Katherine Wentworth (book #140)

14 June 2015

DE Stevenson, 1964.

I ordered this after reading a review of it as a ‘comfort book’, and I’d agree with that description. Very simple, predictable, generally kind about people and reasonably calm though with some darker hints (the characters of Zilla and Sir Mortimer and the effect of the latter on his grandchildren). As in Charlotte Fairlie, religion is important and there’s a friendly vicar.

I’ve read a few DES now and a couple have been awful, which this wasn’t. I agree with another review that there’s a strange detachment about the way the eponymous narrator / protagonist is presented. It’s not at all like the surreal and funny Miss Buncle’s Book. There is a sequel, which I have ordered and shall stockpile for a trip away I have coming up.

I was interested to see that Mrs MacRam, who cleans and cooks for the family at their Highland holiday cottage, “‘is baking cakes sometimes for the W.R.I. and getting prizes for them'”. I hadn’t heard of the WRI – it’s the Scottish Rural Women’s Institutes, which in fact recently dropped “Rural”. There’s a history of the WRI here, and the notes from the East Lothian branches from 1945 to 2000 here.

The book starts with a few paragraphs of lyrical description of Edinburgh, and there are mentions of going to different places in or near the city (Queensferry and the Pentland Hills). The book falls into three sections based on place (Edinburgh, Sir Mortimer’s estate, called Limbourne, which is somewhere called Wandlebury – not sure if this is supposed to be near Wandlebury Hill near Cambridge, or if it’s a made up place – and Craig-an-Ron in the Highlands). I’m not entirely sure that I’d say that the book has a strong sense of place, though; different things happen in different places but this is more about the plot than the places.

I was also interested in Simon’s statement that “‘I take The Times at school'” – he’s 16 and away at public school. I guess I would have thought that the school takes the newspapers and the boys read them in the library, rather than getting their own copies as this seems to imply.

Who Saw Her Die? (book #139)

5 May 2015

Patricia Moyes, 1970.

I’d not come across Moyes before finding this in a charity shop. Her Guardian obituary suggests she was more popular in the US than here. She evidently had an interesting life (there’s another account of it at Rue Morgue), working on radar in the war, then working with Peter Ustinov, and later living in Holland and the Caribbean.

Who Saw Her Die? is part of her series about Inspector Henry Tibbett (Chief Superintendent, by this book) and his wife, Emmy. The victim is a twenties glamour girl now aged 70, and it’s interesting to read about that period from the standpoint of 1970.

I liked this passage critical of some French food – not what one expects from English writing of the period. Emmy is Dutch, according to the internet, though this is only implied in this book (for instance, she’s ‘”glad to be back”‘ when they go to Holland).

Emmy … took herself off to Chez Marcel [in Montmartre], where for a modest sum she ate onion soup made with real onions and home-baked bread, and a beautifully-dressed salad which tasted of real lettuce and chives – compensations for a thin, tough steak, and tinned peas. The excellent cheese board nicely balanced the awful coupe Jacques. If it’s true, Emmy reflected, that English food would be delicious if one had three breakfasts a day, then by the same token cheap French meals could be improved by omitting the main disches and concentrating on the incidentals.

The by-play between Henry and Emmy is well-done. Apparently there are cats in some of Moyes’s novels (she wrote two books about cats) so obviously I shall have to explore this further.

There is a good review of Moyes’s first novel, Dead Men Don’t Ski, at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.

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’s 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 pearls 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 of 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


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