The Tall Stranger (book #151)

7 October 2015

D E Stevenson, 1957.

There’s something oddly plot-resistant, slice-of-life-ish, about Stevenson. Makes it difficult to describe her books. In this one, not one of her best but not awful either, the viewpoint starts as that of Nell, a doctor’s secretary, on a foggy London evening. Nell wants to visit her friend in hospital and the doctor goes with her in case she gets lost. In fact they both get lost and attacked by some muggers. Nell, having taken some ju-jitsu lessons, breaks the arm of one of the muggers (the doctor and the policeman don’t believe that this is possible).

All that is preparatory to the real story, which is about Barbie, the friend Nell visits in hospital. The book drifts along, with Barbie convalescing with the aunt who brought her up, becoming unsatisfactorily engaged and meeting another man. Then she goes back to work as an interior designer and the book follows her on a work trip to a Scottish castle, where the second man pops up again. There’s quite a lot of detail about the interior design work in the castle (measuring, fake leather screens, pattern-books). There’re subplots (if that’s the right word given the book’s lack of plot) about two children, a neglected London child and the running-wild daughter of the castle.

As always, Stevenson’s views are mostly conservative. There’s an interesting exchange between Barbie and her aunt, Amalie:

” …Of course it’s the fashion nowadays to sneer at the British Empire – but what would the world be like today if there never had been a British empire?”
“A good deal less civilised for one thing,” said Barbie after a few moments’ thought.
“Yes,” agreed Amalie. “It’s an interesting speculation.” She laughed and added, “I once asked a very clever young man (one of Edward’s Oxford friends who thought he knew everything) what the world would be like today if there never had been a British Empire, and it sort of dried him up. He just gulped and said it was an interesting speculation.”
“I must remember that; it might be useful,” said Barbie.
“You must remember to look rather stupid when you put the question,” Amalie told her. “I mean you must look as if you were terribly anxious to know. It works much better that way.”

This is obviously a criticism of liberal and post-colonial thought, but it’s also, and more interestingly, a suggestion of how women might stand up to “clever young men … who think they know everything”; looking stupid is worth it if it leaves the man speechless.

I’m a bit worried about the treatment of the London child, Agnes. She’s eight and lives in a flat in the same building as Barbie and Nell. Her mother, Gloria-everyone-calls-me-Glore, “‘neglects Agnes and – and shows her quite clearly that she’s a nuisance'”. Nell’s fiancé, Dr Headfort, tells Nell

” … I think I could arrange for her to be put into a Home. Of course I’m not particularly keen on putting children into Institutions, but the Home I know about is in the country and there’s an exceedingly nice matron. It might be better for her than her present mode of life.”
“Almost anything would be better!” [Nell]
“Or we could adopt her ourselves,” added Will Headfort, throwing out his amazing suggestion in a casual manner.
“Oh Will, you are good!” exclaimed Nell in astonishment. She pondered the matter and then continued, “Of course we should have to think about it very seriously. She isn’t a very attractive child – poor little scrap – but I dare say she would improve. … “

Instead, however, Barbie arranges for Agnes to be sent to Scotland to live with the family at the castle and be company for Bet. Her mother is shown as selfish and easy to persuade that it will be less trouble for her to get rid of her daughter. She wants to go to take Agnes to the castle herself and meet the family, but is firmly told by Barbie that “‘If Mrs. Scott had wanted you to go to Oddam [castle] she would have invited you'”. So Agnes is taken on the long railway journey by a servant whom she hasn’t met before, whose Scottish accent may be difficult for her to understand.

Barbie also makes Agnes over before sending her to Scotland, as she’s worried about how Agnes’s shabby, dirty and rather common clothes will appear to the Scott family. Instead of her yellow cloth coat with a missing button, her lacy blue satin dress and shoes with holes in, Barbie buys her “cherry-coloured shorts and a white pullover, brown leather lacing-shoes and white socks; she bought a brown tweed coat and a cherry-coloured beret and some much-needed underwear”. For some reason, Barbie finds Agnes’s “dark hair, scraped back from her forehead and tied in a ‘pony tail’ with an old piece of ribbon – a most unsuitable style of hair-dressing for a little girl”. Barbie “whirled Agnes into the nearest hairdresser and had the absurd pony-tail cut off and the dark hair trimmed closely to what proved to be an exceedingly well-shaped head”. This makes Agnes cry. She then “put Agnes into the bath, scrubbed her all over thoroughly and washed her hair”.

Although one can see the appeal of transforming the child for her new life, and Agnes does smile when she sees what she looks like, I do feel some concern for her going hundreds of miles from home without anyone she knows and without apparently anything to remind her of her previous life and family, even her own appearance.

I was amused by the “black plastic tray with a crisply-ironed tray-cloth” on which Barbie’s meals are brought when she’s convalescing. Height of technology and fashion.

Haing said Stevenson tends to be conservative, in this book Barbie’s fiancé wants her to continue her work as an interior designer: “‘It’s your Thing … You love the work and you’re very good at it … and somehow I can’t imagine you sitting at home, idle. You wouldn’t be happy.'”

As I’m reading Stevenson in tandem with Patricia Wentworth, I was interested to see three of Wentworth’s books in the same large print series advertised at the back of this book – Out of the Past, Latter End and Danger Point.

Re the ju-jitsu, it’s interesting that this is also a plot point in Elinor Brent-Dyer’s The Wrong Chalet School, from 1952, just a few years earlier.

Unlawful Occasions (book #150)

6 October 2015

Patricia Wentworth, 1941.

I have a cold and some stuff going on that has put me out of routine and made me reach for comfort reading, so I am alternating Patricia Wentworth’s non-Miss Silver books with DE Stevenson. I got a batch of both from the County Fiction Store and they go well together.

Cover of Unlawful Occasions

This isn’t one of the best Wentworths. The start is good, with the protagonist, Sarah, meeting an elderly woman in a station waiting room. The woman has been given a mysterious parcel by a wounded man on a train and is worried about what to do with it. When Sarah gets on her own train, she finds the parcel in her own bag.

The reader has to swallow a lot of coincidence, however, when we find out that the people with whom Sarah lives are involved in the mystery. It’s also hard to accept Sarah’s reason for not going to the police.

This is more of a gothic novel or woman-in-danger novel than anything else, with Sarah eventually trapped in her underwear (pink crêpe-de-chine) in the snow. Unusually for Wentworth, there are two men genuinely in love with the heroine. The ending is rather sudden.

The book was published as “Weekend With Death” in America. There’s a brief review at The Locked Room.

A couple of things reminded me of the Miss Silver books. The villain’s drawing room has “a fine period collection of photogravures represeting the more popular works of Landseer and Millais. There was a Soul’s Awakening over the mantelpiece, flanked by a Monarch of the Glen and a Dignity and Impudence“. I looked at the pictures in Miss Silver’s flat in my post about Christie’s Five Little Pigs. She has both the Soul’s Awakening (actually James Sant, not Millais or Landseer) and the Monarch of the Glen / Stag at Bay, as well as Millais’s Bubbles. It’s slightly odd that Wentworth repurposes the art from her detective’s rooms to her villain’s house.

There’s also considerable focus on how cold the country house is – something that Miss Silver also worries about, making sure she takes her fur tippet if staying in one.

And, in the middle of the terror, Sarah is gripped by Volume I of Charlotte Yonge’s The Pillars of the House:

Actually she found this a most enthralling work. What ingeniously ordered lives this vast Victorian family read. How small a happening could rouse and hold one’s interest. Felix’s birthday tip from his godfather, and the burning question of how much of it should go into the family exchequer, and whether he would be justified in blueing part of it on a picnic – with a wagonette – for the entire family, Papa, Mamma, and ten brothers and sisters. When Papa expired and Mamma had twins the same day, thus bringing the family up to thirteen, and Felix and Wilmet had to support them all, the contest between Miss Yonge’s ingenuity and Sarah’s scepticism became excitingly acute. It might have been done, she could even believe that it had been done, and though not in sight of the end of Vol. I, she contemplated turning out all the shelves till she tracked down Vol. II.

Miss Silver is also a fan of Yonge, as I mentioned in my post on Latter End.

The School in the Skies (book #149)

17 September 2015

R S Lyons, nd, but looks like the first edition was 1950.

Skies 003

Skies 001

Great cover, but very dull book.

Betty’s Wartime Diary, 1939-1945 (book #147)

15 September 2015

Author given as Betty Armitage, but this is a pseudonym. Edited by Nicholas Webley, 2002.

I enjoyed this account of the war years in rural Norfolk. “Betty” is direct and mundane. The best bits for me were the references to her cat, Alfred, a large tabby.

The Vicar came round the other day for a cup of tea and told me he thought Albert was too fat to be healthy. I told him to stick to his job and leave looking after Albert to me, as he is a happy cat which is more than can be said for some of his parishioners.

Betty judges the seasons by how much time Albert spends asleep on his barrel in the sun. Albert chases off intruders twice and becomes fond of a pig, Daniel. I liked Daniel too:

[we] went for our walk with Daniel … We stopped to eat our sandwiches by the round pond. I wondered if Daniel would jump in for a swim but he just sat down with his face up to the sun. … the three of us sitting there with Daniel on the end like a portly gentleman, looking this way and that at whichever of us was talking at the time.

I also found interesting the two Freds, poacher and black-marketeer / smuggler. Their activities are fine with Betty and she comments on how helpful the black-marketeer is: “what would we do without young Freddie, he smoothes the way for so many people”.

And the references to Betty’s past in the theatre are intriguing. She was a seamstress and prop worker (she mentions painting scenery) with touring theatre companies and on the music halls. She has a lot of friends from those days, some of whom come to stay with her.

I always doubt diaries if there is no clear provenance. Webley talks about the diary entries being written on scraps of paper, kept in a shed for decades and disintegrating, and that he has been asked to suppress some of the diary (not clear by whom – Betty doesn’t seem to have any family except for her brother). But Betty’s voice is convincing – particularly the details of daily life, which have a plausible dullness, and the jumping from subject to subject. I was also interested to see that she never (as far as I could see) uses contractions. I’m a bit worried about some of the loose talk about the war though, especially from Betty’s well-connected friend and employer, Mrs Wentworth.

In worlds other than reading, things are rather tough at the moment. House stuff, work, health, etc. Hanging in there.

Clean Sweep (book #146)

29 August 2015

Ilona Andrews, 2013.

This is the first of the Innkeeper Chronicles, a free online serial, though I read it in paperback. I enjoyed it, though not enough to read the second one.

My favourite bit was when the protagonist goes to Costco – people in paranormal novels do not generally do enough mundane things.

There was something almost serene about walking through Costco … Maybe it was the feeling of plenty. Everything was supersized. … It was a false but pleasant feeling of buying a lot at once and getting it at a good price. I could buy ten enormous jars of peanut butter and stuff it in the back of my car. My home was a battleground between a surly werewolf and an arrogant vampire, and a murderous alien was trying to kill us, but I would never run out of peanut butter again and I would get it for a steal, too.

The alien attack in Costco and the help from a bystander is well done, too.

This England (book #145)

25 August 2015

Mary Ellen Chase, 1936.

I had not heard of Chase before seeing a mention of In England Now (1937) in Juliet Gardiner’s comprehensive The Thirties: An Intimate History. Despite the slightly different name and date, from the quotations Gardiner gives I think In England Now and This England are the same book, a collection of essays about England by Chase, an American novelist and academic.

Image from endpapers:


Wikipedia says she is regarded as one of the most important regional literary figures of the early twentieth century. There is a 1995 biography by one of her students, A Lantern in the Wind by Elienne Squire. There is a 1962 article about her here (PDF) and a 2003 thesis about her life and work here (PDF, 272 pages, mostly about her family background and early life, and the themes of her books, rather than her later, professional, life). I was particularly interested in the sections in the thesis about Chase’s character Mary Peters’s creation of art through rag rugs:

She became an expert in dyeing bits of wool, working hours to get the exact shade she needed. When her piecebags and closets were exhausted of old material, she bought odds and ends from factories and coloured them to suit herself. The knuckles of her fingers and the palms of her hands grew rough and calloused by hook and burlap, but she had never in her life felt more free.

(from Mary Peters, 1934).

Chase was apparently much influenced by Sarah Orne Jewett, whose The Country of the Pointed Firs I was amazed by when I read it. I have not read it since as I’m not sure how well it would stand up to re-reading.

Anyway, about This England. I must say it is a rather irascible book. Chase, spending two years in England, based in a cottage in Grantchester (not clear whether her companion, the historian Eleanor Duckett, was with her, but if so Chase wrote her out), was unhappy about many things:

The English weather and its associated travails: “chilblains … demand more resignation and humour than is the capital of most steam-heated Americans. The woollen underwear which one must wear or perish harbours and transmits its manifold vexations … this dismal monotony of discomfort … unspeakable irritation”.

No ice: “Ice simply is NOT … the English consider ice an extravagant and unnecessary commodity”.

Wasps: “There is hardly a breakfast or lunch, surely never a tea, from May to October which is not copiously attended by wasps.”

The lack of good service: The American expects “that when his trousers need pressing, they will be pressed well and quickly; that when dry cleaning is imperative, it will be perfectly accomplished in a short space of time; that when he gives his orders for immediate delivery to the grocer, the chemist, or the tailor, these men will jump to execute them. … [When this doesn’t happen] he is at first amazed and then annoyed. If he stays long enough in England … there is a chance that he may become partially converted to this incredible manner of living.”

Shops in the north of England: “miserable shops displaying through grimy, unwashed windows pink rock candy, drill overalls, tinned sardines, sticky kippers, sucking dummies for babies, garish underwear, impossible hats.”

People who visit museums and galleries on Sundays: “there are few pastimes less agreeable in London as elsewhere than Sunday visits to such places. Among the crowds who throng them on that day there is, on the one hand, too much consciousness of self-improvement, and, on the other, too little appreciation or intelligence.”

Luggage: “sundry cases of fibre or pasteboard or worn leather, baskets with lunch and bathing-costumes, umbrellas, tennis racquets, boxes and bundles of sorts. English luggage in general rarely delights the fastidious eye and never less so than when it is carrying the family clothing to the seaside.”

Having said this, there is more positive stuff. She likes the English countryside and she is even almost persuaded at times that there are good things about the weather. She feels that the northern cities with the terrible shops have more life and welcome in them than the sleepy south. She is transported about “the Yorkshire puddings which my housekeeper for two years has constructed for me [and which] rise like the turrets of some castle at sundown, crisp and golden, and with an appeal to the imagination perilously akin to that inspired by cooking across the channel”. But overall she sounds judgmental about people who are just going about their life, with their ugly luggage and hats and their attempts at self-improvement, and annoyingly patronising when she believes she can read people’s feelings (such as the woman on the ‘bus whom she decides is heart-broken about the flowers she is taking to a friend being less sophisticated than those another friend is taking).

I would like to know when parish churches stopped tolling for the dead (funeral tolling; death knell, passing bells, the latter apparently technically being hand bells rather than church bells). I know this custom best from The Nine Tailors (1934), where the ex-sexton and current bell-ringer, Hezekiah Lavender (good name), says “We got to ring her for every Christian soul dyin’ in the parish … That’s set down for us”. Chase notes that in the West Country, church “passing bells still toll for the dying and the dead, the initial strokes of one, two or three signifying whether a man, a woman or child has died”. And did they toll for all parish inhabitants or only for church members? What Hezekiah says implies everyone except possibly the odd atheist.

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England’s Schools: History, architecture and adaptation (book #144)

23 August 2015

Elain Harwood, 2010.

Short but nicely written and illustrated book published by English Heritage about schools’ archicture. The whole book, with pictures, is now available online as a PDF from English Heritage – worth having a look at if you are interested in social history.

This is a good image of Aynhoe School (Northampstonshire) in about 1845.


You probably can’t see the detail all that well but I was struck by the number of texts. One knows of course that Christianity would have been a huge part of education but to see so much of the space covered with religious exortations emphasises it. A few I can read: “The Lord you must always obey” on the left under the black and red GIRLS sign; “Remain faithful to The Commandments” in the corresponding place on the right; “FEAR YE GOD” on extreme right; “GOD IS A SHIELD TO US” on blackboard.

I particularly like the colourful duffel bags hanging on the cupboard. There is another image of what looks like the same school (other end of the same room?) on Dawn Griffis’s website. Both show the galleried seating clearly. I like the animal pictures below the GIRLS and BOYs sign on that one – elephant to the right, ?lion to the left.

The painter, Maria Elisabeth Augusta Cartwright, née von Sandizell (1805-1902), has had her watercolours of Aynhoe House published, with some extracts from her diaries, which I would be interested to see. (Lili at Aynhoe: Victorian Life in an English Country House. There’s some discussion of it here, though the blogger’s focus is on another family. A Google images search will show you some of the watercolours of the interior of the house. There is a portrait of the artist in the NPG, but not online.

I had not realised that some London schools had roof-top playgrounds. Makes sense, of course, even though one’s modern health and safety sense tingles. Here is Catherine Street School in Hackney, 1887.

Catherine Street School

That can’t be the whole school gathered there – too few, and too many girls. I like the man with his hand on the gate. (My image has come out rather greener than the original; that is not grass.)

This picture of a reading class at an open-air LCC school in 1907 (at Bostall Wood in Woolwich) is interesting. Several of the children look pretty slumped in their desckchairs.


Bostall Wood School was the first open-air school in the UK, and was only open as an experiment for a few months in 1907. It was successful and further permanent schools were opened. This site has more detail, including that many of the children were malnourished when they arrived, and, on average, gained nearly a stone each over the few months the school was operating. This site is good on another open-air school, or series of schools, in Regent’s Park. The clerk, trying to recruit a teacher for it in the 1930s, said “all backward children, throw-outs. No one will touch it”. Not come across throw-outs in this context before – OED has “anything discarded or rejected”. The Muncipal Dreams blog has an interesting post on Aspen House Open-Air School in Lambeth in the 1930s, with pictures of the architecture. There is also a post here about Thackley Open-Air School, also of the 1930s, with good detail about routines, food etc.

And finally, a quotation from George Widdows, architect to Derbyshire Education Committee from 1902, who was committed to school buildings that improved the health of both children and teachers: “secondary buildings require just as much revolutionising as elementary. “All one can say is there are not so many children in each class and their clothes do not stink” – an insight into what it might have smelt like in some of these schools. Elain Harwood uses the quote again in a separate article on Widdows – apparently he “collapsed from overwork in 1911, and went on a cruise round the Mediterranean”. He did return to work, however, until his retirement in 1936.

Black Beech and Honeydew: An Autobiography (book #143)

17 August 2015

Ngaio Marsh, originally 1966, 1981 revised edition.

Marsh’s autobiography is unrevealing. Indeed she says as much herself, talking about having involuntarily “withdrawn from writing about experiences which have most closely concerned and disturbed me … I have been defeated by my own reticence”. I like the odd vignette that reflects something in the novels. Here’s the genesis of Death at the Dolphin (1967):

At about this time [1951] another and, to me, most beguiling project was considered by Dan O’Connor. At Woolwich there was a theatre that had received bomb damage and not been repaired. The idea was that, if it could be made usable, a Shakespeare season should be held there during the Festival of Britain. Audiences would be able to “take water to the play” going downstream by barge from Westminster Pier. One sparkling spring morning Tyrone Guthrie (he was not yet knighted), his wife, Bob and I, all went down the river to inspect this theatre. It was the gayest of jaunts. Tony Guthrie was in the middle of producing The Barber of Seville in a lovely licquorice-all-sort kind of setting and he and Judy sang bits of it all the way. We picked up the keys of the theatre at a pub and let ourselves in. The damage was extensive. “No good, dear,” said Tony Guthrie after one glance at it. “What a pity! Never mind.”

This unemphatic hardly-a-description should be set against the pages-long loving description of the Dolphin in the novel, evidently in better nick than the real theatre but still in a bad way, smelling of rats and rot.

He had forgotten about the bomb damage. A long shaft of sunlight from a gap in the roof of the stage-house took him by surprise. It produced the effect of a wartime blitz drawing in charcoal and, like a spotlight, found its mark on the empty stage. There, in a pool of mild sunlight, stood a broken chair still waiting, Peregrine thought, for one of Mr. Ruby’s very own actors. Behind the chair lay a black patch that looked as if a paint pot had been upset on the stage. It took Peregrine a moment or two to realize that this must be the hole the clerk had talked about. It was difficult to see it distinctly through the shaft of light.

Marsh mentions making drawings around the text when she is writing, and Margaret Lewis’s 1991 Ngaio Marsh: A Life shows one of these – group of her characters with added cat. Marsh’s cats kept her company whilst she wrote. I forget whether the characters are the Lampreys or from one of the theatrical books.


Exhibition at St Barbe Gallery

3 August 2015

Quick note about the exhibition of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers at the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in Lymington. It’s on until 12th Sept.

I especially liked the prints by Mychael Barrett. Lost Magic Kingdoms – an alphabetical map of fictional places is a kind of puzzle map of places from children’s stories and other fantasy works. The link isn’t a great reproduction but each image in the print refers to a different fantastical story. The key at the bottom gives further clues to identifying them. Pictures + (mostly) children’s books + puzzle element = good stuff.

I also liked his Street piano in Keystone Crescent and A memory of elephants in King’s Cross.

There was also a good cat print by Richard Bawden of a tabby cat stealthing through the undergrowth. I can’t find it online but an images search for Richard Bawden+cat+print may be enjoyable. I liked this one, My Darling, cross-looking cat, complaisant-looking owner.

And two prints by Delores de Sade, “Hence arises a digression” and “Not without undue prolixity”. I can’t find a good image of the first but the second is shown in this interview with de Sade, in which she also talks about the source of the titles.

Was good to do something other than data analysis and writing about detective fiction, both of which have taken over my life in the last few weeks. Both are good things to do but for various reasons (deadlines and knackeredness among them) have been hard work.

Latter End (book #142)

28 July 2015

Patricia Wentworth, 1949.

The hero, Antony Latter:

He came back to his room, and to the realisation that it was probably the last night he would ever spend there. His books still filled the shelves of a huge ramshackle bookcase, the sort that runs up to the ceiling and down to the floor – the bottom shelf crammed with bound volumes of the Boy’s Own Paper; school prizes in the next, the kind you never read; and so on through the idols of his teens to long rows of small leather-bound editions at the top. Some of them he would want to take. For the rest, what did one do with the relics of one’s youth? They ought to have gone in salvage during the war, but he could just see Jimmy with his foot down and a peremptory “None of Mr. Antony’s things!”

He goes on to consider the photographs in his room – “school groups, college groups … The years of the war made an impassable gulf between himself and the face, the blazer, the jersey, which had been his on the farther side of it”. Thinks about the friends who died in the war: “Bill Rogers, killed at Alamein – Jervis at Hellfire Corner – Mapleton in the blitz – Anstey in Burma – Danvers in France – Macdonald just gone, nobody knew where. No use looking back. Good fellows with whom he had had a good time, but you have to go on … ”

I like Miss Silver’s comments on Charlotte Yonge. “The Heir of Redclyffe is rather too sad … I must own for a preference for a happy ending, but one cannot cavil when so much faith and courage are inculcated. One day I believe that Miss Yonge will be admitted as the equal of Trollope, if not his superior.”


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