Archive for the ‘1930s’ Category

Heat Lightning by Helen Hull ~ 1932. This edition: Coward-McCann, 1932. Hardcover. 328 pages.

Apologies first to anyone receiving these posts via email. I accidentally hit “publish” last night while saving the first bit of this post, so you might have read the intro and not much else!

The books-to-be-written-about are piling up again. This is a mixed good-bad thing. Good because it means I’ve had a fair bit of reading time (these long dark evenings) and bad because, well, the books are piling up!

I’m also feeling a bit disgruntled right now because of the Canada Post labour dispute. The Postal Carriers’ Union is carrying out rotating one-day strikes right now in order to put pressure on the CP corporation to get an expired contract improved and renewed, and apparently the mail backlog is suddenly so severe that Canada Post has closed the borders to out-of-Canada mail. Which means that the list of things-from-ABE I had planned for topping off my Century of Books project (and my Christmas season reading indulgence) is in limbo, as are all of the very time sensitive seed orders for our plant nursery, which are already somewhere in the international mail system.

The book lack is merely annoying, but the seed delay is potentially financially brutal, so I’m rather tense at the moment. Totally in sympathy with the strikers, and hoping they get a decent settlement, but argh – my stuff!

I think October was my “breathing space” month, as things are getting exceedingly busy once again, with no sign of a let-up. So book posts might  well be slimmer than I’d like them to be, though I hope to keep them coming. I have a lot of “business” writing in my life at present; the “fun” book blog is back seat priority!

Okay, that personal update out of the way, let’s take a quick look at Helen Hull’s Heat Lightning.

Midwest American writer Helen Hull was on her way up as a popular fiction writer when she wrote this introspective domestic novel during the first early years of the Great Depression.

Amy Norton stands on the baking hot street in her old home town in Michigan. She’s just arrived from New York, running away – her own words – from something as yet undefined. She’s just had a minor operation; she’s supposed to be convalescing; her children are safely off to summer camp; her husband is apparently “off fishing”, but she’s not really sure if that is the case. Amy is looking forward to spending a week or two sheltered in the refuge of her childhood roof, back in a place where she once had a clearly defined identity as one of the wealthy and respectable Westovers, firmly ensconced in the social order of the town.

But something is out of kilter. No one has come to meet her, she stands with her luggage all alone, wondering why she’s come, and if this will indeed prove to be what she’s looking for: a breathing space, a way to regain her emotional equilibrium to go forward and then back to whatever it is she’s stepped away from.

What had possessed her to come? The heat curled up about her ankles, pressed a straw odor out of the shantung silk across her shoulders. Even the drug store windows were a duplicate of the city. Traffic lights regulated automatically for all of life. This place would have no virtue for her, no wisdom for her need. There was the movie house her grandmother had built, and how the family had pounded against it! The Westover Block cut in stone over the entrance, garish posters on the boards beside the door. LAWRENCE TIBBETS (sic) IN “THE ROGUE SONG.” Radios in the window of the furniture store, and a set of porch furniture with striped awning cushions and a sun umbrella, quite in the Long Island manner. Everything was a duplication of everywhere else…

When Amy reaches her parents’ house, she does settle into a sort of normal, though there are obvious cracks in the smooth surface of things-as-they-were. It is 1930, a year after the great Wall Street stock market crash, and instability is permeating every aspect of the American economy; even the most well regulated of businesses is finding that things are getting difficult; the money isn’t where it once was. Everyone’s uneasy.

The summer heat isn’t helping. No rain has fallen for months, it’s turned into a drought. Leaves hang limply on trees, flowers are burning up in gardens as crops are in fields, dust is thick enough to taste, and tempers are flaring to match the weather.

Early edition dust jacket, sadly not present with my own copy.

Melodrama is lurking in the sultry shadows, and no sooner does Amy arrive then things long brewing start to boil over: a baby is born too early, an illegitimate sibling is identified, a bootlegger’s stash leads to violence, a hired girl’s pregnancy implicates a Westover son, the wealthiest brother fights bankruptcy with vicious amorality, a will is destroyed, a matriarch dies. The foundations everyone never really  thought about but assumed were rock solid are shaking.

Amy, hoping to gain wisdom in her own moral dilemma by observing and learning from her admired mother and grandmother, finds herself an unwilling voyeur of bad decisions coming home to roost, with sordid family secrets and true natures – good and bad – revealed.

This is a quietly powerful book. Despite the dramatic embellishments, Hull keeps her character Amy moving steadily forward, working out her personal dilemmas, drawing up her roadmap for moving on with her own life, and watching carefully how her disparate family navigates the small and large tragedies which have befallen them.

Heat Lightning is a fascinating period piece which embellishes our understanding of how the onset of the Great Depression affected the stolidly respectable and secure American urban upper middle class. No picturesquely dusty farmers here, merely small town businessmen finding their investments crumbling away bit by bit, watching their inventories stagnate, and hearing whispers of discontent and fear from all around.

Helen Hull was a noted feminist in her time, and Heat Lightning addresses the ever-thorny issue of womens’ roles in society. She talks both in veiled terms and then quite frankly of premarital sex, abortion, lesbianism, and the quandaries of navigating as an “advancing woman” through the status quo of a patriarchal society and its matriarchal shadow world.

Thought provoking stuff, all wrapped up in a rather engaging fictional form.

I liked it. I want to read more things by Helen Hull.

My rating: 8/10

Heat Lightning, which was a Book-of-the-Month selection in 1932, is easy to find secondhand, and it was also republished by Persephone a few years ago. (Author bio here.) A few of her other novels were republished by university presses and are relatively common: Quest (1922), and Islanders (1927), were “feminist studies” set novels for some years and copies are easy to find. As for the rest of Helen Hull’s twenty or so novels, keep your eyes open, and good luck.

The search might be complicated by the fact that there are no less than three authorial Helen Hulls writing in roughly the same time period. Heat Lightning‘s author is Helen R. (Rose) Hull, but you may find works by Helen Hull Jacobs popping up in your search engine (a noted tennis player, she wrote a number of mostly sports-related books later in her career), and garden writer Helen S. Hull will show up, too.

Below, the Book-of-the-Month Club insert for Heat Lightning, snagged from Scott’s excellent Furrowed Middlebrow review.

Couldn’t resist adding this 1930 movie poster featuring Lawrence Tibbett, as referenced in the first few pages of Heat Lightning. (Either Hull or her editor spelled Tibbett’s name wrong in the novel.)

 

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Lost Horizon by James Hilton ~ 1933. This edition: World’s Best Reading Series, The Reader’s Digest Association, 1990. Illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. Afterword by Warren Eyster. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-89577-361-9. 191 pages.

 

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
‘Relax’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave…’

Remember the 1976 song ‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles? Well, roll four decades or so back, and you could conceivably apply some of those iconic lyrics to James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, in particular the refrain about ‘What a lovely place, what a lovely face…’ And that last verse. Brrr…

Okay, maybe the parallels aren’t that close, really. ‘Hotel California’ is said by those who should know (the writers) to be all about the loss of innocence and the seductions of the high life (with all its connotations) connected to fame, while Lost Horizon, according to Warren Eyster’s afterword in my edition, is a metaphorical utopia offered as an an emotional escape hatch to a readership consisting of those deeply scarred by the Great War and now going through the Great Depression, with another war looming on the horizon.

Yeah, that gets deep, doesn’t it?

So let’s back up some, and take a look at the novel.

It’s 1930 or thereabouts, and away off in Afghanistan, where a local revolution has triggered the evacuation of the eighty or so Europeans resident in the city of Baskul. The area’s British Consul, Great War veteran Hugh Conway, his wet-behind-the-ears Vice-Consul Charles Mallinson, American businessman Henry Barnard, and a stray missionary, Roberta Brinklow, are all fortunate enough to be alloted seats on a luxurious, high-altitude-equipped airplane originally built for an Indian rajah.

Some way into the flight, strange things begin to happen. Their pilot, face masked with flying goggles and helmet, turns out not to be the expected fellow Caucasian, but a man of Asian countenance. Looking down, instead of the plains of Peshawar, there are snow-capped peaks, and as the flight continues and attempts are made to query the pilot on just where the heck are they, a revolver is produced and brandished in a businesslike way.

The plane sets down on an isolated airstrip, is refueled by an Asian crew, and takes off again. Where are they going? Are they being kidnapped to be held for ransom?! The unflappable Conway refuses to be distressed; since the war he has cultivated a demeanour of calm verging on apathy, hence his appointment to the backwater of Baskul versus a more lively location. His continued coolness sets the tone, but for occasional outbursts by the volatile Mallinson, which helps to maintain order when the pilot crash lands the plane on a rocky outcrop surrounded by vast peaks and promptly expires.

Now what?

Not to worry, for here comes a group of rescuers, the litter-born Chinese postulant-lama Chang and a group of useful locals, who escort the stranded travellers to a nearby lamasery, “Shangri-La”, perched over an astonishingly fertile Tibetan valley, with the massive mountain Karakal (“Blue Moon”) looming in the background.

Things just keep getting weirder, as the stranded travellers discover that though they are most welcome to settle into the unexpectedly lavish quarters assigned to them by Chang, there seems to be some difficulty about formulating plans to travel out of the mountain valley to India. Direct questions are met by evasively polite answers, and Mallinson in particular grows increasingly agitated as the days pass by.

Conway, on the other hand, decidedly welcomes this respite from the troubled outside world. Miss Brinklow settles down, too, occupying herself with the study of Tibetan in order to communicate her message of sin-needing-salvation to the heathens she has found herself amongst. As does Mr. Barnard, who cultivates a cheerful attitude and greatly enjoys his escorted trips down to the village, where he presumably indulges in some mild carousing with the local women-of-easy-virtue.

After some gentle scene-setting, the secrets of Shangri-La are slowly revealed to Conway by interviews with the incredibly (and I do mean incredibly) aged High Lama, who communicates with a combination of perfect English and mental telepathy, and a vital decision is faced by our protagonist and his companions. To stay is so easy…the valley is so secluded…the world outside is so troubled…

Most of you probably know how this plays out, but in case you don’t, I’m going to leave you there. Read this for yourself, in the interests of cultural literacy if nothing else. It’s a slender novel, a quick read, and though you may find (as I did) that there is little of substance to really grab on to, the general effect is curiously memorable.

Here I have to admit that though I don’t exactly dislike James Hilton’s style, I do find it occasionally underwhelming, and this is true of my response to Lost Horizon, though it was an astounding bestseller in its time, inspired at least two movies, brought the term “Shangri-La” into our vocabulary, and remains in print and presumably selling well today.

I model myself on early-in-the-novel Conway, refusing to get too worked up about it all. Hence my moderately positive rating: 6.5/10.

Oh! I forgot to mention the girl.

There’s also a mysteriously ageless (hint hint) girl.

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White Hell of Pity by Norah Lofts ~ 1937. This edition: Corgi, 1972. Paperback. ISBN: 552-08393-3. 188 pages.

Get your head around that title. It’s a stunner, isn’t it?

This was Norah Lofts’ third published book, after a book of connected short stories, I Met a Gypsy (1935), and a historical fiction, Here Was a Man: A Romantic History of Sir Walter Raleigh (1936). White Hell of Pity went off on another tangent, that of contemporary realism, with a splash of the darkly gothic which was to show up so very often in Lofts’ subsequent 40+ books.

Let me say right now, this is a fantastic little novel, and it’s worth getting past that awful title.

Our young protagonist, Emmie Bacon, starts out in life with all the disadvantages possible, being raised in the rural country cottage equivalent of a dismal slum. Her mother tries to abort her, and that pretty well sets the scene for Emmie’s childhood years. She’s not a “wanted” child, nor are her numerous siblings.

Luckily (or perhaps unluckily?) Emmie is an intelligent child, a natural scholar, and she catches the eye and attention of one of her school teachers, which comes in handy when the thirteen-year-old flees the maternal home to escape a brutal attempted rape by her mother’s boyfriend. Straight to Miss Stanton flees Emmie, and Miss Stanton does her best for her protegé. She staunchly confronts and turns away Emmie’s horrid mother when she comes looking for her offspring. (Mrs. Bacon is keen to have Emmie back, as when she turns fourteen she may leave school and start bringing home a wage.)

Miss Stanton finds Emmie a place in a well-regarded boarding school run by an old school chum, and pays Emmie’s fees out of her own not very generous teacher’s salary, regarding Emmie’s future as something of a sacred trust, and Emmie, blossoming in her new environment, seems set to fulfill all of Miss Stanton’s hopes.

This goes on for a few years, and then things come crashing down, with the sudden arrival of what will turn out to be one of Norah Lofts’ stock characters, an Evil Lesbian. Jealous Ella Frome has been impatiently watching Miss Stanton’s activities from the sidelines, and now wishes to resume their old Special Friendship, which Miss Stanton has sternly discontinued once she takes on young Emmie. (Just so you know, Miss Stanton is a Good Lesbian, or possibly a Conflicted Lesbian, who doesn’t appear to have sexual designs on Emmie; she is beautifully disinterested in Emmie’s person, loves her for her mind alone, and concentrates solely on helping her find a better place in the world than that she came from.)

Here’s Ella:

Ella Frome, who had been a plain and dowdy student, noticeable only for her style of hairdressing, had become an elegant combination of masculine trimness and feminine touches. Her hair was still cut short, but her nails were brilliantly lacquered. She wore a severe tailored suit and over it, when she arrived in her car, a mannish camel-hair coat: but she had large pearl earrings in her ears, and a sweet subtle perfume rose from her hair and her clothes. Her voice was hybrid too. Generally it was deep and abrupt, but now and then it sank unexpectedly into a caressing dulcet murmur. She was obviously extremely fond of Helen Stanton. For Emmie she had only the flintiest of stares, the most strident voice.

Ella promptly takes Emmie aside and gives her the what for, informing her that Miss Stanton is undergoing financial distress in order to keep Emmie in school, and Emmie’s over-developed sense of guilt flames up. Off she trots to find herself a servant’s job, and the sad decline of her young life from its brief peak has begun.

I’m going to stop right there, with the recommendation that if at all possible you like-minded Norah Lofts appreciators find this elusive novel and dig right in. Spoiler alert (of sorts): it doesn’t end well. Like, really not well.

Lofts has created a heroine in Emmie who truly engaged my interest, and I became very invested in her trials and tribulations, hoping beyond hope that she would get another break, quietly cheering at her moments of joy and inwardly sobbing at her continual setbacks. I even flipped ahead to read the last page, and let me tell you I wasn’t very happy at what I read, but I forgive Norah Lofts, because she made it all make sense from Emmie’s point of view, even as I wished for the authorial hand to pluck her character away from her sad fate.

Here’s the 1st edition dust jacket. I sure wish I could acquire a hardcover copy of this one – my paperback 1972 Corgi has deconstructed, and only a rubber band holds it together now. But sadly these are in the scarce-as-hen’s teeth category, save for one lonely hc on offer through ABE for $200. It’s a good book for its sort, but not that good.

Norah Lofts is a hard author to classify. She’s not what one would consider a literary writer, though her historical fictions are very well-regarded for their detailed verisimilitude. Lofts was an accomplished researcher, and well able to transform dry facts into poignant semi-fiction; her years as a history teacher before she became a bestselling writer stood her in good stead.

Lofts also isn’t afraid to go into some rather dark places in her stories; happy endings occasionally appear, but they are rather the exception. She’s a very smart writer; she never talks down; her standard is very high indeed, higher than the norm perhaps was in the popular fiction of her time. If one could cross Rose Macaulay with (maybe?) Mary Stewart, with a dash of something even grittier thrown in, one might come close to categorizing her.

So. This book.

My rating: 9.75/10 (Quarter point off jointly for that dismal title, and for the Evil Lesbian, who’s just too, too stereotypical.)

Good stuff, if you like this sort of thing.

I apparently do, as does writer Katherine Edgar, whose blog post Norah Lofts, and why you should read her makes a convincing argument for exactly that.

Caveat! There are some duds in Lofts’ ouevre, too. If you don’t hit it off with one, you might well love another. There are about fifty to choose from, written between 1935 and 1984. If you are looking for an entry-level Lofts, I would suggest Jassy for contemporary fiction, and The Concubine for historical fiction. Wikipedia has a list of all of her books.

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Dust jacket of an original 1930 edition, not of my copy, which is a plain red cloth binding, sans dj.

Barren Corn by Georgette Heyer ~ 1930. This edition: Buccaneer Books, 1977. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-89966-123-8. 282 pages.

Not exactly a hidden gem in the way one would hope (meaning reading quality wise), but instead a long-suppressed early novel by our well-beloved Georgette Heyer, who dabbled in all sorts of genres throughout her long writing career, including a number of “serious” contemporary novels in the 1920s and 30s, of which Barren Corn is the fourth and last. (The others being Instead of the Thorn, 1923, Helen, 1928, and Pastel, 1929.)

Those who’ve read them all report that Barren Corn is the best of the lot, which is rather damning, because this uneven novel is not on Heyer’s A-list by a long shot.

Georgette Heyer herself was deeply embarrassed by a number of her earlier works (this one very much included), and refused to countenance their republication after she hit the big time with her Regency novels and murder mysteries in the 1930s and beyond. It wasn’t until after the author’s death in 1974 that reprint publisher Buccaneer Books managed to access Heyer’s B-list, and put a modest number of titles back into circulation, of which my copy of Barren Corn is one.

Nephew of a British Baron, professional dilettante and casual artist Hugh, meandering his way around France, meets lovely English shop-girl Laura who is taking a well-deserved short holiday. Infatuation at first sight and so on, and Hugh is so enamoured of Laura’s Madonna-like grace and stillness that he completely overlooks the fact that she is staidly bourgeois and almost morbidly religious.

Against all advice from friends of both of them, Hugh convinces Laura to marry him, and the two embark upon an extended passion-filled honeymoon among the Italian mimosa flowers. But at last the day comes when the newlyweds must return to England and the searching eyes of both families.

It doesn’t go well. Laura’s people disgust Hugh by their very respectability; Hugh’s family is rudely snobbish to the new bride; Laura’s friends stay away after the first few awkward visits; Hugh’s friends find Laura utterly boring. Which she absolutely is, apparently content to stay at home alone while Hugh dines out and resumes his riding with the local hunt etcetera, twiddling her thumbs and nursing her inferiority complex instead of getting on with creating some sort of inner life for herself.

Enter Hugh’s childhood friend Stella, who cherishes a quiet passion for her old pal deep within her heart – she is too well-bred to let it show – and Laura immediately realizes that this was the woman Hugh should have married, and because her (Laura’s) stern religious principles preclude divorce, she must just find another way to free her beloved to marry The Other Woman.

Yes. For real and for true.

Barren Corn has brief moments of Heyerian brilliance, but these are greatly outweighed by its ridiculous plot and a truly gormless heroine. Poor girl, she steps out on the wrong foot from page one, and spends much of the book sighing herself ever deeper into a tragically deep depression. This reader very much wanted to reach inside the book and shake silly Laura and tell her to stop selling herself so darned short and to either divorce the guy and marry the fellow lurking in the wings who does appreciate her, or at the very least get herself a hobby.

Mari Ness goes into some detail regarding this novel here, (there are spoilers), and I must say I agree with her assessment. The thing is both painful to read and strangely compelling; it ends up being weirdly memorable and even rather thought-provoking, which may indeed be what Heyer had in mind all along.

Perhaps.

My rating: A regretful 5.5/10. If this were by anyone else but Georgette Heyer I suspect I would have given it a 3 or 4, but it is very interesting in the context of her other work, and contains some quite good dialogue on morals and the interpretation of good and evil, which motivated me to raise it a few notches. Oodles of discussion on British social class structure, which perhaps was still an issue in the 1930s in Great Britain, but it felt a over emphasized to me – it read rather “older” versus post-Great War.

Your own thoughts, fellow readers, are (as always) greatly appreciated!

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Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols ~ 1932. This edition: Doubleday, 1932. Decorations by Rex Whistler. Hardcover. 303 pages.

It’s rather nasty outside today, with a too-early cold snap blowing in, nipping the last flowers with frost, and whisking snowflakes around our chilly ears, so I have used this hopefully temporary weather event as an excuse to step away from my outdoor occupations and spend a lazy Sunday puttering about in the house.

I’ve been tracking down all of the various books I read this summer during my non-posting spell, with the idea of zipping off some reviews and helping my Century of Books project along. I bailed out on it last year; I have the idea that successfully completing it this year will be grand for my sometimes troubled morale.

Of course it is taking much longer than I thought to get my book thoughts into writing – I find myself re-reading all the best bits and flipping through things to reacquaint myself with what it was exactly that I wanted to highlight.

Bear with me over the next few weeks, as I hope to throw a number of these catch-up posts up at random as I steal the time to work them out.

Starting right here, with this happy offering from early on in Beverley Nichols’ four decade stint as a documentarian of the joys and tribulations of domestic and garden life in the four decades of the 1930s through the 1960s.

The only thing better than Beverley Nichols’ more than slightly pithy, sometimes precious prose in this delicious account of moving to a neglected country cottage and re-establishing a seriously ambitious garden is the inclusion of a whole slew of delightful Rex Whistler illustrations.

Anyone who is already familiar with Beverley Nichol’s style will know that it doesn’t matter what he writes about; he is readable in any key. He definitely comes across as thinking quite highly of his own intelligence, wit and charm, but just when you think he’s tooting his own horn a bit too loudly he throws in some humbling episode and undertakes to poke fun at himself, and all is forgiven.

In a nutshell, Beverley Nichols is inspired by memories of an idyllic visit to an acquaintance’s country cottage and garden. Seeing notice of this person’s obituary, our writer impulsively sends of an offer-to-purchase the cottage from the owner’s heirs; it is immediately accepted, and Nichols finds himself possessed not of the rose-smothered cottage of that summer day, but a neglected and dreary weed-infested mess. How he brings it back to beauty with the help of a number of paid and voluntary helpers and advisors makes up the framework of the tale, with numerous departures into character portraits of neighbours and visitors, and vivid descriptions of his own moods throughout.

It’s not all la-di-da and nice-nice-nice; there’s a fair bit of snark in Beverley Nichols’ nature, and it comes through loud and clear here, but it’s a funny sort of bitchiness, balanced by abundant sweet-natured enthusiasms.

Is this essentially a book for gardeners? No! Not at all, though if one is of that particular persuasion, one will find much to relate to in the descriptions of just how Mr Nichols and his various garden helpers went about the cultivation of their plot.

For more detail, I refer you to a post by Heavenali from earlier in 2018.

My rating: 8.5/10 for the prose, 10/10 for the pictures. Good stuff.

A modest country estate – Beverley Nichols’ cottage and grounds, circa 1932.

 

 

 

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The Lady and the Unicorn by Rumer Godden ~ 1938. This edition: Penguin, 1982. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-00-5523-1. 189 pages.

This was Rumer Godden’s second published book, appearing only a year or so after her first novel, the perhaps deservedly obscure Chinese Puzzle, which concerns reincarnation and Pekingese dogs. (More on that one at some future date. I own a copy, acquired long ago in the interests of indulging my completist tendencies in regards to favorite writers. An unusual first novel, to be sure.)

The Lady and the Unicorn follows a more traditional path, being generally a linear narrative tale, but it contains numerous elements which Godden was to use time and time again in her later, better known works.

There are flashback sequences, ghostly visitations, an emotionally complex child character, brilliantly observed descriptive passages utilizing all five senses, great swaths of irony, and a sharp-eyed examination of the social mores of its time and setting, all wrapped up in a fatalistic what-happens-happens sort of shroud. To my secret delight, there is also a short reference to J.W. Dunne’s Theory of Time, which fascinated Godden all of her life and played a major role in two later novels, Take Three Tenses and China Court.

Everything which comes later in Godden’s work is already here, serving to justify my opinion that Rumer Godden essentially wrote the same thing over and over throughout her long writing career, though her creative genius fleshed out the familiar skeleton of her One Big Idea to a varying but always lifelike form in each succesive novel.

So. This story.

The feckless Lemarchant family, consisting of a widowed father, twin teenage sisters Belle and Rosa, little sister Blanche, and a maternal aunt, live in a decayed European-built mansion in an Eurasian district of 1930s’ Calcutta. Father is “Anglo”, Mother was Indian, and their offspring exist in a sort of societal limbo, being betwixt and between their two ancestral cultures while belonging to neither.

When seventeen-year-old Belle, in the full throes of her burgeoning sexuality, makes eyes at the Catholic priest who has known her since babyhood, the twins are asked to leave their school. Father Ghezzi, trying to explain why he feels he must send them away for fear of their corrupting their peers, makes a passionate statement as to the difficulties facing those youth of mixed-race in India.

“I don’t know which is it that is worse to have in this country, Mr Lemarchant, boys or girls., sons or daughters. With the sons it is one thing; they cannot get work, the Indians squeeze them out from below, the English from above, so -” He brought his clenched hands together as if he were crushing a poor little man to death. “They cannot get work; before they begin they are failures. And with the girls it is another thing, they are too successful. Yes. There is always success for these girls, so smart, so nimble, so empty-headed. They take even the jobs that the boys might have; they go into offices, shops, and what happens? They get money, they get ideas, they are taken up by men – men in Calcutta society, faugh! – and then when they are in trouble they are flung back on their people; on those boys whose place they have taken, boys for whom they have now no use, and who could not marry them if they have.”

Prophetic words, as Belle goes on to become the mistress of a wealthy dilettante, and Rosa in her turn falls in love with a newly arrived Englishman, a relationship which dooms her to disaster when his family catches scent of a potential complication in their son’s life and sends his childhood sweetheart out to India to entice him away from the apparently wicked half-caste girl of his latest infatuation.

Ironically named Blanche, the dark-skinned “throwback” of the family, watches all of this from the shadows, while going through her own agonies of love and loss.

An intriguing small novel, beautifully written and deeply poignant. I am not sure why it isn’t more widely known; it is as good as anything which comes after it, and so deserves a full place in this iconic writer’s canon.

Here is the link to another review from Kat at Mirabile Dictu, which provides more details of the plot.

My rating: 8/10

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Spring Always Comes by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1938. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1938. Hardcover. 312 pages.

Life, Hilda thought, had played her a queer trick in embedding her, like a fly in amber, in a family in which she didn’t belong. Yet they were her children, only in the simple physical sense. Stretching out in bed with her hands behind her head, she thought that the fact was one likely to trouble nobody but herself. Her lively, inter-dependent family had no time to spare for the history of disappointment and reaccommodation that lay in their parents’ past.

Hilda meets her husband Charles, a young and successful writer-poet, in the halcyon days before the Great War changed everything. After eagerly going off to fight, Charles has returned a changed man, not so much bitter as bemused and disappointed, and decidedly antiwar. He stops writing, and informs Hilda that he is going to go into the Church.

This means a definite drop in the family standard of living; with three children and another soon to come, Hilda’s hands are full of the practicalities of making do on a junior cleric’s slender salary; she assumes things will stabilize and Charles get over his “momentary enthusiasm” for societal reform through religion and once again step into the spotlight of literary regard in which he had once basked. She is wrong.

Charles is an idealist; he goes his own way ever and always, and Hilda follows, vaguely resentful, never losing her love for her husband but feeling at heart betrayed by it all turning out so differently than she had ever expected.

The four children of the marriage are strong individuals, all with compelling motivations and desires. Cheerfully pragmatic James is at Oxford, with a promising literary future. Hyper-organized Margaret is deeply immersed in social work, carrying on her father’s compelling dedication to social reform. Intelligent and analytical Cecily is just finished school and is poised on the brink of deciding her career. Eighteen-year-old Jasmine, the youngest of the quartet, is reluctantly staying home until her brother is finished his education – there is only enough money to put towards one higher education at a time. She yearns to go out and do something, anything! to gain experience in the world to further her mostly secret ambition to be a writer.

The family, though far from wealthy, are getting by reasonably well, based as they are in a rural parsonage, with Charles being held in high regard by his parishioners and his local social circle, which includes a number of people who remember and honor him for his long-ago literary success and his still-brilliant intellect.

Then Charles dies, quite suddenly, from a neglected heart condition, which he has chosen not to divulge to his wife or children, and the family’s world unravels.

No income, no more country home – the parsonage is needed for the next clergyman – and Hilda finds herself sharing a city apartment with Margaret and Jasmine, while James puts aside literary ambitions to go into a timber company’s office as a clerk, and Cecily takes on a post as a governess to tide herself over until she can start a job as a junior mistress at her old school.

What happens to these five, their small adventures, their inner dilemmas, rewards and disappointments as they go about reinventing their lives after the death of Charles, core of the family in ways unsuspected until his loss, is the substance of this novel.

And a good and substantial substance it is, as Elizabeth Cambridge draws us into each life in turn, depicting each personality and weaving a tapestry of individualism and inter-family relationship which leaves the reader deeply involved with each and every one of the characters.

Not an important or a particularly dramatic novel, but a very relatable and accessibly philosophical one, and, as always with Cambridge, beautifully written.

My rating: 10/10.

Elizabeth Cambridge wrote only seven published novels in her short career, with her greatest success being her 1934 debut novel, the autobiographical Hostages to Fortune. Her themes are generally domestic, she writes middle-aged women with particular insight, though all of her characterizations ring true.

Elizabeth Cambridge died of tuberculosis in 1949, at the much too young age of 56. When reading her novels, one can’t help but regret that there are so few, and wonder what she would have accomplished had she lived longer.

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The Two Doctors by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1936. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1936. Hardcover. 284 pages.

The two doctors referenced in the title of this most engaging novel are men, but I found myself most drawn to the women of the tale: the younger doctor’s mother and the older doctor’s wife, as well as several others. By their wise actions certain disasters are averted, for this is at heart a deeply moral tale, greatly about doing good so good will follow.

That sounds almost dire, doesn’t it? Possibly preachy and prim.

On the contrary – this book is a quiet delight.

From the dust jacket:

The author of Hostages to Fortune certainly has a shrewd but kindly eye for the ways of professional people. To portray them, which she does most enjoyably, she has drawn in her latest novel a very living picture of an English village and the coming of a young doctor. How John Anselm was received by the country people of Bradnell, and by the older practitioner Dr. Murchie; how life runs on in a swift but restful stream of small activities and often deep experiences; how John fared at the hands of the attractive Carol Bourne – all make up a setting and a pattern of themes which suit the author’s agreeable vision and manner to perfection.

This is perhaps the most cheerful of the five Elizabeth Cambridge novels I’ve read to date, the one most conventional in its format and plot, but there is a whole lot of substance here as well, and a few surprises. One can certainly believe that the author has a personal experience of the challenges of a rural doctor’s life, as indeed she did, being the daughter of a doctor and the wife of one as well.

The novel’s dedication reads “For my Father”, and, as it is a warm and realistic appreciation of the physician’s role in the world, it would appear to be something of a labour of love. Though it is not in any way oversweet. Elizabeth Cambridge had a sharp and all-seeing eye, and her characters reflect the human vices as well as the virtues.

John Anselm, recently qualified as a medical GP, purchases a practice in the small community of Bradnell, replacing the previous doctor, a rather feckless young Irishman, over-casual and over-fond of the bottle, as it were, who had been involved in a bitterly competitive feud with the town’s older, well-established doctor, sober Scotsman Dr. Murchie.

Dr. Anselm has no idea of the bad blood between his predecessor and Dr. Murchie, so he walks all unawares right in to a situation in which he is viewed by the man who should be his cooperative compatriot (there are more than enough patients in the area for two doctors) with suspicion verging on hostility.

Luckily the bachelor Dr. Anselm is accompanied to Bradnell by his widowed mother, Hilary. She is a quiet and thoughtful woman, still subdued by the loss of her beloved husband many years before. Mrs. Anselm makes the acquaintance of Mrs. Murchie, and the two women form a friendship which ultimately transcends the old feud.

The people all around watch and comment at will, their Greek chorus of opinion forming the background chatter of what turns into an intensely personal situation of two good men fighting against their baser impulses, for Dr. Anselm turns his cheek one time too many to Dr. Murchie’s snubs, and finally loses his own sweet temper.

Dr. Anselm also finds himself involved in a complicated romantic situation with the likeable daughter of the local squire; complicated not so much emotionally as practically; there are some genuine reasons why Carol should avoid matrimony and motherhood.

I found this a deeply engaging novel, peopled with characters whom it was easy to believe in and, for the most part, to like and to enjoy, human flaws and all.

My rating: 10/10.

Re-publishers, I hope you will consider the Elizabeth Cambridge novels. They are small masterpieces of excellent writing and telling vignettes of their time, very much up to the standard of the stellar Hostages to Fortune which is currently the only readily attainable novel of Cambridge’s.

Persephone? Dean Street Press?

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Illustration of the dust jacket of an edition of The Sycamore Tree listed for sale online, not my personal copy, which is jacketless, faded and rather tattered.

The Sycamore Tree by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1934. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1934. Hardcover. 328 pages.

With this, her second novel, published in 1934, a year after the release of the highly esteemed Hostages to Fortune, Elizabeth Cambridge establishes her place in mid-century literature not so much as a great novelist but as a genuinely good one.

The tale follows, in an economically yet meticulously depicted linear trajectory, the life of Howell Combes, from his childhood as youngest sibling of three in an upper-middle-class naval officer’s family, through his school years and his apprenticeship as an engineer, the dark years of the Great War, an ultimately disastrous marriage to a foster-sister, and the attainment at last of a secret desire, the inheritance of his grandfather’s country estate.

Joanna Cannan in The Bookman, April 1934, reviewed The Sycamore Tree with more-than-restrained enthusiasm; her review identifies both the strengths and weaknesses of this novel.

In her second novel Miss Elizabeth Cambridge has set herself a difficult, interesting task, the task of writing the story of an “average” man. “The Sycamore Tree” is a good book, but I found it, as I found “Hostages to Fortune”, vaguely depressing. Is this all there is to life? can childhood, youth and early manhood pass so soberly? does love come and go with so little agony, so mild a joy? It is all very well to paint, and to paint perfectly, the domestic scene: Howell Combe was a dull, worthy fellow, one of those unfortunate beings whose wants never exceed their means, but he did not miss the deepest experiences that life can offer us, and in those experiences surely there is blood and tears, beauty and joy. This book in short should have been a moving one, but it is not. Nothing is here to “knock the breast”. It is an excellent book, but one reads it without emotion, and it is wrong, I feel, that the record of an “average” life should leave on so utterly unmoved.

Damning with faint praise, indeed!

I agree with Miss Cannan in her assessment of the novel’s strengths, but I differ in that I did find the subfusc saga of Howell moving; his agonies and joys were real enough to this reader. Though I did not find it “knocked the breast”, my own response was certainly much more subdued than dramatic, but it was all so very relatable, so mostly true-to-life in its essence.

Edited on May 28 to add this comment on The Sycamore Tree from Vera Brittain, quoted on the back of the dust jacket of The Two Doctors, Cambridge’s 1936 novel, which I’m currently writing about:

This tale of a naval officer’s son, the youngest in an ordinary middle-class family living at Plymouth before the War, is a perfect thing of its limited kind. It leaves behind it the feeling that life is profound, significant, and infinitely worth while.

Yes, indeed.

A rather good book by a better-than-average writer. Recommended, if you can find it – most Elizabeth Cambridge novels are elusively rare.

My rating: 9/10.

My personal copy has an intriguing extra, a faintly pencilled two-stanza poem written on a blank back page. An original attempt by an earlier owner? I puzzled out most of it, but some of the words are difficult to decipher. I include it for anyone who’d like to work it out themself. I don’t think it is a quotation; it has the amateur’s ring to it.

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Mr. Finchley Discovers His England by Victor Canning ~ 1934. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1954. Paperback. 256 pages.

Crazy busy month. I’m reading at the slowest rate ever right now, and as for posting – ha!

But this too shall pass. (As many of you know, I operate a small perennial plant nursery, so I needn’t get into detail about how overwhelmed my spring is with things-needing-doing and not-enough-hours-in-the-day.)

I did escape a week or so ago for a whirlwind three-day road trip (plant related) to Salt Spring Island and then Vancouver, and on my way home stole an hour to visit one of my favourite used book stores ever, Neil Stad’s Nuggets in downtown Chilliwack.

Neil gently reminds his shoppers that “Good luck will follow those who are tidy.” And an utterly random “found item” – this bookshop’s decor fully expresses its owner’s sense of humour.

Neil doesn’t have a website, but here is a nice article from a few years ago, which gives some background info.

B.C. readers: go see Neil. 45832 Wellington Avenue, a few blocks down from the 5 Corners clock tower. And an hour is just barely enough to hit the high points, for it’s one of those book stores, a maze of rooms packed floor to ceiling with well-labelled shelves of books, books, books, including exploration-worthy sections of vintage literature and a vast and well-organized selection of British serial school novels for those who are into such things – Angela Brazil, Elinor Brent-Dyer, Enid Blyton et al.

And records and cds, too, and Neil plays awesome music, heavy on the blues and vintage rock side of things. And he’s friendly and helpful but also very cool with just letting his shoppers dig and delve at will. Excellent coffee shop next door, too. The whole setup is pretty Nirvana-ish, in fact.

This visit to Nuggets (and the also-stellar The Book Man, just down the street – Chilliwack is blissfully well provided with vintage book shopping) didn’t yield any stupendously amazing “wow!” finds this time round, but I did find some goodies, among them this well-read paperback copy of thriller writer Victor Canning’s first published novel – not a thriller, by the way, but a humorous picaresque-ish journey-book – which I’d been mildly keeping an eye out for, as I have its sequel from my last visit to Nuggets (Mr. Finchley Goes to Paris) and was holding off reading it until I read the first.

Light reading for sure, a perfect sort of book for popping in one’s travelling bag, though I must confess I couldn’t wait until my next trip, but delved into it that very night, once I reached my own home in the wee hours.

Meet Mr. Finchley:

Mr. Finchley was forty-five, short, with a comfortable face such as you might see on the fringe of any crowd, and a tonsure that surprised you when he raised his hat. He was panting slightly as he came to the top of the hill. He had lived in London all his life and, since Mr. Bardwell had made him chief clerk ten years ago, he had never had a week’s holiday. Mr. Bardwell himself never took a holiday and he fostered the practice among his clerks. Mr. Finchley had succumbed meekly to the conviction that he was indispensable to the office, a conviction which Mr. Bardwell had encouraged. When Mr. Bardwell had died it was generally considered that Mr. Sprake would continue his tradition. But Sprake (he was only referred to as Mr. Sprake in the presence of clients) had developed surprising attributes. Mr. Finchley took out his yellow silk handkerchief and wiped his forehead as he mused over the astonishing change which had come over Sprake. He came to the office in tweeds. He smoked all day, scattered his ash in deed boxes, and looked more like a bookmaker than a lawyer. Mr. Finchley had witnessed in silence the desecration and waited anxiously for the practice to decline. The practice did not decline. Business increased. Sprake grew jollier and the checks on his golfing suits larger. And then – it was hot even in the shade now and Mr. Finchley decided to rest on the seat at the end of the avenue – there came the day when Sprake had called him into his room.

“Ah, Finchley, I wanted to have a chat with you,” he said.”Of course, you know that things have changed a bit since poor Bardwell packed up…”

No, it’s not the golden handshake Mr. Finchley is getting, but an official order to get the heck out of the office and take a vacation already, and our hero finds himself facing an unusual situation: three weeks with no structure, no obligation to be anywhere. What to do, what to do? Mr. Finchley plumps for the obvious thing, and books a room in the seaside resort town of Margate.

Mr. Finchley will indeed be having a vacation from his regular life, but as things turn out he never does get to Margate. The very first day of his holiday, as he’s resting on a bench in the sun, whiling away the hours until his train leaves, a stranger pulls up in a brand new Bentley. Seeing Mr. Finchley’s glance of pure admiration, and being impressed by his appearance of deep respectability, the stranger asks if Mr. Finchley could just keep an eye on his car for the next half hour or so. Mr. Finchley cheerfully agrees, but as the half hour stretches into something longer, Mr. Finchley tires of his bench, and decides to sit in the car. He stretches out on the back seat…the sun is so warm…he’s tired…

Waking up with a start, Mr. Finchley discovers himself an unwitting passenger as the Bentley races along a country road, police in hot pursuit. Yes, it’s been stolen! And we’re (quite literally) off.

Stolen cars, thieves’ dens, a mysterious woman asking for help and aiding escape from the previous, encounters with (deeply stereotyped) gypsies, and tramps, and wealthy eccentrics posing as tramps, a stint as a carnival sideshow assistant, the acquisition of a bicycle, and the almost immediate losing of it, skinny dipping whever the opportunity arises, mistaken identity, an almost-incarceration in a lunatic asylum, a romantic dalliance (of sorts), a journey in a smuggler’s yacht, and more – oh, yes, our Mr. Finchley does manage to fill his three weeks to the brim!

An enjoyable book in its way, which I found initially intriguing, but slightly less so as episode followed increasingly predictable episode – Mr. Finchley meets a (generally) roguish character, is dragged into a questionable situation, backpeddles, is accused of cowardice, and steps up to defend his manhood, while always maintaining his Respectable British Integrity – with not much in the way of carryover from adventure to adventure. Mr. Finchley remains a caricature, albeit a likeable one, and the book as a whole a bit of a curiosity piece versus a stellar piece of inter-war literature. There are sober moments here and there, but it’s mostly lighthearted romping.

Mr. Finchley Discovers His England met with significant success, selling well enough to allow Victor Canning to quit his day job clerking and go into writing full-time, which he did with great energy, producing over sixty books in a variety of genres during a career that spanned the years from the 1930s until his death in 1986, at the age of 75.

An excellent website chock full of background information on Canning’s life and many works is maintained by John Higgins and can be found here, and I highly recommend a visit by those either already Victor Canning fans, or soon to become such.

Oh, yes, the rating. What shall I give Mr. Finchley? Well, it fully met my expectations as a relaxing light read, though it wasn’t quite as complex as I could have wished. Not bad, though. Pretty good, in fact. Here’s a 7/10.

 

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