A decade ago I hadn’t even heard of D.E. Stevenson, until fellow book bloggers kept nudging me to seek her out. Now I own an almost-complete collection, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve delved into these delicious little comfort reads. Even the relative flops, of which there are a few. (Yes, Crooked Adam, I’m looking at you. And sibling story Gerald and Elizabeth. Not to mention Rochester’s Wife. Gar! I blushed for the author while reading all of these. But I kept right on reading, and I won’t part with these for anything, fully intending to revisit, groan in dismay at the bloomers, and forge ahead regardless.)

Kudos to ACE, the genre paperback publishing arm of Grosset and Dunlap, for resurrecting D.E. Stevenson back in the early 1970s, because without their editions D.E. Stevenson would be even harder to acquire than she is, but regrets for those goopy “romance” covers – soooo bad. I have to admit I hide these when reading in public.

Well, we’ve had a fraught sort of summer this year, what with the local forest fires and all, and though we’ve come out the other side personally unscathed, we still feel rather rumpled in the mind. Hence the comfort reading. Nevil Shute and D.E. Stevenson have gravitated to the bedside stand, among others. Engaging but not particularly challenging. Easy to take up, easy to put down, patiently waiting for the reader to return and step back into the story.

Most recently the books on hand are the comfortably charming Dering family novels. This is only the second time of reading them through since my introduction to D.E.S., and I enjoyed them even more so this time round than the first, because this time I read them in chronological order and everything clicked ever so nicely into place. I also recognised a number of characters from other books, which must mean I am becoming a genuine Dessie, tracing the strands of the spider-web from book to book to book – a delightful side pleasure of reading this not-quite-forgotten author.

Cribbing from previous posts to put together this overview. I’ve gotten very much out of the blogging habit, much to my regret, so trying to get those rusty cogs a-turning again. A little cheat feels justified, and I did so enjoy these books I thought them worthy of mention once again, even if I don’t have much new to say.

Here we go.

Oh! I guess I should mention that there are spoilers throughout, mainly in the transition in focus from book to book. Each installment’s resolution leads to the opening of the next. If you are brand new to these and want to be surprised (if we can describe D.E.S.’s mild dramas as worthy of such a strong term) you might want to click away and come back once you’ve read them yourself. Collectively I would give this trilogy an 8/10 or thereabouts in my personal rating system (see sidebar), keeping in mind that this is in relation of these books in D.E. Stevenson’s body of work alone.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1949. This edition: Collins-Fontana, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-613-444-0. 191 pages.

Middle-aged Caroline Dering has just been widowed, and, aside from her genuine and seemly sorrow at the death of someone who has shared her life for many years, she is not at all steeped in sorrow. Her lately departed spouse, Arnold Dering, was of a complaining and perpetually malcontented disposition. While his wife and three children were accepting of his character – Caroline thought that he always meant well, and suspected that at rare moments Arnold recognized and truly regretted his deep pessimism –  they enjoyed themselves much more in his absence.

World War II has been over for several years, but England is still very much in coping and recovery mode. Society is fast changing into some sort of new normal, and though things are steadily improving, there is still food and fuel rationing, and a strong atmosphere of “making do”, which makes for some quite fascinating scenarios as we progress through the book and look over Caroline’s shoulder as she goes about her days.

Another older hardcover edition, this one more accurately depicting the “cottage” which really isn’t.

The scene is set for what is to become a series of three novels by descriptions of the village of Ashbridge and the far from cottage-like Vittoria Cottage, ancestral home of the Derings. Though she has merely “married into” the local family, Caroline fits into the local hierarchy almost immediately, and by and large leads a deeply contented life, caring for her children, volunteering for various worthy causes, keeping house and gardening. The children are all grown up, with James away in Malaya, and lovely but discontented Leda (she takes after her father in full) and boisterous Bobbie making their way out into the larger world from the safe haven of their village nest.

Life in quiet Ashbridge gets suddenly quite interesting with the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Shepperton, who is apparently very reluctant to discuss his past, and who arouses even more suspicion because he appears to have no old belongings or clothing, a real rarity at that place and time, immediately post-war – “everything new!” the village gossips whisper with raised eyebrows.

Caroline’s lovely younger sister Harriet, a successful actress ducking away to her sister’s home for a respite from a difficult and failed recent stage production in London, brings some sophisticated dash and sparkle to village gatherings, and with the unexpectedly sudden return of James from Malaya, and the trials and tribulations of Leda and her fiancé Derek, the local squire’s son, there is plenty of scope for complications, dilemmas, surprises and sometimes unexpected resolutions.

I thought the characters were very well drawn and (mostly) very believable. Caroline is our heroine, but she is not a perfect person by a long shot; her flaws are well on display, but we forgive her them because she is ultimately exceedingly likeable, as is her sister and most of the other players in this excellent domestic drama. It ends quite abruptly, but this served merely to make me keen to get my hands on the next episode in this extended tale.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1950. This edition: Ace Books, circa 1970. Paperback. 282 pages.

Having more or less settled the fates of Caroline Dering and her sister Harriet Fane in the previous novel, Vittoria Cottage, this next installment in the trilogy follows Caroline’s son James, who, at loose ends after his military service and several years spent “chasing terrorists” in Malaya, is looking towards his future.

Deeply in love with his childhood companion Rhoda, he is struggling with her rejection of his marriage proposal. While we suspect that she is in love with James in her own way, Rhoda fears that, as a rising professional painter, marriage would spell the end of her career goals, and that she would be a discontented wife as well as a poorer artist, having to split her focus between two roles, doing neither well.

James takes it very well, all things considered, and hies himself off to the community of Drumburly in Scotland, where he has been invited by his aunt and uncle to reside at the remote Mureth House, a prosperous sheep farm. Jock and Mamie Johnstone have no children of their own, and are hoping that their nephew might be interested enough in farming life to take over Mureth some day.

James has always cherished a desire to be a farmer himself, so the situation looks like a success all around; the story follows some of James’s apprenticeship and details the day-to-day occupations of a hill farmer of mid-20th century Scotland; quite nicely detailed and relatably true in the telling. (I keep sheep, so happily appreciated the ovine interludes.)

We have sheep rustlers and romantic entanglements and, of course, more than a few misunderstandings between various parties, all neatly tidied up as the story progresses, in proper D.E. Stevenson fashion.

Cover depicted is from an earlier hardcover edition, not the paperback referred to in the heading.

Shoulder the Sky: A Story of Winter in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1951. Original British title: Winter and Rough Weather. This edition: Ace Books, circa 1971. 275 pages.

Five years after the conclusion of the Second World War, a young, newly married couple, Rhoda and James Dering Johnstone, arrive at their isolated farmhouse near the fictional Scottish village of Drumburly. Rhoda is an accomplished professional painter, and her husband worries, with some reason, as to how she will adjust to a life as a sheep farmer’s wife, far from the stimulating world she has happily abandoned for true love.

Rhoda drifts for a while, mulling over the dilemma of what she sees as a black and white choice between her perceived role as a wife versus personal fulfillment as an artist. The author handled this theme sensitively and sensibly, though I couldn’t help but think that childless Rhoda, overseeing a small house with the help of a live-in cook-general, had a luxury of a “domestic support system” impossible for those of us in a similar societal-economic position to attain today. Rhoda ultimately returns to the studio, and proceeds to paint a portrait which has far-reaching consequences among the local residents.

Add in several on again-off again love affairs, a missing wife, a bullying neighbour, a misunderstood child, and the challenges of winter storms in an isolated locale, and you have a quietly dramatic novel, very occasionally straying into melodrama, but nicely anchored to reality by the author’s pragmatic asides.

There is one glaringly “coincidental” plot twist which I rolled my readerly eyes at, but I forgave it for love of this writer, as we note and yet forgive the foibles of our dearest friends.

The author set this novel up well, and the details she gives both of farm life and the art world read like they come from personal experience. I thought this particular novel was a relatively strong work for this “light romance” author, rather reminiscent of O. Douglas, what with the Scottish setting and the deep moral dilemmas and all.

Deeply affirmative depictions of marriage form this book, in particular the partnership between the older couple, Jock and Mamie Johnstone. D.E. Stevenson is all about the quiet joys of making things work out and the moral and emotional rewards that follow acting well towards each other, though her characters also struggle in a utterly lifelike way with holding it together when faced with uncongenial people and trying situations.

Fellow D.E. Stevenson readers – there is one thing I want to throw out there. In this last installment of the trilogy, doesn’t it strike you as the littlest bit odd that the very wealthy Nestor Heddle absolutely needs his poor befuddled sister as a housekeeper, and that her jumping ship makes his lordly country life impossible? I mean, couldn’t he just hire someone to fulfill that role? (This is the sort of silly little plot hole which niggles away at me when reading D.E.S.!)

 

 

Country Chronicle by Gladys Taber ~ 1974. This edition: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1974. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-397-01023-0. 220 pages.

Gladys Taber needs no introduction to many of my fellow readers, but to those of you unfamiliar with her gentle body of work, I’ll merely mention that she was a domestic affirmationist who wrote well-received periodical articles and columns, journals, cookbooks and a few novels, from 1925 to 1980. Her last memoir, Still Cove Journal, was finished by her daughter Connie and published posthumously in 1981.

Country Chronicle falls into the pattern of the best of Gladys Taber’s rural-living journals. Arranged in seasonally progressing sections, in it she examines in some detail the natural world surrounding her 17th Century Connecticut farmhouse, her neighbours and current society, her pets, and her reminiscences of the past. There are, predictably, a few recipes thrown in here and there, most terrifically dated, but some decidedly good sounding.

Gladys Taber was a strong proponent of respect for the domestic arts, and whenever I read her I come away feeling slightly guilty for my own shortcomings in that area, but also encouraged in my own inner belief that a comfortable house and a well-furnished table are well within the capabilities of most of us, and well worth striving for.

Gladys Taber has enough astringency in her opinions to keep things from getting too impossibly sweet. In Country Chronicle we are made well aware of her past griefs and present physical infirmities; she is 74 at the time of the book’s publication, and feeling the effects of age on her body, as well as the loss of beloved people and animals in her life. Very relatable, which no doubt accounts for her broad appeal. Her popularity in her time is completely understandable; a quietly enthusiastic fan base still exists some four decades after her death, and her old home Stillmeadow, still in the family, has recently been the focal point of a successful land conservation initiative.

Happy Sunday, fellow readers. Fall is in the air here, and the smoke from our region’s forest fires is at last lessening as things settle down with the coming of cooler nights and occasional welcome rainfalls. The wild geese are ganging up and running their practice flights up and down our river valley; the wild things are busy preparing for winter; the humans likewise.

Evacuation orders and alerts are being stepped back throughout much of the area, “normal” is once again becoming just that, as we cautiously take stock of what this challenging summer has meant to our region as a whole, and most of all to those personally affected by the loss of homes and livelihoods.

On the news we see reports of other parts of the world as strongly affected in their various ways as we have been here – fire, flood, storm, political upheaval, physical and moral violence in the most pernicious forms. Through all of this, human decency encouragingly frequently prevails.

On that note, I will leave you with a warm nod to this author, for at her best she is thought-provoking and affirmative of the values most of us, rural and urban dwellers alike, would like to live by. Gladys Taber is all about being a good friend and neighbour, giving and receiving help gracefully, surviving sorrows and setbacks, being kind to animals both wild and tame, keeping your surroundings in good order, and in general living lightly on the land and leaving things better off for your presence. Worthy goals, all of them.

I kept writing and rewriting this post, and it just wouldn’t come together.

Delete it all, condense and post the darned thing. No more funk. Here we go.

As many of you know, I live in central British Columbia, Canada. Smack dab in the middle of the region known as the Cariboo-Chilcotin. The Fraser River flows past my door. We are surrounded by forest on all sides. Beautiful forest, miles and miles of it, millions of acres of it. And it’s been really, really dry.

Now a bunch of it is on fire.

A month ago, July 7, this started up in my neighbourhood. This picture was taken from the upper hillside of our farm, an hour or so after a dry lightning storm passed through our region, sparking over a hundred forest fires, including these two.

The good news is that in four weeks these two particular fires have basically burned parallel to our river, above the escarpment, and joined up to form a united “complex”, as the forest service wildfire people call it.

Topography has been in our favour, as have been the prevailing winds. Fireguards have been built around some of the more troublesome bits, air support has quenched worrisome flareups. While anything could still happen given the right extremes of hot weather and strong wind – or another lightning storm – for now we’re looking good.

That tragically can’t be said for a lot of the rest of our region. Many of the other fires are bigger and angrier, and they are raging along out of control, being beat back here and there by the efforts of thousands of professional firefighters, logging crews, farmers and ranchers and First Nations “fire warriors”. Whole communities have been mass evacuated, major highways closed. Life for many is standing still as they wait things out far from the flames and the dense, stinking smoke; others are very much on the front line, fighting to save their homes and those of their neighbours.

People we know have lost their beloved houses; some have had hair’s breadth escapes from personal disaster. So much has been consumed!

This is utterly personal. The fire map looks like a guidebook to places we’ve lived in, wandered through, known and very much loved. We’re in a state of quiet grieving for the changes to our special places, while knowing that for others the loss is much more immediate and tangible. Survivor’s guilt lurks in the corner of one’s mind.

So there it is. Summer of 2017. One to remember, and it’s far from over yet.

I’ll leave you with a lighter note, book related.

When the smoke plumes on July 7 billowed ever higher, and a further investigation from a higher point revealed us to be surrounded by a total of six big smokes and numerous little ones, we made haste to develop a get-out-quick plan. We rounded up our pets, discussed a strategy for the farm creatures, and threw together some crucial belongings.

This done, we looked around to see what precious things we should save, if worst came to worst. Photo albums were obvious; these were packed up and stacked by the door. Computer back-up drives, cameras. My daughter collected her writings and her artwork. “Are you going to take any books?” she asked me, as I dithered between peering out at the status of our personal smoke plumes and checking and rechecking the forest service’s wildfire alert web page.

Where would one even start, in a personal library consisting of thousands of books?

It was easier than you’d think, and perhaps odder.

I must report that in the case of natural disaster, my most treasured possessions to be salvaged from flood or fire apparently consist of the four earliest (and exceedingly hard to come by) novels by my beloved Margery Sharp. (And my mother’s wedding ring.)

I’ve now had a month to mull over that book list, and it has remained exactly the same. In the meantime I’ve unpacked and re-read all four, and kept them handy, just in case. I might just add several more…

Onward we go, looking over our shoulders but basically getting on with things, feeling a bit like we’re living in the eye – or at least on the edge! –  of a fiery hurricane.

We sure could use some rain.

 

 

 

The Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter ~ 1936. This edition: Knopf, 1973. Hardcover. 149 pages.

Writer Conrad Richter, 1890-1968, occupies a place in the pantheon of lesser American literary gods just a little below Willa Cather, so any critique flavoured with negativity feels slightly blasphemous; we feel we’re supposed to kneel down and enthusiastically worship, not surreptitiously peer at the idol for a glimpse of feet of clay.

But autre temps, autre moeurs, as the saying goes, and times are different now, and some writing hasn’t aged well. The vaguely embarrasing lush prose and predictable plot line of this short novel being a case in point.

A hint is given in the dust jacket teaser:

Narrated by a nephew of the leading male character, this novel – novella? – is passionately presented, though sketchy on background details. It reads like the screenplay for a old-style Western movie, and by golly! – lookie there – it was indeed filmed, in 1947, with Katharine Hepburn playing erring wife Lutie, and Spencer Tracy the stoic cattle baron James Brewton.

The film seems to have received mixed reviews. Though successful from a box office perspective, director Elia Kazan, thwarted in his creative desires throughout the filming, was disappointed in the final version and reportedly advised his friends against watching it. This contemporary film review from March of 1947 is an interesting read.

The novel’s plot is simplistic enough. New Mexico cattle baron James Brewton runs an immense operation, mostly consisting of government-owned rangeland, which he oversees as if it were his very own. Prospective homesteaders crowding across the state line and their political sponsors have their eye on Brewton’s private domain, and a certain Judge Brice Chamberlain has set his sights on knocking the region’s wealthy ranchers down a notch or two.

Enter Lutie Cameron, James Brewton’s ladylike citygirl bride, who disembarks from a train to be met by Brewton’s callow and resentful nephew. Tripping daintily up the dusty cowtown street in her high-heeled shoes, utterly ignoring the stares of the local layabouts, ducking under the feet of the hanged man gracing the water tower, Lutie brings a breath of perfumed air to enhance the local scene, and soon-to-be-nephew Hal is utterly smitten.

James and Lutie wed, and for a while it looks like all will be well. They’re apparently in love, though neither say so much aloud, James because of his leathery stoicism, Lutie because of her reticent ladylikeness, but children start to appear, so something’s going on. A girl, a boy, and another boy, this last child bearing a strong resemblance to – oh my! can it be?! – James Brewton’s arch-nemesis Brice Chamberlain.

For Lutie has apparently slipped quietly off the marital rails. So much so that next thing we know she is boarding that same train that brought her into town, to return to the bright lights of the city. It’s an open secret that Brice Chamberlain will be accompanying her, so when he stands Lutie up at the station, and she departs with head held high and eyes bright with unshed tears, the gossip swells to epic proportions.

Not to worry, she’ll be back, wafting in some years later once her estranged husband is on the verge of losing his ranch, while her child-of-(presumed)adultery is succumbing to gunshot wounds sustained during a brush with the law, for he has gone very much to the bad.

A marital reconciliation takes place over the dead body of the young man, then the scene fades to grey, and we are left with the image of the once-vibrant ranch house falling into decay, James and Lutie vanished to who-knows-where, and only Hal left to cherish the memories of what-once-was.

As a period piece this slender book both satisfies and disappoints. Occasional detailed and evocative descriptive passages bring the physical scene vividly to life, but the over-the-topness of much of Richter’s prose makes me grit my teeth.

Example, as Lutie prepares to board the outbound train:

And now I was sure that all those happy friends were frantically playing a part and that they really had no more belief that Lutie Brewton was going to St. Louis than I had. And when I stumbled by as if I noticed nothing, I saw that for all her gay animation, her high lace collar was a pale branch whipsawing in the pounding stream of blood at her throat and that the veins on one of my uncle’s hands stood out like long-suppressed whipcords of blue lightning.

I couldn’t have gone now if I had wished. I could see the grim bulge in my uncle’s coat of gray broadcloth and an untamed violence, like a prairie fire rimmed with black smoke, flaring in his dark eyes. Several loafers had risen to their feet licking their lips. Following their eyes, I glimpsed up the street the unmistakable tall figure of Brice Chamberlain in a new brown suit coming out of the Exchange House and pausing for a moment on the high stone steps, a Mexican behind him with a pair of gripsacks. Then both approaching figures were blotted out by the gray clot of rounded emigrant canvas.

“Whipcoards of blue lightning”! “Grim bulge”! “Untamed violence, like a prairie fire rimmed with black smoke”! Oh, my. Fanning myself wildly – those are stirring words. Is it just me or is it getting hot in here?!

Richter’s characterizations in this novel are stock, clichéd, so that one can’t believe in them as real people, who might have lived. They do everything so much to pattern, stepping through their choreographies of behaviour so rigidly, so predictably, so reminiscently of so many off-the-shelf novel and movie characters that one can’t get past that deadly over-familiarity.

Now I’m going to change gears, and say that though I am dreadfully cruel in my assessment of this extremely dated novel, it wasn’t all that bad. Conrad Richter’s sincerity shines through the deficiencies of his prose and plotting. He had a story to tell, and he told it. A point to make, and he hammered it home.

That point being, once all the romantic brouhaha is cleared out of the way, that the great American grasslands were never suited to the plow, that homesteading brought a fatal destruction of the eons-old sod, and that the epic tragedy of the 1930s’ “dust bowl” of the North American prairies was brought about by human ineptitude.

Probably worth a read, this novel, for cultural literacy reasons, if nothing else.

The characters – well – I got a lot of perverse enjoyment out of mildly despising each and every one of them, for being such cardboard cutouts, and for bringing on their own various downfalls. Lutie in particular. Oh, she annoyed the heck out of me!

And where did she go after abandoning her silent but infatuated husband and her sweet children, and being abandoned by her callous lover? She reappears a good ten years later, still beautiful and well-dressed, still exuding that “fragrance of violets” so beloved of Victorian-and-later writers, still capable of winning hearts with the merest glance of her “liquid eyes”. She’d turned down James Brewton’s financial support, she’d set herself outside of society’s pale, so where was she? How did she feed and clothe herself? Who financed her costly wardrobe, her daintily feminine personal needs? Radio silence!

Okay, rating. How about a 6/10. The Sea of Grass had its moments, and it was fun to growl at as I read it through. Nice and short, too, so it wasn’t like I wasted that much time on its reading. Appreciated the eco-message, good for Conrad Richter on putting that out there.

 

 

 

 

Portrait of Adrian by Ursula Orange ~ 1945. This edition: Michael Joseph, Ltd., 1945. Hardcover. 244 pages.

When the letters of sympathy began to come in, shortly after Adrian Lessingham’s sudden and tragic death in a car accident, in the spring of 1939, his widow, Felicity, could not help wishing he could have read some of them himself. They would have amused him so.

Hooked by this first tempting paragraph – and of course the fact that I had invested a respectable portion of my book budget for this scarce out-of-print book – I settled down with happy anticipation to this more than slightly satirical depiction of how appearances can sometimes differ from reality.

For the most part, this optimism was rewarded, for the novel was pleasantly engaging; I never once had even the slightest impulse to lay it aside, not even when it became apparent that the author was leaning heavily on the “wonderful coincidence” technique when winding up her plot lines at the end.

The book could indeed be otherwise titled “Portrait of Judith”, for widowed Felicity’s younger sister Judith, several years down from Cambridge and working as a receptionist-secretary concurrently with trying her wings as a fledgling writer, is the character most thoroughly revealed as the story develops mostly through her eyes.

Judith and Felicity had known orphaned Adrian since childhood, when he had been absorbed into their family circle for school holidays and such. Judith in particular was emotionally close to Adrian in those juvenile and adolescent years, and the two shared a rich imaginative secret life of sorts, being involved with various arcane rituals and complex games, rules known only to the two of them.

With adulthood gained, Adrian’s eyes turned to Felicity, serene and beautiful, and Judith, though quietly saddened by the defection of her childhood friend, was genuinely content with seeing her sister wed. The marriage of Adrian and Felicity symbolized to Judith the perfect union; she reveled in the thought that here was a completely successful match; true love personified.

When her much-edited first novel, sent out with optimistic hope to publisher after publisher, persists in returning time after time, Judith is encouraged by her faithful but held-at-arm’s-length lover Clive to try her hand at another work. Perhaps a childhood memoir, he suggests, intrigued by Judith’s vivid descriptions of her youth, when she went about pretending to be a boy, and engaged in a complex but perfectly platonic relationship with Adrian.

Judith takes Clive’s advice, but instead of writing about herself, she decides she will produce a character portrait of her beloved Adrian. Which turns out to have unexpected consequences, as she finds that other people’s experiences of Adrian do not quite click with her own rose-coloured memories…

I’m rating this novel at a relatively conservative 7/10, because, while I definitely enjoyed it, I don’t think it quite matches up with the best of the other three of Ursula Orange’s novels which I’ve recently read, which was, in my opinion, Tom Tiddler’s Ground, 1941, a low-key but increasingly intense relationship drama set in the stressful early days of World War II.

Tom Tiddler’s Ground was republished in March of this year by Dean Street Press in beautifully produced print-on-demand paperback and ebook format, along with Begin Again, 1936, an amusing “first novel” about four young women on the cusp of adulthood, and Company in the Evening, 1944, following a young divorced mother as she recreates her life after the breakdown of her marriage.

All of these four novels share a warm charm, with realistically likeable/amusingly annoying heroines and side characters, full of very human quirks and foibles. The scenarios vary from deeply realistic to completely manufactured, sometimes progressing from one to the other in just a few pages.

I suspect they filled the same niche at the time of their original publication as the better “chick lit” does today; engaging though not necessarily “literary ” reads for those (presumably mostly women) seeking bookish diversion and amusement.

Read now, eight decades after their writing, these novels have a strong value as vividly detailed period pieces. Their characters remain relatable and amusing, and sometimes gloriously appalling. Good stuff for the better-light-fiction shelf.

I sincerely hope that Dean Street Press is planning on republishing the elusive Portrait of Adrian, as well as the equally obscure To Sea in a Sieve (1937), and Have Your Cake (1942), to round out Ursula Orange’s small, six-novel body of work.

Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow, what are the odds?

 

 

 

 

Greetings, everyone. Hope you all had a lovely spring. Ours went past in a flash, and here we are staring summer down. My goodness, the years certainly don’t go by any slower as one ages, do they?

As many of you know, I operate a small perennial plant nursery, and May and June this year were our very busiest ever in the twenty-plus years I’ve been doing this. It became evident early on that something had to give, and I prioritized severely, meaning that a.) The Blog, and b.) Housekeeping, and c.) Weeding, fell completely by the wayside.

Fellow gardeners will understand my mixed feelings at seeing this lovely but forboding vignette in my perennial border!

With a bit of headway now made in addressing the two-month-long neglect of the last two, I am feeling an increasingly urgent pull to get back into writing-about-reading mode. I did keep reading through my long blog silence, though my progress was often in pages per day versus chapters. No book-a-day, that’s for sure!

And I did read some marvelous things. Sadly they are mostly a bit of a blur, so I have that as an excuse to re-read them all in future, and talk about them then. Best to start fresh with July’s reads, I think.

Thanks to the Dean Street Press “Furrowed Middlebrow” imprint, I’ve made the acquaintance of some long out-of-print writers, and most engaging I’ve found them all to be. Ursula Orange, for example. After acquiring the three newly reprinted DSP-FM titles of hers, Begin Again, Tom Tiddler’s Ground, and Company in the Evening, I treated myself to a well-worn first edition (1945) of Portrait of Adrian, which I’m just finishing up. I do believe that will be the subject of my next post.

In the meantime, wishing all a very happy summer, with time to seek out some cool shade and a comfortable chair, and sink into a pleasurable book.

And of course, seeing that it’s July 1st, happy Canada Day to my fellow Canadians!

Though I must acknowledge that this year the holiday seems a bit fraught with angst regarding a variety of societal concerns, which I won’t get into here, merely to mention that the buzz phrases of the current discussion are “tradition of colonialism” and “indigenous experience”.  Big serious topics, and I give them a nod, though I won’t be going any deeper than the most superficial referencing in this particular forum.

The Loved and Envied by Enid Bagnold ~ 1951. This edition: Virago Modern Classics (Penguin), 1988. Introduction by Isabel Colgate. ISBN: 0-14-016211-9. 280 pages.

Lady Ruby Maclean, famed beauty, lives with her Scottish husband Gynt at his family’s French estate, the Chateau of Little Pouilly, based on the real-life Chantilly, as Lady Maclean herself is based on Bagnold’s friend, famed society beauty Lady Diana Cooper.

Though the plot of novel is purely fictional, the character portrait is widely accepted to be a true (and flattering) one, to the extent that the Virago cover illustration is a replication of a portrait of Lady Diana on her wedding day.

Not much happens, action wise, in this quietly thought-provoking book, with most of the turmoil being mental and emotional, but once we are hooked it all becomes immensely interesting. I found it to be one of those novels one spent time thinking about while one was off doing other things; the characters became real, and their fears and joys relatable.

The fears tend to predominate, at least superficially, as this is a novel very much concerned with aging and death. Lady Maclean, the “loved and envied” of the title, undeniably coming to the end of middle-age at fifty-three, muses on her status as a great beauty, and what this has meant to her in every aspect of her life so far, and how the inevitable deterioration in her physical appearance has started to affect how others now react to her in the most subtle of ways.

This is a masterfully written book, in a purely technical sense, and, once I figured out the writer’s game, I became a willing co-player. Bagnold takes us back and forth through time, revisiting certain episodes from varying characters’ points of view, bringing in minor characters for a paragraph or a page to allow another aspect of a scene to be verbalized, and weaving all of these at-first over-abundant threads together to create a cohesive picture at the end.

Though Ruby, Lady Maclean, is the key element in the vision that unfolds, Bagnold keeps a juggler’s handful worth of other stories in play as we go along.

We have Ruby’s husband Gynt, a reclusive insomniac pursuing night birds through the French woods, compulsively engaged upon writing a orthinological life-work. Their daughter Miranda, beloved of both parents, but herself deeply resentful of her glamorous mother’s life-long overshadowing. Tuxie, the slippery ne-er-do well who marries Miranda with high expectations and subsequent bitter disappointment; their removal to Jamaica and an eventual tragedy provide a touch of melodrama.

There is famous painter Cora, Ruby’s closest female friend, hideous in appearance but a genius at her art. And Cora’s ex-husband Rudi, a once-popular playwright who has written the same script a few times too many, to the brutal critics’ gleeful delight.

Rose, now-elderly life-long mistress of the Edouard, Vicomte de Bas-Pouilly, is superficially aged but retains her ardently youthful devotion to Edouard, and is in turn faithfully cherished by her aristocratic lover, to the secret fury of his jealous sister.

James, Edouard’s nephew and heir, who is infatuated with the much-older Ruby, until circumstances bring Miranda back to France. (Miranda’s transformation from dowd to siren through the wonders of a genius dressmaker is a play-within-a-play, a delicious glimpse at the clothes of the period, with yet another character added to the cast: Lew Afric, “pederast” and grand couturier.)

The Duca Alberti Marie-Innocence de Roccafergola, physically massive, emotionally sensitive. Ruby’s closest male confidante, Miranda’s beneficient godfather. His long time servant Celestine, who one day expresses a surprising desire to become a duchess by marriage. (Alberti obliges, with complicated results.)

Ruby’s aunt, Ursula, born with a hideous deformation which has taken her around the world in an effort to find a way of concealing  it. A highly successful career as a beautician to the elite women of London follows, and her adoption of her orphaned niece provides her an outlet for love frustrated since her infancy, when those who should have cherished her were instead repelled by her appearance. Ruby owes some of her beauty to Ursula’s care; the two have an intricate bond which transcends the obvious.

By the end of the novel, a number of these key characters are dead, which doesn’t prove as melancholic as it might, much to my relief as a reader. For I myself am well into  the dangerous age, the time of one’s life when one’s own mortality becomes much more than an abstract concept, as one realizes just how many funerals those only a little older – and, more poignantly, of peers – one has been attending…

Fantastic novel. I enjoyed it greatly, though I didn’t much care for it a decade or so ago when I tried it for the first time. Perhaps I was still too young?! This time round I devoured it.

My rating: 9/10. A definite keeper.

And I am going to be keeping my eyes open for Bagnold’s other novels, of which the only one I have read is 1935’s National Velvet. (That one is a decided 10/10 – and I need to say, to those who have so far scorned it, it’s not at all a children’s book, despite its perpetual marketing as such.)

Of these, A Diary Without Dates (1917), The Happy Foreigner (1920) , and The Squire (1938), all appear to by reasonably attainable. (The Squire was republished by Persephone just a few years ago, and is already on my wish list from that most estimable establishment.)

And last but not least, I’ve submitted The Loved and Envied as an entry with The 1951 Club. Another stellar year in books! Keep yours eyes open for a links roundup either here or here. Thank you, Simon and Karen, for setting this up.