Archive for the ‘Norah Lofts’ Category

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

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

Apology and Acknowledgement

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

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

My rating: 4/10

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

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

(There will now be spoilers galore.)

Look, a pretty little Dutch girl!

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

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

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

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

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

Done.

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

Nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s the set-up.

xx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yup.

I concur.

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

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

Read Full Post »

 

This is one of the most lovely book jackets I've ever seen, a wrap-around illustration by Antony Groves-Raines, from my 1965 Doubleday "Book Club Edition".

This is one of the more attractive vintage book jackets I’ve yet seen, a wrap-around illustration by Antony Groves-Raines, from my 1965 Doubleday “Book Club Edition”. This is the front.

And this is the bag. Try to imagine them together. I tried scanning it as one section, but my scanner is just a bit too small for the whole thing.

And this is the back. Try to imagine them together. I wanted to include it as one continuous illustration, but my scanner bed was just a bit too small for the whole thing.

How Far to Bethlehem? by Norah Lofts ~ 1964. This edition: Doubleday, 1965. Hardcover. 246 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

December 9, 2014: Christmas is coming – ready or not! – and in the interests of highlighting some seasonal reading I offer you this post from a year ago. Originally posted in December of 2013, here are my thoughts on Norah Lofts’ creative retelling of the Christmas story. I’m not planning on a re-read this particular December, but it did have its moments, and is worth a look for those of us who rather admire Lofts. When she is good, she is more than decent, but when she bobbles…well…I’ve still read much worse.

*****

I’d decided to try to read some seasonal literature to go with the upcoming Christmas season, and what better way to start, I thought, than with this one, going right back to the source, as it were.

As you can see from my rating, it was an adequate though not an astounding success. I mildly enjoyed Norah Lofts’ attempt, but found that I could not fully enter into this creative re-imagining of the story of the birth of Christ, for reasons touched on below.

The narrative abruptly jumps around from character to character, which, though initially confusing, actually turned out to be a good thing, as the side characters were much the most interesting, with completely invented backstories, unlike Mary and Joseph, who were constrained by the traditional story.

We start out with the young Mary, imagined by Lofts as an enthusiastic lover of both lilies and donkeys – themes which tenaciously follow the girl throughout the tale – and the Annunciation, with the Angel Gabriel appearing to her and then to Joseph. Mary is portrayed as a very lovely, rather dreamy girl, much prone to episodes of introspection when she seems to be communicating with a greater power, which of course she is, if we accept her special status as Mother-of-God-to-be. She accepts the angel’s visit as the nebulous “big thing” she has been waiting for all of her life, and surrenders herself fully to her fate, though she has moments of great inner turmoil when she considers her baby’s eventual torment and death according to the ancient prophesies concerning the Messiah.

And this was were my first moments of readerly disconnect came in, as the author insisted on discussing the popularly accepted details of the end of Christ’s earthly life. It’s been a good many years since I attended a Bible Study class, but I don’t recall that much detail in the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah; it was all rather mysterious in a soothsayers’ sort of way, and didn’t really get in to details such as how long the Messiah would be here on earth for, or the manner of his demise, even that he would be born of a virgin. Mary and Joseph both discuss the role that the coming Messiah will play in sacrificing himself for mankind’s sins; I rather thought that the expectation among the Hebrews of the day was more in the nature of a military leader. Though it is lovely of the author to provide Mary with this insight, it didn’t feel all that convincing. And more was soon to come.

The three wise men/three kings share the spotlight with Mary, and they are imagined in rather untraditional ways, made possible because their mention in the actual Bible narrative is superficial at best, and their place in the Nativity story more folkloric than theologically based. In Lofts’ version, Melchior is a Korean astronomer, Gaspar is a Mongol chieftain, and Balthazar is a runaway African slave, and their coming together and subsequent travels make up the better part of the book. It generally works, and some of their escapades are nice little novellas all on their own.

Highlights toward the end of the book which I thought interesting and well written as the author rather let herself go away from the constraints of clinging to the skeleton of the Biblical framework were a visit by the three “kingly” travellers to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, and a night at a Roman military barracks; both episodes had some creative detailing which sparked them to life rather more than some of the other vignettes.

The innkeeper at Bethlehem gets his own mini-history as well, some of which was quite enthralling. In Norah’s imagination he is a Greek ex-sailor, and her description of his perilous voyage on a tin ship through the mist-shrouded ocean to the barbarous isles on the other side of the Pillars of Hercules was a fascinating and convincingly written inclusion which had me wanting more.

Her version of the shepherds was less than stellar, though. It felt highly contrived, with the chief shepherd being a grieving father of a son recently crucified by the Romans for a minor infraction; the author just wouldn’t quit with the meaningfulness of all of this, and it was another jarring note; much better if it would have been played a bit softer. Oh, and that very shepherd is represented as being the father of Lazurus, Martha and Mary – key players of an incident some years later in the New Testament narrative, and another glaring coincidence which annoyed the heck out of me by its total improbability. (If one can use “probable” in the context of any of the events in this re-imagined tale!)

Though there was much to like in this ambitious and creative retelling of the Nativity story, I found that the sections which worked well fictionally were overwhelmed by the less frequent but awkward attempts at bringing in Biblical quotations, and in the excessive use of coincidence in the creation of incidents. What might have been an excellent piece of creative fiction instead turned out to be a slightly off-key homage to a story we already know in its earlier form. The King James version very adequately stands alone and I would have been much happier if Norah Lofts had let herself go a little more and not tried to incorporate so much of the Gospel narrative in her own work.

Does that make any sort of sense? I mean, we already know how it goes, so letting the reader do the work in mentally making it click with the original would have worked, and given us the pleasure of the “Aha!” moment, instead of being bludgeoned by the exceedingly obvious “taken from the Bible” parts. And if one isn’t familiar with the original, it would be a more accessible read, and might well lead one to investigate the source. Perhaps?

I’m a bit grumpy about this, because some of this was, as I already said, quite excellent, and I felt cheated in that it all could have been that way.

Norah Lofts appears to be a firm believer in the Biblical versions of the Nativity which inspired her book, and one must respect that. This is an unusual novel, and rather brave in its attempt to fictionalize such an iconic religious tradition, while remaining true to the source. And her writing is always more than competent, and occasionally inspired.

Damning with faint praise, this feels like, but I could not completely give myself over to the tale, and I was fully willing to when I started. I do wonder how much having a previous knowledge of the King James version of the story influenced my reading pleasure, or lack thereof. While it definitely helped me to appreciate the author’s use of narrative nuances and connections between characters, it made me continually stop and try to make Norah Lofts’ version jive with my memory of what was contained in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I did come away with a strongish desire to reread the originals as a sort of refutation to Lofts’ tale, so I’m not quite sure if that is a point in favour or against How Far to Bethlehem?!

But please don’t let my personal response put you off giving this book a whirl. It is much beloved by Norah Lofts’ many dedicated followers for good reason, and it was definitely not at all a chore to read. I easily got over my annoyed moments and followed it through to the end; I will be keeping it around for possible future personal perusal, and because my mother enjoys reading it now and again.

But am I at least more in the Christmas mood now?

Honestly, not really. I think I need to revisit some old favourites, such as the Margot Benary-Isbert stories (The Ark, Rowan Farm and A Time to Love, all set in wartime and post-war Germany) and Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge, for its sweet Christmas-time finalé. And of course Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, and Rumer Godden’s The Story of Holly and Ivy, from the children’s bookshelf of annual re-reads.

And Heavenali’s post on Christmassy books gives much scope for exploration of some titles I haven’t yet read, and reminded me of a few I’d forgotten, like Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising.

Other Christmas reading suggestions always welcome!

Read Full Post »

Dear Phyllis A. Whitney: I’ve given you so three good chances, with Seven Tears For Apollo (1963), Sea Jade (1964) and Columbella (1966), and I must say I have found you lacking. One last chance was a just-abandoned attempt to read 1991’s Woman Without a Past, with me thinking that perhaps several more decades of writing experience might result in something more to my taste.

I regret to say that this hasn’t proven to be the case. I made it to mid-way in the book, but was at last defeated by the psychic cat (“Miss Kitty” – how blandly lame is that?!), the old black “servant” (described as such by P.A.W.) speaking the author’s conception of “black person Southern dialect” (while all the white Southerners appear to be speaking “normal” English), the secret letter hidden behind the tail of the wooden rocking horse (what an appropriate place, I caught myself thinking, because the plot was fast degenerating into, well, you know…), and the absolutely flatness of the writing. Fingernails on the chalkboard of my mind. Screeeeech.

That’s it. Phyllis is being top-shelfed. And possibly set to be purged, despite sentimental feelings about ridding myself of my late mother’s books. Rosamund Pilcher is on the probation shelf, too, as is Maeve Binchy. And Catherine Cookson. Helen Forrester should be getting worried, too. Joanna Trollope, you might want to keep a lowish profile; the last few of yours I read left me thinking you’ve worn out all of your best Aga Saga scenarios.

My husband says that Miss Read should join these others in exile, but I have an inexplicably deep affection for Dora Saint’s pleasantly innocuous stories, so those aren’t even up for debate.

Absolutely sacred.

So there.

Darling.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. Norah Lofts.

Because while I was trying to read Phyllis Whitney, I was concurrently actually reading and hugely enjoying yet another gorgeously dark domestic drama by Norah Lofts. (See The Little Wax Doll  (1960) and Lovers All Untrue (1970).)

Norah writes big, shiny, sparkling rings around plodding Phyllis.

Sorry, Phyllis.

You lose.

charlotte norah lofts out of the dark 1972Charlotte by Norah Lofts ~ 1972. American title: Out of the Dark. This edition: Coronet, 1973. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-17826-4. 254 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

The author notes that this story was inspired by the notorious real life situation of an English teenager, 16-year-old Constance Kent, who in 1860 was accused of the brutal murder of her young stepbrother.

Though the scenario in the first section of the book borrows heavily from the historical case, Norah Lofts states in her beginning Author’s Note that:

The characters…are my own; and whereas those who write factually about a crime – especially one never satisfactorily solved – can only speculate about the motives and, indeed, the identity of the murderer, the writer of fiction, dealing in a more plastic medium, is able to say: This is how it happened.

Part Two owes nothing to the Case of Constance Kent. Incredible as it may seem, it is based on a first-hand account of a school in which my sister once tried to teach, a mere forty years ago. Here again the characters are my own; but I did not invent the oil-stove that was carried up and down…

This is a dark little tale, of deep injustice done to the innocent by those who should have been the most concerned with their protection. Our author puts her titular heroine through a grueling ordeal which stretches on for years, before allowing a resolution (of sorts) which (possibly) rewards her (and our) quietly righteous perseverance.

How much should I tell about the plot? My impulse is to keep it fairly quiet, as this sort of story rewards readerly discovery. I’ve already given out some of the major points, which are indeed no secret, and are revealed very early on.

16-year-old Charlotte Cornwall, her younger brother Thomas, and older twin sisters Adelaide and Victoria live with their father, stepmother and young half-brother Vincent in outwardly respectable but secretly straitened circumstances. The first Mrs. Cornwall was possessed of a large private income; this came to a halt upon her tragic (and questionably natural) death some years earlier; the twins and Charlotte are to inherit their mother’s money when they each turn 21, under the terms of their maternal grandfather’s will.

Money concerns are just part of the unspoken tension in the Cornwall household; the second Mrs. Cornwall, who was previously the children’s nanny, is deeply jealous of her gentle predecessor’s lasting influence. Her own small son is the apple of her maternal eye, and she is again pregnant, leading to a situation of history repeating itself as Mr. Cornwall’s attention is caught by the latest nursemaid who has replaced her mistress in the household hierarchy in more ways than one.

When four-year-old Vincent is discovered gruesomely murdered, his body hidden in the muck heap in the stable yard, suspicion is directed at a nebulous night time prowler, but soon evidence comes to light which leads back into the heart of the family, and ultimately straight to Charlotte. But several people in the household know the real story of what happened that dreadful night. Surely the truth will come out; surely the culprit or culprits will confess, to save an innocent who is being wrongly accused…

Nope. Charlotte is completely sold up the creek, and by a person (or persons) who should have been willing to protect her at their own expense.

Charlotte’s youth and social status and some inconsistencies in the evidence lead to her acquittal, but her trials aren’t yet over. Not by a long shot. Seeking to escape a situation made increasingly unbearable by the dark stain on her name and her stepmother’s increasing hatred, Charlotte takes a position in a country girl’s school as an assistant mistress, a situation which at first appears to be a welcome refuge, but which soon puts her into still more nightmarish situation, as the school’s headmistress exploits her knowledge of Charlotte’s past to her own advantage…

Just when things are darkest, a gleam of hope appears, and our heroine at last has a chance to clear her name. But will she turn against the real murderer(s), once she discovers the true story of her betrayal?

Well, I guess you’ll just have to read it yourself to find out.

Multiple characters, multiple story strands, all beautifully handled and full of fabulous period detail. What I’ve divulged above is the briefest overview of this richly written noir tale.

Charlotte is most competently plotted and presented; a deeply engaging read of the chillingly almost-plausible sort. Abundant wry humour, too. Despite its grim theme, this is not at all a depressing read; I frequently found myself chuckling quietly to myself as the author sends up various stereotypes and scenarios with perfect comic timing, and without quite crossing the line into farce.

Thank you, Norah.

You had me just a tiny bit worried for most of the book; I wasn’t sure where we were going for quite some time there. Good job on stringing the reader along!

Oh – the half point docked was for several not very veiled homosexual side stories. Those felt possibly just the tiniest bit mean-spirited, just vaguely “off”. But possibly they weren’t meant to be, and were intended more in the nature of ironic natural revenge? Maybe? However, I felt these were a bit too similar to the Sudden Evil Lesbian who shows up to wield retribution in Lovers All Untrue – too unnaturally manufactured; even in such a highly fictionalized thing such as Charlotte turns out to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

lovers all untrue norah lofts 1970 001Lovers All Untrue by Norah Lofts ~ 1970. This edition: Doubleday, 1970. Hardcover. 252 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Well, this was unexpected. And unexpectedly good.

I quite like what this author does when she turns away from the historical romantic fiction and creative biography she was so much better known for, such as her best-selling depiction of Anne Boleyn in The Concubine, and her somewhat sappy retelling of the Nativity in How Far to Bethlehem?, and lets herself go a bit over-the-top into the realm of domestically set macabre fiction. I’m catching glimmers of a Shirley Jackson-like mindset here, and it’s a treat.

Some time ago I read and was surprised and pleased by another of Norah Lofts’ odd little stories, The Little Wax Doll. Lovers All Untrue will definitely join it on the shelf of keepers. And I am wondering what else the prolific author produced in this style. Time for a bit of delving, I think.

The September, 1970 Kirkus Review call this “a lamplit tale of murder and madness in a Victorian doll house”, and goes on to end its spoiler-laden review (which I refuse to link for that reason) with this perfectly apt recommendation: “A fine horrid tale for matronly secret liberationists.” Yes, indeed, to both of those summations.

The well-off, upper-middle-class Draper family resides in respectable Victorian comfort in a slightly cramped but ever-so-appropriately located, furnished and staffed London house, on Alma Street. The family consists of fifty-year-old Papa (head of a nebulous family business in the City; I don’t think we ever do find out what it exactly is that the firm is all about), the slightly younger Mamma, and daughters 17-year-old Marion and 16-ish Ellen.

Papa is most decidedly the patriarch of the household, and holds unchangeable views as to the proper conduct of the women of his family. Mamma was once a brilliantly talented pianist, but as her more emotional pieces are unsuitably dramatic in her husband’s opinion, she has been squelched into concentrating her musical skills onto mild drawing-room-acceptable sentimental ballads instead of stormy Lizt concertos. Marion, of considerable intellect, has been abruptly withdrawn from the school where she excelled at academics, because Papa Draper felt that the views of the headmistress were unsuitably liberal in the encouragement of young ladies to consider advanced personal and intellectual development and (fatherly shudder) even careers. Ellen is the smiled-upon child, being peaceful, unambitious, and deeply domestic: the epitome of desirable feminine deportment, in Papa’s eyes.

Papa Draper is a marvelous villain, with absolutely no redeeming features, gloriously secure in his masculine superiority.

Mamma, destroyed herself by her husband’s sheer imperviousness to any sort of female ambition, abandons her daughters to their father’s brutally unimaginative plan for their future: he envisions two devoted (and needless to say unmarried) acolytes to his perpetual male glory, with Marion and Ellen functioning as (sexless) adjuncts to their mother in ensuring that domestic comfort is ceaselessly maintained.

Needless to say, despite Papa’s refusal to countenance such a thing, sex relentlessly enters the picture, with Marion in particular proving deeply passionate beneath her stoic exterior. And even mild Ellen and meek Mamma cherish a few secret desires of their own…

Marion seethes quietly under her repression, and breaks out in the expected way, by acquiring a secret (and decidedly lower class) lover with the expected results. However, events take on some dramatic twists and turns, with Marion showing unexpectedly resourceful attempts to free herself from Papa’s grasp. As Mamma recedes ever deeper into her passive state of non-resistance to Papa’s demands, and Ellen feebly attempts to play peacemaker, Marion finds herself (temporarily) committed to a facility for the mentally troubled, where Papa hopes she will find her outrageously forward impulses tamed.

No one in this oddly mesmerizing tale comes out particularly well; even as the nominal heroine Marion is chock full of too-human flaws, and some of her decisions are decidedly cringe-worthy. So her eventual fate is artistically quite perfect, even though it is rather unexpected. The author was brave in her ending; I applauded her decision to not …well…I’m not going to say what she did here with Marion and Ellen and Mamma. Just that it made me quite satisfied, in multiple ways.

Decidedly feminist themes throughout keep us rooting for the downtrodden women while happily hissing at the stupid, stupid men. Bonus points too for introduction of a scheming lesbian, all done up as another period stereotype just as bizarre as that of Papa’s set piece, whom Lofts has a bit of authorial fun with.

All in all, the author did seem to be rather enjoying herself here, with a good deal of humour glinting out from among the velvety shadows of this mildly horrific, darkish little tale.

Read Full Post »

the little wax doll norah lofts 001The Little Wax Doll by Norah Lofts ~ originally published in 1960, and re-released under this title and author’s name in 1970.  Previously published as The Devil’s Own (1960) and The Witches (1966), under the pseudonym Peter Curtis. This edition: Corgi, 1971. Paperback. ISBN: 0-552-08782-3. 255 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This is definitely not a Christmas-time read. Hallowe’en, oh yes, indeed. But I am so tickled by my discovery of it that I’ve bumped down my review of D.E. Stevenson’s Charlotte Fairlie (which is an appropriate Christmas book for reasons I’ll enlarge on when I return to it) to talk about Norah Lofts’ village-with-dark-secrets instead.

I love these sorts of unexpected developments. Norah Lofts, mistress of the art of historical romance, occasionally let herself go in a very different direction and wrote a number of thrillers under the name Peter Curtis, adopting the pseudonym in order to avoid disappointing fans of the romances who would associate her name with a certain type of story.

I must say I would never have picked up this old paperback if it weren’t for Norah Lofts’ name on it; the cover illustration not being at all indicative of what a great read was hidden inside. I had recently read 1964’s How Far to Bethlehem? (with mixed reactions – good writing, but I had issues with the awkwardness of the Bible tie-in plot) so was tuned in to Lofts’ name, as it were, and a casual flip-through was intriguing enough that I squelched my qualms and brought it home.

Forty-something Miss Mayfield, a teacher by profession, is back in England after twenty years working at a friend’s private mission school in a remote part of Africa. She has had some health issues and a vaguely referenced “breakdown” so was sent back to England in the hopes that this would prove beneficial. Her health is better, but she harbours deep misgivings over her ability to cope with the stresses of her new teaching position at an inner city London school. When Miss Mayfield happens upon an advertisement for a teaching headmistress position at a rural private school she decides to try for it, never dreaming that she would be accepted.

An interview with the school’s benevolent sponsor, Canon Thornby of the village of Walyk, sees Miss Mayfield hired on the spot. Off she goes to the rural wilds, to a place very much out of the bustle of the modern world.

Miss Mayfield might want to watch her words when that friendly cat is hanging about...

Miss Mayfield might want to watch her words when that friendly cat is hanging about…

“Too good to be true,” is Miss Mayfield’s first impression of her new home. Not only is she being paid a generous salary, her position includes a wonderful cottage, an instant position of respect in the village hierarchy, and the society of wealthy Canon Thornby and his aristocratic sister. Miss Mayfield’s fellow teacher is competent and friendly, and the school children are polite, willing, and generally intelligent. The cottage even appears to come with an adorable resident cat, who purrs about with a welcoming attitude, and sleeps at the foot of the bed. Miss Mayfield settles in with a feeling of deep appreciation and relief, and counts her blessings every day.

The first inkling that something may not be all as lovely as it appears is when an anonymous note appears among the books on Miss Mayfield’s desk. “Ethel Rigby’s granny treat her something crool.” This shakes Miss Mayfield enough that she decides to investigate the allegation. Said Ethel Rigby is a well-cared for, meek and mild fourteen-year-old whose primary passion seems to be the care of her pet rabbits, and her granny openly dotes on her, having raised Ethel from babyhood, Ethel’s mother having run off and “gone wrong” in her own teenage years.

Though Ethel stoutly defends her grandmother’s innocence of any abuse, Miss Mayfield thinks that the maiden doth protest too much, and she comes away with the idea that Ethel is lying to protect the informer, who proves to be a school friend who claims to have witnessed Ethel’s grandmother push the girl’s hand deliberately into the rollers of a mangle. And Ethel’s hand is all bandaged up, though she insists her own clumsiness was at fault. And when the informing child falls mysteriously ill, only to recover just as mysteriously, and when Miss Mayfield discovers a little wax effigy of the child wrapped up and bandaged together – “healed” – hidden in Ethel’s school desk, the wheels really begin to turn.

Miss Mayfield decides to play detective and to find out what is going on behind all those brightly painted cottage doors. And what she discovers is most disquieting indeed.

What a marvelous heroine Miss Mayfield proved to be. Middle-aged and resigned to her life of perennial spinsterhood (though not unaware of the other sex, and recipient of at least one man’s interested advances) Miss Mayfield is unashamedly dowdy, choosing to focus her energies on doing her job well to the utmost of her ability. She fearlessly delves into the dark secrets of Walyk, is clever and creative in her investigative forays, and even after being brutally sidelined by an “accident” which results in a serious head injury and loss of memory, returns tenaciously to her original goal, which is to protect virginal Ethel from an unpleasant fate at the hands of Walyk’s wicked coven of witches.

The cover illustration of this 2008 reissue is just a wee bit misleading. I pity the poor teen who picks this one up expecting something Twightish, and instead finds herself sedately accompanying Miss Marple-ish Miss Mayfield on her earnest investigations!

The cover illustration of this 2008 reissue is just a wee bit misleading. I pity the poor teen who picks this one up expecting something Twilightish, and instead finds herself sedately accompanying Miss Marple-ish Miss Mayfield on her earnest investigations!

I was most pleased at the quiet humour throughout; the author appears to be enjoying herself thoroughly as she dashes this melodrama off.

Miss Mayfield, though primly proper even in her innermost thoughts, is not what one could call “prudish” – she is well aware of all elements of human nature, though she chooses to remain aloof from some of those aspects herself.  Even upon witnessing the penultimate scene of a full-blown witch’s Sabbath she mildly wishes that she could just close her eyes and avoid seeing the depravities of her neighbours, but she is not so much shocked as disgusted at their lack of proper dignity, and we never fear that this experience will shake her somewhat frail psyche. If anything, it strengthens her resolve to sort things out and bring everyone back into some semblance of decency, to protect the innocents, and to nobble future abuses and murders. Miss Mayfield’s inner dialogue proves that she is capable of appreciating the ridiculous aspects of the situation she has allowed herself to become embroiled in; we never fear for her sanity, but instead come away feeling that her future will be ever more assured. And as for Ethel, well, let’s just say that she appears well able to look after herself from this point forward!

There is also a perfect little twist at the very end.

This is an enjoyable “entertainment” read, rather nasty plot developments and all. If “Peter Curtis” did as well with “his” other three thrillers, I’m definitely keen to acquire them. Despite the absolutely stereotypical “black magic” theme, the author kept me engaged throughout, guessing a goodish bit of the time, and rather surprised here and there; very nicely done indeed.

In 1966 the book was turned into a horror-suspense thriller, starring none other than Joan Fontaine as a rather elegant Miss Mayfield. From the plot description and movie stills it appears that the African connection is played up to a greater degree than in the book, and that one of the background characters who leaps into prominence in the last chapter is given a larger early role, and that there is general tweaking of the storyline to make it more dramatic. For those of you with an interest in this vintage film genre, it might well be an enjoyable diversion. (But be sure the read the book as well; it has charms of its own, though the original Miss Mayfield is no Joan Fontaine!)

The Witches horror film peter curtis norah lofts hammer film

And here is a rather detailed synopsis and analysis of both book and movie, containing abundant spoilers. I would suggest you read the book first, because it gives away all of the key twists, but it is most interesting after one is finished.

Necromania BlogSpot: The Witches by Peter Curtis

Read Full Post »