Posts Tagged ‘1950 Novel’

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy ~ 1950. This edition: Faber, 2021. Softcover. 435 pages.

This is going to be my year for reading Margaret Kennedy. I’ve been stalling on her for way too long. Or maybe just keeping her in the wings for a time when I need something a bit extra good?

So. The Feast. I’ll bet most of my regular readers are way ahead of me on this one, at least if the number of reviews I’ve read are a clue. Let me see if I can keep this tidy and not too revealing of the details. Here we go.

Cornwall, 1947. A terrible disaster has just occurred. A section of sea cliff has suddenly collapsed, completely obliterating a small private hotel and all of the people inside it. We know this right up front; we get a look over the shoulder of the local Anglo-Catholic priest who has been tasked with coming up with a sermon for the memorial service. (The victims remain entombed.)

But not everyone who should have been in the hotel perished. There were survivors. Who they were, and who perished, remains a mystery to the reader until the last few pages, and though one finds oneself guessing away like mad, one isn’t quite sure.

Except in my case, for my husband blurted out the ending when he saw me walking past with the book because he thought I’d already read it. It didn’t really ruin my reading experience, because I cried out, “Stop!” and he twigged to the situation and immediately apologized, but I would recommend you treat this one like a good old-fashioned whodunit and don’t try to find too much out about it beforehand.

Here’s all I’ll say:

An eclectic array of guests arrive at the small seaside hotel. Every one of them – including the children – carry with them secrets. As do the owners of the hotel, and the staff. Some of these secrets will be revealed, some won’t, and some are directly responsible for the fates of the secret-bearers on the fatal day of the landslide.

Mysterious enough for you?

I’ll say a bit more, because I didn’t “get” this till after, when I went back to read the foreword. I usually skip forewords – so many spoilers! In this case, it’s really interesting, and adds another layer of guesswork to the reading experience.

Seven of these characters have been crafted by the author to represent one each of the Seven Deadly Sins. We aren’t told this in the narrative, but if you read the introduction by Cathy Rentzenbrink it’s all laid out, and then you get to spend the entire length of the book trying to figure out who is which. Some are easy, some not at all.

Tragic ending aside, this is a very clever and frequently very humorous novel; the awfulness of the worst characters is balanced by the goodness of the best ones.

Highly recommended. My rating: I’m going to give it a 10/10. Enjoy!


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Old Herbaceous by Reginald Arkell ~ 1950. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1951. Illustrated by John Minton. Hardcover. 155 pages.

The second book of 2018 was something of a soft landing after my hair-straight-back initiation into the somewhat frenetic world of Elizabeth Bowen.

This next one is as straightforward as it gets; pure narrative of the simpler sort. I hasten to say it has all of the merits of its genre, that of the nostalgia piece, vide Miss Read and her ilk.

Elderly Bert Pinnegar, lifelong gardener at the “Big House” of his quiet English village, sits at his cottage window musing over his past, from humble beginnings through the stages of promotion from garden boy to head gardener, and on into retirement and inevitable physical decline of old age.

It all started so long ago…

Opening her cottage door, on a May morning some eighty-odd years ago, Mrs. Pinnegar, the cowman’s wife, had received a shock, and no mistake. There, on the door-step, wrapped in an old cotton skirt, was a baby, as newly-born as made no difference. Mrs. Pinnegar, a kindly soul, with six children of her own, passed the village maidens in review. Several of them were ‘expecting,’ but Mrs. Pinnegar, unofficial midwife and friend of all families, knew their dates to a nicety and the problem was not so easily solved. There had been no gipsies through the village for weeks. . . . Being a practical woman, the cowman’s wife picked up the parcel the fairies had brought her; christened it Herbert, after an uncle who was killed in the Crimea, and set about her Monday’s wash. When you had six of your own, one more didn’t matter.

Naturally, there was a bit of chatter at the time, but unexpected arrivals never made front-page news in an English village. A rick fire and talk of the Prussians in Paris were much more exciting. Young Herbert settled down in his new home; seasons came and went; the new self-binder started tying the sheaves with string . . .

Still, being picked up on a door-step did take the gilt off the gingerbread a bit; especially when you’d got along in the world and become someone in the village. True, there was nobody left to throw his birth in his teeth. Everybody was dead—every man Jack of them! Old folk went and new folk came, until you couldn’t find a single soul who remembered anything. Very soon he’d go, too, and then there’d be nothing left but houses—and gardens.

Funny, that! You planted a tree; you watched it grow; you picked the fruit and, when you were old, you sat in the shade of it. Then you died and they forgot all about you—just as though you had never been. . . . But the tree went on growing, and everybody took it for granted. It always had been there and it always would be there. . . . Everybody ought to plant a tree, sometime or another—if only to keep them humble in the sight of the Lord.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this gentle story which can’t be imagined from the excerpt above. Arkell rambles along, documenting the highs and lows of his invented countryman’s life. There is some garden lore tucked in here and there, but not enough to take it to anything like a “garden” book. It’s a nostalgia piece, pure and simple, and the author makes no attempt to take it beyond that level.

Pleasant enough in its own way, and I passed an evening with Our Bert in mild enjoyment. Engaging enough to keep one entertained. If you like Miss Read, you’ll like Reginald Arkell.

I think I mentioned something of the same regarding the other of Arkell’s bucolic novels which I read during my 2014 Century of Books, Trumpets Over Merriford. And I believe I used the term “quaint” for that one, and it applies equally aptly to Old Herbaceous.

Looking at my rating of Trumpets Over Merriford, I see I gave it a 6.5 rating. I’m feeling rather more generous regarding the tale of the gardener. Let’s say 7.5/10. Because it’s a nice little thing, relaxing to read in between bouts with the seed catalogues this planning time of year for those of us with horticulture as part of our lives.




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The Spanish Gardener by A.J. Cronin ~ 1950. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1950. Hardcover. 263 pages.

A fast, intense read, full of palpable foreboding, which builds to a bitter climax.

An American diplomat, estranged from the mother of his young son, frets in the stagnation of his career as he is continually passed over for promotion, being instead shifted from one backwater European consulate to another. He consoles himself that one day he will be vindicated, when he finds a publisher for his ambitious life-work, a biography of obscure 17th Century French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, and with misguided anticipation of the resulting fanfare, dreams of being able to retire from his not very stellar career to a life of acclaimed authorship.

Harrington Brande is obsessed by his own standing in the complicated hierarchy of the foreign diplomatic service, and his immense ego is as fragile as it is blind to its possessor’s deep and well-deserved unpopularity with everyone whom he comes in contact with. The one exception is 9-year-old Nicholas – the name no coincidence – who returns his father’s clinging and jealous infatuation with innocently filial love.

The pair fetch up in a quiet coastal Spanish town, and Brande is relieved to find that both his residence and his official offices are in much better condition than some previous postings have led him to fear. An overgrown garden leads to the engagement of a teenage gardener, a young man of poor family but esteemed local reputation due to his intelligence, happy nature, competence at his work, and stature as an accomplished athlete.

Gardener José and semi-invalid Nicholas are deeply attracted to each other in the most purely platonic of ways, and a deep friendship springs up between the two, flourishing until the father notices the son’s gaze turning to José too often. Steps must be taken to break up this most unsuitable of friendships – added to Harrington Brande’s other unlikable personality traits is one of deep snobbishness – and the tighter he clings to his son the more tenuous his position becomes as the sole possessor of Nicholas’s affection.

A sinister chauffeur-butler, an unscrupulous psychiatrist, and Brande himself manufacture a situation in which José finds himself entrapped in a false accusation. Nicholas remains steadfast to his friend, but all pleas for mercy serve merely to intensify the father’s desire for revenge on his supposed supplanter.

There is a strand of sexual frustration and homoerotic obsession running through this dark and disturbing little novel; one can’t help but feel that Nicholas’s mother has done the wise thing by leaving her husband to his own devices. The child is protected by his tender age from understanding the nuances of his father’s self-torturing motivations, but he is growing up, and becoming aware that all is not as it could and should be.

Tragedy inevitably strikes, as we have known it will all along.

The author allows the slightest gleam of redemption in his final scenes, but makes no firm promises.

Though the scenarios are laid out with perfect clarity, I feel that The Spanish Gardener’s narrative strength lies more in nuance than salacious detail. Definitely a work of its time, a sober post-war character portrait and an emotionally involving though rather subfusc drama. I found it impossible to look away from and read it all in one go this cold fall evening.

My rating: 7.5/10.

Initially a qualified doctor who started writing during a long convalescence from illness in 1930, A.J. Cronin was a Scottish writer of novels, novellas and short stories, and his work was both popular and critically acclaimed. His dramatic stories were a natural for film adaptation; Cronin went on to add successful and lucrative careers as a film and television writer to his other accomplishments.



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a lamp is heavy sheila mackay russell 001A Lamp is Heavy by Sheila MacKay Russell ~ 1950. This edition: J.B. Lippincott, 1950. Hardcover. 256 pages.

My rating: 5/10.

This one just sneaks (on quiet rubber soles, perhaps?) into the “keeper” pile. It did have its moments, though it was mostly just a milder North American version of the stellar Monica Dickens life-as-a-British-nursing-student classic, One Pair of Feet.

Here’s a bit of trivia I discovered while trolling about for a bit of background info on author Sheila MacKay Russell. According to writer Julia Hallam in Nursing the Image: Media, Culture and Professional Identity, a critical examination of nursing as portrayed in popular culture, A Lamp is Heavy was adapted into a movie titled The Feminine Touch in 1956, with the setting changed to England from North America – I originally had said “The United States” here, but it turns out that the author is from Alberta and likely based it on her experiences nursing in Edmonton – and – much to my surprise! – with Monica Dickens herself contributing as a screenwriter.

I can see how A Lamp is Heavy would transfer well to film; it is equally as concerned with a romance between the main character, nursing student Sue Bates, and a handsome young intern, Doctor Alcott, as it is with the events of hospital life.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. I’ll let the author speak for herself. Though the main character in the novel is named pseudonymously “Sue Bates”, she is based strongly on the author’s own experiences; the book is strongly autobiographical, though details have been changed to obscure the people and places it is based upon.

It was my long-standing and persistent longing to be a nurse … [and this] impelled me to take the most portentous step in my life, in spite of the discouragement heaped upon me by all and sundry of my friends, including my mother. Mother, in her own way, was a realist. Nurses in her mind were synonymous with fallen arches, varicose veins, questionable language and backaches, and only the fact that she discovered, quite by accident, that Florence Nightingale was a lady of cultured family tended to reconcile her to what seemed to her to be my unnecessarily earthy inclinations.. She wasn’t really reconciled until the day came when she could comfort herself with the possibility of my salvaging a doctor husband out of the fiasco. She even kept all of my relatives in a similar state of doubt. This included my father. Where I was concerned, he reflected Mother’s attitudes as faithfully as a full-length mirror, and as I was an only child, he insisted on having a serious talk with the Mayor of the town before I was allowed to set foot on hospital soil. What he expected to get, or what he did get, from the Mayor, I don’t know, but he seemed happier. He came home and said that the board members of the city hospital were all Chamber of Commerce men, and perhaps I would be safe enough if I trained there.

Sue enters the hospital with her class of eleven other eager probationers; the twelve manage to stay the course and finish out their three years of training to graduate together; tales of their goings-on, trials and tribulations make up the majority of this memoir, with time out here and there for more serious discussions of some of the tragedies – and, to be fair, some of the more than occasional joys – of dealing with patients and their woes, as well as sidelights on the plight of the poverty-stricken members of the population who could not afford to avail themselves of proper medical care despite the efforts of a developing medical outreach service led by several of the hospital’s doctors.

Handsome, charismatic and manipulative Doctor Alcott provides romantic interest; he and Sue have an on-again, off-again love affair throughout Sue’s hospital years, which seems to end quite satisfactorily for all concerned. (Including, incidentally, Sue’s mother!)

A decently readable word portrait of a North American hospital in the just-prior-to World War II years, with likeable characters and enough drama to keep one interested start to finish.

I don’t recommend that you rush out and search this one down, though. Instead, invest your hard-earned dollars in Miss Dickens’  grand tale, unless A Lamp is Heavy absolutely leaps off a used bookstore shelf at you – in that case, it would repay a small investment, returning a few hours of interesting reading.


After I published this review, I received a comment from Susan (see comments, below) to the effect that she thought the author was Canadian. I searched around a bit more and came across this mention on pages 9-10 of Volume 2 of Literary History of Alberta: From the End of the War to the End of the Century, by George Melnyk, 1999, University of Alberta Press.

Sheila Mackay Russell (1920-?) published two novels, A Lamp is Heavy (1950) and The Living Earth (1954). Russell was born in Airdrie, Alberta, went to school in Calgary, and attended university in Edmonton, where she took a degree in public health nursing. After her marriage to a doctor in 1947, she continued to live in Edmonton. A Lamp is Heavy is a first-person account of a nurse during the Second World War. [L&P note: A sharp-eyed reader has mentioned that this is slightly inaccurate, as the novel takes place prior to the start of the war.] This popular novel sold 75,000 copies over five years, including a Dutch translation, and was made into a film called The Feminine Touch with wartime Britain as the setting.

Russell’s character captured an exposed feminine sensibility:

“Witnessing childbirth had a strange effect on me. I can’t explain the close, proud kinship with other women which it seemed to bring me. I only knew, as I watched them, that they were performing a tremendous and elemental act of living.”

Russell’s second novel, The Living Earth,also had a nurse for a protagonist. Set in an isolated settlement in the north of the province (Alberta), the novel tells the story of two women who come from the south to  seek new lives. “It was spring in Mud Creek. Sun and earth, uniting, had thrown off the shackles of winter; the earth steamed from its effort and the sun lingered triumphantly a few minutes longer each day …”

The Living Earth won the Toronto Womens’ Canadian Club prize. The commercial success of Russell’s first novel reflected a need among women readers for literary work that captured their experiences and sensibilities during World War Two. Her second novel dealt with a more specialized topic and a return to an agrarian setting, which did not have the wider appeal of the first book.

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