Posts Tagged ‘Relationships’

 

no fond return of love barbara pym 001

Great cover on this 1981 Granada edition, designed by someone who has obviously read and “got” the book.

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym ~ 1961. This edition: Granada, 1981. Paperback. ISBN: 0-586-05371-9. 287 pages.

My rating: 8/10 on a first reading. Perhaps to be elevated after a future re-read. This author is always better the second time around.

Barbara Pym is in rather fine form with this further delving into the complex lives of a number of single women in various stages of contentment (or otherwise) with their unpartnered state.

As with the stellar Excellent Women, and most of her other stealthily pithy novels, No Fond Return of Love has twin strands: the inner voice of a quiet spinster of the keenly-watching-from-the-shadows type, and the omnipotent authorial observation (not always uniformly benign) of various relationships playing out in that spinster’s sphere.

The set-up is familiar to the Pym reader. A single, upper middle class lady of no-longer-young vintage, engaged in some sort of quasi-intellectual undertaking, encounters a number of new people, including a man who both repels and attracts her. The man may or may not look upon the spinster with equal interest; the interest, if piqued, may or may not be romantic. Pym then shines an illuminating light on her chosen small segment of society; she dances her puppets about in increasingly bizarre postures until at last pairing them up in sometimes unexpected partnerships, which frequently feel less than wholly satisfactory, though cleaving to the traditional pattern of a tidy, “happy” ending.

Dulcie Mainwaring is our key character here, though she occasionally steps aside to allow others to have their moment in the dusty spotlight of Pym’s regard. A pleasantly attractive and undeniably intelligent women in her early thirties, Dulcie has just been given her walking papers (in the most tactful way) by her long-time fiancé – he has recently informed her, in acceptably clichéd terms, that he is “not worthy of her love” – and though Dulcie unprotestingly goes along with this charade, her inner confidence is badly shaken.

Pulling herself together, Dulcie decides to divert herself with attendance at a conference designed to address some of the various complexities of her particular line of work. Dulcie belongs to that of the vast network of poorly paid, unseen people (mostly female) who proofread, fact-check, do minor research, tidy up footnotes, and compile indexes and bibliographies for scholarly works of research and biography, and the conference is highlighted by lectures on such arcane topics as “Some Problems of an Editor”, by presenters mildly well-known amongst their peers.

As anyone who has been to this sort of a limited-interest conference may have found, the really interesting networking happens during coffee breaks and over evening drinks, and this event is no exception. Making a deliberate effort to shake off her post-broken-engagement gloom, Dulcie winds herself up to approach a fellow attendee, the slightly younger, slightly more experienced-in-the-arena-of love, and more than slightly patronizing Viola Dace. Though not exactly kindred spirits at first encounter, the two find themselves sharing an interest in one of the conference’s key speakers, the handsome and apparently charming Aylwin Forbes.

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Aylwin Forbes effortlessly repulses Viola’s attempts to renew their nebulous relationship with well-practiced urbanity; Dulcie watches their wary exchanges with an eyebrow secretly cocked; she catches every nuance. There is something about Aylwin which piques her interest, and after the conference is over and Dulcie is back home in the over-large house she has inherited from her late parents, she finds him popping back into her field of awareness.

Well, what else to do but research the man, then? Which Dulcie proceeds to do, with a tenacious thoroughness which does credit to her meticulous skill in tracking down elusive references and firmly knitting up tenuous connections. Dulcie’s technique, which involves much trudging about and putting herself into situations where she can inquire as to her subject without causing undue alarm to the interviewee, might well be what we refer to nowadays as stalkerish, but Dulcie, though obsessed with the minutiae of Aylwin’s life and the state of his troubled marriage, somehow manages to stay just on the sane side of this sort of behaviour. We view her actions as manifestations of her innate desire to acquire and organize information, even as her curiousity leads her into some exceedingly unlikely situations, in which the author’s sense of humour is fully indulged.

Dulcie is joined in her home by her eighteen-year-old niece Laurel, and then, in an odd plot twist, by the perennially sulky Viola Dace. Aylwin himself shows up, still vaguely attracted to/repulsed by Viola, and mildly interested in Dulcie in a platonic sort of way – she might be useful to him in a professional sense, Aylwin practically muses – and then increasingly infatuated with the oblivious (and half his age) Laurel, who has herself become romantically interested in the florist-shop-owning son of the family next door.

Meanwhile Dulcie has scraped acquaintance with Aylwin’s clergyman brother, Neville, who himself is having romantic problems with the aging spinsters of his flock, and with Aylwin’s rather soppy but ultimately likeable estranged wife Marjorie, with his matter-of-fact mother-in-law, and eventually with his surprisingly “common” mother, who owns a not-very-good guesthouse (complete with moulting taxidermied eagle in the lobby) in a seaside town, where most of the characters converge for what one fears will be a tremendous confrontation. This never materializes, though Dulcie has a bad moment or two as she crouches behind a piece of guesthouse furniture while Aylwin and Marjorie emotionally discuss the dissolution of their marriage, thinking they are alone.

The tale has strong elements of farce, as you may have gathered from this sketchy outline of some key points, but Pym’s dry tone, and the ever-apt inner thoughts of Dulcie kept me quite enthralled, even while I was mildly annoyed with myself for my collusion in such a nonsensical sort of thing. Dare I say that this reminded my of something which David Lodge might have dreamed up? Or even Robertson Davies, on one of his lighter-hearted days? Full of in-jokes which leave the reader feeling slightly on the fringes of the intellectual circle in which the author has placed his/her characters, and coming close to outright vulgarity with some of the more outlandish developments.

I didn’t much care for the ending, which seemed to argue that any man is better than none, after a book’s worth of practical examples of why a spinster’s fate might not be such a bad one. I thought that after going to great pains to demonstrate her character’s rich inner life, Barbara Pym let Dulcie down. Perhaps, writing at the end of that “happy housewife”-focussed decade, the author caved in to the 1950s’ ideal of marriage always being better than the alternative?

 

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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.

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afternoon of a good woman nina bawden 001Afternoon of a Good Woman by Nina Bawden ~ 1976. This edition: Penguin, 1976. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-00-4674-7. 142 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

Yesterday I did something I seldom get a chance to do: I sat in my favourite armchair with my feet up and I read all day long.

My husband was unexpectedly home from work, and as he was feeling generally tired and rather in between projects – all of the carpentry jobs too big to start on a “spare” day; still too much snow on the ground for planned farm jobs; some before-convertible-season needful work on the pet sports car (our old Triumph Spitfire) stalled because of waiting for parts to arrive; too windy and blustery for an enjoyable walking excursion – he encouraged me to join him in a “proper” day off.

So I did, completely guilt-free. And it was good.

The reading itself ended up not being as purely pleasurable as it could have been, as I was finishing up Ann Patchett’s increasingly annoying The Magician’s Assisstant (see my last grumpy post) and finding it lacking. I then picked up this slender novel by Nina Bawden which I had just acquired on the my Vancouver trip, along with a copy of The Birds on the Trees. Not quite what I had expected – I thought from the cover text that it would be a bit “lighter” than it turned out to be – but definitely an engaging read, and very “1970s”. A perfect Century of Books entry, in other words, as it is very much of its era.

Lots of spoilers in this post, but I left much out as well. Onward!

Back cover blurb:

Penelope has always tried to be a good woman: as wife, mistress, mother and magistrate. But today – the day she has decided to leave her husband – she sits in the Crown Court listening to a short, sad case of indecent exposure and a long, involved incident of theft, and mentally reviews her own convoluted private affairs. And wonders how they would stand up in court.

Penelope, in her day-long musing about how she got to the point of leaving her husband for her long-time lover, (her step-brother Steve – and, oh, yes, the almost-incest of this relationship is a slight thing compared to the rest of Penelope’s complicated personal connections), reflects on the irony of her name. Patient wife though she has been for many years, her own Ulysses – her ineffectual husband Eddie – is not the adventuresome type, unless you consider his habit of painting his face with Penelope’s lipstick and chasing her about the bedroom with a real hatchet (!) as a precursor to sexual arousal.

Eddie has some serious baggage, as his first wife has gone insane and is incarcerated in a facility for the mentally troubled just a few blocks over. Handy for visiting, mind you, and Penelope occasionally sees her predecessor as she visits her own off-kilter stepmother, Eve – her lover Steve’s mother – in the same building.

There’s also a stepsister with a disastrous personal life – separated from an abusive husband (with Penelope’s help – a complex saga detailed in one of the many flashbacks this short novel contains) and continually fighting for custody of a young son. The ex-husband was involuntarily involved in the death of Penelope’s father, and the situation was not improved by Penelope making an untoward advance to him (the stepsister’s ex-husband) as he tries to soothe her as her (Penelope’s) father’s body lies sprawled at the bottom of the stairs he has just crashed down.

Still with me?

Isn’t this utterly too too much? Over-the-top, as a matter of fact, and Nina Bawden includes way too much information on everyone’s bedroom habits.

The point which I believe Bawden is trying to make is that her protagonist is very much on her way to becoming a modern liberated woman, free to live her (sex) life as she so chooses, and the heck with the staid conventions. Penelope has done the marriage thing, and raised two rather gormless daughters who are now at college. She loves her children but doesn’t particularly like them, having no rose-tinted illusions as to their intelligence or ambitions. Now she is ready to strike out on her own, to openly join her long-time secret lover, a decision just possibly triggered by Penelope’s fear that she is pregnant by him.

Ha ha – didn’t see that last bit coming, did you?

Anyway, bleakly absurd and mildly dirty soap opera plot aside, this book is cranked up a notch by Bawden’s more-than-competent writing, and by her under-handed style of sly humour. This is a rather funny book, once one gets over the initial shock of (for example) hearing the state of a flasher’s naughty bits described in analytical detail – it’s all part of the evidence, you see. Penelope is not at all a prude, though she acts in a publically circumspect manner. Her mind is always examining all the possibilities, and she doesn’t miss much.

Or does she?

As we follow Penelope through her day serving as a magistrate in the Crown Court, we become increasingly aware that her analytical tendencies are just a trifle askew here and there. Her assumptions of guilt and innocence prove not to be quite so crystal clear as she at first thinks. (And perhaps Penelope is a wee bit distracted by the proximity of the handsome and mildly flirtatious judge whom she is assisting…)

And then there is that unnerving incident of a threatening anonymous letter some weeks ago, and today, as she prepares to drive off to the station for her big gesture of freedom, the discovery that the brake system on her car has been tampered with. Someone else has apparently been doing some heavy thinking, too.

To sum up, an interesting read, once one comes to terms with the various ick factors. But I am thinking it will ultimately be just a blip on my readerly radar, for it’s rather a light thing when all is said and done.

I think I will tuck it up on the D.H. Lawrence shelf, for though DHL is rather more “literary”, this Bawden left me with the same after-reading impulse to put the book up high where I don’t have to see it, and then go and have a long hot shower.

A keeper, with reservations.

Oh – one last thing. This is indeed the same Nina Bawden who has written a number of highly esteemed children’s books, such as Carrie’s War, and The Peppermint Pig. If you have young readers in the household, you’ll likely be wanting to keep the two strands of her writing well separated. Just a thought.

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the magician's assistant ann patchett 001The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett ~ 1997. This edition: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997. Softcover. ISBN: 0-15-600621-9. 357 pages.

My rating: Tough call. Loved the lead-in; increasingly despised the last half. It declined from an 7-ish sort of thing in the first 100 pages to maybe a 2 or thereabouts, with the nadir being the screamingly predictable lesbian kiss scene. So averaging the two together, I offer you a rather generous 4.5/10.

Another Century of Books novel, chosen because I’d not yet read an Ann Patchett title and I keep seeing them everywhere and I needed to find some 1990s candidates.

Caution: I may not be able to avoid including a spoiler or two down below.

Well now. I’m all conflicted about this one. It started off quite brilliantly – so much so that I stayed up into the wee hours last night because I couldn’t put it down. I forced myself to leave our heroine just as she was heading from sunny L.A. to wintry Nebraska, and when I picked it up again a few hours later, everything had changed. On multiple fronts.

Using the handy “Life’s too short” cop-out, I’m going to dodge discussing this one in too much depth. Because after a quick internet review search, I realize I’m apparently the only person who found this one less than fabulous. I’m going to refer you instead to one of many glowing reviews, this one from Publishers Weekly of October, 1997.

An excerpt here:

… Sabine had been assistant to L.A. magician Parsifal for 22 years when they finally married. She knew he was homosexual; both had mourned the death of his gentle Vietnamese lover, Phan. What she didn’t know until Parsifal’s sudden death only a short time later was that Parsifal’s real name was Guy Fetters, that had he lied when he claimed to have no living relatives and that he has a mother and two sisters in Alliance, Nebraska. When these four women meet each other, their combined love for Parsifal helps Sabine to accept the shocking events in  Parsifal’s life that motivated him to wipe out his past. In finding herself part of his family, she discovers her own desires, responsibilities and potential, and maybe her true sexual nature…

Good enough?

The initial depiction of Sabine’s grief at the loss of her partner Parsifal was poignant and believable; the details Ann Patchett emphasized were heart-rendingly real. The sudden insertion of unsuspected relations moved things up a notch, and I was truly curious as to where the author was planning to take us all. The possibilities seemed intriguing. I even bought into the magical-realism dream sequences where Sabine makes contact with Phan in the ever-shifting afterworld; it seemed like these were going to go somewhere as well.

But all of the interesting leads fizzled out, leaving us with a common old relationship drama once Sabine left exotic L.A. and forayed forth into the depths of Middle America in the 1990s, where Wal-Mart is the only place to shop in town, and they don’t seem to carry Perrier, and where all the folks are pasty white in ethnic monotone.

A major sticking point that really soured the second part of the book for me was the over-simplified and patronizing depiction of the Nebraskans. Sabine’s new in-laws are completely awed by her sophistication and readily bow down to her California cool; she in turn is completely thrown out of kilter at their drab lives of blue-collar jobs, modest bungalows, and pitiful acceptance of their wife-beating redneck spouses.

But it all comes out sweet and life-affirming in the end, because luckily Sabine has plenty of dollars from her inheritance of software genius Phan’s legacy through her late husband Parsifal/Guy Fetters, so she can scoop everyone away from their drab Nebraska lives to sunny L.A. At least that is what I gathered at the end, though the details were pretty fuzzy at that point, what with the burgeoning (?) relationship between Sabine and Parsifal/Guy’s sister Kitty.

Moving on, I am. I suspect this writer can do better, for she has all the technical tools in her toolbox and her writing ability is undoubtedly well developed.

Thoughts?

Am I being too mean? Should I give Ann Patchett another go? Or are the rest of her tales of a muchness to this one?

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my mother in law celeste andrews seton 001My Mother-in-Law by Celeste Andrews Seton ~ 1954. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1954. Hardcover. 239 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Foreword

Jay Gould died at his home at 579 Fifth Avenue, New York, in 1892. During his lifetime he amassed one of the largest fortunes in the United States. It is estimated that at one time his ownership of stocks and bonds in railways covering 18,000 miles of track, transatlantic cables, mining, land and industrial corporations, totaled over a thousand million dollars.

This story is based on the life of Jay Gould’s eldest daughter, Helen Gould Shepard. Her four adopted children agree that this book s an emotional and spiritual image of their foster-mother. They disagree, however, about some of the facts. Helen Anna says that the sweet peas did not win a prize at the flower show – the lilies did. Finley Jay says he doesn’t remember the flower show at all. Louis will not commit himself. Olivia says she is, frankly, a little fuzzy about it, but doesn’t see what difference it makes…

Attracted by its quietly elegant spine decoration, I pulled this slender hardcover off a crowded shelf in one of Vancouver several deluxe emporiums of used tomes, Lawrence Books (on the corner of Dunbar and 41st). Raising an eyebrow slightly at the pencilled price on the inner flyleaf – this is a store that thinks very highly of its dusty treasures, few bargains to be had here – I nevertheless was charmed enough by a few moments leafing through to add it to my small pile of promising finds.

Upon arriving home, My Mother-in-Law gravitated immediately to my bedside table, providing me with several late nights of soothing diversion during a hectic week full of all sorts of frantic activity.

The daughter-in-law who has penned this loving memoir first met her prospective husband while on vacation with her mother in the Adirondacks. Celeste finds the surprisingly accomplished Louis Seton less than forthcoming about his antecedents, but as she is twenty-one and nicely independent she abandons herself to the course of true love, eventually accepting Louis’ marriage proposal in a New York taxi. Only while preparing to break the news of her betrothal to her bemused parents – “Who is this Louis Seton, and why does his name sound vaguely familiar, even though we’ve never come across his parents in our society visits?” – does Louis rather shamefacedly spill the beans.

He is the foster-son of the richest woman in the United States, Helen Gould Shepard, eldest daughter of the incredibly rich “American robber baron” Jay Gould.

All right, then.

Celeste goes to meet her prospective in-laws with more than a little apprehension, and what she finds when she goes to that first afternoon tea is just a bit unnerving. Louis’ mother is, as Louis warns Celeste, perhaps a tiny bit eccentric.  Mother Shepard not only knows her Bible inside and out, she believes in it as the Literal Truth, and is prone to discuss it at any time, and to prescribe passages to memorize, which she will later examine her visitor upon. Celeste is put on the spot and manages to trot out the 23rd Psalm, the only Bible passage she knows by heart. Mother Shepard gently approves, but her mild manner does not mask her keen eye, and Celeste realizes that she had better brush up on her Bible reading, amongst other things.

Mother Shepard approves of Herbert Hoover – there is a huge jigsaw puzzle of his profile in a state of semi-completion in the parlour – and disapproves of communism. She sadly condemns Celeste’s alma mater, Smith College, as a hotbed of communist plotting: “They have parades there. By torchlight. And they don’t believe in God. It’s too bad…”

Celeste is presented with a peacock-feather quill pen and ordered to sign the massive guest book. She is plied with tea and avocado sandwiches, and watches in wonder as Mother Shepard feeds her Pekinese dog, Chinky, as he reclines on a velvet footstool. (Later we are to learn that this Chinky is merely one of a long line of identically named pets; as each expires from the effects of unsuitable diet and lack of exercise, another takes its place; the name stays the same while the actual dogs succeed each other, victims of a benignly intended but ultimately fatal pampering.)

Upon parting Celeste is presented with a huge corsage of white orchids, grown in one of the fabulous Shepard greenhouses, and she stumbles out into the real world feeling like she has been on another planet. But a most cozy and well-upholstered one, though there is something a bit tense in the atmosphere.

Helen Gould Shepard, unable to have children of her own, had adopted four foster children and raised them in her own unique manner. Though her generosity is boundless, the now-adult children are all still just a tiny bit terrified of their benevolent mother, whose ideas on child-rearing included “punishments” of memorizing poetry and foreign languages and operatic passages. Louis is most accomplished in all of these , as Celeste has already discovered, leading her to speculate uneasily upon the “naughtiness” of his childhood…

Though his foster-mother is exceedingly wealthy, Louis himself is not an heir to the Gould fortune, as Jay Gould’s will included a clause regarding the necessity for his ancestors to be “blood-issue”, but there does appear to be a substantial trust fund, easing Celeste and Louis’ setting up housekeeping in the darkest days of the Depression.

Many visits to the various Shepard residences follow in the years to come, and Celeste, while remaining slightly bemused at her mother-in-law’s thought processes, comes to love Mother Shepard deeply and to admire her sincere urges to do good, even while realizing that occasionally Mother Shepard’s philanthropies are subject to whim and arbitrary judgement.

This is an entertaining, kindly humorous and rather unusual memoir. It presents a one-of-a-kind picture of both a unique personality and of a way of life that was exclusive to only a very tiny percentage of the American population – the wealthiest of the exceedingly wealthy – in their specific moment in history.

Gorgeous endpaper illustrations show a map of Helen Gould Shepard's favourite "home", the family country estate of Lyndhurst. Small illustrations depict incidents described in the memoir: the nighttime procession of the entire household to see the fabulous night-blooming cereus in the conservatory; grubbing up dandelions in the lawn under Mother Shepard's watchful eye; going to church en masse packed into one of the nine Shepard motorcars; swimming in the Greek-columned pool, watched over by a full-time lifeguard, whose main claim to usefulness was that he had once rescued one of the many Chinkys from a watery death!

The delightful endpaper illustrations show a map of Helen Gould Shepard’s favourite “home”, the family country estate of Lyndhurst. Small illustrations depict incidents described in the memoir: the nighttime procession of the entire household to see the fabulous night-blooming cereus in the conservatory, grubbing up dandelions in the lawn under Mother Shepard’s watchful eye, going to church en masse packed into one of the nine Shepard motorcars, and swimming in the vast Greek-columned pool, watched over by a full-time lifeguard, whose main claim to fame was that he had once rescued one of the many Chinkys from a watery death!

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a safety match ian hay penguin cover 1938 001A Safety Match by Ian Hay ~ 1911. This edition: Penguin, 1938. Paperback. 256 pages.

My rating: 3/10

Oh, Century of Books. You are leading me down some strange byways of reading…

Some days ago I wrote with some enthusiasm about a rather charming vintage book by Herbert Jenkins, Patricia Brent, Spinster. I was careful in my review not to reveal the key plot points and the ending, because I felt that this was a book that would reward discovery by a modern-day reader. I am very sad to say that today’s book will not be rewarded the same treatment, because it disappointed me immensely.

Sharp-eyed readers will notice the mending tape on the bottom left hand corner of the book pictured here. That was me. Usually I am very careful about my mending of older books, aiming for non-obtrusive fixes, but in this case I just slapped a piece of Magic tape on there and called it good enough. The whole spine is loose and the text block only just hanging on by a whisp or two of paper – almost as if at some point a previous reader gave this one the toss across the room. Hmmm… (Okay, maybe I’m just being really snarky.)

So, yes, there will be spoilers in the next few paragraphs. (And I’m keeping it shortish, because it’s really not worth spending any more time on.)

It all starts off promisingly enough. Here we have a vicarage family, the widowed Rector Brian Vereker, and his lovely children – literally lovely, as they are famed for their good looks among the local villagers – nineteen-year-old Daphne, doorstepping down through Sebastian Aloysius (“Ally”), Monica Cecila (“Cilly”), Stephen (“Stiffy”), Veronica Elizabeth (“Nicky”) to to the youngest, eleven-year-old Tony. A lively lot they all are, and we are treated to a prolonged domestic interlude which sets up the characters quite nicely, and gives a rather charming picture of English upper-middle-class home life – for the Rector is the youngest son of a youngest son of a peer of the realm –  in the early years of the 20th Century.

Then an abrupt change of scene to a room full of coal mine owners as they meet with labour union leaders in order to negotiate a way out of a possible workers’ strike. Here we become acquainted with our main masculine character, one Lord Carr, also known by his nickname of “Juggernaut” for his overbearing success in always proving his point and coming out on top. In this case Juggernaut succeeds in quelling the potential strike, knocking down the ineffectual union leaders and getting in a few digs about free enterprise and every-man-for-himself-ism which sound forbiddingly close to the spoutings of the far-Right political parties of our current age – not much doubt as to our author’s feelings throughout this book, I’ afraid – he does rather slant towards his brusque hero’s view.

The set-up is to introduce the rather-much-older (forty-five-ish) Lord Carr to the eldest vicarage daughter, the sweet-nineteen Daphne. For of course Lord Carr and Rector Vereker are old school chums, and after squashing the labour uprising in the area, Lord Carr is quite happy to spend a few weeks relaxing among the Vereker clan, where he falls in inarticulate but sincere love with Daphne.

The two marry, Juggernaut for love and Daphne for money – she is motivated by a desire to secure the futures of her brothers and sisters – and for a few years all is quite content. A son is born to Lord and Lady Carr, but as the child grows it becomes apparent that the marriage is, if not actively struggling, becoming a rather pathetic thing. Lord Carr is unable to speak his feelings of devotion to Daphne; she in turn is starting to turn to other companions for amusement, including Lord Carr’s devoted right hand man.

This gets us in quite decent style to the latter bit of the book, where the author completely goes to pieces and gets all darkly dramatic. Daphne and Juggernaut part ways, Daphne fleeing to the old family home with the baby and Juggernaut staying broodingly in London. While they are parted, it dawns on Daphne that perhaps she really does love her masterful though stoic husband, and a reconciliation is affected by way of the right hand man’s revealing that Juggernaut is really just a big softie, supplying food and comforts to the wives and children during the last coal mine strike. “I never knew!” cries Daphne, and she flies to her husband’s sturdy breast, to be clasped there with fervor.

But wait! There’s more!

The workers at the local coal mine go on a wildcat strike, and as a result the workings are sabotaged, resulting in a cave-in which traps a number of our side characters, including Right Hand Man. Juggernaut is front and centre of the rescue mission, and (sob!) is blinded by an explosion after he has personally seen all of the rescued men to safety.

Fast forward a year or two to a scene of domestic bliss, Juggernaut and Daphne all sappily happy with their adorable wee children, love restored and blind Pappa the centre of a scene of cozy cuteness.

66 years after its first publication, the one-and-only Barbara Cartland  decides that "A Safety Match" is a good addition to her "Library of Love".

66 years after its first publication, the one-and-only Barbara Cartland decides that “A Safety Match” is a good addition to her 1977  “Library of Love”. I am saddened, but not surprised.

What a dreadfully clichéd story. No wonder it was picked up and condensed by Barbara Cartland for her 1977 “Library of Love.”

This novel made me prickly all over. It started out so well, and had so many nice domestic and period details, that I hoped right up until those last few chapters that it would go in a different direction, but nope! – no such luck. It just dissolved into mushy sweetness. Absolutely, deeply, offensively, sugary, syrupy adorableness. Argh.

Not recommended, but if you are very brave and wish to look for yourself, here it is on Gutenberg.

The Safety Match by Ian Hay

Ian Hay, by the way, was quite a well-respected writer of his time. Here is his biography, pasted directly in from Wikipedia. As the man could undoubtedly write, in a modestly competent way, I do find myself curious as to some of his other works, in particular the war-themed The First Hundred Thousand. But as for The Safety Match, I wouldn’t open that again at gunpoint.

Major General John Hay Beith, CBE, (17 April 1876 – 22 September 1952), was a British schoolmaster and soldier, but he is best remembered as a novelist, playwright, essayist and historian who wrote under the pen name Ian Hay.

After reading Classics at Cambridge, Beith became a schoolmaster. In 1907 he published a novel, Pip; its success and that of several more novels enabled him to give up teaching in 1912 to be a full-time author. During the First World War, Beith served as an officer in the army in France. His good-humoured account of army life, The First Hundred Thousand, published in 1915, was a best-seller. On the strength of this, he was sent to work in the information section of the British War Mission in Washington, D.C.

After the war Beith’s novels did not achieve the popularity of his earlier work, but he made a considerable career as a dramatist, writing light comedies, often in collaboration with other authors including P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. During the Second World War Beith served as Director of Public Relations at the War Office, retiring in 1941 shortly before his 65th birthday.

Among Beith’s later works were several war histories, which were not as well received as his comic fiction and plays. His one serious play, Hattie Stowe (1947), was politely reviewed but had a short run. In the same year he co-wrote a comedy, Off the Record, which ran for more than 700 performances.

I did a fairly thorough internet search, and came up with only one other blog review, from Only Two Rs, whose take was similar to my own.

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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?

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