Archive for the ‘1910s’ Category

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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I have just spent several days immersed in writings from – what an incredible thought! – a century ago. Three books, as different from each other as can be imagined, each written with deep care and sincere emotion, and expressing the writers’ fervent beliefs along with a sober (and on occasion somber) recording of their experiences.

O. Douglas/Anna Buchan’s semi-autobiographical novel The Setons, 1917,  is the gentlest and at the same time perhaps the most disturbing, for reasons which I hope to make clear below. Rose Macaulay’s also-autobiographical novel, Non-Combatants and Others, 1916, is a fascinating combination of emotionally heart-rending and curiously impassionate, while Robert Graves’ pre-war, wartime, and post-war memoir, Goodbye to All That, 1929, is utterly compelling. If you haven’t read Graves’ book  yet, you should, if only for its historical details.

All of these writers are genuinely accomplished in their various ways, and these books are exceedingly easy to read for their “entertainment” value alone, if one may use that innocuous term with regard to wartime-focussed writings. Ratings are going to be very high – I think I can safely say each more than fulfilled my readerly expectations to the highest degree, though they can not be classed together genre-wise.

Good books, all three, which deserve preservation. In particular the Rose Macaulay book, which languished out-of-print for many decades. Robert Graves’ memoir has already received much publicity and is, I believe, frequently used in schools and colleges. Don’t let that discourage you – it’s not at all a “boring school book”, and it is very much worth reading for the highly opinionated voice of the author as much as for its historical context.

As usual, these “mini-reviews” got ridiculously long. I should really take another go at these and edit ruthlessly, but as you all know, that process would take a tremendously long time in itself – it’s so much easier to meander on than to write short and sharp! The long quotations are also not in the accepted pattern of “professional” book review brevity, but to my mind they serve as useful samplers of writing style to interested readers, and that is how I hope they will be received.

*****

the setons o douglas 1917 001The Setons by O. Douglas ~ 1917. This edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1922. Hardcover. 315 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Based strongly on Anna Buchan’s memories of growing up as a “minister’s child”, this early novel – only her second, after 1912’s Olivia in India –  is her tribute to her beloved father, and is strongly autobiographical in its most telling details, much as her later 1922 tribute to her mother, Ann and Her Mother, was to be. Comparing these two books, I feel that The Setons is possibly the stronger. I found it a very easy read, utterly charming and deeply sincere.

The Setons follows the activities of a Glasgow family-of-the-manse: a slightly elderly, widowed father, grown-up daughter, young schoolboy son, and two live-in household helps. There are also two adult sons in India, who appear in the novel only by reference when a letter is received.

Reverend James Seton is the shepherd of a rather “poor” church – “Not even an organ!” as another character comments disapprovingly – but he quite literally lives to serve God, and is a sterling character of intense devoutness leavened with abundant good humour. Reverend Seton’s fondness for old Scottish ballads, good literature, poetry, and “fairy tales” enlivens life in the family circle – it’s definitely not all prayers and sober good works, though these have their prominent place in daily affairs.

Elizabeth Seton, the 28-year-old daughter of the family, who has largely taken over her mother’s role as mistress of the household, helpmeet to the minister, and surrogate mother to her young brother, is a creature of contradictions. Personally devastated by the untimely death of a brother away at college and then, shortly thereafter, her mother’s death, Elizabeth hides her personal pain and most sensitive emotions under a well-constructed façade of outspoken good humour. Elizabeth performs the many duties of a pastor’s female counterpart exceedingly well, though her occasionally outrageous statements and evident sense of humour excite comments from the more sober-minded of her father’s parishioners. Elizabeth knows this and disregards it, for she has chosen to accept occasional derision over pity from those outside of her intimate group of family and close friends.

Young Buff, as the small son of the household is nicknamed (he was christened David Stuart), is a gloriously boyish character, with all of the expected eccentricities and passions of an imaginative, much loved child. Modeled on the childhood characteristics of Anna Buchan’s own brother who died as a young man, Buff and his literary counterparts show up in every one of the O. Douglas novels, a sort of composite portrait of her beloved childhood companion.

The Setons is one of those utterly peaceable books where nothing really happens. It chronicles the day-to-day goings-on of the Setons and their friends and parishioners, mild anecdote by mild anecdote. A nicely pithy sense of humour and a good deal of Scottish sensibility keeps the whole from being too indigestibly sweet, even when romance enter the picture, in the persons of two personable men who cast speculative eyes on the apparently unimpressionable Elizabeth.

Events take on a sudden seriousness in the final quarter of the story, as Reverend Seton develops a potentially fatal heart ailment and must leave the ministry. The family uproots itself from Glasgow and settles in the village of Etterick. Shortly thereafter, war is declared, and the-world-as-they-know-it turns upside down.

I was reading along quite happily until the onset-of-war chapters, when everyone (at least from my ten-decades-later perspective) seems to lose their collective minds. “Off you go, my lads!” (most of) the women exhort the men and the boys, “If you die in battle you will be rewarded with eternal life in Heaven!” Or words to that effect. And off the young men go, quite cheerily leaving sweethearts and young wives and baby children with the sentiment that even though gruesome death looms, it will all be all right. Right? Right?

“But seriously, Lizbeth—if I never come back to you, if I am one of the ‘costs,’ if all you and I are to have together, O my beloved, is just this one perfect afternoon, it will still be all right. Won’t it? You will laugh and be your own gallant self, and know that I am loving you and waiting for you—farther on. It will be all right, Lizbeth?”

For those of sincere religious faith I suppose this is some consolation, but I found that the scenario utterly sickened me. I have no alternate suggestion as to how one should send one’s nearest and dearest off to war, so my criticism is without much useful merit, but there it is.

In the other two books I am about to discuss below, this fervently patriotic-religious attitude comes in for some brutal discussion, and I have to admit that I fully concur with those who feel that an entire generation was wantonly slaughtered with, at least initially, the enthusiastic compliance of the at-home civilians who then lived on alone to later mourn their many “glorious dead.”

As a family memoir and a piece of domestic fiction, The Setons succeeds most well, and even the declaration-of-war and with-your-shield-or-on-it bits had merit as a documentation of the sentiments of the time, at least among the members of the population with a strong belief in the rewards of the hereafter, which naturally would include the author, devout daughter of a Scottish Free Church minister as she herself unapologetically was.

Last word to O. Douglas/Anna Buchan:

You know, of course, Gentle Reader, that there can be no end to this little chronicle?

You know that when a story begins in 1913, 1914 will follow, and that in that year certainty came to an end, plans ceased to come to fruition—that, in fact, the lives of all of us cracked across.

Personally, I detest tales that end in the air. I like all the strings gathered up tidily in the last chapter and tied neatly into nuptial knots… But, alas! as I write (May 1917) the guns still boom continuously out there in France, and there is scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds that obscure the day…

…It is useless to tell over the days of August 1914. They are branded on the memory. The stupefaction, the reading of newspapers until we were dazed and half-blind, the endless talking, the frenzy of knitting into which the women threw themselves, thankful to find something that would at least occupy their hands. We talked so glibly about what we did not understand. We repeated parrot-like to each other, “It will take all our men and all our treasure,” and had no notion how truly we spoke or how hard a saying we were to find it. And all the time the sun shone.

It was particularly hard to believe in the war at Etterick. No khaki-clad men disturbed the peace of the glen, no trains rushed past crowded with troops, no aeroplanes circled in the heavens. The hills and the burn and the peeweets remained the same, the high hollyhocks flaunted themselves against the grey garden wall; nothing was changed—and yet everything was different.

non-combatants and others rose macaulay 1916 001Non-Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay ~ 1916. This edition: Capuchin Classics, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-9562947-0-8. 204 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Rose Macaulay was already a published author when World War I commenced in 1914, of well-received novels and poetry, but Non-Combatants and Others, with its nervously high-strung and  desperately “non-patriotic” heroine, and its strong pacifist message, was not a commercial success upon its publication in the third year of the war.

It is April of 1915. The story opens with a vignette of the daily occupation of Alix Sandomir.  25 years old and an artist – she has no other interest or apparent occupation – Alix is the daughter of a brilliant and politically active Polish father – dead now some years in a Warsaw prison – and a highly energetic and forward-thinking English mother.

Daphne Sandomir’s interest in many things had always been so keen that before the war you could not have picked out one as absorbing her more than a score of others. She had been used to write pamphlets and address meetings on most of them: eurhythmics, for instance, and eugenics, and the economic and constitutional position of women, and sweated industries, and baby crèches, and suggestion healing, and health food, and clean milk, and twenty other of the causes good people have at heart.

Daphne is now off touring the countries of those involved in the present conflict, interviewing government members and civilians and promoting a pacifist organization she has been instrumental in forming, the S.P.P.P., the Society for Promoting Permanent Peace.

Alix and her older brother Nicholas view their parents’ attitudes and activities with more than a tinge of benevolent cynicism; their own approach is to lay low, as it were, and laugh things off when they get too serious. A younger brother, Paul, just 18 and a brilliant student with a scholarship to Oxford awaiting him, has gone off to France to fight, and has found the experience overwhelming to his highly imaginative sensibilities.

Alix desperately wishes she could also be involved in the war in some sort of truly practical way, but due to a physical infirmity – she is lame due to a hip infection in childhood – extremely nervous disposition – she vomits uncontrollably if under intense stress, a characteristic young Paul is also afflicted with, with the imagined results in the trenches – and, of course, her sex – females being allowed limited roles in the actual conflict – she turns these wishes inward, and presents a cynical, ever-laughing face to the world.

Alix refuses to undertake any of the normal, socially accepted wartime jobs. She won’t knit comforts for the soldiers, roll bandages, volunteer in hospital, or go to work on the land. Instead she pursues her artistic inclinations, drawing and painting and eventually going off to London to continue studies at art school, while all around her friends and relations engage in a flurry of ceaseless activity.

In answer to an invalided-home brother’s comments that all of his at-home womenfolk look thinner than when he went off to France, Alix’s cousin Margot exclaims:

‘Well, we’re not in the trenches…We’re leading busy and useful lives, full of war activities. Besides, our food costs us more. But Dorothy and I are fairly hefty still. It’s mother who’s dwining; and Alix, though she’s such a lazy little beggar. Alix is hopeless; she does nothing but draw and paint. She could earn something on the stage as the Special Star Turn, the Girl who isn’t doing her bit. She doesn’t so much as knit a body-belt or draw the window-curtains against Zepps.’

Alix, who has been staying with these cousins in the country, flees the atmosphere of friendly familial disdain which her non-activity inspires, and takes a room in a respectable suburban London villa, which is occupied by a middle class mother and two daughters, also “doing their bit” in the war effort.

Alix turns her back on anything having to do with the war, and for a while succeeds in pretending everything is going on as normal, until she receives word that her young brother Paul is dead, “of a bullet wound”.

Alix completely breaks down at the news, for the two were very close, and Alix knows full well what her brother suffered mentally in the trenches, let alone physically. She tries to console herself with the thought that his suffering is now over, but she can’t escape the conviction that this is a false consolation – Paul loved life with such an intensity that to have it end in such a way is completely unthinkable to her. She finds herself unable to keep up her façade of cheerful dismissal towards war affairs, and allows herself to be drawn into intellectual discussions of how this situation could ever have developed, and how the people at home in England – the non-combatants – are reacting and how their reactions (or non-reactions) will affect the course of history.

A soldier friend, home on leave, muses on the reactions of the majority of civilians he has observed, in the following long passage, which I’ve left unedited so you can get a sense of Macaulay’s style in monologues:

‘The fundamentally untouched…Superficially, of course, they are, as you put it, flustered. They read the papers, of course, for the incidents; but the fundamental issues beneath don’t touch them. They’re impervious; they’re of an immobility; they’re sublimely stable. The war, for them, really isn’t. The new world, however it shapes, simply won’t be. What’s the war doing to them? All the beastliness, and bravery, and ugliness, and brutality, and cold, and blood, and mud, and gaiety, and misery, and idiotic muddle, and splendour, and squalor, and general lunacy … you’d think it must overturn even the most stable … do something with them—harden them, or soften them, or send them mad, or teach them geography or foreign politics or knitting or self-denial or thrift or extravagance or international hatred or brotherhood. But has it? Does it? I believe often not. They haven’t learnt geography, because they don’t like using maps. They’ve not learnt to fight, because it’s non-combatants I’m talking of. They’ve not even learnt to write to the papers—thank goodness. Nor even to knit, because I believe they mostly knew how already. Nor to preserve their lives in unlit streets, for they are nightly done in in their hundreds. Nor, I was told by a clergyman of my acquaintance the other day, to pray (but that is still hoped for them, I believe). The war, like everything else, will come and go and leave them where it found them—the solid backbone of the world. The rest of the world may go on its head with ideas, or progress, or despair, or war, or joy, or madness, or sanctity, or revolution—but they remain unstirred. I don’t suppose a foreign invasion would affect them fundamentally. They couldn’t take in invasion, only the invaders. They remain themselves, through every vicissitude. That’s why the world after the war will be essentially the same as the world before it; it takes more than a war to move most of us…. We all hope our own pet organisation or tendency is going to step in after the war and because of the war and take possession and transform society. Social workers hope for a new burst of philanthropic brotherhood; Christians hope for Christianity; artists and writers for a new art and literature; pacificists for a general disarmament; militarists for permanent conscription; democrats say there will be a levelling of class barriers; and I heard a subaltern the other day remark that the war would ‘put a stopper on all this beastly democracy.’ We all seem to think the world will emerge out of the melting-pot into some strange new shape; optimists hope and believe it will be the shape they prefer, pessimists are almost sure it will be the one they can least approve. Optimists say the world will have been brought to a state of mind in which wars can never be again; pessimists say, on the contrary, we are in for a long succession of them, because we have revived a habit, and habit forms character, and character forms conduct. But really I believe the world will be left very much where it was before, because of that great immobile section which weighs it down.’

And in conversation with a Church of England minister, her brother Nicholas’s flatmate:

‘If we could go out there and try,’ said Alix, ‘we shouldn’t feel so bad, should we?’

He shook his head.

‘No: not so bad. War’s beastly and abominable to the fighters: but not to be fighting is much more embittering and demoralising, I believe. Probably largely because one has more time to think. To have one’s friends in danger, and not to be in danger oneself—it fills one with futile rage. Combatants are to be pitied; but non-combatants are of all men and women the most miserable. Older men, crocks, parsons, women—God help them.’

Alix then finds out, while in casual conversation with a soldier-on-leave who turns out to have shared a trench with Paul, that her brother died of a self-inflicted wound. Add to this absolutely understandable angst a love affair gone quietly and irretrievably wrong.

Alix has long been in love with a fellow artist, Basil Doye, and he has returned the passion, glorying in Alix’s intellectual equality and their meeting-of-minds. Now Basil has been seriously wounded in the right hand, and his artistic future is ruined. Basil turns away from Alix and her too intellectually and emotionally demanding mindset, and instead becomes infatuated with one of the daughters of the house where Alix lives. Evie is physically lovely – appealing to Basil’s artistic eye – and sweetly natured – once she realizes that Alix is still in love with Basil she immediately offers to turn him away – but she is of very mediocre intellectual ability, and has no idea most of the time what Basil is going on about.

Basil doesn’t care; all he sees is healthy normalcy, and in it a relief from the overstimulation of the war. Despite the respite in England and his dalliances with Evie – who is eventually put off by Basil’s intensity, preferring instead the more comfortable, “traditional” courtship of a hearty (and wealthy) young sprig of the minor nobility – Basil feels compelled to go back to France, which he eventually does once his hand with its amputated finger is superficially healed, and after a scene in which Alix confesses her love for him and he refuses to acknowledge it, acting as though she is merely assuring him of her continued “friendship”.

Much inner examination follows. Alix seeks enlightenment through religion – she has always been an atheist and is now starting to wonder if there is indeed “something more” in Christianity – but though she gets a glimpse of something there she can’t quite yet embrace it. She decides to join her mother’s Peace Society, to at last do something with regard to the war, and the book closes with every character in limbo, as indeed their counterparts were in real life.

The year of grace 1915 slipped away into darkness, like a broken ship drifting on bitter tides on to a waste shore. The next year began.

Bleak? Yes, this book is desperately bleak. But not to the degree which one would think, and there are many moments of relief from the bleakness, for it is Rose Macaulay, and she has a likeably sardonic sense of humour which even the seriousness of the setting cannot damp down.

Therefore, instead of leaving you with that poignant ending line about the broken ship on the bitter tide, I am going to backtrack to an early episode between Alix, Nicholas, and the clergyman flatmate.

‘It’s awkward,’ West added, lowering his voice and glancing at one of the shut bedroom doors, ‘because we keep a German, and they can’t meet.’

‘What do you do that for?’ asked Alix unsympathetically.

‘Awkward, isn’t it?’ said West. ‘Because they keep coming to see us—the Belgians, I mean (they like us rather), and he’—he nodded at the bedroom—’has to scoot in there till they’re gone. It’s like dogs and cats; they simply can’t be let to meet.’

‘Well, I don’t know what you want with a German, anyhow.’

‘He’s a friend of ours,’ explained Nicholas. ‘He was living in the Golders Green Garden City, and it became so disagreeable for him (they’re all so exposed there, you know—nothing hid) that we asked him here instead. If they find him he’s afraid they may put him in a concentration camp, and of course if the Belgians sighted him they’d complain. He means no harm, but unfortunately he had a concrete lawn in his garden, about ten feet square, where he used to bounce a ball for exercise. Also he had made a level place on his roof, among Mr. Raymond Unwin’s sloping tiles, where he used to sit and admire the distant view through a spyglass. It’s all very black against him, but he’s a studious and innocent little person really, and he’d hate to be concentrated.’ (‘It would make one feel so like essence of beef, wouldn’t it?’ West murmured absently.) ‘He’s not a true patriot,’ went on Nicholas. ‘He wants the Hohenzollerns to be guillotined and a disruptive country of small waning states to be re-established. He writes articles on German internal reform for the monthly reviews. He calls them “Kill or Cure,” or, “A short way with Imperialism,” or some such bloody title. I don’t care for his English literary style, but his intentions are excellent…

Good reading, this book. Especially recommended if you are already familiar with Rose Macaulay. Shades of The World This Wilderness, and the ethical and religious musings of Macaulay’s last and perhaps best-known work, The Towers of Trebizond.

A note on the Capuchin Classics edition I read. It contains a forward by Macaulay’s biographer, Sarah LeFanu, which seems to have been prepared for another edition of Non-Combatants, as it references in great detail a 1942 short story, ‘Miss Anstruther’s Letters’, which does not appear in this edition of the book. There are also numerous typographical errors, mostly in punctuation, which I found slightly troubling, as it broke the flow while reading. Neither of these issues should deter you from acquiring this book; I am very grateful that Capuchin has republished it, as it is much too good to be lost.

goodbye to all that robert graves 1929 001Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves ~ 1929. This edition: Penguin, 1977. Revised edition, with text amendments, Prologue and Epilogue added by the author in 1957. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-001443-8. 282 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Oh, where to start with this one?

I think I will give a bare-ish sort of overview, because I am quite sure (though I haven’t actually looked) that the internet abounds with excellent, in-depth, analytical reviews.

Robert von Ranke Graves was born in 1895 to a mother with connections to the German nobility (hence the von Ranke), and an Anglo-Irish father, the respected Gaelic folklorist and scholar Alfred Perceval Graves. This made him just the right age to head off to war as soon as he exited his prep school (Charterhouse) in 1914.

Graves served as an officer on active duty for the entire duration of the war, though he almost didn’t make it through. He was wounded so horrifically at one point that his commanding officer, assessing the bloody mess of his officer draped upon a stretcher with a gaping and presumably fatal chest wound, wrote and sent off a letter of condolence to Graves’ mother, telling her of her son’s brave and “mercifully swift and painless” demise.

Graves pulled through that episode, and later had the pleasure of being able to read his own prematurely-published obituary, and to grimly chuckle over fulsome letters of condolence sent to his parents by certain bosom enemies of school days.

Goodbye to All That was the result of Robert Grave’s bitter disillusionment with the horrors of the Great War, and with the society which bred the “good sportsmen” who perished in their wasteful thousands. Supremely sensitive and articulate – Graves was a published poet while still in his teens – he communicates his disgust at the whole British system – the “All That” of the title – which not only allowed but which actively encouraged (in his mind) the kind of blindered thinking which allowed this to happen.

Goodbye to All That details Graves’ youth and school years, the war years, and his unconventional 1918 marriage to the just- eighteen-year-old Nancy Nicholson. The narrative reads like a Who’s Who of Big Names of the time: Siegfried Sassoon, T.E. Lawrence (late of Arabia), and John Masefield (whose garden cottage Robert and Nancy and their four young children gratefully occupied for some years), among many others.

There’s a whole lot Graves doesn’t tell in this memoir, including the details of his marriage breakup and his subsequent decision to scrape the dust of England off of his feet with bitter finality. Robert Graves moved to Majorca in 1929, a week before the publication of Goodbye to All That, and from there he shrugged off the numerous shouts of dismay his then-controversial tell-all work engendered. Graves lived in Majorca until his death at the age of 90 in 1985. His life-work was an astounding 140-plus volumes of poetry, biography, personal memoir, and novels.

Full of questionable truthfulness as some bits may be – accounts of others-who-were-there occasionally vary – Goodbye to all That is superb.

Very highly recommended.

A note: Robert Graves edited the 1929 edition of Goodbye to All That in 1957, replacing pseudonyms with real names, and adding to and tightening up many of the details. He later said that nobody noticed that he had essentially rewritten the book, and that readers reported themselves surprised by “how well it had held up” since its original publication. Since the 1957 edition is the one we are most likely to encounter (my own copy is of that vintage) it might be rather interesting to at some point to also read an earlier version, if one were so inclined.

 

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angela brazil for the sake of the school 1915 001For the Sake of the School by Angela Brazil ~ 1915. This edition: Blackie & Son Ltd., circa 1926. Hardcover. 264 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

After years and years of constantly hearing Angela Brazil referenced as the sine qua non of girls’ school story writers, I’ve finally laid my hands upon one of her books. And she did not disappoint, in the area of loading on the clichés and utter predictability of plot.

On second thoughts, as this writer helped to invent the genre, couldn’t we theorize that she originated the stock scenarios we now view as laughably foreseeable? In that case, do they count as real clichés? Must mull that over…

By the end of Chapter Two (“A Friend From the Bush”) I had everybody figured out, and a good idea of the eventual dénouement.  Luckily the story galloped right along, from minor crisis to minor crisis to big reveal and feel-good ending, and reading it was relatively painless. However, I don’t know if I could take another one of these stories any time soon, though there certainly a goodly number to choose from. (See title list at bottom of post.)

It is September, the start of term, early on in the first months of the Great War. At lovely Woodlands, a small girls’ school in the Welsh hills, Ulyth – what an interesting name! – one of the Fifth Form pupils, is thrilled at the prospect of her new roommate – her pen-pal from New Zealand, sent to Great Britain across suddenly dangerous waters – for war has been declared after the ship has set sail – to attend a proper English school for both education and polishing.

And both are decidedly needed, for Rona is very much a diamond in the rough. Repelled instantly by Rona’s untidy unpacking, overly friendly advances, hee-hawing laugh, and – rather meanly, I thought – even her plumpness, Ulyth tries to get out of rooming with Rona, but her headmistress asks her to consider her Greater Duty to this Colonial Fellow Schoolgirl. Of course, put on the spot like this, Ulyth mans up and grits her teeth and proceeds to Set a Good Example to desperately gauche Rona.

Rona eagerly responds to Ulyth’s rather reluctant tutoring in the Way We Do Things Here in England, and eventually the two become friends, which is useful, because they both soon fall afoul of a Jealous Co-Student, who complicates things tremendously before receiving her comeuppance in the last chapter. For Rona turns out to have a Secret Identity, which rewards Ulyth’s efforts at civilizing her, and is a marvelous slap-down to the snobbish Jealous One.

Angela Brazil waxes lyrical about the Beauties of Nature and her descriptions go on for pages, which provides a bit of a break from the machinations of the forty-some schoolgirls and the patient coping of their various teachers. Here’s a wee sample.

Miss Bowes and Miss Teddington, the partners who owned the school, had been exceptionally fortunate in their choice of a house. If, as runs the modern theory, beautiful surroundings in our early youth are of the utmost importance in training our perceptions and aiding the growth of our higher selves, then surely nowhere in the British Isles could a more suitable setting have been found for a home of education. The long terrace commanded a view of the whole of the Craigwen Valley, an expanse of about sixteen miles. The river, like a silver ribbon, wound through woods and marshland till it widened into a broad tidal estuary as it neared the sea. The mountains, which rose tier after tier from the level green meadows, had their lower slopes thickly clothed with pines and larches; but where they towered above the level of a thousand feet the forest growth gave way to gorse and bracken, and their jagged summits, bare of all vegetation save a few clumps of coarse grass, showed a splintered, weather-worn outline against the sky. Penllwyd, Penglaslyn, and Glyder Garmon, those lofty peaks like three strong Welsh giants, seemed to guard the entrance to the enchanted valley, and to keep it a place apart, a last fortress of nature, a sanctuary for birds and flowers, a paradise of green shade and leaping waters, and a breathing-space for body and soul.

The whole thing was better in some ways than I had expected. The writing was decidedly workaday, gushings about purple hills and the blue, blue sky reflected in the waters of the local river aside, but there was a lovely vein of humour throughout, which kicked the story up a notch.

I am quite happy to have read For the Sake of the School, as it has satisfied my niggling curiosity about the author. It can definitely can be called a period piece, what with the many Great War references – in one instance, the girls give up their annual school prize awards in order to donate the money to the Belgian Fund – and the many details of food, clothing, manners and attitudes of the time. (And I can now tick 1915 off the Century list.)

This book, and many others by Angela Brazil, are available online at Gutenberg.

A detailed description of the plot of For the Sake of the School may be found here.

A liost of Angela Brazil titles from the 1926 edition of For the Sake of the School, which was originally published in 1915.

A list of Angela Brazil titles from the 1926 edition of For the Sake of the School, which was originally published in 1915.

 

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All  three of the following deserve in-depth reviews, and perhaps one day I will re-read them all and do just that, but for now the following must suffice. These “women’s works” are all exceedingly different from each other, and reward the reader in a variety of ways. Their one meeting point is that they are all, to various degrees, concerned with what it means to be a mother.

*****

roast beef medium edna ferber 1913 001Roast Beef, Medium by Edna Ferber ~ 1913. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1913. Illustrations by James Montgomery Flagg. Hardcover. 296 pages.

My rating: 7/10

A slightly  unexpected book, for I have always associated Edna Ferber with sincerely-meant dramatic novels, all about earthily passionate immigrants and melodramatic family sagas. In Roast Beef, Medium, we have a rather quieter sort of tale, of a single mother way back at the beginning of the 2oth century working away to support herself and her teen son, in an unexpectedly “modern” style.

Our heroine, Emma McChesney, is a traveller in petticoats, in both senses of the term. She has a past history of a ne’er-do-well ex-husband, and is the deeply proud mother of a seventeen-year-old son whom she supports in a respectable boarding school. Her area of expertise is ladies’ undergarments, for Emma McChesney is one of the more successful travelling salesmen (in her case I suppose that would be saleswomen, though she rather stands alone in this male-dominated calling) for T. A. Buck’s Featherloom Petticoats.

It’s a tough sort of business to be in, for along with stiff competition in the ladies’ lingerie department – there is a positive crowd waiting to press their particular wares on every department store in the mid-west American sales territory where our Emma operates – there is a continual male-female dance of propriety, for Emma is a very handsome woman, and her good looks belie her ten years on the road and her status as the mother of a son approaching adulthood.

Emma can handle those who assume she is an easy mark for some casual romance, but deep down inside are the pangs of loneliness. What does the future hold…?

An explanation of the title is in order, and here are the words of the author herself.

FOREWORD

Roast Beef, Medium, is not only a food. It is a philosophy.

Seated at Life’s Dining Table, with the Menu of Morals before you, your eye wanders a bit over the entrees, the hors d’oeuvres, and the things a la, though you know that Roast Beef, Medium, is safe, and sane, and sure. It agrees with you. As you hesitate there sounds in your ear a soft and insinuating Voice.

“You’ll find the tongue in aspic very nice today,” purrs the Voice. “May I recommend the chicken pie, country style? Perhaps you’d relish something light and tempting. Eggs Benedictine. Very fine. Or some flaked crab meat, perhaps. With a special Russian sauce.”

Roast Beef, Medium! How unimaginative it sounds. How prosaic, and dry! You cast the thought of it aside with the contempt that it deserves, and you assume a fine air of the epicure as you order. There are set before you things encased in pastry; things in frilly paper trousers; things that prick the tongue; sauces that pique the palate. There are strange vegetable garnishings, cunningly cut. This is not only Food. These are Viands.

“Everything satisfactory?” inquires the insinuating Voice.

“Yes,” you say, and take a hasty sip of water. That paprika has burned your tongue. “Yes. Check, please.”

You eye the score, appalled. “Look here! Aren’t you over-charging!”

“Our regular price,” and you catch a sneer beneath the smugness of the Voice. “It is what every one pays, sir.”

You reach deep, deep into your pocket, and you pay. And you rise and go, full but not fed. And later as you take your fifth Moral Pepsin Tablet you say Fool! and Fool! and Fool!

When next we dine we are not tempted by the Voice. We are wary of weird sauces. We shun the cunning aspics. We look about at our neighbor’s table. He is eating of things French, and Russian and Hungarian. Of food garnished, and garish and greasy. And with a little sigh of Content and resignation we settle down to our Roast Beef, Medium.

E. F.

This is a light sort of novel, but it has its merits, and it works quite well as both a period piece and a nicely worked bit of domestic vintage American fiction. Slip on over to Gutenberg, and read this for yourself.

Roast Beef, Medium was Edna Ferber’s third published novel, and she went on to write many more of increasing popularity – think Show Boat, American Beauty, So-Big, Ice Palace, and Giant, among others – to take her place as one of the most successful mainstream novelists of her time. Her writing career stretched from 1911 to 1963, and her novels provide a lively – if decidedly dramatized – portrait of American life.

*****

the pumpkin eater penelope mortimer 1962The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer ~ 1962. This edition: Penguin, 1969. Paperback. 158 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This book has been described as proto-feminist, on par with Germaine Greer’s writings, and though I wouldn’t go that far myself, I will agree that it is very much a book of its time and demonstrative of the uneasy gender-battling mood of the late 1950s and early 60s.

Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater is a grimly can’t-look-away, can’t-quite-believe-I’m-reading-this, what-is-the-author-really-trying-to-say, blackly funny self-portrait of a seriously troubled woman and her bizarre approach to both motherhood and marriage. Apparently drawn from Mortimer’s own experience, it nevertheless reads like the strangest of fictions, and though the tale fascinated me it left me utterly untouched in any sort of personal way, save for my feeling of admiration at Mortimer’s success at keeping me engaged even when I wanted to put the book down and walk away.

Absolutely cheating here on writing an actual précis, by providing that of the re-publisher of this odd little novel. The New York Review of Books included it in their 2011 reprint list, and this is what the promotional material has to say:

The Pumpkin Eater is a surreal black comedy about the wages of adulthood and the pitfalls of parenthood. A nameless woman speaks, at first from the precarious perch of a therapist’s couch, and her smart, wry, confiding, immensely sympathetic voice immediately captures and holds our attention. She is the mother of a vast, swelling brood of children, also nameless, and the wife of a successful screenwriter, Jake Armitage. The Armitages live in the city, but they are building a great glass tower in the country in which to settle down and live happily ever after. But could that dream be nothing more than a sentimental delusion? At the edges of vision the spectral children come and go, while our heroine, alert to the countless gradations of depression and the innumerable forms of betrayal, tries to make sense of it all: doctors, husbands, movie stars, bodies, grocery lists, nursery rhymes, messes, aging parents, memories, dreams, and breakdowns. How to pull it all together? Perhaps you start by falling apart.

This doesn’t really portray the surreal atmosphere of this tense tale, but it does give a general idea of the storyline, which doesn’t really matter, as it is all seen through a fog by the narrator, the “mother-of-many”, who never gets her own name.

The writing is marvelous; the humour is richly dark; the subject is immensely uneasy-making. And the ending is beyond nebulous. What is reality, anyway? And why not seek comfort in dreams?

The Pumpkin Eater was also made into a 1964 movie, with screenplay by Harold Pinter, starring Anne Bancroft, hence the cover image on my old Penguin paperback. Haven’t seen it (the movie) myself, and quite frankly I have no desire to, though I have heard it spoken highly of. The book was quite enough, thank you kindly.

*****

within this wilderness feenie zinerWithin This Wilderness by Feenie Ziner ~ 1978. This edition: Akadine Press, 1999. Softcover. ISBN: 1-888173-86-6. 225 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Within This Wilderness is an autobiographical account of Ziner’s final attempt to come to terms with her adult son’s rejection of society and his retreat to the remote coastal woods of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.

I found this book deeply moving, in a decidedly personal way. Though the circumstances of our lives are not in any way identical, the evolution of the mother-son relationship and the delicate negotiation of expressing maternal love and the desire for “safety” for one’s child warring with the needs of a young man for walking his own path and making his own mistakes is something I share with this other mother, and, I suspect, most other parents whose moved-beyond-us children have stepped somewhat aside from the well-marked path of our particular society’s norm.

Kirkus sums it up perfectly:

Feenie Ziner’s son Ben was one of those Vietnam war casualties who was never in uniform: spooked by the military buildup, repelled by the consumer culture, he dropped out of school and took off for the Northwest, talking of cosmic energy and inner space, drifting in and out of lack-limbed communes, ultimately settling on his own wilderness island. Anxious for his return or at least some answers, Ziner flew in after he’d been living alone for nearly two years, and her skillfully developed account of what transpired between them – a progressive disarmament – slips over the boundaries of personal experience. She masters the primitive flusher and inures herself to thoughts of wolves (“I’ve read Farley Mowat”); he points out handmade appliances and shares new wisdoms (“Plastic is to us what horses were to the Spanish”). They lie to each other, spar philosophically, and resume a fragile peace. Even the eccentric neighbors – classic misfits – find him difficult. “Why does he make himself so damned. . . inaccessible?” “Why does he live that way? As if he were expiating for some kind of a sin?” She draws on the tranquillity of the place, reads the I Ching with the beatific vegetarian round the bend (“The companion bites a way through the wrappings”), and waits. And eventually the staunch independence unmasks, the precarious self-esteem surfaces, a pained confession of inadequacy is spoken. One must suppress dark thoughts about the shaping of this material (could it have happened so smoothly? was she taking notes?) for the perfect curve of events seems almost too good to be true. But Ziner deftly renders the nature of their exchange and the nuances of her private adventure, and the illumination of his fringe benefits and her mainstream hollows will reach that audience attuned to generational discord and cultural reflections.

Very much worth reading. Recommended.

 

 

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My vintage copy is terribly faded. The cover illustration depicts a female figure in long pink gown holding a pink parasol, against the backdrop of a white-columned mansion. (You may need to use your imagination.)

My vintage copy’s cover is terribly faded. The illustration depicts a female figure in long pink gown holding a pink parasol, against the backdrop of a white-columned mansion. (You may need to use your imagination.)

The Little Straw Wife by Margaret Belle Houston ~ 1914. This edition: The H.K. Fly Co., 1914. Illustrated by F. Graham Cootes. Hardcover. 217 pages.

My rating: 6/10

This fluffy vintage romance attracted my attention because it was the very first published novel by a writer I have been keeping an eye out for: Margaret Bell(e) Houston (the “e” of her middle name was dropped on later books), author of a number of romantic-suspense novels such as 1955’s Yonder (scroll way down, I was rather more rambling than usual that day), which I read last year and gave an enthusiastic rating to. (And, oh, look – there’s Phyllis A. Whitney again!)

Houston’s novels are still in a modest sort of circulation, with a number of them available as scanned e-books (see here for TLSW) and as print-on-demand paper books, but the originals are much more interesting to handle and read, especially when they contain illustrations, as this one does, to add to their period charm.

The Little Straw Wife was published in 1914, when the author was 37 years old; a comparatively venerable age for a first novel, it seems to me. (So many published writers seem to start so early, literally in their teens. I wonder what the average age actually is?)

Margaret Belle Houston was to write another dozen or so novels between 1914 and 1958, as well as short stories and poetry. She was something of a local celebrity in her home state of Texas, the partial setting of The Little Straw Wife and most of her other romance/drama/suspense novels.

This novel charges out of the starting gate with a lot of enthusiasm and dash, which is maintained for quite some time, though it gets a mite winded about three-quarters of the way through, and ends up gasping for breath in the final chapters.

We meet our heroine, Zoë, just as she locks herself in her room and kicks off her shoes and plumps herself down on her wedding bouquet. Obviously something is not going well!

Here, read for yourself:

littlestrawwife00housiala_0013littlestrawwife00housiala_0014littlestrawwife00housiala_0015Our heroine is writing this account in her “Honeymoon Diary” – a gift from one of the bridesmaids, a blank book intended to document the joys of the first nuptial excursion. Instead it is being used to record the reasons behind the bride’s refusal to go through with things – albeit just an hour or two later than the usual cold-feet-at-the-altar cut-and-run.

Apparently Zoë feels that she has married her groom under false pretenses, and she can see nothing for it but to call the whole thing off. The upshot of it all is that she begs her groom to go off on the honeymoon voyage all alone, while she herself attempts to establish her independence away from Aunt Emmeline, who has made no secret of the fact that Zoë is no longer welcome under the familial roof.

Then we are treated to a rather nicely done flashback, as our narrator relates her history, and how she came to be in the situation now before us.

So far, quite enjoyable stuff, and as Zoë goes off to make her way in the world, with her cast-off groom lingering benignly(?) in the shadows waiting for her to come to her senses, the tale unfolds intriguingly, as Zoë casts herself on the hospitality of an old school chum and proceeds to attempt to enter the work force.

Once our Zoë, after a number of false starts, is settled into a suitable occupation – social secretary for an ambitious nouveau riche Texas ex-ranch wife – the tale begins to shed some of its charm, as it turns into what can only be described as a mushy romance. It’s still frequently sweet and funny, and the heroine still has us on her side, keeping us smiling at her odd personal decisions and indecisive agonizings to Dear Diary, but an immense tidal wave of coincidence and Had-I-But-Known drenches this initially clever story in utter cliché. The ending made me blush deeply. It was absolutely too good to be true, all over I-love-you-darlings and happy-ever-afters. Oh dear!

Well, for a first novel it shows a decently polished style, and the woes of Zoë in her quest for financial independence are feelingly portrayed. There is a strong vein of humour throughout; some of the diary entries are a comedic joy to read. If it weren’t for those last few romance-novel chapters, this would be such a thing of joy in general.

As it is, it’s still a fun vintage read despite its almost-fatally-flawed degeneration near the end. I’m glad I went to the trouble of tracking down in the paper, as it were, but I can’t give it a terribly enthusiastic recommendation as a must-read, because it is just too much of a period piece in its ultimate clichés to be truly top notch as a modern reading experience.

My advice, if one is interested, is to try this one gratis in its online e-book version. This scanned edition includes all of the Cootes illustrations, and is as close to reading the original as one can get without shelling out one’s hard-earned dollars for the real thing. Probably not a keeper, unless one is intrigued enough by the progress of Margaret Belle Houston to want to have a full set of her works on the shelf.

I have several more of Houston’s later novels waiting to be read: Bride’s Island (1957) and Cottonwoods Grow Tall (1958), both of which were published after the very acceptable Yonder, and both of which appear to have received good reviews in their time.

I am anticipating some enjoyable reading from these, but am waiting for that elusive “right mood” to strike. I am saving them for a treat, I hasten to assure you, so that will tell you how I really view Margaret Bell(e) Houston’s writing from my small experience of her – full of promise and most likely to prove highly diverting.

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lady molly of scotland yard baroness orczyLady Molly of Scotland Yard by The Baroness Orczy ~ 1910. This edition: Facsimile of the 1912 edition, The Akadine Press, 1999. Softcover. ISBN: 1-888173-97-1. 344 pages.

My rating: Hmmm. Though doubtless a good example of period fiction and an early precursor to the detective-story genre which so abundantly flourished in the decades after Lady Molly’s publication, for actual reading experience the book was not quite as fabulous as I had hoped.

A perhaps overly generous 5/10 is all I can bring myself to award it right now, though it is the sort of thing one might well become fond of on a re-read for reasons quite unrelated to literary (or detective puzzle) merit. (Or then again, maybe not!)

We meet Lady Molly, in The Ninescore Mystery, first chapter of Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, courtesy Project Gutenberg:

Well, you know, some say she is the daughter of a duke, others that she was born in the gutter, and that the handle has been soldered on to her name in order to give her style and influence.

I could say a lot, of course, but “my lips are sealed,” as the poets say. All through her successful career at the Yard she honoured me with her friendship and confidence, but when she took me in partnership, as it were, she made me promise that I would never breathe a word of her private life, and this I swore on my Bible oath–“wish I may die,” and all the rest of it.

Yes, we always called her “my lady,” from the moment that she was put at the head of our section; and the chief called her “Lady Molly” in our presence. We of the Female Department are dreadfully snubbed by the men, though don’t tell me that women have not ten times as much intuition as the blundering and sterner sex; my firm belief is that we shouldn’t have half so many undetected crimes if some of the so-called mysteries were put to the test of feminine investigation.

Do you suppose for a moment, for instance, that the truth about that extraordinary case at Ninescore would ever have come to light if the men alone had had the handling of it? Would any man have taken so bold a risk as Lady Molly did when–But I am anticipating.

Let me go back to that memorable morning when she came into my room in a wild state of agitation.

“The chief says I may go down to Ninescore if I like, Mary,” she said in a voice all a-quiver with excitement.

“You!” I ejaculated. “What for?”

“What for–what for?” she repeated eagerly. “Mary, don’t you understand? It is the chance I have been waiting for–the chance of a lifetime? They are all desperate about the case up at the Yard; the public is furious, and columns of sarcastic letters appear in the daily press. None of our men know what to do; they are at their wits’ end, and so this morning I went to the chief–”

“Yes?” I queried eagerly, for she had suddenly ceased speaking.

“Well, never mind now how I did it–I will tell you all about it on the way, for we have just got time to catch the 11 a.m. down to Canterbury. The chief says I may go, and that I may take whom I like with me. He suggested one of the men, but somehow I feel that this is woman’s work, and I’d rather have you, Mary, than anyone. We will go over the preliminaries of the case together in the train, as I don’t suppose that you have got them at your fingers’ ends yet, and you have only just got time to put a few things together and meet me at Charing Cross booking-office in time for that 11.0 sharp.”

She was off before I could ask her any more questions, and anyhow I was too flabbergasted to say much. A murder case in the hands of the Female Department! Such a thing had been unheard of until now. But I was all excitement, too, and you may be sure I was at the station in good time.

Holmes to Lady Molly’s Watson (the comparison is inevitable and apt) is our narrator Mary, who started out as Lady Molly’s maid in the days-gone-by continually referred to with much innuendo and mysterious “But I mustn’t talk about that!”

Now Mary and Lady Molly are members of the female division of Scotland Yard’s investigative force, though Mary still seems to be fulfilling many of her old duties in regard to her mistress, as well as some new ones. Messy and boring (and possibly dangerous) investigation to be done – well, let’s send Mary! Though to be fair Lady Molly puts herself in discomfort occasionally. (Very occasionally.) Most of her detecting seems to be done Hercule Poirot/Nero Wolfe style, from the comfort of an armchair while exercising her own Great Big Brain.

My biggest beef: the class distinctions so blatantly demonstrated throughout. Lady Molly is exceedingly high handed with her inferiors (that would be just about everyone she meets, works with and “investigates”) and meek Mary obviously feels that this is just the way it should be. And Lady Molly never explains; she merely orders, and her “partners” (usually Mary, but on occasion fawning members of The Force) scuttle off, sure in their belief that Lady Molly’s womanly (and aristocratic) intuition will bring a solution to the problem of the moment.

There is also a secret reason Lady Molly took up her profession at Scotland Yard; the big reveal happens in the last chapter, with Mary at last spilling all the beans she was forbidden to display previously.

Well, this allows me to tick off 1910 in the Century of Books, and also to satisfy my curiosity as to what Lady Molly was all about; I’ve occasionally seen her referenced in discussions of Golden Age women’s detective fiction; I need wonder no more.

Tasha Brandstatter’s Review echoes my feelings.

As does Stewartry – grand review.

The Wikipedia entry discusses the plot of the first few chapters in vivid, spoiler-laden detail.

And here’s the whole thing on Project Gutenberg.

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