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!