Archive for the ‘1930s’ Category

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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Dustjacket image from 1939 first edition – not my personal copy.

The Runaway by Kathleen Norris ~ 1939. This edition: Collier, 1939. Hardcover. 344 pages.

During the Very Tumultuous Month just past, there were moments of serendipitous small thrills, such as stumbling upon a collection of six Kathleen Norris novels on a local buy-and-sell Facebook group while I was supposed to be scouting for a vehicle to replace the one I destroyed in my dramatic crash.

Well, no luck on another car so far (we’re not looking very hard, as ride-sharing with the other family vehicles is working out satisfactorily at present) but I did buy the books.

Good thing my expectations were realistic, for despite the seller’s enthusiastic “Aren’t these marvelous reads!” endorsement, I am finding that they are pretty well up to par with the author’s other utterly contrived dramatic romances I’ve read to date. Meaning, formula plot, gorgeous background setting.

These are as much “California novels” as anything John Steinbeck wrote, and I love that about them, having a family California connection and many fond childhood memories of orange groves and eucalyptus trees, trips into the Sierra foothills to marvel at the giant Sequoia trees, and then back to the suburbs, with immense rose bushes in every yard and quail scurrying down quiet streets lined with modest middleclass bungalows.

A golden place still in many ways – such an astonishingly distinct natural setting! – and to me much more “California” than the smoggy metropolis of L.A. and the artificial wonders of Hollywood and such.

So, as I said, Norris does the settings well, but her plots, not so much.

This one is fairly dire, as Norris novels go. Definitely B-list. Here’s the rundown, spoilers and all.

Bee-yoo-ti-ful young woman, only (and adopted) daughter of staunchly respectable working class parents in a small rural California community, yearns for more fulfillment than her current occupation as a kindergarten teacher provides. She falls into an engagement with a clean-living, very devoted Italian-American boy, which is viewed by all concerned as a mostly good thing, seeing that he is from a well-off family, though the fact that he is absolutely Catholic and she isn’t particularly religious-minded is rather a sticking point, especially with his Mamma.

Not to worry, Italian Mamma! Here comes an entrancingly romantic ne’er-do-well, who sweeps our heroine off her feet with his tales of derring-do and fervent protestations of love. Before she knows it, she’s off in the big city and married to her impulsive swain, who turns out to be a class-A jerk.

Abandoned and pregnant, our heroine returns home to Mom and Dad, who comfort and shelter her, and also welcome with open arms the wayward son-in-law when he shows up on the doorstep some five moths later.

Emotionally fraught interlude.

Heroine, child in arms, decides that she must leave her current embarrassing situation (spouse is gambling and carousing and borrowing money from all and sundry) so she hies herself all the way off to New York City, leaving her parents hosting her husband, which they do with astonishly good grace, because they’re Really Good People, and they don’t believe in divorce, and well, you never know, the couple might just sort things out down the road…

So. New York. Heroine finds herself living in poverty, working as a lowly saleswoman in a cheap clothing store. Wee child gets deathly ill. Crisis! Off to the charity ward he goes, but oh! what luck. The talented doctor who saves the wee lad’s life turns out to be none other than the husband of the now-deceased birth mother of our heroine – though he’s not her actual father.

He (the doctor) is a sedate widower, exceedingly wealthy, kind, noble, etcetera etcetera etcetera, and he takes our heroine and child under his wing, without revealing his true interest in her as the child of the woman he was married to and loved beyond all reasonable degree, what with her abandoning him for another man and then showing up pregnant begging for an abortion which of course he refuses being sternly moral and highly religious (those are some of the etceteras  previously mentioned) but he did his best to comfort her and gave her access to his fortune which she used to ensure that her baby would have a good adoptive home after she expired when the tiny babe (our heroine) was a mere few weeks old.

Still with me?

Okay, somewhere in here the heroine finds God, and starts to pray incessantly whenever she is faced with a fresh self-created dilemma, of which she has oodles.

After a passionate interlude with yet another questionably motivated swain (the heroine does have a knack for attracting rotten men!) she decides that she must return to her abandoned husband – still sponging off her parents back in California, still squandering his sporadically earned cash on loose living – because she did take those marriage vows way back when, and well, I honestly have no idea at this point why this gal does any of the things she does.

There’s a reconciliation, rocky as all get out – yeah, spouse is still a jerk to her, though all the locals, including Mom and Dad, profess a fondness for him, can’t quite get my head around that but Kathleen Norris says it’s so there there we are – and some years go by.

Then who should turn up but our heroine’s doctor hero – her not-really-her-father legal father – and quelle surprise! – heroine finds she is actually in romantic love with him, which her jealous husband picks up on immediately. Drama ensues, ending with husband dead due to a noble act, and heroine now free to blushingly profess her love to the doctor, who is only in his early fifties, after all, to her twenty-something.

Yeah, I know. Strong ick factor going on here.

Why do I read this stuff? Too strangely, entrancingly bad to look away? That has to be it…

Happy April, fellow readers! It’s got to be uphill from here! 😉 🙂

(Who am I kidding? These sorts of books are grand fun! Though maybe not quite in the sense that the authors originally intended.)

 

 

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The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen ~ 1935. This edition: Knopf, 1936. Hardcover. 270 pages.

This novel is stiff with secrets. Everyone is hiding something, and the frequent silences are screaming with unspoken words.

What a tense novel, and what a compelling one, too. Such beautiful writing by Elizabeth Bowen. Though I found I was always being kept an arm’s-length away; the reader is very much the spectator here, privy to all of the secrets, but never sure quite what the next moment will bring.

A commenter on my recent post on Bowen’s The Little Girls mentioned the Henry James-like qualities of The House in Paris. Bang on, that comparison is. And, though I am a dedicated Jamesian at heart, I do find he can be a challenge to really get one’s head around. As is this novel. I had to pay attention, no room at all for straying thoughts.

The novel is set in three acts, as it were. Present-Past-Present. We are thrown into the middle of a certain situation, given a long flashback episode to explain how we got there, and then returned to the situation in time to see it come to its climax and continue on its way.

In brief:

Two British children meet in a small house in Paris. One, 11-year-old Henrietta, is breaking her journey from England to her grandmother’s home in Mentone. She is there for a few hours only, in between train connections. The other child is 9-year-old Leopold. He has travelled from Italy where he lives with his adoptive American family to meet with his real mother – whom he has never known since his birth – at her request.

There is a vast mystery surrounding Leopold and his origins; Henrietta is provided with the barest of explanations as to who he is and what he is there for, but she is warned not to speak of such things to him, or to anyone else.

The rest of the novel is involved with Leopold’s back story, and that of his mother, culminating with a sudden change in Leopold’s circumstances, which may or may not go well for him. Henrietta fades in to the distance, mute witness to what has gone on.

That’s all I am going to say, because otherwise I’d be here all the night! There’s a lot going on in here; Bowen puts her characters through the works.

One could open this book to any page and find a passage worthy of reading over and over and turning about in your mind like a sharply faceted gem, all a-glint with captured light. I will treat you to several which stood out for me, to give you a sense of the quality of the writing here.

It is a wary business, walking about a strange house you know you are to know well. Only cats and dogs with their more expressive bodies enact the tension we share with them at such times. The you inside you gathers up defensively; something is stealing upon you every moment; you will never be quite the same again. These new unsmiling lights, reflections and objects are to become your memories, riveted to you closer than friends or lovers, going with you, even, into the grave: worse, they may become dear and fasten like so many leeches on your heart. By having come, you already begin to store up the pains of going away.

and

She thought, young girls like the excess of any quality. Without knowing, they want to suffer, to suffer they must exaggerate; they like to have loud chords struck upon them. Loving art better than life they need men to be actors; only an actor moves them, with his telling smile, undomestic, out of touch with the everyday which they dread. They love to enjoy love as a system of doubts and shocks. They are right: not seeking husbands yet, they have no reason to see love socially. This natural fleshly protest against good taste is broken down soon enough; their natural love of the cad is outwitted by their mothers. Vulgarity, inborn like original sin, unfolds with the woman nature, unfolds with it quickly and has a flamboyant flowering in the young girl. Wise mothers do not nip it immediately; that makes for trouble later, they watch it out.

and

On the platform before their long journey, to speak of a next meeting would have been out of place… Good-byes breed a sort of distaste for whomever you say good-bye to; this hurts, you feel, this must not happen again. Any other meeting will only lead back to this. If to-day good-bye is not final, some day it will be; doorsteps, docks and platforms make you clairvoyant…

So there we have it.

Elizabeth Bowen.

Each word carefully, deliberately, elegantly placed where it will have the most impact.

I feel the tiniest bit out of my own humble place in boldly assigning a numerical rating to my reading of the book, but here it is: 9/10.

And then there’s this, from the back jacket of my edition. I remember comparing Bowen’s work to that of Rose Macaulay, before I knew of their connection. Called that one right, didn’t I?! I am beyond pleased with myself, as I’d already shelved these two together. Score one for the reader. Now, do I move Henry James, too? 😉

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Shabby Tiger by Howard Spring ~ 1934. This edition: Sun Dial Press, 1935. Hardcover. 316 pages.

Sound a fanfare – here’s a first novel that hits all of its vigorous notes without jarring.

Okay, let me back up a bit. There was considerable jarring, because a huge component of the novel is “Jewishness”, mostly as viewed from the gentile perspective in 1930s’ Great Britain. Abundant era-expected slanging and racial slurs, some of which drove the plot.

Viewed as a product of its time and read with the 2017 political correctness filter turned off, it works. Caveat emptor: your experience may differ.

Enter one of our protagonists:

The woman flamed along the road like a macaw. A thin mackintosh, washed out by weather into pastel shades of green, was belted tight above the swaying rhythm of her hips. It was slashed open to show a skirt of yellow wool, and you could see that the rent was an old one, that this lazy slut had no use for needle and thread. Thrown round her neck with as much consideration as a dish-clout is thrown on the string stretched before the kitchen fire was a scarf of silk, scarlet, stained and mottled like all she wore, yet achieving a gay defiant beauty. The wind made it a pennon. A great lolloping black sombrero that had belonged to a man and was now trimmed with a broken green feather, hid the flash of the woman’s black secret eyes. She lugged a suitcase of scarlet leather, but because, like all about her, it was tattered and outmoded and insecure, a length of clothes line kept its jaws snapped shut on whatever was within, permitting no more than a glimpse of white, frilled protrusion.

Anna Fitzgerald, recently orphaned daughter of an Irish horse trainer, has precipitately left her employment as a maid, suitcase stuffed with items liberated from their proper owner, the white frills referred to being those of a stolen nightgown. Anna is a fiery sort of creature, much given to blurting out whatever’s on her mind; not a comfortable sort of serving girl, as all involved have discovered. Passionate and penniless, she has no plan for what comes next.

What comes next is a serendipitous meeting with lean and hungry Nick Faunt, starving artist in the best traditional sense. Estranged from his wealthy father, Nick is making his own way through the world. He cares not for what anyone thinks of him, being certain of his artistic genius; he may well be correct.

Anna and Nick become a team, uniting their varied resources in order to scratch out an existence of sorts in the more sordid echelons of Manchester, which is where they fetch up, Anna to reclaim her illegitimate child Brian, born to her five years ago when she was herself a mere child of fourteen, Nick to further his single-minded purpose of capturing movement in charcoal and paint.

The relationship is strictly platonic, though Anna quite openly wishes it were otherwise. Nick has no time for tedious romantic dalliances, though he isn’t above a roll in the rural heather with beautiful, ambitious Jewess Rachel Rosing, social climber extraordinaire, who has misunderstood the antagonism between Nick and Sir George; she assumes the son is merely off sowing wild oats, with the father standing by to welcome the prodigal back at some point. (She’s wrong.)

Here’s a snippet with Rachel in it:

Nick and Rachel lunched at Lyons’s Popular State Café, which is popular because it is stately. Contraltos are apt to break into a deep stately baying there at any moment, and a band plays stately music, and a little boy, dressed like a chef, trundles a wagon of hors d’œuvres among the tables in the most stately manner you could imagine. There are lions on all the crockery – Joseph and his brethren. Upstairs you dance. Rachel knew it all inside out. She liked the place. It symbolised what she was trying to escape to.

What a gloriously varied cast of characters this slight but highly seasoned novel contains!

Here some of, them are, artistically rendered as is appropriate for the bohemian-themed novel: an unknown female (who the heck is she supposed to be? – drawing an utter blank – hang on, maybe it’s Communist rabble rouser Olga?), Nick-the-artist, Rachel-on-skates, monocled lecher Sir George, wee Brian, Anna herself, bookie Piggy White, and down in the lower right corner, another artist, Nick’s friend and punching bag Anton Brune. I’m assuming one of the lesser male characters in the background is meant to depict Jacob Rosing – “Holy Moses”, or “Homo” (possibly short for Homo sapiens, don’t think too hard about it, Anna will fill you in) – Rachel’s socially embarrassing brother, who is employed as Piggy’s clerk. He’s in desperate, unrequited love with Anna, and has been selflessly caring for her child these past five years, and he dejectedly moves through the story like a ghost at the feast, an intimation of tragedy which plays itself out before we leave the story.

So much is packed in here, and so highly coloured is the tale, that Granada Television turned it into a well-received mini-series in 1973, starring a young Prunella Gee as Anna, and, incidentally, causing a bit of stir in its depiction of full frontal female nudity on television (a first), presumably in one of the studio scenes where Anna is posing for Nick. I haven’t seen the filmed version; liberties have obviously been taken with Spring’s novel, but the nudity is in the written version too, as well as a rather explicit sex scene which raised my eyebrows – it stops at the nipples, as it were, but very much goes on in vivid inference.

Getting a bit warm in here. Where was I?

Oh, yes. The novel. Did I like it.

Yes, I did. A whole lot. So much so that I’m delving into the piggy bank and ordering a pricey hardcover copy of Rachel Rosing, the sequel, which extends the story by following Anna’s social-climbing nemesis as she recovers from her Shabby Tiger setbacks and goes out into the wider world.

My rating: 9/10. As period pieces go, this one is a bit of a gem. (Remember what I said about political incorrectness, though. Seething with it!)

Howard Spring. Interesting writer, he’s looking to be. I came to this novel prepared to like it, as I’d been most taken with my introduction to him with The Houses in Between. But he’s not at all an even writer; I’ve also just read A Sunset Touch, and it was fairly dire. Review very much pending, but I had to get my Shabby Tiger rave out of the way first.

One last excerpt, with a nod to my Mancunian readers, who will no doubt find much of interest in this novel for its many depictions of their city of almost a century ago:

The trams that hammer their way out of Albert Square run level if they are going south or east or west. But if they are going north they soon begin to climb. They go east as far as Victoria Station, turn left over the railway bridge, and climb the hill to what the posters call the breezy northern suburbs.

You are no sooner over the bridge than Jerusalem lifts up her gates. The eyes that you encounter are the eyes of Leah and Jael and Ruth; the writing on the shop windows is Hebrew. Synagogues and Talmud Torah schools; kosher meat shops; wizened little bearded men with grey goat’s eyes and slim olive children with heifer’s eyes; these are what you see as the tram storms the oppressive breast of Cheetham Hill.

You have not gone far before he facetious trolley-boy shouts: “Switzerland!” and down the grim street that faces you is the Ice Palace, beyond the monumental mason’s yard where Hebrew hopes and lamentations are cut into the white mortuary slabs. The street is called Derby Street, and all the other street names hereabouts are undeniably Gentile. The Jew has settled upon the land, but he has not made it his own. It is a place of exile…

 

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