Archive for February, 2015

These three books were not as diverting as I’d wished them to be.

Perhaps in another mood at another time I would give them better reviews – and I do intend to give Priestley’s Adam in Moonshine a second trial at some point – but today I’m calling them as I see them.

It won’t be a brutal massacre, I hasten to say, as all three had various degrees of enjoyability, but neither do I plan to hide my disappointment in their failings to entirely amuse.

As always, one person’s opinion – please don’t take it to heart if you love these novels, and do try to convince me otherwise if you think I’ve missed the point. One of my favourite things is when someone says, “Hey, wait a minute…” and eloquently defends something I’ve scorned, inspiring a second look from a new perspective.

Here we go.

adam in moonshine j b priestleyAdam in Moonshine by J.B. Priestley ~ 1927. This edition: Heinemann, 1931. Hardcover. 293 pages.

My rating: 6/10

That “6” is a very generous rating, given mostly because of Adam in Moonshine’s “first novel” status by a writer I mostly admire, and the more than decent quality of the writing.

The plot, on the other hand, might be described as virtually non-existent. Interesting reading for a Priestley collector, but if the author was someone unknown to me I’m thinking this one would be in the box by the door, waiting to be passed along.

Of course, because it is a Priestley, and because I went to the trouble to seek out and order it from England, and because it is an interesting read in view of the author’s later works, I will keep Adam in Moonshine and, yes, eventually re-read it. But I will not recommend it to the rest of you for amusement purposes, because it is ultimately not even as solid as fluff. Like the referenced moonshine, its genuine but slight pleasures are purely transient.

Handsome young bachelor Adam Stewart, setting off on a country holiday, is in a mopish state. He should be thrilled at the thought of rambling over the dew-fresh North Country moors, hobnobbing with the birds and the bees and the little wild flowers, but he can’t seem to wind himself up to the appropriate mood. And when his railway compartment companion turns out to be a sternly bombastic, pessimistic cleric, the holiday atmosphere deteriorates even further.

But wait – what’s this?! Here comes a third man, flustered and rushing and escorted by a bevvy of lovely young ladies  – well, only three when Adam takes a closer look, but the effect is that of a bevvy – and as the train pulls out to the fervent goodbyes of the girls on the platform, Adam has perked up considerably, because it turns out that there is a rendezvous planned between the mystery man (father of one of the young lovelies) and the girls at the very village which Adam is himself heading for.

The sudden and disastrous opening of an attaché case filled with false beards catapults the action surreally forward, and before he knows it Adam is deeply embroiled in a ridiculous scenario having something to do with a conspiracy to bring back the Stuart line of royalty to the throne of England.

A case of mistaken identity – “Stewart” being assumed to be “Stuart” – takes our Adam into the heart of the not-very-clever plot, and leads to his infatuated and ultimately unfulfilling dalliances with all three of the lovely maidens.

He gets his share of wandering about the moors in all sorts of weathers, and emerges back into the sunlight of his everyday life blinking and bemused. Was it all a dream…?

If so, a jolly solid one, at 292 pages.

kitty foyle christopher morley 001Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley ~ 1939. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, circa 1940, with movie tie-in dust jacket featuring Ginger Rogers. Hardcover. 340 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I enjoyed this one rather uneasily, as Morley’s man-writing-as-a-woman wasn’t entirely convincing, and our heroine’s stream-of-consciousness narration often felt forced.

Chock-full of casual racism towards pretty well everyone of every colour and race, but, to be fair, never in a mean-spirited way.

In our present time, “Kitty’s” casual commentary would be read as utterly politically incorrect – a heads-up for those hyper-sensitive to these nuances – but if taken with a dash of “era-acceptable” tolerance, rather an interesting take on how a character of the time might conceivably think.

The October 1939 Kirkus review had this to say:

Surprise! Surprise! This proves how facile Chris Morley can be, for this is a far cry from everything he has done, whether whimsy, humor or intellectualized satire… This is primarily the story of a shanty Irish girl, how she was born, bred, and put through the mill, done in stream-of-consciousness tough-baby style… But it’s right good reading. Kitty is a high spirited, strong, and very straight young woman. Her early childhood in Philadelphia, daughter of a crude but lovable cricket coach, is nicely done, giving quite a feel of the city, its lethargy, immutable traditions, etc. At sixteen she meets Wyn, a sweet weakling from a blueblood family, whom she is to love for all time. She lives with him, becomes pregnant, but does away with the child because she is unwilling to tie Wyn to her, knowing that he cannot buck his family if he marries her, and knowing that she will be dishonest with herself if she broadens her a’s for him. Career girl on the side, she works later in New York for a cosmetics outfit, and at the close thinks of marriage to a man she does not love for companionship and stability. There’s some telling background detail on Philadelphia, points east and west, there’s some ingenious writing on the stunt side, but all in all it’s semi-light fiction…

There you pretty well have it.

I confess I was a bit taken aback by the frankness of much of Kitty’s narration – she discusses the most sensitive topics with slangy candour – the physical relationship between her parents, her father’s prostate disorder, the realities of living with chamber pots and a “backhouse” for toilet purposes, her own adolescent physical development, including the onset of her first menstrual period while travelling alone on a train, the sometimes very active sex life of the single “white collar” working girl, an unplanned pregnancy and her subsequent abortion of the baby…all in all, rather strong stuff for a popular mainstream novel. No real surprise that it was soon labelled as “filthy” by various church groups once its bestseller hype brought it to their attention.

Mixed with this hyper-realism is a strand of fairy tale fantasy, for Kitty is portrayed as being something of a perfect person – smart, funny, beautiful, and very lucky in her casual acquaintances, and always, despite her frequent hard knocks, falling jam side up.

Sure, she voluntarily gives up her One True Love, the aristocratic Wynnewood Strafford VI, because she is so darned sterling-natured as to want to spare him the disgrace of having a not-quite-top-drawer wife, but it’s not the hardship it might be (aside from the “he and she will secretly pine forever” bit, and that abortion) because going her own way seems to be Kitty’s reward to herself, and fate proves consistently ready to cushion her every fall.

Kitty Foyle was made into a very successful 1940 movie, starring Ginger Rogers in her first “serious” movie role. “Very successful” should be repeated, as her portrayal of Kitty Foyle won Miss Rogers the 1941 Oscar for Best Actress, which would perhaps make this novel one for the vintage movie buff to investigate.

Chock full of period colour, and fast-moving enough to keep one entertained, so I will say “check it out” to those so inclined, but to be completely blunt this is a very minor sort of novel – Kirkus’s “semi-light” says it well. Solid melodrama, in case that hasn’t quite come across.

And oh, yes, this is the same Christopher Morley who wrote Parnassus on Wheels, The Haunted Bookshop, and the very weird (as in featuring anthropomorphic dogs) Where the Blue Begins, among dozens of other novels. Kitty Foyle is nothing like any of these; you have to give Morley credit for not getting stuck in any sort of a “formula” groove!

Of these three novels, Kitty Foyle is the only one I would recommend as worth going to some effort to experience, but mind the caveats and please don’t expect a masterpiece of any sort, though the writing is much more than competent.

aiding and abetting muriel sparkAiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark ~ 2000. This edition: Viking, 2000. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-670-89428-1. 182 pages.

My rating: 4.75/10

Hmmm. An odd little novel, even taking into consideration the quirkiness of this particular writer.

I occasionally felt the “chuck it across the room” urge, in particular during the cannibal scene near the end (yes, you read that correctly), but I soldiered on and made it to the end with an unwilling smile on my face. Dame Muriel pulled it off yet again, to my reluctant admiration – I finished it despite myself.

So – does everyone remember Lord Lucan? If not, go take a quick gander here.

For summation of the plot of Aiding and Abetting, I am going to fall back on yet another Kirkus review (they are so nicely succinct, when done well) this one from November of 2000.

With her usual and famous narrative economies—though without the deeper energies she’s created in other of her books—Dame Muriel weaves her own fabric out of the real-life bits and threads left by the vile Lord Lucan.

On November 7th, 1974, the seventh Earl of Lucan mistakenly bludgeoned to death his children’s nanny instead of his divorced wife—whom he managed only to wound badly in spite of his feeling that “destiny” called for her death (he was angry, it seems, that she’d been given child-custody). And then? After wreaking his cruel havoc, the shallow Lucan quickly disappeared, wanted for murder and attempted murder but aided by influential friends in escape and hiding. Twenty-five years later, as the present novel opens, there appears in the office of a Paris psychoanalyst a patient claiming to be Lucan—followed by another claiming the same. Which, if either, is the real Lucan? And what does he, or they, want? Money, not surprisingly, which he/they hope to gain by blackmailing the shrink, she being one Hildegard Wolf, herself still wanted for an earlier and successful life of criminal fraud under a previous name—a vulnerability that makes her, think the Lucans, unlikely to turn them in. But of course it’s got to be cleared up as to which Lucan is Lucan—as, meanwhile, other complications ensue, such as Hildegard Wolf’s quick disappearance into hiding in deepest London; the pursuit of the real Lucan by a pair newly in love but connected from far back indeed with Lucan and the horrible murder; and the skilled and timely maneuverings of Pierre, Hildegard’s lover back in Paris, which will result in—well, in the Waughesque end of the story.

Quick, incisive, often entertaining, sometimes mysterious, at a moment or two compelling, but overall and generally, slight…

I nod in agreement with the summation of the last line, except for the incisive bit.

I thought the tale much too repetitive, in fact, and not so much incisive as lazy. Corners were indeed cut, regarding character and plot development, but a certain cluster of sanguinary details was endlessly repeated, and in my opinion needlessly so, for I felt that they weakened the impact, though I suspect the author felt they might have some sort of talismanic effect. (“Blood, blood, blood…”)

The final fate of one of the Lucans is bizarre even for a typically morbid Spark dénouement, and do I detect a certain racist element (the “primitive” Africans) which is out of place even in a purely satirical end-of-the-20th-Century tale?

Rated rather generously at very close to a “5” because of who the author is, for I have enjoyed many of her other novels in varying degrees, though usually with some reservations.

As an example of her end-of-career work (Aiding and Abetting was her second to last published novel) it is acceptably diverting, but it’s not one of her best by a far cry. More of a novella than a novel, and not particularly well-developed or well-edited. In fact, for such a generally crisp writer, this one is sloppy. Firmly on Muriel Spark’s B-list, in my opinion.

What one is left with most memorably is the thought of all that sticky, sticky blood…


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without knowing mr walkley edith olivier 1938 001Without Knowing Mr. Walkley: Personal Memories by Edith Olivier ~ 1938. This edition: Readers’ Union, 1939. Hardcover. 320 pages.

My rating: 9.75/10

I must say I was initially discouraged from taking up this gentle memoir by the mysterious (to me at least) reference to “Mr. Walkley”.

Edith Olivier I already had a nodding acquaintanceship with, as being the author of a number of highly regarded (though long out of print) 1920s’ and 1930s’ novels, among them The Love Child, Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady, and The Seraphim Room, as well as biographies and reports of interesting occurrences in her native Wiltshire and farther afield. But who was Mr. Walkley? Should I know this name? It didn’t ring a single tiny chime.

Luckily Miss Olivier’s first paragraph of her memoir proper set my mind at ease, and this reference is the first and last concerning the titular character, which is slightly odd (I had expected to hear more about Mr. Walkley, seeing as he features so prominently in the title), but completely indicative of the style of this meandering, stream-of-consciousness, very anecdotal, and utterly delightful book.

For your reading pleasure, here is an extended sample of the first section of Edith Olivier’s “personal memories” set down on paper. There is an eight-page italicized preamble to happily work through first, describing the setting of her first childhood home, Wilton Rectory, a pattern repeated as the settings change throughout the memoir, to Salisbury Close and Fitz House, and back to Wilton.

I used to say that if I died without knowing Mr. Walkley, I should have lived in vain. And now – I have. Or  rather, Mr. Walkley died without knowing me. He was The Times Dramatic Critic when I was in the schoolroom, and in those days it was my passionate desire to become an actress. The idea was grotesque. My father thought a professional actress was as improper as a Restoration Play, and an actor was almost as bad. My brother Alfred, in spite of his irresistible charm, was never really forgiven for having preferred the stage to his seat at the bottom of the Infants’ Class in Dr. Marks’s school for Burmese Princes in Rangoon. Alfred was on his way to a post in the Burmese Civil Service, and he was put to learn the language in this humble position, when a travelling company came to the town. It was too much. He was ‘off with the raggle-taggle gipsies’ and he went through India with them, returning at last to go on to the London stage. My father minded this so much that my own secret desire was never even mentioned, and Mr. Walkley remained my one link with the world of my dreams. It was through his eyes alone that I saw most of the plays of those days, for we seldom went to London, and our only ‘theatre’ was an occasional visit to Salisbury of Mr. Benson’s Shakespearian Company. It is true that I was present at Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s first appearance on the stage, but that took place at Wilton when Lord Pembroke had invited Ben Greet’s Company to play As You Like It in the Park. It had been played there once before, when Shakespeare himself was one of the actors. It is curious that as a girl I saw so few plays, for we all loved acting. Even now I have never seen a pantomime, though I have acted in more than one; but my father never imagined that his children could enjoy what would have bored himself, and a provincial pantomime did not attract him.

It would be unfair both to him and to the theatrical profession to suggest that the stage was my father’s only taboo where his children were concerned. He saw little of them when they were small, but when they grew up, he liked them always about him. Mrs. Morrison called us the Four and Twenty Blackbirds, and said that Papa liked to think that whenever he wanted to open the pie, the birds were all there, ready to begin to sing. It is true that though he always sat alone in the study, he liked us within call. He hated anyone in the house going out to parties. The coming and going worried him. He was truly conservative. As the family party had been yesterday, so he wished it to be to-day, and to-morrow, and so on ad infinitum.

He could not therefore approve of any proposed career for his daughters, and this objection extended to matrimony. He was not actually opposed to the institution in itself, for had he not himself twice married, and entirely happily? But in the case of his children, and more especially of his daughters, his standard was too high. He had an instinctive, sub-conscious prejudice in favour of Archbishops of Good Family as husbands for them, and by ill chance, none of these presented themselves. When my eldest sister fell fatally in love with a young naval officer of blameless character, her engagement was one of those things of which it is not fitting to speak in the family circle; and she only succeeded in marrying the young man at last, by the unfailing courage and determination which persisted through four years of opposition.

I rather shared my father’s fancy for the unattainable in bridegrooms; and the consequence of the various ‘inhibitions’ (as they call them to-day) which he laid upon our youthful ambitions, has been for me a happy life spent, not upon the stage or in any of the other professions which presented themselves, not as a wife, mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother (the fate of most of my friends), but as a lifelong inhabitant of Wiltshire, which is in my eyes, the most beautiful of the English counties…

If Edith Olivier’s father was something of a stern Victorian-era patriarch, it doesn’t appear to have soured Edith’s disposition, as her references to both of her parents are both clear-sighted and loving, and the family seems to have lived in quite admirable domestic harmony, stage-struck brothers and pining-for-matrimony sisters being the exception to the father-knows-best rule. One rather gathers that there was quite a lot of rather mild, what-he-doesn’t-know-won’t-grieve-him goings-on amongst the children of the family as they entered into their adult years, for the Reverend Dacres Olivier was exceedingly occupied with his duties as Rector of Wilton, and later as Canon of Salisbury Cathedral, and his family lived a somewhat separate life, though entwined throughout with predictable rhythm of the Anglican church year.

Without Knowing Mr. Walkley is broad in scope, touching briefly but most intriguingly on Edith’s childhood, on the memorable people she came into contact with – from rustic villagers to the brightest of the Bloomsbury set – Siegfried Sassoon and Rex Whister were intimates, as was Cecil Beaton – and on vivid recollections of the Great War years, including memorable descriptions of troops assembling on Salisbury Plain.

Edith was deeply involved in establishing the Women’s Land Army corps, and received an Order of the British Empire for her services in this regard, and this memoir touches on the difficulties faced with convincing the Wiltshire farmers to accept female workers in place of the men gone off en masse to war.

Edith was also highly tuned in to what one might call the “spiritual world” – in the non-church sense – being very open to the idea of visions from times past and supernatural manifestations, and experienced her own time travel episode among the derelict standing stones of Avebury.

I was deeply pleased when, after reading this memoir, I discovered that others have also found much to admire in this very obscure little volume.

If my description Without Knowing Mr. Walkley at all interests you, please visit the following for much more, including extensive quotes and much background information on this fascinating woman and her very full life.

I will leave you with an image of Edith Olivier, photographed by her friend Cecil Beaton. This was taken before a pageant at Wilton, in 1939. Edith is representing Queen Elizabeth I. (And I must mention that at this time she was also Mayor of Wilton. She was the first woman to serve on the town council, and was then elected its first female mayor, holding the position from 1938 to 1941.)

edith-olivier-as-queen-elizabeth cecil beaton





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What a whirlwind of a half-month this February has been. I’ve just today cleared my desk of a major clerical project which has kept me busy from early morning hours till late at night for the last several weeks, the creation of the hundred-page program for our regional youth performing arts festival, and all that is left now (of that particular project at least – others still loom) is the tidying up – the clearing away of pages of scribbled notes from my desk, no-longer-needed files from my computer desktop, and scads of red-flagged messages from my email inbox.

Every moment not typing, proof-reading or chasing down errant schedules and discipline directors has been spent up a ladder hammering, sanding or painting, as we are still very much in carpentry-home-renovation mode, though we did take a day or two away to do some highly enjoyable old-car shopping, dallying with the idea of acquiring an older Jaguar, and going so far as test-driving a not-very-well-kept mid-1980s XJ Sovereign. That was fun enough in its way, but we reminded ourselves that playing about with shabby ex-luxury cars is all well and good, what we really need is a new-to-us one-ton farm truck.

So  we bought a Mercedes.

And not a relatively sensible newer Mercedes, or a jaunty coupe or convertible to join the several other vintage sports cars we cherish with quiet pride, but a getting-on-elderly – well, in car years – 1972 – decidedly sedate, 4-door W114-250/8 sedan, the same model used for several decades as a taxi throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It’s had a cosmetic facelift, but is completely stock under the shiny new paint – the engine compartment and interior tell the true tale. Though definitely mature, she purred along very nicely when we took her for a test drive, and her obvious good nature completely won us over. (And she wasn’t all that expensive, as these sorts of cars go. A bit of a deal, in fact. Or so we fervently hope!)


Meet Hanamori, a reference which Japanese manga-anime lovers will surely catch, though which I expect will bemuse the uninitiated. Living with a teenager and sharing a single video screen situated in our home’s common area leads to these sorts of odd cultural exposures. (Hint to those who might have an idea of what we’re talking about: Remember the Mercedes Benz otaku chauffeur in Princess Jellyfish? We thought any sort of good karma might help, and the jokingly proposed name seems to be sticking. Though PJ‘s particular Hanamori is very much masculine, the name itself is generally regarded as feminine in most contexts, with reference to flowers, so we will see how it suits in practice. We now need a small Clara as a mascot, to tuck into the glove box, being utterly averse as “serious” car people to things dangling from the rear-view mirror.)

Well, don’t get the wrong idea about my life, for it’s definitely not all beer and skittles around here, and the fates, deciding I was much too happily giddy gloating over my nice new-to-me toy, threw in a humbling twist.

Several days ago I took a tumble and pulled my hamstring, and have been in varying degrees of discomfort ever since. (On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst pain one can imagine, as the triage nurses in Emergency like to say, I have at times this week hit a solid 8. Honest truth. This relatively unserious but completely debilitating injury is painful.) I can’t properly walk, let alone drive or climb ladders, and sitting too long at my computer has been agony, though I did manage to prop myself up in a delicately balanced position which allowed the completion of the paperwork project.

Now that I’ve conquered that, I shall at last take my doctor’s sage advice, put my feet well up for at least part of each day, and settle down to some recreational reading while waiting for this thing to heal enough to allow a return to some sort of normal mobility. Which also means I may swap my computer for my daughter’s laptop, and pound out a few book reviews.

A silver lining to this personal cloud, in fact.

Next post, back to books.


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Some months ago I was intrigued enough by this post by the my fellow Margery Sharpite Rebecca Rose, aka GenusRosa, to seek out from antiquarian booksellers in England all three of Ethel Armitage’s garden journals, published in 1936, 1939, and 1946.

I am overdue in my thanks; these books are things of joy to the reader-gardener, being that perfectly balanced sort of garden writing which delights by its personal asides and anecdotes as much as by its descriptions of garden flora.

Without further ado, a Valentine’s Day observation from (one might assume) 1935 or thereabouts, from Ethel Armitage’s first book, A Country Garden, 1936. Engravings by John Farleigh enhance this first edition, published by Country Life Books.

Birch Trees - engraving by John Farleigh - from A Country Garden by Ethel Armitage, 1936

Birch Trees – engraving by John Farleigh – from A Country Garden by Ethel Armitage, 1936


14th. One hears that valentines are coming into fashion again, though none came this way, nor would it really be very suitable if they did.

But valentine or no valentine, the day brings a certain excitement with it, for the birds are supposed to pair, though many of them have anticipated the date and evidently gone off to Gretna Green. The rooks have been busy for some little time, and their nests look as transparent and draughty as ever. How terrified the young birds must be perched up so high; how frightened they must feel when the wind blows strong and, all day long, they sway from side to side! One can only hope they do not realize their peril when a brother or a sister is jerked from the nest and disappears into space. Probably all they are able to think about is food, and it is not until later on they grow wise and wear sleek black coats and sit in Parliament dealing out justice to the bad rooks who do not conform to the law.

Almost every year a pair attempts to build in one of our trees, but whenever this happens the other rooks come and tear the nest to pieces. We should very much like to have rooks here, but it is evidently against their policy, or else we are not considered worthy to possess a rookery. We prefer to think the rooks have a town planning scheme of their own, and that we are scheduled as an area unsuitable for building purposes, than that our characters are at fault in this matter.

After all a valentine did arrive. It came by the second post, and is a book on garden pests, and though most interesting in its way, we fear it makes no mention of the pests from which we suffer most, such as sheep and chickens and pigs, and even cows, all of which have, from time to time, visited us. Two goats once passed through the garden and, though their owner declared they possessed the very highest pedigree and were extremely particular about their food, they removed all the Brussels sprouts and a large fuchsia bush before they were hurried out. One year thirteen young pigs – truly an unlucky number except for the pigs – accounted for all the spring cabbages, and after them several ducks came and flattened out most of the lettuce.

But the worst pest we ever had was a bull.

At the end of a beautiful, but very hot summer day, we had gone out into the garden, partly to enjoy the cool of the evening and partly to do a little much needed weeding. Happening to look up from my task I saw a large red bull coming slowly up the little drive; as I hurried into the house I shouted the dire news to B., who was in another part of the garden, and just heard his answer of ‘oh rot’, as I slammed the front door.

The bull, most fortunately, turned on to the lawn, and from the windows could be seen browsing on-of all things -the roses. He tore two bushes from the ground, but not caring much about their flavour or the thorns, left them lying on the grass. In the meantime B., having gained the house, was telephoning to the bailiff, who, before much more damage was done, sent help, and, as they say in the news- papers, a capture was effected.

But that visit had rather far-reaching consequences, for the two rose bushes had been given by an elderly cousin whose taste in plants did not always coincide with ours. Unluckily she suspected this, so when she came to see us she always took particular care to inspect any plant she had sent. Now, how could she possibly be told that her two especial roses had been destroyed by a bull; why should he have selected those and no others? It was altogether too tall a story: one could not even expect her to believe it.

So when, the following week, she came, some quite unconvincing tale was invented, and was told in so halting a manner that, from the very first moment, it was obvious she believed it to be untrue. Since then there has been a distinct coldness towards us, and we have received neither plants nor anything else.

So we hope this new book will give some hints as to the best way of keeping bulls and other beasts of prey out of the garden.



Happy Valentine’s Day to you all, dear fellow readers. May this day bring you some sort of suitable treat, whether book, flower, message from a friend (or lover!); something delicious and to your taste, whatever it may be.

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the good companions musson j b priestley 001

The Good Companions by J.B. Priestley ~ 1929. This edition: Musson, 1930. Hardcover. 640 pages.

My rating: 10/10

A middle-aged Yorkshire laborer who has just been fired from his carpenter’s job at the local mill, a recent Cambridge graduate-cum-reluctant-schoolmaster with literary ambitions and a talent for creating catchy tunes on the piano, and a sedately dutiful upper-class spinster-daughter in her fourth decade recently freed of familial responsibilities by the death of her elderly father are all thrown together by the whim of fate.

The set-up of the main characters’ backstories takes up a good third or so of this very rambling narrative, and it is not until we are well into the book that their paths convene, as they fall in with another lot of fate-tossed travellers, the stranded members of a theatrical troupe, the ex-Dinky Doos.

The result of this leisurely and detailed approach is a likeable period piece of a book – “a long, comic, picaresque, a fairy-tale sort of novel”, to quote the author’s own words in 1937’s autobiographical Midnight on the Desert – as the newly united characters form a travelling concert party/pierrot troupe, performing in rural towns and small industrial cities throughout the Yorkshires and surrounding districts.

The Good Companions was written between the wars, when Priestley was dealing with some serious personal issues, such as the recent death of his young wife from cancer (leaving behind two baby daughters), and his own chronic physical difficulties resulting from injuries and gassing while serving in the trenches of WW I. His decision to create an ultimately happy novel – the characters, despite their very real troubles, all attain at least a modicum of their personal hearts’ desires – was immensely popular with the public, and the book was an astoundingly successful bestseller. But the highbrow critics sneered, and though Priestley enjoyed the much-needed financial security The Good Companions provided, the dismissive attitudes of his literary peers wounded him deeply.

The book retains its appeal today. The likeable concert party characters are all very human in their thoughts, desires, ambitions and reactions to various setbacks, and though we are aware of the author’s omnipotent hand in strategically arranging the various random incidents which result in the united happy ending, we good naturedly accept the more creative developments and cheer our people on. There is also a certain historical interest in the novel’s detailed portrayal of a now-vanished theatrical sub-culture, which, even as it still flourished, was being inexorably replaced by the “new-technology” moving picture shows, as is shown in one of the final plot twists of the novel.

Highly recommended, for “cultural literacy” reasons as much as for its engaging story.

Budget yourself a goodly chunk of time to read this one. At over 600 small-print pages, it takes a certain amount of optimistic persistence to embark upon, but once entered into will provide a lovely escape from the one’s own ho-hum everyday routine.

lost empires jb priestley 001Lost Empires by J.B. Priestley ~ 1965. Subtitled Being Richard Herncastle’s account of his life on the variety stage from November 1913 to August 1914 together with a Prologue and Epilogue by J.B. Priestley. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1966. Hardcover. 381 pages.

My rating: 9/10

J.B. Priestley revisits the world of the travelling theatrical party which he so famously documented in 1929’s The Good Companions, but this novel, written some three decades later, is a much grittier and less outwardly cheerful thing than its predecessor.

Whereas The Good Companions was written as a contemporary novel reflective of its time (though a highly sentimentalized and “feel-good” version, and that’s not meant to be derogatory, as the author himself states that this was his intention), Lost Empires is frequently melancholy and foreboding, and very much about looking back and describing a certain rigidly defined period of time in relation to what came after.

The casual reader might assume Lost Empires to be lightly disguised autobiography, so intimate are the thoughts and events recorded, but Priestley distances himself from the narrative by presenting himself as the author of both the preface and epilogue to the tale, with the set-up being that an old friend, the Richard (Dick) Herncastle named in the subtitle, has asked Priestley-the-famous-writer to look over the memoir for him. The framing device works very well, and the resulting novel is taut with a certain suspense, as we-the-readers know what young Dick’s future may hold. He’s a physically fit, unencumbered young man in his very early twenties, and the year is 1913. Everything is about to change beyond recognition in his world; we know that as we embark upon the first chapter.

But though war is looming – and a number of the wiser characters in Lost Empires are grimly predicting what later came to pass – the mood in England is one of wanting to be distracted from the political rumblings all around, and the music halls are thriving, into which unlikely milieu our young protagonist is initiated by his black-sheep-of-the-family Uncle Nick.

Dick, newly orphaned by the death of his mother, aspires to be an artist, but has been forced by circumstances to give up his plans of attending art school to instead work as an office clerk. Uncle Nick, attending his sister’s funeral, takes Dick aside and offers him a position as his assistant in his very successful variety show act.

Uncle Nick is an accomplished illusionist of the “vanishing lady” type, and his perfectionism and scornful antipathy to any sort of sentiment make him an awkward sort of employer, family ties or not, but Dick’s dogged determination to continue with his artistic goals despite the logistical difficulties earns his uncle’s respect, and the two settle into a mostly successful working relationship.

Dick has never been in a position to travel or to associate with people from such a broad strata of society as the touring variety show allows, and it rather goes to his head. His good looks and polite middle-class manners make him the focus of unnervingly aggressive attention from some of the women in the other acts (and also from his uncle’s own act’s female member, one of whose unofficial duties is to share the principle’s bed), but the one woman he would like to get on closer terms with is unaccountably cold and snubbing, though she unbends for a brief period, long enough for Dick to fall deeply in love with her, before she again cold-shoulders him.

Emotionally bruised and sexually frustrated, a situation made much worse by the continual presence of nubile young women in revealing costumes, Dick, still a sexual virgin as his variety-stage history opens, is ready to fall, and fall he does. He is seduced by and then obsessively enters into a torrid relationship with one of the older women in a co-starring act, with disastrous consequences when his real love is told of his defection to the well-experienced arms of another.

This book is chock-full of sex, not particularly graphic but described with enough detail to make one very aware of the change in times since The Good Companions first appeared to the time when Lost Empires was written. Though we have no doubts that some of the characters in The Good Companions were also sexually active, and prone to drinking too much on occasion, and sometimes involved in questionable personal pursuits, many of the details aren’t given, and the more risqué bits are generally glossed over, or given the light comedy treatment.

Very much not so in Lost Empires, with the result that it is a much stronger sort of novel in a modern, no-topic-is-forbidden sense, though Priestley provides a soft-focussed epilogue which echoes that of his earlier tale, with our hero finding his personal redemption and with most loose ends neatly tucked away.

And that final soft focus is what docked Lost Empires its point in my personal rating in comparison to The Good Companions‘ solid 10.

The Good Companions satisfied because it did exactly what it said it would on the flyleaf: it amused. The author dances his characters for us, and he blatantly manipulates fate to favour them, and, as it’s all part of the game and known to us going in, we cheerfully play along.

Lost Empires is, for the most part, a rather deeper book, with its vividly imagined and occasionally disturbing coming-of-age tale, and its sober look back at a nation heading unhappily into a devastating war. I felt, however, that J.B. Priestley pulled back just a bit from where he could have gone with it, and though Lost Empires is a very good thing, the eventual resolution of its hero’s problems felt slightly deus ex machina, hand of puppet master evident at the last.

This said, also very highly recommended. A good example of Priestley’s later fiction, and a must-read for anyone interested in exploring this prolific writer’s A-list.



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Life is ridiculously full right now, and I haven’t been writing much, but there’s always time for reading. Let’s see what the clever people at Shiny New Books have found for us to peruse this time around…

Off you go, now! (Trust me – you’ll be happy you did.)

Image shamelessly stolen from SNB #4. What an interesting pile this looks...

Image shamelessly stolen from SNB #4. Some novels to tempt you, perhaps?


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