31 March 2015

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

This story, first published in 1924, flew in the face of convention by extolling the virtues of role reversal within the marital home.  How could any decent housewife and mother abandon her post at the kitchen hob, the mangle, and clothesline for a paying job while her husband stayed home with the children?  Because it was necessary and made them happy.  Apparently, society had a problem with that.

Evangeline Knapp scrubbed, toiled, dusted, and polished her way to misery, a nasty case of eczema and a very nearly broken spirit.  Being responsible for the running of a home and three children doesn't allow much time for relaxation; there is always something that needs doing.   Evangeline is also aware that many people in the community see her as the perfect housewife with excellent taste.  Those same people have plenty to say about Mr. Knapp's shortcomings in providing for his family.

"'Well, I'd have something worse than eczema if I had three delicate children to bring up and only that broken reed of a Lester Knapp to lean on,' said Mrs. Pouty with energy."'  
The delicate children are Helen with weak lungs, Henry who throws up when he eats certain foods, and little Stephen who rants, constantly makes a mess, and is simply a rambunctious little boy.  His special misfortune is being a third-born child when his weary mother has had about all she can take of cleaning up after everyone.  And this is where the story began to bother me.

Evangeline is a martyr to housework and everyone else's expectations.  No sooner did I start to think that the moment she finds something in her life to spark an interest she might scale back on the obsessive cleaning, her husband has an accident that results in a life-changing disability.  Their dire financial situation must be faced so Evangeline presents her best-dressed self to Lester's former boss, Jerome Willing, and asks for a job on the sales floor.

'He looked at her keenly to see the effect of his announcement.  'I believe the thing for you, 'he said, 'is the Ladies' Cloak-and-Suit department.  I can put you right in as a stock-girl till you get the hang of things.  I always think stock-girl work is the finest sort of training for salesmanship.'

Evangeline not only blossoms, she explodes with enthusiasm for her work.  She nails the trends and has an inherent gift for steering customers towards clothing which will compliment them in the best way possible.  Meanwhile at home...Lester has the chance to enjoy his children.  He plays games with them and reads stories to little Stephen and in doing so, falls in love with his offspring.  He couldn't have managed any of this after work or on weekends?

The notion that the children's ailments disappear because Mum is no longer a shrew down to long hours spent performing domestic chores and Dad spends time with them is a bit unfair.  That inference places a lot of guilt on the shoulders of parents simply trying to do their best.  Also, there doesn't seem to be a lot of communicating going on between Evangeline and her husband.  Was marriage so horribly rigid in 1920 that a woman couldn't tell (or at least ask) her husband to dry while she washed?  Oh, I do realize that expressing wants and needs can be a problem but I refuse to believe that the majority of households had husbands sitting on the sofa while their wives did absolutely everything as they whimpered into their dishcloth.  Or that a man who loved and cared for his wife would sit and think 'I would like to help my wife but society wouldn't like it'.

I completely understand the point that Canfield Fisher was trying to make; why shouldn't women work while men care for children if both are happy with the situation, but the way it's written felt quite heavy-handed and obvious.  And then there is a schmaltzy ending that rang as so untrue to be ridiculous.

There are dozens of wonderful reviews to recommend The Home-Maker as a very good read and I am definitely happy to have finally read it.  While I can't say this is a favourite of mine it would make a fantastic book club read as there are more than enough issues to wade through and debate.

27 March 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1590 - 1676

Anne Clifford was born at Skipton Castle during the reign of Elizabeth I.  From the age of 60 until her death at 86, she spent her time rebuilding churches and castles in Cumbria.  Her descendant Vita Sackville-West was the editor of her remarkably rich and informative diaries.  The first of the entries below was written when Anne was 13.

July 1603
Upon the 25th of July the King and Queen were crowned at Westminster, my Father and Mother both attended in their robes, my Aunt of Bath and my Uncle Russell, which solemn sight my Mother would not let me see because the plague was hot in London, therefore I continued at Norbury, where my cousin did so feed me with breakfasts and pear pies and such things, as shortly after I fell into sickness.

June 1617
The 6th after supper we went in the coach to Goodwife Syslies and ate so much cheese there that it made me sick.


Portrait of Lady Anne Clifford by William Larkin
National Portrait Gallery

21 March 2015

The Angel in the Corner by Monica Dickens

The first few paragraphs of The Angel in the Corner are set in a cosy nursery; tea is about to be served and a coal fire glows in the fireplace. A flowered china clock strikes the half-hour.  So far, so lovely, so I paid my dollar and was happy to have a book with such cosy atmosphere on the shelf.  Well, as it turns out, this book is not that...not by a long shot.  Damn you, Monica Dickens.

Within a few pages Virginia's mother and father have gone their separate ways in post-war London and the house with the cosy nursery is long gone.  As the editor of Lady Beautiful Virginia's mother can afford both a lovely flat in a Bloomsbury mews and her fondness for Dior.  But...

'On Helen's side, their equality was tainted with rivalry.  At forty-eight, she though she was better looking than Virginia was at twenty.  As an unattached woman, she considered herself still in the running for any men who came along, even if they were nearer her daughter's age than her own.'

When a single young neighbour, who also happens to be a doctor, shows an interest in Virginia her mother insinuates herself.  When Virginia signs up for writing classes at Latimer College, Helen is crystal clear that it doesn't mean a job for her daughter at the plush surroundings of Lady Beautiful.  

While at a small gathering with friends in Chelsea, Virginia meets Joe Colonna.  From that day, as the two form a relationship, a hellish routine of abuse and placating begins.  Through it all, Virginia remains hopeful, optimistic, and full of tenacity as Joe breaks promises, belittles, drinks to excess, and bruises her.  Usually such a scenario would frustrate me no end but I found myself as invested in this story as Virginia was in her marriage.  Did she want to prove her mother wrong?  Was another broken marriage in her life out of the question?  Was Joe a replacement for the father she hadn't seen since she was twelve?  There were other avenues to take, means of escape, people she could turn to.  At one point Virginia does return to the house from her childhood...

'Virginia went slowly down the steps, and stood in the muddy garden, looking at the house.  The windows were closed and dirty, and all the curtains were gone.  She could see into the front room, which had once been her nursery, it was bare, and the fireplace was full of rubbish and sweepings.'

Far from the cosy nursery scene at the beginning of the book.  And then it gets worse.

Published in 1956 The Angel in the Corner is a no holds barred exploration of mental and physical abuse as well as ignorance, complacency, and shortfalls within some support systems.  There is a reward to be had though for wading through the discourse and I was cheered by the ending.  Definitely not a gentle read but thoroughly engrossing.

Bloomsbury Mews Cosmopolitan

20 March 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating


Fruit, like vegetables, was distributed according to supply, but was so scarce that an hour's queuing for a pound of cooking apples was thought to be worthwhile.  For many people fresh fruit became a luxurious memory.  Once again it was a matter of growing your own or making the most of what you could get.  One Hampstead woman with four small children and not enough money to make ends meet remembers:  'Our blackcurrant bush was a treasure.  We used to have a few - about five each - for lunch sometimes, and collect blackberries on the Heath for fruit pies, and with the glut of plums we could make puddings that even our billeted refugees liked.'  A Manchester housewife remembers one of the rare arrivals of oranges: 'Somehow, some oranges arrived and I carefully cut the rinds and sugared them and made strips of sweets, quite a delicacy, and later a friend with whom we had shared them, asked us to tea and produced jellies in little cups from a packet she had kept as a treat.  We made a bit of jam by going out of the city to pick blackberries and we had gooseberries in the garden, and also a few apple trees.'
  One lady remembers to her astonishment watching a monkey toying with a banana at the zoo.  She hovered, filled with moral righteousness,outraged complaints on the tip of her tongue, only to realise the animal had been given a potato wrapped in a more seductive skin.  Another family who managed to get hold of a banana, after showing it to everyone and meticulously sharing it out, could not bear to part with the skin.  They arranged it on the pavement and watched, from behind their curtains, the reactions of passers-by.

Bombers and Mash

The Queue at the Fish Shop by Evelyn Dunbar
Imperial War Museum

15 March 2015

The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

There's the joy of reading a good book and then there's the joy of anxiously anticipating the arrival of a favoured author's latest work, hot off the press.  I bought a copy of The Evening Chorus last weekend and read it over the next few nights.  Helen would be reading from her book at the City Hall branch of the Toronto Public Library on Thursday and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take part.  With a heavy heart I turned the last page and told my husband it was my favourite book of the year.  To which he replied 'it's only March'.  Mark my words.

Helen Humphreys reads from 'The Evening Chorus'

The story begins in 1940 with James Hunter being plucked from a frigid English Channel by German soldiers after the crash of his Wellington fighter plane.  Taken to a prisoner of war camp he soon figures out there are two prevalent ways of thinking.... escape or create an occupation to bide the time.  James is soon captivated by a pair of Redstarts building a nest high in the trees just outside the prison's perimeter.  Logging the birds activity in a notebook it doesn't take long before James is known as Birdman.  He also writes letters to his wife, Rose, but avoids revealing too many details to protect her from the harshness of his surroundings.

Rose is ten years younger than James, a new bride, and patrols the nearby cottages for signs of blackout violations after dark.  Each day is much like the one before, just as it is for James, but Rose has a secret.

The Evening Chorus is a story about love and loss during the war but the collapsed buildings, air raid shelters, and sirens blaring almost every night in London seem a world away from Ashdown Forest.  A bit of a misnomer since King Henry VIII cleared the area to build his navy but it's very much a haven for woodland flowers and Rose's companion, an energetic dog named Harris.

With Helen

Helen Humphreys has an incredible talent for taking the reader on an epic adventure in a paradoxically succinct style.  For that reason I don't think it would be fair to share more than I already have.  What I will say though, there are aspects of The Evening Chorus that remind me of Rose Macaulay's wartime short story Miss Anstruther's Letters.  Something precious can vanish in a heartbeat; you can go on searching for it to the point of obsession or move on.

A beautiful book, a wonderful story, and an author who is far too humble about her ability to captivate a reader.  Thank you, Helen!

13 March 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating


Making our way into the center of town, we encountered a very slight, very feeble old widow, cloaked in black, inching her way up the steep hill with the aid of a rickety cane.  We approached the little crone and offered up one of our cannoli.  'What do you mean, signorina!' she barked, slashing the air in front of her with the cane.  'Can't you see I have no teeth?'  As I turned to make a sheepish but quick getaway, the end of her cane caught my hand like the rap of a nun's ruler.  She gestured at the cannoli.  'Però, m'arrangio, signorina' (I'll manage), she said as her gnarled hands reached for the cannoli.

Sweet Sicily:  The Story of an Island and Her Pastries

8 March 2015

A Scream in Soho by John G. Brandon

Venturing into the world of British crime classics is new for me and one I am thoroughly enjoying.  Beginning with Mystery in White last Christmas, a gift for my husband that was promptly  borrowed as soon as it arrived, something tells me I'll eventually own a whole shelf of these entertaining British Library reprints.

Now I must admit that it was mention of the blackouts of World War II that made me so keen to read A Scream in Soho.  Set during the early days of the war the toppled buildings, sandbags, sirens, and rationing have yet to materialize so I was ever so slightly disappointed it wasn't quite the atmosphere I was expecting.  And then I got over it, settled in, and let the story unfold.

Inspector Patrick Aloysius McCarthy of Scotland Yard is the sort of officer who isn't beyond bending a few rules to get the job done.  His mind is continuously on the job with next to no allowances for frivolity of any kind.  Swirling around the Italian cafés and streets of Soho is an undercurrent of  surveillance between various mob groups and the law; some in suits while others walk the beat.  The Soho-Italians feature prominently with Austrians and naturalized Germans their partners in crime. After a long night Inspector McCarthy is ready to collapse into bed but hears a scream travel along the still roads.  Still in his pyjamas, McCarthy rushes out of his building to investigate...

'The two worn wells in the centre of the old stone steps were literally little pools of blood which had splashed as far as the ornamental fencing, fronting stone steps which again led down to a basement.  Turning the sergeant's torch down there, McCarthy let out a gasp, and before anyone realized what he was at had darted down the steps to pick gingerly a three-edged stiletto, the blade of which was thick with blood!'

The lack of modern day forensics was something that jumped out at me when McCarthy places the blade and a bit of handkerchief in his pocket for safekeeping.  Another moment occurs during a panic-filled phone call by McCarthy to Scotland Yard on what would have been a rotary phone before the days of 999.  There are a few other things such as some very un-politically correct terminology and references to women that date this book but none of it should come as a surprise to anyone with an interest in the era.  Or for those of us who thought heaven was a Sunday afternoon spent watching a black and white film on an outrageously small screen in a massive cabinet.  I digress.

A Scream in Soho is wonderfully entertaining and even taught me a thing or two about this area's fairly recent history.  I laughed while watching Call the Midwife last weekend when Fred mentioned 'the Italians in Soho'...references are everything!  And it will make residents of London groan to know that in the 40s a really swish flat full of windows overlooking Park Lane went for £1,500 a year.  But what is going on in that flat between the man with the icy blue eyes and the beautiful Tessa Domenico?

A terrific romp featuring a taste of noir with a colourful cast of characters.  What's not to like about that, I ask you!

6 March 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

20th Century


Three thin slices of Wonder Bread cut in heart shape.  One heart-shaped piece of green pepper about 3/4 inch across.  Arrow 1 1/4-inch long, cut from pimento.  Cream cheese.  Egg yolk mixed with mayonnaise.  Sardine or anchovy paste.

Spread bread with creamed butter.  Between first and second slices spread fish paste.  Between second and third slices spread egg-yolk mixture.  On centre top, place small decorative pepper heart with pimento arrow thrust through it.  Edge top with a frill of cream cheese.  Sprinkle with paprika.  
  NOTE:  Minced ham or chicken may be used instead of fish paste.

The Wonder Sandwich Book

2 March 2015

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

With a huge sigh of relief I am happy to report that the impromptu reading of The Moonstone with a handful of my colleagues was a terrific success!  Our private nook at The Purple Heather, a local pub, was cosy and allowed us to be as vocal as necessary without risking any steely glances from other customers trying to enjoy their night out.  Twelve people signed on to read the book - two threw in the towel early on, and one didn't want the ending ruined because she hadn't finished it, but a decent group of seven were able to make it for the discussion.  I brought my laptop and played a scene from the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation starring Greg Wise, Keeley Hawes, and a pleasant surprise for me was Lesley Sharp!

For those readers yet to discover this wonderful piece of Victorian literature (1868) it's the story of a priceless diamond, stolen from the forehead of Vishnu, a sacred statue, and the endless efforts by three Hindu priests to see it returned.  Bequeathed to Rachel Verinder on the event of her eighteenth birthday by her uncle, it is hand-delivered by a handsome Franklin Blake.  The gem is priceless to the Hindu priests but market value in the mid-1800s would be somewhere in the range of £20,000.  For perspective, that translates into something close to £2,000,000 today.  Rachel's mother, Lady Verinder, wants to hold the diamond for safekeeping but her headstrong daughter chooses to display it on the front of her dress at her birthday party.  Later that night, Rachel places the diamond in an Indian cabinet.  The following morning Penelope, Rachel's maid, reports in a state of panic that the gem has disappeared.

So begins the investigation in which Collins brilliantly presents several characters to narrate their version of the latest events.  First person narratives often prove to be unreliable so you are never quite sure if your instincts are taking you in the right direction.

I read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale when it first came out, a fascinating non-fiction book detailing the horrific murder of a child in Wiltshire, England in 1860.  This was a case that gripped the masses far and wide, in fact, Charles Dickens interviewed the lead investigator, Jack Whicher, from Scotland Yard.  The events certainly made an impression on Wilkie Collins as Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone is reportedly based on Mr. Whicher.  Another crucial piece of evidence that potentially reveals the perpetrator in both cases is a nightgown.

The Moonstone is also dotted with comedic scenes that made me laugh out loud, many of them concerning Miss Drusilla Clack and her obsession with saving people from the devil and ungodly ways...

'Here was my opportunity!  I seized it on the spot.  In other words, I instantly opened by bag, and took out the top publication.  It proved to be an early edition - only the twenty-fifth - of the entitled The Serpent at Home.  The design of the book - with which the worldly reader may not be acquainted - is to show how the Evil One lies in wait for us in all the most apparently innocent actions of our daily lives.  The chapters best adapted to female perusal are 'Satan in the Hair Brush'; 'Satan behind the Looking Glass'; 'Satan under the Tea Table; 'Satan out of the Window' - and many others.'

Equally wonderful characters are Mr Betteredge, the house steward, who relies on his pipe and a copy of Robinson Crusoe to reduce his anxious state when in the grip of 'detective-fever', Septimus Luker is the lucrative pawnbroker caught in the middle, Ezra Jennings is an opium addict described as a 'piebald' for his black and white striped hair.  He also assists Dr. Candy, an interesting moniker for one who prescribes addictive medicines such as laudanum.

Wilkie Collins excels at characterization but if I had any sort of negative comment to make it's that I wished he described the surroundings in slightly more detail.  George Gissing puts the dust of the street in your mouth and blinds the reader in billowing pea-soup fog.  Other than the frightening image of The Shivering Sands, a pit of quicksand, I didn't visualize the houses, leafy squares of London, or dress to the extent I usually like to.  But this is being persnickity...The Moonstone is a stunning read and my appreciation for what Collins has so intricately achieved continues days after I have finished the book.

None of the other women in the group had ever read anything by Wilkie Collins so it was rewarding to expand his fan base and everyone said they look forward to reading something else by him.  My next venture with Collins will be Armadale, it's about a flame-haired laudanum addict, bigamist, and husband-poisoner...irresistible!  Have you read it?