Archive for the ‘Rachel Ferguson’ Category

a-harp-in-lowndes-square-rachel-ferguson-1936A Harp in Lowndes Square by Rachel Ferguson ~ 1936. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2016. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-911413-73-8. 287 pages.

My rating: 10/10

2016 continues to throw an eclectic array of all sorts of unpleasant things our way. Thank goodness for good books. Escape reading has been a slender but strong lifeline in a stormy personal (and societal) sea.

This past week has been particularly rewarding in this aspect, and I found I used up most of my writing time for reading, as I was seduced first by Sinclair Lewis’ highly likeable Dodsworth, then by Will Ferguson’s snarky Generica (aka Happiness™) and, last and best, by Rachel Ferguson’s dense and rewarding A Harp in Lowndes Square.

All three demand discussion. The last-read will be the first. These reviewlets will be short on original analysis, because Real Life is relentless in pounding at the door, but with the thought that any mention is better than none, here we go.

A Harp in Lowndes Square is the most “serious” of the three of Rachel Ferguson’s works I’ve read so far, and the most “conventional” (relatively speaking) in its structure and its plot.

Where The Brontës go to Woolworths was frequently giddy, and sometimes deliberately ridiculous, and A Footman for the Peacock evolved on occasion into pure farce, A Harp transcends the author’s stylistic playfulness in those other works – for to me that is what it often seems, a deliberate, gently ponderous frolicking garbed harlequin-wise in sardonic humour – and attains a higher ground in its characters and its plot.

This despite the reader-challenging dependence on an acceptance of the theory of a parallel stream of time for much of the book. It’s almost what the reviews label it as – a sort-of ghost story – but at heart it’s purely of its time, a self-assessing, slyly humorous, poignantly troubling novel revolving around the thoughts and feelings of a sympathetic narrator.

From the Dean Street Press website, a pared-down précis of the basics of the plot, hinting very slightly at the intricacies of this absorbingly complex novel:

Description

In the schoolroom in Lowndes Square, a child, in her ugly, unsuitable frock of plum-coloured satin, cut down when discarded from one of her mother’s, bent over the cutting out of a doll and its cardboard wardrobe, and shivered as she worked.

Hilarious, shocking, and heartbreaking in turn, A Harp in Lowndes Square is like no other Rachel Ferguson novel. Perhaps her most personal work – and the closest she ever came to a ghost story – it tells of Vere and James, twins gifted with ‘the sight,’ which allows them to see and even experience scenes from the past (including one, at Hampton Court, involving royalty).

The twins are already aware of their mother’s troubled relationship with her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant, but the discovery of an Aunt Myra, who died young and of whom their mother has never spoken, leads them to uncover the family’s tragic past. Against the backdrop of World War I and Vere’s unexpected relationship with an aging actor (and his wife), and rife with Ferguson’s inimitable wit, the novel reaches a powerful and touching denouement when the twins relive the horrifying events of many years before …

A Harp in Lowndes Square was originally published in 1936. This new edition features an introduction by social historian Elizabeth Crawford.

Praise

‘It is only (now) that I realise how much … my work owes to the delicacy and variety of Rachel Ferguson’s exploration of the real and the dreamed of, or the made up, or desired.’ A.S. BYATT

‘A wonderful concoction … the true stuff of storytelling.’ GILLIAN TINDALL

The above is of course overly dramatized, as is the wont in back cover blurbery, but essentially correct in summation.

I didn’t find much hilarity here, though there was abundant intelligent humour, and the so-called denouement, though indeed powerful and touching, wasn’t particularly surprising as the narrative contained abundant hints as to what it was that actually happened one bitter night in the late 1800s, on the stairs outside the drawing room door.

The real reward of this gem of a novel is in its depiction of the best possibilities of human relationships. Narrator Vere, one of the psychically-sensitive twins, never finds romantic love in the conventional sense, but, looking back on her earlier life from the age of fifty, she reflects on what she did instead experience, and it seems to me to be, in this case at least, an acceptable alternative.

The morally monstrous mother figure in the background – family matriarch Lady Vallant – serves to accentuate the determined rejection of such parental coldness by her youngest daughter Anne, mother of twins Vere and James and the finely-drawn Lalage, their beloved elder sister.

All three of the Ferguson novels read by me to date stand out, despite their sometimes bizarre structure, as warm depictions of familial unity as bulwark against a sometimes-bitter outside world, and these affirmative passages are, to me, perhaps the finest part of these intellectually rich, fascinatingly convoluted novels.

I liked this book much more than I had expected too – and I had high expectations indeed. I’d ordered it with a view to reading it in 2017 as part of my second prospective Century of Books project, but in a moment of weakness I opened it “just to preview”, was drawn in, and here I am, happily contemplating a 1936 replacement on my want-to-read list. Luckily it shouldn’t be too hard to find something else, in that rich literary era.

For more on A Harp in Lowndes Square, I’m going to send you over to this review by Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow, whose fervent hunting out, re-reading, and articulate reviewing of out-of-print mid-century female novelists has led to this particular republication.

Grateful kudos again to Scott, and to Dean Street Press.

Many of us, myself included, hear “print on demand” and our first response is to cringe in disgust, because of the many horrible examples of Gutenberg-mining  hack “presses” so prolifically invading the ABE and Amazon lists, but Dean Street Press is a shining beacon of How To Do It Right. Beautifully produced paper editions, perfectly re-set, with scholarly new forewords and appropriate cover art, made wonderfully (and affordably!) available for those of us who struggle with reading from a screen. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Full disclosure, in case anyone is wondering at my enthusiastic promotion of DSP: A Harp in Lowndes Square is not a review copy; I bought it with my own hard-earned dollars. Worth every penny. Check these guys out.

 

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a-footman-for-the-peacock-rachel-ferguson-1940A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson ~ 1940. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2016. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-911413-71-4. 206 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Ever since my 2012 reading of Rachel Ferguson’s challenging but ultimately enjoyable 1931 novel, The Brontës Went to Woolworths, I’ve harboured a yen to broaden my exploration  of the further works of this highly intelligent (and highly class conscious) writer.

Imagine then my anticipatory pleasure when approached by Dean Street Press with a review copy of one of Rachel Ferguson’s long out-of-print novels, A Footman for the Peacock, a partly serious, partly fantasy, partly satirical novel set at the beginning of the Second World War.

“Yes, please!” was my response, and I must say in this case my instinct that this was going to be a pleasure to read and review was perfectly correct.

A small aside, here, regarding my book reviewing. As a book blogger in this esoteric corner of the internet, I frequently receive requests to read and review things, and I generally turn these requests down. No time or energy for possible duds, you know. (I find enough of those for myself quite voluntarily!)

Unless the book in question is one which looks to be something I’d be interested in buying for myself in any event, in which case I’m naturally as keen as can be. (Re-publishers of mid-century middlebrow fiction, and gardening and travel books of any era, please take note! 🙂 )

Back to the Peacock.

It’s 1939, and the war is looming. Even the most optimistic of “peace in our time” Munich Agreement yes-men have come to the realization that all of that was a great big political farce, and that the guns will soon be firing.

The aristocratic Roundelays are in residence at Delaye, a vast pile of a country house just barely holding its own as the 20th century brutally takes its financial toll on the English “gentleman’s class”. Sir Edmund and Lady Evelyn know that another war is well-nigh inevitable, but in concert with their rural neighbours are merely holding still, making no actual preparations other than mental, because to do so would break the fragile hope that peace might yet prevail.

The Roundelays are walking a financial tightrope, balanced as they are between the still-wealthy and the newly bankrupt; each breath of political wind sends them swaying, but they refuse to step aside and are making shift to keep things going, with ever-fewer servants and not running a car (Lady Evelyn does the household shopping herself, travelling to and fro by bus) and having a cousin in residence as a paying guest, his five guineas a week going directly into the grocery budget for cousin Maxwell, Lady Evelyn, Sir Edmund, their two daughters still at home, three perennially feuding great-aunts, an ancient and increasingly senile old family retainer (Nursie), long-time dedicated butler, cranky cook, and a gardener, his helper, and a housemaid or two, not to mention kitchenmaid Sue Privett, eighth in her family to have been in service to the Roundelays, which turns out to have great significance to our story.

And there’s the peacock.

Ill-tempered, raucous, and tolerant only towards kitchenmaid Sue and the younger Roundelay daughter, Angela, the peacock haunts the grounds of Delaye, finding his way home after being forcibly relocated to a neighbouring estate where it is hoped he will find solace with a flock of peahens.

We have clues early on that this particular peacock is much more than a semi-domestic bird. He is, instead, a sort of reincarnation of long ago Roundelay servant Thomas Picocke, a “running footman”, who perished in 1792 due to the horrific nature of his duties (running in front of the carriage horses for miles and miles, to clear the way and announce the arrival of his masters) and the callous disregard of the family he served; all but French expatriate Lady Marguerite, wherein lies a sad tale of pity and betrayal, but not that which you might think…

Of reincarnations we have an inkling of three in this complex tale; also an intriguing reference to Dunne’s Theory of Time, a concept of serialism, or parallel streams of time, much discussed by the intellectuals of Rachel Ferguson’s time, and used by such disparate writers as J.B. Priestley, Rumer Godden and Elizabeth Goudge in their novels.

A Footman for the Peacock was received with lukewarm enthusiasm upon its publication early in the war. Though Rachel Ferguson was well-known by that time as a cutting satirist, the portrayal of the Roundelays as self-devoted shirkers of wartime duties grated just a bit too much on the sensibilities of reviewers, who suspected that Rachel Ferguson’s tongue was not quite as far in cheek as it should have been.

Here’s a sample of what got on their nerves.

War has just been declared, and the Roundelays are appalled by the thought of taking in evacuees or refugees. -(Perhaps understandably so, for their domestic arrangements are delicately balanced at the extreme edge of manageability – though others less well-placed are turning their households inside out in the service of the National Emergency, so that’s not a real excuse.) Anyway, at dinner one night, eldest daughter Margaret drops a bit of a conversational bomb.

‘I say, mother, I had a letter yesterday from Ortrud Bohm, that German girl I was at school with – ‘

Lady Roundelay smote the table with her fist. ‘No! No she doesn’t! My heart bleeds for the German Jews as much as anybody’s but I cannot face a pale fugitive running tear-stained in what she stands up in down this avenue. I’ve read horrors until I’m sick and I know everything the Nazis have done and I can’t cope with being wept over and having the old home in Hamburg or wherever it is described brick by brick and hearing that Mein Vater was suddenly not there and hasn’t been seen since, and that the Liebe Mutter was raped before her eyes and my German wouldn’t stand the strain. I can only say Bitte and Danke Sehr and Sauerkraut and Mein Kampf, and I won’t, I won’t, I WON’T!’

‘God, no,’ confirmed Sir Edmund. ‘If she comes, I go.’

Margaret finished her ham. ‘I was only going to tell you what she wrote and she’s not Jewish, you know… She says that she’s joined the Youth Movement and her brother’s in the army and he’s got a commission he couldn’t have hoped for in peace time as the Bohms aren’t geboren, you know, and that they’re not half so sniffed at as they used to be when they were only in trade, and she’s really seeing some men at last and is having the time of her life. She actually used some German words, so that really looks as though she might even marry now she sees it’s no good being so frightfully British. She was the one who came into the class once in a tartan skirt.’

‘Gosh… well, sorry I spoke. I hope she hooks some oberleutnant – what happened in church today, aunt Jessie?’

Did you find this passage rather shocking?

Well, you were supposed to, because Rachel Ferguson’s point is that people are a mix of thoughts, feelings and instinctive responses.

Quite “nice” people like the Roundelays – who are loving parents (the relationship between Lady Evelyn and emotionally fragile daughter Angela is one of the most likeable aspects of this all-over-the-place book), relatively decent to their servants (that episode with the running footman being in the bad old past), kindly dutiful to their tiresome relations and dependents (the great-aunts and Nursie are high maintenance to the nth degree) – I repeat, quite nice people in comparison to the society they exist in, harbouring selfish and bigoted thoughts, and having the temerity to voice them out loud.

In the last lies the rub.

For though we all harbour certain best-not-spoken thoughts, the Roundelays let fly. Mostly in the family circle, but we are privy to their words, and we recoil in politically correct horror to what is expressed in passages such as the one above, while guiltily holding in laughter, because a lot of what is said is (full disclosure – I laughed when I read this) very funny.

There is a strand of plot running through this very full story, but much of the pleasure of the thing lies in the many side excursions – show Rachel Ferguson a glimpse of a rabbit trail and she’s off like a shot, returning to the main path not at all winded and blithely assuming her reader to be loping along still in stride.

It takes a bit to get it figured out, but once one is hooked – it took me about 20 pages or so; I went back and checked – the rest of this quirky novel is both thought-provoking and entertaining. It’s occasionally rather like untangling a mess of yarn complete with helpful kitten, but it works.

And, thanks to Dean Street Press and the republishing of not just this one Rachel Ferguson novel, plus two more and a tempting selection of other mid-century reprints, my Christmas book wish-list for myself is well-nigh complete. Check out their recent releases – oh, bliss! Available as paper books (print on demand, and very nicely done; I’m impressed) from the publisher or via Amazon and Book Depository; also as ebooks in various formats.

For the original book blog review which triggered this reprint, I’m going to send you over to Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow, whose impeccable taste in obsolete fiction has pointed the way to many, many hours of excellent reading.

Here’s his take on A Footman for the Peacock, with loads of quotes and a most thoughtful analysis, which I find myself nodding away to in complete agreement.

 

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The Brontës Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson ~ 1931. This edition: Bloomsbury, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-60819-053-9. 188 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10. Cleverly imagined, if a bit high-strung. I found it rather a sad story, behind the relentlessly bright chatter of the heroines.

*****

How to start with this one? Well, first off, I must confess that I had a truly difficult time finding my stride here. I started reading one night when I was, admittedly, very tired, and made it to Chapter 5, about twenty-five pages in, when I gave up in utter dismay. What was this frenetically paced, brittle, self-complimentary mess all about, anyway? And who in their right mind would recommend it?!

A few days later, in a much less sleep-deprived state of mind, I tried again, starting from the very beginning, a thing I seldom do – most books get one chance and one chance only – but I really wanted to see what this one was all about, because I’d heard it praised so highly be several other bloggers whose tastes I often share: ShannonJenny, and Simon Savidge, to name just a few.

*****

Three fatherless sisters and their recently widowed mother live an upper middle-class life in the London of the time between the two World Wars. The eldest, Deirdre, is an aspiring novelist with a day job as a newspaper writer. Middle sister Katrine is a drama student, and young Sheil (not short for Sheila, by the way, but rather named for the Scottish birthplace of her father) is a schoolgirl under the tutelage of an earnest governess, Miss Agatha Martin.

The three sisters, as well as their gently witty mother, Mrs. Carne, are doing the best they can after the death of their obviously beloved father and husband. They have created a vivid fantasy world which runs parallel to their real world; they make no distinction between the real and the imagined in their conversations with each other, and the reader is thrown into the melee with few only a few clues to go by that this is not all as it seems. I sympathized with the sober governess Miss Martin, who continually tried to make sense of the nonsense, until finally giving up in dismay and fleeing to a more traditional, if bleaker, refuge as a parish worker, two-thirds of the way through the story

Imaginary members of the Carne circle are Dion Saffyn, based on a real-life figure of a pierrot entertainer glimpsed during a summer holiday, and his family, and the imaginary Ironface, a childhood doll, who has morphed into the snobbish wife of a member of the French nobility. Even the family’s raffish terrier, Crellie, leads a double existence as the Pope, with some off-putting doggish habits and tendencies.

But the most elaborate of the characters the Carnes have created is a take-off on the very real Judge Herbert Toddington, “Toddy” as they familiarly style him, ever since Mrs. Carne’s jury duty brought the elderly justice into their focus. When Deidre meets the real Judge Toddington, through his wife Lady Mildred’s attendance at a charity bazaar which Deidre is covering for her newspaper, fantasy becomes something much more solid.

All of the nonsense and make-believe are, it seems to me, a way for the four Carnes to deal with their deep grief at the loss of their fifth member. Deidre makes no secret of her interest in placing Toddy in the role of an auxiliary “man of the family”, as she has felt her own fulfillment of that position extremely difficult.

The fairy tale aspect of the story has its sobering moments, brought into focus by the confused governess Miss Martin, who cannot cope with the continued “weirdness” of her charge, the sisters, and Mrs. Carne, who plays along with the rest of the family in their complex game. Once Miss Martin flees in despair, a replacement, Miss Ainslie, is reduced to confusion in her turn, being soundly snubbed when she seeks to play along.

And that brings me to the only thing I did not like about the Carne family, once I allowed myself to enter their story: their extreme snobbishness. I realize that this was a commonplace trait of people in their position and their time, but it bothered me that they were so scornful in attitude to people like their governesses, not giving them any sort of explanation as to the goings on with the imaginary characters, and relentlessly shutting them out of the game. And when Katrine falls in love with a truly good man of a decidedly lower social class, her elder sister advises her to harden her heart, which Katrine obediently does – “It just wouldn’t do” seems an acceptable reason to deny what seems like true love.

The Brontës come into the story in a rather mysterious way towards the end of the book, and if you make it that far their appearance will make sense, as you’ll have suspended your considerable disbelief and will be enjoying the hectic ride which this novel takes you on.

I ended up liking this book much more than I thought I would from my initial experience with it. It will be given a permanent position on my shelf, though I would like to read some of the author’s other novels before I allow myself to claim any sort of Rachel Ferguson fandom.

Often compared to classics such as I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith, 1949), and Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons, 1932), I will admit a certain resemblance, but feel this novel is not as sincere as the first, and not as satirical as the second. It is in the same genre, though – young heroines muddling their way into their inevitably adult lives.

Recommended, with reservations. Not for everyone, and may take a few tries to fully engage.

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