Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre and Backstage with Peggy (books #137 and #138)

19 March 2015

Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre is by Gwendoline Courtney, nd but 1964.

Backstage with Peggy is by Doris A Pocock, nd and not in Bodleian or BL catalogues, but Goodreads says it’s 1950. This sounds about right as there is a suggestion that sugar is rationed.

I got these in one batch from Oxfam, and they are similar enough that it seems a good idea to review them together. I think they probably belonged to the same person (same first name in both books). Here are the covers:

Cover of Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre

I’ve read quite a few of the other books listed. Katherine at Feather Ghyll was an online recommendation and Rhodesian Adventure a recommendation from my mother when I wrote an article about children’s books of the 50s and 60s.

Cover of Backstage with Peggy

Elizabeth isn’t illustrated. Here are the pictures from Peggy, starting with the frontispiece:

"She propped her script up on the dressing table"

"She found herself down on the road with the machine on top of her"

"I want to ask tyou to let me off playing Maid Marion"

"She slipped softly out of the cottage"

"Persistent applause raised the curtain for the sixth time"

Of the two, I think Peggy is slightly the more interesting book. Elizabeth has some lively characters, but the detail of Peggy, such as getting the Scouts to make arrows for props (the school dramatic society is putting on “Robin Hood”) makes it more gripping for me.

The (beloved) father in Elizabeth has unfortunate views about girls’ education (unfortunate to me – Pocock obviously supports him). It’s just to make sure they don’t look stupid. “‘General culture will be of far more use to you than a deep knowledge of higher mathematics or Greek,’ he once told Alison and Elizabeth. ‘If you know something of most subjects you will never appear a fool – as long as you’ve enough intelligence to realise just how little you know.'” Let’s hope his daughters don’t want to specialise in maths or Greek.

The conflict and resolution in both books works out predictably, though I did feel a bit sorry for Elizabeth and her sisters, taken in hand by their (thoughtful and caring) stepmother. Even their best friend, the Rector’s son, is critical of their previously chaotic home life: “Fond though he was of the family, he had for some time agreed with his father that it was time something was done to take the girls in hand. The kind of careless gypsy life they were leading might not have mattered so much while they were younger, but it was time Alison and Elizabeth and even Susan began to alter their ideas a little.” There’s more than a whiff of male disapproval that the girls aren’t fitting themselves to take women’s roles here.

The plot of Peggy follows the usual self-sacrifice route. You can see why Lawrie in Antonia Forest’s The Cricket Term (1974) assumes that if she gives up her part in the school play, good things will happen – it’s a well-trodden route. The character of Veronica, film-star’s daughter, was reasonably subtly done, I thought, with the book’s disapproval of her “shallowness” presented alongside her charm and her real affection for her great-aunts, whom she treats selfishly.

I liked everyone’s excitement about the first night bouquet “done up professionally in Cellophane paper” and evidently from Interflora or the like: “‘haven’t you seen those advertisements, “Say It With Flowers”?'”.

In both books the main characters end up planning a theatrical career. Elizabeth is evidently destined for greatness as a Shakespearian actor, but I liked the fact that Peggy’s thinking of her career in much more low key terms:

” … Even while I’m building castles in the air (as of course anybody would) and imagining myself a Hollywood star with an enormous fan-mail and a fabulous salary, a mocking little imp at the back of my brain keeps on insisting that that sort of thing is for Veronica Cheviot, not for me … I’m more than likely to end up as nothing more exciting than a teacher of elocution or something of that sort.” … ” … one little success in a school play … isn’t enough to found a brilliant stage career on! But the funny thing is, Kath, I don’t feel as if I should mind so very much if it did all end in having to do something quite ordinary. It isn’t only the stars who get the fun. … I could be quite happy … getting on whith whatever was my job – only I somehow feel I should like it to be a job somehow connected with the stage. … “

Doris Pocock also wrote Lorna on the Land, which I enjoyed.

Five Little Pigs (book #136)

16 March 2015

Christie, originally 1942.

The description of Miss Williams, the retired governess, and her flat, reminded me of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, also an ex-governess. Here is Miss Williams’s “flatlet”:

The walls were distempered an ascetic pale grey, and various reproductions hung upon them. Dante meeting Beatrice on a bridge – and that picture once descibed by a child as a ‘blind girl sitting on an orange and called, I don’t know why, “Hope”.’ There were also two water colours of Venice and a sepia copy of Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’. On the top of the low chest of drawers were a large quantity of faded photographs, mostly, by their style of hairdressing, dating from twenty to thirty years ago.

Henry Holiday’s Dante and Beatrice


Watts’s Hope:


Botticelli’s Primavera:


And Miss Silver’s flat:

There was a row of photographs in silver frames upon the mantelpiece, and over it a silver engraving of Millais’ Black Brunswicker. On the opposite wall The Soul’s Awakening, and Bubbles. The wallpaper, covered with bunches of violets, put the clock back forty years.

(From Lonesome Road, 1939.)

Millais’s The Black Brunswicker:

Black Brunswicker

James Sant’s The Soul’d Awakening:

Soul's Awakening Sant

Millais’s Bubbles (A Child’s World):


In The Chinese Shawl two other pictures are mentioned

a number of pictures in old-fashioned frames of yellow maple. The pictures were all reproductions of the more famous works of the great Victorian artists – The Huguenots; Hope, drooping over her darkened world; The Black Brunswicker; The Stag at Bay.

I think “The Huguenots” is probably Millais’s A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge:


Landseer’s The Stag at Bay:


Miss Williams has “authority” so that people must tell her the truth: “they considered fleetingly the possibility of a lie and instantly rejected it”. Miss Silver is the same; in The Watersplash a reluctant witness feels “a quite extraordinary sense of relief … The words which had come with so much effort now flowed like water. In some strange unreasoning way she recognised the presence of kindness and authority and responded to them”.

Miss Silver, as a result of having become a private detective, is much better off than Miss Williams (“the affair of the Urtingham peals had proved very renumerative” [The Chinese Shawl]). Miss Silver’s office is “cheerful” and usually has a fire going. Miss Williams only has one “room, that was bedroom, sitting-room, dining-room, and, by judicious use of the gas ring, kitchen – a kind of cubby-hole attached to it continued a quarter-length bath and the usual offices”. “The square of carpet was threadbare, the furniture battered and off poor quality. It was clear to Hercule Poirot that Cecilia Williams lived very near the bone.”

Reflections: On the Magic of Writing (book #135)

11 March 2015

Diana Wynne Jones, 2012.

Talks about her son, aged 12, reading Kim repeatedly, and confessing aged 15 that he had thought it was a fantasy set in an alternate world. “It’s possible that many children regard historical novels as this kind of fantasy. In which they are not exactly wrong.”

Describes, during her terrible childhood spent partly in a conference centre her parents ran in Thaxted, “The Other Garden”. This was kept locked, but “whenever things got difficult for me … I would go and beg the key of this Other Garden from my father. … Eventually, if I didn’t get hit, I got the key, and could go into this amazing, deserted, utterly beautiful garden”. “It was crowned with well-pruned standard roses and apple trees of every kind, and soft fruit and vegetables in rows behind espaliered pear trees. Every so often you came across strange little shrines of broken pieces of Venetian glass that had been built by the gardener”. There were bees: “I told them things. They never seemed to mind”.

This garden strikes me now, though it didn’t at the time, as a perfect analogue of what a good book … should be … A good book should be another place, beyond ordinary life and quite different from it, made with care and containing marvels. But although it is beyond ordinary life, it is by no means unconnected with it. You have to beg the key. And … you can tell the bees things. The bees don’t solve your problems. You have to do that. But the mere fact of having taken your mind to another place for a while, if that place is sufficiently wonderful, means you come back with experience. I know I always came back from the Other Garden much more able to deal with what was sometimes truly frightful pressure.

The Port of London Murders (book #134)

10 March 2015

Josephine Bell (pseudonym of Doris Collier Bell), 1955 (originally 1938).

Josephine Bell on Wikipedia.

A good comparison to the picture of Mayfair in the last book. This is set in the east of London, around Rotherhithe, a very poor area, some streets in the process of being condemned and destroyed. The river is at the centre of the book, “the wharfs and the factories, the cranes, the houses, the walls and the beaches, the fettered ships at their moorings, the heavy, loaded barges, the docks and warehouses and rubbish dumps and old forgotten workings”.

Bell describes the activity on Saturdays: the market with “jellied eels and tiny saucers of whelks and cockles” and beef for Sunday roasts, crowds of shoppers, couples going to the cinema, “The sweet shops, the tobacconists, the hairdressers and the public houses all have their crowds of customers flowing in and out, preparing for Sunday outings, spending the weekly wage”.

But by Sunday morning the noise has gone … The blocks of houses and shops, equally closed, look drearier than ever. … A stranger, travelling along this main road … would reflect gloomily on the huge area of once beautiful country so defaced, and with so little resulting benefit to its occupiers. … [He would not know] that for several miles he had been moving beside the bank of the river Thames.

For in some places along this road going east from Rotherhithe the streets on the left-hand side end at the water’s edge in wharfs, in yards, in scrap-heaps, in narrow jetties, in small bays with promenades flanked by old dwellings, in little streets where the crumbling houses on the Thames’ side stand out into the mud on wooden piles. Beyond them the river stretches and a different world begins.

The grime and squalor and ugliness are still there in the uncouth machinery leaning out over the wharfs, in the heavy work-worn barges, and even in the dark greasy substance of the river itself. But they are changed by the sea air blowing up from the estuary, and are cloaked and hidden by the blue-grey haze that hangs over the banks most of the year round. They are forgotten at the sight of broad swinging water, and sea-gulls turning and dipping to its surface, and the red sails of a barge working upstream from Rochester.

Bell was a doctor who practised in London in the 1920s and 30s, as well as an extremely prolific novelist. The book gives some fascinating details about the workings of the Public Assistance Offices. Two men diagnosed with neurasthenia (the author is clear that one of them is actually ill, but the other is shamming) have to go each day to “the Centre” – not sure what this is, some kind of occupational therapy place or somewhere where they have to work in order to get assistance? They seem to be ordered to go there by the doctor.

There’s also a description of “the Portable X-ray Service”. A rather dodgy character, a riverman whom the River Police suspect of having more money than he should, calls this in when his wife falls on the stairs.

… instead of sending for the ambulance and having her conveyed immediately to hospital, Jim had dispatched a message to his own doctor and at the same time had phoned for the attendance of the Portable X-ray Service. The doctor in the room above watched by the patient’s side, and an admiring crowd below at the corner of Lower Thames Street and Wood Wharf stood around the Portable X-ray Service van, in the interior of which delightful unseen machinery buzzed and throbbed, while men darted in and out of the house, and the X-ray picture was taken through the bedroom window. When, in the ‘Fisherman’ that night, Jim was asked how much the magic van had cost him he only waved his hand and ordered half-pints for everyone present.

I guess this has an ensemble cast. I’d have liked more of Jim. There are two main police officers involved in the detection. There is a love-interest between two local young people, and an enterprising small boy. The finding of one of the bodies is particularly gruesome.

The Passing Tramp has an excellent review of Murder in Hospital, 1937.

I would also like to read Bell’s second novel, Death on the Borough Council.

The Red Widow Murders (book #133)

23 February 2015

Carter Dickson, 1951 (originally 1935).

I wasn’t that keen on this – process-heavy, and the detective and other characters don’t have enough life for me. But here are a couple of sections I did like:

The street was very quiet and dim-lit, a backwater in itself, which curved round to the right towards the mysteriousness of Lansdowne Passage. And, towards Lansdowne Passage, the heavy house-fronts began to fall away in startling ruin. They were tearing down many of the solid town-houses that had bulwarked Mayfair for two hundred years. A ragged side-wall or two still remained standing, still patched with the wall-paper of vanished rooms; a heap of stones, a gaping vastness of cellars in the open spaces, a street gutted to ruin.

(A character says a few pages later that “‘Old Mayfair’s going, and maybe a good thing. They’re buying up all the good sites for big blocks of flats and cinemas … ‘”.)

Carstairs was a lank young fellow with a ruddy face, a brown tooth-brush moustache, and a genial manner, whose hobby seemed to be any sport which entailed the more spectacular ways of breaking your neck. As an example of the Silent English Sportsman, he was a surprise. Not only did he impart most of his life history in the first fifteen minutes, but he illustrated each adventure with a powerful piece of acting and a wealth of gesticulation. He used everything on the table to plot out the course for a motor-race, making frantic brr-r-ing noises as the salt-cellar which represented his car went plunging round the track. In the stealth of a hunting expedition, he leered behind imaginary rifle-sights and expelled his breath triumphantly as the express bullet went home. And, oddly enough as Tairlane found, he was not a liar.

Midst Many Snares (book #132)

12 January 2015

Laura A Barter Snow, ?1909.

Cover of Midst Many Snares

Snow’s protagonists are beset by Roman Catholics, who are shown as going to any sort of deceit to get influence. Lord Wythe’s footman turns out to be a Jesuit who is trying to discover secrets about foreign affairs, and who threatens a woman who recognises him with death if she informs on him. A locum for a Church of England vicar turns out to be a Roman Catholic priest. Two children are ill-treated at a convent school to try to persuade them to convert. A “secret society for the spread of Romish doctrines” tries to lead undergraduates “’astray … They are utterly changed, and regularly go to confession, and give every promise of turning out tip-top Ritualists, if not something worse’”. A minister influenced by this takes over a church and the congregation start leaving to go to the Methodist chapel instead.

“’And can you blame the people? The ritualistic churches may attract weak, silly girls and women, especially of the upper classes, and also a few men, but the sound-headed and sturdy middle class know better. They want something satisfying; they have got to face the wear and tear of life, and demand reality. … ‘”

Laura Barter Snow makes it clear that she has no problem with non-conformists or dissenters, just RCs. One of her characters says

“’I belong to the Church of England … and I love her liturgy; but that does not hinder me loving those of other sects. I have worshipped with the Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Plymouth Brethren, for are we not all one in Christ Jesus? Wherever a sectarian spirit creeps in, it is to the loss of spiritual power.’”

Apart from the Catholic hierarchy and the issue about the Pope and saints being important, one of her main anti-RC points is their lack of use of the Bible, which apparently keeps countries backward. Christine is told

“’Have you ever noticed … that all Roman Catholic countries, where the Bible is a sealed book, suffer for it? This Book is the secret of England’s greatness … Look at Holland, Prussia, the United States, and see the thriving condition of these nations in contrast to Italy, Spain, and France, where Rome is leading the people practically to infidelity. … ‘”

Confession is also terrible to her, and she presents it as a sort of sexual harassment, as in Mrs Smith’s description of confession with a high Anglican vicar:

“’ … I was shown into his study, and as soon as I got in he up and locks the door, and that scared me. … At first I answered all his questions; but presently he began to say things I didn’t like – things I’d never heard or thought of before, and it made me hot all over. I hid my face in my hands and began to cry, and the more he talked the worse I got … says he, ‘Remember, Hester White, you will commit a great sin if you ever disclose to any human being anything that has taken place in this room. Confession,’ says he, ‘is a secret between the priest and the sinner.’ … ‘”

One main character, Una, becomes a nun against her mother’s wishes, and is ill-treated, “never allowed to sit down … they always had to live without fires”. We are given to understand that she regrets her decision, but is not allowed to leave. “Why is it that these places are not open to public inspection, like other institutions in our great country?” Yes, good plan, bring in Ofsted for convents.

I was also interested in the brief treatment of the Irish. Christine’s father was Irish.

“’And so I suppose you consider yourself more than half a Paddy,’ laughed Mrs. Worthington. ‘Well, dear, you will be none the worse for that; many of our most brilliant leaders, statesmen and military men, have been Irishmen. Only don’t go in for disturbances, I pray you; I do like living in peace!’ and all joined in the merry laugh which followed this statement.”

I do like a good chapter intro of this kind: “Two years passed away.” More contemporary novels should use this temporal jumping.

I have not previously come across LBS as far as I remember, which is surprising as she was evidently extremely prolific and there are lots of copies of her books available. There is very little information about her online. Her biography, The Joyous Servant. The Life Story of Laura Anna Barter Snow … By Her Daughters indicates that her dates were 28/08/1864 to 23/06/1939. Here are some of her books, with great titles:

Marjory; or, What would Jesus do? (1893)
Mona’s Inheritance; or, “Who hath despised the day of small things?” (1896) I’m a bit baffled by this one as a copy on eBay seems to be bound with Three Girls In A Boat, which I can’t find in the BL or Bodleian catalogues.
Ruth’s roses, or, What some girls did (1903)
Honor’s quest; or, How they came home (1906)
Her Bright To-morrow; or, “All must be well” (1907)
Norah’s Victory; or, Saved through Suffering (1913)
The Sealed Packet. The stirring story of Aimée’s gold mine. (1918)
Eldwyth’s Choice (1929)
Ursula, a candidate for the Ministry (1930)
The Two Myrtles; or, “I, being in the way, the Lord led me” (1933)

Some of these have good dustjackets:

Cover of Sealed Packet

Cover of Aileen

I’ve given the earliest date from either the Bodleian or BL cats, but they may not be totally reliable. Midst Many Snares is given as third impression, 1909. My copy is also 3rd impression but inscribed “All Saints Epping Upland Church Choir. Awarded to Lizzie Bailes for Regular Attendance & Good Conduct. 1919-1920. Walter A Limbrick Vicar”.

Cover inscription

One passage from LBS is all over the internet on contemporary Christian sites: This Thing Is From Me.

Of the daughters who wrote / may have written her biography, Dorothy Snow, Marjory Snow, Eileen Snow and Kathleen Snow,

– Dorothy Snow seems also to have written The Long Pursuit (1931), Fiddlers Three (1953) and David, Tony and the Bees (1946), reprinted as Tony, David and the Bees (1947). The Bees book was evidently Christian, judging by the publishers.
– Eileen Snow seems also to have written Tales about Tails, etc (1949), Ludhiana Christian Medical College responds to the Challenge of India (1958), and contributed to Christ’s servant, India’s friend: a memoir of Dr. Aileen Pollock of Ludhiana with an epilogue by her friend and successor, Dr. Eileen Barter Snow. There is a history of Ludhiana Christian Medical College here.

I had a quick look for LBS in the census records. I can’t find her as Laura Barter, so either her DoB is wrong, her name is badly misspelt in the census, she was using a different name or she wasn’t listed. I found her in the 1901 census living at 27 Duncan Terrace, Islington, with her husband Frank, 3 year-old Dorothy, a son, also Frank, aged one, a visitor, Jessie Padden, living on her own income and born in India, a cook, Florence Pitt, and nurse, Christina Cameron. Laura is listed as having been born in India, which may be why she wasn’t on earlier censuses. By the 1911 census they have moved to The Vicarage, Broadway, Worcestershire, and have another 4 children (Eileen aged 9, Lucy Kathleen aged 7, Richard aged 4 and Marjory aged 3). They now have a servant, Blanche Ashby, a nurse, Fanny Powell, and a Private Secretary and Typist, Mabel Ashwell. I presume the typist is for Laura’s work mainly as I can’t find any books by Frank. A slightly more detailed place of birth is given for Laura – Calcutta. Frank can be traced back to the 1881 census, when he was living in Barrow-in-Furness and was a Commercial Clerk. I can’t find him in the 1891 census.

Images from the book – Visiting the poor:

Scene from MMS - visiting the poor

Christine – same image as cover, but dress is a different colour:

Scene from MMS - Christine picking roses

Visiting Una in the convent:

Visiting Una in the convent

MMS - spine

The Victorian Woman (book #131)

28 November 2014

Suzanne Fagence Cooper, 2001. SFC is the author of the biography the film Effie Gray is based on.

This is a picture book using the collections of the V&A.


The Dinner Hour, Eyre Crowe, 1874. There is a good Eyre Crowe site here.

TVW 001

Photograph by Paul Chapuis, Woman painting portrait, c 1860. See this on the V&A site here.

TVW 004

Poster, Convicts and Lunatics … , c 1900, Emily J Harding Andrews. There are some really interesting notes on the artist’s life at Woman and Her Sphere.

TVW 005

The Slade Life-Class, magazine illustration, 1883.

TVW 006

Paul Martin, photograph, Girls Paddling at Cromer, 1892. There is a similar picture here and some other pictures by Paul Martin here.

TVW 007Photograph, 1898, from family album.

Doreen Wallace (1897-1989), Writer and Social Campaigner (book #130)

17 August 2014

June Shepherd, 2000.

Wallace was one of the Somerville School of novelists. I can’t find much online about this group (most links are to lists of all novelists from Somerville, not this more specific group) but Shepherd says they comprise Vera Brittain, Muriel Jaeger, Margaret Kennedy, Holtby and Sayers as well as Wallace. They are discussed in Susan J Leonardi’s Dangerous by Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists, which I would like to read.

Wallace wrote 48 novels, starting with A Little Learning in 1931 and ending with Landscape with Figures in 1976. I came across her through How to Grow Food, 1940, recently republished.

Sayers probably caricatured Wallace in Gaudy Night in the person of an old student, Catherine Freemantle / Bendick, who had been brilliant at university but then married a farmer, had children and sunk into domesticity: “a Derby winner making shift with a coal-cart”. Wallace certainly felt this was a depiction of her and was angry about it. It seems odd though as Wallace was already publishing novels by this time – I guess Sayers must have seen this popular writing as of no account weighed against academia.

“It was some three years after her son’s birth [which was in 1927] when, in the later stages of her third pregnancy, Doreen sat down … to start the novel that had been in her mind for months. ‘I was too hefty to do much gardening or other physical work … [ellipsis in text] I felt that by now I had enough experience of life, though limited, and knowledge of country people, though limited, to have something more to say”.”

I like Wallace’s implication that she was “too hefty” to garden so might as well write.

Wallace was very involved in the 1930s Tithe Wars – these were protests by landowners in East Anglia and Kent against paying the church tithe. Again, there’s not much online, but see the summary of this paper, The Tithe War in Kent 1925-36: an Example of English Militant Agrarianism and this article about an East Anglian man’s memoirs, North Suffolk man’s autobiography recalls tithe wars and Mosley’s blackshirts. The Tithe Wars lost their importance when the Second World War started, but compulsory tithes were not ended until the 1970s. Wallace said that it was this issue that ended her friendship with Sayers, who as a vicar’s daughter and Christian was on the other side of the argument.

The biography includes some of Wallace’s poems as an appendix. I don’t think most of them are very good, though I quite like this one, the first verse anyway, for its focus on a mundane activity (and the suggestion of Marvell’s mower):

Cutting the Grass

He is cutting the grass, and it flies like spray
On following wind, in a brilliant bow
With light white bubbles bestarred, the day
Prisoned by trees in this narrow plot,
Bright, scented, hot,
Rings with the noise of the blades that mow
Their ribbony pathway to and fro.
Like bubbles of foam the daisies fly
Before the speed of his industry.

It is done: there lies the impeccable sward,
Silkily striped like a party-gown.
A crushed sweet silence creeps abroad
And night’s first veil comes down.
The cutter is being taken away,
A dwindling tune of jangles and jars:
But the myriad daisies, where are they
That were more and whiter than summer stars?

There’s also this one:


A valedictory whisper, high and rare,
The last note of a hidden violin,
Steals from another world discreetly in
And quietly flowers on the heated air.
Thin is the wall that sunders Here from There,
A membrane only of the mind, so thin
That I can watch the conversation spin
Its web about the room from chair to chair.

And still be drawn by that frail note away
To the unbounded world beyond the wall
Where I can see the littleness of day,
The timely grace of seasons at their fall,
Can see the light go down, the darkness climb,
And hear the cadence of the feet of Time.

As with the mowing one, she’s reaching for deepness in the second stanza, and I don’t think pulls it off. But some of the first verse is more successful, the amazement at the here-and-there-ness of the radio sound.

I want to scan in a picture of Wallace in a wonderful 1920s hat, but my printer won’t let me as it’s out of ink (even though I don’t need ink to scan), and as this is an inter-library loan book I’ll probably have to return it before getting more ink. I’ll photocopy the picture and scan it if it comes out at all usable.

Read since last post:

Jan at Island School, Ethel Talbot
The Case of the Gilded Fly, Edmund Crispin (re-read)
Private Scandals, Nora Roberts
Key of Light, NR (reread)
All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Born in Ice, NR (re-read)
Blue Smoke, NR (re-read)
Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold (re-read)
One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming

Wanderings in Anglo-Saxon Britain (book #129)

2 August 2014

Arthur Weigall, not dated but the Bodleian catalogue has it as 1927, and the inscription in my copy is also 1927. The book is online.

I’d not heard of Weigall before but he seems to have a fascinating life: worked with Flinders Petrie, was concerned about the export of archaeological items from Egypt, wanted to support Egyptian involvement in archaeology. Is described as having some sort of breakdown and then becoming a set designer and novelist. I would like to read the biography by his grand-daughter. Would also like to read some of Weigall’s novels.

This book fits well with the books by Jessie Mothersole I’ve been reading. Weigall, who was a journalist, expresses more definite views than Mothersole about what we can or should infer about the British from archaeology. He says in the first chapter,

our school books have so incorrectly spread the belief that the English have no relation to the British, and we have been credited with a purely Germanic ancestry. Actually, however, we are a blend of the two races; and thus while our English ancestry takes us back only 1,500 years or so to the darkness of a rather stormy life in Denmark, Schleswig, and along the neighbouring German coast, our British blood, apart from the “Roman” strain, carries us right back into the four centuries of our connection with Rome, and thence back for at least another 1500 years of more or less civilized life in Britain, and links us at length with the men who built Stonehenge.
As descendants of the British we have at least 3,500 years of civilization in our own land behind us; but though our English history covers less than half that period it, too, presents, even in its early phases, a very creditable tale. The conditions of life in England in early Anglo-Saxon times were at any rate far superior to those in France under the contemporary Merovingians.
Thus, if my purpose is achieved, I shall put forward in these pages a picture of our forefathers’ history which, on the whole, will give us cause for much pride of race …

I love the idea that we should be looking for a creditable tale in archaeology. Here are some more of his thoughts on the British, with more slaps at foreigners:

In spite of wars and tumults, a remarkable and gradually increasing refinement of mind is to be observed in these early [Anglo-Saxon] ancestors of ours, contrasting them very favourably with their contemporaries on the Continent. …

Is it the influence of Britain, rather than that of any one strain in our blood, that has made our race the most orderly, the most magnanimous, and perhaps the most kindly in the world? Is there some quality in the land itself, some unchanging spirit of gentleness brooding over our countryside, which tames all men who come hither, whether they be Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, or Normans, and moulds them into one undying type? What is the nature of this miracle wrought by Britain time after time upon the minds of those various peoples who have come home-hunting to her shores, so that to call a man British is to denote his character? …

the Anglo-Saxons, the English as we now say, became a people different from their Germanic kin, gentler, more magnanimous, more kindly, more idealistic, yet of greater common-sense, more nearly approximating in certain ways to the Celt than to the Teuton …

[The Anglo-Saxons] generally displayed that same tendency towards domestic exclusiveness, privacy, and independence which has remained a national characteristic ever since, and which is now exemplified in the saying that an Englishman’s home is his castle. …

[In Bede] we may fully study the childhood of the English nation, and it may well be a matter of deep satisfaction to us that, thanks to this great old Englishman, our country is far ahead of any other in western Europe in the knowledge of its early history. Through Bede’s labours it may be said that the English race makes its appearance on the world’s stage in both a more vivid and a more reputable manner than does any other western nation; and at a bound, so to speak, we thus take our place in front of all other peoples. …

On the Continent it is proverbially said that “the English are defeated in every battle except the last.” Now this exaggerated but witty saying need cause us no offence, for it means simply that the steadiness of our nerves and our powers of endurance are deemed to be greater than those of other peoples, and that though at first we may receive a terrible gruelling, owing to our national dislike of the attitude of being prepared for war, we may be expected to survive the first shocks and to come out at last on top. …

Weigall is concerned to correct the “Dark Ages” stereotype, writing that “the story of Britain . . . maintains its detailed course through the Anglo-Saxon period, full of interesting and romantic matter, rich in recorded events, and never once falling back into the darkness and vacancy of an unchronicled epoch”.

He ends like this:

the crowds upon it [the road of British history], viewed in the mass, move forward in the same traditional spirit of goodwill, toleration, and compromise which are the historic characteristics of our age-old race. From incalculable distance, augmented by innumerable strains of type and breed, the British people come thronging along this immeasurable way, pressing forward towards the vision of the future, generation succeeding generation, moving from strength to strength, until the Past merges into the Present and we of to-day see ourselves inseparably part of the progression, part of old England, part of Britain that was, and is, and is to be.

Books read since last update

A Fountain Filled With Blood, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Out of the Deep I Cry, Julia Spencer-Fleming
To Darkness and To Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Treachery in Death, J D Robb

Bestsellers: Popular Fiction since 1900 (book #128)

27 July 2014

Bestsellers: Popular Fiction since 1900
Clive Bloom, 2008.

This is the second edition, revised from the 2002 edition, and reads at times as if the revisions were done rather hastily.

Talks about the difficulty of establishing what the bestsellers actually were. “The British lists were only regularised in the late 1970s.” Before that, he quotes a 1969 article, the lists “‘were produced on a whim by a panel of bibulous bookmen‘, using booksellers whose ‘cynical’ replies were sometimes merely an attempt to sell slow movers”. “There are also no cumulative bestseller lists”, so there is a difficulty about books which over time sell in bestseller numbers, but do not achieve bestseller numbers in any one year.

Bit simplistic at times about reader response – for instance, saying Cartland and Miss Read “attracted women to whom liberal values did not appeal”.

Rather a misogynist comment about Blyton.

Sometimes badly written or edited – this second sentence is hard to understand: “Perhaps hard and fast category distinctions [between adult and child literature] are breaking down in some areas. The growth of teenage literature, R. L. Stine’s extraordinary success in the field of horror is certainly indicative and Philip Pullman’s work, a complex web of ideas and imagination challenges adult beliefs as well as moulding children’s imaginations.”

Bloom seems to dislike commas, as in “The story follows Eragon a poor boy who finds a blue stone in the forest that turns out to be a dragon’s egg”. There are some longer sentences that become breathless because of this.

About half the book is short entries, alphabetical by period, on the bestselling authors. I need to read Berta Ruck.

There are some slightly random comments. For instance, he talks about James Hadley Chase and other paperback thriller writers of the 40s and 50s setting books in America though most of the writers hadn’t been there. ” … few travelled outside the UK. This is still the case with authors today. Stef Penny was prevented from going to Canada by agoraphobia but it did not prevent her from winning a major prize for The Tenderness of Wolves, set in Canada.” Not sure how useful it is to compare the first group of writers with the contemporary Stef Penney (not Penny) who had a different reason for not travelling.

There are a lot of typos, including the splendid “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull is the story of a bird who files for the love of it rather than the necessity.” I can visualise the photographs – JLS against faded vintage office cabinets and wooden library index card drawers.

Books read since my last update:

A Stepmother for Susan of St Bride’s, Ruth Adam (which has some kittens that save the day, which is always good).
Margaret Finds a Future, by Mabel Esther Allan.
Thai Dye, Monica Ferris.
A Lady Awakened, Cecila Grant.
Treachery in Death, J D Robb (re-read).
In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia Spencer-Fleming.
I’m Taking My Eggs and Going Home, Lisa Manterfield.


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