The Road to the Harbour – Susan Pleydell

Anthea Logan has spent the last seven years trying to live down the scandal of her brother’s imprisonment. Randal Logan was a chemist who sold secrets to the Communists (I assume the Soviets although it’s never actually mentioned). Anthea left her job as a journalist to look after her devastated mother & took a teaching job. Living in a miserable flat, working in an uncongenial job, trying to keep up her mother’s spirits & ashamed of her brother’s crime, Anthea couldn’t feel more defeated by life. After her mother’s death & the release of Randal from prison, Anthea is determined to change her life. Randal disappears overseas, after visiting Anthea to borrow money, & Anthea leaves her job & decides to have a bit of a spree. She buys a car, some good clothes & books a few days holiday at Balgarvie House, an expensive hotel in the north of Scotland where she spent the last happy days of her life before Randal’s disgrace tainted everything.

Anthea’s arrival at Balgarvie House causes some consternation. It’s a sporting hotel, owned by the local laird, Colonel Garvie, & a single female guest who isn’t interested in stalking, hunting or fishing is a mystery. Anthea remembers Balgarvie & especially the harbour as a tranquil place where she truly felt at home. She has relations at the Manse, the Minister, Walter McNaughton & his family, but they’ve lost touch. Anthea’s real dream is to buy or rent a neglected croft near the harbour known as the Tully. She’s less than pleased to hear that it’s been sold & that the owner is the man she fell in love with years ago, John Gregorson. Anthea & Greg had fallen in love over the Bach Double Concerto but he had broken off the relationship because he wanted to pursue a career as a writer. Then, the scandal had broken, Anthea left her job at a newspaper & effectively disappeared with their relationship & their feelings for each other unresolved. Now, here he is, a successful writer, living in the croft she had hoped to own & it’s impossible to avoid him.

The hotel guests are a mixed bunch. A couple of Frenchmen, an American Senator with his secretaries or bodyguards, Mr Peachey from the Foreign Office & his friends Vida & Bryce Carruthers & Lawrence Vine & his parents. Anthea also gets to know the students who spend their summer working at the hotel, including her cousins Ian & Ness McNaughton & Morgan, a waiter with a presumptuous manner who no one, except Ness, much likes. When a letter of Senator Cleever’s goes missing (dropped in the garden by his secretary Chet Hart while talking to Anthea), Anthea’s connection to Randal Logan is revealed & she comes under suspicion of stealing the letter. Anthea realises that she will never be free of the taint of association with treason if she, helped by Gregorson, can’t find out what really happened to the letter & the money that is subsequently stolen from Anthea’s room.

I really enjoyed The Road to the Harbour. I love books set in Scotland & I’ve been collecting the Susan Pleydell reprints from Greyladies without actually reading any of them. Then, Desperate Reader mentioned Susan Pleydell in her Top 10 of 2015 & said that this book, which she’d just read, was already a contender for this year’s Top 10. First published in 1966, it reminded me of books by Catherine Gaskin (her books are becoming available again as eBooks) or Mary Stewart that I loved when I was a teenager. Beautiful, independent young woman with a problem to solve or a worry that’s preventing her from getting on with her life, usually in an exotic location that’s as much part of the story as the plot & characters. There’s always a romance, & I enjoyed Anthea’s romance with Greg very much. His dog, Dan, is delightful (& I’m not a dog person) & the picture of the village, with the harbour & the Tully is just beautifully done. The mystery plot isn’t dramatic but the combination of circumstances – Anthea’s past, her ambiguous status at the hotel, her run-ins with the Carruthers, Morgan & Ness, her relationship with the McNaughtons & with Greg – combine to put her in a very uncomfortable position. It was a really absorbing read.

Anglophilebooks.comSome of Susan Pleydell’s books are available in the US from Anglophile Books.

Jezebel’s Daughter – Wilkie Collins

It’s been much too long since I read a Wilkie Collins novel so I was very pleased to see that Oxford University Press were publishing a new edition of one of his lesser-known novels, Jezebel’s Daughter. This is a late novel, published in 1880 & a short novel by Victorian standards, only 250pp. However, it is full of all the themes & preoccupations of Collins’ other novels – the position of women in society, the growing influence of science for good & evil, social justice & a good proportion of superstition, sensation & intrigue, including a pivotal scene in a morgue.

David Glenney is looking back on the events of his youth from a distance of 50 years. In the 1820s, he was working in his uncle, Mr Wagner’s, business which has offices in London & Frankfort. Mr Wagner, a good businessman with a social conscience, dies, leaving his very capable widow to continue the business & to carry out his particular plan, the reform of the treatment of the insane in asylums such as Bedlam. To this end, & against the advice of lawyers, Mrs Wagner decides to take one of the inmates of Bedlam, known as Jack Straw, into her home. Jack Straw got his name because of his ability to plait straw which calms his nerves. Although the origin of his illness is unknown, some form of poisoning is suspected. He is soon devoted to Mrs Wagner & she treats him with kindness, giving him responsibilities in the business such as becoming Keeper of the Keys, a title he’s very proud of.

The Frankfort office is run by the other two partners in the business, Mr Keller & Mr Engelman. Mr Keller’s son, Fritz, is sent to the London office to get him out of the way of a young woman he wishes to marry. Minna Fontaine is the Jezebel’s daughter of the title. Madame Fontaine is the widow of an eminent chemist. She has the reputation of a spendthrift & her extravagant debts are said to have ruined her husband’s health. After his death, a medicine cabinet, said to contain dangerous potions, goes missing & investigations lead nowhere although suspicion points to Madame as the thief. Mr Keller is determined that Fritz & Minna will not marry & refuses to meet either lady. Madame Fontaine is just as determined that they will marry & her maternal devotion & her desire for Minna to marry a rich man who will pay her debts for fear of scandal, is the catalyst for the events of the novel.

David goes to Frankfort to implement another of Mr Wagner’s innovations. He wants to introduce female clerks into both the London & Frankfort offices. His conservative German partners are sceptical but treat David cordially & he does all he can to keep the young lovers in contact with each other. David is suspicious of Madame Fontaine whose outward appearance of kindness & solicitude is betrayed by an underlying tension & frustration which David glimpses several times. Eventually, Madame contrives to meet Mr Engelman, whom she fascinates & flatters until he’s hopelessly in love with her. This provides her entrée in the Keller household. She even becomes housekeeper to Mr Keller, after she nurses him through a serious illness. Mr Keller eventually agrees to Fritz & Minna’s wedding & it seems that Madame Fontaine’s problems are over.

Mrs Wagner decides to visit Frankfort, bringing Jack Straw with her. The two widows dislike each other on sight & Jack is also known to Madame Fontaine as he was once an assistant in her husband’s laboratory. Jack has knowledge of Madame’s past & she fears that this knowledge will ruin all her plans. The contents of Monsieur Fontaine’s medicine cabinet give her great power & she is not afraid to use it, to devastating effect.

Jezebel’s Daughter began life as a play, The Red Vial, which Collins wrote in 1858. The play was a flop; reviewers acknowledged the sensational elements but felt that the play needed some comic sub-plot to avoid the audience sinking into despair & even some inappropriate laughter at the end of two hours of melodrama. Twenty years later, Collins reused the story in this novel. Collins excels at depicting strong women & Mrs Wagner & Madame Fontaine are wonderfully complex characters. The story doesn’t have many elements of mystery to it as we’re never really in doubt as to Madame’s duplicity. The first half of the story is told by David as an eyewitness & he is suspicious of her from the first. The second half, after an interlude consisting of three letters, is narrated by David from the testimony of others along with letters addressed to him (he’s in London through most of this part of the story) & a diary.

There may not be much mystery but there’s a lot of sensation in the plot. From the visit to Bedlam when Mrs Wagner meets Jack Straw, to the mysterious disappearance of Monsieur Fontaine’s medicine cabinet, illnesses & miraculous recoveries & the final scenes in the Deadhouse where superstitious Germans paid a Watchman to stay with their dead loved ones before their funerals in case they revived, there are enough shocks to satisfy any fan of sensation fiction. Minna is a bland heroine, sweet, dutiful & rather dim & her Fritz is boisterous & conventional. The real interest is in Madame Fontaine’s almost obsessive love for her daughter & the mixed motivations inherent in her desire for Minna’s marriage. She certainly wants her daughter to be happy & to marry the man she loves but she needs Minna to marry a rich man who will pay a promissory note that’s about to fall due. Madame Fontaine will do anything to bring about the marriage & it’s frightening to see the lengths that she will go to when it seems her plans are about to come unstuck.

Jezebel’s Daughter isn’t one of Collins’s best novels, coming near the end of his career & twenty years after the high points of The Moonstone, The Woman in White & Armadale. However, there’s a lot to enjoy in the portraits of the two widows, kindly Mr Engelman & rigidly correct Mr Keller & Jack, who often plays the role of fool or jester, presuming to speak the truth to his social superiors whether they want to hear it or not.

Oxford University Press kindly sent me a copy of Jezebel’s Daughter for review.

Pimpernel and Rosemary – Baroness Orczy

I knew that Baroness Orczy had written a lot of sequels to her most famous book, The Scarlet Pimpernel. What I didn’t realise, until I started looking at a list of books published in 1924, was that she had written a modern-day version of the Pimpernel that was published in the magic year. I had somehow always thought of the Baroness as an Edwardian writer who wrote historical fiction & mysteries featuring Lady Molly of Scotland Yard or The Old Man in the Corner. She lived a very long life (1865-1947) & her final Pimpernel novel was published in 1940.

Pimpernel and Rosemary features Peter Blakeney, great-great-grandson of the famous Sir Percy (in fact, he’s the image of the famous Romney portrait of Sir Percy). Peter is a famous cricketer, was awarded a VC during the Great War &, as the book opens, is devastated by the news that the girl he loves, Rosemary Fowkes, is engaged to his friend, Jasper, Lord Tarkington. Rosemary is a respected journalist, beautiful & sought after.

She was one of those women on whom Nature seemed to have showered ever one of her most precious gifts. There are few words that could adequately express the peculiar character of her beauty. She was tall and her figure was superb; had hair the colour of horse-chestnuts when first they fall out of their prickly green cases, and her skin was as delicately transparent as eggshell china; but Rosemary’s charm did not lie in the colour of her hair or the quality of her skin.  It lay in something more indefinable. Perhaps it was in her eyes. Surely, surely it was in her eyes. People were wont to say they were “haunting”, like the eyes of a pixie or a fairy.

Peter & Rosemary have been friends since childhood & she has spent time with the family of Peter’s aristocratic Hungarian mother who live in Transylvania. Rosemary is in love with Peter but he had never quite committed himself to her so, disappointed by Peter’s elusiveness, she agrees to marry Jasper, even though she’s not in love with him. Jasper agrees that Rosemary should continue her career after their marriage, and, when she is challenged to visit Transylvania by the military Governor, General Naniescu, & see what conditions are really like, Rosemary agrees. A series of anonymous articles has recently appeared in the European Press & Rosemary is intrigued. She plans to write a series of candid articles about post-war conditions for the Hungarian minority & Naniescu assures her that she will not be censored. Jasper convinces her to marry him before the trip so that he can accompany her.

Hungary has been devastated by the Great War. The country was carved up after the Armistice & Roumania has occupied the part of the country where the Imreys have their estate. The Hungarian aristocracy are persecuted by the new Communist regime & the Hungarians are virtually second class citizens in what used to be their country. General Naniescu has free rein to do what he wishes, far away from any central government control. Peter’s aunt, Elza, Countess Imrey, has invited Rosemary to stay with her family at their estate, during her visit. Elza’s son, Philip, & his young cousin, Anna, resent the military occupation of their homeland & are determined to let the outside world know what life is really like in post-war Hungary. Philip has written the inflammatory articles that Rosemary has read & Anna has smuggled out of the country. They are playing a dangerous game as the authorities are not amused & Naniescu is determined to prosecute the author.

Rosemary discovers what Philip & Anna have been doing but is sworn to secrecy. However, it soon becomes obvious that her trip to Hungary was all part of a plan by General Naniescu. He arrests Philip & Anna, they are imprisoned & charged with treason. Naniescu presents Rosemary with an ultimatum. She is to write a series of articles praising the new regime or else Philip & Anna will be tried by a military tribunal & almost certainly sentenced to death. If she agrees, they will be released & allowed to leave the Romanian occupied territory & live in Hungary. Rosemary is torn between her love for the Imreys & her integrity as a journalist. She also realises that by saving two people, she will be condemning thousands of other Hungarians as her reputation as a journalist is such that her opinion of the new regime will influence policy makers in Europe & convince them that all is well & to leave Hungary alone.

At the same time, Rosemary is becoming concerned about her marriage. Jasper is almost cringingly devoted to her & anticipates her every need although at times the intensity of his passion for her is frightening. She can’t stop thinking about Peter, who also visits Hungary, ostensibly to arrange a cricket match, but Jasper tells Rosemary of rumours that Peter is working for the new Romanian regime. Rosemary is desperate to help the Imreys but it seems that all her efforts are in vain as the mysterious spy, known only as Number Ten, appears to be manipulating both the Imreys & Naniescu for reasons of his own. Unsure who to trust, Rosemary must discover the truth, no matter how personally devastating it may be.

As you can tell by the quote above, Baroness Orczy doesn’t go in for under-statement. I’ve never read prose as purple as this. All the men are handsome, dashing, devoted unless they’re Romanian, in which case they’re devious, evil & probably unshaven. The women are beautiful, dignified & stoic in the face of disaster. The Baroness is definitely on the side of the aristos, the lower orders are either devotedly loyal & ready to die for their masters or scoundrels & blackguards. All the way through the book I was marking particularly florid declarations like this one, when Peter farewells Rosemary on her engagement,

Jasper is my friend, and I would not harbour one disloyal thought against him. But you being the wife of an enemy or of my best friend is beside the point. I cannot shut you out of my life, strive how I may. Never. While I am as I am and you the exquisite creature you are, so long as we are both alive, you will remain a part of my life. Whenever I catch a glimpse of you, whenever I hear the sound of your voice, my soul will thrill and long for you. Not with one thought will I be disloyal to Jasper, for in my life you will be as an exquisite spirit, an idea greater or less than woman. Just you. If you are happy I shall know it. If you grieve, Heaven help the man or woman who caused your tears. I have been a fool; yet I regret nothing. Sorrow at your hands is sweeter than any happiness on earth.

I thought Pimpernel and Rosemary (cover picture from here) was a complete romp. I enjoyed the Hungarian setting. Baroness Orczy was Hungarian & used her knowledge of the country to good effect in her beautiful descriptions of the countryside & the Imreys’ estate of Kis-Imre. The slightly faded old-world charm of the Imreys’ life with its privilege & its arrogance is implicitly compared with that of the aristocrats before the French Revolution who were rescued by the original Scarlet Pimpernel. The updating of the story to the early 1920s is made explicit in the illustration on the cover above where Peter is overshadowed by his illustrious ancestor Sir Percy. I’m not sure that I could read all ten of the sequels to the original novel, actually I’m positive I couldn’t! There were also two prequels about ancestors of Sir Percy (The Laughing Cavalier & The First Sir Percy) as well as Pimpernel and Rosemary. Interestingly there doesn’t seem to be a novel that was the basis for Pimpernel Smith, a 1941 movie starring Leslie Howard (who played Sir Percy in the 1934 movie with Merle Oberon as Marguerite) as a WWII era Pimpernel. The movie was based on an original story by A G Macdonell who wrote the novel England, Their England. Baroness Orczy isn’t even credited.

I also have to confess that I relaxed my book-buying ban for the 1924 Club by buying the eBook collection of four Pimpernel novels for 73 cents. I just couldn’t resist the idea of an updated Pimpernel novel set in Hungary. My excuse was that Simon set the challenge of finding obscure novels written in 1924 & I thought I should take up that challenge after reading the better-known John Buchan novel earlier in the week.