Archive for the ‘O. Douglas’ Category

The Proper Place by O. Douglas (Pseudonym of Anna Buchan) ~ 1926. This edition: Nelson, no date, circa 1940s. Hardcover. 378 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

This has been a week for seeking out “comfort reads”, and who better to provide such than the low-key Scottish writer, Anna Buchan. She wrote under the pseudonym O. Douglas, in order to modestly distance herself from her more prominent brother, the renowned thriller writer (and Governor-General of Canada from 1935 to 1940, when he died in office) John Buchan, a.k.a. Lord Tweedsmuir.

I am therefore dusting off and slightly editing this old post from July of 2012, in which I talk about one of my favourite O. Douglas novels, The Proper Place.

This is my favourite of Anna Buchan’s  books which I’ve read to date. The first time I read this, I had already read the sequel, The Day of Small Things, so I knew what had happened to a great extent before the characters did, if that makes sense. But I think it enhanced rather than detracted from my reading experience, for I came to the story with a pre-existing knowledge of and fondness for the characters and greatly enjoyed expanding my acquaintance with them.

As the story opens, the sole surviving offspring of the aristocratic Scottish Rutherfurd family, Nicole, is showing the family home to a prospective buyer. Of its twenty bedrooms, “twelve quite large, and eight small”, only three are now occupied, for with Nicole’s two brothers perished in the Great War and her father dead soon after, the family now consists only of Nicole, her mother, Lady Jane, and a orphaned cousin, Barbara Burt, who was raised by Lady Jane from childhood.

The three women are finding it impossible to carry on financially, and have reluctantly but sensibly decided that their only option is to sell the Rutherfurd estate and establish themselves in more modest accommodations. Lady Jane has retreated into a gently passive acceptance of her fate, Barbara is resentful but more or less compliant, and Nicole is very much making the best of things and looking hard for a silver lining in their cloud of sorrow and difficult circumstances.

The prospective buyers, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson of Glasgow, having attained great wealth after many years of striving, are ready for the next step in their social advancement, and hope with their purchase of Rutherfurd Hall to establish their son Andy as a “county” gentleman.

This is where the story departs a bit from the expected norm. One would expect the nouveau riche Jacksons to be portrayed as interlopers and figures of mild scorn, but instead we find that the author takes us into their world for a bit and gives an insight into their motivations and intentions that puts us fully on their side. Nicole herself, after her initial, well-hidden resentment, finds herself viewing out-spoken Mrs. Jackson first with quiet humour and soon after with sincere affection, with interesting repercussions further along in the story.

The Rutherfurds find a new home in the seaside town of Kirmeikle, and rent the old and stately but much more reasonably sized Harbour House for a year to see if they will adapt to the life of the town dweller, and to give themselves a bit of breathing space to ponder their futures. They are still very well-off, with sizeable incomes coming from their investments, and they enter easily into the upper strata of Kirkmeikle society.

For a story in which not much really happens, the author packs it full of likeable, amusing characters, and quietly intriguing situations. Though the tone is continually optimistic, somehow this tale escapes being “too sweet” by the pervasive presence of loss, grief and hardship resulting from the war, and by the occasionally pithy observations of some of the more astringent characters.

Nicole and Lady Jane are most obviously our heroines throughout, while Barbara plays a slightly secondary role. She is perhaps the least likeable character due to her deep-seated snobbishness and condescending attitude, but we get to know her well enough to understand the basis of her sometimes negative outlook. O. Douglas is a very fair-minded author, and she generally allows her characters the grace of a deep enough glimpse into their lives and thoughts to allow us to place their words and actions in full context, which was something I fully appreciated in this story.

A gentle, genuinely moving, small-in-scope novel with a stalwart strength to it; a very Scottish sort of vintage story, in the best possible sense.

A more detailed, equally favourable review is here, from the I Prefer Reading  blog of Lyn, from Melbourne, Australia.

http://preferreading.blogspot.ca/2010/09/proper-place-o-douglas.html

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I have just spent several days immersed in writings from – what an incredible thought! – a century ago. Three books, as different from each other as can be imagined, each written with deep care and sincere emotion, and expressing the writers’ fervent beliefs along with a sober (and on occasion somber) recording of their experiences.

O. Douglas/Anna Buchan’s semi-autobiographical novel The Setons, 1917,  is the gentlest and at the same time perhaps the most disturbing, for reasons which I hope to make clear below. Rose Macaulay’s also-autobiographical novel, Non-Combatants and Others, 1916, is a fascinating combination of emotionally heart-rending and curiously impassionate, while Robert Graves’ pre-war, wartime, and post-war memoir, Goodbye to All That, 1929, is utterly compelling. If you haven’t read Graves’ book  yet, you should, if only for its historical details.

All of these writers are genuinely accomplished in their various ways, and these books are exceedingly easy to read for their “entertainment” value alone, if one may use that innocuous term with regard to wartime-focussed writings. Ratings are going to be very high – I think I can safely say each more than fulfilled my readerly expectations to the highest degree, though they can not be classed together genre-wise.

Good books, all three, which deserve preservation. In particular the Rose Macaulay book, which languished out-of-print for many decades. Robert Graves’ memoir has already received much publicity and is, I believe, frequently used in schools and colleges. Don’t let that discourage you – it’s not at all a “boring school book”, and it is very much worth reading for the highly opinionated voice of the author as much as for its historical context.

As usual, these “mini-reviews” got ridiculously long. I should really take another go at these and edit ruthlessly, but as you all know, that process would take a tremendously long time in itself – it’s so much easier to meander on than to write short and sharp! The long quotations are also not in the accepted pattern of “professional” book review brevity, but to my mind they serve as useful samplers of writing style to interested readers, and that is how I hope they will be received.

*****

the setons o douglas 1917 001The Setons by O. Douglas ~ 1917. This edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1922. Hardcover. 315 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Based strongly on Anna Buchan’s memories of growing up as a “minister’s child”, this early novel – only her second, after 1912’s Olivia in India –  is her tribute to her beloved father, and is strongly autobiographical in its most telling details, much as her later 1922 tribute to her mother, Ann and Her Mother, was to be. Comparing these two books, I feel that The Setons is possibly the stronger. I found it a very easy read, utterly charming and deeply sincere.

The Setons follows the activities of a Glasgow family-of-the-manse: a slightly elderly, widowed father, grown-up daughter, young schoolboy son, and two live-in household helps. There are also two adult sons in India, who appear in the novel only by reference when a letter is received.

Reverend James Seton is the shepherd of a rather “poor” church – “Not even an organ!” as another character comments disapprovingly – but he quite literally lives to serve God, and is a sterling character of intense devoutness leavened with abundant good humour. Reverend Seton’s fondness for old Scottish ballads, good literature, poetry, and “fairy tales” enlivens life in the family circle – it’s definitely not all prayers and sober good works, though these have their prominent place in daily affairs.

Elizabeth Seton, the 28-year-old daughter of the family, who has largely taken over her mother’s role as mistress of the household, helpmeet to the minister, and surrogate mother to her young brother, is a creature of contradictions. Personally devastated by the untimely death of a brother away at college and then, shortly thereafter, her mother’s death, Elizabeth hides her personal pain and most sensitive emotions under a well-constructed façade of outspoken good humour. Elizabeth performs the many duties of a pastor’s female counterpart exceedingly well, though her occasionally outrageous statements and evident sense of humour excite comments from the more sober-minded of her father’s parishioners. Elizabeth knows this and disregards it, for she has chosen to accept occasional derision over pity from those outside of her intimate group of family and close friends.

Young Buff, as the small son of the household is nicknamed (he was christened David Stuart), is a gloriously boyish character, with all of the expected eccentricities and passions of an imaginative, much loved child. Modeled on the childhood characteristics of Anna Buchan’s own brother who died as a young man, Buff and his literary counterparts show up in every one of the O. Douglas novels, a sort of composite portrait of her beloved childhood companion.

The Setons is one of those utterly peaceable books where nothing really happens. It chronicles the day-to-day goings-on of the Setons and their friends and parishioners, mild anecdote by mild anecdote. A nicely pithy sense of humour and a good deal of Scottish sensibility keeps the whole from being too indigestibly sweet, even when romance enter the picture, in the persons of two personable men who cast speculative eyes on the apparently unimpressionable Elizabeth.

Events take on a sudden seriousness in the final quarter of the story, as Reverend Seton develops a potentially fatal heart ailment and must leave the ministry. The family uproots itself from Glasgow and settles in the village of Etterick. Shortly thereafter, war is declared, and the-world-as-they-know-it turns upside down.

I was reading along quite happily until the onset-of-war chapters, when everyone (at least from my ten-decades-later perspective) seems to lose their collective minds. “Off you go, my lads!” (most of) the women exhort the men and the boys, “If you die in battle you will be rewarded with eternal life in Heaven!” Or words to that effect. And off the young men go, quite cheerily leaving sweethearts and young wives and baby children with the sentiment that even though gruesome death looms, it will all be all right. Right? Right?

“But seriously, Lizbeth—if I never come back to you, if I am one of the ‘costs,’ if all you and I are to have together, O my beloved, is just this one perfect afternoon, it will still be all right. Won’t it? You will laugh and be your own gallant self, and know that I am loving you and waiting for you—farther on. It will be all right, Lizbeth?”

For those of sincere religious faith I suppose this is some consolation, but I found that the scenario utterly sickened me. I have no alternate suggestion as to how one should send one’s nearest and dearest off to war, so my criticism is without much useful merit, but there it is.

In the other two books I am about to discuss below, this fervently patriotic-religious attitude comes in for some brutal discussion, and I have to admit that I fully concur with those who feel that an entire generation was wantonly slaughtered with, at least initially, the enthusiastic compliance of the at-home civilians who then lived on alone to later mourn their many “glorious dead.”

As a family memoir and a piece of domestic fiction, The Setons succeeds most well, and even the declaration-of-war and with-your-shield-or-on-it bits had merit as a documentation of the sentiments of the time, at least among the members of the population with a strong belief in the rewards of the hereafter, which naturally would include the author, devout daughter of a Scottish Free Church minister as she herself unapologetically was.

Last word to O. Douglas/Anna Buchan:

You know, of course, Gentle Reader, that there can be no end to this little chronicle?

You know that when a story begins in 1913, 1914 will follow, and that in that year certainty came to an end, plans ceased to come to fruition—that, in fact, the lives of all of us cracked across.

Personally, I detest tales that end in the air. I like all the strings gathered up tidily in the last chapter and tied neatly into nuptial knots… But, alas! as I write (May 1917) the guns still boom continuously out there in France, and there is scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds that obscure the day…

…It is useless to tell over the days of August 1914. They are branded on the memory. The stupefaction, the reading of newspapers until we were dazed and half-blind, the endless talking, the frenzy of knitting into which the women threw themselves, thankful to find something that would at least occupy their hands. We talked so glibly about what we did not understand. We repeated parrot-like to each other, “It will take all our men and all our treasure,” and had no notion how truly we spoke or how hard a saying we were to find it. And all the time the sun shone.

It was particularly hard to believe in the war at Etterick. No khaki-clad men disturbed the peace of the glen, no trains rushed past crowded with troops, no aeroplanes circled in the heavens. The hills and the burn and the peeweets remained the same, the high hollyhocks flaunted themselves against the grey garden wall; nothing was changed—and yet everything was different.

non-combatants and others rose macaulay 1916 001Non-Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay ~ 1916. This edition: Capuchin Classics, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-9562947-0-8. 204 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Rose Macaulay was already a published author when World War I commenced in 1914, of well-received novels and poetry, but Non-Combatants and Others, with its nervously high-strung and  desperately “non-patriotic” heroine, and its strong pacifist message, was not a commercial success upon its publication in the third year of the war.

It is April of 1915. The story opens with a vignette of the daily occupation of Alix Sandomir.  25 years old and an artist – she has no other interest or apparent occupation – Alix is the daughter of a brilliant and politically active Polish father – dead now some years in a Warsaw prison – and a highly energetic and forward-thinking English mother.

Daphne Sandomir’s interest in many things had always been so keen that before the war you could not have picked out one as absorbing her more than a score of others. She had been used to write pamphlets and address meetings on most of them: eurhythmics, for instance, and eugenics, and the economic and constitutional position of women, and sweated industries, and baby crèches, and suggestion healing, and health food, and clean milk, and twenty other of the causes good people have at heart.

Daphne is now off touring the countries of those involved in the present conflict, interviewing government members and civilians and promoting a pacifist organization she has been instrumental in forming, the S.P.P.P., the Society for Promoting Permanent Peace.

Alix and her older brother Nicholas view their parents’ attitudes and activities with more than a tinge of benevolent cynicism; their own approach is to lay low, as it were, and laugh things off when they get too serious. A younger brother, Paul, just 18 and a brilliant student with a scholarship to Oxford awaiting him, has gone off to France to fight, and has found the experience overwhelming to his highly imaginative sensibilities.

Alix desperately wishes she could also be involved in the war in some sort of truly practical way, but due to a physical infirmity – she is lame due to a hip infection in childhood – extremely nervous disposition – she vomits uncontrollably if under intense stress, a characteristic young Paul is also afflicted with, with the imagined results in the trenches – and, of course, her sex – females being allowed limited roles in the actual conflict – she turns these wishes inward, and presents a cynical, ever-laughing face to the world.

Alix refuses to undertake any of the normal, socially accepted wartime jobs. She won’t knit comforts for the soldiers, roll bandages, volunteer in hospital, or go to work on the land. Instead she pursues her artistic inclinations, drawing and painting and eventually going off to London to continue studies at art school, while all around her friends and relations engage in a flurry of ceaseless activity.

In answer to an invalided-home brother’s comments that all of his at-home womenfolk look thinner than when he went off to France, Alix’s cousin Margot exclaims:

‘Well, we’re not in the trenches…We’re leading busy and useful lives, full of war activities. Besides, our food costs us more. But Dorothy and I are fairly hefty still. It’s mother who’s dwining; and Alix, though she’s such a lazy little beggar. Alix is hopeless; she does nothing but draw and paint. She could earn something on the stage as the Special Star Turn, the Girl who isn’t doing her bit. She doesn’t so much as knit a body-belt or draw the window-curtains against Zepps.’

Alix, who has been staying with these cousins in the country, flees the atmosphere of friendly familial disdain which her non-activity inspires, and takes a room in a respectable suburban London villa, which is occupied by a middle class mother and two daughters, also “doing their bit” in the war effort.

Alix turns her back on anything having to do with the war, and for a while succeeds in pretending everything is going on as normal, until she receives word that her young brother Paul is dead, “of a bullet wound”.

Alix completely breaks down at the news, for the two were very close, and Alix knows full well what her brother suffered mentally in the trenches, let alone physically. She tries to console herself with the thought that his suffering is now over, but she can’t escape the conviction that this is a false consolation – Paul loved life with such an intensity that to have it end in such a way is completely unthinkable to her. She finds herself unable to keep up her façade of cheerful dismissal towards war affairs, and allows herself to be drawn into intellectual discussions of how this situation could ever have developed, and how the people at home in England – the non-combatants – are reacting and how their reactions (or non-reactions) will affect the course of history.

A soldier friend, home on leave, muses on the reactions of the majority of civilians he has observed, in the following long passage, which I’ve left unedited so you can get a sense of Macaulay’s style in monologues:

‘The fundamentally untouched…Superficially, of course, they are, as you put it, flustered. They read the papers, of course, for the incidents; but the fundamental issues beneath don’t touch them. They’re impervious; they’re of an immobility; they’re sublimely stable. The war, for them, really isn’t. The new world, however it shapes, simply won’t be. What’s the war doing to them? All the beastliness, and bravery, and ugliness, and brutality, and cold, and blood, and mud, and gaiety, and misery, and idiotic muddle, and splendour, and squalor, and general lunacy … you’d think it must overturn even the most stable … do something with them—harden them, or soften them, or send them mad, or teach them geography or foreign politics or knitting or self-denial or thrift or extravagance or international hatred or brotherhood. But has it? Does it? I believe often not. They haven’t learnt geography, because they don’t like using maps. They’ve not learnt to fight, because it’s non-combatants I’m talking of. They’ve not even learnt to write to the papers—thank goodness. Nor even to knit, because I believe they mostly knew how already. Nor to preserve their lives in unlit streets, for they are nightly done in in their hundreds. Nor, I was told by a clergyman of my acquaintance the other day, to pray (but that is still hoped for them, I believe). The war, like everything else, will come and go and leave them where it found them—the solid backbone of the world. The rest of the world may go on its head with ideas, or progress, or despair, or war, or joy, or madness, or sanctity, or revolution—but they remain unstirred. I don’t suppose a foreign invasion would affect them fundamentally. They couldn’t take in invasion, only the invaders. They remain themselves, through every vicissitude. That’s why the world after the war will be essentially the same as the world before it; it takes more than a war to move most of us…. We all hope our own pet organisation or tendency is going to step in after the war and because of the war and take possession and transform society. Social workers hope for a new burst of philanthropic brotherhood; Christians hope for Christianity; artists and writers for a new art and literature; pacificists for a general disarmament; militarists for permanent conscription; democrats say there will be a levelling of class barriers; and I heard a subaltern the other day remark that the war would ‘put a stopper on all this beastly democracy.’ We all seem to think the world will emerge out of the melting-pot into some strange new shape; optimists hope and believe it will be the shape they prefer, pessimists are almost sure it will be the one they can least approve. Optimists say the world will have been brought to a state of mind in which wars can never be again; pessimists say, on the contrary, we are in for a long succession of them, because we have revived a habit, and habit forms character, and character forms conduct. But really I believe the world will be left very much where it was before, because of that great immobile section which weighs it down.’

And in conversation with a Church of England minister, her brother Nicholas’s flatmate:

‘If we could go out there and try,’ said Alix, ‘we shouldn’t feel so bad, should we?’

He shook his head.

‘No: not so bad. War’s beastly and abominable to the fighters: but not to be fighting is much more embittering and demoralising, I believe. Probably largely because one has more time to think. To have one’s friends in danger, and not to be in danger oneself—it fills one with futile rage. Combatants are to be pitied; but non-combatants are of all men and women the most miserable. Older men, crocks, parsons, women—God help them.’

Alix then finds out, while in casual conversation with a soldier-on-leave who turns out to have shared a trench with Paul, that her brother died of a self-inflicted wound. Add to this absolutely understandable angst a love affair gone quietly and irretrievably wrong.

Alix has long been in love with a fellow artist, Basil Doye, and he has returned the passion, glorying in Alix’s intellectual equality and their meeting-of-minds. Now Basil has been seriously wounded in the right hand, and his artistic future is ruined. Basil turns away from Alix and her too intellectually and emotionally demanding mindset, and instead becomes infatuated with one of the daughters of the house where Alix lives. Evie is physically lovely – appealing to Basil’s artistic eye – and sweetly natured – once she realizes that Alix is still in love with Basil she immediately offers to turn him away – but she is of very mediocre intellectual ability, and has no idea most of the time what Basil is going on about.

Basil doesn’t care; all he sees is healthy normalcy, and in it a relief from the overstimulation of the war. Despite the respite in England and his dalliances with Evie – who is eventually put off by Basil’s intensity, preferring instead the more comfortable, “traditional” courtship of a hearty (and wealthy) young sprig of the minor nobility – Basil feels compelled to go back to France, which he eventually does once his hand with its amputated finger is superficially healed, and after a scene in which Alix confesses her love for him and he refuses to acknowledge it, acting as though she is merely assuring him of her continued “friendship”.

Much inner examination follows. Alix seeks enlightenment through religion – she has always been an atheist and is now starting to wonder if there is indeed “something more” in Christianity – but though she gets a glimpse of something there she can’t quite yet embrace it. She decides to join her mother’s Peace Society, to at last do something with regard to the war, and the book closes with every character in limbo, as indeed their counterparts were in real life.

The year of grace 1915 slipped away into darkness, like a broken ship drifting on bitter tides on to a waste shore. The next year began.

Bleak? Yes, this book is desperately bleak. But not to the degree which one would think, and there are many moments of relief from the bleakness, for it is Rose Macaulay, and she has a likeably sardonic sense of humour which even the seriousness of the setting cannot damp down.

Therefore, instead of leaving you with that poignant ending line about the broken ship on the bitter tide, I am going to backtrack to an early episode between Alix, Nicholas, and the clergyman flatmate.

‘It’s awkward,’ West added, lowering his voice and glancing at one of the shut bedroom doors, ‘because we keep a German, and they can’t meet.’

‘What do you do that for?’ asked Alix unsympathetically.

‘Awkward, isn’t it?’ said West. ‘Because they keep coming to see us—the Belgians, I mean (they like us rather), and he’—he nodded at the bedroom—’has to scoot in there till they’re gone. It’s like dogs and cats; they simply can’t be let to meet.’

‘Well, I don’t know what you want with a German, anyhow.’

‘He’s a friend of ours,’ explained Nicholas. ‘He was living in the Golders Green Garden City, and it became so disagreeable for him (they’re all so exposed there, you know—nothing hid) that we asked him here instead. If they find him he’s afraid they may put him in a concentration camp, and of course if the Belgians sighted him they’d complain. He means no harm, but unfortunately he had a concrete lawn in his garden, about ten feet square, where he used to bounce a ball for exercise. Also he had made a level place on his roof, among Mr. Raymond Unwin’s sloping tiles, where he used to sit and admire the distant view through a spyglass. It’s all very black against him, but he’s a studious and innocent little person really, and he’d hate to be concentrated.’ (‘It would make one feel so like essence of beef, wouldn’t it?’ West murmured absently.) ‘He’s not a true patriot,’ went on Nicholas. ‘He wants the Hohenzollerns to be guillotined and a disruptive country of small waning states to be re-established. He writes articles on German internal reform for the monthly reviews. He calls them “Kill or Cure,” or, “A short way with Imperialism,” or some such bloody title. I don’t care for his English literary style, but his intentions are excellent…

Good reading, this book. Especially recommended if you are already familiar with Rose Macaulay. Shades of The World This Wilderness, and the ethical and religious musings of Macaulay’s last and perhaps best-known work, The Towers of Trebizond.

A note on the Capuchin Classics edition I read. It contains a forward by Macaulay’s biographer, Sarah LeFanu, which seems to have been prepared for another edition of Non-Combatants, as it references in great detail a 1942 short story, ‘Miss Anstruther’s Letters’, which does not appear in this edition of the book. There are also numerous typographical errors, mostly in punctuation, which I found slightly troubling, as it broke the flow while reading. Neither of these issues should deter you from acquiring this book; I am very grateful that Capuchin has republished it, as it is much too good to be lost.

goodbye to all that robert graves 1929 001Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves ~ 1929. This edition: Penguin, 1977. Revised edition, with text amendments, Prologue and Epilogue added by the author in 1957. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-001443-8. 282 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Oh, where to start with this one?

I think I will give a bare-ish sort of overview, because I am quite sure (though I haven’t actually looked) that the internet abounds with excellent, in-depth, analytical reviews.

Robert von Ranke Graves was born in 1895 to a mother with connections to the German nobility (hence the von Ranke), and an Anglo-Irish father, the respected Gaelic folklorist and scholar Alfred Perceval Graves. This made him just the right age to head off to war as soon as he exited his prep school (Charterhouse) in 1914.

Graves served as an officer on active duty for the entire duration of the war, though he almost didn’t make it through. He was wounded so horrifically at one point that his commanding officer, assessing the bloody mess of his officer draped upon a stretcher with a gaping and presumably fatal chest wound, wrote and sent off a letter of condolence to Graves’ mother, telling her of her son’s brave and “mercifully swift and painless” demise.

Graves pulled through that episode, and later had the pleasure of being able to read his own prematurely-published obituary, and to grimly chuckle over fulsome letters of condolence sent to his parents by certain bosom enemies of school days.

Goodbye to All That was the result of Robert Grave’s bitter disillusionment with the horrors of the Great War, and with the society which bred the “good sportsmen” who perished in their wasteful thousands. Supremely sensitive and articulate – Graves was a published poet while still in his teens – he communicates his disgust at the whole British system – the “All That” of the title – which not only allowed but which actively encouraged (in his mind) the kind of blindered thinking which allowed this to happen.

Goodbye to All That details Graves’ youth and school years, the war years, and his unconventional 1918 marriage to the just- eighteen-year-old Nancy Nicholson. The narrative reads like a Who’s Who of Big Names of the time: Siegfried Sassoon, T.E. Lawrence (late of Arabia), and John Masefield (whose garden cottage Robert and Nancy and their four young children gratefully occupied for some years), among many others.

There’s a whole lot Graves doesn’t tell in this memoir, including the details of his marriage breakup and his subsequent decision to scrape the dust of England off of his feet with bitter finality. Robert Graves moved to Majorca in 1929, a week before the publication of Goodbye to All That, and from there he shrugged off the numerous shouts of dismay his then-controversial tell-all work engendered. Graves lived in Majorca until his death at the age of 90 in 1985. His life-work was an astounding 140-plus volumes of poetry, biography, personal memoir, and novels.

Full of questionable truthfulness as some bits may be – accounts of others-who-were-there occasionally vary – Goodbye to all That is superb.

Very highly recommended.

A note: Robert Graves edited the 1929 edition of Goodbye to All That in 1957, replacing pseudonyms with real names, and adding to and tightening up many of the details. He later said that nobody noticed that he had essentially rewritten the book, and that readers reported themselves surprised by “how well it had held up” since its original publication. Since the 1957 edition is the one we are most likely to encounter (my own copy is of that vintage) it might be rather interesting to at some point to also read an earlier version, if one were so inclined.

 

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olivia o douglas dj 001Olivia by O. Douglas ~ 1912. Original title: Olivia in India: The Adventures of a Chota Miss Sahib. This edition: Nelson, 1950. Hardcover. 281 pages.

Provenance: Shepherd Books, Victoria B.C., September 2013.

My rating: 7/10

The first published work by Anna Buchan, written under her pen name O. Douglas.

This slight epistolary novel is based on Anna’s own 1907 voyage to India to visit her younger brother William; the characters “Olivia” and “Boggley” are obviously very lightly veiled depictions of Anna and William, and there is even a reference or two to another brother, “John”, who is a highly regarded novelist. John Buchan – of The Thirty-Nine Steps fame – was of course a very real person, and though “Olivia” throughout refers to her family name as “Douglas”, we can’t help but draw the simple conclusion that this is mostly autobiography, presented as fiction.

India in the years of the Raj has been so often and thoroughly documented both in fact and fiction that it exists in our readerly imaginations as a defined time and place with expected characters, settings and situations. Olivia does nothing to further illuminate any of this, merely laying down another layer of sepia-tinted varnish on an already-finished picture.

I found the book enjoyable enough in a mild way; in common with all of the author’s other novels the people are very believable, being a mixture of good and not so good, and the situations are realistically described. It differs from most of O Douglas’s later novels which have a traditional plot structure in that in this one nothing really happens, aside from the expected incidents of domestic adventure and foreign travel.

Olivia journeys about, sightseeing and marking time, all the while writing to an unnamed correspondent back home, whom we are able to identify early on as a person of potentially romantic interest. The nearest thing to a climax occurs at the very end of the book, when the correspondent is given a name, and Olivia commits herself so far as to accept his apparent proposal of an enlargement and formalization of their “friendship” when she returns to England.

Though it sounds as if I were damning this quiet book with faint praise, it wasn’t actually all that bad. The scenes throughout are engagingly described and occasional vignettes stand out, as when Olivia sees the Himalayas for the first time, after a less-than-comfortable train journey.

Here is a snippet from that journey, with these pages being representative of the style of narrative of the whole. (Click on image to enlarge.)

olivia o douglas excerpt 001

And there are enough references to the political situation and dreadful things going on all about – the poverty of much of the native population and certain of the lower class Europeans and Eurasians, the constant occurrence of sudden death from misadventure and virulent tropical diseases, the occasional “throwing of bombs” by radical demonstrators – to keep the tone from being at all saccharine.

Olivia herself has a rather snobbish attitude to anyone not of her class, race and religion – these being upper, Scottish, and Presbyterian – but she does recognize this tendency in herself and occasionally puts herself out to overcome her prejudices, though to the end of her travels she remains fastidiously suspicious of the natives of the country.

Very much a first book, but, to be fair, quite a good one. It held my interest throughout, though I am sure most of it will fade away quite quickly to join the rest of the era’s Anglo-Indian accounts of chirpy young Great Britain-ites off to visit the exotic Colonial Outposts, before it all fell apart.

 

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It’s hard to believe a whole 12 months have raced by since the last Year-End Round-Up List, but the calendar doesn’t lie, and here we are only a few days from a brand new year. Time for a retrospective, then, to clear the decks for the year to come.

Last year I came up with three very broad categories of outstanding books I had read in the previous year: Most Unexpected, Most Disappointing, and Personal Favourites. I will be using the same categories for the books of 2013, though there was some overlap between Most Unexpected and Personal Favourites. I’ve arbitrarily decided which category best fits each book.

And though last year I included only books I had reviewed in full on the blog, this year some will sneak in which I’ve only briefly mentioned. It was a surprisingly hectic year, and I missed writing quite a number of reviews, though the books themselves are too interesting to leave off these retrospective lists. I will link these to other reviews, either by fellow bloggers, or on Goodreads or someplace similar.

Kicking off this week of lists – a most enjoyable aspect of looking back at the year just passed as we head into the longer days and bright promise of the new year – I am adding a fourth category: Books Which Pleased Me 2013. These are books which, as I peruse my list of things read the past twelve months, don’t really fit into the main categories, and which, for the most part, I didn’t write reviews of, but which I nevertheless feel a warm surge of liking for as I come across their titles. These are books which made me happy.

*****

10+ PLEASING BOOKS ~ 2013

In alphabetical order by author.

*****

a time to love margot benary isbert1. A Time to Love

by Margot Benary-Isbert ~ 1962

An excellent vintage teenage/young adult historical fiction set in the years just prior to and at the start of World War II. Fifteen-year-old Annegret of the earlier books The Blue Mystery and The Shooting Star goes away to boarding school and becomes very aware that the world beyond the sheltering walls of her family home is fast becoming a dark and dangerous place. A rare story told from the German point of view; very much anti-Hitler but also making clear the conflicted positions of many “common” German people in the years leading up to the war. A thoughtful and even-handed book; a lovely and relatable bildungsroman. The author draws heavily upon her own experiences as a German citizen during the war; worth reading for that element alone, though there is much more here to mull over and to enjoy. Goodreads: A Time to Love

but i wouldn't have missed it for the world peg bracken2. But I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For the World

by Peg Bracken ~ 1973

Long before Martha Stewart’s perfectionist homemaker guidebooks, there was Peg Bracken. Unlike Ms. Stewart, Peg was very much “one of us.” (Does anyone remember the slightly subversive 1970s bestsellers The I Hate to Cook Book, and A Window Over the Sink?) Here Peg sets her sights on the highs and lows of travelling, in a humorous collection of musings, meandering and anecdotes. Some real gems amidst the fluff. I read this while travelling myself, and occasionally laughed out loud at the universal experiences I shared with the author. Feather light and deeply charming, albeit in a dated sort of way. I was just a wee bit taken aback by Peg’s enthusiastic promotion of the lavish purchase of souvenirs – one of my own travelling goals is to come back as lightly laden as possible (books excepted, of course) – but to each her own! Goodreads: But I Wouldn’t Have Missed it for the World 

hotel du lac anita brookner3. Hotel du Lac

by Anita Brookner ~ 1984

Shades of Barbara Pym haunt the works of novelist Anita Brookner, whose literary acquaintance I made this year. This subfusc novel of a mysteriously disgraced woman coming to terms with her fate and her future was not exactly Booker Prize material (in my opinion), but it was most readable, and I find myself thinking of its wry heroine, romance novel writer Edith Hope, with real fondness. Blogger Mark Sampson – Free Range Reading: Hotel du Lac – says it well.

paper moon addie pray joe david brown4. Paper Moon

originally published as Addie Pray

by Joe David Brown ~ 1971

Loved it! Read this one way back in high school in the 1970s, and this re-reading stood up marvellously well. An 11-year-old orphan and her maybe-father develop their talents as small-time con artists as they travel around the south-eastern United States in the darkest years of the Great Depression. Funny and heart-warming but never, ever sloppy. Brilliant. Ignore all the “female Huck Finn” and “sassy young heroine” comments on Goodreads – this tallish tale is something quite unique. You may be familiar with the classic Tatum and Ryan O’Neal hit movie; this book it was based on is even betterGoodreads: Paper Moon 

the house that is our own o douglas 0015. The House that is Our Own 

by O. Douglas ~ 1940

Middle-aged, recently-widowed Kitty and independently single, almost-30 Isobel meet at a residential hotel and become firm friends. Their relationship deepens and grows even as they eventually go their separate ways, Kitty to a new flat, and Isobel to a rural Scottish cottage. O. Douglas is always a great pleasure to read, and there is quiet merit in all of her books. Honorable mentions as well to three more O. Douglas books first read in 2013: Pink Sugar (see review), Taken by the Hand, and Eliza for Common. The last two also deserve proper reviews of their own; I know I will be re-reading both in future and hope to expand upon them then.

the grand sophy georgette heyer 26. The Grand Sophy 

by Georgette Heyer ~ 1950

Amazonian Sophy is a surprise visitor to her relations in London, throwing an entire household – aunt, uncle and numerous cousins – into a turmoil it has never known before. Sophy is a born manager of other people for their own good, and here she finds much scope for her personal hobby. By the end of this improbable and frothy Regency tale, set in the early decades of the 19th century, romantic couples are paired off, financial difficulties are sorted out, and Sophy has found true love. What’s not to like? Well, that rather blatantly anti-Semitic moneylender episode, perchance… But dodging that critique with the handy “era correct” excuse, this buoyant tale succeeds at cover-to-cover amusement. Also a lot of fun is another Heyer romance, Devil’s Cub. Pure fluff, but the long dialogue sections are very nicely done with loads of cunning, period-correct language, and much humour. wheels within wheels dervla murphy

7. Wheels Within Wheels

by Dervla Murphy ~ 1979

Irishwoman Dervla Murphy, after leaving school at the age of fourteen to look after her bedridden mother, dreamed of travelling, and cherished her occasional opportunities for solo bicycle trips. In 1963, at the age of 32, the death of her mother freed her at last to embark upon a truly ambitious journey. Dervla cycled, alone and self-supported, from Ireland to India, where she spent five months volunteering in a refugee camp for Tibetans fleeing the Chinese occupation. Wheels Within Wheels details Dervla’s life before the Indian expedition, and describes the personally challenging years in Ireland which led to her future wanderlust.  An excellent memoir by a fascinating woman. Passionate, opinionated, and frequently very funny. Goodreads: Wheels Within Wheels. And for more on Dervla Murphy’s many subsequent travels and her activities up to the present: Dervla Murphy. com

secrets of the gnomes poortvliet huygen 28. Secrets of the Gnomes 

by Rien Poortvliet and Wil Huygen ~ 1981

So much more than just a picture book. An intricately illustrated “travelogue”  about the fantastical world of gnomes. Clever and slyly humorous, with a serious message about caring for our shared world. The artwork is extremely well done. Intriguing and diverting in concept and execution, and decidedly of “adult” interest. Amazon:Secrets of the Gnomes  

amberwell d e stevenson 29. Amberwell

by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1955

Not quite as fluffy as some of D.E. Stevenson’s novels, this may well be my favourite of hers so far. Amberwell is a family saga of awful parents and quite lovely children, set at a Scottish country estate. One for the re-read and write-about pile, but in the meantime a nicely succinct review may be read here: Pining for the West: Amberwell. And neck and neck with Amberwell for D.E.S. favourite status is this recently-read “serious” novel, Charlotte Fairlie (1954).  A girls’ school headmistress attempts to help some of her students cope with difficult personal situations, and finds her own life much changed as a result. Aka Blow the Wind Southerly and The Enchanted Isle.  

laughing gas p g wodehouse10. Laughing Gas

by P.G. Wodehouse ~ 1936

Deeply silly, as only a Wodehouse epic can be. While visiting Hollywood in order to rescue an alcoholic relation from a suspected entanglement with a gold-digging starlet, the ugly but sincere Earl of Havershot and golden-boy cinema idol Joey Cooley exchange bodies in some weirdly out-of-body way while simultaneously under dentists’ anesthetics. Much hilarity ensues before it all gets sorted out. Though it’s not as grand as Jeeves and Wooster, or even Lord Emsworth, it did make me smile. A proper review here: Vintage Novels: Laughing Gas      

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pink sugar o douglas anna buchanPink Sugar by O. Douglas ~ 1924. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1936. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

A rather sweet book, but not mawkishly so in the way the title suggests. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, but I came away feeling beautifully contented, in an “all’s right in that fictional world” sort of way. The heroine sorted herself out nicely, and we have high hopes for her future if she can just retain that hard-won sensibility to the absurdity of playing Lady Bountiful to an oblivious populace!

I guess I should backtrack a bit, and summarize the plot for those of you not already familiar with this gentle novel.

“Spinster without encumbrances” Kirsty Gilmour is thirty and a free woman for the first time in her life, after the recent death of her stepmother, a woman described as “sweet and friendly and quite intolerable”. The second Lady Gilmour was an absolutely selfish creature whom Kirsty has stuck with from charitable impulse and deep inner goodness – Kirsty is the inheritor of her late father’s fortune, and has financially supported and accompanied her stepmother through that woman’s preferred social whirl in the years since Sir Gilmour’s death.

Kirsty’s older friend, Blanche Cunningham, reminisces about the unregretted Lady Gilmour.

Thinking of Lady Gilmour, Blanche was conscious again of the hot wave of dislike that had so often engulfed her when she had come across that lady in life. She remembered the baby-blue eyes, the appealing ways, the smooth sweet voice that could say such cruel things, the too red lips, the faint scent of violets that had clung to all of her possessions, the carefully thought out details of all she wore, her endless insistent care of herself and her own comfort, her absolute carelessness as to the feelings of others…

‘Kirsty,’ Blanche laid her hand on her friend’s arm. ‘However did you stand it all those years? What an intolerable woman she was!’

Kirsty sat looking in front of her.

‘She’s dead,’ was all she said.

‘Well,’ Mrs. Cunningham retorted briskly, ‘being dead doesn’t make people any nicer, does it?’

Now, freed of the superficial social whirl, Kirsty has joyously fled to the country, her true emotional habitat and the place of her birth, to the Borders of Scotland, to the little village of Muirburn, just outside of Priorsford.  (O. Douglas aficionados will recognize the reference.) Here she has rented a house, “Little Phantasy”, on the grounds of a larger estate. The manor house itself, rather quaintly named “Phantasy”,  is the abode of curmudgeonly bachelor Colonel Home, forty-ish and set in his ways, by all accounts. Kirsty doesn’t expect to see much of him, and is rather glad of that.

Kirsty has decided that she will now embrace the country life, and that she will devote herself, in true “good spinsterish” fashion, to “living for others”. Sensible Blanche rolls her eyes at this, and tells Kirsty not to be silly, but Kirsty means this in the very best way, taking under her wing as soon as possible a number of  dependents. First comes elderly Aunt Fanny, mild and gentle and perpetually knitting, and then the three motherless children of Blanche’s sister, for an extended rural stay while their recently widowed father travels abroad “to forget his grief”.

Kirsty’s foray into country life is not as smooth as anticipated, and she soon finds that people don’t necessarily like to be “lived for”; some of her most well-meant patronages are soundly snubbed, but there is enough encouragement that she soldiers on. Her tenacity and truly well-meaning sweet nature win over the most resentful of those around her. Kirsty was initially viewed as a frivolous bit of a thing, merely playing at enjoying her new role as householder and surrogate mother to the adorable Barbara and Specky, and the wickedly appealing “Bad” Bill, but as the months go by it is apparent that Kirsty’s innate inner goodness and staunch Scottish good sense will see her settled down and competently filling an important niche in Muirburn society, though not the role that she initially saw herself in.

There are some lovely character portraits in this appealing tale, and I will pass you along to several other reviewers, who also found much to admire in this pleasing novel. Please visit and read these excellent reviews, if you are at all intrigued by what I have said above. (And browse around the blogs a bit while you’re there – there are many more authors and titles highlighted worthy of rediscovery!)

The Book Trunk – Pink Sugar

Letters From a Hill Farm – Pink Sugar

I Prefer Reading – Pink Sugar

Pink Sugar was republished by Greyladies in 2009, and though that edition appears to be currently out of print, it should still be fairly easy to acquire through the second hand book trade. The novel was very popular in its day – my own copy is a vintage 1936 edition, stating that it is the twenty-first printing – so there are many still circulating around at reasonable prices.

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the house that is our own o douglas 001The House that is Our Own by O. Douglas ~ 1940. This edition: Nelson, 1951. Hardcover. 314 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Absolutely charming!

And I’m adding a whole point for the glowing descriptions of the Canadian foray which rounds off the book. I’m all proud and patriotically glowing now, after reading about how wonderful my native country was in 1940 or thereabouts, in every aspect. The author is absolutely right – Canada is really big. And it is still stunningly beautiful, and the people are really nice. Hurray for us!

Those of  us already under the quiet spell of O. Douglas’s story-telling charm will have no trouble in understanding the appeal of this gentle domestic tale. Those unfamiliar with her may be bemused a bit at what there is to get excited about, in which case I can only recommend that one dip into one to see for yourself, preferably something like The Proper Place, which will let you know if this sort of thing is for you.

Here we have the tale of two friends, Kitty and Isobel. Kitty is well into middle age, and has recently been widowed after several years of travelling abroad with her seriously ill husband, seeking treatment for his unspecified condition. Her furniture is in storage, and she has taken rooms in a London residential hotel, where she is befriended by a younger fellow resident, Isobel (all of twenty-nine, and financially independent due to a well-invested legacy), who has been living there for the past six years. Some months have gone by, and Kitty is starting to emerge from her deepest mourning, and she has started to yearn for a quiet place she can truly call her own, a place to rebuild her life along its new lines.

Encouraged by Isobel, Kitty leases an flat, and goes about getting herself all set up, with delightfully homely details.

“This,” said Kitty, “is going to be my book-room. I think the long bookcase will get in along that wall. The writing-table in the window. A sofa in front of the fire – it’s so nice to lie with books piled all around you – and an arm-chair, if I can get it in. My ‘Peter Scott’ above the mantelpiece. This is the room I’ll sit in most, and I want my wild geese beside me. I’ll get the electric man to put a light over it. We had that at Hampstead, and we used to sit in the gloaming, and look up at the lighted picture, and think we heard the geese honk-honk – ”

Peter Scott - 'The Wash At Dawn' - wild geese

Peter Scott – ‘The Wash At Dawn’ – wild geese

Kitty settles contentedly into her new digs, hiring a live-in housekeeper, the widowed Mrs. Auchinvole, whom the two friends then hold up to gently snobbish ridicule from time to time – the most jarring note in the book, to me. Kitty feels she must continually snub “The Auchinvole”, as she calls her employee to Isobel, finding in her an inclination to over-familiarity and a “We’re both widows together” attitude of emotional kinship, which Kitty finds vaguely distasteful. A vignette of class-conscious attitudes of the times, perhaps, and yet another small clue as to the resulting dearth of women willing to enter “service” in just a few years time, post-WW II.

Isobel, inspired by her friend’s nest-building initiative, decides to look about for new surroundings too. In her case, the country appeals. Through Kitty’s connections in the Border area of Scotland, Isobel rents rooms in the Scottish village of Glenbucho, in the farmhouse of a sadly diminished estate, whose young laird has had to sell up most of is land, and who has since moved to Canada, leaving his family home sadly vacant. Though she hasn’t come away an her retreat intending to purchase a house, Isobel finds herself doing just that, and she becomes effortlessly absorbed into Glenbucho’s feudal society, in which she dons the mantle of “Lady of the Manor” with effortless ease and total acceptance by all and sundry.

Much discussion ensues about the arrangement of the rooms in her new home, and the hiring of a married couple (complete with adorably realistic small boy) to look after things; the descriptions of the inner workings of the new society Isobel finds herself in is a gently fascinating interlude. And when Isobel ends up making the acquaintance of the young laird himself, one Gideon Veitch, engineered by the author most ingeniously and involving a marvellously luxurious, all-expenses-paid trip to Canada (with another adorable small boy as the raison-d’être), things play out most predictably and heart-warmingly well.

A happily feel-good little story, saved from too-saccharine “niceness” by the frequent self-examinations of the heroines – they see their own flaws and mourn them, though sometimes they chose not to remedy such, which I like – so true! – and by the sourpuss and opinionated characters who pop up here and there, to add a dash of vinegar and spice to the narrative meal.

World War I is a constant backdrop to the story; many characters have had their lives turned on end by it, and are still in recovery mode; World War II is looming, and the “situation in Europe” is discussed throughout with sombre foreboding. Though the characters refuse to let themselves dwell on such negativity for any length of time, one can sense them steeling themselves for the bitter times to come; the author makes it very clear that the gentle people of her narrative have an inner core of toughness which will see them through trial and tribulation, though they spend these peaceful days concerned with societal trivialities and creature comforts, and “What’s for tea?”, and the colours of their drawing room walls.

I enjoyed this small novel a lot. So happy to have found it; our recent foray into the used book stores of that most “English” of Canadian cities, Victoria, B.C., resulted in four new-to-me O. Douglas titles to add to my “comfort reads” bedroom shelf. Next up, Pink Sugar. With Olivia and Eliza for Common waiting in the wings. Perhaps I will save those for winter reading, though it’s so tempting to just gobble them all up right now!

(A book-room with a sofa and an arm-chair in front of a fireplace – wouldn’t that be grand? That is the image I am clinging to with wistful longing after reading this cheerful tribute to the joys of making yourself a comfortable home!)

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What an easy list to put together, after all! The hardest part was ranking them.

I simply scanned over my book reviews index, and these titles popped right out at me. Memorable for the most compelling reason I read – pure and simple enjoyment. My long-time favourites which I reviewed this year and which should really be included were left off the list, because if I noted those down there’d be no room for the marvelous new-to-me reads I discovered in 2012.

*****

BEST NEW-TO-ME READS 2012

Who could rank them?! Well, I’ll try.

A classic countdown, ending with the best of the best – the ones joining the favourites already resident on the “treasures” bookshelves.

Unapologetically “middlebrow”, most of my choices, I realize.

The jig is up. Barb is an unsophisticated reader at heart!

*****

10. Mother Mason (1916)

by Bess Streeter Aldrich

I know, I know – two titles by Aldrich are on my “Most Disappointing” list. But Mother Mason was marvelous, and I loved her. Molly Mason, happily married and with a normal, well-functioning, healthy, active family, is feeling jaded. So she runs away. But without telling anyone that that’s what she’s doing, and covering her tracks wonderfully well. She returns refreshed, to turn the narrative over to the rest of her family, though she remains in the picture, sending her family members off into the world and receiving them back with love, good humour and anything else they need when they return. A very sweet book; a happy hymn to domesticity at its best, with enough occasional real life angst to provide counterpoint. Nice.

9. Death and Resurrection (2011)

by R.A. MacAvoy

I deeply enjoy MacAvoy’s rather odd thrillers/sci fi/time shift/alternative reality/fantasy novels, and was thrilled to get my hands on this latest book, the first full-length new work the author has published in almost 20 years – she’s been otherwise occupied by dealing with some serious health issues, now happily manageable enough for a return to writing. MacAvoy’s new book is just as wonderfully off-key as her previous creations. I love how her mind works, though I experience quite a few “What did I just read?” moments when reading her stuff. Makes me pay attention!

Ewen Young is a pacifist Buddhist with a satisfying career as a painter, and absorbing side interests such as perfecting his kung fu technique and working with his twin sister’s psychiatric patients, and at a hospice for the terminally ill. When Ewen is inadvertently faced with a violent encounter with the murderers of his uncle, strange powers he never realized he had begin to develop. Factor  in a new friend and eventual love interest, veterinarian Susan Sundown, and her remarkable corpse-finding dog, Resurrection, and some decidedly dramatic encounters with the spirit world, and you have all the ingredients for a surreally mystical adventure. Friendship, love, and the importance of ancestors and family join death and resurrection as themes in this most unusual tale. Welcome back, Roberta Ann.

8. Parnassus on Wheels (1917)

by Christopher Morley

Another escaping homemaker, this one thirty-nine year old spinster Helen McGill, who decides to turn the tables on her rambling writer of a brother, much to his indignant dismay. A boisterous open road adventure with bookish interludes, and a most satisfactory ending for all concerned.

7. Fire and Hemlock (1985)

by Diana Wynne Jones

An intriguing reworking of the Tam Lin legend. Polly realizes she has two sets of memories, and that both of them are “real”.  DWJ at her strangely brilliant best.

And while we’re on the subject of Diana Wynne Jones, I’m going to add in another of hers as a sort of Honourable Mention: Archer’s Goon (1984). Gloriously funny. Don’t waste these on the younger set – read them yourselves, dear adults. Well, you could share. But don’t let their home on the Youth shelf at the library hinder your discovery of these perfectly strange and strangely attractive fantastic tales. Think of Neil Gaiman without the (occasionally) graphic sex and violence. Same sort of kinked sense of humour and weird appeal.

6. Miss Bun, the Baker’s Daughter (1939)

 and

Shoulder the Sky (1951)

by D.E. Stevenson

Two which tied for my so-far favourites (I’ve only sampled a few of her many books) by this new-to-me in 2012 by this vintage light romantic fiction writer. Both coincidentally have artistic backgrounds and sub-plots.

In Miss Bun, Sue Pringle takes on a job against her family’s wishes as a housekeeper to an artist and his wife; immediately upon Sue’s arrival the wife departs, leaving Sue in a rather compromising position, living alone with a married man. She refuses to abandon the most unworldly John Darnay, who is so focussed on his painting that he forgets that bills need to eventually be paid, let alone considering what the gossips may be whispering about his personal life. An unusual but perfectly satisfying romance ensues.

Shoulder the Sky takes place shortly after the ending of World War II. Newlyweds Rhoda and James Johnstone settle into an isolated farmhouse in Scotland to try their hand at sheep farming. Rhoda, a successful professional painter, is struggling with the dilemma of compromising her artistic calling with the new duties of wifehood. Her husband never puts a foot wrong, leaving Rhoda to work her priorities out for herself. Though things came together a little too smoothly at the end, I was left feeling that this was a most satisfactory novel, one which I can look forward to reading again.

5. All Passion Spent (1931)

by Vita Sackville-West

Elderly Lady Slane determines to spend her last days doing exactly as she pleases, in solitude in a rented house (well, she does keep her also-elderly maid), thereby setting her family in an uproar by her 11th hour stand for self-determination. This short episode ends in Lady Slane’s death, but it is not at all tragic; the escape allowed Lady Slane to find her place of peace with herself, and it also served as a catalyst for some similar actions by others. Definitely unusual, full of humour, and beautifully written.

4. A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (1987)

by Rumer Godden

A brilliant autobiography which reads like one of Godden’s novel, only way better, because she’s in full share-the-personal-details mode here, and there are pictures. Beautifully written and absolutely fascinating. Reading this breathed new appreciation into my reading of Godden’s fiction. Followed by a second volume, A House With Four Rooms (1989), but the first installment is head-and-shoulder above the other – much the best.

3. The Benefactress (1901)

by Elizabeth von Arnim.

Anna Estcourt, “on the shelf” as an unmarried young lady at the advanced age of twenty-five, unexpectedly inherits an uncle’s estate in Germany. Full of noble ideas, and relieved at being able to escape her life as a dependent and portionless poor relation – orphaned Anna lives with her elder brother and his high-strung and managing wife – Anna visits the estate and decides to stay there, to build a new life for herself, and to share her good fortune with some deserving ladies who have fallen on hard times. Needless to say, things do not go as planned. A quite wonderful book, clever and observant and often very funny; serious just when needed, too. Excellent.

2. The Proper Place (1926)

The Day of Small Things (1930)

 Jane’s Parlour (1937)

by O. Douglas

These novels about the Scottish Rutherfurd family belong together on the shelf. Of these The Proper Place is my definite favourite, but the others are also must-reads if one has become engrossed with the world of the stories, rural Scotland between the two world wars. What a pleasure to follow the quiet ways of  likeable protagonist Nicole Rutherfurd, her mother, the serene Lady Jane, and Nicole’s perennially dissatisfied cousin Barbara. At the beginning of The Proper Place the Rutherfurds are leaving their ancestral home; Lord Rutherfurd has died, and the family’s sons were lost in the war; it has become impossible for the surviving women to make ends meet as things are. So off they go to a smaller residence in a seaside town, where they create a new life for themselves, shaping themselves uncomplainingly to their diminished circumstances, except for Barbara, who connives to set herself back into the world she feels she deserves. Many “days of small things” make up these stories. I can’t put my finger on the “why” of their deep appeal – not much dramatic ever happens – but there it is – a perfectly believable world lovingly created and peopled by very human characters.

1.  The Flowering Thorn (1933)

 Four Gardens (1935)

by Margery Sharp

These were my decided winners – the ones which will remain on my shelves to be read and re-read over and over again through the years to come. The Flowering Thorn is the stronger work, but Four Gardens has that extra special something, too.

In The Flowering Thorn, twenty-nine-year-old socialite Lesley Frewen is starting to wonder if perhaps she is not a lovable person; she has plenty of acquaintances, and is often enough pursued by young men professing love, but those she views as emotional and intellectual equals treat her with perfect politeness and fall for other women. Acting on a strange impulse, Lesley one day offers to adopt a small orphaned boy, and then moves to the country with him, in order to reduce her expenses – her London budget, though perfectly managed, will not stretch to a second mouth to feed, and her elegant flat is in an adult-only enclave. Quickly dropped by her shallow city friends, Lesley sets herself to fulfill the silent bargain she has made with herself, to bring up young Patrick to independence and to preserve her personal standards. But as we all know, sometimes the way to find your heart’s desire is to stop searching for it, and Lesley’s stoicism is eventually rewarded in a number of deeply satisfying ways. An unsentimental tale about self-respect, and about love.

Caroline Smith has Four Gardens in her life. The first is the gone-to-seed wilderness surrounding a vacant estate house, where she finds romance for the first time. The next two are the gardens of her married life; the small backyard plot of her early married years, and the much grander grounds surrounding the country house which her husband purchases for her with the proceeds of his successful business planning. The fourth garden is the smallest and most makeshift – a few flowerpots on a rooftop, as Caroline’s circumstances become reduced after her husband’s death, and her fortunes turn full circle. A beautiful and unsentimental story about a woman’s progress throughout the inevitable changes and stages of her life – daughter-wife-mother-grandmother-widow. Clever and often amusing, with serious overtones that are never sad or depressing.

Margery Sharp was in absolutely perfect form with these two now almost unremembered books.

This is why I love “vintage”. I wish I owned a printing press – I’d love to share books like these with other readers who appreciate writerly craftsmanship, a well-turned phrase, and a quietly clever story. They don’t deserve the obscurity they’ve inevitably fallen into through the passage of time.

*****

So there we are – I’ve made it to midnight – the only one still awake in my house. I’m going to hit “Post”, then off to bed with me as well.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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