Posts Tagged ‘Domestic Drama’

I need to get some of this towering stack of books-to-be-discussed thinned out; my desk is way too crowded; no place to park the teacup! (And my spouse, coming in last night to “borrow” the computer, made comment on the situation and then graciously offered to shelve them for me – which though a sweet gesture is not necessarily a good thing, as he puts things in strange places. Our filing systems differ. 😉 )Time for a few round-up posts, I think.

Where to start? How to group these? Let’s see…

How about this trio of not necessarily bad books, but ones which could have been better. Definitely readable, but not top notch. (My personal responses only, dependent entirely on my mood at the reading moment – yours could be so much different, so please forgive me if I cold-shoulder one of your favourites.)

station wagon in spain frances parkinson keyesStation Wagon in Spain by Frances Parkinson Keyes ~ 1959. This edition: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1959. Hardcover. 224 pages.

My rating: 5/10

I’ve occasionally flirted with Keyes, because her books have such potentially interesting premises, but I invariably come away sighing. And sadly this concoction is no exception. The very best thing about it was the nine-page author’s foreword, in which she relates her own experiences travelling with her friend Kitty in immediately post-war Italy, France and Spain in 1946, with a rickety American station wagon loaded with relief supplies for an evacuated convent of Bendictine nuns.

Utterly fascinating – “Tell me more!” was my response – but no, Keyes blithely dismisses her own experiences and instead embarks on this rather creatively imagined fictional tale, which starts off reasonably well but soon bogs down in a morass of excessive detail and complicated plotting.

In brief(ish):

A young university professor unexpectedly inherits a large fortune, and, while mulling over his sudden change in situation and his deeply elemental boredom with his life to this point, receives a version of the infamous “Spanish Prisoner” letter in the mail. This one is purportedly from a real Spanish prisoner, and – how handy! – Lambert just happens to be a fluent Spanish speaker himself. Knowing full well that the letter is a scam, he feels that a diversion is in order, so he takes a sabbatical year from his teaching job, packs up his newly purchased big red convertible station wagon, says a dismissive good-bye to the young woman who has been scheming (well beknownst to Lambert) to marry him, and heads off to Spain.

The plot thickens, as Lambert immediately falls in with a luscious adventuress and carries on an intense shipboard flirtation. “Coincidences” start to fall together thick and fast. There does, to Lambert’s great glee, appear to be a genuine prisoner of sorts associated with the fabricated scenario – an impoverished Duke incarcerated in a private sanatorium. Who happens to have a lovely, virginal daughter who could not possibly be involved in any nefarious dealings…

The whole thing is rather bogged down in too much detail. There are long pages of explanation on all sorts of side-issues, as if the author is dead keen on the education of her readers as much as on their entertainment. The plottings of the wicked conspirators get rather see-through and slightly ridiculous early on, and the inevitable romance is just too predictable to be satisfying. (A pox on “love at first sight”, I emphatically say. At least in this situation.)

Moments of excellence; chapters of blah blah blah. Rated at 5/10 because I did willingly carry through to the end, despite my ever-increasing feelings of annoyance that the author would make such a messy job of such a promising plot, and turn her quite likeable protagonist into a bit of a blustering egoist. Points off, too, for the sweetly yielding female love interest (the new one in Spain, not the abandoned American, though she also pops up in Europe to add some more kinks to the tale) and the “unspoken communion of two passionate souls.” Ick!

neither five nor three helen macinnes paperback fawcettNeither Five nor Three by Helen MacInnes ~ 1951. This edition: Fawcett Crest, circa late 1960s. Paperback. 320 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Set in post-World War II New York.

I found myself rather taken aback by this story. While many of Helen MacInnes’ books demonstrate her strong stance on capital-C Communism (it’s 100% bad) this one takes that fixation to a whole new level. Instead of clean-cut English/American heroes and heroines flitting about the shadows of war-torn European cities, it’s all about the insidious influence of underground Commies on the home front (in this case America) after World War II, and it comes across as being deeply paranoid, viewed from half a century in the future.

The love story is utterly predicable and really rather sweet; the two lovers are likeable enough and I found myself in general wishing them well; but the anti-Red plotline pushed me past my comfort level into the “Really? Really?” territory. Even taking era-appropriateness into account. So black; so white. Shades of grey are evidence of weakness, on both sides.

MacInnes’ Commies are supremely well organized; they have infiltrated the American publishing industry and are placing their pawns very cleverly in order to slant the perceptions of readers in favour of the political left. Head honchos from the main office (as it were) in Europe undertake clandestine inspirational (and disciplinary) visits to American “party cells”; new recruits are jollied along until they are too deeply enmeshed to easily escape; then the gloves come off and any attempt to back away from participation or to “inform” is punishable by carefully engineered public disgrace, or, just possibly, sudden death. (Cue foreboding music…)

Definitely a Cold War period piece, which was received with warm approval by readers and reviewers of its time.

Excerpted from the March, 1951 Kirkus Review:

This is the most important book Helen MacInnes has done … absorbing and challenging from first page to last, as the devious methods of Communist penetration into the fields of public relations are revealed, and the terrifying network of Communist affiliation is convincingly recorded. Rona Metford is engaged to Scott Ettley, a journalist whose loyalties are torn between his mounting commitment to “the party” and his yearning for a normal course of love and marriage. Into this situation comes Paul Haydn, just returned to New York from a very hush-hush assignment in Europe and finding that his love for Rona, which he thought was a thing of the past, is still very much alive. The checkered course of love is traced against the background of gradually unfolding ramifications of the violence and falsity of Communist activities in the heart of the world they think they know…

I personally found the political bits verging on hysteria, and while there was an occasional authorial attempt made to balance the viewpoints by pondering why Clean Young Americans might be seduced to the Red Side, once they went too far they were brutally written off and became completely expendable, in the most ultimate way.

A precursor to MacInnes’ more “traditional” (i.e., European-set and action-packed) espionage stories which were to follow, blending an ideological plotline with a stereotypical together/torn asunder/together again romantic tale, with vaguely unsatisfying results.

my heart shall not fear josephine lawrenceMy Heart Shall Not Fear by Josephine Lawrence ~ 1949. This edition: Peoples Book Club, 1950. Hardcover. 285 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Now on to this much more obscure book, also set, as is Neither Five Nor Three, in immediately post World War II America.

Touted as “inspirational” and a “wholesome depiction of family life” in its back-cover promotional blurbs, this earnest novel left me unsatisfied and vaguely uneasy, mostly because of its troubling (to a reader of today) depiction of women’s societal roles in its era.

If I could pin down one thing which bothered me the most, it would be the author’s apparent insistence that female martyrdom is by and large a good thing, as long as it is carried out in a modest manner. The woman who takes a hit for her family, quietly and uncomplainingly, is to be greatly admired. To be fair, this also applies in a lesser degree to men, but is more strongly expected of the “weaker” sex, the men not being subjected to such ironclad standards of societal behaviour.

There is an ambitious cast of characters, including an older couple who sacrifice their much-deserved peaceful retirement to share their home with three not-long-married sons recently discharged from the armed forces, a young married woman who has recently had a baby and who is eager to leave the hospital and settle into a new apartment (which she can’t really afford, seeing that her husband has borrowed a vast sum of money in order to bail out his own ne’er-do-well father), another new mother who is not married and who resists the good-intentioned bullying of a social aid worker to give her child up for adoption, and a young childless woman who is obviously dying of an unspecified ailment – most likely cancer – but is surrounded by a cloud of silence as no one in her circle dares to put into words the obvious, as well as numerous others.

One of the odder and most troubling scenarios is that of one of the young couples separating. The husband has decided that he has tied himself down to his childhood sweetheart mistakenly, and he announces that he is leaving to “enjoy his freedom” while he is still young. The heartbroken wife refuses to argue or present herself as unfairly forsaken, gives her departing spouse the car that she has worked for and purchased with her own money, and even runs out to purchase new underclothes for her deserter as a gesture of undying wifely devotion.

The husband sneaks into the house to pack when his wife is out, and scorns his mother’s pleas to reconsider his actions. (This is one of the couples living with the elderly parents.) The young wife is left dependent for a home upon her in-laws, who are deeply shamed by their son’s behaviour. The deserted wife, by meekly accepting her bleak fate, is gently pitied and openly admired by the other characters for her forbearance. She herself quietly says that she hopes her man will eventually return. All I could think was, “Hey, sister, take back those car keys and tell that lout you married in good faith to find his own transport to ‘finding himself.’ And don’t you dare be here waiting for him when and if he crawls back home!”

Josephine Lawrence was a highly prolific writer of both children’s books (100-ish)  and adult novels (30+) who was well known and dependably popular in her time. Born in 1889, her work was published from the 1920s through the 1960s. She no doubt struck a chord with woman readers looking for a fictional validation of their own sometimes difficult lives, but if this novel is typical, her work is tremendously dated. Josephine Lawrence seems to be almost forgotten today.

I did enjoy the period detail in this story, and the ease with which the author kept her multiple strands interweaving without tangling. I disliked the pedestrian aspects of her style – it is very workaday prose – and the droning overtone of “womanly nobility is achieved through silent suffering/womanly strength is measured by her fortitude in the face of adversity.” I suppose there is some general merit to this idea as broadly applied to both sexes, but in this case I found it something of a downer when applied so strongly to my particular gender.

I’d gladly read another of Lawrence’s books if it came to me easily, but she is not a writer I will be deliberately seeking out.

A sampling of readers' comments.

A sampling of readers’ comments, My Heart Shall Not Fear.

Read Full Post »

It’s always fascinating to read vintage books aimed at the youth market. The terms “literary snapshots” and “period pieces” apply particularly well to this widely varied genre, though more serious themes tend to be handled in a gentle way, obviously in order to cushion young minds from the harsher realities of the world they live in.

I recently read these two American “juveniles” from the many which have accumulated on our shelves in the past nineteen years of buying books for the younger members of the family, and while neither is an outstanding piece of fiction in any sense of the word, they are both rather interesting in what they have to say about the eras they were written in and about. Footnotes to the period, as it were, which is why I’m including them among the Century of Books fellowship.


the black opal dorothy maywood bird 001The Black Opal by Dorothy Maywood Bird ~ 1949. This edition: Macmillan, 1962. (Ninth printing.) Hardcover. 202 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Surprisingly likeable was this rather hard to classify light novel, comprised as it was of equal parts college caper, highly contrived mystery, and blossoming romance. All right, maybe not that hard to classify! But the mixture works quite nicely, and the characters are highly appealing, and the whole thing is completely adorable. Decidedly a book aimed at the feminine readership of the junior high schools of its time.

Look, I even found an approving Kirkus review, from October of 1949:

When Laurel went off to the small coeducational college in Michigan which had been her great-great-grandmother’s alma mater, she expected it to be fun — and it was. What she didn’t know was that she would find herself up to the neck in a century old, unsolved murder mystery which was to give her the thrill of establishing the identity of the murdered man and his killer. The mystery theme is well-integrated and companions a satisfying modern college story of dates, term papers and strict house-mothers. There is not only the sinister black opal which Laurel unearths but also the exciting and sparkling diamond with which her One And Only ends the story. Maybe her solution will seem a trifle glib and maybe everything falls in place too smoothly, but no one will care for it is a nice, light entertaining tale with the virtue, highly to be prized, of not following an exact formula.

Laurel Stanwood has decided to do something a bit out of the norm. Instead of going with her high school friends to a college in her native Vermont, Laurel has chosen to attend a school, Colbert College, in far-off Michigan, a decision inspired by the fact that her Great-great-grandmother Caroline Hayes was a student of the precursor to the now co-educational facility, the Colbert Female Seminary, in 1846.

What follows is an absolutely typical account of lively college life. Laurel immediately makes two best friends, and immerses herself in a whirl of activity, where some serious studying is livened up by dramatic football games, campus socials, the ongoing “campus war” between the freshmen/juniors and sophomores/seniors, and some serious battling of the sexes via the two campus newspapers, the Colbert Feminist, under the editorial control of Laurel’s new friend Rue, and the Colbert Iconoclast, presided over by the woman-despising J. Swinton Towne. As an aspiring journalist, Laurel is immediately put to work gathering material for the Feminist; she has high hopes of finding a stunning “scoop” which will allow the Feminist to grind the Iconoclast‘s annoying pretensions to male superiority under its well-clad foot.

Lovely period details abound throughout this book, such as here where the girls are opening their mail at dinner time.

Laurel slit them open with her fork. The first, a circular, ordered her to make reservations at once for that Round-the-World Cruise she’d been eagerly awaiting since before the war. “Lapping waves,” it promised, “soft winds to caress your brow, nights full of wonder.” The second assured her that she could borrow up to three hundred dollars without embarrassing investigation and could pay it back in easy monthly installments. “Why be short?” it demanded. The third looked more hopeful, an expensive ivory envelope addressed in a feminine hand and postmarked Detroit. But the letter inside merely stated that if she planned to invest five hundred and fifty dollars in a genuine blue muskrat coat, she would do well to visit Compere’s Fur Salon first.

“Here’s a card from Mother,” Stacy giggled, “reminding me that if I want my duds to get into the Monday wash I can’t wait till Monday to mail them, and here’s a letter from Kent. Even if I didn’t recognize the scrawl, nobody else would have the nerve to start out ‘Dear Horseface.'”

Laundry sent home by mail for washing, stocking boxes to protect one’s cherished “nylons”, beau parlors to entertain your male guests in, telegrams sent with gay abandon in the same way teens today fire off texts to arrange their dates, having one’s hair washed once a week at the beauty parlor, Sadie Hawkin’s Day dances with both sexes in drag, apple cider socials, and a continual description of the most lovely-sounding clothes are happy period details. Laurel is continually sporting such gems as a “cherry flannel robe”(while filling out her college application form), “white wool gabardine suit” with a white chrysanthemum corsage (to attend a football game), “green silk raincoat” (actually that was Stacy’s, but it sounds quite sharp), “red cambric bolero edged in gold furniture braid” (for dressing up as a Spanish courtier on Sadie Hawkin’s Day), dungarees and sheepskin lined stadium boot (for winter hiking in the snow), a plaid gingham dress giving way to a “heliotrope spun rayon” (dressing for dinner, a must-do in the girl’s dormitory house), a beau’s “electric-blue loafer coat”, a friend’s “magenta taffeta with the bustle” prom dress, and Laurel’s own costume for the high point of the story, prom night topped off by discovery of the “Black Opal” mystery: mist-gray tulle with silver slippers and handbag, and a corsage of forget-me-nots, rosebuds and silver ribbon. Oh, swoon!

The girls, despite their life of strict midnight curfews and beau parlors, are given a wonderful amount of freedom; in most ways they are treated as completely competent adults and are left to sink or swim and make their own decisions in a way that many of the sheltered-but-socially-sophisticated teens of today would be most miffed to asked to do. Failed your Biology exam? Oh, well, guess you should have studied harder! No helicopter-parenting mom or dad in this 1940s’ world is about to confront the Biology prof to demand their pampered offspring’s mark be altered!

The historical murder mystery/mysterious gemstone plot, though prominent in the title and constantly referenced, is a very minor part of this happy little novel, though it forms a uniting thread throughout. It is the least well handled aspect of the book, being utterly predictable, totally fabricated out of unlikely coincidences, and not particularly believable even at its most detailed point. But this I completely forgave, because the rest of the story charmed me completely.

Dorothy Maywood Bird wrote two other similar novels, Granite Harbor and Mystery at Laughing Water, and I would be quietly pleased to get my hands on these at some point, for a little more travelling gently back in time.


the year of the dream jane collier 001The Year of the Dream by Jane Collier ~ 1962. This edition: Funk & Wagnalls, 1962. Hardcover. Illustrated by E. Harper Johnson. 122 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10

This one is aimed at a younger set, the elementary school ages. Another very predictable plot, with rather more cardboardish characters, but again an interesting period piece with some redeeming features.

A middle-class family of five – mother at home baking cookies, father a teacher, thirteen-year-old Dick, twelve-year-old Wendy and younger brother Beanie – have been summering at a lakeside cottage and messing about with rowboats for years. But this year it somehow doesn’t quite satisfy – “If only we had a boat of our own…!” And not just a rowboat, but a proper boat. A cabin cruiser, so Mom can come along and not miss her kitchen(!) – bright red flag, here – first hint of era-correct gender stereotype, but far from the last.

Anyway, it’s decided that this is just a dream, as Dad isn’t exactly wealthy, and even a cheap cabin cruiser would cost thousands to buy. Then a chance conversation puts the family on the track of a derelict boat to be sold as part of an estate settlement. For two thousand dollars they can have it. Lots of work would be needed, but the boat is essentially sound. But where to find the money?

Everyone chips in and the year progresses as the pennies and dollars start to flow into the boat fund. The family decides to holiday at home and put their vacation money in the fund. Dad quits smoking and takes on an evening job, Wendy gives up her riding lessons and takes on babysitting jobs, Dick decides to raise rats to sell for science experiments, and Beanie roams the neighbourhood with his wagon collecting old newspapers to sell for salvage prices – 75 cents per 100 pounds. Even Mom finds something to do – she goes back to work in a law office part time, asking Wendy to step up and help out more at home.

Domestic details of the early sixties include a gee-whiz!-isn’t-it-great! reliance on cake mixes, instant pudding, canned everything, and casseroles of frankfurters and beans. Mom pores over a book called Shipboard Menus, leaving the mechanical and construction details of boat refurbishment up to the menfolk.

The only person not thrilled with the family’s common goal and their pursuit of their dream is Mom’s older sister, Aunt Louise. Louise had raised her younger sister after they were orphaned, and has settled into a prudently conservative spinsterhood. She lives in an apartment above the card and gift shop she has established with persistent self-sacrifice and dogged determination, and though she is the epitome of a self-sufficient woman she is, paradoxically, absolutely livid with Dad for “allowing” Mom to work. Mom, on the other hand, decidedly blossoms as she goes back out into the world, which inspires an interesting line of thought in twelve-year-old Wendy, about who “Mother” really is, and how she appears to herself and to each individual in her family, and what her mother’s own dreams might be, the ones she calmly has put aside to dedicate herself to her family. Inklings of the consciousness-raising going on in the greater world of the 1950s and 60s.

The dream – the cabin cruiser – is tantalizingly close to becoming a reality when catastrophe strikes, as young Beanie is struck and severely injured by a hit-and-run driver as he plods along with a wagonload of newspapers. Everything turns upside down as priorities are instantly re-assessed, with the two older children readjusting their personal ambitions for the boat without a murmur, much to the surprise of the adults in their lives, who have rather assumed that there would be resistance to the idea of letting the dream die.

Expectedly clichéd is the ending, with everyone rallying around and “family comes first” the slogan of the day; my greatest disappointment (from an adult point of view) was the sudden windfall that allowed the dream a new life. Artistically speaking, the sacrifice would have made for a stronger ending, but thinking back to my own juvenile reading days, the happy ending would have been appreciated by my young self, so I’ll let it go.

These sorts of books were a dime a dozen back in my elementary school years, mild dramas with some sort of a message attached, and The Year of the Dream is neither exceptionally good nor dreadfully bad. It’s a very average example of the middle range of juvenile literature of its era, and as such is worthy of a nod of appreciation as it helps to embellish the background against which “better” and more “mature” and “literary” books are set.


I wouldn’t say that Jane Collier’s The Year of the Dream is worth looking for – it’s very much a nonentity of a thing – but for those of you who enjoy “teen girl’s fiction” of the 1940s and early 50s, precursors to the “malt shop” genre, Dorothy Maywood Bird’s three novels may be of some interest.

Read Full Post »

mamma diana tuttonMamma by Diana Tutton ~ 1955. This edition: Macmillan, 1955. Hardcover. 218 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Remember the buzz a year or so ago here amongst the book bloggers about Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters?

Many people enthused over this forgotten novel by an elusively obscure writer; a few didn’t feel the love. I fell somewhere in the middle of these reactions, for while the book intrigued me I didn’t outright adore it, but it did make me curious about what else this writer could do. I’ve been watching for copies of her only other two books, 1955’s Mamma and 1959’s The Young Ones, for over a year, and lo and behold, I found one recently through an online book dealer. Mamma is now mine.

And what a happy gamble this was – I enjoyed it greatly. I had expected something either brittle or dreary, and possibly a bit smutty, for I knew ahead of time that it concerned a middle-aged mother plotting a love affair with her daughter’s husband – but in reality it is a rather more delicate thing, and well handled, and full of sly humour, and ultimately more than a little heart-rending. It has an intriguing ending as well, which could go any which way, leaving our main character poised on the verge of the next bit of her life.

Where it lost its 1.5 points – for it came close to being a 10 on my personal rating scale – was in its occasional outspoken snobbishness, something which also disturbed me in Guard Your Daughters. And, as in that novel, I am having a hard time deciding whether it is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek joke by the author, or a real reflection of her feelings, putting her thoughts into her character’s heads. It was just frequent and mean-spirited enough to take the bloom off this otherwise highly diverting concoction.

41-year-old widow Joanna Malling has just bought a house in a country village, a rather decrepit, unattractive house, with potential masked by neglectful decay. With her furniture unloaded, Joanna sinks into a momentary depression, wondering what she has done, and wishing desperately that she had someone to lean on, someone like her beloved husband Jack, who had died suddenly in the first year of their happy marriage, leaving the 21-year-old Joanna utterly bereft and a new mother to boot.

That baby, Elizabeth – Libby – is now a young woman herself, and a lovely, competent, and accomplished one. And also newly engaged. For the very day Joanna moves into her new house, a letter arrives from Libby in London announcing her intent to marry Steven Pryde, a career army officer, fifteen years Libby’s elder.

Joanna is apprehensive, wondering if she and Steven will make friends, and her first meeting with him leaves her cold. Stoic and expressionless, Steven is brusque and almost rude, and Joanna is less than impressed. But as she helps the young couple prepare for their wedding, and as Steven starts to show glimpses of manly chivalry, glints of a sense of humour, and a hidden taste for serious poetry, Joanna starts to see what has caught her daughter’s attention. Steven is also self-centered and frequently brusque, and occasionally dismissive of Libby’s interests and whims, though it is obvious that he also deeply admires her and loves her dearly.

Through a series of unplanned-for occurrences, Steven and Libby end up moving into Joanna’s house several months after their marriage, and the inevitable adjustment period of a brand new marriage finds Joanna caught between her beloved daughter and her enigmatic son-in-law.

I found myself sympathizing most ardently with fictional Joanna. Here she is, trying to make the best of things, and striving to keep out of the newlyweds’ way and allow them privacy, while at the same time dealing with the unexpected upsurge of feelings of grief at her own long-ago loss in her own early days of her marriage. After the first stages of grief had passed, the young Joanna had expected that she would meet another man and would remarry; this has not happened. But Joanna is not soured or embittered by this; she has steadfastly gotten on with her life. For twenty years Joanna has competently coped with her widowhood and single parenthood, sublimating her very real emotional (and sexual) needs in caring for her daughter, housework, and serious gardening. It has been an occasionally fragile balance, though, and it is about to tip, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Steven in only six years younger than Joanna, and the two inevitably find common ground in gently humouring just-out-of-her-teens Libby’s occasionally juvenile enthusiasms, heedless pronouncements, and occasional mood swings. Their shared appreciation of literature and poetry leave Libby far behind; she is not by any stretch an intellectual.  Constant propinquity allows even stronger feelings to develop, and Joanna is horrified to realize that she is falling in love with her daughter’s husband, while he is watching her with something more than dutiful regard.

When Libby at last realizes that the building tension in the three-person household is not her imagination she blazingly accuses Joanna of attempted seduction,  which scenario is very close to the truth. In Joanna’s defense Steven has been allowing himself the same burning glances at his “Mamma”-in-law as she is sending his way, though neither had so far made an overt move to bring their growing mutual attraction to the next stage.

Libby is soothed down and the potentially explosive situation is delicately defused by unspoken agreement between Joanna and Steven. He and Libby move on into their own establishment, but the experience has made Joanna take a deeply introspective look at how closely she allowed herself court disaster. Still a relatively young woman, she must rethink her future and how best to proceed into the second half of her life.

An unusual novel with some mildly unconventional characters. Steven perhaps gets the least authorial attention of the three main protagonists; he remains something of an enigma throughout, despite our glimpses at his secret self. Confident and competent Libby is shown in some detail, though mostly through her mother’s affectionate eyes.

It is Joanna who stands out, and her depiction is sensitive and deeply moving. Having several too-young widowed friends myself, Joanna’s agonizing internal dilemma as to how to best cope with her own needs when all about her prefer to conveniently view her as “beyond all that” strikes true indeed. Joanna has absolutely no one to confide in, and when her own daughter blithely and rather cruelly speculates on the psychological twists of those who are deprived of a satisfactory sex life, without grasping the obvious fact that her own mother is one of those so deprived, we cringe for both of them, but mostly for proud and stoic Joanna.

The gardening references – very important, as Joanna spends a lot of time working away her many frustrations at the end of a trowel – are impeccably plausible; a decided point in favour as this is something I am alert to, and I’ve frequently caught authors out on their lack of detailed horticultural knowledge. Diana Tutton appears to have been a gardener, or at least a garden lover.

Several lower-class characters, namely the two daily helps employed by Joanna, and the unmarried mother-to-be employed as a cook-companion by Steven’s mother, are depicted in the broadest of caricatures and here the Snob Factor again raises its ugly head, leading me to speculate that the dismissive and critical attitude which the upper-class – or, to be more accurate, upper-middle-class – characters show reflects the author’s personal views and is not merely a fictional device. Several scenes concerning these characters degenerate into broad farce; a jarring note in an otherwise well-constructed tale.

That last caveat aside, I’ll repeat that I liked this novel a lot, and am now very keen indeed to get my hands on the third of Diana Tutton’s elusive novels, The Young Ones. Apparently it concerns a woman’s dealing with the incest of her brother and sister. A decidedly eyebrow-raising scenario, but if Mamma is anything to go by, perhaps intriguingly plotted. I’m up for the gamble, but so far have not come across a copy for sale at any price anywhere, despite diligent online searching.

I’ve also been inspired to re-read Guard Your Daughters, and though the annoying bits still make me grit my teeth a bit, I’m enjoying it much more this time round, and may at some point need to revise my review to reflect the second-time-round reading experience.

Back to Mamma, has anyone else read this, and, if so, what did you think? I do believe Simon tackled it at one point, but didn’t write up a review. Any comments most welcome. 🙂

And has anyone come across The Young Ones? And, if so, what’s the word? Worth the hunt?

Read Full Post »

the semi-detached house emily eden 001The Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden ~ 1859.

This edition: Houghton Mifflin, 1948. Illustrated by Susanne Suba. Hardcover. 216 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

An aristocratic young Lady Chester, Blanche to her intimates, just eighteen and married six months, is bemoaning her husband’s three-month diplomatic assignment in Germany. She has discovered that she is in an “interesting” state of health, and she thinks her husband’s timing could be ever so much better. As well, Lord Chester has taken the advice of Blanche’s doctor and has packed her off to the depths of the suburbs (Dulham), to Pleasance Court, which is in itself quite all right, being a properly fashionable address, but for the smaller semi-detached dwelling at the rear, residence of the decidedly middle-class Hopkinson family. Blanche is a mass of nerves, anticipating all the worst, and dreading meeting her undoubtedly “common” neighbours.

Just across the shared wall, the Hopkinsons are equally as flustered. Rumour has it that the young socialite moving in next door is either the estranged wife of a member of the nobility, or perhaps (shocked hisses) his chère amie. The very respectable Mrs. Hopkinson has barred her shutters, and intends to cut her new neighbour dead.

Luckily both households make a happy acquaintance and quickly become the best of friends, for this is a very friendly novel of manners, and though the gossip flows freely the gossipers are most well-intentioned.

Emily Eden (“The Honorable Emily Eden” as my 1948 edition proudly proclaims) was a great admirer of her predecessor Jane Austen, and deliberately styled her several domestic novels after that literary mentor. Parallels certainly exist, but Emily Eden’s work has a distinctive voice of its own, being gently satirical and full of humorous situations of a time several decades past that of Jane Austen’s fictional world.

A cheerfully fluffy romp, with just the lightest touches of seriousness here and there, and more than a little snobbishness towards the social climbers seeking to scrape acquaintance with the fashionable Chesters. There are love affairs to be sorted out, and the spanking new marriage to be fully settled into, not to mention the excitement of the impending arrival of Blanche’s addition to the English aristocracy.

Nice glimpse at a world familiar to those of us fond of Miss Austen and her compatriots, written by someone who was familiar at first hand with the life described so vivaciously here.

Another novel, The Semi-Attached Couple, preceded this one, and both are succinctly reviewed by Desperate Reader, and by Redeeming Qualities, among others.

The full text of The Semi-Detached House is online for your reading pleasure here, and both novels are available in a Virago double edition as well, though that may now be out of print.

no love david garnett djNo Love by David Garnett ~ 1929.

This edition: Chatto & Windus, 1929. Hardcover. 275 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

What an unexpected and sophisticated novel this one was. I have never read David Garnett before, though of course I have heard quite a lot about Lady Into Fox (which I’m intending to read next year for the Century of Books project) and I now anticipate that reading with even more pleasure, as I  was quite pleased with what I read here. I did an online search to see if I could come up with any other reviews of No Love, but have so far drawn a complete blank, which leaves me rather disappointed. Surely someone else has found this novel worthy of discussion? If you have reviewed it yourself, or know of any others who have, I would be greatly interested to read your thoughts.

When in 1885 Roger Lydiate, the second son of the Bishop of Warrington, and himself a young curate, became engaged to Miss Cross, the marriage was looked on with almost universal disapprobation.

Alice Cross was a very emancipated girl; she was the daughter of the great paleontologist, Norman Cross, the notorious freethinker and friend of Huxley’s, who had poisoned himself deliberately when he was dying of cancer. The poor girl idolised her father’s memory, had been known to justify his suicide in public, and openly maintained, not only the non-existence of God, the non-existence of the human soul, and a rational and mechanistic theory of human consciousness, but also carried the war into the enemy’s country by declaring with her favourite poet Lucretius

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.

It was her view, constantly expressed, that it was religion alone that had always prevented the advancement and enlightenment of mankind, that all wars and pestilences could be traced to religious causes, and that but for a mistaken belief in God, mankind would already be living in a condition of almost unimaginable material bliss and moral elevation.

She was, they all said, no wife for a clergyman.

Despite Alice’s “unsuitability”, she and Roger were deeply in love, and they did indeed marry, with Roger ultimately abandoning his curateship and declaring himself an atheist. The Bishop let it be known that he was cutting young Roger out of his will, but what was never known was that he was deeply sympathetic to the young couple, and had quietly given the young bride an astounding ten thousand pounds as a wedding gift.

With this unlooked-for nest egg, the young couple purchased a small island near Chichester, on which was an extensive fruit farm, and settled down to a rural life, and to establishing a home and a new way of life.

There is no happiness and excitement in the lives of a married couple greater than the period when they are choosing themselves a house and moving into it; it is a time far happier than the wedding night or than when children come. A house brings no agony with it; its beauties can be seen at once, whilst both physical love and the children it begets, need time for their beauty to unfold.

Roger and Alice were well suited to each other and their rural occupation, and in time two children were born to them, Mabel and Benedict. Life on the Island proceeded peacefully, until one day in late October, 1897, when Roger rescued a stranded party of boaters and offered them hospitality for the night. These proved to be a certain prominent naval man, Admiral Keltie, his beautiful wife, and their young son Simon, and as the two families felt a certain stirring of mutual attraction, it soon came about that the Kelties purchased a building lot on the island and proceeded to construct a mansion, while between the two families a friendship of sorts developed.

That friendship was soon mixed with a good dose of unspoken jealousy, as the Lydiates see at first hand the extravagance of the wealthy Kelties, and as both husbands cast admiring eyes on the attractions of their neighbour’s spouses. Roger is appreciative of Mrs. Keltie’s cold beauty and brittle wit, while the Admiral is moved by Alice’s obvious intelligence, her deeply passionate nature, and a certain earth-mother quality she exudes.

Simon and Benedict make friends as well, though as they grow up they grow apart, with Simon moving in much more exalted circles, and Benedict going his own quiet way, though the two reconnect time and time again, their meetings often marking the episodes of this narrative.

The novel focusses most strongly on the Lydiate family, and its description of their lives and the changes in their moods and attitudes as the Kelties come and go is beautifully wrought. The years pass, and the Great War sweeps both sons away, but the families remain tenuously connected, however, as Simon and Benedict both have fallen in love with the same woman, and her decision on which one to marry has far-reaching consequences to both families.

This novel appeals on numerous levels, as an exercise in story-telling, as a commentary on the social mores of the time, and as a broader examination of the nature of many different kinds of love. Nicely done, David Garnett. I am looking forward to seeking out and reading more by this author in the years to come.

another pamela upton sinclair 001Another Pamela or, Virtue Still Rewarded by Upton Sinclair ~ 1950.

This edition: Viking Press, 1950. Hardcover. 314 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

And now for something completely different, we move forward in time and to another continent, to this satirical look at social mores in 20th Century California.

Somehow in my travels I have acquired not one but two copies of this slightly obscure novel, a foray into light literature by the famously passionate social activist and best-selling author, Upton Sinclair, perhaps best known for his consciousness-raising, dramatic novel The Jungle.

Having never read Samuel Richardson’s bestselling 1740 epistolary novel, Pamela, about an English serving girl’s trials, tribulations and eventual marriage to the nobleman who tenaciously attempts her seduction, I wasn’t quite sure if I would fully appreciate Upton Sinclair’s parody of the same. It turned out not to matter, as Sinclair helpfully includes generous quotations from the original, having his own heroine read the original as part of her personal development, as she struggles with her own would-be seducer, and the dictates of her conscience and religious upbringing.

Published in 1950, the action of the story is set some years earlier, in the years of the Roaring Twenties, when the fabulously rich of America gave full rein to their imaginative excesses.

The modern Pamela is a child of the early 1900s, being a deeply naïve and (of course!) absolutely lovely young maiden raised in rural poverty in California. She is discovered by a wealthy patroness whose car has broken down in the area of young Pamela’s farm. Upon conversing with Pamela and learning that she is a Seventh Day Adventist with no objection to working on a Sunday (as long as she has Saturday free to devote to her devotions), Mrs. Harris impulsively decides to try the girl out as a parlour maid in her luxurious home, Casa Grande, near Los Angeles.

Pamela is quite naturally overwhelmed by this change in her affairs. Grateful to be able to be sending her pay home to help out her desperately poor family, she is most loquacious in her letters, describing her situation and the other servants and tradespeople she works with, and, increasingly, as she rises in the household hierarchy, the doings of Mrs. Harris herself, who is a lady of many enthusiasms, the main one being the promotion of a rather eclectic form of communism, tweaked to allow for the great disparity between the Harris millions and the theoretical rights of the downtrodden to full equality. (As long as Mrs Harris is not asked to give up her personal comforts, that is.)

And there of course is a “young nobleman” of sorts, one Charles, Mrs Harris’s nephew, a playboy of epic proportions who is completely dependent on his besotted aunt for funds. The Young Master, as Pamela describes him in her letters home, has many vices, not the least of which is his excessive consumption of alcohol, and when Mrs. Harris notices his glances at the lovely Pamela, she encourages the girl to give in to Charles’ pressing invitations to dining out and sightseeing, hoping that this new interest will wean Charles from the demon bottle. (She conveniently turns a blind eye to the possible corruption of her protégé’s morals.)

Charles is decidedly forthcoming; Pamela resists, using her prim and rigid religion as her shield and weapon. Do I need to tell you what happens? Not really, as the title gives the ending away, and as this is a happily satirical tale, we know that Pamela’s eventual fall will be well cushioned.

An enjoyable diversion of a book, with Sinclair getting his digs in at a huge array of social types, all in good fun, with abundant sugar coating the truthful pill within. I wonder if this deserves a “hidden gem” designation? I rather think it does, and I think some of you might find it worthy of a read if you come across it in your travels; it’s an amusingly Americana-ish thing.

Read Full Post »

pink sugar o douglas anna buchanPink Sugar by O. Douglas ~ 1924. This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, 1936. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

A rather sweet book, but not mawkishly so in the way the title suggests. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, but I came away feeling beautifully contented, in an “all’s right in that fictional world” sort of way. The heroine sorted herself out nicely, and we have high hopes for her future if she can just retain that hard-won sensibility to the absurdity of playing Lady Bountiful to an oblivious populace!

I guess I should backtrack a bit, and summarize the plot for those of you not already familiar with this gentle novel.

“Spinster without encumbrances” Kirsty Gilmour is thirty and a free woman for the first time in her life, after the recent death of her stepmother, a woman described as “sweet and friendly and quite intolerable”. The second Lady Gilmour was an absolutely selfish creature whom Kirsty has stuck with from charitable impulse and deep inner goodness – Kirsty is the inheritor of her late father’s fortune, and has financially supported and accompanied her stepmother through that woman’s preferred social whirl in the years since Sir Gilmour’s death.

Kirsty’s older friend, Blanche Cunningham, reminisces about the unregretted Lady Gilmour.

Thinking of Lady Gilmour, Blanche was conscious again of the hot wave of dislike that had so often engulfed her when she had come across that lady in life. She remembered the baby-blue eyes, the appealing ways, the smooth sweet voice that could say such cruel things, the too red lips, the faint scent of violets that had clung to all of her possessions, the carefully thought out details of all she wore, her endless insistent care of herself and her own comfort, her absolute carelessness as to the feelings of others…

‘Kirsty,’ Blanche laid her hand on her friend’s arm. ‘However did you stand it all those years? What an intolerable woman she was!’

Kirsty sat looking in front of her.

‘She’s dead,’ was all she said.

‘Well,’ Mrs. Cunningham retorted briskly, ‘being dead doesn’t make people any nicer, does it?’

Now, freed of the superficial social whirl, Kirsty has joyously fled to the country, her true emotional habitat and the place of her birth, to the Borders of Scotland, to the little village of Muirburn, just outside of Priorsford.  (O. Douglas aficionados will recognize the reference.) Here she has rented a house, “Little Phantasy”, on the grounds of a larger estate. The manor house itself, rather quaintly named “Phantasy”,  is the abode of curmudgeonly bachelor Colonel Home, forty-ish and set in his ways, by all accounts. Kirsty doesn’t expect to see much of him, and is rather glad of that.

Kirsty has decided that she will now embrace the country life, and that she will devote herself, in true “good spinsterish” fashion, to “living for others”. Sensible Blanche rolls her eyes at this, and tells Kirsty not to be silly, but Kirsty means this in the very best way, taking under her wing as soon as possible a number of  dependents. First comes elderly Aunt Fanny, mild and gentle and perpetually knitting, and then the three motherless children of Blanche’s sister, for an extended rural stay while their recently widowed father travels abroad “to forget his grief”.

Kirsty’s foray into country life is not as smooth as anticipated, and she soon finds that people don’t necessarily like to be “lived for”; some of her most well-meant patronages are soundly snubbed, but there is enough encouragement that she soldiers on. Her tenacity and truly well-meaning sweet nature win over the most resentful of those around her. Kirsty was initially viewed as a frivolous bit of a thing, merely playing at enjoying her new role as householder and surrogate mother to the adorable Barbara and Specky, and the wickedly appealing “Bad” Bill, but as the months go by it is apparent that Kirsty’s innate inner goodness and staunch Scottish good sense will see her settled down and competently filling an important niche in Muirburn society, though not the role that she initially saw herself in.

There are some lovely character portraits in this appealing tale, and I will pass you along to several other reviewers, who also found much to admire in this pleasing novel. Please visit and read these excellent reviews, if you are at all intrigued by what I have said above. (And browse around the blogs a bit while you’re there – there are many more authors and titles highlighted worthy of rediscovery!)

The Book Trunk – Pink Sugar

Letters From a Hill Farm – Pink Sugar

I Prefer Reading – Pink Sugar

Pink Sugar was republished by Greyladies in 2009, and though that edition appears to be currently out of print, it should still be fairly easy to acquire through the second hand book trade. The novel was very popular in its day – my own copy is a vintage 1936 edition, stating that it is the twenty-first printing – so there are many still circulating around at reasonable prices.

Read Full Post »