Posts Tagged ‘1965 novel’

the good companions musson j b priestley 001

The Good Companions by J.B. Priestley ~ 1929. This edition: Musson, 1930. Hardcover. 640 pages.

My rating: 10/10

A middle-aged Yorkshire laborer who has just been fired from his carpenter’s job at the local mill, a recent Cambridge graduate-cum-reluctant-schoolmaster with literary ambitions and a talent for creating catchy tunes on the piano, and a sedately dutiful upper-class spinster-daughter in her fourth decade recently freed of familial responsibilities by the death of her elderly father are all thrown together by the whim of fate.

The set-up of the main characters’ backstories takes up a good third or so of this very rambling narrative, and it is not until we are well into the book that their paths convene, as they fall in with another lot of fate-tossed travellers, the stranded members of a theatrical troupe, the ex-Dinky Doos.

The result of this leisurely and detailed approach is a likeable period piece of a book – “a long, comic, picaresque, a fairy-tale sort of novel”, to quote the author’s own words in 1937’s autobiographical Midnight on the Desert – as the newly united characters form a travelling concert party/pierrot troupe, performing in rural towns and small industrial cities throughout the Yorkshires and surrounding districts.

The Good Companions was written between the wars, when Priestley was dealing with some serious personal issues, such as the recent death of his young wife from cancer (leaving behind two baby daughters), and his own chronic physical difficulties resulting from injuries and gassing while serving in the trenches of WW I. His decision to create an ultimately happy novel – the characters, despite their very real troubles, all attain at least a modicum of their personal hearts’ desires – was immensely popular with the public, and the book was an astoundingly successful bestseller. But the highbrow critics sneered, and though Priestley enjoyed the much-needed financial security The Good Companions provided, the dismissive attitudes of his literary peers wounded him deeply.

The book retains its appeal today. The likeable concert party characters are all very human in their thoughts, desires, ambitions and reactions to various setbacks, and though we are aware of the author’s omnipotent hand in strategically arranging the various random incidents which result in the united happy ending, we good naturedly accept the more creative developments and cheer our people on. There is also a certain historical interest in the novel’s detailed portrayal of a now-vanished theatrical sub-culture, which, even as it still flourished, was being inexorably replaced by the “new-technology” moving picture shows, as is shown in one of the final plot twists of the novel.

Highly recommended, for “cultural literacy” reasons as much as for its engaging story.

Budget yourself a goodly chunk of time to read this one. At over 600 small-print pages, it takes a certain amount of optimistic persistence to embark upon, but once entered into will provide a lovely escape from the one’s own ho-hum everyday routine.

lost empires jb priestley 001Lost Empires by J.B. Priestley ~ 1965. Subtitled Being Richard Herncastle’s account of his life on the variety stage from November 1913 to August 1914 together with a Prologue and Epilogue by J.B. Priestley. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1966. Hardcover. 381 pages.

My rating: 9/10

J.B. Priestley revisits the world of the travelling theatrical party which he so famously documented in 1929’s The Good Companions, but this novel, written some three decades later, is a much grittier and less outwardly cheerful thing than its predecessor.

Whereas The Good Companions was written as a contemporary novel reflective of its time (though a highly sentimentalized and “feel-good” version, and that’s not meant to be derogatory, as the author himself states that this was his intention), Lost Empires is frequently melancholy and foreboding, and very much about looking back and describing a certain rigidly defined period of time in relation to what came after.

The casual reader might assume Lost Empires to be lightly disguised autobiography, so intimate are the thoughts and events recorded, but Priestley distances himself from the narrative by presenting himself as the author of both the preface and epilogue to the tale, with the set-up being that an old friend, the Richard (Dick) Herncastle named in the subtitle, has asked Priestley-the-famous-writer to look over the memoir for him. The framing device works very well, and the resulting novel is taut with a certain suspense, as we-the-readers know what young Dick’s future may hold. He’s a physically fit, unencumbered young man in his very early twenties, and the year is 1913. Everything is about to change beyond recognition in his world; we know that as we embark upon the first chapter.

But though war is looming – and a number of the wiser characters in Lost Empires are grimly predicting what later came to pass – the mood in England is one of wanting to be distracted from the political rumblings all around, and the music halls are thriving, into which unlikely milieu our young protagonist is initiated by his black-sheep-of-the-family Uncle Nick.

Dick, newly orphaned by the death of his mother, aspires to be an artist, but has been forced by circumstances to give up his plans of attending art school to instead work as an office clerk. Uncle Nick, attending his sister’s funeral, takes Dick aside and offers him a position as his assistant in his very successful variety show act.

Uncle Nick is an accomplished illusionist of the “vanishing lady” type, and his perfectionism and scornful antipathy to any sort of sentiment make him an awkward sort of employer, family ties or not, but Dick’s dogged determination to continue with his artistic goals despite the logistical difficulties earns his uncle’s respect, and the two settle into a mostly successful working relationship.

Dick has never been in a position to travel or to associate with people from such a broad strata of society as the touring variety show allows, and it rather goes to his head. His good looks and polite middle-class manners make him the focus of unnervingly aggressive attention from some of the women in the other acts (and also from his uncle’s own act’s female member, one of whose unofficial duties is to share the principle’s bed), but the one woman he would like to get on closer terms with is unaccountably cold and snubbing, though she unbends for a brief period, long enough for Dick to fall deeply in love with her, before she again cold-shoulders him.

Emotionally bruised and sexually frustrated, a situation made much worse by the continual presence of nubile young women in revealing costumes, Dick, still a sexual virgin as his variety-stage history opens, is ready to fall, and fall he does. He is seduced by and then obsessively enters into a torrid relationship with one of the older women in a co-starring act, with disastrous consequences when his real love is told of his defection to the well-experienced arms of another.

This book is chock-full of sex, not particularly graphic but described with enough detail to make one very aware of the change in times since The Good Companions first appeared to the time when Lost Empires was written. Though we have no doubts that some of the characters in The Good Companions were also sexually active, and prone to drinking too much on occasion, and sometimes involved in questionable personal pursuits, many of the details aren’t given, and the more risqué bits are generally glossed over, or given the light comedy treatment.

Very much not so in Lost Empires, with the result that it is a much stronger sort of novel in a modern, no-topic-is-forbidden sense, though Priestley provides a soft-focussed epilogue which echoes that of his earlier tale, with our hero finding his personal redemption and with most loose ends neatly tucked away.

And that final soft focus is what docked Lost Empires its point in my personal rating in comparison to The Good Companions‘ solid 10.

The Good Companions satisfied because it did exactly what it said it would on the flyleaf: it amused. The author dances his characters for us, and he blatantly manipulates fate to favour them, and, as it’s all part of the game and known to us going in, we cheerfully play along.

Lost Empires is, for the most part, a rather deeper book, with its vividly imagined and occasionally disturbing coming-of-age tale, and its sober look back at a nation heading unhappily into a devastating war. I felt, however, that J.B. Priestley pulled back just a bit from where he could have gone with it, and though Lost Empires is a very good thing, the eventual resolution of its hero’s problems felt slightly deus ex machina, hand of puppet master evident at the last.

This said, also very highly recommended. A good example of Priestley’s later fiction, and a must-read for anyone interested in exploring this prolific writer’s A-list.



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The Town in Bloom Dodie Smith corsair editionThe Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith ~ 1965. This edition: Corsair, 2012. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-78033-301-4. 314 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

After my mixed feelings about one of Dodie Smith’s “other” (meaning not I Capture the Castle) adult novels, The New Moon with the Old, and my rather shaky introduction to this one (I quit early on the first time of attempting to read it) I was very pleased to find that I did like this one, after all. A whole lot. Now isn’t that interesting?

Three ex-actresses meet for their every-five-years reunion dinner, hoping that this year, the eighth reunion, the fourth of their friends, the elusive Zelle, may join them, but it appears that this is not to be.

It’s been forty years since vivacious narrator Mouse (we never learn her real name), placid Molly and sleekly beautiful Lilian were all thrown together in the lively heyday of the 1920s London theatre scene. They have all gone on to varying degrees of success and happiness, and by and large enjoy their reminiscences every time they meet, but there is a shadow lurking regarding the unknown fate of the fourth of their jolly crew, who vanished (voluntarily) from her room in the theatrical boarding house they all shared and hasn’t been seen or heard from since, despite repeated pleas to join the reunion published in the personal ads of The Times.

As the three friends chat after their window table lunch, Mouse becomes increasingly intrigued by an eccentrically dressed woman huddled over her drab knitting on a park bench outside, who keeps glancing at the ladies inside in a surreptitious manner. Could it possibly be…?

An attempt to intercept the maybe-Zelle fails, but Mouse has marked the house her quarry disappeared into for future investigation. Meanwhile, the encounter has triggered a flood memories of the summer in the 1920s when the four girls came together in their unlikely friendship, and which ultimately saw all of them launched on their forever-after paths due to decisions made in the passionate heat of those few torrid months.

I hesitate to go much further in my description of the plot, because I did so enjoy unravelling it all on my own, but I will say that it involves a whole lot of sex. Thinking about it, talking about it, plotting how best to go about arranging it, and of course doing it. There is nothing at all graphic, aside from some teasing reference –  “I should write down all the details in my diary but well maybe I’ll just let it live in my memory…” – but these girls are all, in their own ways, carrying on very active love/sex lives. Mouse is assumed to be the most innocent, due to her relative youth (she’s eighteen) and child-like appearance (she’s tiny and innocent looking) but she turns out to be nothing of the sort, absolutely throwing herself into the experience, and eagerly shedding her virginity with only a few meditative regrets:

I was very happy too – in a way; I am finding that out as I write. I am, somehow…exorcising the loneliness. It will pass, it will pass.

But with it will pass someone I shall be a little sorry to lose: myself as I was before last night. Aunt Marion had a book of poems by Charles Cotton which she bought for the Lovat Fraser decorations, and in one poem are the lines:

She finds virginity a kind of ware
That’s very, very troublesome to bear,
And being gone she thinks will ne’er be missed.

I think one will miss it, but only for a very little while. Soon one will forget that it ever meant anything. Perhaps it never did; already I can almost accept that. The great plane tree outside my window is just as beautiful it was that May night when I last wrote in my journal, though its summer leaves are a little less green than the leaves of spring…

Shades of Cassandra Mortmain, I believe I detect in these youthfully self-focussed musings.

The novel gives a fascinating glimpse of the world of the 1920s’ theatre, being very much involved with backstage life, and the details Dodie Smith gives are worth wading through the occasionally tiresome teenage angst of our narrator, and the annoyances that her full-speed-ahead-towards-the-goal persona occasionally engender.

The theatre scenes of the first half of the book are fascinating, though the focus changes (dramatically) once the love affairs start. I did feel that perhaps Mouse’s experiences in the theatre were a bit too plush-lined – she seems to end jam side up pretty well each and every time she stumbles, being taken in and indulged and helped and sheltered again and again and again, even by those she’s deliberately wronged. Rather special, is our Mouse.

I was relieved by the ending, which wasn’t as blissfully neat and tidy as I feared it would be, though it glossed over a whole lot of bothersome details, citing their unimportance due to the passing of four forgetful decades.

Dodie Smith gained my readerly good regard by her willingness to show that there were no fairy tale endings, or, more aptly, that there are really no endings at all (except the very obvious final final one); life does go on and on and on, with no attainment of a permanent goal, and, furthermore, it (life) can continue to be exceedingly interesting, no matter what your birth certificate lists your age as.

Much has been made in some of the other reviews I’ve read about the unexpected feminist elements and the surprising frankness regarding sex in this book, but I didn’t at all feel that these were unusually daring, because though the novel was for the most part set in the 1920s, it was written in the 1960s. Though our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers kept a discreet silence (for the most part) about their personal sexual affairs, there is no doubt whatsoever that their private lives were just as sophisticated as anything going on in this generation, so any sort of “Gosh! Golly! Gee whiz! These girls were downright modern in their escapades!” attitude gets nothing but a yawn from me.

To sum up, The Town in Bloom is a rather better book, in my opinion, than The New Moon With the Old, though I Capture the Castle still occupies a niche set well above either of these.

I have several volumes of Dodie Smith’s biography waiting on the TBR shelves, but I do believe I will investigate some more of her fictions first, if I can get my hands on them. It Ends with Revelations will be the easiest to obtain, and after that I’m not quite sure where to go. Possibly a play or two? Dear Octopus has been recommended to me as worthy of reading. And maybe a revisit to the juveniles, to dally for a bit among the Dalmations…



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the mandelbaum gate muriel spark 001The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark ~ 1965. This edition: Penguin, 1977. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-00-2745-9. 304 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Well, now, this one started out rather slowly but became increasingly enjoyable as I sorted out the many story strands the author tossed out and put names to characters and figured out how everyone knew everyone else and what the significance of all of the confusing references were. But it was toughish going for the first third or so. I’m glad I persevered – I almost didn’t.

For a long time I was afraid this was going to turn out to be one of those dismal and fatal tragedies, hearts all broken and dismal suicides and arbitrary deaths-by-misadventure – well, check out the sad face on the cover of my Penguin! – but the author graciously pulled a quickie on me there, resolving everything mildly and without bloodshed, except for one background character who perishes awfully far from the scene of the novel, and who we rather think deserves her nasty fate from what we’ve heard of her.

I liked this book. A lot. Which surprised me, because my expectations were low, after reading a number of dismissive comments regarding its place in the Muriel Spark canon on book blogs which are generally highly reliable indicators of “good” and “bad”.  Which just goes to show that one should remember that taste in books remains a nebulously personal thing.

I must be off and away again this morning, but I wanted to post something about this book and move on – my stack of “want to write abouts” is intimidatingly tall and I hesitate to add yet another. Drawing something of a blank on how best to frame this review, so I am going to refer you over to this excellent précis at Vulpes Libris, where Sharon Rob concisely identifies all of the important bits of this nicely complex novel.

A tiny excerpt here:

Protagonist Barbara is in her thirties, a Catholic convert from Judaism, (whose) status as a woman and a Jewish-Catholic one at that is one way in which Spark takes the thriller genre in hand and gives it a good shake. Barbara is gutsy, bloody-minded and heedless of other people’s opinions, but also committed to her own strong moral code. She is closer to the ideal of the intrepid hero than Freddie Hamilton, the novel’s central male protagonist…a fifty-something diplomat (who) in some ways is more of an archetypal female character than Barbara …who is bound by nothing she didn’t choose…

Barbara has decided, against all advice, to cross over from the Israeli-held side of Jerusalem to the Jordanian side through the titular Mandelbaum Gate, the “Checkpoint Charlie” of its place and time, in order to continue on a personal religious pilgrimage of the Holy Land. The fact that her fiancé, an archeologist working on the Dead Sea Scrolls dig in Jordan, is also “across the line” may or may not be a factor in her determination to put herself at serious risk (as a “person with Jewish blood”) and venture into forbidden territory.

Throw in Freddie’s well-intentioned attempts to save Barbara from herself, a Jordanian family of “fixers”, a couple of turncoat British spies, nuns, disguises, a scarlet fever epidemic, varied sexual liasions, the Catholic Church’s policy on valid marriages for its members, the sudden appearance of Barbara’s ex-roommate and ex-boss Ricky-the-scary-English-girls’-school-headmistress hot on Barbara’s trail, and – with chilling reminder of the atrocities of the Holocaust just past – the Eichmann trial (which Barbara attends as a spectator for a sobering afternoon), and you have a glorious muddle which eventually settles out into separate-though-interrelated strata and against all odds works.

Perhaps not a “typical Spark”, but as I haven’t read enough of her work to have a really good handle on what that even is – I have previously read with enjoyment The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, though I failed to get more than a few pages in with Robinson – it struck me as quite good enough to make me keen to read some more of her novels and fill in the Muriel Spark-shaped gaps in this region of my reading history.

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