Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Newbies (2 of 4)


Okay, after only one of my four posts talking about new authors added to my main list, I am already bored with alphabetical order. I've already divided the 60 authors into four equal groups based on alpha order, but within those groups I'm going to be a loose cannon and take them in whatever order strikes my fancy.


I've actually already reviewed a book by HILDA HEWETT, and will have more reviews or at least mentions coming up. See my review of So Early One Morning here, where I also talk about coming across her in the latest issue of The Scribbler and the productive transatlantic book talk that resulted. I believe I can safely say that Hewett is a wildly uneven author, but that when she's good she's very good. Sadly, unlike Mae West, when she's bad she is definitely not better.


Meanwhile, how often will I be able to write here that I've already published books by the niece of an author being added to my list? Pretty sure it will never happen again, in fact, but indeed, one of the things that came out of Elizabeth Crawford's wonderful introduction to the six Elizabeth Fair novels published as Furrowed Middlebrow titles by Dean Street Press is that her aunt, BETH ELLIS, also deserves to be here. She seems to have achieved the most fame for her travel book, An English Girl's First Impressions of Burmah (1899), which was described by one source as "one of the funniest travel books ever written." That book is available (in the U.S. at least), for free downloading from Google Books. A few years later she began to publish novels, most of which were historical romance. She had published seven (1903-1912) by the time she tragically died in childbirth in 1913. I'm going to have to sample her work, if only because the thought of a cross between Elizabeth Fair and Georgette Heyer is completely irresistible.


There's another familial connection with GILLIAN GOLDEN, who turns out to be the daughter of children's author Dorothy Dennison. Among Dennison's last published works were two in a series of family tales called the "Courtney Chronicles." I don't have details, but it seems that Dennison wrote the first, Spotlight on Penelope (1958), and third, Call Me Jacqueline (1958), while her daughter wrote the second, Over to Paul (1958), and fourth, Bouquet for Susan (1958). Have those of you with an interest in children's books ever come across any of these?


Among this batch of newbies are two hitherto unknown (to me) mystery writers. ELIZABETH GILL first came to my attention when Dean Street announced their reprinting of all three of her novels—Strange Holiday (1929, aka The Crime Coast), What Dread Hand? (1932), and Crime de Luxe (1933). She received acclaim for her work, but sadly died at the age of 32. See Curtis Evans's introduction to the Dean Street editions for interesting details about her.

Gill was probably as obscure, before Dean Street's rediscovery of her, as KATHERINE FIELD still is. In contrast to all the authors whose careers were interrupted or stopped altogether by World War II, all three of Field's novels—Disappearance of a Niece (1941), The Two-Five to Mardon (1942), and Murder to Follow (1944)—appeared during the war. According to a Goodreads review, the second of these, at least, seems to make use of wartime themes. She lived until 1957, but published nothing else that we know of after the war ended.


A couple of my fellow bloggers have already discovered CELIA FURSE, who published only a single novel. The Visiting Moon (1956), which relates a young girl's visit to a large English country house over the Christmas holidays early in the 19th century. Barb at Leaves & Pages reviewed it here, and Ali at Heavenali reviewed it here. It seems to be one of those books that walk the line between memoir and fiction, but it seems to be fictionalized enough to qualify Furse for my list.


I wonder if there could be another blogger rediscovery in the offing for MARY GRIGS? It's probably a long shot, but a review in the Bookman of her debut novel, Bid Her Awake (1930), has me intrigued:

There is dignity here, and beauty as well. It is the story of a conflict between two sisters, the imperious Alix and the shy suddenly transfigured Susan, and the latter's brief excursion into love. It is an air for muted strings that Miss Grigs gives us, with little dancing notes of gaiety in it, and a sombre theme. So quietly is it done that the insensitive reader may fail to perceive the artistry with which it is composed; though he cannot fail to be charmed by the effect so subtly created.

Oh, dear. A future interlibrary loan request? Grigs went on to write four more novels and two children's books, and she wrote a column in the Farmer's Weekly under the pen name Mary Day.


KIT HIGSON came to my list via the back of the impossibly obscure Lorna Lewis title Tea and Hot Bombs, which I reviewed a while back. I was rather disconcerted by one of Higson's titles listed under "Stories for Girls". Cop Shooter (1958) is one of those books that likely would be retitled if it were published today, though looking into it a bit more deeply, I discovered that it's about a dog named Cop, owned by one Simon Shooter. Higson (Kit turned out to be short for "Kitty") wrote more than two dozen works of fiction in all, for both children and adults.

Accusations of racism against an author are often a bit challenging to establish, what with the ever-changing meanings of words, figures of speech, and attitudes. (See Huckleberry Finn for reams and reams of critical controversy about whether Twain was extraordinarily enlightened, virulently racist, or some balance of the two—I tend to plump for the last, though the book is probably the great American novel regardless.) I came across this again in researching the largely-forgotten ANN FIELDING, who published three novels in the 1940s and 1950s. In her scholarly work, Political and Social Issues in British Women’s Fiction, 1928–1968, Elizabeth Maslen (whose work on World War II fiction I greatly admire) notes that Fielding's third novel, Ashanti Blood (1952), about gold miners in Africa, is "[a] particularly repellent example of racist and class stereotypes" and adds that "Fielding represents the extreme of inbuilt prejudice." It was striking, then, to find that John Betjeman, in a contemporary review of Fielding's second novel, The Noxious Weed (1951), about a British family becoming tobacco growers in Africa, went out of his way to praise Fielding's portrayal of the growth of racism and insensitivity in a family initially horrifed by British treatment of the locals. Of course, the two novels could be quite different in tone, and Betjeman was writing from the sensibility of at least a half century earlier than Maslen, but it was interesting to see the contrast in reactions to a single author—perhaps not all that different from those about Twain.

Regardless, I have now added Fielding's first novel to my "tentative TBR" list. The Mayfair Squatters (1945) is about a diverse group of people who take over an empty London house during World War II. No word yet on race or class portrayals in that one.


JANE HOPE was suggested for my list by another reader of this blog, David Redd. She may just barely belong on my list, having written a number of humorous books about the British education system, but it's hard to imagine that a title like The Inspector Suggests, or, How Not to Inhibit a Child (1951), however much it might be based on Hope's own experiences, isn't at least somewhat fictionalized. I debated about adding her to the list, but decided, as usual, to err on the side of inclusivity. I wonder if One Term at Utopia: Pages from the Diary of Jane Hope (1950) might belong on my Grownup School Story List? And for that matter Happy Event: A Humorous Account of a Child's First Year of Life (1957) could be the perfect vintage gift for a parent-to-be.


And now, since I've taken these authors out of order and picked and chose all the more interesting tidbits, I come to the last five authors, about whom I know nothing exciting or interesting. ALDGATE EAST (real name Amy Adelaide Ebdell) published a single novel, Darrimore (1939). DOROTHY MARK FISK wrote several science-oriented non-fiction works for children, as well as a play and one novel—The Golden Isle (1930)—though details are entirely lacking.


There's a similar dearth of knowledge about JANE GILBERT, who wrote two novels—Man Is For Woman Made (1940) and Take My Youth (1941)—and about MARJORIE HOGARTH, who wrote three—Marriage for Two (1938), The Eyes of a Fool (1939), and The Intruder (1940).

And finally, I do at least know that ELIZABETH COOMBE HARRIS's three dozen or so books were mostly Christian in theme and apparently included fiction for both adults and children.

So, these last few authors aside, this batch of new authors contains a lot more potential than the first one. I count six or seven that I might have to track down and read, and one of them I already have. How about you?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Newbies (1 of 4)


After months of working on it every free moment, my newly-revised, significantly expanded main list is just about ready to roll out. Thanks is due to the Middlebrow Syllabus, which bought me a lot of time to focus on the list instead of on reviews or other content, and to you all for enthusiastically embracing that list so I didn't feel so bad about neglecting you.


I've been holding off on discussing a bunch of new authors until the revised list was complete. There are 60 new additions in all, and I decided to be uncharacteristically linear in discussing them here—I'm actually taking them in alphabetical order, with 15 authors in each of four posts. This is strikingly disciplined for me, but next time the randomness may return. Who can say?


Every time I add new authors to my list, I repeat that I'm surprised how many really interesting or substantial new authors are still out there. It's getting rather dull, and one would think eventually it would no longer be true—surely the number of British women writing fiction in a 50 year period must be finite!—but I'm apparently not there yet. Not all of these are scintillating, of course, but a fair number of them are quite intriguing.


So, starting at the top, slightly anticlimactically, with an author about whom I know relatively little. MIRIAM ALEXANDER wrote five novels with Irish themes. The first, at least, is historical. The House of Lisronan (1912, aka Beyond the Law), set during the 17th century Williamite War, was quite a success, going through six editions in 1912 alone. According to Ricorso, The Green Altar (1924) "deals with the national question and includes accounts of the Gaelic League and the Black and Tans." Her other novels were The Port of Dreams (1912), The Ripple (1913), and Miss O'Corra, M.F.H. (1915).


Much more is known about MEA ALLAN, and it appears she was a bit of a trailblazer. According to Wikipedia, Allan "was the first female war correspondent accredited by the British military and the first female news editor on Fleet Street." Later on in her career, she specialized in books about gardening and botany—her 1967 title, The Hookers of Kew, 1785-1911, is not nearly so scandalous as it might sound, dealing with botanists William Hooker and Joseph Dalton Hooker. In between those two careers, however, she also wrote four novels, including Change of Heart (1943), which imagines the Allies winning World War II only to find Nazi beliefs regaining ground.


Back on Irish themes: I don't know how many readers these days are into tales of the Irish hunting set, but if there are some you may want to add MARIGOLD ARMITAGE to your TBR lists. Her debut, A Long Way to Go (1952), was described by Lionel Gamlin as a "vastly entertaining story of a gloriously unbalanced hunting community in County Tipperary". Armitage published one sequel, A Motley to the View (1961), and reportedly worked on a third volume, to be called A Run for My Money, but it was never completed. She was the daughter of the controversial head of the Royal Air Force in World War II, Arthur "Bomber" Harris—see here.


Actually, several of my new authors have links (not surprisingly) to the two world wars. BANCO is the pseudonym of an unidentified author who seems, by internal evidence, to have been a woman, but we don't know for certain. Her 1915 novel, The Outrage, was about a woman novelist trapped in a Belgian town when the Germans arrive, and was criticized by one reviewer for excessive violence. She wrote at least five other novels, but information is sketchy.


Meanwhile, NATALIE BARKAS is linked to World War II via her husband, filmmaker Geoffrey Barkas, who was also a camouflage expert during the war. She published several books about the making of his films, as well as two children's books—The Quest of the Bellamy Jewels (1949), based on a play by Michael Berrenger, and The Gold Hunters (1963). She comes to my list straight from the Oxfam shop in York that made me realize an additional suitcase would be necessary for our flight back. I didn't buy Bellamy Jewels, but I did note her name.


Despite the fact that I'm proceeding in strictly alphabetical order, it so happens that MARY BOSANQUET is also added to my list thanks to Oxfam. Andy patiently took cell phone pics of a copy of her one adult novel, The Man on the Island (1962), about a lonely young woman finding new friendships while studying in the north of England. She fits my time frame because of an earlier children's book, People with Six Legs (1953). She also has a war connection, as the second of two travel books she published, Journey Into a Picture (1947), deals with her time with the YMCA in Italy in the final year of World War II. From my earlier mention of her, however, it seems her best known title is her first memoir, Saddlebags for Suitcases: Across Canada on Horseback (1942), which detailed her gruelling horseback ride from Vancouver to New York. That book was later reprinted as Canada Ride.


There are a number of authors of my list that I know little about, but D. KATHERINE BRERETON may take the cake. Not only have we not been able to identify her or find out any details, but apparently no one can even pen down the year that her one children's title, The Savages on Gale Island, was published (1950 seems to be a bookseller consensus). The book is not listed in the British Library or Library of Congress catalogues, nor in Worldcat, though copies are available for sale, so the book does indeed exist. She was also the author of a number of stories in periodicals at around the same time. Perhaps she went into a witness relocation program? Or was she an alien accidentally left behind on Earth, who wrote a children's book to kill time until she was rescued?


I came across GRACE CARLTON because one of her books was listed on the back of a Dorothy Hunt novel, but her three novels—The Wooden Wedding (1923), The Black Ace (1924), and Shuttlecock (1947)—remain a mystery to me. She was the daughter of publisher and editor Thomas Greenwood, and later wrote a biography of him as well as one about Friedrich Engels.


NINA CARROLL and CLAUDIA CLEEVE each wrote only one book. Carroll's—Adventure on the Moon (1947)—is perhaps the most impressive for having been written and illustrated by Carroll herself when she was only 12 years old. She can therefore be added to my virtual list of child prodigies à la Daisy Ashford. Cleeve's one children's book, by contrast—Oak Apple Inn at Thistledown Bottom (1942)—didn't appear until she was just shy of 60. It's certainly a catchy title.


I was driving myself crazy for a day or two with VALENTINE CLEMOW, who started as a silent film and stage actress before going on to write eight romantic novels. I knew I had added an author to my list who was a silent film actress whose films have now mostly been lost, and for some reason I was convinced it was Clemow. Finally, I identified her as OLGA PETROVA (real name Muriel Harding), who I added to my list with the last update. Information about Clemow's film work is very difficult to come by, however, so it's possible that some of her work has been lost as well. My time-wasting led me to the National Film Preservation Society here, where I learned, in five minutes flat, 1) that as few as 20% of U.S. films from 1910-1930 survive (presumably the situation is much the same in the U.K.), and 2) that most of a previously lost Alfred Hitchcock film was recently unearthed in New Zealand. The internet is a wondrous place for accruing odd bits of information.


It rather seems as though NICOLETTE DEVAS should have been in my sights before now, considering the status of her famous in-law, but in fact it wasn’t until Patrick Murtha, a reader of this blog, emailed me about her that I first heard her name. She was the sister-in-law of no lesser figure than poet Dylan Thomas, and was even, along with Dylan and his wife Caitlin (Nicolette's sister), portrayed in the 2008 film The Edge of Love. She published four novels, but she's best known for the memoir Two Flamboyant Fathers (1966), which tells of her childhood moving freely between two households—her own, led by an eccentric Irish poet father, and that of the family's neighbor, artist Augustus John, who was leading a bohemian lifestyle with numerous friends and family members. A subsequent memoir, Susanna's Nightingales (1978), traces the maternal line of her family. See here for more information about her.


Jumping just slightly out of order, to another famous connection, though this one's not exactly a household name: CLAUDE DU GRIVEL (born Florence Marie DuGrivel Oxenford), who wrote three historical novels in the 1940s and 1950s, was the mother of actress Daphne Oxenford. Google had to tell me who she was too, but some of you in the U.K. may know her voice from the opening of the radio show Listen With Mother. She was also an early cast member on Coronation Street and apparently a shop owner in To the Manor Born, so I must have seen her but I can't for the life of me recall a shop owner at all. I know even less about her daughter, though King, Queen, Knave (1946) is apparently set in "the stirring days of King John and Magna Carta."


JANE DOE, meanwhile, was best known for her "Through the Glad Eyes of a Woman" columns in the Daily Chronicle and Sunday News in the 1920s and 1930s, but she did publish a single novel, The Enchanted Duchess (1931), described by one source as a "bodice-ripper." She also published three collections of her columns in the 1920s.


And last but not least is WATSON DYKE, whose output of four novels in 32 years could hardly be called prolific. The Monthly Packet said that her first, Craiktrees (1897), was "monstrously overweighted with dialect." I'm a bit intrigued by her second, though—according to the Outlook, As Others See Us (1899), is about "a silly but open-hearted, a deceitful but ingenuous governess in a seaside boarding school." It will appear on my Grownup School Story List whenever I get around to updating it next. Dyke (real name May Bradley) lived in the U.S. for many years, basing her third novel, The Hunter (1918), there. Late in life, she returned to England and lived in Yorkshire.



I have to confess that from this batch of newbies, there are probably only a couple of titles I'm adding to my TBR list, and those both non-fiction. Several readers recommended Mary Bosanquet's Saddlebags for Suitcases when I mentioned her before, and I am certainly intrigued by Nicolette Devas's Two Flamboyant Fathers. What about you? Do you see anything that catches your eye here?

Friday, June 9, 2017

A thoroughly revamped (and renamed) list

It's been just over a year since the last update of my main list. Since January, I have been quietly but intently working on a major revision and expansion of the list, which also includes a new title. What has hitherto been known as "The Overwhelming List" has now morphed into "British Women Writers of Fiction 1910-1960". I decided it was time for the list to be called something more precise, if also a bit more mundane. This new list is linked from the left column of the blog, and there's also a new PDF version available on each section of the list.

Those familiar with previous versions of this list may also note that the more precise title has led me to eliminate the relatively small number of diarists and memoirists who had been rather randomly included before. There turned out to be about 50 of those authors, and they have now been removed, but I will eventually be posting them in a "list of their own". Of course, this applies only to authors who only wrote diaries or memoirs; those who wrote fiction as well are still included. Since the diarists and memoirists who were included were in no way comprehensive, it had come to seem that, interesting as their work is, they didn't really belong in the main list.

To make up for those removals, I've also added about 60 new authors, and I'll be introducing those in four future posts over the next couple of weeks, complete with as many enticing dustjacket pics as I've been able to track down.

The main thing you'll notice in the new edition of the list is that many of the entries have been greatly expanded (the PDF version nearly doubled in length until I shrank the fonts and expanded the margins, and even so it weighs in at a still-overwhelming 418 pages). When I initially created and began adding to the list, I was fairly aggressive in limiting the length of each entry to just the bare bones, but it was always my hope that one day I would have time to go back and really flesh it out. This list is the only online source for information about many of the more obscure authors included, so I wanted to share everything I had. For better known authors, of course, I can't possibly include everything that's known, but I have tried to include all the major facts and points of interest.

One more inspiration for thus expanding the list was my book shopping orgy in the U.K. last October, during which I several times had to consult my list to remember who an author was and whether I just had to have her books or not. There were several occasions when I knew I had more substantial information about an author sitting in my giant database on our home computer, but I couldn't access it there. It was frustrating and tantalizing, and I decided it was time to make as much of the information I have as possible public and readily accessible here.

You'll also see a few changes in formatting and in the information included on the list. I've added complete life and death dates where available. I've also placed last names first, in keeping with the format of most reference works. In addition, I've fleshed out authors' full names when I have them, while still trying to reflect the shortened names they may have published under. I've used parentheses to reflect the complete form of a nickname or shortened name that was used for writing, and brackets to reflect middle or other legal names which an author didn't use for their publications. An example:

BARNE, [MARION] KITTY (CATHERINE)

This entry for novelist and children's author Kitty Barne (the name she published under) also reflects that her full formal name was Marion Catherine Barne.

I've also continued to use brackets to show full names for authors who used only initials on their books, as with this example:

HAVERFIELD, E[LEANOR]. L[UISA].

In a few cases where the names are particularly complicated, I've left a fuller explanation either in a parenthetical second line or in the text of the author's entry.

There are a number of instances in which master researcher John Herrington has been able to trace authors in the public records with a fair degree of certainty but without any absolute proof that the person he's located is the author. In those cases, I've used question marks to precede each bit of information that can't be verified and have added an "uncertain but probable identification" note. In a few other cases where the situation is more complex but the pieces of information might provide clues to future researchers, I've included a summary of what John found within the author's entry.

I've added a "dates active" line for each author, which specifies the decades in which the author published fiction. This seemed useful for readers or researchers looking at particular time periods within the 50 years the list covers. Note that authors may have published other non-fiction works earlier and/or later than their "dates active" range. The "dates active" reflect only the decades in which they published fiction.

Wherever possible, I've included complete listings of each author's fiction titles. "Wherever possible," in this case, generally means authors who published 10 novels or fewer, or a bit more if an author is particularly significant or interesting. I've used a sort of shorthand to indicate whether title listings are complete or not—"titles are" or simply a dash following the number (i.e. "wrote five novels—") indicate that the titles following are complete, while "titles include" or just "including" indicate that only a selection of titles is shown. I also give exact or at least approximate numbers of works of fiction in most cases, so it should usually be obvious whether the titles shown are complete or not.

Finally, when an author who has her own entry on the list is mentioned in another writer's entry, her last name is shown in all caps (i.e. "co-wrote one novel with Betty SMITH"). This allows for easier cross-referencing within the list. Names of authors or other individuals who do not have entries on this list are shown with standard capitalization.

Most of that information and a bit more is now available in the "Key & Citations" section of the list, so it can always be referred to.

If other indicators don't reflect clearly enough how much the list has grown overall, how about the fact that it has gone from encompassing 10 separate posts to 26? As before, I've added navigation links to each section, though they've got a bit more complicated. Don't get confused by the dates on each post, which will all say 2013. I created a slew of new posts pre-dated to before the blog even existed, so that those who subscribe to the blog wouldn't see an intimidating barrage of more than two dozen new posts all at once.

Do let me know if any of the links, or anything else, doesn't work properly or if you notice any errors.

I hope you find the new version of the list helpful and interesting. For my part, I'm just happy that it's finished. 

For now.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

VALENTINE DOBRÉE, Your Cuckoo Sings by Kind (1927)

This is another of my recent spate of interlibrary loan requests of deeply obscure novels that I've been meaning to read for ages—my "seize the day" not-quite-resolution for the year. It's completely coincidental (unless, as Freud suggested, there really are no accidents) that this one arrived just after I'd finished reading The Red Centaur by Marjorie Mack (aka Marjorie Dixon), but they were quite interesting to read in close proximity. Both novels are adult works focused very much on childhood and the perceptions of children, though at that point the resemblance ends…


Valentine Dobrée was loosely associated with the Bloomsbury Group, being as she was a friend of Dora Carrington's and, apparently, a lover of both Dora's husband Ralph Partridge (later married to diarist Frances Partridge) and Dora's lover Mark Gertler—though I can't find any details about how this affected their friendship—perhaps, in typical Bloomsbury style, they were perfectly cheerful about sharing their lovers? Like Dora, Valentine was mainly a visual artist, but she published two novels in the late 1920s, as well as a story collection in 1935. The second novel, The Emperor's Tigers (1929), seems to enter the realms of fantasy, but her first, Your Cuckoo Sings by Kind, is more grounded in reality, perhaps based in part on Dobrée's own childhood?

When the novel opens, Christine is about twelve years old (she's fifteen at the end of the novel, but I couldn't find an explicit reference to her age at the beginning). She is living with a foster family, along with her two brothers, their mother having run off with another man when they were very young and their father living in India. The Harrises are a clergyman and his wife, a cold-hearted, self-righteous woman who can't begin to comprehend Christine's emotional complexity. One of my favorite passages (and one of the only somewhat humorous passages) is about the presence in the Harris home of bamboo furniture, which must be concealed as thoroughly as possible:

It was here Christina acquired her shameful knowledge regarding bamboo furniture. She could never show surprise afterwards that such furniture existed. "Where does such appalling stuff come from?" Not for her the shrug of ignorance, for not only did she know of its existence, but she knew all the variations it was capable of. If any such piece had strayed into an otherwise solid room, instinetively Christina's expert eye came upon it, and she always felt guilty about it. It taught her to train her eyes to look out of the window or into the fire until such time as she could practise a moral nose-holding and swallow indifferently both bamboo and mahogany. She could not imagine anything worse than Mrs Harris's look of grieved betrayal the time she had caught her lifting the Indian table-cloth. For Mrs Harris had persevered, and done her best to disguise it. It was never mentioned, even in its most successful transformations, for they all understood that one of Mrs Harris's first actions on acquiring riches would be to exchange the bamboo stuff for something that could remain naked and unashamed.

Christina can do no right for Mrs. Harris, who imputes the worst possible motives to her every move, driving her to greater and greater reserve and, occasionally, to greater outbursts of rebelliousness:

The result of the general coldness was that she rapidly developed a side to herself which she thought would be acceptable to the people she came in contact with. Slowly, helped by circumstance, she produced a Christina for daily use, though she never lost the original Christina, who looked on, always a little aggrieved.

Happily, about a third of the way into the novel, her father takes her from the Harrises and she is placed with another family, the Deans, who are their opposites in virtually everything, including Mrs Dean's immediate affection and concern for Christine. But it is clear that, although her situation has improved, she already bears the scars of her unhappiness. Even here, she occasionally broods on the injustices of life:

Twice Christina had stood convicted, guiltless of the crime alleged. They were only minor sins, but her truthful denials had been added as lies, and the sum made a grave accusation that each denial fed, mounting to an enormous total. A broken saucer at supper in the school-room, and a bitch on heat escaped from the stables, were the charges. What more suspicious than the flushed face and the emphatic and angry denials? However, the whole episode had a lasting effect on Christina, who thereafter felt innocent of many faults, a feeling of being for ever wrongly accused and superlatively blameless; thus even when conscious of error, rejecting her guilt as a just requital for those two injustices. It was a logic learnt in her environment, where loose mentalities set off two understatements as justifying two overstatements. The incidents of false accusation revealed to Christina truth as a sorry beast, forced to bear the burdens of those strong enough to compel her. Whenever she began to brood, she would remember those offences against her. Eternally in the wrong, she clutched these wrongs to her as a talisman to stave off any indictment.

It's a very striking novel, at times quite brilliant in its observations of human nature and the perceptions of a child. One review notes that Dobrée rewrote the novel five times before she was satisfied with it, and that sort of meticulousness comes through loud and clear. Though I should note that the level of concentration that results, the distilled meaning in every line, is perhaps just a bit overwhelming. I sometimes got a bit dizzy in such high altitude.


It is, however, far darker in tone than The Red Centaur, and I have to note that it contains two disturbing (though oblique and nonexplicit) scenes of sexual assault (of some sort, it's not entirely clear) and brother/sister incest. L. M. Montgomery reportedly read the novel and said the former scene was "the vilest thing I ever read in a book" and then burned the book because "[n]othing but fire could purify it." (Presumably she didn't get round to the second scene, which might be just as well…) Such an extreme reaction to what, after all, are artfully written scenes, not exploitative or titillating at all, might say more about Montgomery's repressions or her own experiences than about the quality of the novel, but it's true enough that it's not for the faint-hearted. As much as anything, it is Christine's reaction to the scenes that will disturb, particularly her guilt about getting her beloved brother in trouble following the second scene.

But it's also true that Christine, as a character, comes vividly to life—a troubled, damaged girl, but one who makes sense. One might find her difficult, as even the kind Mrs. Dean does, but one is compelled to observe her, to see the wheels turn in her head. Her damage may even be the source of her brilliant and unusual mind, but one hopes, by the end of the novel when she is just fifteen, that it will offer her some form of freedom and opportunity that a less bruised and battered character might not find.

Given a choice of a re-read between The Red Centaur and Your Cuckoo Sings by Kind, there's no competition. I'll happily pick up Centaur for a second reading. But for those interested in a serious literary exploration of a troubled girl evolving into a troubled but perhaps liberated woman, the latter is worth the time as well.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

MARJORIE DIXON (as MARJORIE MACK), The Red Centaur (1939)



Miss Mack's achievement is equally difficult—to tell a romantic story about Brittany (an aristocratic French family, a first love affair and an arranged marriage) through the eyes of an English child without laying a feminine claim to sensitivity. So often such books are like a continuous boast: Look what I notice; look how tenderly I feel. This is an admirable novel which shows no sign of being a first: quiet and unurgent, written in a prose exactly adapted to the subject: no strain, no overtones. Sometimes one remembers Tchehov: the sadness of revisiting a loved place after a few years' absence—the new villa above the beach, the unbearable children in what had been one's private cove.

I don't pretend to know exactly what Graham Greene meant (in this review from the Spectator in 1939) by that whole "feminine sensitivity" business, though I do think he's dead-on with the "quiet and unurgent" bit, one of my favorite characteristics in a novel. But at any rate his review intrigued me enough when I first came across it so that I flagged The Red Centaur as a book to get round to someday. Someday finally came recently, and I spent a decadently lazy weekend draped across the furniture reading this charming, summery, yet slightly melancholy novel.

The novel is in two parts. In the first, quiet, perceptive, solitary Laurel Maude is 8 years old. She's staying at the family's summer home in Brittany (must be nice) with her parents Hugh and Nellie, and her governess, Miss Gray, a likeable, literary type concerned with and already planning for her inevitable future as a distressed gentlewoman. Laurel's education is steeped in the mythology that Miss Gray loves, with a good helping of fairy tales and romance, and with the sometimes nonsensical songs and jingles her father sings. And in interesting ways Laurel's perceptions of the world around her take on a romantic, mythical quality. This is particularly true when her family meets the residents of the grand Chatêau des Ebihans across a narrow bay from their home.

The French Ebihans—Bertrand and his wife Jeanne, along with their lovely daughter Lise—have been away ever since Laurel can remember ("The Château des Ebihans might have been sleeping under a spell, with no hope of an awakening"), but as the story opens they have returned for the summer, in part because they have arranged a marriage for Lise with a local man (though Lise has yet to meet him). Bertrand turns out to be an ardent Anglophile and the families become fast friends, the Ebihans—with their flag emblazoned with the family crest, a red centaur—quickly becoming the central focus of Laurel's imagination.

It is indeed, as Greene pointed out, a quiet novel. Perhaps too quiet for some readers, but certainly not for me. In fact, I kept expecting the drama in the background to come more to the surface, and was rather anxious about how Dixon might handle it. It could easily have veered toward melodrama, or towards something too obvious, but Dixon wisely stuck to her guns in presenting the adult dramas only to the extent that Laurel is capable of apprehending them. She wonders about Bertrand's affection for all things English, and concludes that it must be because he's so fond of Lise's young English governess. And when the Ebihans' handsome cousin Gilles arrives, he comes to symbolize the red centaur itself for Laurel, but the reader must pay close attention and read between the lines to understand the impact he has on Lise.

Yet, despite the need for guessing a bit at the emotional turmoil and tragedy in the lives of the Ebihans, the novel was completely satisfying. The vagueness of the adult drama around Laurel very effectively evokes the way children really do perceive the dimly understood adult world. And Mack uses an intriguing technique to convey some of the things Laurel senses on some level but doesn't fully understand: she has vivid dreams which seem to echo the real-life drama mixed with the mythology that pervades her life.

The second part of the novel, and the conclusion of the Ebihans' story as well, take place two years later. The Maudes return to Brittany to find subtle—and not so subtle—changes to their idyllic world. The most obvious is that there has been a sort of barbarian invasion in the form a new villa nearby owned by a lower-class French family and their Philistine children. But there are other changes, some perhaps only now perceived by the slightly older Laurel.


It's high praise for me to say that The Red Centaur reminded me of other favorite novels not written for children but very much about childhood—including Rumer Godden's The Greengage Summer (and, really, An Episode of Sparrows and The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, among others), A. M. Champney's Miss Tiverton Goes Out, and Pamela Frankau's A Wreath for the Enemy, among others (do we need a separate list of these? hmmmm…). It reminded me particularly of Greengage and Wreath because The Red Centaur, too, has a charming, summery, holiday-themed setting, yet contains the slight edge of melancholy associated with a child's first dawning awareness of the sadder sides of life. It also fit nicely with my recent reading of Hilda Hewett's So Early One Morning, which I just blogged about last week.

This is not a book that can be easily shared in little snippets. It's more the elegant shape of the whole that stands out for me than it is short quotable bits. But here is a short sample that struck me as lovely:

So those three went off together, Laurel with the tears still wet on her cheeks but her treasure growing warm again in her hand, Miss Gray, who could never say things that made people laugh, and Lise, who had lost something long ago, almost beyond the bounds of memory.

And then, although this is not a humorous novel overall, I was amused by the following exchange, which one feels might have been taken from Dixon's own life, so true to life is it:

Laurel watched them go with disappointment written large across her face. "Can't we go too and see the horses?" she asked. "I know Lise will want us there." She sprang to her feet. "Father, won't you come with me?''

But her father remained seated on the ground, watching her quizzically, teasingly. "I'm digesting my lunch," he objected. "Lobster takes a long time to digest. Besides, I've got a bone in my leg."

Laurel had not yet ceased to be deceived by this formula. "Another one?" she cried in dismay. "And you had such a bad one the day before yesterday!''

It's all I can do to resist picking this book back up and starting it again from the beginning. I can't quite tell if it's one of those books that will reveal new depths with each reading, or if it's merely a very pleasant, enjoyable, summer vacation kind of novel which will serve to provide one with a sense of warm sunlight and sea breezes even on a wintry day. But I'm certainly planning to find out. In the meantime, however, I have still another impossibly obscure novel about childhood, from another dusty library shelf, which I've already started reading and will no doubt be writing about here soon…

By the way, I've already looked into Dixon's other writings, and have made an interlibrary loan request for her second (and, tragically, final) adult novel, Velveteen Jacket, written two years later. Thereafter, she seems to have turned to children's fiction and memoir for the duration of her too-short writing career. She had two children of her own, though interestingly neither were girls, so perhaps Laurel is based in part on her own childhood rather than inspired by her offspring. The children's titles, The King of the Fiddles (1941), Runaway Boy (1942), The Green-Coated Boy (1957), and The Forbidden Island (1960), all sound somewhat intriguing too (all the more so because Centaur proves how adept Dixon is at writing about children), and her two memoirs—Hannaboys Farm (1942) and The Educated Pin (1944) may also have to make their way to my shelves. She rounded out her career with Breton Fairy Tales (1971). Have any of you ever come across any of these books?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

HILDA HEWETT, So Early One Morning (1948)


Well, now that the Middlebrow Syllabus is complete, I can get back to some other sorts of posts. In addition to working intensely on the massively revised version of my main list (soon to be retitled, by the way), I've also been quietly proceeding with my mission to track down and read some of the most obscure titles on my TBR list. As usual, not all of them have been buried treasures—some might just as well be quietly reburied. But I'm starting off with one of the real winners.

When the last wonderful issue of The Scribbler arrived a few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it contained a review about an author I had only just come across and was researching to add to my list. The review, by Sally Phillips, was about Harriet and the Cherry Pie (1963), which appeared to be the only book published by one "Clare Compton." However, when I was poking around a bit, I had already discovered that a book of the same title had appeared in the U.S. about the same time, by a Hilda Hewett. Thanks to information I had received from the redoubtable John Herrington, I was able to confirm that this was the same Hilda Hewett who had published 17 novels for adults, as well as one additional children's title, in the 1940s-1960s, and John was able to add that she was Hilda Marian Hewett, née Morley (25 Aug 1904 – 13 Dec 1991). (There must be some strange publishing logic that led to Hewett publishing this one title under a pseudonym in the U.K. but not in the U.S., but who knows what it is?)

I emailed Shirley Neilson, who publishes The Scribbler (as well as Greyladies Books), and shared this information, and there was lots of wonderful transatlantic correspondence and sharing of information with Shirley, Sally, and others. Both Shirley and I became intrigued with what we could find about Hewett's adult novels (though I'll let Shirley report on her findings in her own way), and I put the Interlibrary Loan wheels in motion and soon had So Early One Morning, the eighth of Hewett's 17 novels, in my hot little hands.

And oh my, what a lovely, lovely novel it is. It tells of a 13-year-old girl's first experience of falling in love (alas with a man far too old for her), and I immediately fell in love with it myself.

There's a blurb describing the book in the front of the edition I read, and I have to admit that my first reaction to its description of Pauline's first love with a grown man was that it seemed a bit too Lolita-ish to me—not necessarily a promising topic. Perhaps, I thought, "crush" would be more accurate? But by the end of the novel, my concerns had dissipated. Hewett was going for something more subtle and sensitive than a schoolgirl crush, and treating Pauline's feelings as real love, however unsophisticated, lent them depth and dignity.


Pauline as a narrator felt remarkably ahead of her time. She speaks to us in the cheerful, funny, sometimes poignant voice of a rather more intellectual Judy Blume heroine. It could almost pass as a modern novel set in the immediate post-war period merely to capture a historical mood. Pauline is actually speaking to us from the perspective of a few years further on, looking back at the idyllic but bittersweet summer when she was 13, the events of which she is only now really understanding. This allows her to be more eloquent and sophisticated in her narrative at times than any likely 13-year-old, and raises the book above the level of teen fiction.

The gist of the story is that Pauline dreams of being an actress, though her mother discourages her, and she often feels the emotional void left by her drama critic father's death several years before. She is spending the summer with her somewhat chilly, prudish mother, her grandmother (called Grum, to the disapproval of Pauline's mother), her step sister Philippa (called "Philip" to Pauline's "Paul"), and her fresh-air-and-exercise-obsessed Auntie Kit at a house in Sussex that Grum has rented from a mysterious friend. Philip's affection for Auntie Kit and enthusiasm for her back-to-nature obsessions leaves Pauline on her own more than usual, until Gran's godson Major Massey, a military man who seems to have had a nervous breakdown, comes to stay and Pauline helps to bring him out of his darkness by reminding him of his own childhood. In the process, Paul finds that there are considerable secrets to be unearthed about her father, her mother's dislike for the theatre, and even about the house they're staying in.

Some of the plot developments are foreseeable enough, though others are not, but what is certainly surprising is how carefully and subtly Hewett is able to evoke Pauline's development over the course of the summer and make the reader experience the dawning of her emotions firsthand. She takes her time to do this, and the novel has the leisurely pace of the summer holidays it describes, but that's what allows for such a lovely payoff in the end. There's a bit of I Capture the Castle here, and perhaps a bit of Guard Your Daughters, but it's mainly its own thing, and if anything it accomplishes its goal of sharing the experience of a girl on the verge of maturity better than either of those two favorites.


One of the subplots has to do with an opportunity to audition for a part in a new play by one of Pauline's favorite playwrights. Her logistical challenge is to convince her mother to allow her to take the part if she gets it, but the deeper challenge she takes on is to understand the teenage character she would portray, who is in love with a much older man. Although the audition itself is only a subplot, Paul's grasping at the character shows her development over just a few weeks. We progress from this passage early in the novel:

It was very odd. I went on thinking about it when I was in bed. Karen was so right in every other particular. I felt I could put her on as you put on a comfortable old shoe, but her falling in love with a man as old as her father was all wrong, like a sudden tight place that pinched in the shoe. Could Mervyn Mills have meant Karen to be a lot older, and might you do a thing like that at eighteen, I asked myself? But then, it couldn't be that because it gave Karen's age quite clearly in the stage directions.

To this passage near the end (no significant spoilers):

Life was a disappointing business, I thought sadly. Once I'd told myself that if only I could be Karen I should be perfectly happy, and here I was, utterly miserable. My thoughts went back to the beginning of it all—that idyllic afternoon at Hurstmonceaux. What was it I had thought then about life being made up of happy beginnings and sad endings? How true, how terribly true that was!

Along the way, Hewett repeatedly captures a sense of Phil's growing intellectual and sensual awareness in general, completely apart from Major Massey or emotional love.

I didn't stop for more than a passing glimpse of a big, cool hall before starting upstairs. The stairs were wide and polished and half-way up, in an angle of the staircase, I caught sight of a big blue and white vase whose cool colouring and lovely curves seemed to satisfy something in me that refuses to respond when Miss Cartwright says: "Now this is considered one of the finest lines Keats ever wrote." It's nearly always the way when you're expected to admire things, whereas when you discover a thing for yourself it's quite different.

She also has a flair for self-analysis and abstract thinking that would put Holden Caulfield in the shade. This comes out poignantly when her mother has scolded her (and perhaps traumatized her) for going swimming alone with the Major, an entirely innocent joy until her mother's anxiety casts a dark shadow across it:

I felt my cheeks bum. The palms of my hands felt sticky. Put like that it sounded somehow horrid. It hadn't been a bit like that. There'd been the sunlight dancing on the sea, the clean fresh smell of seaweed and salt water and the exhilaration of cool air on your limbs. Mummy's horrid, suggestive phrase didn't belong to the scene at all. To some extent of course, I was still a child, living in the age of innocence, but I swear that Mummy's phrase conjured up greedy eyes peering from behind tom curtains, dubious bed linen under pink-shaded lights and tom underwear trimmed with cheap lace—all that is sordid and furtive about the sexual relation. Naturally, at the time I couldn't have put anything of this into words. I didn't even begin to understand such things. I must have sensed it in the atmosphere, as even quite little children can sense sorrow or fear through words which in themselves are neither sad nor frightening.

There are so many lovely touches here I could end up quoting the whole novel to you. I could also quite easily go back and start reading the novel again from the beginning and probably notice all new things the second time around.

I think many of you would quite enjoy this book, if you're able to track down a copy. As for me, I've now ordered one of Hewett's later novels from Abe Books, and requested two more of her books from Interlibrary Loan (bless the Boston Athenaeum's little heart for so consistently being the only American source for many of the books I'm eager to find). So, you'll certainly be hearing more about Hilda Hewett!
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