The Loved and Envied by Enid Bagnold ~ 1951. This edition: Virago Modern Classics (Penguin), 1988. Introduction by Isabel Colgate. ISBN: 0-14-016211-9. 280 pages.

Lady Ruby Maclean, famed beauty, lives with her Scottish husband Gynt at his family’s French estate, the Chateau of Little Pouilly, based on the real-life Chantilly, as Lady Maclean herself is based on Bagnold’s friend, famed society beauty Lady Diana Cooper.

Though the plot of novel is purely fictional, the character portrait is widely accepted to be a true (and flattering) one, to the extent that the Virago cover illustration is a replication of a portrait of Lady Diana on her wedding day.

Not much happens, action wise, in this quietly thought-provoking book, with most of the turmoil being mental and emotional, but once we are hooked it all becomes immensely interesting. I found it to be one of those novels one spent time thinking about while one was off doing other things; the characters became real, and their fears and joys relatable.

The fears tend to predominate, at least superficially, as this is a novel very much concerned with aging and death. Lady Maclean, the “loved and envied” of the title, undeniably coming to the end of middle-age at fifty-three, muses on her status as a great beauty, and what this has meant to her in every aspect of her life so far, and how the inevitable deterioration in her physical appearance has started to affect how others now react to her in the most subtle of ways.

This is a masterfully written book, in a purely technical sense, and, once I figured out the writer’s game, I became a willing co-player. Bagnold takes us back and forth through time, revisiting certain episodes from varying characters’ points of view, bringing in minor characters for a paragraph or a page to allow another aspect of a scene to be verbalized, and weaving all of these at-first over-abundant threads together to create a cohesive picture at the end.

Though Ruby, Lady Maclean, is the key element in the vision that unfolds, Bagnold keeps a juggler’s handful worth of other stories in play as we go along.

We have Ruby’s husband Gynt, a reclusive insomniac pursuing night birds through the French woods, compulsively engaged upon writing a orthinological life-work. Their daughter Miranda, beloved of both parents, but herself deeply resentful of her glamorous mother’s life-long overshadowing. Tuxie, the slippery ne-er-do well who marries Miranda with high expectations and subsequent bitter disappointment; their removal to Jamaica and an eventual tragedy provide a touch of melodrama.

There is famous painter Cora, Ruby’s closest female friend, hideous in appearance but a genius at her art. And Cora’s ex-husband Rudi, a once-popular playwright who has written the same script a few times too many, to the brutal critics’ gleeful delight.

Rose, now-elderly life-long mistress of the Edouard, Vicomte de Bas-Pouilly, is superficially aged but retains her ardently youthful devotion to Edouard, and is in turn faithfully cherished by her aristocratic lover, to the secret fury of his jealous sister.

James, Edouard’s nephew and heir, who is infatuated with the much-older Ruby, until circumstances bring Miranda back to France. (Miranda’s transformation from dowd to siren through the wonders of a genius dressmaker is a play-within-a-play, a delicious glimpse at the clothes of the period, with yet another character added to the cast: Lew Afric, “pederast” and grand couturier.)

The Duca Alberti Marie-Innocence de Roccafergola, physically massive, emotionally sensitive. Ruby’s closest male confidante, Miranda’s beneficient godfather. His long time servant Celestine, who one day expresses a surprising desire to become a duchess by marriage. (Alberti obliges, with complicated results.)

Ruby’s aunt, Ursula, born with a hideous deformation which has taken her around the world in an effort to find a way of concealing  it. A highly successful career as a beautician to the elite women of London follows, and her adoption of her orphaned niece provides her an outlet for love frustrated since her infancy, when those who should have cherished her were instead repelled by her appearance. Ruby owes some of her beauty to Ursula’s care; the two have an intricate bond which transcends the obvious.

By the end of the novel, a number of these key characters are dead, which doesn’t prove as melancholic as it might, much to my relief as a reader. For I myself am well into  the dangerous age, the time of one’s life when one’s own mortality becomes much more than an abstract concept, as one realizes just how many funerals those only a little older – and, more poignantly, of peers – one has been attending…

Fantastic novel. I enjoyed it greatly, though I didn’t much care for it a decade or so ago when I tried it for the first time. Perhaps I was still too young?! This time round I devoured it.

My rating: 9/10. A definite keeper.

And I am going to be keeping my eyes open for Bagnold’s other novels, of which the only one I have read is 1935’s National Velvet. (That one is a decided 10/10 – and I need to say, to those who have so far scorned it, it’s not at all a children’s book, despite its perpetual marketing as such.)

Of these, A Diary Without Dates (1917), The Happy Foreigner (1920) , and The Squire (1938), all appear to by reasonably attainable. (The Squire was republished by Persephone just a few years ago, and is already on my wish list from that most estimable establishment.)

And last but not least, I’ve submitted The Loved and Envied as an entry with The 1951 Club. Another stellar year in books! Keep yours eyes open for a links roundup either here or here. Thank you, Simon and Karen, for setting this up.

 

 

Death in Cyprus by M.M. Kaye ~ 1956. This edition: Penguin, 1985. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-006405-2. 271 pages.

Amanda Derington, left a war orphan in 1940, has just turned 21, and one of her first actions upon attaining this age of legal freedom is to broaden her personal horizons, for Amanda has been living under the iron rule of her prudish Uncle Oswin, a pompous misogynist with attitudes towards morals typical of the strictest Victorians, and young Amanda has had to adhere to a standard of behaviour long since discarded by her boarding school peers.

Amanda’s twenty-first birthday occurs while she is accompanying her uncle on a leisurely tour of the Derington family business empire in the Mediterranean, and Amanda’s decision to branch off on her own and visit the island of Cyprus has her uncle impotently fuming.

Despite Uncle Oswin’s tantrums,  off Amanda goes, all bright-eyed and open to whatever the world of adulthood has to offer. What immediately happens is that just before her ship reaches Cyprus, Amanda becomes involved in the sudden death – an apparent suicide – of a travelling companion.

But things don’t quite add up, and the odd behaviours of several other shipmates continue even after they all land at the destination and continue with their holidays, with the bereaved widower, Major Alistair Blaine, listlessly moping about and casting shadows on the holiday mood, a ghost at the feast, as it were.

Strangely ominous incidents begin to haunt Amanda, and she starts to wonder if perhaps Julia’s death wasn’t self-inflicted, and if, instead, Amanda were the target of an unknown killer. (Amanda and Julia had switched cabins on board ship; a key point which I didn’t mention.)

Much to-ing and fro-ing goes on, giving the author a chance to enlarge upon the scenic attractions of Cyprus and adding splashes of local colour. (In her author’s note Kaye speaks fondly of her own visits there in 1949, while her military husband was stationed in Egypt.)

I hate to say it, but Death in Cyprus, though readable enough in a mild sort of way, was a bit of a dud as both a thriller and a coming of age tale. The death plot, once revealed, was inanely bizarre versus anything approaching believable.

In the tradition of the most extravagant of the Agatha Christies, the mysterious killer strikes again and again, with various degrees of success, until finally (predictably!) unmasked by Amanda’s brand new (and not-what-he-seems-to-be) romantic interest.

M.M. (Mary Margaret) Kaye was an artist as well as a writer, and she enjoyed success as a writer and illustrator of children’s books and historical fiction – The Far Pavilions, 1978, was very much her star turn – as well as a number of mystery novels, mostly set in exotic locales.

I’d definitely heard of her before, for while used-book shopping for my bedridden, book-a-day reading mother in the last few years of her life, M.M. Kaye titles popped up again and again, and I have quite a little collection put away in the boxes of “Mom books” I haven’t quite yet been able to go through and sort into keeper and give-away piles.

Mom was restrained in her praise of the M.M. Kaye books, “readable but a bit boring” was her description when I asked her if this was a writer she was interested in going on with, and I must say that this novel was just that.

Will I read more M.M. Kaye? Maybe. It wasn’t a bad book. Just not nearly as good as it might have been.

I might give The Far Pavilions a go at some point. Or one of the other historical fictions. They’re not calling out to me in any urgent way, though, based on my reaction to Death in Cyprus.

My rating: 5/10. A keeper, but only just. Something to read when one doesn’t want to be deeply immersed in a book; rather put-down-able, in other words.

Final thought: Mary Stewart did this sort of thing so much better.

 

The Lark by E. Nesbit ~ 1922. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2017. Introduction by Charlotte Moore.  Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-911579-45-8. 251 pages.

Looking for a lighthearted frivol, a confection of a novel? Look no further than this small charmer by Edith Nesbit, best known for her deliciously satirical children’s books (Five Children and It, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Railway Children, and so on) but also a writer of adult novels, which this one is.

This isn’t a sombre bit of literary fiction, but a fairy tale for grownups, with just enough dashes of cold reality to keep it somewhat grounded in the real world, though most of the plot is driven by the most unlikely set of happy coincidences I’ve yet to come across in a very long history of light-fiction reading.

It’s just what is advertised by the title. It is, in fact, a complete lark.

Two orphaned teenage cousins, Jane and Lucy, happily tucked away in boarding school by their guardian and looking forward to their soon-to-be-attained coming of ages when they will come into what they have been told are substantial inheritances, receive a happy shock when they are informed that their guardian has withdrawn them from the school and asked them to report to a mysterious address in the countryside beyond the fringes of London.

Confidently expecting this to be their introduction to the adult world, presided over by their mysterious patron, they are bewildered at being decanted at the door of a small country cottage instead of the mansion they were expecting.

A perfectly timed letter gives an explanation. Jane and Lucy’s guardian apologizes profusely, but he has squandered their fortunes on unsound financial speculations, and has gone utterly bankrupt. He’s leaving the country before his creditors can catch up to him, but he’s tried to cushion the blow somewhat by arranging for a lump sum of £500 to be put to the cousins’ account, and the afore-mentioned cottage as a residence.

Jane and Lucy soon realize that their rapidly-diminishing nest egg isn’t enough to cover their longer-term needs, and they look about for ways to augment it. The stage is set for all manner of lucky happenings, with helpful young (and not so young) men cropping up like daisies in the spring.

It’a all very amusing, and the lightness is well set off by the running thread of reality, for this book was written not long after the ending of the Great War, and is set in 1919, and the plight of many of the returned soldiers coming home to not much in the way of a future becomes a key element in the extended plot.

Occasionally  (okay, very often) I (figuratively) rolled my eyes at the sillier bits, but I happily kept reading, because the story is as engaging as it is unrealistic, and the realistic bits were shoehorned in with acceptable success.

My rating: Let’s say a nice, solid 7.5/10. A definite keeper.

The end of March, and the snow lingers on… The vista in our neck of the woods a week or so ago.

Spring is coming hard this year. It‘s still below zero almost every night, there’s an awful lot of ice on the riverbank and piled up on the sandbars, and there are still a few snowbanks in the shady spots. Nary a bit of green on any tree, though there are burgeoning leaf buds on the lilacs and cottonwood trees.

What’s a yearning-for-spring gardener to do, then, but to throw an overnight bag in the car, summon a travelling companion, and head out on a little horticultural road trip?!

Using the excuse of a plant show and sale put on by a garden club we belong to (long distance, as it were), we headed off to Vancouver – seven non-stop hours by car away – for a whirlwind round of visiting the two major botanical gardens, hobnobbing with fellow botanists, admiring the spectacular specimens in the plant show, and (of course!) spending far too much money on new-to-us plants.

Oh, and we did hit a few used book stores, too. With predictable results.

Back home now, with heads full of garden dreams, and a stack of potentially wonderful reading material to fill up the few extra minutes between our very late evening meals and lights-out.

The posting silence lately can be blamed squarely on the season. Good intentions galore, and some interesting things piling up on the “must deal with” stack, but I just can’t focus…

Shall try harder.

As recompense for the recent blog silence, here are a very few glimpses of what we saw on our recent travels. It’s spring down south!

The most beautiful Pasque Flowers I’ve ever yet seen – Pulsatilla grandiflora, University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C., March 31, 2017.

Our native Skunk Cabbage, Lysichiton americanus. None showing here yet, but in full exotic bloom in warmer climes. UBC Botanical Garden, March 31, 2017.

Too tender for our region, but a high point of spring coastal visits – glorious magnolias at UBC, March 31, 2017.

Rose-like Camellias bloom in the mild coastal rain. Van Dusen Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C., April 1, 2017.

The Removers by Donald Hamilton ~ 1961. This edition: Fawcett Gold Medal Books, 1963. Paperback. 176 pages.

Sometimes pictures are the best shortcut. Here we are then, with all you really need to know.

Oh, you didn’t really think I’d let this go without writing something more, did you?

I’ll keep it ultra-brief.

Think period piece, Cold War era kill-or-be-killed action fiction.

Beautiful women, in various shades of dangerous, dot our hero’s personal landscape.

Russian spies (or are they?), drug dealers, and an atomic sub-plot.

Helm drives an old pickup truck; his current love interest a ladylike shiny-new Mercedes ragtop; his ex-wife’s new man a sweet green Jaguar. Vroom vroom.

Blood flows, lots and often.

Matt Helm adds some interesting scars to his vast collection.

And you’ll never look at an Afghan hound the same way again.

In other words, good manly entertainment, clipping along in top gear speed.

My rating, you ask?

10/10.

Because it was so much better than I expected it to be. (My expectations were admittedly quite low.) Turns out that I couldn’t put it down.

Number three in a series of something like twenty-three. Or is it twenty-seven? Hang on. Twenty-seven. Thank you, Wikipedia.

Next stop, ABE, for the two preceding books, because these build on each other in good serial fiction fashion.

 

 

First edition dust jacket, illustration by the author. As well as being a writer, Frances Faviell was a professional portrait artist. Side note: the girl in the picture is not, as one might expect, the eponymous Thalia, but is instead the novel’s narrator, the fledgling artist, Rachel.

Thalia by Frances Faviell ~ 1957. This edition: Cassell & Company, 1957. Hardcover (re-bound). 288 pages.

When the car was approaching the docks I looked at my aunt and it seemed to me that this – a profile – was all we ever knew of anyone. We can never know all the aspects but merely those which are shown to us. Was she as lonely as I was? She appeared suddenly such a small person and one at whom I had never really looked…

This story is set in the mid-1930s, from the perspective of the narrator looking back some twenty years later at a life-altering segment of time.

Eighteen-year-old Rachel – mother dead, father off on his own business – has been living with her aunt while studying art at the Slade. After disgracing herself by painting an unflatteringly caricatured portrait of the vicar who is her aunt’s dear friend, Rachel is being packed off to France to act as an unpaid companion to the teenage daughter of a family friend, while her aunt, accompanied by the vicar of the portrait, goes off on an excursion to Egypt.

Arriving in the seaside Brittany village of Dinard, home to a thriving Anglo-American community of penny-pinching expatriates resident in a collection of rental villas, Rachel is prepared to make the best of her experience, though she is uneasy as to how she will fit into the household which consists of her charges, fifteen-year-old Thalia and six-year-old Claude, and their beautiful and indolent mother, Cynthia. The Pembertons have settled in Dinard while the father of the family, Colonel Tom Pemberton, returns to India, where he is engaged in a dangerous military operation on the volatile North-West frontier.

Thalia is in the full throes of an awkward and unattractive adolescence. Mousy haired, sulky faced, inflicted with a skin covered by masses of brown, patchy freckles, Thalia is well aware of her mother’s distaste for her.

Cynthia openly rejects and callously neglects her cuckoo’s-child daughter, concentrating all of her maternal instincts onto her beautiful young son. Golden-haired Claude is lovely to look at, but a demanding and obnoxiously spoiled child, every whim pandered to by his mother in her attempt to avoid his tantrums.

Cynthia lives in self-protective seclusion from the real world, nursing her reputed “heart ailment”, drifting in a sleeping-pill induced haze and seldom leaving her bedroom until noon. When she emerges, she wafts off to ill-afforded bridge-playing afternoons, and ill-concealed dalliances with an old lover, Terence Mourne, ex-compatriot of Colonel Pemberton’s, who has resigned his commission due to a disgrace in which young Thalia has had a leading hand.

The household help is a young Frenchwoman of reputed loose morals, much to the enjoyment of the local permanent residents, who view the English and American residents of Dinard as a constantly changing real-life dramatic ensemble, good for a chuckle as they inevitably flout unwritten rules of etiquette, and good as well for a constant low-key fleecing at the hands of their French employees.

Thalia focusses immediately on Rachel, pouring out all her unrequited affection in an attempt to win attention to herself. Rachel, feeling sympathy for Thalia’s status as the unwanted, coldly rejected child of her mother (though not her now-absent father), reciprocates as much as she feels herself able to, though Thalia’s fixation on Rachel takes on an obsessive tone.

When Rachel falls in love with a young Frenchman, Armand, Thalia’s jealousy unleashes her full potential for secretive revenge plots, and the already deeply unhealthy situation at the Pemberton villa deteriorates in a grand and ultimately tragic manner.

Not what one would call a happy book – oh, no! – but enthralling in its depiction of late-adolescent angst – Rachel’s as much as Thalia’s – and of people making a series of bad decisions and finding themselves overwhelmed by the consequences thereof.

Frances Faviell writes her scenes with meticulous attention to telling detail, something I noted in Faviell’s autobiographical account of living through the London Blitz of 1940-41 , A Chelsea Concerto. Her painter’s eye transposes perfectly into her writer’s voice, and the combination is a winning one.

There is almost a clinical feel to Rachel’s unemotional telling of what happened during those months in France which occasionally feels chilled and tamped down, until one reminds oneself that the story is being told from several decades away in time, with the reflection of an adult Rachel attempting to explain the impulsive actions of the teenage Rachel put into a situation very much out of her depth to competently deal with.

A dark, frequently melodramatic bildungsroman of a book, which I found enthralling from start to finish.

My rating: 9.5/10

The half point keeping it from being a full-out “10” is for the main protagonist’s switch of loyalties as the tale winds down; I found that I couldn’t quite believe in her emotional development in this particular way, though as the novel progresses Rachel becomes more and more what we might term an unreliable narrator, and this may well be a deliberate move on the author’s part.

If I could name a perfect shelfmate to Thalia, it would have to be The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden. Similar high standard of writing, similar settings, similar themes, and, most of all, similar takeaway that growing up can be a deeply bitter process, full of betrayal by and of people once beloved.

 

Tryst by Elswyth Thane  ~ 1939. This edition: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1939. Hardcover (re-bound). 256 pages.

March is not behaving very spring-like at present – it’s a briskish minus 11 Celsius out there right now, and snow has been drifting down all night – so what better time than to read a nice, cosy, ghostly love story?

 It’s hard to know how to say it – but – oh, God, if I’ve earned heaven when I die, let me have England first, let me have England instead

Hilary Shenstone, British secret agent on the troubled Northwest Indian frontier, catches a fatal bullet, but before he pegs out eternally, at the end of a long, beautifully manly, and oh-so-stereotypically-English death scene, he makes the plea quoted above.

God, being sympathetic to Englishmen (as we are so often told), grants his wish, and Hilary’s shade finds itself back in England, sitting on a London embankment, watching a potential suicide being dissuaded from a plunge into the Thames by a compassionate passer-by.

Hilary, being new to the whole business of ghosting, takes some time to learn the ropes, but he quite quickly manages to relocate himself back to his beloved family home, Nun’s Farthing, which has been leased to a scholarly professor for a year, since none of the family (except Hilary, who is often called away on his hush-hush missions) particularly cares to reside there.

The professor-now-in-residence, long-widowed, is accompanied by his dithery spinster sister and his lonely, bookish, social-misfit seventeen-year-old daughter, Sabrina.

(Do you see where we’re going yet?)

Sabrina finds herself fascinated by the locked room which belongs to the absent Hilary; she goes so far as to pick the lock to gain entry, and the room becomes her almost-secret retreat. “Almost”, because tight-lipped, apparently unemotional Mrs. Pilton, the longtime housekeeper of Nun’s Farthing who stays on to oversee the renters, secretly hands over the room’s key to Sabrina, giving her the nod to go in and while away her long days curled up in the sunny window seat, reading her way through Hilary’s large collection of books.

My ex-library copy has seen some hard use. But, though stained and worn throughout, I did not notice any dog-eared pages, so the forbidding stamp which an enthusiastic long-ago librarian dabbed on chapter headings throughout has obviously had its desired effect.

Hilary (in shade form) returns; he becomes immediately infatuated with the sensitively imaginative Sabrina, while she, in her turn, finds herself unable to think of anything else but the man whom she is becoming to know through his possessions and his taste in books.

The news eventually comes that Hilary is dead. Sabrina takes it inexplicably hard; her occupation of Hilary’s old room becomes common knowledge; her appalled and worried father and aunt decide that a move might well be in order, though Sabrina begs to stay…

Stopping right there, I am.

This is a book I would have loved dearly to read as a teenager, and even at this far from teenager-ish age I found it deeply appealing.

Tryst is not particularly well-written, for there are all sorts of gaps in logic and the whole ghost thing is uneven at best. The author is most inconsistent in what her creation is able to do: he can’t be seen (except by dogs, who fearfully growl at him, and cats, who twine about his unseen ankles in feline ecstasy), his writing (as a ghost) can’t be read, he needs to wait for some doors to be opened yet he can pass through walls at will, move items about, and he leaves physical signs of his presence all over the place – a squashed cushion here, a rumpled bedcover there. At one point he even takes a bath!

But I loved it. It’s somehow deeply appealing, despite its inconsistencies, and I happily entered into the tale, squashing my cynical thoughts firmly underfoot.

Marketed (apparently?) to the adult audience of its time, it’s more of what one would consider a teen girls’ novel today. Fine literature Tryst isn’t, but it’s an engagingly effortless read, which is now going onto the guaranteed re-reads section of the keeper shelf, alongside its sisters-in-theme The Sherwood Ring and The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope.

A full extra point awarded for the Kipling references, in particular the connections to Kim, and to Puck of Pook’s Hill, two books which I hold in the very highest personal regard.

My rating: 9.5/10