Archive for the ‘1920s’ Category

The Girls by Edna Ferber ~ 1921. This edition: Collier, circa 1930s. Hardcover. 374 pages.

It is a question of method. Whether to rush you up to the girls pellmell, leaving you to become acquainted as best you can; or, with elaborate slyness, to slip you so casually into their family life that they will not even glance up when you enter the room or leave it; or to present the three of them in solemn order according to age, epoch, and story. This last would mean beginning with great-aunt Charlotte Thrift, spinster, aged seventy-four; thence to her niece and namesake Lottie Payson, spinster, aged thirty-two; finishing with Lottie’s niece and namesake Charley Kemp, spinster, aged eighteen and a half— you may be certain nobody ever dreamed of calling her Charlotte. If you are led by all this to exclaim, aghast, “A story about old maids!”— you are right. It is.

A story about old maids, indeed, and how rich a field for harvesting by the right author. Edna Ferber is definitely that, garnering a full measure, a basketful – a book full! – of personal stories, mixed joys and tragedies, promises fulfilled and wasted.

We meet our three Charlottes in the early days of the 20th Century, in Chicago. Their family, the Thrifts, is in the upper echelon of that city’s society, even though their finances have of late begun to show signs of stress, what with the war in Europe and all.

In a series of extended vignettes – flashbacks interspersed with the present – we learn the stories of these three women, destined to walk their paths without male partners, though all three are not unloved by men.

The theme which unites these three femmes sole – aside from their warm and sustaining love for each other – is that of war. For Charlotte, the war between the states, taking place as she leaves her girlhood behind, erasing the life of the man whom she loved. For Lottie and Charley, the Great War strikes similarly brutal blows.

Edna Ferber was a gifted storyteller, and The Girls is a perfect example of her ability to stir the full spectrum of her readers’ emotions, from amusement to heartbreak, and everything in between. Some clever technique here, too, in the flashback sequences.

My rating: 9.5/10

Now out of copyright, many of the secondhand copies on ABE are print-on-demand, though a few originals are there as well. If you don’t mind reading from a screen, The University of Michigan has a scanned copy to peruse.

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The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting ~ 1920. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1962. Foreword by Hugh Walpole. Illustrated by Hugh Lofting. Hardcover. 223 pages.

Oh boy.

I don’t think I have the resources (time or energy wise) to do this topic – racism in “beloved” vintage children’s books – justice. But I don’t feel right in just passing it over undiscussed, either. So here I go. Bear with me.

The Story of Doctor Dolittle, based on a series of illustrated letters the author wrote from the Great War trenches to his young sons back home in England, was published in book form in 1920, to immediate popularity.

There’s an awful lot to like in here. Written in simple, frequently staccato sentences, the book introduces us to Doctor Dolittle, M.D., who is a prosperous and well-liked physician in the small town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. The good Doctor has a fondness for animals, and as he progressively fills his home with creatures, a tipping point is reached when the animal residents start causing problems with patients.  (An elderly lady sits upon a prickly hedgehog and so on.) Business falls off, until Docotor Dolittle’s only client remaining is the local Cat’s-meat-Man, who visits once a year at Christmas to get a remedy for indigestion.

What’s to be done? Doctor Dolittle is bemused. Then an epiphany occurs, when his pet parrot Polynesia, able to converse in English, initiates the Doctor into the mysteries of animal languages. He becomes a highly successful animal doctor, and all seems well, until the adoption of a crocodile sends all of his clients scurrying. Hard times again!

Then a message arrives from Africa. The monkeys there are all succumbing to some terrible disease. Will Doctor Dolittle come to the rescue? Of course he will! Borrowing a boat from a friendly sailor, off goes the Doctor, accompanied by several of his favourite pets, and also that troublesome crocodile, an ex organ-grinder’s monkey, and Polynesia the parrot, those last three intending to be repatriated to their native land.

As soon as they hit the shores of Africa, the reader’s real dilemma starts.

So far all has been quite good clean fun, but for a few casual era-expected racial slurs here and there easily glossed over by the keen-eyed adult reader-aloud – the usual, “We’ll have to work like n******!” pops up at least once.

The Doctor and his animal entourage crash their ship on the rocky shores of Africa, and head into the jungle, where they arrive at the mud palace of the King and Queen of Jolliginki. The King eyes the Doctor with displeasure.

“You may not travel through my lands,” said the King. “Many years ago a white man came to these shores; and I was very kind to him. But after he had dug holes in the ground to get the gold, and killed all the elephants to get their ivory tusks, he went away secretly in his ship— without so much as saying ‘Thank you.’ Never again shall a white man travel through the lands of Jolliginki.”

Then the King turned to some of the black men who were standing near and said, “Take away this medicine-man — with all his animals, and lock them up in my strongest prison.”

Fair enough, we’re thinking, though a bit hard on the beneficient Doctor. But he doesn’t need our concern, for he soon escapes, pursued by the soldiers of the King, and makes his way to the part of the jungle inhabited by the monkeys. There he easily cures the sick ones by means of wide scale vaccinating (Lofting doesn’t bother with pesky details such as how the Doctor comes by and/or manufactures this magical vaccine), and sets off to return to England.

The soldiers of Jolliginki soon capture him, and back into the dungeon he goes. This time he is rescued by a clever plot dreamt up by Polynesia (who is still hanging about, though she intends to stay in Africa when the Doctor departs) concerning the King’s son Prince Bumpo, who is enamoured of European fairy tales, and has been emotionally scarred by an episode so related.

Here, I’ll give you the works:

“Listen,” whispered the parrot, when John Dolittle’s face appeared: “Prince Bumpo is coming here to-night to see you. And you’ve got to find some way to turn him white. But be sure to make him promise you first that he will open the prison-door and find a ship for you to cross the sea in.”

“This is all very well,” said the Doctor. “But it isn’t so easy to turn a black man white. You speak as though he were a dress to be re-dyed. It’s not so simple. ‘Shall the leopard change his spots, or the Ethiopian his skin,’ you know?”

“I don’t know anything about that,” said Polynesia impatiently. “But you must turn this coon white. Think of a way—think hard. You’ve got plenty of medicines left in the bag. He’ll do anything for you if you change his color. It is your only chance to get out of prison.”

“Well, I suppose it might be possible,” said the Doctor. “Let me see—,” and he went over to his medicine-bag, murmuring something about “liberated chlorine on animal-pigment—perhaps zinc-ointment, as a temporary measure, spread thick—”

Well, that night Prince Bumpo came secretly to the Doctor in prison and said to him,

“White Man, I am an unhappy prince. Years ago I went in search of The Sleeping Beauty, whom I had read of in a book. And having traveled through the world many days, I at last found her and kissed the lady very gently to awaken her—as the book said I should. ’Tis true indeed that she awoke. But when she saw my face she cried out, ‘Oh, he’s black!’ And she ran away and wouldn’t marry me—but went to sleep again somewhere else. So I came back, full of sadness, to my father’s kingdom. Now I hear that you are a wonderful magician and have many powerful potions. So I come to you for help. If you will turn me white, so that I may go back to The Sleeping Beauty, I will give you half my kingdom and anything besides you ask.”

“Prince Bumpo,” said the Doctor, looking thoughtfully at the bottles in his medicine-bag, “supposing I made your hair a nice blonde color—would not that do instead to make you happy?”

“No,” said Bumpo. “Nothing else will satisfy me. I must be a white prince.”

“You know it is very hard to change the color of a prince,” said the Doctor—“one of the hardest things a magician can do. You only want your face white, do you not?”

“Yes, that is all,” said Bumpo. “Because I shall wear shining armor and gauntlets of steel, like the other white princes, and ride on a horse.”

“Must your face be white all over?” asked the Doctor.

“Yes, all over,” said Bumpo—“and I would like my eyes blue too, but I suppose that would be very hard to do.”

“Yes, it would,” said the Doctor quickly. “Well, I will do what I can for you. You will have to be very patient though—you know with some medicines you can never be very sure. I might have to try two or three times. You have a strong skin—yes? Well that’s all right. Now come over here by the light—Oh, but before I do anything, you must first go down to the beach and get a ship ready, with food in it, to take me across the sea. Do not speak a word of this to any one. And when I have done as you ask, you must let me and all my animals out of prison. Promise—by the crown of Jolliginki!”

So the Prince promised and went away to get a ship ready at the seashore.

When he came back and said that it was done, the Doctor asked Dab-Dab to bring a basin. Then he mixed a lot of medicines in the basin and told Bumpo to dip his face in it.

The Prince leaned down and put his face in—right up to the ears.

He held it there a long time—so long that the Doctor seemed to get dreadfully anxious and fidgety, standing first on one leg and then on the other, looking at all the bottles he had used for the mixture, and reading the labels on them again and again. A strong smell filled the prison, like the smell of brown paper burning.

At last the Prince lifted his face up out of the basin, breathing very hard. And all the animals cried out in surprise.

For the Prince’s face had turned as white as snow, and his eyes, which had been mud-colored, were a manly gray!

Need I really say more?

Now in the 1960s, after The Story of Doctor Dolittle and its numerous sequels had been selling steadily for some decades without much comment – though presumably not being embraced by families-of-any-sort-of-colour-other-than-white – people started to say “Hey! This is kinda-sorta-maybe-a-little-bit RACIST!”

Yeah, you think?

And so the troublesome bits were bowdlerized.

And Doctor Dolittle continued on as a steady seller in his now altered form.

And I don’t quite know what to say about all of this, being in general quite firmly against censorship and alterations to text of older books in response to subsequent adjustments to social standards of acceptance.

But I didn’t read this to my own children back-in-the-day when they were little because it made me utterly queasy, and I shelved that whole Dolittle series which someone had given to me as “charming children’s tales!”, packing it away in a box which still sits in storage because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the books.

Does one release something like that back into the world to be acquired by other unsuspecting parents? Destroy them? Which feels wrong too, on a wholly different level, because I think we can get an awful lot out of keeping intact reminders of how we used to think in days gone by, and by being shocked by it (or not, as the case may be) examine our own social consciences.

So there it is, and here I sit, looking at what I’ve written, and at the clock (because I need to be somewhere else very shortly) and wondering if I should just hit “post” and see if this inspires any sort of engagement, or if you, like me, are still wondering how best to deal with this particular issue.

Your thoughts are, as always, exceedingly welcome!

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Mrs. Harter by E.M. Delafield ~ 1924. This edition: Hutchinson, 1924. Hardcover. 253 pages.

It has taken me several false starts to get past the rather subfusc beginning of this sardonic novel, but once hooked it become so compelling that I stayed up well after midnight last night finishing it off, and quite some time after that lying awake and mulling over my response to it.

Narrated in the first person by Sir Miles Flower, confined to a wheelchair by his injuries during the Great War, Mrs. Harter seems at first a slightly brittle village comedy of the classes, with the arrival in the village of Cross Loman of Diamond Harter from Egypt, who sets eyes flashing and tongues clacking.

Mrs. Harter has come without her husband, and has gone into rather shabby lodgings, and no one (including herself) quite seems to know why she is back home. For Diamond is the daughter of the late village plumber, and the general consensus is that she has boosted herself up a social notch or two by her marriage.

The women in general (with one or two exceptions) greatly resent her arrival, the more so since all of the men seem to find her rather fascinating, and make all sorts of excuses for her, and in a few cases actively seek her out.

Mrs. Harter herself is a stoic character, showing little emotion, being brusque almost to rudeness at all approaches. How odd then that another new arrival, eligible bachelor Captain William (Bill) Patch, seems drawn to Mrs. Harter’s side like a moth to a flame, and it soon becomes apparent that she is in her turn silently infatuated with him.

Sir Miles speculates upon their private lives, going so far as to invent their most private conversations and to indulge in a bit of amateur psychoanalysis, depending on others for most of his information, as he doesn’t actually go out much.

Sir Miles has a complicated relationship of his own with his appalling wife Claire, an overly emotional and deeply egotistical poser of a woman, who turns every conversation to herself, and is capable of nourishing strong resentments towards anyone whom she sees as a competitor for the attention of her social circle, which means just about everyone, and in particular the ex-plumber’s daughter. Claire is decidedly affronted.

Things really get brewing during the production of an amateur theatrical piece; Mrs. Harter proves to have an unexpectedly good singing voice so is dragged into attendance by the universally popular Bill Patch. Open snubs by the snobs are constantly being averted by Sir Miles’ cousin Mary, who is pretty well the only character not to reveal herself to have unpleasant character traits. (Our narrator included.)

There is a lot of dry comedy here, in the character portraits of the villagers – one is reminded of the same sort of thing in the Delafield’s later Provincial Lady novels – but tragedy is never far away.

Mr. Harter shows up unexpectedly, and, being nothing like what anyone expected, his presence sends the simmering situation to a disastrous boil.

E.M. Delafield seems to have had an agenda of sorts in this ironically constructed novel, which seems to be that no one of us can tell what really goes on in the mind of others, and that preconceived notions and even direct observations may often be absolutely wrong. Her narrator has something of an unplanned agenda of his own, the increasing apparent revelation of his deeply buried hatred for his wife, and the disaster that is his own emotional life, brought out into the light during the destruction of the possibility of happiness for Mrs. Harter and Captain Patch.

Not a happy novel, then, but an increasingly fascinating one, well up to the standard we expect from this accomplished writer of the mid-wars period.

My rating: 8/10

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Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1926. This edition: Tauchnitz, 1926. Hardcover. 303 pages.

What happens when an unbelievably beautiful girl is born into a modestly situated, working class, strictly God-fearing family, unable to fathom how best to protect their jewel of a child from the increasingly lecherous gaze of every man who sees her?

By marrying her off, of course, to the first man who offers for her, thereby shifting the responsibility to other shoulders. Beauty as burden is the theme of this little novel, with a dash of reluctant Eliza Doolittle-ism thrown in.

Goddess-like in appearance, strictly working class in every other way, meek and obedient shopkeeper’s daughter Salvatia (Sally for daily use) is catapulted by her desperately out-of-his-depth (and now widowed) father into an absolute mésalliance with brilliant Oxford student Jocelyn Luke.

Jocelyn is infatuated with Sally, and (at first) cares only for the perfection of her face and figure. During the whirlwind courtship which is rushed along by all parties in the interests of keeping her out of the public eye as much as possible (her beauty literally attracts crowds), Jocelyn hasn’t ever stopped to think of what marriage actually means beyond the sanctioned bedding of the loved one, but once he takes a break from the bedroom, he finds himself caught in an appalling situation. His darling Sally is utterly unable to meet him halfway in thought and in conversation; their minds are as far opposite as fire and water; what has he done?!

Optimistically thinking that he can perhaps remake his wife’s mind and manners (not to mention her speaking voice and limited vocabulary, all dropped aitches and “Pardon”s and “Don’t moind if I do”s), Jocelyn trots Sally off to his mother’s house, hoping to foist his wife off on his ladylike mother for a Pygmalion-like re-education.

It doesn’t take. Sally is unchangeable, and deeply unhappy in her new milieu, as she finds kind Mrs. Luke sadly intimidating, and her speech-and-etiquette lessons completely bemusing.

Sally runs away, all the way back home to her father, who refuses to harbour her for a moment, for he’s been enjoying his newly peaceful life. He loads her onto a train with a pound-note and firm instructions to return at once to her husband’s arms, but Sally unaccountably goes astray, only to pop up again in the company of none other than an elderly (and fortunately deaf) Duke.

I’ve left out an enormous number of Sally’s blundering and innocent adventures. She’s continually being pulled about from here to there by her caretakers and random acquaintances, allowing Elizabeth von Arnim to indulge herself in a gleeful and gently sardonic polemic on English society and its hidebound class distinctions. There’s a secondary courtship going on as well, that of the genteelly impoverished, highly cultured Mrs. Luke and her wealthy but intellectually ignorant neighbour Mr. Thorpe, which provides a delicious counterpoint to the main events, as the lives of both couples intertwine and complicate things exponentially.

This romping tale is mostly farce, but there is a kernel of sincerity present too, with the caricatured characters being allowed their moments of genuine humanity. The author is keen-eyed and sharp-tongued but ultimately kind, and she allows her buffeted heroine a certain amount of self-determination as well, by refusing to allow herself to be changed. Sally is what she is, and the sooner her champions accept that, the happier they all will be.

The ending of this story is only a beginning. It’s merely – as the title makes clear – the introduction of Sally to what will obviously become a gently triumphant progress through life. A home of her own, a kind and contented husband, and a lapful of darling babies being Sally’s stated best ambition, it is happily moved forward by her chance acceptance as a protegé by one of the highest in the land. The fickle fate which endowed Sally with her physical gifts has tried her sorely; she’s gone through her testing time; now that same random fate will smooth her way.

As you may have gathered, this is one of the gleefully ridiculous von Arnims, exceeding in its giddy plot even the deeply silly Enchanted April. To be happy in your reading, you must abandon all 21st Century notions of how Sally should behave, and how people should behave to Sally, and remind yourself that it’s just a fictitious story of a nine decades ago, a fairytale of the Twenties, a mere snippet of a gentle farce.

Elizabeth von Arnim’s writing is always a delight, and I enjoyed Introduction to Sally greatly (to the point of reading it twice in the space of a year) but if I absolutely had to choose I daresay I’d have to go with von Arnim’s slightly more serious novels – The Benefactress being the one that springs first to mind – as my “author’s best”.

My rating: 7.5/10

 

 

 

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The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder ~ 1927. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1928 (later printing). Hardcover. 235 pages.

On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below…

Thornton Wilder’s enduring classic (that clichéd phrase applies most pertinently) consists of a number of separate but increasingly entwined narratives. The accounts of the lives of the five travellers who perished are framed on each end by the ultimately tragic tale of Brother Juniper, who witnesses the disaster and in it finds a question: “Why did it happen to those five?”

If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. And on that instant Brother Juniper made the resolve to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons, that moment falling through the air, and to surprise the reason of their taking off.

The Marquesa de Montemayor, obsessed mother, secret alcoholic, astonishingly accomplished letter writer. Orphaned Pepita, bright hope of her convent home’s Mother Superior, lent to the Marquesa as a maid. Pio, jack-of-all trades and committed non-committer, except for his devotion to one person, the once-famous actress Camila Perichole. Jaime, Camila’s young son, frail and epileptic. Esteban, one of a set of twins, whose brother’s recent death has made his own life worthless in his eyes.

Wilder goes on to detail the lives – secret and otherwise – of the five travellers on the bridge, and delves into why they were there at that particular moment. And yes, everything (and everyone) turns out to be connected.

Brother Juniper, six years of research undertaken, yet not being privy to a few intimate details, concludes that the deaths are not as he had intended to prove, the fitting conclusion to lives attaining “a perfect whole”, but instead that they were random interruptions of lives not yet fully lived. The Inquisition disagrees with his thought processes, and Father Juniper perishes by flame, along with all of the copies of his thesis, except for one…

What a beautifully crafted little novel this is.

I read it for the first time in high school, after finding a dusty stack of discarded English lit books in the farthest corner of a classroom bookcase. In retrospect, I’m very glad that I did not have to “study” The Bridge of San Luis Rey, instead being able to read it from end to end without stopping for analysis, and not needing to dissect it in any way. It was a purely emotional experience, and so memorable that now, forty years later, every phrase is still familiar.

My rating: 9/10

 

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The Camomile by Catherine Carswell ~ 1922. This edition: Virago, 1987. Introduction by Ianthe Carswell. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-873-9. 305 pages.

I had already told him about my being an orphan, about my music teaching, and about my writing and Mother’s. Of my writing he said, ‘I see. It is like the camomile – the more it is trodden on the faster it grows.’

This rewarding short novel is written in epistolary form, being made up of two long letters, fore and aft, and journal entries made to be shared with a distant friend.

It starts out as the amusing and somewhat self-absorbed account of a young woman’s journey of self-discovery, of finding her place in the world, and goes on to discuss some of the larger questions which are still pertinent to young people today: Who am I, really? Why am I here? Do I change to meet the desires of others, or stay true to myself?

Our young correspondent is Ellen Carstairs, just back in Glasgow after spending two years studying music in Frankfurt, writing to her London friend Ruby, whom she had met in her first days at the Frankfurt Conservatory of Music.

Ellen has found Ruby to be a kindred soul, for both soon realize that music is not their true métier, though they have some adequate talents in that area to perhaps serve as teachers of novices. They nevertheless do their best to take in their lessons and improve their musical craft, all the while yearning for a truly satisfying occupation, an “art” which will be their one true life’s pursuit, one which they are suited for and which they will excel at.

After their two years of relative freedom in Europe, the friends return home, and get on with the business of earning their livings while at the same time opening themselves up to finding and developing their true callings. For Ruby the true art – the one which chooses the artist – is that of illustration – drawing and painting. And for Ellen, it is writing. Which is a problem, at least as far as her family and friends are concerned.

For Ellen’s mother was a writer. Not a successful one – far from it! She appears to have been (from the clues we are given) a woman obsessed by the need to write without necessarily having enough mastery of the craft to make her scribblings saleable. She has pursued her interest to the exclusion of all else, spending the housekeeping money on self-publishing of pamphlets of sub-par poetry and the like.

This mother inadvertently neglects her two children, to the extent that her young son Ronald is permanently crippled through her heedless actions. Interestingly enough, when she dies when the children are still young, they and their father sincerely mourn her, harking back at her better qualities, and forgiving her (for the most part) her obsession.

Ellen’s missionary father has been absent for much of her childhood and he too is now dead, leaving Ellen and Ronald in the care of his sister Harriet, an Evangelical Presbyterian of unwavering faith. Neither Ellen nor Ronald share the narrow religious beliefs of their father and aunt, but they go along with Aunt Harriet’s wishes in church attendance and such, not wanting to hurt her feelings, for they love her deeply despite their increasing differences.

On her return from Germany, Ellen begins to teach music at her old school and to private students; she earns enough to be able to rent a room and a piano in a neighbour’s house, ostensibly so she can practice undisturbed and undisturbing. Soon she finds that she is using her retreat for writing more than for piano playing; her true art has chosen her and she gives in with secret relief, though she is wary of admitting it to her brother and aunt, and questions herself on the ethical implications of misleading them as to what she is doing.

Ellen fortuitously finds a mentor in an ex-priest, John Barnaby, a brilliant intellectual engaged in quietly, slowly killing himself by drink and near-starvation. John reads Ellen’s manuscripts and encourages her to seek publication, using his past connections in the literary world to push forward her novice submissions.

Just when things seem set for Ellen to commit fully to becoming a professional writer, she falls in love with Duncan, a friend’s brother who is a young doctor on leave from his practice in India. The two become engaged, but though Duncan gives lip service to his wish for Ellen to not give up her own interests, it becomes increasingly obvious that he is oblivious to the importance of her craft to her very identity.

Added to this building dilemma is the fundamental difference in Ellen’s and Duncan’s views towards sex. Ellen believes that people seriously considering marriage should engage in the ultimate intimacy, in order to make sure that they are compatible for a lifetime of marital companionship. Duncan is shocked by this notion, and condescendingly tells Ellen that she is merely a foolish virgin with outlandish ideas; much better to let Duncan guide her in her sexual initiation once they are safely married.

Can you see where this might be going?

Yes, indeed, second thoughts are in order all round…

No surprise that this novel was chosen by feminist press Virago for republication in the 1980s, for it is all about female self-determination in the face of almost universal societal disapproval.

Ellen documents her personal journey with passion and lucidity and not a little humour. This is not in any way a dreary saga of crushed and downtrodden womanhood. No indeed! For like the camomile referenced in the title, the heavy-footed treading here merely makes the flower find another place and way to thrive.

More on Catherine Carswell here.

The Camomile scores a good strong 8/10 from me.

Carswell’s one other novel, Open the Door! (1920) is now firmly on my wish list, as is her partial autobiography Lying Awake.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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