Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Family Post Bag (book #154)

10 January 2016

Mildred Robertson Nicoll, 1947.

Book cover

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.


Harold’s Friends; or, The New Rector of Greythorpe (book #120)

12 December 2011

C A Burnaby, nd but BL earliest edition is 1890. The inscription is dated 1907.

Book cover

Inscription - London Road A G Church, Young Women's Bible Class, To Miss Kate Smith for regular attendance, April 1907

I like this bit of unashamed foreshadowing at the point Harold is kidnapped by gypsies:

‘I hope Harold got home before the fog began,’ he [the rector, Herbert] thought; ‘but of course he must have come back long ago. He will laugh at my losing my way in the garden.’
No, Herbert Westlake! it will be many a long and weary day before you again listen to that merry laugh, and gaze on that bright face you love so well. There are troubled waters to pass through, and severe tests of faith to endure, before you again press to your heart the boy who, unknown to yourself, has become part of your very life!



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Elsie’s Widowhood (book #118)

24 October 2011

Martha Finley. No date in my edition, wch looks as if it might be 1920s, but the book was first published in 1880. It’s online.

There is a frontispiece, wch is graphically very dull I think but amusingly and interestingly* shows Elsie sitting on the beach in full mourning. Presumably people did have to do this. I can’t scan it at the moment but will do. *I have Show-not-Tell Fail.

Here’s a description of tea-time before Elsie’s husband dies:

It had been wont to be a time of glad, free, cheerful, often mirthful intercourse between parents and children; no rude and noisy hilarity, but the most enjoyable social converse and interchange of thought and feeling, in which the young people, while showing the most perfect respect and deference to their parents, and un-selfish consideration for each other, were yet under no galling constraint, but might ask questions and give free expression to their opinions, if they wished ; and were indeed encouraged to do so.

Doesn’t it sound terrible?

Here’s Elsie’s son Edward before going to college:

Mother,” he said, ” I think I have a pretty clear idea of some of the temptations of college life: doubtless there are always a good many idle, profane, drinking, dissolute fellows among the students, but it does not seem possible that I shall ever find pleasure in the society of such.

Impossible not to think Prig. When he comes back from college, you’ll be glad to hear that Elsie takes one look at him and knows “that I can believe my boy has come back to me as pure and innocent as he went!”.

I like Mr Embury falling for Molly Percival (who I think is Elsie’s father’s half-brother’s daughter, but I may be wrong) because she is a “cripple”:

“Your very helplessness draws me to you and makes you doubly dear. I want to take care of you, my poor child. I want to make up your loss to you as far as my love and sympathy can; to make your life bright and happy in spite of your terrible trial. … Your love, dear girl, and the blessed privilege of taking care of you, are all I ask, all I want … “

Can we say co-dependency? Also I think it’s odd that he brings his daughters to the proposal, but keeps them out of sight (behind a bush?) until she’s accepted:

“You will be mine? my own dear wife? a sweet mother to my darlings. I have brought them with me, that their beauty and sweetness, their pretty innocent ways, may plead my cause with you, for I know that you love little children.” He was gone before she could reply, and the next moment was at her side again, bearing in his arms two lovely little creatures of three and five.

Speaking of children, this is random, though admittedly from a non-Christian (=bad person): ‘”the heat and threats of yellow fever drove us North. I scattered the younger children about among other relatives, leaving several at your house, Adelaide”‘.

In the second half of the book Elsie’s son and daughter live in a cottage with some friends and do their own housekeeping. There are some interesting menus. Violet is planning

“potatoes, (sweet)corn, beans, tomats (sic – this is dialect from a boy bringing the groceries), cabbage, lettuce, and young beets … ” … “There’s a chicken all ready for the oven – cousin showed me how to make the stuffing and all that. I’ve engaged fresh fish and oysters – they’ll be coming in directly. I shall make an oyster pie and broil the fish. I mean to make a boiled pudding and sauce for dessert, and have bought nuts, raisins and almonds, oranges, bananas and candies besides, and engaged ice cream and cake.” … (they also have) the lettuce, the cold-slaw and bread and butter … the tarts

It turns out that Vi can’t cook well enough, her timings all go wrong (I sympathise) and some of the food is inedible. Elsie has foreseen this (you would have to kill her) and sent a hamper of “a pair of cold roast fowls, a boiled tongue, pickles, jellies, pies and cakes in variety”.

Chrissy’s Endeavour (book #113)

14 August 2011

Pansy (Isabella MacDonald Alden), 1889.

Cover of book

Inscription – “Edith Edwards / For her Birthday / 1921 from a Friend”:


The anonymity is slightly mysterious.

Reading Pansy always makes me think of the farmer in Jean Webster’s Dear Enemy (1915):

And as for Turnfelt himself, though industrious and methodical and an excellent gardener, still, his mental processes are not quite what I had hoped for. When he first came, I made him free of the library. He began at the case nearest the door, which contains thirty-seven volumes of Pansy’s works. Finally, after he had spent four months on Pansy, I suggested a change, and sent him home with “Huckleberry Finn.” But he brought it back in a few days, and shook his head. He says that after reading Pansy, anything else seems tame.

I’m with him there.

As often with Pansy, in this book there’s a soft, diffident type who is previously unregarded by the clever heroine and who turns out to be further down with religion than anyone (Chrissy’s little sister, influenced by her old nurse).

Amazingly, no-one dies – not even the “frail” little sister or the coughing brother, Harmon – though the latter does have a serious illness. His better health after his conversion is caused by “regular hours, and careful habits, and the rigid banishing of cigars and wine, and the grace of God in the heart”.

It’s interesting reading the book against a modern narrative of a woman finding a degree of independence. It’s hard not to feel she’s bullied into her conversion. She’s asked to sign a pledge of Christian life. When she demurs, the hero and love-interest, Stuart Holmes, writes her a different pledge: “ … throughout my whole life I will endeavour not to lead a Christian life”. He says that not signing the first pledge is equivalent to signing the second – the always seductive Pansy logic. Of course Chrissy gives in, finds God and throws herself into organising a Young People’s Society for Christian Endeavour. This goes wrong and turns into a meeting for social purposes, doing terrible things such as getting up theatricals nominally to win the souls of the railmen. She’s rescued by Stuart, who helps her to turn it into what it should be – though to be fair, her own contribution to turning it round is not underplayed. Arguably in the end she has things her own way – married to Stuart of course, and with outlets for her passion, energy, intellect and organising abilities in the reborn society. But Pansy makes clear that this is within standard gender narratives. Chrissy has converted Harmon largely by telling him that she’d like him to be the sort of man everyone respected. At the end Stuart and Harmon disappoint Chrissy and her friend Grace, to whom Harmon is engaged – they had planned to spend the evening together to celebrate the anniversary of Chrissy and Stuart’s meeting, but the men are “begged” by the railmen to hold a meeting for them.

Chrissy turned and looked at her tall, handsome brother.
Some memory of a more recent past came floating over her. How she said to him, once, something like this –
‘Can you think what a joy it would be to me to hear it said, ‘Harmon Hollister does not approve of it,’ and to know that thoughtful people would reply, ‘If such a man as Harmon Hollister does not approve, it needs thinking about’?’
‘His work first, Chrissy,’ Harmon said gently, a shade of regret for her disappointment in his voice.
‘Yes,’ said Chrissy heartily, and smiled.

So Chrissy has in a way created her own tyrant, but in doing so she’s at least given herself some say in what type of man her brother – whom she has to obey in any case – turns out to be.

Slightly oddly, my mother used to belong to a Young People’s Christian Endeavour Society. They didn’t try to bring railway workers to God through theatricals, though. I must ask her what they did do.

Here’s Chrissy’s father rebuking her: “It would be well for that society of yours to endeavour to practice some home duties” –

It would be well for that society of yours to endeavour to practice some home duties

The boarding house where Chrissy meets the young people who convert her:

The old-fashioned house at Western

The young woman who introduces her to the society:

Grace Norton

Stuart Holmes, another Godly type, whom Chrissy marries. He’s looking depressed here because at this point he thinks he may have failed to save Chrissy. He doesn’t know what to say to young women “of her type,” apparently. Not sure if that means he’s there with saving prostitutes. –

Mr Holmes carried home with him a burdened heart

Chrissy looking pensive when leaving Western and about to return home:


Harmon (good moustache):


Emmeline, a servant, who refuses to be converted and, against advice, marries a chap from a circus (circuses are Not Good) who beats her up. That’s ok though because we don’t really care about her and anyway the chap dies, she comes back to be a servant again and sees that it’s much more sensible to do the godliness. Shame though, she wanted to learn to do circus tricks. –


This is just after the first Christian Endeavour meeting they have. The bloke is a skeptic and just joined to get close to Chrissy. –

We have had a Christian Endeavour meeting without doubt

Evenings at the Club. This is Harmon’s life before his illness. I like the surprised and impassioned chap on the right.

Evenings at the Club

Harmon’s illness, with Chrissy sitting by the bed and a doctor thinking about something else:

Harmon ill in bed

And Chrissy throwing herself on the bed. She’s just realised her CE society hasn’t worked for good. Fortunately Stuart Holmes is at hand to help her admit this to the society and get them to agree to try again.

Chrissy threw herself on the bed

Here are the ads from the back of the book:

First page of book ads

Second page of book ads

Third page of book ads

Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its people (book #111)

31 July 2011

Alan K Bowman, 1994.

Quotes Auden’s poem Archaeology:

The archaeologist’s spade
Delves into dwellings
Vacancied long ago,

Unearthing evidence
Of life-ways no one
Would dream of leading now,

Concerning which he has not much
to say that he can prove:
the lucky man!

Knowledge may have its purposes,
But guessing is always
much more fun than knowing.

Refers to the letters of Claudius Terentianus, an Egyptian who was in the Roman army in the second century. These were sent mostly to his father and were excavated at Karanis in Egypt. I like the list of things he sends his father in one letter:

a bag well sewn, in which you have two mantles, two capes, two linen towels, two sacks and(?) a linen covering. I had bought the last together with a mattress and a pillow, and while I was lying ill on the ship they were stolen from me. You have also in the bag a cape of single thickness; my mother sent this to you. Receive also a chicken coop, in which you have sets of glassware, two bowls of quinarius size, a dozen goblets, two papyrus rolls for school use, ink (for use) on the papyrus, five(?) pens, and twenty Alexandrian loaves. I beg you, father, to be content with that. If only I had not been ill, I was hoping to send you more, and again I hope so if I live.


And this letter explaining that he is going with the army to Syria:

Since they were nothing to me – (I say this) in the presence of the gods – but words, I conceived a hatred(?) of no one. I went . . . by boat, and with their help I enlisted in the fleet lest I seem to you to wander like a fugitive, lured on by a bitter hope. I ask and beg you, father, for I have no one dear to me except you, after the gods, to send to me by Valerius a battle sword, a . . ., a pickaxe, a grappling iron, two of the best lances obtainable, a cloak of beaver skin(?), and a girdled tunic, together with my trousers


And this description in another letter:

Saturninus was already prepared to leave on that day when so great a quarrel broke out. … He paid no more attention to me than to a sponge stick, but (looked only) to his own business and his own affairs.


I like the vulgar phrase “no more attention than to a sponge stick”.

To go back to Vindolanda, here is a sock excavated there:

Vindolanda sock

Unseen Academicals (book #110)

30 July 2011

Terry Pratchett, 2009.

Now what would I do at this point if I were in a romantic novel? Glenda said to herself as the footsteps died away. Her reading had left her pretty much an expert on what to do if you were in a romantic novel, although one of the things that really annoyed her about romantic novels, as she had confided to Mr Wobble, was that no one did any cooking in them. After all, cooking was important. Would it hurt to have a pie-making sequence? Would a novel called Pride and Buns be totally out of the question? Even a few tips on how to make fairy cakes would help, and be pretty much in period as well. She’d be a little happier, even, if the lovers could be thrown into the mixing bowl of life. At least it would be some acknowledgement that people actually ate.

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes (book #109)

15 July 2011

Mollie Panter Downes, 1999 – the stories were originally published between 1939 and 1944.

I like the way she shows the positive side of the war, like Major Marriot having a lovely time as an ARP warden in “It’s the real thing this time” (published 15/06/1940):

‘They dropped the poor devils by parachute in Holland. I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if that fella was mad enough to try it here,’ he said hopefully … [he had] the absent-minded tenderness of a man who loved women and danger but had somehow ended up with Miss Marriot [his sister] and a warden’s rattle beneath crossed assegais.

She also shows the social problems, such as Roger and Madeline moving in with Gregory and Laura in “Combined Operations” (published 29/08/1942): “‘Mad talks brightly at breakfast, and Roger is always in the lavatory when I go there'”.

She’s good on mixed or unpleasant feelings – in “The Hunger of Miss Burton” (published 16/01/1943) Miss Barton, constantly hungry on rations, feels “a sense of utter, wonderful repletion” when her colleague Margaret has argued with her fiancé.

And on awkward social encounters and inadequacy. In “It’s the Reaction” (published 24/07/1943), Miss Birch regrets the end of the Blitz because it’s the end of the communual sleeping in her block of flats and the resulting friendliness. She visits Mr Masters to try to re-ignite their camaraderie – “with lightning, cruel clarity she knew the visit wasn’t going to come off”.

I like Mrs Dudley’s evacuees returning to London in “The Danger” (published 08/07/1944) “as joyfully as cats plunging back into a dustbin”. Mrs Dudley is happy with the peace in her empty house, and then a friend of her daughter-in-law turns up wanting to come as a paying guest with her baby. Panter-Downes achieves sympathy for both:

Everywhere was full, Mrs. Craig said, trying to smile and not succeeding, in a perfectly adult way. … She waited [having refused Mrs Craig] for the usual rush of pure happiness to flood over her at the thought [of being alone in the house] … But today something was wrong, for nothing happened. Nothing at all thought Mrs. Dudley, staring miserably at the clock, which soon told her that the London train would now be steaming out of the station [with Mrs Craig on it].

Anthem for Doomed Youth (book #105)

20 June 2011

Carola Dunn, 2011.

Author’s website.

I suppose I read these out of curiosity to see how the author develops Daisy’s life, and in particular how she manages to keep Daisy working now she’s married with children; and to see how she manages to get Alec (Met detective husband, handy if you make a habit of finding bodies) on the scene this time.

The book is set in 1926. Two words grated on me – OED gives mixed results.

“Reported missing Sunday the sixth, by his teenaged daughter.” The earliest citations for “teenaged” are from 1953, one in a reference book of American sland and the other from the listener. “Teenage” itself is attested from 1921 in Canada, 1935 in America and 1950 in the UK – in an adult novel by Noel Streatfeild I haven’t read (and must now do). I’ve forgotten whether it’s Alec or one of the other police who say this line, but I think in any case I’m voting anachronistic.

“If you’re going to be so – so negative, Lily, I wish you would go away.” This use of negative as an adjective struck me as wrong. The speaker is a middle-aged or elderly middle-class woman. The earliest OED citation in anything like this sense is from 1891, in the Dictionary of National Biography – “His negative bent made him before all things a censor and a critic”. There’s also 1895, the International Journal of Ethics, “one does not like to be entirely negative or pessimistic after so many words”. So I suppose this is just about plausible.

I Shall Wear Midnight (book #103)

23 May 2011

Terry Pratchett, 2010.

Mysterious omens could wait. Witches knew that mysterious omens were around all the time. The world was nearly always drowing in mysterious omens. You just had to pick the one that was convenient.

and “‘there are times when ye should stick your head up a duck’s bottom rather than talk'”.

A book about responsibility, scheduling, and the odd bit of magical happenings.

The songs sung at the Baron’s funeral are: The Larks They Sang Melodious (also known as Pleasant and Delightful and as Charming and Delightful). YouTube. Dance, Dance, The Shaking of the Sheets (link has interesting reference to variant by William Cobbold, 16th/17th century composer). Dull version by Faran Flad here. Down in the Valley. Lyrics. Rather plodding YouTube.

Jessie Phillips: A Tale of the Present Day (book #95)

23 February 2011

Frances Trollope, 1843.

What a muddle, but powerful despite that.

Tells the story of a brother and sister, Frederic and Ellen, and a village girl, Jessie Phillips. Frederic is unredeemably evil and seduces Jessie. When her mother does, she has to go into the workhouse. She absconds from the workhouse to confront Frederic, who repudiates her (the book leads me to use words like unredeemably and repudiates). She then has the baby in a barn. Whilst she is unconscious after the birth, a woman who is a “natural,” Silly Sally, takes the baby away. She brings it back after Jessie has been discovered and taken back to the workhouse. Frederic then finds the baby and murders it, in a nasty few lines:

In an instant the thought suggested itself to Frederic Dalton that Jessie has abandoned her child, with the certainty that a few hours of such abandonment would cause its wished-for death, and his heart leaped with mingled agitation and joy as he thought that he should be thus saved from all future danger of discovery or inconvenience. … but … the infant’s piercing cry again smote his ear, and the wretch paused to curse it, as he remembered the probability that it might live till noonday brought wanderers, either for pleasure or for business, through the lane, who might, and must discover its existence, if it repeated such cries as it was then uttering. “Confound her idiot folly!” he exclaimed; “if she had common sense enough to determine that it should perish, why could she not silence this confounded cry?” He had turned as he muttered these words, and was again standing over the spot where the child lay. Again it uttered a sharp piercing cry. He raised his booted foot, and made a movement as if in sudden rage, and the piercing cry was heard no more.

The body is discovered some days later, and Jessie is tried for infanticide. Ellen discovers her brother’s guilt and tells him to leave the country. Instead he recklessly falls into a river and is drowned. As she stands in the dock at the end of her trial, Jessie hears this mentioned. The verdict is then announced, not guilty on the grounds of temporary insanity, and Jessie is found dead in the dock.

There are two subplots. The first concerns Ellen, who is in love with the local nobleman, who has decided on his parents’ advice that he can’t afford to marry her because of their joint poverty. At the end of the book they do in fact marry. The other, slighter, subplot concerns Ellen’s friend Martha, who falls in love with a lawyer whom she persuades to work on Jessie’s behalf. Although these are strictly subplots and the main business of the novel is with Jessie, in fact Ellen’s story, in particular, takes up a good deal of space, probably more than Jessie’s. Elsie B Michie writes that “The juxtaposition of these plots makes the novel a strange hybrid that combines the dark concerns of reformist prose with the romantic brightness of earlier nineteenth-century fiction”.

As you can see from the quotation, Trollope can’t leave well alone. For goodness sake, why qualify the text with the stuff about why the wanderers might be there? And the first sentence could be cut off after “mingled agitation and joy”.

Trollope has two political targets in the book. The first is the workhouse system brought about by the amendment to the Poor Law in 1834. Trollope shows it as abusive, humiliating and pointless. Although Jessie is perfectly able to work, she can’t work whilst she’s in the workhouse, she has to associate with women who are “of that wretched class of females which a seaport town is sure to produce … prostitutes,” and when she wants spiritual advice the visiting minister refuses to talk to her. Trollope’s second target is the Bastardy Clause in the same Act. This made mothers of illegitimate children solely responsible for their support; the fathers had no duties.

There is a longer summary here.

And here’s Mr Mortimer, the new Commissioner:

Mr. Mortimer … committed one or two sad blunders … he had enforced the legal necessity of coming into the [work]house upon a widow woman, who had maintained herself and three children by working like a horse at any labour that was proposed to her, because he did not happen to know that she stuttered dreadfully, and could not pronounce the word “yes,” which would have been the satisfactory answer to a question he had very attentively put to her when enquiring the reason of her present want of help …

The Gay Seducer 1, 2 and 3:

The Gay Seducer 1

The Gay Seducer 2

The Gay Seducer 3

Much leg-play throughout.

Jessie in prison:

Jessie in prison