Friday, January 31, 2014

NOEL STREATFEILD (writing as SUSAN SCARLETT), Summer Pudding (1943)

Here in San Francisco, we are in the middle of what should be our rainy season but has in fact turned out to be a rather serious drought.  We should be getting rain at least once a week (and I've experienced whole months in the past where the rain barely seemed to stop and I felt mildewed through and through), but all we've gotten in the past two months were some light sprinkles yesterday.

Hopefully those sprinkles are a sign of a change in the weather, but at any rate they were enough to remind me how much the shift from months and months of sunshine (and a fair amount of fog) to months of grey and wet affects my personality.  Rainy weekend days especially always render me useless for all productive activity and compel me to spend a lazy day reading "cozy" fiction.

Which in turn reminded me that I had been meaning to write about this, my first Susan Scarlett acquisition from Greyladies, for quite some time.  Because I could hardly think of a more perfect book to read with the rain drumming against the windows and flollipiness coursing through my veins.  ("Flollipy" being an excellent word permanently added to my vocabulary during my youthful viewing of the classic BBC sitcom Good Neighbours, wherein Felicity Kendal used the word to describe that feeling of utter motivationlessness and dopey laziness that can irresistibly overtake one, particularly in inclement weather.)

Summer Pudding (and if you—like me—don't know what the title refers to, see here) is the utterly frivolous and fluffy tale of Janet Brain, who has been bombed out of her job in a London office and comes to the village of Worsingford (an example of things going from bad to Worsingford?), where her self-absorbed sister Sheila and ailing mother Maggie are already living.  The story takes place in 1941, soon after the worst of the Blitz has ended—though apart from a few references to the bombing, a mention or two of rationing, and a brief mention of an evacuee child in the village, the characters seem blissfully unconcerned about the war.

Maggie is supposed to be resting as a result of her bad heart, but is actually doing all the housework and gardening while Sheila flits about fancying herself a film star and dodging all responsibility (and all ethical behavior).  Sheila even manages to twist the rhetoric of war work to suit her laziness in trying to get out of going to the local Labour Exchange:

"There's not all that rush.  I suppose I can wait for a fine day.  It's the duty of everybody to keep well in wartime.  I heard that on the wireless.  It won't be any good my going to the Labour Exchange if I get a chill from it, and have to stop in bed for weeks."

Conveniently, nearby is a handsome young widower, Donald, and his adorable young daughter, Iris, as well as Barbara, a charming young girl in love with the Donald's half brother, Dick, who is on active service, and Barbara's curmudgeonly but likeable old father, a retired colonel.  The main obstacles are Gladys, Donald's possessive young housekeeper, who is in love with him—as everyone in the village but he knows—and a series of misunderstandings precipitated by Sheila's "every woman for herself, especially if she's young and pretty and oughta be in pictures" deceitfulness.  But despite these, one can see early on how the happy endings are likely to line up.  (So much so that Janet sometimes appears to be extraordinarily dense not to see it for herself long before she does, but that is, after all, part of the fun.)

Few of the characters here possess any real depth, but somehow I didn't mind because the story is such light, silly fun that depth seems irrelevant.  I will say though that Streatfeild's writing here is perhaps rather more Elizabeth Cadell, who often merely sketches out her characters, than D. E. Stevenson, whose great strength is that you feel most of her characters could walk off the page.  So if Cadell is too frivolous for you, then this book might be too.

Oddly, the character who seems to have the most depth is probably Gladys, Donald's dominatrix of a housekeeper, who has sacrificed herself for love of him but remains hopelessly unsuited for him.  And unsuited for Iris as well, to whom she behaves with schoolmarm-ish strictness and a complete lack of warmth.  Still, her own statements about her situation—and how she plotted to marry Donald even while his wife was dying—offer a darker, rather disturbing counterpoint to the more idealized romances of the novel:

"Ever since Anna died I've hoped and hoped.  Even before she died I was planning.  She knew.  She used to tease me.  'No harm in trying,' she used to say, 'but you're not his sort, you know.'  But Anna was fond of me, and I was good to her, and I have been good to Iris.  I knew ever since you came it was all up, I tried not to believe it, but you can't fool yourself, can you?  I'm not Sheila believing fairy tales.  It's a cruel world for lots of women."

Compare Gladys' heartbreak and hopelessness with Janet's first realization (better late than never!) of being in love.  Call me a softy, but I thought this was a pretty good way of putting into words how love can affect one's point of view:

Did all places look different, she wondered, because of the person you saw them with?  Probably yes.  She had seen girls meeting men under the clock at Charing Cross or in Piccadilly Tube Station, and had caught an expression on their faces which had remained with her, but until not unidentified.  Now she knew what it was.  Charing Cross was not the Charing Cross the hurrying crowd saw.  Piccadilly Tube was not a swarming mass pushing their way on to the escalators.  Each was a rarefied and lovely world born for lovers' meetings.

But it's interesting to read both of these passages alongside Maggie's statements, a bit later on, about her preferred reading:

"So long as it has a happy ending," said Maggie.  "I do like things to go right in life, and since reading is meant to be a pleasure, I don't see why I should upset myself over the girl who doesn't marry her man in the end.  It happens too often in real life."

Obviously, the kind of book Maggie likes is exactly the kind of book Streatfeild was (apparently reluctantly and mainly for financial reasons) striving to write with Summer Pudding and the other "Susan Scarlett" novels.  Now admittedly I might be trying too hard to make Streatfeild's disowned "romance" mean more than it does, but I wonder if there isn't just the tiniest veiled critique here of the kind of novel that gleefully accepts Janet's romantic bliss and refuses to "upset itself" over Gladys' heartbreak?  Perhaps Streatfeild's non-Susan Scarlett novels might have found Gladys' heartbreak of greater interest than Janet's bliss?  Or perhaps not, but hey, I had to try…

Even if Summer Pudding was merely tossed off in an effort to make money, Streatfeild's strong writing does come through.  In particular, her descriptions of the village and the Brains' house play in perfectly with my unrealistic fantasies of English country life:

The cottage lay across a field in which cattle were grazing.  It was whitewashed, and as Janet drew nearer she could see it was beautifully thatched.  The fence of the field and its gate were the entrance to a little garden, the garden of a Londoner's dream.  A flagged path bordered with lavender hedges, flower-beds behind blue with delphiniums and silver with lilies, a honeysuckle over the porch and roses everywhere.

Or how about this?:

Village life was new to Janet. … To Cockney Janet there was rest even in watching Worsingford.  The slow but methodical country way in which everything does get done in its proper season, but very much at the countryman's own tempo, was new to her, and enthralling.  The cows strolled, apparently aimlessly, the boy whooped and called "Get along up, Daisy," a suggestion in which none of the cows appeared to take any interest, and yet somehow the procession disappeared with no trouble through the proper gate, which, to Janet, was nothing less than miraculous.

I'm sure some readers even in 1943 would have been amused by how idyllic Streatfeild made country life sound.  But it's certainly a pleasant fantasy!

Streatfeild is not generally a hilarious writer, merely a cheerful one, but there is humor here and there throughout.  One of the funniest (and oddest) elements of the novel is the fact that the Colonel and his cook, Mincing, see ghosts in their house.  This is never developed into a major plot point, but the presence of ghosts seems to indicate the coming of major changes to life in the house.  It's an odd little twist, but Mincing's reactions to the ghosts are quite funny.  She seems not to find them frightening at all—only a bit inconvenient.  Here is the Colonel describing to Janet a conversation he and Mincing had:

"I said to Mincing one day, 'There's a lot of these people about, aren't there, Mincin'?' and she said, 'Yes indeed, sir, I had to undress last night with the light out because of the gentlemen in the room.'

A short while later, as the changes (such as, perhaps, a new mistress for the house?) approach, Mincing says of the ghosts:

"They're no subject for joking.  The house is so full just now that often I have to squeeze my way up the back stairs."

And finally, there was one scene featuring the implacably adorable Iris that I can't resist sharing.  In this scene, she actually does remind me of a D. E. Stevenson child.  Here, Sheila's selfish (and borderline criminal) machinations have come to light, and Iris is present as Maggie and her daughters discuss them:

Maggie became more severe.

"That's enough, Sheila.  Janet wanted to be a Wren.  She gave up the idea to stay with me."

"She's jolly glad now that she did."

Maggie glanced at Iris' interested face.

"I think you might go in the garden, Iris."

"I haven't finished my milk."

"Never mind, take it with you."

Iris got off her chair.  She looked disparagingly at Sheila.  "I don't want to be mean, but it isn't at all a nice day, and I'm being sent outside because of you.  Little pitchers have long ears."

Greyladies has now published most of the Susan Scarlett novels.  Streatfeild's serious fiction for adults, however, remains fairly inaccessible, with the exception of Saplings, which has been a popular Persephone title.  However, I have managed to track down a few more via Interlibrary Loan (thank you, Boston Athenaeum, and thank you to Chia, who emailed to let me know she'd seen the books while browsing there!).  I'm excited and ambivalent about them at the same time, as the consensus seems to be that Streatfeild's adult fiction tends to be a bit cold and bleak. But I'll soon see for myself, and hopefully I'll be writing about them here soon.

Regardless, although the Susan Scarlett novels are unlikely to be among my all-time favorites, I can see that I'll have to order two or three more very soon.  I have to be prepared if the drought breaks!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Update: University novels (and then some)

Not long ago, I mentioned Anna Bogen's new book, Women's University Fiction, 1880–1945, in the context of Ursula Orange's novel Begin Again, since Orange's might well be seen as a kind of sequel to the women's university novel—focusing as it does on what becomes of idealistic, intellectual young women after Oxford.  I still haven't gotten my hands on Bogen's book, but there were so many authors mentioned in its introduction (which you can download here) that were previously unknown to me, I decided it could be the theme of my next update.

Of the 20 new authors listed here, seven of them came from Bogen's book.  Those seven are RUTH M. GOLDRING, RENÉE HAYNES, ROSE MARIE HODGSON, BARBARA SILVER, MARY STURT, GERTRUDE WINIFRED TAYLOR, and MARY WILKES.  And since most of these writers are impossibly obscure and online information for them is sparse if not actually nil, I am eager to see what light Bogen is able to shed on them.

The remaining 13 authors below are a mixed bag.  HELEN DOUGLAS IRVINE, Scottish author of seven novels, sounds promising, as does SYLVA NORMAN, whose first novel was published by Hogarth and whose second received a rather odd review in Forum in 1931: "Cat Without Substance is an extremely clever book, witty, full of surprises. If Miss Norman had been more certain whether she was writing a satire or a Meredithian comedy, and if she had copied less directly and less frequently the introspective manner of Virginia Woolf, it might have been a very good book indeed."  I may have to track down a copy just to see what a comedy with Woolfian introspection might look like…

Elisabeth Kyle

By the way, ELISABETH KYLE was suggested for my list several months ago, but I kept searching for "Elizabeth Kyle" in databases and search engines, until I finally realized that her name is spelled with an S.  Duh.  I have no idea what her novels are like, but I was immediately seduced by some of her book covers.  Ditto RONA RANDALL.  Why do I find rather cheesy, melodramatic paperback covers so endlessly fascinating?

Below are all 20 writers, already added to the main list.  Hopefully you'll find some of interest to you as well.

(aka Julie Mannering)

Primarily known as a biographer (of Mary, Queen of Scots, Richard Sheridan, and Henry Irving, among others) and historian, Bingham also wrote two early novels—The Passionate Poet (1951), about Lord Byron, and Look to the Rose (1953).


More research needed; apparently the author of a single novel, These Were the Brontës (1940), heavily advertised in the early days of the war, which focused on Charlotte's life but also "dwells fully and charmingly … upon life in the Haworth home."

French language edition of Ruth Goldring's Ann's Year

RUTH M[????]. GOLDRING (dates unknown)

More research needed; author of only two novels—Ann's Year (1933), "a story combining school and business life in its period," and Educating Joanna (1935), about a young woman at Oxford, discussed in Anna Bogen's Women's University Fiction, 1880–1945.

(married name Tickell)

Married to novelist Jerrard Tickell; known for her writings on ESP and psychic phenomena, including The Hidden Springs (1972), Haynes wrote three early novels—Neapolitan Ice (1932), about a young girl at Oxford, Immortal John (1932), and The Holy Hunger (1936).

ROSE MARIE HODGSON (dates unknown)

More research needed; poet and author of apparently only one novel, Rosy-Fingered Dawn (1934), described by Anna Bogen as an "experimental university novel"; her poems are published in Patrixbourne: Five Country Poems (1958) and Last Poems (1969).

AUDREY HULME (dates unknown)

More research needed; apparently the author of a single novel, Lawyer's Folly (1959), about the effects of a solicitor's misconduct on six characters.


Scottish writer who started out writing history and went on to publish seven novels in the 1930s and 1940s, including Magdalena (1936), Mirror of a Dead Lady (1940), Angelic Romance (1941), Sweet is the Rose (1944), 77 Willow Road (1945), Torchlight Procession (1946), and Fray Mario (1949).

ELISABETH KYLE (1901-1982)
(pseudonym of Agnes Mary Robertson Dunlop, aka Jan Ralston)

Prolific novelist and children's author from the 1930s to the 1980s; much of her children's fiction made use of her Scottish background; novels for adults include The Begonia Bed (1934), The Pleasure Dome (1943), The Tontine Belle (1951), and The Other Miss Evans (1958).

(née MacNaghten, aka Baroness Aberconway)

Author of only one novel, The Divine Gift (1929), described as a "mystery novel of a woman who makes a startling discovery when she searches the bags of two fellow train travelers"; McLaren also published a collection of poems and what seems to be a children's book illustrated by Rex Whistler.

(aka Christopher [Marie] St. John)

Critic, biographer, playwright, and novelist; daughter of novelist Emma Marshall and friend of Cicely Hamilton, with whom she co-wrote the play How the Vote Was Won (1909); Marshall also wrote two novels, The Crimson Weed (1900) and Hungerheart: The Story of a Soul (1915).

ELUNED MORGAN (1870-1938)

Welsh-language author who wrote four difficult-to-classify works—Dringo'r Andes (Climbing the Andes) (1904), Gwymon y môr (Ocean Seaweed) (1909), Ar dir a môr (On Land and Sea) (1913), and Plant yr haul (Children of the Sun) (1915).

SYLVA NORMAN (1901-????)
(married name Blunden)

Critic (especially on Shelley), biographer, and author of three novels, including Nature Has No Tune (1929), published by the Woolves at Hogarth Press, and Cat Without Substance (1931), about a family's misfortunes, described as both a comedy and as influenced by Woolfish introspection.

Rona Randall

RONA RANDALL (1911-????)
(pseudonym of Rona Shambrook, née Green, aka Virginia Standage)

Prolific author of hospital romance, gothic fiction, and historical romance from the 1940s-1980s; titles include The Moon Returns (1942), The Late Mrs. Lane (1945), Delayed Harvest (1950), Young Sir Galahad (1953), The Cedar Tree (1957), Knight's Keep (1967), and Dragonmede (1974).

CLARE SHERIDAN (1885-1970)
(née Frewen)

Sculptor, memoirist, and travel writer, a cousin of Churchill, whose support for the early Soviet Union brought suspicion that she was a spy; her memoirs of world travels include Russian Portraits (1921), My American Diary (1922), and Arab Interlude (1936).

BARBARA SILVER (dates unknown)
(pseudonym of Barbara Sturgis)

Author of only one novel, Our Young Barbarians, or, Letters from Oxford (1935), an epistolary novel discussed in Anna Bogen's Women's University Fiction, 1880–1945; a contemporary review intriguing describes the novel's "faithful chronicling of a fairly ordinary routine."

KATHARINE SIM (1913-????)
(née Thomasset)

Biographer, travel writer and novelist, known for her advanced knowledge of Malaya and extensive travel to other regions, also reflected in some of her fiction; novels include Malacca Boy (1957), The Moon at My Feet (1958), Black Rice (1959), and The Jungle Ends Here (1960).

C[ICELY]. FOX SMITH (1882-1954)

Poet, children's author, and novelist, Smith also compiled a collection of traditional sea shanties and wrote poetry which has often been set to music; titles include Singing Sands (1918), Peregrine in Love (1920), Three Girls in a Boat (1938), and The Ship Aground (1940).

MARY STURT (1896-1994)

Author various works on education and psychology, Sturt also published at least three novels in the 1930s—Swallows in Springtime (1934), Be Gentle to the Young (1937, discussed in Anna Bogen's Women's University Fiction, 1880–1945), and The Hours of the Night (1938).


More research needed; author of two early novels with D. K. Broster—Chantemerle (1911) and The Vision Splendid (1913)—and one later novel of her own, The Pearl (1918), discussed in Anna Bogen's Women's University Fiction, 1880–1945; her other works appear to be plays.

MARY WILKES (dates unknown)

More research needed; author of only one novel (?),The Only Door Out (1945), discussed in Anna Bogen's Women's University Fiction, 1880–1945, but other information about her is very scarce.

Friday, January 24, 2014

DOROTHY WHIPPLE, High Wages (1930)

How strange life was with its ebbings and flowings, its fluctuations, its inexplicable movements towards and away from…

This line, coming toward the end of High Wages, sums up rather neatly it’s elegant themes.  A page-turning sort of rags-to-riches story, but made unique and completely convincing by its strong dose of realism, this is the third Dorothy Whipple novel I’ve read, and the earliest (it was her second, after Young Anne in 1927).

As the novel opens, it’s 1912, and Jane Carter, who is still in her teens but has been working as a shopgirl for two years, arrives in Tidsley and manages, almost incidentally, to get a live-in job in a dress shop owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Chadwick.  I had a feeling right away that I was going to like Jane, because she has “moments”:

Jane lowered her beauty-dazed eyes to Tidsley market-place. Beneath that canopy, it was transfigured. The peaky roofs of shops and houses stood up darkly in the January air, the windows reflected a green-blue like the shell of a bird's egg. The lamplighter was going round, and now behind him shone a string of jewels, emeralds pale and effulgent. There was almost no one about. It was a moment. Jane sometimes had these moments. She stood still in them.

She befriends fellow shopgirl Maggie, and Wilfrid Thompson, a clerk at the local lending library and also the boy Maggie’s stepping out with—though Wilfrid is largely indifferent to Maggie and quickly becomes far more interested in Jane. We also meet some of Jane’s customers—including the tyrannical, wealthy Mrs. Greenwood and her spoiled daughter Sylvia, and the kind Mrs. Briggs, whose husband is what we would call “upwardly mobile,” has become Mr. Greenwood’s partner, and has moved Mrs. Briggs into a large, uncomfortable house and equally uncomfortable social circles.

Jane has her ups and downs—the loathsome Chadwicks stiff her on her commissions, short the girls on their meals, and later, during the war, actually steal from their rations, not to mention the fact that Jane gets off on the wrong foot with Mrs. Greenwood—but all the while she is making useful improvements in the shop, increasing its sales, and, most importantly, learning everything she can about the trade. 

As this is a plot-driven novel, and the way Whipple unfolds the plot is so compelling and enjoyable, I’m not going to give away much about it. The reader can hardly doubt that Jane will be successful in the end, and can hardly keep from cheering her small triumphs along the way. In large part, this is because Jane herself is so irresistible.  She’s a charming, smart, savvy, practical, tough young woman—all of which serves her well not only in the clothing business but later on when love puts a damper on her success…

For example, who could resist a character with this kind of joy in living, demonstrated as Jane is getting ready to attend her first real dance?:

She drew on her first pair of silk stockings, and in a passion of delight kissed her own knees.

Or this:

Mr. Chadwick saw her off with more fussy instructions. The wind was very high. Jane, a parcel hanging at the length of each arm, tried to keep her hat on by her eyebrows, raising them to incredible heights. But catching sight of herself in Fenwick's window mirror, she giggled and restored them to their natural level.

But what made High Wages so much fun for me—and you know how I love to overanalyze—was really some of the themes running quietly in the background. Jane has a budding social and political awareness that I would never somehow have associated with Whipple, as in this scene when Lily, the shop’s cleaner, tells Jane about her surly alcoholic husband:

‘Aren't you going to love me a bit I says to 'im this morning, and 'e says with such a nasty look, "To 'ell with you and your love." Just like that.'

And when she tried to kiss him good-bye, he'd thrown a plate at her.

'Whatever do you want to kiss him for?' asked Jane, squeezing out the wash-leather for the shopdoor glass. 'Throw a plate back at him, my goodness.'

She thought she herself would make short work of such a husband.

'No...' Lily shook her head as she dipped the bald brush into the blacklead. 'I couldn't do that. Bad as 'e is, I love 'im. Besides, it's me as 'as to pay for the plates.'

‘Ah,' said Jane, 'then there's nothing to be done.'

She would have liked to say something about the combination of love and economy. But she couldn't get it right in time. She often wanted to say things like that; get things neat; but they evaded her, until she was alone, in bed mostly, and then it was too late.

And when Wilfrid begins recommending socially conscious reading material to Jane, it rapidly bears dividends:

Jane went back to the shop, delighted at the unusual prospect of going out to tea. But the kindlier feelings towards the world in general, inspired by Mrs. Briggs, did not prevent her from asking Mr. Chadwick for a rise in wages. Mr. Chadwick was grudging and astonished, but Jane flung so many arguments, culled from H. G. Wells, at him that he was driven, in the end, to put up the screen of an extra half a crown a week between himself and this determined young woman.

Indeed, Whipple makes a great point of discussing her characters’ reading material. Wilfrid recommends Wells, Arnold Bennett, and Swinburne to Jane, but in his lending library he is always fetching the latest work of G. A. Henty and Charles Garvice for his customers (the former known for historical adventures, the latter for melodramatic romances). Maggie prefers Ethel M. Dell, and Wilfrid’s mother reads Augusta Jane Evans’s St. Elmo and Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur, both major 19th century American bestsellers. Sylvia Greenwood, on the other hand, sticks to Vogue and The Tatler

Dorothy Whipple

Clearly such a wealth of information about her characters’ reading matter is not coincidental, and Whipple’s position here is intriguing. She was certainly herself considered a rather “light,” popular writer—the very type of writer she associates with the lower class or less intellectual characters in her novel.  Meanwhile, her main character—with whom her readers would have identified so strongly—is rather highbrow.  This seems to be a textbook example of the strategies that middlebrow authors used (as discussed by Nicola Beauman and Nicola Humble) to satisfy their readers’ need to distance themselves from the lowbrow and flirt with (if not actually read) the highbrow.

The other element that I enjoyed about this novel is its striking awareness (as mentioned by Jane Brocket in her introduction) of the power of marketing and the problem of shopping as a way of compensating for what is lacking in one’s life.  Early on, we see Jane examining the window of a competing shop:

‘All that pink together, now. You'd come across the road to see what it was making such a lovely glow. A pink lampshade, a pink silk eiderdown, a fluffy pink blanket—a pink blanket—a crepe-de-Chine night-gown—and a little net cap with pink ribbons even—and pink bedroom slippers. It makes you feel luxurious and extravagant. As if you could spend all your money and never care. Goodness, I wish I could buy that little cap. But it wouldn't go with the bedroom at Chadwick's, and no one would see me in it, and I should never have time to wear it. But it is a darling.'

She even opened her purse to finger her money, but snapped it shut again and laughed.

‘That's a clever window!'

Would that most people now had that kind of self-awareness about being made to feel they need the latest iPhone, DVR, or laptop! (Though I suppose the fact that I personally despise shopping—except for books, obviously—and that I had the same cell phone for six years and only replaced it recently because Andy upgraded and gave me his old one—does make me rather curmudgeonly on the joys of shopping. I must be missing a gene or something…)

And later on, Jane mulls over the compulsive shopping of one of her customers:

There was pathos in this urge for clothes. Mrs. Mallett, for instance, with some secret flame burning in her slender body and dark eyes-what did she keep dressing up for? All those clothes she bought—red, silver, black, white—what for? To play bridge in the afternoons with the same women in the same drawing-rooms? To dine with these same women plus husbands, talk a little on singularly unstartling topics, play more bridge and so home to sleep and a husband to whom her beauty was a commonplace? Was it for that Mrs. Mallett clothed herself so radiantly? It couldn't be. She, in her secret self, held some excitement, some desire or search. She waited—but for what? She herself probably did not know. Ah, illusion! Nothing would come. But Mrs. Mallett would go on dressing up to be ready for it.

It’s striking to find such a passage in a novel from 1930, long before today’s hand-wringing about rampant consumerism and the insidious power of advertising, and I was even more surprised to find it in a Dorothy Whipple novel. Apparently, even after falling in love last year with Whipple’s final novel, Someone at a Distance, I have still tended to sell her short, to approach her sort of condescendingly as merely a good storyteller with a strong sense of character but little depth. Not that that’s a small thing—would that some of the canonical highbrow authors had been better at storytelling and characterization. But Whipple is clearly more than that.

Most people know (and I love that Persephone even mentions it on their website) that Virago founder Carmen Callil once described the selection process for the Virago Modern Classics this way: “We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I would scrawl a brief rejection: ‘Below the Whipple line.’”

I wonder if Callil has ever revisited Whipple and revised her opinion of her in light of her becoming Persephone’s bestselling author and receiving the respect and adoration of a whole slew of new readers and bloggers? Of course, every reader has their own biases and preferences, and Callil surely remains one of the most brilliant and impactful publishers, really, of all time.

But still, I rather think that Whipple line she talked about has shifted a bit. It might be starting to look a bit more like a high water mark.

The lovely endpapers of the Persephone edition

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Children's authors (Part 2 of 4)

Moving on with my updates on children’s authors, which are—it should be obvious by now—as much as anything an excuse to luxuriate in some of the lovely cover art that was used on these books, here are 15 more authors that have been added to my main list.

Of these, I seem to be most intrigued by ANTONIA FOREST, as I have already acquired a copy of her 1948 debut, Autumn Term.  At the same time, however, I acquired quite a few other books, so sadly it may have to gather dust on the “to read” shelves for a while before I get around to it, but it looks very charming.

Meanwhile, PRIMROSE CUMMING is best known for her horse stories, a genre I haven’t quite gotten excited about yet, but I noticed that she also wrote a novel called Owls Castle Farm (1942), which was in part based on her experiences as a Land Girl in World War II, and that immediately piqued my interest.

OLIVIA FITZROY’s Orders to Poach also comes out of World War II, written as it was to entertain her sisters as they were spending the war in the comparatively quiet surrounds of Inverewe, Scotland.  Several of FitzRoy’s titles have been reprinted by Fidra.

Penelope Farmer

PENELOPE FARMER just barely makes the cut to be on my list (I'm sure she's thrilled...), with her first title, a collection of fairy tales, having appeared in 1960.  She is best known today for Charlotte Sometimes (1969), and as I occasionally have a hankering for time travel stories, its tale of a girl from 1969 who travels back to 1918 may well prove irresistible.  It has been reprinted by New York Review Books.

As some of you might recall from my recent posts, I recently acquired two of Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School novels, and I have been really pleasantly surprised by them. Although they are idealized in some ways and are really quite perky and cheerful, they nevertheless contain elements of realism and strong characterization that I wasn’t entirely expecting, and I'm finding it hard not to become addicted to them, which, since there are around 60 of them, would be a significant undertaking. But along the same lines, then, I was intrigued by the description of MARY KATHLEEN HARRIS’s Gretel at St. Bride's (1941), in which the title character is a refugee from the Nazis.

And OLIVE DEHN seems to have been interesting as much for the events of her life as for her writings.  Sister of film critic Paul Edward Dehn, she was arrested and deported from Nazi Germany in the early 1930s for a satirical poem she published in Punch.  Later in life, she was deported from the Soviet Union for protesting the holding of political prisoners, and after that she and her husband bought a farm in Sussex and became trailblazers in the movement toward organic farming.  Whew!  Sadly, I haven’t so far been able to locate a photo of Dehn.

Below is the full list of new additions.  All 15 writers have already been added to the Overwhelming List.


Children's author best known for her horse books including Silver Snaffles (1937, reprinted by Fidra), Four Rode Home (1951), and No Place For Ponies (1954); Owls Castle Farm (1942) was in part based on her experiences as a Land Girl in World War II.

WINIFRED DARCH (1884-1960)

Children's author known for her girls' school stories of the 1920s and 1930s, including Jean of the Fifth (1923), Poppies and Prefects (1923), Cicely Bassett, Patrol Leader (1927), The Fifth Form Rivals (1930), Margaret Plays the Game (1931), and The School on the Cliff (1933).

OLIVE DEHN (1914–2007)
(married name Markham)

Children's author who was also a passionate activist and pacifist and, along with her husband, a trailblazing organic farmer; her works include The Basement Bogle (1935), The Nixie From Rotterdam (1937), Higgly-piggly Farm (1957), and the Caretakers series (1960-1967).

Monica Edwards

MONICA EDWARDS (1912-1998)
(née Newton)

Children's author best known for the Romney Marsh series, beginning with Wish for a Pony (1947), and the Punchbowl series, starting with No Mistaking Corker (1947); both feature adventures based around country and farm life, and are noted for their strong characterization.

PENELOPE FARMER (1939-     )
(married names Mockridge and Shorvon)

Children's writer and novelist whose career began with The China People (1960), a collection of fairy tales, Farmer is perhaps best known for Charlotte Sometimes (1969), the story of a girl who travels back in time to 1918; since the 1980s Farmer has also published several novels for adults.

(married name Goldie)

Children's author known for her animal stories and two series, the Brydon family series and the Dean family series; she has also written historical stories like The Boy with the Bronze Axe (1968) and realistic fiction like The Desperate Journey (1964), focused on an impoverished Scottish family.

OLIVIA FITZROY (1921-1969)
(married name Bates)

Children's author whose first book, Orders to Poach (1941), was written to entertain her sisters during WWII; others are Steer by the Stars (1944) and House in the Hills (1946), all of which have been reprinted by Fidra; she stopped writing after her 1956 marriage and sadly died of cancer at 48.
Antonia Forest

ANTONIA FOREST (1915-2003)
(pseudonym of Patricia Rubinstein)

Originally setting out to write for adults, Forest found success with her series of children's novels about the eight Marlow children, beginning with Autumn Term (1948); others titles include Falconer's Lure (1957), End of Term (1959), The Thuggery Affair (1965), and The Player's Boy (1970).

DOROTHY HANN (dates unknown)
(aka Mrs. A[rchie]. C[ecil]. Osborne Hann)

Prolific author of children's books, many about camping, Brownies, or with religious messages; other titles include The Torchbearer (1938), Follow My Leader (1939), Chris at Boarding School (1946), 'Horrible' Harriet (1949), Five in a Family (1951), and Rosemary the Rebel (1955).


Illustrator and author of historical fiction for children, Harnett is known for her historical accuracy and characterization; works include The Great House (1949), the Carnegie-winning The Wool-Pack (1951), The Load of Unicorn (1959), and The Writing on the Hearth (1971).


Best known for her girls' school novels beginning with Gretel at St. Bride's (1941), in which Gretel is a refugee from the Nazis, Harris also published three novels for adults—Fear at My Heart (1951), My Darling from the Lion's Mouth (1956), and Lucia Wilmot (1959).


Children's author known for her series about Ameliaranne, a Polyanna-ish girl who helps out her impoverished family, starting with Ameliaranne and the Green Umbrella (1920); later books include Dick in Command (1950), Midnight, Our Pony (1953), and Jonathan's Children (1963).
Lorna Hill
LORNA HILL (1902-1991)
(née Leatham)

Prolific author of girls' ballet stories, pony books, and other children's fiction; A Dream of Sadler's Wells (1950) and its sequels present an ideal view of ballet training, while The Vicarage Children (1961) and its sequels offer more realistic portrayals of middle class family life.

PAMELA HINKSON (1900-1982)
(aka Peter Deane)

Daughter of Katharine Tynan; children's author and novelist who wrote girls' school novels such as The Girls of Redlands (1923) and Schooldays at Meadowfield (1930) as well as adult novels like The End of All Dreams (1923) and the WWI-themed The Ladies' Road (1932).

Pamela Hinkson
KATHARINE HULL (1921-1977)
(married name Buxton)

Author of four popular children's books with Pamela Whitlock, most famously The Far-Distant Oxus (1937), written when the pair were still teenagers, about six children on their own in Exmoor; later titles were Escape to Persia (1938), Oxus in Summer (1939), and Crowns (1947).
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