Margaret Kennedy Day – The Wild Swan

Roy Collins is a scriptwriter with B.B.B, a major English film studio. He has ambitions to write & direct his own scripts but his current assignment is to work on the shooting script for a historical picture selected for one of the studio’s leading stars, Kitty Fletcher. Dorothea Harding was a Victorian lady writer of children’s stories & twee poetry. After her death, however, a diary & passionate poetry was discovered & literary critics, including Alec Mundy, interpreted the poems as an expression of illicit love between Dorothea & her brother-in-law, Grant Forrester. Grant’s early death was seen as suicidal despair over the impossibility of his love for Dorothea. Mundy’s biography was the basis of a play by Adelaide Lassiter, a writer of sentimental platitudes who calls Dorothea Doda & is now writing the screenplay for the movie.

Adelaide wants to absorb the atmosphere of Bramstock, Dorothea’s home which is still owned by members of the Harding family so she goes down to see the house, accompanied by Roy, Mundy & hanger-on Basil Cope. Now very hard up, the Hardings have reluctantly agreed to allow their house to be used for the filming, knowing that the money will pay for daughter Cecilia’s college education. Cecilia is proud & resentful of the whole idea, dismissing Dorothea’s work as Victorian tosh but she becomes interested in Roy despite looking down on his origins (his aunt lives in the village where the Hardings are the local squires) & what she perceives as his lack of ambition. Roy begins to feel an affinity with Dorothea as he walks around the grounds of Bramstock & begins to realise that the sentimental story of her life is wrong. He becomes determined to stop the movie from going ahead because he feels somehow akin to Dorothea & protective of her story.

But it’s not Cecilia’s fault that she doesn’t understand, thought Roy. None of them do. They all think it’s their job to tell us what to put. And we have to laugh it off.
They, to him, were the entire human race. We were Dorothea Harding, himself, and a myriad nameless others, swimming, sinking, fighting for life, in the same inclement ocean.
He lifted his head, smiled, and went back to the hotel in better spirits than he had known for many a day, sensible that he had, after all, got company.

Another descendant of the Harding family, Shattock, is in possession of potentially explosive documents that could change the image of Dorothea as the Victorian poetess & potentially scupper the making of the movie. The central section of the book takes us back to the time of Dorothea herself & we learn just how mistaken the ideas of biographers can be as the truth of her life & the reason she wrote her inane but successful novels becomes clear.

The Wild Swan is a novel that reminded me of other books about writers & their literary afterlives. Like A S Byatt’s Possession & Carol Shields’ Mary Swann, the central conceit of a writer from the past whose life has been misinterpreted & taken over by modern academics is one that has always fascinated me. The idea that we can ever really know a person from another age, no matter how much material they leave behind is fraught with danger. Material is always turning up & there are plenty of real life examples as well as fictional ones. Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Monsieur Heger are probably the most famous example but there are plenty of gaps in our knowledge of historical figures that novelists & playwrights have tried to fill in & sometimes their version becomes the truth.

I enjoyed seeing the real Dorothea, who was a much tougher, more resilient woman than her admirers imagined. Her life was circumscribed by the duties of a Victorian daughter. She was able to get on with her writing & go her own way while her older sister, Mary, was at home. Mary’s marriage to Grant will be the catalyst that reluctantly forces Dorothea into the role of housekeeper to her demanding father. Her invalid brother & his wife & children also live at Bramstock & Dorothea’s relationship with her sister-in-law, Selina, is difficult. Dorothea’s cousin, Effie Creighton, is sympathetic, & as one of the few people who know about Clone, the imaginary world Dorothea & her sister invented as children, she understands how important Dorothea’s work is to her. However, her mother does not approve of Dorothea & eventually marriage takes Effie away. The rector, Mr Winthorpe, is seen as a benign presence & an influence on Dorothea’s writing by Mundy but his desire to control Dorothea is typical of a conventionally Victorian moral world. He’s disconcerted by Dorothea’s unusual self-possession & tries to persuade her into a more conventional role while he fears that she is secretly laughing at him.

The contemporary story was also fascinating. Written in 1957, it’s set in that awkward post-war period when upper & middle class families were having to adjust their expectations. The Hardings are still the local squires but they’re poor. Cecilia may still boss around the women of the local W.I but Bramstock is rundown & she knows her father can’t afford to send her to college. The offer from the film company is embraced by Cecilia’s practical mother although her father is horrified by the implication of stooping to the depths of taking money from something as vulgar as a movie company & about a family member at that. Cecilia’s contempt for Roy (her father initially mistakes him for “the plumber’s mate” & Cecilia calls him that in her mind for quite a while) changes to interest as she discovers more about him. When she learns that he’s written an avant garde short film that she’s seen & enjoyed, she has to reassess her prejudices & finds herself liking him quite a lot. Roy’s feelings for her are more ambiguous. I also enjoyed the pompous Mundy & his superior attitude to Adelaide’s play while she was much more like the accepted image of Dorothea than the real woman could ever have been. Everyone has an image of Dorothea in their minds that suits their own plans but the truth will surprise them all.

Thank you to Jane at Beyond Eden Rock for hosting Margaret Kennedy Day. It was a great incentive to read another of her novels.

Ruined City – Nevil Shute

Henry Warren is an unhappy man. In his early 40s, he’s a merchant banker, running his family firm. He travels constantly, his marriage is miserable & he feels disconnected from life. When he discovers that his wife is having an affair with an Arab prince, he gives her an ultimatum. Leave the prince, leave London & the meaningless social life she enjoys so much, & move to the country to give their marriage one more chance. She refuses & Warren decides to start divorce proceedings. He makes plans to close up his London house &, on an impulse, sets off for the north of England for a walking holiday. His health is suffering, he has insomnia & feels that vigorous exercise will cure him. He sends his chauffeur home when they reach the North & plans to walk in the Borders for a week or so. However, he’s taken ill on the road & a lorry driver takes him to a hospital in the town of Sharples.

Sharples was once a thriving industrial town. Five years before, the ship building company closed down, the factories closed & most of the adult population has been out of work ever since. As Warren recovers in hospital from a twisted gut, he learns about the long term effects that the Depression has had on the people & the town. When he is admitted to hospital, unshaven after several days on the road & with no money after his wallet is stolen, he’s assumed to be a tramp looking for work. He allows this deception, telling the nurses that he’s been in America & been sent back to Glasgow after losing his job. It’s a common story & easily believed. He is horrified to realise that many of the other patients in the ward are unable to survive relatively routine operations because of malnutrition after years of just surviving on the dole. He begins to investigate the town as he recovers & an idea to rejuvenate Sharples begins to take shape.

He becomes friends with the Almoner of the hospital, Alice McMahon. A young woman of about 30, she has lived in Sharples all her life. She studied law at Durham but returned to Sharples when the Depression hit, unwilling to get on with her own life & career while her home town was suffering. The hospital barely survives on charitable donations as the patients can’t afford to pay for their care. Alice is angry that her community is suffering & falling into despair because of economic conditions they can do nothing about. She worries about the future of towns like Sharples & the families she knows there if ship building never revives & nothing else takes its place.

Warren buys the shipyard & uses his contacts with a Balkan government (which includes some spectacular bribery in the form of a jewelled green silk umbrella) to get a contract to build oil tankers. His plans don’t run smoothly though, with the workers malnourished & not able to work at full capacity for some time. He also has to engage in some questionable behaviour to get the company up & running, a decision that comes back to haunt him later. What I found interesting was that Warren, who has been a banker all his life, working in the family firm, has no qualms about his actions, even when the consequences are personally devastating. It’s an interesting moral question. How far is it permissible to go to achieve a greater good? The change in Sharples once the shipyard is operational again is overwhelmingly positive but a little dodgy dealing is needed to make it happen.

The story takes place from 1934-37. The Depression is at its height & there’s no sign of WWII on the horizon as yet although there is talk of totalitarian regimes & Chamberlain is Chancellor of the Exchequer. Warren is 43 at the start of the book & he served in the Great War so I imagine he was born in around 1892.

Ruined City was published in 1938 & I’m so glad I had a chance to read another Nevil Shute for the 1938 Club. He’s one of my favourite authors, I find his writing quite plodding & pedestrian at times but compelling for all that. I think it’s the accumulation of detail which some might find boring but I enjoy. Warren meticulously works out his plans for the ship building business, calculating percentages & interest rates. He goes to Latavia in the Balkans & spends his time losing money at cards to corrupt politicians & dancing with a Corsican girl called Pepita whose connections are integral to the success of the deal Warren needs to get an order for the oil tankers. His moral compass is thoroughly shaken up but the interest in his project turns his life around & gets him through the depression he’d fallen into after his illness & the divorce from his wife. Warren’s relationship with Alice McMahon is also very delicately done. It’s her passion for Sharples that inspires Warren’s plans & the relationship that began as that of hospital almoner & indigent patient becomes one of friendship & partnership in the plan to reopen the shipyard.

Warren reminded me of another Shute hero, Donald Ross, in An Old Captivity, & his work as a seaplane pilot. Actually, I think all Shute’s heroes have this trait of meticulousness in their work. Tom Cutter in Round the Bend was just the same. I’ve decided that Shute’s men obsessing about business or their planes is the equivalent of women in novels being careful housekeepers. The image that often comes into my mind when I read Shute is of Jane Eyre refurbishing the Rivers’ home when she comes into her inheritance. It’s the domesticity & detail that I love, whether it’s at home or at work.

I listened to Ruined City on audio, read by Gareth Armstrong. I enjoy his reading style very much. His reading of A N Wilson’s Victoria was one of my highlights of last year.

Elizabeth Cadell – available again

I don’t know, you wait ages for a reprint of a favourite author & then three come along at once! After posting about Ursula Bloom on Thursday, I was pleased to hear from a friend in the D E Stevenson Yahoo group about the reprints of Elizabeth Cadell’s books. Her grandchildren have started Friendly Air Publishing, & will be releasing Cadell’s novels as eBooks. The first three are The Corner Shop, The Fledgling & The Cuckoo in Spring. I can’t really say that Cadell is a favourite author as I haven’t read any of her books but the reviews I’ve read around the blogs – such as the review here of The Corner Shop –  make me think that I will enjoy her books.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned the eBook reprints of D E Stevenson but Endeavour Press have started to release some of her books with hopefully more to come. Stevenson fans have much to enjoy with paperback reprints already from Persephone, Sourcebooks & Greyladies.
Endeavour Press are also reprinting Marjorie Bowen. Does anyone else remember her? I have vivid memories of reading her biography of Mary, Queen of Scots over & over again but she also wrote historical fiction & ghost stories. Endeavour have also published an eBook of Angela Thirkell’s historical novel, Trooper to the Southern Cross, not one of her Barsetshire novels but the story of a journey to Australia on a troop ship.

More in the nature of forthcoming excitement, I’m very much looking forward to Scott’s new venture in the world of middlebrow publishing. Scott blogs at Furrowed Middlebrow & he recently announced that he’s about to begin his own imprint to resurrect some of his own favourite authors. There may be some clues in his own Possibly Persephone list here but several of these are back in print already. I would love Winifred Peck to be on Scott’s list. I loved House-Bound (Persephone) & have enjoyed Scott’s reviews of several of her other titles.

Rogue Herries – Hugh Walpole

Francis Herries uproots his family & takes them to his family home, Herries, in the Lake District in the early 18th century. Francis is a proud, arrogant man who has alienated most of his family, including his timid wife, Margaret, who is terrified of him. The only person Francis loves is his son, David. David adores his father & his younger sister, Deborah, a sensitive child who is devoted to David but frightened of her father. Their sister, Mary, is confident & attractive & will always go her own way. Francis has humiliated his wife by bringing his latest mistress, Alice Press, to Herries, supposedly to look after the children. Alice, however, longs for the early days of their affair to be rekindled, even though it’s obvious that Francis’s interest has disappeared. She takes her revenge by being rude to Margaret & trying to ignore the gossip & David’s contempt for her.

When the Herries family arrive in Borrowdale, the house & farm are neglected & falling into ruins. Francis, however, is immediately drawn to the land & the house & will never willingly leave it. He will continue to battle the barren land, one way or another, for the rest of his life. Francis has a reputation as a hell-raiser, a womaniser & brawler. His family & servants don’t know whether he’ll smile on them or raise his fist to strike them. He’s feared in the neighbourhood because of his reputation & because he keeps a servant, Mrs Wilson, who is reputed to be a witch. He also harbours a Catholic priest, Father Roche, whose position is dangerous in the years when the Jacobite threat is still present. Father Roche fills David’s head with stories of the glories of the martyred King Charles & the Catholic religion. Francis earns the nickname Rogue because of his temper & his determination to go his own way, regardless of opinion or propriety. His brother, Harcourt, tells David,

He spoke of Francis’ youth, of how he had been always different from the others, capable of the greatest things, but that some instability had always checked him. ‘He hath always imagined more than he grasped, dreamed more than he could realise. There is a wild loneliness in his spirit that no one can reach.’

Francis is capable of sudden acts of kindness & compassion. He gives his coat to a beggar woman he meets on the side of the road, an act of charity that will have far-reaching consequences when he meets the woman again years later & becomes enthralled by her daughter, Mirabell. Later, when Francis & David find themselves in Carlisle during the Jacobite invasion of Carlisle by Bonnie Prince Charlie, Francis meets Mirabell again, with the young man she loves & wishes to marry. Francis’s love for the elusive, self-contained Mirabell will come to dominate his life & cause him as much frustration as joy.

He had never once been free of her … All the new compassion and softness that had lately been growing in him so that the sterner, more ironical part of him had been frightened at the change and tried to drive it away, all this had been from her. It had been as though he had been educating himself out of the nastiness and pride of his earlier life, so that he might be ready for her when she came to him: and now she would never come.

Meanwhile, David & Deborah have stayed at Herries – David because he promised his mother before she died that he wouldn’t leave Francis & Deborah because she doesn’t have the courage or confidence to go anywhere else. David is well-liked in the community for his gentle strength & honesty but, when he finally falls in love with Sarah Denman, a fairy princess trapped with a wicked uncle who wants her inheritance, he finds himself ignoring the laws of God & man to rescue her.

Rogue Herries is a big, sprawling family saga. Apart from the interest in the story of the Herries family, from their arrival in the Lakes when David is just eleven until the 1770s when he’s a married man in his 50s, the picture Walpole draws of the Lake District is very atmospheric. But really, the dominant figure is Francis Herries & it’s his story that fascinates, more so than David’s story which is tame compared with the wild passions & dramas of his father. David’s wife, Sarah, describes the difference between the two men when she tries to explain why she & David should leave Herries & make a life for themselves,

‘Davy, your father and Mirabell are in another world from you and me, from Deborah too. We see things plainly as they are, and always will. A road is a road to us, and a house a house. But Mirabell and your father see nothing as it is. I cannot sit still like a puss in the corner to wonder which way the wind is blowing. For me, give me a fireside and you, a square screen to keep off the draught, a work-basket, and I can do well enough; but for them they see neither screen nor work-basket. But always something beyond the window that they have not, or once had or would have, or will have if they wait long enough.

There are also elements of myth & legend in the book. From the fear of the country people that leads to Mrs Wilson being swum as a witch to the mysterious pedlar, “a tall, thin scarecrow of a man, having on his head a peaked, faded purple hat, and round his neck some of the coloured ribbons that he was for selling. By his speech, which was cultivated, he was no native, and, indeed, with his sharp nose and bright eyes he seemed a rascal of unusual intelligence.” whose appearances never bode well, superstition & portents are never far away. I feel that Walpole must have read & loved Wuthering Heights as there seemed to be echoes of that book in Rogue Herries. I loved this description of Christmas at the home of the Peel family which reminded me of a similar scene at the Heights,

In the chimney wing were hung hams and sides of bacon and beef, and near the fire-window was an ingle-seat, comfortable most of the year save when the rain or snow poured down on to the hearth, as the chimney was quite unprotected and you could look up it and see the sky above you. Such was the kitchen end of the room. The floor tonight was cleared for the dancing, but at the opposite end the trestle-tables were ranged for the feasting. Here was also a large oak cupboard with handsomely carved doors. This held the bread, bread made of oatmeal and water. On the mantle and cupboard there were rushlight holders and brass candlesticks. In other parts of the room were big standard holders for rushlights.
All these tonight were brilliantly lit and blew in great gusts in the wind.

The omniscient narrator ranges backward into history & forward into the far future which emphasizes the timelessness of the story he tells. Sometimes he hints at the future of the characters or of the Lakes or England, describing the changes that will come with the Industrial Revolution. I’ve marked so many passages of beautiful description of landscape & the details of the domestic life of the characters. Walpole loved the Lakes & he felt that this series, the Herries Chronicles, would make his reputation. The energy of the narrative swept me along but it’s the character of Francis Herries, his struggles, his almost spiritual feeling for his land & his essential loneliness that is so captivating. I’ll give Francis the last word,

“‘Tis as useless a life as a man can find and as pitiful, but I’ve had moments, Davy, that you will never know, and ’tis by the height of your divining moments that life must be judged. I love this woman that I have got here as you and Sarah will never love, in the entrails, Davy, down among the guts, my boy. … And they’ll not drag me from this house till the rats are gnawing at my toes and there’s lice in my ears. For this is my home, this spot, this ground, this miry waste, and here I’ll die.”

Jean Erskine’s Secret – D E Stevenson

Jean Erskine’s Secret is one of the manuscripts by D E Stevenson that was literally “found in the attic” a few years ago & published by Greyladies. I’ve read & enjoyed The Fair Miss Fortune & Emily Dennistoun but Jean Erskine’s Secret is the earliest of the manuscripts to be written. It’s thought to have been written in about 1917 & is set in the Scottish village of Crale in the years just before & during WWI.

Jean Erskine is a daughter of the manse. Her father is advised to move from his city parish to the country &, soon after their arrival, Jean meets Diana McDonald. Diana is living at Crale Castle with her uncle Ian & cousin Elsa. Her parents aren’t mentioned (Diana had previously lived with an aunt in Kensington) & Jean senses a mystery. However, the girls soon become great friends. Elsa is not a sympathetic person. She’s engaged to a young man, Ray Morley Brown, who Jean knew as a child. Elsa is sarcastic, petty & generally unpleasant, spending as much time as she can in Edinburgh with Ray & her other friends & looking down upon country society. Her father sees none of this & assumes that his daughter & niece are good friends. Jean also meets Fanshaw Locke, who lives nearby & works in Edinburgh. Romantic complications develop as Jean is attracted to Fan but believes that he’s in love with Diana.

The real subject of the book though is the friendship between Jean & Diana. The book is in the form of a story that Jean is writing about Diana, to explain the secret in Diana’s life. I won’t go into that part of the plot to avoid spoilers but the friendship between the two girls is touching & very believable. Both of them had been lonely & their friendship fills a gap in their lives that helps to make up for the disappointments & mysteries they have to overcome. Because so much of the plot is about secrets, I won’t say any more about the plot.

There are many things to enjoy in this book although I do wonder whether D E Stevenson would have wanted it to be published. It’s a very early work & there are plot holes & frankly unbelievably melodramatic incidents, particularly towards the end, that I felt were just ridiculous. One twist of the plot near the end reminded me more of Mary Shelley or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle than the comfortably domestic fiction I associate with D E Stevenson. To me, this book shows all the signs of being a way for the author to try out different styles of writing & I do wonder what she might have toned down or changed if she’d ever revised the manuscript for publication. There are changes of personality in some of the characters that are inconsistent. For example, after being pretty despicable all through the book, Elsa suddenly has a complete change of personality when war breaks out & goes out to France as a (completely unqualified) nurse. There are too many coincidences involving friends and relations of Jean being involved with Diana & the Macdonalds to be altogether credible or necessary.

One of the aspects of Stevenson’s writing that I do love is her sense of place, particularly in her Scottish novels. Even in this early work, this is evident & I especially love she writes about weather. Here, Jean & Ian are walking through a rainy Edinburgh,

Edinburgh was a black dripping place today; the castle towered up threateningly, clearly seen against the light patches of grey sky in its jagged ebony outlines. Arthur’s Seat was swathed in a wet and smoky mist; here and there it was rolled back by a puff of chill wind, one caught a glimpse of black shoulder or jutting crag only half real in the gathering gloom. The trees in the gardens were sodden, the gardens themselves deserted and sloppy, the houses all dripping wet and as black as if the rain had been ink. Every street was a running river of muddy water, across which here and there a light twinkled out, making long pale yellow reflections like pointing fingers in the quickly falling gloom. On every face was written a patient yet sullen acceptance of the comfortless conditions, as their owners ploughed through the muddy water on their several businesses.

As always, she writes about the countryside beautifully,

The day fixed by Diana for her return was one of those rare days in winter when the whole world is like an old-fashioned Christmas card. Hoar frost outlined every branch of every tree and gleamed like powdered silver over the crackling ground. A pale pink mist shrouded the valley and softened the hard glare of the sun on the white-coated land.

All in all, I’m pleased to have had a chance to read this early work of one of my favourite authors &  bringing more Stevenson novels back into print has to be a good thing.

Greyladies is also starting a new venture, a magazine, The Scribbler, that will be published three times a year. My copy of the first edition arrived on Tuesday & I couldn’t wait to sit down with a cup of tea & read it from cover to cover. It’s subtitled A Retrospective Literary Review & the first edition has articles on the Desert Island Discs episode from 1976 featuring Noel Streatfeild (you can listen to it here, or wherever you find your podcasts), reviews of novels set in girl’s schools that concentrate more on the teachers than the pupils; the book that changed editor Shirley Neilson’s life (it was called Shirley, Young Bookseller by Valerie Baxter!), an author spotlight on Lorna Hill, a literary trail of the Scottish Borders & a short story by D E Stevenson.

Anglophilebooks.comCopies of Jean Erskine’s Secret & many other books by D E Stevenson are available in the US from Anglophile Books.

The Deepening Stream – Dorothy Canfield Fisher

We’ve come up with several acronyms in my online reading group, including HIU – have it unread (for books that someone mentions that other members own & immediately rush to the shelves & plan to read next). I came up with a new one just recently, RIAL – read it at last. The Deepening Stream was first mentioned in our group at least three years ago. I was enthusiastic, ordered a copy but then, by the time it arrived, I’d moved on & it sat on the tbr shelves. I picked it up several times but didn’t actually begin reading it. Then, I saw a review of it on the blog TBR 313 & I just knew I had to read it at once. I didn’t even finish reading the review for fear of learning too much about the book.

I loved this book & can’t imagine why it took me so long to get around to reading it. It’s the coming of age story of Matey Gilbert. We first meet Matey (her name is Penelope & the nickname is never explained) as a small child, living in France with her parents & siblings Priscilla & Francis. Her parents are an unhappy couple, forever trying to get the better of each other. Her father is a literature professor in the States who needs frequent sabbaticals in Europe but only French-speaking countries. Her mother takes up new enthusiasms & new friends, only to have her husband sneer at them. All three children are scarred by the experience of tiptoeing around their parents. Priscilla grows up to be afraid of relationships. When she does marry, it’s to an older widower who is looking for a mother for his children rather than a wife. Francis projects confidence but covers up his hurt with a brash exterior. Matey is more vulnerable but learns to cope by avoiding confrontation & through the love of her dog, Sumner. Only when her father is dying does Matey see the real depth of love between her parents.

As a young woman, Matey goes back to her mother’s home town of Rustdorf in Dutchess County, New York when she receives an unexpected inheritance. There she meets her extended family, many of them Quakers, including a cousin, Adrian Fort, who works in his family’s bank. Matey & Adrian fall in love & their marriage is the beginning of Matey’s blossoming. She realises that there can be a true partnership in marriage, without the game playing her parents indulged in. When the Great War breaks out, Matey & Adrian decide to go to France. Matey had stayed in touch with Madame Vinet & her family, with whom she had stayed as a child & Adrian had spent some time studying art in Paris before he decided he didn’t have the talent to be an artist. They speak excellent French & when they hear from the Vinets of the hardships that the French are suffering, Adrian decides to become an ambulance driver & Matey to help the Vinets in any way she can. By this time they have two small children &, although they have some qualms about taking their children to Europe in the circumstances, they are determined to do something. The next four years are spent helping refugees & providing a place for soldiers on leave to rest & get news of their families through Madame Vinet’s network of friends. When the war ends, Matey & her family return to Rustdorf, to recover from the trauma of their experiences & to try to make their lives valuable & worthwhile in the post-war world.

This is such an absorbing book. I admired the accuracy of Canfield Fisher’s psychological insights into the mind of a sensitive child like Matey even though I’ve never really been interested in books written from a child’s eye view. I usually skim the opening chapters of biographies too, especially when they go back several generations. However, here it was compelling. Once Matey grows up & visits Rustdorf, I couldn’t put the book down. This is where Matey begins to develop as a person, the deepening stream of her personality begins to emerge from her troubled childhood. We also begin to see her through the eyes of others, Adrian & his father, & she becomes part of their family which is also her own. On the journey to France, with the threat of torpedoes ever-present, Matey realises that no fear will ever really affect her like the fears of her childhood,

It was true. This was not her first encounter with fear. She had met it years ago, and what she felt now could not be compared to that black helpless waiting for catastrophe of the child she had been, tragically unfortified, like all children, by experience. Nothing had then come into her life strong enough to stand between her and her fear – over the oatmeal, bitter as poison on bad mornings – that there was nothing real in life but the wish to hurt. That had been true despair. But this present danger – all that was not physical in her stood apart from it, unthreatened, secure.

The war section of the book is based on Canfield Fisher’s own life as she & her husband did just what Matey & Adrian do. I know a little of Canfield Fisher’s life through reading Willa Cather’s Letters among other things but I would love to read her own letters & more of her fiction. I read The Home-Maker years ago when it was reprinted as one of the first Persephones & I’ve read some of her short stories. These wartime scenes are wonderful. I loved all the domestic detail of how Matey & Madame Vinet scrimped & saved to put food on the table, how they contrived to get news of soldiers to their families as well as the more personal troubles of the Vinets – Henri & Paul in the Army & Ziza, Matey’s closest friend from childhood, keeping her husband’s business going in the countryside but with secrets of her own that estrange her from her mother. Matey identifies so much with the Vinets & the French people that she struggles to understand her brother, Francis, when he arrives in Paris with a delegation when America enters the war. His priority is to use America’s wealth to win the war & if he makes a profit out of it, all the better. Another instance of how their childhood experiences have shaped their lives. Francis sees his money as a shield against trouble while Matey uses an inheritance from her great-great-aunt Constance to finance the trip to France & their war work. I felt as exhausted as Matey & Adrian when they finally return home & have to pick up the threads of their old lives. There’s a real sense of peace at the end of the book which is very satisfying,

Her years with Adrian answered that question, stood before her, beckoning her on. She walked forward again. Had Adrian ever needed words to share with her all she had learned from him? The medium for the communication of the spirit is not words, but life.

The Three Hostages – John Buchan

I really enjoy John Buchan’s Richard Hannay thrillers so it was great to realise that the fourth novel, The Three Hostages, was published in 1924 so I could read it as part of Simon & Karen’s 1924 Club. Even better, I had the book on the shelf & as an eBook so I wasn’t tempted to buy a copy.

Richard Hannay is settled at Fosse, his home in the Cotswolds. The War is long over, he’s married to Mary & they have a son, Peter John. Hannay wants nothing more than to spend his days fishing & working on his estate. He’s vegetating with a vengeance.

… the place wanted a lot of looking to, for it had run wild during the War, and the woods had to be thinned, gates and fences repaired, new drains laid, a ram put in to supplement the wells, a heap of thatching to be done, and the garden borders brought back to cultivation. I had got through the worst of it, and as I came out of the Home Wood to the lower lawns and saw the old stone gables that the monks had built, I felt that I was anchored at last in the pleasantest kind of harbour.

So he’s less than happy when he’s contacted by his old boss, Macgillivray, who wants his help in solving a mystery involving an international crime syndicate. Macgillivray’s men are about to round up the members of the syndicate but, as extra insurance, they’ve taken three hostages. Adela Victor, daughter of a rich banker; Lord Mercot, heir to the Duke of  Alcester & David Warcliff, the eight year old son of soldier & administrator Sir Arthur. On the face of it, there seems to be no connection between the three cases & Hannay is reluctant to become involved. His conscience begins to bother him, particularly about young David after a visit from Sir Arthur & eventually he agrees to help. The only clue he has is a piece of doggerel, six lines of verse about the fields of Eden & a blind spinner, sent to the fathers of each of the hostages. The lines trigger the recollection of a conversation, half-remembered by Hannay’s friend, local doctor Tom Greenslade, & this sets him off on the trail of a criminal mastermind who is too subtle to use physical violence but instead steals the souls of his victims through hypnosis.

Hannay’s trail leads him from the dining clubs of London to a seedy dance hall, the fjords of Norway & eventually the Highlands of Scotland. He’s under pressure to locate the hostages before midsummer when Macgillivray will tighten the net & swoop on the gang. The hostages must be released at the same time as the gang is arrested or they will certainly be killed. Along the way, Hannay meets up with his former colleagues, Sandy Arbuthnot & Archie Roylance. I was also glad to see that Mary has a pivotal role to play. She was such an integral part of the adventure in the previous Hannay novel, Mr Standfast, & I was a little perturbed when she seemed to have dwindled into a wife & mother in this book while Hannay went off adventuring. I needn’t have worried as Mary’s abilities & intelligence are crucial in the unravelling of the plot & the discovery of the hostages. The mastermind of the conspiracy is truly frightening with his ability to subordinate the will of others & his total single-mindedness is well-hidden under a facade of urbane charm. As Sandy tells Hannay,

There’s such a thing, remember, as spiriting away a man’s recollection of his past, and starting him out as a waif in a new world. I’ve heard in the East of such performances, and of course it means that the memory-less being is at the mercy of the man who has stolen his memory.”

John Buchan is so good at writing a tight, fast-moving thriller but what I enjoy almost as much as the plot (& there is a fantastic twist near the end that I didn’t see coming) is his sense of place. His descriptions of Scotland are always gorgeous but Hannay’s home in the Cotswolds & the trip to Norway are just as evocative. I especially enjoyed the peace of Fosse as the still centre of all the chaos around the chase. It becomes a metaphor for England’s place in a world still recovering from the Great War & reluctant to become involved in the world’s woes. Hannay is so very noble, his stiff upper lip barely trembles except when he thinks of young David Warcliff or thinks his family is in danger. There are a few distasteful references to race & eugenics (the shape of the villain’s head is seen as a sign of his degeneracy) but such references are of their time & if you read books published in the early 20th century, you have to accept, or at least learn to discount, the attitudes of the time. I loved The Three Hostages as an atmospheric thriller & I’m so pleased that the 1924 Club inspired me to read it.

John Buchan’s sister, Anna, wrote under the name O Douglas. She also published a book in 1924, Pink Sugar, & I reviewed it several years ago here.

Middlebrow Feminism in Classic British Detective Fiction – Melissa Schaub

If ever there was a book title that ticked all my reading boxes, this would have to be it. The combination of middlebrow fiction with the Golden Age detective novel is irresistible. The intriguing subtitle of the book is The Female Gentleman, & I was curious to find out what this meant.

Schaub places the detective novels of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham & Georgette Heyer (she also discusses Heyer’s romances) in a line leading from the Victorian Angel in the House & the New Woman texts of the 1890s through to the novels of the feminism of the 1970s & 1980s. The disdain of Modernist writers like Virginia Woolf for these middlebrow writers & their audience intrigues Schaub. All these writers are still in print & their work is enjoyed today when the equally revolutionary novels of the New Woman writers – Mona Caird, George Egerton & Sarah Grand – have been largely forgotten. Schaub discusses the “boomerang” nature of many of the plots of New Women fiction. The authors allow their heroines considerable freedom until about the halfway point of the novel & then they have to be reined in & usually punished by the end of the book for their temerity in pushing the boundaries of convention.

The popularity of detective fiction has been apparent since Victorian times & Schaub briefly discusses characters such as Rachel Verinder in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone & Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, but it was only in the post WWI era, when education & political change led to women gaining the vote, that women could realistically take on the role of sleuth, becoming female gentlemen, with the same codes of honour as their male counterparts.

… the core of the ideal is a woman who is competent, courageous and self-reliant in practical situations, capable of subordinating her emotions to reason and the personal good to the social good, and possessed of ‘honor’ in the oldest sense of the term. These are personality traits, corresponding with the moral aspect of Victorian gentlemanliness. Most of the characters who fill the Female Gentleman role also fulfill the more archaic class aspect of gentlemanliness through birth or breeding, but with significant revision consistent with the class negotiations performed by the middlebrow novel as a whole.

After WWI, many of the male fictional detectives were scarred by their experiences in the trenches. Lord Peter Wimsey is probably the most famous example, suffering shell shock & eventually finding stability in his work as a detective. Even then, he’s prone to emotional collapse at the end of a case when he has to confront the fact that his actions have led to a murderer’s execution. He’s just one example of the effete young gentleman contrasted with the women in detective novels of the period who take on masculine traits almost in compensation. Emotional self-control is crucial & the heroes & heroines of these novels often display a detached ironic form of speech, Lord Peter & Harriet’s piffle is the best example.

The loosening of social conventions is also important here. Women had experienced a measure of freedom during the war, working as nurses or in munition factories. Suddenly young women could walk through London alone, without a chaperone, without the threat of being taken as prostitutes. Elizabeth Dalloway, in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, takes a walk through London, unchaperoned, riding on a bus, which is even more radical than her mother’s stroll to buy flowers. Women were shortening their skirts, even wearing trousers & ties, smoking in public, voting & earning a living. Although middlebrow novels are often seen as conservative, the examples here show the rewards of feminism as women became better educated & more politically active.

The Female Gentleman is characterised by her sense of honour, physical & moral courage, self-reliance, sense of submitting her personal desires to the greater good & usually belonging to the upper middle to upper classes. Often she has become an outcast from her social class because of the need to earn a living or because she has gone outside the accepted conventions of the class she was born into. Critics have called these novels conservative because of the predominance of upper class characters & the often casual racism & anti-Semitism of the times but highbrow & Modernist fiction wasn’t exempt from these attitudes & the authors often treat characters of different races with sympathy.

Harriet Vane has been to Oxford, earns a living as a writer & lived with her lover, Philip Boyes, without expecting or wanting marriage. It was only when Boyes humiliated her by offering to marry her once she had passed his “test” of devotion, that she left him & was then accused of poisoning him with arsenic in Dorothy L Sayers’s Strong Poison. Lady Amanda Fitton, in Allingham’s novels, designs airplanes & Agatha Troy, in Marsh’s novels, is an artist. All these women have the attributes of the gentleman & they are portrayed as the intellectual equals of the men they marry. It’s significant that the novels of women writers like Allingham, Marsh & Sayers all depict such an equal relationship. There may be an element of wish fulfillment here but the concept was certainly not so outrageous as to be unbelievable in the context of the times. Along with the more traditional spinster amateur sleuths like Christie’s Miss Marple & Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, there were other single women like Sayers’s Miss Climpson & Miss Murchison, who represented another reality of post-war society, the surplus women who overturn the stereotype of catty old ladies in boarding houses & country villages, using their considerable skills to pursue justice & outwit villains.

I feel that I’ve only skimmed the surface of this book. I found the idea of the Female Gentleman to be thought provoking & intriguing. I’ve read nearly all the novels discussed (there are some inevitable spoilers when discussing plots but I would think most readers of this book will be fans of the authors discussed & will already know the plots backwards) & Melissa Schaub’s prose is readable & blessedly free of jargon. The discussions of the books, their plots & characters are guaranteed to make you want to read or reread one or more of these books immediately. 

The Talisman Ring – Georgette Heyer

Vulpes Libres recently spent a week celebrating the work of Georgette Heyer & I was inspired to pick up The Talisman Ring after reading Kate’s post on it. I have quite a few Heyers on the tbr shelves & I do want to read more of them. The novels I’ve read since discovering her a few years ago have been a lot of fun & I must make an effort to read more of them.

The Talisman Ring is one of her early novels & has two contrasting heroines. Eustachie de Vauban is only 17 & has been rescued from the Revolutionary Terror in Paris by her English grandfather. Eustachie is a Romantic & would really have preferred to have stayed in Paris & be condemned to death so that she could look pale but beautiful & unafraid in a tumbril on the way to the guillotine. Eustachie’s grandfather, Lord Lavenham, is dying & his great-nephew, Sir Tristram Shield, has been sent for to marry Eustachie, thus ensuring her future. Tristram is older, calm & very no nonsense but is willing to marry Eustachie for Lord Lavenham’s sake.

Lord Lavenham’s grandson, Ludovic, would have been her intended husband but he is in exile, suspected of murdering a man to whom he owed money. Ludovic had gambled away a talisman ring, a family heirloom that he had given as a pledge. Ludovic admitted to being in the vicinity when Sir Matthew Plunkett was shot & the ring went missing after the murder so he was the obvious suspect. With help from Tristram & another cousin, Basil Lavenham, known as the Beau, Ludovic escaped to the Continent. Now that the old Lord is dying, the succession is in doubt as Basil would be the next heir if Ludovic is dead.

Eustachie decides to run away to London & in the course of this escapade, she meets Ludovic, who has returned to England as part of a gang of smugglers, in search of his talisman ring. If he can find the ring, he will have found the murderer of Plunkett, can establish his innocence & claim his inheritance. Ludovic is shot by the Runners after the smugglers are discovered & is taken to a sympathetic innkeeper. Staying at the inn are Sarah Thane & her brother, Sir Hugh. Sarah is in her late twenties, very calm, sensible but with an ironic sense of humour & a love of the absurd. Sarah soon discovers Ludovic’s plight & becomes involved in the plans for his concealment, bringing a much needed sense of proportion & common sense to Eustachie’s wilder schemes. She also soon clashes with Sir Tristram as she teases him by pretending to agree with all Eustachie’s Gothic fantasies & plays the part of the scatty featherbrained woman to perfection.

Tristram & Ludovic have their suspicions about the real murderer & believe that the talisman ring is concealed in a secret panel in the library of the Dower House, Basil Lavenham’s home. With the help of Eustachie & Sarah, they lay their plans to recover it.

The Talisman Ring is a real romp, a mixture of historical romance & mystery. I love Heyer’s older heroines & Sarah is a wonderful example of this type. She manages to stay in Eustachie’s confidence by convincing her that she is just as madly romantic as the younger girl but allows Sir Tristram & the reader to know that she is much too sensible to be swept away by romance through her constant use of irony & humour.

She could not forbear giving him a look of reproach. ‘You must be forgetting what assistance I rendered you at the Dower House,’ she said.
‘No,’ replied Sir Tristram, at his dryest. ‘I was not forgetting that.’ 
Miss Thane rested her chin in her hand, pensively surveying him. ‘Will you tell me something, Sir Tristram?’ 
‘Perhaps. What is it?’
‘What induced you ever to contemplate marriage with your cousin?’
He looked startled and not too well-pleased. ‘I can hardly suppose, ma’am, that my private affairs can be of interest to you,’ he said.
‘Some people,’ remarked Miss Thane wisely, ‘would take that for a set-down.’
Their eyes met; Sir Tristram smiled reluctantly. ‘You do not seem to be of their number, ma’am.’
‘I am very thick-skinned,’ explained Sarah. ‘You see, I have not had the benefit of a correct upbringing.’

Sarah & Tristram always understand each other perfectly & spend much of the novel restraining Eustachie & Ludovic’s wilder flights of fancy. Whether the reader prefers mature irony, youthful romanticism or an exciting adventure of smugglers & murder, The Talisman Ring will satisfy every mood. It’s the perfect read for the holidays.

Anglophilebooks.comThere’s a copy of The Talisman Ring available to buy at Anglophile Books.

Together and Apart – Margaret Kennedy

The Christmas edition of Shiny New Books is now available. There are lots of new reviews & I’m very pleased that my review of Together and Apart by Margaret Kennedy is among them. You can read it here.

The reprints section of Shiny New Books is my favourite (& not just because I have a review there). Edited by Simon of Stuck in a Book fame, there are also reviews of Gogol’s A Night Before Christmas, R A Dick’s The Ghost and Mrs Muir & another of the British Library Crime Classics, Mystery in White : a Christmas crime story by J Jefferson Farjeon.