The Dancing Bear – Frances Faviell

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After reading Frances Faviell’s memoir of the Blitz, A Chelsea Concerto, I was keen to read this book, written before A Chelsea Concerto but set in post-war Berlin. Frances’s husband was a senior civil servant in the British Administration in Berlin & Frances & their son, John, joined him in late 1946. Berlin was being administered by the four allies – Britain, the United States, France & the Soviet Union – in the uneasy years after the defeat of Hitler & before the Soviets divided Germany & took over the East.

During the War, Frances lived in Chelsea & helped many refugees with her practical kindness & friendship. Her life in Berlin is a continuation of that life in some ways. The  contrast between the lavish social life of the Allied administration & the friendship she develops with the Altmann family is striking. She is exposed to the trauma inflicted by the war as well as the ongoing hardship of the defeated German people & her attempts to alleviate the hardship as much as she can for her friends.

Frau Maria Altmann lives with her husband, Oskar, & their children Fritz, Ursula & Lilli in a barely heated apartment stripped of anything that could be sold for food or fuel. Frances meets Frau Altmann one day when she sees the older woman collapse on the street. Taking her home, Frances discovers that Maria is depriving herself of food to help her children. The Altmanns had been a prosperous family but their belongings are gone & their savings are worthless. Ursula is working as a housemaid for a group of American servicemen & Lilli is a ballet dancer. Fritz, resentful of the allies & with a nostalgic longing for the Hitler Youth he was part of during the war, has become involved in the black market. Another son, Kurt, is missing in Russia. Their lives are made more difficult by the restrictions imposed on Berliners – the tiny electricity ration, the bans on fraternising with the British (the Americans were not so strict) & the lack of food & fuel even if they had any money to pay for it.

As Frau Altmann begins to trust Frances, she becomes more involved with the Altmanns. Assisted by her British driver, Stampie, she is able to help in practical ways. Stampie is adept at all the ways & means of getting hold of just about anything legally or not. He always has money & always knows someone who can help. He is supporting several needy families & has an answer for any problem. Frances also learns more of the Altmann’s story. The horror of the end of the war when the Russians arrived, looting & raping indiscriminately. Frau Altmann hid her daughters in the attic but Ursula couldn’t stand the cramped conditions & was raped several times. Frau Altmann grieves for Kurt & excuses Fritz for his rudeness & laziness but Lilli is the baby of the family & her father’s favourite.Oskar Altmann is a gentle man, bewildered by his change of circumstances & at a loss in this new world.

Frau Altmann has a more difficult relationship with Ursula who has embraced the way things are, talks English with an American accent & comes home with cigarettes, food & smart clothes given to her by her employers. Her mother doesn’t want to question how she gets the extras although she sees more than Ursula realises. She is practically supporting the family although her mother continues to disapprove of her behaviour & attitudes especially when she joins Fritz in his black market activities. Her rejection of the Church especially hurts her mother whose faith never wavers. Ursula becomes involved with Joe, an American who becomes her sole protector, & who wants to marry her & take her home with him to the States. Lilli is frail but, because the Russians love ballet, she is able to continue dancing & the company receive some privileges.Lilli’s health is a worry but her quiet determination to keep going masks her pain until it’s too late.

The Dancing Bear is an affecting & very moving story. By concentrating on the story of one family, Frances Faviell brings home the plight of many thousands more. Maria Altmann is a dignified, stoic woman who understands a great deal more about her children’s lives than they realise. Her blind spot is Fritz, a bitter, resentful young man dealing with the aftermath of the defeat of his country by flouting authority wherever possible. His search for somewhere to belong will take him far from his family. Life in Berlin was difficult for everyone. The Allied Command employees had trouble getting food & fuel but they were the victors & their problems paled beside that of the Berliners who had lived through Nazism & then the destruction of their city by the Russian troops. Frances is able to help the Altmanns with her contacts & Stampie is a miracle worker but the contrast between her daily life & that of her German friends & servants is very great.

There are so many fascinating characters in this book. Fritz’s place in his mother’s heart is taken by her nephew Max who spent much of the war as a prisoner in England, working on a Welsh farm. Max is in love with Ursula & his return to Berlin stirs up emotions that she is unwilling to acknowledge. One of Frances’s acquaintances is Frau von R, an unrepentant Nazi who grieves for the past & is hostile to the conquerors. Frances admires her honesty, unlike that of many others who denied that they were members of the Nazi Party or that they knew anything about the regime’s horrors. Oskar’s brother, Hermann, drinks to forget the present & to remember the glories of the past. Frances’s servant, Lotte, shows Frances her journal, written during the Russian invasion, with its matter-of-fact descriptions of rape & destruction. Frances is an artist & uses her talent to record the life around her. This edition of The Dancing Bear includes some delicate pencil drawings, including a lovely one of Lilli. I’ve read very few post-war memoirs & this one stands out because of the compassion with which it’s told. As in A Chelsea Concerto, Faviell doesn’t flinch from recording the brutal realities of life for these desperate people. The aftermath of war & the reality of living under occupation requires compromises that will test the Altmanns but also shows how strong the will to survive can be.

The Dancing Bear is another of the Furrowed Middlebrow list from Dean Street Press.

Bewildering Cares – Winifred Peck

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Camilla Lacely & her husband Arthur, an Anglican vicar live in Stampfield, near Manchester, a manufacturing town with an inconveniently large vicarage & a Victorian Gothic church. Bewildering Cares is the diary of a week in Camilla’s life in the first months of WWII & encapsulates the drudgery, troubles & sometimes unconscious humour of her role as a clergy wife.

The war is already impinging on Camilla’s life as her son, Dick, is training with his regiment & seems to be taking a romantic interest in Ida Weekes, daughter of her husband’s Church Warden. Mrs Weekes is one of those irritating women who loftily tells Camilla that her life would run more smoothly if only she had more Method. Dick’s happy-go-lucky, irreverent outlook on life often pops into Camilla’s mind at the most inopportune moments. The major drama of the week is caused by Arthur’s curate, Mr Strang, who gives a pacifist sermon (which Camilla unfortunately sleeps through), outraging the entire parish. Mr Strang is a highly-principled but, unfortunately, not very sympathetic man who rubs everyone up the wrong way. Arthur is put in the impossible position of having to support a colleague while also being expected to denounce him from the pulpit. Only a life-threatening illness seems likely to resolve the situation.

Camilla has domestic as well as parish problems. Her maid, Kate, is an uninspired cook who takes advantage of her boyfriend’s imminent departure to France to pop out & see him as often as she can get away with as well as inviting him in to share the Lacely’s frugal meals. Camilla knows she’s lucky to have domestic help at all & accommodates Kate in the hope of keeping her. She knows that she would be unable to carry out all the unpaid parish work she’s just expected to do without domestic help & there’s certainly enough of that, mostly endless committee meetings with the same group of elderly women now that all the younger people have joined the war effort. Camilla, as the vicar’s wife, is often called on to adjudicate in disputes among the members of rival sewing parties,

An earth-shaking schism seemed imminent, and was only prevented by the decision to adopt my casual suggestion of holding two parties weekly, Comforts for Converts on Monday, and Warmth for Warriors on Thursday. There are not really enough members to make this worth while, especially as since our unhappy division no Monday worker will knit on Thursday, and no Thursday knitter will button-hole pyjamas on Monday.

Shopping for a hat is difficult when Camilla feels she should not be seen to be extravagant but knows her old hat is about to fall to pieces. Then, amongst all the trivialities, the constant phone calls & visitors dropping in for help, Camilla feels really useful, as when she’s able to help Mrs Strang in her husband’s illness or comforts an old friend on her deathbed. However, the underlying humour & exasperation is never far away. Maybe the greatest trial of Camilla’s week is the Quiet Day, a retreat for clergy wives led by a celibate priest who no doubt finds it easy to empty his mind of trivialities & concentrate on God.

Again I pulled myself up and tried to meditate, but by this time the text on which we were to concentrate had wholly eluded me, and by fumbling in a prayer-book I only hit on the Psalm which, as a clerical correspondent to The Times so wittily pointed out, would just coincide with meat-rationing: “They run hither and thither for meat and are not satisfied.” No other woman present, I am quite sure, could have sunk to such a low level of inward debate between the respective merits of point steak and neck of mutton for a household of three, when we all rose and trooped back to the drawing-room.

I loved the humour of Camilla’s efforts to keep everyone as happy as possible, especially as she fails as often as she succeeds. One of her easier tasks is making sure Arthur eats enough as he worries about the “luxury” of their frugal meals.Only by keeping him talking about some knotty parish problem or by reading at meals will Arthur become so absorbed that he forgets his scruples.

Arthur came in looking so exhausted that I went to the book-shelf and took out Mr Mulliner Speaks. I propped this against the water-jug for him, and Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell, which I have read thirty times already and will probably read thirty more, against the loaf for myself. There is nothing so good for worried people as to read at their meals, and funny books if possible; for laughter grows so rusty in war time.

Any writer who references Wodehouse & Thirkell as well as E M Delafield, Winifred Holtby & Dorothy Whipple, is going to be sympathetic to a lover of the middlebrow & is obviously why Winifred Peck is such a perfect choice for the new Furrowed Middlebrow imprint from Dean Street Press. Camilla is a kind woman, as sympathetic to the thought of a budding romance in the parish as she is alarmed by the very real prospect of Dick being posted overseas. Her irritation over the constant interruptions, Kate’s fecklessness & the petty squabbles of the various parish factions never overwhelm her knowledge that the work she & Arthur are doing is valuable. Above all, she & Arthur maintain their sense of humour through it all which makes Bewildering Cares a delight to read. Winifred Peck grew up in a clerical household & knew the life intimately. She brings all her knowledge & understanding to this charming story of the early days of WWII.