28 February 2019

The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann

The Printed Word is a small but well-curated second-hand bookshop in Dundas so I always make a bee-line for it whenever we're out that way.  During a visit last year, I bought this book, a first edition published in 1944, for its charming first paragraph....

'One day my mother told me that Mrs. Jardine had asked us to pick primroses on her hill, and then, when we had picked as many as we wanted, to come in and have tea with her.'

It was just the sort of read I was in the mood for so I pulled it from my shelves a couple of weeks ago.  There was no blurb on the back, or leaf on the front cover.  A simple warning to fasten your seat belt would have gone a long way to prepare someone they're in store for much more than gardens and tea parties.

Mrs. Jardine has returned from France to stay at The Priory, a country house inherited through her husband's family.  She would love to meet Rebecca, Jess and little Sylvia, her dear friend Laura's grandchildren.  After their mother's careful reflection, the two older girls are sent with their governess across the field and through a sigh-inducing blue garden door.  The era is Edwardian and the Great War looms.  We meet Mrs. Jardine....

'There was something about her lips and about her whole face - something dramatic, a sensuality so noble and generous it made her look austere, almost saint-like.  Experience had signed her face with a secret, a promise whose meaning people would still watch, still desire to explore and to possess.'

After shaking some rose geranium essence into a sink of water for the girls to wash their hands, Mrs. Jardine leads the way to her spacious bedroom.  She immediately directs their gaze to the large portrait of her daughter, Ianthe.  The girls ask questions and are shocked to learn that Ianthe has three children (Malcolm, Maisie and Charity), none of whom has ever met Mrs. Jardine.  It's been years since she's seen Ianthe.

After thoroughly charming Rebecca during a few visits, Mrs. Jardine sits on a bench in the garden and pours out the story of her family's troubled past.  The subject matter is not at all appropriate for the ears of an 11 year-old, the first sign that Mrs. Jardine is either 'troubled' or a narcissist.  In the way of prepubescent children, Rebecca is keen to be enveloped into an adult world while considering the order in which she'll eat the scones, sponge and biscuits.

To the delight of Mrs. Jardine, her grandchildren arrive at The Priory.  Their father is terminally ill and with Ianthe off goodness knows where, there is little choice.  Maisie and Rebecca form a friendship but Rebecca is thrown when Maisie shares something her father said about Mrs. Jardine which explains why there's been an estrangement...

'He told me she's a liar.  And she made my mother a liar.  He said if ever he caught any of us lying he'd whip us to within an inch of our lives.'

Rosamond Lehmann has woven a story of high drama involving mental illness, abandonment, death, a secret pregnancy, marital and familial discord, suicide, revenge, and more psychological tactics than I can put a name to.  Also, part of the story is set during the Great War and considering that Lehmann was born in 1901, this passage may very well have been from memory....

'My father had set out without complaint upon his slow heart-rending journey into the shadows.  Here, there, on every hand, inchmeal, the view beyond the windows of our home contracted, clouded.  Our friend's brothers, the big boys who had partnered us in the polka, Sire Roger, the Lancers at pre-war Christmas parties, were being killed in Flanders, at Gallipoli; were being torpedoed and drowned at sea.  An unrelenting diet of maize and lentils brought us out in spots, chilblains caused us to limp, the bath water stopped being hot at night.' 

The Ballad and the Source begins with a secret garden and then slides into the gothic with a woman driven by madness to smash windows with her bare hands.  It's an incredible piece of writing, both beautiful and unsettling.  One teensy niggle is the story is told from the viewpoint of three characters, Mrs. Jardine, a maid called Tilly, and Rebecca which made for a slight excess of 'he' and 'she' at times.  But once you've nailed down the characters it's fine.  Highly recommended!

Lily Elsie by James Jebusa Shannon 

13 February 2019

A Friend from England by Anita Brookner

At BMV Books on Bloor Street in Toronto, the shelf that houses copies of Brookner's books usually overflows with them.  It's a combination of copies being sold on once they've served their purpose for nearby university students, and remainders.  Quite often, if my tote isn't too heavy, I'll choose one to add to my collection.  Brookner has never quite sparked an obsession for me, the way Elizabeth Bowen or Virginia Woolf did, but A Friend from England has changed all that.  It`s a brilliant read!

Rachel is in her early thirties, part-owner of a bookshop in Notting Hill, and lives in a flat above the shop.  Oscar Livingstone looks over the books for Rachel, just as he used to do for her father.  Rachel`s family is largely in the past, so it is Oscar and his wife Dorrie that she connects with in terms of responsibility and commitment.  Brookner draws the most incredible scene of a middle-aged couple, recently come into money, with down-to-earth sensibilities living in Wimbledon and surrounded with the gawdy trappings of the noveau riche of what feels like the 60s or 70s.

`I thought of listless Saturday afternoons, when I pictured Oscar relaxing in one of the turquoise silk-covered bergères, with footstools to match.  I thought of Dorrie taking a nap in her shell-pink bedroom with the extravagant expanses of white shag-pile carpet.`

As an independent woman, seemingly wise in the way of the world, Oscar and Dorrie see Rachel as the perfect friend for their daughter, Heather.  The Livingstones are concerned that Heather is far too quiet, a character trait that could impinge on their plan to see their daughter married and mother to their grandchildren.

Just as I was being lulled into a lovely domestic setting, chock full of the niceties with peripheral clucking aunts, a darker picture of Rachel emerged.  My first clue should have been the first-person narrative.  Another penny dropped when Rachel mentioned her `women friends` several times in passing but we never find out their names or any details of their interactions.  Indeed, I was left wondering if these people even existed in Rachel`s mysterious world with its deficit of meaningful contact with others.

There`s more than meets the eye where Heather Livingstone is concerned.  She does meet someone she consents to marry but it all happens in the blink of an eye.  It`s obvious that something doesn`t seem quite right.  Rachel sees a look on Oscar`s face, every now and then, that reflects her niggling fear.  And then Dorrie needs surgery for a lump on her ear.  Now surgery is never a laughing matter but despite everyone`s concern I was astounded by the menu....Duck a l`orange and Sole Parisiennes.  A private clinic, no doubt.

In a situation where firm lines are drawn about who is family, and who is not, Rachel is on the outside looking in.  Not that this necessarily stops her from ingratiating herself.  The relentless way in which Rachel corners Heather to impart her theory regarding certain pitfalls is disconcerting.  There were times when I felt that Rachel made a valid point, she just didn`t know when to stop. 
What could be driving her?  Is it envy, an off the scale moral compass, something darker or something sad? 

A Friend from England would make an excellent book club read.  Peeling back the layers of Rachel`s personality, examining Heather`s relationship with her parents, Rachel, and the men in her life, as well as Brookner`s depiction of married versus single women would easily fill an evening.  And if you`re a fan of feeling slightly unsettled within the safe confines of a good story, this is the book for you!  I loved it.

Lucien Freud`s portrait of his daughter, Bella.

1 February 2019

Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay

I was shamed into reading this book, admonished from across the pond, by way of a podcast.  Simon and Rachel of Tea or Books? were discussing the giving and receiving of books.  With his usual humour, Simon mentioned something along the lines of...if I give someone a book it would be nice if they read it and sharpish!  It`s completely understandable but it is also part of my nature to stash away books to wait for `the perfect moment`.  Book lovers and tea drinkers...we can be a persnickety lot.

While in London in 2017, Simon, Rachel, Mary and I dotted ourselves around a second-hand bookshop to see what we could glean.  Someone had cleared out a much-loved collection of clothbound editions by Rose Macaulay.  I chose to buy Keeping up Appearances while Simon chose Crewe Train, which he then kindly gave to me as a gift.  Yes, he is impossibly lovely.  Listening to his thoughts on the gifting of books made me pull Crewe Train from the bookcase as soon as I walked in the door from a walk with Kip (and shed three layers of winter gear....I digress).

Denham, named after her dearly departed mother`s favourite village in Buckinghamshire, seems to have always stood apart.  Living in Mallorca with her father, a clergyman, Denham prefers scrambling around the hillside to playing with her step-brothers and -sisters, sees no purpose in being tidy, and could happily live on bread and cheese.  Due to circumstance, Denham`s aunt Evelyn Gresham arrives in Andorra with her four young adult children.....

`Besides looking well, they were artistic, literary, political, musical and cultured.  So, as families go, they were all right, in Chelsea, though, except Humphrey, they were not quite fit for Bloomsbury.`

Evelyn persuades Denham to return to London, a twenty-one year old without a care for social graces or class structure.....what could go wrong?  The Greshams have a lovely town home in Chelsea with a summer home in Surrey, the week-end resort of many.  Mr Gresham is a publisher, known for a keen eye for a good story and his hospitality.  His wife, Evelyn exudes chic and her intuition is razor sharp which can be quite trying for everyone.  The Greshams four offspring are clever, quick to question, friendly and sociable.  And then there`s Arnold Chapel....

`...a tall, dark, young man, with eyeglasses and a nice smile.  He was a junior partner in the Gresham publishing house, and, though not in the Foreign Office, a Roman Catholic.`

Arnold is a catch, as they say, but it`s not the Bluestockings or young women working at the office he`s attracted to.  Denham`s confidence and casual nature draws him like a moth to the flame.  At a dinner party, he finds her in the potting shed where she`s earnestly wittling a stick into a whistle.  They go for a walk in the rain; Denham can`t be bothered with a coat.  They share a kiss.

It`s so difficult to stifle what happens in the days and months that follow.  What I can say is that I was thrilled by Macaulay`s creation of a young woman doing as she pleases in a novel from 1926.  Denham is committed to herself in a way that is fantastically honest, which is not to say that a bit of compromising wouldn`t have hurt now and again.  I loved this character`s sense of adventure and willingness to just go for it.  Of course, my practical nature couldn`t help but wonder where the money comes from when you pack your dog up in the sidecar and set out from one seaside village to the next....but who cares when you`re having this much fun while reading?!

From the sunny Mallorcan landscape to London`s leafy squares, from the Cornish coast to the commuter county of Missenden (1920s style) Denham learns many of life`s lessons.  I`ll leave it at that.

Thank you so much, Simon, for your thoughtful gift.  I especially like that a previous owner has used an embossing tool to stamp the name of their cottage in Odiham, Hampshire on one of the pages.  My edition was reissued in 1934 and, no doubt, has entertained several readers since then.

A Dark Pool by Dame Laura Knight