Posts Tagged ‘1922 Novel’

The Camomile by Catherine Carswell ~ 1922. This edition: Virago, 1987. Introduction by Ianthe Carswell. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-873-9. 305 pages.

I had already told him about my being an orphan, about my music teaching, and about my writing and Mother’s. Of my writing he said, ‘I see. It is like the camomile – the more it is trodden on the faster it grows.’

This rewarding short novel is written in epistolary form, being made up of two long letters, fore and aft, and journal entries made to be shared with a distant friend.

It starts out as the amusing and somewhat self-absorbed account of a young woman’s journey of self-discovery, of finding her place in the world, and goes on to discuss some of the larger questions which are still pertinent to young people today: Who am I, really? Why am I here? Do I change to meet the desires of others, or stay true to myself?

Our young correspondent is Ellen Carstairs, just back in Glasgow after spending two years studying music in Frankfurt, writing to her London friend Ruby, whom she had met in her first days at the Frankfurt Conservatory of Music.

Ellen has found Ruby to be a kindred soul, for both soon realize that music is not their true métier, though they have some adequate talents in that area to perhaps serve as teachers of novices. They nevertheless do their best to take in their lessons and improve their musical craft, all the while yearning for a truly satisfying occupation, an “art” which will be their one true life’s pursuit, one which they are suited for and which they will excel at.

After their two years of relative freedom in Europe, the friends return home, and get on with the business of earning their livings while at the same time opening themselves up to finding and developing their true callings. For Ruby the true art – the one which chooses the artist – is that of illustration – drawing and painting. And for Ellen, it is writing. Which is a problem, at least as far as her family and friends are concerned.

For Ellen’s mother was a writer. Not a successful one – far from it! She appears to have been (from the clues we are given) a woman obsessed by the need to write without necessarily having enough mastery of the craft to make her scribblings saleable. She has pursued her interest to the exclusion of all else, spending the housekeeping money on self-publishing of pamphlets of sub-par poetry and the like.

This mother inadvertently neglects her two children, to the extent that her young son Ronald is permanently crippled through her heedless actions. Interestingly enough, when she dies when the children are still young, they and their father sincerely mourn her, harking back at her better qualities, and forgiving her (for the most part) her obsession.

Ellen’s missionary father has been absent for much of her childhood and he too is now dead, leaving Ellen and Ronald in the care of his sister Harriet, an Evangelical Presbyterian of unwavering faith. Neither Ellen nor Ronald share the narrow religious beliefs of their father and aunt, but they go along with Aunt Harriet’s wishes in church attendance and such, not wanting to hurt her feelings, for they love her deeply despite their increasing differences.

On her return from Germany, Ellen begins to teach music at her old school and to private students; she earns enough to be able to rent a room and a piano in a neighbour’s house, ostensibly so she can practice undisturbed and undisturbing. Soon she finds that she is using her retreat for writing more than for piano playing; her true art has chosen her and she gives in with secret relief, though she is wary of admitting it to her brother and aunt, and questions herself on the ethical implications of misleading them as to what she is doing.

Ellen fortuitously finds a mentor in an ex-priest, John Barnaby, a brilliant intellectual engaged in quietly, slowly killing himself by drink and near-starvation. John reads Ellen’s manuscripts and encourages her to seek publication, using his past connections in the literary world to push forward her novice submissions.

Just when things seem set for Ellen to commit fully to becoming a professional writer, she falls in love with Duncan, a friend’s brother who is a young doctor on leave from his practice in India. The two become engaged, but though Duncan gives lip service to his wish for Ellen to not give up her own interests, it becomes increasingly obvious that he is oblivious to the importance of her craft to her very identity.

Added to this building dilemma is the fundamental difference in Ellen’s and Duncan’s views towards sex. Ellen believes that people seriously considering marriage should engage in the ultimate intimacy, in order to make sure that they are compatible for a lifetime of marital companionship. Duncan is shocked by this notion, and condescendingly tells Ellen that she is merely a foolish virgin with outlandish ideas; much better to let Duncan guide her in her sexual initiation once they are safely married.

Can you see where this might be going?

Yes, indeed, second thoughts are in order all round…

No surprise that this novel was chosen by feminist press Virago for republication in the 1980s, for it is all about female self-determination in the face of almost universal societal disapproval.

Ellen documents her personal journey with passion and lucidity and not a little humour. This is not in any way a dreary saga of crushed and downtrodden womanhood. No indeed! For like the camomile referenced in the title, the heavy-footed treading here merely makes the flower find another place and way to thrive.

More on Catherine Carswell here.

The Camomile scores a good strong 8/10 from me.

Carswell’s one other novel, Open the Door! (1920) is now firmly on my wish list, as is her partial autobiography Lying Awake.

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

The Lark by E. Nesbit ~ 1922. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2017. Introduction by Charlotte Moore.  Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-911579-45-8. 251 pages.

Looking for a lighthearted frivol, a confection of a novel? Look no further than this small charmer by Edith Nesbit, best known for her deliciously satirical children’s books (Five Children and It, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Railway Children, and so on) but also a writer of adult novels, which this one is.

This isn’t a sombre bit of literary fiction, but a fairy tale for grownups, with just enough dashes of cold reality to keep it somewhat grounded in the real world, though most of the plot is driven by the most unlikely set of happy coincidences I’ve yet to come across in a very long history of light-fiction reading.

It’s just what is advertised by the title. It is, in fact, a complete lark.

Two orphaned teenage cousins, Jane and Lucy, happily tucked away in boarding school by their guardian and looking forward to their soon-to-be-attained coming of ages when they will come into what they have been told are substantial inheritances, receive a happy shock when they are informed that their guardian has withdrawn them from the school and asked them to report to a mysterious address in the countryside beyond the fringes of London.

Confidently expecting this to be their introduction to the adult world, presided over by their mysterious patron, they are bewildered at being decanted at the door of a small country cottage instead of the mansion they were expecting.

A perfectly timed letter gives an explanation. Jane and Lucy’s guardian apologizes profusely, but he has squandered their fortunes on unsound financial speculations, and has gone utterly bankrupt. He’s leaving the country before his creditors can catch up to him, but he’s tried to cushion the blow somewhat by arranging for a lump sum of £500 to be put to the cousins’ account, and the afore-mentioned cottage as a residence.

Jane and Lucy soon realize that their rapidly-diminishing nest egg isn’t enough to cover their longer-term needs, and they look about for ways to augment it. The stage is set for all manner of lucky happenings, with helpful young (and not so young) men cropping up like daisies in the spring.

It’a all very amusing, and the lightness is well set off by the running thread of reality, for this book was written not long after the ending of the Great War, and is set in 1919, and the plight of many of the returned soldiers coming home to not much in the way of a future becomes a key element in the extended plot.

Occasionally  (okay, very often) I (figuratively) rolled my eyes at the sillier bits, but I happily kept reading, because the story is as engaging as it is unrealistic, and the realistic bits were shoehorned in with acceptable success.

My rating: Let’s say a nice, solid 7.5/10. A definite keeper.

Read Full Post »

glimpses of the moon edith wharton 001The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton ~ 1922. This edition: Signet, 2000. Introduction by Regina Barreca. Paperback. ISBN: 0-451-52668-6. 252 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

This one started out very well, but I felt it lost steam as it went on, and the ending was, in my opinion, more than slightly weak. But it’s decidedly readable, especially if one is interested in comparing it to the much stronger The House of Mirth, with which it shares some common themes, though the author takes her characters in a different direction, and the tone of The Glimpses of the Moon frequently approaches farce.

I’m going to give you a transcription of the opening page and a general overview – SPOILER ALERT: the ending is divulged – before sending you off to visit several other more thoughtful reviews, both of which much more fully reference The Glimpses of the Moon in relation to The House of Mirth.

*****

It’s been many years since I read Edith Wharton’s tragic American Lit classic, The House of Mirth, but I retain enough memory of it to be able to say that The Glimpses of the Moon is, in comparison, one of Wharton’s minor novels. Coming to it with that initial expectation, I asked myself how it appealed to me as a stand-alone novel. If I had never read any of Edith Wharton’s Big Important Novels, and had picked this one up cold, what would I think? So I won’t be comparing Susy Lansing to Lily Bart, obvious counterparts though they may be.

Here’s the set-up. A young couple is on their honeymoon, and as they linger in the moonlight reflecting off Lake Como, their thoughts are not so much on each other as on their great good fortune in being there at all…

It rose for them—their honey-moon—over the waters of a lake so famed as the scene of romantic raptures that they were rather proud of not having been afraid to choose it as the setting of their own.

“It required a total lack of humour, or as great a gift for it as ours, to risk the experiment,” Susy Lansing opined, as they hung over the inevitable marble balustrade and watched their tutelary orb roll its magic carpet across the waters to their feet.

“Yes—or the loan of Strefford’s villa,” her husband emended, glancing upward through the branches at a long low patch of paleness to which the moonlight was beginning to give the form of a white house-front.

“Oh, come – when we’d five to choose from. At least if you count the Chicago flat.”

“So we had—you wonder!” He laid his hand on hers, and his touch renewed the sense of marvelling exultation which the deliberate survey of their adventure always roused in her…. It was characteristic that she merely added, in her steady laughing tone: “Or, not counting the flat—for I hate to brag—just consider the others: Violet Melrose’s place at Versailles, your aunt’s villa at Monte Carlo—and a moor!”

She was conscious of throwing in the moor tentatively, and yet with a somewhat exaggerated emphasis, as if to make sure that he shouldn’t accuse her of slurring it over. But he seemed to have no desire to do so. “Poor old Fred!” he merely remarked; and she breathed out carelessly: “Oh, well—”

His hand still lay on hers, and for a long interval, while they stood silent in the enveloping loveliness of the night, she was aware only of the warm current running from palm to palm, as the moonlight below them drew its line of magic from shore to shore.

Nick Lansing spoke at last. “Versailles in May would have been impossible: all our Paris crowd would have run us down within twenty-four hours. And Monte Carlo is ruled out because it’s exactly the kind of place everybody expected us to go. So—with all respect to you—it wasn’t much of a mental strain to decide on Como.”

His wife instantly challenged this belittling of her capacity. “It took a good deal of argument to convince you that we could face the ridicule of Como!”

“Well, I should have preferred something in a lower key; at least I thought I should till we got here. Now I see that this place is idiotic unless one is perfectly happy; and that then it’s – as good as any other.”

She sighed out a blissful assent. “And I must say that Streffy has done things to a turn. Even the cigars—who do you suppose gave him those cigars?” She added thoughtfully: “You’ll miss them when we have to go.”

“Oh, I say, don’t let’s talk to-night about going. Aren’t we outside of time and space…? Smell that guinea-a-bottle stuff over there: what is it? Stephanotis?”

“Y-yes…. I suppose so. Or gardenias…. Oh, the fire-flies! Look…there, against that splash of moonlight on the water. Apples of silver in a net-work of gold….” They leaned together, one flesh from shoulder to finger-tips, their eyes held by the snared glitter of the ripples.

“I could bear,” Lansing remarked, “even a nightingale at this moment….”

A faint gurgle shook the magnolias behind them, and a long liquid whisper answered it from the thicket of laurel above their heads.

“It’s a little late in the year for them: they’re ending just as we begin.”

Susy laughed. “I hope when our turn comes we shall say good-bye to each other as sweetly.”

It was in her husband’s mind to answer: “They’re not saying good-bye, but only settling down to family cares.” But as this did not happen to be in his plan, or in Susy’s, he merely echoed her laugh and pressed her closer.

The spring night drew them into its deepening embrace. The ripples of the lake had gradually widened and faded into a silken smoothness, and high above the mountains the moon was turning from gold to white in a sky powdered with vanishing stars. Across the lake the lights of a little town went out, one after another, and the distant shore became a floating blackness. A breeze that rose and sank brushed their faces with the scents of the garden; once it blew out over the water a great white moth like a drifting magnolia petal. The nightingales had paused and the trickle of the fountain behind the house grew suddenly insistent.

When Susy spoke it was in a voice languid with visions. “I have been thinking,” she said, “that we ought to be able to make it last at least a year longer.”

Her husband received the remark without any sign of surprise or disapprobation; his answer showed that he not only understood her, but had been inwardly following the same train of thought.

“You mean,” he enquired after a pause, “without counting your grandmother’s pearls?”

“Yes—without the pearls.”

He pondered a while, and then rejoined in a tender whisper: “Tell me again just how.”

the glimpses of the moon edith wharton 2For Nick and Susy are wallowing in borrowed luxury, on borrowed time, and their future consists of one big question mark. Both of them are as poor as church mice, and the last person each should have married was the other, according to the mores of the wealthy social circle they have been delicately moving in, charming parasites tolerated because of their physical attractiveness and gift for amusing repartee. But Susy and Nick have, most unwisely, fallen in love with each other, and when Susy comes up with a plan to enjoy the best of both worlds – to marry her impoverished counterpart and to continue to enjoy the decadent lifestyle which her wealthier contacts have accustomed her to – they take the leap together. And for a while it seems to be working…

Charming her rich friends with the novelty of a poor marriage, Susy has asked outright for cash in lieu of wedding presents, and has let it be known that she and Nick will be most grateful for loaned accommodation. They are set up for a good year or so, if they’re very careful, thinks Susy, with their main expenses being the tips on departure from each borrowed villa or chalet to their borrowed servants – whose salaries are, of course, paid by the owners of these lavish residences. And during that year they will indulge themselves in the luxury of each other’s most desirable company. Nick, an aspiring writer, will perhaps be able to finish the manuscript which will launch him on a successful and lucrative authorial career, and if this works as planned the two will be set. If the worst happens, and Nick’s plans go awry, the two have agreed that they will take whatever better opportunities arise – ie. a new (and, as it goes without saying, wealthier) romantic partner – and amicably part ways to allow each other to take advantage of the new situation.

Though Nick comes across as being the more passive partner in this sophisticated relationship, he is as complicit as Susy in viewing their joint reliance on the generosity of others as his due, so his moral qualms when Susy pops a few things into her luggage on departure from the Italian villa – such as the marvelous cigars mentioned in the excerpt – seem rather ingenious. But Nick insists on maintaining a moral high ground just a little more elevated than Susy’s, and, when Susy allows herself to be part of a marital deception at their next place of residence, the fragile marriage disintegrates, and Nick and Susy go their separate ways, each finding a convenient patron-slash-potential new spouse to sponge off of while their lawyers start the separation proceedings.

But absence does, in this case, make the heart grow fonder, and the two find themselves yearning for what they briefly experienced, a meeting of minds and a true affection for each other. After various heart rendings the two come together again, this time with much more likelihood of making it work, after Nick’s book has been accepted (for he’s been working on it all this time, in his bedroom on the yacht on which he’s been cruising) and Susy’s surprising embrace of domestic life (she’s bizarrely ended up as the temporary caretaker of five lovable children).

I just couldn’t quite swallow Susy’s about face, from self-indulgent, entitled, and materialistic to meek and domestically minded, all in the space of a few months. And the ending chapter, well, it was pure sentimental dribble. Susy, Nick, and the five children Susy is still shepherding around, off for a second honeymoon. Too cute for words, and almost toss-it-across-the-room disappointing. (But I didn’t, because the majority of the book was rather captivating, and Susy’s scheming kept me interested, to see what she would come up with next.)

There are a few little twists and kinks which display the reliably cynical Edith Wharton hand, but by and large this is simply a mildly melodramatic and slightly farcical relationship drama. If updated from the jazz-age Europe of the perennially cruising American expatriates – the jetsetters of their time – it could well be one of those lavish Rich People summer bestsellers so popular in their stereotyped glory today. The Glimpses of the Moon has also been recently (2010) turned into a “comedic romantic musical”, so there you go! Can’t quite imagine the iconic The House of Mirth being so treated…

Still, an interesting read, which kept me amused for several summer afternoons. I did just unearth my copy of The House of Mirth, but I’m not sure if I’m quite in the mood to face the tragedy of poor, self-doomed Lily Bart quite yet; I need to rest a bit, mentally speaking, from this other aspect of Edith Wharton’s authorial oeuvre.

Here are the other reviews promised at the beginning of the post, each rather more scholarly and wise than mine. Enjoy!

His Futile Preoccupations – Guy Savage Reviews Glimpses of the Moon

Seeing the World Through Books –  Mary Whipple Reviews Glimpses of the Moon

Read Full Post »