Archive for the ‘1930s’ Category

The Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter ~ 1936. This edition: Knopf, 1973. Hardcover. 149 pages.

Writer Conrad Richter, 1890-1968, occupies a place in the pantheon of lesser American literary gods just a little below Willa Cather, so any critique flavoured with negativity feels slightly blasphemous; we feel we’re supposed to kneel down and enthusiastically worship, not surreptitiously peer at the idol for a glimpse of feet of clay.

But autre temps, autre moeurs, as the saying goes, and times are different now, and some writing hasn’t aged well. The vaguely embarrasing lush prose and predictable plot line of this short novel being a case in point.

A hint is given in the dust jacket teaser:

Narrated by a nephew of the leading male character, this novel – novella? – is passionately presented, though sketchy on background details. It reads like the screenplay for a old-style Western movie, and by golly! – lookie there – it was indeed filmed, in 1947, with Katharine Hepburn playing erring wife Lutie, and Spencer Tracy the stoic cattle baron James Brewton.

The film seems to have received mixed reviews. Though successful from a box office perspective, director Elia Kazan, thwarted in his creative desires throughout the filming, was disappointed in the final version and reportedly advised his friends against watching it. This contemporary film review from March of 1947 is an interesting read.

The novel’s plot is simplistic enough. New Mexico cattle baron James Brewton runs an immense operation, mostly consisting of government-owned rangeland, which he oversees as if it were his very own. Prospective homesteaders crowding across the state line and their political sponsors have their eye on Brewton’s private domain, and a certain Judge Brice Chamberlain has set his sights on knocking the region’s wealthy ranchers down a notch or two.

Enter Lutie Cameron, James Brewton’s ladylike citygirl bride, who disembarks from a train to be met by Brewton’s callow and resentful nephew. Tripping daintily up the dusty cowtown street in her high-heeled shoes, utterly ignoring the stares of the local layabouts, ducking under the feet of the hanged man gracing the water tower, Lutie brings a breath of perfumed air to enhance the local scene, and soon-to-be-nephew Hal is utterly smitten.

James and Lutie wed, and for a while it looks like all will be well. They’re apparently in love, though neither say so much aloud, James because of his leathery stoicism, Lutie because of her reticent ladylikeness, but children start to appear, so something’s going on. A girl, a boy, and another boy, this last child bearing a strong resemblance to – oh my! can it be?! – James Brewton’s arch-nemesis Brice Chamberlain.

For Lutie has apparently slipped quietly off the marital rails. So much so that next thing we know she is boarding that same train that brought her into town, to return to the bright lights of the city. It’s an open secret that Brice Chamberlain will be accompanying her, so when he stands Lutie up at the station, and she departs with head held high and eyes bright with unshed tears, the gossip swells to epic proportions.

Not to worry, she’ll be back, wafting in some years later once her estranged husband is on the verge of losing his ranch, while her child-of-(presumed)adultery is succumbing to gunshot wounds sustained during a brush with the law, for he has gone very much to the bad.

A marital reconciliation takes place over the dead body of the young man, then the scene fades to grey, and we are left with the image of the once-vibrant ranch house falling into decay, James and Lutie vanished to who-knows-where, and only Hal left to cherish the memories of what-once-was.

As a period piece this slender book both satisfies and disappoints. Occasional detailed and evocative descriptive passages bring the physical scene vividly to life, but the over-the-topness of much of Richter’s prose makes me grit my teeth.

Example, as Lutie prepares to board the outbound train:

And now I was sure that all those happy friends were frantically playing a part and that they really had no more belief that Lutie Brewton was going to St. Louis than I had. And when I stumbled by as if I noticed nothing, I saw that for all her gay animation, her high lace collar was a pale branch whipsawing in the pounding stream of blood at her throat and that the veins on one of my uncle’s hands stood out like long-suppressed whipcords of blue lightning.

I couldn’t have gone now if I had wished. I could see the grim bulge in my uncle’s coat of gray broadcloth and an untamed violence, like a prairie fire rimmed with black smoke, flaring in his dark eyes. Several loafers had risen to their feet licking their lips. Following their eyes, I glimpsed up the street the unmistakable tall figure of Brice Chamberlain in a new brown suit coming out of the Exchange House and pausing for a moment on the high stone steps, a Mexican behind him with a pair of gripsacks. Then both approaching figures were blotted out by the gray clot of rounded emigrant canvas.

“Whipcoards of blue lightning”! “Grim bulge”! “Untamed violence, like a prairie fire rimmed with black smoke”! Oh, my. Fanning myself wildly – those are stirring words. Is it just me or is it getting hot in here?!

Richter’s characterizations in this novel are stock, clichéd, so that one can’t believe in them as real people, who might have lived. They do everything so much to pattern, stepping through their choreographies of behaviour so rigidly, so predictably, so reminiscently of so many off-the-shelf novel and movie characters that one can’t get past that deadly over-familiarity.

Now I’m going to change gears, and say that though I am dreadfully cruel in my assessment of this extremely dated novel, it wasn’t all that bad. Conrad Richter’s sincerity shines through the deficiencies of his prose and plotting. He had a story to tell, and he told it. A point to make, and he hammered it home.

That point being, once all the romantic brouhaha is cleared out of the way, that the great American grasslands were never suited to the plow, that homesteading brought a fatal destruction of the eons-old sod, and that the epic tragedy of the 1930s’ “dust bowl” of the North American prairies was brought about by human ineptitude.

Probably worth a read, this novel, for cultural literacy reasons, if nothing else.

The characters – well – I got a lot of perverse enjoyment out of mildly despising each and every one of them, for being such cardboard cutouts, and for bringing on their own various downfalls. Lutie in particular. Oh, she annoyed the heck out of me!

And where did she go after abandoning her silent but infatuated husband and her sweet children, and being abandoned by her callous lover? She reappears a good ten years later, still beautiful and well-dressed, still exuding that “fragrance of violets” so beloved of Victorian-and-later writers, still capable of winning hearts with the merest glance of her “liquid eyes”. She’d turned down James Brewton’s financial support, she’d set herself outside of society’s pale, so where was she? How did she feed and clothe herself? Who financed her costly wardrobe, her daintily feminine personal needs? Radio silence!

Okay, rating. How about a 6/10. The Sea of Grass had its moments, and it was fun to growl at as I read it through. Nice and short, too, so it wasn’t like I wasted that much time on its reading. Appreciated the eco-message, good for Conrad Richter on putting that out there.

 

 

 

 

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Tryst by Elswyth Thane  ~ 1939. This edition: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1939. Hardcover (re-bound). 256 pages.

March is not behaving very spring-like at present – it’s a briskish minus 11 Celsius out there right now, and snow has been drifting down all night – so what better time than to read a nice, cosy, ghostly love story?

 It’s hard to know how to say it – but – oh, God, if I’ve earned heaven when I die, let me have England first, let me have England instead

Hilary Shenstone, British secret agent on the troubled Northwest Indian frontier, catches a fatal bullet, but before he pegs out eternally, at the end of a long, beautifully manly, and oh-so-stereotypically-English death scene, he makes the plea quoted above.

God, being sympathetic to Englishmen (as we are so often told), grants his wish, and Hilary’s shade finds itself back in England, sitting on a London embankment, watching a potential suicide being dissuaded from a plunge into the Thames by a compassionate passer-by.

Hilary, being new to the whole business of ghosting, takes some time to learn the ropes, but he quite quickly manages to relocate himself back to his beloved family home, Nun’s Farthing, which has been leased to a scholarly professor for a year, since none of the family (except Hilary, who is often called away on his hush-hush missions) particularly cares to reside there.

The professor-now-in-residence, long-widowed, is accompanied by his dithery spinster sister and his lonely, bookish, social-misfit seventeen-year-old daughter, Sabrina.

(Do you see where we’re going yet?)

Sabrina finds herself fascinated by the locked room which belongs to the absent Hilary; she goes so far as to pick the lock to gain entry, and the room becomes her almost-secret retreat. “Almost”, because tight-lipped, apparently unemotional Mrs. Pilton, the longtime housekeeper of Nun’s Farthing who stays on to oversee the renters, secretly hands over the room’s key to Sabrina, giving her the nod to go in and while away her long days curled up in the sunny window seat, reading her way through Hilary’s large collection of books.

My ex-library copy has seen some hard use. But, though stained and worn throughout, I did not notice any dog-eared pages, so the forbidding stamp which an enthusiastic long-ago librarian dabbed on chapter headings throughout has obviously had its desired effect.

Hilary (in shade form) returns; he becomes immediately infatuated with the sensitively imaginative Sabrina, while she, in her turn, finds herself unable to think of anything else but the man whom she is becoming to know through his possessions and his taste in books.

The news eventually comes that Hilary is dead. Sabrina takes it inexplicably hard; her occupation of Hilary’s old room becomes common knowledge; her appalled and worried father and aunt decide that a move might well be in order, though Sabrina begs to stay…

Stopping right there, I am.

This is a book I would have loved dearly to read as a teenager, and even at this far from teenager-ish age I found it deeply appealing.

Tryst is not particularly well-written, for there are all sorts of gaps in logic and the whole ghost thing is uneven at best. The author is most inconsistent in what her creation is able to do: he can’t be seen (except by dogs, who fearfully growl at him, and cats, who twine about his unseen ankles in feline ecstasy), his writing (as a ghost) can’t be read, he needs to wait for some doors to be opened yet he can pass through walls at will, move items about, and he leaves physical signs of his presence all over the place – a squashed cushion here, a rumpled bedcover there. At one point he even takes a bath!

But I loved it. It’s somehow deeply appealing, despite its inconsistencies, and I happily entered into the tale, squashing my cynical thoughts firmly underfoot.

Marketed (apparently?) to the adult audience of its time, it’s more of what one would consider a teen girls’ novel today. Fine literature Tryst isn’t, but it’s an engagingly effortless read, which is now going onto the guaranteed re-reads section of the keeper shelf, alongside its sisters-in-theme The Sherwood Ring and The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope.

A full extra point awarded for the Kipling references, in particular the connections to Kim, and to Puck of Pook’s Hill, two books which I hold in the very highest personal regard.

My rating: 9.5/10

 

 

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Swiss Sonata by Gwethalyn Graham ~ 1938. This edition: Cormorant Books, 2005. Introduction by Elspeth Cameron. Softcover. ISBN: 1-896951-62-7. 326 pages.

What an interesting book this turned out to be, and, after a somewhat uneven start, an absorbing story both for its historical value and for the small personal sagas of its invented characters.

I first became aware of author Gwethalyn Graham after reading Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson last year. That novel was all about anti-Semitism in American society in the immediate post-World War II years, and in looking into the background of that particular novel, I came across mention of a Canadian writer – Gwethalyn Graham – who wrote a well-received novel on a similar theme – 1944’s Earth and High Heaven.

“Well received”, you’ll note that I said. This is something of an understatement, as both Earth and High Heaven and Swiss Sonata won the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction – in 1938 and 1944 – a remarkable achievement for a writer’s first two (of only three) published works.

Looking into Gwethalyn Graham – see, this is how these things happen, wandering down each enticing literary rabbit trail! – I found mention of her first novel, published when she was 25 years old. Swiss Sonata was based on Graham’s personal experiences as a student at a Swiss “finishing school” in the 1930s, and it sounded like it might be an amusing read.

Which it turned out to be, in bits here and there, but its overwhelming concentration was on much darker world affairs affecting a group of schoolgirls – some, to be said, not exactly girls but in actuality young women – and their instructors, resident in a small Swiss boarding school in 1935.

Kirkus had this to say in its 1938 review, and I fully concur.

A first novel that is well handled and the story of a finishing school in Switzerland, whose pupils come from many countries. A miniature League of Nations, the problems current in 1935 are reflected in the school, pro-Hitlerite persecutes German-Jew, counter-revolutionary interests are hidden from the public eye. There are emotional, psychological problems, and the head-mistress is forced out of her ivory tower into active participation in the girls’ lives. Vicky, the heroine, is a bit too good to be true, but the story, after a slow start, does carry you along, interested in the outcome. A far-better-than-average girls’ school story.

Time presses, and I will leave you here, with these last few links well worth perusal.

Now interested in Gwethalyn Graham, and want to find out more? Here you go, a grand post on her increasingly tragic back story from the Only Connect blog.

And Brian Busby of The Dusty Bookcase blog, whose opinion on all things bookish I hold in the very highest regard, has this to say.

My personal “reading satisfaction” rating of Swiss Sonata: 7/10.

I liked it, and found its slight unevenness very forgivable. In some parts the emotional tension was exceedingly well sustained, and though I, like the Kirkus reviewer, found the heroine Vicky just a bit too good to be true, I eventually found myself completely won over. Interesting ending, too.

Highly recommended for its historical value, well presented hand-in-hand with its psychodrama fictional theme.

 

 

 

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twice-dead-e-m-channon-2Twice Dead by E.M. Channon ~ 1930. This edition: Greyladies Press, 2010. Foreword by Hilary Clare. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-907503-04-7. 229 pages.

My rating: 6ish/10

After my recent enjoyment of Channon’s mathematical romance Little G, I thought it worth taking a gamble on one of her several mystery novels, and yesterday brought me Twice Dead, courtesy of the nicely efficient Royal Mail, which, in combination with our very own Canada Post, makes book delivery from Great Britain lightning fast.

A quick read it was, and reasonably diverting, though I must confess I fell asleep over it while reading in the bath last night.

Now this was only partly the fault of the book. Some of the blame must rest with the physical and mental exhaustion which is the norm for me this busiest time of year, as I scramble to stay on top of my numerous self-inflicted commitments.

Plain old tiredness combined with a tubful of warm water and the white noise of the little electric heater which we use to make our very cold bathroom reasonably fit for lingering in (not to mention the warm air wafting from it) knocked me out, and I woke with a start to a lukewarm tub and a slightly damp novel, for though it never actually got submerged (close thing, though!) it managed to wick up a bit of dampness while I was comatose.

But the book must take some of the responsibility for its almost-soggy state. It’s not the most stirring of reads.

In fact, don’t think I have ever read such a offhandedly casual sort of murder mystery, for all of its darkly passionate goings-on. Dirty deeds are done by heroes and villains both, and shrugs all round seems to be the pattern for official repercussions!

And everyone with such tremendous collections of secrets! My goodness. Complicated lives, these fictional folk lead.

Rich girl Sylvia, sweet-natured and lovely, has several men a-wooing her, but the one she secretly loves is (as far as she knows – heaven forbid she ask the man) affianced to another, so she kind-of-accidentally accepts a proposal from one of the second string, to her immediate regret.

For slightly effeminate Philip – his lack of manliness obviously inherited from his Italian mother – is only superficially charming. On closer acquaintance he’s a bit of a sissy, as far as personal discomfort goes, though he’s virile enough in his secretive pursuit of willing women, including, with tragic repercussions, Sylvia’s delicately lovely but morally corrupt cousin Anne.

A disguised fortune-teller has recently informed Philip that he is heading for a bad end – he will end up “twice dead” – but he shrugs it off, once he discovers that the soothsayer in question is someone well-known to him from his shady past. He thinks she’s just telling him tales as a sort of twisted revenge for how he wronged her.

She’s right, though. He’s doomed.

All the wrong people get the blame for Philip’s demise – or do they? What dark deeds were done in the shabby bedroom of the dingy little inn where Philip lay trapped with a broken leg?

Will the brilliant young village doctor be found guilty of Philip’s death in a court of law as well as the damning court of public opinion? And/or for the death of the mysterious fortune-teller, which follows closely after?

Will Sylvia’s secret flame come round to her sterling qualities, now that her Big Mistake is dead and gone? Or is he (Mr True Love) really going to marry his dynamically attractive cousin instead?

Why is Anne walking and talking in her sleep, all Lady Macbeth-like?

And what is the secret of the Chinese ink brush in the doctor’s curio cabinet?

All this, and more, in this crowded mystery-romance. Utterly period piece, with just enough witty exchanges and charming moments to rescue it from its otherwise ho-hum-ishness as a puzzle novel.

I’d definitely read more E.M. Channon, of any of her several genres, on the feeble strength of this one, and of the infinitely better Little G, but I won’t go so far as to recommend Twice Dead to the rest of you.

Give it a try, for sure, but keep your expectations modest.

(And don’t read it in the tub!)

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e-m-channon-little-g-1936-greyladies-cover-2012Little G by E.M. Channon ~ 1936. This edition: Greyladies Press, 2012.  Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-907503-21-4. 226 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Still playing catch-up with those January-read books. (Not to mention the ones I’ve got stacked up here from February.) Maybe I should try a bit harder to condense my reader’s responses?

Little G, with its rather mysterious title, was, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier round-up post, a whole lot of fun.

It’s a decidedly charming summer-set fluff piece about a misogynistic (and youngish – this is important) Cambridge mathematics don who is sent off to the country by his doctor, with orders to eschew overtaxing his brain, and to get himself into some habits of healthful exercise.

“And you really want to banish me to this beastly village, Cardew?” he inquired, with pathos.

“You can make your own choice, my man. Six months in Challingley, leading the sort of reasonable life that I’ve suggested, or a real genuine breakdown, with a real genuine rest-cure in a nursing home to follow.”

“Good Lord!” said the Mathematician, in blank horror, with a swift vision of himself quite helpless, at the mercy of innumerable designing young hussies in becoming uniforms.

“I can tell you,” said the Doctor, “that I’d be glad enough to change places with you. I’ve spent more than one holiday in Challingley, and always been sorry to come away. Plenty of people would envy you your luck.”

“Rotten luck,” said the Mathematician, uncomforted.

The Doctor, looking round for inspiration, found it suddenly on his companion’s knee.

“You can keep a cat of your own there.”

The Mathematician did not like cats. He adored them.

His gloomy face relaxed a very little.

“Now you’re talking!” he said.

“A dozen cats, if you like,” said the Doctor, encouraged.

“I’m a monocattist,” said the Mathematician.

He stood up suddenly, putting the black kitten down, but with all possible consideration for its feline feelings.

“It’s no use trying to get round me like that, Cardew,” he said. Im not going. ”

Three days later – considerably alarmed by the recurrence of the unpleasant symptoms which had induced him to call in the Doctor – he went.

So there John Furnival is, domestically settled into a picturesque thatched-roof cottage, cared for by a blithely cheerful cook-housekeeper who rather sets his teeth on edge by her unremitting good nature, and her welcoming in of his numerous neighbours making their polite social calls.

Despite his crankiness, Furnival is absorbed into the community and finds himself not only going out to tea but hosting others in his turn, playing tennis, going for long country walks, and, yes, adopting a cat.

And to his horror (for he carefully inquired as to the presence of predatory females before agreeing to relocate to the village), he discovers that one of his neighbours is a very attractive young widow, one who is doubtless on the lookout for an unattached male such as himself as her next potential victim!

So focussed is Furnival on this (wholly unfounded) threat to his bachelor freedom, that he fails to realize that the true danger to his single state is approaching from a very different direction…

A cheerful, effortless read; witty throughout and wickedly funny in parts. I enjoyed it immensely.

Ethel Mary Channon wrote quite a number of books in her time (she died in 1951), most of them being “school stories” targetting the girls’ market, as well as mysteries and a number of adult novels of varying degrees of seriousness.

Little G is definitely on the “light” side; it is also said to be one of Channon’s best works, which might be seen as a warning off of sorts for her others, but I’d happily sample her “lesser” novels merely on the strength of this likeable concoction.

Long out of print, Little G was reprinted by Greyladies Press in 2012, but that run appears to be sold out as well, and the book is currently rather elusive in the second-hand lists. Perhaps all of its readers are hanging onto their copies for pleasant revisiting? I know I am.

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First edition dust jacket illustration, sadly not my copy.

First edition dust jacket illustration, sadly not my personal copy.

Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom ~ 1934. This edition: Corazon Books, 2016. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1909752269. 327 pages.

My rating: 7/10

My second-ever Ursula Bloom novel and I enjoyed it, though it never quite breaks into A-list status. Maybe A-minus?

Anyway, I liked it, and it’s a keeper, for those times when one requires an utterly effortless diversionary read. (I also own the equally engaging and so-close-to-A-list 1965 mild psychological thriller The Quiet Village, but I don’t think I have chatted it up here yet.)

I’m keeping my eyes open (in a casual sort of way) for more novels by this supremely prolific writer, and have been for some years. They are surprisingly rare in used book stores, at least on this side of the Atlantic, or at least in the ones I have frequented. There must be stacks of them out there somewhere.

From the About the Author page at the back of this Corazon edition:

Ursula Bloom was one of the most popular bestselling authors of the twentieth century. She wrote over 560 books, a feat which earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for many years, as the world’s most prolific female writer. She also wrote short stories, radio and stage plays, and worked as a Fleet Street journalist.

During her long career, as well as writing books under her own name, Ursula used the pen names Sheila Burns, Rachel Harvey, Lozania Prole, Mary Essex and Deborah Mann.

So what I really want to know now is who bumped Ursula from her “most prolific female writer” spot? Danielle Steele, perhaps? Let’s see what Google says…and oh golly! This Wikipedia page is an astonishing (and slightly troubling) thing. In recognizable names of English-language writers, it looks like both Enid Blyton and Barbara Cartland have surpassed Ursula Bloom, with, respectively, 600+ and 722 published works. Who knew?!

This mind-boggling digression put behind me, here’s a quickie synopsis of Wonder Cruise.

An orphaned daughter of the vicarage, left destitute as is the tradition in these sorts of things, finds herself living in London under the thumb of a bullying older brother. She manages to attain independence through a secretarial job, but  begins to find that the daily grind is just that, with a long bleak vista a years-all-the-same stretching ahead, until a chance sweepstake win triggers a personal reinvention.

The usual sequence of events occurs, with the eventual finding of true love. Absolutely predictable, but decently readable. Sexual awakening is a great part the theme here, stated in those very words. The tiniest bit unexpected for a popular novel from 1934, but then again, not really, when one considers what else was going on in the actual and literary world at the time.

Corazon Books of London (“bringing you great stories with heart”), the republisher responsible for Wonder Cruise once again seeing the light of day, provides this enthusiastic blurb:

Ann Clements is thirty-five and single, and believes nothing exciting will ever happen to her. Then, she wins a large sum of money in a sweepstake and suddenly can dare to dream of a more adventurous life. She buys a ticket for a Mediterranean cruise, against the wishes of her stern brother, the Rev. Cuthbert, who has other ideas about how she should spend her windfall. Ann steps out of the shadows of her mundane life into the heat of the Mediterranean sun. Travelling to Gibraltar, Marseilles, Naples, Malta and Venice, Ann’s eyes are opened to people and experiences far removed from her sheltered existence in the offices at Henrietta Street, and Mrs. Puddock’s lodging house. As Ann blossoms, discovering love and passion for the very first time, the biggest question is, can there be any going back?

1909752266-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_You’re going to want to have your brown paper handy if buying this new edition, because it has one of the most gosh-awful covers imaginable. Hard to have people take you seriously when you’re seen with this in your hands!

But the contents are prime, nicely produced and easy to read, with very few (if any?) typos. Whoever reset this did a grand job, and this reader thanks you!

I hope some more Ursula Blooms are forthcoming from this source. I see that Corazon has also republished Bloom’s 1959 wartime memoir (and that would be the First World War, by the way), Youth at the Gate, which I am about to order, because I know it will be readable, and likely wryly funny, if Bloom’s fictional voice remains the same for her reminiscences. Again, Corazon’s cover art leaves something to be desired, but I guess we should be grateful for what’s inside, instead of griping about appearances.

Here’s something extra, a link to a 1974 mini-documentary on Ursula Bloom produced by the BBC. Watch it, it’s a mere 4 minutes long, and it’s rather fascinating to see our author typing away at full speed, producing some of those 5000 eminently saleable words per day!

From the East Anglia Film Archive’s link page:

Author Ursula Bloom sits at her writing desk tapping away on a typewriter, opening this profile of her life and career with old photographs and newly filmed material. Beginning with her extensive bibliography, which ranges from romance novels to biographies, the report highlights her many non-de-plumes, including Mary Essex, Sheila Burns and Lozania Prole, and her prolific output, often averaging 5,000 words a day and easily able to complete a novel within three weeks.

The daughter of a parson who didn’t believe in school-based education, Bloom got an early start on her career, running a children’s magazine at age 10, and had a brief career as a cinema pianist before marrying a wealthy barrister and guards officer. Following his death during the influenza epidemic of 1918, Bloom and her young son continued living in the exclusive seaside resort of Frinton, the summer playground of the rich and famous during the 1920s. During this time she broke into journalism with a successful career as a court reporter, before meeting her second husband, naval lieutenant Charles Robinson Gower, in 1925. Fifty years later, the couple are shown in their sitting room, still happily married, both claiming it was the ‘best thing they ever did’.

 

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a-harp-in-lowndes-square-rachel-ferguson-1936A Harp in Lowndes Square by Rachel Ferguson ~ 1936. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2016. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-911413-73-8. 287 pages.

My rating: 10/10

2016 continues to throw an eclectic array of all sorts of unpleasant things our way. Thank goodness for good books. Escape reading has been a slender but strong lifeline in a stormy personal (and societal) sea.

This past week has been particularly rewarding in this aspect, and I found I used up most of my writing time for reading, as I was seduced first by Sinclair Lewis’ highly likeable Dodsworth, then by Will Ferguson’s snarky Generica (aka Happiness™) and, last and best, by Rachel Ferguson’s dense and rewarding A Harp in Lowndes Square.

All three demand discussion. The last-read will be the first. These reviewlets will be short on original analysis, because Real Life is relentless in pounding at the door, but with the thought that any mention is better than none, here we go.

A Harp in Lowndes Square is the most “serious” of the three of Rachel Ferguson’s works I’ve read so far, and the most “conventional” (relatively speaking) in its structure and its plot.

Where The Brontës go to Woolworths was frequently giddy, and sometimes deliberately ridiculous, and A Footman for the Peacock evolved on occasion into pure farce, A Harp transcends the author’s stylistic playfulness in those other works – for to me that is what it often seems, a deliberate, gently ponderous frolicking garbed harlequin-wise in sardonic humour – and attains a higher ground in its characters and its plot.

This despite the reader-challenging dependence on an acceptance of the theory of a parallel stream of time for much of the book. It’s almost what the reviews label it as – a sort-of ghost story – but at heart it’s purely of its time, a self-assessing, slyly humorous, poignantly troubling novel revolving around the thoughts and feelings of a sympathetic narrator.

From the Dean Street Press website, a pared-down précis of the basics of the plot, hinting very slightly at the intricacies of this absorbingly complex novel:

Description

In the schoolroom in Lowndes Square, a child, in her ugly, unsuitable frock of plum-coloured satin, cut down when discarded from one of her mother’s, bent over the cutting out of a doll and its cardboard wardrobe, and shivered as she worked.

Hilarious, shocking, and heartbreaking in turn, A Harp in Lowndes Square is like no other Rachel Ferguson novel. Perhaps her most personal work – and the closest she ever came to a ghost story – it tells of Vere and James, twins gifted with ‘the sight,’ which allows them to see and even experience scenes from the past (including one, at Hampton Court, involving royalty).

The twins are already aware of their mother’s troubled relationship with her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant, but the discovery of an Aunt Myra, who died young and of whom their mother has never spoken, leads them to uncover the family’s tragic past. Against the backdrop of World War I and Vere’s unexpected relationship with an aging actor (and his wife), and rife with Ferguson’s inimitable wit, the novel reaches a powerful and touching denouement when the twins relive the horrifying events of many years before …

A Harp in Lowndes Square was originally published in 1936. This new edition features an introduction by social historian Elizabeth Crawford.

Praise

‘It is only (now) that I realise how much … my work owes to the delicacy and variety of Rachel Ferguson’s exploration of the real and the dreamed of, or the made up, or desired.’ A.S. BYATT

‘A wonderful concoction … the true stuff of storytelling.’ GILLIAN TINDALL

The above is of course overly dramatized, as is the wont in back cover blurbery, but essentially correct in summation.

I didn’t find much hilarity here, though there was abundant intelligent humour, and the so-called denouement, though indeed powerful and touching, wasn’t particularly surprising as the narrative contained abundant hints as to what it was that actually happened one bitter night in the late 1800s, on the stairs outside the drawing room door.

The real reward of this gem of a novel is in its depiction of the best possibilities of human relationships. Narrator Vere, one of the psychically-sensitive twins, never finds romantic love in the conventional sense, but, looking back on her earlier life from the age of fifty, she reflects on what she did instead experience, and it seems to me to be, in this case at least, an acceptable alternative.

The morally monstrous mother figure in the background – family matriarch Lady Vallant – serves to accentuate the determined rejection of such parental coldness by her youngest daughter Anne, mother of twins Vere and James and the finely-drawn Lalage, their beloved elder sister.

All three of the Ferguson novels read by me to date stand out, despite their sometimes bizarre structure, as warm depictions of familial unity as bulwark against a sometimes-bitter outside world, and these affirmative passages are, to me, perhaps the finest part of these intellectually rich, fascinatingly convoluted novels.

I liked this book much more than I had expected too – and I had high expectations indeed. I’d ordered it with a view to reading it in 2017 as part of my second prospective Century of Books project, but in a moment of weakness I opened it “just to preview”, was drawn in, and here I am, happily contemplating a 1936 replacement on my want-to-read list. Luckily it shouldn’t be too hard to find something else, in that rich literary era.

For more on A Harp in Lowndes Square, I’m going to send you over to this review by Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow, whose fervent hunting out, re-reading, and articulate reviewing of out-of-print mid-century female novelists has led to this particular republication.

Grateful kudos again to Scott, and to Dean Street Press.

Many of us, myself included, hear “print on demand” and our first response is to cringe in disgust, because of the many horrible examples of Gutenberg-mining  hack “presses” so prolifically invading the ABE and Amazon lists, but Dean Street Press is a shining beacon of How To Do It Right. Beautifully produced paper editions, perfectly re-set, with scholarly new forewords and appropriate cover art, made wonderfully (and affordably!) available for those of us who struggle with reading from a screen. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Full disclosure, in case anyone is wondering at my enthusiastic promotion of DSP: A Harp in Lowndes Square is not a review copy; I bought it with my own hard-earned dollars. Worth every penny. Check these guys out.

 

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