Tuesday, November 29, 2016

STELLA GIBBONS, Pure Juliet (circa 1980)

This was one of my happy Oxfam finds on our recent trip to the U.K., though I do have to ask: How much of a bargain was it to buy one Stella Gibbons book for two pounds, only to finish reading it and immediately order every single other in-print Gibbons title? I'm beginning to think that the only true book bargain is a book you dislike and are content to know you didn’t waste much money on…

At any rate, I've long been a Gibbons fan, but Pure Juliet has cemented my devotion to her. In fact, it's a bit difficult to figure out how to write about a novel I loved so much. For me, this was one of those reading experiences—I'm sure we’ve all had them, even if we had them with different books—where it seemed that the world around me had stopped (fortunate indeed, at this point in American history!) and I had stepped into an astonishing, unpredictable, but endlessly fascinating dream world. But, somehow, a dream world that felt so personal and powerful to me from my own experiences that it was uneasily like my own dream and perhaps brought about some uncomfortable realizations about myself. It's not easy to share such a literary encounter, but I'll give it a shot.

First, a bit of background.

Pure Juliet was one of two "lost" novels by Gibbons that were only finally published by Vintage UK this year. The final novel published by Gibbons in her lifetime was The Woods in Winter, which appeared in 1970, after which she reportedly decided she was finished with submitting her work for editorial control and critical reception. She wrote two final novels, but made no attempt to publish them, only circulating them among family and friends. The Yellow Houses (one of the books I've now ordered) was written in the early 1970s, while Pure Juliet, originally titled An Alpha, was probably finished around 1980 (there are references to Star Wars and Kojak, so we have some idea when Gibbons must have been writing it). Although there was a much hyped news story in 2014 about the "rediscovery" of these two novels, they were never in fact lost at all, having been mentioned by Gibbons' biographer in the 1990s. But if the manufactured hype about lost novels led, at long last, to their publication, then I am all for a bit of fictionalizing of the novels' history.

Gibbons, as many of you may already know, tends to divide readers into two factions—those who adore her debut novel, Cold Comfort Farm, written when she was in her late 20s, and find that her other twenty-five or so novels suffer by comparison, and those who believe Cold Comfort Farm is amusing but somewhat overrated, and was rapidly surpassed by more subtle and profound work to come.

Can you guess which faction I fall into?

Now, I do think Cold Comfort Farm is entertaining and funny. But I can also quite see why Gibbons herself, late in life, compared her debut to "some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance, but is often an embarrassment and a bore." The book cast a long shadow, and with every subsequent novel she published, it seems that the public kept hoping that this time, surely, she would give them another version of the debut they loved so much. Indeed, Gibbons even tried to give them what they craved, with a short story, "Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm" (1940), and a later sequel, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm (1949), but neither were crowd pleasers. It's obviously a difficult task for a mature writer, who has moved on to more subtle and complex portrayals, to recreate the vibrant silliness of her youthful self, and neither attempt worked very well.

Gibbons' later work, though always retaining her quick wit, satirical eye, and brutal honesty, is less riotous than Cold Comfort Farm. She's an uncompromising author, so even with such an entertaining novel as The Matchmaker (1949), set at the very end of World War II, which masquerades as a light-hearted romp with a young mother, husband away at the war, attempting to stoke new romance among her friends, there are always darker undercurrents beneath, and those undercurrents seem to delight some readers and disturb and alienate others. Gibbons has been called a 20th century Jane Austen (then again, who hasn’t?), but it’s a terribly misleading comparison, since there’s at least as much of the Brontës mixed in.

If that's true even of other, more light-hearted Gibbons novels, then it's certainly the case with Pure Juliet, which I found to be brilliant and tragic and poetic and funny and heartbreaking all at once—not to mention simply addictive reading. It also makes use of a kind of dark fairy tale quality, something Gibbons had an interest in and used in other novels—Cinderella in Nightingale Wood, for example, the Snow Queen in My American, and Beauty and the Beast in White Sand and Grey Sand, and a general fairy tale atmosphere in several of her other works. But Pure Juliet also has quite serious concerns, focused around the relationship between intellect and emotion, obsession and happiness, social customs and constraints and the dangers and pleasures of eluding them.

It’s also an eloquent and original portrayal of a central character who surely falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, perhaps combined with some other unusual alignment of her psyche. At the very least, Juliet is, to use an eloquently expressive term I came across somewhere a while back, “intellectually divergent.” And the originality of Gibbons’ approach to such a character is that she takes it as a given and accepts her heroine’s idiosyncrasies with obvious affection and sensitivity. At the same time, she is sensitive to the damage that Juliet can do to those unable to understand her limitations and possibilities, and Gibbons approaches those characters, too, with compassion.

The story opens with two of Juliet’s schoolteachers expressing their relief that she has left school and won’t be returning, despite her apparent brilliance and the five A-levels she has scored.

‘We did write to the father, of course, pointing out how bright she is and so on—blah blah blah. And the Head got a letter back, quite well written and spelled, I heard, just saying Julie was going out to work like any other girl and no thank you.'

'What did she say?'

'I never asked her. Come on, we'll miss our train.'

Juliet, clearly, is not a girl who inspires affection easily, and her relations with her parents are similarly chilly. She returns home from school, assures her lonely mother she’ll have tea with her, then while her mother prepares it she takes a few belongings and leaves the house. She hitchhikes to the home of a rich, elderly woman who has befriended her in a park. Miss Pennecuick, yearning irrationally to see in Juliet the daughter she never had, has offered to “adopt” her for a year, and Juliet, completely incapable of appreciating (or even perceiving) such an emotional need, has accepted the offer in order to have time for solitary thought instead of office work or whatever other bland job her father has in mind for her.

This is not a promising situation, and it has predictable and distinctly uncomfortable results. Juliet is bewildered by the expectation that she should care for (or even be nice to) Miss Pennecuick, though the older woman showers her with affection and kindness. When Miss Pennecuick dies suddenly, following a wrenching scene of conflict between Miss Pennecuick’s vulnerability and Juliet’s incomprehension, Juliet is unable to perceive the death as a sad thing, something she should mourn or regret (despite the fact that, as it turns out, Miss Pennecuick has left her a substantial sum of money which will allow her to attend Cambridge after all).

She heard the door open.

'I think she's dead,' she said, not lowering her voice and without turning round. She continued to stare at the unrecognizable face.

Behind her there was a soft exclamation, and the sound of a tray being set down. Then Nurse Judson was at her side and bending over the bed, and taking certain actions with the body. The nurse stood up with the faintest of sighs.

'Yes, she's gone ... what happened?' she asked in a subdued voice.

'Nothing much.'

Juliet softened her own voice in imitation; apparently one did this when someone died.

Miss Pennecuick’s servants, like Juliet’s former teachers (and perhaps like many readers, at this stage of the tale), think her cold and cruel, and imagine that she has manipulated their employer for financial gain. In reality, though, Juliet has as little concept of her financial future as she has of personal relationships, and it is Frank, Miss Pennecuick’s nephew, who becomes Juliet’s protector, assists her in getting to Cambridge, and sets himself on a mission to gradually awaken in Juliet a sense of affection and the importance of human interactions.

Juliet excels at Cambridge, but makes no friends apart from one professor who is able to comprehend the brilliance of her project—a mathematical law of coincidence, which continues to obsess her long after her school years are over and eventually leads her to fame in the narrow circle of people interested in such things. (I love, by the way, that Gibbons shows so clearly that others have as much difficulty understanding Juliet’s thoughts as she has understanding theirs. It’s not a one-sided “disability” but a brilliant difference that the novel portrays.)

Surely one of Gibbons’ themes in this extraordinarily strange novel is to highlight the seemingly simple point that some people require, and indeed are capable of, quite different things in life than others, and to suggest that the generic norms and accepted standards are not always the best way to achieve or understand those things. That sounds a simplistic notion, but then, don't a pretty large proportion of the world’s problems seem to result from our inability to accept it?

Juliet isn’t even the only character in the novel illustrative of this theme. Frank himself has an approach to life that most of those around them consider freakish. He cheerfully gives over Miss Pennecuick’s estate to an organization for the promotion of alternative food sources (Gibbons was right in her time period here and well informed about the growing environmental concerns of the 1970s). Instead of living in the mansion he’s inherited, he chooses to live in a shed in the middle of a meadow. The estate would surely have ended by bankrupting him, while in the meadow he can live free and easy, with plenty of money and plenty of freedom, and provide the same freedom to his wife and to Juliet, the latter of whom he sets up—both before and after her time at Cambridge—in another shed at the other end of the meadow.

And his wife—well, here’s another character indeed. He and Clemence have been close friends for years, and she yearns for a large family more than anything. But her opportunity to marry him (indeed, to take matters into her own hands and propose to him) only comes as a result of his desire to protect Juliet without causing scandal. Most writers would present this as a thoroughly humiliating experience for Clemence, and indeed Gibbons has her ponder the humiliation of the situation as well. But ultimately, Clemence's decision, though undoubtedly hard for most people to swallow, proves a wise one, giving her exactly what she wants from life.

“Abnormal” people and unusual life choices, ending up in peculiarly happy lives. Such are the characters of Pure Juliet.

I can’t pretend that I’ve fully digested everything about this novel, and it's undoubtedly not a perfect novel. Its ending, which I won’t spoil here, is a cheerfully odd one, involving a fairy tale Middle Eastern country which Gibbons makes no effort at all to present in a realistic way, and I really have no idea what to make of it. But the novel's closing paragraph is one of the most perfect, lovely, poignant conclusions of any novel I’ve ever read.

And after such a rave review, I’ll mention that a quick Google search finds a surprising proliferation of snarky and dismissive reviews of this book by bloggers and critics alike. (I waited until I’d written mine before I checked.) Desperate Reader, though, found thoughtful things to say about it, even if she wasn’t as delighted as I was. She doesn’t think autism was what Gibbons was going for with Juliet, but it seems to me that even if she didn't know the term, she seems to have created an autistic character—or at the very least, as I put it above, someone with a quite unusual alignment of the psyche. But if other readers didn’t interpret Juliet in this light, then perhaps some of the dislike for her and the book might be comprehensible.

Though even so I'm a bit surprised by how negative some of the reviews are, particularly in regard to Juliet herself. After all, if one encountered someone like Juliet in real life, wouldn’t one’s best approach be—as Frank and some other characters do within the novel—to take her as she is, accept her limitations, and either move on or have patience in helping her if possible? Regardless of diagnostics, denying the reality of her obvious limitations, trying to force the square pegs of her condition (whatever condition it is) into the round holes of our assumptions about proper civilized behavior, seems to me to be just asking for stress and heartache, and perhaps causing it as well. The novel repeatedly shows Juliet (as in the death scene quoted above) trying to navigate situations she obviously genuinely does not understand, which is rather different from a character who is simply selfish and indifferent to the pain of others. Juliet is not indifferent, she simply doesn't grasp emotions and their causes and so keeps inadvertently causing pain to others.

I used to have a colleague who would, quite discernibly, have a panic attack if someone dropped something in his in-box just before 5:00. It was not simply annoyance or exasperation, but a genuinely distressing situation for him. Regardless of assurances that the item need not be read or even glanced at until the following day, he simply could not tolerate leaving the office with anything in that box. Irrational? Yes. Neurotic? Probably. But the solution seemed perfectly simple—recognize his need, respect it, and keep your item until the next morning, when he could cheerfully greet it as a new project, stress-free.

And if one can have such a philosophical and compassionate approach to the oddities and irrationalities of people in real life, why not to characters in novels?

Then again, I have wondered about my own identifications with Juliet. Perhaps I see a bit of myself—especially my younger, "intellectual" self, in herin sometimes uncomfortable ways. I've never been as extreme as Juliet, but my time in graduate school was definitely a similarly manifestation of obsessive, anti-social behavior for me. I'm happy that my obsessiveness is now largely contained by my work on this blog, and is limited in a fairly healthy way to a certain number of hours per week, but the tendency is still there, and I can see in Juliet where it might have led me.

At any rate, for mPure Juliet was one of those rare magical books. If this is an example of where Gibbons went in her work once she stopped worrying about editors and critics, I can’t wait to get my hands on The Yellow Houses. And if I can't easily recommend it to everyone, because it’s inspired such negative reactions elsewhere (consider it more of a "proceed at your own risk" type of recommendation), I can certainly urge you to give one or more of Gibbons’ other novels, at least, a try (The Matchmaker, mentioned above, or Westwood are both great places to start). And with 6 more of her books currently winging their way across the Atlantic to my TBR shelves, you’ll probably be hearing more about her here anyway…

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving or Happy Thursday!

We’ll be spending Thanksgiving with some of Andy's family in San Diego when this post goes live (if Blogger works according to plan), but I wanted to wish those in the U.S. a very happy, tasty, and hopefully nonpolitical holiday weekend, and those elsewhere in the world a very happy, er, Thursday, or happy late autumn, or perhaps happy last weekend in November?

I particularly have a lot to be thankful for this year. First and foremost, of course, Andy—duh. And our wonderful trip to England and Scotland which was so amazing, and on which we only had one day of proper rain in three weeks, which is little less than a miracle, plus all the friends, old and new, that made it special for us.

Then, of course I am tremendously thankful for all of you who take the time to read this blog, and care what I have to say, share your thoughts or, sometimes, your own researches, and share at least some of my peculiar literary interests and book fetishism. Thank you for giving me an excuse to keep on with my obsessive research, my reckless book buying, and my endless interlibrary loans!

And finally, along the same lines, I’m very, very thankful for the tremendous support you and others outside the blogging world have given to my happy, irritatingly gushing dabbling in the world of publishing. It has been terribly exciting for me (and speaking of exciting, I’m planning to do an announcement about our March 2017 titles around New Year’s—what better way to celebrate the New Year than with new book announcements?! well, perhaps some champagne too), and I have to share with you just a little of the love that’s been given to the venture recently.

First, I’m still a little stunned to be able to mention the article published last week—in no lesser spot than the Times Literary Supplement, for heaven’s sake—about the Rachel Ferguson novels we’ve reprinted. Gillian Tindall, who had previously reviewed Persephone’s reprint of Ferguson’s Alas, Poor Lady for the TLS, did an enthusiastic piece on our three titles. If you have a subscription, you can read the whole piece here, and if not, you can still read the first paragraph, which will give you an idea. The second line, which refers to Ferguson as “just a few years older than Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamond Lehmann and more original in her perceptions than either of them,” still makes me a bit giddy. An enthusiastic thanks to Gillian for her enthusiasm about Ferguson!

And speaking of enthusiasm, I have to give some warm thanks to my fellow bloggers who have shown the FM titles a lot of love in the past few weeks. I can’t mention every review individually (though if you’ve reviewed one or more of them, it’s probably a safe bet that I’ve read the reviews—possibly five or six times—and I'm grateful to you too).

In particular, just a couple of days ago, I glanced at my blog to double-check something (yes, I do occasionally have to consult my own lists), and I happened to notice that the first three posts on my blog roll were all brand new reviews of FM books—Lyn at I Prefer Reading had written enthusiastically about Winifred Peck’s Bewildering Cares, Elizabeth at Book Oxygen had given a thumbs-up to Frances Faviell’s A Chelsea Concerto, and, possibly most exciting of all, Barb at Leaves & Pages had given a rare 10 out of 10 rating to Rachel Ferguson’s A Harp in Lowndes Square! We could never have planned such a varied and lovely promo if we’d tried! I should note that all three of those bloggers have also reviewed other of our books recently, as have Ali at Heavenali, Barbara at Call Me Madam, and Liz at Librofulltime.

And last but not least, although I hesitated to dignify the original inspiration for the post with a mention, I would be remiss not to say how thankful I am to Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book for his recent post that’s not a review but a lovely, typically generous gesture—not to mention how thankful I am to the dozens of people who commented on that post. Judging from the results of Simon’s post, perhaps I should actually say I’m also thankful to Esmeralda, or Ermentrud, or Bertha, or whatever name the subject of the post is now going by. She seems to have done a remarkable job of promoting the imprint all by herself!

Have a wonderful holiday weekend/ordinary weekend, everyone!

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Scribbler: A Retrospective Literary Review (2015-present)

Many of you already know about this “retrospective literary review” published by Shirley Neilson, who is also the force behind Greyladies Books. I’ve been meaning to write about it ever since I received my first issue, and hey, a year later isn’t really all that bad by my standards!

What exactly, you might ask, is a retrospective literary review? Well, in short, it’s a little slice of heaven, but if you require a more detailed definition, it’s a journal composed of reviews of novels, mysteries, and children’s books, as well as related features. But instead of focusing on newly-published titles and contemporary themes, as would most literary reviews, The Scribbler focuses on older titles—both those that are recognized as classics and those that many readers will likely never have come across. Most, but not all, of the authors featured are British women, which helps to explain why I've started carefully rationing my reading of each issue and dread the moment that I finish and the joy ends until the next issue.

In other words, it’s a bit like a blog, only far more organized and carefully considered (than this blog, at any rate!), and with the added pleasure of holding a real live book-like object in your hands while enjoying it. And a beautifully produced object, no less.

Each issue includes themed reviews, which thus far have included subjects like “Novels set in Girls’ Schools,” “The Older Woman,” “Shop Girls,” “The Lady Doctor,” and, in the newest issue (which I have not yet allowed myself to begin, for fear I’ll run out of pages before the holidays), “Christmas.” For each theme, there’s a wide variety of books for all tastes, reviewed by Shirley and her crack team of contributors, including names some of you will know, such as Rosemary Auchmuty, Hilary Clare, and Sue Sims. (By the way, be sure to read even the "Contributors" page, which can be entertaining in itself—I particularly enjoy, in issue no. 2, the mention of "pledging the books". But you'll have to read it to find out what it means!)

In addition to reviews, there are several recurring features, including author spotlights (in the second issue, a tantalizing passage from one of Mabel Esther Allan’s privately-published and impossible-to-find memoirs), “Books That Changed My Life” (my favorite is Shirley’s in the debut issue, on the unquestionably appropriate Shirley: Young Bookseller), a Food Page (meal-related excerpts from novels), and short stories by favorite authors such as D. E. Stevenson and Evelyn Smith. And after tantalizing us with references to all these books, The Scribbler features, in its last pages, a bibliography of all the books mentioned, to mercilessly add to our TBR lists and bookbuying splurges.

My own TBR list has grown by at least 25 titles as a result of The Scribbler, and that without having dipped into issue no. 4. Good heavens.

I know some of you have already been partaking of the pleasures of this journal, but for those who haven't, you can find subscription information here. I really can’t recommend it enough.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

ROSE MACAULAY, The World My Wilderness (1950)

I have to admit that I don’t often re-read books these days. My reason for this is that I have something like a billion books on my TBR list (perhaps not quite, but close enough), accumulated from all of my research on nearly 1,900 women writers, during which I have regularly thought, “Hmmmm, that sounds intriguing,” and whoop, onto the list another book goes. As a result, I always seem to pressure myself to be exploring new ground rather than revisiting old haunts.

This is perhaps questionable logic, since I do, after all, know that a book I love is, almost without doubt (though there have been exceptions), going to provide me hours of enjoyment, while a book I’ve selected more or less out of a hat is really just as likely—despite the excitement of exploration and of, often, reading a book no one else has so much as glanced at for several decades—to disappoint as to reward. Sometimes, indeed, I feel a yearning to spend a year or so reading nothing but old favorites.

Now I’m not doing anything quite that radical yet (though honestly, it might make for interesting blogging, as there are quite a few of my best-loved books that I’ve never properly written about here). But I did recently feel compelled to pull this gorgeous gem off the shelf, and I loved it even more on a second reading than I had on the first.

For those who don’t know about Macaulay, she is probably best known now for her final novel, The Towers of Trebizond (1956), which, famously and hilariously, features this evocative opening line: “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” It’s a really delightful novel exploring eccentricity, culture shock, and religious conflict and doubt, and is, amazingly, readily in print these days (and highly recommended).

But Macaulay at that time had already been a successful and highly-regarded novelist for well over four decades, even if she had her ups and downs in terms of critical reception. She was known for her sometimes giddy sense of humor and sharp satire of society’s idiosyncrasies. But she also had a persistent and serious interest in religious belief, and many of her novels deal with religion as a central or secondary theme—sometimes hilariously, sometimes poignantly. Now, in some writers I might be put off by this, but for me, Macaulay is never heavy-handed about it, and certainly never preachy. In that, she is perhaps a bit like Muriel Spark, though Spark is certainly darker and more snide in her humor (a good thing, for me, but I don’t want anyone who dislikes Spark to imagine that Macaulay is like her in style). Macaulay is interested in religious belief, but as an element of human behavior, as something that drives people (and occasionally drives them mad), not as something one should or should not have. At any rate, even for a reader like me, with a general interest in religion and the clergy but no belief in any direction, Macaulay’s attention to the church is interesting and profound, not distracting or annoying.

In The World My Wilderness, religious concerns are present but very much the poignant background rather than the central focus. That focus is on the rather alarming Barbary Deniston, who has come of age in France during the Nazi occupation, living with her glamorous mother, who divorced her father and ran off with a Frenchman. Barbary has spent most of the war in league with the maqui, or French guerrilla resistance fighters, and the trauma and paranoia of those times linger, though the details of what she experienced are mostly only hinted at (with one harrowing exception).

But the war has now ended, and Barbary’s mother—half mourning the loss of her second husband, killed as a collaborator by the maqui (perhaps with the assistance of Barbary herself?), half already infatuated by yet another man—has sent her to live with her father and his new wife in London. The intent, apart from getting a young daughter out of the way of a new romance, is to civilize the sullenly barbarian Barbary (pun intended, clearly). But instead, Barbary, in collaboration with Raoul, a French stepbrother who has also been sent to London, sees the bombed-out ruins of London as a new realm of maqui resistance. And she is not alone in her continued spirit of resistance, as her older brother Richie makes clear to their father on arrival:

“Did you have a good journey?"

"Yes, thank you".

Richie expanded and qualified this. The journey had been tolerable as journeys went, which, in 1946, was badly. The train had lost its way and wandered about the Hautes Pyrenees, till finally held up by a blocked line, arranged, the passengers had surmised, by the local maquis. Sir Gulliver inquired why. Richie explained that impeding trains was a maquis habit, contracted in the enterprising days of the Occupation, and now automatically continued; these Resisters still waged their war, resisting policemen, factories, rentiers, capitalists, collaborators, mayors and trains.

The difficulty of Barbary and others to leave both the trauma and the excitement of the war behind (also the subject of David Hare’s excellent play Plenty, made into a film with Meryl Streep and, of all people, Tracey Ullman) means I could say that Wilderness is a dissection of postwar delinquency, which is accurate but makes it sound dry and serious and perhaps too socially conscious. In fact, it’s an absolutely glowing, shimmering, lovely meditation on civilization vs. barbarianism, freedom vs. social constraints, discipline vs. rebellion—in short, all of those conflicts that we’re always wrestling with from childhood right on. And the particularly wonderful thing here is that, as I read the novel at least, it’s all very much open to interpretation which side wins, or even which side Macaulay believes should win. If life isn’t cut and dried and easy to interpret, I’ve never seen why literature should be, and Wilderness has all the subtleties and complexities and endless opportunities for analysis that any really great novel should have.

In some ways, this is a much more subtle retelling of Macaulay’s early novel, Crewe Train (1926), which is also enjoyable (and also pretty readily available, having been reprinted by Virago), but which seems harsher somehow, as if Macaulay was still too close to her subject matter, was angry about it all and angry at many of the characters, while in Wilderness she is able to approach it all with more wisdom and eloquence, with apparently genuine affection for characters both civilized and barbarian. I’m sure there’s some sort of profound lesson for writers of fiction that could be learned from reading these two novels written by a single author on similar themes, 24 years apart.

What’s more, beyond its fascinating insights into postwar delinquency, I also love this novel for its vivid characters, both lovable and not, and its wonderful complexities concerning love, maturity, authority, manipulation, ego, and all kinds of other good stuff. Barbary’s mother is one of the novel's most interesting creations: totally self-absorbed and focused on men, and caring little about the impacts of her scandalous behavior on those around her, she clearly loves Barbary in her way, but has also completely neglected her during the war years. Yet despite all these negatives, she is presented by Macaulay in such a way that one clearly sees how seductive and lovable she is, and how she has gotten away with so much.

Any of these qualities would be sufficient for me to recommend the novel, but there’s an additional factor that, on its own, makes it riveting reading for me, with my fascination with wartime and postwar London: It contains amazingly detailed descriptions of bomb ruins throughout. It feels very much as if Macaulay saw it as her responsibility to document exactly what it was like to walk through (or climb through) the ruins, and to record the businesses, churches, and other establishments that had been destroyed. One could (I suspect, though I haven’t tested my theory) track Barbary’s movements through the ruins on any good map of London, and no doubt it would be fascinating to see before and after photos of the neighborhoods described. Here’s one of many such descriptions:

The maze of little streets threading through the wilderness, the broken walls, the great pits with their dense forests of bracken and bramble, golden ragwort and coltsfoot, fennel and foxglove and vetch, all the wild rambling shrubs that spring from ruin, the vaults and cellars and deep caves, the wrecked guild halls that had belonged to saddlers, merchant tailors, haberdashers, waxchandlers, barbers, brewers, coopers and coachmakers, all the ancient city fraternities, the broken office stairways that spiraled steeply past empty doorways and rubbled closets into the sky, empty shells of churches with their towers still strangely spiring above the wilderness, their empty window arches where green boughs pushed in, their broken pavement floors—St. Vedast's, St. Alban' s, St. Anne's and St. Agnes's, St. Giles Cripplegate, its tower high above the rest, the ghosts of churches burned in an earlier fire, St. Olave's and St. John Zachary's, haunting the green-flowered churchyards that bore their names, the ghosts of taverns where merchants and clerks had drunk, of restaurants where they had eaten—all this scarred and haunted green and stone and brambled wilderness lying under the August sun, a-hum with insects and astir with secret, darting, burrowing life, received the returned traveler into its dwellings with a wrecked, indifferent calm. Here, its cliffs and chasms and caves seemed to say, is your home; here you belong; you cannot get away, you do not wish to get away, for this is the maquis that lies about, the margins of the wrecked world, and here your feet are set; here you find the irremediable barbarism that comes up from the depth of the earth, and that you have known elsewhere. "Where are the roots that clutch, what branches grow, out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, you cannot say, or guess ...." But you can say, you can guess, that it is you yourself, your own roots, that clutch the stony rubbish, the branches of your own being that grow from it and from nowhere else.

The central image of the novel seems to be the bombed-out St. Giles, which the teenagers make a sort of home away from home. There is a traumatic scene in which a deranged former priest invades the church and conducts a fire-and-brimstone sermon with only Barbary and Raoul for congregation. The children listen awestruck, and when a fellow clergyman finally tracks the priest and leads him back to his home, we catch a rather heartbreaking glimpse of the intense vulnerability lying under Barbary’s fearless exterior:

"You mustn't," he said to Barbary, "be troubled about him.'' Dropping his voice, he added: "He often wanders about the ruined churches, looking for his own. His church was bombed in 1940; he was trapped in the wreckage for two days; he could scarcely move, and the flames raged round him. He hasn't, of course, been the same since. He lives in a clergy house now; we all love him, but we can't always save him from his nightmares. He thinks he's in hell and can't get out. I'm afraid he frightened you.''

"No," said Barbary. "Not more than I was already."

It would take much more than a review to get a handle on all the things I love about this book. It shares some themes with Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, another favorite novel about immediate postwar London, which also makes prominent use of bomb ruins. But ultimately, I don’t think any other book manages to accomplish quite what Wilderness does.

I should add, because some of you might wonder after such a rave review of an out-of-print novel, that yes, we did check recently on the rights situation, in the hope of making not only Wilderness, but also Crewe Train and several other more obscure Macaulay novels from the 1930s and 1940s (some never reprinted) available as Furrowed Middlebrow titles. But alas, the agency which manages rights for Macaulay’s estate apparently doesn’t like the idea of print-on-demand publishers, and so they unceremoniously turned us down. Phooey. We did, however, hear just a squeak of a rumor that someone else may already be in the process of acquiring rights to Wilderness and Crewe Train, so fingers crossed that those two, at least, may be available again soon!

Friday, November 11, 2016

Book report: What I read on holiday

Okay, I’m sure you’ve all heard just about enough our recent trip, but as part of my segueing back into talking about books and reading I figured I might as well report on what I was reading during all that time. Particularly since I obviously didn’t make a lot of notes of my thoughts, so if I don’t talk about them all now, they’ll be lost to this blog forever.

I took only a handful of physical books with me (though of course with my Kindle I had about 50 more, so I was sure to be covered). I had picked up my first Miss Read Thrush Green book, Battles in Thrush Green (1975), at the book sale just a couple of weeks before our trip, and I finished reading it right before we left. Having got a taste for the charming characters, I had checked the actual shop at our public library and found four more books in the series, so I carried Return to Thrush Green (1978) with me on the trip, and finished reading that one just a few days in. I know some of you are also Miss Read fans, but I wonder if you have a clear preference between the Fairacre series and the Thrush Green series. Having read only one of the former and now two of the latter, I have to say I have a preference for the latter—I think because it’s told in the third person and therefore shifts perspective between all the characters, while the Fairacre book I read was in the first person and limited to the schoolteacher’s perspective. But perhaps that’s not the case with all the other Fairacre books? At any rate, I very much enjoyed both of the Thrush Green books, but now I have a quandary—should I venture back to the beginning of the series now, or continue reading forward to the end and then go back to the beginning. Oh the quandaries that face obsessive readers!

I had also come across three Amanda Cross mysteries at the book sale, and finished reading The Players Come Again (1990) before we left. That was an odd entry in a mystery series, since the mystery was really a purely literary one. It was rather more a straightforward academic novel, a less complex version of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, than what would ordinarily be called a mystery, but it was quite enjoyable for all that. So I took the other two Cross mysteries with me, and was reading The James Joyce Murder (1967) during our stay in Rye—perhaps that explains why the ghosts didn’t bother us, it’s not exactly a suitably moody book for such a setting. I enjoyed that one very much, but when I proceeded to A Trap for Fools (1989), I got bogged down, and I have to admit I still haven’t finished it. Perhaps that’s as much because other books started to find their way into my bag by that point in our trip as it is because the book was less enticing—it is interesting in its meditations on academia and female friendships, but it does seem to drag a bit as a mystery (though here at least there is a proper murder).

This is all a sort of preface for the best book I read on vacation. In addition to passing along some of her “extra” books to me, Gil had the brainstorm of letting me read a Josephine Bell mystery she had just picked up as a gift for someone else, then I could return it to her by mail before leaving England. I happily accepted, especially since the mystery in question was Death at Half-Term (1939, later reprinted as Curtain Call for a Corpse), one of the Bell books set in a school.

This mystery centers around Dr. David Wintringham, who has been known on previous occasions to aid Inspector Mitchell of Scotland Yard in solving perplexing cases. David and his wife Jill happen to be at the school for a half-term performance (Jill’s sister Judith is married to the headmaster). A touring theatre company is putting on a production of Twelfth Night when the leading man gets himself clobbered over the head. There are skirmishes between the actors, a mysterious tension between a temporary master at the school and the leading lady (who is gleefully melodramatic in mourning the husband she never loved), a group of boys who take it upon themselves to find the murder weapon (and do), and a simmering romance between a master and the assistant matron. All of which makes for rollicking fun along the way.

I'm certainly going to be on the lookout for more Josephine Bell. Allowing for the possibility that not all of her books may be as much fun as Death at Half-Term, I’m willing to bet that many of them are. Happily, it appears that many (but not all) of her books have now been reprinted by Bello Books, but I wonder why she hasn't yet received the attention she deserves. At any rate, thanks to Gil for giving me the chance to read this one!

From there, amazingly enough, I proceeded to another American mystery (hey, I was on vacation!)—Helen McCloy’s superbly eerie Through a Glass, Darkly (1949), which also, as it happens, has a school connection, though very few of the scenes actually take place at school. It’s an intriguing tale, part mystery, part thriller, about seemingly supernatural events. It begins with a young art teacher in a girl's school being dismissed without explanation because she seems to have inspired unspecified gossip or anxieties among the girls and staff. To say much more would spoil the elegant unfolding of the eerie plot, during which one's assumptions and sympathies are likely to shift several times, but the book is of particular interest because there is, on the one hand, a perfectly logical explanation of the odd and tragic events, and, on the other hand, just the slightest possibility left open that the events really might have been supernatural after all. If you’re a sensitive reader, don’t read this one right before bedtime! Some readers might feel that all the theorizing about the supernatural, including historical examples of similar situations, slow the pace too much, but I enjoyed it anyway, and the situation of vulnerable women at a slightly ominous girls' school might remind some readers of the similarly eerie and similarly compelling Ethel Lina White novel The Third Eye, reprinted a few months ago by Greyladies.

While I’m talking about mysteries, Mavis Doriel Hay’s Death on the Cherwell (1935) helped me get through the long, dreary flight home. (And I am reminding myself, as I did so many times on our trip, that it is, according to Google, properly pronounced CHAR-well, as if one were ordering a steak well-done, not CHURR-well. I have quite a list of such pronunciation lessons now!) It’s the second of Hay’s three mysteries, following Murder Underground (1934) and preceding The Santa Klaus Murder (1936), all three reprinted in the British Library mystery series. As a mystery, Death on the Cherwell seemed like no great shakes to me, though as usual I made no effort to follow all the ins and outs of who was where at what time doing what for how long. But as a novel about young women at Oxford, it’s quite charming and fun in a perky, flapperish sort of way. It’s a good book to curl up with when you don’t have energy for anything challenging and just want the pages to turn themselves—for example, on a transatlantic flight. I was also interested to discover from the introduction to the book that Hay was, as a novelist, yet another of many, many casualties of World War II. First the stresses and constraints of the approaching war must have prevented her from writing, and then the death of her husband, an RAF pilot, must have thoroughly derailed her from writing such cheerful, energetic fiction. She did later publish books about arts and crafts, but never seems to have returned to writing fiction. The war had many casualties off the battlefield as well…

Also somewhat in the mystery/thriller category is Joy Packer’s The Man in the Mews (1964), which I read halfheartedly on the trip and only finished after we’d returned home. I picked up the book because I thought she might belong on my Overwhelming List, only to discover that she was from South Africa. It’s part romance, part thriller, and part psychological drama—the Google Books summary reads, “Widow who visits London after a long absence when her daughter becomes engaged is recognized by a collector of newspaper crime stories as the ex-wife of a murderer.” 

It’s by no means a great book, but I did find it modestly interesting in some ways. There's the title character, an admirer of murderers, who is somewhat intriguing in his very modern-seeming desire for a dark notoriety. And there's the middle-aged Mrs Olivier, hiding her dark secret and trying to protect her daughter from it, who has returned to London for the first time in decades. Sadly, there are also some rather excruciatingly melodramatic romantic scenes and confrontation scenes, and a belief in the determinism of genetics that seems strange to modern readers. A forgettable novel, for sure, but one with a bit more kick than I expected.

I mentioned in my last post that amazing Oxfam shop in York, and Doris Pocock’s The Treasure of the Trevellyans (1938) was one of my acquisitions there. The cover was so charming, I couldn’t resist reading it right away. It’s a pleasant family adventure tale, about an impoverished artist who inherits a run-down house and land in Cornwall from an eccentric uncle, and takes his family there for a long holiday. The trouble is, the house is so run-down that it amounts more to camping out than living in a house. For the Trevellyans themselves, this is of little concern, as they are a perky, adventurous clan and take it all in stride. But when their posh cousin decides she wants some adventure of her own and stows away with them, she finds it harder to adapt to the rough conditions. Then the uncovering of a reference to a family treasure hidden somewhere on the property leads to an exciting and sometimes harrowing search. (Note to self: When asked to search for treasure by being lowered into a well in a bucket, decline the opportunity.)

Pocock has some obvious weaknesses as a storyteller—a bit too formulaic, her prose a bit awkward and repetitive at times, a tendency to be overly obvious with her sentimental conclusions (of course, everyone learns valuable lessons in the end)—but the formula she uses is a pleasant and entertaining one, and the setting is enticing. It’s nowhere near as strong, for example, as Gwendoline Courtney's family tales, but certainly worth the four pounds I paid for it (especially with its lovely dustjacket).

I love the book, but I still think the girl in
yellow looks a bit like a Stepford wife. Perhaps
that explains their love for housekeeping?

And speaking of Gwendoline Courtney, I’m going to interject one more pre-holiday read here, because otherwise I know I’ll never get round to mentioning it. When I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by life just before our trip, I picked up one of several Courtney novels sitting on my TBR shelves, The Girls of Friar’s Rise (1952), which proved to be just the medicine I needed. All the more surprising because it is, apart from being a lovely family story, basically a tale of how delightful housework is—a theme I shouldn’t, by rights, enjoy at all. But reading about housekeeping is certainly better than undertaking it, and so this book, about a troupe of domestically accomplished girls, inadvertently left to manage on their own when their parents rush off to Canada and the adult supervision they’d arranged falls through, turns out to be quite delightful. 

The girls befriend a new neighbor who has taken up residence in a ramshackle old house nearby in hopes that country life will help him recover from a serious illness. Such a scenario, in the hands of a modern thriller author, would no doubt lead to the girls being tortured or made into slave labor or the subjects of science experiments, but in Courtney’s more idyllic world, the man watches over the girls while they glory in making the ramshackle house into a home and help to heal him with their affection and ample produce from their garden.

It’s really a lovely book. Not quite, for me, to the standard of Courtney’s earlier book, Sally’s Family, which deals just a bit more realistically with the realities of postwar life, but it’s nevertheless wonderful, feel-good fun. It was reprinted by Girls Gone By a few years ago, but is out-of-print again now. Hopefully they’ll get around to a reprint one of these days.

And that’s that. I actually managed to do a fair bit of reading, if you consider how much ground we were covering every day on the trip! The mark of a true addict…

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The victory of the barbarians

I know some of you in the U.K. have an idea, from earlier this year, what I and everyone I know here are feeling today. The hateful and the ignorant among us have won.

The Supreme Court is lost, for at least a generation to come. Civil rights and freedoms fought for by our parents and grandparents (and, indeed, their parents and grandparents) may well be reversed. Every gain made in the past eight years, domestically and abroad, will be systematically attacked and, if possible, destroyed. The U.S. will be the most backward and anachronistic of all world powers, fiddling while Rome burns and delusionally pretending that that glorious heyday of (straight, white, male) affluence, the 1950s, can return. And the hatred, bigotry, ignorance, and fear that permeated this election will permeate our lives in ways we can't yet even imagine.

When Brexit passed, I mentioned the Persephone Post comparing the day to September 3, 1939. Some felt this was too extreme. But I can only say that for me, such a comparison holds some truth. If yesterday was not in itself as horrific a day in the U.S. as December 7, 1941 or September 11, 2001 (no one lost their life, and it's true that it was simply democracy at work, albeit in a terribly diseased nation), I can't help feeling that it was a similarly terrible turning point in American history. On both of those days, Americans knew their world had changed, and knew that worse things, not yet fathomable, were in store. Ditto today. 

Only this time we voted for it.

This is not a political blog, and I will return to talking books soon (when I've caught my breath and no longer want to stay in bed forever), if for no other reason than the fact that books will probably bear much of the brunt of keeping me sane for the next four years. And I will eventually try to be optimistic: Perhaps it won't be so bad; there are checks and balances in our government; there are still good people fighting for civilization; perhaps we will somehow be brought together for the common good; or, who knows, perhaps there really is an Illuminati, à la Dan Brown, guiding everything, and this mockery of a leader is only the latest figurehead! But I'm not quite ready for optimism yet.

Today, I am embarrassed to be an American.

1. a person in a savage, primitive state; uncivilized person.
2. a person without culture, refinement, or education; philistine.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The suitcase full of books

Now that I told you about the sightseeing on our trip to the UK, it's time to get back to all those books. 

I started to title this post “What I bought on holiday,” but then I remembered that I didn’t actually buy all the wonderful books in the pic I posted last weekend. No, that doesn’t mean that I robbed an Oxfam shop (though I did get an earful from a bookseller in Cambridge about how Oxfam and other charity shops are robbing other bookshops of all their business—I can’t swear to the truth of that, but it certainly seems that they would be tough competition). Rather, it means that no fewer than seven of the books came from my delightful time in Cambridge meeting up with Gil, as mentioned in my last post.

Although I don’t think I’ve written about it here in awhile, Gil remembered my interest in girls’ school stories, and she dipped into her storeroom of “extra” books (just imagine!) and brought me not one or two, but seven. Of WINIFRED NORLING, Sims and Clare, in their Encyclopaedia of Girls’ School Stories, said “A Norling story is rarely boring, even if it is never believable,” which sounds rather irresistible to me. Meanwhile, PHYLLIS MATTHEWMAN was a friend of Elinor Brent-Dyer, and her books, again according to Sims and Clare, are often focused on “the domestic drama of school life,” which sounds right up my alley. And OLIVE DOUGAN apparently subtly subverts some of the routine elements of school stories, which makes her highly intriguing as well. And of course I was delighted to have two more Chalet School books which I hadn’t yet added to my (considerably growing—I need to report on that soon!) collection.

I should really also give Gil credit for one more of my bargain acquisitions, as it was she, in a bookshop in Cambridge, who unearthed a copy of DORITA FAIRLIE BRUCE’s The Best House in the School, slightly bedraggled but with dustjacket intact—the first book from her Springdale series to make its way into my collection. Thanks for all of these lovely additions to my library, Gil!

For the most part, I don’t remember which of the many books I bought were purchased in which spot. We managed to find Oxfam bookshops practically everywhere we went—even tour stops like Harrogate and Skipton and Alnwick—not to mention the occasional Amnesty International bookshop or the book sections of Cancer Research UK, Aging UK, British Heart Association, Shelter, and a few more types of charity shops. There was nary a day that went by that one or two books didn’t find their way into the small backpack we carried with us each day—just ask Andy, who bravely soldiered on and carried the bag more than his share of the time despite the weight I’d added to it!

But I do vividly remember one of the Oxfam bookshops, and at the risk of causing a stampede of fans of children’s fiction into the lovely streets of York, I will note that I nearly had heart failure walking into the shop on Micklegate and saw not just a shelf of vintage children’s books, not two shelves, but an entire bookcase dedicated to them. And most of them had dustjackets intact. Goodness. Needless to say, I spent quite a bit of time there, getting my first glimpse of the cover art of a good many books I had only heard of previously, jotting down a few authors I had never heard of, and trying to refrain from buying up every single book in sight. It wasn’t so much the cost that would have been involved (dirt cheap compared to the market rate for most of the books), or even the need for four suitcases to get them home, but the thought of our one bedroom apartment and the already very limited shelf space available—that’s what caused me to exercise what I believe was admirable restraint in only purchasing six books there. These were supplemented later in the trip with three more children’s books.

I won’t give such a dramatic buildup to the other purchases. There was really nothing quite so amazing at any other shop—at least excepting Edinburgh Books (see below). But I was happy to accumulate several more Viragos, and I didn’t even realize the ELLEN WILKINSON book had been reprinted by Virago because I had never laid eyes on a copy before, so that was a fun one to come across.

I added my very first Folio edition to my library, to replace a scraggly paperback of BARBARA PYM’s Excellent Women (despite the fact that Pym and I haven’t been on such good terms lately).

I found quite a few enticing hardcovers, mostly with dustjackets, but none of these was as enticing as JANE DUNCAN’s My Friend Muriel. Duncan’s books have now been released as inexpensive e-books, and this hardcover was one of my priciest acquisitions of the trip, but honestly, could you have resisted this jacket art?

I’m not a huge fan of MARGUERITE STEEN, but the book was dirt cheap and featured an author photo I’d never seen before, so I had to add it to the mix, though I have to admit the message "from the author" is a wee bit offputting.

And the JEAN RHYS book was the very first purchase of the trip, from the little charity shop at Bodiam Castle. There, the lovely dustjacket called out to me as well.

I admit I bought the JOY PACKER novel because I’d never heard of her, but alas, she turns out to be South African. I’m just finishing reading the book now, and it’s no great shakes, but it is intriguing in some ways. And the CATHERINE PONTON SLATER book, Marget Pow, was mentioned a while back by Peggy Ann at Peggy Ann’s Post (the first I had heard of Slater), so I couldn’t pass that one up either.

My most exciting paperback acquisition was that vintage Penguin edition of MARGHANITA LASKI’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue. I already had a copy, but couldn’t pass up a second one (it’s small, how much shelf space can it require?). I picked up several mysteries I’ve been meaning to read, including the one by Anthony Gilbert, aka LUCY BEATRICE MALLESON. And I had to grab the DOROTHY VERNON WHITE, because the author bio makes it clear that she belongs on my Overwhelming List.

Finally, since I know that some of you are fans of D. E. Stevenson (as am I), I had Andy try to capture the majesty of a shelf or two at Edinburgh Books in (obviously) Edinburgh, one of the last bookshops we visited. It wasn’t easy in the cramped space, but perhaps this will give an idea.

Amazingly, as you may have noticed from my book stack, I didn’t actually purchase any DES. Astonishing, no? I actually either already had copies of most of the books or was a bit too stingy to spring for DES’s collector prices. But it was quite a joy seeing so many of them together in a book shop.

What I did purchase at Edinburgh Books, however, in their entire room dedicated to Scottish-themed books, were several books by ISABEL CAMERON. Perhaps I will come to regret this, I’m not sure, but I couldn’t resist sampling a few books by this author who was once apparently a major bestseller but is now almost totally forgotten. I’ll no doubt be reporting back on whether this was a frivolous purchase or an inspired one.

And that’s that. I might perhaps be sharing more of the jacket art in future posts, but this is quite enough for now.

But the best part of the story is that while the Oxfam shops may have done most of this damage to my wallet and to the space constraints in our apartment, they also redeemed themselves by coming through with the extra suitcase required to bring these books home. For four measly pounds, we bought a sturdy if unattractive green suitcase, and we managed to maneuver three roller bags and two shoulder bags through the airports and safely back to SF with all the books intact and the dustjackets unscathed. Whew!

Now to find room for them all. Do we really need a refrigerator, do you think?
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