Archive for the ‘1940s’ Category

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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wayward-bus-steinbeck-1947The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck ~ 1947. This edition: Viking, 1947. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 8/10

I am gradually coming to terms with the fact that there is no way I can do full justice to the books I read in the manner in which they deserve. Even the most dismal of the period pieces I willingly engage myself in are worthy of a fuller discussion than I am able to provide in the limited discretionary time this writing-for-pleasure blog inhabits in my current lifestyle.

So rather than wallowing in guilt about not being able to go on for thousands of words regarding each and every one (yes, I tend to be long-winded at the keyboard or pen in hand, something I paradoxically rather enjoy in others and quietly deplore in myself) I’m going to be all firm with myself and try to pop out hyper-condensed “reaction pieces” to more things – reviewlets, as I think we were all calling them in a similar discussion on someone else’s writing space not that long ago.

Did you get through all that? More posts. Less words each.

Go!

Yeah, and I would decide to start with Steinbeck, an eminently discussable author. (In other words, “Ha!” to the short-and-pithy reviewlet. I predict I won’t be able to get out of this one quick-and-easy, though I’m going into it with the best of intentions.)

I like Steinbeck. Generally quite a lot. As do many others, so musings on his books (especially the headliner titles) are easy as pie to come by, thereby releiving the johnny-come-lately book blogger to get away with minimal effort, for what else really can one add? There are a fair number of reviews out there for this book, for though The Wayward Bus isn’t one of the Big Important Novels, it’s reasonably mainstream, and a rather decent example of what the man was capable of at his best.

Juan Chicoy, a competent, handsome, humorous, middle-aged, Mexican-Irish-American mechanic-philosopher type, runs a small gas station and lunch counter at a fictional spot-on-the-road in southern California. He is aided in this by his perpetually bitter, frequently angry, and not particularly attractive (or kind) wife Alice. He loves her and stays with her (though opportunities abound for moving on with others more attractive – Juan is rather a fine figure of a man both physically and intellectually) for deep and complicated reasons, not the least of which being that no one else likes her.

Alice in turn loves Juan, single-mindedly and jealously, and his easy manner with all and sundry triggers much inner turmoil which generally leads to her making a fool of herself, ranting away at the easiest targets in the room.

Those targets at this point in time are the Chicoy employees, teenage apprentice-mechanic Ed (“Kit”) Carson, more commonly called “Pimples” for obvious reasons – he has a truly stellar acne affliction, which Steinbeck spells out for us in some detail – and young waitress Norma, a shy and homely type who nourishes a secret infatuation for Clark Gable.

Among his other endeavours, Juan owns and operates an old bus, one “Sweetheart”, under contract with Greyhound to provide a shuttle service along a secondary road between two official main-highway stops. This is the literary device which is used to assemble the cast of players who people this novel, a disparate assembly of travellers who walk in with their backstories, bump against each other for the twenty-fours hours or so which Steinbeck describes in vivid detail, before dispersing again into the wider world.

When the titular bus finally hits the road, approximately half way through the novel, its passengers consist of a successful businessman, his prissy, sexually frigid wife, their athletic university-student daughter, a travelling “novelty products” salesman, a beautiful, sexually arousing stripper masquerading for purposes of peaceful travel as a “dental nurse”, a cranky rural rancher type who hates absolutely everybody, Pimples/Kit, who begs to come along ostensibly to help in case Sweetheart breaks down, but in reality in order to bask in the presence of the delectable stripper, and Norma, who has just quit her job after being seriously wronged and insulted by outspoken Alice.

Alice herself stays behind, locking up the lunchroom and then losing herself deeply in a series of bottles, a process thoughtfully and rather compassionately described by our author.

Each person in this random cast of players faces an inner crisis of sorts during their short journey, and the resulting interconnected character studies make up the novel.

Steinbeck makes no secret of who he sympathizes with and who he despises, and he uses his authorial powers to both reward and punish his pen-and-ink creations, leading us ultimately to a glimpse into the philosophical leanings of Steinbeck himself.

Good stuff, and a stellar example of John Steinbeck’s mastery of his particular genre, the “gritty American realism” school of writing, as I always think of it with just a hint of a lifted eyebrow. He knew exactly how good he was, too, and here he shows off his literary erudition by prefacing what is merely a humble road trip novel with a quotation from a 14th Century English morality play, Everyman:

I praye you all gyve audyence,
And here this mater with reverence,
By fygure a morall playe;
The somonynge of Everyman called it is,
That of our lyves and endynge shewes
How transytory we be all daye.

Or, put into slightly more modern English:

I pray you all give audience,
And hear this matter with reverence,
By figure a moral play;
The Summoning of Everyman called it is,
That of our lives and ending shows
How transitory be our days.

Indeed.

The Wayward Bus is, as its author points out, a contemporary morality play. Though it is decidedly a thing of its time, immediately post-war America, angst-ridden and brutally pessimistic and, also, cautiously optimistic, the personal dilemmas of its characters remain relatable today, some seven decades onward.

Note to self: re-read Steinbeck. My father’s personal library, now mine, included most of John Steinbeck’s novels and memoirs; I read these voraciously as a teenager and young adult, though not as much in recent years. There’s a lot to appreciate here, though occasionally the grit gets in one’s eyes.

 

 

 

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a-footman-for-the-peacock-rachel-ferguson-1940A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson ~ 1940. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2016. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-911413-71-4. 206 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Ever since my 2012 reading of Rachel Ferguson’s challenging but ultimately enjoyable 1931 novel, The Brontës Went to Woolworths, I’ve harboured a yen to broaden my exploration  of the further works of this highly intelligent (and highly class conscious) writer.

Imagine then my anticipatory pleasure when approached by Dean Street Press with a review copy of one of Rachel Ferguson’s long out-of-print novels, A Footman for the Peacock, a partly serious, partly fantasy, partly satirical novel set at the beginning of the Second World War.

“Yes, please!” was my response, and I must say in this case my instinct that this was going to be a pleasure to read and review was perfectly correct.

A small aside, here, regarding my book reviewing. As a book blogger in this esoteric corner of the internet, I frequently receive requests to read and review things, and I generally turn these requests down. No time or energy for possible duds, you know. (I find enough of those for myself quite voluntarily!)

Unless the book in question is one which looks to be something I’d be interested in buying for myself in any event, in which case I’m naturally as keen as can be. (Re-publishers of mid-century middlebrow fiction, and gardening and travel books of any era, please take note! 🙂 )

Back to the Peacock.

It’s 1939, and the war is looming. Even the most optimistic of “peace in our time” Munich Agreement yes-men have come to the realization that all of that was a great big political farce, and that the guns will soon be firing.

The aristocratic Roundelays are in residence at Delaye, a vast pile of a country house just barely holding its own as the 20th century brutally takes its financial toll on the English “gentleman’s class”. Sir Edmund and Lady Evelyn know that another war is well-nigh inevitable, but in concert with their rural neighbours are merely holding still, making no actual preparations other than mental, because to do so would break the fragile hope that peace might yet prevail.

The Roundelays are walking a financial tightrope, balanced as they are between the still-wealthy and the newly bankrupt; each breath of political wind sends them swaying, but they refuse to step aside and are making shift to keep things going, with ever-fewer servants and not running a car (Lady Evelyn does the household shopping herself, travelling to and fro by bus) and having a cousin in residence as a paying guest, his five guineas a week going directly into the grocery budget for cousin Maxwell, Lady Evelyn, Sir Edmund, their two daughters still at home, three perennially feuding great-aunts, an ancient and increasingly senile old family retainer (Nursie), long-time dedicated butler, cranky cook, and a gardener, his helper, and a housemaid or two, not to mention kitchenmaid Sue Privett, eighth in her family to have been in service to the Roundelays, which turns out to have great significance to our story.

And there’s the peacock.

Ill-tempered, raucous, and tolerant only towards kitchenmaid Sue and the younger Roundelay daughter, Angela, the peacock haunts the grounds of Delaye, finding his way home after being forcibly relocated to a neighbouring estate where it is hoped he will find solace with a flock of peahens.

We have clues early on that this particular peacock is much more than a semi-domestic bird. He is, instead, a sort of reincarnation of long ago Roundelay servant Thomas Picocke, a “running footman”, who perished in 1792 due to the horrific nature of his duties (running in front of the carriage horses for miles and miles, to clear the way and announce the arrival of his masters) and the callous disregard of the family he served; all but French expatriate Lady Marguerite, wherein lies a sad tale of pity and betrayal, but not that which you might think…

Of reincarnations we have an inkling of three in this complex tale; also an intriguing reference to Dunne’s Theory of Time, a concept of serialism, or parallel streams of time, much discussed by the intellectuals of Rachel Ferguson’s time, and used by such disparate writers as J.B. Priestley, Rumer Godden and Elizabeth Goudge in their novels.

A Footman for the Peacock was received with lukewarm enthusiasm upon its publication early in the war. Though Rachel Ferguson was well-known by that time as a cutting satirist, the portrayal of the Roundelays as self-devoted shirkers of wartime duties grated just a bit too much on the sensibilities of reviewers, who suspected that Rachel Ferguson’s tongue was not quite as far in cheek as it should have been.

Here’s a sample of what got on their nerves.

War has just been declared, and the Roundelays are appalled by the thought of taking in evacuees or refugees. -(Perhaps understandably so, for their domestic arrangements are delicately balanced at the extreme edge of manageability – though others less well-placed are turning their households inside out in the service of the National Emergency, so that’s not a real excuse.) Anyway, at dinner one night, eldest daughter Margaret drops a bit of a conversational bomb.

‘I say, mother, I had a letter yesterday from Ortrud Bohm, that German girl I was at school with – ‘

Lady Roundelay smote the table with her fist. ‘No! No she doesn’t! My heart bleeds for the German Jews as much as anybody’s but I cannot face a pale fugitive running tear-stained in what she stands up in down this avenue. I’ve read horrors until I’m sick and I know everything the Nazis have done and I can’t cope with being wept over and having the old home in Hamburg or wherever it is described brick by brick and hearing that Mein Vater was suddenly not there and hasn’t been seen since, and that the Liebe Mutter was raped before her eyes and my German wouldn’t stand the strain. I can only say Bitte and Danke Sehr and Sauerkraut and Mein Kampf, and I won’t, I won’t, I WON’T!’

‘God, no,’ confirmed Sir Edmund. ‘If she comes, I go.’

Margaret finished her ham. ‘I was only going to tell you what she wrote and she’s not Jewish, you know… She says that she’s joined the Youth Movement and her brother’s in the army and he’s got a commission he couldn’t have hoped for in peace time as the Bohms aren’t geboren, you know, and that they’re not half so sniffed at as they used to be when they were only in trade, and she’s really seeing some men at last and is having the time of her life. She actually used some German words, so that really looks as though she might even marry now she sees it’s no good being so frightfully British. She was the one who came into the class once in a tartan skirt.’

‘Gosh… well, sorry I spoke. I hope she hooks some oberleutnant – what happened in church today, aunt Jessie?’

Did you find this passage rather shocking?

Well, you were supposed to, because Rachel Ferguson’s point is that people are a mix of thoughts, feelings and instinctive responses.

Quite “nice” people like the Roundelays – who are loving parents (the relationship between Lady Evelyn and emotionally fragile daughter Angela is one of the most likeable aspects of this all-over-the-place book), relatively decent to their servants (that episode with the running footman being in the bad old past), kindly dutiful to their tiresome relations and dependents (the great-aunts and Nursie are high maintenance to the nth degree) – I repeat, quite nice people in comparison to the society they exist in, harbouring selfish and bigoted thoughts, and having the temerity to voice them out loud.

In the last lies the rub.

For though we all harbour certain best-not-spoken thoughts, the Roundelays let fly. Mostly in the family circle, but we are privy to their words, and we recoil in politically correct horror to what is expressed in passages such as the one above, while guiltily holding in laughter, because a lot of what is said is (full disclosure – I laughed when I read this) very funny.

There is a strand of plot running through this very full story, but much of the pleasure of the thing lies in the many side excursions – show Rachel Ferguson a glimpse of a rabbit trail and she’s off like a shot, returning to the main path not at all winded and blithely assuming her reader to be loping along still in stride.

It takes a bit to get it figured out, but once one is hooked – it took me about 20 pages or so; I went back and checked – the rest of this quirky novel is both thought-provoking and entertaining. It’s occasionally rather like untangling a mess of yarn complete with helpful kitten, but it works.

And, thanks to Dean Street Press and the republishing of not just this one Rachel Ferguson novel, plus two more and a tempting selection of other mid-century reprints, my Christmas book wish-list for myself is well-nigh complete. Check out their recent releases – oh, bliss! Available as paper books (print on demand, and very nicely done; I’m impressed) from the publisher or via Amazon and Book Depository; also as ebooks in various formats.

For the original book blog review which triggered this reprint, I’m going to send you over to Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow, whose impeccable taste in obsolete fiction has pointed the way to many, many hours of excellent reading.

Here’s his take on A Footman for the Peacock, with loads of quotes and a most thoughtful analysis, which I find myself nodding away to in complete agreement.

 

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Here’s another entry for The 1947 Club. This one doesn’t give any sort of portrait of the year, being strictly inventive historical fiction, but it does have a telling author’s note which serves to highlight the difficulties of the researching writer during wartime.

silver-nutmeg-norah-lofts-1947From Norah Lofts:

Apology and Acknowledgement

The irresistible desire to write a book about the nutmeg island of Banda came upon me when I was reading H.W. Ponder’s book, In Javanese Waters. There, in one short chapter, was outlined a romantic, bloodstained history that called for exploration. But, like all exploration, it presented great difficulties. The Dutch East Indies were in Japanese hands, all contact broken; Banda itself is no more than a speck, the size of a fly dirt on the map; no book that came my way gave any idea of the island’s layout. So my geography is the geography of the imagination.

Silver Nutmeg by Norah Lofts ~ 1947. This edition: Doubleday, 1947. Hardcover. 368 pages.

My rating: 4/10

Some centuries ago, in the 1600s, shrewdly businesslike and sensibly adventurous Dutch merchants sailed the southern seas, creating trading empires for themselves in direct competition with their British counterparts. One area both factions set their sights on was the group of tiny island just off Indonesia, on one of which, Banda, grew the world’s only known population of nutmeg trees.

The Dutch having attained possession of the nutmeg isle, they jealously guarded their monopoly.  Spice trading being a big deal way back then, the export of fertile nuts or tree seedlings was strictly prohibited, transgression being punishable by imprisonment or worse. Needless to say, some of the Dutch spice plantation owners became fabulously wealthy, and herein lies the nucleus of this absolutely over written story.

(There will now be spoilers galore.)

Look, a pretty little Dutch girl!

A nice Dutch girl of good family. (Don’t do it, Annabet!)

Two Dutch half brothers, one a wealthy nutmeg plantation owner (Evert), the other a moderately successful sea-captain (Piet), meet on Banda after many years apart.

Says Evert to Piet, “Oh, dear half-brother, good to see you and everything, though we were never very close as children, my mom hating yours and all. Never mind all that, for I am now fantastically wealthy and have progressed  so far from our shared childhood as middle class nobodies in Holland. All I need now is a lovely wife to grace my fabulous house. A nice Dutch girl of good family, preferably aristocratic, so I can rub it in to those back home how far I’ve come.”

Says Piet to Evert, “Hey, what about one of the daughters of the Van Goen family? They used to be so high and mighty, scorning our family as not worthy of notice, but they’ve now gone bankrupt. I’ll bet they’d be willing to marry off one of their daughters if one flashed a few guilders their way. Annabet’s a good looker, just seventeen and blond and lovely…”

“Oh, ho!” says Evert. “Just what I’m looking for. Dear half-brother, how about you take this casket of jewels and gold and head back to Holland to convince Mama van Goens to part with her daughter in return for the fixings? You can go ahead and arrange a marriage by proxy for me, and then arrange to ship me my luscious bride.”

Done.

Small problem, however. Lovely Annabet has suffered an illness and is now no longer the beauty she once was, being emaciated and scraggly. Ah, well, the long sea voyage should put her right.

Nope.

Shal Ahmi, keeping an eye on things. (Cue foreboding music.)

Shal Ahmi, lurking about keeping an eye on things. (Cue foreboding music.)

Though Annabet proves to have a winning way about her, enslaving other men’s hearts after just a few moments of conversation despite her hideous appearance, proud Evert is instantly appalled. Calling up his pet native fixer, the shady Shal Ahmi, Evert hints that he’d be thrilled if his new wife could be eliminated from the picture.

“No worries”, says Shal Ami. “I’ll get rid of your problem.”

Which he does, by using his many connections to have Annabet massaged and herbal-cured back to her original beauty.

Evert comes home, expecting to find his marriage bed empty, all ready to start anew, and instead finding a tempting beauty in residence. “Oh, wow! My luck is in”, he gloats.

Not so fast, Evert-me-lad. For Annabet has given her heart away to another, and not just any another, but the rogue Englishman who is Evert and Shal Ahmi’s partner in a highly secret nutmeg smuggling scheme.

So that’s the set-up.

xx

“She learned the meaning of love in a night of murder, lust and terror.” Not quite sure if the possessively groping guy is husband Evert or lover what’s-his-name. That’s quite the foreground image, isn’t it?! Reminds me that I never mentioned the native mistress thing.

It goes on for 368 long, long pages, of heart-wringings and bodice heavings, and sullen scenes, and bitter revenge scenarios, culminating in a bloody native rebellion led by Shal Ahmi, which results in the nasty demises of every single one of the key players, except Piet (remember him?) who sails into the Banda harbour just as Annabet is breathing her last after being knifed by one of Shal Ahmi’s disciples, just after she herself has done in Shal Ahmi with a handily wielded wine bottle.

Husband Evert is also messily dead, as is, presumably, the true love Englishman. (“True love”, though Annabet only actually saw him for a few hours total, with a single stolen kiss their only amorous memory) Can’t remember his name. Maybe it was John? Something like that. He’s offstage for 99.9 percent of the saga, living mostly in Annabet’s head, so we never really get to know him in person.

Norah Lofts could be and frequently was a very good writer, and I find her stuff generally quite entertaining – she had a lovely dark sense of humour and indulged in it on numerous occasions – but this book isn’t one of her winners. On the contrary, it’s truly crappy, because the love stuff is so darned unrealistic that I just couldn’t get my head around it – first sight this, first sight that, unlikely ailments miraculously cured – bah, humbug! – and the historical part is just barely sketched in.

(For those really wish to know, a bit about the real world Banda and the nutmeg trade. It’s truly interesting; I can see why Norah Lofts was intrigued.)

Let’s blame it on the war, and move along, shall we?

Silver Nutmeg had okay sales, most likely (I’m assuming) due to Lofts’ prior bestsellers, in particular Jassy (1944), a very dark, gorgeously crafted gothic-ish novel which does make the cut as far as this reader is concerned. From Kirkus, 1945, with the spoilers removed:

Once again, an experienced period romance as the story of Jassy who lived and loved too much, and was xxxxxx for it in the 19th century, is related by four who knew her. Half gypsy, with an ugly-beautiful fascination, an ungovernable temper, and the gift of second sight, Jassy is first recorded by Barney Heaton, the boy next door; next by a Mrs. Twysdale whose young ladies’ school was to be disrupted by Jassy; next by Dilys Helmar, her friend at that school, who took Jassy home with her to the ruined estate – Mortiboys – and to her amorous, wine-sodden father, Nick… (Lots of plot details removed here.) …Intricately contrived imbroglio, elemental passions for a story that keeps one reading. In the Lady Eleanor Smith tradition.

I’ve also just found a rather lovely post by author Katharine Edgar on  Norah Lofts and Why You Should Read Her which I really liked because it pinned down Lofts’ peculiarly unique style most cleverly: The Queen of Gritty, Dark, Agricultural Histfic With Lots And Lots Of Murders.

Yup.

I concur.

I’m pro-Lofts in general, despite the times I want to pitch her books across the room, but I must say you can safely give Silver Nutmeg a miss.

But please do find yourself a copy of Jassy. It’s very available. A candidate for fireside reading these gloomy autumn evenings, with the dead leaves rustling in the cold wind outside…

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