Archive for October, 2013

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving, everyone, no matter where you are!

Out yesterday with the camera to capture a glimpse of autumn in our part of the world – Cariboo-Chilcotin region – interior British Columbia, Canada.

In the nursery beds: Michaelmas daisies, lily and sea kale foliage for contrast. Hill Farm October 13, 2013.

In the nursery beds: Fall asters, with lily and sea kale foliage for contrast.
Hill Farm October 13, 2013.

Mountain ash.

Mountain ash.

Echinops ritro - Golbe Thistle - with Macleaya cordata - Plume Poppy - foliage in background.

Echinops ritro – Globe Thistle – with Macleaya cordata – Plume Poppy – foliage in background.

Italian prune plums - this year our small tree was loaded with fruit. Almost over now, but so sweet and worth the long wait for ripening!

Italian prune plums – this year our small tree was loaded with fruit. Almost over now, but so sweet and worth the long wait for ripening!

Cottonwood trees beside the Fraser River - our daily view from the edge of the garden.

Cottonwood trees beside the Fraser River – our daily view from the edge of the garden.

Last roses of summer... Label long lost - no idea which variety this is, but reliably gives us a few late blossoms.

Last roses of summer…
Label long lost – no idea which variety this is, but reliably gives us a few late blossoms.

Alcea rugosa - Russian Hollyhock - an endless bloomer, tall stalks reaching for the sky.

Alcea rugosa – Russian Hollyhock – an endless bloomer, tall stalks reaching for the sky.

Hosta leaves touched by frost - snapped a picture just before my daughter ruthlessly chopped them down - she's in full garden clean-up mode these days!

Hosta leaves touched by frost – snapped a picture just before my daughter ruthlessly chopped them down – she’s in full garden clean-up mode these days!

Bur Oak leaves.

Bur Oak leaves.

Velvet-textured and dramatically veined Italian petunia; the plants themselves are leggy and awkward at this time of the year, but the few late blossoms make up for it; a lingering reminder of summer now past.

Velvet-textured and dramatically veined Italian petunia; the plants themselves are leggy and awkward at this time of the year, but the few late blossoms make up for it; a lingering reminder of summer now past.

The horse chestnut can't decide which colour it wants to be, so it's trying a bit of everything.

The horse chestnut can’t decide which colour it wants to be, so it’s trying a bit of everything.

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when jays fly to barbmo margaret baldersonWhen Jays Fly to Bárbmo by Margaret Balderson ~ 1968. This edition: Oxford University Press, 1970. Softcover. ISBN: 19-272010-4. 220 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Bárbmo is the mystical place in Lapland folklore where the migrating birds fly away to; some never go there, like the jays. The riddle of the intriguing title is made clear in the final pages of this engrossing historical fiction novel.

Fourteen-year-old Ingeborg lives on the remote Norwegian island of Draugoy, where her family household, consisting of her widowed father, an aunt, and elderly hired help Per (an obviously troubled man with a mysterious past), eke out a precarious but modestly comfortable living through farming and fishing. But even their small and isolated society is about to feel the effects of events in the greater world. It is 1940, and Hitler’s troops are advancing through Europe and into neutral Norway, with an aim to annex Norway’s ice-free shipping ports and to ensure crucial supplies of iron ore from Sweden which was handled through the Norwegian shipping system.

Norway falls under German control without much resistance; the royal family and the government escape to England to form a government-in-exile for the next five years; thousands of young Norwegian men begin to filter out of their homeland to train with Allied forces in other parts of Europe, and in Scotland and England; and as the years turn over even the farthest settlements are occupied by troops of the Wehrmacht.

This is the greater historical background to Ingeborg’s story, and against it the more detailed personal events of the novel take place. Our young heroine struggles with her place in her family, fiercely resenting her aunt’s attempts at turning her into a “proper” Norwegian housewife; Ingeborg would rather be out roaming the woods with her dog Benne, or out in the barn with the animals, or sitting with Per and badgering him for tales of his travels. Her father treats her with deep love but yet with a patronizing attitude, never letting Ingeborg forget that she will never be a part of his man’s world. He refuses to discuss her mother with her; there is some great mystery there which all of the adults skirt meticulously around, as if protecting Ingeborg from something which will harm her.

Being a properly traditional bildungsroman, Ingeborg tenaciously discovers the secrets of her origin. She faces and overcomes the loss of everything she holds dear, and in the end discovers who she really is and where she really belongs.

This novel is short and aimed at a juvenile audience, so by necessity glosses over large periods of time and merely hints at some events, but the author pauses at perfectly timed intervals to go into the exquisite details of Ingeborg’s inner and outer lives; the novel is beautifully written. The horrors of war are unflinchingly discussed; the evils of the Nazi regime and the atrocities surrounding the scorched earth policy of the retreat from northern Norway are tellingly depicted.

If there is any weakness to this story, it is that the realities spoken of – the historical facts – are so brutal as to be almost unbelievable, making accompanying research a necessity – heads up to those using this novel as part of a social studies/history curriculum.  Some details of the story are also perhaps a bit too lightly touched on, but appropriately so for the intended youthful audience.

But don’t overdo the background research; let the story tell itself, because it is first and foremost just that, a personal story of a quest for self-understanding. The dramatic events which unfold are viewed through a single set of eyes, that of the young narrator.

The seasons of the Scandinavian northland, the months without sun, the joy of returning daylight, the nomadic travels of the reindeer-herding Laplanders and their yearly brief relationship with the farmers and fishermen of the summer ranges are all wonderfully depicted.

This novel received the Children’s Book of the Year Award in 1969 in the author’s native Australia, and was a runner-up for the UK’s 1968 Carnegie Medal. It is also something of a one-of for the author. From the quality of the writing I had hoped to find some similar later works, but nothing comes to light except for a few light fictions for younger children published in the early 1970s.

A snippet of biography found online explains the author’s familiarity with the setting of her story, and her obvious passion for the sharing of the brutal experiences of the rural Norwegians during the German occupation.

Australian children’s book author Margaret Balderson first made a name for herself with When Jays Fly to Bárbmo, a coming-of-age story about Ingeborg, a Norwegian girl who experiences the German invasion of Norway during World War II. The fear of invasion, and then its traumatic reality, provoke the young woman into a soul-searching quest to validate her own personal identity. This debut novel won awards across the English-speaking world.

Balderson was born and raised in Australia, but in 1963 she left for Europe. She settled for two years in Norway, where she worked in the winters and explored the countryside in the brief northern summers. In the Arctic nation, according to Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers contributor H. M. Saxby, “she experienced in a deeply personal way the innate rhythms of that land as expressed through its seasons. In particular, the Dark Time of the long Arctic winter became for her symbolic of an oppression of spirit which evaporates with the miracle of each spring.” Balderson’s experience of that cycle is reflected in Ingeborg’s life, as she passes through the darkness of living under occupation and emerges into freedom and adulthood.

A grand example of a “living book” which will be of interest to homeschool families and history teachers. I would say that it is suitable for ages 10 or so to adult. Highly recommended.

My edition is the OUP softcover, published in 1970, and it is graced by a wonderful cover illustration by one of my very favourite literary artists, Victor Ambrus. The first chapter heading is also illustrated, but sadly the rest of the volume is without decoration. I wonder if the original edition has more pictures? If so, I would love to get my hands on one…

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pink sugar o douglas anna buchanPink Sugar by O. Douglas ~ 1924. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1936. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

A rather sweet book, but not mawkishly so in the way the title suggests. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, but I came away feeling beautifully contented, in an “all’s right in that fictional world” sort of way. The heroine sorted herself out nicely, and we have high hopes for her future if she can just retain that hard-won sensibility to the absurdity of playing Lady Bountiful to an oblivious populace!

I guess I should backtrack a bit, and summarize the plot for those of you not already familiar with this gentle novel.

“Spinster without encumbrances” Kirsty Gilmour is thirty and a free woman for the first time in her life, after the recent death of her stepmother, a woman described as “sweet and friendly and quite intolerable”. The second Lady Gilmour was an absolutely selfish creature whom Kirsty has stuck with from charitable impulse and deep inner goodness – Kirsty is the inheritor of her late father’s fortune, and has financially supported and accompanied her stepmother through that woman’s preferred social whirl in the years since Sir Gilmour’s death.

Kirsty’s older friend, Blanche Cunningham, reminisces about the unregretted Lady Gilmour.

Thinking of Lady Gilmour, Blanche was conscious again of the hot wave of dislike that had so often engulfed her when she had come across that lady in life. She remembered the baby-blue eyes, the appealing ways, the smooth sweet voice that could say such cruel things, the too red lips, the faint scent of violets that had clung to all of her possessions, the carefully thought out details of all she wore, her endless insistent care of herself and her own comfort, her absolute carelessness as to the feelings of others…

‘Kirsty,’ Blanche laid her hand on her friend’s arm. ‘However did you stand it all those years? What an intolerable woman she was!’

Kirsty sat looking in front of her.

‘She’s dead,’ was all she said.

‘Well,’ Mrs. Cunningham retorted briskly, ‘being dead doesn’t make people any nicer, does it?’

Now, freed of the superficial social whirl, Kirsty has joyously fled to the country, her true emotional habitat and the place of her birth, to the Borders of Scotland, to the little village of Muirburn, just outside of Priorsford.  (O. Douglas aficionados will recognize the reference.) Here she has rented a house, “Little Phantasy”, on the grounds of a larger estate. The manor house itself, rather quaintly named “Phantasy”,  is the abode of curmudgeonly bachelor Colonel Home, forty-ish and set in his ways, by all accounts. Kirsty doesn’t expect to see much of him, and is rather glad of that.

Kirsty has decided that she will now embrace the country life, and that she will devote herself, in true “good spinsterish” fashion, to “living for others”. Sensible Blanche rolls her eyes at this, and tells Kirsty not to be silly, but Kirsty means this in the very best way, taking under her wing as soon as possible a number of  dependents. First comes elderly Aunt Fanny, mild and gentle and perpetually knitting, and then the three motherless children of Blanche’s sister, for an extended rural stay while their recently widowed father travels abroad “to forget his grief”.

Kirsty’s foray into country life is not as smooth as anticipated, and she soon finds that people don’t necessarily like to be “lived for”; some of her most well-meant patronages are soundly snubbed, but there is enough encouragement that she soldiers on. Her tenacity and truly well-meaning sweet nature win over the most resentful of those around her. Kirsty was initially viewed as a frivolous bit of a thing, merely playing at enjoying her new role as householder and surrogate mother to the adorable Barbara and Specky, and the wickedly appealing “Bad” Bill, but as the months go by it is apparent that Kirsty’s innate inner goodness and staunch Scottish good sense will see her settled down and competently filling an important niche in Muirburn society, though not the role that she initially saw herself in.

There are some lovely character portraits in this appealing tale, and I will pass you along to several other reviewers, who also found much to admire in this pleasing novel. Please visit and read these excellent reviews, if you are at all intrigued by what I have said above. (And browse around the blogs a bit while you’re there – there are many more authors and titles highlighted worthy of rediscovery!)

The Book Trunk – Pink Sugar

Letters From a Hill Farm – Pink Sugar

I Prefer Reading – Pink Sugar

Pink Sugar was republished by Greyladies in 2009, and though that edition appears to be currently out of print, it should still be fairly easy to acquire through the second hand book trade. The novel was very popular in its day – my own copy is a vintage 1936 edition, stating that it is the twenty-first printing – so there are many still circulating around at reasonable prices.

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thunder on the right mary stewart 1Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart ~ 1957. This edition: Hodder Paperbacks (Coronet), 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-02219-1. 255 pages.

My rating: 4/10

Omigosh. This book. Words (almost) fail me. 110% gothic romance, and absolutely bizarre in plot and execution. Luckily I’ve been on something of a Mary Stewart binge recently, and this came along as book number six; if it was number one or two I doubt I would have had the heart to continue.

I try my hardest, in reviewing anything in the mystery-suspense line, to not include any spoilers, but, in this case, all bets are off. Consider yourself forewarned!

This one starts off promisingly enough. Jennifer Silver, 22-year-old daughter of the Bullen Professor of Music at Oxford, is ethereally lovely (of course!) and rather at loose ends, despite recent years at art school. She sits in the dining room of her hotel in the French Pyrenees, tucking into a most delectable-sounding repast. She is thrilled to be in France again – she has visited in the past – and is looking forward with anticipation to her planned reunion with her half-French older cousin, who, widowed not long after her marriage, is convalescing from a recent illness in a nearby convent. More than merely convalescing; Gillian has sought solace in religion, and is thinking of becoming a nun, much to Jennifer’s not-so-secret dismay. But something isn’t quite right in a larger sense, and Jennifer sits and mulls over her cousin’s situation with increasing unease. Why have her chatty letters suddenly stopped? Tomorrow Jennifer will be going to the Convent of Notre-Dame-des-Orages to meet Gillian, but she’s not quite sure what she’ll find. (Cue foreboding music. Oh, and a love theme, for here appears a prince on a white charger. Figuratively speaking. The real horse shows up later.)

For who should appear but a figure from Jennifer’s past. Up pops handsome Stephen Masefield, an old student of Professor Silver’s.  Jennifer has dallied with Stephen in Oxford days, and he has long cherished a secret passion for the lovely Jenny despite her mother’s brusque dismissal of his courtship, all unbeknownst to the innocent maiden. Stephen comes with an intriguing past, and is dashingly handsome despite his slight limp from an old war wound (this is all taking place post World War II, in the mid 1950s or thereabouts) as well as exceedingly talented, both in music and as a skilled amateur artist.

Lots of details, yes, I know. But every single one of them matters in the upcoming narrative, for this is an exceedingly busy story, chock full of details affecting details, and coincidences and lucky (or unlucky) juxtapositions of people and events. I’ll cut to the chase, if I may, and give the barest outline of the action to follow.

Jennifer goes to the convent, meets a sinister Spanish nun dressed in a silken habit and sporting a flashing ruby-encrusted cross, and is informed that her cousin was indeed in residence, but that she has died and is buried in the convent graveyard. Something about an automobile accident, and crawling up to the convent gates after midnight, and devoted nursing and a sudden decline… Jennifer is in shock and visits the grave, where a glimpse of a bouquet of gentians sets off a train of speculation in her mind. Perhaps Gillian is still alive, and a mystery woman is buried in her place…?!

Beware the nun! An older paperback cover which captures the mood so very well.

Beware the nun! An older paperback cover which captures the mood so very well.

The plot convolutes on its merry way, involving a rare form of colour blindness (Gillian would not have been able to identify gentians as her favourite flower – she cannot distinguish blue), a beautiful young novice who nursed Gillian, a stunningly gorgeous local youth dashing about on a wicked stallion, the aforementioned sinister Spanish nun, the extremely old, kind and blind Mother Superior who is unaware of the fact that the Spanish nun, her bursar, is filling the convent with war-looted treasures (solid gold fittings, altar pieces by El Greco, jewelled statues, etcetera), a local smuggler in cahoots with said nun, a vitally crucial letter found tucked behind a picture – this coincidence put me off the story early on – absolutely contrived! – midnight forays by everyone generally ending in eavesdropping on startling conversations, a mystery woman in a mountain cottage, multiple thunderstorms (“thunder on the right” – aha!), a landslide, a flash flood, a slender rock bridge over a ravine, the heroine’s habit of delicately fainting at crucial moments, Stephen’s multiple heroic accomplishments – mastering the wild stallion! hand-to-hand combat skills! great kissing! – on and on and on we go.

The girl in the mountain hut is Gillian; the little novice goes off with her handsome horseman; the evil nun and the smuggler meet their comeuppances; the woman buried in the nunnery garden is the criminal alluded to in casual conversation early in the story. Jennifer is passionately kissed not only by her dashing swain, but by the testosterone-drenched smuggler, who manages to keep his carnal urges on a high boil even while fleeing for his life when the predictable dénouement occurs.

Moments of lovely writing – Mary Stewart does excel at her descriptions – and snippets of humour here and there did not make up for the messy, too-busy, coincidence-heavy plot. Jennifer is the most unbelievable of all of the Mary Stewart heroines I’ve met so far – the others have been very likeable – and I found her utterly annoying. The whole thing was too full of heaving bosoms – can even a nun have a heaving bosom? Well, yes, apparently – and surging stallions and heavily gothic settings.  Too much!

I have been soothing myself with a return to sedate O. Douglas, and am now reading Eliza for Common with relief. Thunder on the Right has rattled me badly, coming as it did after Mary Stewart’s rather more excellent My Brother Michael, which I have yet to review. I liked that one a whole lot more.

Thunder on the Right was apparently the author’s least favourite of her novels, and I can see why. Here are her own words, courtesy of the excellent Mary Stewart Novels website:

From Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1, 1967

Ms. Stewart once claimed Thunder on the Right as her least favorite novel. “I detest that book. I’m ashamed of it, and I’d like to see it drowned beyond recovery. It’s overwritten. It was actually the second book I wrote, and for some strange reason I went overboard, splurged with adjectives, all colored purple.”

I’m glad I read it, though, if only to contrast with the rest of the author’s works. It is indeed interesting to see her development as a writer over the course of her career. I’m only read six of the novels so far, and I’m definitely seeing a pattern of evolution. Very interesting. I intend to continue to explore the vividly painted, action-packed worlds of Mary Stewart, though I may have to take a bit of a break to regain my equilibrium after this latest foray.

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wildfire at midnight paperback dj mary stewart 001Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart ~ 1956. This edition: Hodder, 1970. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-01945-X. 224 pages.

My rating: 6/10

From the dust jacket of the original edition, 1956:

Most people came to the Isle of Skye to climb the jagged peaks of Blaven or fish the many sparkling streams. Gianetta Brooke came to forget Nicholas Drury—the husband she had painfully divorced. The discovery that Nicholas numbered among the guests at the small inn was the first sign that hers was not to be a typical holiday . . .

Then Gianetta learned that on the treacherous slopes of Blaven, murder had been done . . . and although she had missed the first act of an eerie, unearthly crime, the murderer was to strike again and again before the finale was enacted on the mist-laden mountain—a finale that has Gianetta face-to-face with a madman.

My thought early on while reading Wildfire at Midnight, my fourth recent Mary Stewart read, was “Well here’s something a bit different!” This one is not so much a romance as an out-and-out suspense thriller/murder mystery. Not one, but three people meet their very unpleasant demises in this dark little tale of misplaced devotion. What romance is included is sketchy at best, and telegraphed broadly from very early on.

Beautiful London model Gianetta Drury – Janet, to her intimates – is feeling in need of a break from her busy life. It’s spring of 1953, and the city is getting ready for Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation ceremony, and, as the excitement builds, so does Janet’s stress. Her career is at its peak; she hobnobs with the rich and famous on a daily basis; life is a constant whirl – but all she really wants is to get away from it all, to relax in some country peace and quiet, far from those who recognize her lovely face.

So off she hies herself to the remote and beautiful Isle of Skye in Scotland, to what she thinks will be a restful retreat. Tea and scones by a glowing peat fire, gentle walks in the heather, gazing at the mountains in the mild Scottish mist…

Ha! You just know this isn’t going to work out as planned, especially when the first person Janet meets as she checks into her hotel is a prominent actress, one Marcia Maling, settled in complete with luxurious convertible and handsome chauffeur. An assortment of fishermen and amateur climbers are also in residence, including famous mountaineer Ronald Beagle, and, to top it off, who should wander in but Janet’s ex. Nicholas Drury, a celebrated author, is visiting Skye to gather local colour for his next bestseller. He is sulkily broody and exceedingly handsome, and Janet’s heart skips a beat when she sees him again, though both pretend to be strangers to each other for the benefit of their fellow guests.

Tension is in the air, and Janet is very tuned in to it, though she is shocked to discover that one of the reasons for the brittle atmosphere is the unsolved murder of a local teenager on her eighteenth birthday just a week or two earlier. The young woman was found with her throat slit on a roaring bonfire halfway up the looming local mountain, Blaven, and though there is a likely suspect, there has been no arrest. (Not yet.)

Two more gruesome murders are on the horizon, with every person in the hotel soon becoming suspect; Janet’s dreamy retreat is now a living nightmare. Who can she really trust? And why is Nicholas taunting her so constantly, and popping up when least expected?

As usual, the physical setting of the story is described with vivid detail. Another nice touch is the ongoing radio broadcasts of Coronation preparations and updates of the ongoing attempt to climb Mount Everest playing in the background; the mountaineers in the group are glued to the radio, and massive bonfire piles are being built to fire on Coronation eve…

Wildfire at Midnight - dust jacket illustration, first edition, 1956.

Wildfire at Midnight – dust jacket illustration, first edition, 1956. Isn’t this great? Much more mood-inducing and appropriate than the various depictions of the scantily clad heroine which most succeeding covers feature.

Here’s my summing-up opinion on Wildfire at Midnight.

While it started off well, and has its moments of deep appeal, the superficial characterizations of every single one of the characters – including our heroine – made this an ultimately less-than-completely-stellar read. The first murder was shocking; the second decidedly unexpected; and the third de trop – just too much to believe. (Plus I really liked that third victim!) And the heroine keeps wandering about in a downright silly manner, considering that there’s a diabolical killer at large. She wanders out alone, or with this gentleman or that into remote corners of the glen, just asking for something nasty to happen.

And it does.

The predictable final chase scene involves both a quivering bog and a craggy mountainside, plus bonus blinding mist. The unmasked murderer is totally creepy (and I guessed the identity correctly), but the far-fetched motive is tissue thin.

Well, acceptable reading for a drizzly October evening, and it was decidedly atmospheric throughout. A keeper, for sure, but of the “so bad it’s good” variety! Definitely dated, this very vintage one, but with some merits too, mostly regarding the fabulous depiction of place, and the real-life events playing out in the background, which become the most believable part of the fictional tale. I loved the image of the characters gathered ’round the radio, waiting for news of the Everest attempt, while their own safe little world is under threat from an unknown assassin!

And here’s a rather grand review, including an excerpt from the story:

Romantic Armchair Traveller Review: Wildfire at Midnight

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the house that is our own o douglas 001The House that is Our Own by O. Douglas ~ 1940. This edition: Nelson, 1951. Hardcover. 314 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Absolutely charming!

And I’m adding a whole point for the glowing descriptions of the Canadian foray which rounds off the book. I’m all proud and patriotically glowing now, after reading about how wonderful my native country was in 1940 or thereabouts, in every aspect. The author is absolutely right – Canada is really big. And it is still stunningly beautiful, and the people are really nice. Hurray for us!

Those of  us already under the quiet spell of O. Douglas’s story-telling charm will have no trouble in understanding the appeal of this gentle domestic tale. Those unfamiliar with her may be bemused a bit at what there is to get excited about, in which case I can only recommend that one dip into one to see for yourself, preferably something like The Proper Place, which will let you know if this sort of thing is for you.

Here we have the tale of two friends, Kitty and Isobel. Kitty is well into middle age, and has recently been widowed after several years of travelling abroad with her seriously ill husband, seeking treatment for his unspecified condition. Her furniture is in storage, and she has taken rooms in a London residential hotel, where she is befriended by a younger fellow resident, Isobel (all of twenty-nine, and financially independent due to a well-invested legacy), who has been living there for the past six years. Some months have gone by, and Kitty is starting to emerge from her deepest mourning, and she has started to yearn for a quiet place she can truly call her own, a place to rebuild her life along its new lines.

Encouraged by Isobel, Kitty leases an flat, and goes about getting herself all set up, with delightfully homely details.

“This,” said Kitty, “is going to be my book-room. I think the long bookcase will get in along that wall. The writing-table in the window. A sofa in front of the fire – it’s so nice to lie with books piled all around you – and an arm-chair, if I can get it in. My ‘Peter Scott’ above the mantelpiece. This is the room I’ll sit in most, and I want my wild geese beside me. I’ll get the electric man to put a light over it. We had that at Hampstead, and we used to sit in the gloaming, and look up at the lighted picture, and think we heard the geese honk-honk – ”

Peter Scott - 'The Wash At Dawn' - wild geese

Peter Scott – ‘The Wash At Dawn’ – wild geese

Kitty settles contentedly into her new digs, hiring a live-in housekeeper, the widowed Mrs. Auchinvole, whom the two friends then hold up to gently snobbish ridicule from time to time – the most jarring note in the book, to me. Kitty feels she must continually snub “The Auchinvole”, as she calls her employee to Isobel, finding in her an inclination to over-familiarity and a “We’re both widows together” attitude of emotional kinship, which Kitty finds vaguely distasteful. A vignette of class-conscious attitudes of the times, perhaps, and yet another small clue as to the resulting dearth of women willing to enter “service” in just a few years time, post-WW II.

Isobel, inspired by her friend’s nest-building initiative, decides to look about for new surroundings too. In her case, the country appeals. Through Kitty’s connections in the Border area of Scotland, Isobel rents rooms in the Scottish village of Glenbucho, in the farmhouse of a sadly diminished estate, whose young laird has had to sell up most of is land, and who has since moved to Canada, leaving his family home sadly vacant. Though she hasn’t come away an her retreat intending to purchase a house, Isobel finds herself doing just that, and she becomes effortlessly absorbed into Glenbucho’s feudal society, in which she dons the mantle of “Lady of the Manor” with effortless ease and total acceptance by all and sundry.

Much discussion ensues about the arrangement of the rooms in her new home, and the hiring of a married couple (complete with adorably realistic small boy) to look after things; the descriptions of the inner workings of the new society Isobel finds herself in is a gently fascinating interlude. And when Isobel ends up making the acquaintance of the young laird himself, one Gideon Veitch, engineered by the author most ingeniously and involving a marvellously luxurious, all-expenses-paid trip to Canada (with another adorable small boy as the raison-d’être), things play out most predictably and heart-warmingly well.

A happily feel-good little story, saved from too-saccharine “niceness” by the frequent self-examinations of the heroines – they see their own flaws and mourn them, though sometimes they chose not to remedy such, which I like – so true! – and by the sourpuss and opinionated characters who pop up here and there, to add a dash of vinegar and spice to the narrative meal.

World War I is a constant backdrop to the story; many characters have had their lives turned on end by it, and are still in recovery mode; World War II is looming, and the “situation in Europe” is discussed throughout with sombre foreboding. Though the characters refuse to let themselves dwell on such negativity for any length of time, one can sense them steeling themselves for the bitter times to come; the author makes it very clear that the gentle people of her narrative have an inner core of toughness which will see them through trial and tribulation, though they spend these peaceful days concerned with societal trivialities and creature comforts, and “What’s for tea?”, and the colours of their drawing room walls.

I enjoyed this small novel a lot. So happy to have found it; our recent foray into the used book stores of that most “English” of Canadian cities, Victoria, B.C., resulted in four new-to-me O. Douglas titles to add to my “comfort reads” bedroom shelf. Next up, Pink Sugar. With Olivia and Eliza for Common waiting in the wings. Perhaps I will save those for winter reading, though it’s so tempting to just gobble them all up right now!

(A book-room with a sofa and an arm-chair in front of a fireplace – wouldn’t that be grand? That is the image I am clinging to with wistful longing after reading this cheerful tribute to the joys of making yourself a comfortable home!)

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Worthy of note this morning is the release of the Nominees for Canada’s annual GG Literary Awards, and an interesting line-up it is. Being a bit behind the curve regarding new releases in general, the only one of these I’ve had a glance at is this one:

Cover: Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page by Sandra DjwaJourney with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page

by Sandra Djwa, nominated in Non-Fiction

Here’s the link to the full list.

 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award Nominees

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the friendly young ladies mary renault 001The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault ~ 1944. Published in America as The Middle Mist. This edition: Vintage, 2003. Afterword by Lillian Faderman. Softcover. ISBN: 0-375-71421-9. 280 pages (novel), extended to 293 pages with Afterword.

My rating: 7.5/10

I’ve long considered myself a dedicated Mary Renault fan, ever since reading The Bull From the Sea at an impressionable age and being blindsided by the author’s creative interpretation of Greek myth mixed with plausible historical fiction. I’d never read anything quite like this before, and I liked it a lot. What followed was an active quest for more of the same; I eventually read all of the author’s “Ancient Greece” novels, and the collection I painstakingly acquired by scanning the dusty stacks of numerous second hand book stores, in the days before used book buying was made so gloriously accessible through the internet, is one I value greatly.

Mary Renault’s contemporary works were a much later discovery; for a long time – pre-internet, I remind you – I had no idea that such even existed. When I discovered the first of these, Kind Are Her Answers, I could not at first quite take in that this was the same author. Reading that novel bemused me some; though the storytelling skill was certainly there, the subject matter was far removed from the classical world, unless of course one were to step back and muse that human nature remains the same no matter what the era. Love and lust and jealousy and ambition and rage and sorrow being key elements in all of these stories; the figures in the plays remained similar, though the costumes and sets varied.

Mary Renault excels at characterization. Her contemporary novels in particular concentrate on the life of the mind, and the relationships between characters, much more than on the actions of the physical world. The Friendly Young Ladies takes place in a variety of intriguing locations – a houseboat on the Thames, Cornwall, London – but the action is overwhelmingly in the characters’ heads.

Here’s our story.

From the 1945 American edition, published under the title "The Middle Mist".

From the 1945 American edition, published under the title “The Middle Mist”.

Seventeen-year-old Elsie in Cornwall is deeply unhappy in her family life. Her parents bicker endlessly, and Elsie is the pawn of many of their arguments. An older sister, Leonora, has already broken free; nine years ago she left with a rucksack of belongings, never to return; her name is never mentioned, and Elsie has always assumed that her sister has gone to a dreadful fate, and is “living in sin”, if not something worse.

Elsie falls ill, and is treated by a young, newly qualified doctor filling in for the local G.P. Peter fancies himself something of an amateur psychologist; he decides to give Elsie a new interest in life by flirting with her and “pepping her up”. Elsie predictably develops a passionate crush on Peter; when he leaves to go back to London, Elsie reacts by running away herself, to throw herself on the hospitality of the elusive Leonora, whose address she finds in a locked drawer in her mother’s desk.

Crossing England, Elsie fetches up on the banks of the Thames just out of London, where Leo resides on a houseboat with her close friend, Helen, a nurse and medical artist. Leo has made a tenuous career for herself as a writer, turning out pulp Westerns under the pseudonym “Tex O’Hara”. The two have built a quiet and satisfying life for themselves, into which Elsie drops as an oblivious intruder. Thrilled deeply at the “bohemian” lifestyle she is now part of – just how unconventional her sister’s living arrangement is completely escapes her – Elsie writes to Peter, inviting him to visit, with the hopes that he will be suitably impressed by her initiative in escaping her dreary home life.

Peter shows up, and is thrilled to discover a rich new playground for his Freudian explorations. Two beautiful lesbians, apparently receptive to male advances, plus the awkwardly blossoming virgin Elsie – he can do them all so much good, and if he benefits by a bit of the action himself, all the better!

Now this is the bit that many modern reviewers have concentrated on, spinning the novel as an “erotically charged romantic comedy”, or some such nonsense. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and it does this novel an immense injustice, though there is certainly a lot of sly humour in the characterizations and situations involving Peter. At one point Leo seduces Peter’s girlfriend; Peter sort of gets it, and is understandably miffed when the penny drops, but he comes back more persistently than ever, being stunningly bulletproof in his self-confidence, and absolutely unputdownable. Leo and Helen run rings around him, having figured him out at the first encounter, though naïve Elsie is devastated when she realizes that she was never in the running where Peter is concerned.

All of this is mere superficial action though, and the real core of the novel is the three-way relationship between Leo, Helen, and fellow river-dweller Joe, an accomplished author of “serious” novels, who masquerades as a common labourer between bouts of writing. Their platonic circle is serene and secure, untroubled by complications of romantic jealousy, until hapless Elsie and bumptious Peter stir things up and irretrievably alter the delicate balance among the friends.

There is so much good stuff in this novel, so many worthwhile and thought-provoking passages, regarding the creative strivings of writers and artists, and also involving the convoluted realm of human sexuality. Simply viewing Leo and Helen as “confused lesbians” utterly misses the point the author is making, which is that sexuality can be a fluid and ever-evolving state of being, and, most importantly, that one should not be defined by stereotypical views having to do with one’s sexuality, be it hetero, homo, or some combination thereof. It is, at most, a sideline characteristic, and those who concentrate upon sexual identity at the expense of other character traits do themselves and society at large a disservice.

This novel is competently written, frequently amusing, poignant in places, and articulately and viciously critical of middle-class mores. I appreciate the nuances more each time I read it, though I cannot bring myself into a place of true sympathy for the oblivious and ultimately smug Elsie; she returns to the parental fold basically unchanged by her impulsive adventure, leaving unguessed-at havoc in her wake. She suffers in her own way, and she has her few moments of hellish self-examination, but she moves on; we do not agonize over her future happiness as we do for physically and emotionally fragile Leo, and for lovable and loving Helen, and for compassionate and deeply decent Joe.

I wish I myself could be more articulate as to this book’s appeal; luckily the author’s own Afterword, written in 1983 and looking at her novel down the long vista of years, sums it up well and gives a glimpse of the motivation that spurred on its writing – a kneejerk reaction to the sombre The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, which the author and her partner read with snickering dismissal while on a French holiday in 1938. (The book was banned in England for its homosexual themes.) Renault’s lesbians don’t agonize too much about their “condition” – if it could be called such a thing – they get on with things in general, taking sex in stride as it happens (or doesn’t) and assuming the same of those around them. A refreshing change from the norm, today as much as seventy-some years ago.

Leo’s end-of-the-book encounter with heterosexual sex aside, this is a book about desires of the mind rather than the body, and it is an interesting read on multiple levels.

Thank you to Jenny, for nudging us all to give Mary Renault a try, and a reminder to re-read for those of us who are already fans. And please do follow the conversation over at Reading the End.  You will find more musings on Renault and her varied oeuvre there.

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