Archive for the ‘1920s’ Category

The Lark by E. Nesbit ~ 1922. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2017. Introduction by Charlotte Moore.  Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-911579-45-8. 251 pages.

Looking for a lighthearted frivol, a confection of a novel? Look no further than this small charmer by Edith Nesbit, best known for her deliciously satirical children’s books (Five Children and It, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Railway Children, and so on) but also a writer of adult novels, which this one is.

This isn’t a sombre bit of literary fiction, but a fairy tale for grownups, with just enough dashes of cold reality to keep it somewhat grounded in the real world, though most of the plot is driven by the most unlikely set of happy coincidences I’ve yet to come across in a very long history of light-fiction reading.

It’s just what is advertised by the title. It is, in fact, a complete lark.

Two orphaned teenage cousins, Jane and Lucy, happily tucked away in boarding school by their guardian and looking forward to their soon-to-be-attained coming of ages when they will come into what they have been told are substantial inheritances, receive a happy shock when they are informed that their guardian has withdrawn them from the school and asked them to report to a mysterious address in the countryside beyond the fringes of London.

Confidently expecting this to be their introduction to the adult world, presided over by their mysterious patron, they are bewildered at being decanted at the door of a small country cottage instead of the mansion they were expecting.

A perfectly timed letter gives an explanation. Jane and Lucy’s guardian apologizes profusely, but he has squandered their fortunes on unsound financial speculations, and has gone utterly bankrupt. He’s leaving the country before his creditors can catch up to him, but he’s tried to cushion the blow somewhat by arranging for a lump sum of £500 to be put to the cousins’ account, and the afore-mentioned cottage as a residence.

Jane and Lucy soon realize that their rapidly-diminishing nest egg isn’t enough to cover their longer-term needs, and they look about for ways to augment it. The stage is set for all manner of lucky happenings, with helpful young (and not so young) men cropping up like daisies in the spring.

It’a all very amusing, and the lightness is well set off by the running thread of reality, for this book was written not long after the ending of the Great War, and is set in 1919, and the plight of many of the returned soldiers coming home to not much in the way of a future becomes a key element in the extended plot.

Occasionally  (okay, very often) I (figuratively) rolled my eyes at the sillier bits, but I happily kept reading, because the story is as engaging as it is unrealistic, and the realistic bits were shoehorned in with acceptable success.

My rating: Let’s say a nice, solid 7.5/10. A definite keeper.

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bitter-heritage-margaret-pedler-1928-2Bitter Heritage by Margaret Pedler ~ 1928. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1928. Hardcover. 316 pages.

My rating: 4/10

A hugely predictable melodrama about a young woman whose father has disgraced himself, and by association her, by a massive financial gamble with other people’s money which failed. His subsequent suicide makes things even worse.

Our heroine Herrick -“a child-woman of seventeen” – is brutally dumped by her fiancé who fears disgrace by association – “I can’t put – forgive me – the daughter of a thief, of a swindler, in the place my mother’s held. Or” – his voice dropped a little – “make her the mother of my children.”

Oh, ouch.

But not to worry! Herrick is a plucky young thing (and beautiful, which is useful) and she goes out into the cruel harsh world and makes a new life for herself. We see her next a very few years later in Paris, working as a model for a famous dressmaker.

Herrick impresses all by her natural sweetness, including her money-minded employer (digression: are all Parisian dressmakers as deeply mercenary as vintage English novels make them out to be – think about that one, fellow readers – can you show me an exception?), and in particular an English client, Lady Bridget, who – quelle coïncidence! – turns out to have been the long-ago romantic flame of Herrick’s father, and the possessor of a letter written to her by him just before he pulled the fatal trigger instructing Lady Bridget to look after his darling daughter.

So now all is good. Correct? Herrick can leave her employment and enter into a mutually comforting relationship with Lady Bridget. Who just so happens to have a charming, handsome son…

No, wait. That would be too easy.

The son’s romantic feelings are engaged elsewhere, but he acts as a brother-like chum to Herrick, which comes in handy when she needs a masculine shoulder to cry on. As she does, because her life is soon complicated with not one but two impetuous would-be lovers. One being – all unknown, because Herrick and her sponsor are all being very cagey as to her familial origin – the son of a man who was ruined by Herrick’s father and who was only saved from disgracing himself by suicide by his sudden death by heart failure while written his goodbye letter, revolver on his desk.

When this comes out, hasty words are spoken, and it looks as though Herrick’s “bitter heritage” will stand in the way of her future happiness.

Another plot twist removes all obstacles. Shall I tell it? Or can you guess?

You know, I’m going to leave it unrevealed.

Just in case someone reading this with a view to reading Bitter Heritage wants a surprise.

And with that, I leave you. And this book.

Of “period piece” interest only, and forthwith shelved accordingly.

Note on the author, directly quoting from the very sparse Wikipedia entry which was all I could find about her on my web search:

Margaret Pedler (died 28 December 1948) was a British novelist, who wrote popular works of romantic fiction.

Initially Pedler studied piano and singing at the Royal Academy of Music, and published several songs for which she wrote both the music and lyrics. Over her career as a best-selling writer, from 1917 to 1947, she produced 28 novels.

  • The Splendid Folly: 1917
  • The House of Dreams-Come-True: 1919
  • The Hermit of Far End: 1920
  • The Moon out of Reach: 1921(?)
  • The Lamp of Fate: 1921
  • The Vision of Desire: 1922(?)
  • The Barbarian Lover: 1923
  • Waves of Destiny: 1924
  • Red Ashes: 1925
  • Tomorrow’s Tangle: 1926
  • Yesterday’s Harvest: 1926
  • Bitter Heritage: 1928
  • The Guarded Halo: 1929
  • Fire of Youth: 1930
  • Kindled Flame: 1931(?)
  • Desert Sand: 1932
  • The Greater Courage: 1933
  • Pitiless Choice: 1933
  • Distant Dawn: 1934 – published in England as “Green Judgment”
  • The Shining Cloud: 1935(?)
  • Checkered Paths: 1935(?)
  • Flame in the Wind: 1937
  • No Armour Against Fate: 1938(?)
  • Blind Loyalty: 1940
  • Not Heaven Itself: 1941
  • Then Came the Test: 1942
  • No Gifts from Chance: 1944
  • Unless Two Be Agreed: 1947

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

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

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

My rating: 10+/10

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, giving you time to decide…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then everything changes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll save you speculation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the very best way, of course.

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

Highly recommended.

First edition, 1926.

First edition, 1926.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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November 19, 2015. I have just re-read these two of E.M. Delafield’s books, Humbug (1922) and Thank Heaven Fasting (1932) and was curious to see what I had written about them the first time around, back in March of last year. I was interested to find that I would say much the same after the second reading, so am re-posting a very slightly tweaked version of what I said 18 months ago.

This summer I also read an omnibus collection of  of the Provincial Lady stories published between 1930 and 1940, The Diary of a Provinicial Lady, The PL Goes Further, The PL in America, and the PL in Wartime. The tone throughout these was much lighter than Humbug and Thank Heaven Fasting; at times I struggled to reconcile the two vastly different voices.

The humour in the “straight” novels (versus the diary-type formatted ones) was certainly there, but was much more restrained and bitter. The Provincial Lady books are chiefly amusing, the others disturbingly thought provoking. Delafield is very much on my radar as an author to quietly pursue, though most of her back list is long out of print.

The Provinicial Lady quartet has been republished in various formats and editions and is easy to find; Virago republished both Thank Heaven Fasting and The Way Things Are in 1988; Persephone republished Consequences in 2000. One can only hope that some others of Delafield’s long-neglected novels will catch the attention of either of these two pillars of the feminist press, or of one of the other republishers now so intent on mining the rich literary field of the early to mid 20th century. Preservation and distribution is the starting point of so much more, and it’s always a good thing to hear from those who walked before us, in their own words. Plus a lot of these old books are darned good reading, adding to the appeal for those of us not so much scholarly as merely seeking of interesting things to divert our minds with.

*****

From March 7, 2014: Those of us who are familiar with E.M. Delafield only through her understated and slyly humourous Provincial Lady stories may be in for a bit of a surprise when delving deeper into her more than respectable greater body of work. According to Delafield’s succinct but comprehensive Wikipedia entry – someone has taken the time to briefly summarize each of her titles – she authored something like forty novels, as well as a number of film and radio play scripts.

Delafield’s novels are frequently described as semi-autobiographical. In the two I read recently the sentiments are certainly sincere enough to bear that out, and quietly tragic enough to make me feel a deep chord of sympathy to the young woman Delafield may possibly have been. Though she eventually slipped off the shackles of a strictly conventional upper-class girlhood and young womanhood, she appears from these two novels to be carrying a fair bit on angst-laden baggage from her youthful days. Delafield prefaces Humbug with a disclaimer as to the autobiographical nature of these tale, but if she did not live something similar she certainly observed it at close quarters is my own impression.

humbug e m delafield 001Humbug: A Study in Education by E.M. Delafield ~ 1922. This edition: Macmillan, 1922. Hardcover in reproduction dust jacket. 345 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Good women know by instinct that the younger generation, more especially when nearly related to themselves, should be equipped to encounter life by the careful and systemic misrepresentation of the more vital aspects of life.

The mother of Lily and Yvonne Stellenthorpe was a good woman, and had all a good woman’s capacity for the falsification of moral values…

Pretty little Lily, a child of seven as the story opens, is deeply and quietly perceptive, especially when it comes to her older sister Yvonne, who is quite obviously brain-damaged and “sub-normal”, though her parents vehemently deny it. Lily’s passionate defense of Yvonne, and her intuitive realization of Yvonne’s stoically endured pain are brushed off by the adults in her life as “naughtiness and impertinent interference.” Yvonne eventually perishes of a brain tumour, parents in denial to the bitter end. Lily grieves for her beloved sister but also rejoices that “Vonnie” is now pain-free in Heaven. Lily’s outwardly serene acceptance of the loss of her sister – she goes to great trouble to hide her tears from her parents in order to refrain from distressing them – is seen as juvenile callousness, and this crucial misunderstanding is representative of Lily’s parents’ lack of perceptiveness and their persistent misreading of their daughter’s true nature – that of a bright, loving and imaginative child.

A new baby brother appears, to Lily’s deep bemusement – she has been informed of the mystery about to unfold only by an ambiguous instruction towards the end of her mother’s pregnancy that she may pray for a baby brother – and once Kenneth appears Lily is suddenly packed away to convent school. Three months later, her mother dies, and Lily returns home, where she, baby Kenneth and the bereaved family patriarch settle into a muted existence of whispers and extended mourning.

The years go by, with Lily continually coming up against her father’s shocked disappointment in the things she innocently yearns for – storybooks, candy, the company of other children – until at last Lily, honestly thinking that her presence in the household is completely unnecessary, begs to be allowed to go to school. Her father reels in offended horror, clinging to the idea of the tightly-knit family while rejecting Lily’s right to having needs and desires of her own.

Her continual request to be sent to school distressed him profoundly. At one and the same time, he saw Lily convicted of disloyalty in wishing to alter the routine of life instituted for her by her mother, and as heartlessly desirous of abandoning her lonely father and little brother in their changed and saddened home.

At last he said to her:

“I can stand this no longer. Go, Lily, but remember that God Himself will condemn those who blaspheme against the sacred love of mother and father. You can go. I will keep no child at home against its will.”

Lily is, quite naturally, deeply distressed by this heaping on of parentally fabricated guilt, but she perseveres and off she goes to boarding school, where she comes under the thumb of her hearty headmistress, who seeks to mould Lily to yet another standard of acceptable girlhood. Lily does her best, as she always has, to outwardly conform to the expectations of her elders, but inside she is seething with confusion and deep shame. Her intentions are always good, but frequently misunderstood; Lily is the subject of many a lecture on how best to “improve” herself, which she takes to heart, causing further inner conflict as she tries her best to please everyone while still retaining some shred of self.

The years go by, and when Lily is well into her teens an opportunity arises for her to travel to Italy to visit her flamboyant Aunt Clo. Thrown into a very different society, Lily experiences a mild self-aware awakening.  She also meets the man who will become her husband, the much older, exceedingly staid and dull Nicolas Aubray. Once she is married, Lily at last has the opportunity to indulge in a certain degree of introspection, and her conclusions about herself, the way she has been manipulated throughout her life, and the way she will raise own small child bring this rather heart-rending treatise on how not to bring up children to a gently low-key but optimistic conclusion.

A quietly horrifying book in its description of Lily’s psychological and emotional abuse by those who love her too selfishly to be truly kind. Full of keen social commentary, with moments of sly humour. The subtitle, A Study in Education, points the authorial finger directly at the misguided attempts of everyone in Lily’s life – mother, father, nuns at convent school, headmistress and teachers at boarding school, her aunt and finally her husband – to form Lily into something that they think she should be, all the while stifling the natural intelligence and creativity which Lily was born with, and which is almost snuffed out by her extended “education” at the hands of others.

Ten years later, Thank Heaven Fasting examines the inner life of the similarly repressed Monica Ingram, another victim of smothering and misguided parental love and pervasive societal hypocrisy.

thank heaven fasting e m delafield 001 (2)Thank Heaven Fasting by E.M. Delafield ~ 1932. This edition: Virago, 1988. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-995-6. 233 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Monica Ingram is on the cusp of young womanhood: she is about to be launched into society and, more importantly, the marriage market. Sweetly pretty, fresh and hopeful, Monica breathlessly awaits the man who will prove to be her socially acceptable mate; his physical attractiveness and intellectual fitness are secondary considerations compared to financial and social standing.

Monica attracts a few approving masculine glances, but bobbles badly in her first season, becoming infatuated with a charming womanizer. Putting herself beyond the pale with an evening of stolen kisses, Monica’s small world condemns her behaviour, and, to her parents’ deep despair, Monica appears unable to recover lost ground. The available men turn their gaze to the newest crop of debutantes, and Monica sits on the shelf, becoming more and more stale with each passing year.

This novel is a bitter indictment of the lack of opportunities for young upper-class women, as well as a stab at traditional Victorian and Edwardian parenting. Educated in a more than sketchy fashion, trained for no occupation or career, having nothing to offer a prospective spouse but their own not particularly rare charms, crowds of daughters jockey for position, politely jostling each other at dinners and balls, and peeping over their shoulders with frightened eyes at last year’s crop of wallflowers who were unable to “get off” successfully.

Monica and her peers are creatures raised by their parents for one purpose only, to make good – or at least good enough – marriages. If they fail to succeed at this, the murmurings about unwed daughters being family liabilities louden to a discontented roar, with previously loving and nurturing parents becoming more and more exasperated and resentful as each year passes.

Both Lily of Humbug and Monica of Thank Heaven Fasting have been severely let down by their families and their society. Their eventual compromises are disappointingly the best they can do. For both of these gentle protaganists, their flounderings to stay afloat after not being taught to properly swim in the unforgiving ocean of the outside world and their gasping gratitude for the few good things that come their way are truly tragic in their absolute banality.

What appropriate reading for International Women’s Day, come to think of it. Flawed as some aspects of contemporary life are, we have indeed (by and large) come a long way, baby!

Both of these books are very readable, thought-provoking, and, yes, more than a little depressing. The heroines show glimmerings of self-actualization, glints of ambition, and a very reasonable resentment against their positions in the societal hierarchy, but ultimately both settle for something less than what they have been groomed to expect. Lily differs from Monica in that she manages to rise above her dismal upbringing – her “education” – and make herself some semblance of a happy life. Monica – well – Monica’s story ends before we can see too far into her future, but we suspect that she has lowered her expectations so greatly that her meek nature will at last find a place of compromised peace, and no aspiration to anything more.

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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

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.

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.

Note # 2: This post was originally part of a 3-book review published in December 2014 – 1914 and All That – Reports from The Great War: O. Douglas, Rose Macaulay & Robert Graves – and has been split off and reposted to aid in its inclusion in the Classics Club list.

 

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Not my own copy, but a dust jacket of an early edition.

Not my own copy, but a dust jacket of an early edition.

The Old Ladies by Hugh Walpole ~ 1924. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1924. Hardcover. 305 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Ah, Hugh Walpole.

Protégé of Henry James, friend and compatriot of such disparate fellow writers as J.B. Priestley, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf, yet, unlike them, mostly forgotten today. Hugh Walpole in his time enjoyed tremendous popularity, though the crueler critics dismissed his work as too facile, too easy to read, too – well – popular.

During his peak writing years, 1909 to 1941, Walpole produced a volume a year (sometimes more) of novels and story collections ranging in tone from the romantic to the dramatic, with ventures into the macabre. Some of his works are small masterpieces of their type.

Some, not so much. A prime example of the B-list is this overlong novel, wherein Walpole takes the material for (at best) a novella, and stretches it out to three hundred pages, when half that would likely have sufficed.

I must say points to the man for keeping it readable, for though The Old Ladies in their uncomfortable dotage got a bit tiresome I was never tempted to abandon them completely, though I had a moment at the close where the urge to give the book a sharp shake (in lieu of its long-defunct author) was only resisted with a strong effort. Walpole brings his tale to a tragically overwrought conclusion, then tacks on a cheerful “prodigal’s return” to the very end, which I must admit is soothing to the reader worried about the most likeable of the titular old ladies, but which was just too darned convenient for my comfort.

The plot:

Three elderly ladies (all are in their seventies) who have fallen on hard times find themselves living in a shabby rooming house in the cathedral town of Polchester (imaginary setting of many of Hugh Walpole’s tales) presided over by a mostly benevolent landlady.

One, the sweet-natured and mild-tempered Mrs. Amorest, is the widow of a poet, who died quite suddenly (in the best tradition of his kind) leaving behind nothing but manuscripts and debts.

The next, also-widowed Mrs. Payne, slovenly and indolent, regrets nothing of her slightly sordid past. She thinks back seldom of her weakly abusive husband and her deserting lover and her long-dead child, concentrating her energies instead upon the comforts of the now, indulging herself with sweets and rich food and dashes of brilliant colour – a ribbon, an ornament, an illustration – which she hoards like an obese dragon in her over-filled lair.

Joining the modest ménage is spinster Miss Beringer, who creeps into the refuge of the old house with her shivering little dog. Miss Beringer has been cheated out of her modest investment capital; her small savings are running out; her future is beyond bleak. She owns one item of beauty and value, an amber carving given to her by her one friend as a remembrance upon the friend’s marriage and subsequent removal to India.

Gentle Mrs. Amorest takes slightly-lower-class Miss Beringer under her wing, not letting on that her own prospects are also desperately declining. Mrs. Payne scorns both of the other residents of the house, despising their meekness and their willingness to run errands for her as evidence of their mental inferiority. She uses them both to the utmost of her cunning ability, and when an ailing cousin of Mrs. Amorest promises a fortune in his will, and Miss Beringer’s amber ornament catches Mrs. Payne’s eye, she begins turn her mental energies to the question of how she can obtain these treasures from her housemates.

Walpole paints a sharply detailed picture of the come-down-in-the-world existences of his three characters. Their thoughts and feelings, their many small economies and occasional overwhelming temptations, their midnight worries and daytime attempts at hiding those fears from the world around them are all sympathetically portrayed.

Small daily drama turns to smouldering melodrama when Mrs. Amorest’s cousin dies and the will is read. Balked of her bad intentions towards one of her neighbours, Mrs. Payne turns her malignant focus upon the other, with devastating results. Only one of the old ladies will walk away from the house with her sanity intact and her future provided for, even if it takes an authorial intervention to bring this about…

Recommended only for those who are already admirers of Hugh Walpole’s eclectically prolific oeuvre. All others, perhaps best to start elsewhere, with The Joyful Delaneys (1938), or Hans Frost (1929), or the critically acclaimed early novel Mr Perrin and Mr Traill (1911), or perhaps the recently rediscovered and dramatized Rogue Herries (1930), first of a four book sequence, and thought by many to be the crème-de-la-crème of Hugh Walpole’s dramatic novels.

My rather unenthusiastic rating of The Old Ladies aside, even a B-list Walpole stands up well to the interested scrutiny of a modern reader. One wishes him a revival, which does indeed seem to be occurring in a low-key way. I add my voice to those who quietly extol his better qualities, and who collect and read his many works with mild enthusiasm.

 

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high bright buggy wheels luella creighton 001High Bright Buggy Wheels by Luella Creighton ~ 1951. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, New Canadian Library No. 147, paperback, 1978. Introduction by Rae McCarthy Macdonald. ISBN: 0-7710-9260-1. 352 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Tough call on the rating.

The book is undeniably well written, by an intelligent writer comfortably secure in her ability to portray scenes and moods more than competently in print.

But – and you knew there’d be a “but”, didn’t you? – there were a number of jarring moments, some editorial and some plot-related, and all made more obvious by the relative excellence of the workmanship displayed in the technical aspects of what is ultimately nothing more than a standard bildungsroman, albeit one embellished with abundant period detail and “exotic” (though slightly questionable regarding theological accuracy) Mennonite trappings.

Did you make it through that last bit all right?

Let me take a step back and give the details of the story.

It is the first decade of the 20th century, and in Ontario, Canada, in the southern region of prosperous farms, a Mennonite religious revival tent meeting is taking place. Here we meet our young heroine, 17-year-old Tillie Shantz, standing out from her lesser peers through her stately height, her exceptional beauty, and her remote air.

Tillie is the indulged oldest child of her family, and her doting father has seen that she has had plenty of leisure time to pursue such frivolous interests as piano playing, flower gardening, and wandering through the fields and woods daydreaming, all occupations which are acceptable enough in moderation but not in strong favour with the practical and hard-working Mennonite farmers to which “tribe” (Creighton’s term, used a number of times) our Tillie belongs.

Needless to say the lovely Tillie has attracted her fair share of the male gaze, and is being zeroed in on by one Simon Goudie. Simon is a few years older than Tillie, and, fervently pious, has already gained a reputation as a accomplished lay preacher. He’s heading off to theological college in the fall, but first he wants to secure the promise of Tillie’s hand in marriage. The local Mennonite community unanimously approves – this appears to be a suitable uniting of two prosperous and godly families.

Tillie is tempted by the thought of being mistress of her own home, and Simon’s avid gaze stirs her own latent sexual desires. The promise is made, though Tillie buys herself some time by asking her father to allow her to spend the winter in the nearest large town, taking a dressmaking course and more advanced piano lessons than she is able to come by out in the country. Luckily two spinster aunts are able to give Tillie a room, and for a while all goes well, with Tillie turning out to be a naturally accomplished seamstress and a a talented amateur artist as well as a potentially concert-level pianist. (Right about here is where I started to get annoyed at the author, for her heroine was becoming just a bit too wonderful to be true.)

Enter another man.

Tillie has already made the acquaintance of the town’s ambitious and dashing young drugstore owner, George Bingham, and their first mutual liking for each other predictably blossoms into something much more flammable. Poor Simon, we find ourselves thinking. You’re going to be in for a rude shock…

The tale follows its utterly predictable course. Tillie, after 200-some pages of soul-searching, at last gives Simon his walking papers – the thought of accompanying him to darkest Africa, to where he has decided that God has called him as a missionary, is the final straw stacked on Tillie’s should-I/shouldn’t-I load – and, to do things quite thoroughly, renounces her Mennonite faith in front of a massed congregation gathered for a special meeting in honour of Simon’s call. Simon reacts badly. One rather feels for him throughout this whole saga – he ends up being the sacrificial lamb on the altar of Tillie’s self-determination – almost literally so as a tragic accident leaves him physically and mentally broken within hours of his humiliating public rejection by the woman he thought was firmly his.

Estranged from her family, Tillie marries George, and immediately embraces the worldly things so gently set aside by the Mennonite community. She immerses herself in music, lovely clothes, novel-reading, dining (and drinking!) in posh city restaurants, driving one of George’s racehorses (another surprise talent that pops up is Tillie’s apparent superb horsemanship – who knew!) and, very shortly, her own automobile, which she also immediately masters with style and skill. There is plenty of money, for George is a dab hand at clever investments, and Tillie steps into her velvet-lined new life with utter aplomb.

But storm clouds are brewing, and Tillie’s sun is about to be obscured by sudden darkness, as her pregnancy ends in a tragic stillbirth.

Could God be punishing her for turning her back on the religion of her youth? Is this payback for the wrong she did to Simon? Should she renounce the world and turn back to the Church?

Well, it’s not quite that easy, as she finds out, when an emotional return to the church of her youth finds her met with patronizing forbearance and, even more disappointing, no sudden re-acquaintance with God.

And then George starts glancing about for comfort elsewhere, tired of his sady depressed and once-again dully religious wife.

Not to worry, a “surprise” happy ending is coming down the pike.

Points to the author for keeping it engaging for so long, because honestly this thing is a mass of stock scenarios and random bits of melodrama. One rather wonders at its inclusion in the serious-minded New Canadian Library series, but it appears that the period details and the Mennonite plot elements make it a desirable novel for earnest study, with its nuances soberly studied by the scholarly set.

What I liked about this book: the very relatable ponderings of Tillie regarding her place in the world, and her desire to be her own person, not just an invisible cog in the works of a farm and/or mission settlement.

Tillie’s “is that all?”angst rang true, and made her an ultimately sympathetic character, despite the off-putting (to this cynical reader) perfections of her face and figure, and her annoyingly instant easy mastery of every task she put her hand to.

What I didn’t like about this book: the author’s passive-aggressive tone towards the Mennonite community.

Methinks perhaps Creighton has a tiny smidgeon of baggage being unpacked here? I did read mention of the fact that Creighton had a Mennonite stepmother and that they did not always share the same philosophy of life.

While showing a lavish appreciation for the bucolic wonders of the well-run farms and the abundance of food set out at the communal Mennonite tables, Creighton adds little digs here and there, “the fat, round faces”and the “placid, unquestioning gazes” of the women being referenced over and over. Perhaps this was merely a writerly way of framing the characters in order for Tillie’s wondrous physical and mental superiority to stand out in sharper contrast, but if so it went too far. Did no other Mennonite female in Tillie’s very wide circle share any of her self-agonizing regarding one’s place in the world? Apparently not, for the only other Mennonite girl or woman who is given any significant amount of page-time is the Shantz family servant, Bertha, unmarriageable, unsightly and outspoken, who appears to be Tillie’s only friend until her breakout into the world, where she immediately finds a strong ally in her happy-single-lady employer, the proto-feminist town seamstress.

The activities of the people in Creighton’s Mennonite church settings are strongly caricatured. They frequently shout out to the Lord, and loudly pray long extempore prayers, and all but roll about on the floor in the ecstasies of their faith. Having a Mennonite background myself, with some experience of the stern moral tone of the stricter orders – and the Shantz household appears to belong to one of the more rigorous “old” branches of this sect – the scenes depicted both in the camp meeting scenes and at regular Sunday services seem more akin to the more dramatic of the Baptist sects, rather than accurate manifestations of the self-governed and deeply self-conscious Mennonites I have personally encountered throughout my life.

Though the “oddnesses” of the Mennonite religion are referenced again and again, the actual theology behind the more restrictive of the behaviours is never once discussed, and it is this lack which seems to me to leave the novel in the second rank.

That and the horribly contrived happy ending, in which all religious and family conflicts are suddenly and inexplicably resolved, a neat bit of authorial deus ex machine which left me grinding my teeth. I have nothing against a happy ending – on the contrary, I quite like things to end on a positive note whenever it makes artistic sense – but this one was too darned good to be believable, considering all that had gone on before.

In looking over this review, I see that I have concentrated mainly on the negatives, with not much to say about the novel’s many strengths.

I suspect this is because there was so much that I actually liked that the off-key aspects disappointed me more strongly than if I had found it lightweight from beginning to end. It was the breaking of the tone which made me so disappointed – it was so close to being something truly special, but some of the most thought-provoking bits were ruined for me by the author’s opinionating showing through.

For another opinion, here is a wonderful review from The Indextrious Reader, who was much more scholarly and ultimately more kind in her examination of the book.

I think we both agree that High Bright Buggy Wheels is well worth reading, for those interested in Canadiana, or even merely looking for a literary type of romance novel.

 

 

 

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