Archive for the ‘1940s’ Category

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!

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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.!)

 

 

Read Full Post »

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?

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »