Archive for the ‘1950s’ Category

A Sunset Touch by Howard Spring ~ 1953. This edition: The Companion Book Club, 1955. Hardcover. 288 pages.

Just when we are safest, there’s a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one’s death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides,–
And that’s enough for fifty hopes and fears
As old and new at once as nature’s self,
To rap and knock and enter in our soul,
Take hands and dance there.

Robert Browning ~ Bishop Blougram’s Confession

Middle-aged London bank clerk Roger Menheniot, son of a respectable Cornish cobbler, considers himself the last offshoot of a noble Cornwall family. He stumbled upon knowledge of his ancestry in teenagerhood, and has subsequently spent all of his spare time in researching Menheniot family history, and furnishing his modest rooms in the style of the glory days of Rosemullion, the stately country home of his ancestors. A Sheraton bookcase here, an engraved snuffbox there. The estate itself has fallen on hard times, but Roger dreams of it at night, plotting how he can one day return to it, perhaps in retirement as a tenant of the little lodge at the gates, because he knows there is no way he’ll ever be able to afford the estate itself.

He’s visited Rosemullion, a golden moment of his life, and he’s writing a history of his family, knowing full well it’s not likely to ever see publication. No mind, it’s a true labor of love.

He began by calling it A Cornish Family, but changed that to The Menheniots. He loved the sound of his own name. He loved the look of it as the letters formed under his pen. He liked to turn it over on his tongue in company with other famous names from the county he had never lived in: the Carews, the Elyots, the Killigrews, the Menheniots. He was becoming a crank and a recluse, living with imaginations. He knew it, and he gloried in it. After all, how many men belonged to a family like his?

No: it was not likely that he would ever shake it off now. He had spent too many hours in the Public Record Office and the British Museum, boring like a wood-beetle into the decayed and moldy fabric of the family that had not for a long time lived on ancestral acres and that now, as far as he knew, had no living member but himself. But never had the Menheniots produced a more fanatical Menheniot, a bank clerk by day, Menheniot of Rosemullion by night.

Roger despises his real life; he despises London. Even more so now that it is a city torn by war, for it is 1944, and Roger, shaken out of his fantasy world, has had to take notice of the greater world, and even to take part in civic duties, fire-watching in his neighbourhood as the bombs rain down.

The war changes everything, as it brings into Roger’s miniscule orbit a person whom he had no inkling of at all, an American serviceman who shares his name, and who proves to be another offshoot of the almost-extinct family.

Phillip Menheniot – Phil – is intrigued by his new-found relation, and likes him quite a lot, though he smiles at Roger’s infatuation with their shared ancestry. Over the course of several meetings, the two men become friends, until Phil is swept away by the war, never to be seen again.

Then, in September of 1945, two things happen. The first is that Roger stumbles upon a house-agent’s ad for the estate of Rosemullion. And the very next night he receives a lawyer’s letter, informing him of an unexpected legacy.

Roger and his first love.

Need I tell you what happens next? Yes, Roger’s fantasy is now within his grasp, and he seizes the day. Rosemullion is his!

And with it comes an enlargement of Roger’s life, as he is forced to step outside the comfort zone of his reclusive London life, to move in a wider circle in his new Cornish home. He makes the acquaintance of the local vicar, Henry Savage, an elderly gentleman (in every sense of both words) with a shocking back story, and of young Dr. Littledale, and the doctor’s spinster sister, Kitty.

Kitty and Roger find themselves falling into step, acquaintance ripening to something warmer and deeper, until the shocking day when Kitty attempts to interest Roger in a physical manifestation of their mutual attraction – she kisses him!!! – and Roger, overwhelmed by he’s not quite sure what emotions, finds himself in equal measures repelled by what he sees as her shameful advances, and suddenly aware that the kiss has stirred feelings (yes, those feelings) which he never realized he had within him.

Roger is torn between good girl Kitty and bad girl Bella. What’s a 45-year-old virgin to do?!

While Roger is engaged in the turmoil of his new self-awareness, along comes pretty wanton Bella, and Roger discovers at long last the joy of sex.

What of Kitty, then? Where is she? Waiting in the wings, she is, patiently watching Roger struggle with his metamorphosis into Fully Awakened Manhood. And when Bella comes to grief (poor doomed thing!), Kitty is still there…

Well, well, well.

In my readerly opinion, the early part of the novel was much the most promising, and when Roger heads to Cornwall my curiosity was deep indeed as to what he would make of the rehabilitation of Rosemullion.

Howard Spring instead goes off on a completely different tangent, abandoning the whole scion-of-an-ancient-house theme and instead descending into plain old titillating romance novel territory. It’s more Norah Lofts-style gothic there at the close (we even have a mysterious death), versus Daphne du Maurier-style psychological drama. I found it slightly – okay, more than slightly – disappointing, as our author changed his generical horses in midstream.

If The Houses in Between and Shabby Tiger are A-list examples of what this writer was capable of, A Sunset Touch, while still eminently readable, is one level lower.

My rating: 6/10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Spanish Gardener by A.J. Cronin ~ 1950. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1950. Hardcover. 263 pages.

A fast, intense read, full of palpable foreboding, which builds to a bitter climax.

An American diplomat, estranged from the mother of his young son, frets in the stagnation of his career as he is continually passed over for promotion, being instead shifted from one backwater European consulate to another. He consoles himself that one day he will be vindicated, when he finds a publisher for his ambitious life-work, a biography of obscure 17th Century French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, and with misguided anticipation of the resulting fanfare, dreams of being able to retire from his not very stellar career to a life of acclaimed authorship.

Harrington Brande is obsessed by his own standing in the complicated hierarchy of the foreign diplomatic service, and his immense ego is as fragile as it is blind to its possessor’s deep and well-deserved unpopularity with everyone whom he comes in contact with. The one exception is 9-year-old Nicholas – the name no coincidence – who returns his father’s clinging and jealous infatuation with innocently filial love.

The pair fetch up in a quiet coastal Spanish town, and Brande is relieved to find that both his residence and his official offices are in much better condition than some previous postings have led him to fear. An overgrown garden leads to the engagement of a teenage gardener, a young man of poor family but esteemed local reputation due to his intelligence, happy nature, competence at his work, and stature as an accomplished athlete.

Gardener José and semi-invalid Nicholas are deeply attracted to each other in the most purely platonic of ways, and a deep friendship springs up between the two, flourishing until the father notices the son’s gaze turning to José too often. Steps must be taken to break up this most unsuitable of friendships – added to Harrington Brande’s other unlikable personality traits is one of deep snobbishness – and the tighter he clings to his son the more tenuous his position becomes as the sole possessor of Nicholas’s affection.

A sinister chauffeur-butler, an unscrupulous psychiatrist, and Brande himself manufacture a situation in which José finds himself entrapped in a false accusation. Nicholas remains steadfast to his friend, but all pleas for mercy serve merely to intensify the father’s desire for revenge on his supposed supplanter.

There is a strand of sexual frustration and homoerotic obsession running through this dark and disturbing little novel; one can’t help but feel that Nicholas’s mother has done the wise thing by leaving her husband to his own devices. The child is protected by his tender age from understanding the nuances of his father’s self-torturing motivations, but he is growing up, and becoming aware that all is not as it could and should be.

Tragedy inevitably strikes, as we have known it will all along.

The author allows the slightest gleam of redemption in his final scenes, but makes no firm promises.

Though the scenarios are laid out with perfect clarity, I feel that The Spanish Gardener’s narrative strength lies more in nuance than salacious detail. Definitely a work of its time, a sober post-war character portrait and an emotionally involving though rather subfusc drama. I found it impossible to look away from and read it all in one go this cold fall evening.

My rating: 7.5/10.

Initially a qualified doctor who started writing during a long convalescence from illness in 1930, A.J. Cronin was a Scottish writer of novels, novellas and short stories, and his work was both popular and critically acclaimed. His dramatic stories were a natural for film adaptation; Cronin went on to add successful and lucrative careers as a film and television writer to his other accomplishments.

 

 

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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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The Loved and Envied by Enid Bagnold ~ 1951. This edition: Virago Modern Classics (Penguin), 1988. Introduction by Isabel Colgate. ISBN: 0-14-016211-9. 280 pages.

Lady Ruby Maclean, famed beauty, lives with her Scottish husband Gynt at his family’s French estate, the Chateau of Little Pouilly, based on the real-life Chantilly, as Lady Maclean herself is based on Bagnold’s friend, famed society beauty Lady Diana Cooper.

Though the plot of novel is purely fictional, the character portrait is widely accepted to be a true (and flattering) one, to the extent that the Virago cover illustration is a replication of a portrait of Lady Diana on her wedding day.

Not much happens, action wise, in this quietly thought-provoking book, with most of the turmoil being mental and emotional, but once we are hooked it all becomes immensely interesting. I found it to be one of those novels one spent time thinking about while one was off doing other things; the characters became real, and their fears and joys relatable.

The fears tend to predominate, at least superficially, as this is a novel very much concerned with aging and death. Lady Maclean, the “loved and envied” of the title, undeniably coming to the end of middle-age at fifty-three, muses on her status as a great beauty, and what this has meant to her in every aspect of her life so far, and how the inevitable deterioration in her physical appearance has started to affect how others now react to her in the most subtle of ways.

This is a masterfully written book, in a purely technical sense, and, once I figured out the writer’s game, I became a willing co-player. Bagnold takes us back and forth through time, revisiting certain episodes from varying characters’ points of view, bringing in minor characters for a paragraph or a page to allow another aspect of a scene to be verbalized, and weaving all of these at-first over-abundant threads together to create a cohesive picture at the end.

Though Ruby, Lady Maclean, is the key element in the vision that unfolds, Bagnold keeps a juggler’s handful worth of other stories in play as we go along.

We have Ruby’s husband Gynt, a reclusive insomniac pursuing night birds through the French woods, compulsively engaged upon writing a orthinological life-work. Their daughter Miranda, beloved of both parents, but herself deeply resentful of her glamorous mother’s life-long overshadowing. Tuxie, the slippery ne-er-do well who marries Miranda with high expectations and subsequent bitter disappointment; their removal to Jamaica and an eventual tragedy provide a touch of melodrama.

There is famous painter Cora, Ruby’s closest female friend, hideous in appearance but a genius at her art. And Cora’s ex-husband Rudi, a once-popular playwright who has written the same script a few times too many, to the brutal critics’ gleeful delight.

Rose, now-elderly life-long mistress of the Edouard, Vicomte de Bas-Pouilly, is superficially aged but retains her ardently youthful devotion to Edouard, and is in turn faithfully cherished by her aristocratic lover, to the secret fury of his jealous sister.

James, Edouard’s nephew and heir, who is infatuated with the much-older Ruby, until circumstances bring Miranda back to France. (Miranda’s transformation from dowd to siren through the wonders of a genius dressmaker is a play-within-a-play, a delicious glimpse at the clothes of the period, with yet another character added to the cast: Lew Afric, “pederast” and grand couturier.)

The Duca Alberti Marie-Innocence de Roccafergola, physically massive, emotionally sensitive. Ruby’s closest male confidante, Miranda’s beneficient godfather. His long time servant Celestine, who one day expresses a surprising desire to become a duchess by marriage. (Alberti obliges, with complicated results.)

Ruby’s aunt, Ursula, born with a hideous deformation which has taken her around the world in an effort to find a way of concealing  it. A highly successful career as a beautician to the elite women of London follows, and her adoption of her orphaned niece provides her an outlet for love frustrated since her infancy, when those who should have cherished her were instead repelled by her appearance. Ruby owes some of her beauty to Ursula’s care; the two have an intricate bond which transcends the obvious.

By the end of the novel, a number of these key characters are dead, which doesn’t prove as melancholic as it might, much to my relief as a reader. For I myself am well into  the dangerous age, the time of one’s life when one’s own mortality becomes much more than an abstract concept, as one realizes just how many funerals those only a little older – and, more poignantly, of peers – one has been attending…

Fantastic novel. I enjoyed it greatly, though I didn’t much care for it a decade or so ago when I tried it for the first time. Perhaps I was still too young?! This time round I devoured it.

My rating: 9/10. A definite keeper.

And I am going to be keeping my eyes open for Bagnold’s other novels, of which the only one I have read is 1935’s National Velvet. (That one is a decided 10/10 – and I need to say, to those who have so far scorned it, it’s not at all a children’s book, despite its perpetual marketing as such.)

Of these, A Diary Without Dates (1917), The Happy Foreigner (1920) , and The Squire (1938), all appear to by reasonably attainable. (The Squire was republished by Persephone just a few years ago, and is already on my wish list from that most estimable establishment.)

And last but not least, I’ve submitted The Loved and Envied as an entry with The 1951 Club. Another stellar year in books! Keep yours eyes open for a links roundup either here or here. Thank you, Simon and Karen, for setting this up.

 

 

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Death in Cyprus by M.M. Kaye ~ 1956. This edition: Penguin, 1985. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-006405-2. 271 pages.

Amanda Derington, left a war orphan in 1940, has just turned 21, and one of her first actions upon attaining this age of legal freedom is to broaden her personal horizons, for Amanda has been living under the iron rule of her prudish Uncle Oswin, a pompous misogynist with attitudes towards morals typical of the strictest Victorians, and young Amanda has had to adhere to a standard of behaviour long since discarded by her boarding school peers.

Amanda’s twenty-first birthday occurs while she is accompanying her uncle on a leisurely tour of the Derington family business empire in the Mediterranean, and Amanda’s decision to branch off on her own and visit the island of Cyprus has her uncle impotently fuming.

Despite Uncle Oswin’s tantrums,  off Amanda goes, all bright-eyed and open to whatever the world of adulthood has to offer. What immediately happens is that just before her ship reaches Cyprus, Amanda becomes involved in the sudden death – an apparent suicide – of a travelling companion.

But things don’t quite add up, and the odd behaviours of several other shipmates continue even after they all land at the destination and continue with their holidays, with the bereaved widower, Major Alistair Blaine, listlessly moping about and casting shadows on the holiday mood, a ghost at the feast, as it were.

Strangely ominous incidents begin to haunt Amanda, and she starts to wonder if perhaps Julia’s death wasn’t self-inflicted, and if, instead, Amanda were the target of an unknown killer. (Amanda and Julia had switched cabins on board ship; a key point which I didn’t mention.)

Much to-ing and fro-ing goes on, giving the author a chance to enlarge upon the scenic attractions of Cyprus and adding splashes of local colour. (In her author’s note Kaye speaks fondly of her own visits there in 1949, while her military husband was stationed in Egypt.)

I hate to say it, but Death in Cyprus, though readable enough in a mild sort of way, was a bit of a dud as both a thriller and a coming of age tale. The death plot, once revealed, was inanely bizarre versus anything approaching believable.

In the tradition of the most extravagant of the Agatha Christies, the mysterious killer strikes again and again, with various degrees of success, until finally (predictably!) unmasked by Amanda’s brand new (and not-what-he-seems-to-be) romantic interest.

M.M. (Mary Margaret) Kaye was an artist as well as a writer, and she enjoyed success as a writer and illustrator of children’s books and historical fiction – The Far Pavilions, 1978, was very much her star turn – as well as a number of mystery novels, mostly set in exotic locales.

I’d definitely heard of her before, for while used-book shopping for my bedridden, book-a-day reading mother in the last few years of her life, M.M. Kaye titles popped up again and again, and I have quite a little collection put away in the boxes of “Mom books” I haven’t quite yet been able to go through and sort into keeper and give-away piles.

Mom was restrained in her praise of the M.M. Kaye books, “readable but a bit boring” was her description when I asked her if this was a writer she was interested in going on with, and I must say that this novel was just that.

Will I read more M.M. Kaye? Maybe. It wasn’t a bad book. Just not nearly as good as it might have been.

I might give The Far Pavilions a go at some point. Or one of the other historical fictions. They’re not calling out to me in any urgent way, though, based on my reaction to Death in Cyprus.

My rating: 5/10. A keeper, but only just. Something to read when one doesn’t want to be deeply immersed in a book; rather put-down-able, in other words.

Final thought: Mary Stewart did this sort of thing so much better.

 

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First edition dust jacket, illustration by the author. As well as being a writer, Frances Faviell was a professional portrait artist. Side note: the girl in the picture is not, as one might expect, the eponymous Thalia, but is instead the novel’s narrator, the fledgling artist, Rachel.

Thalia by Frances Faviell ~ 1957. This edition: Cassell & Company, 1957. Hardcover (re-bound). 288 pages.

When the car was approaching the docks I looked at my aunt and it seemed to me that this – a profile – was all we ever knew of anyone. We can never know all the aspects but merely those which are shown to us. Was she as lonely as I was? She appeared suddenly such a small person and one at whom I had never really looked…

This story is set in the mid-1930s, from the perspective of the narrator looking back some twenty years later at a life-altering segment of time.

Eighteen-year-old Rachel – mother dead, father off on his own business – has been living with her aunt while studying art at the Slade. After disgracing herself by painting an unflatteringly caricatured portrait of the vicar who is her aunt’s dear friend, Rachel is being packed off to France to act as an unpaid companion to the teenage daughter of a family friend, while her aunt, accompanied by the vicar of the portrait, goes off on an excursion to Egypt.

Arriving in the seaside Brittany village of Dinard, home to a thriving Anglo-American community of penny-pinching expatriates resident in a collection of rental villas, Rachel is prepared to make the best of her experience, though she is uneasy as to how she will fit into the household which consists of her charges, fifteen-year-old Thalia and six-year-old Claude, and their beautiful and indolent mother, Cynthia. The Pembertons have settled in Dinard while the father of the family, Colonel Tom Pemberton, returns to India, where he is engaged in a dangerous military operation on the volatile North-West frontier.

Thalia is in the full throes of an awkward and unattractive adolescence. Mousy haired, sulky faced, inflicted with a skin covered by masses of brown, patchy freckles, Thalia is well aware of her mother’s distaste for her.

Cynthia openly rejects and callously neglects her cuckoo’s-child daughter, concentrating all of her maternal instincts onto her beautiful young son. Golden-haired Claude is lovely to look at, but a demanding and obnoxiously spoiled child, every whim pandered to by his mother in her attempt to avoid his tantrums.

Cynthia lives in self-protective seclusion from the real world, nursing her reputed “heart ailment”, drifting in a sleeping-pill induced haze and seldom leaving her bedroom until noon. When she emerges, she wafts off to ill-afforded bridge-playing afternoons, and ill-concealed dalliances with an old lover, Terence Mourne, ex-compatriot of Colonel Pemberton’s, who has resigned his commission due to a disgrace in which young Thalia has had a leading hand.

The household help is a young Frenchwoman of reputed loose morals, much to the enjoyment of the local permanent residents, who view the English and American residents of Dinard as a constantly changing real-life dramatic ensemble, good for a chuckle as they inevitably flout unwritten rules of etiquette, and good as well for a constant low-key fleecing at the hands of their French employees.

Thalia focusses immediately on Rachel, pouring out all her unrequited affection in an attempt to win attention to herself. Rachel, feeling sympathy for Thalia’s status as the unwanted, coldly rejected child of her mother (though not her now-absent father), reciprocates as much as she feels herself able to, though Thalia’s fixation on Rachel takes on an obsessive tone.

When Rachel falls in love with a young Frenchman, Armand, Thalia’s jealousy unleashes her full potential for secretive revenge plots, and the already deeply unhealthy situation at the Pemberton villa deteriorates in a grand and ultimately tragic manner.

Not what one would call a happy book – oh, no! – but enthralling in its depiction of late-adolescent angst – Rachel’s as much as Thalia’s – and of people making a series of bad decisions and finding themselves overwhelmed by the consequences thereof.

Frances Faviell writes her scenes with meticulous attention to telling detail, something I noted in Faviell’s autobiographical account of living through the London Blitz of 1940-41 , A Chelsea Concerto. Her painter’s eye transposes perfectly into her writer’s voice, and the combination is a winning one.

There is almost a clinical feel to Rachel’s unemotional telling of what happened during those months in France which occasionally feels chilled and tamped down, until one reminds oneself that the story is being told from several decades away in time, with the reflection of an adult Rachel attempting to explain the impulsive actions of the teenage Rachel put into a situation very much out of her depth to competently deal with.

A dark, frequently melodramatic bildungsroman of a book, which I found enthralling from start to finish.

My rating: 9.5/10

The half point keeping it from being a full-out “10” is for the main protagonist’s switch of loyalties as the tale winds down; I found that I couldn’t quite believe in her emotional development in this particular way, though as the novel progresses Rachel becomes more and more what we might term an unreliable narrator, and this may well be a deliberate move on the author’s part.

If I could name a perfect shelfmate to Thalia, it would have to be The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden. Similar high standard of writing, similar settings, similar themes, and, most of all, similar takeaway that growing up can be a deeply bitter process, full of betrayal by and of people once beloved.

 

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I am the owner of a sort of mixed bag of a vanity project by the estimable (though occasional uneven) J.B. Priestley.

The book, published in 1951, is called Delight, and it is comprised of short vignettes – one hundred and fourteen of them – of things which gave Mr. Priestley deep (and often secret) joy.

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Occasionally, when in need of a reminder of how many such delightful things the most ho-hum life contains, I dip into this book and read about Fountains and Cosy Planning and Orchestras Tuning Up and Waking to Smell Bacon, etc., and rejoice in my turn in those small goodnesses.

Here’s one I know we can all relate to, apropos of nothing in particular, as it isn’t currently storming – though it is a bit chilly outside – and once I venture out one last time to fill the greenhouse woodstove chock full of the biggest logs I can manhandle into it, my warm bed and a good book await me.

I hope your collective evenings contain a similar pleasure.

Enjoy!

Fifty-One

There is a peculiar delight, which I can still experience though I knew it best as a boy, in cosily reading about foul weather when equally foul weather is beating hard against the windows, when one is securely poised between the wind and rain and sleet outside and the wind and rain and sleet that leap from the page into the mind.

The old romancers must have been aware of this odd little bonus of pleasure for the reader, and probably that is why so many of their narratives, to give them a friendly start, began with solitary horsemen, cloaked to the eyebrows, riding through the night on urgent business for the Duke, sustained by nothing more than an occasional and dubious ragout or pasty and a gulp or two of sour wine (always fetched by surly innkeepers or their scowling slatterns), on side-roads deep in mire, with wind, rain, thunder-and-lightning, sleet, hail, snow, all turned on at the full.

With the windows rattling away and hailstones drumming at the paper in the fireplace, snug in bed save for one cold elbow, I have travelled thousands and thousands of mucky miles with these fellows, braving the foulest nights, together crying ‘Bah!’

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