To look at Miss Georgina Carter you would never have suspected that a woman of her age and character would have allowed herself to be so wholeheartedly mixed up with an Ifrit. For Georgina Carter was nearing fifty (she was forty-seven to be exact) and there was something about her long, plain face, her long upper lip, her long, thin hands and feet that marked her very nearly irrevocably as a spinster. That she wore her undistinguished clothes well, had a warm, human smile, was fond of the theatre and had never occasioned anyone a moment’s trouble or worry, were minor virtues which had never got her very far.
Georgina herself now accepted her state and age without apparent hatred or remorse; in fact she assured herself she was rather glad to be approaching fifty. It was, she felt, a comfortable age, an age past expectation, hope or surprise. Nothing very shattering, nothing very devastating could happen to one after that age. It was a placid, safe harbour. One could indeed then spend the rest of one’s life fairly comfortably with a job in the Censorship for the duration, a smallish private income (which, unfortunately, tended to get smaller) and a flat in an old-fashioned block in St. John’s Wood, untroubled and untormented by any violent emotion or gross physical change.
Miss Carter and the Ifrit, by Susan Alice Kerby seems to be very popular at the moment, and I can see why – because it is utterly delightful. It’s another of those forgotten books brought back to life by Dean Street Press under the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint and it’s an absolute winner.
It is a bleak and chilly November day and Miss Carter has been without heat for a fortnight when she spots a man selling wooden blocks in the street below her flat… So she buys load. That evening she enjoys an egg (a fresh one!) that a friend has given her, and sits by her blazing fire knitting socks for her nephew before settling down to read a biography of Lady Hester Stanhope. She adds a block of wood to the fire and:
The next thing she knew was that there was a loud explosion. The room seemed filled with smoke. The floor rocked. She was hurled from her chair. Her last thought before losing consciousness was: “I didn’t hear the warning—”
When she comes to everything is normal, but there is a strong smell of sulphur in the air, and…
…there on the floor, protruding from the far side of the tallboy, were what appeared to be a pair of slippers. They were large, they were red, they were leather, they were obviously masculine—and they had curiously pointed toes that curled back over what might or might not be an instep, depending upon whether the slippers were occupied or not.
She discovers the slippers are occupied, by a ‘very large, very dark man’.
His clothes were quite extraordinary. He wore a pair of curious green breeches, full at the top and narrowing down to fit tightly over his calves. His wide cut coat was high buttoned and made of heavy ruby red satin, embroidered embroidered with strange designs in gold and silver thread. On his head was an elaborate coral coloured turban ornamented with a bright bejewelled feather.
His name is Abu Shiháb, and he is an Ifrit (a being a bit like a Genie) who was imprisoned in a tree thousands of years ago. Now Miss Carter has freed him and he is her devoted slave. Miss Carter (Georgina) is not sure whether he is a criminal, a spy, or a madman – or whether it is she herself who is mad, or ill. Despite her misgivings, she lets him stay, and calls him Joe, after Stalin (the book is set during the final months of the war, when Stalin was still regarded as a benevolent ally), and an odd kind of relationship relationship develops, with neither of them understanding the world the other has come from.
If you read and loved the Arabian Nights when you were a child, then you will love this, and will be familiar with the Ifrit’s magical powers and his style of speech. I think Miss Carter’s childhood reading must have been much more practical and prosaic than mine, because she is completely bemused when he addresses her as ‘princess, who is as lovely as the young moon’, or ‘Mistress of the Secrets of Sulayman’, or ‘moonflower’. She has trouble explaining that we don’t have slaves in England, but she appreciates the benefits provided by his supernatural powers. Take this for example:
And the tray was burdened with curiously shaped, vividly coloured dishes, and these dishes were filled with strange and wonderful fruits and sweetmeats. There were pomegranates, glowing like pale garnets in a deep blue bowl. Frilled by green leaves and on a flat yellow dish was a bunch of black grapes powdered with silver, each grape perfect and the size of a small plum. Warm, brown dates contrasted with fat bright oranges. Purple figs and smooth-skinned apricots made a pyramid on a base of emerald green glass. Flat sugared cakes and squares of a substance resembling Turkish Delight spilled out of oval shaped turquoise boxes. Small stemmed dishes held in their chalices mounds of sorbet which gave off a faint lemony perfume. There were several long throated flagons of emerald glass set in frames of beaten silver, with goblets to match.
Isn’t that just wonderful? It’s as good as Christina Rossetti (think of all those luscious fruits in The Goblin Market) or Keats ( the feast that Porphyro prepares for Madeline).
There are misunderstandings and complications with friends and work colleagues when she is distracted by Joe – fortunately he can vanish when required, but Georgina finds it increasingly hard to explain the luxuries she acquires! People are aware that exotic cakes and posh frocks are unavailable because of rationing, so they are bound to wonder how she gets these things.
As the story progresses she and Joe both change. He becomes more and more human, determined to use his powers for the good of mankind – he even tries to intervene in the war, but finds Hitler protected by an Ifrit even more powerful than himself. And he turns Georgina’s life around, so in an odd way she becomes more human too. She admits she has never really ‘lived’, sleepwalking through life, never doing what she really wanted to. Now, instead of just existing, she enjoys life. She has a new-found confidence, and when she dons a couture dress a surprisingly attractive woman is revealed. She even goes travelling with Joe (flying without a plane!), and has a ‘chance’ meeting with the man she loved when she was young, at which point you can see that this fairy tale story will have the requisite happy ending – thanks in no small part to Joe.
I loved this. The contrast between the richness Joe brings to Georgina’s life and the bleakness and deprivation of war-torn Britain must have made it very appealing at the time it was published, and I think it retains it charm, and still has something relevant to say about fear, and freedom, and finding yourself. It’s beautifully written, the characters are well drawn and believable, and the story was wonderful. It’s tender, sweet and funny, a light-hearted, enchanting fantasy that is grounded in the real world in way that makes it very, very credible.