The 1990 New Canadian Library edition of Hetty Doval has an inapt cover illustration. Its reproduction of an E.J. Hughes painting depicts coastal Ladysmith, B.C., a rather different locality (though they share a water’s edge location) to arid inland Lytton and its rivers descending from the mountains.

Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson ~ 1947. This edition: McClelland & Stewart, 1990. New Canadian Library edition. Afterword by Northrop Frye. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-8953-8. 104 pages.

Canadian-by-circumstance writer Ethel Wilson – born in South Africa, orphaned at the age of ten and brought to Vancouver, B.C. to live with her grandmother – produced a sadly meager handful of very well regarded novellas, novels and short story collections, all sharing themes of strong female protagonists and distinct senses of place.

In Hetty Dorval the place is the tiny Fraser Canyon community of Lytton, British Columbia. Ethel Wilson captured its unique essence perfectly, as I can affirm to, having spent some time there myself, the latest occasion being a day-and-night stay just a month ago. Though I didn’t consciously choose to read the novella in response to that recent experience, I found it added a definite piquancy to my reading.

Twelve-year-old Frances Burnaby – “Frankie” – is a ranch child boarding in Lytton during the week to attend school. She rides the fifteen miles to and from her home with calm competence, quietly revelling in her good fortune of having a loved and loving family, congenial friends and acquaintances, and physical surroundings of immense natural beauty.

The blue Thompson meets the silt-laden Fraser at Lytton, viewed from the bridge over the Thompson, where Frankie would have stood. The joining of the two rivers is used as a strongly symbolic metaphor throughout Hetty Dorval, its most obvious representation being the meeting and melding of innocence and its opposite.

Coming into Lytton from the north, a view much as our fictional Frankie would have had almost a century ago; the village hasn’t changed all that much; its setting not at all.

Not much happens in quiet little Lytton. Life for Frankie follows a predictable pattern of school and after school ramblings with best friend Ernestine. When the train pulls into the village’s tiny station, Frankie and Ernestine are there to watch as often as they can get away with it, “hanging out” by the train station being gently frowned on by the adults in the girls’ lives. (Social mores are predictably strict as the novella’s start is set in the early 1930s.)

So there they are at the train station, standing among the lounging bystanders, and there they see the household effects of newcomer Mrs. Dorval being unloaded – crates and crates of household effects, a grand piano, and a large Newfoundland dog. These are collected by a quiet grey-haired woman; the girls assume she is Mrs. Dorval, but they are wrong.

The real Mrs. Dorval turns up a few days later, and she proves to be quite the stunner. Young, beautiful, an accomplished horsewoman, musician and singer, both Frankie and Ernestine find her fascinating enough to mildly stalk in their adolescent way, collecting what information the local gossips can provide (not much) and trailing by the isolated bungalow Mrs. Dorval has rented and staffed with a housekeeper, the elderly Mrs. Broom (nicknamed by Hetty “Mouse”), and has turned into a retreat from the world. She does not encourage callers.

Frankie meets Mrs. Dorval one day while both are out riding, a spark is struck between the two of them, and while Frankie’s emotion is that of a garden variety schoolgirl crush, we’re not quite sure why Mrs. Dorval encourages her company. “Call me Hetty”, orders Mrs. Dorval, and though Frankie can’t quite bring herself to breach social etiquette between children and adults to this degree, she is happy enough to be plied with tea and treats and to provide an audience for Hetty’s musical performances. Frankie falls in with Hetty’s request to not tell anyone about her on-the-sly visits to the bungalow, and the infatuated Frankie complies, but inevitably someone catches on and word gets out, and Frankie comes home one weekend to a stiff grilling by her concerned parents.

An “unsavoury story” has followed Hetty Dorval from her last port of call – exotic Shanghai, a long way indeed from Lytton – and Frankie’s parents are appalled that their daughter has been co-opted into Hetty Dorval’s questionably moral establishment. Frankie’s mother won’t divulge the nature of Mrs. Dorval’s past history to her innocent daughter, but she is adamant in her condemnation, calling Hetty, with dry almost-humour, “The Menace”, and when she asks Frankie to break off the acquaintance, Frankie reluctantly complies, going back just once to say goodbye, which seems to be harder on her than on the jaded Mrs. Dorval, who sighs and takes it all in stride.

She looked at the fire a minute and then went on. “I know what they’ve told you, Frankie. They’ve told you I’m bad. You must try to believe,” she turned her brilliant look on me, “that I’m not bad, and that if you knew a little more you’d understand about it. Can you believe that? . . . Do you think I’m bad, Frankie?” she said, laughing a little.

I almost whispered, “No.”

“Try and stay my friend,” she said. “Even if you can’t come to see me, try and stay my friend . . . Very well . . . Good-bye . . . ” and with as little emotion as she would have shown in saying good-bye to the postman she got up – she did not come over to touch me – and went into her bedroom and shut the door. It made it easier and harder that she did not come and touch me. She left me standing in the suddenly withdrawn intimacy of the firelit room, with only Sailor sleeping there on the hearth.

I had stood only a moment when Mouse, who must have been listening, came into the room. She opened the front door. “You’d best be going,” she said. And I went.

As Frankie matures and moves out into the wider world – boarding school for a year in Vancouver, then off to England and the Continent – she finds herself once more crossing paths with Hetty Dorval, and the true nature of the woman at the centre of that childhood infatuation becomes ever more apparent, to Frankie’s growing dismay.

Is Hetty truly the menace that she seems to be? The label of “Narcissist” seems to fit perfectly, but how did Hetty get this way? What emotional scars (if any) has she hidden behind her beautifully emotionless face? Esther Wilson gives what might be telling clues, but denies a final judgement, leaving the reader to ponder possibilities…

Hetty Dorval is a memorable example of the novella form, and it is no wonder that it was chosen by the esteemed Persephone Press for reprinting in 2015.  Persephone’s expanded review is well worth reading, though it does contain a number of “spoilers” – first time readers may wish to wait till after to peruse this one.

An easy 9.5/10 for Hetty Dorval from me. Very close indeed to perfect. (I’m still mulling over what exactly Hetty was after regarding the childish Frankie. Was it merely moral predation, or something more sexually sordid? The author leaves a lot unsaid, but my 21st century mind speculates and wonders…  Fellow readers, what did you think?)

I have had a similarly positive response to two other of the writer’s novels, Swamp Angel – read in 2016 but not yet written about –  and The Innocent Traveller, posted about in 2013 here.

I do love the settings, because I know them so very well in real life, and though my Captive Reader friend Claire might differ regarding long passages of description (she’s not keen!) I’m always a sucker for a good word-picture of a place. The stories transcend their setting; for a native British Columbian it’s merely an added bonus. We agree on the essentials: good stuff from Ethel Wilson!

The view from behind the railway station at Lytton taken in mid September, 2017, looking northward up the Fraser River. All symbolism aside, Ethel Wilson’s vivid descriptions of the setting of her story demonstrate the strong emotional appeal of certain geographies on susceptible human emotions. Genius loci is discussed at some length, and the term is most apt.

A Sunset Touch by Howard Spring ~ 1953. This edition: The Companion Book Club, 1955. Hardcover. 288 pages.

Just when we are safest, there’s a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one’s death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides,–
And that’s enough for fifty hopes and fears
As old and new at once as nature’s self,
To rap and knock and enter in our soul,
Take hands and dance there.

Robert Browning ~ Bishop Blougram’s Confession

Middle-aged London bank clerk Roger Menheniot, son of a respectable Cornish cobbler, considers himself the last offshoot of a noble Cornwall family. He stumbled upon knowledge of his ancestry in teenagerhood, and has subsequently spent all of his spare time in researching Menheniot family history, and furnishing his modest rooms in the style of the glory days of Rosemullion, the stately country home of his ancestors. A Sheraton bookcase here, an engraved snuffbox there. The estate itself has fallen on hard times, but Roger dreams of it at night, plotting how he can one day return to it, perhaps in retirement as a tenant of the little lodge at the gates, because he knows there is no way he’ll ever be able to afford the estate itself.

He’s visited Rosemullion, a golden moment of his life, and he’s writing a history of his family, knowing full well it’s not likely to ever see publication. No mind, it’s a true labor of love.

He began by calling it A Cornish Family, but changed that to The Menheniots. He loved the sound of his own name. He loved the look of it as the letters formed under his pen. He liked to turn it over on his tongue in company with other famous names from the county he had never lived in: the Carews, the Elyots, the Killigrews, the Menheniots. He was becoming a crank and a recluse, living with imaginations. He knew it, and he gloried in it. After all, how many men belonged to a family like his?

No: it was not likely that he would ever shake it off now. He had spent too many hours in the Public Record Office and the British Museum, boring like a wood-beetle into the decayed and moldy fabric of the family that had not for a long time lived on ancestral acres and that now, as far as he knew, had no living member but himself. But never had the Menheniots produced a more fanatical Menheniot, a bank clerk by day, Menheniot of Rosemullion by night.

Roger despises his real life; he despises London. Even more so now that it is a city torn by war, for it is 1944, and Roger, shaken out of his fantasy world, has had to take notice of the greater world, and even to take part in civic duties, fire-watching in his neighbourhood as the bombs rain down.

The war changes everything, as it brings into Roger’s miniscule orbit a person whom he had no inkling of at all, an American serviceman who shares his name, and who proves to be another offshoot of the almost-extinct family.

Phillip Menheniot – Phil – is intrigued by his new-found relation, and likes him quite a lot, though he smiles at Roger’s infatuation with their shared ancestry. Over the course of several meetings, the two men become friends, until Phil is swept away by the war, never to be seen again.

Then, in September of 1945, two things happen. The first is that Roger stumbles upon a house-agent’s ad for the estate of Rosemullion. And the very next night he receives a lawyer’s letter, informing him of an unexpected legacy.

Roger and his first love.

Need I tell you what happens next? Yes, Roger’s fantasy is now within his grasp, and he seizes the day. Rosemullion is his!

And with it comes an enlargement of Roger’s life, as he is forced to step outside the comfort zone of his reclusive London life, to move in a wider circle in his new Cornish home. He makes the acquaintance of the local vicar, Henry Savage, an elderly gentleman (in every sense of both words) with a shocking back story, and of young Dr. Littledale, and the doctor’s spinster sister, Kitty.

Kitty and Roger find themselves falling into step, acquaintance ripening to something warmer and deeper, until the shocking day when Kitty attempts to interest Roger in a physical manifestation of their mutual attraction – she kisses him!!! – and Roger, overwhelmed by he’s not quite sure what emotions, finds himself in equal measures repelled by what he sees as her shameful advances, and suddenly aware that the kiss has stirred feelings (yes, those feelings) which he never realized he had within him.

Roger is torn between good girl Kitty and bad girl Bella. What’s a 45-year-old virgin to do?!

While Roger is engaged in the turmoil of his new self-awareness, along comes pretty wanton Bella, and Roger discovers at long last the joy of sex.

What of Kitty, then? Where is she? Waiting in the wings, she is, patiently watching Roger struggle with his metamorphosis into Fully Awakened Manhood. And when Bella comes to grief (poor doomed thing!), Kitty is still there…

Well, well, well.

In my readerly opinion, the early part of the novel was much the most promising, and when Roger heads to Cornwall my curiosity was deep indeed as to what he would make of the rehabilitation of Rosemullion.

Howard Spring instead goes off on a completely different tangent, abandoning the whole scion-of-an-ancient-house theme and instead descending into plain old titillating romance novel territory. It’s more Norah Lofts-style gothic there at the close (we even have a mysterious death), versus Daphne du Maurier-style psychological drama. I found it slightly – okay, more than slightly – disappointing, as our author changed his generical horses in midstream.

If The Houses in Between and Shabby Tiger are A-list examples of what this writer was capable of, A Sunset Touch, while still eminently readable, is one level lower.

My rating: 6/10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Afer years of glancing at Elizabeth Gilbert’s ubiquitous 2009 bestseller out of the corner of my cynical eye, I had a “What the heck!” moment in the Sally Ann the other day and invested my 50 cents in a pristine paperback copy.

Someone read it, because it’s dog-eared here and there, but its crispness tells me they only did so once, with care, before boxing it up for giveaway. It’s going into my giveaway box in much the same condition; I’ve decided to abandon it in the first third of reading; we’re still in Italy with Elizabeth making mildly lustful glances at the twin brown-eyed Italian boys she’s supposed to be learning conversational Italian with.

What can I say that hasn’t been said? For every one gushing reader who swears this thing has changed her life (and interestingly enough, most of the online commenters are female), there seems to be another in full sneer mode. Love it or hate it, the book has sold in the millions, so Liz Gilbert (as she styles herself on her self-promotional website) isn’t about to get too bent out of shape by her detractors.

I took a deep breath as I delved in to the thing – “Be fair”, I cautioned myself, “maybe you’ll find it life-changing, too” – but sadly I am immune to whatever magic so many of my fellow middle-aged sisters have found therein. My spouse can rest quiet in our marital bed – I told him this and he took it with his usual stoic aplomb; he’s well-used to my book-inspired monologues; the bait has to be tempting indeed to get him to engage – undisturbed by a restless wife yearning for more inner fulfillment than she’s already getting living her modestly interesting life in her modestly comfortable home in her modestly beautiful and not very exotic part of the world. No guru calls my name alluringly across the ether; no gorgeous lover is waiting in the wings to open his arms if I do decide to take my departure from my marriage; no $200,000 advance is sitting in my bank account to finance my escape to Europe and the trendier bits of Asia.

Aha! That last bit’s the real rub, I think. And it got me thinking about “manufactured” memoirs, of which there are a fair few out there, and their spin-master authors, who’ve convinced their publishers to finance their travels, in order that they can collect material to weave into some sort of palatable narrative to woo the stay-at-homes with vicarious “it could be me” dreams.

Nice work if you can get it, and in this particular case I’ll be leaving our Liz to it. I’m sure she won’t be sobbing on the bathroom floor if she catches wind of my dismissal, no worries there for either, provider of vicarious thrills and judgemental sometimes-consumer of the same.

Is it a real memoir if someone’s paying your way to collect material before you even set out? Don’t you need to include that bit in the narrative? Many do, and their dialogues with their backers can add considerable interest to the tale, and win us over because we utterly get it, and are cheering the traveller on.

Eat, Pray, Love is just too coy about its true background for me to feel the love. The author is too shifty-eyed; it doesn’t ring true, and didn’t before I found out about the advance. I felt vindicated when I learned of it; my gut-reaction reluctance to buy in suddenly made perfect sense.

Your thoughts, as always, are most welcome, whichever side of the Eat, Pray, Love divide you find yourself on.

“Dear Ones, come buy into my journey…” Elizabeth Gilbert with well-staged backdrop, photographed in Two Buttons, her “Eastern accessories” retail store in New Jersey, opened after her return from her fortunate travels, second sexy husband in tow. The shop closed in 2016, after Gilbert’s second divorce.

 

 

 

 

The Spanish Gardener by A.J. Cronin ~ 1950. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1950. Hardcover. 263 pages.

A fast, intense read, full of palpable foreboding, which builds to a bitter climax.

An American diplomat, estranged from the mother of his young son, frets in the stagnation of his career as he is continually passed over for promotion, being instead shifted from one backwater European consulate to another. He consoles himself that one day he will be vindicated, when he finds a publisher for his ambitious life-work, a biography of obscure 17th Century French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, and with misguided anticipation of the resulting fanfare, dreams of being able to retire from his not very stellar career to a life of acclaimed authorship.

Harrington Brande is obsessed by his own standing in the complicated hierarchy of the foreign diplomatic service, and his immense ego is as fragile as it is blind to its possessor’s deep and well-deserved unpopularity with everyone whom he comes in contact with. The one exception is 9-year-old Nicholas – the name no coincidence – who returns his father’s clinging and jealous infatuation with innocently filial love.

The pair fetch up in a quiet coastal Spanish town, and Brande is relieved to find that both his residence and his official offices are in much better condition than some previous postings have led him to fear. An overgrown garden leads to the engagement of a teenage gardener, a young man of poor family but esteemed local reputation due to his intelligence, happy nature, competence at his work, and stature as an accomplished athlete.

Gardener José and semi-invalid Nicholas are deeply attracted to each other in the most purely platonic of ways, and a deep friendship springs up between the two, flourishing until the father notices the son’s gaze turning to José too often. Steps must be taken to break up this most unsuitable of friendships – added to Harrington Brande’s other unlikable personality traits is one of deep snobbishness – and the tighter he clings to his son the more tenuous his position becomes as the sole possessor of Nicholas’s affection.

A sinister chauffeur-butler, an unscrupulous psychiatrist, and Brande himself manufacture a situation in which José finds himself entrapped in a false accusation. Nicholas remains steadfast to his friend, but all pleas for mercy serve merely to intensify the father’s desire for revenge on his supposed supplanter.

There is a strand of sexual frustration and homoerotic obsession running through this dark and disturbing little novel; one can’t help but feel that Nicholas’s mother has done the wise thing by leaving her husband to his own devices. The child is protected by his tender age from understanding the nuances of his father’s self-torturing motivations, but he is growing up, and becoming aware that all is not as it could and should be.

Tragedy inevitably strikes, as we have known it will all along.

The author allows the slightest gleam of redemption in his final scenes, but makes no firm promises.

Though the scenarios are laid out with perfect clarity, I feel that The Spanish Gardener’s narrative strength lies more in nuance than salacious detail. Definitely a work of its time, a sober post-war character portrait and an emotionally involving though rather subfusc drama. I found it impossible to look away from and read it all in one go this cold fall evening.

My rating: 7.5/10.

Initially a qualified doctor who started writing during a long convalescence from illness in 1930, A.J. Cronin was a Scottish writer of novels, novellas and short stories, and his work was both popular and critically acclaimed. His dramatic stories were a natural for film adaptation; Cronin went on to add successful and lucrative careers as a film and television writer to his other accomplishments.

 

 

Shabby Tiger by Howard Spring ~ 1934. This edition: Sun Dial Press, 1935. Hardcover. 316 pages.

Sound a fanfare – here’s a first novel that hits all of its vigorous notes without jarring.

Okay, let me back up a bit. There was considerable jarring, because a huge component of the novel is “Jewishness”, mostly as viewed from the gentile perspective in 1930s’ Great Britain. Abundant era-expected slanging and racial slurs, some of which drove the plot.

Viewed as a product of its time and read with the 2017 political correctness filter turned off, it works. Caveat emptor: your experience may differ.

Enter one of our protagonists:

The woman flamed along the road like a macaw. A thin mackintosh, washed out by weather into pastel shades of green, was belted tight above the swaying rhythm of her hips. It was slashed open to show a skirt of yellow wool, and you could see that the rent was an old one, that this lazy slut had no use for needle and thread. Thrown round her neck with as much consideration as a dish-clout is thrown on the string stretched before the kitchen fire was a scarf of silk, scarlet, stained and mottled like all she wore, yet achieving a gay defiant beauty. The wind made it a pennon. A great lolloping black sombrero that had belonged to a man and was now trimmed with a broken green feather, hid the flash of the woman’s black secret eyes. She lugged a suitcase of scarlet leather, but because, like all about her, it was tattered and outmoded and insecure, a length of clothes line kept its jaws snapped shut on whatever was within, permitting no more than a glimpse of white, frilled protrusion.

Anna Fitzgerald, recently orphaned daughter of an Irish horse trainer, has precipitately left her employment as a maid, suitcase stuffed with items liberated from their proper owner, the white frills referred to being those of a stolen nightgown. Anna is a fiery sort of creature, much given to blurting out whatever’s on her mind; not a comfortable sort of serving girl, as all involved have discovered. Passionate and penniless, she has no plan for what comes next.

What comes next is a serendipitous meeting with lean and hungry Nick Faunt, starving artist in the best traditional sense. Estranged from his wealthy father, Nick is making his own way through the world. He cares not for what anyone thinks of him, being certain of his artistic genius; he may well be correct.

Anna and Nick become a team, uniting their varied resources in order to scratch out an existence of sorts in the more sordid echelons of Manchester, which is where they fetch up, Anna to reclaim her illegitimate child Brian, born to her five years ago when she was herself a mere child of fourteen, Nick to further his single-minded purpose of capturing movement in charcoal and paint.

The relationship is strictly platonic, though Anna quite openly wishes it were otherwise. Nick has no time for tedious romantic dalliances, though he isn’t above a roll in the rural heather with beautiful, ambitious Jewess Rachel Rosing, social climber extraordinaire, who has misunderstood the antagonism between Nick and Sir George; she assumes the son is merely off sowing wild oats, with the father standing by to welcome the prodigal back at some point. (She’s wrong.)

Here’s a snippet with Rachel in it:

Nick and Rachel lunched at Lyons’s Popular State Café, which is popular because it is stately. Contraltos are apt to break into a deep stately baying there at any moment, and a band plays stately music, and a little boy, dressed like a chef, trundles a wagon of hors d’œuvres among the tables in the most stately manner you could imagine. There are lions on all the crockery – Joseph and his brethren. Upstairs you dance. Rachel knew it all inside out. She liked the place. It symbolised what she was trying to escape to.

What a gloriously varied cast of characters this slight but highly seasoned novel contains!

Here some of, them are, artistically rendered as is appropriate for the bohemian-themed novel: an unknown female (who the heck is she supposed to be? – drawing an utter blank – hang on, maybe it’s Communist rabble rouser Olga?), Nick-the-artist, Rachel-on-skates, monocled lecher Sir George, wee Brian, Anna herself, bookie Piggy White, and down in the lower right corner, another artist, Nick’s friend and punching bag Anton Brune. I’m assuming one of the lesser male characters in the background is meant to depict Jacob Rosing – “Holy Moses”, or “Homo” (possibly short for Homo sapiens, don’t think too hard about it, Anna will fill you in) – Rachel’s socially embarrassing brother, who is employed as Piggy’s clerk. He’s in desperate, unrequited love with Anna, and has been selflessly caring for her child these past five years, and he dejectedly moves through the story like a ghost at the feast, an intimation of tragedy which plays itself out before we leave the story.

So much is packed in here, and so highly coloured is the tale, that Granada Television turned it into a well-received mini-series in 1973, starring a young Prunella Gee as Anna, and, incidentally, causing a bit of stir in its depiction of full frontal female nudity on television (a first), presumably in one of the studio scenes where Anna is posing for Nick. I haven’t seen the filmed version; liberties have obviously been taken with Spring’s novel, but the nudity is in the written version too, as well as a rather explicit sex scene which raised my eyebrows – it stops at the nipples, as it were, but very much goes on in vivid inference.

Getting a bit warm in here. Where was I?

Oh, yes. The novel. Did I like it.

Yes, I did. A whole lot. So much so that I’m delving into the piggy bank and ordering a pricey hardcover copy of Rachel Rosing, the sequel, which extends the story by following Anna’s social-climbing nemesis as she recovers from her Shabby Tiger setbacks and goes out into the wider world.

My rating: 9/10. As period pieces go, this one is a bit of a gem. (Remember what I said about political incorrectness, though. Seething with it!)

Howard Spring. Interesting writer, he’s looking to be. I came to this novel prepared to like it, as I’d been most taken with my introduction to him with The Houses in Between. But he’s not at all an even writer; I’ve also just read A Sunset Touch, and it was fairly dire. Review very much pending, but I had to get my Shabby Tiger rave out of the way first.

One last excerpt, with a nod to my Mancunian readers, who will no doubt find much of interest in this novel for its many depictions of their city of almost a century ago:

The trams that hammer their way out of Albert Square run level if they are going south or east or west. But if they are going north they soon begin to climb. They go east as far as Victoria Station, turn left over the railway bridge, and climb the hill to what the posters call the breezy northern suburbs.

You are no sooner over the bridge than Jerusalem lifts up her gates. The eyes that you encounter are the eyes of Leah and Jael and Ruth; the writing on the shop windows is Hebrew. Synagogues and Talmud Torah schools; kosher meat shops; wizened little bearded men with grey goat’s eyes and slim olive children with heifer’s eyes; these are what you see as the tram storms the oppressive breast of Cheetham Hill.

You have not gone far before he facetious trolley-boy shouts: “Switzerland!” and down the grim street that faces you is the Ice Palace, beyond the monumental mason’s yard where Hebrew hopes and lamentations are cut into the white mortuary slabs. The street is called Derby Street, and all the other street names hereabouts are undeniably Gentile. The Jew has settled upon the land, but he has not made it his own. It is a place of exile…

 

Chloe Marr by A.A. Milne ~ 1946. This edition: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1946. Hardcover. 314 pages.

More than slightly well know children’s books aside, Alan Alexander Milne’s body of work – plays, poetry, satire, farces, mysteries, literary novels – extended far beyond the nursery, as this rather obscure novel – his last – goes to show.

A frothy sort of romp is what the flyleaf promises, but though there was a frequently comic lightness to this depiction of a mysterious socialite, something more poignant soon became apparent, growing and building as the tale’s many strands weave together towards the end, turning comedy into something ultimately sobering.

As the clock struck twelve on this late June morning, Miss Chloe Marr, fragrant and newly powdered, came like a goddess from the bath, girdled herself with Ellen’s help, and stepped into her knickers unaided. A telephone bell rang.

And we’re off, witness to Miss Marr’s endless joustings with men on the other end of a telephone line, and across a restaurant table (the best one in the house, of course), and in her very bedroom, bed made up neatly but not too neatly, because we wouldn’t want to think that delectable Chloe hadn’t spent the night there, all alone in her own boudoir.

And do you know what? According to all eyewitness accounts, she does sleep alone. Erotically tantalizing – deliberately so? – yet chaste as a dewy gardenia, Chloe is pursued by an eclectic array of men, from neophyte artist to duke of the realm, who worship at her shrine and put up with her constant elusiveness and the constant company of their fellows-in-desire, on the off-chance that one day she will focus on just one.

This is a novel of vignettes and episodes, and the viewpoint constantly changes, but Chloe is always somewhere in the frame. Milne’s long facility with words comes into full play here; the novel is a complex construction but not overly so that we never lose sight of its progression and its goal, ostensibly a fuller portrait of a woman who is more – and possibly less? – than she seems at first glance.

Contemporary critics were of mixed minds as to Chloe Marr‘s literary qualities – many sneered – but the public went ahead and bought the book regardless – the A.A. Milne name being an automatic guarantor of sales – and it went through sufficient editions to make it reasonably obtainable today.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Chloe Marr a “hidden gem” – its qualities are not so great as that – but I did find it enjoyable to read, nicely thought-provoking here and there, and exceedingly interesting in its structure as a character portrait involving onlookers providing all of the impressions and insights regarding a certain person’s true nature.

Do we find out Chloe’s secret at the end? Perhaps, perhaps…

My rating: 7.5/10

I’ll be watching for more Milne novels in my vintage-bookstore travels. Chloe Marr is one of only a slight half-dozen or so. Two People (1931) is perhaps the best known; it was republished by (the now possibly defunct?) Capuchin Classics in 2009.

 

A decade ago I hadn’t even heard of D.E. Stevenson, until fellow book bloggers kept nudging me to seek her out. Now I own an almost-complete collection, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve delved into these delicious little comfort reads. Even the relative flops, of which there are a few. (Yes, Crooked Adam, I’m looking at you. And sibling story Gerald and Elizabeth. Not to mention Rochester’s Wife. Gar! I blushed for the author while reading all of these. But I kept right on reading, and I won’t part with these for anything, fully intending to revisit, groan in dismay at the bloomers, and forge ahead regardless.)

Kudos to ACE, the genre paperback publishing arm of Grosset and Dunlap, for resurrecting D.E. Stevenson back in the early 1970s, because without their editions D.E. Stevenson would be even harder to acquire than she is, but regrets for those goopy “romance” covers – soooo bad. I have to admit I hide these when reading in public.

Well, we’ve had a fraught sort of summer this year, what with the local forest fires and all, and though we’ve come out the other side personally unscathed, we still feel rather rumpled in the mind. Hence the comfort reading. Nevil Shute and D.E. Stevenson have gravitated to the bedside stand, among others. Engaging but not particularly challenging. Easy to take up, easy to put down, patiently waiting for the reader to return and step back into the story.

Most recently the books on hand are the comfortably charming Dering family novels. This is only the second time of reading them through since my introduction to D.E.S., and I enjoyed them even more so this time round than the first, because this time I read them in chronological order and everything clicked ever so nicely into place. I also recognised a number of characters from other books, which must mean I am becoming a genuine Dessie, tracing the strands of the spider-web from book to book to book – a delightful side pleasure of reading this not-quite-forgotten author.

Cribbing from previous posts to put together this overview. I’ve gotten very much out of the blogging habit, much to my regret, so trying to get those rusty cogs a-turning again. A little cheat feels justified, and I did so enjoy these books I thought them worthy of mention once again, even if I don’t have much new to say.

Here we go.

Oh! I guess I should mention that there are spoilers throughout, mainly in the transition in focus from book to book. Each installment’s resolution leads to the opening of the next. If you are brand new to these and want to be surprised (if we can describe D.E.S.’s mild dramas as worthy of such a strong term) you might want to click away and come back once you’ve read them yourself. Collectively I would give this trilogy an 8/10 or thereabouts in my personal rating system (see sidebar), keeping in mind that this is in relation of these books in D.E. Stevenson’s body of work alone.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1949. This edition: Collins-Fontana, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-613-444-0. 191 pages.

Middle-aged Caroline Dering has just been widowed, and, aside from her genuine and seemly sorrow at the death of someone who has shared her life for many years, she is not at all steeped in sorrow. Her lately departed spouse, Arnold Dering, was of a complaining and perpetually malcontented disposition. While his wife and three children were accepting of his character – Caroline thought that he always meant well, and suspected that at rare moments Arnold recognized and truly regretted his deep pessimism –  they enjoyed themselves much more in his absence.

World War II has been over for several years, but England is still very much in coping and recovery mode. Society is fast changing into some sort of new normal, and though things are steadily improving, there is still food and fuel rationing, and a strong atmosphere of “making do”, which makes for some quite fascinating scenarios as we progress through the book and look over Caroline’s shoulder as she goes about her days.

Another older hardcover edition, this one more accurately depicting the “cottage” which really isn’t.

The scene is set for what is to become a series of three novels by descriptions of the village of Ashbridge and the far from cottage-like Vittoria Cottage, ancestral home of the Derings. Though she has merely “married into” the local family, Caroline fits into the local hierarchy almost immediately, and by and large leads a deeply contented life, caring for her children, volunteering for various worthy causes, keeping house and gardening. The children are all grown up, with James away in Malaya, and lovely but discontented Leda (she takes after her father in full) and boisterous Bobbie making their way out into the larger world from the safe haven of their village nest.

Life in quiet Ashbridge gets suddenly quite interesting with the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Shepperton, who is apparently very reluctant to discuss his past, and who arouses even more suspicion because he appears to have no old belongings or clothing, a real rarity at that place and time, immediately post-war – “everything new!” the village gossips whisper with raised eyebrows.

Caroline’s lovely younger sister Harriet, a successful actress ducking away to her sister’s home for a respite from a difficult and failed recent stage production in London, brings some sophisticated dash and sparkle to village gatherings, and with the unexpectedly sudden return of James from Malaya, and the trials and tribulations of Leda and her fiancé Derek, the local squire’s son, there is plenty of scope for complications, dilemmas, surprises and sometimes unexpected resolutions.

I thought the characters were very well drawn and (mostly) very believable. Caroline is our heroine, but she is not a perfect person by a long shot; her flaws are well on display, but we forgive her them because she is ultimately exceedingly likeable, as is her sister and most of the other players in this excellent domestic drama. It ends quite abruptly, but this served merely to make me keen to get my hands on the next episode in this extended tale.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1950. This edition: Ace Books, circa 1970. Paperback. 282 pages.

Having more or less settled the fates of Caroline Dering and her sister Harriet Fane in the previous novel, Vittoria Cottage, this next installment in the trilogy follows Caroline’s son James, who, at loose ends after his military service and several years spent “chasing terrorists” in Malaya, is looking towards his future.

Deeply in love with his childhood companion Rhoda, he is struggling with her rejection of his marriage proposal. While we suspect that she is in love with James in her own way, Rhoda fears that, as a rising professional painter, marriage would spell the end of her career goals, and that she would be a discontented wife as well as a poorer artist, having to split her focus between two roles, doing neither well.

James takes it very well, all things considered, and hies himself off to the community of Drumburly in Scotland, where he has been invited by his aunt and uncle to reside at the remote Mureth House, a prosperous sheep farm. Jock and Mamie Johnstone have no children of their own, and are hoping that their nephew might be interested enough in farming life to take over Mureth some day.

James has always cherished a desire to be a farmer himself, so the situation looks like a success all around; the story follows some of James’s apprenticeship and details the day-to-day occupations of a hill farmer of mid-20th century Scotland; quite nicely detailed and relatably true in the telling. (I keep sheep, so happily appreciated the ovine interludes.)

We have sheep rustlers and romantic entanglements and, of course, more than a few misunderstandings between various parties, all neatly tidied up as the story progresses, in proper D.E. Stevenson fashion.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Shoulder the Sky: A Story of Winter in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1951. Original British title: Winter and Rough Weather. This edition: Ace Books, circa 1971. 275 pages.

Five years after the conclusion of the Second World War, a young, newly married couple, Rhoda and James Dering Johnstone, arrive at their isolated farmhouse near the fictional Scottish village of Drumburly. Rhoda is an accomplished professional painter, and her husband worries, with some reason, as to how she will adjust to a life as a sheep farmer’s wife, far from the stimulating world she has happily abandoned for true love.

Rhoda drifts for a while, mulling over the dilemma of what she sees as a black and white choice between her perceived role as a wife versus personal fulfillment as an artist. The author handled this theme sensitively and sensibly, though I couldn’t help but think that childless Rhoda, overseeing a small house with the help of a live-in cook-general, had a luxury of a “domestic support system” impossible for those of us in a similar societal-economic position to attain today. Rhoda ultimately returns to the studio, and proceeds to paint a portrait which has far-reaching consequences among the local residents.

Add in several on again-off again love affairs, a missing wife, a bullying neighbour, a misunderstood child, and the challenges of winter storms in an isolated locale, and you have a quietly dramatic novel, very occasionally straying into melodrama, but nicely anchored to reality by the author’s pragmatic asides.

There is one glaringly “coincidental” plot twist which I rolled my readerly eyes at, but I forgave it for love of this writer, as we note and yet forgive the foibles of our dearest friends.

The author set this novel up well, and the details she gives both of farm life and the art world read like they come from personal experience. I thought this particular novel was a relatively strong work for this “light romance” author, rather reminiscent of O. Douglas, what with the Scottish setting and the deep moral dilemmas and all.

Deeply affirmative depictions of marriage form this book, in particular the partnership between the older couple, Jock and Mamie Johnstone. D.E. Stevenson is all about the quiet joys of making things work out and the moral and emotional rewards that follow acting well towards each other, though her characters also struggle in a utterly lifelike way with holding it together when faced with uncongenial people and trying situations.

Fellow D.E. Stevenson readers – there is one thing I want to throw out there. In this last installment of the trilogy, doesn’t it strike you as the littlest bit odd that the very wealthy Nestor Heddle absolutely needs his poor befuddled sister as a housekeeper, and that her jumping ship makes his lordly country life impossible? I mean, couldn’t he just hire someone to fulfill that role? (This is the sort of silly little plot hole which niggles away at me when reading D.E.S.!)