My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell

I often say this, but I can’t believe it has taken me so long to get around to reading Gerald Durrell’s memoir of his childhood in Corfu, My Family and Other Animals. It’s been on my tbr shelves for a long time & I eventually listened to it as an audio book, so beautifully read by Nigel Davenport. It was actually Nigel Davenport who led me to the book. I’d watched the 1970s TV series, South Riding, in which he played Robert Carne. I loved it but I especially loved Davenport’s voice & wondered if he’s narrated any audio books. When I saw that he had read this one, I knew what I would be listening to next. So, I’ve spent the last few weeks listening to the adventures of the Durrell family as I drove to work, cooked & ironed.

The Durrells – Mother, Larry, Leslie, Margo & 10 year old Gerry – are suffering through a miserable winter when Larry decides that they should move to Corfu to get away from the awful English climate. The decision is no sooner made than they set off through Europe, eventually arriving on Corfu with a mountain of luggage & Gerry’s dog, Roger. They are taken over almost immediately by Spiro, a giant of a man who thinks he speaks perfect English & who protects the Durrells from being robbed or taken advantage of during their stay on the island. They find a strawberry-pink villa with a bathroom (Mother’s main requirement) & settle in. Larry is a writer & fills his room with books. Leslie is gun-mad, hunting anything that moves while Margo spends her time sunbathing & reading fashion magazines.

Gerry is mad on natural history & he & Roger explore the island observing & collecting the animals, mainly insects, that they come across. Unfortunately the rest of the family aren’t as excited about scorpions in matchboxes as Gerry is & there are regular eruptions when his latest specimen is discovered in the fridge or the bathtub. Every so often, Mother becomes concerned about Gerry’s education & employs a tutor for him, all of them lovable in varying degrees but none of them very useful as tutors. Gerry’s best friend on the island is Theodore, a lovable man who is just as absorbed by natural history as he is. Every Thursday, Gerry has tea with Theo & they discuss Gerry’s latest acquisitions or go on expeditions themselves to look for new animals to observe.Gerry’s animals & his observations of the natural world are one of the many delights of the book. The adventures of Achilles & Cyclops the tortoises, Ulysses the owl, & especially the Magenpies (Spiro’s mispronunciation of magpies) are very funny. As well as the mad adventures, there are also the quiet moments when the island truly seems a paradise.

Though I spent many days voyaging in the Bootle-Bumtrinket, and had many adventures, there was nothing to compare with that first voyage. The sea seemed bluer, more limpid and transparent, the islands seemed more remote, sun-drenched, and enchanting than ever before, and it seemed as though the life of the sea had congregated in the little bays and channels to greet me and my new boat. A hundred feet or so from an islet I shipped the oars and scrambled up to the bows, where I lay side by side with Roger, peering down through a fathom of crystal water at the sea bottom while the Bootle-Bumtrinket floated towards the shore with the placid buoyancy of a celluloid duck. As the boat’s turtle-shaped shadow edged across the sea-bed, the multi-coloured, ever-moving tapestry of sea life was unfolded.

The Durrells moves from the strawberry-pink villa to a daffodil-yellow villa when Larry invites hoards of people to stay without considering where they’re to stay then, later, to a snow-white villa to avoid a visit from a miserable old aunt. Mother just calmly tries to keep the peace as all she wants is for everyone to be happy. She’s remarkably calm when Gerry brings yet another creature into the house or Larry, in his superior, sarcastic way, invites his literary friends to stay for indefinite periods. She calmly goes along to chaperone Margo on a date with a very unsuitable young man & seems able to cater for a large party at a moment’s notice. Eventually, after five years, the family reluctantly decide to return to England for the sake of Gerry’s education, & their final farewell to Corfu is incredibly poignant as the boat takes them away from this little paradise.

The success of the book is partly due to the picture of Corfu before tourism made the Greek islands so popular. To a child like Gerry, it seemed to be a paradise where he could spend whole days wandering through the olive groves & on the seashore exploring & observing. The descriptions of the natural history are fascinating but really, it’s the eccentricities of the Durrell family that make it so very funny. I laughed out loud many times as I listened to stories of Larry’s pomposity being squashed by the puppies Widdle & Puke destroying his room, or Margo’s forlorn lovesickness over one of Gerry’s tutors leading to her taking the puppies out on a boat trip that nearly ends in tears. Every time Leslie appeared with a gun, I laughed over his complete obsession with firearms over everything else. To Leslie, Corfu was just somewhere to hunt, he couldn’t see the natural beauty of the place at all.

Apparently the book takes some liberties with the facts (Larry was married & living in another part of Corfu & the Durrells left because of the outbreak of war rather than for Gerry’s education) but it seems the essential truth of the book was recognized, even by Larry (the writer Lawrence Durrell) who later said “This is a very wicked, very funny, and I’m afraid rather truthful book – the best argument I know for keeping thirteen-year-olds at boarding-schools and not letting them hang about the house listening in to conversations of their elders and betters.” I just think it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in a very long time.

Naturally I’m going to find myself collecting copies of this book as I seem to collect copies of all my favourite books. I already own one paper copy & the audio book & next month, I’ll have another copy as My Family and Other Animals is the new Slightly Foxed Edition & I collect those too.
There are also secondhand copies available from Anglophile Books.

Mrs Tim Flies Home – D E Stevenson

Mrs Tim Flies Home (cover picture from here) is the final Mrs Tim book. It’s the early 1950s & Hester Christie has been living in Kenya with her husband,Tim, a Colonel in the Army. They decide that she should go home to England to spend time with their children, Betty & Bryan, & make a home for them over the summer holidays.Hester has arranged to rent the Small House, near the village of Old Quinings where Hester & Tim’s former servants, Annie & Fred Boilings, now own the inn. Family friend, Tony Morley also lives nearby & between them, they have arranged everything.

Hester flies back via Rome where she spends a few days to break the journey. On the flight she meets Rosa Alston, an irritating woman (well, I found her irritating but Hester doesn’t seem to at first) who takes Hester under her wing as she hasn’t done much flying. It seems strange to us now, when air travel is so much more common, but in the 50s it was much more expensive & rare. In one of those typical Stevenson coincidences, Mrs Alston grew up near Old Quinings & remembers going to parties with Tony Morley, who she didn’t like at all. Luckily, Mrs Alston has plans when they reach Rome & Hester has booked herself in to a pensione run by Signora Scarlatti, so they part &, although they make plans to meet the next day, Hester  expects to have little to do with her new friend in future.

Tony Morley turns up at the pensione as a surprise & whisks Hester off for a couple of days sightseeing. The Signora is convinced that they’re carrying on an affair & nothing Hester can say in her imperfect French (the only language they share) can convince her otherwise. Unfortunately Hester forgets her appointment with Mrs Alston & that lady, speaking perfect Italian, soon hears all about Hester & Tony from the Signora.

Hester arrives in England & finds herself travelling down in the train with her new neighbour, Miss Crease, a disagreeable, quarrelsome woman who knows all about Hester already & is eager to know more. Hester is relieved to get to the inn & be pampered by Annie Boilings. She is soon settled in to the Small House. It was owned by Mrs Stroude & now that she’s dead, her stepdaughter has rented the house while she goes on a cruise. Lorna Stroude was much loved & respected but her stepdaughter seems to be her opposite in every way. Olivia Stroude was unkind to her stepmother & is disliked by everyone Hester meets in the village. She seems to have no redeeming features, something which Hester discovers when, after a peaceful few weeks of solitude, she suddenly descends on the Small House & tries to bully Hester into leaving early.

Olivia claims to be searching for a valuable letter, written by Byron to her stepmother’s grandfather, & intimidates Hester into letting her search the attic for it. Why Hester doesn’t just wave the lease, a legal document, in the woman’s face & tell her to go away, I don’t know, but it isn’t until her cleaner, Mrs Daulkes, advises ringing up Tony Morley because, of course, only a man could sort that woman out, that peace is restored. Tony says all the things Hester should have said & sends Olivia Stroude off with a flea in her ear.

Rosa Alston has also turned up again, asking Hester for help in finding somewhere suitable for her to stay with her son, Edmond, who is studying & needs peace & quiet. Hester arranges with Annie for them to stay at the inn & although everything Hester has heard about Edmond leads her to imagine him to be a priggish, spoilt horror, he turns out to be a delightful young man who talks to Hester about Trollope & couldn’t be more unlike his mother.

Hester’s children arrive for their holidays & the house comes alive. Bryan, Betty & Bryan’s schoolfriend Perry soon make friends with Edmond & Susan Morven, an attractive young woman who lives in the local big house. Hester indulges in some matchmaking while the young people go on picnics, play tennis & race around on Perry’s motorbike. Tony Morley gives a ball & he & Hester make a discovery in the Small House that will change the life of another of Hester’s new friends. Meanwhile, Hester worries about Tim’s short, distant letters from Kenya & wonders if he has somehow heard about the rumours spread by some of the old cats in the village about her & Tony in Rome.

This is a lovely, comforting book just like all the other Mrs Tim books. As always, I loved the descriptions of the countryside & the Small House, although not old, is a charming, comfortable house where Hester is perfectly happy until the doubts & worries about her family & friends begin to overwhelm her. One of my favourite scenes was when Bryan dismisses Scott & Trollope as “such small print and much too long“. I did have a sneaking sympathy for him though when he had to read Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, “… it was the most awful tripe – all about a man who thought his wife was carrying on with another man, and of course she wasn’t at all. The whole misunderstanding could have been cleared up in a few words, but He Knew He Was Right so it went drivelling on until he’d wrecked everything. A ghastly book.” Bryan also thinks Scott’s Redgauntlet would be improved if a modern thriller writer got hold of it & made it go quicker “and put some pep into it.”

I hope someone reprints the Mrs Tim books one of these days. I think they would be perfect for anyone who has enjoyed the Miss Buncle series which has been reprinted twice in the last few years- by Persephone in the UK & Sourcebooks in the US. Why couldn’t one of them have chosen the Mrs Tim books instead? Fingers crossed someone else does it one of these days.

I Pose – Stella Benson

I Pose was Stella Benson’s first novel & it was reviewed with great acclaim when it was published in 1915. Posing is one of the main themes of the novel. The two main characters, known only as the gardener & the suffragette, spend most of the novel striking different poses. The narrator often interjects to point out these poses & to tell the reader not to take it all too seriously. I found it an odd book but I could not stop reading it. I became very fond of both the gardener & the suffragette & I wanted to find out what happened to them.

The gardener lives in a boarding house. He has very little money, doesn’t seem to have a job & carries around a nasturtium called Hilda. He speaks in riddles & tries on different poses but is easily nonplussed by Courtesy, a confident young woman who lives in the same boarding house & can show him how to retie a broken bootlace. One day the gardener sets out to walk with no real destination in mind. As he grandly says to his landlady, Miss Shakespeare, who asks him for his rent,

“I have left everything I have as hostages with fate,” said the gardener. “When I get tired of Paradise, I’ll come back.”

He meets Samuel Rust, who owns the Red Place, a hotel in the middle of nowhere. The hotel hasn’t been much of a success because Mr Rust needs a little capital for advertising. His mother has capital but won’t give it to him. Mr Rust asks the gardener to go on the same cruise as his mother & convince her to give him the money he needs. As the gardener has no money & no prospects, he agrees. He first meets the suffragette as she plans to burn down the Red Place as a publicity stunt for the Cause. She hopes that a Cabinet Minister may be staying there but she will burn it down anyway.

The gardener is determined to stop her & ends by practically kidnapping her & taking her on board the Caribbeania, where he is to meet Mrs Rust, & telling everyone she’s his wife. Courtesy is also on board, reluctantly being sent out to the Trinity Islands on a husband-hunting expedition. On the voyage, it soon becomes apparent that the gardener & the suffragette are not married (mostly because the suffragette refuses to lie) & they are shunned by the more easily shockable passengers, including a priest who tries to save the suffragette. Unfortunately he’s self-serving & hypocritical & the suffragette shocks him every time she opens her mouth as she prides herself on only speaking the truth (another pose).

The gardener becomes acquainted with Mrs Rust, a peculiar woman with bright red hair who is contradictory for the sake of it. I love this scene between Mrs Rust & the priest.

“Have you made the acquaintance of that dark young man who acts as the ship’s gardener?” he asked.
“An excellent young man,” said Mrs Rust, immediately divining that the priest did not approve of him.
“Yerce, yerce, no doubt an excellent young man,” agreed the priest mechanically. “But I have reason to believe that his morals are not satisfactory.”
“Good.” said Mrs Rust.
“I do not think he is really married to that aggressive young woman he calls his wife.”
“Good.” said Mrs Rust. She did not approve of such irregularities any more than the priest did, but she disapproved of disapprobation.

The gardener soon has Mrs Rust’s measure & plays her at her own game, contradicting her so that she will decide to do the opposite of what she intended. When Mrs Rust’s companion throws herself overboard, Courtesy is employed as her companion & they have quite a battle of wills. When they arrive on the Islands, they become involved in local life. The gardener saves a couple of children from death in an earthquake & the suffragette becomes involved with a precocious little boy called Albert & his prim aunt. All this time, the gardener is falling in love with the suffragette but she has decided that love is not for her & she keeps up her pose of self-sufficiency & devotion to the cause. Eventually they sail back to England with their relationship still undefined & the reader is left in doubt until the end as to what will happen. It seems odd to care about two characters with no names but I did care what happened to them both which is a testament to Stella Benson’s skill at creating characters that, for all their poses, are very sympathetic. They’re not the stereotypes they could have been, especially the suffragette, who could have been a cardboard cutout of the militant suffragette but is much more nuanced than that.

Benson obviously enjoyed playing with the structure of the novel when she wrote I Pose. Apart from not naming her principal characters, the first chapter is 300pp long. The second (& final) chapter is 8pp long. The narrator interjects into the narrative all the time, explaining the odd time shifts of her world, reassuring the reader that she understands their frustration with this character or that, making snide comments about the less sympathetic characters, especially the priest who is the most unchristian priest I’ve encountered in a novel since Trollope, I think.

Some readers will be offended by the treatment of the Trinity Islanders which is condescending & quite racist. I found it made uncomfortable reading but it was in keeping with the times in which the novel was written. I was also confused as to where the Trinity Islands were. In a sense, it doesn’t matter because the whole novel is a fantasy but I felt the Islanders were West Indian or Caribbean (maybe I was influenced by the name of the ship) but their voyage home takes them though Suez & past the Azores so I suppose they must be in the Indian or Pacific Oceans. This is a minor point but I was confused. Then again, geography is not my strong point.

I enjoyed I Pose very much as an unusual, witty novel that has been out of print for far too long. It was sent to me by Michael Walmer, who is reprinting some fascinating novels, mostly of the late Victorian & Edwardian periods. I reviewed Ada Leverson’s The Twelfth Hour a few months ago & I’m very excited about Mike’s new series of letters, diaries, journals & essays. The first to be published is Winifred Holtby’s Letters to a Friend. Holtby’s letters to Jean McWilliam, who she met when they both served in the WAAC at the end of WWI. My review copy is on its way!

Mrs Tim Gets a Job – D E Stevenson

Mrs Tim Christie, Hester, is at a loose end. The war is over but her husband, the Colonel, is still in the Army, in Egypt. Her children are at school & her landlord has given her notice to quit her comfortable little house in Donford. When her bossy friend Grace MacDougall declares that she has found her the perfect job, Hester is dubious. However, she decides to take the plunge & finds herself on the way to Scotland, to run a hotel, Tocher House, near the town of Ryddelton.

Mrs Tim Gets a Job (cover picture from here) is the story of Hester’s adventures at Tocher House, working for eccentric Erica Clutterbuck & coping with everything from a miserable housemaid to the love affairs of the guests. Hester’s adventures begin even before she arrives when she meets Roger Elden on the train. Roger had served with Colonel Christie & recognizes Mrs Tim from her photo on his wall. He’s been demobbed & is hoping to marry a young woman, Margaret, with whom he’s been corresponding for some time. Margaret has been caring for an elderly aunt & seems reluctant to marry now that the aunt has died & Roger is home. The reader isn’t at all surprised to discover that Roger Eldin’s Margaret, Miss McQueen, turns out to be staying at Tocher House. It takes Hester quite a bit longer to work this out.

Hester’s first few days at Tocher House are dispiriting. She’s afraid of Miss Clutterbuck who is brusque in the extreme & barks out orders without giving Hester any idea of how she’s to complete them. I love this description of Erica when she meets Hester at the station,

She stands near the bookstall, a solid figure in a Lovat tweed coat which is somewhat shabby but very well cut. She stands with her feet well apart and her hands in her coat pockets, a cigarette in a cherry-wood cigarette holder is stuck in the corner of her mouth. She is short-necked; she is hatless, her grey wavy hair is slightly tousled with the evening breeze. For some strange reason Miss Clutterbuck reminds me of Mr Churchill, Mr Churchill in one of his belligerent moods.

Housemaid Clara Hope is resentful & gloomy, waking Hester with a bang of a teacup every morning as she flings open the curtains. Hester feels out of her depth & wishes she’d imposed herself on a willing friend or relation instead. However, she soon begins to find her way. Erica Clutterbuck has a heart of gold &, although she is rude to her guests & has some impossible rules (bring your own towels & compulsory attendance at the monthly sewing bee for charity) the hotel is comfortable & the food excellent. When Erica discovers Hester turning out the linen cupboard in the middle of the night, the only time when she can spread everything out on the landing, the two women are soon on first name terms.

The hotel guests are Hester’s main responsibility. Erica refuses to talk to them as she resents having to have paying guests at all. She assuages her conscience by ploughing all her profits back into the house which is her family home. Hester soon gets to know the guests. Mr Stannard, who has come to Scotland for the salmon fishing with his wife & their recently demobbed son. Margaret McQueen, who is so exhausted & depressed by her long period of nursing that she can’t see her way out of her misery. Mrs Ovens, whose husband is in the services but who seems to be carrying on an affair with another guest. The two Mrs Potting, sisters-in-law, who take a fancy to Hester & want her to return to America with them at three times her current salary. Mrs Wilbur Potting wants to study Hester for her lecture series on The Spirit of English Womanhood. Hester’s children, Bryan & Betty, arrive for their holidays & Tony Morley, now a Brigadier, also appears.

As always, D E Stevenson’s descriptions of the Scottish countryside are highlights of the narrative. Hester walks out to a nearby hillside one morning& sees the hares racing about madly, dashing after each other & having playful boxing matches. On a walk with Roger Eldin, she discovers the ruins of the old Border chief’s castle,

We push through brambles and nettles and discover a high archway of stone and, stepping over the tumbled masonry with which it is partially blocked, find ourselves in a large, oblong courtyard. There is no roof and on two sides the enormously thick walls have disintegrated into piles of rubble masked with trailing ivy, but the third and fourth walls are still standing and tower above us, windowless except for narrow, slanting slits. At one time this great hall – or courtyard – has been paved with flags but these have been cracked with frost or raised from their bed by the roots of trees; grass grows in the crevices and wild willow herb (not yet in flower of course) and there are primroses in the sheltered corners. At one end of the ruin is the remains of a tower, a thick square building with a narrow doorway through which can be seen a flight of stone steps.

Mrs Tim Gets a Job is a delightful book & I enjoyed reading it very much. I’ve read the first two Mrs Tim books which were reprinted a few years ago by Bloomsbury as Mrs Tim of the Regiment. I read this one thanks to Open Library & I’ve reserved Mrs Tim Flies Home which is the final book in the series.

Jeeves & Anna

I’ve just had a couple of weeks leave & I’ve had a lovely time pottering in the garden & the house & reading quite a lot. These are a couple of the books I’ve read over the past fortnight.

I’ve never been a fan of prequels, sequels, missing chapters etc of my favourite novels. I’d rather just reread the originals & in the case of P G Wodehouse, I still have many books to read before I run out. So, I thought I’d give Sebastian Faulks’ new novel, which he calls a homage to Wodehouse, a miss. However, my friend Barbara, who blogs at Milady’s Boudoir (now there’s a Wodehouse reference), recommended it so I thought I should give it a go. I’m so glad I did because it’s terrific. I read it in two sittings & laughed out loud more than once. With Wodehouse (or a homage), that counts as a successful reading experience.

Bertie Wooster has been on holidays on the Côte d’Azur where he meets Georgiana Meadowes, the ward of Sir Henry Hackwood. Even though Bertie is known for getting involved in dubious engagements, he is really very taken with Georgiana but thinks she is far above his reach. She’s also engaged to Rupert Venables, a young man with the money to dig Sir Henry out of a financial hole & allow him to stay at his family home, Melbury Hall. Back in London, Bertie’s old friend Woody Beecham comes to him with a dilemma. He wants to marry Amelia Hackwood, daughter of Sir Henry, but has no money & so Sir Henry isn’t keen. Either Amelia or Georgiana must marry money to save Melbury Hall.

Amelia has broken off her engagement with Woody because she says he was flirting with some girls from the village while Woody says he was just being polite. Woody asks for advice from Jeeves & an ingenious plan is put in train. Jeeves & Bertie decide to help Woody by being on the spot near Melbury Hall to offer advice. The plan also saves Bertie from the perils of a visit from his Aunt Agatha who has invited herself to stay. Being so close to Georgiana is another incentive. Unfortunately the plan is derailed by circumstances which mean that Jeeves ends up impersonating Lord Etringham, an elderly peer, & Bertie masquerades as his manservant, Wilberforce. The complications multiply &, although Bertie isn’t at all sure about his vocation as a servant, Jeeves seems to be enjoying his new role a little too much.

Sebastian Faulks has written a beautifully judged novel that reproduces all the familiar tropes without becoming a caricature. He makes it seem effortless which is the point of Wodehouse. The great set pieces of the village cricket match & the dinner party where Bertie tips a bowl of gooseberry fool into the lap of Dame Judith Puxley are funny & heart-stopping at the same time. I don’t think any fan of Wodehouse could possibly be offended by this good-natured & affectionate tribute.

The category I think of as Nice Books has almost totally disappeared, although fortunately there are still some nice books. It is difficult to say just what qualifies a novel for it. The absence of gross language is, of course, essential, as is the absence of sexual impropriety, at least on the part of the hero and heroine. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of a Nice Book is, even when accompanied by sad or unpleasant events, a feeling of geniality and happiness. It also requires a feeling of geniality and happiness.

Wendy Forrester is describing Olivia in India, the first novel by O Douglas, but she could be describing any of O Douglas’s novels. Wendy Forrester’s biography of the author shows just how closely the life & the novels were connected.

O Douglas was the pen name of Anna Buchan, sister of John Buchan, author of many novels & Govenor-General of Canada. Anna chose her pen name for her novels of domestic life because she didn’t want to be seen to be cashing in on her brother’s fame. All her novels are similar in theme & setting. Apart from Olivia in India they are all set primarily in Scotland. There’s also a certain amount of autobiography in the novels. There’s often a small boy based on Alistair, Anna’s younger brother who was killed in WWI. Priorsford, where several novels are set, was based on Peebles, where Anna lived with her brother, Walter.  

The Setons, which I read recently, seems to be the most autobiographical novel she wrote. The manse family living in Glasgow, the move to the country when the father retires, the young brother, Duff, based on Alistair Buchan, the impact of WWI on the family. The only difference is the absence of Mrs Buchan. In the novel, Elizabeth’s mother has died before the novel begins. Maybe this was because Anna, Walter & their mother lived together for over 20 years after Mr Buchan’s death & Anna was wary of putting a recognisable portrait of her mother into her fiction. Forrester does see echoes of Mrs Buchan in other novels such as Mrs Laidlaw in Eliza For Common with her pride in being able to furnish a manse for her husband. One novel, Ann and her Mother, is about a woman writing a biography of her mother. It seems that Anna was writing a biography of Mrs Buchan in this novel.

Anna Buchan lived a quiet life. She wrote her novels, kept house for her brother, was involved in local activities & took some pride in the success of her books with readers & critics. This review in the Times Literary Supplement is a little condescending, it nevertheless sums up the appeal of O Douglas’s novels.

Penny Plain is a very able and delightful book, but it is not the kind of book that the Marxian kind of person would like. Nor does the author like the Marxian kind of person. the author is not ashamed of taking pleasure in homeliness … If we hold that the creator is entitled to deal with anything which exists, then he (or she) is entitled to talk about lamplit cheerfulness just as much as about passion and agony. The result, in this case, is certainly very pleasant.

Anna Buchan and O Douglas is a slight book of only 120pp. Wendy Forrester tells the story of the author’s life simply & with sympathy & affection, both for the author herself & her books. This is a lovely companion volume to the novels & I’m looking forward to reading more of them in the future.

The Twelfth Hour – Ada Leverson

About a month ago, Michael Walmer sent me a couple of books to review. Simon has recently reviewed I Pose by Stella Benson, which he loved (& I’m looking forward to) & I’ve been reading The Twelfth Hour by Ada Leverson. Leverson was a close friend of Oscar Wilde, he called her The Sphinx, & she was one of the few friends who stood by him after his time in prison. She’s probably best known for the trilogy which was reprinted by Virago as The Little Ottleys but this book, The Twelfth Hour, is her first.

The Twelfth Hour is a sparkling, witty book about love & marriage. Published in 1907, it shines a light on society & the lives of the leisured classes. The Croftons are a well-to-do family with beauty, intelligence & style. Felicity has recently married Lord Chetwode but the marriage has not turned out as she expected. Chetwode’s two passions are racing & antiques & he spends most of his time traveling the country in pursuit of them. Marriage doesn’t seem to have changed his routines at all. Sylvia is in love with her father’s secretary, Frank Woodville, who is well-connected but penniless due to the late marriage of his uncle & subsequent birth of a son. All his expectations have been dashed & without money, Sylvia’s father is unlikely to agree to their marriage. Mr Crofton also has plans for Sylvia to marry Mr Ridiokanaki, a Greek millionaire who is in love with Sylvia.

Younger brother Savile is on holidays from Eton & in love from afar with opera singer, Adelina Patti. He is adored in turn by young Dolly Clive. When Savile isn’t wangling money from his relations to see Patti on stage, he’s trying to sort out his sisters’ problems. Felicity is unhappy & bored &, as she is also very beautiful, she soon has suitors appearing around every corner. Most persistent is Bertie Wilton, handsome, popular & determined to rescue Felicity from her neglectful husband.

Mr Ridiokanaki discovers that Sylvia & Frank are in love & offers them a solution to their financial troubles that will mean a long separation but eventual security. Sylvia is horrified but Frank is tempted. Will love or pragmatism win out?

I enjoyed The Twelfth Hour very much. Leverson has obviously learnt the art of the witty bon mot from Oscar Wilde as the book is very funny & full of funny comments & observations. Sylvia is a very modern young woman. She has no qualms about deceiving her father & ignores all his commands regarding Mr Ridiokanaki’s attentions. When he persists in sending larger & larger arrangements of flowers, she puts them in the housekeeper’s room. Felicity’s social round of lunches, evening parties & shopping becomes increasingly hollow as she desperately tries to talk to her husband but is discouraged by his elusiveness. Bertie’s persistent attentions begin to look more attractive as she feels more & more unloved.

My favourite character was Uncle William (the Croftons decided to call their Aunt by her husband’s name & their Uncle by her name so he was Uncle Mary). Aunt William’s house is furnished as it was in the 1880s with wax flowers under glass & circular tables in the middle of the room. “Often she held forth to wondering young people, for whom the 1880 fashions were but an echo of ancient history, on the sad sinfulness of sunflowers and the fearful folly of Japanese fans.” The sunflowers are a reference to Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience, which mocked the aesthetics movement of the 1890s & its followers. Aunt William spoils Savile & gives him money & enormous lunches while also keeping a watchful eye on her nieces’ social engagements. She may be a shrewd old lady but Savile can wind her around his little finger.

The Twelfth Hour is an Edwardian confection, a lovely way to spend an afternoon. It’s good to see a publisher reprinting books from this period as it’s been relatively neglected by the other publishers reprinting 20th century fiction. I’ll look forward to any future titles from Michael Walmer.

Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers – Alexander McCall Smith

A new Scotland Street novel is always a treat even though I race through them in a day & then have to wait a year for the next instalment.

Bertie’s seventh birthday is finally approaching & he’s very excited – if only his mother, Irene, didn’t insist that he invite as many girls as boys to his birthday party. He would also love a penknife as a special birthday present from his parents but he knows that he’ll receive something non-violent & gender neutral instead. Art gallery owner Matthew & his wife, Elspeth are still getting used to being the parents of triplets. They decide that their wonderful Danish au pair, Anna, needs an assistant au pair but their choice isn’t a complete success.

Angus Lordie, newly married to Domenica, has started sleepwalking & is encouraged by Domenica to see a psychiatrist. They also have a fascinating conversation about the order in which we think of the names of our married friends. Domenica feels that the order of the names is important & Angus is quite sure that everyone thinks of them as Domenica & Angus rather than the other way around. When their friend, Antonia, writes from her convent in Tuscany to invite herself to stay for a few weeks while she finishes writing her book on early Scottish saints, Domenica analyses every phrase of her letter in great detail. Antonia arrives accompanied by a nun from the convent, Sister Maria-Fiore, who has a talent for stating the obvious. The unfortunate affair of the blue Spode cup has not been forgotten by Antonia & causes some uncomfortable moments for Angus & Domenica.

Pat McGregor’s love life seems to be improving when she meets an attractive young cabinet maker but their first date at a local bar becomes an embarrassment when Pat’s father arrives accompanied by a very odd woman. Coffee shop owner Big Lou is always unlucky in love but decides that although her romantic relationships have been disastrous, she has a lot of room in her heart & in her life & becomes foster mother to young Finlay.

Irene Pollock wins a trip to a literary festival Dubai in a competition & Bertie & Stuart are eager for her to go. The trip doesn’t turn out quite as Irene expected although Bertie & his father, while concerned for Irene’s safety, settle down to enjoy their unexpected freedom.

As always, there are some very funny moments in this book as well as some poignant ones. McCall Smith’s gentle humour & sense of the absurd is ever present & it’s always a joy to catch up with the residents of Scotland Street.

A Damsel in Distress – P G Wodehouse

A Damsel in Distress is a souffle of misunderstandings, comedy & romance in the best Wodehouse style. Lady Maud, daughter of Lord Marshmoreton, has fallen in love with a young man while on holiday in Wales. Unfortunately Geoffrey Raymond is penniless &, even worse, American. Lord Marshmoreton is a kindly soul who wants his daughter to be happy so he’s not absolutely against the match. All he wants is to be left alone with his roses. His sister, Lady Caroline Byng, is another matter entirely. She planned that her stepson, Reggie, would marry Maud. Reggie, meanwhile, is in love with Lord Marshmoreton’s secretary, Alice Faraday, but is too shy to declare his love.

Maud is forbidden to leave home (Belpher Castle) & is virtually under house arrest. However, with Reggie’s help, she does escape for a day to visit Geoffrey in London. Her brother, Percy, follows her &, eager to escape him, Maud jumps into a cab on Piccadilly & begs George Bevan to hide her. George is an American composer with a musical running in Shaftesbury Avenue. He falls in love with Maud at first sight & a mad chase through London ensues with Percy ending up hatless & in jail after punching a policeman.

The complications are endless. George tracks Maud down to Belpher Castle where everyone thinks he’s Maud’s American, Geoffrey. Everyone from Keggs the butler to Albert the pageboy tell George that Maud loves him & George, though baffled, is happy enough to believe it. His efforts to get to know Maud involve him in even more drama as he tries to avoid Percy & help Reggie in his quest to marry Alice. Meanwhile the staff at the Castle run a sweepstake on who Maud will marry & George disguises himself as a waiter at Percy’s coming of age party to get close to Maud, which leads to him hiding on a balcony while another man proposes to her.

This is a charming book with some very funny scenes & Wodehouse’s usual light touch with dialogue & description. One of my favourite scenes takes place in a tea shop. Wodehouses’s description of the shop brought Barbara Pym irresistibly to mind although Wodehouse is more satirical about distressed gentlewomen than Pym. I could see Wilf Bason in his smock fitting in quite easily.

Ye Cosy Nooke, as its name will suggest to those who know their London, is a tea-shop in Bond Street, conducted by distressed gentlewomen. In London, when a gentlewoman becomes distressed – which she seems to do on the slightest provocation – she collects about her two or three other distressed gentlewomen, forming a quorum, and starts a tea-shop in the West End, which she calls Ye Oak Leaf, Ye Olde Willow-Pattern, Ye Linden Tree, or Ye Snug Harbour, according to personal taste. There, dressed in Tyrolese, Japanese, Norwegian, or some other exotic costume, she and her associates administer refreshments of an afternoon with a proud languor calculated to knock the nonsense out of the cheeriest customer.

As A Damsel in Distress was first published in 1919, this isn’t altogether kind. There were so many distressed gentlewomen after WWI trying to make a living, but it is funny. Thank goodness I still have dozens of Wodehouses to read. I usually listen to Wodehouse on audio & they can be very soothing on the drive home from work.

My Husband Next Door – Catherine Alliott

I hadn’t read any of Catherine Alliott’s novels before so when I saw a copy of My Husband Next Door on NetGalley, I thought I would give it a go. The cover of this book is very chick lit, maybe with an older heroine in the vein of Katie Fforde. It looked like the humorous story of a woman whose husband is now living next door through some silly misunderstanding & the book would be about them overcoming their problems with humour & lots of pratfalls & comic misunderstandings, set in a tranquil English village. There’s certainly humour in this book & it is set in a village but My Husband Next Door has a much harder edge than the average chick lit romance.

Ella met Sebastian Montclair when she was an art student living away from home for the first time. He was older, charismatic & already on his way to becoming one of the outstanding artists of his generation. They fall in love & marry when Ella becomes pregnant. Ella’s mother & sister, Ginnie, are disapproving, her father is easier to persuade as he just wants her to be happy. Life is wonderful. Two children are born; Sebastian’s career is booming & Ella combines her art with her family & a social life attending glamorous gallery openings & parties.

The good life doesn’t last. Sebastian loses confidence in his talent & the pressure to keep painting & exhibiting leads to artist’s block & drinking. The money dries up & they leave London for a farmhouse in the country owned by Sebastian’s aunt, Ottoline. Ottoline sells them the farm & assorted outbuildings, one of which she continues living in. Sebastian turns the old Granary into a studio & eventually moves in there entirely as he & Ella become estranged. Their children, Josh & Tabitha, are now teenagers & drift between the house & the Granary while Ella makes some money by converting the other farm buildings into holiday lets. Ella does Sebastian’s shopping & laundry but their relationship has been almost destroyed by his drinking & infidelity & Ella’s guilt about her own painting. She gives up her own art almost entirely (except for occasional bouts in the middle of the night) & works as a freelance illustrator which she hates just for the money. This only adds to the guilt & resentment on both sides that keeps her apart from Sebastian.

In this curious marriage that isn’t quite a marriage, Ella has become attracted to Ludo, a landscape architect working as a gardener as the financial downturn makes his skills less marketable. Ludo is a romantic & his brittle, ambitious wife, Eliza, hasn’t taken kindly to their sudden drop in income. Ludo & Ella have a romantic relationship with lots of hand holding & longing looks but that doesn’t look likely to ever progress to an affair.

Ella is shocked when her father, who has lived for years as an amiable doormat to his formidably organised wife, suddenly breaks loose. He takes up with a local woman who introduces him to another circle of friends, neighbours that Ella’s mother, Sylvia, would never have socialised with. Sylvia’s humiliation is such that she leaves home & moves into one of Ella’s holiday lets. Ella & her mother aren’t close. Sylvia approves of Ginnie’s well-ordered life but only really approved of Ella’s marriage when she could boast to her friends about her famous son-in-law. Now, with Ella’s unconventional living arrangements right outside her own front door, Sylvia’s brittle manner & obvious disapproval makes it impossible for Ella to do anything but clash with her. The fact that Ella’s father seems to be loving his new, more relaxed lifestyle means that Ella faces having her mother on her doorstep for quite a while.

My Husband Next Door is a darker story than it first appears. There are no obvious heroes & villains. Sebastian’s behaviour to Ella is horrible but she’s not an entirely sympathetic character. Ella’s father, Angus, seems to be the proverbial worm who turned after years of subservience but both he & Sylvia are complex characters. The reader feels a lot more sympathy for Sylvia as she gets over her hurt & anger &, encouraged by Ottoline (my favourite character) reassesses her life & future. There is humour & romance in My Husband Next Door but don’t be misled by the sunny cover. This is an absorbing story of family relationships & the difficult decisions that have to be made to keep love & respect alive.

I read My Husband Next Door courtesy of NetGalley.