Archive for the ‘1940s’ Category

Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker ~ 1940. This edition: Bloomsbury, 2010. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-60819-051-5. 317 pages.

This one has been on the want-to-read list for many years. I’ve seen so many enthusiastic recommendations by like-minded readers, and I am pleased to report that my own experience is the same. This is a grand – and more than slightly unusual – novel.

I’m parachuting in here in the briefest of ways this desperately busy Sunday morning, because this one is just too good not to mention, and luckily a lot of others have said a lot of things about it; it’s no longer quite the hidden gem it was before Bloomsbury dusted it off and sent it back into the world.

Here’s the set-up, courtesy the publisher’s blurb:

When, on the spur of a moment, Norman Huntley and his friend Henry invent an eighty-three year-old woman called Miss Hargreaves, they are inspired to post a letter to their new fictional friend. It is only meant to be a silly, harmless game – until Miss Hargreaves arrives on their doorstep, complete with her cockatoo, her harp and – last but not least – her bath. She is, to Norman’s utter disbelief, exactly as he had imagined her: enchanting, eccentric and endlessly astounding. He hadn’t imagined, however, how much havoc an imaginary octogenarian could wreak in his sleepy Buckinghamshire home town, Cornford.

Norman has some explaining to do, but how will he begin to explain to his friends, family and girlfriend where Miss Hargreaves came from when he hasn’t the faintest clue himself? Will his once-ordinary, once-peaceful life ever be the same again? And, what’s more, does he want it to?

And here, because anything I say would be merely a repeat – he even includes one of the quotes I marked in my own book! – is Simon at Stuck in a Book. Thank you, Simon. For this, and for so much more. You keep pointing me in the direction of intriguing things!

“I abominate fuss…” Miss Hargreaves and Me

This is a delicious creation indeed, a close to perfect novel, with its combination of intelligent ridiculousness and things much deeper and darker. It stands alone; I can think of nothing to compare it to.

Very highly recommended. 10/10.

 

 

 

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Home Port by Olive Higgins Prouty ~ 1947. This edition: Houghton Mifflin, 1947. Hardcover. 284 pages.

Time for a quick post this morning before I’m off into the snowy world to further the progress of the performing arts in our community: the vocal and choral portion of our regional version of what in other parts of the world could be called an Eisteddfod begins tomorrow, and today I collect the vocal adjudicator from his flight in and then brief him on the finer points of what his duties shall be.  It will be a peaceful and pleasant meeting, but it puts a gaping hole in my otherwise home-focussed Sunday. Ah, well, it’s all for a good cause. Encouraging musicians is always a good thing, and I get to sit and listen in as my reward!

So. Olive Higgins Prouty. A name I had heard bandied about in the past, though I had not until now bumped into one of her books.

She’s the author of the widely known Stella Dallas, 1923, and her 1941 book Now, Voyager was made into the 1942 film starring Bette Davis which has attained film classic status. Olive Higgins Prouty also famously mentored a young Sylvia Plath, which seems to be a whole other complex story which I shan’t get into here.

Olive Higgins Prouty was deeply interested in psychology and psychotherapy, and her books are reportedly very much about the emotional lives of her characters, and their rehabilitation from various states of mental imbalance through various therapeutic experiences, not necessarily involving “professional” intervention, but rather organically through positive life experiences and such. Or that is my understanding, in particular from my reading of Home Port, which is all about the emotional trauma and healing of its key character, Murray Vale.

Murray is a young man in his early twenties; he is in the process of studying for his law degree, though it’s not his dream job by a far stretch; he’d rather be out rambling in the woods and studying flora and fauna. Luckily he has a summer job as a camp counsellor at his old camp, so he gets to indulge in woodsmanship and mentoring all the younger boys in his personal passion.

But disaster is about to strike.

Murray is asked to take another counsellor along on a short canoe trip to scout out a camping location; he’s specifically asked to keep an eye on his partner and not allow him to over-exert himself; seems the chap has a ticky heart. All is well until a sudden storm blows up; the men end up in the water, and despite heroic attempts on Murray’s part, the other counsellor slips away and is lost.

Murray makes it to shore, passes out, and regains consciousness to a horrifying realization: he has let everybody down! (Murray has serious self-esteem issues, being the younger, more bookish, less athletic brother to super-athlete and all-around good guy Windy, who even after being crippled by a bout with polio is active in the local sport and social scene – everybody loves Windy!)

What to do, what to do? Murray considers suicide, but can’t quite figure out the “how”; after much inner anguish he decides instead to disappear from his old life and go to ground under an assumed name, which he pulls off with a little luck, becoming a successful camp guide for a small Maine fishing outfit. (I’m condensing madly here.)

Murray also has sex issues, in that he thinks he is impotent, because all of his previous relations with women have been so stressful that he can’t fulfill their requirements, as it were, but luckily there is this one young woman client of his who is utterly non-threatening and sweet and interested in all the same things…

Long story short, Murray is rehabilitated in both his own eyes and those of the world, as he finds true love and then goes off to be a brave soldier in World War II, vindicating his moment of physical weakness out there on that long-ago lake.

All’s well that ends well; Murray has found his “home port”.

Not a bad effort as far as these sorts of sentimental stories go; I was happy to go along for the ride, though I often felt like giving wishy-washy Murray a good hard shake. Which was the whole point, I suppose.

Home Port is the fourth installment in a series of five novels regarding the fictional Vale family; it was interesting enough that I may indeed by seeking out the other four novels at some point. (The sequence is: The White Fawn (1931), Lisa Vale (1938), Now, Voyager (1941), Home Port (1947), and Fabia (1951).

I’m really curious now about getting my hands on the even earlier Stella Dallas; Olive Higgins Prouty intrigues me; I want to read a bit more of her work.

It appears from a cursory visit to ABE that none of Prouty’s books are terribly rare; she was a bestseller in her time, and Stella Dallas for one has been in print fairly continuously since its publication in 1923, due to its (apparently unauthorized) adaptation as a long-running radio soap opera and its subsequent high public profile.

So there we go. Another new-to-me vintage author discovered, another sequence of books to chase down at my leisure.

On that note – must run! Happy Sunday, fellow readers.

Oh – that obligatory rating: 6.5/10, let’s say. It got a bit soggy towards the end – very über-heartwarming and neatly tied up – but getting there was reasonably diverting.

 

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The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute ~ 1947. This edition: William Morrow & Co., 1947. Hardcover. 380 pages.

‘Tis all a Chequer board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward Fitzgerald

Nevil Shute was a writer of a certain dedicated earnestness, and in none of his many books is he as earnest as he is here, tackling the thorny question of skin colour and mixed race relationships, from the everyday associations of people-at-large to the intimacy of marriage.

Nevil Shute was also a man of deep personal decency, so it won’t be any surprise to those who know his work to hear that this is a deeply decent novel, a nice novel. In it people are given the opportunity to redeem themselves, to take the high road, and for the most part they do.

In 1943, during World War II, four men find themselves sharing a ward in a British military hospital after the plane three of them are in crash lands after being damaged by enemy fire on the way home to England from Algiers. Two of the plane crash casualties are under military arrest: Captain John Turner, for black market activities, and paratrooper Duggie Brent, for killing a man during a bar brawl. The pilot of the crashed plane, Flying Officer Phillip Morgan, is in the guarded ward because he has a badly broken thigh bone, and there is no other place for him to be cared for.

This annoys Morgan, because in the bed next to him is an American soldier, David Lesurier, under arrest on a charge of attempted rape, and in hospital because he cut his own throat while hiding from pursuing police. The reason for Phillip Morgan’s annoyance is not so much that David is a possible rapist, but that he is black. A “dirty n*gger”, in fact, and he goes on about this at great length, which proves to be deeply ironic due to events which occur later in the tale.

Oh, yes. I should mention here that the book was written in the 1940s, so the various common words used to refer to people of colour back then – now deemed highly derogatory – are used freely and abundantly. Bear with Nevil Shute; he’s got a little moral to expound on; the archaic terminology is being bandied about partly because that was the norm, but also for future dramatic effect.

So Captain Turner has a serious head injury; he’s swathed in bandages and can’t see his wardmates. They are set to keep him from going absolutely stir crazy by reading to him and conversing with him; in the weeks they share the space they become deeply intimate, though when each departs there is no thought of ever seeing each other again; it is wartime, after all, and people go where they’re sent, plus there are those three trials looming.

Forward four years, and here we find John Turner out of jail, back in civilian life, and doing not too badly, except for these fainting spells and dizziness. Seems that there are a few metal fragments lodged in his brain, inoperably so, and the long-term prognosis is not good at all.

Yup, John is dying, and he comes to terms with that in a most admirable way, but before he goes, he sets himself to find his old wardmates and see how they’re doing, to help them out if need be. (Seems John still has some of that illicit black market money tucked away, and since he’s not going to be around to spend it…)

One by one John tracks down his old companions, and what he finds is most surprising.

Despite the main character being under sentence of death, this is an optimistic tale, all about people overcoming personal challenges and going on to make the world a better place for them having been in it.

There’s a rather well-worked-out theme in this tale involving Buddhism.

And that whole interracial relationship thing.

That’s all I’m going to divulge, for if you are a Shute fan already you’ll believe me when I assert that this is up to par, a steady good read, and if you’re new to him you’ll hopefully find something to please you in this even-tempered saga of the not-too-perfect common man.

Here’s another teaser of sorts  from the back dust jacket of the first American edition of The Chequer Board.

Oh, and my rating. 8/10.

One last note. Yes, Nevil Shute pounds home his points in this one, doggedly pursuing his plot to each tidy end of each diverging thread, and yes, it does get a bit preachy here and there. I forgave him, because his heart is so obviously in the right place. Bear with the man; he did his best, too!

 

 

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Panthers’ Moon by Victor Canning ~ 1948. This edition: M.S. Mill Co. and William Morrow & Co., 1948. Hardcover. 246 pages.

Quite a decent thriller by a writer I’d first become acquainted with way back in grade school with his 1971 “juvenile delinquent meets escaped cheetah” novel, The Runaways, and much more recently his 1974 espionage novel, The Mask of Memory.

Both of these were more than readable, and left me curious about the rest of Canning’s books – he was a steady sort of writer, producing an average book-a-year from 1935 till the mid-1980s.

Travel books, action and spy novels, an Arthurian trilogy, a few books-for-younger-readers, stage plays, radio and television scripts – Canning worked hard at his writer’s job and enjoyed a steady success.

I’ve been watching out for his titles these past few years, and haven’t had a whole lot of luck until just recently, when three came into my hands in the space of a few weeks.

Mr. Finchley Goes to Paris, 1938, is apparently a picaresque sort of rambling adventure-travel novel featuring a middle-aged British clerk; I am holding off reading it until I can get my hands on its 1934 prequel, Mr. Finchley Discovers His England, which was Canning’s first published work, and such a successful one that it set in motion his long writing career.

Along with Mr. Finchley, found by its side in the vintage mystery section at the delectable Nuggets Used Books in Chilliwack, B.C., I acquired The Chasm, 1947, which is reviewed with glowing praise on the back cover of this book, Panthers’ Moon. (I wanted to read The Chasm first, but I’ve temporarily misplaced it; a maddening situation. Can’t be far away, but where? Likely hiding in plain sight, as searched-for books so often are!)

Before I go any further, warm thanks must go out to John Higgins, who has created and maintained a linked series of web pages featuring Victor Canning and his works; a treasure trove indeed and one I intend to go to for guidance in my future Victor Canning explorations, which I am looking forward to with great anticipation.

So, Panthers’ Moon.

If you think the dust jacket illustration looks like it could be something found on a Helen MacInnes book of the same era, you’d be absolutely correct, though Canning wanders into rather more fanciful territory than MacInnes ever did, what with his inclusion of two domesticated-yet-dangerous panthers – one jet black – as major characters in this slightly unlikely spy thriller.

The larger plot points are telegraphed well in advance of their coming off, but Canning achieves a few surprises, too, and his action sequences are stellar, worth the occasional slogging through clichéd scenarios, and the inclusion of what turns into an almost too cute love story, between our action hero protagonist and an emotionally damaged British spy.

Down below you can see what the fly leaves have to say, as I am in full meander mode tonight and can’t quite settle to a tidy précis of my own, other than that secret documents are given to good guy hero to transport across international borders, and he thinks he’s found the perfect hiding place, but the bad guys are on to him and a long and tricksy chase ensues. Oh, yes. The female spy (a good guy spy, even though she’s not a guy) is absolutely beautiful. Too bad about her tragically deceased lover, victim of the Nazis. Ah, well. Broken hearts are ripe for mending, at least in these sorts of spy-versus-spy inventions, which quite often contain a dash of romantic entanglement.

I will leave you here, with my nod of general approval to this likeable period piece, and with my assurance that I will be delving ever deeper into the works of Victor Canning, for John Higgins has kindly put together a list of the best, as it were, and I intend to take the bait and seek these out with more focus in the future, versus waiting on random book-finding luck.

Panthers’ Moon gets a warm 7/10 from me, mostly because of those vivid action sections, and because I’m a total sucker for a vintage novel man-of-many-manly-skills, as the extremely competent hero of Panthers’ Moon happily turned out to be.

A proper review is here, and another is here, with another good overview of Canning’s work here.

 

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The Foolish Gentlewoman by Margery Sharp ~ 1948. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1948. Hardcover. 330 pages.

One of my absolute favourite writers is, as many of you know by now, Margery Sharp, 1905-1991, and today, January 25, is (or was) her birthday.

Which calls for celebration in the way of reading one (or more) of her books, and sharing some thoughts on that reading with fellow like-minded readers. And those who we hope will become like-minded Margery Sharp aficionados, of course!

I didn’t think I would manage a post tonight, having just now finished reading the book in question, but my daughter has made me a restorative cup of tea and I have found a breath of a second wind, so let’s see what I can do. It may be a bit of a muddle, but I hope it communicates my high regard for the novel and its creator.

Isabel Brocken, a comfortably well-off widow of fifty-five, has something on her mind.

Blithe by nature – so blithe as to be thought of as something of a fool by her staunchly bachelor brother-in-law Simon, who manages her affairs – Isabel has been a cheerful sort of person no matter what life has brought her way. She has taken in stride the upsets of and volunteered as a VAD in two wars, has accepted quietly the disappointment of not having any children, and has gently mourned the death of her husband, not to mention the loss of her beloved marital home to a German bomb.

Luckily Isabel has held on to her own old family home all of these years, much against Simon’s advice, so she is perhaps the tiniest bit smug to be able to offer a bed to Simon after his own house is badly damaged in one of the last bombing raids of the war.

Also in residence are Isabel’s recently de-mobbed nephew Humphrey from New Zealand, and an ex-Seargent in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, Jacqueline Brown, who is acting as a housekeeper-companion to Isabel. A quiet mother and her devoted teenage daughter reside in a separate set of rooms and share cooking facilities with Isabel and her menage; hired as caretakers during the war, they are staying on to help with housework and such.

Everyone is getting along peacefully; the groove is well set; but, as I mentioned just now, Isabel has something on her mind, something which will disturb the peace of her home and everyone in it.

It seems that Isabel has, on one of her infrequent visits to church, caught a line of a sermon to the effect that it was a common error to suppose that the passage of time made a base action any less bad. Now, this line had struck like an arrow straight to the tender heart of Isabel, and in doing so had triggered the memory of a very base act which she had performed against another young woman many years ago.

Almost forty years ago, orphaned Tilly Cuff had been invited into Isabel’s family home in the capacity of a low-key sort of companion. She is treated as one of the family, but all sorts of little tasks fall to her lot; she is expected to make herself useful in return for her room and board, as it were, and this she does in a subdued sort of way. Tilly is a thin, pale shadow of the much more vivacious Isabel and her sister Ruth, and they patronize her without really realizing it, keeping her well in her place, just a step back.

When a visiting young man falls in love with the unprepossessing Tilly, Isabel by a a random chance finds herself possessed of a letter proposing marriage to Tilly. Deeply piqued, for she thought the young man was falling in love with her, Isabel suppresses the letter, politely taunts Tilly with an accusation of being over-flirtatious to warn her away from her potential lover, and the budding love affair withers on the vine.

Soon after this Tilly accepts a paid position as a companion to an invalid heading to Switzerland, and she and Isabel part ways, never to meet again, though they correspond occasionally through the years.

Now, four decades later, Isabel is visited by an attack of conscience triggered by that sermon, and she proposes to make amends for Tilly’s lost chance at marital happiness by rescuing her from her dreary round of temporary homes and tedious duties by bringing Tilly into her home.

Not only that, Isabel resolves to make over to Tilly the majority of her fortune, keeping just enough to eke out a humble existence, to prevent herself from becoming a burden to friends and relations.

Needless to say Simon is appalled by the very thought of this proposal, as are Humphrey and Jacqueline, but Isabel is not to be dissuaded.

Tilly is invited, she accepts the invitation, and moves in bag and baggage, cherishing in her heart a deep suspicion of Isabel’s motives in inviting her, for Isabel has not yet divulged her intention of reparations for that long ago bad deed.

Tilly turns out to be a true viper in the nest; she is openly meddlesome and secretly vicious by nature, and she immediately stirs up trouble among every member of the household. Even the forgiving Isabel starts to have qualms as to carrying through with her intention to give over her assets to the bitter Tilly. While Isabel tries to retain her idea that Tilly is, deep inside, a truly good person, evidence is much to the contrary.

What should Isabel do, then? The right thing for the once-wronged Tilly, or the thing that is the best for the most people?

Isabel’s decision and the ramifications of it bring this richly charactered novel to an unexpected conclusion. No one escapes unaltered, though the changes are not as we might in some cases expect.

The Foolish Gentlewoman is satisfyingly good the first time round, but as with all of Margery Sharp’s books, it greatly rewards re-reading.

My rating: an easy 9/10.

I am scanning in two pages from early in the book, so you can have a sample of the tone and mood in this gently sardonic and rather moving novel.

 

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The 1990 New Canadian Library edition of Hetty Doval has an inapt cover illustration. Its reproduction of an E.J. Hughes painting depicts coastal Ladysmith, B.C., a rather different locality (though they share a water’s edge location) to arid inland Lytton and its rivers descending from the mountains.

Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson ~ 1947. This edition: McClelland & Stewart, 1990. New Canadian Library edition. Afterword by Northrop Frye. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-8953-8. 104 pages.

Canadian-by-circumstance writer Ethel Wilson – born in South Africa, orphaned at the age of ten and brought to Vancouver, B.C. to live with her grandmother – produced a sadly meager handful of very well regarded novellas, novels and short story collections, all sharing themes of strong female protagonists and distinct senses of place.

In Hetty Dorval the place is the tiny Fraser Canyon community of Lytton, British Columbia. Ethel Wilson captured its unique essence perfectly, as I can affirm to, having spent some time there myself, the latest occasion being a day-and-night stay just a month ago. Though I didn’t consciously choose to read the novella in response to that recent experience, I found it added a definite piquancy to my reading.

Twelve-year-old Frances Burnaby – “Frankie” – is a ranch child boarding in Lytton during the week to attend school. She rides the fifteen miles to and from her home with calm competence, quietly revelling in her good fortune of having a loved and loving family, congenial friends and acquaintances, and physical surroundings of immense natural beauty.

The blue Thompson meets the silt-laden Fraser at Lytton, viewed from the bridge over the Thompson, where Frankie would have stood. The joining of the two rivers is used as a strongly symbolic metaphor throughout Hetty Dorval, its most obvious representation being the meeting and melding of innocence and its opposite.

Coming into Lytton from the north, a view much as our fictional Frankie would have had almost a century ago; the village hasn’t changed all that much; its setting not at all.

Not much happens in quiet little Lytton. Life for Frankie follows a predictable pattern of school and after school ramblings with best friend Ernestine. When the train pulls into the village’s tiny station, Frankie and Ernestine are there to watch as often as they can get away with it, “hanging out” by the train station being gently frowned on by the adults in the girls’ lives. (Social mores are predictably strict as the novella’s start is set in the early 1930s.)

So there they are at the train station, standing among the lounging bystanders, and there they see the household effects of newcomer Mrs. Dorval being unloaded – crates and crates of household effects, a grand piano, and a large Newfoundland dog. These are collected by a quiet grey-haired woman; the girls assume she is Mrs. Dorval, but they are wrong.

The real Mrs. Dorval turns up a few days later, and she proves to be quite the stunner. Young, beautiful, an accomplished horsewoman, musician and singer, both Frankie and Ernestine find her fascinating enough to mildly stalk in their adolescent way, collecting what information the local gossips can provide (not much) and trailing by the isolated bungalow Mrs. Dorval has rented and staffed with a housekeeper, the elderly Mrs. Broom (nicknamed by Hetty “Mouse”), and has turned into a retreat from the world. She does not encourage callers.

Frankie meets Mrs. Dorval one day while both are out riding, a spark is struck between the two of them, and while Frankie’s emotion is that of a garden variety schoolgirl crush, we’re not quite sure why Mrs. Dorval encourages her company. “Call me Hetty”, orders Mrs. Dorval, and though Frankie can’t quite bring herself to breach social etiquette between children and adults to this degree, she is happy enough to be plied with tea and treats and to provide an audience for Hetty’s musical performances. Frankie falls in with Hetty’s request to not tell anyone about her on-the-sly visits to the bungalow, and the infatuated Frankie complies, but inevitably someone catches on and word gets out, and Frankie comes home one weekend to a stiff grilling by her concerned parents.

An “unsavoury story” has followed Hetty Dorval from her last port of call – exotic Shanghai, a long way indeed from Lytton – and Frankie’s parents are appalled that their daughter has been co-opted into Hetty Dorval’s questionably moral establishment. Frankie’s mother won’t divulge the nature of Mrs. Dorval’s past history to her innocent daughter, but she is adamant in her condemnation, calling Hetty, with dry almost-humour, “The Menace”, and when she asks Frankie to break off the acquaintance, Frankie reluctantly complies, going back just once to say goodbye, which seems to be harder on her than on the jaded Mrs. Dorval, who sighs and takes it all in stride.

She looked at the fire a minute and then went on. “I know what they’ve told you, Frankie. They’ve told you I’m bad. You must try to believe,” she turned her brilliant look on me, “that I’m not bad, and that if you knew a little more you’d understand about it. Can you believe that? . . . Do you think I’m bad, Frankie?” she said, laughing a little.

I almost whispered, “No.”

“Try and stay my friend,” she said. “Even if you can’t come to see me, try and stay my friend . . . Very well . . . Good-bye . . . ” and with as little emotion as she would have shown in saying good-bye to the postman she got up – she did not come over to touch me – and went into her bedroom and shut the door. It made it easier and harder that she did not come and touch me. She left me standing in the suddenly withdrawn intimacy of the firelit room, with only Sailor sleeping there on the hearth.

I had stood only a moment when Mouse, who must have been listening, came into the room. She opened the front door. “You’d best be going,” she said. And I went.

As Frankie matures and moves out into the wider world – boarding school for a year in Vancouver, then off to England and the Continent – she finds herself once more crossing paths with Hetty Dorval, and the true nature of the woman at the centre of that childhood infatuation becomes ever more apparent, to Frankie’s growing dismay.

Is Hetty truly the menace that she seems to be? The label of “Narcissist” seems to fit perfectly, but how did Hetty get this way? What emotional scars (if any) has she hidden behind her beautifully emotionless face? Esther Wilson gives what might be telling clues, but denies a final judgement, leaving the reader to ponder possibilities…

Hetty Dorval is a memorable example of the novella form, and it is no wonder that it was chosen by the esteemed Persephone Press for reprinting in 2015.  Persephone’s expanded review is well worth reading, though it does contain a number of “spoilers” – first time readers may wish to wait till after to peruse this one.

An easy 9.5/10 for Hetty Dorval from me. Very close indeed to perfect. (I’m still mulling over what exactly Hetty was after regarding the childish Frankie. Was it merely moral predation, or something more sexually sordid? The author leaves a lot unsaid, but my 21st century mind speculates and wonders…  Fellow readers, what did you think?)

I have had a similarly positive response to two other of the writer’s novels, Swamp Angel – read in 2016 but not yet written about –  and The Innocent Traveller, posted about in 2013 here.

I do love the settings, because I know them so very well in real life, and though my Captive Reader friend Claire might differ regarding long passages of description (she’s not keen!) I’m always a sucker for a good word-picture of a place. The stories transcend their setting; for a native British Columbian it’s merely an added bonus. We agree on the essentials: good stuff from Ethel Wilson!

The view from behind the railway station at Lytton taken in mid September, 2017, looking northward up the Fraser River. All symbolism aside, Ethel Wilson’s vivid descriptions of the setting of her story demonstrate the strong emotional appeal of certain geographies on susceptible human emotions. Genius loci is discussed at some length, and the term is most apt.

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Chloe Marr by A.A. Milne ~ 1946. This edition: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1946. Hardcover. 314 pages.

More than slightly well know children’s books aside, Alan Alexander Milne’s body of work – plays, poetry, satire, farces, mysteries, literary novels – extended far beyond the nursery, as this rather obscure novel – his last – goes to show.

A frothy sort of romp is what the flyleaf promises, but though there was a frequently comic lightness to this depiction of a mysterious socialite, something more poignant soon became apparent, growing and building as the tale’s many strands weave together towards the end, turning comedy into something ultimately sobering.

As the clock struck twelve on this late June morning, Miss Chloe Marr, fragrant and newly powdered, came like a goddess from the bath, girdled herself with Ellen’s help, and stepped into her knickers unaided. A telephone bell rang.

And we’re off, witness to Miss Marr’s endless joustings with men on the other end of a telephone line, and across a restaurant table (the best one in the house, of course), and in her very bedroom, bed made up neatly but not too neatly, because we wouldn’t want to think that delectable Chloe hadn’t spent the night there, all alone in her own boudoir.

And do you know what? According to all eyewitness accounts, she does sleep alone. Erotically tantalizing – deliberately so? – yet chaste as a dewy gardenia, Chloe is pursued by an eclectic array of men, from neophyte artist to duke of the realm, who worship at her shrine and put up with her constant elusiveness and the constant company of their fellows-in-desire, on the off-chance that one day she will focus on just one.

This is a novel of vignettes and episodes, and the viewpoint constantly changes, but Chloe is always somewhere in the frame. Milne’s long facility with words comes into full play here; the novel is a complex construction but not overly so that we never lose sight of its progression and its goal, ostensibly a fuller portrait of a woman who is more – and possibly less? – than she seems at first glance.

Contemporary critics were of mixed minds as to Chloe Marr‘s literary qualities – many sneered – but the public went ahead and bought the book regardless – the A.A. Milne name being an automatic guarantor of sales – and it went through sufficient editions to make it reasonably obtainable today.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Chloe Marr a “hidden gem” – its qualities are not so great as that – but I did find it enjoyable to read, nicely thought-provoking here and there, and exceedingly interesting in its structure as a character portrait involving onlookers providing all of the impressions and insights regarding a certain person’s true nature.

Do we find out Chloe’s secret at the end? Perhaps, perhaps…

My rating: 7.5/10

I’ll be watching for more Milne novels in my vintage-bookstore travels. Chloe Marr is one of only a slight half-dozen or so. Two People (1931) is perhaps the best known; it was republished by (the now possibly defunct?) Capuchin Classics in 2009.

 

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