Posts Tagged ‘1933 Novel’

Lost Horizon by James Hilton ~ 1933. This edition: World’s Best Reading Series, The Reader’s Digest Association, 1990. Illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. Afterword by Warren Eyster. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-89577-361-9. 191 pages.


Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
‘Relax’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave…’

Remember the 1976 song ‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles? Well, roll four decades or so back, and you could conceivably apply some of those iconic lyrics to James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, in particular the refrain about ‘What a lovely place, what a lovely face…’ And that last verse. Brrr…

Okay, maybe the parallels aren’t that close, really. ‘Hotel California’ is said by those who should know (the writers) to be all about the loss of innocence and the seductions of the high life (with all its connotations) connected to fame, while Lost Horizon, according to Warren Eyster’s afterword in my edition, is a metaphorical utopia offered as an an emotional escape hatch to a readership consisting of those deeply scarred by the Great War and now going through the Great Depression, with another war looming on the horizon.

Yeah, that gets deep, doesn’t it?

So let’s back up some, and take a look at the novel.

It’s 1930 or thereabouts, and away off in Afghanistan, where a local revolution has triggered the evacuation of the eighty or so Europeans resident in the city of Baskul. The area’s British Consul, Great War veteran Hugh Conway, his wet-behind-the-ears Vice-Consul Charles Mallinson, American businessman Henry Barnard, and a stray missionary, Roberta Brinklow, are all fortunate enough to be alloted seats on a luxurious, high-altitude-equipped airplane originally built for an Indian rajah.

Some way into the flight, strange things begin to happen. Their pilot, face masked with flying goggles and helmet, turns out not to be the expected fellow Caucasian, but a man of Asian countenance. Looking down, instead of the plains of Peshawar, there are snow-capped peaks, and as the flight continues and attempts are made to query the pilot on just where the heck are they, a revolver is produced and brandished in a businesslike way.

The plane sets down on an isolated airstrip, is refueled by an Asian crew, and takes off again. Where are they going? Are they being kidnapped to be held for ransom?! The unflappable Conway refuses to be distressed; since the war he has cultivated a demeanour of calm verging on apathy, hence his appointment to the backwater of Baskul versus a more lively location. His continued coolness sets the tone, but for occasional outbursts by the volatile Mallinson, which helps to maintain order when the pilot crash lands the plane on a rocky outcrop surrounded by vast peaks and promptly expires.

Now what?

Not to worry, for here comes a group of rescuers, the litter-born Chinese postulant-lama Chang and a group of useful locals, who escort the stranded travellers to a nearby lamasery, “Shangri-La”, perched over an astonishingly fertile Tibetan valley, with the massive mountain Karakal (“Blue Moon”) looming in the background.

Things just keep getting weirder, as the stranded travellers discover that though they are most welcome to settle into the unexpectedly lavish quarters assigned to them by Chang, there seems to be some difficulty about formulating plans to travel out of the mountain valley to India. Direct questions are met by evasively polite answers, and Mallinson in particular grows increasingly agitated as the days pass by.

Conway, on the other hand, decidedly welcomes this respite from the troubled outside world. Miss Brinklow settles down, too, occupying herself with the study of Tibetan in order to communicate her message of sin-needing-salvation to the heathens she has found herself amongst. As does Mr. Barnard, who cultivates a cheerful attitude and greatly enjoys his escorted trips down to the village, where he presumably indulges in some mild carousing with the local women-of-easy-virtue.

After some gentle scene-setting, the secrets of Shangri-La are slowly revealed to Conway by interviews with the incredibly (and I do mean incredibly) aged High Lama, who communicates with a combination of perfect English and mental telepathy, and a vital decision is faced by our protagonist and his companions. To stay is so easy…the valley is so secluded…the world outside is so troubled…

Most of you probably know how this plays out, but in case you don’t, I’m going to leave you there. Read this for yourself, in the interests of cultural literacy if nothing else. It’s a slender novel, a quick read, and though you may find (as I did) that there is little of substance to really grab on to, the general effect is curiously memorable.

Here I have to admit that though I don’t exactly dislike James Hilton’s style, I do find it occasionally underwhelming, and this is true of my response to Lost Horizon, though it was an astounding bestseller in its time, inspired at least two movies, brought the term “Shangri-La” into our vocabulary, and remains in print and presumably selling well today.

I model myself on early-in-the-novel Conway, refusing to get too worked up about it all. Hence my moderately positive rating: 6.5/10.

Oh! I forgot to mention the girl.

There’s also a mysteriously ageless (hint hint) girl.

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hostages to fortune elizabeth cambridge 001Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1933. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1933. Hardcover. 304 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Not only met but exceeded all of my expectations.

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.

~Francis Bacon

I loved this book on so many levels; I suspect it will be high on my “most memorable books of 2013” list. Not only is it beautifully written, but the themes of marriage, motherhood and personal fulfillment struck very close to home; I couldn’t help but recognize many parallels with my own experience, which (of course!) is not unique, as Elizabeth Cambridge so eloquently demonstrates.


Catherine lay still. Through the slats of the blind she could see the hard white light of early morning; the bars were like a ladder. Black, white, white, black … was the white the rungs of the ladder or was it the space between? A white ladder or a black ladder?

Water splashed. The voice of the newcomer, hoarse and uncertain, rose and fell, broken by deep, sobbing breaths.

A girl. An anti-climax. A girl … after all that! Oh well, William would be pleased. A ‘nice little girl’. That was nurse, standing up for another woman.

‘Can I see her?’

‘Not yet. I’m just giving her a bath.”

Catherine closed her eyes. She wondered if being born hurt as much as giving birth. Somebody pulled up the blind and opened the window. Instantly the room filled with the smell of slaked dust. It had been raining in the night, but the morning was windless, damp, and fresh. An early tram clashed and rattled down the hill, the overhead wires sang as it passed. Out in the Sound a tug hooted. The tide must be falling now … all down the coast over miles of brown rocks, the gulls screaming in the pale June morning.

A girl. But who wanted girls, now, in the middle of a war? Catherine had never believed in the equality of the sexes. Women simply did not have the same chance as men. Nature had seen to that. If you wanted to produce a human being at all, it was common sense to want to produce the kind of human being that was going to have the best time.

Best time? The expression was the wrong one. Surely? What did she mean by the best time?

… She opened her eyes. Nurse was standing over her, the baby held upright against her shoulder, like the bambino on a Della Robbia plaque.

Catherine stared. So that was her baby. Baby? Babies were sleepy, amorphous, unconvincing and ugly. This creature was not amorphous, it was not even ugly. It stared at life with bright, unwinking eyes. Its underlip was thrust out, tremulous, indignant.

‘My word,’ Catherine thought. ‘That’s not a baby. It’s a person.’

And with that delicate little epiphany, the stage is set for the years to come of Catherine’s motherhood. The girl child, Audrey, is eventually followed by two more siblings, Adam and Bill, and through it all, the tedious business of ministering to infant needs, the small heartaches and exquisite joys of mothering toddlers, small children, increasingly independent and opinionated school children, teenagers, Catherine finds herself secure in that attitude, that these are, above all, persons, not merely extensions of herself or William, though of course there are glimpses of genetic imprint which for a moment here or there stand out and give sharp pause.

This is an episodic novel in which “nothing ever happens”, but it is a beautifully observed and documented series of vignettes of family life, with a view to the broader scene in which it is set. It reminded me most strongly of another book that has a similar tone and an equally well-depicted mother, Margery Sharp’s 1935 novel Four Gardens, another hidden gem of a book which I wish would receive the same attention from modern re-publishers of almost-lost small literary treasures.

These women are, of course, more than “just mothers”, but their maternity is an inescapable part of their lives, and though it does not define them, it forms their lives in various unforeseen ways, and their emotional and intellectual responses to their motherhood are well worth considering. Elizabeth Cambridge’s Hostages is said to be semi-autobiographical; Margery Sharp was childless; but both writers have identified and played upon a strong chord of shared experience which resonates with me, a person (and mother) of several generations later, living in a very different time and place.

I am having a hard time putting into words the deep appeal this book had for me; not only regarding the subject matter but how strongly the author’s voice came through. I will therefore leave it, at least for now, with a strong recommendation, and links to other reviews.

Hostages to Fortune is extremely readable, frequently very amusing, thoroughly thought-provoking, and occasionally poignant. An excellent book. Other readers agree; I don’t believe I’ve seen a single negative review.

Here is an excerpt from Claire at The Captive Reader‘s post. Please click over and read the whole review; she says much more.

Cambridge gives us a very ordinary, unremarkable story about ordinary, unremarkable people, just trying to do their best as they move through the years.  The focus is primarily on Catherine, mother and wife, who begins as a not unusually selfish young woman, concerned with her writing aspirations and her husband and, eventually, her babies.

…(S)howing a … mature marriage, I was incredibly impressed by the portrait of Catherine and William’s union through the years.  The novel begins during the First World War, with Catherine giving birth to Audrey while William is away.  When he returns, invalided out, they settle in the country and William begins his stressful work as the local doctor.  With William running about the countryside at all hours and Catherine struggling to manage at home with first one, then two, then three children, both spend the early years of their marriage frazzled, pressed for time, patience, and money.  They go through phases where they don’t particularly like one another, where they can’t even remember what they used to like about the other, where they question why they ever thought marriage was a good idea.  But, in the end, they are partners and, however distant they may have felt over the years, they shared the same vision and values.  They can respect the work the other has done over the years and, year by year, that brings them closer together…

…(T)his is truly a novel about parenting, about the limits of control.  Catherine’s greatest struggle is learning that she cannot give her children everything she’d dreamed or planned for them.  That she must “not grab nor claim, nor try to insist on what they do and what they are.”  There comes a point where, if you’re going to keep them close and on good terms, you have to let go rather than attempt to orchestrate their lives for them.  And you have to resign yourself to the fact that the fates they chose for themselves will be different than the ones you planned for and that they will potentially achieve much less than what they’re capable of…

Hostages to Fortune is a thoughtful novel full of well drawn characters and relationships, presented with admirable simplicity.  I was so taken with it, was so easily able to relate to not just Catherine but also William and their children, that I’d say it is now probably one of my favourite Persephones…

And a few more links:

A Window to My Soul – Hostages to Fortune

Heavenali – Hostages to Fortune

Fervent thanks to Persephone Press for re-publishing this novel. Here’s hoping that many more forgotten books which still speak to us today will continue to be brought back into circulation, and to garner the attention which they so richly deserve.

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The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp ~ 1933. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1952. Hardcover. 345 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Margery Sharp’s fourth novel, The Flowering Thorn,  first appeared in England in 1933, with an American edition appearing in 1934, but it attracted little attention in North America until almost twenty years later. The later novels Cluny Brown (made into a 1946 movie of the same name, starring Jennifer Jones and Charles Boyer) and The Nutmeg Tree (used as the inspiration for the popular 1948 movie Julia Misbehaves starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Nigel Bruce and a young Elizabeth Taylor) brought Margery Sharp  to the attention of the North American public, who happily bought her books and asked for more.

The reason I mention this is that there are two sets of “first editions” of The Flowering Thorn out there. The first “first” would be the original British 1933 edition published by Arthur Barker, Ltd. Putnam’s American edition followed in 1934. Then in 1952 appears another “first”, so stated in the book, with a stated copyright date of 1934, published by Little, Brown and Co. The dustjacket and front flyleaf of the 1952 Little, Brown edition refers to a number of the Sharp titles published after 1932, and up to 1951 – The Nutmeg Tree, The Stone of Chastity, Cluny Brown, Britannia Mews, The Foolish Gentlewoman, and Lise Lillywhite – giving the game away – but it can be confusing. There were several paperback editions as well. This title is fairly scarce; if you can find a decent-condition hardcover of any edition under $30, grab it. A 1933 true first in good condition will set you back $100 +, going by the May 2012 AbeBooks listings.

(Vintage book collector’s digression now over!)

I would like to call this a gentle, slow-moving examination of a woman’s progress towards true fulfillment and happiness, but Margery Sharp’s always analytical and occasionally tart tone, as well as protagonist Lesley Frewen’s no-nonsense attitude, make “gentle” a somewhat inadequate description.

Lesley is a twenty-nine year old socialite living in London in 1929. Her life is perfectly organized; she lives well, and just within her income, in a high-end, most desirable flat; her interests are the theatre, modern art, literature and music; she moves among the Bright Young Things of the day with aplomb and style. What Lesley suddenly realizes she is missing, after a tactful brush-off by a man she highly admires and has delicately offered herself to, is love.

…there slipped into her mind, already bodied in words, a strange and dreadful notion. She thought,
‘Perhaps I am not a woman that men do love.’
She thought,
‘There are women like that. Attractive women…. And if that is so, and if…that is what I have been waiting for, what am I to do now?’
The intricate daily patchwork was still there to work at, the innumerable dovetailing fragments still lay ready to hand: but it now seemed to her, and for the first time, that her work had no pattern.
‘I want something new,’ said Lesley aloud.

And it is in this frame of mind, struggling with her sudden inner turmoil, that Lesley goes to tea with her elderly aunt, who is embroiled of a turmoil of her own: her recently hired companion, a young, widowed Scotswoman, has suddenly died, leaving behind a four-year-old child. There are no relations in sight, and the orphanage looms.

Lesley, who has been watching young Patrick playing on the floor as the conversation regarding his future goes on above his head, is impressed and intrigued by the child’s tenacious attitude and sober demeanour. On a whim, she offers to take him on herself, much to her aunt’s consternation. Lesley immediately regrets her rash offer, but before she can backtrack the child catches her eye; to renounce him would be a betrayal, she suddenly feels. The immediate and very vocal opposition to her proposal by the elderly women present has the contradictory effect of  stiffening Lesley’s resolve, and the wheels are set in motion.

Lesley suddenly finds herself in the position of having to leave her flat (no children allowed) and to take on extra expenses in regards to Patrick’s care. Her careful budget is in tatters, and she decides, on another not particularly well thought out whim, to move into a cottage in a country village in order to live more cheaply. After all, it is only going to be for four years, until Patrick is old enough to send to boarding school, and then Lesley can slide back into her well-organized town life. Her social butterfly friends will surely understand…

Lesley’s new life is not what she had anticipated, but she takes it well in stride, attempting at first to keep up her strict London standards, but, ever-so-slowly, a new Lesley is born, a much more human and ultimately more lovable one.

Something I deeply appreciated about this story was Sharp’s total avoidance of sentiment regarding the relationship between Lesley and Patrick. Lesley is, almost immediately, deeply resentful of Patrick’s demands – both the physical demands of a small child, and the moral demands his presence in her life place upon her stern conscience. Confronted by a friend pushing the option of backing out of the situation, Lesley examines her innermost soul and comes to a surprising conclusion:

She thought, ‘If I don’t see this thing out I shall have something rotten inside me for the rest of my life.’ Rotten like an apple – the brown decaying core under the firm red skin…

Nevertheless, she does not initially feel any sort of affection for the child; to the contrary

…she looked at him with an intensity of dislike so nearly bordering on hatred that her own features, could she have seen them at that moment, would have seemed completely strange to her.  And even without seeing, it was as though she guessed: for in all their enforced companionship she never once spoke to him without consciously masking her face. It was a hatred to be ashamed of, ignoble and unjust: but she did not love him the more for making her ashamed.

The development of a much more positive relationship between the two is the thread that winds through the story, though Lesley in no way concentrates solely on the nurturing of Patrick; she is even more so concerned with working through her own emotional and intellectual growth as her self-imposed exile from her previous world gradually brings her an awareness of the unexpectedly rich and satisfying reward of relationships based on mutual affection and respect versus social expediency.

A thought provoking, often humorous, rather surprising story. Highly recommended.

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