Shelter by Marguerite Steen ~ 1941. This edition: Sun Dial Press, 1942. Originally published under the pseudonym Jane Nicholson. Hardcover. 241 pages.
My rating: 6.5/10
I followed my reading of Frances Faviell’s superb London Blitz memoir, A Chelsea Concerto, with this rather unusually structured novel covering the exact same time period, in the same London borough.
It’s an interesting novel, and certainly not a bad novel, but I rather wonder what I would have made of it if it hadn’t been so much related to the Faviell memoir in setting and time period. The writing itself is much more than competent; I would go so far as to call it “fine”, in the highest-praise sense of the term.
This said, I suspect I got more out of Shelter as a companion piece than I would have if it were a stand-alone read, for it is a bit of a jumble, written in what I would term a modestly “experimental” style, sections of straightforward storytelling interspersed with random vignettes, the thoughts of various unnamed characters, glimpses of newsreel dialogue, and what one must assume are the author’s own pithy comments, not directly related to her erstwhile story-plot, that of a troubled marriage which has turned into a delicately balanced ménage à trois.
Highbrow Louise is married to not-highbrow (but not quite lowbrow, either) Jos, and they are reasonably content within their 7-year-old relationship. Or so Louise thinks, until it becomes apparent that Jos has become infatuated with the fragile (and possibly hypochondriac?) Camma, who returns his interest with bells on.
Jos seems to be the kind of chap who hates fuss; he’d like to keep both wife and mistress, and the fact that the two women are well aware of each other, and carry on a brittle sort of almost-friendship, seems to indicate that his delicate balancing act may be succeeding.
But then Louise breaks the news: she’s pregnant. Now what?
Meanwhile the bombs are dropping, and emotions are being wound ever upwards to some future breaking point…
The relationship angle of the plot runs parallel to the wider story of a city, country and way of life in peril, and as dreadful thing succeeds dreadful thing one is left at a loss as to anticipate how – or if! – the author is going to resolve, if not the major problem of surviving the war, at the very least her teetering love triangle.
By removing one of the principles, as it turns out, in a decidedly final way.
Well, the book is readily available in the secondhand trade, and has recently been released as an e-book, so it’s not too hard to come by. My own first awareness of it was when I came across it at a small used book store I occasionally frequent and decided to gamble my $5 that it would be an interesting read.
It is all of that, but I hesitate to recommend it, because despite the writer’s sure hand, Shelter seems to me to be missing that elusive something which turns a perfectly adequate novel into something extra-special.
Forewarned, you are, fellow book hunters. (As Yoda might say.)
For further interest, here’s a look at the dramatic promotional blurb from the American-edition dust jacket, as well as a random scan of one of the vignette sections.
Here’s the story on Marguerite Steen, courtesy Library Thing:
Marguerite Steen was adopted as a child and educated at a private school and at Kendal High School. At age 19, she became a teacher, but abandoned that career after three years and moved to London in an effort to find work in the theater. After failing at that, she became a dance teacher in the Yorkshire schools. This job enabled her to spend long periods travelling in France and Spain.
In 1921, she joined the drama company of Fred Terry and Julia Neilson, based at The Strand Theatre in London, and spent three years touring with them. She was befriended by Fred’s sister Ellen Terry, who suggested that she try to write a novel during a period of unemployment.
Marguerite’s first book, The Gilt Cage, was published in 1927. She went on to become a well-known author of some 40 books, mostly historical novels, having her greatest popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. She wrote biographies of the Terrys and of her friend Hugh Walpole, as well as that of 18th-century writer and actress Mary Robinson. Among her bestsellers were Matador (1934), for which she drew on her love of Spain, and The Sun Is My Undoing (1941). She also produced two volumes of autobiography, Looking Glass (1966) and Pier Glass (1968), which provide insights into the English creative set of the 1920s to 1950s.
She shared a home with artist Sir William Nicholson for about 15 years and wrote his biography as well. In 1951, she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.