Archive for March, 2015

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:

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 with 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.