Archive for the ‘Century of Books – 2017’ 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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Shabby Tiger by Howard Spring ~ 1934. This edition: Sun Dial Press, 1935. Hardcover. 316 pages.

Sound a fanfare – here’s a first novel that hits all of its vigorous notes without jarring.

Okay, let me back up a bit. There was considerable jarring, because a huge component of the novel is “Jewishness”, mostly as viewed from the gentile perspective in 1930s’ Great Britain. Abundant era-expected slanging and racial slurs, some of which drove the plot.

Viewed as a product of its time and read with the 2017 political correctness filter turned off, it works. Caveat emptor: your experience may differ.

Enter one of our protagonists:

The woman flamed along the road like a macaw. A thin mackintosh, washed out by weather into pastel shades of green, was belted tight above the swaying rhythm of her hips. It was slashed open to show a skirt of yellow wool, and you could see that the rent was an old one, that this lazy slut had no use for needle and thread. Thrown round her neck with as much consideration as a dish-clout is thrown on the string stretched before the kitchen fire was a scarf of silk, scarlet, stained and mottled like all she wore, yet achieving a gay defiant beauty. The wind made it a pennon. A great lolloping black sombrero that had belonged to a man and was now trimmed with a broken green feather, hid the flash of the woman’s black secret eyes. She lugged a suitcase of scarlet leather, but because, like all about her, it was tattered and outmoded and insecure, a length of clothes line kept its jaws snapped shut on whatever was within, permitting no more than a glimpse of white, frilled protrusion.

Anna Fitzgerald, recently orphaned daughter of an Irish horse trainer, has precipitately left her employment as a maid, suitcase stuffed with items liberated from their proper owner, the white frills referred to being those of a stolen nightgown. Anna is a fiery sort of creature, much given to blurting out whatever’s on her mind; not a comfortable sort of serving girl, as all involved have discovered. Passionate and penniless, she has no plan for what comes next.

What comes next is a serendipitous meeting with lean and hungry Nick Faunt, starving artist in the best traditional sense. Estranged from his wealthy father, Nick is making his own way through the world. He cares not for what anyone thinks of him, being certain of his artistic genius; he may well be correct.

Anna and Nick become a team, uniting their varied resources in order to scratch out an existence of sorts in the more sordid echelons of Manchester, which is where they fetch up, Anna to reclaim her illegitimate child Brian, born to her five years ago when she was herself a mere child of fourteen, Nick to further his single-minded purpose of capturing movement in charcoal and paint.

The relationship is strictly platonic, though Anna quite openly wishes it were otherwise. Nick has no time for tedious romantic dalliances, though he isn’t above a roll in the rural heather with beautiful, ambitious Jewess Rachel Rosing, social climber extraordinaire, who has misunderstood the antagonism between Nick and Sir George; she assumes the son is merely off sowing wild oats, with the father standing by to welcome the prodigal back at some point. (She’s wrong.)

Here’s a snippet with Rachel in it:

Nick and Rachel lunched at Lyons’s Popular State Café, which is popular because it is stately. Contraltos are apt to break into a deep stately baying there at any moment, and a band plays stately music, and a little boy, dressed like a chef, trundles a wagon of hors d’œuvres among the tables in the most stately manner you could imagine. There are lions on all the crockery – Joseph and his brethren. Upstairs you dance. Rachel knew it all inside out. She liked the place. It symbolised what she was trying to escape to.

What a gloriously varied cast of characters this slight but highly seasoned novel contains!

Here some of, them are, artistically rendered as is appropriate for the bohemian-themed novel: an unknown female (who the heck is she supposed to be? – drawing an utter blank – hang on, maybe it’s Communist rabble rouser Olga?), Nick-the-artist, Rachel-on-skates, monocled lecher Sir George, wee Brian, Anna herself, bookie Piggy White, and down in the lower right corner, another artist, Nick’s friend and punching bag Anton Brune. I’m assuming one of the lesser male characters in the background is meant to depict Jacob Rosing – “Holy Moses”, or “Homo” (possibly short for Homo sapiens, don’t think too hard about it, Anna will fill you in) – Rachel’s socially embarrassing brother, who is employed as Piggy’s clerk. He’s in desperate, unrequited love with Anna, and has been selflessly caring for her child these past five years, and he dejectedly moves through the story like a ghost at the feast, an intimation of tragedy which plays itself out before we leave the story.

So much is packed in here, and so highly coloured is the tale, that Granada Television turned it into a well-received mini-series in 1973, starring a young Prunella Gee as Anna, and, incidentally, causing a bit of stir in its depiction of full frontal female nudity on television (a first), presumably in one of the studio scenes where Anna is posing for Nick. I haven’t seen the filmed version; liberties have obviously been taken with Spring’s novel, but the nudity is in the written version too, as well as a rather explicit sex scene which raised my eyebrows – it stops at the nipples, as it were, but very much goes on in vivid inference.

Getting a bit warm in here. Where was I?

Oh, yes. The novel. Did I like it.

Yes, I did. A whole lot. So much so that I’m delving into the piggy bank and ordering a pricey hardcover copy of Rachel Rosing, the sequel, which extends the story by following Anna’s social-climbing nemesis as she recovers from her Shabby Tiger setbacks and goes out into the wider world.

My rating: 9/10. As period pieces go, this one is a bit of a gem. (Remember what I said about political incorrectness, though. Seething with it!)

Howard Spring. Interesting writer, he’s looking to be. I came to this novel prepared to like it, as I’d been most taken with my introduction to him with The Houses in Between. But he’s not at all an even writer; I’ve also just read A Sunset Touch, and it was fairly dire. Review very much pending, but I had to get my Shabby Tiger rave out of the way first.

One last excerpt, with a nod to my Mancunian readers, who will no doubt find much of interest in this novel for its many depictions of their city of almost a century ago:

The trams that hammer their way out of Albert Square run level if they are going south or east or west. But if they are going north they soon begin to climb. They go east as far as Victoria Station, turn left over the railway bridge, and climb the hill to what the posters call the breezy northern suburbs.

You are no sooner over the bridge than Jerusalem lifts up her gates. The eyes that you encounter are the eyes of Leah and Jael and Ruth; the writing on the shop windows is Hebrew. Synagogues and Talmud Torah schools; kosher meat shops; wizened little bearded men with grey goat’s eyes and slim olive children with heifer’s eyes; these are what you see as the tram storms the oppressive breast of Cheetham Hill.

You have not gone far before he facetious trolley-boy shouts: “Switzerland!” and down the grim street that faces you is the Ice Palace, beyond the monumental mason’s yard where Hebrew hopes and lamentations are cut into the white mortuary slabs. The street is called Derby Street, and all the other street names hereabouts are undeniably Gentile. The Jew has settled upon the land, but he has not made it his own. It is a place of exile…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 7.5/10

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

 

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Country Chronicle by Gladys Taber ~ 1974. This edition: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1974. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-397-01023-0. 220 pages.

Gladys Taber needs no introduction to many of my fellow readers, but to those of you unfamiliar with her gentle body of work, I’ll merely mention that she was a domestic affirmationist who wrote well-received periodical articles and columns, journals, cookbooks and a few novels, from 1925 to 1980. Her last memoir, Still Cove Journal, was finished by her daughter Connie and published posthumously in 1981.

Country Chronicle falls into the pattern of the best of Gladys Taber’s rural-living journals. Arranged in seasonally progressing sections, in it she examines in some detail the natural world surrounding her 17th Century Connecticut farmhouse, her neighbours and current society, her pets, and her reminiscences of the past. There are, predictably, a few recipes thrown in here and there, most terrifically dated, but some decidedly good sounding.

Gladys Taber was a strong proponent of respect for the domestic arts, and whenever I read her I come away feeling slightly guilty for my own shortcomings in that area, but also encouraged in my own inner belief that a comfortable house and a well-furnished table are well within the capabilities of most of us, and well worth striving for.

Gladys Taber has enough astringency in her opinions to keep things from getting too impossibly sweet. In Country Chronicle we are made well aware of her past griefs and present physical infirmities; she is 74 at the time of the book’s publication, and feeling the effects of age on her body, as well as the loss of beloved people and animals in her life. Very relatable, which no doubt accounts for her broad appeal. Her popularity in her time is completely understandable; a quietly enthusiastic fan base still exists some four decades after her death, and her old home Stillmeadow, still in the family, has recently been the focal point of a successful land conservation initiative.

Happy Sunday, fellow readers. Fall is in the air here, and the smoke from our region’s forest fires is at last lessening as things settle down with the coming of cooler nights and occasional welcome rainfalls. The wild geese are ganging up and running their practice flights up and down our river valley; the wild things are busy preparing for winter; the humans likewise.

Evacuation orders and alerts are being stepped back throughout much of the area, “normal” is once again becoming just that, as we cautiously take stock of what this challenging summer has meant to our region as a whole, and most of all to those personally affected by the loss of homes and livelihoods.

On the news we see reports of other parts of the world as strongly affected in their various ways as we have been here – fire, flood, storm, political upheaval, physical and moral violence in the most pernicious forms. Through all of this, human decency encouragingly frequently prevails.

On that note, I will leave you with a warm nod to this author, for at her best she is thought-provoking and affirmative of the values most of us, rural and urban dwellers alike, would like to live by. Gladys Taber is all about being a good friend and neighbour, giving and receiving help gracefully, surviving sorrows and setbacks, being kind to animals both wild and tame, keeping your surroundings in good order, and in general living lightly on the land and leaving things better off for your presence. Worthy goals, all of them.

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The Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter ~ 1936. This edition: Knopf, 1973. Hardcover. 149 pages.

Writer Conrad Richter, 1890-1968, occupies a place in the pantheon of lesser American literary gods just a little below Willa Cather, so any critique flavoured with negativity feels slightly blasphemous; we feel we’re supposed to kneel down and enthusiastically worship, not surreptitiously peer at the idol for a glimpse of feet of clay.

But autre temps, autre moeurs, as the saying goes, and times are different now, and some writing hasn’t aged well. The vaguely embarrasing lush prose and predictable plot line of this short novel being a case in point.

A hint is given in the dust jacket teaser:

Narrated by a nephew of the leading male character, this novel – novella? – is passionately presented, though sketchy on background details. It reads like the screenplay for a old-style Western movie, and by golly! – lookie there – it was indeed filmed, in 1947, with Katharine Hepburn playing erring wife Lutie, and Spencer Tracy the stoic cattle baron James Brewton.

The film seems to have received mixed reviews. Though successful from a box office perspective, director Elia Kazan, thwarted in his creative desires throughout the filming, was disappointed in the final version and reportedly advised his friends against watching it. This contemporary film review from March of 1947 is an interesting read.

The novel’s plot is simplistic enough. New Mexico cattle baron James Brewton runs an immense operation, mostly consisting of government-owned rangeland, which he oversees as if it were his very own. Prospective homesteaders crowding across the state line and their political sponsors have their eye on Brewton’s private domain, and a certain Judge Brice Chamberlain has set his sights on knocking the region’s wealthy ranchers down a notch or two.

Enter Lutie Cameron, James Brewton’s ladylike citygirl bride, who disembarks from a train to be met by Brewton’s callow and resentful nephew. Tripping daintily up the dusty cowtown street in her high-heeled shoes, utterly ignoring the stares of the local layabouts, ducking under the feet of the hanged man gracing the water tower, Lutie brings a breath of perfumed air to enhance the local scene, and soon-to-be-nephew Hal is utterly smitten.

James and Lutie wed, and for a while it looks like all will be well. They’re apparently in love, though neither say so much aloud, James because of his leathery stoicism, Lutie because of her reticent ladylikeness, but children start to appear, so something’s going on. A girl, a boy, and another boy, this last child bearing a strong resemblance to – oh my! can it be?! – James Brewton’s arch-nemesis Brice Chamberlain.

For Lutie has apparently slipped quietly off the marital rails. So much so that next thing we know she is boarding that same train that brought her into town, to return to the bright lights of the city. It’s an open secret that Brice Chamberlain will be accompanying her, so when he stands Lutie up at the station, and she departs with head held high and eyes bright with unshed tears, the gossip swells to epic proportions.

Not to worry, she’ll be back, wafting in some years later once her estranged husband is on the verge of losing his ranch, while her child-of-(presumed)adultery is succumbing to gunshot wounds sustained during a brush with the law, for he has gone very much to the bad.

A marital reconciliation takes place over the dead body of the young man, then the scene fades to grey, and we are left with the image of the once-vibrant ranch house falling into decay, James and Lutie vanished to who-knows-where, and only Hal left to cherish the memories of what-once-was.

As a period piece this slender book both satisfies and disappoints. Occasional detailed and evocative descriptive passages bring the physical scene vividly to life, but the over-the-topness of much of Richter’s prose makes me grit my teeth.

Example, as Lutie prepares to board the outbound train:

And now I was sure that all those happy friends were frantically playing a part and that they really had no more belief that Lutie Brewton was going to St. Louis than I had. And when I stumbled by as if I noticed nothing, I saw that for all her gay animation, her high lace collar was a pale branch whipsawing in the pounding stream of blood at her throat and that the veins on one of my uncle’s hands stood out like long-suppressed whipcords of blue lightning.

I couldn’t have gone now if I had wished. I could see the grim bulge in my uncle’s coat of gray broadcloth and an untamed violence, like a prairie fire rimmed with black smoke, flaring in his dark eyes. Several loafers had risen to their feet licking their lips. Following their eyes, I glimpsed up the street the unmistakable tall figure of Brice Chamberlain in a new brown suit coming out of the Exchange House and pausing for a moment on the high stone steps, a Mexican behind him with a pair of gripsacks. Then both approaching figures were blotted out by the gray clot of rounded emigrant canvas.

“Whipcoards of blue lightning”! “Grim bulge”! “Untamed violence, like a prairie fire rimmed with black smoke”! Oh, my. Fanning myself wildly – those are stirring words. Is it just me or is it getting hot in here?!

Richter’s characterizations in this novel are stock, clichéd, so that one can’t believe in them as real people, who might have lived. They do everything so much to pattern, stepping through their choreographies of behaviour so rigidly, so predictably, so reminiscently of so many off-the-shelf novel and movie characters that one can’t get past that deadly over-familiarity.

Now I’m going to change gears, and say that though I am dreadfully cruel in my assessment of this extremely dated novel, it wasn’t all that bad. Conrad Richter’s sincerity shines through the deficiencies of his prose and plotting. He had a story to tell, and he told it. A point to make, and he hammered it home.

That point being, once all the romantic brouhaha is cleared out of the way, that the great American grasslands were never suited to the plow, that homesteading brought a fatal destruction of the eons-old sod, and that the epic tragedy of the 1930s’ “dust bowl” of the North American prairies was brought about by human ineptitude.

Probably worth a read, this novel, for cultural literacy reasons, if nothing else.

The characters – well – I got a lot of perverse enjoyment out of mildly despising each and every one of them, for being such cardboard cutouts, and for bringing on their own various downfalls. Lutie in particular. Oh, she annoyed the heck out of me!

And where did she go after abandoning her silent but infatuated husband and her sweet children, and being abandoned by her callous lover? She reappears a good ten years later, still beautiful and well-dressed, still exuding that “fragrance of violets” so beloved of Victorian-and-later writers, still capable of winning hearts with the merest glance of her “liquid eyes”. She’d turned down James Brewton’s financial support, she’d set herself outside of society’s pale, so where was she? How did she feed and clothe herself? Who financed her costly wardrobe, her daintily feminine personal needs? Radio silence!

Okay, rating. How about a 6/10. The Sea of Grass had its moments, and it was fun to growl at as I read it through. Nice and short, too, so it wasn’t like I wasted that much time on its reading. Appreciated the eco-message, good for Conrad Richter on putting that out there.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow, what are the odds?

 

 

 

 

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