Archive for the ‘books read’ Category

Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography (book #162)

8 June 2017

Cover of book - image of Warner

Claire Harman, 1989.

I’ve been meaning to read this for years, ever since hearing Harman speak (about food in literature). My book club read Lolly Willowes recently so I thought it was time to read the biography. Which is really good, particularly on Warner’s troubled, devoted relationship with Valentine Ackland (problems including Ackland’s other relationships, her lack of literary success, their imbalance in earnings, Ackland’s alcoholism and later religious faith). Also good on the houses they lived in, often inconvenient and cold. And good use of Warner’s and Ackland’s writing in the text. And I know this should be commonplace but it’s also good to see a lesbian relationship where the women, and the biographer, seem to have very little interest in what others thought about their sexuality.*

Some pieces I liked:

Ackland’s letter about bomb damage in London (she’s writing about Inverness Terrance and Mecklenburgh Square in October 1945):

completely flattened … smell of smoke and fire still hanging over the streets and pieces of the fixtures of the houses still littering the basements and gutters. Front doors ajar, and stately rooms beyond, with pit-holes down to the earth instead of floors, and small trees and jungles of dying loosestrife grown up almost to the front windows.

Ackland’s poem (included in her posthumous 1973 collection The Nature of the Moment, but mentioned by Harman in her section on 1948) “Journey from Winter”:

As days become shorter and the cold ghost of the North
leans across from the Pole to strike us, and winter appears in the sky,
it is time to consider our journey. Take down the guide,
the schedule of trains and of sailings, the smart list of ‘planes;
and here by the first fire, our comfort and warning, consider:

The ways of coming at truth, attaining creating or re-discovering,
need no special equipment of faith or unfaith;
the amateur party about to set out to-morrow
will follow one route of the three; but all run together
somewhere in country uncharted, and all reach the end.

There are no true maps of the kingdom; guides have been and returned,
but some will not venture again, while others will shepherd part-way
and still others travel as exiles working a passage home.
The natives are foreign to us and will offer no kindness,
being without interest in strangers and unable to speak our tongue.

They say the first stages are easy; civilised travel
and pleasant companions en route. But once over the frontier
there’s nothing to help you except your own wits, and the wish
to reach your objective. Once over the frontier the others
who started out with you scatter, and each one travels alone.

Guide books agree that the contry is full of silence;
no written words to be found, no signposts, no place-names, no roads,
and scarcely a living man met. All you can do
is watch for the flight of birds or study the slant of the stars
or try to decipher the hieroglyphs drawn by sheep on the hills.

You can live on the country, they say, and do better so
than to carry provisions which, under that sky, will rot.
You can travel fast or slow; there is nothing to tell you
how much further you have to journey until you arrive,
how much further before you reach –

Reach what? I do not know.
All I know is the blight of the North wind, the carrion
patience of winter hanging up there in the sky,
and the blow that is aimed from the Pole, that is aimed to destroy us.
These things, and the date of starting, are all I know.

Also this bit on love – the letter is from about 1950:

there was a sombre truth as well as a simple one in what Sylvia wrote to a friend at about the same time, imploring him not to be tormented by fantasies of losing his lover: ‘think of me,’ she said. ‘Here I am, grey as [a] badger, wrinkled as a walnut, and never a beauty at my best; but here I sit, and yonder sits the other one, who had all the cards in her hand – except one. That I was better at loving and being loved.”

I’d like to know more about the Blitzed Libraries scheme, for which Warner and Ackland sorted books at a National Salvage Depot in 1943.

*I know that’s 4 x good in one paragraph, but it’s the right word for this book.

Links:

Review at Shiny New Books.

NY Times review of the letters of Ackland and Warner, with a link to the first chapter of the book.

The Incredible Crime (book #161)

5 June 2017

Book cover - Cambridge scene, river, punt, bridge.

Lois Austen-Leigh (1931).

This is one of the British Library Crime Classics. It has the “none of the characters are likeable” problem.

Lord Wellende’s description of the “school managers’ meeting” is interesting:

” … We’ve got to get a new mistress for the village school, and a golden-haired lady has applied for the post.”
“Who are the managers?” said Prudence.
“Well, the ones that attended this morning were Woodcock and Abel Lundy – farms Stanny House Farm, you know – and myself. She got me cornered, the lady did,” chuckled Wellende. “Suddenly asked me what my views were about Clause 8 under Schedule B – or something of the sort – but Woodcock came to my assistance by asking her if she ever took a hand at halfpenny nap. And they got off to talking about halfpenny nap, which saved me; hadn’t the foggiest notion what Clause B Schedule 8 might be.”
“You must be a priceless collection as school managers – you, Lundy, and Woodcock,” laughed Prudence.
“It’s the best we can raise, anyway; the golden-haired lady evidently agreed to with you, for she declined the job; an occasional evening in the big room at the ‘Plough and Sail’ for halfpenny nap is about the only dissipation there is to offer.”

There’s some snobbery – someone comments on how the police detective’s “keen, intelligent face doesn’t excuse various little things about him … For instance, his constantly saying ‘your lordship’ to our host [Lord Wellende]”. (The Past Offences review linked below talks more about class in this novel.)

Characters are impressed by Lord Wellende not being “effete”: ‘”he gets his hair cut by an under-gardener – an under-gardener, if you please – because seventy years ago the old fellow was in a barber’s shop, and he always has cut his lordship’s hair for the last forty years, and so he always will!”‘.

Wouldn’t particularly recommend this one unless you’re a BL crime completist.

There’s a Guardian article which talks a bit about Austen-Leigh’s life. Past Offences has a fairly critical review which is worth reading. A more positive review from Bookbag.

Edited to add a link to another critical review, at In Search of the Classic Mystery.

The Larks of Jubilee Flats (book #160)

11 January 2017

Marjorie A Sindall, 1956.

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I can’t find anything about Marjorie Sindall online. This is a short book, in the Panther series. Slight, but pleasant – everyone is very nice and everything turns out for the best. Nursing is a big part of the plot, with Jill, aged 14, planning to be a nurse. She attends a Junior Domestic and Technical School, called the Elmer Foundation, which dates back to the seventeenth century. Her family is working class, her father working at a brewery and her mother a hospital ward orderly:

‘But if I could have my time over again,’ she often said with a small sigh, ‘I’d be a nurse. Best job there is.’

Jill’s school spends two days a week on housecraft and cookery, and sends her for one morning a week to a day nursery. I was surprised that they are planning a school trip to Bruges, staying with Belgian families – cost to the children, £10 each.

There are some good details in the text and pictures. I liked Jill’s father “sprucing himself up” for Sunday visitors: “he donned his best brown suit, and the whole flat was filled with the scent of his violet hair cream”. Feather Ghyll points out the patients smoking on the hospital wards.

The illustrator is Frank Haseler. There’s a bit about him online. This post has some of his illustrations from 1972 (and his son has commented on it). There’s another 1970s image of his here. And a nude by him on eBay.

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A Girl Governess; or, Ella Dalton’s Success (book #159)

10 January 2017

AE Ward, 1894.

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16-year-old Ella has been booked to sing, for pay, at a drawing room concert She wants to do it in order to earn money for her ill sister’s treatment.

There’s a good bit about clothes, reminiscent of Polly and Fanny in An Old-Fashioned Girl:

perhaps I can borrow [a dress]; or if not, I must make my old white muslin do, though it has been washed so many times that it is getting rather thin in places. I can shorten the sleeves and put a bit of fresh lace into them, and you will see how nice it will look.

Fortunately a friend secretly gives / lends her “a beautiful new dress of white muslin, and the sweetest little cashmere mantle”. I like her brother’s phrase, “all that grand toggery”.

A mean girl, Carrie Mason, is not happy about Ella singing for money, and tries to interfere, but Ella is a success and earns two guineas. A chap in the audience then randomly (given her age and inexperience) employs her as governess to his grandchildren, spoilt Geoffry and “meek-spirited”, emotionally neglected Helen. Although at this point Ella is clearly a good girl, thoughtful and kind to her family, her mother thinks she is too self-confident about being a governess, but she, the mother, can’t do anything about this as she herself has not found God so can’t “bid [Ella] distrust herself and look to a higher strength than her own”. So on the one hand Ella’s prospects are looking good, but on the other hand she’s onviously going to be humbled before her relationship with God can be solved.

Fortunately, the rector tells her that she has to give herself to God, and she does so. Rather anti-climatic, but we’re only half-way through the book at this point, and Geoffry is still a right pain. One of the servants has been telling him he is the heir to the estate and shouldn’t have to obey anyone. Fortunately an orphan comes to live with one of the village families, and is a suitable charitable case on which Geoffers can learn unselfishness. Also Geoffry sprains his ancle and twists his back (which explains the scene on the cover) and has to stay in bed for weeks. He learns the value of his sister too. So all’s well with the world, including for Ella’s mother and ill sister, who move to a better house because of the kindness of her employer. The latter remains a bit of a randomer and cannot see that there has ever been anything wrong with Geoffry’s behaviour. All a bit by the numbers generally, I was disappointed that Carrie Mason didn’t reappear. One pleasing thing though – no love interest for Ella.

The book is nicely produced, with the standard random pictures at the start of chapters, as you can see from the first image here.

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Ella looks more than 16 in this picture:

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I think I have read AE Ward’s other book, Arthur’s Victory.

The Young Clementina (book #158)

16 October 2016
Cover of Young Clementina

Cover of Young Clementina

Originally published as Divorced from Reality and revised and re-published, I think in 1966 – this edition is 1970. Cover does not reflect book particularly well.

As the change in title might suggest, the book is not really about Clementina (who is a child). The (literal) divorce is treated in some detail, with a transcript of some of the evidence given – strikingly realistic for 1935 I thought. I can only recall brief mentions of divorce in other novels of the time (eg in Busman’s Honeymoon).

The comments in this review suggest that the revised version of the book has some significant differences from the earlier one.

Stevenson is good on tiredness, I think, rather like Goudge.

I liked the brief descriptions of the private geographical library Charlotte works in, though am worried it’s not financially viable.

I’d have liked things to be slightly harder for Charlotte than they are. She talks about being incompetent with the servants and how difficult things were with Clementina (who is 12 at the time Charlotte becomes her temporary guardian), but you don’t really see that. Even her imaginary friend turns out to be real.

Some DES fans seem to think this is one of her best, but it was a bit slight and without enough detail for me.

Artists and illustrators around the New Forest and Solent (book #157)

20 August 2016

Robert Coles, 1999.

Impressively illustrated book about New Forest and Solent artists since the 17th century.

I liked this illustration by Heywood Sumner of his excavations in the New Forest (from Excavations in New Forest Pottery Sites, 1927). You can see the archaeologist / artist himself, musing or drawing.

Heywood Sumner - Excavations in New Forest Pottery Sites (1927)

Green Money (book #156)

17 August 2016

D E Stevenson, 1939.

This is a lighter Stevenson (despite the first of my quotes below), bordering on farce at times. There are reviews at Leaves and Pages and Worthwhile Books which give a flavour of it. A couple of passages I liked:

When George had gone the house felt strangely empty and strangely silent. Cathy finished her flowers and bestowed the bowls of roses in their usual places about the house; and all at once, as she placed the big brown pottery bowl on the hall table and stood back to admire the effect, the futility of the thing swept over her. “What is the good?” she demanded of herself. “What is the point of wasting all that time doing flowers? How often have I filled these same silly bowls with flowers – spring flowers, summer flowers, or great shaggy-headed chrysanthemums – and how often shall I go on dong it? Does anyone ever notice them? Would anyone care if I stopped doing it? Would father or mother or Peter or anyone look round and say, ‘Hallo, no flowers!'”
She stood quite still, looking at her handiwork, and it seemed to her that life went on and on and nothing ever happened, and the thought depressed her beyond measure. She seemed to see, in the cycle of the flowers, the cycle of the years of her life – daffodils, sweet peas, roses, delphiniums, chrysanthemums, and beech leaves – and then daffodils again – hundreds of bowls of flowers representing hundred of hours’ work – and all quite useless. Cathy had never felt before that her life was useless and static, but now she could not dismiss the idea. Her reason told her that she was a useful member of society, for her family depended on her in all sorts of ways, and she gave each member of it something that he or she would have missed had it been withdrawn; but, in spite of this, her life seemed suddenly flat and stale and empty – and, worst of all, uneventful.
If Cathy could have stood apart and looked at her life from a distance, or stood still, poised between the past and the future, she would have been able to see that her life was not uneventful, and that it was certainly not static. Nobody’s life is static. … for, if nothing else is happening to them, there is change taking place in their own souls.
Cathy was unused to self-analysis. She was too busy thinking of other people to bother much about herself, so her sudden mood of self-pity took her by surprise, and after a few moments she gave herself a slittle shake and lifted her chin . . . . After all, I’m me, thought Cathy, and that’s always something. Nobody has ever been me before.

Mr Ferrier and Paddy are walking on the Roman Road and he is telling her about the Romans:

“So far from their homes!” said Paddy sadly.
Mr. Ferrier took the point. (He had often found that Paddy’s remarks, even when they seemed irrelevant, were not really irrelevant at all, but usually following a definite train of thought missing out several stations on the way.) “It is curious to think that the Romans, here in Britain, were farther from their homes than is possible in modern times,” he said thoughtfully. “I have not studied the matter seriously, but I believe it may be taken as a fact. There is no place in the world to-day so far from another place in time as the distance from here to Rome in 55 B.C. … ” [I’m not sure this is correct.]

George is trying to redirect Elma’s focus on him:

“Look here,” said George, “I’ll give you a book to read – a modern book that will teach you about the modern world. It’s no good filling your mind up with Sir Walter Scott and – and all that. Things are different now. You’ve got to live in To-day, so you had better learn about it.”
“Yes,” said Elma meekly.
George looked at his shelves and selected a couple of “Peter Wimsey” books. They were his own favourites and, as far as he could remember, they contained nothing which could bring a blush to the cheek of the most innocent maiden on earth. “You take these,” he said. “They’re all about a fellow called Peter Wimsey. You read them carefully and you’ll see what’s what. He’s a modern sort of chap, you know – not like Pendennis.”
“I like Pendennis,” Elma declared. “I think you resemble Pendennis. I thought so from the very – ”
“Oh, no, I don’t. And I don’t resemble Peter Wimsey, either,” said George.

(Later on, someone avoids a party by shutting himself in a room and reading Gaudy Night.)

The Lake District Murder (book #155)

16 August 2016

John Bude, 1935 (British Library reprint, 2014).

Book Cover

I was a bit disappointed by this as found it rather dull. I did like the way the detective doesn’t detect all the time: “On Sunday Meredith took a well-earned rest and spent a lazy day before a roaring fire with the newspapers and the wireless”. Also we are twice told about his “customary high tea”. I also liked the reference to zips, which makes it clear that they are a novelty:

” … Do you know what it is?”
Mrs. Arkwright shook her head …
“It’s a “zip” fastener,” said Meredith. “Ever seen one before?”
“‘How silly of me! Of course I have, now I come to think of it. Mrs. Grath next door but one has got a hand-bag that opens with one of them things. … “

Family Post Bag (book #154)

10 January 2016

Mildred Robertson Nicoll, 1947.

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This follows on from my post about Constance Miles’s diary. Mildred Robertson Nicoll was the half-sister of Constance Miles, 16 years younger. She published an edition of the letters of Annie S Swan, which I would like to read.

Inside front cover blurb

Inside back cover blurb

Family Post Bag is a short book, based on letters Nicoll published in magazines during the war. The letters are between eleven people, if I have counted correctly, family and friends, between 1944 and 1946. I found them charming but they are slight and a bit disjointed – that may be part of the charm as they are reasonably convincing as letters. They reminded me a bit of Oxenham, with mentions of country dancing, Girls’ Guildry, working on the land and a strong religious faith: “that city far beyond the stars, that is yet in us and about us and without whose key we are lost”.

Like Miles’s diary, it does give a sense of how disruptive the war was. We know that abstractly of course but it brings it home reading about families being scattered, people doing uncongenial jobs, deaths, injuries and grief, not to speak of the more minor effects on social life – much bridge played according to Miles!

As with Miles, there is concern about “have the men had enough?”. Sibyl Sedgwick writes of “the awful problem of two large meals a day, lunch and dinner, which Oliver always insists on. As you know, I could live quite happily on potato soup and a glass of sherry for lunch day after day, but not so Oliver”. For a party, they had finger rolls stuffed with “sardines and tomato sauce, spam and mayonnaise, and pea-nut butter and raisins”. And there’s “our war-time supper … Dates rolled in bacon. Thank goodness dates are on the market again”.

Sibyl Sedgwick: “I want more than anything in the world a really good corset belt to keep me up and in, and every other woman I know wants the same, but until we polish off the Japs there seems no hope.”

Lots of literary references – MacDonald, Quiller-Couch, Housman.

There is a strong sense of change and, again, disruption – from the past, with Marjorie Leith having to sell her ancestral home, and a suggestion that the New World may be the future, in a way that reminded me of Nevil Shute’s The Far Country. There are also some discussions of organic farming.

I would recommend the book if you’re interested in the period and in domestic fiction. I’d be interested in other’s people’s reviews, but haven’t found any online.

Mrs Miles’s Diary: The Wartime Journal of a Housewife on the Home Front (book #153)

3 January 2016

ed SV Partington (2013).

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Image is of Constance Miles.

Constance Miles was a journalist and novelist who kept a diary from 1939 to 1943, and sent the typescript of it to the Imperial War Museum. It was over 400,000 words; the IWM has cut it down, I guess to about a quarter (apparently a lot of the length was extracts from newspaper articles) and published it.

Miles’s father was William Robertson Nicoll, a journalist and writer who founded the periodicals British Weekly and The Bookman. One of her friends was Barbara Euphan Todd, novelist and children’s writer who wrote the Worzel Gummidge books. Miles herself wrote, with her brother Maurice Nicoll, a novel Lord Richard in the Pantry (1911), which became a play and then a film (it’s on the BFI’s list of 75 lost and most wanted films). The book is credited to Martin Lutrell Swayne, Maurice’s pseudonym, in the BL and the Bodleian, so I’m going on the authority of Partington’s introduction in saying that Miles co-wrote it.

She is credited alone, however, for what I guess is a sequel, Lady Richard in the larder: an extravaganza (1932), and something called Coffee, Please: the story of a lover’s dream (1933). Furrowed Middlebrow has a post talking about these and also her work as Marjory Royce, which Partington doesn’t mention. There also seem to be some manuscripts of hers in the BL: “Anthology of Letters, taken from printed biography including a few private letters” (1950), “The Springfield Diary between the Wars” (1951) and “Brief Lives. Consisting of pen portraits of people well known to the writer, etc” (1954). I would like to get in there and have a nose, and also to her half-sister and father’s archives at Aberdeen … Most of her books are too expensive but I have ordered Dinah Leaves School (written as Royce) and will endeavour to report back. I do have resolutions / ambitions / plans to update this blog more frequently (and have a pile of books waiting to be “done”) but then I’ve planned that before and then I get under the weather and things go to pot.

Anyway – here are some bits from the diary I liked. Rather a focus on cats as you will see. Miles’s own cat was soft grey Muff, who had to subsist on “chicken’s ‘eads fourpence a pound” at times in the war.

Barbara [Euphan Todd] says Miss J, ruler of the Children’s Hour on the BBC, returns her engaging story of a mouse air warden who dealt with bats (and spoke in rhyme all the time), saying that she hopes that children don’t know anything about raids. ‘I suppose their gas masks are to keep fairies in!’ cries the irritated author. (01/12/1939)

Interesting to see that the focus on food being thrown away is not new. “Before the war about a million tons of foodstuffs were thrown into dustbins every year, Sir Ronald reminds us [Ronald Storrs in The Second Quarter, an account of the progress of the war]!” (10/08/1940).

As a war-time companion Barbara has a small black kitten. It likes cheese straws and cabbages and it spends most of its time purring as mine does. It fitted itself into a blue glass vase the other morning and went whirling round and round. It was in an ecstasy. I should like to meet it even more than Goebbels. (24/01/1940) … I hear that one of the survivors of the torpedoed Transylvania came on shore with a cat in his arms, purring contentedly. Good! (15/08/1940) … Went to call on a Paddington evacuee cat in the village, a sweet whitish kitten. The two dressmakers accompaning it are humbly grateful for their one room, where they can just squeeze in (29/10/1940).

Southampton, that pleasant town, has had two dreadful air raids. When you know all the main streets, it makes your heart turn over. (02/12/1940) May wrote that Southampton is a sad sight. Many forsaken cats sitting on the rubble, and piles of stones and bricks. (10/12/1940) At Southampton I again gazed sorrowfully at the once hospitable little hotel opposite the bus stop. It is an ugly ruin. (06/06/1942)

Miles and her husband riffing on the subject of a War Fare Cookery Week. Her husband invents a dance battle between General Slackness, with team members Stomach-ache, Nightmare, Hiccoughs and Collywobbles, and General Efficiency, with members Delight, Health, Taking Trouble and Comfortableness. “I thought of the Nourishing Soup Dance, to be performed by Mesdames Potato, Mutton-broth and Lentil.” (22/12/1940)

She mentions in passing a discussion in the House of Lords about juvenile offending increasing during the war. “From January to August 1940 they increased by 41 per cent among children under fourteen and by 22 per cent among those between fourteen and seventeen. There are many waiting to be taken into special schools.” (20/02/1942). This does seem to have been the case. Kate Bradley, “Juvenile delinquency and the evolution of the British juvenile courts, c.1900-1950”, says that

Corporal punishment on boys aged under 14 increased in the course of the Second World War. In 1938 and 1939 there were 48 and 58 cases of whippings respectively in England and Wales; this rose to a high of 531 in 1941, gradually dropping to 165 by the end of 1943 before returning to pre-war levels in 1944 when 37 cases were handled in this way. This rise has been attributed to the need to deal with increasing juvenile crime during the war in combination with retired magistrates being reinstated to cope with the dual pressures of an increasing caseload and younger magistrates serving on war duty.

There’s also an interesting article from 1944, “Juvenile Delinquency in Britain during the War”. Some lovely and dubious stats about the % of juvenile delinquents whose parents are not providing a normal home life, and speculation that the increase in delinquency is caused by the blackout, disruption of home life –

Children not only lost their homes, but ruined buildings gave endless opportunities for adventure and play which sometimes became rather wild. Toys, candies and innumerable other things attractive to children were buried under rubble and remained there, sometimes for days, until the area could be cleared.

– wartime restlessness, disruption of school life, an increase in young people working and in the amount they earned, and lack of space in approved schools, remand homes and Borstals. One of the solutions proposed is more use of foster care rather than approved schools – experience of evacuation apparently having indicated that this could work.

This is a rather sad passage:

I discover an advertisement in today’s Times about a job I think I am able to fill. If only I could! They want gentlewomen for portresses at University College, London; no manual work, but answering enquiries, phones, etc.
Robin throws water on it firmly. ‘You would always be ill,’ etc. I can do nothing, of course, as my duty lies at home. A nuisance. (24/02/1942)

Miles does mention that she has been asked to be the area Billeting Officer, but it’s not clear if she did take this on. I think probably not, or there would be more about it.

In June 1942 she and her half-sister (Mildred Robertson Nicoll – also a writer) went to see the ruins of Paternoster Row near St Paul’s, the printers’ and booksellers’ area, “a pious pilgrimage … [to] where the British Weekly was started”. “The desolation at the back of the great cathedral is truly frightful. Yes, it frightened me, as I stood looking across the great space full of ruins. … What kind and gentle people have been killed, what tidy office arrangements have been blasted, what valuable papers destroyed!” (25/06/1942).

In the introduction, Partington quotes Miles saying “I want it to be clear … that I got through the war as I did simply because I had this secret life of reading”.

There’s a good review of the diary at I Prefer Reading.

Oh, and I must say that the cover picture is annoying. It’s a young woman hanging out washing – too young to be a good representation of Miles, who in any case would be better represented reading or writing.