Archive for January, 2017

The Charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo by Richard Caton Woodville

The Charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo, by Richard Caton Woodville

Surfacing from a major word processing project having to do with the upcoming regional performing arts festival in which I am deeply and happily involved, and thinking that I really would rather be reading than writing.

Or, if writing, then writing about books, versus schedules, and ad copy, and begging letters asking for money, and also begging emails for things people promised me weeks ago and which still aren’t here, and eloquent explanations regarding a very clear (we thought) syllabus. So why did I think this year would be any different?!

Ah, well, it will be fun in the long run, when the participants hit the stage, and my role will mostly consist of sitting back and taking it all in, with snippets of frantic activity here and there. This particular deadline was met, and I have a little breathing space before the Next Big Thing is due, so I hope to be back in this forum for a bit.

I’ve read – or attempted to read – some supremely crappy things this past week or ten days, and some slightly ho-hum things, and a few gloriously engaging things.

A quick listing, more to keep my memory straight than for any other reason. these are all (or should have been) Century books, so slightly expanded discussions shall follow, with a separate post for each book.

Let’s see…

An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer. 1937. This is the book Georgette Heyer often said she was proudest of, and I can see why. It contains a meticulously researched depiction of the Battle of Waterloo which deserves all of the good things scholarly critics have said about it over the years. There is  – of course! – a love story, but it is secondary to the heart-rendingly realistic historical stuff. Well done, indeed.

Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim. 1926. Oh joy! Oh bliss! What a sweet romp of a thing. I loved it. What happens when an unbelievably beautiful girl is born into a modestly situated, working class, strictly God-fearing family, unable to fathom how best to protect their jewel of a child from the increasingly lecherous gaze of every man who sees her? By marrying her off, of course, to the first man who offers for her, thereby shifting the responsibility to other shoulders. Beauty as burden is the theme of this little novel, with a dash of reluctant Eliza Doolittle-ism thrown in.

The Prelude to Adventure by Hugh Walpole. 1912. A Cambridge undergraduate accidentally kills a despised fellow student in a moment of righteous rage, all unwitnessed, except by God, wherein lies the key to the tale, as Olva Dune struggles mightily with his conscience and his newly wakened awareness of a Higher Power. Things are complicated by his confession to a religion-addled compatriot, and even more so by his falling in love. Much inner dialogue, and a rather odd non-resolution at the end. Often referred to as a psychological drama, and that does sum it up as well as anything. Not a murder mystery in the traditional sense of the word, which is what it is also occasionally described as. One of Walpole’s more obscure early works, uneven here and there, and more than slightly morbid, but nonetheless diverting to an acceptable degree.

Little G by E.M. Channon. 1936. A charming summer-set fluff piece about a misogynistic Cambridge mathematics don falling all unwillingly into love. There is tennis, and much drinking of tea in shady gardens, and long country walks. There are roses, and a flower show. There are cats. This one made me happy, and my inner cynic turned away and let me enjoy it to the utmost. A keeper.

How Firm a Foundation by Patrick Dennis. 1968. A naive English teacher is roped into a job tutoring a millionaire’s lackwit children, and finds himself deeply involved in a tax dodge involving the making of an unplanned “art film”. Patrick Dennis of course was the author of Auntie Mame, and there are glimmers of that happy satire here, but the splashes of cheerful vulgarity which rather enhanced Mame and The Joyful Season are poured on here by the bucketful. It sounded promising. It doesn’t work. This thing stinks.

Bitter Heritage by Margaret Pedler. 1928. A hugely predictable melodrama about a young woman whose father has disgraced himself, and by association her, by a massive financial gamble with other people’s money which failed. His subsequent suicide makes things even worse. Never mind, our tumbled-down heroine impresses everyone by her plucky cheerfulness and finds herself bumped back up into posh society, but not without some overblown drama and much talk of blackened names. A period piece, one might safely say.

Seems to me I’m missing something, but I think I’ve got most of them pinned down.

Back soon!

Okay, back the next morning, to add the two I forgot.

Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom. 1934. An orphaned daughter of the vicarage, left destitute as is the tradition in these sorts of things, finds herself living in London under the thumb of a bullying older brother. She manages to attain independence through a secretarial job, but  begins to find that the daily grind is just that, with a long bleak vista a years-all-the-same stretching ahead, until a chance sweepstake win triggers a personal reinvention. The usual sequence of events occurs, with the eventual finding of true love. Absolutely predictable, but decently readable. Ursula Bloom was a stupendously prolific B-list writer (over 500 published works; more on that in my “proper” review) but she did know how to turn a phrase. Sexual awakening is a great part the theme here, stated in those very words. The tiniest bit unexpected for a popular novel from 1934, but then again, not really, when one considers what else was going on in the actual and literary world at the time.

The Slave of Silence by Fred M. White. 1906. A highly improbable romantic melodrama which was one of the most deeply boring things I’ve come across in recent years. A beautiful young woman is forced into an appalling marriage with a wealthy scoundrel in order to save her father from disgrace (he’s been speculating financially with other people’s money, yadda yadda yadda) and the vows are just pronounced when the wedding is interrupted by the announcement that Dear Dad has been found dead. Is she really married? Or not? And when the paternal body disappears before a postmortem can be performed, things become very convoluted indeed. A crippled criminal mastermind in a wheelchair, a couple of interchangeable Scotland Yard/Senior Army Officer investigative chaps, the true lover of our confused heroine wandering about in various disguises, doors conveniently left open while key plot points are being discussed by the bad guys…you name it, this thing has it. I’ll save you reading it. The baddest of the bad guys end up dead, and true love prevails. And our heroine ends up rich again (I think) because of some ruby mine or something in (possibly – I forget the exact place) Malaysia. Or Java? I dunno. A dull book by a rather interesting writer, and despite my “run away!” recommendation for this particular work, I think I will expand on Fred M. White. Old-style sci-fi “Doom of London” disaster novels ring any bells? Our Fred was the writer of those, and I must admit my curiosity is piqued.

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on-the-other-side-of-the-latch-sara-jeannette-duncan-1901On the Other Side of the Latch by Sara Jeannette Duncan ~ 1901. American title: The Crow’s Nest. This edition: Methuen & Co., 1901. Hardcover. 266 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I am very fond of Sara Jeannette Duncan, or, as she is styled in brackets on the title page of this and a number of her other books, Mrs. Everard Cotes. Duncan was a world-travelling Canadian who confidently pushed the gender limits of her time, despite that traditionally matrimonial sub-name which appears on most of her earlier works.

I recently read her 1890 travel book, A Social Departure: How Orthodocia and I Went Round the World by Ourselves, in which our Sara embarks upon an unchaperoned journey round the world with a female friend. I thoroughly enjoyed that journey-book, so much so that I won’t say anything more about it now, saving myself for a future re-read and review.

Looking around for my next Sara Jeanette Duncan – for in addition to A Social Departure I’d already read An American Girl in London and The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib – this one jumped out as me, concerning as it does the author’s time spent out in the garden of a mountain house in Simla, India, as she undergoes a rest cure for tuberculosis.

Whereas the other books I’ve read by Duncan are hectic with social activity, On the Other Side of the Latch is almost comatose in comparison, and this makes a lot of sense, as the lively traveller and always-busy career writer was forced to sit quietly from morning till night, unable to take part in whatever social whirl there might have been in that Anglo-Indian summer retreat.

There is an attraction about carpets and curtains, chairs and sofas and the mantelpiece, which is hard to explain and harder to resist. I feel it in all its insidious power this morning as I am bidding them farewell for a considerable time; I would not have believed that a venerable Axminster and an arm-chair on three castors could absorb and hold so much affection; verily I think, standing in the door, it was these things that made Lot’s wife turn her unlucky head. Dear me, how they enter in, how they grow to be part of us, these objects of ordinary use and comfort that we place within the four walls of the little shelters we build for ourselves on the fickle round of the world! I have gone back, I have sat down, I will not be deprived of them; they are necessary to the courage with which every one must face life. I will consider nothing without a cushion, on the hither side of the window, braced by dear familiar book-shelves and the fender. And Tiglath-Pileser [Duncan’s whimsical nickname for her husband throughout the book; her sister-in-law is styled “Thisbe”] has now come, and has quoted certain documents, and has used gentle propulsive force, and behold because I am a person whose contumacy cannot endure, the door is shut and I am on the outside disconsolate.

I would not have more sympathy than I can afterwards sustain; I am only banished to the garden. But the banishment is so definite, so permanent! Its terms are plain to my unwilling glance, a long cane deck-chair anchored under a tree, over-head the sky, on the four sides the sky, without a pattern, full of wind and nothing. Abroad the landscape, consisting entirely of large mountains; about, the garden. I never regarded a garden with more disfavour. Here I am to remain — but to remain! The word expands, you will find, as you look into it. Man, and especially woman, is a restless being, made to live in houses, roaming from room to room, and always staying for the shortest time moreover, if you notice, in the one which is called the garden. The subtle and gratifying law of arrangement that makes the drawing-room the only proper place for afternoon tea operates all through. The convenience of one apartment, the quiet of another, the decoration of another regularly appeal in turn, and there is always one’s beloved bed, for retirement when the world is too much with one. All this I am compelled to resign for a single fixed fact and condition, a cane chair set in the great monotony of out-of-doors. My eye, which is a captious organ, is to find its entertainment all day long in bushes — and grass. All day long. Except for meals it is absolutely laid down that I may not “come in.” They have not locked the doors, that might have been negotiated; they have gone and put me on my honour. From morning until night I am to sit for several months and breathe, with the grass and the bushes, the beautiful pure fresh air. I don’t know why they have not asked me to take root and be done with it. In vain I have represented that microbes will agree with them no better than with me; it seems the common or house microbe is one of the things I particularly mustn’t have. Some people are compelled to deny themselves oysters, others strawberries or artichokes: my fate is not harder than another’s. Yet it tastes of bitterness to sit out here in an April wind twenty paces from a door behind which they are enjoying, in customary warmth and comfort, all the microbes there are.

And so on.

After a chapter or two of rather wallowing in ever-decreasing stages of self-pity, Sara Jeannette Duncan then turns her gaze to the garden in which she is exiled, and the gardener who oversees it, Atma.

Into my field of vision comes Atma, doinjg something to a banksia rosebush that climbs over a little arbour erected across a path apparently for the convenience of the banksia rosebush. Atma would tell you, protector of the poor, that he is the gardener of this place. As a matter of fact his relation to it is that of tutelary deity and real proprietor. I have talked in as large a way as if it belonged to Tiglath-Pileser, because he pays for the repairs; but I should have had the politeness at least to mention Atma whose claims are so much better. So far as we are concerned Atma is prehistoric; he was here when we came, and when we have completed the tale of our years of exile and gone away he will also be here. His hut is at the very end of the shelf, and I have never been in it; but if you ask him how long he has lived there he would say “Always.” It must make very little difference to Atma what temporary lords came and give orders in the house with the magnificent tin roof where they have table-cloths. Some, of course, are more troublesome than others, but none of them stay. He and his bulbs and perennials are the permanent, undisputed facts; it is unimaginable that any of them should be turned out.

I am more reconciled to my fate when Atma is in the garden; he is something human to look at and to consider, and he moves with such calm wisdom among the plants.

This is a memoir of description, not of action, as the writer remains in her prescribed chair, doing as little as possible. She reads – and oh! how soon the pleasures of uninterrupted reading pale! – she naps, she cranes her neck to see who is passing on the precipitous road down the mountainside, she watches the birds and the insects, and she writes in her journal the passages which will become this book.

The narrative soon turns itself almost completely over to a sometimes-pithy appreciation of the changing seasons in the green world; it becomes a decidedly fascinating gardener’s account, for, much as Duncan gives credit to Atma for being the overseer and hands-in-the-soil, she herself has more than a little input into the ornamental plantings, and she reveals herself as being an opinionated plantsperson with undoubted years of experience of floral cultivation, with an artist’s eye for the larger effect, as well as a fine attention to details of petal and pollen. Days, weeks, months fall into pattern, faithfully described with abundant digressions of a mostly humorous sort.

This memoir reminds us of the pleasures of our own small patch of ground, the joys of our own set of rooms inhabited by our familiar things, our books, our most-cherished belongings, the chair that we most like to sit in, the cup that we most like to drink from, and – not least! – the people whom we most love.


Sara Jeannette Duncan, date unknown.

I found I liked this book more and more as it went along, and after finishing it I felt I knew this witty and confidently opinionated writer on a much more intimate level, and my readerly affection for her, already well established, has grown accordingly.

And regarding that rest cure, it appears to have been reasonably successful, for after seven months of sitting outside under a cedar tree, through all sorts of weather including the annual monsoon, Sara Jeannette Duncan was allowed back into the “micobe”-infested house, and a return to the greater world.

She was to live another twenty-one years, dying in 1922 in England, at the age of 61, of “chronic lung disease”.

Sara Jeannette Duncan’s literary legacy was a respectable twenty-plus novels, as well as numerous journalistic articles. In 2016 she was designated a Canadian National Historic Person, a recognition which is decidedly well-deserved.





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A much too whimsical cover, in my opinion. Though there is indeed a cat, eventually.

A much too whimsical cover, in my opinion. Though there is indeed a cat, eventually.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner ~ 1926. This edition: Virago, 2012. Introduction by Sarah Walters. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-84408-805-8. 203 pages.

My rating: 10+/10

It’s awfully early to be reading the best book of the year, but I suspect this may have just happened. And if not the absolute best – for one can only hope for better, without any assurance whatsoever that that will occur – this one will be high in the top ten. No debate.

I’ve been brooding over a suitable review for days, and I still don’t know how to best express my deep appreciation of this exquisitely written novel. It pushed all my buttons, as it were, and it appears I am not alone, for the most superficial effort at online scouting reveals an astounding number of appreciative reviews.

No review that I have read can adequately express the unique quality of this novel, though many have come close, and those many being the ones which include a generous sampling of excerpts and quotations. It is very likely that my discussion shall follow suit.

SPOILER WARNING! After labouring unsucessfully to produce a thoughtful but vague-on-details analysis, I find that all I’ve done is to basically recite the plot below, so if you want to come to this cold, you will want to stop reading NOW.

Though this novel is so good that even knowing what happens beforehand will not take away from the experience. For those of us who like this sort of thing, it’s a marvelous bit of work.

Okay, giving you time to decide…









Laura Willowes is born in 1874 into a soberly traditionalist family, well-off brewers who take pride in their prosaic calling, and whose attention to detail has resulted in financial success.

Younger sister of two brothers, Laura lives a quiet country life, contentedly prevented from having to go out into the world by the vague ill health of her mother, which serves to provide an excuse for Laura’s remaining close at hand, though neighbouring matrons cluck in growing disapproval of Mrs. Willowes’ lack of enterprise in seeing that her growing daughter be either formally educated or pushed into the society of other young women, and, more importantly, young men.

Her mother dies, and Laura steps willingly into the place of the woman of the household, putting her hair up and her skirts down, and developing to an even higher degree her demeanour of stillness and decorum.

It was easy, much easier than she had supposed, to be grown-up; to be clear-headed and watchful, to move sedately and think before she spoke. Already her hands looked mnuch whiter on the black lap. She could not take her mother’s place – that was as impossible as to have her mother’s touch upon the piano, for Mrs. Willowes had learnt from a former pupil of Field, she had the jeu perlé; but she could take a place of her own. So Laura behaved very well – said the Willowes connection, agreeing and approving amongst themselves – and went about her business, and only cried when alone in the potting-shed, where a pair of old gardening gloves repeated to her the shape of her mother’s hands.

The years slide by. Brother Henry has established himself as a successful lawyer, stolidly wedded to a suitable wife and now father of two girls; brother James has unexpectedly returned to the family home to take part in the family business; Laura and her father welcome James, and then his wife and a small son, before Mr. Willowes himself takes ill and quietly and quickly dies.

Laura, deeply bereft but stoic in her grief, finds herself being arranged for, packed off without being consulted to live with Henry’s family in London. For London will be exciting for Laura, the refrain goes, she will see all sorts of sights and her horizons will be enlarged. She might even find herself a husband, for she is, after all, only twenty-eight, possessed of a tidy income of her own via her father’s will, and she is attractive enough in her subfusc way. Oh, and she will also be rather handy to have about the house, looking after her young nieces and making herself generally useful…

The smallest spare room is made over to Laura, and into it she transfers what few effects from her old life there can be found room for – not much, really, but Laura takes this in stride, for her loss of her old life and her beloved father have stunned her into a state of gentle acceptance of her lot. Before long she is transformed into something a little less than she was before, “Aunt Lolly”, handy to have about to walk the children and do their mending, and to provide another pair of ears for Henry’s bombastic preening in the bosom of his family.

But Laura nourishes a secret life undreamt of by her utterly unoriginal brother and sister-in-law. She uses her occasional free afternoons to explore London, wandering far afield to strange neighbourhoods, secretly patronizing luxurious tea shops and, in the only outward show of what soothes her inner self, bringing home lavish bouquets of exotic, fragrant flowers, much to the dismay of her familial sponsors, who feel that these indulgences are just a little, well, odd.

They’ve long given up trying to pair Laura up with a prospective husband; she has made it quite clear that her interest in such is null, and it looks like things will go on as they are forever and ever, amen, in an outwardly serene but secretly unsatisfactory way. Henry’s wife had rather expected that her sister-in-law would remove herself to her own establishment, handy as she is to have around the house, and those little outbreaks – those flowers! – continually irritate, in the most well-hidden way.

We come to 1921. Laura has just turned 47 years old. The Great War has been got through, things are settled down again and are going along much as before. “Aunt Lolly’s” nieces are grown now, but their babies will be her new charges, and the walking out of and mending for will keep her happily busy; the family is rather planning on taking continued advantage of Laura’s permanent position as useful auntie.

And then everything changes.

For Laura has an unusual epiphany one day, and decides to return to the country, to remake her life as a woman living alone, far removed from the duties she has so long carried so uncomplainingly.

Henry kicks up the most predictable fuss, for what will people say to his sister going off in such a strange (not to mention ungrateful) manner?  He is undone in his protests by his own ill-dealings; he has rashly lost most of Laura’s capital in sketchy investments, and she demands an explanation and insists on a settlement of what there is left, and the freedom to reinvent her life as she sees fit.

A country residence is obtained, though it is only rooms versus the originally planned-for cottage, due to her diminished finances. Winter passes, and spring arrives in all its glory, and Laura finds herself in a field of cowslips, in the grip of the strongest emotion she has ever permitted herself to feel.

She knelt down among them and laid her face close to their fragrance. The weight of all her unhappy years seemed
for a moment to weigh her bosom down to the earth; she trembled, understanding for the first time how miserable
she had been; and in another moment she was released. It was all gone, it could never be again, and never had been.
Tears of thankfulness ran down her face. With every breath she drew, the scent of the cowslips flowed in and absolved her.

She was changed, and knew it. She was humbler, and more simple. She ceased to triumph mentally over her tyrants, and rallied herself no longer with the consciousness that she had outraged them by coming to live at Great Mop. The amusement she had drawn from their disapproval was a slavish remnant, a derisive dance on the north bank of the Ohio. There was no question of forgiving them. She had not, in any case, a forgiving nature; and the injury they had done her was not done by them. If she were to start forgiving she must needs forgive Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament, great-great-aunt Salome and her prayer-book, the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other useful props of civilisation. All she could do was to go on forgetting them. But now she was able to forget them without flouting them by her forgetfulness.

Now the tale takes on a rather stranger twist. For the small village Laura has randomly chosen to reside in turns out to be not quite so conventional as it at first appears to be. Everyone is all very live-and-let-live, but things are just a little…well…unusual

Strains of music and odd lights late at night, people gathering together at strange hours, and a certain universal focus on the woods surrounding the village, wherein seems to reside a disturbing (in the broadest sense of the word) presence.

I’ll save you speculation.

Great Mop (for that is the name of the village in question) is under the patronage of the Lord of Darkness himself, and he is most interested in our quiet Laura.

I’ll give you a hint that Laura’s eventual fate is not quite what one would expect.

Satan himself as he manifests in an aura of crushed fennel and deep woodsiness is a character of unusual and unexpected appeal. For he is the “loving huntsman” of the subtitle:

Near at hand but out of sight the loving huntsman couched in the woods, following her with his eyes…But her fear had kept him at bay, or else he had not chosen to take her just then, preferring to watch until he could overcome her mistrust and lure her into his hand. For Satan is not only a huntsman. His interest in mankind is that of a skilful and experienced naturalist. Even human sportsmen at the end of their span sometimes declare that to potter about in the woods is more amusing than to sit behind a butt and shoot driven grouse. And Satan, who has hunted from eternity, a little jaded moreover by the success of his latest organised Flanders battue, might well feel that his interest in a Solitary Snipe like Laura was but sooner or later to measure the length of her nose. Yet hunt he must; it is his destiny, and whether he hunts with a gun or a butterfly net, sooner or later the chase must end. All finalities, whether good or evil, bestow a feeling of relief; and now, understanding how long the chase had lasted, Laura felt a kind of satisfaction at having been popped into the bag.

This novel, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first, was her very deliberate and self-decribed feminist manifesto, or perhaps one could call it a humanist manifesto, for in it she argues for the right of the individual to choose one’s own happiness, regardless of what others think is best.

Laura Willowes from her earliest years knows exactly what she needs to make her happy, and what she chooses draws the critical hisses of everyone in her personal circle.  Until defeated by Laura’s tenacious refusal to play the game, there are continual urgings to partake in the local social whirl, to “come out of herself”, but Laura isn’t having any of it. Not as a young woman making reluctant duty calls and visits to parties and dances, and not as a middle-aged spinster, as we see when she willingly samples and quickly rejects the eerily similar protocol of her first Witches’ Sabbath in Great Mop.

Peace is what Laura Willowes seeks above all, to be left alone to pursue her solitary interests, to do nothing if she so chooses, and her surrender to Satan offers her just that, a protection against those who seek to meddle with her preferred style of life.

Did she do the right thing with her capitulation? Or not? The reader must decide…

Equal parts conventional novel and far-fetched fantasy, this is one of the most relatable novels I have read in a very long time. The writing, the twisting of the plot partway through, the sensuous descriptions of countryside and flowers and food, the character of Laura Willowes, and that of Satan himself…all combine to create something which sings and resonates, at the same time as it quietly disturbs.

In the very best way, of course.

And it is frequently richly and intelligently funny – I don’t think I’ve communicated that aspect. Another point in favour.

Highly recommended.

First edition, 1926.

First edition, 1926.

Oh – one last thing. Here’s a snippet of trivia for you. In 1926, Lolly Willowes was chosen to be the first book offered by the newly created Book-of-the-Month Club. And its author was perpetually annoyed by finding some readers reacting to it merely as a “sweet story”, versus the subversively moral tale she meant it to be.







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Oh my goodness.

For years people have been gently pushing Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes my way, and I have nodded and smiled and soothed them with a noncommittal, “Yes, yes, one day I’ll read it.”

Got it before Christmas, put it on the Century reading pile. Picked it up last night, and have communed with it at every available moment this busy, busy day, and I am so sorry it is over. (The book, not the day. The day has not been stellar, to put it mildly.)

Easily an 11/10 on the personal rating scale. Maybe even a 12.

I guess I’d better come up with a proper post, but I just needed to share my deep joy at this fantastic thing.

Eating apples with the devil, for those are his favourite fruit, you know. Oh, yes, indeed.

Are her other books this good?

Even if they’re not, I’m going to track them down.

This one is utterly perfect.



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spinster-book-myrtle-reedThe Spinster Book by Myrtle Reed ~ 1901. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903. Hardcover. 222 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

Myrtle Reed, newly bestselling author in the second year of her ten-year contract with Putnam’s, turned from romantic fiction to advice-to-single-women, in what starts out as a light-hearted collection of essays to women on how to figure out men, and morphs into something quite a lot darker.

The mantle of spinsterhood looked like it was well settled over Myrtle Reed’s shoulders at this point, for at the age of 27 she was as yet unmarried, though she had been carrying on a long distance courtship mostly via letter for the past decade with the man whom she would eventually marry in 1905.

Myrtle Reed was cheerfully cynical regarding what she claimed were the predictable workings of the typical male mind, and her book is full of such as the following excerpt:

There is nothing in the world as harmless and as utterly joyous as man’s conceit. The woman who will not pander to it is ungracious indeed.

Man’s interest in himself is purely altruistic and springs from an unselfish desire to please. He values physical symmetry because one’s first impression of him is apt to be favourable. Manly accomplishments and evidences of good breeding are desirable for the same reason, and he likes to think his way of doing things is the best, regardless of actual effectiveness.

For instance, there seems to be no good reason why a man’s way of sharpening a pencil is any better than a woman’s. It is difficult to see just why it is advisable to cover the thumb with powdered graphite, and expose that useful member to possible amputation by a knife directed uncompromisingly toward it, when the pencil might be pointed the other way, the risk of amputation avoided, and the shavings and pulverised graphite left safely to the action of gravitation and centrifugal force. Yet the entire race of men refuse to see the true value of the feminine method, and, indeed, any man would rather sharpen any woman’s pencil than see her do it herself.

It pleases a man very much to be told that he “knows the world,” even though his acquaintance be limited to the flesh and the devil–a gentleman, by the way, who is much misunderstood and whose faults are persistently exaggerated. But man’s supreme conceit is in regard to his personal appearance. Let a single entry in a laboratory note-book suffice for proof.

Time, evening. MAN is reading a story in a current magazine to the GIRL he is calling upon.

MAN. “Are you interested in this?”

GIRL. “Certainly, but I can think of other things too, can’t I?”

MAN. “That depends on the ‘other things.’ What are they?”

GIRL. (Calmly.) “I was just thinking that you are an extremely handsome man, but of course you know that.”

MAN. (Crimsoning to his temples.) “You flatter me!” (Resumes reading.)

Girl. (Awaits developments.)

MAN. (After a little.) “I didn’t know you thought I was good-looking.”

GIRL. (Demurely.) “Didn’t you?”

MAN. (Clears his throat and continues the story.)

MAN. (After a few minutes.) “Did you ever hear anybody else say that?”

GIRL. “Say what?”

MAN. “Why, that I was–that I was–well, good-looking, you know?”

GIRL. “Oh, yes! Lots of people!”

MAN. (After reading half a page.) “I don’t think this is so very interesting, do you?”

GIRL. “No, it isn’t. It doesn’t carry out the promise of its beginning.”

MAN. (Closes magazine and wanders aimlessly toward the mirror in the mantel.)

MAN. “Which way do you like my hair; this way, or parted in the middle?”

GIRL. “I don’t know–this way, I guess. I’ve never seen it parted in the middle.”

MAN. (Taking out pocket comb and rapidly parting his hair in the middle.) “There! Which way do you like it?”

GIRL. (Judicially.) “I don’t know. It’s really a very hard question to decide.”

MAN. (Reminiscently.) “I’ve gone off my looks a good deal lately. I used to be a lot better looking than I am now.”

GIRL. (Softly.) “I’m glad I didn’t know you then.”

MAN. (In apparent astonishment.) “Why?”

GIRL. “Because I might not have been heart whole, as I am now.”

(Long silence.)

MAN. (With sudden enthusiasm.) “I’ll tell you, though, I really do look well in evening dress.”

GIRL. “I haven’t a doubt of it, even though I’ve never seen you wear it.”

MAN. (After brief meditation.) “Let’s go and hear Melba next week, will you? I meant to ask you when I first came in, but we got to reading.”

GIRL. “I shall be charmed.”

Next day, GIRL gets a box of chocolates and a dozen American Beauties–in February at that.

Zing! Direct hit, and score.

For woman-as-huntress features largely in The Spinster Book. General goal: a good time provided by a male companion. Ultimate goal: matrimony.

But once well started upon her topic, Myrtle Reed seems to have second thoughts, and much of the middle of the book is dedicated to the joys of independence, and the lucky state of those females who find fulfillment in career and public service, going home each night to a cosy little bachelorette suite, unsullied by masculine clutter.

She further pens what could only be described a an out and out rant regarding the societal expectation that woman unjoined to man is a creature to be pitied, a person incomplete, before flip-flopping once again to the original premise: that to be truly happy one must be mated.

Miss Reed’s theoretical permanent spinster, as described in the last chapter, is superficially content with her lot, but secretly yearns for Her Prince, even unto her deathbed, which is described with some pathos in the closing pages.

This book is chock full of neat little zingers, most at the expense of Man, but I couldn’t quite come to grips with what Myrtle Reed was actually getting at. Was she being pro-matrimony all the way through, or was she trying to make a legitimate argument for the possibility of a contented single life?

The earlier passages, which came across as something like, “Men, bless their simple, good-natured hearts! – we women can take ’em or leave ’em, our happiness is ultimately up to us”, a truly liberated point of view and most acceptable to our 21st century perspective, changed direction mid-stream, and an impassioned lament regarding the deep sadness of the single state came very much to the fore. “Conflicted” seems the only way to decribe it.

I wonder what readers thought of the book at the time of its publishing?

It appears to have been a successful sort of publication, with great “novelty” appeal, as we can see by its persistent reprinting even up unto the present day. But as an actual “advice manual”, well… I wonder how the target audience (unmarried women, one assumes) reacted to its ultimate message. Did the farcical bits outweigh the bemoaning? Or did it serve to strengthen the huntress’s resolve, and her technique? Some of the man-catching hints seem like they would be highly effective!

One can but speculate.

Despite its quotability and its frequently witty humour, I didn’t feel that this was a book that time travels particularily well.

It ended up depressing me, but that could be because I couldn’t help but keep thinking about the sad matrimonial fate of its writer.

For Myrtle Reed did eventually marry, in 1905. Matrimony didn’t come up to her expectations, however, and she committed suicide in 1911, leaving behind a damning note accusing her husband of emotional neglect. A tragedy, indeed, and not without considerable irony, this book considered.

For a further look at the complicated life story of Myrtle Reed, check out this article.

Something I didn’t know before I read The Spinster Book was that the Myrtle Reed, among her other novels and plays, wrote the well-known Lavender and Old Lace, which was successfully produced as both a stage play and, eventually, as a movie.

My own copy of the book, viewed as a physical artifact, is a lovely thing. One hundred and thirteen years old, bound in faded pink silk moire, with a gold-embossed cover, it feels wonderful in the hand. Putnam’s went all out on shelf appeal here!






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43afbca89d5f08d4ca98ecfee8af73d7Three Men in a Boat and Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome ~ 1889 and 1900. This omnibus edition: Penguin, 1999. Introduction and notes by Jeremy Lewis. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-043750-9. 362 pages.

My rating: 9/10

I’m sure everyone has heard of these two classics of light literature, and doubtless most of you have read at least the first one, so I’ll keep things superficial in my assessment below.

The takeaway: great fun, though the humour sometimes drops down into territory one can only designate as “lowish”. And occasionally exceedingly thought-provoking, as J.K.J. drops his farcical tone and muses on the serious things in life, like the sad plight of the hapless unwed mother, and the gathering clouds of potential conflict swirling round Europe during the German stage of the journeying.

In all, an enjoyable sort of mix, dished up by a thoughtful (dare I say professional? – I think that would be accurate) observer of the human race.

We meet our three clerk-class English adventurers in 1889 as they start off on a two-week boating jaunt up the busy Thames, overloaded with all the wrong provisions and baggage, and accompanied by a quarrelsome fox terrier, Montmorency.

Much discomfort ensues, as well as much beer drinking and slanging of each other, but there are occasional moments of happy camaraderie, too, and though the trip is prematurely abandoned to everyone’s mutual relief, the triumvirate remains firm friends.

So much so that they reunite for another fellows-only trip some ten years later. Two of the three are now married, children are much in evidence, but Montmorency is not mentioned. (Doubtless he is off and away wreaking terrier havoc in The World Beyond.)

The two wives, when tentatively approached with the idea of temporary abandonment by their spouses, express a cheerful relief at being so bereft, and, once recovered from the ego-bruising that this easy permission to go off with their chums engenders, the excursion turns from conjecture into reality.

This time the friends decide to take a month or so, and to visit Europe – the Black Forest region of Germany, to be more precise –  and the mode of transport is to be two-wheeled. Our intrepid and eternally bickering travellers make do with a single and a tandem bicycle, spelled off by train rides – “We’ll take the train UP the hilly bits, and ride our bikes mostly DOWNHILL.”

Well, you can guess how that bit turns out!

Of the two slim books, I found the second to be much the most interesting, and that is because it is not so much about the travellers and their many woes while coping with their bicycles – and there are many, starting with the expected blisters and running through all the other possibilities of grief-while-biking – as about the digressions of the narrator.

The best aspects of both books are the tangential excursions. The actual on-the-ground (or water) travels seem merely to provide a sturdy framework for adorning with elaborate anecdotes, and those anecdotes occasionally take on a life of their own, before the writer recollects his original purpose and comes back to the here and now. Very roundabout, it all is, and, yes, so similar to that titular bummel.

I will close with the oft-quoted description of what exactly a bummel is, courtesy of Jerome K. Jerome:

‘A “Bummel”,’ I explained, ‘I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are for ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk a while; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.’

Yes, indeed.





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Well, hello, 2017! You’re three days old, already. Racing right along, aren’t you?

Surfacing from a very quiet and blessedly peaceful Christmas season, marred only by a viral thing which has been going the rounds locally. We thought we’d dodged it, but no such luck! – it’s hopped gleefully from family member to family member, morphing merrily into an eclectic assortment of unpleasant symptoms.

We’re all still delicately sniffling, but the worst appears to be over (touch wood!) so holding onto the thought that our immune systems will be all the stronger for it.  I rather suspect 2017 will be much about finding silver linings, so this is an appropriate start, don’t you think?

Christmas brought books galore, a nice assortment of local history and horticultural tomes, with a dash of vintage fiction.

I won’t be talking about it quite yet, but I just want to mention to fellow Heyerites that I did indeed receive The Unknown Ajax, and, as you all promised me, it is utterly excellent. I read it immediately upon receipt – such a treat!

An Infamous Army is en route, too, though it appears to be hung up in the postal system. I hope to have my hands on it soon, and my expectations are high.

I did manage to start my Century of Books off quite appropriately with 1900, with a bit of what can only be deemed as literary “fluff”. About as challenging as candy floss to consume, and, expectedly, just as sustaining. But it did have a certain appeal, and it was a very quick read, and it gives me an excuse to perhaps further explore the works of this rather notorious writer.

Elinor Glyn it is.

You know:

Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err
With her
On some other fur?

The reference is of course to the exotic and (for their time) shockingly erotic bestsellers penned by Mrs. Glyn, beloved by the female working classes as the epitome of “escape literature”, and deeply scorned by the literary critics for all the usual reasons.

The Visits of Elizabeth was Elinor Glyn’s first literary effort, and it is a mild little concoction compared to what came after. The book had an immediate success. My personal copy was printed in 1901, the ninth impression, which is indicative of an enthusiastic reception by the book-buying masses.

visits-of-elizabeth-cover-elinor-glyn-1900The Visits of Elizabeth by Elinor Glyn ~ 1900. This edition: Duckworth & Co., 1901. Hardcover. 309 pages.

My rating: 6/10

At some point at the close of the 19th Century – Victoria is still very much on her throne – 17-year-old Elizabeth sets off on a series of visits, accompanied by her maid Agnes, and the good advice (via unseen letters) of her mother.

It was perhaps a fortunate thing for Elizabeth that her ancestors went back to the Conquest, and that she numbered at least two Countesses and a Duchess among her relatives. Her father had died some years ago, and, her mother being an invalid, she had lived a good deal abroad. But, at about seventeen, Elizabeth began to pay visits among her kinfolk…

visits-of-elizabeth-elinor-glyn-frontispieceAs we can see by the delicately engraved “portrait” so thoughtfully provided as a frontispiece, Elizabeth is a lovely young thing.

She cultivates a strong line in unconscious naïvety, which supplies most of the humour throughout this otherwise rather cynical, one-sided epistolary novel. (We read all of Elizabeth’s letters to her stay-at-home Mama, but nary a one from her Mama to her.)

She’s always going on about the various quirks of personality, manners, dress and appearance of the people she bumps up against, and for a while we’re not quite sure if her outspoken assessments are meant to be as cutting as they at first appear, but it soon becomes evident that Elizabeth is not harbouring any particular malice, but rather merely a child-like propensity to burble on about the first thing that crosses her mind.

This rather astonishes the worldly, mostly wealthy people she finds herself among. The more experienced and hardened of the women generally find themselves rather jealous of her fresh beauty and unmarred reputation, while the men uniformly fall at least a little bit in love with her, to absolutely no avail, because Elizabeth isn’t playing the flirtation game.

Well, not very seriously, anyway. With the possible exception of one particularly “objectionable” man, whom she has turned off with a slap early on, but who keeps popping up when least expected.

No surprises in how this frothy story ends, and, though blatantly classist and occasionally racist (the French and the Germans come in for some serious slamming, not to mention the upstart nouveau riche Jews who dare to assault the ever-more-fragile glass ceiling of the British class system) in general our heroine settles herself down enough to become quite likeable by the turning of the final page.

Her Mama would undoubtedly be pleased.

There are little hints here and there of Elinor Glyn’s keen eye for the provocative moment which she evidently developed in her future novels, lots of to-ing and fro-ing in midnight corridors, and veiled glances, and double entendres, misunderstood to great comic effect by our innocent heroine.

Elinor Glyn herself led a rather fascinating life, and it is claimed that many of her amorous plotlines came from her own broad experience, including the tiger-skin novel itself, Three Weeks, which featured an anonymous woman-of-nobility enjoying a temporary erotic dalliance with a much younger man.

Elinor moved to Hollywood in 1920 to work as a screenplay writer. Her own novel It was made into a highly successful silent movie in 1927, propelling actress Clara Bow to super-stardom as “The It Girl”.

Glyn’s novels are probably of most interest to today’s readers in the “cultural literacy” sense alone, and I rather doubt that I myself would have chosen to track down and read The Travels of Elizabeth if it weren’t for the need for an interesting 1900 book for my Century. But its promise of light entertainment and my curiosity about a writer I had only known by reference combined to bring it into my hands, and I must say I would be very willing to read another of the later books, if only to see what all the fuss was about.

A small digression here about the antique (or vintage) book as an artifact in its own right. I do love to read books in as close to the original edition as I can find them. There is something deeply satisfying in handling a book in the form in which its author would have seen it go into the world. Dog-eared pages and marginal notes and affectionate inscriptions all add to the appeal, to the feeling of connection with fellow readers of long before our time. Never mind foxing or a bit of mustiness – if the pages are intact and readable I’m all for it no matter how tattered.

This is a handsome little production in the purely physical sense, its green cloth covers enhanced by silver embellishments. The end papers at first glance look to be merely of an interesting checkerboard pattern, but on closer examination proving to be made up of 4-book stacks with spines all reading “Mudie” in different fonts. (For the famous Mudie’s Lending Library, one assumes.There is also an embossed Mudie & Co. Limited stamp on the back cover.)

A really lovely engraving of the titular character is inserted opposite the title page, protected by a glassine sheet.

And, most intriguing of all, we find a page listing a tempting array of other Duckworth and Co.’s Novels, not a single one of which I have heard of, including In the Cage by Henry James. Is it the Henry James? Let me see…. Why, yes, it is. A novella from 1898, apparently.) But, oh! – how I wish I could get my hands on a few of these for their titles alone. Children, Racehorses & Ghosts, anyone? Or how about Omar the Tentmaker? The Crimson Weed? The Monk Wins?


Potentially delicious book discoveries wait round every corner!

Cheerio, all.

And a slightly belated but most sincere Happy New Year!




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