Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Cambridge’

Spring Always Comes by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1938. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1938. Hardcover. 312 pages.

Life, Hilda thought, had played her a queer trick in embedding her, like a fly in amber, in a family in which she didn’t belong. Yet they were her children, only in the simple physical sense. Stretching out in bed with her hands behind her head, she thought that the fact was one likely to trouble nobody but herself. Her lively, inter-dependent family had no time to spare for the history of disappointment and reaccommodation that lay in their parents’ past.

Hilda meets her husband Charles, a young and successful writer-poet, in the halcyon days before the Great War changed everything. After eagerly going off to fight, Charles has returned a changed man, not so much bitter as bemused and disappointed, and decidedly antiwar. He stops writing, and informs Hilda that he is going to go into the Church.

This means a definite drop in the family standard of living; with three children and another soon to come, Hilda’s hands are full of the practicalities of making do on a junior cleric’s slender salary; she assumes things will stabilize and Charles get over his “momentary enthusiasm” for societal reform through religion and once again step into the spotlight of literary regard in which he had once basked. She is wrong.

Charles is an idealist; he goes his own way ever and always, and Hilda follows, vaguely resentful, never losing her love for her husband but feeling at heart betrayed by it all turning out so differently than she had ever expected.

The four children of the marriage are strong individuals, all with compelling motivations and desires. Cheerfully pragmatic James is at Oxford, with a promising literary future. Hyper-organized Margaret is deeply immersed in social work, carrying on her father’s compelling dedication to social reform. Intelligent and analytical Cecily is just finished school and is poised on the brink of deciding her career. Eighteen-year-old Jasmine, the youngest of the quartet, is reluctantly staying home until her brother is finished his education – there is only enough money to put towards one higher education at a time. She yearns to go out and do something, anything! to gain experience in the world to further her mostly secret ambition to be a writer.

The family, though far from wealthy, are getting by reasonably well, based as they are in a rural parsonage, with Charles being held in high regard by his parishioners and his local social circle, which includes a number of people who remember and honor him for his long-ago literary success and his still-brilliant intellect.

Then Charles dies, quite suddenly, from a neglected heart condition, which he has chosen not to divulge to his wife or children, and the family’s world unravels.

No income, no more country home – the parsonage is needed for the next clergyman – and Hilda finds herself sharing a city apartment with Margaret and Jasmine, while James puts aside literary ambitions to go into a timber company’s office as a clerk, and Cecily takes on a post as a governess to tide herself over until she can start a job as a junior mistress at her old school.

What happens to these five, their small adventures, their inner dilemmas, rewards and disappointments as they go about reinventing their lives after the death of Charles, core of the family in ways unsuspected until his loss, is the substance of this novel.

And a good and substantial substance it is, as Elizabeth Cambridge draws us into each life in turn, depicting each personality and weaving a tapestry of individualism and inter-family relationship which leaves the reader deeply involved with each and every one of the characters.

Not an important or a particularly dramatic novel, but a very relatable and accessibly philosophical one, and, as always with Cambridge, beautifully written.

My rating: 10/10.

Elizabeth Cambridge wrote only seven published novels in her short career, with her greatest success being her 1934 debut novel, the autobiographical Hostages to Fortune. Her themes are generally domestic, she writes middle-aged women with particular insight, though all of her characterizations ring true.

Elizabeth Cambridge died of tuberculosis in 1949, at the much too young age of 56. When reading her novels, one can’t help but regret that there are so few, and wonder what she would have accomplished had she lived longer.

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The Two Doctors by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1936. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1936. Hardcover. 284 pages.

The two doctors referenced in the title of this most engaging novel are men, but I found myself most drawn to the women of the tale: the younger doctor’s mother and the older doctor’s wife, as well as several others. By their wise actions certain disasters are averted, for this is at heart a deeply moral tale, greatly about doing good so good will follow.

That sounds almost dire, doesn’t it? Possibly preachy and prim.

On the contrary – this book is a quiet delight.

From the dust jacket:

The author of Hostages to Fortune certainly has a shrewd but kindly eye for the ways of professional people. To portray them, which she does most enjoyably, she has drawn in her latest novel a very living picture of an English village and the coming of a young doctor. How John Anselm was received by the country people of Bradnell, and by the older practitioner Dr. Murchie; how life runs on in a swift but restful stream of small activities and often deep experiences; how John fared at the hands of the attractive Carol Bourne – all make up a setting and a pattern of themes which suit the author’s agreeable vision and manner to perfection.

This is perhaps the most cheerful of the five Elizabeth Cambridge novels I’ve read to date, the one most conventional in its format and plot, but there is a whole lot of substance here as well, and a few surprises. One can certainly believe that the author has a personal experience of the challenges of a rural doctor’s life, as indeed she did, being the daughter of a doctor and the wife of one as well.

The novel’s dedication reads “For my Father”, and, as it is a warm and realistic appreciation of the physician’s role in the world, it would appear to be something of a labour of love. Though it is not in any way oversweet. Elizabeth Cambridge had a sharp and all-seeing eye, and her characters reflect the human vices as well as the virtues.

John Anselm, recently qualified as a medical GP, purchases a practice in the small community of Bradnell, replacing the previous doctor, a rather feckless young Irishman, over-casual and over-fond of the bottle, as it were, who had been involved in a bitterly competitive feud with the town’s older, well-established doctor, sober Scotsman Dr. Murchie.

Dr. Anselm has no idea of the bad blood between his predecessor and Dr. Murchie, so he walks all unawares right in to a situation in which he is viewed by the man who should be his cooperative compatriot (there are more than enough patients in the area for two doctors) with suspicion verging on hostility.

Luckily the bachelor Dr. Anselm is accompanied to Bradnell by his widowed mother, Hilary. She is a quiet and thoughtful woman, still subdued by the loss of her beloved husband many years before. Mrs. Anselm makes the acquaintance of Mrs. Murchie, and the two women form a friendship which ultimately transcends the old feud.

The people all around watch and comment at will, their Greek chorus of opinion forming the background chatter of what turns into an intensely personal situation of two good men fighting against their baser impulses, for Dr. Anselm turns his cheek one time too many to Dr. Murchie’s snubs, and finally loses his own sweet temper.

Dr. Anselm also finds himself involved in a complicated romantic situation with the likeable daughter of the local squire; complicated not so much emotionally as practically; there are some genuine reasons why Carol should avoid matrimony and motherhood.

I found this a deeply engaging novel, peopled with characters whom it was easy to believe in and, for the most part, to like and to enjoy, human flaws and all.

My rating: 10/10.

Re-publishers, I hope you will consider the Elizabeth Cambridge novels. They are small masterpieces of excellent writing and telling vignettes of their time, very much up to the standard of the stellar Hostages to Fortune which is currently the only readily attainable novel of Cambridge’s.

Persephone? Dean Street Press?

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Illustration of the dust jacket of an edition of The Sycamore Tree listed for sale online, not my personal copy, which is jacketless, faded and rather tattered.

The Sycamore Tree by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1934. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1934. Hardcover. 328 pages.

With this, her second novel, published in 1934, a year after the release of the highly esteemed Hostages to Fortune, Elizabeth Cambridge establishes her place in mid-century literature not so much as a great novelist but as a genuinely good one.

The tale follows, in an economically yet meticulously depicted linear trajectory, the life of Howell Combes, from his childhood as youngest sibling of three in an upper-middle-class naval officer’s family, through his school years and his apprenticeship as an engineer, the dark years of the Great War, an ultimately disastrous marriage to a foster-sister, and the attainment at last of a secret desire, the inheritance of his grandfather’s country estate.

Joanna Cannan in The Bookman, April 1934, reviewed The Sycamore Tree with more-than-restrained enthusiasm; her review identifies both the strengths and weaknesses of this novel.

In her second novel Miss Elizabeth Cambridge has set herself a difficult, interesting task, the task of writing the story of an “average” man. “The Sycamore Tree” is a good book, but I found it, as I found “Hostages to Fortune”, vaguely depressing. Is this all there is to life? can childhood, youth and early manhood pass so soberly? does love come and go with so little agony, so mild a joy? It is all very well to paint, and to paint perfectly, the domestic scene: Howell Combe was a dull, worthy fellow, one of those unfortunate beings whose wants never exceed their means, but he did not miss the deepest experiences that life can offer us, and in those experiences surely there is blood and tears, beauty and joy. This book in short should have been a moving one, but it is not. Nothing is here to “knock the breast”. It is an excellent book, but one reads it without emotion, and it is wrong, I feel, that the record of an “average” life should leave on so utterly unmoved.

Damning with faint praise, indeed!

I agree with Miss Cannan in her assessment of the novel’s strengths, but I differ in that I did find the subfusc saga of Howell moving; his agonies and joys were real enough to this reader. Though I did not find it “knocked the breast”, my own response was certainly much more subdued than dramatic, but it was all so very relatable, so mostly true-to-life in its essence.

Edited on May 28 to add this comment on The Sycamore Tree from Vera Brittain, quoted on the back of the dust jacket of The Two Doctors, Cambridge’s 1936 novel, which I’m currently writing about:

This tale of a naval officer’s son, the youngest in an ordinary middle-class family living at Plymouth before the War, is a perfect thing of its limited kind. It leaves behind it the feeling that life is profound, significant, and infinitely worth while.

Yes, indeed.

A rather good book by a better-than-average writer. Recommended, if you can find it – most Elizabeth Cambridge novels are elusively rare.

My rating: 9/10.

My personal copy has an intriguing extra, a faintly pencilled two-stanza poem written on a blank back page. An original attempt by an earlier owner? I puzzled out most of it, but some of the words are difficult to decipher. I include it for anyone who’d like to work it out themself. I don’t think it is a quotation; it has the amateur’s ring to it.

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susan and joanna elizabeth cambridge 1935 001Susan and Joanna by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1935. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1935. Hardcover. 348 pages.

My rating: 8/10 on a re-read.

When I read Susan and Joanna first time round earlier this year I remember feeling a bit put out by the events of the ending (I thought that the author pulled her punches somewhat and drew back from where she could have gone with it), but upon the re-read, already knowing how the climactic final scene actually ends, I was able to approach the story with a slower reading pace and a more balanced view.

I liked it rather better the second time round; Elizabeth Cambridge packs a lot into her novels; perhaps too much to really absorb in that first eager reading, when one is mostly concerned with finding out what will happen next and reads quickly, passing over the finer points without proper appreciation.

I know I have at least one reader who is keen to peruse a detailed account of this novel; I am wondering how much of the plot I should divulge, because chances of people actually finding this book to read themselves are slim. (Coming back to add – it’s a non-issue now – I’ve found an online version! Link down below, at the end of the post.)

This is a very rare novel by this writer. Her stellar Hostages to Fortune which has been reprinted often enough to remain in broad circulation is much better known and much easier to find. Susan and Joanna is not as compelling a read as HTF, but it is very good in its own way; I think it is a great shame that it is so scarce. Such is too often the way with these older writers; one of their books receives the full reprint and promotion treatment (and usually because it is a very worthwhile representative of the author’s output) while the rest of the titles languish in out-of-print oblivion.

Susan and Joanna is a deeply rural book; a good half of it takes place on a farm, the rest in a small village and in the surrounding countryside. Though the two main locations featured – the farm of Node and the village of Bract – are purely fictional, the setting is of a particular region of England, among the Midland Downs. Though Cambridge does not dwell in an undue degree upon descriptions of the scenery, she manages to portray the physical beauty of the landscape with great sympathy and clarity. One feels that this novel is a tribute to an area she knew very well, and loved very deeply.

Motherless Susan has been raised in the proper fashion – that is, off to boarding school from an early age – by her introvert father, a lawyer who gets through life by arranging things to function with the least possible disturbance to himself. Now Susan is twenty and at last back at home “for good”, but neither she nor her father have yet found their rhythm. They walk delicately around each other, being careful not to raise any subjects which might lead to an excess of emotion or potential household turmoil.

Susan has never been trained for – or indeed shown any inclination for –  an actual job or “career.” She is poised for the next step in her life, but hesitates on the brink. Marriage is an obvious and socially acceptable choice, and Susan has indeed considered marriage to the most suitable local candidate, Garry, nephew of the owner of the large farm Node, Miss Laura Coppen, the village’s aristocratic grande dame. Susan has been friendly with Garry since childhood and their relationship is now ripening into something deeper. Each meeting of the two is imbued with speculation, by Susan and Garry themselves, and by the deeply interested onlookers of this rural microcosm they all reside in.

But there is something which holds her back. Garry is just too easy-going and avoiding-of-trouble; he tends to slip through life allowing others to make his decisions for him. Even his growing conviction that Susan would make a suitable mistress at Node owes something to his grandmother’s approval of Susan’s impeccable manners, good breeding, and undoubted personal charm. Susan senses that Garry’s admiration and easygoing courtship of her is more superficial than deep; Garry doesn’t give it all that much thought himself, until forced to by Susan’s ultimate rejection of his advances.

Bruised by Susan’s unexpected refusal, Garry turns to the third member of their childhood-friends triumvirate, vicarage daughter Joanna. Joanna is emphatically Susan’s opposite in every essential way. Apple of her mother’s eye, Joanna has been encouraged to strive after success from babyhood, and her already self-assured nature combined with hard-won scholastic success makes her thoroughly impatient with wishy-washy Susan. “Naturally bossy” well describes Joanna, and Susan puts up with her patronization with good grace, though she is well aware of how much contempt her erstwhile friend actually holds her in.

Upon Garry’s proposal, something of a rebound impulse triggered by hurt pride, Joanna sets aside her career ambitions and agrees to take on Garry and Node instead, a move inspired not just by affection for Garry, but a sense of one-upmanship towards Susan. Joanna can’t help but feel that she has scored a major point in an unspoken rivalry that has persisted since the two were young.

Susan meanwhile meets and is courted by a rising young pathologist; she marries him and has a child. Upon her husband’s departure on a temporary posting in Canada, Susan moves back to Bract with her baby, and she and Joanna start to rebuild the structure of their never very strong but now sadly deteriorated friendship into something much more mature and mutually rewarding.

Joanna’s marriage to Garry and her new position in the rural hierarchy has led to a certain amount of emotional turmoil and occasional strife as the general local consensus is that the vicarage daughter has gotten rather above herself, putting herself in the shoes of the now-dead Miss Laura. Meanwhile Susan is viewed with benevolent patronage. No one has seen her husband; the unspoken assumption among the majority of the villagers is that she has been abandoned by this mythical man, and has sought unwed-mother refuge in her childhood home.

We follow Susan and Joanna through the first years of their very different marriages fraught with very different challenges. The two women’s lives have diverged greatly but are now running parallel, with life-altering consequences to both of them, and those in their closest circles.

What a richly written novel this rather somber story makes. Elizabeth Cambridge sketches her characters at first with the utmost artistic economy, adding layers of detail as the story progresses, until we fully understand what makes each person tick.

Cambridge’s depiction of the rural atmosphere is also utterly believable, and her observations regarding the animals so pervasive and important in such a setting equal her insights into the minds and motivations of the human inhabitants.

A criticism I read on a recent Persephone forum regarding Elizabeth Cambridge’s style was that nothing much happens in her books; they are merely a series of personal observations and not very dramatic domestic events. Quite true, when one steps back and looks at the format of the novels with an analytical eye. But the events are such that we can completely relate to them from our own mostly not very dramatic lives.

Personal relationships, love affairs, marriage, the birth of children, death, social structures and constantly changing and evolving outside events affecting private lives; these are all viable topics for discussion, and their fictional treatment when well handled – as they are in the case of this writer – can lead one into greater insights of one’s own emotional life and personal responses to the shared everyday human events which never truly change, no matter what the calendar year reads.

What a good writer she was; what a dreadful shame it is that five of her six novels are so very rare.

But look at what I have found!

Here is a scanned complete version of  Susan and Joanna, from Hathi Trust. It may be read online, or downloaded as page by page pdf files, if one is so inclined to do so. (And has hours of time to dedicate to the project!)

Reading from a screen is never quite as conducive to true enjoyment as sitting back with the actual book in one’s hands, but it is certainly better than no access to the material at all; I hope that this link brings pleasure to those others of you who are on a quest for more of Elizabeth Cambridge’s fine yet almost forgotten novels of the 1930s.

First three pages below, by way of being a teaser if you are considering whether you’d like to bother following up on this one.

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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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