Posts Tagged ‘Vintage Fiction’

charlotte fairlie dj d e stevenson

An early edition dust jacket illustration. I’m not including mine as it is the 1985 reissue and the jacket illustration is a hideous black, pink and white effort which offends the eye greatly. Well, maybe I will include it, but only at the very bottom. Scroll down if you dare!

December 14, 2014. Thinking some more about Christmas-including books, this novel I read and enjoyed exactly a year ago came to mind. It’s definitely not all about Christmas, but I was most intrigued by the title character’s (and presumably the author’s) thoughts on the “paganism” of many of the socially accepted customs of the time (the 1950s), and her religious musings.

For those of you who didn’t catch this the first time around, and to jog the memories of those of you who are already very familiar with D.E. Stevenson’s novels, here it is again.

Charlotte Fairlie by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1954. Also published as Blow the Wind Southerly and The Enchanted Isle. This edition: Collins, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-00-222108-X. 320 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Casting about on the internet this morning, looking for other opinions, for I wanted to see if my happy reading experience was shared by fellow D.E. Stevenson fans, I was more than a little bemused by the dearth of reviews on this book. I was favourably impressed, and enjoyed it a lot; I assumed others would have as well, and said so. But perhaps I am not looking in quite the right places?

A straightforward plot and a limited cast of characters make for a smooth, fast read. The heroine is a strong-minded, quiet-spoken, wise-beyond-her-years type; I greatly admired her coping skills and judicious use of silence when confronted by difficult situations; a delicious example of letting one’s enemies defeat themselves by running about ever more madly while one remains at the calm eye of the storm saving one’s breath.

Miss Fairlie’s technique reminded me strongly of that of an enigmatic young Dutch man I once spent a summer working under; in his office there hung a small plaque stating: Silence is the only satisfactory substitute for Wisdom. Berndt was both wise and silent; he was one of the most non-committal people I’ve ever come across, but when he had to say something it was always to the point. I think I learned something there, though I seldom put it into practice, being personally of the say-too-much persuasion!

Charlotte Fairlie is a young woman who has made good. Only in her late twenties, she is already the competent headmistress of a respectable girls’ boarding school. She has no family ties but for one disinterested aunt; no romances complicate her emotions. Her one thorn is the senior mathematics teacher at her school, who feels that Miss Fairlie is the devious usurper of a position which should have been her own, and does not hesitate to stir up trouble at every opportunity.

Two of Miss Fairlie’s three hundred students are causing her particular concern. One, Donny Eastwood, stands out as being one of the least bright and most dreamily befuddled children Charlotte has ever had in attendance. Charlotte suspects that there is a hidden intelligence hiding under Donny’s dull façade, and this proves to be the case when Donny perks up greatly upon becoming friends with a new student, one Tessa MacRynne.

Tessa has been living on a secluded Scottish island and having lessons from a governess, rather an anomaly in these times, for the story is set in the early 1950s, and the teaching governess is no longer anything like the norm. Tessa’s lovely, vivacious, American mother has delivered her to the school with something of a regretful attitude; Mrs. MacRynne appears vaguely desirous of confiding something to Miss Fairlie, but in the confusion and business of start-of-term she leaves without divulging, and Charlotte tucks the idea that something is not quite right with the MacRynne household away in the back of her mind.

The Eastwoods and the MacRynnes are decidedly families with “issues”, and Charlotte becomes ever more embroiled in these two students’ personal lives, culminating in a joint visit to Tessa’s island home with Tessa, Donny, and Donny’s two younger brothers, with dramatic consequences for all.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. While it was absolutely predicable in many ways, there were serious undertones that I found most moving. Charlotte herself is an exceedingly likeable character; I found I was completely taken with her and most sympathetic to the way she rebuilt her life after her father’s rejection of her after his remarriage in her adolescent years. Her own experiences aid her in understanding the woes of her  students, in particular Donny and Tessa, who themselves are bereft of a beloved parent, though Tessa has a loving father to cling to while Donny’s coldly unemotional, widowed father refuses to pander to his daughter’s desperate desire for parental affection. But Charlotte is also shaken to realize that she is not as perceptive as she should be, when one of the four children is tragically involved in what appears to be a suicide attempt while on their Scottish vacation.

I should leave off here, in order to allow those of you who haven’t yet read this book to discover its charms, and its few twists and turns, for yourself. For though there are some dark themes, it is a thoughtful and hopeful story, with a strong element of good humour throughout. And, reading it in December, I was pleased to find that it described several of Charlotte’s Christmases, spent in very different circumstances.

The first is with Charlotte’s Aunt Lydia, a self-indulgent gadabout of a woman, whose Christmas celebrations Charlotte finds vaguely distasteful.

Charlotte… found herself even more out of tunes with the festivities than usual. She had nothing in common with Aunt Lydia’s friends and it did not amuse her to see a group of middle-aged people pulling crackers and wearing paper hats and kissing coyly beneath the mistletoe. In fact she found it revolting… (S)he thought about it seriously: was there any connection between Aunt Lydia’s parties and the “Christmas Spirit?” Was it priggish to be unable to join in the “fun?” She thought of the noise and the laughter and the feasting…and then she thought of the birth of a little baby in a quiet stable… The more Charlotte thought about it the more she became convinced that the orgies of Aunt Lydia and her friends were not Christian at all, but pagan…

The author obviously has this topic on her mind throughout the story, as she comes down hard against the “paganism” of secular Christmas celebrations again during her description of Charlotte’s second Christmas. This time Charlotte has decided to retreat to the depths of the country and spend Christmas alone in contemplation; it is after the turned-tragic Scottish episode, and Charlotte has much thinking to do.

Staying at a quiet country inn. Charlotte spends the week before Christmas taking walks, visiting the church, occasionally talking to the elderly vicar – in one notable exchange detailing her objections to the use of mistletoe because of its Druidic – pagan! – associations, and convincing the vicar to eliminate it from his decorations, though she will allow him to retain the holly(!)

Of her three hundred Christmas cards – delivered to the great astonishment of the villagers who have no idea that their transient visitor is a school headmistress guaranteed a card from every one of her students’ families –  only a few depict the Christmas story, and this seems to Charlotte to be indicative of the increasing loss of the “real” Christmas spirit, the religious significance of the holiday. She muses on about this for some time, and comes to the conclusion that unless one has children, that Christmas is an empty celebration.

…and then she raised her eyes and saw the little church with its lights shining through the stained-glass windows and she realized that there was one child who belonged to everybody… or at least belonged to everybody who would let Him come in. The cloud upon her spirits lifted and quite suddenly she was happy and at peace.

I felt that in these passages the author’s personal feelings and thoughts were made quite clear; she uses her character to make a point she obviously feels very strongly about, and I came away feeling that I had had a glimpse into D.E. Stevenson’s private world under the guise of acquaintanceship with her fictional creation.

Whether one agrees or not with the author’s opinions regarding the paganism of popular Christmas celebrations, it was refreshing to read such a strongly expressed argument; it added a bit of an edge to what otherwise was a mildly interesting set piece: “Christmas in the village.”

Though it does not get much mention among some of D.E. Stevenson’s more popular tales, I personally enjoyed Charlotte Fairlie greatly. A simple story competently told, with enough darkness here and there to let the bright bits really shine.

And here, as threatened, is the just jacket of the 1985 re-issue. While not as Harlequin-romance-y as the kilted hero and shapely heroine depicted on the earlier edition, this one is a bit too avant garde for the 1950s era contents! (Not to mention its sheer ugliness.)

And here, as threatened, is the dust jacket of the 1985 re-issue. While not as Harlequin-romance-y as the kilted hero and shapely heroine depicted on the earlier edition, this one is just a bit too avant garde, in my opinion, for the 1950s-era contents. (Not to mention its sheer ugliness.)

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This is one of the most lovely book jackets I've ever seen, a wrap-around illustration by Antony Groves-Raines, from my 1965 Doubleday "Book Club Edition".

This is one of the more attractive vintage book jackets I’ve yet seen, a wrap-around illustration by Antony Groves-Raines, from my 1965 Doubleday “Book Club Edition”. This is the front.

And this is the bag. Try to imagine them together. I tried scanning it as one section, but my scanner is just a bit too small for the whole thing.

And this is the back. Try to imagine them together. I wanted to include it as one continuous illustration, but my scanner bed was just a bit too small for the whole thing.

How Far to Bethlehem? by Norah Lofts ~ 1964. This edition: Doubleday, 1965. Hardcover. 246 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

December 9, 2014: Christmas is coming – ready or not! – and in the interests of highlighting some seasonal reading I offer you this post from a year ago. Originally posted in December of 2013, here are my thoughts on Norah Lofts’ creative retelling of the Christmas story. I’m not planning on a re-read this particular December, but it did have its moments, and is worth a look for those of us who rather admire Lofts. When she is good, she is more than decent, but when she bobbles…well…I’ve still read much worse.

*****

I’d decided to try to read some seasonal literature to go with the upcoming Christmas season, and what better way to start, I thought, than with this one, going right back to the source, as it were.

As you can see from my rating, it was an adequate though not an astounding success. I mildly enjoyed Norah Lofts’ attempt, but found that I could not fully enter into this creative re-imagining of the story of the birth of Christ, for reasons touched on below.

The narrative abruptly jumps around from character to character, which, though initially confusing, actually turned out to be a good thing, as the side characters were much the most interesting, with completely invented backstories, unlike Mary and Joseph, who were constrained by the traditional story.

We start out with the young Mary, imagined by Lofts as an enthusiastic lover of both lilies and donkeys – themes which tenaciously follow the girl throughout the tale – and the Annunciation, with the Angel Gabriel appearing to her and then to Joseph. Mary is portrayed as a very lovely, rather dreamy girl, much prone to episodes of introspection when she seems to be communicating with a greater power, which of course she is, if we accept her special status as Mother-of-God-to-be. She accepts the angel’s visit as the nebulous “big thing” she has been waiting for all of her life, and surrenders herself fully to her fate, though she has moments of great inner turmoil when she considers her baby’s eventual torment and death according to the ancient prophesies concerning the Messiah.

And this was were my first moments of readerly disconnect came in, as the author insisted on discussing the popularly accepted details of the end of Christ’s earthly life. It’s been a good many years since I attended a Bible Study class, but I don’t recall that much detail in the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah; it was all rather mysterious in a soothsayers’ sort of way, and didn’t really get in to details such as how long the Messiah would be here on earth for, or the manner of his demise, even that he would be born of a virgin. Mary and Joseph both discuss the role that the coming Messiah will play in sacrificing himself for mankind’s sins; I rather thought that the expectation among the Hebrews of the day was more in the nature of a military leader. Though it is lovely of the author to provide Mary with this insight, it didn’t feel all that convincing. And more was soon to come.

The three wise men/three kings share the spotlight with Mary, and they are imagined in rather untraditional ways, made possible because their mention in the actual Bible narrative is superficial at best, and their place in the Nativity story more folkloric than theologically based. In Lofts’ version, Melchior is a Korean astronomer, Gaspar is a Mongol chieftain, and Balthazar is a runaway African slave, and their coming together and subsequent travels make up the better part of the book. It generally works, and some of their escapades are nice little novellas all on their own.

Highlights toward the end of the book which I thought interesting and well written as the author rather let herself go away from the constraints of clinging to the skeleton of the Biblical framework were a visit by the three “kingly” travellers to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, and a night at a Roman military barracks; both episodes had some creative detailing which sparked them to life rather more than some of the other vignettes.

The innkeeper at Bethlehem gets his own mini-history as well, some of which was quite enthralling. In Norah’s imagination he is a Greek ex-sailor, and her description of his perilous voyage on a tin ship through the mist-shrouded ocean to the barbarous isles on the other side of the Pillars of Hercules was a fascinating and convincingly written inclusion which had me wanting more.

Her version of the shepherds was less than stellar, though. It felt highly contrived, with the chief shepherd being a grieving father of a son recently crucified by the Romans for a minor infraction; the author just wouldn’t quit with the meaningfulness of all of this, and it was another jarring note; much better if it would have been played a bit softer. Oh, and that very shepherd is represented as being the father of Lazurus, Martha and Mary – key players of an incident some years later in the New Testament narrative, and another glaring coincidence which annoyed the heck out of me by its total improbability. (If one can use “probable” in the context of any of the events in this re-imagined tale!)

Though there was much to like in this ambitious and creative retelling of the Nativity story, I found that the sections which worked well fictionally were overwhelmed by the less frequent but awkward attempts at bringing in Biblical quotations, and in the excessive use of coincidence in the creation of incidents. What might have been an excellent piece of creative fiction instead turned out to be a slightly off-key homage to a story we already know in its earlier form. The King James version very adequately stands alone and I would have been much happier if Norah Lofts had let herself go a little more and not tried to incorporate so much of the Gospel narrative in her own work.

Does that make any sort of sense? I mean, we already know how it goes, so letting the reader do the work in mentally making it click with the original would have worked, and given us the pleasure of the “Aha!” moment, instead of being bludgeoned by the exceedingly obvious “taken from the Bible” parts. And if one isn’t familiar with the original, it would be a more accessible read, and might well lead one to investigate the source. Perhaps?

I’m a bit grumpy about this, because some of this was, as I already said, quite excellent, and I felt cheated in that it all could have been that way.

Norah Lofts appears to be a firm believer in the Biblical versions of the Nativity which inspired her book, and one must respect that. This is an unusual novel, and rather brave in its attempt to fictionalize such an iconic religious tradition, while remaining true to the source. And her writing is always more than competent, and occasionally inspired.

Damning with faint praise, this feels like, but I could not completely give myself over to the tale, and I was fully willing to when I started. I do wonder how much having a previous knowledge of the King James version of the story influenced my reading pleasure, or lack thereof. While it definitely helped me to appreciate the author’s use of narrative nuances and connections between characters, it made me continually stop and try to make Norah Lofts’ version jive with my memory of what was contained in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I did come away with a strongish desire to reread the originals as a sort of refutation to Lofts’ tale, so I’m not quite sure if that is a point in favour or against How Far to Bethlehem?!

But please don’t let my personal response put you off giving this book a whirl. It is much beloved by Norah Lofts’ many dedicated followers for good reason, and it was definitely not at all a chore to read. I easily got over my annoyed moments and followed it through to the end; I will be keeping it around for possible future personal perusal, and because my mother enjoys reading it now and again.

But am I at least more in the Christmas mood now?

Honestly, not really. I think I need to revisit some old favourites, such as the Margot Benary-Isbert stories (The Ark, Rowan Farm and A Time to Love, all set in wartime and post-war Germany) and Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge, for its sweet Christmas-time finalé. And of course Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, and Rumer Godden’s The Story of Holly and Ivy, from the children’s bookshelf of annual re-reads.

And Heavenali’s post on Christmassy books gives much scope for exploration of some titles I haven’t yet read, and reminded me of a few I’d forgotten, like Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising.

Other Christmas reading suggestions always welcome!

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I am writing from exile, as it were. My usual “happy place”, as my ever-so-clever and perhaps slightly cynical offspring often call it, is a small room which was once dedicated to the more formal of our homeschooling endeavours. Those students are all grown up now, and over the past few years the schoolroom has turned into a not-very-well-organized office area for yours truly.

It’s really quite lovely in there, with two tall windows overlooking the garden, and lots of bookshelves. The space is (was!) filled by a work table overflowing with stacks of crucial papers (mine) and art supplies (my daughter’s) and mostly empty music CD and computer game cases (my son’s), an ancient oak teacher’s desk – but not of the antique-variety ancient, sad to say, merely of the old, scarred and scuffed sort – and a file cabinet full of the oddest collection of things – an abandoned knitting project from back in 1994 (a wooly sweater for my then-newborn son, who outgrew it long before it was completed), an out-of-order telephone answering machine (even older than the sweater), a stack of my old school report cards from the early 1970s, a small tub of child-proof electric outlet covers and cupboard door latches, the official pedigrees of several horses long since departed for greener (celestial) pastures, a collection of brown paper bags…everything, in fact, except for things-to-be-filed, like receipts and bills and important papers.

The floor in the little room has needed some serious attention for some time – the old linoleum was worn through to the plywood below in the main travel area – and when a recent cold snap which put a sudden stop to outdoor projects had us looking about for a small, manageable, renovation project we zeroed in on this one.

Everything was hastily bundled out of the room and deposited willy-nilly wherever a space could be found. My computer has ended up in a little hallway nook which usually houses the telephone and directories and stacks of incoming mail and such; it’s just large enough to squeeze everything in, and here I sit in a state of some discomfort, pecking away at my keyboard in a much less congenial atmosphere than my private little room.

A (tiny!) room with a view. Note that there is NO SNOW outside the window - very unusual for this part of the world at time of year. Mentioning this should immediately bring the snowflakes drifting down...

Playing about with floor tile patterns in a (tiny!) room with a view. Note that there is NO SNOW outside the window – very unusual for this part of the world at time of year. Mentioning this should immediately bring the snowflakes drifting down…

We’ve ripped up the old floor, replaced a few iffy floor joists and all of the plywood, removed a huge corkboard which took up most of one wall, added wainscoting to another wall, and brought out the paint tins. The new floor tiles are stacked up waiting for the acquisition of a bucket of glue next time I’m in town, and if all goes well I should be back in residence in the next week or so.

The old wooden desk has been relocated and another, larger, more “professional” ex-office steel desk is taking its place; my new view will be out those previously-mentioned windows versus the wall in the corner. I’m not sure what this will do to my concentration level, but I’m thinking it will be a happy psychological development. 🙂

The bookshelves are being relocated, and the stacks of “juveniles” they now contain boxed up for temporary storage; my working library of horticulture books may replace them, or perhaps just another bunch of novels. Not quite sure yet. Books find their own way about, in my experience.

A large grow light stand for the germination of December- and January-sown perennial seeds is planned for the remaining space; the old stand was unceremoniously hauled outside during our last winter’s renovations, and as the plant nursery sabbatical period comes to an end (see Hill Farm Nursery for more on that aspect of my life) indoor early seed-sowing facilities are once again about to be required.

Oh, and the file cabinet is being emptied out, with high hopes that in its new life it will actually be used for its intended purpose – that of holding files. The “cardboard box filing system” which I have been using in the past is apparently going to change. Or so declares my perhaps-too-optimistic husband. 😉 We’ll see. About half of the stuff currently taking up space in the cabinet is his, so he’s hardly innocent of random stashing of “treasures” himself. It’ll be interesting to see what he makes of his stuff, and where it will end up! I have several empty cardboard boxes awaiting his pleasure…

Well, I did promise book notes too, didn’t I? So I think I will tuck a few in here on the end. Minor notes for minor books. These are all from the shelves in the now-ex-schoolroom. I enjoy occasionally reading from the juvenile stacks – well-written books easily cross genre and “intended-age” boundaries.

dodgem bernard ashley 001Dodgem by Bernard Ashley ~ 1981. This edition: Puffin, 1983. Paperback. ISBN: 0-1403-1477-6. 222 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

A better-than-average “problem novel” by ex-headmaster and prolific children’s and young adult fiction writer Bernard Ashley – see his biography here.

Teenage Simon is in trouble with the Child Welfare; he’s been skipping school in order to care for his father, who has been in a state of severe clinical depression since the death of Simon’s mother, a death surrounded by questions, which have torn the small family even further apart in ways which will only become too apparent part way through the novel.

Simon ends up “in care”, and, desperate to return to his father, teams up with the seemingly emotionless Rose in a well-thought-out escape plot which seems at first to be daringly successful.

Decidedly well written and totally engrossing, this short novel, from early in Bernard Ashley’s writing career, was made into an acclaimed 6-episode British television series.

Scenes set in a juvenile care home and in a travelling carnival are excellent in their detail. Despite the young protagonist’s rage against the system which one completely sympathizes with, the adults are given as much time on the page as the teenagers. There is a quite remarkable balance of points-of-view, unusual in this sort of highly-contrived juvenile novel.

This is the only book by Bernard Ashley I’ve yet read, but if the writing quality stays the same in subsequent books he might be worth investigating further for those of you with young teens, or if you are merely open to reading novels targeted at younger-than-adult readers.

*****

the ballet family jean estorilThe Ballet Family by Jean Estoril ~ 1963. This edition: Macdonald Children’s Books, 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-356-16797-6. 176 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Jean Estoril was one of the several pseudonyms of Mabel Esther Allan, a prolific writer of children’s books (Wikipedia reports 130) between 1938 and 1994. The “Jean Estoril” books were all concerned with the world of ballet, most notably a series about an orphaned aspiring dancer, one “Drina” (short for Andrina)  – Ballet for Drina, Drina’s Dancing Year, Drina Dances in Exile, and so on.

I am rather leery of juvenile series books, but in this case I may investigate further, for The Ballet Family, not about the afore-mentioned Drina but instead concerning a group of hyper-talented siblings and their orphaned cousin, is intriguingly good for its sort of thing. Better, in my opinion, than Noel Streatfeild’s ubiquitous (and perhaps over-rated? – others of her books are much, much better, in my humble opinion) Ballet Shoes, which I must confess causes me to grit my teeth here and there.

Mabel Esther Allan studied ballet in her younger years, and it shows, in a good way. The Ballet Family is quite marvellously realistic regarding the dance aspect, aside from the glorious improbability of the initial set-up.

Pelagia, Edward, Anne and Delphine Garland are all dancers and ballet mad. Their mother is a prima ballerina and their father a conductor of the ballet company orchestra.

When their cousin Joan is orphaned she comes down from Lancashire to live with Garlands in London. Confused and lonely, Joan finds it hard to fit in, especially as her cousins are rather wary of her and don’t understand how Joan could survive without knowing anything about ballet!

But Joan does survive and begins to enjoy her new life observing the ups and downs and tears and triumphs of her glamorous cousins.

Pelagia flits in and out of the story, being the eldest and very much concerned with her burgeoning career, Edward is a decent sort with sensible notions, Delphine is a spoiled brat who needs (and thankfully gets) a reality check, but the book is really mostly about middle sister Anne and her difficulties relating to her cousin, whom she finds nothing at all in common with, and whose apparently sullen attitude (she’s really deeply grieving the sudden loss of her beloved mother) precludes friendly girlish chats.

Joan finds her feet in her new life, and astounds the self-centered Garland family by displaying some talents of her own they had no inkling of. Bless the author – Joan does not turn out to be ballerina material – she doesn’t even try to go there, nor do the Garlands ever expect her too, for she is much too “old” to start, in their united opinion – her special talent is in a slightly different area.

A slight book, but very nicely done.

 She Reads Novels gives a glowing recommendation to some of Jean Estoril/Mabel Esther Allan’s books. I think I will be following up on these.

*****

green-knoweThe Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston ~ 1954. This edition: Faber & Faber, 1962. Illustrations by Peter Boston. Hardcover. 157 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

A subtle classic of children’s literature, this novel calls one back to the elusive world of imaginative childhood, when all things are possible, and some things are downright magical.

Synopsis cut and pasted in directly from the Green Knowe Wikipedia page, because whomever wrote it did a lovely job of summation of the story set-up:

The Children of Green Knowe is the first of the six books written by Boston about the fictional manor house of Green Knowe. It was a commended runner up for the 1954 Carnegie Medal.

The novel concerns the visit of a young boy, Toseland, to the magical house of Green Knowe. The house is tremendously old, dating from the Norman Conquest, and has been continually inhabited by Toseland’s ancestors, the d’Aulneaux, later Oldknowe or Oldknow, family. Toseland crosses floodwaters by night to reach the house and his great-grandmother, Linnet Oldknow, who addresses him as Tolly.

Over the course of the novel, Tolly explores the rich history of his family, which pervades the house like magic. He begins to encounter what appear to be the spirits of three of his forebears—an earlier Toseland (nicknamed Toby), Alexander, and an earlier Linnet—who lived in the reign of Charles II. These meetings are for the most part not frightening to Tolly; they continually reinforce the sense of belonging that the house embodies. In the evenings, Mrs. Oldknow entertains Tolly with stories about the house and the children who lived and live there. Surrounded by the rivers and the floodwater, sealed within its ancient walls, Green Knowe is a sanctuary of peace and stability in a world of unnerving change.

The encounters of Tolly and his ghostly companions are reminiscent of similar scenes in some of Elizabeth Goudge’s books, being serenely beneficent rather than at all frightening. Though there are a few twists…

children of green knowe l m boston peter boston 001The full-page and in-text illustrations by Lucy M. Boston’s artist son Peter are intricately detailed in pen-and-ink and scraperboard technique; make sure the copy you share with your child (or read for yourself) has these included; many of the cheaper paperback and some later hardcover editions are missing these.

Perhaps I should have kept this review for closer to Christmas, as that celebration features strongly in one of the most charming incidents in the story.

In a word: Nice.

 

 

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pomp and circumstance noel coward 001Pomp and Circumstance by Noël Coward ~ 1960. This edition: Pan, 1963. Paperback. 287 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Havoc under the sun…

Samolo – a lazy, sun-drenched island in the South Pacific where nothing ever really happens…
Until suddenly it is announced that the Queen and Prince Philip are to pay a state visit. From then on chaos reigns. And the arrival of the curvaceous Duchess of Fowey, who brings out the beast in every male, only adds confusion to confusion.

Here we have an easy candidate for the most unexpected book of 2014.

I can’t quite recall where I acquired this tattered and very well read paperback; it just sort of appeared one day at the top of a book stack, like the frothy sort of thing that it is, effortlessly rising above the (comparative) heavyweights below.

As this seems to be my year of reading mostly lightweight novels, and its year of publication was so-far blank in the Century of Books list, what could I do but succumb?

I was initially a little uneasy as to whether I could sustain my interest for the whole thing, as it started off at frenetic high speed, all very much a-laugh-a-minute, and that sort of style can get tiresome early on, especially if the writer bobbles, but Coward, old pro that he was by his point in his career, kept up the pace marvellously well, and completely won me over.

“Charming” is an overused term in describing the light novel, but in this case it is most apt. With a bit more consideration, charming isn’t complex enough, for there is a lot of snark here, too, of the most readable sort.

Maybe a page scan is in order, to give one a sample of the contents.

First, an overview.

The curtain rises over the (completely fictional) small South Sea island of Samolo, an idyllic tropical paradise populated by a happy-go-lucky native population and a large colony of British nationals who make up the bulk of the government. For Samolo was never conquered in the warfare sense of the word; the inhabitants merely welcomed the superior managerial style of the inhabitants of that other, colder isle and gladly made way for a dual society of semi-equality. The native upper classes mingle easily with the Brits; the ones a bit farther down the social scale are apparently quite thrilled to provide staffing for the expatriates in their various cottages, villas and stately homes. Everyone is very hail-fellow-well-met, with a bit of resigned-but-not-bitter bitching about the occasional laziness of the servants and their tendency to wander out of paid employment when the mood strikes them providing reliable tea table and cocktail party conversation. (Yes, this is most definitely a fantasy.)

Our narrator, one Grizelda Craigie (Grizel), is the happily married forty-something wife of banana grower Robin. Coward sustains the first-person voice of his female narrator beautifully, something I had serious qualms about when I realized that this was what he was undertaking.

Grizel moves in the upper social circles of Samolo, being on best-friends basis with the British Governor’s wife, Lady Alexandra (Sandra), so of course is the first person to be confided to when the news of the impending Royal Visit breaks.

This is just the start of the drama, for in quick succession Grizel must cope not just with the professional stresses (so to speak) of her highly placed friend, but with an incident in which her small son is mixed up in a very below-the-belt assault on a schoolmate (either triggering or in retaliation for a sharp knock on the head by the other party; the parents on both sides predictably receive conflicting stories from the superficially wounded lads), by the sudden confession of a bachelor friend that he has used her name in telegrams inviting his latest (aristocratic and very prominently married) paramour for a visit, with the intent that the lady actually spend her nights with said bachelor while pretending to occupy Grizel’s guest room, and by involvement in the island’s amateur dramatic association as it plans an elaborate aquatic pageant to be presented to the Queen and her consort, despite prognostications of squally weather soon to come.

Mix in an assortment of Samolan and expatriate characters of all walks of life – from gardener to Prime Minister to journalist to ex-secret-service-agent-turned-sugarcane-planter to aristocratic Duke, and add for good measure a brusque English nanny, numerous beloved-but-high-maintenance visitors, maddening letters from Mummy back home in England who always seems to know the latest Samolan news well before there-at-the-source Grizel, an intense lesbian who is openly smitten with our narrator, the various clashing personalities of the Dramatic Society members, and an epidemic of chicken pox striking in the most unexpected quarters.

It’s all highly silly, but increasingly enthralling. There are moments of sincerity here and there: the portrayals of both Griselda’s and Sandra’s marriages are warm and believably true-to-life, and the family scenes with the children are hugely enjoyable. Most of the sarcasm – which is in relentless but in general quite gentle – is reserved for Grizel’s outer circle of friends and acquaintances, with some deep digs being got in here and there at anti-monarchists both in Samola and back home in England; Noël Coward’s staunchly pro-monarchy patriotism is unabashedly on view.

Several homosexual couples play significant roles, with stereotypical behaviour paraded in full technicolour. I felt just a bit ashamed to find these characters and episodes so amusing, but comforted myself with the thought that the depictions were coming from a writer of that persuasion himself, for Noël Coward was well known to be gay, though always politely reticent about his private affairs.

Pomp and Circumstance was Coward’s one and only attempt at novel writing. One rather wonders what inspired this project, amidst all of the plays and musical compositions. It definitely works, and in my opinion deserves to be shelved alongside the older but similarly giddy Wodehouse tales, as more than slightly goofy, cheerfully amiably, decidedly literary entertainment.

I had a difficult time deciding where to take a page scan from, as much of the joy in this thing is in the building of the story and the connections and contexts of each succeeding episode, so perhaps a bit of Chapter One will be best. This will give a taste of what is going on here; it definitely gets better.

And keep your era-appropriate sense of humour dusted off. One can find much which might be viewed as potentially offensive and politically incorrect these five decades on. Disturbingly vast quantities of alcohol are consumed, mostly in cocktails with oddly evocative names – the “Horse’s Neck”, presumably a long sort of drink, seems exceedingly popular – though sometimes straight from the bottle. Cigarettes are prominently smoked during every emotional and romantic moment, too.  If these sorts of things bother you, best to stay clear. Everyone else, it’s a richly glorious vintage romp.

Pomp and Circumstance has been reissued numerous times since its first appearance in 1960, though it appears to be out of print at present. A quick look online shows it easy to find, and I’m guessing the larger library systems will still have copies. Enjoy!

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No uniting theme here, unless it is that of gently engaging but not wow-inducing works by quite decent writers, quickly consumed and just as quickly set aside. Nothing really wrong with any of these, but I must admit that I almost forgot I’d not-that-long-ago read them until I unearthed them from one of the book piles mushrooming on my perennially overcrowded desk.

trumpets over merriford reginald arkell 001Trumpets Over Merriford by Reginald Arkell ~ 1955. Published in the United States as The Miracle of Merriford, 1956. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1955. Hardcover. 175 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I’d heard of Reginald Arkell before, author of the gardening ode Old Herbaceous and other humorous depictions of English rural life, but this was my first time reading him.

Quick verdict: Quaint. Almost painfully so, in fact, but salvaged by the abundance of good humour and the general likeability of the characters.

It is several years post-World War II, and the tiny English village of Merriford has subsided back into its centuries-old peace. But world affairs keep moving right along, and to prove it Merriford is unexpectedly invaded by a military force from another country. An American Air Force base, strategically located within striking distance of those increasingly pesky Russians, is erected with stunning speed, wiping out farm fields and ancient common grounds with no advance warning.

No more mushroom patch, no more wildflower meadow, just acres of runway and a small city of rambunctious young airmen. Needless to say, the locals are shocked to the core, and react in their various ways. Most find some degree of acceptance, some few are deeply hostile, while others predictably haunt the base gates, hoping to catch the attention of lonely (and well-paid) young men far from home and missing feminine company.

trumpets over merriford illustration reginal arkell js goodall 001The elderly vicar of Merriford takes it all in stride – for he takes the long view, back through the centuries, and an enthusiastic American or two in the here-and-now is no cause for undue alarm – until he is informed by the American work party affixing a warning light to the church steeple that there is something of an emergency concerning the venerable church bells. Or, rather, the bell tower. The support beams are rotten – riddled with wood-worm! – and could tumble down at any time, with dire results to any unlucky congregants in the church below. The vicar orders the bells silenced and the bell tower off limits, and casts about for some way to raise the substantial funds required for repairs, a dauntingly difficult prospect in cash-strapped post-war England.

Meanwhile the vicar’s lovely young housekeeper, the war-orphaned Mary, has caught the eye of one Johnny Fedora, lately of Texas. Mary is much too busy mothering her beloved employer to dally with anyone, let alone one of the forward Americans cheekily camped on her very doorstep, but Johnny is well smitten despite his initial resistance to the charms of rural Britain. He woos the fair Mary with a certain individual style and a noteworthy persistence which eventually brings the vicar round to his side, even if Mary is primly accomplished at keeping her feelings to herself.

Of course there is a charming happy ending, all full of Anglo-American goodwill. Very nice, very sweet. Almost too nice. (But not quite.)

This reminded me quite a lot of similar efforts by Miss Read, though Reginald Arkell writes with considerably more dash, and much more obvious humour. The two also share an illustrator, which served to highlight the resemblance, and I felt that the cheerful line drawings by J.S. Goodall were a marvelous embellishment of a very light sort of village tale.

every living thing james herriot 001Every Living Thing by James Herriot ~ 1992. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1993. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-4093-8. 374 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Quick verdict: Pleasant enough, but perhaps just a titch too obviously written for the existing fan base.

Between 1970 and 1981 Yorkshire veterinarian James Alfred Wight wrote a number of fantastically successful fictionalized memoirs under the pseudonym James Herriot. Anthologized in compilation volumes, these are All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, and All Things Wise and Wonderful, and their popular success spawned movie and television productions and a thriving tourist industry in Thirsk, Yorkshire, where Wight settled and practiced.

I have read all of them with great enjoyment, and tattered copies remain on our shelves, providing pleasant re-reading for those times when quiet good humour is required. Nominally about the animals the authorial vet comes across in the course of his rounds, the books are at heart most appealing because they are all about human interactions.

Wight/Herriot was a master at capturing the moment; he is one of those writers whose words create vivid snapshots of time and place. The fact that he was fifty years old when he penned the first of his memoirs perhaps leads to their strong appeal. By this time the author had been involved in veterinary medicine for three decades, and his sometimes quite deliberate documentation of the post-war shift of small British farms with their work horses and diverse range of small herds and flocks to a machine-powered, amalgamated, single-enterprise system gives his work a certain importance far beyond the charm of the worked-over anecdotes which comprise them.

When I came across Every Living Thing, I was quite thrilled. Here was a new(ish) work by an author I already held in high regard. And in many ways, the book was well up to par with its predecessors, full of charmingly poignant stories of the animals and people the vet bumps up against.

Some way into the book, though, I started to feel vaguely uncomfortable. Though many of the vignettes are well portrayed, and the glimpses of Wight/Herriot’s family life are most intriguing – he speaks with great feeling about his young children and the joys of their company on his rounds; his son went on to become a vet and his daughter a “human” physician – the book as a whole is slightly unsatisfying. The vignettes are short, frequently unrelated, and often dependent upon one having already read the original books, bringing in references to the best known of the stories and characters of the previous bestsellers.

Preaching, perhaps, mainly to the choir.

For something fairly substantial, 374 reasonably dense pages, Every Living Thing was a very fast read, being smoothly written and engaging. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as a first experience of James Herriot to one who has not yet read him, but for those who are already fans, the book adds a little something to the other works. Herriot was 72 years old when it was published in 1992, and as he had publically announced back in 1981 that he would no longer be adding to the memoirs, it reads rather like a tacked-on addition to the earlier works, versus a seamless continuation. Not without merit, but a lesser thing, comparatively speaking.

deck with flowers elizabeth cadell 001Deck with Flowers by Elizabeth Cadell ~ 1973. This edition: Coronet, 1976. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-19863-X. 192 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Quick verdict: Pure fluff, but fun.

I vaguely recall Elizabeth Cadell being ranked with D.E. Stevenson among writers of vintage “women’s fiction” – a designation perhaps even more damning than my beloved mid-20th Century “middlebrow” fiction – but I had not paid too much attention, being at the time still a rank neophyte in the Dessie world, as it were, and not quite convinced of its merits.

Of course, that was then, and this is now, and these days every time I am in a second hand bookstore with even the slightest pretension to an organizational system I do an automatic scan of the appropriate shelves for serendipitous D.E.S. titles. (I’ve found her most frequently in Romance, in Vintage, in Pulp, downright expensively in Collectible, rather surprisingly in Classics, and once in the rather all-embracing Brit Lit.) During one of these generally fruitless scans, this slender paperback caught my eye, with its typically romantic cover and slightly familiar author’s name.

“Oho! What have we here?!” was my immediate response, and a quick scan of the back cover blurb confirmed me in my suspicion that I had stumbled across a classic example of this gentle genre.

Madame Landini’s memoirs promised to be sensational. Rodney, who was publishing them, and Oliver, his literary business agent friend, congratulated themselves on a brilliant coup. But having covered her childhood as a Russian princess, her exile in Paris, and the discovery of her phenomenal voice, the prima donna reached her first husband’s death – ‘man overboard’ – and declared she would write no more.

Rodney suspected that there was more to her change of heart than a display of temperament. He hoped that perhaps Nicola Baird, Madame Landini’s dismissed secretary, could help solve the mystery. But Nicola was beautiful as well as elusive and Rodney found himself becoming romantically entangled with her…

Kirkus is mildly dismissive, and I won’t argue with this 1973 review as it pretty well sums this thing up:

Another soft-centered entertainment of light mystery and lighter romance in London, where Mme. Landini, a once formidable diva, whose autobiography editor Rodney is publishing, literally screeched to a halt in mid-memoir. Some fairly casual sleuthing reveals that Mme. Landini had been spooked by the watch of Nicola, her pretty secretary. And did that have something to do with the disappearance, years ago, of the singer’s husband, who was last seen on shipboard with an armload of flowers? By the time this tangle is gently untangled, Rodney and Nicola have discovered pleasant things about one another and Rodney’s charmingly scatterbrained sister hooks her man. For the lounge library.

Pure chocolate box reading, this was, and quite guiltily delicious as a treat among more wholesome fare.

I thought it not quite up to D.E. Stevenson standard in plotting, at least not that of her best attempts. Though perhaps Cadell is a mite more technically proficient? Deck with Flowers was smooth as smooth, with some grand characters – loved the elderly head of Rodney’s publishing house in particular – but I’ll have to read more examples to be able to pass a fair judgement in this area.

Elizabeth Cadell is an author whom I am as of now adding to my standard look-for list, albeit one of those whose covers I will automatically conceal when reading out in public. 😉

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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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Prefacing this sure-to-be-rambling post with this information, for those of you who wonder what I’m actually talking about way down below. As different as can be in time periods and settings, but all at heart clinging to a similar traditional structure, that of the Gothic Romance Novel. The three books under discussion will be:

  • Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer
  • Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent
  • Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

All of these are velvety dark, thrillingly romantic (for the most part), highly predictable (ditto), and guiltily enjoyable tales.

Perhaps this won’t be the most sober-minded book discussion, which would indeed be fitting, for these books are not High Literature in any sense of the term, and are therefore free game for a little bit of mild mockery, all in good fun, because I did read them willingly and with general pleasure, though occasionally that pleasure was all about their fulfillment of stereotypical Gothic Romance Scenarios.

I have had recourse to our ever-handy Wikipedia to quickly define the main elements of a proper traditional gothic novel, and by applying the criteria to the books in question we can get a nice overview of how well the authors fulfilled the requirements of this assigned genre.

So, cribbing from the article and adding some of my own descriptive notes to those provided, we generally must have:

  • Virginal Maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past, and later discovered that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family.
  • Older, Foolish Woman – who often has charge of or advises the Virginal Maiden, or acts as an Awful Warning due to past errors of judgement, which Virginal Maiden may or may not take into consideration
  • Hero – who may or may not be misrepresented as The Villain for the earlier stages of the plot
  • Tyrant/villain – who may or may not be disguising his (her) True Evil Nature for the earlier stages of the plot. Usually male, occasionally female.
  • The Stupid Servant – acts as comic relief by asking seemingly stupid questions, transitions between scenes, brings news, messenger, moves plot forward. Sometimes takes on form of Humble Social Inferior or Female Friend of Virginal Maiden, well-meaning but ignorant of darker designs of Villain.
  • Ruffians – always under the secret (or not so secret, depending on if he is the Disguised or the Obvious species) control of the Villain
  • Clergy – always weak, usually evil (says Wikipedia, but in more modern gothics I have noticed that the Clergy figure is often absent, being replaced by a Doctor or Lawyer or other Figure of Social Authority, acting under the influence of the Villain)
  • The Setting – The setting of the Gothic Novel is a character in itself. The plot is usually set in a castle, an abbey, a monastery, or some other, usually religious edifice, and it is acknowledged that this building has secrets of its own.
  • And, if I may add to this list, The Secret. There is generally some Great Big Secret which the heroine – er, Virginal Maiden – either sets out to investigate or unwittingly stumbles upon. Sometimes (frequently) The Secret is, of course, that of her own mysterious past.
  • Also added by me: The Forced Marriage. Another common element I’ve noticed in my own perusal of gothics. So many times the heroine faces matrimonial peril, either by being forced to marry the Disguised Hero (who she then realizes she loves in Chapter Ten), or by a Weak Male Character under the control of the Villain, or by the Villain himself.

So, let’s see how these measure up. I’m going to present these in order from my least to most favourite.

Warning: There may well be some significant spoilers here and there, but as the plot twists are all highly predictable by anyone with the least bit of experience with the genre, I doubt if having these confirmed ahead of time will lessen one’s reading pleasure. 😉

Cousin Kate georgette heyer 1968Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer ~ 1968. This edition: The Bodley Head, 1968. Hardcover. 318 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

Front flyleaf blurb, Bodley Head edition:

Finding that her youthful appearance and the lack of accomplishments caused by a childhood spent following the drum prevent her from securing a position as governess, Kate Malvern, recently orphaned, gratefully accepts an invitation from her unknown aunt Minerva to make her home at Staplewood, the seat of Sir Timothy Broome, Minerva’s elderly and invalid husband.

On arrival at Staplewood, Kate finds herself in beautiful and luxurious surroundings, and is treated by her aunt with a kindness which is regarded by those best acquainted with Minerva with considerable surprise. At first grateful, Kate gradually becomes uneasy, and with the arrival on the scene of Sir Timothy’s nephew, Mr. Phillip Broome, the plot rapidly thickens. Minerva’s motive for bringing Kate to Staplewood is revealed, and her machinations are brought to a dramatic conclusion.

Okay, let’s see how Cousin Kate does on the Elements of Gothic Fiction scale.

  • Virginal Maiden – check! No secrets as to origin, as Kate is legitimately accepted as a family connection. She is an orphan, reasonably young (24), beautiful (“a flower-like countenance”), appears younger than her age, is sexually pure but well aware of the “facts of life” from her experience as a soldier’s daughter, and is definitely kind and sensitive, though she also fearless and well able to stand up for herself in socially awkward situations.  A most promising heroine.
  • Hero – check! Our Hero turns out to be one of the disguised ones, who operates under a cloud of misunderstanding engineered by the Villain, or, in this case, the Villainess.
  • Villainess – check! No mystery here, though it takes a while to reveal her true nature. It is, of course, suspiciously friendly Aunt Minerva.
  • Humble Social Inferior – Moving the plot along is Kate’s old nurse, Mrs Nidd, who bring’s Kate’s need of succour (she’s just been fired from her first job and has little prospect of finding another due to lack of training or experience) to Aunt Minerva, setting things in motion. Mrs Nidd reappears later in the story to aid Kate in unravelling The Secret.
  • Doctor – weak rather than deliberately evil, and under the complete influence of the Villainess, the Doctor plays here merely a supporting role
  • The Setting – It is 1817, mid-Regency. Most of the action occurs at a stately country home, Staplewood, with Aunt Minerva established at the centre of things controlling all of the domestic strings, and separate wings housing the frail Sir Timothy and the family son and heir, beautiful, erratically-mannered Torquil, who is under the fulltime care of the Doctor, for reasons no one is prepared to elaborate on. Mysteriously locked doors, male screams in the night, random shots being fired, a suicide-worthy lake, a lonely country setting leading to easy isolation of characters not wanted to be out in public circulation by the Villainess.
  • The Secret –  Insanity! Torquil’s. Kate has been tagged by the Villainess to be a suitable wife for her mentally unstable son. She (Kate) is to produce a son and heir to the Broome family fortune, after which Torquil will be put into ever-deeper seclusion as his insanity worsens (the Doctor is quite sure it will), and Kate will be allowed to discreetly seek consolation elsewhere.
  • The Forced Marriage – see The Secret.
  • Great Big Climax – Revelation of Secret! Murder! Suicide! Horror-stricken Virginal Maiden flees to arms of Hero! And once all of the details of The Secret are revealed, a blissful future is embarked upon via Glorious Holy Matrimony between the two who have suffered so many setbacks to the progress of their romance through initial misunderstanding and deliberate machinations of the Villainess, who has now had her ultimate comeuppance.

My verdict: While Cousin Kate had its appeal, and was quite nicely written and full of Heyer’s dependably engaging Regency slang. Kate is a likeable enough heroine, but the whole thing dragged on just too long for my interest to be sustained completely; the plot was desperately predictable, and the whole thing became rather depressing, what with its dependence on a mysterious insanity and the ditherings of all those concerned regarding the proper treatment of the sufferer.

The ending is rather brutal, as Heyer fatally disposes of two of her characters under horrific circumstances. The imagination of this reader was boggled regarding the possibility of a happy future for the heroine and hero with that sort of emotional baggage to deal with.

I rated Cousin Kate at 6 because of Heyer’s competent handling of her setting and the quality of her writing. Some serious themes (position of women/class distinctions/treatment of the mentally ill) were touched upon but never thoroughly examined – not really to be expected in this sort of light novel. But for a light novel it had some desperately dark strands.

Hard to classify, really. I know I said “boring” in the header, and that seems to be my ultimate feeling. Rather flat. Heyer could do much better.

tregaron's daughter madeleine brent 1971 001Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent ~ 1971. This edition: Doubleday, 1971. Hardcover. 251 pages.

My rating: 7/10. I bumped it down just a bit because of the inclusion of Young Man with Symptoms of Insanity, a plot strand which I found exceedingly annoying for some reason. (Perhaps because a similar character plays a major role in Heyer’s Cousin Kate?)

Flyleaf says:

Excitement, drama and suspense were only part of Cadi Tregaron’s new life. It had been a sunny afternoon when she glanced from the cliff where she sat reading and saw below her in the sea a sight that would change her life.

Set in England and Italy in 1910, this is the story of a young English girl who by accident starts to unravel the unknown elements in her grandmother’s past and is brought by the mystery to the faraway city of Venice. There, among the gondolas and canals, she slowly comes to comprehend the meaning of two strange and puzzling dreams – dreams that seem to hold the an eerie and menacing prophecy of the future.

Elements of Gothic Fiction included:

  • Virginal Maiden – check! Our heroine, Caterina (Cadi), daughter of a half-Italian mother and sturdy Cornish fisherman father, is young (late teens), beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. And (spoiler alert!) she does turn out to be the descendent of the Italian nobility. No doubt because of this innate blue blood, our heroine has just naturally developed far beyond the expectations of her humble place in the world. Her language is surprisingly upper class (due to the convenient society of a cultured retired governess in the neighbourhood, who has taken the bright young Cadi under her tutorial wing), and she is fluent in Italian (learned from her grandmother), which comes in handy later. And she starts the story off as a half orphan, mother dead some years (fell off a cliff with grandmother in a tragic accident – sob!) and loses her father as well soon after we enter the story, which precipitates the now-fully-orphaned Cadi into the next stage of her saga.
  • Hero – check! This one is the conflicted type, and is disguised (occasionally deliberately) as a villain. Classically gothic  introduction of hero and heroine involving heroine being pulled up onto horse and forced to cling closely to rock-hard-muscled hero as they gallop to rescue of hero’s uncle who is caught in a dangerous current in his borrowed sailboat. (This is the life-changing thing which Cadi saw from the cliff.) Bonus first-meeting episode: as Cadi, her father, and the hero row out to the rescue, the bodice of Cadi’s dress rips, leaving her lily-white skin exposed in a rather delicate area, and causing the hero to take a deep breath and force his gaze away, manfully resisting the surge of testosterone this incident inspires. Predictably, hero’s taciturn silence is misunderstood by heroine – “He thinks I am below his notice!” Oh, no, darling, that ain’t it.
  • Villain – check!  Disguised variety. Cadi’s Italian relation, Count Chiavelli, who is surprisingly warm and welcoming to the little English chit who is apparently going to bump him from both his title and his fortune – unless, of course, she can be enticed into a marriage with the Count’s weak-natured son – shows another side to his nature as this plan fails to advance.
  • Hero’s Sidekick – not at all stupid, though a slight social inferior, the Sidekick keeps things moving by his unexplained presence at key points of the saga. He is eventually assisted in his efforts by Female Friend of Virginal Maiden, as they join forces to assist Hero in rescue of Virginal Maiden from the Villain’s foul clutches.
  • Ruffians – check! The Villain has a full complement of brutish henchmen, but as bad guys in gothic novels are always slightly slower (and much more stupid) than good guys, these particular ruffians are continually foiled by the Hero, Sidekick and Maiden.
  • Lawyers – These People of Social Authority – we have an English and an Italian version – are in general full of good intentions and quite helpful to Heroine, though they are completely hoodwinked by the Villain. I would like to put forward that a too-trusting lawyer = weakness, so this element is included, albeit in a very minor role.
  • The Forced Marriage – The Virgin is pressured to marry the Villain’s weak-willed son, in order for the Villain to get his hands on the fortune the Virgin is coming in for, and also to keep the title in the family.
  • The Setting – Gorgeous settings, full points for those. We start out in a humble cottage in a little Cornish fishing village – towering sea cliffs above it, treacherous currents swirling offshore – progress to turn-of-the-century London as the heroine is adopted by the beneficent and wealthy family whose patriarch she helped save back in chapter one, and end up in Italy in a gloomy Venetian palazzo, with a final nighttime chase scene by boat through mist-shrouded canals.
  • The Secret – Hmmm, aside from the confusion around the true nature of the Hero-disguised-as-Villain, the only other secret of major import was that Granny was almost murdered by the Villain’s sister, and that honestly came as no surprise, being telegraphed strongly right from chapter one. Young Man with Symptoms of Insanity was also something of an obvious twist, and quite wonderfully similar to the same figure as depicted in Cousin Kate. (Do we need to add him to our list of shared elements?)

My verdict: A better-than-average modern gothic, and an excellent first-novel-in-the-genre by – drumroll! – a male author writing under a female pseudonym.

For “Madeleine Brent” was actually Peter O’Donnell, British mystery novel and comic strip writer, and creator of the pop culture character Modesty Blaise.

O’Donnell’s publisher, Ernest Hecht of Souvenir Press, pleased by the success of O’Donnell’s thrillers, asked his author to try his hand at writing gothics under a female pseudonym. The Madeline Brent novels were a decided success, and Peter O’Donnell eventually wrote nine. All are set in the Victorian or immediately post-Victorian era, and feature young women in exotic locations seeking the truth about their identity. O’Donnell’s authorship was kept secret until after the publication of the last one, Golden Urchin (featuring a Caucasian girl raised in isolation from mainstream society among Australian Aborigines), in 1986.

An interesting side-note, this revelation of the gender of the author, and one which sheds some light on the structure of the Tregaron’s Daughter. Do I dedict a technically-minded male slant in – just one example – the inclusion of the details about construction of gondolas which allow them to be operated from one side by a single person?

Great details in the setting throughout, and the action was well maintained. The plot was (predictably) groaningly predictable, but my interest was held despite the lack of surprises. Good job, Mr. O’Donnell!

nine coaches waiting by mary stewart 1958 001Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart ~ 1958. This edition: Coronet, 1973. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-01439-3. 317 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Now this is how you write a gothic! Mary Stewart, after her previous year’s rather dire first attempt, 1957’s Thunder on the Right, pulls up her authorial socks and takes another run at the genre, this time succeeding brilliantly.

Chicago Review Press blurb:

A governess in a French château encounters an apparent plot against her young charge’s life in this unforgettably haunting and beautifully written suspense novel. When lovely Linda Martin first arrives at Château Valmy as an English governess to the nine-year-old Count Philippe de Valmy, the opulence and history surrounding her seems like a wondrous, ecstatic dream. But a palpable terror is crouching in the shadows. Philippe’s uncle, Leon de Valmy, is the epitome of charm, yet dynamic and arrogant—his paralysis little hindrance as he moves noiselessly in his wheelchair from room to room. Only his son Raoul, a handsome, sardonic man who drives himself and his car with equally reckless abandon, seems able to stand up to him. To Linda, Raoul is an enigma—though irresistibly attracted to him, she senses some dark twist in his nature. When an accident deep in the woods nearly kills Linda’s innocent charge, she begins to wonder if someone has deadly plans for the young count.

Applying the Gothic Fiction checklist yields some promising results:

  • Virginal Maiden – Check! Our heroine Linda is indeed young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. And orphaned, too, which should really be one of the traits listed alongside young, beautiful, etc. etc. etc. No mysterious past, unless one counts Linda’s own concealment of her French heritage in order to pass for a strictly-English governess as required by her new employer.
  • Older Woman – Check! Elegant Madame de Valmy, who acts as an extra set of eyes and legs for her wheelchair-bound spouse, brings Linda into the household and complicates the plot by her alternating moments of warm we’re-all-women-here-together friendliness and cold putting-the-help-in-her-place slap-downs to our heroine.
  • Hero – Check! We actually have a choice of two Heroes, either or both possibly of the disguised variety, and in the interests of not spoiling the ending for those of you who haven’t read this, I will not say any more. Just that both are perfectly perfect for their chosen roles, and I was up in the air guessing as to which one was going to be the ultimate winner of the lovely Linda’s heart.
  • Villain – Check! The debauched old nobleman now confined to his wheelchair, of course. And he is masterful at disguising his True Evil Nature, though our heroine catches a disturbing gleam in his eye when he looks at his hapless nephew, the young Heir to the Family Fortune who has tied up the riches which the Villain would like to further his own ambitions.
  • The Servants – Linda finds herself associating with several useful servant-figures who fill her in on all the gossip and aid in her attempts to discover why her young charge, The Endangered Heir, is having so many close brushes with death. We have a chatty English housekeeper, who came to France some decades ago, and a sprightly local maid who has rather tragically (but usefully, as he drops some hints which can then be related to the heroine) fallen in love with the Wicked Henchman.
  • Wicked Henchman – One is indeed in residence, and he is secretly under the control of the Villain.
  • The Setting –  Time: The early 1950s. Place: A vast French château, isolated from all neighbours and tucked away in its own private forest among the craggy hills of the High Savoy in France. A steep, narrow, twisting road leads to the château, ideal for those sorts of engineered “accidents” where one’s automobile brakes unexpectedly fail, or where a pedestrian can be “inadvertently” run down on a one-lane bridge over a rushing torrent.
  • The Secret – How far will someone go out of personal and family pride, and for love for a piece of land?

This is one of the very best of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels. Decidedly well written, with abundant clever humour, and an ongoing literary thread as revealed in the title, for the Nine Coaches Waiting reference comes from a rather obscure Renaissance play by Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger’s Tragedy, in which a poor but pure and beautiful young woman is tempted with the luxuries of palace life to yield up her virtue.

The parallels between the Tourneur scenario and the Mary Stewart gothic are not particularly apt, but as a poet’s daughter herself (did I mention that bit? – I don’t think I did) our heroine in the novel is of course a highly imaginative (and literate) type, and the snippets of the play included by Mary Stewart are most intriguing and set the mood of rushed passion and moral unease very well indeed.

Oh, think upon the pleasure of the palace!
Secured ease and state! The stirring meats
Ready to move out of the dishes, that e’en now
Quicken when they are eaten…
Banquets abroad by torchlight! music! sports!
Nine coaches waiting – hurry – hurry – hurry –
Ay, to the devil…

My verdict: Hands down, Nine Coaches Waiting was the best of these three novels, but they all had their moments, and are all nice diversions for those times when one doesn’t want to think too hard, and wishes to recapture those long-ago (for many of us – I know a number of my regular readers are my generational compatriots) days of teenage summer reading, wrapped up in these darkly sensuous – but really quite chaste, kisses being as far as our heroines go – gloriously suspenseful, absolutely predictable romances.

(Ha! Grammar police, sort out that last paragraph. I dare you! It boggles me, rather, but I will let it stand, as a challenge to those of you who would perhaps like to dissect it and see of it actually works.) 😉

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