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.