Archive for the ‘Diana Tutton’ Category

winter sunflower

Happy New Year’s Eve!

We’ve almost made it to the end of 2015, just a few more hours in the fading old year. Tomorrow brings a fresh new page, always a lovely thought, though I must say that 2015 has, on the whole, been good to us. A little (okay, a lot!) more hectic than we were perfectly comfortable with, but every bit of the busy-ness was self-created, and we accomplished the successful undertaking of some major farm and personal projects, and, tucked in here and there, enjoyed some immensely pleasurable travels as well.

Wishing you all a very happy 2016. Such a great pleasure to touch the lives of others through this forum; old friends and new have commented and shared their thoughts and kept me connected to the greater world outside our quiet valley in a very welcome way. I hope some of my ramblings here have given you some of the same enjoyment you’ve given me in your turn.

But what would the end of the year be without a wrap-up book post?!

So many such posts are popping up in my email inbox and through the WordPress Reader, reminding me that I am not at all up to my previous years’ standard in sharing round ups of my own personal Bests and Worsts of the year in reading just past.

To remedy this, here is a quick look back at some of the highlights of 2015. Not all are “best” books – oh, no! – not at all! – but each stood out from the crowd in some unique way. As I was very lax in posting reviews this past year, for a number of these this will be the only mention in 2015, but they may show up in future, written about in greater detail. (Or possibly not.)

In no particular order, as they are being pulled off the shelves.

#1 ~ A Book That Ended Much Too Soon

as cooks go elizabeth jordan 1950 (2)As Cooks Go by Elizabeth Jordan. 1950, Faber and Faber.

In immediately post World War II London, the author, her husband, and two young daughters take on a too-tall house. Struggling with the monotonous burden of housekeeping and all those stairs, upper-middle-class Elizabeth decides to hire a charwoman, whose wages necessitate Elizabeth herself finding paid employment to pay the cleaning lady. Elizabeth decides to peddle her kitchen skills as there is a notable shortage of cooks in London kitchens. She is able to earn not quite enough to pay the char, and her husband rather reluctantly ponies up the rest.

With such twisted logic on display, one proceeds to read this brusquely engaging tale with initial impatient annoyance at its author, which soon morphs into a growing reluctant affection, as she keeps her chin up through the breakup of her marriage, the placing of her children in her parents’ care, and her subsequent ambition to achieve professional cook’s training. Though I couldn’t help but think a lot of her woes were at least partially self-inflicted, I ended up firmly on her side in her sardonically documented adventures, and the abrupt ending of this one-woman’s-saga mid-stream as it were left me deeply disappointed, and yearning for more.

It appears that there is no more, and that this was the only book Elizabeth Jordan wrote, or at least had published. An engaging diversion,  something along the lines of Monica Dickens’ One Pair of Hands, though not nearly as hectically funny, as Elizabeth Jordan did not have the luxury of a comfy parental flat to retire to after her long days’ cooking as post-debutante Miss Dickens did. As Cooks Go is easily a 10/10 book, save for the chopped-off final chapter.

#2 ~ An Unexpectedly Mezmerizing Book

rowing to alaska wayne mclennan 2004Rowing to Alaska and Other True Stories, by Wayne McLennan. 2004, Granta Books.

This book of was a punchy surprise by Australian ex-professional-boxer, man-of-many-rough-skills McLennan, and I found myself completely drawn into his audaciously tell-all memoirs of life in rural Australia, gold mining in Costa Rica, commercial fishing in Nicaragua, and yes, rowing the hand-blistering 1000 miles from Seattle to Alaska.

Opinionated and gritty describe the prose, but there’s more than a dash of polish too, and some of the passages are absolutely inspired. Boxing leaves me utterly cold; I think it is an amusement for the brutish and I see no appeal for me there at all, but McLennan’s passion and analytically emotional enthusiasm for the sport and its adherents made me park my opinions for the duration. Another 10/10, blood, bruises, and graphically described porn night in the sheep shed included.

 

#3 ~ A Theatrical Memoir

Being George Devine's Daughter by Harriet Devine 2006Being George Devine’s Daughter by Harriet Devine. 2006, Barkus Books.

I do enjoy an interesting memoir, and this one, written by the daughter of British theatrical director and actor George Devine and stage designer Sophie Harris, was expectedly intriguing. But how does one do justice to analyzing for public sharing such a personal work, aware that the author will be reading what one has to say? If one is too fulsome in one’s praise, one feels sycophantic. If one feels at all critical, one cringes at inflicting a slight on a friend. I’ve been in this situation a number of times over the years (I have talented friends – what can I say?) and I find that I tend to hold off on commenting in any way, good or otherwise, due solely to social awkwardness.

But all this convoluted explanation of why I don’t really want to commit myself aside, I could not in good conscience pass over this one, because I enjoyed it immensely and it was one of my memorable books of 2015.

Published in 2006, Being George Devine’s Daughter can be found on Amazon and ABE, and is also available as an ebook. Check it out on the Amazon website, where one can read an excerpt. And Harriet, I honestly loved it. It’s firmly on the keeper shelf. Any thoughts of writing about your life in later years? I really want to know more of the details of What Harriet Did Next.

#4 ~An Elusive Quarry Found

the young ones diana tutton ace paperback 001The Young Ones by Diana Tutton. 1959, Peter Davies Ltd.

Does anyone recall the buzz about Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters a few years ago? I read it and reacted with mixed emotions, but felt it deserved a second chance, and I did indeed rate it higher the second time around, when I was able to distance it from its inevitable comparison to its contemporary shelfmate, Dodie Smith’s stellar I Capture the Castle.

I then managed, after some concentrated searching, to get my hands on Tutton’s second book, Mamma, which I thought was a rather fine (if slightly cynical) example of its mid-century, middlebrow, “women’s fiction” genre. One more book by this sadly unprolific writer exists, but a copy didn’t appear to be available anywhere, in all of my scanning through the used book sites and the extended Canadian library system.

Then, just a month or so ago, as I was doing one more wishful web browse, there it was. A tired little Ace paperback edition on the sales list of an Australian rare books dealer, and for a reasonably palatable price, too, all things considered. After a smidgen of negotiation, it was mine, and it arrived shortly thereafter, to my quiet delight.

So, was The Young Ones worth the effort involved in the search?

Yes, I think it was, with a small reservation – I think it is the weakest of Tutton’s three published novels, with an excessive amount of handy coincidence-based plot development leapfrogging us over some of the stickier bits. My curiosity about what Diana Tutton would do with a plot based on incest between siblings was satisfied, and the novel itself was acceptably engaging, after a rather stilted start a little too full of explanations regarding the set-up of the earnest drama to come. A memorable read, indeed, though perhaps more for its associations and its examination of the moral anguish of its narrator – the older sister of the two “young ones” of the forbidden relationship – than for its literary merit. This one will be getting a proper review when next I read it.

And oh yes – if you read the sensationalist cover of my paperback copy, you’ll see mention of one of the sibling-lovers being adopted. Let me just say that therein lies something of a crucial plot twist. An unusual novel for its era, and one that makes me disappointed that it was the last one that Tutton produced, as all three of her slightly uneven novels show her to be a writer of more than average ability and promise.

#6 ~ A Truly Awful Book

last canadian heine cover 001The Last Canadian by William C. Heine. 1974, Bantam.

How could I not mention this whopper of a so-bad-it’s-impossible-to-look-away Canadian non-classic? William C. Heine’s apocalyptic sci-fi thriller The Last Canadian was so over-the-top stupid that it was a whole lot of fun to rip into, and it led me to the discovery of another gem of potentially gawd-awful adventure fiction by its unlikely author, the long-time (seventeen years) editor-in-chief of Ontario’s respectable London Free Press.

I won’t say a whole lot about The Last Canadian here, as my linked review goes into probably much more detail than most of you need to know, but I’d like to mention that second book, which has been sitting on the shelf above my computer for the last six months or so, beckoning with the promise of yet another Really Bad Book. Will I succumb to the macho call of The Swordsman in 2016? And will it be as deeply bad as its predecessor? Anyone care to take a guess? (And here’s a long shot – has anyone read it? If so, please do tell.)

the swordsman william c heine (2)

#7 ~ A Serendipitous Combination

Sometimes the books align in perfect harmony, and this pleasing combination is a gentle example of a bookshelf lucky dip. Reading these back-to-back, I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried.

Through Charley's Door Emily Kimbrough 001 (2)Through Charley’s Door by Emily Kimbrough. 1951, Harper and Row.

Emily Kimbrough most famously teamed up with her old college friend Cornelia Otis Skinner on several collaborative memoirs – perhaps you’ve heard of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, and Forty Plus and Fancy Free, to name the two best known – but Through Charley’s Door is Emily’s very personal story of her first job, the one that launched her journalism and writing career.

Kirkus had this to say:

Among Miss Kimbrough’s reminiscences (all the way from Our Hearts Were Young and Gay to The Innocents from Indiana) this is the special section devoted to her years at Marshall Field’s, beginning in 1923. Realizing that Cornelia Otis Skinner’s career in theater was not for her, harried by a mother who wanted her daughter to be independent, Emily took a fateful plunge (in a remarkable creation) for an interview for a job in the Advertising Bureau of the big department store. That her father’s secretary got her the job, that she muffed and fumbled her early assignments all added up to a tremulous, tentative attempt to be friends with the Buyers, the salespeople and her own department. She added to her vocational vocabulary in humiliation and some humbleness; she learned about deadlines and getting Fashions of the Hour, a magazine for charge customers, into print; she snooped through management organization and merchandise, and geographical, social and class barriers; there were petty skirmishes with the time clock, salary, fads and fashions; — and there was the discovery of all the ramifications that make up a big, important and energetic store. She even made the grade with Marcella Hahner, of the Book Department, and was alerted as to the problems of poet and toilet, author and goatishness, along with having the worries of the fading of mah jong, moths in the fur display, monkeys with diapers and a magician seen with mirrors…

A charming and deliciously funny, occasionally poignant, personal memoir, and a detailed insider’s look at the workings of a major American department store in its heyday.

So when I picked up the next book, set in a British versus an American department store of the early 1940s, I was pleased to recognize the many parallels between the two, and I felt rather like I was watching the action of the fiction with a privileged behind-the-scenes perspective.

babbacombe's susan scarlett noel streatfeildBabbacombe’s by Susan Scarlett (Pseudonym of Noel Streatfeild). 1941, reprinted 2014 by Greyladies Press.

Babbacombe’s was completely marshmallow in flavour and texture, sweet and fluffy, and predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise, but sometimes that’s what one wants in a vintage comfort read, and I happily wallowed in the sweetness, second-guessing each development with comfortable accuracy.

Into the heart of the Carson family, close, hard-working and happy, comes their disruptive and selfish cousin Dulcie, with her decidedly cheap values. George and Janet try to make her welcome and treat her as one of their own; they find her work in Babbacombe’s department store where eldest daughter Beth is just beginning her first job in Gowns, but they struggle to make allowances for her outrageous behaviour. For it is Dulcie who takes pleasure in humiliating young Girda at her school concert; it is Dulcie who jealously tries to blight the blossoming romance between Beth and the new man in Cooked Meats, David Babbacombe himself.  But then it is not Dulcie, who doesn’t understand kindness and love, who lives happily ever after.

After reading Emily Kimbrough’s book, I certainly appreciated the verisimilitude and attention to detail regarding the workplace of heroine Beth and her blundering arch-nemesis Dulcie, who got her just desserts in the end.

Streatfeild is of course best known as a writer of popular mid-20th-century children’s novels – Ballet Shoes, anyone? – but she wrote a number of similarly formulaic adult romance novels under the pen name of “Susan Scarlett”, of which Babbacombe’s is said to be one of the better examples.

#8 ~ The Best Book of My Reading Year

passage to juneau jonathan rabanPassage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban. 1999, Knopf.

Travel book, personal memoir, cultural examination, history lesson – what a thought-provoking and brilliantly written book. Hands-down my best reading experience of 2015.

The clock is ticking, only a few more hours in the year, so I’ll borrow this excerpt from the book itself to give an example of the content and the quality of Raban’s writing.

I am afraid of the sea. I fear the brushfire crackle of the breaking wave as it topples into foam; the inward suck of the tidal whirlpool; the loom of a big ocean swell, sinister and dark, in windless calm; the rip, the eddy, the race; the sheer abyssal depth of the water, as one floats, like a trustful beetle planting its feet on the surface tension. Rationalism deserts me at sea. I’ve seen the scowl of enmity and contempt on the face of a wave that broke from the pack and swerved to strike at my boat. I have twice promised God that I would never again put out to sea, if only He would, just this once, let me reach harbor. I’m not a natural sailor but a timid, weedy, cerebral type, never more out of my element than when I’m at sea.

Yet for the last fifteen years, every spare day that I could tease from the calendar has been spent afloat, in a state of undiminished fascination with the sea, its movements and meanings. When other people count sheep, or reach for the Halcion bottle, I make imaginary voyages—where the sea is always lightly brushed by a wind of no more than fifteen knots, the visibility always good, and my boat never more than an hour from the nearest safe anchorage.

When I moved from London to Seattle in 1990, the sea was part of the reason. The Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska, with its outer fringes and entailments, is an extraordinarily complicated sea route, in more ways than one. In continuous use for several thousand years, it is now a buoyed and lighted marine freeway, a thousand miles long, and in places choked with traffic, as fishing boats, tows, barges, yachts, and cruise ships follow its serpentine course between Puget Sound and the Alaskan Panhandle. Parts of it are open ocean, parts no wider than a modest river. Some bits, like the Strait of Georgia, are small, shallow, muddy seas in their own right; others are sunken chasms, 1,200 feet deep. Where the tide is squeezed between rocks and islands, it boils and tumbles through these passes in a firehose stream. Water wasn’t meant to travel at sixteen knots: it turns into a liquid chaos of violent overfalls, breaking white; whirlpool-strings; grotesque mushroom-boils. It seethes and growls. On an island in midstream, you can feel the rock underfoot shuddering, as if at any minute the sea might dislodge it and bowl the island, end over end, down the chute.

Its aboriginal past—still tantalizingly close to hand—puts the Inside Passage on terms of close kinship with the ancient sea of the Phoenicians and the Greeks. A nineteenth-century Kwakiutl or Tsimshian Indian would find it easy to adapt to Homer’s sea, with its reigning winds and creaturely powers. He simply used other names for them. For homicidal tricksters like Zeus and Poseidon he had such counterparts as Raven, Killer Whale, Halibut. He could identify keenly with Ulysses in the Straits of Messina – though he might have found Charybdis a little tame after the canoe-guzzling whirlpools of his home waters.

I savoured this book, rationing my reading to stretch it out over days, into weeks – something I seldom do, being a greedy reader by nature – because the content was so gloriously dense, so rich and so worthy of measured consideration that I wanted it to last as long as possible, while at the same time wishing it to come to an end so I could see where Raban’s personal voyage was heading.

I’m an inlander by birth; my relationship with the sea is that of stranger facing a world unknown; this book has already enriched my relationship with the coastal waters I visit with trepidatious joy on every possible occasion, and I look forward to re-reading Passage to Juneau in the not too distant future.

Highly recommended.

And with that, I will bid you good night. See you all next year, in this space, as often as I can manage.

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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mamma diana tuttonMamma by Diana Tutton ~ 1955. This edition: Macmillan, 1955. Hardcover. 218 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Remember the buzz a year or so ago here amongst the book bloggers about Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters?

Many people enthused over this forgotten novel by an elusively obscure writer; a few didn’t feel the love. I fell somewhere in the middle of these reactions, for while the book intrigued me I didn’t outright adore it, but it did make me curious about what else this writer could do. I’ve been watching for copies of her only other two books, 1955’s Mamma and 1959’s The Young Ones, for over a year, and lo and behold, I found one recently through an online book dealer. Mamma is now mine.

And what a happy gamble this was – I enjoyed it greatly. I had expected something either brittle or dreary, and possibly a bit smutty, for I knew ahead of time that it concerned a middle-aged mother plotting a love affair with her daughter’s husband – but in reality it is a rather more delicate thing, and well handled, and full of sly humour, and ultimately more than a little heart-rending. It has an intriguing ending as well, which could go any which way, leaving our main character poised on the verge of the next bit of her life.

Where it lost its 1.5 points – for it came close to being a 10 on my personal rating scale – was in its occasional outspoken snobbishness, something which also disturbed me in Guard Your Daughters. And, as in that novel, I am having a hard time deciding whether it is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek joke by the author, or a real reflection of her feelings, putting her thoughts into her character’s heads. It was just frequent and mean-spirited enough to take the bloom off this otherwise highly diverting concoction.

41-year-old widow Joanna Malling has just bought a house in a country village, a rather decrepit, unattractive house, with potential masked by neglectful decay. With her furniture unloaded, Joanna sinks into a momentary depression, wondering what she has done, and wishing desperately that she had someone to lean on, someone like her beloved husband Jack, who had died suddenly in the first year of their happy marriage, leaving the 21-year-old Joanna utterly bereft and a new mother to boot.

That baby, Elizabeth – Libby – is now a young woman herself, and a lovely, competent, and accomplished one. And also newly engaged. For the very day Joanna moves into her new house, a letter arrives from Libby in London announcing her intent to marry Steven Pryde, a career army officer, fifteen years Libby’s elder.

Joanna is apprehensive, wondering if she and Steven will make friends, and her first meeting with him leaves her cold. Stoic and expressionless, Steven is brusque and almost rude, and Joanna is less than impressed. But as she helps the young couple prepare for their wedding, and as Steven starts to show glimpses of manly chivalry, glints of a sense of humour, and a hidden taste for serious poetry, Joanna starts to see what has caught her daughter’s attention. Steven is also self-centered and frequently brusque, and occasionally dismissive of Libby’s interests and whims, though it is obvious that he also deeply admires her and loves her dearly.

Through a series of unplanned-for occurrences, Steven and Libby end up moving into Joanna’s house several months after their marriage, and the inevitable adjustment period of a brand new marriage finds Joanna caught between her beloved daughter and her enigmatic son-in-law.

I found myself sympathizing most ardently with fictional Joanna. Here she is, trying to make the best of things, and striving to keep out of the newlyweds’ way and allow them privacy, while at the same time dealing with the unexpected upsurge of feelings of grief at her own long-ago loss in her own early days of her marriage. After the first stages of grief had passed, the young Joanna had expected that she would meet another man and would remarry; this has not happened. But Joanna is not soured or embittered by this; she has steadfastly gotten on with her life. For twenty years Joanna has competently coped with her widowhood and single parenthood, sublimating her very real emotional (and sexual) needs in caring for her daughter, housework, and serious gardening. It has been an occasionally fragile balance, though, and it is about to tip, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Steven in only six years younger than Joanna, and the two inevitably find common ground in gently humouring just-out-of-her-teens Libby’s occasionally juvenile enthusiasms, heedless pronouncements, and occasional mood swings. Their shared appreciation of literature and poetry leave Libby far behind; she is not by any stretch an intellectual.  Constant propinquity allows even stronger feelings to develop, and Joanna is horrified to realize that she is falling in love with her daughter’s husband, while he is watching her with something more than dutiful regard.

When Libby at last realizes that the building tension in the three-person household is not her imagination she blazingly accuses Joanna of attempted seduction,  which scenario is very close to the truth. In Joanna’s defense Steven has been allowing himself the same burning glances at his “Mamma”-in-law as she is sending his way, though neither had so far made an overt move to bring their growing mutual attraction to the next stage.

Libby is soothed down and the potentially explosive situation is delicately defused by unspoken agreement between Joanna and Steven. He and Libby move on into their own establishment, but the experience has made Joanna take a deeply introspective look at how closely she allowed herself court disaster. Still a relatively young woman, she must rethink her future and how best to proceed into the second half of her life.

An unusual novel with some mildly unconventional characters. Steven perhaps gets the least authorial attention of the three main protagonists; he remains something of an enigma throughout, despite our glimpses at his secret self. Confident and competent Libby is shown in some detail, though mostly through her mother’s affectionate eyes.

It is Joanna who stands out, and her depiction is sensitive and deeply moving. Having several too-young widowed friends myself, Joanna’s agonizing internal dilemma as to how to best cope with her own needs when all about her prefer to conveniently view her as “beyond all that” strikes true indeed. Joanna has absolutely no one to confide in, and when her own daughter blithely and rather cruelly speculates on the psychological twists of those who are deprived of a satisfactory sex life, without grasping the obvious fact that her own mother is one of those so deprived, we cringe for both of them, but mostly for proud and stoic Joanna.

The gardening references – very important, as Joanna spends a lot of time working away her many frustrations at the end of a trowel – are impeccably plausible; a decided point in favour as this is something I am alert to, and I’ve frequently caught authors out on their lack of detailed horticultural knowledge. Diana Tutton appears to have been a gardener, or at least a garden lover.

Several lower-class characters, namely the two daily helps employed by Joanna, and the unmarried mother-to-be employed as a cook-companion by Steven’s mother, are depicted in the broadest of caricatures and here the Snob Factor again raises its ugly head, leading me to speculate that the dismissive and critical attitude which the upper-class – or, to be more accurate, upper-middle-class – characters show reflects the author’s personal views and is not merely a fictional device. Several scenes concerning these characters degenerate into broad farce; a jarring note in an otherwise well-constructed tale.

That last caveat aside, I’ll repeat that I liked this novel a lot, and am now very keen indeed to get my hands on the third of Diana Tutton’s elusive novels, The Young Ones. Apparently it concerns a woman’s dealing with the incest of her brother and sister. A decidedly eyebrow-raising scenario, but if Mamma is anything to go by, perhaps intriguingly plotted. I’m up for the gamble, but so far have not come across a copy for sale at any price anywhere, despite diligent online searching.

I’ve also been inspired to re-read Guard Your Daughters, and though the annoying bits still make me grit my teeth a bit, I’m enjoying it much more this time round, and may at some point need to revise my review to reflect the second-time-round reading experience.

Back to Mamma, has anyone else read this, and, if so, what did you think? I do believe Simon tackled it at one point, but didn’t write up a review. Any comments most welcome. 🙂

And has anyone come across The Young Ones? And, if so, what’s the word? Worth the hunt?

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guard your daughters diana tutton 001Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton ~ 1953. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1954. Hardcover. 246 pages.

My rating: This is one of the more difficult ratings I’ve had to mull over in the eight months since I’ve started this blog. I’m going to say, after much consideration, 6/10.

That rating may change if I can get my hands on some of the author’s other works; I am curious to see her next developments as a writer.

I thought this was an ambitious and strongly written first novel. There were a few rough patches here and there, and I bogged down a bit about a third of the way through, but the narrative then picked up speed, and I had no trouble staying engaged until the bitter end.

The following review is divided into two sections, the first for those who haven’t yet read the book, and the second for those who have; I have some comments to add to the recent online discussion regarding Guard Your Daughters and, of course, its inevitable comparison to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.

*****

I’m very fond of my new friends, but I do get angry when they tell me how dull my life must have been before I came to London. We were queer, I suppose, and restricted, and we used to fret and grumble, but the one thing our sort of family doesn’t suffer from is boredom.

So speaks this novel’s narrator, Miss Morgan Harvey, looking back on the circumstances of her nineteenth year, the year when everything changed, and when she and her sisters finally emerged from their mother-woven cocoons and ventured out into the larger world.

“Queer” and “restricted” are apt descriptions of the Harvey ménage. Father is an immensely successful mystery story writer, distantly busy in his study churning out his manuscripts and emerging occasionally to pay the bills and blink short-sightedly at his daughters. Mother is an oddly attractive though emotionally needy and mentally fragile creature whom the other six treat with extreme care tinged with apprehension – “What if something should set her off?” they all whisper to each other – every word and action weighed with care to ensure the avoidance of a quivering, wailing breakdown. Friends are forbidden the house, and indeed the girls do not appear to even have friends; they were not allowed to attend school, and their last governess left four years ago. There is no telephone –  “it worried mother” – and no outings but for the necessary trips to the village shops and to the next door farm for illicit black market acquisitions of butter, cream and eggs (the story is set in post-World War II England, when food rationing was still in effect). And there are, most emphatically, no opportunities to meet young men.

The oldest sister, twenty-two-year-old Pandora, has unexpectedly escaped and been recently married. Now living in London, she’d caught the eye of a visiting young man, grasped her rare opportunity, and speedily carried out a courtship whilst officially occupied teaching Sunday School. To everyone’s surprise, the marriage was accepted relatively quietly by Mrs. Harvey, but the rest of the sisters are now even more aware of their restrictions, and are beginning to cast their glances speculatively around for their own chances to blossom forth.

Thisbe, second eldest, is twenty-ish, Morgan is nineteen, Cressida eighteen, and Teresa fifteen, but they all have the dual personality of the overly sheltered but mentally bright child, a combination of beyond-their-years intellectual sophistication and total social naïvety. Snobbishly proud of their status as daughters of a best-selling author, their good looks, their various “arts”, and above all their determined and deliberate “eccentricity”, they play these points up for all they’re worth when they do have their rare social interactions.

As the narrative starts, Morgan has just captured (apt term!) a young man whose car has broken down at the Harvey gate, and his enforced stay to tea allows us to sum up each sister’s particular persona.

Pandora is absent, though she arrives that evening for a visit and turns out to be wonderfully “normal”; bloomingly happy in her marriage and eager for her sisters to share in her good fortune. Thisbe is proud of her own witty tongue, and delights in shocking people with her cutting comments; she privately pursues the muse of poetry, shutting herself up to write with little care of the boring logistics of helping with household chores. Morgan is musical; she has occasional piano lessons and works away on her own, though not strenuously enough to gain the skill needed for her talked-of concert pianist’s career. Cressida is the handy sister, the practical one; yearning after normalcy and highly aware of her family’s general oddness, she cooks and cleans and mends and tries to keep her careless sisters as decent as she possibly can, to their frequent mild scorn. Teresa is a very young fifteen, and thrilled to have reached the age when the visits of the country education inspector need no longer be feared. She has surrounded herself with books and lives in an intellectually precocious world of her own, while clinging to her mother and indulged by her older sisters; a true baby of the family, talked of and treated as if she were five or six versus on the cusp of young womanhood.

The eventual implosion of the Harveys’ private little world and the true nature of their mother’s “ailment” forms the climax to which this hectic story builds. And though billed as a “social comedy”, there is a much darker undercurrent to the facetious surface story; I was uncomfortable as often as I was amused.

*****

This next bit is addressed to those who’ve read the book – alert to others –  there may be spoilers.

I did enjoy the actual reading of this book; I was drawn into the story and I was decidedly curious as to what was going to happen next; my expectations changed drastically as the narrative moved on, and I began to pick up on darker elements of what initially seemed like merely an amusing “light” novel.

Paradoxically I did not like or admire most of the characters in any sort of personal way, and I found myself getting more and  more uncomfortable as the comically brittle farce turned into something much darker. I think this was a deliberate ploy by the author; in which case she deserves high marks – this novel, if viewed as a dawning-of-an-awful-light portrait of a severely dysfunctional family, is, in my opinion, decidedly a success.

If, on the other hand, I’m reading the author’s intentions completely wrong, and this was indeed meant to be an amusing romp, it fails utterly and dismally. This is not a feel-good book. I felt that the frenetic posturings of the narrator serve initially to hide, and later to sharply accentuate, the misery of her life and the psychological damage to all five of the siblings and their father by the emotional malfunctioning of the family’s mother. In turn, the mother has been deeply emotionally injured in her own earlier life; the five sisters of Guard Your Daughters are classic cases of victims of the victim; the “spiral of abuse” – that handy modern catch-phrase – applies most appropriately here. That the abuse is prompted by love – albeit love gone terribly wrong – in no way lessens its effects on the many victims, though it may excuse the perpetrators of deliberate viciousness and leave them guilty only of the lesser crime of thoughtlessness.

Though some reviewers (see links at the bottom of this post) have felt that this novel is strongly derivative of other stories, I felt that though it may have shared a few vague similarities of plotting with other “classics” of similar genre (and yes, I’m referring here to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle), by and large I felt that it was an original work by a creative mind, not a copycat work by any stretch. There are only so many situations out there; the repetitive themes of young people (in this case young women) yearning after both romantic love and “suitable” mates, and, indeed, the struggle to break free of parental influence and to escape from childhood into the wider world of true maturity, are universal and repeated time after time after time, because writers and readers so strongly identify with them, whatever the era.

The frequent humourous situations were well portrayed, and they did make me smile; but my final impression of Guard Your Daughters is that this was not a happy book; the humour is not the point here, it merely fulfills the part of the curtain that refuses to stay drawn over the utter awfulness of the understory.

The Harvey sisters did not gain my instant affection as did Castle‘s Mortmains; Morgan as narrator was not nearly as charming and individualistic as Cassandra; I never could shake the feeling that I was being overtly manipulated into accepting Morgan’s point of view, while Cassandra’s narrative became an effortlessly absorbed voice in my head for the entire time of the reading of the novel.

While both sets of fictional sisters are snobbish, the Mortmains recognize this and admit it as a failing, while the Harveys revel in their snobbishness and deliberately mock anyone of lower social status who draws their attention, from their departed governess to their lone domestic to the farmer’s wife who sells them their black market eggs to the bookstore owner who promotes their father’s bestsellers.

This continual self-regard and deep snobbishness was what prevented me from embracing the Harvey sisters as truly “lovable” characters. All five had some good points, some complexity of character, but I never felt like we were equals. In their world, I fear very much I would be one of the mocked commoners, with boringly bourgeois views and the wrong ancestors and accent.

The continual selfishness of all of the Guard Your Daughters protagonists is the most difficult trait standing in the way of my sympathy for them; while they occasionally acted in a disinterested way towards the members of their inner circle, their inward-facing focus added to their greater problems; at some point in the story I felt like shaking each and every one of them and hissing “reality check, you fool!” in their silly faces. Morgan most of all!

I’m glad I read Guard Your Daughters, and I’m very curious to read more by this writer, though this novel will definitely not join the “comfort reads” in my personal stacks. I think it might best be placed with the ones on my “love-hate” shelf, alongside Muriel Spark, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and their ilk, to be taken in small doses when the need for an emotional shake-up of sorts is desired; literary bitters to add piquancy to a milder, more easily digestible, dare I say, generally more enjoyable everyday reading diet.

*****

I’m not completely happy with my review above; it seems that my after-midnight thoughts have not all quite made it to the page, but I’ll leave it there for now – a new midnight is fast approaching! The following reviews are the ones that started me on this very interesting examination of Guard Your Daughters. If you haven’t already, please visit these for a wider discussion of this slightly controversial read.

Stuck in a Book – thought it was grand!

Jenny’s Books – generally enthusiastic with some reservations.

The Captive Reader – decided it wasn’t her thing.

Book Snob – loved it.

*****

And here, by way of a little bonus, are two teaser reviews for Diana Tutton’s second and much harder to locate novel, Mamma, published in 1955.

From Kirkus, April 1955:

A pleasant autumnal blooming for Joanna Malling has its problems which are fortuitously solved. For Joanna moves to a new house, after a widowhood of twenty years, only to find that she must ready it for her daughter’s (Elizabeth aged 20) wedding to Stephen Pryde, 35 and a Major expecting to be stationed abroad. Joanna, at 41, finds him stolid and slightly inimical. But when his orders do not come through and she must do the necessary and provide a home for them when he is assigned to her locality, she begins to find many things in common with Stephen which Elizabeth can never achieve. Stephen, too, is not unaware. The impasse is resolved when Stephen’s mother dies and there is a home of their own for Elizabeth, now pregnant, and Stephen, so Joanna, rid of her temptation, faces an undisturbed future. A British blend of feminine frailty and domesticity provides an amiable amble.

And from Jet, May 1955:

Attractive Joanna Malling, who at 41 had been a widow for 20 years, is appalled (and pleased) when she finds herself falling in love with the husband of her 20-year-old daughter Libby.

This is the core of Mamma, a novel by Diana Tutton (Macmillan, $3.50). It is a lean English novel that attempts to be “modern” in facing a basically tragic problem that Miss Tutton strains to solve as a “social comedy”.

Before she even met him, Joanna was prepared to dislike Steven Pryde, an English army major, primarily because Libby’s affection for her would be deflected. But when Steven and Libby visited Joanna at her little cottage outside of London, Joanna found her 35-year-old future son-in-law more than attractive. After the marriage, pneumonia felled Steven and Joanna had Libby bring him to her home to recover.

Proximity drew Joanna and Steven together but he never quite gave in to his impulse to take her into his arms. Joanna, on the other hand, plotted to culminate an affair, her conscience all the time reminding her that Steven was her own flesh and blood’s husband. Aching for one last fling, after so many barren years, Joanna almost gives in to indiscretion.

With a woman’s infallible intuition in these matters, Libby is not unaware of what is transpiring, but she makes no over moves, except to conveniently become pregnant before she can tell Joanna that she strongly suspects her of being in love with Steven and trying to steal him.

In what is described as a “social comedy”, Miss Tutton solves this three-pronged problem with cool English efficiency, but the reader is led to expect more than Mamma offers.

Well, are you as curious as I am to investigate this one? Methinks Diana Tutton may have had some “mother issues” of her own which she was working out on the page!

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