Archive for the ‘1920s’ Category

 

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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jalna mazo de la roche 1927 001Jalna by Mazo de la Roche ~ 1927. This edition: Macmillan, 1977. Hardcover. ISBN: 333-02528-8. 290 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

This dramatically romantic novel by a young Canadian writer won a literary prize of $10,000 upon its publication nearly a century ago: an astonishing amount for the time, equivalent to something like $132,000 in today’s currency. (I looked that bit up using a handy-dandy inflation-indexed currency converter I found online.)

Spurred on by her success, Mazo de la Roche went on to write another fifteen Ontario-set installments in the Whiteoaks family saga, creating something of a literary cottage industry of sequential books, assorted editions and collections, and theatrical, radio and filmed productions for the next fifty years.

I was well aware of this novel and its reputation as an iconic bit of literary Canadiana, but I hadn’t actually read it until this year.

My verdict: I’m not stacking up the other 15 on my night table for essential reading, though I might possibly poke my nose into another one if the mood feels right. I do have a number of them stashed away, found at a library book sale some years ago. I gave them to my mother, and she returned them with not much comment, which should have been a bit of a tip-off.

No hurry on the others, though. Jalna was not particularly compelling. In fact, only okayish is as far as I’m willing to commit myself on this one.

The plot in a nutshell:  Wealthy matriarch Adeline Whiteoak is approaching her 100th birthday, and her various offspring and descendants circle round her angling for her slightly senile blessing.

One grandson unpopularily marries a local girl, by-blow of  the man who once unsuccessfully courted one of Adeline’s daughters, while another brings home an American bluestocking. Both brides soon come to think that perhaps they have chosen the wrong brothers. The eldest of Adeline’s grandsons, broodingly charismatic, ceaselessly womanizing and still-single Renny, catches the eye of the American wife, while her spouse in turn dallies with his brother’s bride. Much chewing of the scenery ensues, helped along by the unmarried members of the family, Adeline’s two elderly sons and her much-past-her-prime passive-aggressive daughter.

Absolute soap opera. Think a lowish-rent Gone With the Wind, sans Civil War and southern drawls and a horribly likeable heroine, but with similar over-the-top romantic heart-throbbings and dirty little secrets. (Perhaps not really the best comparison, but it was what popped into my mind. It’s not really like GWTW at all. Perhaps Mazo de la Roche does stand alone.)

And there’s an elderly parrot, and a cheeky young boy, to provide much-needed levity, though not enough to ultimately save this overwrought thing from itself.

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“So, read any good books lately?” my friend cheerfully asked me yesterday when we were playing catch-up on personal news at the first Farmers’ Market of the season. “I’ve noticed you haven’t been posting on the blog for quite a while.”

I hung my head in bibliophilic shame, and dissembled not very cleverly. “Well, so busy, you know. And I’ve been doing a lot of re-reading. Hard to focus this time of year, what with the garden and all. You know, so busy!”

To be absolutely honest, it’s about the normal state of busy (which translates to quite well occupied indeed), but the book blog has indeed slipped into the neglected category on the want-to-do list, and that makes me most unhappy, because I do truly like rambling on about what obscure gems (or otherwise) I’ve just dragged home from my latest book-hunting excursion.

The sad thing is that I am sitting here and not remembering what I’ve been reading – it’s all lost in the fog of that part of my brain. Wait, the mist is parting… (Aided by a pass through the house and an examination of the main reading spots.)

miss pym disposes josephine tey 1946 pan coverFirst off, the book in hand at present, Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey  (1946). My ???th time reading, as Tey is a fixture on the favourites shelf. Miss Pym, amateur psychologist and unexpectedly bestselling author, visits an old school friend’s “physical training” college, and finds herself observing much more than mere gymnastics. A quietly humorous mystery story which works just as well as a “proper” novel, as do all of Tey’s too-few puzzle tales.  The details are wonderful. I haven’t yet properly reviewed Miss Pym Disposes, but I have previously said a few things about Pym’s first novel, The Man in the Queue (1929), and her later “double life” suspense novel, To Love and Be Wise (1950). As with everything by Josephine Tey, highly recommended. Late Golden Age mystery fiction at its very best.

without mercy john goodwin 1920 001Without Mercy: The Story of a Mother’s Vengeance by John Goodwin (1920). This old thriller was pretty bad, but I did read it cover to cover, so it must have had some redeeming qualities. Its sheer melodrama kept me interested enough to follow the improbable twists and turns right up to the satisfyingly clichéd ending.  A beautiful virgin falls into hands of evil men in the South American jungle, is stripped naked and lashed with whips until point of death and then (by implication) raped, or at least threatened with rape. Fast forward some years, to the meeting of the ex-virgin and her chief assaulter, both now moving in London’s high society. Cue emotional confrontations, kidnappings, financial and political skulduggery, a barge on the Thames full of high explosives (BOOM!!!), incredible rescues (numerous), and a generous sloshing of chloroform (refer back to kidnappings: in aid of.) Eventually (page 300 or thereabouts) the bad dude gets his fatal comeuppance: “You have a revolver; you know what to do with it, Sir X. I will give you an hour to settle your affairs and write out a full confession before revealing all to the authorities!” (Or words to that effect.) The hero gets the lovely girl: “Go forward, children, and drink deep of the cup of Life. For me, at last, there is peace.” (Direct quote.) I think we could safely call this a period piece, and gently change the subject. Promotional note facing title page:

WHAT THIS STORY IS ABOUT

Mrs. Garth is the head of the last of the great private banks, Garth, Garth and Trelawnes. She has a genius for finance, and is also a great personage in the social world.

Madame Vampire, the director of Gordon’s Limited, the notorious moneylenders, is also a power; but not for good.

No one suspects the truth, that Mrs. Garth and Madame Vampire are one and the same woman.

Sir Melmouth Craven, of the sinister Sternberg Syndicate, desires to marry Mrs. Garth’s beautiful daughter, Margaret. He is humiliated, and determines to be revenged upon the mother versus the daughter.

The story is full of thrilling situations and exciting incidents.

Indeed.

stickfuls irvin s cobb 1923 001Now for something rather different. Stickfuls: Compositions of a Newspaper Minion by Irvin S. Cobb (1923). (Later editions bear the title Myself – To Date.) This was a very enjoyable read, being the autobiographical account of the writer’s youth and early years making his way in journalism. Wryly humorous, self-revealingly honest, sometimes poignant, and always opinionated, this is a quietly glowing example of what memoir can be. I had no idea who Irvin S. Cobb was when I picked this book up last year in one of Vancouver’s overflowing used and rare book emporiums, Lawrence Books on the corner of Dunbar and West 41st (situated conveniently en route between the UBC Botanical Garden and Van Dusen Botanical Garden – fellow bookish horts take note), but a few moments browsing between its green linen covers convinced me to add it to my armful of vintage treasures. Now that I have made Mr. Cobb’s acquaintance, I find myself inclined to keep an eye open for some of his other writings, which I am sure will be very readable, if Stickfuls is a typical sample of this man’s smooth and clean prose.

A Wikipedia page details Cobb’s exceedingly full life and productive career. A very condensed summation:

Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb (June 23, 1876 – March 11, 1944) was an American author, humorist, editor and columnist from Paducah, Kentucky who relocated to New York during 1904, living there for the remainder of his life. He wrote for the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, as the highest paid staff reporter in the United States.

Cobb also wrote more than 60 books and 300 short stories. Some of his works were adapted for silent movies. Several of his Judge Priest short stories were adapted for two feature films during the 1930s directed by John Ford.

That’s all for this morning, but now that I’ve broken the long silence I hope to get back into the habit of posting a bit more frequently.

Off to dig a few more post holes on the horribly steep hillside – a rather daunting but sorely overdue project, replacing a very tired split-rail Russell fence with something rather more sheep- and farm-dog-proof, to keep the critters properly confined.

Cheerio! And happy Sunday.

 

 

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The Proper Place by O. Douglas (Pseudonym of Anna Buchan) ~ 1926. This edition: Nelson, no date, circa 1940s. Hardcover. 378 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

This has been a week for seeking out “comfort reads”, and who better to provide such than the low-key Scottish writer, Anna Buchan. She wrote under the pseudonym O. Douglas, in order to modestly distance herself from her more prominent brother, the renowned thriller writer (and Governor-General of Canada from 1935 to 1940, when he died in office) John Buchan, a.k.a. Lord Tweedsmuir.

I am therefore dusting off and slightly editing this old post from July of 2012, in which I talk about one of my favourite O. Douglas novels, The Proper Place.

This is my favourite of Anna Buchan’s  books which I’ve read to date. The first time I read this, I had already read the sequel, The Day of Small Things, so I knew what had happened to a great extent before the characters did, if that makes sense. But I think it enhanced rather than detracted from my reading experience, for I came to the story with a pre-existing knowledge of and fondness for the characters and greatly enjoyed expanding my acquaintance with them.

As the story opens, the sole surviving offspring of the aristocratic Scottish Rutherfurd family, Nicole, is showing the family home to a prospective buyer. Of its twenty bedrooms, “twelve quite large, and eight small”, only three are now occupied, for with Nicole’s two brothers perished in the Great War and her father dead soon after, the family now consists only of Nicole, her mother, Lady Jane, and a orphaned cousin, Barbara Burt, who was raised by Lady Jane from childhood.

The three women are finding it impossible to carry on financially, and have reluctantly but sensibly decided that their only option is to sell the Rutherfurd estate and establish themselves in more modest accommodations. Lady Jane has retreated into a gently passive acceptance of her fate, Barbara is resentful but more or less compliant, and Nicole is very much making the best of things and looking hard for a silver lining in their cloud of sorrow and difficult circumstances.

The prospective buyers, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson of Glasgow, having attained great wealth after many years of striving, are ready for the next step in their social advancement, and hope with their purchase of Rutherfurd Hall to establish their son Andy as a “county” gentleman.

This is where the story departs a bit from the expected norm. One would expect the nouveau riche Jacksons to be portrayed as interlopers and figures of mild scorn, but instead we find that the author takes us into their world for a bit and gives an insight into their motivations and intentions that puts us fully on their side. Nicole herself, after her initial, well-hidden resentment, finds herself viewing out-spoken Mrs. Jackson first with quiet humour and soon after with sincere affection, with interesting repercussions further along in the story.

The Rutherfurds find a new home in the seaside town of Kirmeikle, and rent the old and stately but much more reasonably sized Harbour House for a year to see if they will adapt to the life of the town dweller, and to give themselves a bit of breathing space to ponder their futures. They are still very well-off, with sizeable incomes coming from their investments, and they enter easily into the upper strata of Kirkmeikle society.

For a story in which not much really happens, the author packs it full of likeable, amusing characters, and quietly intriguing situations. Though the tone is continually optimistic, somehow this tale escapes being “too sweet” by the pervasive presence of loss, grief and hardship resulting from the war, and by the occasionally pithy observations of some of the more astringent characters.

Nicole and Lady Jane are most obviously our heroines throughout, while Barbara plays a slightly secondary role. She is perhaps the least likeable character due to her deep-seated snobbishness and condescending attitude, but we get to know her well enough to understand the basis of her sometimes negative outlook. O. Douglas is a very fair-minded author, and she generally allows her characters the grace of a deep enough glimpse into their lives and thoughts to allow us to place their words and actions in full context, which was something I fully appreciated in this story.

A gentle, genuinely moving, small-in-scope novel with a stalwart strength to it; a very Scottish sort of vintage story, in the best possible sense.

A more detailed, equally favourable review is here, from the I Prefer Reading  blog of Lyn, from Melbourne, Australia.

http://preferreading.blogspot.ca/2010/09/proper-place-o-douglas.html

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These three books were not as diverting as I’d wished them to be.

Perhaps in another mood at another time I would give them better reviews – and I do intend to give Priestley’s Adam in Moonshine a second trial at some point – but today I’m calling them as I see them.

It won’t be a brutal massacre, I hasten to say, as all three had various degrees of enjoyability, but neither do I plan to hide my disappointment in their failings to entirely amuse.

As always, one person’s opinion – please don’t take it to heart if you love these novels, and do try to convince me otherwise if you think I’ve missed the point. One of my favourite things is when someone says, “Hey, wait a minute…” and eloquently defends something I’ve scorned, inspiring a second look from a new perspective.

Here we go.

adam in moonshine j b priestleyAdam in Moonshine by J.B. Priestley ~ 1927. This edition: Heinemann, 1931. Hardcover. 293 pages.

My rating: 6/10

That “6” is a very generous rating, given mostly because of Adam in Moonshine’s “first novel” status by a writer I mostly admire, and the more than decent quality of the writing.

The plot, on the other hand, might be described as virtually non-existent. Interesting reading for a Priestley collector, but if the author was someone unknown to me I’m thinking this one would be in the box by the door, waiting to be passed along.

Of course, because it is a Priestley, and because I went to the trouble to seek out and order it from England, and because it is an interesting read in view of the author’s later works, I will keep Adam in Moonshine and, yes, eventually re-read it. But I will not recommend it to the rest of you for amusement purposes, because it is ultimately not even as solid as fluff. Like the referenced moonshine, its genuine but slight pleasures are purely transient.

Handsome young bachelor Adam Stewart, setting off on a country holiday, is in a mopish state. He should be thrilled at the thought of rambling over the dew-fresh North Country moors, hobnobbing with the birds and the bees and the little wild flowers, but he can’t seem to wind himself up to the appropriate mood. And when his railway compartment companion turns out to be a sternly bombastic, pessimistic cleric, the holiday atmosphere deteriorates even further.

But wait – what’s this?! Here comes a third man, flustered and rushing and escorted by a bevvy of lovely young ladies  – well, only three when Adam takes a closer look, but the effect is that of a bevvy – and as the train pulls out to the fervent goodbyes of the girls on the platform, Adam has perked up considerably, because it turns out that there is a rendezvous planned between the mystery man (father of one of the young lovelies) and the girls at the very village which Adam is himself heading for.

The sudden and disastrous opening of an attaché case filled with false beards catapults the action surreally forward, and before he knows it Adam is deeply embroiled in a ridiculous scenario having something to do with a conspiracy to bring back the Stuart line of royalty to the throne of England.

A case of mistaken identity – “Stewart” being assumed to be “Stuart” – takes our Adam into the heart of the not-very-clever plot, and leads to his infatuated and ultimately unfulfilling dalliances with all three of the lovely maidens.

He gets his share of wandering about the moors in all sorts of weathers, and emerges back into the sunlight of his everyday life blinking and bemused. Was it all a dream…?

If so, a jolly solid one, at 292 pages.

kitty foyle christopher morley 001Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley ~ 1939. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, circa 1940, with movie tie-in dust jacket featuring Ginger Rogers. Hardcover. 340 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I enjoyed this one rather uneasily, as Morley’s man-writing-as-a-woman wasn’t entirely convincing, and our heroine’s stream-of-consciousness narration often felt forced.

Chock-full of casual racism towards pretty well everyone of every colour and race, but, to be fair, never in a mean-spirited way.

In our present time, “Kitty’s” casual commentary would be read as utterly politically incorrect – a heads-up for those hyper-sensitive to these nuances – but if taken with a dash of “era-acceptable” tolerance, rather an interesting take on how a character of the time might conceivably think.

The October 1939 Kirkus review had this to say:

Surprise! Surprise! This proves how facile Chris Morley can be, for this is a far cry from everything he has done, whether whimsy, humor or intellectualized satire… This is primarily the story of a shanty Irish girl, how she was born, bred, and put through the mill, done in stream-of-consciousness tough-baby style… But it’s right good reading. Kitty is a high spirited, strong, and very straight young woman. Her early childhood in Philadelphia, daughter of a crude but lovable cricket coach, is nicely done, giving quite a feel of the city, its lethargy, immutable traditions, etc. At sixteen she meets Wyn, a sweet weakling from a blueblood family, whom she is to love for all time. She lives with him, becomes pregnant, but does away with the child because she is unwilling to tie Wyn to her, knowing that he cannot buck his family if he marries her, and knowing that she will be dishonest with herself if she broadens her a’s for him. Career girl on the side, she works later in New York for a cosmetics outfit, and at the close thinks of marriage to a man she does not love for companionship and stability. There’s some telling background detail on Philadelphia, points east and west, there’s some ingenious writing on the stunt side, but all in all it’s semi-light fiction…

There you pretty well have it.

I confess I was a bit taken aback by the frankness of much of Kitty’s narration – she discusses the most sensitive topics with slangy candour – the physical relationship between her parents, her father’s prostate disorder, the realities of living with chamber pots and a “backhouse” for toilet purposes, her own adolescent physical development, including the onset of her first menstrual period while travelling alone on a train, the sometimes very active sex life of the single “white collar” working girl, an unplanned pregnancy and her subsequent abortion of the baby…all in all, rather strong stuff for a popular mainstream novel. No real surprise that it was soon labelled as “filthy” by various church groups once its bestseller hype brought it to their attention.

Mixed with this hyper-realism is a strand of fairy tale fantasy, for Kitty is portrayed as being something of a perfect person – smart, funny, beautiful, and very lucky in her casual acquaintances, and always, despite her frequent hard knocks, falling jam side up.

Sure, she voluntarily gives up her One True Love, the aristocratic Wynnewood Strafford VI, because she is so darned sterling-natured as to want to spare him the disgrace of having a not-quite-top-drawer wife, but it’s not the hardship it might be (aside from the “he and she will secretly pine forever” bit, and that abortion) because going her own way seems to be Kitty’s reward to herself, and fate proves consistently ready to cushion her every fall.

Kitty Foyle was made into a very successful 1940 movie, starring Ginger Rogers in her first “serious” movie role. “Very successful” should be repeated, as her portrayal of Kitty Foyle won Miss Rogers the 1941 Oscar for Best Actress, which would perhaps make this novel one for the vintage movie buff to investigate.

Chock full of period colour, and fast-moving enough to keep one entertained, so I will say “check it out” to those so inclined, but to be completely blunt this is a very minor sort of novel – Kirkus’s “semi-light” says it well. Solid melodrama, in case that hasn’t quite come across.

And oh, yes, this is the same Christopher Morley who wrote Parnassus on Wheels, The Haunted Bookshop, and the very weird (as in featuring anthropomorphic dogs) Where the Blue Begins, among dozens of other novels. Kitty Foyle is nothing like any of these; you have to give Morley credit for not getting stuck in any sort of a “formula” groove!

Of these three novels, Kitty Foyle is the only one I would recommend as worth going to some effort to experience, but mind the caveats and please don’t expect a masterpiece of any sort, though the writing is much more than competent.

aiding and abetting muriel sparkAiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark ~ 2000. This edition: Viking, 2000. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-670-89428-1. 182 pages.

My rating: 4.75/10

Hmmm. An odd little novel, even taking into consideration the quirkiness of this particular writer.

I occasionally felt the “chuck it across the room” urge, in particular during the cannibal scene near the end (yes, you read that correctly), but I soldiered on and made it to the end with an unwilling smile on my face. Dame Muriel pulled it off yet again, to my reluctant admiration – I finished it despite myself.

So – does everyone remember Lord Lucan? If not, go take a quick gander here.

For summation of the plot of Aiding and Abetting, I am going to fall back on yet another Kirkus review (they are so nicely succinct, when done well) this one from November of 2000.

With her usual and famous narrative economies—though without the deeper energies she’s created in other of her books—Dame Muriel weaves her own fabric out of the real-life bits and threads left by the vile Lord Lucan.

On November 7th, 1974, the seventh Earl of Lucan mistakenly bludgeoned to death his children’s nanny instead of his divorced wife—whom he managed only to wound badly in spite of his feeling that “destiny” called for her death (he was angry, it seems, that she’d been given child-custody). And then? After wreaking his cruel havoc, the shallow Lucan quickly disappeared, wanted for murder and attempted murder but aided by influential friends in escape and hiding. Twenty-five years later, as the present novel opens, there appears in the office of a Paris psychoanalyst a patient claiming to be Lucan—followed by another claiming the same. Which, if either, is the real Lucan? And what does he, or they, want? Money, not surprisingly, which he/they hope to gain by blackmailing the shrink, she being one Hildegard Wolf, herself still wanted for an earlier and successful life of criminal fraud under a previous name—a vulnerability that makes her, think the Lucans, unlikely to turn them in. But of course it’s got to be cleared up as to which Lucan is Lucan—as, meanwhile, other complications ensue, such as Hildegard Wolf’s quick disappearance into hiding in deepest London; the pursuit of the real Lucan by a pair newly in love but connected from far back indeed with Lucan and the horrible murder; and the skilled and timely maneuverings of Pierre, Hildegard’s lover back in Paris, which will result in—well, in the Waughesque end of the story.

Quick, incisive, often entertaining, sometimes mysterious, at a moment or two compelling, but overall and generally, slight…

I nod in agreement with the summation of the last line, except for the incisive bit.

I thought the tale much too repetitive, in fact, and not so much incisive as lazy. Corners were indeed cut, regarding character and plot development, but a certain cluster of sanguinary details was endlessly repeated, and in my opinion needlessly so, for I felt that they weakened the impact, though I suspect the author felt they might have some sort of talismanic effect. (“Blood, blood, blood…”)

The final fate of one of the Lucans is bizarre even for a typically morbid Spark dénouement, and do I detect a certain racist element (the “primitive” Africans) which is out of place even in a purely satirical end-of-the-20th-Century tale?

Rated rather generously at very close to a “5” because of who the author is, for I have enjoyed many of her other novels in varying degrees, though usually with some reservations.

As an example of her end-of-career work (Aiding and Abetting was her second to last published novel) it is acceptably diverting, but it’s not one of her best by a far cry. More of a novella than a novel, and not particularly well-developed or well-edited. In fact, for such a generally crisp writer, this one is sloppy. Firmly on Muriel Spark’s B-list, in my opinion.

What one is left with most memorably is the thought of all that sticky, sticky blood…

 

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the good companions musson j b priestley 001

The Good Companions by J.B. Priestley ~ 1929. This edition: Musson, 1930. Hardcover. 640 pages.

My rating: 10/10

A middle-aged Yorkshire laborer who has just been fired from his carpenter’s job at the local mill, a recent Cambridge graduate-cum-reluctant-schoolmaster with literary ambitions and a talent for creating catchy tunes on the piano, and a sedately dutiful upper-class spinster-daughter in her fourth decade recently freed of familial responsibilities by the death of her elderly father are all thrown together by the whim of fate.

The set-up of the main characters’ backstories takes up a good third or so of this very rambling narrative, and it is not until we are well into the book that their paths convene, as they fall in with another lot of fate-tossed travellers, the stranded members of a theatrical troupe, the ex-Dinky Doos.

The result of this leisurely and detailed approach is a likeable period piece of a book – “a long, comic, picaresque, a fairy-tale sort of novel”, to quote the author’s own words in 1937’s autobiographical Midnight on the Desert – as the newly united characters form a travelling concert party/pierrot troupe, performing in rural towns and small industrial cities throughout the Yorkshires and surrounding districts.

The Good Companions was written between the wars, when Priestley was dealing with some serious personal issues, such as the recent death of his young wife from cancer (leaving behind two baby daughters), and his own chronic physical difficulties resulting from injuries and gassing while serving in the trenches of WW I. His decision to create an ultimately happy novel – the characters, despite their very real troubles, all attain at least a modicum of their personal hearts’ desires – was immensely popular with the public, and the book was an astoundingly successful bestseller. But the highbrow critics sneered, and though Priestley enjoyed the much-needed financial security The Good Companions provided, the dismissive attitudes of his literary peers wounded him deeply.

The book retains its appeal today. The likeable concert party characters are all very human in their thoughts, desires, ambitions and reactions to various setbacks, and though we are aware of the author’s omnipotent hand in strategically arranging the various random incidents which result in the united happy ending, we good naturedly accept the more creative developments and cheer our people on. There is also a certain historical interest in the novel’s detailed portrayal of a now-vanished theatrical sub-culture, which, even as it still flourished, was being inexorably replaced by the “new-technology” moving picture shows, as is shown in one of the final plot twists of the novel.

Highly recommended, for “cultural literacy” reasons as much as for its engaging story.

Budget yourself a goodly chunk of time to read this one. At over 600 small-print pages, it takes a certain amount of optimistic persistence to embark upon, but once entered into will provide a lovely escape from the one’s own ho-hum everyday routine.

lost empires jb priestley 001Lost Empires by J.B. Priestley ~ 1965. Subtitled Being Richard Herncastle’s account of his life on the variety stage from November 1913 to August 1914 together with a Prologue and Epilogue by J.B. Priestley. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1966. Hardcover. 381 pages.

My rating: 9/10

J.B. Priestley revisits the world of the travelling theatrical party which he so famously documented in 1929’s The Good Companions, but this novel, written some three decades later, is a much grittier and less outwardly cheerful thing than its predecessor.

Whereas The Good Companions was written as a contemporary novel reflective of its time (though a highly sentimentalized and “feel-good” version, and that’s not meant to be derogatory, as the author himself states that this was his intention), Lost Empires is frequently melancholy and foreboding, and very much about looking back and describing a certain rigidly defined period of time in relation to what came after.

The casual reader might assume Lost Empires to be lightly disguised autobiography, so intimate are the thoughts and events recorded, but Priestley distances himself from the narrative by presenting himself as the author of both the preface and epilogue to the tale, with the set-up being that an old friend, the Richard (Dick) Herncastle named in the subtitle, has asked Priestley-the-famous-writer to look over the memoir for him. The framing device works very well, and the resulting novel is taut with a certain suspense, as we-the-readers know what young Dick’s future may hold. He’s a physically fit, unencumbered young man in his very early twenties, and the year is 1913. Everything is about to change beyond recognition in his world; we know that as we embark upon the first chapter.

But though war is looming – and a number of the wiser characters in Lost Empires are grimly predicting what later came to pass – the mood in England is one of wanting to be distracted from the political rumblings all around, and the music halls are thriving, into which unlikely milieu our young protagonist is initiated by his black-sheep-of-the-family Uncle Nick.

Dick, newly orphaned by the death of his mother, aspires to be an artist, but has been forced by circumstances to give up his plans of attending art school to instead work as an office clerk. Uncle Nick, attending his sister’s funeral, takes Dick aside and offers him a position as his assistant in his very successful variety show act.

Uncle Nick is an accomplished illusionist of the “vanishing lady” type, and his perfectionism and scornful antipathy to any sort of sentiment make him an awkward sort of employer, family ties or not, but Dick’s dogged determination to continue with his artistic goals despite the logistical difficulties earns his uncle’s respect, and the two settle into a mostly successful working relationship.

Dick has never been in a position to travel or to associate with people from such a broad strata of society as the touring variety show allows, and it rather goes to his head. His good looks and polite middle-class manners make him the focus of unnervingly aggressive attention from some of the women in the other acts (and also from his uncle’s own act’s female member, one of whose unofficial duties is to share the principle’s bed), but the one woman he would like to get on closer terms with is unaccountably cold and snubbing, though she unbends for a brief period, long enough for Dick to fall deeply in love with her, before she again cold-shoulders him.

Emotionally bruised and sexually frustrated, a situation made much worse by the continual presence of nubile young women in revealing costumes, Dick, still a sexual virgin as his variety-stage history opens, is ready to fall, and fall he does. He is seduced by and then obsessively enters into a torrid relationship with one of the older women in a co-starring act, with disastrous consequences when his real love is told of his defection to the well-experienced arms of another.

This book is chock-full of sex, not particularly graphic but described with enough detail to make one very aware of the change in times since The Good Companions first appeared to the time when Lost Empires was written. Though we have no doubts that some of the characters in The Good Companions were also sexually active, and prone to drinking too much on occasion, and sometimes involved in questionable personal pursuits, many of the details aren’t given, and the more risqué bits are generally glossed over, or given the light comedy treatment.

Very much not so in Lost Empires, with the result that it is a much stronger sort of novel in a modern, no-topic-is-forbidden sense, though Priestley provides a soft-focussed epilogue which echoes that of his earlier tale, with our hero finding his personal redemption and with most loose ends neatly tucked away.

And that final soft focus is what docked Lost Empires its point in my personal rating in comparison to The Good Companions‘ solid 10.

The Good Companions satisfied because it did exactly what it said it would on the flyleaf: it amused. The author dances his characters for us, and he blatantly manipulates fate to favour them, and, as it’s all part of the game and known to us going in, we cheerfully play along.

Lost Empires is, for the most part, a rather deeper book, with its vividly imagined and occasionally disturbing coming-of-age tale, and its sober look back at a nation heading unhappily into a devastating war. I felt, however, that J.B. Priestley pulled back just a bit from where he could have gone with it, and though Lost Empires is a very good thing, the eventual resolution of its hero’s problems felt slightly deus ex machina, hand of puppet master evident at the last.

This said, also very highly recommended. A good example of Priestley’s later fiction, and a must-read for anyone interested in exploring this prolific writer’s A-list.

 

 

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I read these two books some time back, and have been holding off writing them up, because with someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald, really, what can one say that hasn’t already been said at great length and with much more scholarly emphasis.

FSF is a writer I admire for his stylistic flourishes and sheer readability, but don’t love because, quite frankly, I don’t buy into the droning negativity which lies beneath the outer hectic activity of his prose.

And, to be quite honest, I felt this way back in teenage days when I powered through Gatsby, and Tender is the Night, and the Babylon Revisited collection, and picked up on their hopelessness, long before I knew that the writer was a troubled alcoholic. When I found that out the penny dropped, and everything that bothered me suddenly made sense. But it didn’t make me overlook the fact that reading FSF made me brutally impatient with the self-destructive antics of his characters. And, by extension, with the author. Made me want to shake him, and then tip all of his bootleg bottles off the end of a Long Island pier. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Forgive these “non-reviews”, please. It’s mostly a matter of going through the motions before ticking them off the Century of Books list, I’m afraid, because my heart just isn’t into thoughtful analysis.

this side of paradise f scott fitzgerald dover editionThis Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald ~ 1920. This edition: Dover, 1996. Softcover. ISBN: 0-486-28999-0. 213 pages.

My rating: 8/10

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant first novel. And yes, I fully concur with that common assessment.

Undeniably autobiographical and chock full of the expected Big Important Thoughts. We follow young “romantic egoist” Amory Blaine from his schoolboy days to Princeton University, into and out of a doomed love affair. World War I intervenes, but is treated as an offstage interlude with no detail given. Back from the war, Amory falls in love again, but is rejected and in the midst of his emotional agony has an epiphany of sorts in which he realizes that the only relationship which he is in control of is that of himself to himself.

FSF scholars obviously have a lot to say about this one, so I’ll save my breath. For pleasure reading, it’s a bit of a chore, being typically “first novel” full of everything the writer wants to say literally spewed out on the page. He didn’t hold much back. Stylistically extremely uneven it includes long monologues, poetry, overwrought dramatic and amorous passages, and a superabundance of introspection.

But it’s also quite brilliant in parts, and is very much worthy of a thoughtful read, especially if you felt that The Great Gatsby was a light sort of thing to explain FSF’s solid reputation as an American literary genius.

While I have some hesitation about the popular notion of “Fitzgerald as genius” myself, he was a darned good writer, and this first novel is a strong and frequently moving piece of work, despite its under-edited maunderings.

the basil and josephine stories f scott fitzggeraldThe Basil and Josephine Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald ~ Short stories originally published 1928-1931 in The Saturday Evening Post – The full collection published in 1973. This edition: Scribner, 1997. Softcover. Introduction by Jackson R. Bryer and John Kuel. Afterword by Matthew J. Bruccoli. ISBN: 0684-82618-6. 334 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Even if I didn’t know that FSF lived most of his life in an alcoholic haze, I’d suspect that he had some long-standing issues of depression and serious personal doubt from the tone of this collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, which, even at their sprightliest, are revealing of something secretly, desperately dark going on in their young protagonists’ souls.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from these short stories, which were episodes originally intended by FSF to form part of a novel, but which were instead reformatted in short story style when the author hit a long flat spot in his attempt to follow up 1926’s very successful The Great Gatsby with something of similar (or preferably better) verve.

Being expectant of something rather light and sparkling from the promotional blurb on the back cover – “Best-loved and most beguiling…charming and evocative…” – the jaded bitterness and world weariness of these cynical tales brought me up short. Don’t get me wrong – they were very good, just not as light-hearted as advertised on the package.

More than competently written, which probably goes without saying.

The first nine stories concern a certain Basil Duke Lee, from precocious pre-adolescence to his time in Princeton University. If you’ve read This Side of Paradise, you’ve already met “Basil” – he’s merely another one of FSF’s not very well-disguised portrayals of his young self. Attractive, egotistical and amorous, Basil is as doomed to ultimate grief in his personal relationships as his creator was, though his goings-on make for good reading.

The last five stories concern Josephine Perry, the feminine equivalent of Basil, being precociously bright, pretty, popular, and much in demand by the opposite sex. She is always seeking a new thrill, and finding nothing which will take her completely out of herself as she just knows she can be transported in the right combination of circumstances. In the last story, we find that Josephine is at long last realizing that the fault is perhaps in her own make-up; perhaps she can’t truly let herself go in total abandonment in any sort of real relationship, platonic or romantic.

So young in years and yet so desperately tired in spirit, these two, living their outwardly sparkling but secretly depressed parallel lives…

FSF meant to bring these two characters together in a final story, but didn’t get around to it. One rather wonders what they’d make of each other. I suspect something ultimately disappointing, so perhaps it’s just as well that they didn’t fictionally meet.

 

 

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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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