Archive for the ‘Elizabeth Cambridge’ Category

Spring Always Comes by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1938. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1938. Hardcover. 312 pages.

Life, Hilda thought, had played her a queer trick in embedding her, like a fly in amber, in a family in which she didn’t belong. Yet they were her children, only in the simple physical sense. Stretching out in bed with her hands behind her head, she thought that the fact was one likely to trouble nobody but herself. Her lively, inter-dependent family had no time to spare for the history of disappointment and reaccommodation that lay in their parents’ past.

Hilda meets her husband Charles, a young and successful writer-poet, in the halcyon days before the Great War changed everything. After eagerly going off to fight, Charles has returned a changed man, not so much bitter as bemused and disappointed, and decidedly antiwar. He stops writing, and informs Hilda that he is going to go into the Church.

This means a definite drop in the family standard of living; with three children and another soon to come, Hilda’s hands are full of the practicalities of making do on a junior cleric’s slender salary; she assumes things will stabilize and Charles get over his “momentary enthusiasm” for societal reform through religion and once again step into the spotlight of literary regard in which he had once basked. She is wrong.

Charles is an idealist; he goes his own way ever and always, and Hilda follows, vaguely resentful, never losing her love for her husband but feeling at heart betrayed by it all turning out so differently than she had ever expected.

The four children of the marriage are strong individuals, all with compelling motivations and desires. Cheerfully pragmatic James is at Oxford, with a promising literary future. Hyper-organized Margaret is deeply immersed in social work, carrying on her father’s compelling dedication to social reform. Intelligent and analytical Cecily is just finished school and is poised on the brink of deciding her career. Eighteen-year-old Jasmine, the youngest of the quartet, is reluctantly staying home until her brother is finished his education – there is only enough money to put towards one higher education at a time. She yearns to go out and do something, anything! to gain experience in the world to further her mostly secret ambition to be a writer.

The family, though far from wealthy, are getting by reasonably well, based as they are in a rural parsonage, with Charles being held in high regard by his parishioners and his local social circle, which includes a number of people who remember and honor him for his long-ago literary success and his still-brilliant intellect.

Then Charles dies, quite suddenly, from a neglected heart condition, which he has chosen not to divulge to his wife or children, and the family’s world unravels.

No income, no more country home – the parsonage is needed for the next clergyman – and Hilda finds herself sharing a city apartment with Margaret and Jasmine, while James puts aside literary ambitions to go into a timber company’s office as a clerk, and Cecily takes on a post as a governess to tide herself over until she can start a job as a junior mistress at her old school.

What happens to these five, their small adventures, their inner dilemmas, rewards and disappointments as they go about reinventing their lives after the death of Charles, core of the family in ways unsuspected until his loss, is the substance of this novel.

And a good and substantial substance it is, as Elizabeth Cambridge draws us into each life in turn, depicting each personality and weaving a tapestry of individualism and inter-family relationship which leaves the reader deeply involved with each and every one of the characters.

Not an important or a particularly dramatic novel, but a very relatable and accessibly philosophical one, and, as always with Cambridge, beautifully written.

My rating: 10/10.

Elizabeth Cambridge wrote only seven published novels in her short career, with her greatest success being her 1934 debut novel, the autobiographical Hostages to Fortune. Her themes are generally domestic, she writes middle-aged women with particular insight, though all of her characterizations ring true.

Elizabeth Cambridge died of tuberculosis in 1949, at the much too young age of 56. When reading her novels, one can’t help but regret that there are so few, and wonder what she would have accomplished had she lived longer.

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The Two Doctors by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1936. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1936. Hardcover. 284 pages.

The two doctors referenced in the title of this most engaging novel are men, but I found myself most drawn to the women of the tale: the younger doctor’s mother and the older doctor’s wife, as well as several others. By their wise actions certain disasters are averted, for this is at heart a deeply moral tale, greatly about doing good so good will follow.

That sounds almost dire, doesn’t it? Possibly preachy and prim.

On the contrary – this book is a quiet delight.

From the dust jacket:

The author of Hostages to Fortune certainly has a shrewd but kindly eye for the ways of professional people. To portray them, which she does most enjoyably, she has drawn in her latest novel a very living picture of an English village and the coming of a young doctor. How John Anselm was received by the country people of Bradnell, and by the older practitioner Dr. Murchie; how life runs on in a swift but restful stream of small activities and often deep experiences; how John fared at the hands of the attractive Carol Bourne – all make up a setting and a pattern of themes which suit the author’s agreeable vision and manner to perfection.

This is perhaps the most cheerful of the five Elizabeth Cambridge novels I’ve read to date, the one most conventional in its format and plot, but there is a whole lot of substance here as well, and a few surprises. One can certainly believe that the author has a personal experience of the challenges of a rural doctor’s life, as indeed she did, being the daughter of a doctor and the wife of one as well.

The novel’s dedication reads “For my Father”, and, as it is a warm and realistic appreciation of the physician’s role in the world, it would appear to be something of a labour of love. Though it is not in any way oversweet. Elizabeth Cambridge had a sharp and all-seeing eye, and her characters reflect the human vices as well as the virtues.

John Anselm, recently qualified as a medical GP, purchases a practice in the small community of Bradnell, replacing the previous doctor, a rather feckless young Irishman, over-casual and over-fond of the bottle, as it were, who had been involved in a bitterly competitive feud with the town’s older, well-established doctor, sober Scotsman Dr. Murchie.

Dr. Anselm has no idea of the bad blood between his predecessor and Dr. Murchie, so he walks all unawares right in to a situation in which he is viewed by the man who should be his cooperative compatriot (there are more than enough patients in the area for two doctors) with suspicion verging on hostility.

Luckily the bachelor Dr. Anselm is accompanied to Bradnell by his widowed mother, Hilary. She is a quiet and thoughtful woman, still subdued by the loss of her beloved husband many years before. Mrs. Anselm makes the acquaintance of Mrs. Murchie, and the two women form a friendship which ultimately transcends the old feud.

The people all around watch and comment at will, their Greek chorus of opinion forming the background chatter of what turns into an intensely personal situation of two good men fighting against their baser impulses, for Dr. Anselm turns his cheek one time too many to Dr. Murchie’s snubs, and finally loses his own sweet temper.

Dr. Anselm also finds himself involved in a complicated romantic situation with the likeable daughter of the local squire; complicated not so much emotionally as practically; there are some genuine reasons why Carol should avoid matrimony and motherhood.

I found this a deeply engaging novel, peopled with characters whom it was easy to believe in and, for the most part, to like and to enjoy, human flaws and all.

My rating: 10/10.

Re-publishers, I hope you will consider the Elizabeth Cambridge novels. They are small masterpieces of excellent writing and telling vignettes of their time, very much up to the standard of the stellar Hostages to Fortune which is currently the only readily attainable novel of Cambridge’s.

Persephone? Dean Street Press?

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Illustration of the dust jacket of an edition of The Sycamore Tree listed for sale online, not my personal copy, which is jacketless, faded and rather tattered.

The Sycamore Tree by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1934. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1934. Hardcover. 328 pages.

With this, her second novel, published in 1934, a year after the release of the highly esteemed Hostages to Fortune, Elizabeth Cambridge establishes her place in mid-century literature not so much as a great novelist but as a genuinely good one.

The tale follows, in an economically yet meticulously depicted linear trajectory, the life of Howell Combes, from his childhood as youngest sibling of three in an upper-middle-class naval officer’s family, through his school years and his apprenticeship as an engineer, the dark years of the Great War, an ultimately disastrous marriage to a foster-sister, and the attainment at last of a secret desire, the inheritance of his grandfather’s country estate.

Joanna Cannan in The Bookman, April 1934, reviewed The Sycamore Tree with more-than-restrained enthusiasm; her review identifies both the strengths and weaknesses of this novel.

In her second novel Miss Elizabeth Cambridge has set herself a difficult, interesting task, the task of writing the story of an “average” man. “The Sycamore Tree” is a good book, but I found it, as I found “Hostages to Fortune”, vaguely depressing. Is this all there is to life? can childhood, youth and early manhood pass so soberly? does love come and go with so little agony, so mild a joy? It is all very well to paint, and to paint perfectly, the domestic scene: Howell Combe was a dull, worthy fellow, one of those unfortunate beings whose wants never exceed their means, but he did not miss the deepest experiences that life can offer us, and in those experiences surely there is blood and tears, beauty and joy. This book in short should have been a moving one, but it is not. Nothing is here to “knock the breast”. It is an excellent book, but one reads it without emotion, and it is wrong, I feel, that the record of an “average” life should leave on so utterly unmoved.

Damning with faint praise, indeed!

I agree with Miss Cannan in her assessment of the novel’s strengths, but I differ in that I did find the subfusc saga of Howell moving; his agonies and joys were real enough to this reader. Though I did not find it “knocked the breast”, my own response was certainly much more subdued than dramatic, but it was all so very relatable, so mostly true-to-life in its essence.

Edited on May 28 to add this comment on The Sycamore Tree from Vera Brittain, quoted on the back of the dust jacket of The Two Doctors, Cambridge’s 1936 novel, which I’m currently writing about:

This tale of a naval officer’s son, the youngest in an ordinary middle-class family living at Plymouth before the War, is a perfect thing of its limited kind. It leaves behind it the feeling that life is profound, significant, and infinitely worth while.

Yes, indeed.

A rather good book by a better-than-average writer. Recommended, if you can find it – most Elizabeth Cambridge novels are elusively rare.

My rating: 9/10.

My personal copy has an intriguing extra, a faintly pencilled two-stanza poem written on a blank back page. An original attempt by an earlier owner? I puzzled out most of it, but some of the words are difficult to decipher. I include it for anyone who’d like to work it out themself. I don’t think it is a quotation; it has the amateur’s ring to it.

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susan and joanna elizabeth cambridge 1935 001Susan and Joanna by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1935. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1935. Hardcover. 348 pages.

My rating: 8/10 on a re-read.

When I read Susan and Joanna first time round earlier this year I remember feeling a bit put out by the events of the ending (I thought that the author pulled her punches somewhat and drew back from where she could have gone with it), but upon the re-read, already knowing how the climactic final scene actually ends, I was able to approach the story with a slower reading pace and a more balanced view.

I liked it rather better the second time round; Elizabeth Cambridge packs a lot into her novels; perhaps too much to really absorb in that first eager reading, when one is mostly concerned with finding out what will happen next and reads quickly, passing over the finer points without proper appreciation.

I know I have at least one reader who is keen to peruse a detailed account of this novel; I am wondering how much of the plot I should divulge, because chances of people actually finding this book to read themselves are slim. (Coming back to add – it’s a non-issue now – I’ve found an online version! Link down below, at the end of the post.)

This is a very rare novel by this writer. Her stellar Hostages to Fortune which has been reprinted often enough to remain in broad circulation is much better known and much easier to find. Susan and Joanna is not as compelling a read as HTF, but it is very good in its own way; I think it is a great shame that it is so scarce. Such is too often the way with these older writers; one of their books receives the full reprint and promotion treatment (and usually because it is a very worthwhile representative of the author’s output) while the rest of the titles languish in out-of-print oblivion.

Susan and Joanna is a deeply rural book; a good half of it takes place on a farm, the rest in a small village and in the surrounding countryside. Though the two main locations featured – the farm of Node and the village of Bract – are purely fictional, the setting is of a particular region of England, among the Midland Downs. Though Cambridge does not dwell in an undue degree upon descriptions of the scenery, she manages to portray the physical beauty of the landscape with great sympathy and clarity. One feels that this novel is a tribute to an area she knew very well, and loved very deeply.

Motherless Susan has been raised in the proper fashion – that is, off to boarding school from an early age – by her introvert father, a lawyer who gets through life by arranging things to function with the least possible disturbance to himself. Now Susan is twenty and at last back at home “for good”, but neither she nor her father have yet found their rhythm. They walk delicately around each other, being careful not to raise any subjects which might lead to an excess of emotion or potential household turmoil.

Susan has never been trained for – or indeed shown any inclination for –  an actual job or “career.” She is poised for the next step in her life, but hesitates on the brink. Marriage is an obvious and socially acceptable choice, and Susan has indeed considered marriage to the most suitable local candidate, Garry, nephew of the owner of the large farm Node, Miss Laura Coppen, the village’s aristocratic grande dame. Susan has been friendly with Garry since childhood and their relationship is now ripening into something deeper. Each meeting of the two is imbued with speculation, by Susan and Garry themselves, and by the deeply interested onlookers of this rural microcosm they all reside in.

But there is something which holds her back. Garry is just too easy-going and avoiding-of-trouble; he tends to slip through life allowing others to make his decisions for him. Even his growing conviction that Susan would make a suitable mistress at Node owes something to his grandmother’s approval of Susan’s impeccable manners, good breeding, and undoubted personal charm. Susan senses that Garry’s admiration and easygoing courtship of her is more superficial than deep; Garry doesn’t give it all that much thought himself, until forced to by Susan’s ultimate rejection of his advances.

Bruised by Susan’s unexpected refusal, Garry turns to the third member of their childhood-friends triumvirate, vicarage daughter Joanna. Joanna is emphatically Susan’s opposite in every essential way. Apple of her mother’s eye, Joanna has been encouraged to strive after success from babyhood, and her already self-assured nature combined with hard-won scholastic success makes her thoroughly impatient with wishy-washy Susan. “Naturally bossy” well describes Joanna, and Susan puts up with her patronization with good grace, though she is well aware of how much contempt her erstwhile friend actually holds her in.

Upon Garry’s proposal, something of a rebound impulse triggered by hurt pride, Joanna sets aside her career ambitions and agrees to take on Garry and Node instead, a move inspired not just by affection for Garry, but a sense of one-upmanship towards Susan. Joanna can’t help but feel that she has scored a major point in an unspoken rivalry that has persisted since the two were young.

Susan meanwhile meets and is courted by a rising young pathologist; she marries him and has a child. Upon her husband’s departure on a temporary posting in Canada, Susan moves back to Bract with her baby, and she and Joanna start to rebuild the structure of their never very strong but now sadly deteriorated friendship into something much more mature and mutually rewarding.

Joanna’s marriage to Garry and her new position in the rural hierarchy has led to a certain amount of emotional turmoil and occasional strife as the general local consensus is that the vicarage daughter has gotten rather above herself, putting herself in the shoes of the now-dead Miss Laura. Meanwhile Susan is viewed with benevolent patronage. No one has seen her husband; the unspoken assumption among the majority of the villagers is that she has been abandoned by this mythical man, and has sought unwed-mother refuge in her childhood home.

We follow Susan and Joanna through the first years of their very different marriages fraught with very different challenges. The two women’s lives have diverged greatly but are now running parallel, with life-altering consequences to both of them, and those in their closest circles.

What a richly written novel this rather somber story makes. Elizabeth Cambridge sketches her characters at first with the utmost artistic economy, adding layers of detail as the story progresses, until we fully understand what makes each person tick.

Cambridge’s depiction of the rural atmosphere is also utterly believable, and her observations regarding the animals so pervasive and important in such a setting equal her insights into the minds and motivations of the human inhabitants.

A criticism I read on a recent Persephone forum regarding Elizabeth Cambridge’s style was that nothing much happens in her books; they are merely a series of personal observations and not very dramatic domestic events. Quite true, when one steps back and looks at the format of the novels with an analytical eye. But the events are such that we can completely relate to them from our own mostly not very dramatic lives.

Personal relationships, love affairs, marriage, the birth of children, death, social structures and constantly changing and evolving outside events affecting private lives; these are all viable topics for discussion, and their fictional treatment when well handled – as they are in the case of this writer – can lead one into greater insights of one’s own emotional life and personal responses to the shared everyday human events which never truly change, no matter what the calendar year reads.

What a good writer she was; what a dreadful shame it is that five of her six novels are so very rare.

But look at what I have found!

Here is a scanned complete version of  Susan and Joanna, from Hathi Trust. It may be read online, or downloaded as page by page pdf files, if one is so inclined to do so. (And has hours of time to dedicate to the project!)

Reading from a screen is never quite as conducive to true enjoyment as sitting back with the actual book in one’s hands, but it is certainly better than no access to the material at all; I hope that this link brings pleasure to those others of you who are on a quest for more of Elizabeth Cambridge’s fine yet almost forgotten novels of the 1930s.

First three pages below, by way of being a teaser if you are considering whether you’d like to bother following up on this one.

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This is a most enjoyable post to write, and, as last year, it was quite easy to chose the books on it. They definitely stood out from the crowd. I have only included books which were new to me this year; if I’d included old favourites this list would be a whole lot longer.

Here we go, then. Leaves and Pages’ Top Ten Reads Discovered in 2013.

*****

BEST NEW-TO-ME READS 2013

Ranked more or less in order of “favouritism”, countdown-style, 10 to 1, though the order was just a bit hard to decide.

Except the Number One book. That one was easy as pie!

*****

the innocent traveller ethel wilson10.

The Innocent Traveller

by Ethel Wilson ~ 1947

Every once in a while a book comes along which, unexpectedly, completely delights me. The Innocent Traveller is one such novel.

There’s not much in the way of drama in this joyfully written book, but it struck a chord of shared experience and of common humanity in its delicious narrative of the irrepressible Topaz. Always witty and occasionally poignant, the tale spans a full century of one woman’s life, 1840s to 1940s , and simultaneously gives a lightly drawn but absolutely fascinating portrait of the times she moved through: the fabulous social and scientific changes of the turning of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, through two world wars and the stunning growth of the colonial city of Vancouver. Through change after change after change, Topaz remains the same, endlessly curious, endlessly outspoken, endlessly optimistic and reaching for the next adventure.

Ethel Wilson writes this semi-biographical tale with a very personal touch – she appears just a little over half way in in the person of recently orphaned eight-year-old Rose who joins the household which includes the middle-aged Topaz. Lovingly written, with warm humour and an unsentimentally analytical eye, this is a delicious ode to an individual and a family, and an absolute joy to read.

turtle diary russell hoban 0019.

Turtle Diary 

by Russell Hoban ~ 1975

The only thing better than looking forward to a read with a cozy preconception as to what the story will bring, and being satisfied with your expectation, is to be blanket-tossed up in the air by a book that tightens up and bounces you unexpectedly into a very different direction, leaving you to freewheel for a while, scrambling for a sense of where you’re going, then catching you and returning you, more or less gently, to solid ground. Turtle Diary is that second kind of book.

The plot is easily condensed. Two middle-aged and currently unattached Londoners, William G. and Neaera H., both struggling with a stagnant state of being, visit the Zoo and are, separately, attracted to the sea turtle tank and the stoic inhabitants within. Musing on the cosmic injustice of these far-roaming creatures being confined to a tiny volume of water, William and Neaera each consider the possibility of somehow freeing the turtles back into the sea. As each of them in turn carry on their separate narrations, we see that their thoughts are uncannily similar, both regarding the turtles and other aspects of their solitary existences, and their relationships (or lack thereof) to those around them. Inevitably William and Neaera meet, speak, share their turtle-liberation impulses, and formulate a practical plan to carry it out, helped by the like-minded zookeeper. Can you guess where we’re going from here? Two lonely people, sharing a joint goal, yearning desperately for love…?

Well, abundant blessings to Russell Hoban. He faces up to and jumps the clichés beautifully, and I salute him for it.

extra virgin annie hawes8.

Extra Virgin

by Annie Hawes ~ 2001

I’ve read a whole lot of memoirs this past year, and thoroughly enjoyed all of them, but this one was just a little bit extra-special. It was a quietly intense pleasure from Prologue to reluctantly-turned last page.

Back in the early 1980s, a young Englishwoman, recently turned down as a “poor risk” in her attempt to receive bank financing to buy her own home in England, is at loose ends and feeling rather sour about life in general. Her sister convinces her to come along on a working trip to Italy, grafting roses for a small commercial operation in the Ligurian hills, in the region of the “Italian Riviera”. The two eventually purchase a bargain property in the area, 2000 pounds for a stone house in an olive grove. Of course, it needs a bit of work…

But this is a rather different tale from the usual “we bought a place in a foreign paradise and hired quaint locals to fix it up” lifestyle porn. Written several decades after the purchase, the tone is not at all cutesy and patronizing. The sisters go to and from England and Italy regularly for many years – England for the “real” jobs which earn the funds to return to Italy for the love of the place, and, increasingly, the people.

And, as a bonus, the author can certainly write about food. Amazing descriptions of the wild-crafted, gardening and culinary abundance of Liguria. Well done, Annie Hawes.

monkey beach eden robinson7.

Monkey Beach 

by Eden Robinson ~ 2000

Fabulous writer, this Eden Robinson. Such a strong book, and completely mesmerizing.

Lisamarie Hill is a young woman of mixed Haisla, Heiltsuk, and European heritage, from the Haisla village of Kitamaat, on an island in the Haida Gwaii group off the north coast of British Columbia. Lisamarie’s younger brother Jimmy has been reported as lost at sea, and as she and her family wait for news of the search mission, Lisamarie thinks back to her childhood, and the life she shared with Jimmy growing up in an intricately complex world of tradition and modernity and a mix of cultural influences.

The author flouts our expectations by both detailing some of the bleakness of First Nations life as her protagonist experienced it, and the more frequent deep joy of family and community. The humour is constant throughout, accompanying the most horrible of scenarios, a happily ironic paradox which inexplicably works.

This book almost made my Most Unexpected list, but it was so good that it really belongs over here.

midnight on the desert j b priestley 0016.

Midnight on the Desert 

by J.B. Priestley ~ 1937

Midnight on the Desert is subtitled Chapters of Autobiography, and there is indeed a fair bit of journalizing going on in here. Written while the author was staying in Arizona, much of the content has an American connection; Priestley was very much in love with the physical space he found himself in here; the desert and the natural features such as the Grand Canyon are described with deep feeling.

I had expected this to be a travel book of sorts, and Midnight on the Desert could certainly fall under that classification, but it is also so very much more. It is an articulate examination of what it means to be a writer and an artist; a critique of the state of the world in politics, religion, philosophy, architecture and the performing arts; an ode to nature; a manifesto for seeking the good in the world and overcoming adversity and “doing one’s part”; a record of observation by a keen and analytical observer.

Near the end, Priestley really lets himself go as he mulls over the time theories of J.W. Dunne and P.D. Ouspensky, which are all about time as a fluid entity, which can be compressed, reversed, and experienced as a simultaneous multiple strand. (Novelist Rumer Godden plays with some of these ideas as well, especially in her book Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time. I was fascinated to realize that both Godden and Priestley were playing along the same metaphysical byways, though many of their musings go completely over my head.)

What a fascinating book; what a full book. One to read right through without stopping; one to tackle in small bits, to digest and mull over and agree with and occasionally refute. Not all that much autobiography, despite the tag on the title, but many insights into what went on in the mind of this deeply creative and opinionated man.

The Joyous Season5.

The Joyous Season 

by Patrick Dennis ~ 1964

Ten years after penning his highly successful social satire starring the exuberant Mame and her sedate nephew Patrick, author Edward Tanner – writing under the pseudonym Patrick Dennis – came up with this little  comedic gem. I wasn’t sure what to expect, having only ever previously experienced Auntie Mame, but The Joyous Season was absolutely marvelous, and much better than I had anticipated. Such a treat!

As the story opens, 10-year-old Kerry, 6-year-old Missy, and their nanny Lulu are reluctantly heading out the door from their posh New York apartment  to Gran’s place in East Haddock. Gran is Mom’s mother, and oh boy, is she ever a snooty piece of work! And she’s more or less the reason for the whole darned dilemma Kerry and Missy are in. To condense greatly, on Christmas morning there was a bit of a situation with Mom and Daddy which saw several kinds of shots fired, much broken glass, some physical violence and some exceedingly blunt words spoken. As a result, Kerr and Missy are poised to become Children of Divorce, much to the delight of meddling Gran. Everyone (except Gran, who openly gloats about the come-uppance of her despised soon-to-be-ex son-in-law) has decided to be Very Civilized About It All, and Not To Make The Children Suffer, but suffering they are indeed, though not perhaps in the way one would expect.

Kerry and Missy, despite all of the adult antics going on in their world, are the epitome of well-adjusted, and Kerry’s knowing-naive narrative exposes the follies of the grown ups, and New York upper crust society at large, to our appreciative eyes. As Kerry and Missy navigate their way through their new life, they conspire to bring their beloved parents back together again, with numerous setbacks along the way.

4.

Crewe Train and The World My Wilderness  

by Rose Macaulay ~ 1926 and 1950

Two very different books by always-changing and challenging author, both featuring young heroines on the cusp of entry into their adult lives.

crewe train rose macaulay 3At the start of Crewe Train we are introduced to our sullen 21-year-old heroine, Denham Dobie. She and her widowed father are English expatriates living in attempted seclusion from the world in a small Andorran village; this hasn’t worked out quite as planned as the Reverend Dobie has allowed himself to be married to a local woman, giving Denham a number of unwanted step-siblings. But things are about to change, when a family of visiting English relatives are present when Mr. Dobie suffers a fatal heart attack, and whisk Denham off with them – to her stepmother’s loud relief – to England.

Denham is an unusual example of the innocent abroad – or, rather, the repatriated innocent in the land of her long-ago birth. She looks about not with the wide eyes of amazement, but with the hooded eyes of scorn. So much fuss about everything! Changing one’s clothes several times a day, all this bothersome bathing and personal grooming, and talk, talk, TALK at every meal. People get so worked up about ideas and books and plays and art…

Denham is a true sensualist, living a life of the body and not of the mind, which makes it most interesting when she catches the eye of the intellectual Arnold, a partner in Denham’s uncle’s publishing firm. And then Denham emerges from her prickly shell enough to respond to Arthur’s advances…

Gorgeously funny little book, very quirky and unusual. A great pleasure to read.

the world my wilderness dj rose macaulayThe World My Wilderness is quite different in tone, and much more sober, as befits a post-World War II novel.

I do believe it is one of the most beautifully written of all I’ve read so far this year. Rose Macaulay lets herself go with lushly vivid descriptions of the world just after the war. The bombed-our ruins of London are depicted in detailed clarity, and almost take precedence over the activities of the human characters, who move through their devastated physical habitat in a state of dazed shock from the brutalities they have seen and survived.

This is a bleakly realistic depiction of the aftermath of World War II and its effect on an expatriate teenager and her divided family, split between France and England. It moved me deeply, though the characters frequently acted in obviously fictional ways. What the author has to say about the effects of war on those who survived it is believably real.

17-year-old Barbary Denison is an English girl who has been raised for many years in France under the custody of her divorced mother and French stepfather. Under the confusion of the German Occupation, Barbary has run wild and has not-so-secretly joined up with an adolescent branch of the resistance – she and her younger half-brother have lived the lives of semi-feral children, and have witnessed and taken part in activities much too old for their tender years.

With the war just over, Barbary is unexpectedly sent to live with her father in London, and the culture shock of being suddenly thrust into “civilized” society is more than Barbary can cope with; she creates a secret life for herself which eventually has dire consequences for everyone concerned.

I’ve earlier described this novel as “bleak”, but don’t let that put you off. It’s definitely a worthwhile read, and Rose Macaulay’s satirical wit is in fine working order here. Not at all depressing, because it is so obviously contrived, but a powerfully memorable reading experience.

3.

All the Little Live Things

by Wallace Stegner ~ 1967

all the little live things wallace stegner (2)An intense novel set in the California hills concerning love in all its forms. And death.

Here Wallace Stegner addresses one of the Big Questions of his time, the mid 1960s, which is to say, the great divide between the generations; the wide movement of youth (and relative youth) to reject categorically the ethics, morals and social standards of their elders, and to try to remake the world into a new utopia. We’re talking about hippies, here. And the California setting is the seething nerve centre of this societal battleground, full of lines drawn in the sand and unwitting trespasses and deliberate provocations. Change is in the air, and no one is immune to its effects.

Joe Allston and his wife, two Easterners in their sixties, retire to California in search of peace after the death of their wayward son. Their paradise is invaded by various parasites – not only by the gopher and the rose blight, the king snake and the hawk, but also by a neighbour with a bulldozer, bent on “development.” Jim Peck, a bearded young cultist, builds a treehouse on their property and starts a University of the Free Mind, complete with yoga, marijuana, and free-wheeling sex. Most damaging of all, it is invaded by Marian Catlin, an attractive young wife and mother, affirming all the hope and love that the Allstons believe in, who carries within herself seeds as destructive as any in the malevolent nature that surrounds them.

The relationship between the two couples, the older Allstons and the younger Catlins, is beautifully portrayed, and I felt it was one of the most admirable aspects of the novel. Stegner delicately captures the nuances of friendship, unspoken sexual attraction which does not have to be acted upon, and the balance of power between youth and age. Joe and Marian strike sparks off each other, but the relationship never turns ugly; all four spouses are involved in the relationship and each turns to his or her partner for support and comfort as needed. For the core issue of the story is this: Marian is pregnant, with a much-desired second child. (The Catlin’s first child, a young daughter, is very much loved and wanted, and is a charming girl, nicely handled by the author.) Marian also has terminal cancer, and she has rejected treatment in order that she can bring the pregnancy to term.

A difficult plot to see any happy way out of, isn’t it? I’ll tell you right now: no feel-good miracles occur.

Decidedly one of my most memorable reads of 2013.

hostages to fortune elizabeth cambridge 32.

Hostages to Fortune 

by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1933

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.

~Francis Bacon

I loved this book on so many levels. Not only is it beautifully written, but the themes of marriage, motherhood and personal fulfillment struck very close to home; I couldn’t help but recognize many parallels with my own experience, which (of course!) is not unique, as Elizabeth Cambridge so eloquently demonstrates.

This is an episodic novel in which “nothing ever happens”, but it is a beautifully observed and documented series of vignettes of family life, with a view to the broader scene in which it is set. It reminded me most strongly of another book that has a similar tone and an equally well-depicted mother, Margery Sharp’s 1935 novel Four Gardens, another hidden gem of a book which I wish would receive the same attention from modern re-publishers of almost-lost small literary treasures.

These women are, of course, more than “just mothers”, but their maternity is an inescapable part of their lives, and though it does not define them, it forms their lives in various unforeseen ways, and their emotional and intellectual responses to their motherhood are well worth considering. Elizabeth Cambridge’s Hostages is said to be semi-autobiographical; Margery Sharp was childless; but both writers have identified and played upon a strong chord of shared experience which resonates with me, a person (and mother) of several generations later, living in a very different time and place.

Hostages to Fortune is extremely readable, frequently very amusing, thoroughly thought-provoking, and occasionally poignant. An excellent book. Other readers agree; I don’t believe I’ve seen a single negative review.

the innocents margery sharp 0011.

The Innocents

by Margery Sharp ~ 1974

I think this may well be my very favourite Margery Sharp, and, as you all may have guessed by now, I am seriously enthusiastic about this author to start with.

This is a very quiet book, one of those minor tales concerning a few people only, with nothing terribly exciting going on within it. But it is a compelling read, and I was completely on the side of the angels right from the get go, though fully cognizant of their failings.

In brief, then.

Just prior to the start of World War II, a middle-aged spinster living in a quiet English village is unexpectedly left in charge of a mentally handicapped toddler whose mother refuses to believe that her child is anything less than “normal”.  The child and her caregiver form a deep and complex bond in the ensuing years before the now-widowed mother returns to collect her daughter and return with her to America, to launch into society, as it were, as a charming sidekick to her fashionable mother.

The reality is much different than the dream, and the subsequent events are absolutely heart-rending. The author lets us all suffer along with the brutally dazed child until bringing things to a rather shocking conclusion, which she has already told us about on the very first page.

Margery Sharp is at her caustic best in this late novel. I absolutely loved it. Hands down, my very best new-to-me read of the year.

 

Happy Reading to Everyone in 2014!

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hostages to fortune elizabeth cambridge 001Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1933. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1933. Hardcover. 304 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Not only met but exceeded all of my expectations.

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.

~Francis Bacon

I loved this book on so many levels; I suspect it will be high on my “most memorable books of 2013” list. Not only is it beautifully written, but the themes of marriage, motherhood and personal fulfillment struck very close to home; I couldn’t help but recognize many parallels with my own experience, which (of course!) is not unique, as Elizabeth Cambridge so eloquently demonstrates.

*****

Catherine lay still. Through the slats of the blind she could see the hard white light of early morning; the bars were like a ladder. Black, white, white, black … was the white the rungs of the ladder or was it the space between? A white ladder or a black ladder?

Water splashed. The voice of the newcomer, hoarse and uncertain, rose and fell, broken by deep, sobbing breaths.

A girl. An anti-climax. A girl … after all that! Oh well, William would be pleased. A ‘nice little girl’. That was nurse, standing up for another woman.

‘Can I see her?’

‘Not yet. I’m just giving her a bath.”

Catherine closed her eyes. She wondered if being born hurt as much as giving birth. Somebody pulled up the blind and opened the window. Instantly the room filled with the smell of slaked dust. It had been raining in the night, but the morning was windless, damp, and fresh. An early tram clashed and rattled down the hill, the overhead wires sang as it passed. Out in the Sound a tug hooted. The tide must be falling now … all down the coast over miles of brown rocks, the gulls screaming in the pale June morning.

A girl. But who wanted girls, now, in the middle of a war? Catherine had never believed in the equality of the sexes. Women simply did not have the same chance as men. Nature had seen to that. If you wanted to produce a human being at all, it was common sense to want to produce the kind of human being that was going to have the best time.

Best time? The expression was the wrong one. Surely? What did she mean by the best time?

… She opened her eyes. Nurse was standing over her, the baby held upright against her shoulder, like the bambino on a Della Robbia plaque.

Catherine stared. So that was her baby. Baby? Babies were sleepy, amorphous, unconvincing and ugly. This creature was not amorphous, it was not even ugly. It stared at life with bright, unwinking eyes. Its underlip was thrust out, tremulous, indignant.

‘My word,’ Catherine thought. ‘That’s not a baby. It’s a person.’

And with that delicate little epiphany, the stage is set for the years to come of Catherine’s motherhood. The girl child, Audrey, is eventually followed by two more siblings, Adam and Bill, and through it all, the tedious business of ministering to infant needs, the small heartaches and exquisite joys of mothering toddlers, small children, increasingly independent and opinionated school children, teenagers, Catherine finds herself secure in that attitude, that these are, above all, persons, not merely extensions of herself or William, though of course there are glimpses of genetic imprint which for a moment here or there stand out and give sharp pause.

This is an episodic novel in which “nothing ever happens”, but it is a beautifully observed and documented series of vignettes of family life, with a view to the broader scene in which it is set. It reminded me most strongly of another book that has a similar tone and an equally well-depicted mother, Margery Sharp’s 1935 novel Four Gardens, another hidden gem of a book which I wish would receive the same attention from modern re-publishers of almost-lost small literary treasures.

These women are, of course, more than “just mothers”, but their maternity is an inescapable part of their lives, and though it does not define them, it forms their lives in various unforeseen ways, and their emotional and intellectual responses to their motherhood are well worth considering. Elizabeth Cambridge’s Hostages is said to be semi-autobiographical; Margery Sharp was childless; but both writers have identified and played upon a strong chord of shared experience which resonates with me, a person (and mother) of several generations later, living in a very different time and place.

I am having a hard time putting into words the deep appeal this book had for me; not only regarding the subject matter but how strongly the author’s voice came through. I will therefore leave it, at least for now, with a strong recommendation, and links to other reviews.

Hostages to Fortune is extremely readable, frequently very amusing, thoroughly thought-provoking, and occasionally poignant. An excellent book. Other readers agree; I don’t believe I’ve seen a single negative review.

Here is an excerpt from Claire at The Captive Reader‘s post. Please click over and read the whole review; she says much more.

Cambridge gives us a very ordinary, unremarkable story about ordinary, unremarkable people, just trying to do their best as they move through the years.  The focus is primarily on Catherine, mother and wife, who begins as a not unusually selfish young woman, concerned with her writing aspirations and her husband and, eventually, her babies.

…(S)howing a … mature marriage, I was incredibly impressed by the portrait of Catherine and William’s union through the years.  The novel begins during the First World War, with Catherine giving birth to Audrey while William is away.  When he returns, invalided out, they settle in the country and William begins his stressful work as the local doctor.  With William running about the countryside at all hours and Catherine struggling to manage at home with first one, then two, then three children, both spend the early years of their marriage frazzled, pressed for time, patience, and money.  They go through phases where they don’t particularly like one another, where they can’t even remember what they used to like about the other, where they question why they ever thought marriage was a good idea.  But, in the end, they are partners and, however distant they may have felt over the years, they shared the same vision and values.  They can respect the work the other has done over the years and, year by year, that brings them closer together…

…(T)his is truly a novel about parenting, about the limits of control.  Catherine’s greatest struggle is learning that she cannot give her children everything she’d dreamed or planned for them.  That she must “not grab nor claim, nor try to insist on what they do and what they are.”  There comes a point where, if you’re going to keep them close and on good terms, you have to let go rather than attempt to orchestrate their lives for them.  And you have to resign yourself to the fact that the fates they chose for themselves will be different than the ones you planned for and that they will potentially achieve much less than what they’re capable of…

Hostages to Fortune is a thoughtful novel full of well drawn characters and relationships, presented with admirable simplicity.  I was so taken with it, was so easily able to relate to not just Catherine but also William and their children, that I’d say it is now probably one of my favourite Persephones…

And a few more links:

A Window to My Soul – Hostages to Fortune

Heavenali – Hostages to Fortune

Fervent thanks to Persephone Press for re-publishing this novel. Here’s hoping that many more forgotten books which still speak to us today will continue to be brought back into circulation, and to garner the attention which they so richly deserve.

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