Archive for July, 2012

Here’s another Martin Armstrong poem I remembered when searching out the “Honey” poem. Marked in another one of our rather embarrasssingly large collection of vintage poetry anthologies is this gently humorous narrative poem. Some years ago we “collected” a number of Martin Armstrong poems and read them aloud to each other;  Miss Thompson was a favourite.

The time we spent together taking turns reading aloud is one of my favourite memories and one of the greatest joys of our homeschooling time. As everyone is now very much going their separate ways, read-aloud times are a thing of the past; I will need to wait for grandchildren now, I suppose… Hopefully some years in the future, but I find myself pleasantly anticipating a new audience of small rapt listeners, begging for “one more chapter!” Until then, I’m still adding to the story and poetry collections. But I think I may track down a family member or two and see if they would like to indulge in a nostalgic read-aloud session, just to humour their sentimental mom…


Miss Thompson at Home

In her lone cottage on the downs,
With winds and blizzards and great crowns
Of shining cloud, with wheeling plover
And short grass sweet with the small white clover,
Miss Thompson lived, correct and meek,
A lonely spinster, and every week
On market-day she used to go
Into the little town below,
Tucked in the great downs’ hollow bowl
Like pebbles gathered in a shoal.

She goes a-Marketing

So, having washed her plates and cup
And banked the kitchen-fire up,
Miss Thompson slipped upstairs and dressed,
Put on her black (her second best),
The bonnet trimmed with rusty plush,
Peeped in the glass with simpering blush,
From camphor-smelling cupboard took
Her thicker jacket off the hook
Because the day might turn to cold.
Then, ready, slipped downstairs and rolled
The hearthrug back; then searched about,
Found her basket, ventured out,
Snecked the door and paused to lock it
And plunge the key in some deep pocket.
Then as she tripped demurely down
The steep descent, the little town
Spread wider till its sprawling street
Enclosed her and her footfalls beat
On hard stone pavement, and she felt
Those throbbing ecstasies that melt
Through heart and mind, as, happy, free,
Her small, prim personality
Merged into the seething strife
Of auction-marts and city life.

She visits the Boot-maker.

Serenely down the busy stream
Miss Thompson floated in a dream.
Now, hovering bee-like, she would stop
Entranced before some tempting shop,
Getting in people’s way and prying
At things she never thought of buying:
Now wafted on without an aim,
Until in course of time she came
To Watson’s bootshop. Long she pries
At boots and shoes of every size —
Brown football-boots with bar and stud
For boys that scuffle in the mud,
And dancing-pumps with pointed toes
Glossy as jet, and dull black bows;
Slim ladies’ shoes with two-inch heel
And sprinkled beads of gold and steel —
‘How anyone can wear such things!’
On either side the doorway springs
(As in a tropic jungle loom
Masses of strange thick-petalled bloom
And fruits mis-shapen) fold on fold
A growth of sand-shoes rubber-soled,
Clambering the door-posts, branching, spawning
Their barbarous bunches like an awning
Over the windows and the doors.
But, framed among the other stores,
Something has caught Miss Thompson’s eye
(O worldliness! O vanity!),
A pair of slippers — scarlet plush.
Miss Thompson feels a conscious blush
Suffuse her face, as though her thought
Had ventured further than it ought.
But O that colour’s rapturous singing
And the answer in her lone heart ringing!
She turns (O Guardian Angels, stop her
From doing anything improper!)
She turns; and see, she stoops and bungles
In through the sand-shoes’ hanging jungles,
Away from light and common sense,
Into the shop dim-lit and dense
With smells of polish and tanned hide.

Mrs. Watson

Soon from a dark recess inside
Fat Mrs. Watson comes slip-slop
To mind the business of the shop.
She walks flat-footed with a roll —
A serviceable, homely soul,
With kindly, ugly face like dough,
Hair dull and colourless as tow.
A huge Scotch pebble fills the space
Between her bosom and her face.
One sees her making beds all day.
Miss Thompson lets her say her say:
‘So chilly for the time of year.
It’s ages since we saw you here.’
Then, heart a-flutter, speech precise,
Describes the shoes and asks the price.
‘Them, Miss? Ah, them is six-and-nine.’
Miss Thompson shudders down the spine
(Dream of impossible romance).
She eyes them with a wistful glance,
Torn between good and evil. Yes,
Wrestles with a Temptation;

For half-a-minute and no less
Miss Thompson strives with seven devils,
Then, soaring over earthly levels

And is Saved

Turns from the shoes with lingering touch —
‘Ah, six-and-nine is far too much.
Sorry to trouble you. Good day!’

She visits the Fish-monger

A little further down the way
Stands Miles’s fish-shop, whence is shed
So strong a smell of fishes dead
That people of a subtler sense
Hold their breath and hurry thence.
Miss Thompson hovers there and gazes:
Her housewife’s knowing eye appraises
Salt and fresh, severely cons
Kippers bright as tarnished bronze:
Great cods disposed upon the sill,
Chilly and wet, with gaping gill,
Flat head, glazed eye, and mute, uncouth,
Shapeless, wan, old-woman’s mouth.
Next a row of soles and plaice
With querulous and twisted face,
And red-eyed bloaters, golden-grey;
Smoked haddocks ranked in neat array;
A group of smelts that take the light
Like slips of rainbow, pearly bright;
Silver trout with rosy spots,
And coral shrimps with keen black dots
For eyes, and hard and jointed sheath
And crisp tails curving underneath.
But there upon the sanded floor,
More wonderful in all that store
Than anything on slab or shelf,
Stood Miles, the fishmonger, himself.

Mr. Miles

Four-square he stood and filled the place.
His huge hands and his jolly face
Were red. He had a mouth to quaff
Pint after pint: a sounding laugh,
But wheezy at the end, and oft
His eyes bulged outwards and he coughed.
Aproned he stood from chin to toe.
The apron’s vertical long flow
Warped grandly outwards to display
His hale, round belly hung midway,
Whose apex was securely bound
With apron-strings wrapped round and round.
Outside, Miss Thompson, small and staid,
Felt, as she always felt, afraid
Of this huge man who laughed so loud
And drew the notice of the crowd.
Awhile she paused in timid thought,
Then promptly hurried in and bought
‘Two kippers, please. Yes, lovely weather.’
‘Two kippers? Sixpence altogether:’
And in her basket laid the pair
Wrapped face to face in newspaper.

Relapses into Temptation

Then on she went, as one half blind,
For things were stirring in her mind;
Then turned about with fixed intent
And, heading for the bootshop, went
And Falls.
Straight in and bought the scarlet slippers
And popped them in beside the kippers.

She visits the Chemist

So much for that. From there she tacked,
Still flushed by this decisive act,
Westward, and came without a stop
To Mr. Wren the chemist’s shop,
And stood awhile outside to see
The tall, big-bellied bottles three —
Red, blue, and emerald, richly bright
Each with its burning core of light.
The bell chimed as she pushed the door.
Spotless the oilcloth on the floor,
Limpid as water each glass case,
Each thing precisely in its place.
Rows of small drawers, black-lettered each
With curious words of foreign speech,
Ranked high above the other ware.
The old strange fragrance filled the air,
A fragrance like the garden pink,
But tinged with vague medicinal stink
Of camphor, soap, new sponges, blent
With chloroform and violet scent.

Mr. Wren.

And Wren the chemist, tall and spare,
Stood gaunt behind his counter there.
Quiet and very wise he seemed,
With skull-like face, bald head that gleamed;
Through spectacles his eyes looked kind.
He wore a pencil tucked behind
His ear. And never he mistakes
The wildest signs the doctor makes
Prescribing drugs. Brown paper, string,
He will not use for any thing,
But all in neat white parcels packs
And sticks them up with sealing-wax.
Miss Thompson bowed and blushed, and then
Undoubting bought of Mr. Wren,
Being free from modern scepticism,
A bottle for her rheumatism;
Also some peppermints to take
In case of wind; an oval cake
Of scented soap; a penny square
Of pungent naphthaline to scare
The moth. And after Wren had wrapped
And sealed the lot, Miss Thompson clapped
Them in beside the fish and shoes;
‘Good day,’ she says, and off she goes.
Is Led away to the Pleasure of the Town,
Beelike Miss Thompson, whither next?
Outside, you pause awhile, perplext,
Your bearings lost. Then all comes back
Such as Groceries and Millinery,
And round she wheels, hot on the track
Of Giles the grocer, and from there
To Emilie the milliner,
There to be tempted by the sight
Of hats and blouses fiercely bright.
(O guard Miss Thompson, Powers that Be,
From Crudeness and Vulgarity.)

And other Allurements

Still on from shop to shop she goes
With sharp bird’s-eye, enquiring nose,
Prying and peering, entering some,
Oblivious of the thought of home.
The town brimmed up with deep-blue haze,
But still she stayed to flit and gaze,
Her eyes ablur with rapturous sights,
Her small soul full of small delights,
Empty her purse, her basket filled.

But at length is Convinced of Indiscretion
The traffic in the town was stilled.
The clock struck six. Men thronged the inns.
Dear, dear, she should be home long since.

And Returns Home

Then as she climbed the misty downs
The lamps were lighted in the town’s
Small streets. She saw them star by star
Multiplying from afar;
Till, mapped beneath her, she could trace
Each street, and the wide square market-place
Sunk deeper and deeper as she went
Higher up the steep ascent.
And all that soul-uplifting stir
Step by step fell back from her,
The glory gone, the blossoming
Shrivelled, and she, a small, frail thing,
Carrying her laden basket. Till
Darkness and silence of the hill
Received her in their restful care
And stars came dropping through the air.

But loudly, sweetly sang the slippers
In the basket with the kippers;
And loud and sweet the answering thrills
From her lone heart on the hills.

Martin Armstrong, 1921

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Late in March, when the days are growing longer
And sight of early green
Tells of the coming spring and suns grow stronger,
Round the pale willow-catkins there are seen
The year’s first honey-bees
Stealing the nectar: and bee-masters know
This for the first sign of the honey-flow.

Then in the dark hillsides the Cherry-trees
Gleam white with loads of blossom where the gleams
Of piled snow lately hung, and richer streams
The honey. Now, if chilly April days
Delay the Apple-blossom, and the May’s
First week come in with sudden summer weather,
The Apple and the Hawthorn bloom together,
And all day long the plundering hordes go round
And every overweighted blossom nods.
But from that gathered essence they compound
Honey more sweet than nectar of the gods.

Those blossoms fall ere June, warm June that brings
The small white Clover. Field by scented field,
Round farms like islands in the rolling weald,
It spreads thick-flowering or in wildness springs
Short-stemmed upon the naked downs, to yield
A richer store of honey than the Rose,
The Pink, the Honeysuckle. Thence there flows
Nectar of clearest amber, redolent
Of every flowery scent
That the warm wind upgathers as he goes.

In mid-July be ready for the noise
Of million bees in old Lime-avenues,
As though hot noon had found a droning voice
To ease her soul. Here for those busy crews
Green leaves and pale-stemmed clusters of green strong flowers
Build heavy-perfumed, cool, green-twilight bowers
Whence, load by load, through the long summer days
They fill their glassy cells
With dark green honey, clear as chrysoprase,
Which housewives shun; but the bee-master tells
This brand is more delicious than all else.

In August-time, if moors are near at hand,
Be wise and in the evening-twilight load
Your hives upon a cart, and take the road
By night: that, ere the early dawn shall spring
And all the hills turn rosy with the Ling,
Each waking hive may stand
Established in its new-appointed land
Without harm taken, and the earliest flights
Set out at once to loot the heathery heights.

That vintage of the Heather yields so dense
And glutinous a syrup that it foils
Him who would spare the comb and drain from thence
Its dark, full-flavoured spoils:
For he must squeeze to wreck the beautiful
Frail edifice. Not otherwise he sacks
Those many-chambered palaces of wax.

Then let a choice of every kind be made,
And, labelled, set upon your storehouse racks —
Of Hawthorn-honey that of almond smacks:
The luscious Lime-tree-honey, green as jade:
Pale Willow-honey, hived by the first rover:
That delicate honey culled
From Apple-blossom, that of sunlight tastes:
And sunlight-coloured honey of the Clover.
Then, when the late year wastes,
When night falls early and the noon is dulled
And the last warm days are over,
Unlock the store and to your table bring
Essence of every blossom of the spring.
And if, when wind has never ceased to blow
All night, you wake to roofs and trees becalmed
In level wastes of snow,
Bring out the Lime-tree-honey, the embalmed
Soul of a lost July, or Heather-spiced
Brown-gleaming comb wherein sleeps crystallised
All the hot perfume of the heathery slope.
And, tasting and remembering, live in hope.

Martin Armstrong, 1920

After waiting many years for its maturing enough to finally blossom, the linden tree we planted to commemorate our teenage daughter’s birth is loaded with clusters of intoxicatingly fragrant “lime-flowers”. It is also alive with insects – honey-, bumble- and other wild bees; ants, wasps, and butterflies- a veritable cloud of sound and activity. Today it hit 32°Celsius measured in the shade – very high summer indeed, and all of the honey makers and nectar drinkers are out in full force.

My son works with a local beekeeper, and we are so very fortunate in our ready access to the very freshest and most delectable local honey. Here is a photo they snapped a few weeks ago at the peak of the dandelion nectar flow; I thought it was appropriate to this favourite old poem. An ode to the abiding mystery of honeybees, and the product of their diligent labours!

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The Fields of Noon by Sheila Burnford ~ 1964. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1964. Hardcover. 175 pages.

My rating: 10/10

This quiet, elegant, and often very funny book is one I keep  in my ‘favourites’ collection, and regularly reread with great enjoyment.

The Fields of Noon is a memorable collection of autobiographical essays by Scottish-born Canadian writer Sheila Burnford, better known for her bestselling fictional book The Incredible Journey, a story of two dogs and a Siamese cat who together embark on a 300-mile journey through the northern Ontario wilderness. Disneyfied and popularized, The Incredible Journey might be dismissed without further attention by the discerning reader, but it was intended to be an adult book, was based on actual pets of the Burnford family, and is quite a lovely little piece of work with its own merit. Ignore the sentimental movies, please! (Perhaps I should re-read and review The Incredible Journey as an entry into the 2012-13 Canadian Book Challenge …)

Sheila Burnford, if these highly personal essays are any indication, must have been a fascinating woman to know; her writerly voice is warm and intimate, highly intelligent and self-deprecatingly humorous.

To give you a taste of the tone of this collection, here is an excerpt from the essay Time Out of Mind, concerning Sheila’s interest in archaeology and anthropology, and her subsequent attempts to learn the art of flint-knapping.

The first story I ever remember having read to me was Robinson Crusoe, and later I read and reread it myself, starting again at the beginning the moment it was finished, just like painting the Forth bridge. The Swiss Family Robinson was even better; not the shortened version so often found today but a wonderfully fat volume, profusely illustrated and complete in every last moralization (and every gruesome detail of poor Grizzle’s demise in the folds of the boa constrictor and subsequent mastication; five hours from ear to hoof – Papa Robinson timed it; children were apparently credited with stronger stomachs in those days) and its pages crammed with useful tidbits of information on how to improve one’s lot and live more graciously on desert islands. I used to spend hours daydreaming of starting from scratch on my island utopia and putting all this practical information to the test. Thanks to Mr. Robinson, that bottomless well of How To Do It lore, I knew how to make a Unique Machine for boiling whale blubber; I could construct a sun or sand clock, train ostriches, open oysters and manufacture sago; if a sturgeon had been caught in my coconut fiber fishnet I knew just how to make isinglass windows from its bladder. I could even – and as I write I feel the urge to do so – make waterproof boots (beloved, familiar gumboots), with a clay mold, taken from my sand-filled socks, then painted over with layers of latex tapped from the nearest rubber tree. It would have been a luckless Man Friday who made his imprint on my solitary sands, for I would have been a fearful bore to live with: like Papa Robinson, one innocent question would have released a pedantic torrent of information.

This childhood preoccupation with carving out an existence by my own unaided efforts used to end, invariably, I remember, with that baffled, mind-boggling feeling that used to overcome me – and still does – when staring up at a cloudless blue sky and trying to make my small limited mind grasp that the blue is a void, endless infinity, nothing, not even omega. For, sooner or later, a fearful nagging doubt insinuated itself into every castaway installment of my self-told story: What if one did not have a knife, or a goat, or a gun to start with? Or, worse still, had not read Swiss Family Robinson? How on earth did one go about forging steel for that most necessary knife (what, for that matter, was steel?), substitute for a goat, manufacture a gun, or any kind of weapon?


  • Canadian Spring – a trip with an artist friend to an isolated lakeside cabin during spring ice break-up.
  • Walking: Its Cause, Duration and Effect – reflections on a Scottish childhood spent largely out-of-doors.
  • The Peaceful Pursuit – the joys and occasional pitfalls of wild mushroom hunting.
  • Confessions of a Noisemaker – how to shed one’s vocal inhibitions while accompanied on a solitary expedition by a patient dog and four inflatable duck decoys.
  • Time Out of Mind – the deceptively steep learning curve of the paleolithic flint-knapper.
  • Inclinations to Fish – the consideration of large bodies of water as primarily “fish containers”, and the joys of a lifetime of attempting to bring those fish to shore.
  • Tom – a touching ode to a feral tom cat.
  • With Claud Beneath the Bough… – caring for a solitary canary.
  • Pas Devant le Chien – a sober-minded dog becomes firmly convinced that an electric heater contains a small, living inhabitant.
  • William – the last day of life and the death of a beloved bull terrier.

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Martha in Paris by Margery Sharp ~ 1962. This edition: Little,Brown, 1962. Hardcover. First American Edition. 166 pages.

My rating: 9/10

From the front flyleaf:

In this “portrait of the artist as a young woman,” Margery Sharp uses all her individual observation – humorous, tender and astringent – to recount a climacteric twelve months in the life of eighteen-year-old Martha, who was sent to Paris to learn to paint, and learned a great deal else besides.

Readers who first met Martha as the stolid, matter-of-fact and altogether memorable child  in The Eye of Love and wondered what would happen to this truly independent spirit when confronted with Life now have an opportunity to find out.

Oblivious to the glamour and temptation of Paris, Martha’s single-minded pursuit of creativity and her matronly appearance seem to protect her from her Aunt Dolores’s delicately-put fear that “Martha might come to some harm…” Once called the Young Pachyderm by a friend back home near Paddington Station, perhaps because he glimpsed something tough-carapaced about her even then, Martha is now Mother Bunch to her fellow art students. Apparently the threat of Paris is to be lost ton her as she at once sets herself up in a doggedly methodical routine of working, eating and sleeping.

But Paris has an outrageous joke to play on Martha. It all begins with her somewhat unconventional adoration of deep, hot baths, after which she always looked her most attractive, or as the French say, “appetizing.” Nice hot baths involve Martha in an experience with a young Englishman (City of London Bank, Paris Branch) which would challenge the resources of a far more sophisticated girl than Martha. How she triumphantly copes with the resulting situation is the them of this engaging novel.

That about sums it up. I greatly enjoyed this next installment in Martha’s life-journey. Margery Sharp has settled into her story nicely; she champions Martha’s artistic cause and incidentally tramples over the gender-based lines of common behaviours; Martha is a true feminist, or perhaps we should say humanist; she has zero tolerance for the conventions which govern the behaviours of more conventional beings. Such as, for instance, her would-be lover Eric, and his doting mother. Their persistence in viewing Martha through their own rose-tinted spectacles of wishful thinking as to her personality and motivations lead to an ironically comedic situation, which Martha single-handedly sorts out in a most pragmatic way.

Martha is a deeply unusual heroine; regardless of her lack of sentiment and socially acceptable behaviour I found myself fully on her side in her Parisian adventures, and have no doubt that her ambitions will be fulfilled.

Highly recommended. If you can at all manage to find these three titles, read them in order. This is the middle book of a trilogy. The preceding book is The Eye of Love; the following book is Martha, Eric and George.

The Eye of Love is presently in print, in softcover from Virago Press. Martha in Paris and Martha, Eric and George are readily available and generally reasonably priced through ABE.

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Pippa Passes by Rumer Godden ~ 1994. This edition: Macmillan, 1994. First Edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-333-60817-8. 172 pages.

My rating: 5/10

This was a really quick read, so I’ll give it a really quick review.

Seventeen-year-old Phillipa, “Pippa”, is a ballet dancer in a British troupe visiting Venice. Über-talented both in dance and voice, Pippa has led the sheltered life of a cloistered and protected performing arts student, so her first trip abroad, and to romantic Venice at that, finds her wide-eyed and naïve. She immediately encounters a handsome young gondolier, and falls deeply in love. He is attracted in turn, but his motivations are slightly different than purely romantic.

In the meantime, Pippa’s ballet mistress has become infatuated with her, leading to much scheming and heartache and culminating in an attempted lesbian rape scene; a bit of a shocker from this particular author, but in retrospect not all that surprising; Rumer Godden was never shy of acknowledging the power of sex and using it as a motivator for her characters over the years; I think that the fairly graphic incident here is merely the well-experienced 87-year-old author keeping up with the times.

This was Godden’s second to last published novel before her death in 1998, and while not one of her top-rank tales it is certainly competently written and acceptable as a light read. Don’t expect another House of Brede, though! This one is fluff straight through.

Very nice evocation of Venice; as usual Godden handles her setting with great skill.

Weakest point, aside from the rather lame plot, is that the characters are all quite one-dimensional. We are continually told that Pippa is wonderfully talented and oh-so-special; we must take the author at her word as we never really get too close to Pippa herself. Things seem to happen just a little too easily throughout; there is a lot of glossing over of motivations and actions. This almost feels like a moderately fleshed-out outline of what could perhaps be a much longer and more interesting story.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel as anything but a momentary diversion. It definitely belongs in a Godden collection, and is interesting enough to have limited re-read status, but it really isn’t up to the standard of some of Godden’s masterworks. As I’ve said before, Godden had a great range in her stories; this is on the pallid end of the spectrum. Still better than some of the present-day chick lit I’ve attempted, so extra points for that. Even at her worst, Godden is still good. If you can get this one cheap, take it to the beach, but don’t forget to tuck something else in your bag as well, because slight little  Pippa, at less than 200 pages, will pass by very quickly!

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The Eye of Love by Margery Sharp ~ 1957. This edition: Collins, 1957. Hardcover. 1st Edition. 256 pages.

My rating: 9/10

I have been on an unapologetic reading binge these past few days; waking at my husband’s 5 AM alarm to blink the sleep from my tired eyes and reach groggily for the book I laid down the night before –  or, technically, earlier in the morning; too many times it’s been past midnight – foolish me!  A perfectly made cup of tea is always delivered to my bedside or chairside table by a man who values silence above conversation on workday mornings, and is himself stealing some precious reading time over his breakfast before heading out the door at the last possible moment. Our morning exchanges are brief; after thirty years together the pattern is predictably set, and it suits us very well. “What’re you reading?” and “Here, I’m done. You give it a try. Not bad…” and, so often,  “Hey, did you steal my book? I was still working on that one…”

Lately I have had an extravagant number of book-shaped packages from far-flung purveyors, so that like the proverbial child in the candyshop I am overwhelmed by choices and am greedily consuming each treat with an anticipatory eye on the next one. All are light fiction; summer reading at its best.

Trickling in much too slowly are a number of new-to-me vintage books by my beloved Margery Sharp. Margery wrote a trilogy of sorts between 1957 and 1964: The Eye of Love, Martha in Paris, and Martha, Eric and George. Naturally, the third book came first, then the second, with a dreadfully long lag before the first one showed up just a few days ago. I had been nobly holding off on reading them out of sequence, and I’m glad I did. These definitely need to be read in order to get a full appreciation of the journey of our unlikely heroine Martha. I am surprised that these do not appear in an omnibus edition; that would be kindest to the reader, and not unmanageable, as the three books are individually short and quick reads. Having gobbled them up, I will now review them in order, with a probably doomed attempt at brevity, and place them together on my dedicated Margery Sharp shelf in our bedroom (where all the “chuck out the window in case of house fire” treasures reside) to await happy re-reading in future.

Ladies of ambiguous status have by convention hearts of gold, and Miss Diver was nothing if not conventional; but a child in an irregular household is often an embarrassment. It had been wonderfully kind of Miss Diver to save her brother’s child from an orphanage, but not surprising; what was surprising was how well the arrangement had worked out.

It is 1929; Miss Dolores Diver’s widowed brother Richard Hogg has just died, leaving behind nothing of worldly value to his six-year-old-child, Martha, now a bona-fide orphan with an uncertain future. Miss Diver gallantly steps in.

She had never seen the child until an hour earlier; she had never before visited the shabby Brixton lodging-house in whose shabby parlour the thinly-attended wake was being held. – A dozen or so of Richard Hogg’s ex-colleagues from the post office stared inquisitively; this meeting between the two chief mourners provided a touch of drama, something to talk about afterwards, otherwise conspicuously lacking. (As Doctor Johnson might have said, it wasn’t a funeral to invite a man to: only one bottle of sherry and fish-paste sandwiches. Richard Hogg, with his motherless daughter, had lodged two full years in Hasty Street; but a landlady never does these things so wholeheartedly as relations, even with the Burial Club paid up and the next week’s rent in hand.)

Several years pass in complete amiability; young Martha is a rather odd but markedly placid child, and the Diver ménage, financed and patronized by Harry Gibson, head of a small furrier’s establishment, absorbs her without a hitch. Things are about to change, though. Harry’s business is struggling in the depths of the financial depression, and to save it he has contracted to marry one Miranda Joyce, hitherto-unmarriageable daughter of a very successful, upper-end furrier. Her father, in return for getting his daughter finally settled, is willing to re-finance Gibson’s. Harry decides to do the right thing by his prospective fiancé and renounce his mistress and his comfortable routine: five days of the week living quietly with his doting mother, with the weekend secretly spent in the little house with faithful Dolores and a tactful Martha, with the story to the rest of the world that he has continual weekend business in Leeds.

Since their meeting ten years earlier, at a Chelsea Arts Ball, Dolores and Harry have grown even more deeply in love. Now, on the eve of their parting, they cling together and reminisce.

“I’m sorry, Harry, but I can’t bear it,” said Dolores.

She huddled closer against his solid chest. It was his solidness shed always loved, as he her exotic fragility. For ten years they’d given each other what each most wanted out of life: romance. Now both were middle-aged, and if they looked and sounded ridiculous, it was the fault less of themselves than of time.

To be fair to Time, each had been pretty ridiculous even  at the Chelsea Ball. Miss Diver, in her second or third year as a Spanish Dancer, was already known to aficionados as Old Madrid. Mr. Gibson, who had never attended before, found the advertised bohemianism more bohemian than he’s bargained for. To the young devils from the Slade, unwrapping him, [Harry has come dressed as a brown paper parcel],his humiliated cries promised bare buff rather than pyjamas. Naked, indeed, he might have made headlines by being arrested; in neat Vyella, he was merely absurd.

Dolores, Old Madrid, not only pitied his condition but also lacked a partner. She’s have been glad to dance with anyone, all the rest of the night. But though rooted in such unlikely soil their love had proved a true plant of Eden, flourishing and flowering, and shading from the heat of day – not Old Madrid and Harry Gibson, but King Hal and his Spanish rose.

So they had rapidly identified each other – he so big and bluff, she so dark and fragile: as King Hal and his Spanish rose. Of all the couples who danced that night in the Albert Hall, they were probably the happiest.

Off Harry goes, to reluctantly propose to the very willing Miranda.

A quarter of an hour passed long as a century. To an impatient lover it would no doubt have seemed longer: Mr. Gibson was impatient only as a man about to be shot might be impatient. (Why hadn’t he been shot, in ’17?) The bitter parenthesis, by the memories it evoked, nonetheless helped his courage: when at last the door opened, like an officer and a gentleman Mr. Gibson clutched his carnations and stood bravely up to meet the firing squad.

Curiously enough, Miranda Joyce bore a marked physical resemblance to Miss Diver. Both were tall, black-haired, and bony. They were about the same age. Miss Joyce had even certain advantages: her make-up was better, she hadn’t Dolores’ slight moustache, and she was far better dressed. But whereas Mr. Gibson saw Dolores with the eye of love, he saw Miss Joyce as she was, and whereas the aspect of Old Madrid made his heart flutter with delicious emotion, the aspect of Miss Joyce sunk it to his boots.

But Harry Gibson soldiers on. The proposal is duly made and predictably accepted; the necessary conventions are observed.

Kissing her had been like kissing a sea-horse. Mr. Gibson knocked back his drink thankfully. (“I shall turn into a sozzler,” thought Mr. Gibson – dispassionate as a physician diagnosing the course of a disease.)

Fortunately Harry finds consolation in a growing friendship with his father-in-law to be. Mr. Joyce becomes a kindred spirit, and the one bright spot in Harry’s dark night of the soul.

Meanwhile Martha and Dolores are also soldiering on gamely. Dolores soon finds that she is unemployable; her only resource seems to be to let out rooms in her house. Fortunately for aunt and niece, Martha is quick to seize a chance while visiting her old home, and is instrumental in bringing home the perfect boarder. Bachelor Mr. Phillips, clerk of an insurance company, is at first innocuously quiet and reliable with the rent money. However, Dolores’ broken heart and subsequent stand-offish attitude soon have the effect on her boarder of rousing in him a great curiosity as to her personal situation, and, quite soon, a desire to wed this woman whom he very wrongly perceives to be financially independent and a property owner to boot.  What Mr. Phillips doesn’t know is that the house is merely leased, with the term coming up; hence Dolores’ desperate need for Mr. Phillips’ financial contribution, and her reluctance to snub his distasteful though so-far polite advances

The games of in-and-out and false pretences escalate, and while her elders are torturing themselves with emotional gymnastics, young Martha is single-mindedly pursuing her one interest. She is teaching herself to draw. Martha sees the world as a series of shapes; capturing images, fitting them into those categories, and transferring them from her eyes to her mind to paper takes up every waking moment.

Dismissed as merely a scribbling child, Martha stolidly ignores the adult world, and it in turn takes little notice of her. Until one day Mr. Joyce, through a series on coincidences, happens upon Martha drawing a tree. He is a connoisseur of the arts; he recognizes a budding young talent when he sees it. He offers Martha his patronage, and buys her much-desired paper, charcoal and chalks, which she unemotionally accepts while refusing the offer of  a longer-term artistic relationship and sincere, friendly interest which Mr. Joyce extends.

These complicated relationships get more tangled as time goes on; their multiple resolutions are a typically Margery Sharp juggling act. The tale winds up with a combination of most satisfactory endings, and we leave Martha in particular with the hopeful idea that her future, if not exactly easy, will be extremely interesting.

A cleverly written, very smart, satirical, darkly amusing novel. On par with Something Light, though not quite as gentle; the humour of The Eye of Love is decidedly savage at times.

I’m not at all sure if Margery Sharp planned at first to continue Martha’s saga, as The Eye of Love is a decidedly stand-alone novel, but I am so glad she did. Very highly recommended. Next book in the trilogy: Martha in Paris.

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A White Bird Flying by Bess Streeter Aldrich ~ 1931. This edition: Scholastic, 1964. Paperback. 318 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

American writer Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954) is likely best known for her popular novel, A Lantern in Her Hand, the story of Nebraska pioneer Abbie Deal. I had read and greatly enjoyed that novel, so was quite looking forward to reading A White Bird Flying, which follows Abbie’s granddaughter, Laura Deal, on her own coming-of-age journey.

I am sorry to say that strong Abbie’s granddaughter is a wishy-washy little thing, and that I was generally disappointed in this lightweight  novel. It reminded me of some of the more sentimental twaddle perpetrated by our iconic Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, who wrote in a similar time period and genre; much as I love some of her stronger novels, she was also capable of churning out some dreadful slush; ditto Aldrich.

The first part of the book is perhaps the strongest. Abbie Deal has died and been buried with due ceremony; young Laura stands in her beloved grandmother’s house a few days after the funeral, and tries to come to terms with death and what will happen next. Laura is a deeply emotional, imaginative child; at twelve she already aspires to one day be a writer, and she thinks in those terms.

She was half enjoying herself in an emotional way. There was a sort of gruesome ecstasy in making herself sad with memories. She would like to write about it. “The girl moved about from room to room, touching the things lovingly,” went through her mind. She was in one of those familiar moods when she looked upon life in a detached way as though she herself were not a part of it. She could never talk to anyone about it, but in some vague way she felt withdrawn from the world. She lived with people, but she was not one of them.

Perfectly captures the essence of an introspective adolescence.

Laura goes on her dreamy way, often at odds with her practical, striving mother who is often bewildered by her introverted, sentimental daughter. Laura continues to pursue her private ambition, turning out poems and stories and seeing the world through detached eyes.  She often thinks of her grandmother, and of how Abbie had given up her own ambitions to dedicate herself to full wife- and motherhood; Laura is appalled at the thought of a similar fate for herself and resolves to form her own life quite differently. She decides that she will turn her back on love, and particularly marriage; instead she will dedicate herself to her art and become truly fulfilled in a way a mere housewife can never attain.

Well, the inevitable happens. Laura dreams her way through college, and attracts the attention of a boy from her own home town, Allen Rinemiller, who has strong ambitions to improve the family farm with modern ideas, and has a rather interesting philosophy himself, which Laura scornfully dismisses.

Allen proposes; Laura naturally declines.

“…I can’t think of anything more prosaic than settling down here…and sort of letting the world go by.”

“I don’t call it letting the world go by,” he returned quickly. “I call it tackling a small piece of the world and making something of it. You admit Morton and his bride and all the rest of the old pioneers did a great thing when they crossed he river and started their settlements. You’ve said it was romantic and intensely interesting, and quite worthwhile. You think their own love lay at the bottom of their acts of courage and bravery. All right – did you ever stop to think that maybe we’re pioneers, too? Haven’t you the vision to see that? Why isn’t it something of pioneering that I’m trying to do? Agriculture in most quarters has been a hard, wearisome proposition…I’m pioneering, too – and a whole lot of other young fellows from colleges and universities, we have visions, too – a new outlook on the whole thing…We’re pioneering…starting a new class…the master farmers who are attempting to develop agriculture to the nth degree. Why couldn’t you enter into that in the same spirit your grandmother did? …Because you’re rooted in the soil, need you be a nonentity?”

Allen’s stirring words fall on deaf ears; Laura has already decided to pursue the celibate life, and has even promised her wealthy, childless aunt and uncle that she will remain unmarried and look after them as a daughter would, in return for inheriting their fortune, justifying this strangely unromantic and mercenary agreement by the excuse that it will allow her to pursue her writer’s career without worry and interruption.

The only fly in this particular ointment is that Laura is no prodigy; her talent is modest at best, as she is slowly beginning to realize.

The rest of the story follows its predictable-from-the-first-page path; no surprises here. Laura does marry Allen and dedicate herself to the farm; there are some tough years, but even through these Laura`s issues are not on par with those of her grandmother’s generation. Laura bemoans the fact that she cannot afford new curtains, and a new carpet, and a new dress; Abbie Deal dealt with life and death concerns and had a much more elemental notion of what the truly important things in life were than her grandchild ever faces up to.

I do get the feeling, however, that Aldrich portrays this dichotomy deliberately; the decadence of the descendents of the pioneers, though sympathetically portrayed, is a common undercurrent of her books I’ve read so far. She was obviously very interested in the generational and cultural shifts of the pioneer-to-modern era, and by and large captures the essence of the succeeding generations and their attitudes towards those who came before.

I will be reading more of this author’s works, as opportunity allows, though I doubt I will go to a lot of effort to seek them out. And while White Bird was not a particularly strong novel, it had its generally well-written and thoughtful moments, and I will overlook my vague annoyance at self-centered Laura and her self-created melodramas to classify it merely as a lesser entry into the long-respected Aldrich canon.

I am editing this review to add a Young Adult classification. It was re-published by Scholastic, after all, and the subject matter may be of interest to teenage readers, though I suspect many of them will be as annoyed at Laura as I am.

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