Archive for the ‘1940s’ Category

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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A decade ago I hadn’t even heard of D.E. Stevenson, until fellow book bloggers kept nudging me to seek her out. Now I own an almost-complete collection, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve delved into these delicious little comfort reads. Even the relative flops, of which there are a few. (Yes, Crooked Adam, I’m looking at you. And sibling story Gerald and Elizabeth. Not to mention Rochester’s Wife. Gar! I blushed for the author while reading all of these. But I kept right on reading, and I won’t part with these for anything, fully intending to revisit, groan in dismay at the bloomers, and forge ahead regardless.)

Kudos to ACE, the genre paperback publishing arm of Grosset and Dunlap, for resurrecting D.E. Stevenson back in the early 1970s, because without their editions D.E. Stevenson would be even harder to acquire than she is, but regrets for those goopy “romance” covers – soooo bad. I have to admit I hide these when reading in public.

Well, we’ve had a fraught sort of summer this year, what with the local forest fires and all, and though we’ve come out the other side personally unscathed, we still feel rather rumpled in the mind. Hence the comfort reading. Nevil Shute and D.E. Stevenson have gravitated to the bedside stand, among others. Engaging but not particularly challenging. Easy to take up, easy to put down, patiently waiting for the reader to return and step back into the story.

Most recently the books on hand are the comfortably charming Dering family novels. This is only the second time of reading them through since my introduction to D.E.S., and I enjoyed them even more so this time round than the first, because this time I read them in chronological order and everything clicked ever so nicely into place. I also recognised a number of characters from other books, which must mean I am becoming a genuine Dessie, tracing the strands of the spider-web from book to book to book – a delightful side pleasure of reading this not-quite-forgotten author.

Cribbing from previous posts to put together this overview. I’ve gotten very much out of the blogging habit, much to my regret, so trying to get those rusty cogs a-turning again. A little cheat feels justified, and I did so enjoy these books I thought them worthy of mention once again, even if I don’t have much new to say.

Here we go.

Oh! I guess I should mention that there are spoilers throughout, mainly in the transition in focus from book to book. Each installment’s resolution leads to the opening of the next. If you are brand new to these and want to be surprised (if we can describe D.E.S.’s mild dramas as worthy of such a strong term) you might want to click away and come back once you’ve read them yourself. Collectively I would give this trilogy an 8/10 or thereabouts in my personal rating system (see sidebar), keeping in mind that this is in relation of these books in D.E. Stevenson’s body of work alone.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1949. This edition: Collins-Fontana, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-613-444-0. 191 pages.

Middle-aged Caroline Dering has just been widowed, and, aside from her genuine and seemly sorrow at the death of someone who has shared her life for many years, she is not at all steeped in sorrow. Her lately departed spouse, Arnold Dering, was of a complaining and perpetually malcontented disposition. While his wife and three children were accepting of his character – Caroline thought that he always meant well, and suspected that at rare moments Arnold recognized and truly regretted his deep pessimism –  they enjoyed themselves much more in his absence.

World War II has been over for several years, but England is still very much in coping and recovery mode. Society is fast changing into some sort of new normal, and though things are steadily improving, there is still food and fuel rationing, and a strong atmosphere of “making do”, which makes for some quite fascinating scenarios as we progress through the book and look over Caroline’s shoulder as she goes about her days.

Another older hardcover edition, this one more accurately depicting the “cottage” which really isn’t.

The scene is set for what is to become a series of three novels by descriptions of the village of Ashbridge and the far from cottage-like Vittoria Cottage, ancestral home of the Derings. Though she has merely “married into” the local family, Caroline fits into the local hierarchy almost immediately, and by and large leads a deeply contented life, caring for her children, volunteering for various worthy causes, keeping house and gardening. The children are all grown up, with James away in Malaya, and lovely but discontented Leda (she takes after her father in full) and boisterous Bobbie making their way out into the larger world from the safe haven of their village nest.

Life in quiet Ashbridge gets suddenly quite interesting with the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Shepperton, who is apparently very reluctant to discuss his past, and who arouses even more suspicion because he appears to have no old belongings or clothing, a real rarity at that place and time, immediately post-war – “everything new!” the village gossips whisper with raised eyebrows.

Caroline’s lovely younger sister Harriet, a successful actress ducking away to her sister’s home for a respite from a difficult and failed recent stage production in London, brings some sophisticated dash and sparkle to village gatherings, and with the unexpectedly sudden return of James from Malaya, and the trials and tribulations of Leda and her fiancé Derek, the local squire’s son, there is plenty of scope for complications, dilemmas, surprises and sometimes unexpected resolutions.

I thought the characters were very well drawn and (mostly) very believable. Caroline is our heroine, but she is not a perfect person by a long shot; her flaws are well on display, but we forgive her them because she is ultimately exceedingly likeable, as is her sister and most of the other players in this excellent domestic drama. It ends quite abruptly, but this served merely to make me keen to get my hands on the next episode in this extended tale.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1950. This edition: Ace Books, circa 1970. Paperback. 282 pages.

Having more or less settled the fates of Caroline Dering and her sister Harriet Fane in the previous novel, Vittoria Cottage, this next installment in the trilogy follows Caroline’s son James, who, at loose ends after his military service and several years spent “chasing terrorists” in Malaya, is looking towards his future.

Deeply in love with his childhood companion Rhoda, he is struggling with her rejection of his marriage proposal. While we suspect that she is in love with James in her own way, Rhoda fears that, as a rising professional painter, marriage would spell the end of her career goals, and that she would be a discontented wife as well as a poorer artist, having to split her focus between two roles, doing neither well.

James takes it very well, all things considered, and hies himself off to the community of Drumburly in Scotland, where he has been invited by his aunt and uncle to reside at the remote Mureth House, a prosperous sheep farm. Jock and Mamie Johnstone have no children of their own, and are hoping that their nephew might be interested enough in farming life to take over Mureth some day.

James has always cherished a desire to be a farmer himself, so the situation looks like a success all around; the story follows some of James’s apprenticeship and details the day-to-day occupations of a hill farmer of mid-20th century Scotland; quite nicely detailed and relatably true in the telling. (I keep sheep, so happily appreciated the ovine interludes.)

We have sheep rustlers and romantic entanglements and, of course, more than a few misunderstandings between various parties, all neatly tidied up as the story progresses, in proper D.E. Stevenson fashion.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Shoulder the Sky: A Story of Winter in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1951. Original British title: Winter and Rough Weather. This edition: Ace Books, circa 1971. 275 pages.

Five years after the conclusion of the Second World War, a young, newly married couple, Rhoda and James Dering Johnstone, arrive at their isolated farmhouse near the fictional Scottish village of Drumburly. Rhoda is an accomplished professional painter, and her husband worries, with some reason, as to how she will adjust to a life as a sheep farmer’s wife, far from the stimulating world she has happily abandoned for true love.

Rhoda drifts for a while, mulling over the dilemma of what she sees as a black and white choice between her perceived role as a wife versus personal fulfillment as an artist. The author handled this theme sensitively and sensibly, though I couldn’t help but think that childless Rhoda, overseeing a small house with the help of a live-in cook-general, had a luxury of a “domestic support system” impossible for those of us in a similar societal-economic position to attain today. Rhoda ultimately returns to the studio, and proceeds to paint a portrait which has far-reaching consequences among the local residents.

Add in several on again-off again love affairs, a missing wife, a bullying neighbour, a misunderstood child, and the challenges of winter storms in an isolated locale, and you have a quietly dramatic novel, very occasionally straying into melodrama, but nicely anchored to reality by the author’s pragmatic asides.

There is one glaringly “coincidental” plot twist which I rolled my readerly eyes at, but I forgave it for love of this writer, as we note and yet forgive the foibles of our dearest friends.

The author set this novel up well, and the details she gives both of farm life and the art world read like they come from personal experience. I thought this particular novel was a relatively strong work for this “light romance” author, rather reminiscent of O. Douglas, what with the Scottish setting and the deep moral dilemmas and all.

Deeply affirmative depictions of marriage form this book, in particular the partnership between the older couple, Jock and Mamie Johnstone. D.E. Stevenson is all about the quiet joys of making things work out and the moral and emotional rewards that follow acting well towards each other, though her characters also struggle in a utterly lifelike way with holding it together when faced with uncongenial people and trying situations.

Fellow D.E. Stevenson readers – there is one thing I want to throw out there. In this last installment of the trilogy, doesn’t it strike you as the littlest bit odd that the very wealthy Nestor Heddle absolutely needs his poor befuddled sister as a housekeeper, and that her jumping ship makes his lordly country life impossible? I mean, couldn’t he just hire someone to fulfill that role? (This is the sort of silly little plot hole which niggles away at me when reading D.E.S.!)

 

 

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Portrait of Adrian by Ursula Orange ~ 1945. This edition: Michael Joseph, Ltd., 1945. Hardcover. 244 pages.

When the letters of sympathy began to come in, shortly after Adrian Lessingham’s sudden and tragic death in a car accident, in the spring of 1939, his widow, Felicity, could not help wishing he could have read some of them himself. They would have amused him so.

Hooked by this first tempting paragraph – and of course the fact that I had invested a respectable portion of my book budget for this scarce out-of-print book – I settled down with happy anticipation to this more than slightly satirical depiction of how appearances can sometimes differ from reality.

For the most part, this optimism was rewarded, for the novel was pleasantly engaging; I never once had even the slightest impulse to lay it aside, not even when it became apparent that the author was leaning heavily on the “wonderful coincidence” technique when winding up her plot lines at the end.

The book could indeed be otherwise titled “Portrait of Judith”, for widowed Felicity’s younger sister Judith, several years down from Cambridge and working as a receptionist-secretary concurrently with trying her wings as a fledgling writer, is the character most thoroughly revealed as the story develops mostly through her eyes.

Judith and Felicity had known orphaned Adrian since childhood, when he had been absorbed into their family circle for school holidays and such. Judith in particular was emotionally close to Adrian in those juvenile and adolescent years, and the two shared a rich imaginative secret life of sorts, being involved with various arcane rituals and complex games, rules known only to the two of them.

With adulthood gained, Adrian’s eyes turned to Felicity, serene and beautiful, and Judith, though quietly saddened by the defection of her childhood friend, was genuinely content with seeing her sister wed. The marriage of Adrian and Felicity symbolized to Judith the perfect union; she reveled in the thought that here was a completely successful match; true love personified.

When her much-edited first novel, sent out with optimistic hope to publisher after publisher, persists in returning time after time, Judith is encouraged by her faithful but held-at-arm’s-length lover Clive to try her hand at another work. Perhaps a childhood memoir, he suggests, intrigued by Judith’s vivid descriptions of her youth, when she went about pretending to be a boy, and engaged in a complex but perfectly platonic relationship with Adrian.

Judith takes Clive’s advice, but instead of writing about herself, she decides she will produce a character portrait of her beloved Adrian. Which turns out to have unexpected consequences, as she finds that other people’s experiences of Adrian do not quite click with her own rose-coloured memories…

I’m rating this novel at a relatively conservative 7/10, because, while I definitely enjoyed it, I don’t think it quite matches up with the best of the other three of Ursula Orange’s novels which I’ve recently read, which was, in my opinion, Tom Tiddler’s Ground, 1941, a low-key but increasingly intense relationship drama set in the stressful early days of World War II.

Tom Tiddler’s Ground was republished in March of this year by Dean Street Press in beautifully produced print-on-demand paperback and ebook format, along with Begin Again, 1936, an amusing “first novel” about four young women on the cusp of adulthood, and Company in the Evening, 1944, following a young divorced mother as she recreates her life after the breakdown of her marriage.

All of these four novels share a warm charm, with realistically likeable/amusingly annoying heroines and side characters, full of very human quirks and foibles. The scenarios vary from deeply realistic to completely manufactured, sometimes progressing from one to the other in just a few pages.

I suspect they filled the same niche at the time of their original publication as the better “chick lit” does today; engaging though not necessarily “literary ” reads for those (presumably mostly women) seeking bookish diversion and amusement.

Read now, eight decades after their writing, these novels have a strong value as vividly detailed period pieces. Their characters remain relatable and amusing, and sometimes gloriously appalling. Good stuff for the better-light-fiction shelf.

I sincerely hope that Dean Street Press is planning on republishing the elusive Portrait of Adrian, as well as the equally obscure To Sea in a Sieve (1937), and Have Your Cake (1942), to round out Ursula Orange’s small, six-novel body of work.

Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow, what are the odds?

 

 

 

 

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a-candle-for-st-jude-rumer-goddenA Candle for St. Jude by Rumer Godden ~ 1948. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1948.  Hardcover. 192 pages.

My rating: 8/10

This slight novel would be better classified as a novella. But it’s an intricately crafted thing in its own way, and there is much to admire in how the author sketches her characters so deftly, using her polished technique in giving us telling glimpses of each from a variety of perspectives.

There is also plenty of scope in this format to show off a writer’s technical abilities, and Rumer Godden worked hard at her craft and it shows. For all that it is set in a constrained period of time, the author darts all over the place in gathering background details. This is how flashbacks should be written; Godden’s are as smooth as silk.

The book details twenty-four hours in the life of a small dance academy and theatre in London.

Madame Holbein, once a prima ballerina, presides over her tiny but exceptionally well-regarded ballet school with the stalwart assistance of her sister-in-law, the misleadingly named Miss Ilse, who cares for all the domestic and financial details. (Miss Ilse is actually a widowed Mrs; Madame Holbein, never married, should really be a Miss, but such petty details of nomenclature are dismissed by the dramatic Anna Holbein: “Madame” she has self-designated herself and so it shall be!)

Every year Madame Holbein holds a gala recital followed by a short but eagerly awaited and always sold out dance season in the tiny, gem-like theatre attached to the school. Her performers are the best of her current students, acting as corps and secondary leads to guest stars drawn from Madame Holbein’s long roster of successful alumni.

This year those stars are Lion and Caroline*, two of her brightest and best ex-students, now dancing to great acclaim as supporting partners – and presumably romantic partners? – in a famous company.

Along with this year’s celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of her debut on the stage, Madame Holbein not so secretly intends to designate Caroline as her successor and heir to the leadership of the dance school – though not just yet! – and she squelches down her occasional unease that perhaps Caroline is not quite as good as she thinks she is; things have come very easily to her, and Madame Holbein is a great believer in the value of suffering for one’s art.

As this extra-special gala night approaches, a mere 24 hours to go, it becomes evident that not all is well in Madame Holbein’s tiny fiefdom.

Senior student Hilda, a gifted junior choreographer, given the stressful honour of preparing a piece for the gala show, has just been informed that her work is not suitable after all, and instead of being presented as planned, it will be excerpted. Oh, and Hilda’s own role in her own ballet will be given to Caroline, because Caroline has decided that she doesn’t much like the admiring way Lion has been looking at Hilda, who is showing signs of developing into a dancer with that little bit extra – that certain hunger – which Caroline herself lacks.

A much smaller student is a bundle of nerves because she has been casually informed that a certain famous film producer will be auditioning her for a role just before the gala takes place; it is handy for both him and Madame Holbein, because he will be in attendance at the gala and the few minutes it will take are just the merest inconvenience to the adults, but Lollie is terrified, and no one has time to talk her through her very real fear.

Madame Holbein is finding that all of her carefully organized plans for her celebratory gala are being endangered by the seething emotions of those whom she thought were well under her rather arrogant thumb; she must come to terms with her own strong personality, and the way it has affected those she loves the most, and demands the most from.

From none has been demanded so much extra as from Miss Ilse, quietly unsung co-heroine of the assembly, whose strong Catholic faith has sustained her in the past when life’s unfairness seems too much to bear. It is Miss Ilse’s habit, when things get too dark, to duck away to the church nearby to light a candle to St. Jude, patron saint of hope and impossible causes, and she does so now, as Madame Holbein’s carefully constructed world seems to be poised on the verge of irrevocable collapse…

Rumer Godden knew the dance world of her time very well indeed. She and her sister Jon opened their own multi-racial ballet school in Calcutta in 1925, and successfully ran it for twenty years; she remained a dedicated balletomane all of her life, and her dance-related episodes in full length novels such as Thursday’s Children read true.

A Candle for St. Jude is a minor book in Godden’s larger oeuvre, but it is one of the best-beloved among many of her readers.

It is not my own personal favourite-of-all of Rummer Godden’s stories – that would instead be China Court, hands down – but there is a lot to like about it.  A Candle for St. Jude is a finely crafted bit of writing; a small and perfectly invented episode which condenses its unseen but masterfully imagined greater background into colourful and immediate clarity.

*Catherine/Caroline – I realized as soon as I hit “publish” that I had written the whole post using the wrong name for Madame Holbein’s guest star. Those of you who receive these posts by email will have received the incorrect version, but I’ve fixed it here. Apologies to sharp-eyed Godden fans who noticed the error! (And I suspect this will be a few of you.)

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shelter-marguerite-steen-1941Shelter by Marguerite Steen ~ 1941. This edition: Sun Dial Press, 1942. Originally published under the pseudonym Jane Nicholson. Hardcover. 241 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I followed my reading of Frances Faviell’s superb London Blitz memoir, A Chelsea Concerto, with this rather unusually structured novel covering the exact same time period, in the same London borough.

It’s an interesting novel, and certainly not a bad novel, but I rather wonder what I would have made of it if it hadn’t been so much related to the Faviell memoir in setting and time period. The writing itself is much more than competent; I would go so far as to call it “fine”, in the highest-praise sense of the term.

This said, I suspect I got more out of Shelter as a companion piece than I would have if it were a stand-alone read, for it is a bit of a jumble, written in what I would term a modestly “experimental” style, sections of straightforward storytelling interspersed with random vignettes, the thoughts of various unnamed characters, glimpses of newsreel dialogue, and what one must assume are the author’s own pithy comments, not directly related to her erstwhile story-plot, that of a troubled marriage which has turned into a delicately balanced ménage à trois.

Highbrow Louise is married to not-highbrow (but not quite lowbrow, either) Jos, and they are reasonably content within their 7-year-old relationship. Or so Louise thinks, until it becomes apparent that Jos has become infatuated with the fragile (and possibly hypochondriac?) Camma, who returns his interest with bells on.

Jos seems to be the kind of chap who hates fuss; he’d like to keep both wife and mistress, and the fact that the two women are well aware of each other, and carry on a brittle sort of almost-friendship, seems to indicate that his delicate balancing act may be succeeding.

But then Louise breaks the news: she’s pregnant. Now what?

Meanwhile the bombs are dropping, and emotions are being wound ever upwards to some future breaking point…

The relationship angle of the plot runs parallel to the wider story of a city, country and way of life in peril, and as dreadful thing succeeds dreadful thing one is left at a loss as to anticipate how – or if! –  the author is going to resolve, if not the major problem of surviving the war, at the very least her teetering love triangle.

By removing one of the principles, as it turns out, in a decidedly final way.

Curious?

Well, the book is readily available in the secondhand trade, and has recently been released as an e-book, so it’s not too hard to come by. My own first awareness of it was when I came across it at a small used book store I occasionally frequent and decided to gamble my $5 that it would be an interesting read.

It is all of that, but I hesitate to recommend it, because despite the writer’s sure hand, Shelter seems to me to be missing that elusive something which turns a perfectly adequate novel into something extra-special.

Forewarned, you are, fellow book hunters. (As Yoda might say.)

For further interest, here’s a look at the dramatic promotional blurb from the American-edition dust jacket, as well as a random scan of one of the vignette sections.

shelter-marguerite-steen-front-flyleaf

shelter-marguerite-steen-excerpt

Here’s the story on Marguerite Steen, courtesy Library Thing:

Marguerite Steen was adopted as a child and educated at a private school and at Kendal High School. At age 19, she became a teacher, but abandoned that career after three years and moved to London in an effort to find work in the theater. After failing at that, she became a dance teacher in the Yorkshire schools. This job enabled her to spend long periods travelling in France and Spain.

In 1921, she joined the drama company of Fred Terry and Julia Neilson, based at The Strand Theatre in London, and spent three years touring with them. She was befriended by Fred’s sister Ellen Terry, who suggested that she try to write a novel during a period of unemployment.

Marguerite’s first book, The Gilt Cage, was published in 1927. She went on to become a well-known author of some 40 books, mostly historical novels, having her greatest popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. She wrote biographies of the Terrys and of her friend Hugh Walpole, as well as that of 18th-century writer and actress Mary Robinson. Among her bestsellers were Matador (1934), for which she drew on her love of Spain, and The Sun Is My Undoing (1941). She also produced two volumes of autobiography, Looking Glass (1966) and Pier Glass (1968), which provide insights into the English creative set of the 1920s to 1950s.

She shared a home with artist Sir William Nicholson for about 15 years and wrote his biography as well. In 1951, she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

 

 

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An early English-language edition, perhaps a little too "prettied-up", when one considered the darkness of much of the content...

An early English-language edition.

The Angel with the Trumpet by Ernst Lothar ~ 1942. First English language publication 1944. Alternate U.S. title The Vienna Melody. This edition: George C. Harrap & Co., 1946. Translated from the German by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. Hardcover. 439 pages.

My rating: 7/10

This is a dense, clever, sometimes powerful, occasionally humorous, and ultimately deeply disturbing novel, based as it is on the author’s own experiences as a member of the Austrian artistic and dramatic community in the years leading up to Hitler’s Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938.

It’s also an ambitious traditional-style family saga, following the stories of three generations of a prominent Viennese family, the piano-making Alts, and incorporating cameo appearances by various high-profile historical characters.

We have Mozart in a flashback scene of the performance in the Alt family music room of the composer’s personal rendition of Die Zauberflöte in its entirety, high soprano arias and all. The ill-fated Austrian Crown Prince Rudolf, who has carried on an illicit romantic relationship with a young woman who then marries into the Alt family; his dramatic suicide (real) takes place on her (fictional) wedding day. A highly unlikable Adolf Hitler appears first as a student who takes and fails an entry examination to art school alongside one of the Alt sons, and later in full dictator mode.

The rise and fall of the Alt family is something of an analogy to that of Austria itself, and it feels very deliberate. Lothar paints a damning portrait of a family, and by extension a people, who turn on their own for political expedience.

I am of course referring to the persecution of the Jewish population. Perhaps nowhere else in Europe had those of Jewish heritage become so much a part of existing society that their “Jewishness” was merely a descriptor, not a barrier to social standing, or to one’s career, and definitely not to one’s participation in the fine arts.

So how, in a few short years, did an entire society turn against a portion of itself, and why where “decent people” unable to prevent the tragedy of the ethnic-religious “cleansing” which accompanied the annexation of Austria into the Third Reich?

Troubling, indeed. But much more recent political events very close to home show that this is not an outdated possibility. Enough said.

Political and historical significance aside – and this is a valuable book to read for its documentarian atmosphere for anyone who is interested in the time period it covers, 1889 to 1938 – The Angel with the Trumpet is also an absorbing dramatic novel.

I did feel that the novel was just the slightest bit weak in its failure to fully engage me in the lives of its characters; there were few times when I completely identified with any of them, or cared deeply for their joys or despairs, though I certainly found myself deeply interested in what would happen next.

The ending is ambiguous, for the book was published before the conclusion of the war, but it shows a gleam of hope, that amongst all the evil of the time some people still cared for the wellbeing of others, and for their troubled, deeply changed, but still beloved country.

adrienne-gessner-ernst-lothar-2The author, Ernst Lothar, was a theatre director and producer as well as an established writer when he fled Austria for the United States in 1938, along with his wife, actress Adrienne Gessner. Lothar’s loving nostalgia and poignant despair for his lost homeland are very evident in this novel. The couple returned to Austria after the war, and continued to pursue their artistic endeavours. They are buried under the same headstone in a Viennese cemetery.

mv5bntk5zte2nzytyjrlmc00mwuwlwe4n2qty2flztc1mwm4yzy4l2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndy3mzu2mdm-_v1_sy1000_cr007161000_al_This novel was made into a 1948 Austrian film, with Adrienne Gessner filling one of the secondary roles. It was remade in Britain in 1950, starring English actors but using much of the Austrian-shot footage.

The Angel with the Trumpet was recently republished by Europa under its alternate title, The Vienna Melody. Those with experience in reading vintage novels will find much to enjoy, though its relatively slow pace and matter-of-fact portrayal of dramatic scenarios may fail to completely engage the modern reader.

 

 

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