29 June 2013

1939: The Last Season by Anne De Courcy

The Debutante Ball and Court Presentation.  At its most basic principle, the idea of dressing young ladies in virginal white and announcing they are officially on the market makes me wince a bit.  That is simply how things were done in certain circles in certain countries and I suppose most girls found the whole event something to look forward to.  The sumptuous yards of gorgeous silks, the snowy pearls, those above-the-elbow-gloves, well the portraits are simply stunning.  Refreshingly though, not every young lady swirled around the ballroom seeking a future husband.  Sometimes they sought an opportunity to escape the glare of their chaperone and exit through a garden door with friends.  The more brazen young ladies would make off with their boyfriend into a waiting cab to dance the night away at another party.  Those girls would not receive an invitation to the next ball as both your character and reputation had to be impeccable.

While many families in 1939 were digging holes in their back garden for the Anderson shelter the very wealthy were strolling Bond Street for seamstresses to create a masterpiece.  What did it all cost you may wonder?...

'...feathers 30s, gloves 21s, shoes 30s, evening bag 10s 6d, train (she bought her own material and had it made up) £5, dress 15gns, car with footman from 7:00 p.m. until midnight 3 gns, tips 1gn, flowers 25s, hair styled for feathers 7s 6d...'

It was class all the way for the debutante's special night but there were times when women needed their silk stockings repaired.  Due to the ridiculously high cost of these items there were specialists who would set up booths in shops or street corners to manually pick up the dropped stitches should you have a ladder.  I can not begin to fathom anything so tedious not to mention headache-inducing but needs must.

Anne De Courcy covers a range of topics associated with life during 1930s Britain such as Royal Ascot, Rituals, Entertaining, Oxford and Cambridge, and Servants etc. but the reading felt a bit dry at times.  I love a good non-fiction read and the topics should have had me reading late into the night but they just didn't.  Certain chapters were interesting such as Health and Panaceas but learning about polio wasn't something I bargained for with this title.  I was looking forward to learning about the hopes of a few young ladies from aristocratic backgrounds, their big night and then what happened once the bombs began to fall.  Just when mention was made of young women who could barely boil an egg struggling to cope with a black-out the chapter ended and it was on to the King and Queen's transatlantic visit *sigh*.

If you have 1939: The Last Season sitting on your shelf you are going to enjoy it and will certainly learn something.  I just wish it had a bit more heart.

Kathleen, Rose and Rosemary Kennedy attend first March Court

18 June 2013

I'm Not Complaining by Ruth Adam

Oh the excitement of pulling a book from your shelf with no expectation at all and it ends up being a page-turner!  I wasn't familiar with the author and the synopsis looked a bit grim so it must have simply been a case of spying two of my favourite subjects in the description - 'spinsters' and '1930s' - that had me bringing it home.

After reading this excellent work, I now realize Ruth Adam is the author of A Woman's Place: 1910 - 1975 reprinted by Persephone Books.  In I'm Not Complaining Adam was writing about she knew in this, her first novel.  Born in 1907, Ruth Adam, as in the story, eventually became an elementary teacher in some of the more depressed areas of Nottinghamshire.  She married in her mid-twenties and had four children but remained committed through various means to encouraging young women to achieve the skills necessary to strive towards a career.

I'm Not Complaining is set in Lower Bronton, Nottinghamshire during the 1930s.  The school and its surrounding area are inhabited by underprivileged families with most living in squalour.  The teachers may work at the school but they choose to live in homes with more desirable addresses outside the area.  Madge Brigson is thirty years-old and shares a house with two other women.  At the end of a long day dinner usually consists of a boiled egg or beans heated on a gas-ring.  In morals and principle she is the antithesis of her colleague, Jenny, who wears bright lipstick and tight dresses but the two women get on quite well.

A snide remark made one day by Mrs Hunt, the matriarch of one of the more down-at-heel families, about Jenny causes Madge and fellow teacher, Miss Thornby, some upset.  Apparently Jenny was seen having a quiet word with the chemist who then produced a small brown packet which will 'return your body to its natural state' as they say.  In plain English it will induce an abortion.  Jenny is most definitely pregnant and her lover is married to someone else.  A rather bohemian couple, his wife knows all about the situation and even offers to host Jenny while she recuperates from her termination.  For a book published in 1938 I thought the situation was delivered in a brilliantly forthright manner and any number of young girls were probably told to steer clear of this book by their mothers.  We all know this is as beguiling as a red flag to a bull.

Ruth Adam tells it like it is for women who strive to educate themselves and have rewarding careers during a time when reproducing for their country is apparently their greatest accomplishment.  That to be a bachelor is exciting and carefree while spinsterhood for women translates to being goods nobody else wants.  This way of thinking was not acceptable to Ruth Adam and I found myself cheering for Madge throughout the book.  Her desperate attempts to make the older girls submit to some form of work during class before running off with their boyfriends usually end in frustration but Madge is tenacious.  When she becomes aware that five year-old Moira is terrified of the janitor a sinking feeling comes over Madge and she turns into a detective in order to discover the reason.  Despite the many incidents, jibes, and regulations threatening her path Madge's belief in a better way of life for the poor or 'weaker sex' remains constant.  And fear not...Madge is hardly devoid of male companionship so it's not all hot water bottles and whimpering for her!

I'm Not Complaining is an absolutely brilliant piece of fiction intertwined with the history of women's fight to have equal footing in a man's world just before World War II.  It's poignant, thrilling, educational, and heartstoppingly gripping at times.  Also, for anyone in the teaching profession it will hold an extra appeal.  If you have this book on your shelf then pull it down today and if you don't own it then buy a copy and soon!

Jules Pascin (1885 - 1930)
Artist's Wife Hermine David in a Blue Hat

12 June 2013

Over At Emily's...

My favourite circle of bloggers has grown by one recently with the discovery of EmilyBooks.  I found her blog while searching for reviews on novels by Elizabeth Bowen.  Emily has in her possession one of the most 'swoon-worthy' editions you could ever imagine.  It's a copy of Bowen's Court signed by the author herself as a gift to E. M. Forster!  Can you imagine opening the first page or two and casting your eyes on that?

Emily has kindly invited me to appear on her interesting, not to mention very well-written, blog as a guest.  I have offered up a snippet about a few of my favourite second-hand bookshops and a glimpse at some of the books I was excited to find while browsing in them.  Don't bother knocking - just let yourself in and if you simply want a peek at THE book and how Emily came to find it click here.....

6 June 2013

Barbara Pym and a Bit of Name Dropping...

My plans to read Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym were scuppered by the arrival of a package from Book Snob.  Inside was an irresistible copy of Dorothy Whipple's Every Good Deed featuring wicked 1950s dramatic cover art, you know the sort - bad girl with a devilish sideways glance and a car wreck.  It was such a fun read but today is not about Whipple! 

I found a collection of Pym's letters and diary entries in a bin of used books while in Stratford, Ontario, a few years ago.  The owner of the small bookshop there was pleased it was going to an appreciative reader.  He said his mother described Pym's work like a 'warm, brown sweater'.  I can only suppose that she found them to be 'cosy'.  Some of my favourite snippets are the ones with mention of other authors I admire, to my delight Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen seem to pop up a fair bit.

From A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Letter and Diaries...

5 June 1946

'My dear Henry,

I have so much news that I had better just fling it at you in Compton-Burnett style.  Hilary and her husband have separated and my father has married again and given us a very nice stepmother of suitable age and a dear brother and sister, whom I have not met.'

To Philip Larkin...May 27, 1969

'Dear Philip,

I did go to the Roy. Soc. Lit. (how do Librarians abbreviate it, when they have to?) and was most interested to set foot in there and here Elizabeth Bowen give a very good and interesting talk, and see L. P. Hartley very much occupying the chair against a background of dusty dark blue velvet curtains.  And who were all those ladies in beautiful hats, not all Fellowes.  I'm sure, though many of them looked as if they ought to have been.  I was put in the second row (having arrived only just before it was due to start) so had little opportunity to look around me, but I was sitting just in front of Elizabeth Taylor, who I know, who had come with her husband.  Eliz. Bowen said that people never recognize themselves in novels (even if they have been 'put in') but I think one sometimes makes up a character and then he or she appears in the flesh, like a man now working in our Library, who is so like 'Mervyn' in my unpublished one, and even speak of 'Mother'.'

11 August, 1969

'Visit to Jane Austen's house with Bob.  I put my hand down on Jane's desk and bring it up covered with dust.  Oh that some of her genius might rub off on me!

5 May, 1977

'Dear Philip

...I've been reading the diaries of Evelyn Waugh - what a lot he drank, though he often felt ill after it or was even sick.  The book is too big to read in bed which is a pity;  As for fiction (usually of a size to read in bed) I haven't found anything very good lately.  Seeing all the reviews of these sexy American female novelists it makes me wonder if anyone will review mine!'

23 November, 1977

'Booker Prize.  James and Alan drove me to Claridge's.  Very spacious inside, white and gold and a roaring coal fire in a sort of hall.  In the ballroom a group had already assembled.  I had a gin and tonic and was introduced to Lettice Cooper, Penelope Lively and her husband....'

4 June 2013