Friday, August 26, 2016

Hopeless No More Part 3: MARJORIE WILENSKI, Table Two (1942)


Way back in January of 2015, I began a post called "Hopeless No More Part 2" by bemoaning how ridiculously long (i.e. two months) it had taken me to get back round to part 2 of 5 planned posts on WWII-related books happily made available to me for reading by Grant Hurlock, a kind friend of this blog. But two months is looking pretty darned timely compared to the year and a half plus it has taken me to get round to part 3! Sigh. I don't even know how or why it could have taken me so long to get round to reading another of the books, which I was really genuinely so excited about, so how about if we just pretend that I only just happened across it and am gleefully sharing my discovery with you in a prompt and efficient manner? Are you game?



That summer was the finest summer that anyone could remember in England. The sun shone all day, day after day, and it seemed that there never would be rain. Everyone said all the time "What lovely weather, if only we were able to enjoy it." For in England everyone feels that they must enjoy a fine day because in ordimry summers more than one fine day at a time is so rare. But nobody was able to enjoy that wonderful series of fine days because it was the summer of 1940 and nearly everyone was working all day and often all night in offices or factories or A.F.S. or A.R.P.,and there were no week-ends and no summer holidays. So in the daytime all the glorious sunshine was wasted and at night the rooms were stifling behind the blackout curtains.

So begins this imperfect but highly entertaining novel of London office life just before and during the Blitz. It follows a group of women translators at the (fictional, I think?) Ministry of Foreign Intelligence in London as they bicker and maneuver and form shifting allegiances, particularly around the pending selection of a new Deputy Language Supervisor to be chosen from among them. The tale particularly focuses on two of the women, who are in sharp contrast to one another—smart, successful, but hopelessly cranky Elsie Pearne, middle-aged and permanently disappointed and bitter about life, and the bright, cheerful, pretty new addition to the office, Anne Shepley-Rice, whose formerly wealthy family has now fallen on hard times.

The novel, which I first came across while reading Jenny Hartley's marvelous Millions Like Us: British Women's Fiction of the Second World War, is wonderfully bitchy at first (which I certainly mean as praise). One almost feels it's the kind of writing Barbara Pym would have done if she had really let it rip on a cast of interesting and eccentric women who don't particularly like each other. The other women include kind, elderly Mrs. Doweson, who irritates her colleagues with her fresh air fantacism and turns out to have been an important figure in the Red Cross during World War I; the inept supervisor Miss Saltman, who would lose everything important if not for her irreplaceable deputy, Mrs. Just; Miss Purbeck, a lifelong lady's companion with a joyfully negative attitude toward the war and indeed all bad news and disaster ("She never allowed any expression of optimism to go unchallenged in her presence and she was able instantly to put her finger on the weak spot in good news of any kind. She was thoroughly enjoying the war."); and finally, the two who seem particularly familiar to me from my own office experiences: First, the dithering, incessantly chatty Mrs. Jolly:

Mrs. Jolly trotted off obediently. She was about fifty, short and fat and she had her hair dyed bright gold and wore it in little fluffy curls all over her head and she had a rather pink face which was almost always flushed because she was almost always excited and hot with the exertion of talking so much. She wore dresses which fitted her tightly and the general effect that she made was that she was bursting—talk bursting out of her lips and her body bursting out of her clothes.

And then, Miss Younge, a busybody who tries to avoid doing actual work:

Miss Younge went through all the miscellaneous odd jobs that she had done in the last ten months. For she was one of those people who prefer to do any work except the work they are paid to do and she was always looking for something which gave her a chance to look busy and avoid translating which very much bored her; and she particularly liked jobs which kept her in the neighbourhood of Miss Saltman's desk where she could pick up a little information and where she liked to think she was a sort of Deputy-Deputy.

Is there anyone who has worked in offices for any length of time who hasn't encountered such colleagues? Most of the office scenes in the novel could take place in any modern office without an ounce of revision.

The novel's weakness, such as it is, is that Wilenski seems to have had some trouble deciding between the two main perspectives she presents—Anne's rather bland view of the world, her cheerful, perky romance with wealthy Sebastian, her blithe taking for granted of all the advantages that her background and looks bring her way, and Elsie's far more lively and entertaining (for me, at least) bitter, snide, cynical view of it all, and the rather tragic sabotage she keeps perpetuating on herself. 

But when the focus is on Elsie, there's just so looking away. She's one of the most interesting and unique characters I've come across in fiction of this time period—a middle-aged, professional woman, never particularly attractive but quite smart and capable, who allows her own insecurities and selfishness destroy every chance of romance, friendship, or companionship that she has come across.  She's admittedly a rather bleak character, and I assume that boring Anne was meant to provide an antidote to Elsie's negativity, but where else can one find, in such a central role in a novel, such an unsympathetic, unromantic, and yet professional, competent, and serious-minded female character—and a middle-aged one, no less! 

And Wilenski does give us the occasional glimmer of Elsie's vulnerability and personal sorrows (when one learns, for example, late in the novel, the details of the one great romance she remembers fondly decades after its end, it's quite heartbreakingly pathetic). By comparison, the perky Anne, who will undoubtedly make the best of whatever mild dilemmas country life with a wealthy husband puts in her way, seems to be made of cardboard. All the more reason, then, for me to wish that the Wilenski had kept her focus more sharply on Elsie—though I suppose that might have made the novel a bit too bleak.

But despite this quibble which makes the novel just a bit misshapen (if only Wilenski could have gloried in Elsie's bleak perspective and made hay with it the way Pym or Rachel Ferguson might have done!), this remains one of my favorite reads of the year. This is first because, as I already suggested, it's strengthened throughout by vivid details about an area of women's lives that seems to be little documented in fiction of the period—office work. But it's particularly a goldmine in showing us how that underrepresented population experienced the beginning of the Blitz.

The story begins after the Blitz has begun in other parts of England, but before London itself had actually been hit. Londoners blithely stop during their lunch hours to watch the Battle of Britain unfolding in the skies overhead, and express a smug confidence that England's air defenses have proven too strong and the Germans will never be able to get through to London at all. There are fascinating descriptions of the way life went on during air raids:

In these early days of air-raids all the traffic stopped when the sirens sounded. Outside the Ministry the street was as quiet as a street in some country village and what made it look more like a village street was a row of horses and carts standing along one side by the pavement, with the horses unharnessed and tied to the backs of the carts and the drivers standing about in groups and chatting, just as if they were all waiting for the market to end. The few other people who were about were either hurrying to their destinations or walking deliberately slowly to show that they were enjoying the sunshine and were not afraid.

It is only nearly halfway through the novel that the first raid on London actually occurs. We are presented vividly with Anne's experiences that night, leavened with humor about the women's conversations the following day:

They were all telling their stories and interrupting each other and no one was listening to what anyone else was saying, when old Mrs. Doweson said, "What has happened to Miss Jones? Shouldn't she be here to-day?" Everyone stopped talking and looked vaguely round for Miss Jones. ''Perhaps she has been bombed. It's awful to think that there are nine of us here to-day at this table and in six months' time we may all be dead," said Miss Purbeck. "There were thousands killed last night, so the bus conductor told me."

"You certainly are our little ray of sunshine," said Elsie scornfully.

And perhaps most interesting of all for me were the descriptions of the practical implications the Blitz had on workers' commutes (always a sore subject with me—suffice it to say that SF MUNI is not my favorite organization in the world). Lately, as one terrible story follows another in our present day news cycle, I have found myself thinking of the Blitz as a kind of reassurance, and the practical realities of keeping going despite anxieties and inconveniences. Imagine (I tell myself) if my commute were more like this:

It was slow work getting to the office. Diversions were more usual than a straight road and the buses wandered through narrow streets hardly large enough to hold them, where from the seats on the top you could see right into the front floor rooms of the houses on either side. The roads were strewn with broken glass which was being swept up into great piles like heaps of snow waiting to be taken away. Glass was everywhere except in the windows, the tyres of the cars rolled over it, the shoes of the passers-by crunched it to smaller pieces. Bombed houses were already too much of a commonplace to be noticed; they lay in depressing heaps half across the roadway and the traffic squeezed past in the space that was left or went by ariother route. One house attracted Anne's attention as she passed it.


For the extraordinary had to be tamed and ignored and overcome, it had to be reduced to the ordinary as quickly as could be done; conditions were chaotic but chaos had to be conquered. The first thing everywhere and all the time was to get small things straight. There was no time to stand and stare, there were too many practical problems to solve. True, a country cousin up for the day to look at London's ruins might gape and gaze at the great craters in the streets; these immense fantastic holes only astonished Cockneys on Monday—by Friday they were just a familiar and tiresome obstruction to the traffic; there were too many other things to think of—how to get to work and how to get home again, how to cook the breakfast on the faint glimmer of gas that was all most people could coax from their burners, how to make the tea, let alone how to wash or bath, when there was no water at all in the taps. Scrambling over the broken houses, through the dust and the rubble, picking their way through the broken glass and the broken pavement stones, few people had time to look up at the battle which went on overhead by day and by night.

There are numerous other such interesting details in Table Two, and if the dark humor of the first hundred pages or so doesn't appear quite frequently enough in the rest of the novel, it does occasionally surface to lighten (or darken?) the mood. And it's all so readable and compelling in its setting that I very much regret that this is Marjorie Wilenski's one and only novel. If she was this strong, and created such vivid, funny, and moving characters and striking situations, what might she have done if she'd dedicated herself more wholeheartedly to writing? But alas, the same can be said of many other women of the time.

Little seems to be known about her, though I was able to find that she was married to Reginald Howard Wilenski, a well-known art critic and historian, who has his own ODNB entry. That entry notes that he was in the intelligence department of the War Office during World War I. One suspects that Marjorie must have been writing out of first-hand knowledge of a ministry job herself, but I can't say that for sure. Regardless, she clearly knew how to vividly capture the tensions, pettiness, and rivalries that surface in any office, let alone during a historic time like the Blitz.

This is indeed an almost "hopeless" book to track down, so I send my thanks once again to Grant Hurlock for making it possible for me to read it. It deserves to be much better known.

Now, I'm not even going to promise when I'll get round to my fourth and fifth "Hopeless No More" posts. But I'm hoping it won't be a year and a half from now…

Friday, August 19, 2016

Coming attractions: Furrowed Middlebrow book covers

I'm very happy to have been given the go-ahead to share with you the covers for the first batch of Furrowed Middlebrow books, which will be released by Dean Street Press in October. I'm completely delighted with the way they turned out, and I hope you'll find them enticing as well. A big thanks to Rupert at Dean Street, who did all the work in putting these together and managed to create a unique and clever design that makes our books easily recognizable.

I also want to take this opportunity to mention the wonderful intros that have been written especially for our editions of these books. I think I mentioned early on that historian Virginia Nicholson has written a new introduction to A Chelsea Concerto. Nicholson has long been an advocate of the book, so it's certainly fitting that she would introduce it. 

For the Rachel Ferguson and Winifred Peck books, we have wonderfully informative intros by scholar Elizabeth Crawford (who wrote Ferguson's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, no less), which will be great treats for fans of those authors. And for the other Faviell titles, we also have some treats in store, including more biographical information than has previously been known, some fascinating photos, and perhaps some personal reflections from her son.

All of these books should all be available for pre-order on Amazon by the middle of September at the latest (a couple of the paperbacks are already listed, which was very exciting for me), and will be available in both e-book and paperback formats.



















Friday, August 12, 2016

The agony and the ecstasy, or, The (semi-)final plan for our trip to England and Scotland

A few months ago, I asked you all for your help and advice as we started planning our three week trip to England and Scotland this October. I was overwhelmed and delighted with the response (you should see my spreadsheet incorporating it all!—no, actually you shouldn't, because even considering all the obsessiveness you see from me on this blog, you might still be amazed at the untested depths of my obsessiveness about this trip). I also promised that I would update you as the trip approached to let you know how it all came together.

As I progressed with my obsessive planning, I quickly determined that in order to see all the sights on my initial, brainstorming Wish List, we would need—to see it all properly and not just sprint wildly from place to place snapping the occasional photo—at least eight years in England and Scotland. Now, I am completely fine with that, but I am told that I don't have quite enough vacation time accrued to take eight years off. Funding might also be an issue. I realized, as a result, that I would have to make some heartbreaking decisions.

For a few weeks, I did little but map out (literally, on a giant National Geographic map of the UK) where everything was (and I can't tell you how much my geographical knowledge has improved as a result). I looked up distances, trains, and proximities. And the terrible, painful excisions began, including—just to torture myself a bit more—Cornwall, Oxford, Coventry, the Scottish Isles, Glasgow, and the Lake District. I know, I know! I shall pause here for suitable gasps and exclamations of horror.



(And I can add that I was particularly upset by losing out on the southwest of England, because I had so badly wanted to walk dramatically out onto the jetty at Lyme Regis like Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant's Woman, though perhaps not to emulate Louisa in Jane Austen's Persuasion.)

Sadly, this will not be me in October

On the other hand, if I approach things from the other direction, and mention the things we are planning to do, it doesn't sound quite so dire, and indeed, some of you may be shaking your heads skeptically, wondering (as I do at times) if we won't collapse from exhaustion halfway through. So, here goes (I'm including some pics from the internet, while I'll hopefully replace with our own pictures in a couple of months):

First, two nights in London. An unavoidable layover, despite our hopes of avoiding big cities for most of the trip. A priority of this trip is to finally get to Windsor, and our attempts at a workable plan to spend a night or two in Windsor instead of in London and then progress to the south were stymied by the fact that apparently every single train in the southern half of the UK passes through London come-what-may, and usually involves not only a change of trains but also a change of train stations, which is always fun with three weeks' worth of luggage. We decided it was better to have a convenient hotel near the train station in London.

Windsor Castle (is it wrong of me that I see this picture
and think, "My, what a lot of walking"?)

Oh, and we'll have a glimpse of Eton as well, and pay homage to its fictional graduates, which, a Google search reveals, include Bertie Wooster, Peter Wimsey, James Bond, Sebastian Flyte, Poirot's oft sidekick Captain Hastings, and Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey.

Next, a day in Canterbury. Suitable quotations from Chaucer and Eliot to be recited along the way. (Cathedral #1)

Canterbury Cathedral

Then, four days with a car, the only time we'll have one during this trip. Much of the four days will likely be spent freaking out over driving on the left side of the road, but in between we hope to hit Dover and Rye (spending a night in the Mermaid Inn, no less), possibly Hastings and Battle, Lewes, and Winchester, with the necessary Bloomsbury stops at Knole, Sissinghurst, Monk's House, and Charleston, as well as Ightham Mote, a whistlestop in Chichester (the cathedral being, if I'm not mistaken, the real life version of Antonia Forest's Wade Minster?), and of course a foray to Chawton. Readings from Mrs. Dalloway and Sense and Sensibility while I have Andy as a captive audience in the car—he'll love that! (Cathedrals 2 & 3)

The Mermaid Inn, Rye, where we'll spend one night

On to Bath, with a stop at Avebury on the way (we saw Stonehenge and Salisbury on our last visit, so will reluctantly bypass them this time). A couple of days in Bath, during which we were supposed to do an all-day tour of Cotswold villages, but it booked up ridiculously early (perhaps they should schedule more or larger tours?), so we may have to skip the villages, spend more time imagining ourselves in a Georgette Heyer novel, and perhaps make a half-day jaunt to Gloucester Cathedral—a high priority that I had reluctantly concluded we hadn't enough time to see. (In all fairness, since cathedrals are more my thing than Andy's, I felt we were seeing a sufficient number of them anyway, but if the opportunity falls into our lap, how can I resist seeing the Harry Potter locations at Gloucester—not to mention what looks to be one of the most awesome of all the cathedrals?) (Cathedral #4—and Bath Abbey isn't technically a cathedral, but surely deserves an honorable mention)

The Roman Baths with Bath Abbey in the background

After Bath, a painfully short two days in Cambridge, imagining all of its impressive fictional graduates—from Mr. Darcy and Gulliver to Albert Campion and the heroine of Mary Stewart's Stormy Petrel—not to mention a few impressive real life ones. I might also have to imagine where exactly St. Agatha's College, where Jill Paton Walsh's Imogen Quy works as a nurse, would be located if it in fact existed. Hopefully we can catch the Wren Library when it's actually open (2 hours a day, I think?), and see King's Chapel in all its glory. Depending on our energy, we're thinking, on our second day, of either a river walk to Grantchester (to imagine ourselves solving murders in the 1950s) or a jaunt to Peterborough and/or Lincoln for more cathedral storming. (I don't anticipate an attempt at the Great Court Run from Chariots of Fire—especially after all the walking—but you never know!) (1-2 more cathedrals, depending on time)

York Minster

Next, on to York, where we'll stay for four nights, in part because there are some excellent day tours to be taken from there. I'm sure my first stop will be York Minster, one of the greatest cathedrals (I may find myself imagining the sculptures coming to life as they did in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.) Our first tour is of Haworth, Harrogate, and Skipton. Quotations from Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre should abound on this day, but I may have to bring in some Agatha Christie if I can veer quickly off of the tour's path to see the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, where—as you who are fans surely know—Christie was discovered following her famous disappearance in 1926 (registered under a name strikingly similar to her husband's mistress, no lessand I should note that the hotel went by another name in those days too, the Swan Hydropathic Hotel). (1 more BIG cathedral)

Then, our other day tour takes us to the Moors and Whitby (morbid quotations from Dracula a must). If there's time after wandering around York and seeing all its other historic sites, a day trip to Durham should be in the offing, for yet another brilliant cathedral.

Royal Mile, Edinburgh

Then on to Edinburgh. Now, I know we're giving Scotland short shrift. We're spending five nights in Edinburgh, but as a co-worker (who was raised in Scotland, not coincidentally) pointed out a bit huffily, two of our days are to be spent on tours back into Northern England. But what can I say?  How can I miss the opportunity to get to Hadrian's Wall, Alnwick Castle, Rosslyn Chapel (I would quote from The Da Vinci Code, but I'm not sure there are any quotable lines…), and Lindisfarne, among other places, without having to plan the logistics, ask directions, and, of course, freak out about driving on the left? We will, however, have all of the day we arrive in Edinburgh—late morning, I think, just coming from York—plus one other full day later on, and another full day on which we're considering another tour to Loch Ness and Inverness—and at least that tour would actually keep us in Scotland. We're debating about that tour, because I know that Loch Ness is basically a cheesy tourist trap, but on the other hand, I'm sure Nessie won't pass up the chance to surface for a photo op with the one and only Furrowed Middlebrow, right? Ahem.

Lindisfarne

By the way, Edinburgh gives me one final historic cathedral, which gives me a minimum total of 7 cathedrals on this visit, with the potential for up to 9. Poor Andy. But on the other hand, he gets to see Holyroodhouse Palace in Edinburgh, and he always loves seeing how the other half lives.

And that's "all".  How do you think that balances out all the crushing omissions?

Saturday, August 6, 2016

RACHEL FERGUSON, A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936)

It should have been a profoundly humorous sight. I can only say that it was beastly, for I knew in my heart that this furious pursuit wasn't the first; that once there were those who ran before her as I was running, and one who could not run so fast ... what she had done then I don't ever wish to know, and try not to think of.

I love it when a favorite author challenges my assumptions and expectations of their work, and this eerie quotation from Rachel Ferguson's sixth novel, A Harp in Lowndes Square (published the year before Alas, Poor Lady, which is available from Persephone) may give at least an inkling of just how surprising this book was. I'm calling it Ferguson's version of a ghost story, though like most of her novels its genre takes a back seat to her completely unique authorial voice and the peculiar depths of its plot. What's more, it is one of her most serious and passionate works, despite being leavened now and then with her usual hilarity.


The story begins with a short, eerie prologue, the significance of which one only fully realizes at the end of the book (I won't spoil it, of course, but I highly recommend immediately circling back to it when you finish the novel). A child, Anne, in her dingy bedroom at the top of a large house, hears noises downstairs late at night and wonders who it could be:

It leaves us speculating upon what Anne, the woman, would have made of that evening in Lowndes Square, when—still the younger Miss Vallant—she peered over those banisters and heard a young, unknown man and woman many flights below, and warmed to the voices of her son and daughter who were to be.

That's right. There's something about this unusual family that allows its members, in varying ways, to perceive the sights, sounds, and emotions of other times, and here Anne is warming to the voices of her future children (though what exactly they're doing in the old family home in the middle of the night you'll have to find out for yourself).

This family proclivity is particularly pronounced in said son and daughter, twins Vere and James, who have "the sight," which enables them to witness and even re-experience scenes from other times (including, on one memorable and startling occasion at Hampton Court, seeing Henry VIII and young Edward VI discussing tennis and eating apples). And they're not only sensitive to events from other times, but to each other's experiences: Vere experiences befuddlement and dulled senses when James gets drunk for the first time, and James experiences discomfort when Vere is on dates with young men. Vere, the narrator of the novel, also notes the suffering of houses as a result of neglect, the hidden emotions of furniture, and the echoes of past dances in ballrooms!

But it is ultimately their own family history which becomes the twins' obsession, as well as their most vivid and painful experience with the ghosts of the past. It begins with a curiosity about their mother's tortured relationship with her own mother, the formidable and apparently heartless Lady Vallant, who gleefully torments her servants as well as her family. And when the twins question their little-known aunts (the family is not close-knit, to say the least), they hear for the first time about Myra, "the aunt who died," "that shadow of whose very existence our own mother had never told us." Their curiosity is aroused, and they are on their way, determined to uncover the history behind their mother's silence.

Giving you a sort of scoop (in lieu of any pics of Harp's original
dustjacket), here's the artwork, by Danish painter Peter Ilsted,
that we plan to feature on the Furrowed Middlebrow edition of the novel.
I think it's wonderfully evocative, with just a touch of eerieness?

If that sounds rather straightforward, however, it isn't quite. This is, after all, a Rachel Ferguson novel, and so there are numerous entertaining digressions, distractions, and ramblings. World War I begins, though it figures little in the story apart from explaining James's absence for long periods and allowing a tighter focus on Vere's experiences. We get a preview of Ferguson's subsequent novel, Alas, Poor Lady, in the sad figure of Miss Chilcot, the family's old governess, a downtrodden gentlewoman whom Vere tracks down dying of starvation and neglect in a hospital. And then there's Vere's strange, more-or-less platonic relationship with an aging actor (and his wife), which is certainly a unique Ferguson touch.

But the center of the novel is the dreadful Lady Vallant and the sad, mysterious Myra. Of all the terrible mothers portrayed in the fiction of this time, Lady Vallant must stand as one of the towering figures of maternal monsterdom, and unlike some novels (including Monica Tindall's marvelous The Late Mrs Prioleau, which I wrote about here not long ago), there is little in Harp to explain or justify her cruelty, so that the reader is left wondering at her and trying to fathom her mindset.

Perhaps it's because of the pain and sadness Vere and James uncover that Harp feels, despite occasional moments of hilarity, surprisingly serious for a Rachel Ferguson novel. She was daft and silly in earlier works like The Bront√ęs Went to Woolworth's, and she would be daft and silly again with A Footman for the Peacock. But perhaps Harp allowed Ferguson to tap into more personal, deeper concerns. That said, though, when her sense of humor presents itself, it's just as charming as ever, as when Vere and James are told that Lady Vallant keeps her servants on "board wages" and don't quite understand:

Board wages certainly sounded bleak, and for some time we all believed it meant sleeping on a plank.

Here as elsewhere, Ferguson is interested in class distinctions, though she also shows considerable interest in and sensitivity with the servants, as when Vere visits the "downstairs" areas of Lady Vallant's house:

He led me down to the rooms I had never seen. I asked to see the kitchen and was shown it. The warren of sitting-rooms and pantrys was small and freakishly ventilated; some of them, including the larders, had no windows at all and gas light burnt there all the year round, they told me. Furniture obviously taken from the upper floors made the staff comfortable enough and I saw that the dining table of the upper servants, still covered with breakfast things, sported an imposing array of our family silver. The cook was drinking a jorum of tea out of a cup that looked uncommonly like Crown Derby. And I said nothing: neither did Hutchins, for which I respected him. If you appropriate, do it in the grand manner. And that underworld of men and women, the majority of whom had so far only materialized to me as a row of decorous behinds at dining-room prayers, emerged as human beings, and I think we pleased each other reasonably well. Their laws of precedence, I knew, were tricksy, but I managed to make only two mistakes: confused the upper with the under housemaid and 'spoke' to the kitchenmaid who is, socially, dumb.

But as someone who occasionally wrestles with social anxieties of my own, my favorite passage, and the one that made me laugh the most, is Ferguson's suggestion for shocking oneself out of one's worries:

I once knew a man who cured himself of melancholia by putting £200 out of a Bank balance of £350 on the Derby. His action so shocked him that it drove away his bogeys, and a girl we all know, on being presented at Court, was so ill with nerves that she nearly fainted; she was on the verge oflosing consciousness and just managed to lean forward to some dowager sitting by her daughter and to stammer, quite untruly, 'I think your dress is fussy and unbecoming'. In the whispered melee that followed the faintness was forgotten for the whole evening.

Ferguson is always interesting in her turns of phrase, sometimes incorporating the contemporary parlance of the day that might otherwise be lost. Two things struck me along these lines in this novel. First, there is a reference to the "maroons" sounding before an air raid; has anyone else ever heard this term for sirens? A Google search brings up one or two such usages, but it seems to not have been a common one?

And then there's this offhand comment from Vere: "The story, as Americans say 'listened badly', and I knew it." Do Americans say such things?! I have to admit that, though I've never heard this expression, I do rather like it and may have to start using it in conversation. So perhaps there is something about it that appeals to Americans…

At any rate, some of you will recall that I announced not long ago that the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint will be reprinting three of Ferguson's best (in my humble opinion) novels this October, and Harp is one of those three. I was already excited enough about that, but in putting together that edition, we discovered that no less a figure than Gillian Tindall, acclaimed novelist and historian (and, relevent to readers of this blog, daughter of Ursula Orange), published a short piece about Ferguson in the Literary Review at the time of Persephone's release of Alas, Poor Lady. In that piece, Tindall not only speaks enthusiastically about Ferguson in general, but particularly singles out A Harp in Lowndes Square as one of her most intriguing works. She ends by noting, "I wish someone would reissue this book." (!!)

Think of this post, then, as a preview of coming attractions. A Harp in Lowndes Square is a unique and rather tragic entry in Ferguson's wildly varied body of work, and I'm delighted that others will now have a chance to read it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Intriguing women


This post, some variation of which I do each time I do a large update to my Overwhelming List, is the closest I can come to a Barbara Walters "10 most intriguing people" television special. When I'm preparing each update, there are always some women who are unlikely to ever find themselves on my TBR list, but are nevertheless interesting for other reasons, so I decided to start dumping them all into one post so I can share what you might (???) find interesting as well.

The selection this time ranges from women who were famous in other areas or were trailblazers in their fields to those with striking personal dramas or enigmas, and on to women whose writing is interesting even if it's not inspiring me to actually write it. Oh yeah, and a surprising number of authors with connections to the occult, including at least two "prophets." Who would have thought?


Several new additions to my list have connections to film, television, or the theatre. PHYLLIS HARTNOLL may not be the most exciting of these, but as a compulsive compiler of information myself, I feel I should pay homage to her as the editor of the massive Oxford Companion to the Theatre (1951). How, I can't help but wonder, did she also find time to write a novel? Though I have to admit that a publisher's blurb for the book, called The Grecian Enchanted (1952), makes me a wee bit uncertain about it: "A simple tale, as evanescent as the scent of wild thyme, into which Phyllis Hartnoll wove the mingled ecstasy and heart-break of young lover..." Um, sure.

Actress and author Olga Petrova
(aka Muriel Harding)

There can't be a large number of authors from my list who also have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Had I but known there was one, I could have paid homage when Andy and I were in Los Angeles last fall, but I don't think that OLGA PETROVA is exactly a household name. Now, when Olga was born (in 1884, in England), she had the rather more banal name Muriel Harding, but she went on (Wikipedia tells me) to make more than two dozen films, as well as being a vaudeville star. Her lack of name recognition now, however, probably results from the fact, as Wikipedia also notes, that most of her films have now been lost—a tragic testament to the fragility of early film and the need for effective film preservation and restoration techniques. You can read more about her and see several more photos here.


Some of you in England might recall (or recall your mothers and grandmothers mentioning) the BBC radio serial Mrs. Dale's Diary, which centered around a doctor's wife and her family, "and the comings and goings of a middle-class society" as Wikipedia puts it. The serial ran from 1948 to 1969, and its main scriptwriter for many years was JONQUIL ANTONY, who also wrote, among other things, novels and stories about the Dales. I was struck, in reading about the drama, to see that it is credited with the first sympathetic portrayal of a gay man in a major role on British radio—the character of Mrs. Dale's brother-in-law, married to her sister Sally (a situation that might have been rife with drama, though undoubtedly the tone was kept rather muted in those days).


I already mentioned VIOLA TREE in my post on famous connections (as the niece of novelist Max Beerbohm and the half-sister of film director Carol Reed), but among her theatrical accomplishments was one linked to George Bernard Shaw's classic play Pygmalion. Tree's father, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, originated the role of Henry Higgins in the original London production of the play. Tree herself appeared in a revival of the play in 1920, and she also made a cameo appearance in the famous film version (1938), alongside her son David in the role of Freddy—thus completely a three-generation acting connection to Shaw's play. It sounds as though Tree's career—from her operatic aspirations to a play written in collaboration with Gerald du Maurier, from her numerous half-siblings that resulted from her father's infidelities (she's also a half-aunt [???] of actor Oliver Reed) to an early stage appearance with Ellen Terry—would make an excellent movie in itself!


In less glamorous professions, JOAN COCKIN, who published three mysteries 1947-1952, was also a trailblazing diplimat, working for the Ministry of Information in Washington early in WWII, where her concern was to try to enlist U.S. involvement in the war. (Her obituary notes that she took an apartment in Dupont Circle, which endears her to me, as that's where I lived during a decade or so of my misspent youth.) Meanwhile, NORA K. STRANGE, author of numerous novels set in Africa and a parody of Anita Loos' bestseller Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, worked as a secretary in Nairobi. 



And journalist and novelist JOYCE COLLIN-SMITH earns a mention here because in her later days of consciousness-raising she studied with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and even served as his driver in the days before the Beatles made him an international celebrity.


I'm interested in LUCY GERTRUDE MOBERLY for a couple of reasons. Although she wrote more than 60 novels, probably romantic in nature, she is also notable as the author of a story referred to in passing in Sigmund Freud's famous article "The Uncanny." Freud only gave a brief summary of the story, with no citation, but later scholars have identified the story—involving a young couple moving to a new apartment which seems to be possessed or haunted—as Moberly's "Inexplicable," first published in The Strand. I'm also curious whether Moberly, who herself trained as a nurse, might have a connection to Enid Moberly Bell, who published Storming the Citadel: The Rise of the Woman Doctor (1953), a book I've long meant to read. And, for that matter, could she be connected to Charlotte Anne Moberly, who supernatural and/or hallucinatory experiences with Eleanor Jourdain at Versailles were described in An Adventure (1911)?

[And can I just mention here, apropos of nothing—but where else can I mention this?—that I only recently realized that Eleanor Jourdain's sister, Margaret Jourdain, was the "longtime companion" of Ivy Compton-Burnett.]

Mabel Barltrop (aka "Octavia")

It's rather bizarre—perhaps almost "occult"?—that several authors added in this update were self-identified "prophets" or otherwise associated with the occult or spiritualism. MABEL BARLTROP, who went by the name Octavia, was the founder of the Panacea Society, purported to receive daily messages from beyond, and even appointed 12 female disciples, whose feet she bathed. Later in life, she wrote two books that appear to be fiction, though I doubt I'll be reading them any time soon… 



And MABEL BEATTY wrote mystical works, including one subtitled "Being a Series of Teachings Sent by the White Brotherhood Through the Hand of Mabel Beatty", as well as a single novel, The Resurrection of Merion Lloyd (1929), which features astral projection in a tale of a murderer seeking redemption.


OLIVIA ROBERTSON, meanwhile, began her career writing mainstream fiction, including the Book Society Choice Field of the Stranger (1948), which the cover blurb calls "[a] witty novel in which the ancient charm of Irish county life contends with currents as new as existentialism". Her other novels are The Golden Eye (1949), Miranda Speaks (1950), It's an Old Irish Custom (1953), and Dublin Phoenix (1957). Later on, however, she "founded the Fellowship of Isis to revive worship and communication with the feminine principle in deity" (according to the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology). This organization was founded at Clonegal Castle in Eire, where it apparently still operates (and, to extend the trivia a step further, the castle was used as a location in the Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lyndon). Robertson late published several more books related to her spiritual pursuits.

Nesta Helen Webster's pseudonymous third
novel looks rather like the
poster for a Mel Brooks movie...

And finally, NESTA HELEN WEBSTER might manage to give even occultism a bad name. She wrote three novels—The Sheep Track (1914), about high society, The Chevalier de Bouffleurs (1916), set during the French Revolution, and, pseudonymously, The Secret of the Zodiac (1933), about a global conspiracy to bring down civilization—but she is probably now most remembered as a virulent and delusional anti-Semite who authored several works about the global threat posed by Jews and gave bewildered credence to the long-debunked conspiracy theory of the Protocols of Zion. Hillaire Belloc described one of her books as "lunatic," and Umberto Eco, whose novel The Prague Cemetary features the Protocols in its plot, was scathing in his mockery of her. It was no doubt in keeping with her bewilderment that she later became a fascist.


On the topic of interesting and/or tragic personal drama, I already wrote—quite a while back now—about MOLLY SPENCER SIMPSON, who published two novels and then died in her early twenties while at work on a third. 



Meanwhile, in the realm of the unusual, THERESA WHISTLER, biographer of Walter de la Mare and author of two children's titles, married one Alan Whistler in 1950. The kicker is that Alan was the widower of Theresa's older sister Barbara, who had died in 1944.


Two new additions to my list have considerable household expertise. PRISCILLA NOVY was the author of only one children's title, The Lincoln Imp (1948), but she also wrote an earlier domestic guide, Housework Without Tears (1945), which must have been one of many such guides around this time for those young women confronting the realities of life without servants (one of the best, of course, being Kay Smallshaw's How to Run Your Home Without Help [1949], available from Persephone). 



And ELISABETH LAMBERT—included on my list for her two novels, The Sleeping House Party (1951), a mystery set at an Australian artist's colony, and Father Couldn't Juggle (1954), about a girl growing up in Jamaica—was much better known for her cookbooks, especially those about Latin American cuisine.



I have to mention DORIS ALMON PONSONBY here because I'm curious if any of you have read her work. She wrote more than 30 historical novels 1945-1988, most with a romantic component and many set in the Regency period, Georgette Heyer's stomping grounds. Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers says of one of her works, "Bow Window in Green Street is set in 18th-century Bath, and all the hopes and excitement of Regency living are wonderfully captured. One feels one could again knock on the door of the very house in which they all lived." Intriguing, no?


Some of you might also be familiar with HILDA PRESCOTT, who wrote several historical novels with strong Christian perspectives. Her most famous work was The Man on a Donkey (1952), an epic covering thirty years of the early 1500s, tracing several characters in a tale that culminates with a dramatic protest against the dissolution of the monasteries. Again according to Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, this novel "can fairly claim to be among the most ambitious and persuasive English historical novels to be written in the 20th century." Quite an impressive claim!



Also, unbeknownst to me until I was searching for images for this post, Prescott apparently also wrote at least one mystery. At least, Dead and Not Buried appeared in a reprint series alongside such worthies as Josephine Tey.


And one final mention: in every update there are one or two authors that really should have been added ages ago, but for whatever reason simply weren't. Well-known Victorian children's author MARY LOUISE MOLESWORTH is perhaps one of those, though in this case I think my oversight was relatively justified. I had of course come across her before, but her most famous work was both for very young children and prior to 1910 (she is mainly known as a Victorian author). However, it now appears that a few of her children's books were longer works, presumably for older children, and one of those, Fairies Afield (1911), just barely squeaks into my time frame. Perhaps more interestingly, though, I also learned that she wrote several volumes of adult fiction much earlier in her career. Under the pseudonym Ennis Graham, she published novels including Lover and Husband (1870), Not without Thorns (1873), and Cicely: A Story of Three Years (1874). Who knew?

And that (finally!) is that, not only for this particular post, but for the most recent update to my list, which is hardly recent at all at this point. No more such posts now until I manage another update to the list.  Some day!
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