Archive for August, 2012

The Jasmine Farm by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1934. This edition: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1934. First Edition. Hardcover. 322 pages.

My rating: 7/10. Possibly subject to change as I explore more of this author’s work – this is only the third novel I’ve read of the twenty or so Elizabeth von Arnim wrote between 1898 and 1940. The others are The Benefactress (1901), which I absolutely loved, and The Enchanted April (1922), which left me not terribly impressed. (I am planning to reread Enchanted April once it turns up – my copy is lost in the stacks at present.)

The Jasmine Farm was very different from The Benefactress, and much closer in style to Enchanted April. Though I am not familiar enough yet with this author’s full body of work to get a real feel for the progression of her writing history, I’ve read enough to know that I will continue to explore her titles. She has a lot to say that is worth listening to, and a very readable style.

*****

If I had to sum this story up in one sentence, I think I would say something like this:

A lushly sarcastic social farce which begins with an overabundance of gooseberries and ends with a convenient death.

I had a bit of a time really getting into this one – the first hundred plus pages were used in setting up the scene in great detail with many asides, and I wondered for a while if we were ever going to get to the point, or indeed if there was a point. But then things seemed to come together and off I went, quite eager to follow these foolish not-quite-virgins on their various paths to personal enlightenment, mindlessly flirting with disaster as they pursued their self-regarding ways through their lushly padded artificial world.

The fabulously wealthy Lady Midhurst is famous both for her lavish, perfectionist-planned entertainments, and her zero tolerance of any sort of sexual misconduct among her associates. To be vouched for by her Ladyship is to be certified pure in the eyes of society. What scandal, then, as the daughter of this paragon is revealed to have been carrying on an adulterous relationship for the past seven years with a married man, and he no other than Lady Midhurst’s trusted financial adviser!

Lady Midhurst seeks refuge at her almost-forgotten property in France, a tiny jasmine-growing farm near Grasse, which her husband impulsively purchased for her many years ago, and where they spent a few halcyon honeymoon weeks before Lord Midhurst’s roving eye and extramarital encounters so disgusted his fastidious wife that she swore off conjugal relations forever. In that time she did conceive a child, and the resulting Lady Terence – Terry – seems to be following in her mother’s celibate footsteps.

However, Terry had become emotionally and sexually obsessed at a very early age with her late father’s great friend, Andrew Leigh, who became a permanent attachment to the household upon Lord Midhurst’s death. The affection is returned, and their relationship is physically consummated at Terry’s insistence once she reaches the passionate time of her teens. Andrew is not exactly a free man, however. He has previously married the lovely Rosie De Lacy, a not-quite-upper-class girl whom he became infatuated with during a wartime leave. Once the war is over, Andrew realizes that Rosie is nothing like his intellectual equal; she is also shadowed by her very common and socially ambitious mother, whose main  aim in life, besides maintaining a high degree of personal comfort, is pushing her daughter higher in the social strata.

Mrs. De Lacy is thrilled with the news of her son-in-law’s adultery, but not for the obvious reasons. She hatches a scheme in which she hopes to trade Rosie’s complicity and silence for a highly public relationship with the exclusive Midhursts, thus ensuring Rosie’s future position among the creme de la creme of the upper class. Rosie is quite happy to cooperate; she herself is not interested in the bothers of sex and is not at all jealous of her husband’s paramour, preferring to concentrate on the cultivation of her considerable beauty for her own enjoyment, and for the pampered lifestyle that access to the desirous men of the aristocratic set and their hopeful admiration brings.

To escape the De Lacy clutches, Lady Midhurst now flees in haste to France, to the jasmine farm of the title. Much heart-rending ensues, as Lady Midhurst is forced to confront her past and the reasons for her daughter’s lack of restraint and repudiation of her mother’s standards of morality. Terry herself is a strange creature, being outwardly pure and much involved in charitable works; her infatuation with Andrew Leigh is seen by herself as completely natural and beyond the rules of normal social and moral conduct. Andrew himself seems but a puppet controlled by the women in his life; he truly means well but his ingrained weaknesses and inability to take a strong stand against the tempting Terry lead to his ultimate doom.

Does this seem terribly complicated? Yes, I thought so, too!

This novel is a strange combination of innocence and sophistication. It escapes being pure farce by the very real agonies of the morally aware characters (Lady Midhurst and Andrew Leigh), but there is a strong element of humour in the portrayal of many of Lady Midhurst’s friends, as well as the comic leads Rosie and her outrageous “Mumsie.”

I am not quite sure what, if any, social commentary is intended by the author in this work. She certainly has a lot to say about the follies of vanity and obsessive concentration on one’s appearance, and her keen eye picks out many of the quirks of the established aristocracy and the social climbers seeking to join them. It seems more of a general farce, partly humorous and cleverly critical. There are some serious passages among the farcical ones, mostly to do with the between-the-wars situation in Germany, and the growing tide of militarism and anti-Semitism. Coming from this particular author, with her very real experience with the German political and military mindset (Elizabeth’s first husband was a Prussian aristocrat, and she lived many of her early married years on his German estate) these are telling asides.

A diverting read, and, though I felt it had some flaws, it has intrigued me intensely. I hope to get my hands on more books by this captivating writer.

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Wyoming Summer by Mary O’Hara ~1963. This edition: Doubleday & Company, 1963. Hardcover. 286 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. An enlightening backstory of a short period of the author Mary O’Hara’s (1885-1980) life, and details the inspiration for My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead and The Green Grass of Wyoming. It felt rather self-congratulatory at times – my handsome husband, my great natural talent as a composer, my amazing sensitivity to the glories of nature, my important celebrity friends – but to excuse this it seems that most of Mary O’Hara’s boasts were indeed true. This account is also balanced with explanations, and details of the valleys as well as the peaks of the experiences within.

Presented as an autobiography, Mary O’Hara herself notes in the Preface that she has tinkered with her journal entries to make them more cohesive and readable. While the book has a reasonably strong narrative flow, there are frequent times when the entries are a bit disjointed, with out-of-place comments tacked onto longer vignettes. Perhaps this was done to maintain the feeling of a spontaneous journal, but since the work was already being edited I think it might have been stronger if these snippets had either been expanded upon or left out completely.

*****

This book was a surprising find last week in a quick scouting cruise through Nuthatch Books in 100 Mile House. The author’s name was immediately recognizable – for what horse-crazy child of my particular generation has not read My Friend Flicka? – but I was unfamiliar with the title. A lesser-known novel, perhaps? On closer investigation I found that this was an autobiographical account of part of a year spent on the Wyoming ranch that inspired the Flicka bestseller and its two sequels.

Mary O’Hara Alsop was a talented pianist, published composer, and Hollywood script writer when she turned her hand to writing fiction. Inspired by the rugged surroundings of the ranch which she and her second husband, Helge Sture-Vasa, purchased in Wyoming in 1930 and lived on for sixteen years, and the horses and other ranch animals she came to know intimately, O’Hara’s novel My Friend Flicka was published in 1941 to immediate acclaim. It was based on the journals O’Hara had been keeping of her life on the ranch, and the characters were very much drawn from her own family, friends and the ranch workers.

Wyoming Summer is set in the tenth year of she and her husband’s occupation of the Remount Ranch. Their initial scheme of sheep farminghad failed dismally, as prices for livestock dropped catastrophically during the Great Depression. Helge (referred to as “Michael” in Wyoming Summer, and the prototype for “Rob” in the Flicka books) was an experienced ex-Army cavalry officer, and the next enterprise that met with modest success was that of raising and training horses (“remounts”) for the U.S. Army. This was a precarious and not particularly prosperous undertaking, and Mary’s dairy herd and the establishment of a summer boy’s camp catering to the sons of her well-off music and film connections paid many of the bills.

Wyoming Summer details the challenging and exhausting juxtaposition of Mary’s dual worlds: ranch wife baking bread, hand-milking cows and dealing with daily chores combined with aspiring composer eagerly snatching the hours needed for piano practice and composition from her more prosaic duties.

Though this autobiography details both the rewards and drawbacks of life on a remote ranch, it decidedly glosses over the personal crises that Mary O’Hara dealt with throughout her life. A difficult first marriage resulted in two children, one of whom, a daughter, died tragically of cancer in her teens. After her divorce from her first husband, Mary’s second matrimonial attempt seemed happier, at least initially, but it was also doomed. Helge was a handsome, hard-working, hard-drinking man who was not above a certain amount of philandering, and that marriage ended, after the sale of the Remount Ranch and a move to California, in 1947.

Mary continued her work in composing music and working on stage and screen productions, as well as publishing several other novels. The journals kept while at the Remount Ranch had been set aside among Mary’s papers, and when they resurfaced in the 1960s Mary thought she could make something of them, hence the publication of Wyoming Summer. Several other novels met with modest success, but it was the Wyoming trilogy, and in particular the first installment, My Friend Flicka, that ensured Mary O’Hara’s longest lasting acclaim.

Wyoming Summer is interesting both for its window into a specific time and place, and for what its author leaves out. While we are allowed into certain areas of Mary O’Hara’s complex life, we are firmly shut out of others, leaving us with a definite feeling of being a spectator with limited access to the performance being played out.

These few reservations aside, Wyoming Summer is definitely worth reading, especially in tandem with the more purely fictional novels of the same setting.

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The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor ~ 1968. This edition: Chatto and Windus, 1968. First Edition. Hardcover. 230 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. I know that Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975) is something of a pet author among the book blogging crowd, but I find I sometimes have to try really hard to whole-heartedly like her style. I found the writing in this novel rather stilted and distant; I also found the story itself depressing, with the humour being on the subfusc side of the spectrum.

To be quite fair, there were numerous passages of exceedingly enjoyable prose, and I did easily make it to the end of this slight novel without losing interest. And as this is my second time willingly reading this book,  it can’t be all that bad! Perhaps the fact that this time round it was hospital bed reading has coloured my review? I’ve just had an unplanned foray into the medical world, with prospects of more blood testing, scans and bed-time to come; this is certainly souring my current disposition. I’m thinking Elizabeth Taylor is not a good author to be reading in that venue. (Or perhaps she is the very best? Highlighting the cynical side of life, and all…)

*****

Nineteen-year-old Cressida (Cressy) has lived all of her life in the exclusive artists’ colony presided over by her patriarchal maternal grandfather, Harry Bretton. The only child of meek mother Rose, and ineffectual father Joe (an Irish would-be writer hand-picked by Harry as a suitably infuenceable husband for his daughter), Cressy yearns for a life outside of the earnestly dull extended-family enclave she is trapped in.

Harry Bretton was once a outré artist whose depictions of Biblical scenes incorporating contemporary settings caused a certain stir. The art world has moved on, and such non-conventional depictions are now the norm, but Harry clings to his old style, supplementing his decreasing artistic income by forays into religious lecturing, as well as taking in well-heeled “disciples” eager to study at the feet of the “Master”, as he has self-styled himself.

Cressy first announces her renunciation of religion, to her mother’s shock and, disappointingly, to her grandfather’s tolerant amusement – he casts an omniscient view over his subservient clan, and patronizingly assumes that this is merely a youthful rite of passage, though more suitable perhaps to a boyish temperament rather than that of a girl. (Harry Bretton has decided views regarding the proper subservient role of the female sex.)

Cressy then finds herself a job doing menial chores at the village antique store, and, in a small sequence of coincidences, meets a middle-aged journalist who is a friend of the antique shop owners, as well as having previously written a sarcastic article regarding Harry Bretton’s establishment. David Little is modestly successful in his field, and, living with his divorced mother, has a comfortable enough life, though he has noticed that of late romantic relationships are becoming more and more unsatisfactory, as all the “good ones” – desirable women with looks, charm and pleasant personalities – are leaving the singles scene for the securities and domestic pleasures of marriage.

David surprises himself by his attraction to childish Cressy’s innocent enjoyment of such worldly pleasures as television, hamburger bars and ready-made clothing, and soon the two are romantically involved, to the initial pleasure of David’s emotionally needy and manipulative mother Midge, who sees in Cressy an unthreatening solution to the long dreaded break-up of her mother-son domain.

Cressy and David marry, and Midge turns her full attention to preserving the status quo by erasing Cressy’s already feeble self-will and ensuring the continued attendance of David at the maternal beck and call. Cressy’s pregnancy and subsequent incompetent attempts at motherhood eventually bring about a shift in the balance of power as Midge becomes infatuated with her new grandson, and David realizes that the only hope for himself and his marriage is a breaking away from his mother’s insinuating grasp.

The ending is ambiguous and could be slanted either optimistically or the reverse; I chose to read into it a hopeful future for all involved, though this is in no way guaranteed by the author’s very hands-off approach.

I felt that the characters were nothing like as fully developed as they could have been; Midge seems to be the only fully rounded person in the story, and might indeed be the main protagonist. Cressy and David came across as mere sketches, though there are glimpses into the depths of each of them; just enough to keep us on their side and hope for an improvement in their relationship and their personal lives. Cressy’s parents and cousins are, in general, sympathetically handled, but one of the most potentially interesting characters,  Harry Bretton – the Master himself – is left as a mockable caricature.

Elizabeth Taylor was a decidedly clever writer with a wry and morbidly humorous viewpoint, but by concentrating on the darker side of human nature she walks the edge of being just a shade too cynical for my personal present reading comfort.

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The View from a Kite by Maureen Hull ~ 2006. This edition: Vagrant Press (Nimbus Publishing, 2006. Softcover. ISBN: 1-55109-591-2. 338 pages.

My rating: Majority of the book: 9/10. Last few chapters: 7/10-ish. I found this book to be a compelling and sharply presented read, and, for a book about a tragically-backstoried teenager in a tuberculosis ward, unexpectedly funny. Occasionally the TB references felt a bit “teachable moment”-ish, but in general this aspect was handled well. (I had a bit of a chuckle when I later learned that the author had homeschooled her two daughters for seven years; I could definitely tell she was very familiar with the art of including information in a narrative in an interesting and almost flawlessly “natural” way – the mark of the very best historical fiction writers we homeschoolers love so much.)

I did feel the momentum dropped towards the end, as the author brought the strands of the story together. The ending felt a little too neat and predictable, not necessarily a bad thing, especially given the “young adult” nature of the novel, but I personally felt a rather vague disappointment, as if I had expected just a little bit more creativity from such an obviously capable author.

Overall recommendation: very well done. Well worth reading.

*****

I am a Dangerous Woman in a Dangerous Dress.

The gym is foggy with chiffon: rose, peach, aqua and mint, with dyed-to-match pumps spiked to the bottom, strings of pearls looped around the top – a pastel smear of background for the scarlet shout that is me.  Gwen. My dress is a lick of silk, the molten edge of a suicidal sun. I move through the crowd like a reckless kiss, a flash of crystal at my stiletto heels, nails enamelled in heart’s blood.

His hair is too long, dark curls thrown into confusion by the knife edge of his collar. He draws frowns but no direct criticism because he just doesn’t give a damn and can’t be made to. He pulls me into his arms, the band blasts me up off the bed, trumpets and trombones in a frenzy, some crazed person hammering the bells off her tambourine. I cling to the edge of the metal frame, tangled in the sheets, hyperventilating, what is that tune? Sweet Jesus, it is not, yes it is. “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

I see them through the half-open door, the Salvation Army Band, all dressed up in black wool, red collars, and shiny brass instruments. The leader winks at me as he whips the ensemble into a straight and narrow line, aims them at the crashing, metallic finale. Then, with the barest pause for breath, they fling themselves “Into the Garden Alone.”

I fall back onto the bed and stare at the ceiling. Check my pulse. One hundred and thirty, roaring and frothing through my veins and arteries. Check my watch – 9:30, still the same damn Sunday morning. I have napped for less than half an hour.

Meet 17-year-old Gwen MacIntyre, temporary resident of the Cape Breton County Sanatorium. It is the mid-1970s, and though tuberculosis is fast becoming an obsolete disease, there are still a few specialized treatment facilities dedicated to mopping up the final cases, and providing a home for the incurable “chronics.” Gwen’s TB is being dealt with, but the disease is only one of her pressing issues. Her family, once happy and united, is irretrievably broken, and with Gwen’s growing maturity comes the need to find a way to move forward into a more hopeful future.

The novel is written in the form of chapter-long diary entries. Gwen’s private voice is articulate and keenly humorous, with occasional lapses into poignant regret for what has gone before, and fear for the future.

Understandable, as Gwen is the survivor of a partially successful family murder-suicide episode…

A diverting and, dare I say it, “educational” – in the very best way – read which I enjoyed. The protagonist’s spirited voice kept the dire subjects addressed from being too pathetically sad, and there was a sharpness to the wit which felt very real and refreshing. Sex, friendship and religion, among numerous other compelling topics, are frankly discussed by Gwen in her conversations with herself.

Marketed as a Young Adult read, this is definitely cross-genre enough to find a home on the Adult bookshelves as well. Shades of Betty MacDonald’s autobiographical “The Plague and I” (1948), about another clever observer’s time in a post WW-II TB sanatorium. I found it interesting to compare the two accounts; they are ultimately very different but also quite similar in that sophisticated, self-aware humour is used to deal with the frightening and personally humiliating experience of battling the “dread disease.”

I found this review after I had written the rough draft of my own; I include it here because the reviewer’s take on this story was very similar to my own. By reviewer Marnie Parsons, Quill & Quire, November 2006:

Ambitious and well-written, Maureen Hull’s first novel tells the story of Gwen, a 17-year-old in a TB sanatorium, and later a TB hospital, on Cape Breton Island during the 1970s. Gwen’s natural curiosity and her talent for writing combine in the narrative, as she observes the characters in the sanatorium with thoughtful, often wry insight, and simultaneously acquaints herself with the history of TB, its treatment, and its more famous victims. Typical teen pressures of boyfriends and burgeoning sexuality are interwoven with Gwen’s stories of life in the San, of late-night escapes by patients, her own sometimes horrific treatments, pranks played on nurses, and lists of preposterous historical cures for her disease. Her dreams of an exotic writing life in Paris are that much more poignant because, as the reader discovers, her life outside the San is far from happy. As she recovers from her TB, Gwen must also come to terms with an almost unspeakable family tragedy.
Gwen is an engaging character; her voice is strong and compelling. However, there’s too much happening in this novel: Gwen’s illness and life in the sanatorium would have been quite enough without the added complexity of her grandmother’s long-ago illegitimate pregnancy and developing senility (not overlapping), her father’s shellshock, and her parents’ murder-suicide. Hull works hard to blend the divergent strands of narrative, and there’s much to recommend this novel, which is an admirable and enjoyable effort. But in the end it lacks a sense of proportion. Less would definitely have been more.

Maureen Hull is a life-long native of Nova Scotia, born on Cape Breton Island and currently living on Pictou Island. She seems to have had a diverse and experience-filled life, including studies at Dalhousie University and the Pictou Fisheries School, and stints in the costume department of the Neptune Theatre (Halifax), as well as twenty-two years in the lobster fishery. This is the author’s first novel, though she has been actively writing since 1992. Her other published work includes several children’s books, short story collections, poetry, and creative non-fiction.

A contemporary Canadian writer to keep an eye out for, if The View from a Kite is any indication, and worthy of further acquaintance. I will be looking for more of her work.

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The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge ~ 1941. This edition: Coronet, 1975. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-00396-0. 256 pages.

My rating: 8/10. Rating based on the author’s body of work; I’ve read most of her books, and thought this one was one of the “upper end” in accessibility and lack of long, rambling, philosophical-religious side paths. I enjoyed it.

This is a deeply poignant story, written in the early years of World War II when the outcome was still very much in question, and the author and her fellow countrymen, along with her characters in the novel, were steeling themselves to bravely face their possibly horrific fates under a sea invasion of England. As she penned this novel, Elizabeth Goudge was living in a small country cottage near the village of Marldon, Devonshire with her frail, elderly mother; their days and nights were punctuated by the droning of fighter planes and bombers passing overhead, and the sound of explosions as German bombs exploded in the nearby coastal cities of Torquay and Paignton. Though Marldon itself escaped direct bombing, the inhabitants were extremely aware of their very real danger, and the stresses of living in wartime are very evident in this novel.

*****

Miss Dolores Brown is in a bad place, both literally and figuratively. Her home and source of income, the boarding house she has established in the family home she inherited upon the death of her parents, has been requisitioned by the government for wartime use. A relocation to London and attempts to find a job have proven fruitless; no one much needs or wants a quiet, unassertive forty-year-old woman with only her domestic skills to recommend her. Her friends and relatives are tired of hosting her; she needs to move on. Now news has come that her house and all of her stored possessions have been destroyed in a bombing raid. A train ticket to travel to stay with a relation for a day and a few coins remain between Miss Brown and utter destitution; her predominant emotion is an overwhelming fear of what will happen to her now.

As she sits outwardly proper but inwardly forlorn on a bench in front of the London Free Library, a strain of music catches her ear. Somewhere nearby someone is playing the violin, and Miss Brown rises to find the source of the music, and comes upon Jo Isaacson playing for coins in the street. Miss Brown impulsively puts one of her last shillings in the fiddler’s hat; they have a short exchange, and she goes on her way cheered and encouraged by the brief encounter.

Mr. Isaacson, born in England but musically trained in Leipzig and then settled on the Continent, was once a celebrated musician.  Now fallen on hard times both through his predilection for drinking and the growing persecution of the Jews which forced his flight from Germany, Austria and then Italy, Mr. Isaacson fears that even his old homeland England will reject him next. He has determined to earn a shilling to use in the gas fire in his room to commit suicide; due to Miss Brown’s impetuous generosity, the means to his end is now at hand.

Through a series of coincidences and under the sheltering hand of fate, Jo Isaacson does not use the shilling for his fatal final intention. He ends spending some of it for taking his landlady’s two small children to the train; they are being evacuated to the relative safety of the country. Ending up on the train himself, Mr. Isaacson has set in motion a series of events which will lead to his ultimate attainment of his longed-for place of peace.

In another part of the train, Miss Brown has just met and been taken under the wing of a prosperous historian, Mr. Birley. Mr. Birley has been to London to try to engage a housekeeper for his stately home, Birley Castle, and its household of men: himself, nephews Richard and Stephen, respectively a dashing fighter pilot and an emotionally tormented pacifist conscientious objector, and butler Boulder and gardener Pratt. Not to mention the elderly Alsatian dog Argos, and Steven’s fiery horse, Golden Eagle. But once Miss Brown has unburdened herself of her tale of woe to sympathetic Mr. Birley, he looks at her with calculating surmise. Could she, would she… ?

She certainly could and would. Bucked up by sympathy, a substantial dinner and the prospects of a job, Miss Brown brightens up considerably, and optimistically tackles the daunting task of bringing order to a heedless masculine world.

Meanwhile the two daughters of Mr. Isaacson’s landlady are also on their way to Torhaven, location of Birley Castle, to be billeted with a foster family there, as is Mr. Isaacson himself, who has been taken under the wing of Mr. Holly, the railway guard who discovered him collapsed in the baggage car after the express train left London. Mr. Holly offers him a chance to get settled and find a job “somewhere near the kiddies” – he has mistakenly thought that the children Mr. Isaacson was escorting are his own.

Add in Prunella, the lovely doctor’s daughter who has been the romantic interest of first peaceful Stephen and now exciting Richard, and elderly Mrs. Heather, endlessly smiling inhabitant of the cottage at the Castle gates, and you have all the players assembled on the stage.

Elizabeth Goudge loves to bring her characters together by impossibly convenient coincidence, and this novel is a prime example. The two little girls are billeted at the Castle, and Miss Brown eventually meets Mr. Isaacson; they are united in common memory and relief at each finding at least a temporary haven. Mr. Isaacson is modestly successful as a street musician and music teacher, and Miss Brown has settled nicely into her niche as the housekeeper of the Castle.

Mr. Birley returns to his creative solitude untroubled by household concerns; Stephen prepares for his upcoming hearing to allow him to avoid military service by working at rescue and recovery in the bombed sections of London; Richard comes and goes between missions, dallying with the passionate Prue whenever chance allows; Miss Brown wins over the initially hostile Boulder by her gentle good nature and hard work; Pratt gets on with things much as usual; Mrs. Heather keeps smiling.

Tragedy and turmoil turn this newly peaceful world upside down, and the responses of all concerned show the best qualities that lie buried in everyone to be brought forth under adversity, another favourite Elizabeth Goudge theme.

This condensation leaves out everything that makes this book so appealing: the glimpses into the inner thoughts and deeper motivations of every character involved. Stephen is handled particularly well as he wrestles with his decision to be a non-combatant; his brother and uncle are fiercely and actively patriotic, and though they treat him with respect and affection it is clear that they are impatient rather than understanding of his dilemma.

The character of the quiet and dedicated Miss Brown serves to highlight the divisions and expectations of the class system, soon to be changed forever by the new equality of the war and post-war years. She feels something more than subservient and feudal affection for the Birley family; they however regard her as an appreciated and respected but somehow not-quite-equal being. Miss Brown hides her feelings well; her pride lets her go forward with head held high even when the oblivious Birleys unintentionally disregard her occasional attempts at a deeper friendship.

Mr. Isaacson resolves his feelings of anger towards the world and its unfairness and is able to move onward in his life. (And I would like to mention that I thought he was one of the most awkward characters, as his creator did not seem sure of how she should portray him – he is inconsistent throughout, one moment gruff and earthy, and the next full of academically poetic musings.)

Elizabeth Goudge likes to sort out her couples and pair them off in their proper order. Children are inevitably provided with the best possible homes; damaged marriages are salvaged; family rifts are healed; happy spinsters and bachelors regain their peaceful solitude and worthwhile occupations. The Castle on the Hill runs true to form, but it has much to recommend it in its thoughtful passages and articulate characters. The setting is lovingly described, and most of the characters are fully realized and allowed their chance to show their full and complex humanity.

Given that the book was written in wartime, in the very time that it portrays, it acts as an interesting and quite readable realistic-idealistic period piece. The horrors and tragedies of the war are true to life; the human response of the heroes and heroines is certainly the ideal.

The last few pages have numerous references to the comforts of religion and the role of God in human lives, but this is not at all a “preachy” book.  I thought it was one of the less rambling and more focussed adult novels by this often-underrated writer. I could definitely see shades of some of the characters of Goudge’s most well-known and beloved books, the Damerosehay novels (The Bird in the Tree – 1940, The Herb of Grace – 1948, and The Heart of the Family – 1953) which were written during and after the war years; The Castle on the Hill is something of a dress rehearsal, though it stands alone as a story complete unto itself, with characters whom we never again meet, though their soul sisters and brothers reappear in different guise in her many other books.

Note: I am here including, with some reluctance, the cover shot from the 1975 paperback re-release. The cover at the beginning is from an earlier edition. I am not sure who these illustrated people are supposed to portray; in my opinion they do not represent actual characters of the story, but instead have strayed onto the cover from an Eaton’s mail-order catalogue, Misses and Gents section, circa the polyester era! Quite one of the ugliest covers possible for this book, and not at all indicative of the content. A dire reminder not to judge a book by its outward appearance!

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Cousin Elva by Stuart Trueman ~ 1955. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1955. First edition. Hardcover. 224 pages.

My rating: This is tough. I almost was going to say un-rateable, but on second thoughts I will give it maybe a 5.5/10. It’s a first book, and the author went on to write many more. There’s nothing really wrong with it, and I did read it with mild enjoyment, but I found it very easy to put down and I had to consciously pick it up and finish it. Probably a keeper, but on the bottom shelf or exiled to the “B”-reads boxes, I’m thinking.

*****

Cousin Elva is a humourous, satirical light novel about a fictional couple, Penelope and Frank Trimble, who purchase a large house in the (also fictional?) community of Quisbis on the Bay of Fundy, and proceed to open a boarding house – “Mr. and Mrs. Trimble’s Tourist Rest Haven”. The only catch is that the house comes with a pre-existing resident, Miss Elva Thwaite, granddaughter of the original owner.

Miss Thwaite, or “Cousin” Elva as she insists on being called, is a blatantly eccentric, sixty-ish,”old maid” who refuses to be put on the shelf, taking an active interest in everyone and everything that crosses her path. She’s also keen to catch herself a man. Hi-jinks ensue as a motley assortment of visitors to Trimble’s Rest Haven fall into Cousin Elva’s clutches.

The humour is, at its best, rather understated and wry, but too often over-the-top farcical. I did enjoy the many regional and Canadian references; those did much to keep me reading when I occasionally got overloaded with the slapstick action.

A well-meaning attempt by an author new to me. The kind of book you perhaps enjoy best when scanning the meagerly stocked shelves at an isolated lakeside cabin in summer. In other words, welcome if you’re fairly desperate for amusement and it’s too far to go to town…

Stuart Trueman (1911-1995) was a Canadian writer from New Brunswick. He won the Steven Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour in 1969. I had never heard of him before picking up this book, but as you can see from his biography he had a long and prolific writing career. I would definitely be interested in reading some of his other work, but only if it was easily obtainable; I don’t think I’d go to a lot of effort to seek it out.

From the New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia:

Stuart Trueman (writer, editor, historian,  reporter, cartoonist, and humorist) was born in 1911 in Saint John, New Brunswick,  the son of the late John MacMillan and Annie Mae (Roden) Trueman. He was  the husband of Mildred Kate (Stiles) and a father to Mac and Douglas, his two  sons; he was also a grandfather of four, and a great-grandfather to one.  Growing up, he had two sisters and three brothers, along with a countless  number of friends whom he believed shaped him into the man that he was. He  passed away in his home in Saint John,   New Brunswick, on 25 April 1995  after a period of failing health.

Trueman was known  for being a great representative of journalism, and he garnered a lot of  respect and credibility in all that he accomplished. Straight out of high  school, he started out as a cartoonist and reporter at the Telegraph Journal in Saint    John, where he stayed for forty-two years, later  becoming a sports writer. In 1951, Trueman became the editor-in-chief at the Telegraph Journal and Evening Times Globe, a position that he  would hold for the last twenty years of his working career. Upon retirement in  1971, he remained faithful to the newspapers that he had been involved with and  continued to contribute to weekly columns until 1993. He took writing, journalism,  and public speaking seriously, and had a keen insight into human character. He  was also known for being a stickler for details, always following the journalist’s  obsession with the “who,” “what,” “where,” and “how.”

Trueman was often  referred to as “Mr. New Brunswick”  because of his broad knowledge of the history of this province and of its  scenic and cultural attractions. He wrote many books about New Brunswick, its people, and its unique  history. Along with being a well-known author, Trueman was a part of New Brunswick history.  On 19 May 1932, he and co-worker Jack Brayley interviewed Amelia Earhart at the  Saint John Airport  as she was preparing for her historic flight across the Atlantic.  Another accomplishment for Trueman was when he and Brayley took a trip to Moncton, New    Brunswick, where they discovered an attraction that  many are familiar with today: Magnetic Hill. Trueman’s son Mac said that  despite the fame and development that has built up around Magnetic Hill, it was  always his father’s favourite natural phenomenon. The discovery of Magnetic  Hill gave way to the tourism industry within New Brunswick,  and it continues to be one of New    Brunswick’s most popular attractions.

Trueman published  fourteen books and wrote more than three hundred humorous articles for both  Canadian and American magazines. He thought of these articles as “light pieces,”  and although he never claimed they were funny, he was commonly referred to as a  funny man. One of his greatest accomplishments was winning the Stephen Leacock  Memorial Award for humour in 1969 for his book You’re Only as Old as You Act (1968). Other books Trueman produced  include: Cousin Elva (1955); The Ordeal of John Giles: Being an Account  of his Odd Adventures; Strange Deliverances, etc. as a Slave of the Maliseets (1966); An Intimate History of New  Brunswick (1970); My Life as a  Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (1972); The  Fascinating World of New Brunswick (1973); Ghosts, Pirates and Treasure Trove: The Phantoms that Haunt New  Brunswick (1975); The Wild Life I’ve Led (1976); Tall Tales and True Tales from  Down East: Eerie Experiences, Heroic Exploits, Extraordinary Personalities,  Ancient Legends and Folklore from New Brunswick and Elsewhere in the Maritimes (1979); The Colour of New Brunswick (1981); Don’t Let Them Smell the Lobsters Cooking:  The Lighter Side of Growing Up in the Maritimes Long Ago (1982); Life’s Odd Moments (1984); and Add Ten Years to Your Life: A Canadian  Humorist Looks at Florida (1989). Many of his books include light-hearted  stories that have been adapted from Trueman’s popular columns in the Telegraph Journal, Weekend, and the Saturday Evening Post.

Trueman’s wife,  Mildred, played an important role in his overall success as an author in New Brunswick. She  supported him throughout his career, and the couple collaborated on two  cookbooks: Favourite Recipes from Old New Brunswick Kitchens (1983) and Mildred Trueman’s New Brunswick Heritage Cookbook: With  Age-Old Cures and Medications, Atlantic Fishermen’s Weather Portents and  Superstitions (1986).

Amanda Palmer     St. Thomas University

And here is the author photo and biography from the back cover of Cousin Elva:

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Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time by Rumer Godden ~ 1945. This edition: Macmillan, 1976. Hardcover. ISBN: 333-19366-0. 176 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10 for the overall story, 10/10 for the writing. The first rating really should be higher but I am comparing it to its successor, China Court (1958), which used the same idea expanded to five generations, with a much stronger story thread. This one felt a bit experimental, which the author herself notes. It took a few pages to get into the rhythm and figure out all the characters, but after that it was easy to follow, perhaps because I am already very familiar with this author’s use of concurrent and intertwining times in many of her novels. An unusual and ambitious book. Beautifully written.

*****

This book is prime Rumer Godden; an example of why I keep returning to her works time after time; as I’ve mentioned before, even a “poor” Godden is worth the time it takes to read it; her “top end” books are little masterpieces.

Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time is, in my opinion, almost a little masterpiece, or perhaps more aptly, the not-quite-finished work of a master artist, still needing a few final touches, but interesting to examine in the context of the artist’s body of work, to get a glimpse into how their mind works. A very experimental piece of work, and decidedly the precursor of the much longer and stronger China Court, which isprobably my favourite Rumer Godden book to date, though I still need to search down a few of her more obscure titles. Though China Court uses the same technique and many similar characters, Take Three Tenses is an entirely different story, except possibly for the theme of the importance of the house itself as a character with a life of its own.

Originally published in 1945, and with the War itself driving much of the story, this novel was reissued in 1975 with this note by the author:

This novel was the first in which I used a theme that has always intrigued me, Dunne’s Experiment With Time, i.e., that time is not consecutive, divided into past, present and future, but that these are all co-existent if only we could see it: if you are in a boat on a river you can only see the stretch on which your boat is travelling – a picnic party on the bank perhaps: a kingfisher diving. What you traversed before, passing willows, a barge tied up, cows in a field, as far as you are concerned, is gone; what lies around the next corner – a lock working, a man fishing – is hidden but, were you up in an aeroplane, you could see all these at once – the willows, the barge, the cows, the picnic party, the diving kingfisher, the lock, the man fishing.

In a Fugue in Time I have taken the part of being up in the aeroplane, seeing three generations of a family at once, all living in a house in London, their stories interweaving, as do themes in a fugue. The difficulty was, of course, not to confuse the reader and it was not until the eighth or ninth try that I found the right way; that it was right seems shown by the fact that, with few exceptions, neither critics nor readers have noticed it, only what Chaucer calls “the thinne subtil kinittinges of thinges”. Some years later I used the same technique with five generations, not three, living in a country house, China Court.

September 1975 R.G.

And from the frontispiece:

…two, three or four simultaneous melodies which are constantly on the move, each going its own independent way. For this reason the underlying harmony is often hard to decipher, being veiled in a maze of passing notes and suspensions…. Often chords are incomplete: only two tones are sounded so that one’s imagination has to fill in the missing third tone.

A SENTENCE DESCRIBING BACH’S FUGUES WRITTEN BY LAWRENCE ABBOT

*****

And for Rolls personally the poem he found:

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion…
…In my end is my beginning.

T.S. Eliot (East Coker)

*****

Man that is born of a woman has but a short time to live…He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.

Children and the fruit of the womb are a heritage and a gift …. Like as arrows in the hand of a giant even so are the young young children.

THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER

*****

The story starts with the disclosure that a house that has been home to a family for almost a century is about to be pulled down as soon as the ninety-nine-year lease is up. The elderly lone occupant, apparently the last survivor of a once flourishing family, Sir Roland (Rolls) Dane, is shocked and appalled at the thought of having to give up his  home.

The house, it seems, is more important than the characters. ‘In me you exist’,’ says the house.

For almost a hundred years, for ninety-nine years, it has enhanced, embraced and sheltered the family, but there is no doubt it can go on without them. “Well” the family might have retorted, “We can go on without you.” There should be no question of retorts nor of acrimony. The house and family are at their best and most gracious together.

The question of their parting had arisen. The lease was up. “And the owners are not prepared to renew,” said Mr. Willoughby, putting his despatch case on the table.

“But they can’t pull down my house!” cried Rolls; but he cried it silently because he was perfectly sensible of the fact that they could and that it was not his house. He was sensible, and at the same time he was outraged. Outraged he said in a voice that was muffled for all its calm, “I don’t want the family to go out of the house.”

The only remaining family was Rolls himself, but Mr. Willoughby could hardly point that out. He wondered what there was slightly unusual about the sentence Rolls had just said, and presently, pondering, h thought it would have been more usual if Rolls had said, “I don’t want the house to go out of the family.” Families possessed houses: not houses the family…

So Rolls reluctantly accepts his fate, and, with his manservant Proutie (himself a life-long devotee of No. 99 Wiltshire Place), slowly starts to prepare for the unthinkable change.

And here the author sets the stage and starts to introduce the many characters whose lives and times make up the story’s “fugue”. We don’t yet know who they are or how they fit in, but their names are teasingly mentioned: Selina, Lark, Verity, Griselda…

In the house the past is present.

It is the only house in the Place that has a plane tree in the garden; for many years a Jewish family lives next door, and every year on the Feast of Tabernacles they would ask for the branches of the tree and built a little Succah on their balcony. All the houses have balconies, long ones across the French doors of the drawing-rooms at the back, and all the balconies have scrolled iron steps that lead down into the garden. The gardens are narrow and long, various in their stages of cultivation and neglect, heavily sooted as well. The gardens have an unmistakable London smell from the closed-in walls, and the earth that is heavy and old, long undisturbed; the smell has soot in it too, and buried leaves, and the ashes of bonfires, and the smell of cat; any child, sent out to play, comes in with the smell; it is part of the memory of Selina and Rolls and the other children and Lark…

The roots of the plane tree are under the house. Rolls likes to fancy sometimes, lately, that the plane tree is himself. ‘Its roots are in the house and so are mine,’ he said. …He flattered himself. The plane tree is more than Rolls, as is another tree of which Rolls is truly a part: it is a tree drawn on parchment, framed and hung over the chest in the hall by the grandfather clock. Selina draws it, marking the Danes in their places as they are born and die, making a demarcation line in red ink for the time they come to live in the house in the autumn of eighteen forty-one.

“We existed before you, you see,” the family might have said to the house; and the house, in its tickings, its rustlings, its creaking as its beams grow hot, grow cold: as its ashes fall in its grates, as its doorbells ring, as the trains in passing underneath it vibrate in its walls, as footsteps run up and down the stairs; as dusters are shaken, carpets beaten, beds turned down and dishes washed; as windows are opened or shut, blinds drawn up, pulled down; as the tap runs and is silent; as the lavatory is flushed; as the piano is played and books are taken down from the shelf, and brushed picked up and then laid down again on the dressing-table, and flowers are arranged in a vase; as the medicine bottle is shaken; as, with infinite delicate care, the spillikins are lifted in the children’s game; as the mice run under the wainscot the house might steadfastly reply, “I know! I know! All the same, in me you exist.”

And against the melodious pattern of the house and its many inhabitants there comes a stronger strain, as the story of the current time appears and plays itself out, with continual references to what lies before and behind. The doorbell rings, and Proutie announces the appearance of an unsuspected great-niece, Grisel Dane, come to England in this early year of the war as a member of a volunteer corps of woman ambulance drivers. Grisel is unhappy in her billet, and has remembered that she has a London relative. Savagely resentful of this disturbance, Rolls refuses to see her, but Grisel is fully as determined a person as her great-uncle, and she moves in to one of the empty bedrooms, determined at first merely to gain some physical comfort in, but soon becoming immersed in her ancestral family’s history for the few months remaining before the move.

Another important family connection also appears, and the inevitable love story plays itself out to the backdrop of the increasing violence of the war. We sense that an inevitable doom of some sort is coming, but we are not sure quite who or what will be lost.

Rumer Godden creates some well-drawn characters among the Danes and their associates. I found Griselda, mother of Rolls and his eight siblings, the most appealing of them all, with her yearnings for a larger world than that which she is trapped in, and her eventual attainment of a rich inner life which compensates in a small way for her over-possessive husband, her long succession of loved and cared-for yet not particularily welcome children, and the continual frustrations of her life as a Victorian upper class woman with strong societal strictures of behaviour to follow.

The strength of this book is in its style rather than its plot or characters; while they are well enough handled, they are secondary to the overall pattern. I almost think that this is intentional on the author’s part, but I was disappointed in her handling of the conclusion; it felt a little too pat; everything came predictably full circle. I fully understand the satisfaction that the author might feel in neatly winding things up, but sometimes a strong, even discordant climax is more memorable to even the most melodious composition than an easily anticipated, repetitive ending phrase.

Highly recommended for Rumer Godden fans, especially if you liked China Court. One of the lesser-known works of this author; I had something of a challenge finding a reasonably priced copy; they’re out there but in nothing like the abundance of many of her other titles.

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