9 August 2015

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough


First published in 1942, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is one of the most delightful accounts of a trip overseas you will ever read.  It's also a sigh-inducing peek at the cost of travel in the 1920s.  Add in the slide show of charming pen and ink drawings sprinkled throughout the pages and you have a trilogy of reasons to run out and find a copy.

'We had been planning the trip for over a year.  Pinching, scraping and going without sodas, we had salvaged from our allowances and the small-time jobs we each had found the preceding vacation the sum of $80.00, which was the cost of a minimum passage on a Canadian Pacific liner of the cabin class.'

Judging by the description of the girls' luggage there doesn't seem to have been a great deal of importance placed on weight allowances.  Cornelia and Emily would have been perfectly turned out for every season with their coats, woolies, dresses, shawls, and of course...the obligatory selection of hats which require boxes.  Though the girls are horrified by the handmade pouches they're forced to wear by their mothers.  Worn under their dresses, these pouches contained vast amounts of cash, a passport, and the very important 'letter of credit'.



Cornelia and Kimberly may have been recent graduates of Bryn Mawr but they were also wide-eyed innocents.  Crème de menthe was something you drank a spoonful of after your castor oil and men of thirty were middle-aged.  There is also a whiff of snobbery here and there.  When the girls finally arrive in London they're less than appreciative of their room in Bloomsbury - a freebie, I might add, from a former Bryn Mawr student studying at the University of London.  The landlady is referred to as a 'slavey' and at times when sleep is more important than breakfast they ignore Mrs Higgins efforts, grab the blankets and roll over.  Their austere surroundings will be remembered more fondly later on.

Arriving in Paris, there is a hilarious incident (for me, not Cornelia) when an infestation of bedbugs results in a near faint for a pharmacist.

'Miss Orr,'she said. 'we are in terrible trouble.'
'Why, you poor children.'  She was still indulgent and kind.  'What's the matter?'
  'Well,' - Emily wanted to be explicit, without saying the word - 'it's really Cornelia.  She's the one in trouble physically, but I'm in it, too, of course, because we're together.'
  'What do you mean?'  Miss Orr asked sharply.  'Cornelia's in trouble physically?'
  'Well, she was - attacked last night.'
  Miss Orr grabbed Emily's arm.  'Where?' she asked hoarsely.
  'In bed.  We just moved in to the pension yesterday and we didn't know about it.'  She meant the bed.
  Miss Orr groaned.  'Oh, these French!'  She had turned very white.

It wasn't all lambs to the slaughter as Cornelia's parents were enjoying a parallel voyage and European tour.  This was the perfect opportunity for the young ladies to pursue exploits to their hearts' content secure in the knowledge that a family member was a mere phone call away.

I spent several afternoons on the patio with this thoroughly charming book and laughed out loud more than a few times.  It's being passed on to a twenty-year old who works with me at the library.  Megan dreams of visiting London and Paris but her parents refuse to spend their holiday rushing about so they choose lounge chairs in sunny climates.  I think Megan is going to love this book, perhaps she'll be inspired to plan her own adventure with a friend.

Thank you, Simon, for blogging about Our Hearts Were Young and Gay and sharing your discovery of Cornelia's entertaining books.  I was thrilled to find this book stocked at the library and will be keeping my out for more at second-hand shops.

15 comments:

  1. I remember my mom telling me about this book when I was a child, but I've never read it! It seems to be having such a lovely resurgence. Definitely will now. (PS I do feel extraordinarily fortunate in our library!)

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    1. You have an excellent memory, Audrey. And we do such an excellent job of ensuring that good books - despite their age - never go out of fashion, don't we!

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  2. I read and loved this book any years ago, so it's lovely to see it having it's moment in the spotlight.

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    1. Thank goodness! I'm so envious of people who had parents that filled the house with books and discussed them around the dinner table. Stories such as this one are shiny new discoveries to me...there's such a lot of catching up to do.

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  3. I love this book. I read it for the first time the summer before I started university and remember being so jealous of their adventures. Happy to say ten years later I have many adventures under my own belt now - and none, thankfully, involving bed bugs!

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    1. I barely knew I'd been born at nineteen but the nice thing about that has been having it all to look forward to. At your age, Claire, I was trying to figure out the train to Toronto!
      An encounter with bed bugs would have me searching for something like a huge ziploc bag to sleep in...ick, ick, ick.

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  4. Simon made it sound wonderful, didn't he - I'm sure he's responsible for a lot of book buying! This one is not so easy to find in the UK, but I'm awaiting arrival of cheap edition in 'poor' condition which is described as 'a reading copy' which made me laugh. What else would you do with a book?

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    1. "Reading copy" is a merely a euphemism commonly used by book dealers for "poor condition." It implies that the copy is not of any value to rare book collectors, for whom condition is all-important, but is of value only for reading.

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    2. Thanks, Leticia! You've educated both Christine and me.
      Good luck with your purchase, Christine... I'm quite sure you're really going to enjoy it.

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  5. I bought a second copy of this at our last library book sale, merely because the new copy has a dustjacket and my old one didn't! I also love some of Emily Kimbrough's travel books--enjoyably humorous vicarious travel with Emily and several of her friends.

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    1. It's one of those books you can't possibly leave behind once you spot a copy! I have three copies of A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor. The original plan was to pass two of the copies on to friends but then a sort of 'Gollum' thing happens. It's so unattractive a quality.
      I'll be keeping my eye out for Emily's books, Scott!

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  6. I think my comment disappeared, so I'm writing it again! You must read Emily Kimbrough's sequel, We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood. In it, she recounts how she and Cornelia worked on the screenplay of the film based on Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. It's filled with amusing misadventures and anecdotes. Emily is a wonderful travel writer and memoirist. I've read all her books.

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    1. Oh Blogger can be such a pain sometimes! I checked the library catalogue and no luck there but I can place an inter-library request for the sequel. These two ladies made such a perfect pairing - friendships like that are a wonderful thing. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and pass on your knowledge about used books to Christine, Leticia!

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  7. Lisa at TBR313 is a big fan of this book and that's where I first read about it and have wanted to read it ever since. However, copies aren't only hard to find in the UK (as Christine mentions above) but in the States too. Well, affordable ones in good condition anyway. I might have to ILL it.

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    1. I'll be sure to keep you in mind should I ever stumble upon a copy, Anbolyn. In fact, there's a book scrounge planned for Sunday! Don't hold your breath because I'm quite sure I've never laid eyes on this in my history of scouring second-hand shops but you just never know...
      Now I must have a peek at TBR313....

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