12 April 2021

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

It began in a woman's club in London on a February afternoon--an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon--when Mrs. Wilkins, who had come down from Hampstead to shop and had lunched at her club, took up The Times from the table in the smoking-room, and running her listless eye down the Agony Column saw this....

What follows is an advertisement for a small medieval castle in Italy to let on the shores of the Mediterranean.  The ad romantically calls out to those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine.  Initially thinking such a holiday is only for the rich, Mrs. Wilkins revisits the part of the ad referring to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine.  Such a statement surely includes her as much as any wealthy citizen.  Two years of marriage to a solicitor, focusing on his needs and those of his extended family, have made Lotty realize she needs to claim moments of joy for her very own.  Raising her eyes from the ad to look at another woman attending her Shaftesbury Club, she wonders if Mrs. Arbuthnot could possibly feel the same way?

She looked so kind.  She looked so unhappy.  Why couldn't two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk--real, natural talk, about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope?

By page six I knew this was just the sort of book to carry me through these last bits of cold, wet weather.  I also wondered how many women read this story when it was published in 1922 and broached the topic of booking a fabulous holiday with a friend?  I digress....

Caught off-guard Mrs. Arbuthnot is rattled by the idea of planning such an indulgent trip.  She's been firmly rooted in the idea of God, Home, Husband, Duty.  Surely one's home is the very idea of Heaven?  But all is not as it seems in either woman's marriage.  Throwing caution to the wind, it's decided that Lotty and Rose will reply to the ad.  By the way, the rental for this particular castle was a sigh-inducing £60 per month.

Realizing the costs could easily be split between four as there are plenty of spare rooms, the new friends place an ad of their own.  Enter the young and beautiful Lady Caroline Dester and Mrs. Fisher who is decidedly reserved and slightly mature, shall we say.  Arriving at their holiday destination.....

....it had from each of its three sides the most amazing views--to the east the bay and mountains, to the north the village across the tranquil clear green water of the little harbour and the hill dotted with white houses and orange groves, and to the west was the thin thread of land by which San Salvatore was tied to Genoa reaching away into the blue dimness of France.

Each woman has varying expectations pertaining to their retreat from the routine of life at home.  Solitude is a common theme which can prove difficult while trying to be courteous.  We can all identify with lining up a picture perfect afternoon picnic, evaporated by a boisterous crowd planted nearby.  But as time passes connections are made between the guests, personal armour melts away and the dynamics shift in the loveliest of ways.  

Interestingly, it occurred to me that this story could also be imagined as the perfect setting for a holiday during this pandemic.  The elements are all there...spacious grounds and an abundance of fresh air.  With each woman finding her own section of the castle's garden for quiet reflection the atmosphere couldn't be more perfect for physical distancing.  And I'm slightly worried that thinking this way has crept into my reading.....

The Enchanted April is a beautiful story that begs to be read during bleak winter months and I will certainly be returning to it again.  Elizabeth von Arnim beautifully points out the benefits of taking time for ourselves for rest, clarity and fostering independence.  But most of all, she gave this winter-weary reader the gift of a garden when ours is still a few weeks away.

Such a jumble of spring and summer was not to be believed in, except by those who dwelt in those gardens.  Everything seemed to be out together--all the things crowded into one month which in England are spread penuriously over six.  Even primroses were found one day by Mrs. Wilkins in a cold corner up in the hills' and when she brought them down to the geraniums and heliotrope of San Savatore they looked quite shy.

The Red Cloche by Grace Cochran Sanger (1885 - 1966)

22 March 2021

Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

It was the level of enthusiasm from both presenter and guest on a podcast that sent me straight to my library's website.   A copy of Magpie Lane was on order.  This isn't a genre I usually read but we were off to a good start with its setting of Oxford, despite meeting the main character in a police station interview room.

They are waiting for an answer.  What do they want me to say?  Perhaps they think I am a stalker, targeting the president of an Oxford College on his early morning jog.  I have an urge to laugh which is inappropriate.  There is nothing funny about this, nothing whatsoever.  Felicity is missing.  The whole country is looking for her.

Dee has spent more than half of her life working as a nanny for visiting professors at the university.  Short term commitments work best as there's less chance of a family getting too close.  Dee prefers her relationships at a distance.  As the story develops, snippets of her backstory reveal episodes of sadness in her family life back in Scotland; one in particular clings with a relentless hold.

A serendipitous meeting with Nick Law, the new College Master, results in Dee agreeing to meet his family.  It's more a case of being polite than keen.  Nick and Mariah are desperate to find someone with experience to look after Felicity, an eight year old with selective mutism.  Also, Mariah is expecting a baby, has an intense schedule as a wallpaper restorer in London, and supporting Nick through endless social events.  The family's new residence swirls with chaos, renovations and high expectation.  At the top of the house, Felicity's bedroom is a refuge....a refuge with an eerie priest hole cut into the wall hundreds of years ago.  Dee is intrigued by the little girl, sensing Felicity could benefit from a constant in her day. 

An interesting man called Linklater is hired by Nick to write up the history of their new home.  Taking on research assignments and leading guided tours of Oxford provide an income while Linklater works on his thesis.  Decades of archival material  reveal some things about the house that are both fascinating and sinister.  Being somewhat socially inept, Linklater thinks nothing of sharing a few dark details with Dee about the project within earshot of Felicity.  Dee is horrified but then she notices a look of interest on Felicity's face.  A strange way to make some progress but Dee is thankful for the flicker of trust. 

This is a book best read with minimal prior knowledge so I will leave the plot there.  When I finished Magpie Lane my husband picked it up, read 114 pages in one sitting and couldn't wait to get back to it after dinner.  The story is brilliantly paced and has an ending so gripping that I read it three times.  Find a copy before the film comes out because I would be shocked if someone hasn't bought the rights already.

15 March 2021

The Green Leaves of Summer by Oriel Malet

The clocks sprang forward yesterday and Spring bulbs have started to pop up around the garden.  The queen wasp that has been overwintering (a new phenomenon at our house) in a pot of ivy in the kitchen, appeared on the patio door the other day.  I hope she was trying to say she's ready to start another season of populating a paper castle because I set her free.  It's very cold today but hopefully she will find a crack in a warm brick somewhere.

An unexpected parcel showed up in the mailbox a couple of weeks ago.  It was a 1951 copy of Malet's charming story of young teens forging their path, an unscrupulous couple, a poltergeist, an Austrian refugee, a fabulously aristocratic Aunt, and a confirmed bachelor.  Not a combination that, on paper, would have normally drawn me in but I trust Rachel's taste in books and I was in need of a gear shift.

The first thing Henrietta heard when she awoke each morning was the faint, far-off chime of the dining-room clock; it was the day's first sound.  Now that the house was no longer private and detached, but contained so many different people, separated and yet pressed down upon each other like a pile of sandwiches, there were many more noises to be heard in it.

Henrietta, known as Tatty, is thirteen years-old.  Orphaned at a young age she lives with her Aunt Ida who is more grandly titled in society as Lady Charrington.  When the household servants left their positions for war duties Lady Charrington decided it made perfect sense to convert her Cavendish Place residence into flats.  In this clever way her tenants clean their own rooms as well as provide income.  Tatty's sister Joan and husband Terrence live on the main floor. 

Tatty wrote in her diary the first day she saw him: "Men NOT to marry.  My brother-in-law...."

Henry Crumbull lives in the attic room.  He writes books on psychic investigation, is in his mid-forties, quite tall and very personable.  When the doorbell rings Henry can lean out of the window just far enough to see who it is, but shies away if he catches the eye of the housekeeper across the road as she flicks her dust cloth. 

A storyline that I absolutely loved follows Serena, a young woman who has been taking acting and dance lessons for most of her life.  One day the President of the Academy takes Serena aside for a sincere conversation about her hopes for the future.  In the nicest way possible, Serena is told that perhaps she would be better suited for a career in writing.  Taking the advice to heart, Serena finds a position transcribing the journals of a young soldier killed in battle.  Colonel Barratt and his wife have been left devastated by the loss of their son but bond with Serena as she brings Oliver's innermost thoughts to life.  Oliver's fellow soldier Robin was initially in possession of the journals but had to work through physical and psychological challenges before facing Oliver's family.

And then there is Pippitt Archer, an adorable waif, housed by Monty and Lulu.  To say they look after her would be a gross overstatement.  Pippitt performs (songs about rainbows feature a fair bit) in seaside town Variety shows while Monty pockets the fee.  Threats of the orphanage are levied whenever Pippitt questions money that is owed to her, but not to worry, she has plans for her own exit strategy.  I loved her feisty nature and fearless presence in the company of adults.  Sweet little Pippitt's path to a better life would never play out in reality the way it does in this book, but it was so satisfying to see her get the better of Monty.

I could quadruple this post with the other storylines in this book featuring colourful characters with hilarious names such as Madame Heckla von Hinckelr├╝nke and Gertie Goulasha, the idol of Russia.  Also, as Rachel pointed out in her card, this book is filled with 1940s detail such as the hamper of food for two runaways....sardines, tinned steak and jellied eel.  Never to be found in a similarly plotted story from 2021, let me tell you.  

Told over the course of a summer, the title comes from a sentiment expressed by Tatty...Summer isn't over until the first leaf falls.  This is the first book I've read by Oriel Malet and she has completely won me over because of her extraordinary character development.  Some of the characters are drawn quite comically but the humour was so welcome, especially after a year of pandemic.  But Malet also writes beautiful prose such as in her description of a property in London....

Inside the high brick wall was a garden, with a little fountain splashing gently in its grey stone bowl in the middle of the lawn.  It had the dim, mysterious feel of all London gardens, shut in by houses rising up above it like rocky crags, and was filled with lilacs and syringa bushes, and one magnolia holding up its waxed white cups for admiration.

Oriel Malet would have been in her late twenties when The Green Leaves of Summer was published.  An impressive accomplishment, I must say. 

Thanks so much, Rachel!  Your time, the postage and especially your thoughtfulness are greatly appreciated!

Vase of Flowers II by Prudence Heward
(1946)

9 February 2021

To the North by Elizabeth Bowen

In a brief moment of eerie coincidence, I've just discovered that I first read To the North early in February, ten years ago.  Okay, moving right along....

Set in the 1920s, Elizabeth Bowen's fourth novel (1932) tells the story of two young women, one traditional and tragically widowed, the other business-minded and independent.  Sisters-in-law sharing a flat, devoted to one another but with their separate lives to lead.

The story begins with Cecilia Summers on a train bound for London.  Having left Italy behind, she assumes the posture of someone who doesn't wish to engaged in conversation.  Single women on trains seem fated to be the target of male attention and as a young widow Cecilia is eager to escape it.  Inevitably, a young man seats himself next to her in the dining cart.  Enter Mark Linkwater, a barrister in his mid-thirtiies...

By the end of five minutes he had composed himself for Cecilia, from a succession of half-glances, as being square and stocky, clean shaven, thickish about the neck and jaw, with a capable slightly-receding forehead, mobile, greedy, intelligent mouth and the impassive bright quick-lidded eyes of an agreeable reptile.  Presentable, he might even be found attractive - but not by Cecilia.

Cecilia does her best to skirt around 'Markie' for the duration of her travels.  With Italy now in the past, she looks forward to being back in her St. John's Wood flat, the home she shares with Emmeline.  Emmeline has invested in a travel agency.  It's a small but busy office in Bloomsbury where she works diligently with Peter and their underappreciated receptionist Miss Tripp.

Bowen fabulously creates a vivid image of place in her novels which is one of the reasons I adore her writing so much.  And never more so than during this time of pandemic.  The notion that certain bus routes could be deemed as 'moral' is an entertaining one... 

The No. 11 is an entirely moral bus.  Springing from Shepherd's Bush, against which one has seldom heard anything, it enjoys some innocent bohemianism in Chelsea, picks up the shoppers at Peter Jones, swerves down the Pimlico Road - too busy to be lascivious - passes not too far from the royal stables, nods to Victoria Station, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, whirrs reverently up Whitehall, and from its only brush with vice, in the Strand, plunges to Liverpool Street through the noble and serious architecture of the City.

Back to the plot....Cecilia and Emmeline begrudgingly answer to the divinely stuffy Lady Waters.  She is Cecilia's Aunt, and very much grounded in the etiquette of the previous century.  Georgina possesses a magnetic gaze that frequently results in a headache of her oppressed visitors.  The younger ladies are wedged between Lady Waters' comments about the lowly act of stepping out with men.....and 'will you please marry'.

Oh I know this all sounds very amusing in a sort of Austen-esque manner, and in part that is true.  But there are dark and unlikable qualities about some of the characters that become more evident as the net closes.  Cecilia is so concerned with her future path, whether under the banner of widow or otherwise, to notice that Emmeline has become distant and distracted.  Emmeline is in love with Markie, a vile user if ever there was one.  Perhaps not as flawed, but frustratingly conflicted, is Julian Tower.  Responsibility is something to be put off if possible but there's a part of him that realizes the benefits that come with maturity.

The laws of etiquette and convention create much of the drama in To the North.  So much is wondered about as it wouldn't be 'proper' to openly question or converse.  Men and women talk in vague riddles to pry sentiments from one another.  The rigidity of societal roles can result in dire circumstance, such as when Emmeline and Markie drive miles out of London to spend a couple of days at a cottage.  For Emmeline discovery means ruin while Markie cruelly admits he is out for what he can get.

Leading up the climax of the story, that left me breathless despite having read this book before, Cecilia floats around the room, adjusting flowers and lighting candles.  Oblivious that her world, or anyone else's, is on the cusp of imploding.  This is literary melodrama at its best and Elizabeth Bowen was an absolute master at her craft.  In my book, this is perfection.

From portrait of Oonagh Guiness by Philip de Laszlo
(1931)

22 January 2021

Mr Fox by Barbara Comyns

The other day my husband asked me what Mr Fox is about.  For some reason, rather than give a quick synopsis I said "horror and hope".  The horror is down to the matter of fact way in which Comyns writes about abandonment, hunger, poverty, vile characters and even death.  When a dog was introduced into the storyline I immediately feared for the animal's life because I've been here before with her novels.  Comyns doesn't sugarcoat or shy away, but her main characters (at least in the six books I've read) seem to carry a thread of positivity that inspires hope for a better life ahead. 

Caroline Seymour is raising her three year-old daughter in an atmosphere of uncertainty after her husband signs on to fight Franco.  Caroline thinks Oliver left because she became fat and dreadful while pregnant.  Oliver doesn't come across as the sort of man who goes around looking for noble causes....

He used to spend most of the day lying on a crimson Victorian sofa thinking about poetical things, and he said I had a petit bourgeois mind when I did things like cleaning.  He didn't mind so much when I cooked; but he didn't have to watch me doing that because I had to do it on the landing under the skylight.  It was fortunate Oliver had a small private income, because he earned very little being a poet.

By letting rooms in her home, Caroline is barely scraping by.  As the threat of war approaches, tenants began to leave.  Wondering what to do next, Caroline seeks the advice of Mr Fox, the owner of a garage.  Over the past two years Mr Fox has had several business ventures in buying cheap items and then selling them on for a profit.  Caroline notices that Mr Fox will grow a beard, then shave it off.  The reader knows he needs to change his appearance to avoid the constabulary.

Mr Fox suggests a relationship that merges his meagre assets with Caroline's.  Feeling she has no other option, Caroline agrees and becomes a general housekeeper in his attic flat, surrounded by suspicious tenants.  Covering dingy wallpaper with primrose paint becomes a regular pastime.  A lack of money leads Caroline to work at a less than desirable nightclub.  A lack of experience means she doesn't see through a scheme to lure cash from men in return for her company, shall we say.  Leaving her little girl in the evening, the groping male company and too much unwanted whisky leave Caroline feeling ill.

When the Blitz rains bombs on London, Caroline finds employment as a housekeeper in a village.  It's also a passive way of escaping from Mr Fox for the time being.  Remember my comment at the beginning about horror and hope?  I hoped Caroline and Jenny would appear at the door of a warm family that would bring them joy and stability.  It doesn't....but, there are some quietly humourous moments that I enjoyed very much!

Barbara Comyns Wikipedia page reveals elements of her biography that match certain details in this novel.  Converting homes into apartments, a relationship with a marketeer, renovating pianos and upcycling used furniture, and becoming a cook for a manor house during World War II.  If you read a handful of Comyns' novels you'll have had a glimpse into her past experiences. 

There's no explaining why I enjoy Barbara Comyns' novels so very much.  They can be odd, frightening, depressing and quite often several of the characters are downright contemptible.  It bothered me whenever Caroline would leave her daughter alone in a dingy flat because Mr Fox wanted her company for dinner.  She weighs what needs to be done for survival against any revulsion for the unsavoury or even the dangerous.  Caroline has a positive outlook and strong will that hopefully ends in triumph.

A Corner of Merton, 16 August 1940
Harry Bush (1883 - 1957)

12 January 2021

A Bite of the Apple by Lennie Goodings

I have Claire, at The Captive Reader, to thank for bringing this memoir to my attention.  Her Library Loot posts are just the thing for highlighting new titles or getting me to take a closer look at others.  As luck would have it my library had A Bite of the Apple on the shelves, just waiting.  What was supposed to be a quick skim of the first few pages turned into a two hour reading session.

Soho, London, early evening, late 1970s, and the sounds of Friday night revelries rise up to our window on the fourth floor in Wardour Street where I'm still working my way through piles of paperwork in the Virago office.  I am not alone. We do everything ourselves in this company--including the dusting and vacuuming of our one largish room and small kitchen/bathroom--and it is Callil's turn to clean.

Lennie Goodings traded Canada for London shortly after university.  Drawn to the world of books she worked incredibly hard in a field that has struggled through takeover bids, market slumps, recession, and the digital age.  There's something about paper, ink, and the written word that drives people in many ways.  The women behind the success of Virago were, and still are, the very definition of tenacious.

Broken into four sections:  A New Kind of Being, The Books, The Politics: Office and Otherwise and The Power to Publish is a Wonderful Thing. each section has subsections relating to aspects of the business, the staff and their relationship with various authors.  As the publishers of novels by women, standing their ground when it came to equality and turning the gaze of booksellers was part of their agenda.  Goodings mentions browsing in a high street bookshop and seeing a table featuring Great American Novels.  Not one had been written by a woman.  Another moment that gave me pause for thought is how often we hear the term 'female author' while the description of  'male author' is practically unheard of.  

Shoving politics aside for a moment,  I enjoyed the personal tidbits about authors such as Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor and Sarah Waters.  One morning, Goodings was collected from her small flat in Stoke Newington in a car carrying Lehmann for an interview in Manchester.  Scanning the neighbourhood Lehmann asked 'Is this bohemia?'   The image of spending time with Rosamund Lehmann in social settings AND collecting a wage are 'pinch me' moments, and Goodings had plenty of them.

To my shame, as a Canadian, I have yet to read a single book by Margaret Atwood.  Yes, I know she has goddess status but her writing missed the mark with me in high school.  Regretfully, I never looked back.  Goodings writes with such affection for Atwood, not only as an author but as the clever and funny woman she is.  Apparently Atwood reads palms.  At one point Goodings writes about a takeover and some issues, large and small, behind the scenes.  She quotes a saying Atwood has....'In my experience, the smaller the cheese the fiercer the mice.'   

The women who managed Virago through its many changes, from those in the office to its authors, are incredibly inspiring.  And while it would be easy to slide into reams of self-praise, Goodings is unflinching in her admission of the times when the team at Virago got it wrong.  But having said that, something they have been keenly aware of is the importance of publishing books by women of colour and people from the LGBTQ community.  For decades, Virago has received letters and emails from people writing to say that a certain book has changed their life. 

It would be fair to say that Virago played a large part in my life when their fetching edition of The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield (with the Cath Kidston cover) caught my eye several years ago.  I spent ages trying to find something that fit between Jean Plaidy and Jane Green and found a world of books hiding in plain sight.  I owe the women behind Virago, as well as Persephone Books, an immense amount of gratitude.

The only downside of borrowing this book from the library is being a few days late in returning it and someone is next in line.  I'm tempted to leave a grovelling note inside.  An excellent and informative read that will keep you from doing other things in your day.  Highly recommended and thoroughly enjoyed....thanks, Claire!

Lennie Goodings

7 January 2021

The Swiss Summer by Stella Gibbons

 An invitation to spend the summer in a chalet with a view of the Alps.  During this time of lockdown when grocery shopping is now an adventurous outing, such escapism could not be more perfectly timed.  First published in 1951, The Swiss Summer has been reissued by Dean Street Press.  I am delighted.  

Lady Dagleish lives in Waterloo Lodge, a mansion in Barnet.  As a woman of means before her marriage, Lady Dagleish is comfortable in her extravagant surroundings but as an elderly widow she yearns for the company of interesting young people.  Sir Burton Dagleish died before the First World War; still considered a young man in his sixties.  He was widely known for his work in alpine science and was an ardent mountaineer.  In a grand gesture, the Swiss government presented him with a chalet.  Rarely used these days, Lady Dagleish plans to send her housekeeper Mrs Blandish to Switzerland to do an inventory of Sir Burton's books, writings and diaries.  Enter Mrs Cottrell.

While visiting a friend who suggests a visit to Waterloo Lodge, Lucy is intrigued by Lady Dagleish and sighs at mention of the chalet.  She spent her honeymoon in the Alps over twenty years ago and would love to return one day.  Before another cup of tea can be poured, Lady Dagleish makes the suggestion that Lucy accompany Mrs Blandish on her mission.  Surely her husband can spare her three months.....

   "It's on the way up to the Jungfrau, about five hundred feet above the station at Adleralp."  said Mrs Blandish.  "It's quite a climb, and you'll certainly see all the mountains you want.  Do you know Adlerwald?  That's the next station down, and the nearest large village.  At Adleralp there's nothing but one souvenir shop and a darned expensive out-of-date hotel."

Lucy Cottrell and Mrs Blandish book their travel tickets.  Mrs Blandish takes a quick flight but Lucy books economical train travel which makes for an epic adventure in itself.  Greeting her at the chalet is Utta, a woman of advancing years but strong and a stickler for doing things properly.  Utta visits weekly to dust, polish and sweep the chalet, taking great pride in her responsibility.  She doesn't care for Mrs Blandish, at all.  The plot soon pivots from that of a dreamy summer of sightseeing to several women keenly watching each other.  But let's take a moment for a food quote....

   Mrs Blandish's manner this morning was unchanged by the beauty of the view, the fine weather, or even by the large brown eggs, thick honey and rye bread, cherry jam and fresh milk; she had her usual air of self-absorption dashed with good-nature and impatience, and as usual it was impossible for Lucy to tell what she was thinking about.

The cunning Mrs Blandish has her hopes pinned on Lady Dagleish leaving the chalet to her in her Will.  To be fair, Lady D has taken some enjoyment from stringing her along.  Storylines begin to germinate....Mrs Blandish has a side hustle to make extra money by inviting guests to stay at the chalet under the pretext that she is the owner.  Lucy is torn between informing Lady Dagleish and not wanting to get involved.  Then the family Price-Wharton show up with their entitled teenage daughter who has something of a 'frenemy' relationship with Mrs Blandish's daughter Astra.  Eventually the chalet is practically heaving with people causing Utta to grow increasingly unsettled with what she feels is disrespect for Sir Burton's memory and his widow.

I'm very excited that Dean Street Press has reissued several novels from Stella Gibbons' oeuvre.  Her writing contains a wonderful blend of humour and insightfulness that I never fail to enjoy.  In The Swiss Summer, the relationship between Astra, a drifting teenager craving a mother's love, and Lucy who silently mourns her childless state, is incredibly touching.  Even more so for being the calm in a froth of deception at the chalet.  One tiny niggle is a point in the middle of the story where some editing would have tightened it a bit.  I will say the ending was extremely satisfying! 

Thank you to Rupert from Dean Street Press for sending along a copy.  A thoroughly enjoyable read and I look forward to reading the others!