Archive for the ‘1910s’ Category

The Street of Seven Stars by Mary Roberts Rinehart ~ 1914. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1918. Hardcover. 377 pages.

First off, I’ll tell you what this book isn’t. It’s not a murder mystery, and it’s not a gothic romance, no matter what later covers and sensationalistic publicists’ blurbs might say.

It’s merely one of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s early-career, sentimental love stories, padded out with a rather good depiction of immediately pre-war Vienna – that would be pre-Great War, in case you missed the publication date – and its fluid population of young foreigners seeking to further their education in one of the greatest centres of arts and sciences in their time.

American Harmony is a violin student, fellow American Peter is a young doctor; both are talented and driven; both are poor as church mice; both are determined to stick it out in Vienna for the boost their access to specialists in their field will give their future careers. Neither has room in their life for romantic love; neither plan to marry. Need I go further?

Point A will lead inevitably to Point B, but the path between is twisted and full of obstacles, such as friends with complicated love lives, a wee orphan boy dying of heart failure, and the judgemental frown of social mores, turning an innocent partnership to share expenses into a forbidden thing, if a young woman would retain her virtuous reputation.

The theme throughout is sacrifice, and every character grapples with it, from charmingly innocent Harmony and her hopes of a musical career, to Bulgarian spy Georgiev who slips up and loses his place in the quickening Great Game as Europe readies itself for open conflict.

The little Georgiev was in trouble those days. The Balkan engine was threatening to explode, but continued to gather steam, with Bulgaria sitting on the safety-valve. Austria was mobilizing troops, and there were long conferences in the Burg between the Emperor and various bearded gentlemen, while the military prayed in the churches for war.

The little Georgiev hardly ate or slept. Much hammering went on all day in the small room below Harmony’s on the Wollbadgasse. At night, when the man in the green velours hat took a little sleep, mysterious packages were carried down the whitewashed staircase and loaded into wagons waiting below. Once on her window-sill Harmony found among the pigeons a carrier pigeon with a brass tube fastened to its leg…

Though the chief love story of this standard sort of novel-of-its-kind progresses along traditional lines, some of the side stories diverge from the expected, and, along with the period atmosphere captured in brief by Rinehart’s facile pen, turn this slight, occasionally melodramatic period piece into something readable – and for the most part, very enjoyably so – a century past its time.

My rating: 7/10

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Laddie by Gene Stratton-Porter ~ 1913. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1913. Illustrated by Herman Pfeifer. Hardcover. 541 pages.

I had a really long post written, but I’ve just deleted it. My troubled relationship with Gene Stratton-Porter seemed to be getting in the way – I enjoy large parts of her stories (except for the appallingly racist Her Father’s Daughter ) but there’s always something utterly improbable to jib at, and Laddie is no exception.

Here’s the (only slightly) condensed rewrite.

First, the good.

This tale is based on Gene Stratton-Porter’s own childhood as the “afterthought” child in a well-off Indiana farm family of mother, father, and twelve siblings. It takes place not too many years after the end of the Civil War, which is frequently referenced. The family was most fervently on the Union side, and there is a major incident concerning a hideaway built to shelter stoppers-by on the pre-war Underground Railway.

The memoir passages taken from GS-P’s personal experience are, for the most part, absolutely charming. Depictions of family dynamics, sibling squabbles, beloved pets, and of course nature rambles, all ring wonderfully true, and kept my interest during the “fairytale” scenes, which were much more of a chore to get through straight-faced.

The hero of this story is the family’s middle brother, “Laddie”, based on GS-P’s own beloved brother, who died in a drowning accident when she was nine years old. The Laddie of the novel is the embodiment af all the masculine virtues; he never (and I mean never) sets his foot wrong, or does a mean act to anyone. The girl he (ultimately successfully) courts throughout this tale is virtually his matched twin in physical perfection, athleticism, intelligence,  and kindliness.

The only star missing from the Princess’s (for that is her nickname) crown of virtues is that of fervent religiosity, and she attains that by the end through Laddie’s efforts (he has enough religion for two), so all will presumably be well going forward with them, graced as they are by a kind fate which has also endowed upon them abundant financial resources and aristocratic English heritages, those last two always a Very Big Deal in Stratton-Porter’s fictions.

Oops, I’ve strayed into the bad.

Snobbery.

Gene Stratton-Porter’s most unappealing trait. She’s a snob, and that sticks out in great big bumps in every single one of her novels.

Sure, mere common-place characters are allowed to toddle about with her mild approval, but she was a fervent advocate of the “good birth will tell” school of thought, and so it’s no great surprise when it is revealed that Laddie and his family have true blue blood a-sloshing away in their veins, having ancestors back in the old country (England) who were Crusaders. In the family treasure chest is the old family crest; there’s an Earldom (or something similar) in their background, and once the equally snobbish (and newly arrived from England) father of Laddie’s heart-throb learns this, all objection to his aristocratic daughter mating with a commonplace (though well-off, well spoken, morally pure, physically perfect etc etc) farm lad magically disappears.

I think I’ll stop right here. If anybody really needs a plot description, it’s basically a gentle family saga, children being children, the young narrator (she’s eight years old or thereabouts) running free and then adjusting to the imprisonment of school, and Laddie, on the cusp of adulthood, courting his future partner for 500 pages or so before the inevitable happens (everyone says yes) and things are tidied up. There is another blighted romance which gets fixed up, a mystery or two, an adventure involving stolen money, lots of riding around on Arab-Kentucky thoroughbred horses, and tons of charming nature-related anecdotes.

And God.

Lots and lots of God. GS-P’s own father was a lay preacher of sorts, and so is the father in the book, so Biblical references sprout up on every page.

The happy ending relies heavily on the hand of coincidence; it is by far the weakest part of what isn’t really as rotten a book as my niggling criticism might make you suspect.

I actually quite liked Laddie, despite the frequent annoying bits and the “God-given superiority of the British upper classes” strand. It’s long, it’s glacially slow-moving, it’s full of off-tangent excursions and rabbit trails of thought, but there’s a core of sweetness, too and an appealingly obvious love of the author for her family and her childhood home.

My rating: (deep breath) 7.5/10

Okey-doke. Bonus. If you’re still with me, here are the author’s own words, recorded in Gene Stratton-Porter: A Little Story of The Life and Work and Ideals of “The Bird Woman”. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1926.

In August of 1913 the author’s novel “Laddie” was published in New York, London, Sydney and Toronto simultaneously. This book contains the same mixture of romance and nature interest as the others, and was modelled on the same plan of introducing nature objects peculiar to the location, and characters, many of whom are from life, typical of the locality at a given period. The first thing many critics said of it was that “no such people ever existed, and no such life was ever lived.” In reply to this the author said: “Of a truth, the home I described in this book I knew to the last grain of wood in the doors, and I painted it with absolute accuracy; and many of the people I described I knew more intimately than I ever have known any others. Taken as a whole it represents a perfectly faithful picture of home life, in a family who were reared and educated exactly as this book indicates. There was such a man as Laddie, and he was as much bigger and better than my description of him as a real thing is always better than its presentment. The only difference, barring the nature work, between my books and those of many other writers, is that I prefer to describe and to perpetuate the best I have known in life; whereas many authors seem to feel that they have no hope of achieving a high literary standing unless they delve in and reproduce the worst.

“To deny that wrong and pitiful things exist in life is folly, but to believe that these things are made better by promiscuous discussion at the hands of writers who fail to prove by their books that their viewpoint is either right, clean, or helpful, is close to insanity. If there is to be any error on either side in a book, then God knows it is far better that it should be upon the side of pure sentiment and high ideals than upon that of a too loose discussion of subjects which often open to a large part of the world their first knowledge of such forms of sin, profligate expenditure, and waste of life’s best opportunities. There is one great beauty in idealized romance: reading it can make no one worse than he is, while it may help thousands to a cleaner life and higher inspiration than they ever before have known.”

Take that, nay sayers! Clean lives and high inspirations for all!

(Now I’m hitting the publish button, before I take it all down again. Cheers!)

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The Prelude to Adventure by Hugh Walpole ~ 1912. This edition: Macmillan and Co., 1925. Hardcover. 310 pages.

One of Walpole’s more obscure early works, and perhaps deservedly so, for what an odd little tale this is. The Prelude to Adventure is the fourth novel by the subsequently very prolific Hugh Walpole – a reliable book-a-year man for the next three decades – published when he was twenty-eight.

It concerns a Cambridge undergraduate, one Olva Dune, and, with Walpole himself only 6 years past his Cambridge graduation, one can assume that the college scenes at least are portrayed with accuracy.

The God angle as well stems from personal experience. Walpole, son of an Anglican clergyman, lost his own religion as a young man, and at first refused to admit it to his family; his subsequent writings frequently contain characters grappling with the “Is there a God?’ quandary.

“There is a God after all.” That was the immense conviction that faced him as he heard, slowly, softly, the leaves, the twigs, settle themselves after that first horrid crash which the clumsy body had made.

Olva 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.

There is much inner dialogue, and a rather odd non-resolution at the end, with Olva apparently dodging the earthly penalty for his crime of passion, and instead heading out with a rucksack to hike about and undertake whatever penance God will put upon him. The four people he confessed to seem to think this is a fine compromise, and the last chapter is paradoxically titled ‘First Chapter’:

The sun was rising, hard and red, over Sannet Wood and the white frozen flats, when Olva Dune set out…

Often referred to as a psychological drama, and that does sum it up as well as anything: Carl Jung in a letter to the author describes this as a “psychological masterpiece”. Fair enough; Jung should know.

Though Prelude concerns an unsolved death (though we of course know who the killer is, and Olva ends up confessing to four other people on separate occasions), it’s not a murder mystery in any sense of the term, though it is sometimes described that way by people who obviously haven’t actually read the thing.

Walpole himself described it as a Fantasia, and that suffices as well as anything else. I’ve happily read a fair bit of Walpole over the years, and this turned out to be a work on the lower end of my personal enjoyment scale – much too overwrought and frenetically stream-of-consciousness – and though it has its moments I can’t say that I recommend it for Walpole neophytes. More of a completest’s novel, I would say.

If you are curious, check it out for free on Project Gutenberg. Early hardcover editions start at just a few dollars on ABE, but because it is long out of copyright, most of the offerings you will find are print-on-demand.

My rating: 4/10

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The Flower-Patch Among the Hills by Flora Klickmann ~ 1916. This edition: The Religious Tract Society, London, 1926. Hardcover. 316 pages.

So, fellow gardener-readers, who is familiar with Flora Klickmann?

I certainly wasn’t, before I inadvertently acquired one of her many cheerful books (Weeding the Flower-Patch, I believe it was) on a visit to The Bookman in Chilliwack, B.C., and read it and was intrigued and then went on to purposefully hunt down several more.

Flora Klickmann, 1867-1958, had a background in music, but health issues in her early twenties forced her to step away from the piano. Once recovered, she started writing well-received articles on musical subjects, and in 1904 became editor of a missionary magazine, followed some years later by an appointment to the editorship of the Religious Tract Society’s exceedingly popular Girl’s Own Paper, which she successfully oversaw from 1908 until 1931.

A nervous breakdown in 1912 due to overwork saw Flora convalescing in a country cottage. She found this change of venue to be so refreshing that, upon her marriage in 1913, she and her husband purchased the first of what would be a succession of rural retreats. Rosemary Cottage, home of the first “flower-patch”  was “perched on the hills overlooking the Wye Valley, with views of the Welsh hills, Tintern Abbey, the river, and a distant glimpse of the Bristol Channel.”

Flora Klickmann’s branching out into full-on authorship was somewhat inadvertent, and she details it here, in the first pages of The Flower-Patch Among the Hills:

I
Just to Explain

I. Who Everybody is

Virginia and her sister Ursula are my most intimate friends. Virginia—really quite a harmless girl—imagines she has a scientific bias. Ursula—domesticated to the backbone—led a strenuous life in the pursuit of experimental psychology, till she switched off to wash hospital saucepans.

It will be so obvious that I scarcely need add: What little common sense the trio possesses is centred in ME.

Abigail is my housemaid; her title to fame is the fact that she is the only servant I have ever been able to induce to remain more than a fortnight at one stretch in the country. The others, including those who are orphans, always have a parent who suddenly breaks its leg—after they have been about ten days away—and wires for them to come home at once.

The cook has discovered a number of cousins in the Naval Division at the Crystal Palace (detachments of which pass my London house hourly, while many units partake of my cake and lemonade), and, of course, you can’t neglect your relatives in war time.

“You never know whether that’ll be the last time you’ll see them,” she says, waving a tearful tea-towel at all and sundry who march past. Naturally, she doesn’t care to be away from town for many days at a time.

The parlourmaid was interested in a member of the L.C.C. Fire Brigade, when he enlisted, and incidentally married someone else—unfortunately the very week she was away with me. This has given her a marked distaste for the simple pleasures of rural life.

Abigail is unengaged. “What I ask is: What better off are you if you are?” she inquires of space. “Take my sister, now, with eight children, and——” But as I am not taking anyone with eight children just now, the sister’s biography is neither here nor there.

Abigail is a willing, kindhearted girl. Also she has a mania for trying to arrange every single household ornament in pairs. She would be invaluable to anyone outfitting a Noah’s Ark.


As for the other people who walk through these pages, they do not appertain exclusively to one district. I have had two cottages, one beyond Godalming, in Surrey, the other high up among the hills that border the river Wye. Some of the country folk live in the one village, some in the other; but the scenery, the little wild things, and the garden are all related to the cottage that overlooks Tintern Abbey.

II. Why the Cottage is

I took a cottage in the country on a day when I had got to the fag-end of the very last straw, and felt I could not endure for another minute the screech of the trains, the honking of motors, the clanging of bells, the clatter of milk-carts, the grind-and-screel of electric cars, the ever-ringing telephone, the rattle and roar of the general traffic, the all-pervading odour of petrol, and the many other horrors that make both day and night hideous in our great city, and reduce the workers to nervous wreckage.

The cottage has been so arranged that not one solitary thing within its walls shall bear any relation to the city left far behind; and nothing is allowed to remind the occupants of the business rush, the social scramble, and the electric-light-type of existence that have become integral parts of modern life in towns.

Here, to keep my idle hands from mischief, I made me a Flower-patch.

III. Why this Book is

I was viciously prodding up bindweed out of the cottage garden, with the steel kitchen poker, when the telegraph boy opened the gate.

Unhinging my back, and inducing it into the upright with painful care, I read a message from my office to the effect that there was some hitch in regard to the American copyright of a certain article I had passed for press before leaving; this would necessitate it being thrown out of the magazine that month. Would I wire back what should go in its place, as the machines were at a standstill?

Under ordinary circumstances I should merely have waved a hand, and instantly a suitable substitute would have been on the machines with scarcely a perceptible pause—that is, if I had been in London. But such is the witchery of the Flower-patch, that no sooner do I get inside the gate than I forget every mortal thing connected with my office. And try how I would, I couldn’t recall what possible articles I had already in hand that would make exactly six pages and a quarter—the length of the one held over.

And because I could think of nothing else on the spur of the moment, I threw down the poker (it was red-rust, alas, when I chanced upon it a week later) and went indoors and wrote about the cottage and the hills.

When it was published in the magazine, readers very kindly wrote by the bagful begging for a continuation. It has been continuing—with perennial requests for more—for some time now. This only shows how generously tolerant of editors are the readers of periodical literature.

Virginia merely sniffs, “What won’t people buy!”

I don’t think she need have put it so baldly as that.


If by some miraculous chance there should be any profits from the sale of this book, I intend to devote them to the purchase of a cow (or hen, if it doesn’t run to a cow), to aid the national larder. I shall call it “the Memorial Cow,” in memory of those who have been good enough to assist in its purchase.

Should any reader wish to have the cow (or hen) named specially after him—or her—self this could doubtless be arranged. Particulars on application to the publisher.

Here’s a snippet from the body proper of this book, regarding our author’s observations on country bouquets as seen at the typical small village railway station:

There are women with empty baskets returning from market, and women seeing off friends, each carrying a huge “bookey” of flowers, built up in the approved style, from the back: first a big background rhubarb leaf, or something equally green and spacious, then some striped variegated grass – gardeners’ garters, we call it; also some southernwood – better known as Old Man’s Beard; tall flowers like foxgloves, phlox, Japanese anemones, early dahlias and sunflowers follow; the shorter stems of pinks, calceolarias, sweet williams and roses are the next in succession; finishing off with some gorgeous pansies and a very fat cabbage rose with a short stem (that persists in tumbling out), a piece of sweetbriar, and a few silver and gold everlasting flowers down low in the front. If you have a geranium in your window, etiquette demands that you add the best spray – as a special offering – to the bunch, telling your friend all about the way you got that geranium cutting , and the trouble you had to rear it.

The Flower-Patch Among the Hills is very much a wartime book, and as such is of interest on a number of different levels, in that it matter-of-factly details English country life in this unprecedented time of turmoil and change, as the Great War sets the gears grinding for what will be a major shift in the long traditions of rural England. A number of the incidents detailed concern the efforts of stay-at-homes to help with the war effort, and there is a quite delightful sequence involving the purchase of vast quantities of onion seed for sowing in amongst the garden’s flowers.

The correct term to describe this book is “charming”, and I say that with sincere appreciation. There is enough gently acerbic bite in Flora’s style to keep things from being too sugary, and as period pieces these collections of anecdote and observation are quite fascinating.

You definitely don’t have to be a gardener to appreciate them, as there are perhaps even more human interest passages than those going on about wildflowers and cottage borders and such, but if you are a plant person you will find some gleaming gold nuggets of plant observation here.

And don’t let the Religious Tract Society connection put you off, for the books aren’t anything as “preachy” as that might lead one to believe. Secularites will find little to rub them wrong, though there are occasional (okay, rather frequent) references to church-going and to the author’s personal faith. The intent throughout is merely to interest and amuse, not to convert.

My rating: 7.5/10.

Almost a “curiousity” book. Though very close to being a “hidden gem”, I hesitate to designate it as such for fear fellow readers might sight-unseen invest in one of the sometimes rather pricey copies available through antiquarian book dealers, and then not find it to their liking. Before running out on my recommendation to purchase a hard copy, perhaps it might be best to dip into the online version at Project Gutenberg. I believe there are a number of Flora Klickmann’s other titles available to read for free on that invaluable site.

A short biography of Flora Klickmann can be found here.

And a Wikipedia biography and bibliography here.

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Mother by Kathleen Norris ~ 1911. This edition: Tower Books, 1946. Introduction by Charles G. Norris. Hardcover. 188 pages.

Sometimes I look at the current book pile and think, “This is almost too darned eclectic. Woman, stick with one kind of thing!” But then I look again, and think, “No, this is much more interesting.”

From Paul Theroux’s hookers and existential angst Saint Jack to this sticky-sweet, heavily moralizing, ode to noble motherhood, all in a few hours. It’s a bit brain twisting, but there we have it. Read on, read on!

I have a slightly guilty fondness for early 20th century writer Kathleen Norris‘s entertaining but heavily messaged sagas of young girls being seduced by worldly pleasures and then finding their real purpose through prayer and good works, and I’m slowly amassing a selection of her titles. So when I was poking around in the dusty back room of a Quesnel junk shop yesterday, looking for old picture frames worthy of reuse, it thrilled me no end to notice Norris’s name on the faded spine of a hardcover book peeking out of a heaped box of Reader’s Digest condensed novels and the like.

“Heeeeyyyyy,” I said, keeping my voice deliberately calm, “How much for these tired old books?” The proprietor came over and poked at them a bit. He peered into my eyes. I smiled back, calmly. Don’t show them you’re keen, you know.

“I dunno. How’s about $4.00? Each!” he emphasized, no doubt catching the suddenly interested gleam in my eye.

Well, get out of my way, buddy.

Guess what I brought home?

This one, Mother, by Kathleen Norris, the 1946 reissue of the author’s breakout 1911 bestseller, in a tired but intact dust jacket.

Panther’s Moon, by Victor Canning, 1948. With a dust jacket later found folded up inside it, all there if rather disintegrated.

Piccadilly Jim by P.G. Wodehouse, a 1917 edition – with colour-tinted illustrations! – of the 1916 issue.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene, first Canadian edition, 1948, no dust jacket but hey! – we can’t have everything, can we?

and

Coombe St. Mary’s, by Maud Diver, first edition, 1925.

I even found three decent picture frames. $2.00 each, what a deal. (No, really. They are quite nice.)

Life is good.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. Mother.

Well, what can I say about the book? It’s absolutely as I expected, which was slightly disappointing, because I always have a tiny secret hope that Norris’s young ladies will prevail in their stubborn initial assertion that there is more to life than winsome but demanding babies and sticking by your husband no matter what awful things he does and so on. But nope, Mother sets the pattern for what is to follow, and it pounds the message home. Later Norris donned more velvety gloves, but here the preacher’s fist is iron, unpadded.

Here’s the story – such as it is – as described on the front flyleaf. I really don’t have anything to add.

Yes, our young protagonist, after wallowing in the fleshpots, finds true happiness in catching herself a worthy man. I’d say “young man”, but as her intended is ten years older than she is I guess that point is debatable. But he’s rich, and of “good family”, so she is to be congratulated. Bring on the babies! Mother approves.

Okay, the rating. Oh boy.

This is really not a very good book in the literary sense, vintage charm notwithstanding. If I wasn’t so weirdly enamoured of Kathleen Norris, it would likely get a dismissive 3/10 or something like that. But as it is her very first novel, and is interesting largely for that reason, I am going to fudge things a bit and push it up to 5/10.

Readers, beware. This is not in any way a recommendation for you to go out and hunt this thing down. Unless of course you’ve been bitten by the same bug, and want to enlarge your experience of the intriguing publishing phenomenon which was Kathleen Norris in her heyday.

I’ve written about several of her other books in the past. The American Flaggs, and An Apple for Eve. That last one starts with a reference to a past road trip, but if you scroll down you’ll find the book review.

I’m sure I’ll be sharing more about Kathleen Norris in the future; I find her strangely appealing, and her titles will no doubt fit in well with the Century of Books project, so I’ll leave you with these last few scans of Mother‘s dust jacket.

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dsc04076-2Abend ~ Evening

Slowly the evening draws on its robe
held out to it by a row of ancient trees;
you gaze: and the landscape splits in two,
one part lifting skywards, while one falls;

leaving you not at home in either one,
not so silent as the darkened houses,
nor calling to eternity with the passion
of what becomes a star each night, and rises;

leaving you (without words) to unravel
your anxious, immense, fast-ripening life,
so that, now elusive, and now grasped,
it becomes in you, in turn, both stone and star.

Rainer Maria Rilke, circa 1910

 

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Here are some more of my decidedly well-appreciated Century of Reading Project books from months ago, as the calendar continues its relentless turning to the close of 2014.

jeremy trilogy hugh walpole 001The Jeremy Stories, 1919-1927, by Hugh Walpole.

These three novels belong together, being a trilogy of the boyhood adventures of a certain young Jeremy Cole, based on the younger days of the author himself, but with much creative leeway. The setting of the Jeremy books was an imaginary cathedral town, Polchester, which the author created fabricated by combining features of real towns Truro and Durham. Polchester worked so well that Hugh Walpole used it as a setting for a great number of his other novels.

While the Jeremy books are about a child, they are not necessarily children’s books, being written from a decidedly adult perspective of looking back on juvenile thoughts and feelings, and sometimes relating them to the person the child was to become.

Thoughtful, moving, and frequently very funny, these books were tremendously popular in their time, enough so that “Jeremy” enjoyed quite a vogue as a boys’ name in the years after their publication, while Walpole’s authorial star was still on its blazing way up the literary sky.

I believe all three of these titles are available online through Project Gutenberg, though I of course recommend the vintage paper versions as the very best way to savour their goodness.

Jeremy and his canine familiar, Hamlet, portrayed by E.H. Shepard in the 1919 edition of Jeremy.

Jeremy and his canine familiar, Hamlet, as portrayed by E.H. Shepard in the 1919 edition of Jeremy.

Jeremy by Hugh Walpole ~ 1919. This edition: George H. Doran Company, 1919. Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. Hardcover. 341 pages.

We meet Jeremy on the morning of his eight birthday, December 8, 1892, and follow him through the next year, until his departure for boarding school. This first installment in what would eventually be three books about Jeremy is tremendously autobiographical in nature, with Walpole continuously shifting back and forth from first person descriptions of his own childhood to that of young Jeremy. Jeremy is not, however, Walpole himself; he is instead a slightly separated compatriot, an amalgam of the real and the plausibly imagined. Chapters focussing on Jeremy’s sisters – one older, one younger – add greatly to the narrative.

Jeremy and Hamlet by Hugh Walpole ~ 1923. This edition: George H. Doran Company, 1923. Hardcover. 305 pages.

It is 1894, and Jeremy is now 10 years old. He’s away at school for a goodly portion of this tale, and his mongrel dog Hamlet, a terrier-something-type, acquired during the time of the first book, Jeremy, is left behind at home. Walpole takes a creditable stab at looking at the world from a dog’s eye view, and by and large pulls it off. Jeremy has his trials and tribulations off at school, as Hamlet does back at home, but both win through by applying their pugnacious tenacity to their various challenges.

Jeremy at Crale: His Friends, His Ambitions and His One Great Enemy by Hugh Walpole ~ 1927. This edition: George H. Doran Company, 1927. Hardcover. 356 pages.

Now fifteen, Jeremy is in his third year at his public school, Crale. He’s something of a popular success, finding himself very good indeed at football. He acquires an enemy, whom he meets in schoolboy combat with the expected results. By the end of the tale he is well on the way to adulthood, having staunchly weathered all of the challenges of early adolescence in a boys’ school atmosphere. We part with Jeremy just as he is making tentative advances to a new friend, and we have no doubt that this latest relationship will prove a lasting and mutually beneficial one. This last novel is perhaps the most stereotypical of the lot, as Jeremy submerges much of his quirky personality in order to survive amongst the rather brutal masculine peer group of the school. Walpole reportedly had some rather dismal school experiences, and we do catch a lot of that angst, though Jeremy is thick-skinned enough to survive such encounters as his creator perhaps had more trouble with during his own school days. Favourably compared to Kipling’s Stalky & Co. in contemporary reviews, and I concur, though I’ve never been an early 20th Century British public school boy myself so can only relate at a very far distance. 😉

My collective rating: 9/10. Very much deserving of a more in-depth examination, as I couldn’t find much at all about these appealing and now-obscure books online.

passenger to teheran vita sackville-west 1926Passenger to Teheran by Vita Sackville-West ~ 1926. This edition: Arrow Books, 1991. Paperback. ISBN: 0-09-973350-1. 128 pages.

My rating: 8/10

If I could give this opinionated travel memoir a subtitle, I’d rather meanly suggest “People Not Like Us”, because Vita Sackville-West is in full snob mode from start to finish, though to be fair she does call herself on it very briefly at one point, murmuring something to the effect that she realizes the quaint Egyptian peasants are noteworthy mostly because they are “exotic”, and that their compatriots back home in England are viewed as not being worthy of a similar romanticism, being too, too dreary for words, because of overfamiliarity.

Despite the annoyance this writer’s aristocratically-exclusive self-regard always triggers in me, I do like her style and persist in reading her works of fiction and memoir with true pleasure.

In 1926 Vita Sackville-West travelled solo through the Strait of Gibraltar, across the Mediterranean, and through Egypt, Iraq and Persia (as Iran was then called) to the Persian capitol of Teheran, where she was to join her husband, diplomatic counsellor Harold Nicolson, for a long visit which was to include attendance at the coronation of Shah Reza Khan.

Vita’s opening words regarding travel writing to the contrary, this book is a tiny masterpiece of observation, telling us as much about its writer as about the people and places she observes.

Travel is the most private of pleasures. There is no greater bore than the travel bore. We do not in the least want to hear what he has seen in Hong-Kong. Not only do we not want to hear it verbally, but we do not want—we do not really want, not if we are to achieve a degree of honesty greater than that within the reach of most civilised beings—to hear it by letter either. Possibly this is because there is something intrinsically wrong about letters. For one thing they are not instantaneous. If I write home to-day and say (as is actually the fact), “At this moment of writing I am sailing along the coast of Baluchistan”, that is perfectly vivid for me, who have but to raise my eyes from my paper to refresh them with those pink cliffs in the morning light; but for the recipient of my letter, opening it in England at three weeks’ remove, I am no longer coasting Baluchistan; I am driving in a cab in Bagdad, or reading in a train, or asleep, or dead; the present tense has become meaningless…

After the coronation visit and a certain amount of exploration of the Iranian countryside, Vita returned to England by a circuitous route; by train through Russia, Poland, Germany, Holland and then back home to England.

…I forget the name of the German village; I know only that I had three hours’ sleep in a clean little room with an iron bedstead and a blue tin basin, and that we were all in a train again by six the next morning. That day passed in a haze: Königsberg; a long wait there, drinking coffee out of thick cups and looking at photographs in the German papers of the scenes in Warsaw; then another train; the Polish Corridor; East Prussia; Berlin. Farewell to my companions, who were to scatter to their destinations. The efficiency of Berlin; the quick, good taxi, striped black and white like a bandbox; the lighted streets; the polished asphalt; the Kaiserhof. I was travel-stained and tired; the servants at the Kaiserhof looked at me with polite suspicion; I revenged myself on them by sending for the head waiter, ordering the best dinner and the most expensive wine, and by distributing enormous tips out of my wad of American notes. As I had not had a proper meal since leaving Moscow, I took a good deal of trouble over the ordering of that dinner. I was afraid I might have to spend the night in Berlin, but I discovered a train that left for Flushing at ten; next morning found me in Holland. The customs-house officer at the Dutch frontier made me an offer of marriage. Then everything began to rush. Was I on the sea? very rough, too; beautiful, green, white-crested waves; was I at Folkestone? with English voices talking round me? was that Yew Tree Cottage and the path across the fields? Were those the two pistons at Orpington, still going up and down, and still a little wrong? Was I standing on the platform at Victoria, I who had stood on so many platforms? The orange labels dangled in the glare of the electric lamps. PERSIA, they said; PERSIA.

A note on the Arrow Books edition: This does not include any of the photographs from the original publication. If possible, try to attain one of the illustrated editions; the pictures are a fascinating enhancement of the text.

At a mere 128 pages this is a highly condensed version of Vita’s travels, but every word is, as was expected, perfectly placed.

Recommended.

the land the people rachel peden 001The Land, The People by Rachel Peden ~ 1966. This edition: Knopf, 1966. Illustrated by Sidonie Coryn. Hardcover. 332 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Rachel Peden, in discussing her intent in The Land, the People, written in the later years of her life, and in the third decade of her writing career, had this to say:

I wanted the land to be the main character, and to write about the family farm, its change, survival, character, and of people’s love of the land and need of it as a basic human hunger…To say man is of the earth and that his well-being, even his very survival, depends on an occasional return to it is not enough. It is important to try to find out why this is true…

At first I thought I would start by saying that this book is not for everyone, perhaps, being a quiet yet rock-solid tribute to a particular place and a particular people, but on further pondering I think I am mistaken.

It may appeal most to the country dweller, or to the person who cherishes his or her rural roots, or to the historian of a certain era of American farming in a certain locale, but its message is universal.

Rachel Peden, in this calmly powerful book and in her other two appreciations of farm and country life, Rural Free and Speak to the Earth, and in her thousands of newspaper columns composed and published over four decades, from the 1940s to the mid-1970s, emphasizes over and over again the necessity for even the most dedicated urbanite to occasionally stoop down, as it were, and to touch the Great Mother and for a moment or two remember where we came from, and what ultimately sustains us.

Peden cast her writerly net wide, and caught up a diverse array of characters, incidents and episodes. Her style moves gracefully from the everyday to the poetic and back again with enviable ease; truly a reader’s delight.

Rachel Peden’s personal patch of earth was Monroe County, Indiana. She came from a long line of farm people, married a farmer, and was succeeded, after her death at 74 years of age in 1975, by her son and his family on the family acres. The Land, the People is to a great extent a memoir, her private testament to her own origins, and, on a higher level, a statement of her heartfelt belief in the importance of maintaining a strongly local farming tradition.

Watching the encroachment of urban sprawl, the increased mechanization and consolidation of what once were smallholdings into factory farms, and the casual acceptance of food staples arriving in some of America’s best farming regions from all around the world – lower cost trumping higher quality in many cases, not to mention the associated abandonment of small-plot farming as a viable career in a modern age – Peden calls out to her readers to be very careful as to where they are going, and to look back at where they came from, before it is too late.

Now, this sounds rather serious and dark and gloomy, but I assure you that this is far from being the case. Rachel Peden is no Cassandra; her observations are never full of woe. She never, ever preaches, but appeals instead to us as equals who recognize and appreciate the dilemmas (and not infrequent joys) experienced by farmers and country dwellers everywhere.

Much of the appeal of her writing is in her continual descriptions of the natural wonders which life on the land continually spread before one, from the tiniest of spring flowers to the most venerable of oak trees being toppled by lightning; insects and birds and animals; and, most lovingly, people of all sorts and ages. Community, in its broadest and best sense.

Four episodes make up The Land, the People. Each sets a different tone; each is a grand piece of writing; each makes me wish that Rachel Peden had written more long-form pieces rather than being bound to the conventions of the newspaper articles which made up the vast bulk of her work.

  • High Gap Is the Lord’s – Rachel Peden’s father was an accomplished orchardist, and this first piece is both childhood memoir concerning Rachel and her siblings, and a loving remembrance of her perfectionist father and sensitive and practical mother.
  • The Starling’s Voice – A short, intense depiction (fictional?) of a man’s obsession with his plot of land.
  • Wide and Starry Night – A memoir and fond biography of Rachel’s beloved father-in-law, Walter Peden.
  • The Fulness of Maple Grove – Rachel speaks to her own piece of land, and to her role as wife and mother, as well as her vision of herself and her family as custodians of their “borrowed” acres, preserving and increasing their farm’s fertility for future generations.

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