age detective fiction, it is interested in the boundaries between fantasy, memory and forgetting.  

I thought Benson could have done more with the character of Mrs Assheton, Morris's mother - she felt very undeveloped to me, particularly in the context of Benson's more famous female characters - and the mouth-breathing Superintendent Figgis is a caricature.  But the social milieu - upper-class luxury on the Edwardian scale - is very well evoked, and the book is an enjoyable, if slight, read.  The Blotting Book is available in a print-on-demand edition - but the very nice Hogarth Press paperback can be had for a penny on Amazon.   Or you can find it on Project Gutenberg.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Love Has No Resurrection by E.M. Delafield

This 1939 anthology was Delafield's last collection of short stories and comprises a varied selection - some short, funny squibs, some longer pieces both comic and tragic,  and a rare Delafield outing into crime fiction.  Like a lot of writers, Delafield extended her range in short fiction, so as well as her familiar territory of matrimony and domesticity, these stories cover boarding-houses, beaches and even a film set; in "O.K. for Story" a writer, employed by a film studio, successfully manages to repackage The Merchant of Venice as an outline for the studio's next production.  The employees of the studio are of course too lowbrow to spot the reference.

"My Son Had Nothing on his Mind" is Delafield at her humorous best, describing young Gilbert Catto's escape both from his overbearing mother and his intended bride two days before the wedding.  Mrs Catto is a triumphantly awful Delafield matriarch and Rhoda, Gilbert's fiancée, a perfectly ghastly "very feminine, very old-fashioned girl".  Gilbert is rescued by Shirley, a rather hard young medical student, who is decidedly not old-fashioned and sports a perm and plucked eyebrows.  Unusually for rather hard young women in fiction, Shirley is the heroine of the piece, telling Gilbert frankly that he ought to run away and get a job if he dreads the marriage so much.  Equally unusually, there is no romantic conclusion, since Shirley finds Gilbert's passivity rather insufferable.  As well as confounding reader expectations in terms of plot, this short story also sees Delafield experimenting with narrative time, cutting back and forth between past and present.

The story "Opportunity", conversely, is as sad a depiction of an unhappy marriage as you might hope to find.  Fan Hancock - not a euphonious name - has been enduring marriage to dull, pernickety Harry for some years.  Her sister Millie, visiting from America, seizes the opportunity to tell Harry that he is perpetually "nagging and grumbling and petty bullying" and that he could make Fan's life much better by helping her and praising her occasionally.  For a moment, it looks as if Harry will take the opportunity offered, but by the last paragraph he is back in full tedious, self-centred flow.  There is no hope for Fan, who is too trapped by her love for her children and years of accreted loyalty to her husband to assert herself.

The final story, "They Don't Wear Labels", is set in a boarding-house and concerning charming, helpful Mr Peverelli and his neurotic wife.  They are recent arrivals, and Mr Peverelli dotes on his wife with apparent uxoriousness, but it emerges that she is in fact terrified of him and convinced that he is trying to poison her.  The story is narrated by the boarding-house keeper who initially accepts Mr Peverelli at face value, but who comes to doubt his motives.   Rather like Hitchcock's Suspicion, the story sets up possibilities and undermines them, creating an atmosphere of sinister uncertainty among banal domestic activities.  The story concludes at Christmas, and would make a good spooky fireside winter treat.

Unfortunately, if you fancy that treat for yourself you'll either need to be extravagant or patient, as there are very few copies of this book about.  Perhaps we will see it reprinted when Delafield comes out of copyright in 2014. 

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Miss Mole by E.H.Young

Miss Mole was a kind present from Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book, who discovered I'd never read it, happened upon a secondhand copy straight away, and sent it to me.  He thought I would enjoy it, and he was entirely right.

Hannah Mole is a forty-year-old spinster, the daughter of a Somerset farmer who has earned her living by working in that ambiguous, intermediate form of service that comprises governesses and companions to fretful old ladies.  At the start of the book she is about to lose her position, having told a small fib to her current old lady to gain some much valued free time; but that scrounged free time leads her to commit a brave and impulsive act, an act that will change her circumstances entirely.  Her cousin Lilla, who has married well, finds Hannah a job as housekeeper to the widowed minister of the local Baptist chapel, Reverend Corder.  Caring for him also involves caring for his daughters: scruffy, fearful Ruth, and Ethel, a fretful young woman trying to find her place in life.  Their household includes Wilfred, a cousin studying to be a doctor, and Howard, Reverend Corder's son who is intended for the ministry himself.  Hannah - unmarried, thin and dowdy with a markedly long nose - should be an invisible woman, working away in the background, making little mark on the world.  But Hannah has remarkable powers of imagination and hope; confronted with obstacles, she makes lateral moves that confound her opponents and advance her plans; and she is able to extract the maximum amount of joy from the most unpropitious circumstances.   However, she is also a Woman with a Past, and the tension of the novel is created by the possibility that, despite her natural optimism, her Past will rise up and vanquish her.

The novel stands or falls on the characterisation of its protagonist, and for me Hannah Mole succeeds brilliantly.  E.H. Young can be oblique; we do not always know all that Hannah knows, and narratives are revealed to us in layers, whenever Hannah feels like peeling another one off.  This keeps the text taut and the reader intrigued.  Miss Mole - liberated by her social position from the class constraints that beset cousin Lilla - can be unexpected in both thought and deed.  As much as she can find beauty in any townscape or landscape, she can find interest in any people, including (and perhaps especially) the socially undesirable.  For Hannah, human relationships can be an amusing game in which she can gamble as much of her reputation as she likes:

"This was better sport, and the rules of the game demanded that she should take risks, but save her life.  She had an exquisite enjoyment in watching for the feints of her adversary, and into her mind, stored with detached, incomplete pieces of information, there darted all the fencing terms she had ever heard, those bright, gleaming words with the ring of steel and the quick stamping of feet in them.  She had the advantage of him.  She knew what she was going to do, and she felt that she had him on her point, but, behind the temporary excitement, there was waiting for her the moment when she would have to tell herself that, for all its outward gallantry, this was a sorry, sordid business."

Hannah is no middle-aged Flora Poste, always serenely confident that she is right; her negotiations with life have a cost, and E.H. Young makes sure we know this.  This serious undercurrent enriches the novel and gives it substance, while the wit of the dialogue and especially Miss Mole's ironic reflections - some of which are only audible to the reader - give it sharpness and bite. 

Other enjoyable aspects are some very thoughtful passages about the nature of work and service; the lyrical portrayal of Bristol, here called Radstowe, which Miss Mole prizes extravagantly; and the representation of the gradations of middle-class social life in a provincial city.  The narrative, like the characterisation, is not always straightforward; we may know something has happened, but it will be a few chapters later before we find out exactly what it is.  I also liked the way the characters were balanced. The text seems to ascribe to almost all the characters, including some that we never see, a fair measure of gravity, of mass; individual characters do not dominate more than the action requires.  As in William, the pace here is fairly slow, but since Miss Mole's mind moves so quickly, I noticed it less.  I really need to read this book again to get the measure of it and it is definitely a book that will bear re-reading, a book that can be lived in. 

Here is Simon's own review of this novel and another one from Harriet Devine.  Sadly, this book appears to be out of print at the moment, although there are secondhand copies around. It's worth seeking out.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Miss Linsey and Pa by Stella Gibbons

This novel, the fourth that Stella Gibbons published, is a sort of reverse Cold Comfort Farm.  Miss Bertie Linsey and her Pa have been living in a village just outside London and running a greengrocer's shop for years.  But the shop has failed, due to competition from more modern retailers and the departure of Bertie's brother Sam - the business brain of the family - to South Africa.  They have to leave their little house and move to London.  Bertie appeals to her uncle, Mr Petley, and his son Len, who have a tobacconist's shop near the Caledonian Road, for help in finding lodgings.  Mr Petley - who has a generally low opinion of women - considers Bertie to be the interfering sort, and tells Len to take rooms for them with the Fells along the road.  Mr Fell is a half-mad giant who cares only for caged birds; Mrs Fell is no better than she ought to be.  Miss Linsey and Pa find themselves established in two dirty basement rooms which they must share with a variety of insects.  But Bertie Linsey is strong and energetic and determined to make the best of things.  At first, things go well; she finds a job as a cook-housekeeper for two Bloomsbury literary ladies, and Pa enjoys the urban delights of cinemas and museums and begins to make friends with the Fells.  Like Flora Poste, Bertie cannot keep from interfering, and when she begins to scheme to break up her employers' household by fostering the romance of pretty Miss Lassiter with her handsome doctor, much against the wishes of possessive Miss Hoad, things begin to go awry.  Bertie is resilient, however, and will go on to interfere with modern notions of child-rearing and in the affairs of cousin Len, who still nurses an affection for a French girl he met at the end of the first World War, who disappeared without trace.  Bertie's resilience is tested not only by her frequently unemployed status but also by Pa, who spends rather a lot of money cheering up Mrs Fell, and by the unexpected dangers of urban life.

Gibbons has her satirical eye on Bloomsbury this time, making fun of the household of Miss Hoad and Miss Lassiter and their sophisticated metropolitan friends.  Dorothy Hoad is a literary relative of Radclyffe Hall's Stephen Gordon, given a boy's upbringing, independently wealthy, and fond of collars and ties.  Her passion for Edna Lassiter is unrequited; Miss Lassiter, a novelist, has accepted her financial support, but is now chafing under the control exerted by Miss Hoad in return.  Miss Hoad's portrait is a decidedly hostile one and she is made to behave extraordinarily badly by her creator, although I'm bound to say that it is all highly entertaining.  Miss Linsey's second job, as a nurse to a child being brought up according to avant-garde principles, allows Gibbons to take a few well-aimed shots at modern parenting and modern marriage.  The chapter in which two couples, on the brink of reciprocal adultery, go away to a damp Essex cottage to "talk things out", is particularly amusing - although shamefully Gibbons allows the best row to happen off-stage, and tells us about it afterwards.    This is Mr Mybug's world, one of strenuous sexual freedom and cultural experimentation, and - as with Mr Mybug - Gibbons squeezes a great deal of humour from it, and from Bertie's efforts to restore simple, straightforward values to a modern urban world.

This novel is fairly unusual in its context, both putting working-class characters at its centre and making them fully-rounded and interesting.  One of the (many) faults of Miss Hoad is to consider Len and Bertie to be "automata", unreceptive to their environment and to the finer things in life.  However, both are well-developed characters with a full range of emotional responses - and not necessarily those stereotype might suggest - to their circumstances.  Bertie's bravery, her fear of "going down", of financial ruin, are very real and very affecting, as are her responses to loss and to tragedy.   Len's slow progress towards finding his lost love is engaging. Pa himself - although there are faint echoes of Adam Lambsbreath in his fey, vague qualities - is open-minded and capable of the unexpected.  Gibbons also includes a black character, another lodger at the Fells; the portrayal of Mr Robertson is fairly racist, and the characters react to him with (probably entirely realistic) hostility or, in Mrs Fell's case, by eroticising his exotic difference.  There are points, however, when the narrative empathises with his position and draws out the connections between him and Bertie, both strangers in an unwelcoming place.  Gibbons makes good use of her affinity with the fairy tale in this book, resolving the plot through miraculous reappearances and discoveries, and restoring Miss Linsey, like a ransomed princess, to her rightful place.

This book is still funny and entertaining, although it shares with other Stella Gibbons works the problem of making the modern reader wince at its casually expressed prejudices.  There is a lot in the text to interest enthusiasts for interwar writing.  Unfortunately, it's also very hard to get hold of.  It's not among the Gibbons titles recently re-issued by Vintage, and secondhand copies are few and expensive.  I believe Vintage bought the rights to her whole back catalogue, so perhaps it will appear in due course. 

Saturday, 3 December 2011

In My Father's House by Miranda Seymour

Subtitled Elegy for an Obsessive Love, this memoir tells the story of Miranda's father George and his lifelong, demented, all-consuming passion for a Nottinghamshire manor house, Thrumpton Hall - and of Miranda's childhood and upbringing in the context of that passion.  George was parked with a childless aunt and uncle, Charles and Anna Byron, at Thrumpton when he was a small child; his father, a diplomat, had been posted to South America.  George was felt to be too fragile to endure La Paz, so Thrumpton it had to be.  He drank in his Uncle Charlie's old-fashioned manners and attitudes, and his love for Thrumpton; the snobberies of his mother and grandmother - a distant, wrong-side-of-the-blanket descendent of Charles II - produced a sense of entitlement that led to school essays detailing how he would be a marvellous squire of Thrumpton when he grew up.  Uncle Charlie liked to tease, and sometimes leaned towards leaving the house to George, sometimes towards his Byron nephews.  When they both died in the Second World War, the path seemed to be clear for George - but things went awry, and George and his wife Rosemary eventually had to raise an enormous loan in order to buy Thrumpton.

Having installed himself, George began to realise his grandiloquent childhood dreams, but was, of course, permanently thwarted by the tendency of people not to conform to plan.  His children disappointed him; the villagers were unimpressed by his lordly ways; a power station was built just down the road that could turn a summer day to winter, belching out black smoke.  The House (it's always capitalised in the text) consumed vast amounts of money, energy and time.  George martyred himself to the House, and he wanted his martyrdom recognised and admired.  When his family - particularly his wife and daughter - failed to come up to the mark in this respect, he undermined them in turn, criticising their appearance, their clothes, their hair.  Miranda wore a wig for much of her teenage years since her own hair didn't meet George's standards.  And when his children were grown up and better able to resist his control, he sought admiration from younger, working-class men.

Miranda Seymour has used her father's diaries and letters - he was a prodigious letter-writer and would complain of being neglected if he didn't get a letter by return of post - her mother's memories, and her biographer's skills to construct this memoir, an effort to "make my peace by trying to understand the kind of man he was".  She is unflinching in her scrutiny of her father and of herself, often to the distress of her mother, whose voice punctuates the book as a kind of chorus, complaining when Miranda goes too far or is too indiscreet, defending her husband and her marriage.  She is often very funny, and there is a lot of humour here, usually caused by George's outrageous behaviour or by Miranda's outraged reactions.  One argument culminated in the (adult) Miranda pelting her father with boiled potatoes and then biting the table-leg.  But I found this book profoundly sad; George's lonely childhood leads inevitably to his overvaluing of heredity and property, his adult failures, and his tempestuous relationship with his children.  In some ways he is a less likeable Mortmain, and perhaps Miranda's story is Rose's version of I Capture the Castle rather than Cassandra's.  He also has much in common with Alison Bechdel's father in Fun Home, another house-beautiful obsessive with a taste for younger men.

This is a remarkably skilful book, compelling and complex, written with great frankness but also delicacy and insight.  The paperback has an awful pastel-tinted cover and looks like misery lit.  Don't be deceived - there is a real treat inside.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault

This novel, set in 1938 but published in 1944, takes place mostly in the Thames houseboat of the young ladies of the title.  Leo, a trouser-wearing character, works as a writer of Westerns, while her companion Helen, a former nurse, now works as a medical artist, drawing operations and dissections. The two women are popular with the other river-dwellers  - including Joe, an avant-garde writer who lives on a nearby island - and with Helen's medical colleagues, and both successful in their professions, if not rich.  Into this harmonious atmosphere comes Leo's sister Elsie, encouraged to escape from her quarrelling parents by Peter, a young doctor with whom she thinks herself in love.  Leo, who ran away herself ten years earlier and is never mentioned at home, has some sympathy for Elsie, and welcomes her warmly.  But Elsie invites Peter to visit the houseboat; Helen and Leo both admit to attraction to him, which they attempt to suppress, to save Elsie's feelings.  Peter is a committed flirt with no serious interest in Elsie, and pursues his opportunities with vigour.  But it is the relationship between Leo and Joe which will be most disrupted by the events of the novel.

Renault's friendly young ladies are fairly obviously lesbian, even allowing for 1940s coyness on the topic. Leo refers to "her way of life" and "people like me", considering lesbian relationships a natural consequence of the "surplus" of women in British society.  I'm not sure, however, if this is really a novel about lesbian identity; Leo's desires seem to me to place her somewhere towards a transgender position.  A tomboy in childhood, she still favours masculine dress - although she will transform herself in femme drag when the occasion suits - and is often mistaken for a man; she bonds with a schoolboy on Waterloo Station over a copy of Aeroplane magazine.  The "greatest happiness of her life" has been a week spent climbing in the Lake District with Joe, a week in which her gender and her clothing had been unremarkable, a week of masculine companionship.  What Leo wants from Joe is for them to be men together, to be allies; but what she will get will be very different indeed.

The book also has some interesting things to say about the status of the writer, and the quality of the written word.  Leo and Joe make no distinction between the quality of what they do, and Leo is scornful of writers who think they could do better work: "It's like losing a game and then saying you didn't try".  Joe takes Leo's writing seriously and advises her on technical aspects of ranch life, having grown up in Arizona.  Elsie, an exemplary middlebrow reader who likes books to be nice and pleasant and to make her happy, has a hilarious encounter with a novel of Joe's which contains a stark portrayal of a woman washing her dead child; Elsie puts the book back on the shelf.

The tone of the novel is very dry and understated, but there is often humour - Renault has a lot of fun at the expense of the bumptious Peter and the naive Elsie - as well as some genuinely moving passages.  I particularly liked the few phrases in which Helen realises that her relationship has shifted into crisis (edited to avoid spoilers):

"Helen's voice trailed to a standstill.  She stood with the butter-dish, which she happened to be holding, still in her hand, staring at Leo's back [...] Her face altered.  She put down the dish on the table, moved forward a step or two, and stayed where she was. 'Oh, Leo,' she said. 'My dear.'"

This sort of narrative reticence - we don't know how, exactly, Helen's face has altered, but we know her equilibrium is disturbed - is typical of the whole novel's subtlety of phrasing.  It reminds me quite a lot of Sarah Waters' The Night Watch -  I wonder if this was a source book for her?  In the Afterword in the Virago edition, Mary Renault describes how she has been asked if she would have made the book more explicit, had she been writing it later in her career - the answer is a firm no, which does not surprise me, because the reticence is in many ways part of the book's charm, and allows her to create layers of ambiguity.  If she were more frank, some of the dramatic possibilities would be lost to her, as would much of the humour.

The Virago edition of this novel is still in print, and secondhand copies are widely available.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Anything Goes by Lucy Moore

My knowledge of 1920s America is based almost entirely on a youthful enthusiasm for the work of Dorothy Parker and repeated viewings of Some Like It Hot.  Lucy Moore's "biography" proved to be an entertaining way to expand my limited awareness beyond the Algonquin Round Table and fictional cross-dressing jazz musicians.  Moore's biography is chronological, but she does not attempt to squeeze in every aspect of such a potentially vast topic.  Instead, she focuses on characteristic events, trends and individuals, constructing a profile of the age rather than an exhaustive history.  Key themes include jazz, organised crime, modernisers and modernisms, the automotive and entertainment industries, and economics.  Each chapter has a thematic focus but constructs a narrative around that focus, telling the story and drawing out the broader historical implications.

Some of the people Moore writes about are hugely famous - Al Capone, Warren Harding, Bessie Smith, Lindbergh - but she is also good at working the stories of background characters into her text.  The chapter on the New Yorker focuses much less on its starry writers than on Robert Ross, the "homely" editor whose first wife said of him "he'd have to be good with that face and figure".  The chapter on Lindbergh, which includes a marvellous evocation of his solo flight across the Atlantic, tells us about the Californian plane builders who constructed Spirit of St Louis, working unpaid overtime to do so.  Moore is particularly good on showing how "business" and its methods acquired an almost religious significance, with the salesman the evangelising means by which consumption could be stimulated and profits increased.  Religion itself co-opted business language through the publication of The Man Nobody Knows, which apparently depicts Jesus as a successful chief executive who picked twelve go-ahead types to join his senior management team.  A recurring theme is the way in which notions of American-ness were promoted by the new mass media, particularly the cinema.

There has been a lot of attention paid recently to the impact of free-market economics and unregulated banking on the present economy, and the early roots of American thinking on this can be traced here.  Andrew Mellon, the Treasury Secretary throughout the 1920s, was committed to the free market and to the reduction of taxation, particularly for the rich.  "By the time Mellon's new tax system came into effect in 1927 a few people were starting to worry about the effects of over-speculation and the over-extension of credit, but neither Mellon nor [President] Coolidge would countenance an interest-rate rise: they believed the market should be self-regulating.   This would have grave implications in the coming years" (160).  All depressingly familiar.

Despite the title, Moore also looks at some of the more reactionary elements of American society, including the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the anti-Darwinist legislation passed by various states.  Even the conservatives in this book seem to have a definite sense of being modern - while reading, I began to wonder if a sense of our own modernity is something we have lost now that nostalgia is almost a way of life, at least in the UK.

This is not a footnote-laden text, although there are suggestions of further reading for each chapter and an extensive bibliography.  I slightly missed having footnotes - there is usually something juicy hidden there - but I think the book succeeds on its own terms as what Lucy Moore calls a "subjective survey" and as a stimulating introduction to a fascinating time.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Love's Shadow by Ada Leverson

This novel is a witty, episodic comedy of manners with a wafer-thin plot concerning the courtship and early married life of beautiful Hyacinth Verney and handsome, if conflicted, Cecil Reeve, set in Edwardian London society.  Surrounding these two protagonist are a host of other characters, who both support and hinder their relationship.  Principal among these are the "little Ottleys", both well above the average height: Edith, who is a little bored with married life, and her envious, hypochondriac husband Bruce.  We also meet Sir Charles and Lady Cannon, Hyacinth's guardians; Cecil's music-loving uncle, Lord Selsey; Anne Yeo, a spinster of independent means who is Hyacinth's companion before her marriage; and Eugenia Raymond, a fortyish widow with whom Cecil is in love when the novel opens.  Ada Leverson cleverly keeps all these characters in play, extracting the maximum comedy from their interactions.

The novel is episodic, with short chapters which might be utterly disconnected from each other in temporal terms, picking up the narrative only when something interesting happens, and stopping abruptly when the interest has passed.  The final chapter, in particular, seems to stop rather than end, although there has been some rather unconvincing resolution of the plot by that point.  The obvious comic triumph of the book is the characterisation of Bruce, a pompous bore part-way between Charles Pooter and The Pursuit of Love's Tony Kroesig.  Bruce, who is spendthrift, self-aggrandising and lavish in his criticisms, spends "a great deal of his time and energy in disapproving generally of things and people that were no concern of his".  As his wife, Edith has to practice a great deal of forbearance:

"'You're always smiling, Edith,' he complained. 'Particularly when I have something to annoy me.'
'Am I? I believe I read in the "Answers to Correspondents" in Home Chirps that a wife should always have a bright smile if her husband seemed depressed.'
'Good heavens!  How awful!  Why, it would be like living with a Cheshire cat!'"

Mainly, however, Edith appears to survive by being amused at her husband's little ways, rather than pushing him down the stairs as one might expect.  Bruce is an amusing character, but I felt a little of him went a long way.  More to my taste was the sharply witty tone of the narrative: Lady Cannon's dresses are "so tightly-fitting as to give her an appearance of being rather upholstered than clothed"; weddings are an emotional strain because the "frame of mind supposed to be appropriate to an afternoon wedding can only be genuinely experienced by an Englishman at two o'clock in the morning".  Leverson is compared to Saki and Jane Austen on the cover of my copy, but she reads to me like a waspish blend of Nancy Mitford and Stella Gibbons at her funniest.

My main interest in the book was the depiction of Anne Yeo, one of the few characters in Edwardian fiction who can be read as lesbian.  Anne has money, but chooses to live with Hyacinth because she loves her, although her expression of this is understood by Hyacinth to be a joke.  Even in the context of this novel Anne is an odd character, eccentrically dressed and economical to the point of stinginess, given to sudden disappearances without explanation.  Despite her oddness, she has qualities that make her attractive to other characters in the book - and to the reader.  It's not really surprising that Ada Leverson, a close friend of Oscar Wilde, would have a positive view of variant sexuality, but it is notable that she has woven this view so deftly into a light novel, when it could be a cold spoon in the soufflé.

Love's Shadow was republished as part of the Bloomsbury Group selection of early twentieth century novels, and is widely available.  There are two sequels, Tenterhooks and Love at Second Sight, and the three novels were published in one volume by Virago under the title The Little Ottleys.  This seems to be out of print now and secondhand copies are currently incredibly expensive in the UK, although cheaper copies are to be had in the US.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Dark Island by V. Sackville-West

A curious and at times ridiculous work, this 1934 novel careers through suburban domesticity, London high society, overwhelming passion for a place, and a fatal love triangle, with a substantial portion of sadomasochism on the side.  The heroine Shirin, sixteen when the novel opens, is the youngest daughter of a middle-class suburban family residing in Dulwich.  Shirin nurses a secret passion for the island of Storn, off the coast of Port Breton (not clearly located in the text, but presumably in Cornwall)  where the family habitually take their holidays.  That summer, she meets by chance Venn le Breton, the heir of Storn and agrees to go with him to the island.  Venn is strongly attracted to her but also fearful of her and expresses in words and deeds his desire to hurt and control her.  When she leaves Storn at the end of the day, Shirin agrees to return - but the death of her grandmother cuts short her holiday, and it will be another ten years before she and Venn meet again.  In their twenties, Shirin now divorced and the mother of four children, they make a precipitous marriage.  Shirin does not love Venn, but she loves Storn, and when he realises this is the reason she has agreed to the marriage, he cruelly asserts his ownership of the island, killing the chance of any real intimacy between them.  The marriage endures, but Shirin needs help, and summons her friend Cristina, a sculptor, on the pretext of needing her for secretarial work.  Cristina loves Shirin, and this love is eventually returned, leading to a complicated triangular relationship in which both women attempt to balance the increasingly unstable and violent Venn.  As Venn's health deteriorates, the position of all three becomes increasingly vulnerable.

Added to this already complex plot are Mrs Jolly, a reformed prostitute turned housekeeper who has more than a maternal affection for Shirin; Lady le Breton, Venn's charismatic but malicious grandmother; Shirin's father, blinded by the Persian dust; and, always off the page but nonetheless a dramatic factor, Shirin's eldest son Luke who suffers from a congenital mental disorder and is confined to an institution.  Sackville-West has a rich melodrama with the basic plot, but cannot resist adding to it, stretching the reader's credulity long past breaking point.  She also breaks out into some astonishingly awful prose: "Now that he had let go of her wrist he felt that he had no more contact with her; she was separate; cut off.  They were both separate; cut off.  Their lives were separate and could never join,  So he was sad; not angry; just sad."  I feel sure I can hear Stella Gibbons laughing somewhere in the ether.  Other readers of my library copy have shared my irritation with the style: next to the paragraph in which Venn and Shirin consummate their marriage to the sounds of Wagner's Liebestod being played on an organ in the next room, someone has written WHAT A LOAD OF RUBBISH.

Among the better things about this novel are the evocation of Storn itself, remote and enigmatic, and the understated way in which the reserved and secretive Shirin is identified with the island.  There is also a rather interesting spiritual strand: to cope with the intense difficulties of her life, Shirin develops a faintly Buddhist approach of non-attachment and loving-kindness.  The depiction of the affection between the two women is frank, accepting and without prurience.  Other sexual behaviours - including sadomasochistic ones - are dealt with in a similar way.  But the increasingly purple episodes, particularly those relating to Venn's sadism, and the slightly clunky way in which each plot development is heralded by the same thing nearly happening, always portentously, a few chapters earlier, combine to make this a rather tiresome read.  The couple of contemporary reviews I've found seem to generally agree;  Vita Sackville-West's cousin Edward included The Dark Island in a list of recommended books for the library list in the Saturday Review, which was generous to her if not to the potential readershipThe book now seems to be only in print in French, although there are fairly inexpensive second-hand copies around.  If you would like to try VSW, I'd suggest starting with All Passion Spent or The Edwardians, or, best of all, her writings on gardening.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith

Emma Smith, author of The Far Cry and Maiden's Trip, has written a memoir of the first twelve years of her life, which were spent in Newquay in Cornwall in the 1920s and 1930s.  Emma Smith was born Elspeth Hallsmith, a terrible name for a small child with a lisp.  Her parents were middle-class but impoverished; her father's grandfather lost the family wealth in a speculation just before the Great War which put paid to her father's hopes of becoming a famous artist, and he now works as a cashier in the bank.  Her mother had been engaged three times before her marriage, and in each case her fiancé had died before they could marry; the Hallsmith marriage seems to have been agreed rather precipitously and was as successful as you might imagine as a result.  

Guthrie Hallsmith has a craving for fame and social success that is not matched by his talents as an artist or more generally as a human being; his wife, friendly and pretty, achieves social standing more easily than he does, but reaps only his resentment.  Elspeth's older siblings, the twins Pam and Jim, draw their father's fire away from their little sister.  Pam is straightforwardly rebellious, while poor Jim, with his flat feet and double hernia, comes nowhere near his father's ideal of boyhood and suffers angry beatings as a result.  Elspeth is considered to have more of an affinity with her father, but she perceptively realises that this has no foundation, and torments herself with her hypocrisy in performing a relationship which has no basis in love.  Elspeth - and the adult Emma - remain perplexed by the paradox of Hallsmith life: "we are presented to local society as a remarkable family, quite out of the ordinary, and a cut above all other Newquay families, yet when at home, inside, and the door firmly shut on the world, then the theatrical glue that sticks us together dissolves.  Behind the scenes [...] we children are shown that each of us, as an individual, is in no way remarkable, but wretchedly inadequate, with nothing of which to be proud; the reverse, in face: much of which to be ashamed."  Elspeth's ambition is merely to survive the difficulties of family life, evading her father's anger and disappointment as much as she can.

While this aspect of the book is profoundly sad, Emma Smith draws out the joys of her childhood as well.  There is the dependable Lucy, their maid, who cooks and cares for the children, who knows where to find anything that is lost.  There is their beautiful and sociable mother, who charms their neighbours.  And there are lots of friends, to be met on the beach, at dancing classes, at the tennis club.  The memoir is well-titled, for the beach is the centre of society for the children; picnics, games, parties all take place there, they learn to swim and to surf, they know the business of the beach - deck chair hire, bathing huts, ice-cream from the kiosk.  A stormy winter sea is an entertainment for the family.  The book is also very good - and very funny - about the infinitely subtle gradations of class in interwar provincial society; Elspeth frequently offends through her inability to keep to these rules, making friends with a Barnardo's boy she meets on the beach, and unable to limit her conversation to topics suitable for nice little girls.  As she grows older, her views of these distinctions become decidedly critical, but remain unspoken in order to keep the family peace.  An afterword reflects on how these structures and limitations constrained her parents, with a sympathy not much evident in the text.

This is as well-written as The Far Cry, and as in the novel, the sense of place is very clearly evoked: little Elspeth is astonishingly attuned to the texture of the Cornish coast, the caves and inlets that only low tide reveals, the rockpools and the dunes, the strange quirks of the local landscape.  While the sadness of this story could make it drift towards misery lit, underlying the narrative is the growth of Elspeth's strength and independence of mind,  which makes the story a positive one,  however grim Guthrie's moods might become.  Smith is also very clever in combining Elspeth's child's view of the world with an elegaic tone for the loss of that world, and in maintaining a balance of adult and child in the narrative voice.  Finishing the book, I longed to know what happened next, and Smith gives a few things away in this interview with The Guardian.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

William by E.H. Young

This 1925 novel deals, leisurely, with the effects of a family crisis.  The Nesbitts are a prosperous Bristol family (Bristol is called Radstowe in the novel) whose wealth is due to William Nesbitt's successful career as a ship-owner.  William has built up his business from nothing, having started life as a sailor, and he and his wife Kate live in a gracious white house that he determined to buy in the early days of their marriage.  Their youngest child Janet, the only one of five not yet married, lives with them, and three of her siblings live nearby.  Only the dramatic and wayward Lydia has left to live in a damp house in London with her husband Oliver, where she entertains artists, writers and musicians.  Lydia will precipitate the drama of the novel when she leaves Oliver to live in another damp house in Somerset with the writer Henry Wyatt.  The varied reactions of her friends and siblings, the family tensions arising from these reactions, and the resolution of these tensions are the matter of the narrative.

William Nesbitt is the protagonist, and much of the action of the novel is seen through his eyes; he is a fond and affectionate father, strongly interested in his children's lives, but also benefits from the slight detachment afforded by his professional life at the office and his status in the town, which is built on commercial rather than moral foundations.  No such luxury is available to Kate, and her response to Lydia's defection is what we would currently call judgemental; she rejects her.  William has much more sympathy with Lydia, and this difference opens up a rift between them.  Two of their other daughters - pampered Dora and martyred Mabel - take similarly opposing views.  Janet, whose feelings for her sister are complex and somewhat obscure, remains enigmatic.  The narrative is not a straightforward account of a family at war, however; the Nesbitts' mutual love underpins all their disagreements, and Young quietly shows how they work their way through this crisis.

There is a lot of texture in Young's prose. Light is particularly important: the light sparkling from the river when the family takes the maiden voyage in a new steamer, the darkness of Lydia's adulterous Somerset home, the pure, clear light that floods the Nesbitts' white house.  Colour, too, is significant. William ascribes colours to his children (Lydia is scarlet and purple, unsurprisingly) and the narrative is punctuated by little points of colour: William's buttonhole, flowers in vases, greengrocers' shops, the hills behind the town.  The narrative is paced like William's daily walk to and from his office, comfortably slowly, stopping regularly to examine something more closely, to look back at the view behind.  Sometimes this pace drags a little, and there were points where my fingers itched for a blue pencil.  At its best, however, it allows the family drama to unfold naturally, without haste or contrivance.

John Bayley's introduction to the Virago edition uses the word "subtlety" about this book, and it seems to be to be a just one.  The characterisation is subtle (with the possible exception of Mabel, whose function seems to be mainly comic); motivations are complex and not straightforward; relationships are built and maintained with negotiation and compromise.  What is not said remains as important as what is said. 

Unfortunately all the Virago editions of E H Young's novels seem to be out of print, although Amazon has plenty of secondhand copies for a penny. 

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith

Sheila Kaye-Smith was a prolific writer who lived for most of her life in East Sussex, and set many of her books there, drawing on the dramas of agricultural life;  Joanna Godden, published in 1921, was her first big literary success.  Joanna, "a mare that's never been properly broken in", inherits her father's farm on Romney Marsh, in 1897.   Failing to heed advice to get a manager to run it for her, she insists on managing the farm itself, and begins by sacking her shepherd when he fails to heed her advice.  She suffers some setbacks; a poor replacement shepherd and her own project of breeding giant sheep cause her to lose her flock, but after a few years the farm recovers its success, and she is grudgingly accepted as a guest (but definitely not a member) of the local farmers' dining society.  Joanna is a curious mix of the deeply traditional and the unconventional; she overturns class barriers when she and the local squire's son, Martin Trevor, fall in love, but she will not drive to market or anywhere else without a farmworker beside her.  Joanna's love affairs do not run smoothly, and her project to make a lady of her sister Ellen, through education at a school in Folkstone, has some decidedly unexpected and disruptive results.  However, Joanna is tough, resilient and not at all discouraged by the challenges life presents; she believes almost unwaveringly in the prospect of her own success.

Sheila Kaye-Smith was compared to Hardy in her lifetime, and the obvious Hardy counterpart for Joanna is Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd.  They have some similarities; their determined independence, the way they are distracted and misled by sexual attraction, and their carefully-achieved status in a patriarchal community. Kaye-Smith is not above mocking her heroine's old-fashioned  Joanna Godden is a less subtle and much less tragic book than Hardy's, however, although Kaye-Smith's lyrical praise of the Sussex countryside is as vigorous, if not quite as evocative, as that of her Wessex colleague.  The pleasures of this novel are in the depictions of country life, in anticipating the obstacles life will put in Joanna's path, and wondering how she will overcome them - while remaining convinced that she will.  The ten years or so of the novel also track changes in farming practice and technology, the slow development of an ancient way of life, in a sympathetic but not overly nostalgic way.  I could have done with less of the transcribed dialect from the yokels, but that is a minor quibble.  The Virago edition of this book is still in print.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Mariana by Monica Dickens

Years ago, I read my mother's library copies of One Pair of Hands and One Pair of Feet, as well as her Follyfoot series as a horse-mad child, but I'd never read any of her novels for adults until now.  Harriet Lane's introduction to the Persephone edition places this book alongside other iconic novels of young womanhood like I Capture the Castle and The Pursuit of Love, and thematically there are certainly similarities.  In the opening chapter, our heroine Mary, during a stormy night in World War II, hears that her husband's ship has been sunk.  The phone line to her isolated Essex cottage has blown down and any telegram will have been sent to her London home.  While she waits out the hours before she can find out whether her husband is dead or alive, she thinks back over her life to date.  

Mary has been brought up by her mother, her father having died in the first war when she was a baby, and her mother's brother, Uncle Geoffrey, a jobbing actor specialising in "silly-ass" parts.  They live in a flat in London's Olympia, but Mary loves best her long holidays at Charbury, the Somerset home of her paternal grandparents, where she can lead a country childhood, riding, hunting, and staging mock hangings in the playhouse with her young cousins.  One cousin, the handsome Denys, will be Mary's first love, until he scuppers his chances by getting off with a blonde at his college ball.  Mary is uninterested in education or a career, telling her mother that schoolwork is pointless because she just wants to get married and have twenty-six children, their names going right through the alphabet.  However, she is forced through a good school, has a short-lived flirtation with drama school, before being sent to Paris to learn dress design.  In Paris, she acquires some sophistication and a glamorous French fiancé.   Will Mary make a good wife to an upper-class Frenchman, or will her love of England prove disruptive to Pierre's plans?

 One of the things this book has in common with I Capture the Castle is its profound expression of love for England, particularly the English countryside, which is imbued with a beauty and authenticity that cannot be achieved by London smartness or Parisian elegance.  I wondered if it had been written in exile as Dodie Smith's book was, but it seems not - except to the extent that anyone in wartime Britain was in exile from the country they once knew.  It is the episodes at Carbury that no doubt prompt comparisons with The Pursuit of Love, but Mitford's children are tougher,more heartless and much funnier than Mary and her cousins.Hannah Stoneham's review draws out the similarities between Mary's growing love for Denys, and Cassandra's romantic awakening.  But Mary is, to me, less interesting than Cassandra, more ordinary and rather aimless, although I don't doubt that she is extremely representative of some girls of her period.  I was more interested in her mother, a sparky, energetic woman who makes a career for herself and maintains an independent life when she could probably have lived off her in-laws; in Uncle Geoff's slightly seedy theatrical world which blossoms into unexpected success; and in her ghastly maternal grandmother, self-dramatising, critical and repellent.  I agree with Hannah Stoneham that Mary is most interesting in her worst moments, asserting her sense of entitlement, disrupting a drama school examination, moping about with jealousy when Denys takes a friend out shooting; she acquires a bit of drive and vigour at these times, even if - or perhaps because - she is being irritating.

As the introduction warns, there is some outrageous snobbishness on display in the novel, and some very ouchy anti-Semitism, probably entirely typical and realistic, but it's as well to brace yourself.  One of the things I found slightly odd about the narrative is that Mary's memories are not presented as such; there is no reflection from the older, married Mary on her younger self as we see her move between Charbury, school, London and Paris, or any sense that these stories are being remembered by her rather than told to us by Monica Dickens, and only the chapters that bracket the novel remind us that times have moved on.  This book is definitely comfort reading, a "hot-water bottle book" as Harriet Lane has it, but I'm not sure it would keep the chill out for me as effectively as some of its literary peers do.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

Esther Hammerhans, a library clerk at the House of Commons in 1964, is looking for a lodger.  The lodger who arrives to rent her box room is surprising: he is Mr Chartwell, a huge, shaggy and smelly black dog.  For a dog, he has some surprising habits, including talking, walking on his hind legs, and having some sort of job that brings him to Esther's part of London.  That job has to do, tangentially, with Esther's job.  Mr Chartwell is Winston Churchill's famous 'black dog', a reification of his metaphor for the periods of depression, and needs to be near Westminster to make sure he is present during the last days of Churchill's political career.  Esther has her own relationship with depression, and the drama of the book turns on whether she will succumb to Mr Chartwell's charms.

This book is incredibly delicately balanced.  It could so easily veer off into twee whimsy or overdramatic horror, but Rebecca Hunt has built up her narrative with great care, balancing the comic and the sinister to create recognisable accounts of living with, and struggling against, the realities of life with depression.  Nowhere is this care more evident than in the characterisation of Mr Chartwell himself: he combines human characteristics of humour, insight, and cunning, with a manifest doggishness, leaving vast clumps of hair everywhere and destroying the fabric of Esther's home.  Charismatic, amusing and persistent, it becomes increasingly easy to understand why Churchill has continued to tolerate him.

Despite its underlying sombre theme, the book is also very funny.  I was particularly amused by the appallingly rude Head of the House of Commons Library, John Dennis-John, who utterly fails to intimidate his staff, even when he suggests that a glimpsed bra-strap makes a woman look like the Whore of Babylon, and by the cheerful, inventive Corkbowl, a new recruit to the library.  Mr Chartwell singing to himself "a bone in the fridge may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl's best friend" has given me a permanent earworm.  Churchill and his wife Clementine get some excellent lines, and Esther's stubborn evasiveness and perplexed responses to an increasingly strange world have their own gentle humour.  This novel blends the fantastic expertly with the everyday, and is a stimulating and ultimately inspiring read.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

People Who Say Goodbye by P.Y. Betts

This little memoir, republished by Slightly Foxed Editions, describes an early twentieth century childhood with great verve and humour.  P.Y. Betts was born in Wandsworth in 1909 and grew up there, in a house on the road between a military hospital and a cemetery and opposite the undertakers; during the First World War her days are punctuated by military funerals.  Feeling a  need to formally acknowledge these, the young Phyllis takes to standing on a street corner and raising her blue woolly hat to the passing corteges.

Betts's memoir is a blend of ironic reflection on her childhood from a considerable perspective - the book was first published in 1989 - and the authentic representation of a child's experience and understanding of her world.  Smells are terribly important; the noxious smell of boiling cats' meat - once experienced, never forgotten - the fusty and unpleasant smell of wool clothing from the days before dry-cleaning; the clean, soapy smell of a successful washing day, her mother's particular passion.  Food is another significant matter; Phyllis is permanently hungry and her mother's insistence on vast quantities of animal fat in her diet does nothing much to assuage this, particularly during the lean years of the War. Her first sustained experience of sugar - shared with her friend Marion and eaten out of a blue bag - makes them "drunk, plain intoxicated with the unaccustomed charge of sugar into the blood.  Phyllis's childish logic helps her puncture the hypocrisy of the adults around her, particularly her maternal grandfather and aunts, who live in upper-middle-class splendour not far away.  Politically Liberal, they are intensely socially conservative, and when Phyllis, lost in Wandsworth with her friend Percy, finds her way to their house, they are only briefly admitted before being sent home.  Phyllis detects this is "something to do" with working-class Percy,

Phyllis's father is affectionately portrayed, with his fondness for his felt bootees at the end of the working day, and his agonies when his wife rises at four to get the copper going.  But it is Phyllis's mother, her "brutal parent" with the "radiant smile" who dominates the narrative.  Unimpressed by formal education, a traitor to her class background, and determined to keep all the knives in the house sharp as razors, her child-rearing approach is summarised by Phyllis as "learn-while-you-burn". The world is a hazardous place, and her children need to cope with its dangers from an early age, rather than being sheltered from them.  She brings a lot of the humour to the story, pressing lettuce on Phyllis's tutors to help cure their scurfy eyelids, declaring that "there were no millimetres when I was young", sportingly agreeing to wear a frilly boudoir cap while scrubbing the doorstep in a sacking apron.  But she can be ruthless, too; when Phyllis's brother gets diphtheria, then a notifiable contagious disease, she somehow manages to nurse him at home, despatching Phyllis to her paternal grandparents in Kent where, if she develops the disease, she will be sent to a fever hospital.  Phyllis realises she has been "thrown to the wolves" by her mother.

But her grandparents' cottage is Phyllis's idyll, her place of love and security.  She celebrates her grandfather, a former chef, who always makes sure there is a glow-worm in the posies of flowers he brings his wife, and her cribbage-loving grandmother, who bakes delicious pies to give to a toothless and incomprehensible neighbour, down on his luck.  Her exile from Wandsworth is a golden time: "The lamplight spread a pool of tranquility over the supper table, over the white cloth, the yellow butter, the food illumined as if by some unsought blessing.  I saw the two old worn faces in that blessed light and wanted never to leave them, never to say goodbye."  The title of the book comes from the young Phyllis's realisation that people who say goodbye seldom return, but her memoir preserves all those who disappeared from view in her life.

This is a beautiful book within and without; P.Y. Betts's other book, a novel called French Polish, seems to be very hard to get hold of, unfortunately.  For another perspective on this book, try Simon's review at Stuck-in-a-Book.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Nicola Beauman

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Nicola Beauman, part of the Clifton Montpelier Powis Festival in Brighton, on rediscovering lost writers.  She told us a great deal about the mechanics of publishing, how she came to start Persephone Books (an unexpected legacy provided the capital) and how she goes about finding and publishing the Persephone titles, choosing the fabrics for the endpapers, and generally running the business.

She talked a lot about Dorothy Whipple and the now notorious "Whipple Line" operated by Virago; Dorothy Whipple exemplified bad writing for Virago, and Carmen Callil in particular, and writers who came below the Whipple Line were not published by Virago.  A recent BBC Radio 4 programme about women's writing interviewed both Carmel Callil and Nicola Beauman, and this debate was given another airing.  I'm with Nicola Beauman on this one; she said she couldn't see what the problem was with Dorothy Whipple's writing, and neither can I.  I have a sneaking suspicion that those who criticise her books have only read the opening chapters; when I read High Wages recently I thought I could detect stock characters and a predictable plot in the first few pages, but the novel didn't turn out as I expected at all.  Nicola pointed out that there is no critical writing on Whipple, and suggested that she may be impossible to write about; I like a challenge, and High Wages fits well with the theme of the third chapter of my thesis, so I'll be giving it a try.

For DPhil reasons I am interested in the notion of the middlebrow, and Nicola used this word a few times in her talk, but shied away from it rather, locating her texts somewhere in a category slightly above the middlebrow; however, she say that she hoped Persephone would have the effect of those engines of middlebrow culture, the interwar Book Society and Boots Lending Library.  I wanted to ask her whether she thought the term "middlebrow" was reclaimable, if we could use it to describe books without shame, but we ran out of time for questions.  She was much more robust about the notion of Persephone Books as feminist, but exemplifying a non-separatist feminism that includes a space for men - hence the male writers included among Persephone authors.

During questions, Nicola raised the awful prospect of an end to Persephone, and hinted that she might sell the company to the right buyer.  Should there be any millionaires or venture capitalists reading this who'd like to preserve Persephone, I hope they will reflect on the possibility.  If you get a chance to hear Nicola speak, do take it: she is a very interesting and entertaining speaker with lots of things to say.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Extraordinary Women by Compton Mackenzie

Mackenzie's comic novel takes for its theme the complicated pairings, separations and new alliances among a group of more or less lesbian women on Capri (renamed Sirene in the book) at the end of the First World War.  His protagonist is the young and beautiful Rosalba Donsante, whose pleasure it is to absorb admiration, capture hearts, and break up established couples.  Rosalba is adored by the English Rory (short for Aurora) Freemantle, who is rich and decidedly masculine in appearance, with a "hispid chin"; Rosalba will take a good deal of advantage of Rory during her stays on Sirene.  Even the most snobbish and prudish people eventually succumb to her charms, but can Rosalba make a conquest of the celebrated composer Olimpia Leigh when she visits the island?

Published in 1928, a month after The Well of Loneliness, Mackenzie's book was spared the attentions of Sunday Express leader writers and the Home Office, despite its remarkably candid depictions of lesbian characters.  This is probably partly due to its original publication in a limited edition, and partly due to the tone of the book. The narrative voice is highly satirical, there is no suggestion that any of these women are martyred by society or their sexuality, and no serious claim for an equal place in the world for the invert; both Rory and Olimpia Leigh express the view that homosexuals have reached a higher plane of existence, but this is plainly presented as satire.  Most of Mackenzie's characters are ridiculous and he treats them with a highly ironic and slightly contemptuous manner; many of them are poseuses, asserting sexual deviance for attention only.  Several of them are also drawn from life; Olimpia Leigh is based on the painter Romaine Brooks, who was part of the Capri circle when Mackenzie lived there; Rory draws strongly on Radclyffe Hall, who was not a Capri resident but was clearly irresistible as a character, and a plainly lesbian one at that; and Rosalba is based on Mimi Franchetti, a rich Venetian who, according to Who's who in gay and lesbian history, was "stupendously egocentric, unable to keep from interfering in any relationship between two other women [...] an untameable femme fatale" (59).  

So the book is very interesting in terms of lesbian representation in fiction, and in historical terms, and it provides access to some excellent gossip.  But is it any good?  The narrative is highly ironic and mocking, and it can be very funny.  There are some lyrical descriptions of the beauties of Capri/Sirene.  But the story and structure are repetitive; Rosalba's sequential romantic conquests are followed by quarrels and usually a farcical climax of some sort, ending with the final chaotic party at Rory's clifftop villa.  There are also a number of plot strands that start up, but go nowhere, such as the burglary at Olimpia's house; these feel like padding in a fairly long book.  Some of the humour, for me, borders on misogyny.  On the whole I found this more interesting than enjoyable - and occasionally hard work, which for a book designed as a frivolous confection is disappointing.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Elizabeth Bowen by Victoria Glendinning

Most people who have read any of Elizabeth Bowen's remarkable work will concur with Victoria Glendinning's assertion, in her Foreword, that Bowen is a "major writer; her name should appear in any responsible list of the ten most important fiction writers in English on this side of the Atlantic in this century.  She is to be spoken of in the same breath as Virginia Woolf".  Glendinning sets out to trace the origins of this literary greatness and to explore the woman behind the text.  Bowen's childhood was intermittently idyllic, but blighted by her father's mental illness and the early death of her mother.  An only child but well-supplied with cousins, she grew up to be gregarious and sociable; a short spell at a very serious-sounding girls' school seems to have drawn out a sense of duty from Elizabeth's roots in Anglo-Irish gentry.   Elizabeth grew up to be hard-working, good fun, generous and - for the most part - well-behaved.  She was married for thirty years to Alan Cameron, a career administrator, who supported her writing and tolerated her various indiscretions.  It probably helped that Elizabeth was reserved; she could create intimacy very quickly with strangers, but generally without revealing much of her own interior life.  Her writing, which arose when she realised she had no talent for fine art, drew on her own life and relationships, but transformed them, taking possibilities further, exploring tracks passed by in the real world. 

 This was Glendinning's second book, and her first biography of a celebrated writer; published in 1977, only four years after Bowen died, it necessarily glides carefully over some of the details of her personal life, presumably to avoid offence to people still living.  I've heard Victoria Glendinning tell of how she tends to fall in love with her subjects, and Bowen certainly receives a great deal of generous sympathy and admiration.  Other biographers might perhaps have made more of her failings, but Glendinning is prepared to understand and accept them, particularly those failings that contributed to her work.  This generous understanding is also extensive in her later biographies of Vita Sackville-West and Leonard Woolf.  In this book, however, I got the feeling that, like her subject, Glendinning was holding back.  This might be due to her evident enthusiasm for Bowen's work, to the date of publication, or because the archival Elizabeth was as charming and delightful as her real-life counterpart.

Glendinning is very good on Elizabeth's relationship to Ireland, to her Anglo-Irish background, and also on her position and relation to English literary society.  There is a thorough consideration of all her major works, and of the themes that underpin them; given her other, ancillary work such as teaching and lecturing, Bowen's output was fairly prodigious, especially in view of the quality of her writing.  The chapter on literary wartime London is also fascinating, and I enjoyed the post-war chapters in which Bowen's literary position is secured, and she can encourage the young, travel, contribute to political work, and find time to persuade her American publisher to offer Muriel Spark's books in the US, which gives us all an additional reason to be grateful to her.  This book made me like and admire Elizabeth Bowen the person, an admiration to set alongside the one I already have for her writing.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Culinary Pleasures by Nicola Humble

Nicola Humble's book is a fascinating review of the way cookbooks have been written, presented and used in Britain since the 1860s; it also functions, extremely effectively, as a social history of cooking and eating.  Presented chronologically, each chapter deals with the most celebrated food writers - Mrs Beeton, Agnes Jekyll, Boulestin, Elizabeth David, Constance Spry, Jane Grigson - and also their contemporaries who may not be as well-known today but whose influence on the way we cook and eat is persistent.  Humble's topic allows her to explore the social changes of the period thematically, too: the significance of gender in food writing, the decline of the servant class and the growth of a professionalised domesticity, the anxieties around the best way to feed children.  Some of these themes will be familiar to those who have enjoyed Humble's The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, as will her prose, which combines a thorough scholarship with great readability and humour.

The book is excellent at tracing the links between social change, class mobility and the transformation of food retail, and developments in food writing.  Modern cookbooks are often criticised as being for reading, or displaying on shelves, rather than cooking from; but Humble shows how this was always an aspect of cookery writing.  Late Victorian and Edwardian cookbooks often had chapters called something like "When Cook is Away", which included simple recipes the housewife might attempt herself, and glossed over the fact that for many readers at this time, Cook was not just away, but gone for good, if she had ever in fact existed.  The more elaborate recipes were for wistful perusal rather than for use.  The two chapters on wartime cookery show how important food writers were to the war effort, providing new ideas for using an increasingly limited range of ingredients, even if the results of their inventiveness were peculiar at best, revolting at worst.    Humble is also very good at analysing the way in which food writers write, the lifestyle that is being endorsed along with the recipes, and the influence on our contemporary views of dishes and ingredients; Elizabeth David's endorsement of tinned tomatoes has gone some distance to make them acceptable to the majority of today's foodies.  The book also considers the ways in which recipes and cookbooks have been presented: the simple hardback, recipe cards, flip-books that allow you to combine three courses in new and exciting ways, and the picture or cartoon books, like Len Deighton's cookbooks aimed at men.  The final chapter, which considers the rise of the celebrity chef and the influence of television on food writing, is a fascinating piece of analysis, and skewers Delia Smith with delightful precision; apparently she finds it disgusting when her fellow TV cooks taste their own food on screen.  This tells you all you need to know about Delia, really, although I am bound to admit that her recipe for flaky pastry is truly excellent.

Best of all, this book has recipes, so you can see for yourself how this type of writing has evolved and how it reflects on itself.  There is a frightful-sounding, necessarily eggless, World War II cake which comes with a rather surprising endorsement from Stella Gibbons.  Nicola Humble is particularly devoted to Constance Spry, and we get her apparently infallible recipe for choux pastry.  From Raymond Blanc's oeuvre we get a terrifying multi-stage recipe for red pepper mousse, the style of which will be instantly familiar to anyone who bought a cookbook in the late 1980s.  A Nigella Lawson recipe for a comforting family supper of fish pie followed by cherries and ice-cream exemplifies the intimate and personal tone that characterises her writing.  This book was not only highly informative and entertaining, but it sent me straight back to reading my own collection of cookbooks, and wondering when I might find the time to cook Jane Grigson's recipe for Paris-Brest, making use of the Constance Spry choux pastry method, obviously.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

To The River by Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing's book is a love-letter to the river Ouse in Sussex, a poetic blend of travel narrative, history and memoir.  After a personal crisis, Olivia sets out to walk the Ouse from the source to the sea, her backpack stuffed with cheese and oatcakes, on a journey of healing and discovery.  Her narrative takes in the history of Sussex around the Ouse.  We meet the amateur geologist Gideon Mantell, a doctor in Lewes in the early nineteenth who discovered the iguanadon; Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Lewes; Richard Dawson who gave us the Piltdown Man hoax; and Leonard and Virginia Woolf.  Laing also ponders those who have loved rivers, and been endlessly drawn to them, like Kenneth Grahame, and the effect of rivers on the landscape, and of humankind on those rivers.

Laing's style is reflective, turning over for the reader her thoughts and wonderings about the landscape and the characters who populate it.  We are privy to her indecisions and confusions, which makes for an intimate, confiding text.  Her knowledge is demonstrated lightly and the stories and histories she relates make the narrative digressive and meandering, much like the Ouse itself.  I was faintly surprised by the depth of her botanical knowledge - she can spot a dozen species in a hedgerow - until I read on the back of the dustjacket that she used to be a medical herbalist.  She is also a fearless swimmer; I would not swim in the wide, grey, tidal Ouse at Southease, even without the awful example of Virginia Woolf before me.

Laing writes a lot about both Woolfs, looking particularly at the representation of water in Virginia Woolf's writings, and unpicking the notion that her suicide by drowning is foretold in her novels and diaries, extracting alternate readings of texts that have been read as sinister or portentous, like the diary account of Virginia wading into a flooded Ouse that covered the fields around Rodmell, unworried about getting wet because she was wearing Leonard's corduroy trousers.  But Woolf is an object lesson of the unpredictability of the river, which will take you, if you surrender yourself to it, but may not return you.

This book was particularly resonant for me because I've also walked the length of the Ouse, along the Sussex Ouse Valley Way which Olivia Laing also follows for the most part.  I can still see vividly the places she describes.  But the book has amplified  the memory of my walk by connecting it to history, geology and to Laing's own experience of the Ouse.  Above all, Laing's book celebrates the pleasures of walking alone in the landscape: "There wasn't a soul in sight, though I knew there were hordes of people beyond each ridge [...] I was nonetheless as purely happy as I've ever been right then, in that open passageway beneath the blue vault of the sky, walking the measure allotted me, with winter on each side [...] I felt untethered, almost weightless."  Like Waterlog, this book will make you want to stuff your swimsuit - and perhaps some cheese and oatcakes - into a backpack and set off into the fields towards the river.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall

Most readers, and I am no exception, come to Radclyffe Hall's work via The Well of Loneliness, and that's where they probably stop - with a bookmark permanently lodged near the middle in a number of cases, no doubt.  I've just re-read The Well for DPhil purposes, after a gap of about twenty years. While I remain impressed with her bravery in writing the book, I still find the prose almost unbearable: Hall uses repetitive devices, borrowed from the literature of myths, legends, and the Bible, to leave us in no doubt of Stephen Gordon's heroic, martyred status.  I was therefore delighted  - not to say astonished - to open The Unlit Lamp and find a well-structured novel written in engaging prose with even the occasional joke.  In a subversive way, however, The Unlit Lamp is as radical a novel of lesbian life as its more famous successor.

Hall's heroine is Joan Ogden, twelve when the novel opens, the daughter of a retired Colonel who has served in India to the detriment of his health, and his snobbish wife who makes much of her distant, aristocratic relatives.  The family live in Seabourne, a rather dull coastal resort that is particularly rigid in its gentility.  It is around 1890; the scholarly Joan has the good fortune to acquire a Cambridge-educated governess, Elizabeth Rodney.  Elizabeth recognises Joan's talent, as does a local friend, Richard Benson.  Joan will hope to emulate Richard by becoming a doctor.  Her sister Milly is not academic but very musical, and determined to study the violin in London.  Their father's old-fashioned objections to these aims (he thinks it "indecent" for a woman to become a doctor) are challenged when an aunt leaves the girls a small amount of money, enough to keep them while they train for some profession.  Milly does manage to get to a music school, but Joan finds her efforts to leave are continually thwarted.  Money, family illness and social propriety all conspire against her; most of all, Mrs Ogden's calculated vulnerabilities constantly undermine Joan's determination to get away.  Elizabeth recognises the situation and offers Joan a home with her in London, and to support her while she trains, setting herself in plain opposition to Joan's mother.  The book's drama is contained within the battle between these two older women for Joan's love and attention.

The structure and pacing of the book are excellent; Hall builds to a series of climaxes in which it seems that Joan might be going to follow her dream, then drops into anticlimax when Joan returns to familial duty.  The book is divided into key episodes from Joan's life, often with long gaps between them, so the Bildungsroman element is not overly detailed.  Mrs Ogden is no cardboard ogre, and the reasons for her selfishness are worked into the narrative; Elizabeth, similarly, is imperfect and it is this realism that makes Joan's endless dithering over her future understandable and tolerable.  Hall decided to write this novel to expose the ways in which adult unmarried daughters were exploited and thwarted by their mothers, and some polemical argument emerges, both in the narrative tone and in the mouths of a couple of the characters.  While the novel endorses the notion that women should have the chance of a life of their own, the stories of Milly and Elizabeth show the hazards inherent in venturing out into the world, and draw some ambiguity into the political force of the text.  The love between Joan and Elizabeth allows Hall to contemplate the difficulty of establishing a relationship between women, both economically and socially.  Joan comes to realise that she is afraid of acknowledging her desire:  "... she had not the courage to say straight out that she intended leaving her mother's home for that of another woman ... it was unusual, and because it was unusual she had been embarrassed."  Hall's greater frankness about lesbian desire in The Well of Loneliness contributed to its prosecution for obscenity; this novel expresses the sexual desire between Joan and Elizabeth only in metaphor and allusion, but is candid about their commitment to each other, their desire to live together, and the relationship of this desire to traditional notions of marriage.  There are interesting connections between this novel and Winifred Holtby's The Crowded Street, published in the same year, particularly in the context of the panic about 'surplus women' of the early 1920s.

The Unlit Lamp seems to be out of print, but the Virago edition is to be had for a penny on Amazon; it's well worth the penny and the postage charge.