Tom Tiddler’s Ground

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The ‘lost’ authors who have been re-published by Dean Street Press under the Furrowed Middlebrow umbrella have been generally well received, but I have to admit the first few pages of Ursula Orange’s Tom Tiddler’s Ground left me wondering if some books have been forgotten for a reason. The opening chapter is a bit of a scene setter, but those early pages were tedious, the dialogue stagey, and the central character seemed a spoiled and heartless woman – I did NOT like her, I decided. But I kept going, and I’m glad I did, because the first few pages didn’t reflect the book as a whole, and once the author got into her stride I enjoyed it, and our heroine, who grows and changes as the novel progresses, turned out to be thoroughly likable.

The book begins in July 1939, on the eve of WW2, but takes place mainly during the ‘phoney war’ – the period between September and December, before hostilities started in earnest, when thousands of children were evacuated from London, gas masks issued, and preparations made.

Beautiful, sophisticated Caroline Cameron has been spoiled and cosseted all her life – first by her doting parents, then by her husband John (he treats as if she is still a little girl, even calling her ‘child’). The couple have just moved into her dream home, a large house on the edge of the park, overlooking the canal, with plenty of room for their two-year-old daughter Marguerite, Nanny, and the sleep-in maid. However, at the outset of war Caroline leaves London for the safety of Chesterford, accompanied by Marguerite and Nanny.

She stays with an old schoolfriend, Constance, and her husband Alfred Smith, (of whom Caroline is deeply suspicious because his eyes are too close together). Constance is desperate for a child, but this seems unlikely to happen as she and Alfred, married for two years, now have separate rooms. The household also includes Gladys (the cook and maid), and slum mother Mrs Gossage with under-sized, under-nourished baby Norman… So you begin to see the way things might pan out. There’s a host of other lively characters, including Alfred’s half-sister Mary Hodges who unwittingly plays a key role in his downfall, and 17-year-old Lavinia who thinks she is in love with Albert and doesn’t mind who knows it.

To start with, Caroline finds village life hilariously funny, but gradually she becomes genuinely interested in people, and cares about them and what happens to them, But is she a realist. She knows that people are not always what they seem. Everyone, she says, has a secret, a hidden past, which affects the way they live now. She tells her friend:

Oh Constance, do believe me, every one has something in their past. Not exactly a skeleton in the cupboard – not as dramatic as that – but, oh, a sort of patch they’re ashamed of. A sort of Tom Tiddler’s Ground which you keep to yourself and chase other people off.

Constance, a clergyman’s daughter and former social worker naively thought that when Albert kissed her it meant he wanted to marry her, so she told a visitor they were engaged. Caroline herself is conducting a clandestine affair with an actor, and her husband John, a prosperous lawyer, has been married before, but refuses to talk about that period in his life. There is some mystery surrounding his first wife’s death, and why does he no longer keep in touch with one-time best friend George, who did him a good turn – and (as is the way of things in novels), turns out to be Constance’s older brother… And why has gentle, kindly, patient George made such a failure of his life?

Then there’s the strange woman who is searching for ‘Alf’ – who is she, and what does she want? And there is Alfred himself, a used-car salesman with ideas above his station, who has been very economical with the truth about his past. He is such an obvious villain I wondered how anybody ever trusted him, but even so I almost felt sorry for him as his world began to fall apart, and he desperately tried to cover his tracks.

Eventually the mysteries are solved and old secrets revealed, largely due to the efforts of John Cameron, who also enables people to move on to new lives which are right for them. He turns out to be much nicer, kinder and more understanding than I initially thought.

But it is Caroline herself who changes the most – a fact which she herself recognises, and she is finally able to make decisions about her future, and to establish a partnership with her husband where she can be treated as an equal, not as a child. She explains to him:

Only I think the past should be – disinfected – before it it’s finally buried. And your past certainly wasn’t disinfected when you married me. And that put us a bit wrong, didn’t it John? Didn’t it? You admitted it the other day when we were talking about Edna. You said you’d always wanted to make it up to me for being such a rotten husband to Edna. It sounds rather grand and noble, John, but it wasn’t really treating me with sufficient – responsibility. Oh, I liked it all right at first, of course. I’d always been spoilt. It was what I was accustomed to. Only recently I haven’t liked it at all.

She is no longer the spoilt, indolent, selfish woman we met at the start of the novel, but someone who has acquired warmth, humanity, and a genuine interest in other people and their well-being, and she’s prepared to stand up for them and can be relied on to help in tricky situations. She keeps her sense of humour, and her love of fun, but understands her actions can hurt others, and she turns out to be a keen observer of people and a shrewd judge of character (rather like her creator I imagine). By the end I rather liked her, especially the final view of her cooking and cleaning in a small bungalow in Woking, in a ‘safe’ area away from London but within easy reach of the city for John’s job, and acknowledging that the most important thing in life is that she, John and Marguerite are together.

Overall it was a light-hearted, humorous read, but it does raise serious issues about relationships, identity, and independence, and I liked the way the author showed us the characters’ inmost thoughts, which were often at a variance with what they actually said and did. 

Orange, Ursula - Tom Tiddler's Ground cover
Early edition of the book (from  Furrowed Middlebrow – I hope Scott doesn’t mind).

*In case you wonder (well, I did) Tom Tiddler’s Ground is a children’s game, a variation on on tag perhaps, where one person is chosen to be Tom Tiddler, and has to catch and eject the other players as they try to invade the space around him while shouting ‘Here I am on Tom Tiddler’s Ground’. It’s not a game that I’ve ever come across, but there are, apparently, references in some Dickens’ novels, and he also wrote a short story of that name. And there’s a lovely song of that name by Roy Harper which I include because I like Roy Harper, and we all need more music in our lives! You can find here

More Miss Marple!

51J1Gss8cML._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_In the heart of the  West End, there are many quiet pockets, unknown to almost all but taxi drivers who traverse them with expert knowledge, and arrive triumphantly thereby at Park Lane, Berkeley Square or South Audley Street.

If you turn off on an unpretentious street from the Park, and turn left and right once or twice, you will find yourself in a quiet street with Bertram’s Hotel on the right-hand side.”

And there you will also find Miss Jane Marple, who has left her home in the sleepy village of St Mary Mead for a holiday in London at Bertram’s Hotel, thus providing Agatha Christie with the setting (and title) of her 1965 novel At Bertram’s Hotel. Miss Marple has fond memories of staying there with an aunt and uncle, when she was 14 (nearer to sixty years ago than fifty,  we learn). Bertram’s, dignified, unostentatious, and quietly expensive’, is not the sort of place she could afford now, but the vacation is a gift from her writer nephew Raymond West and his artist wife Joan. So she enjoys the unexpected luxury, chats to old friends, calls at the big stores to replenish household items (like bed linen and tea towels) and visits places she remembers from her youth. Many, unsurprisingly, have changed, and some have vanished completely.

But Bertram’s appears to be unaltered – quite miraculously so, thinks Miss Marple. It is just as it always has been: not merely pre-war, but pre-WW1 as well. Indeed, it’s positively Edwardian. It provides comfortable, old-fashioned service for the upper echelons of the clergy, dowager ladies of the aristocracy up from the country, and girls on their way home from expensive finishing schools. It is also hugely popular with wealthy Americans, fulfilling their dreams and fantasies about the traditional way of life in old England.

There are luxurious bedrooms; two writing rooms; a lounge with chairs to fit people of ‘every dimension’, and two bars – one serving Pimms No 1 for English guests, and the other offering cocktails to Americans. There is afternoon tea to die for, with a choice of teas to drink, real muffins (not the American sort) dripping with butter, seedcake made to cook’s own special recipe, and doughnuts that dribble jam down your chin as you eat.

Guests can even have breakfast in bed, At this point I should say that my idea of luxury is tea in bed, made and brought to me by someone else. As an early riser, this rarely happens because I am invariably up before anyone else. Tea, on its own, would be sheer bliss: breakfast, especially one like that delivered to Miss Marple, is something else again:-

“Five minutes later breakfast came. A comfortable tray with a big pot-bellied teapot, creamy looking milk, a silver hot water jug. Two beautifully poached eggs on toast, poached the proper way, not little round hard shaped in tin cups, a good sized round of butter stamped with a thistle, Marmalade, honey and strawberry jam. Delicious looking rolls, not the hard kind with papery interiors – they smelt of fresh bread (the most delicious smell in the world)! There was also an apple, a pear and a banana.

Miss Marple inserted a knife gingerly but with confidence. She was not disappointed. Rich deep yellow yolk oozed out, thick and creamy. Proper eggs!

Everything piping hot. A real breakfast.”

The chambermaid who brings the food is is just as real, but somehow looks unreal in her lilac print dress and her cap. She is, however, ‘highly satisfactory’, as are the rest of the staff. So why does Miss Marple think it’s all too good to be true, and why does she have a curious feeling of unease, a sense that something is wrong, and the people don’t look real? She wonders….

Chief Inspector Fred Davy of Scotland Yard also wonders… There has been a worrying  increase in crime: daring bank raids, cunning jewel thefts and other audacious robberies, all with curious incidents that don’t quite add up. Well known people said to have been spotted at or near crime scenes were miles away at the time, and vehicles turn out to have been elsewhere. All leads are lost in a confusing trail of mistaken identities and car number plates which are almost identical – but not quite. And the name of Bertram’s keeps cropping up… So is it all coincidence, or is there a Mr Big masterminding the exploits of a huge criminal gang? And could Bertam’s, the perfect hotel, be a cover for something sinister? Then a mail train is robbed, and absent-minded Canon Pennyfather, an old friend of Miss Marple, leaves the hotel for a conference in Lucerne – and disappears!

At_Bertram's_Hotel_First_Edition_Cover_1965 Brian Russell
Brian Russell’s cover for the first edition.

And as the police step up their investigations, other mysteries are unfolding. There is unconventional Bess Sedgwick, who has had a string of husbands and lovers since running away with the groom on her father’s estate when she was just 16. Best described as an adventurer, she craves excitement and has flown planes, raced cars, ridden a horse across Europe, fought with the  French Resistance, and rescued two children from a burning house. But her outrageous behaviour makes her an unlikely guest for Bertram’s – so what is she doing at the hotel?

And what about her daughter Elivira, handed to a guardian when she was a baby because Bess thought it the best course of action. Elvira, who has just been ‘finished’ at an Italian establishment, meets her guardian at Bertram’s, but is also arranging clandestine trysts with her mother’s friend, racing driver Ladislaus Malinowski, who police believe to be implicated in the crime syndicate. But why is Elvira so anxious to know how much money she will inherit from her dead father, and who will inherit if she should die? And why is she convinced someone is trying to kill her?

Complications and coincidences continue to pile up as we find that Mick Gorman, the hotel’s commissionaire, is the groom who ran away with Bess Sedgwick all those years ago! Then, on a foggy evening, shots ring out, a distraught Elvira claims Gorman lost his life protecting her, and police discover that the gun belongs to Malinowski – but are these the true facts? I won’t reveal the ending, although I’m sure the story is very well known, and even on a first reading the final denouement can’t be that unexpected.

This is the first book in my Miss Marple marathon (sparked by enjoyment of Murder at the Vicarageand, I’m pleased to say, not only was it every bit as good, but it was pretty much as I remember (though I don’t like to say how many years have passed since I first read it). As I said before, it’s easy to forget how good Christie is, and why her crime novels have endured so well for so long. I’m not sure how she does it, but even though I know the story I was still gripped, and still kept turning the pages to see what happens. Miss Marple, as ever, sits quietly in the background, unobserved by others – but she notices them, listens in on conversations, watches their actions, and draws conclusions, based on her observations, and her experience of life in St Mary Mead. And she’s not above manipulating situations to gain a better view of thins or glean a snippet of information. Who would suspect a fluttery old lady of snooping when she drops her bag or returns to her room to get something she forgot!

The book was much tighter than the BBC television adaption starring Joan Hickson, but the TV show got the characters right and I thought it captured the feel of the novel – unlike the more recent ITV version, which featured a jazz band A jazz band! At Betram’s! I ask you! It misses the whole point about Bertram’s.

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie.

Murder at the Vicarage

1930clubThis is week I’m joining the 1930 Club and celebrating books written or published in that year, though I had some trouble finding something to fit the bill, which is very odd when when you consider how many books I have! Anyway, I plumped for Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage so I can support the event, which is organised by Simon over at Stuck in Book, and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I had read this before, but I think my memories must have been heavily influenced by the two TV versions, because on re-reading it wasn’t quite as I remembered. For a start, I was surprised to find the narrator is actually the vicar – I’d have laid money on it being  the  ‘authorial voice’. And he plays a much greater role. Some characters were cut  in both TV shows, (but that always happens); the ending was changed, and I’m not sure either of them got the period right – both were more 1950s than anything else, and if this was published in 1930, the setting would, I think, have been late ’20s. Of the two, the BBC dramatisation featuring Joan Hickson was by far and away the best. She was brilliant as Miss Marple, and the production team did a pretty good job capturing the feel of the novel, and it made for enjoyable watching. The ITV version had me jumping up and down with rage, because it played fast and loose with the story – I don’t know how they got away with calling it Agatha Christie’s Marple, because it wasn’t her creation at all. And Geraldine McEwan wasn’t my idea of Miss Marple.

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Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. 

Anyway, this post is supposed to be about the novel, which is much superior to the dramatisations (books usually are), and is a jolly good read, which kept me guessing even though I knew the killer – Christie isn’t called the Queen of Crime for nothing! I am sure practically everyone knows the plot: basically bad-tempered Colonel Protheroe, the local magistrate, is shot in the head in the Vicar’s study. while the vicar has been lured away on a false emergency call… I know, it sounds like a game of Cleudo, but it’s more complicated than that Seemingly, a broken clock pinpoints the time of death… But does it? There are lots of questions, and nothing is as simple as the officious Inspector Slack thinks, because nothing quite adds up. It’s like a jigsaw which doesn’t quite fit. But along comes Miss Marple, the Vicar’s elderly, neighbour, who moves the pieces around to make a different picture.

This is her first starring role in a full-length novel (she had previously appeared in short stories). We meet her while Griselda Clement, the Vicar’s much younger and rather ditsy wife, is doing her duty as ‘vicaress’ by providing the gossipy old ladies of the village with  ‘tea and scandal’ at four o’clock. “Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner – Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much the more dangerous,”  Rev Clement tells us. Later he enlarges on this by adding: “I should have never have dreamed of describing Miss Marple as trusting.” And, indeed, she is not. She thinks the worst of everyone, and her habit of comparing present events with seemingly random things and people from the past enables her to make connections and draw conclusions that other people miss. Nothing gets past her, as Christie makes clear: “Miss Marple sees everything. Gardening is as good as a smoke screen, and the habit of observing birds through powerful glasses can always be turned to account.”

Miss Marple may have led a quiet life in a quiet village, but she knows about human nature, and is a noticing sort of person. From her garden she has a bird’s eye view of the Vicarage garden and the shed which artist Lawrence Redding is using as his studio, and she can also see quite clearly when Anne Protheroe, the colonel’s wife – and Lawrence’s lover – walks across the lawn.  At one point, while talking to Colonel Melchett, the Chief Constable, Miss Marple insists that Mrs Protheroe was not carrying a pistol:

“I can swear to that. She’d no such thing with her.”
“You mightn’t have seen it.”
“Of course I should have seen it.”
“If it had been in her handbag.”
“She wasn’t carrying a handbag.”
“Well it might have been concealed – er – upon her person.”
Miss Marple directed a glance of sorrow and scorn upon him.
“My dear Colonel Melchett, you know what young women are nowadays. Not ashamed to show exactly how the creator made them. She hadn’t so much as a handkerchief in the top of her stocking.”

Wonderful, isn’t it! But there is, of course, a twist to the tale…

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The cover of the first UK edition.

I think Agatha Christie must also have been a keen observer and known a fair bit about human nature! I know there are those who decry her for portraying caricatures rather than characters (especially when it came to writing about the ‘lower’ classes) , but here she wrote about the way of life she knew best – well-heeled middle class people with a particular set of values, and unearned incomes that helped pay for servants to look after them. There’s a fair amount of domestic detail (and social comment), just as there is in many of the more highly acclaimed novelists of the period. I particularly like Mary, the Clements’ slovenly maid, who has no housekeeping skills whatsoever, either burns or undercooks the food – and refuses to be awed by her ‘betters’. If Miss Marple had the training of her, poor Mary would behave in an entirely different way. But, as Griselda points out, if Mary was any good she would be off working for someone else, and they would be left without a servant, because they can’t afford anyone better!

I thought the characters were quite well drawn, even the ones who only play a small part in the drama, like Hawes the High Church curate, who has a secret he wants to confess, and the mysterious Mrs Lestrange, who is beautiful and cultured, but refuses to discuss her meeting with Colonel Protheroe shortly before his death. And let’s not forget Lettice, the Colonel’s daughter, who seems almost half-witted, but is actually far more shrewd than she would like you to think.

All in all it was a very enjoyable read, and if you’ve never read any Christie, this would be an excellent place to start.

The soul of kindness

As usual, I am a little behind everyone else, and have only just caught up with the latest offering from those nice people at the Backlisted Podcast – The Soul of Kindness, by Elizabeth Taylor. Guests included Virago founder Carmen Callil, who was responsible for reviving Taylor’s work, and always has something pertinent and interesting to say about the books and authors she dealt with in Virago’s heyday. Anyway, it reminded me that although I’ve read the book, and Taylor is one of my favorite authors, I never wrote about it, so I thought I’d do a quick post, based on memory, then looked at the book to find a couple of quotes – and ended up so engrossed I re-read the whole thing, and found it every bit as good as I remembered! So here goes…

“Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.

Sweet, gentle Flora is the soul of kindness. It’s what she – and everyone else – believes. Her husband Richard, and best friend Meg, may get the occasional twinge when they feel uneasy about Flora’s behaviour, but no-one doubts her good intentions. So there are no real complaints when she sets about re-ordering the lives of her nearest and dearest, to bring them joy, happiness and contentment. However, Flora has no interest in what her friends and family actually want, and no idea of what would be good  for them, so others must deal with the disastrous consequences of her well-meaning meddling.

There is Meg, who is in love with author Patrick, who is (as she well knows), in love with Frankie, a young man with few -if any – ‘nice streaks’.  Flora, ignoring the facts, is convinced that Meg and Patrick would be perfect partners. She’s equally determined that her widowed father-in-law Percy should marry his long-time mistress Ba, and that Meg’s younger brother Kit should fulfill his ambition to become a successful actor, even though everyone else realises he has no talent whatsoever.

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My Virago cover shows a detail from Winifred Nicholson’s ‘Wild Flowers’

On this second reading I surprised to see just how many clues about Flora’s true nature are there in the opening chapter, which describes Flora and Richard’s wedding. Indeed, Elizabeth Taylor is quite explicit in her portrayal. Speaking about Meg, she tells us:

At school she had been Flora’s Nannie-friend, for it was clear from the day that Flora arrived there that what Mrs Secretan had done – the cherishing, the protecting – could not be  lightly broken off. Someone must carry on. ‘What do I do with this?’ ‘Where do I go from here?’ were questions somebody must answer. Meg disapproved of Mes Secretan’s cossetting, but saw that it would be dangerous for it to be abruptly discontinued – like putting an orchid out into the frosty air, or or suddenly depriving an alcoholic of drink. She had tried – so good she was – to introduce gradual reforms, but Flora peaceably ignored them, for she did not know that there was any necessity to stand on her own feet, or even that she was not doing so.

That tells you everything you need to know about Flora, and quite a bit about her doting mother, and Meg. Mrs Secretan has devoted her life to Flora and Flora’s well-being, and can see no wrong in her beautiful daughter – but even she has moments of clarity when she acknowledges there is something missing. Take the note Flora writes before leaving for honeymoon, in which she says Mrs Secretan has been the most wonderful mother.

If only, Mrs Secretan thought yearningly, if only Flora had written ‘You are such a wonderful mother’. That would have made all the difference…

On my first reading I was struck by how lonely everyone is, and how no-one seems to be in love with the ‘right’ person. On a second reading I was surprised at how much Flora’s perception of herself is influenced by other people’s view of her, and how much their view reflects the kindly persona she has created back at her. It’s an almost symbiotic relationship between Flora and those who love her, and I was suddenly reminded of Jack and Jill in RD Laing’s Knots, which I haven’t read in 30 years or more. This time around it also occurred to me that Liz, the painter (a minor but important character), is the only person who sees Flora clearly – yet she is the only one who doesn’t know Flora and never actually meets her: she merely ‘interprets’ information gleaned from other people.

Interestingly, the Backlisted team drew parallels between The Soul of Kindness (published in 1964) and Taylor’s earlier and much darker novel, Angel. I hadn’t previously considered this connection, but I think there is a link: Angel and Flora are both heartless monsters, totally self-centred and unable to face the real world, so both create an environment that is more to their liking. On the face of it Angel, who is so obviously not a ‘normal’ member of society, is the more monstrous, but thinking about it, I’m not so sure. Flora manages to get others to accede to her wishes whilst appearing to be sweet, gentle and biddable – but she goes into melt-down when things don’t go according to plan and her nice, safe, sunny world is rocked by tragedy (well, near tragedy if I am being strictly accurate). Her reaction is shocking because it is so extreme, but the reaction of those around her  is even more shocking, because they rally round (against their better judgement in at least one case) and rebuild her up again. This episode, I imagine, will ensure that never again will any of those  who love her oppose her in any way, and never again will they let reality intrude on her charmed life.

I could say lots more about Flora, and the other characters (some of whom I haven’t mentioned at all), and about the places, and the social customs of the times. The wealthy middle class families who feature so often in Elizabeth Taylor’s work, must already have been a dying breed in the mid-1960s, but they still have something to say to say to us today. Taylor understood this world where appearances and convention matter, but she was always able to show us what went on below the surface, and to make us care about her characters, even if we don’t always like them. And her writing is as perfect now as it was then – witty and ironic, with never a word out of place, it is frequently understated, and what she doesn’t say is as important as what she does. Anyway, don’t listen to me wittering on – just read the book!

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Novelist Elizabeth Taylor.

It’s Emily Hilda Young Day!

The Critics Harold Harvey
I thought it would be nice to show the complete picture of The Critics, by Harold Harvey, rather than the cropped version which appears on the front cover of my Virago edition of EH Young’s William. It is apparently, in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, so next time I’m there I’ll see if it is on display.

Today I am celebrating another of the Underappreciated Lady Authors gathered together by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock. Emily Hilda Young, was born on this day in 1880 and, like many of those old ‘green’ VMC authors, has had the misfortune to be forgotten not once, but twice. In her heyday, during the 1920s and 30s, she was enormously popular, but fell into obscurity after the war, when the public’s reading tastes changed. There was a brief renaissance when Virago published some of her novels in the 1980s, but it didn’t endure. More recently the tide seems to be turning, and once again there is an upsurge of interest in her work, so perhaps someone will republish the books – I certainly hope so.

EH Young Good Reads
Emily Hilda Young.

Between 1910 and 1947 Young wrote 11 novels, which are primarily domestic, and are very much of their time and place, mostly portraying life in Radstowe, a fictionalised version of Bristol, where she lived for many years. The plots are slight, the story-lines slow, and her writing very quiet, with subtle depictions of the delicate nuances of class and social structure, and the tension caused by the need for public proprietry balanced against private desires. Her observations of relationships are equally acute as she exposes the feelings between man and woman, parent and child, sister and sister. In some ways she’s quite subversive because she’s not afraid to question the moral values of her day.

I have to admit, that whilst running around doing bits and pieces for my mother I forgot about this anniversary, but I wanted to post something, because EH Young is one of my favourite authors, and Jane has gone to all the trouble of organising a ‘Birthday Book’, so fans of forgotten female authors ought to support her. So here are a few rather garbled thoughts on William, which I enjoyed immensely.

It focuses on the relationships within the Nesbitt family – shipping magnate William, his wife Kate, and their five grown-up children, Dora, Mabel, Lydia, Janet and Walter. On the face of it the Nesbitts are a happy, conventional family. Then Lydia leaves her husband for another man, and the scandal affects everyone in different ways (the novel was written in 1925 when such behaviour would have made Lydia a social outcast and brought censure on her family). And as the novel unfolds become cracks appear in other relationships.

There is Dora, miserably married to Herbert, who is a bully, but a wealthy bully, and she remains with him for the sake of the children and her luxurious lifestyle. And there is Mabel, something of an outsider in the family, who marries mean-minded, penny-pinching John and makes a virtue out of wearing ugly shoes. dowdy clothes, and running everywhere because she cannot afford a taxi. Then there is lonely, unhappy Janet, craving independence, but still living at home and in love with Lydia’s husband Oliver. And there is Lydia herself, who remains something of a cipher, seen through the eyes of others, her motives a mystery but, seemingly, no happier for leaving her husband than she was with him.

And, of course, there are William and Kate, and the rift whiich opens between them when Lydia runs away. William is the chief protagonist, and we see things mainly from his point of view. Obviously a shrewd businessman, he’s a self-made man who has worked his way) up in the world, and is satisfied with his achievements (but never smug). Quiet and unassuming, he is, at heart, a family man who loves his wife and children, but is not blind to their faults, or his own – he’s very self-aware, always slightly detached and amused, but never judgemental. And although he wants his children to be happy he realises they must make their own decisions, and that those decisions may not always please him. And although he doesn’t want to interfere he is tempted, on occasions, to nudge things along in what he hopes is the right direction…

His wife Kate is no match for him intellectually, and is inclined to seek refuge in ill health when she thinks she is badly used by family and friends. Social position and doing the right thing are very important to her, and she has her own aspirations for the children, urging them to fall in with her wishes, and she doesn’t agree with William when he says: “I’ve told you, Kate, we can’t have them as we want them. We’re lucky to have them as they are.” She is devastated by Lydia;s behaviour, and is hurt and angry when he supports his favourite daughter. It would be easy to dislike Kate, but I felt sorry for her – I think there’s a bit of empty nest syndrome going on here, and she’s very much a woman of her time and class, with too much time on her hands, and not enough to do.

And while she’s not as self-aware as William, deep down she knows that the children are their own people, with their own dreams and desires, and she does not really understand them. Young tells us: “It had been different when they were all young and at school. She had felt then that they were her own, but perhaps she had been mistaken, perhaps she had not known their secret selves, and she remembered, for the first time for years, how she had once found Lydia crying in the nursery and had not been able to find out what her trouble was. It seemed to her that what she had missed then might be evading her still. She had given birth to five bodies and she would always be a stranger to their souls. This was a terrible thought and it would have been more terrible still if she had known that it was William’s too.”

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The old Virago edition.

It’s very much a book about marriage and parenting, and how family life is not always happy, and how different people cope with the problems in different ways. The characters are beautifully drawn, and the relationships between them delicately and sensitively portrayed. And there are some wonderful moments exposing the snobbery and pretensions of middle-class life, and some very funny scenes (many of them involving poor Mabel and her three priggish sons) – the account of a family trip on William’s newest steamboat is absolutely hilarious.

Happy Birthday Dorothy Whipple!

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EPersephone’s Classic edition of Dorothy Whipple’s Someon At A Distance.

Dorothy Whipple famously – or perhaps infamously – was the novelist Virago refused to publish. Worse still, the company had a standard known as the ‘Whipple line’, below which they ‘would not sink’. Explaining her position in a Guardian article back in 2008, Virago founder Carmen Callil said: “Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us.” Personally I think she was wrong, and it seems I’m not the only one, because Dorothy Whipple is now published by Persephone and has become their best-selling author. Even so, she still qualifies for a place in the Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors compiled by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, and since today would have been her birthday (Whipple that is, not Jane), I’ve scribbled some thoughts on Someone at a Distance, which I really enjoyed.

It is a heart-breaking account of the breakdown of a marriage, written with restraint, style and gentle humour. Here we have Avery and Ellen North, blissfully married for 20 years. He is a successful publisher and she is a happy housewife (I would be a happy housewife if, like her, I had help from two ‘half-day’ women who work on alternate days). Anyway, the couple live in a spacious house in the country, with a large garden, and a paddock for their daughter Anne’s horse. Anne, aged 15, is at boarding school, while her brother, 18-year-old Hugh, is in the Army, doing his National Service. The family are devoted to one another – but their idyllic life is about to be torn apart.

Nearby lives Avery’s wealthy, widowed, cantankerous mother who decides to employs Louise, a young Frenchwoman, as her companion. Louise has just been dumped by her lover (he married a woman with money and position), and is desperate to escape the boredom of the provincial town where her parents run a shop. Her favourite book is Madam Bovary, and we are told: “The sight of other people’s happiness irritated her. Happy people were so boring. It was unintelligent to be happy, Louise considered.” Louise is certainly not happy. It’s difficult at times to decide what she feels – anger, resentment, loneliness perhaps. She is beautiful, rather like a Modigliani painting I think.

Her face was as smooth as ivory and the same colour, her dark eyes slanted up a little at the outer corners. Her dark shining hair was parted in the middle and drawn into a knot on her slender neck. Her lips were made up, even for breakfast, in a magenta colour, which nevertheless became her and matched the varnish on the nails of her narrow hands.

But despite that – or perhaps because of it – people don’t like her. Her parents love

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The endpapers are from a 1940s textile design attributed to Ashley Havinden.

her, but are scared of her; most men in the town where she lives kep their distance, and she has no female friends. In England she alienates almost everyone she meets, but old Mrs North likes her – and Avery obviously finds her attractive (despite the fact she is making eyes at his son). Cocooned in her cosy world, Ellen fails to see the danger, but is relieved when Louise returns to France. However, shortly after this, old Mrs North dies, leaving a sum of money to Louise, along with her furs and jewellery, so Louise returns to claim her inheritance – and Avery finally succumbs to her charms.

Divorce follows and Ellen, devastated, sets about finding herself a job and somewhere to live, for the house must be sold. She is appointed as assistant manager at Somerton Manor, a local establishment where elderly ‘gentlefolk’ live out their days, which also operates as a restaurant. There she turns the old stable block into a home for herself and children and begins to rebuild her life. She proves to be surprisingly independent. She refuses to accept alimony. although she lets Avery pay for Anne’s schooling and the upkeep of the horse. She doesn’t see why he should have to support her, and is determined to make it on her own. But she never stops loving Avery.

For his part, Avery realises immediately that he doesn’t love Louise, but has no intention of trying to patch things up with his wife and children because he cannot bear to think they see him as flawed. Life with Louise is disastrous; he drinks too much, she spends his dwindling fortune and will not loose her grip on him. They visit France, where she hopes everyone will be impressed by his her luck in catching such handsome, wealthy man. But her parents, appalled that their daughter has broken up a happy home, warn that they will never see her again as long as she remains with Avery. Outside in the street is her old lover Paul, and Whipple tells us:

He had never heard of the Norths, far away in England. He would have been amazed at the suggestion that he, at such a distance, could have had anything to do with the breaking-up of that family. He had no idea that it was, in great measure, because of him that the man he had seen on the pavement in front of the Hotel de l’Ecu that afternoon had lost everything he cared about.

It’s like a tragic game of consequences, in which everything that happens can be traced back to this one man and his dalliance with Louise. Avery, of course, is unaware of this, but there is a kind of connection between him and is family and Paul.

I liked the way the story alternated between England and France, showing us events in both places, and helping to build a picture of Louise and what has happened to her in the past. Whipple is good at describing a character’s appearance and creating a portrait of their personality. Take Mrs Beard, the bad-tempered but good-hearted manager of Somerton Manor:

Mrs. Beard was a middle-aged Gibson girl, built-up hair, large busy, curved hips and that thrown-forward look which may have been due to her stays or to the fact that she wore high-heeled court shoes which tired her and made her cross, but which she thought necessary to her appearance.

Mrs Beard has had a tough time herself, and thinks Ellen should take whatever money she can get from Avery. The novel was published in 1953, when divorce was less common, when women had fewer opportunities to train for a career than they do today, and when they were still expected to give up work when they got married. But their options were far greater than those facing women like Ellen and Mrs Beard, left on their own after 20 years of marriage with few resources and skills.

D’you know how hard money is to come by for women like us?” said Mrs Beard. “We’re not the new sort of women, with University degrees in Economics, like those women who speak on the Radio nowadays, girls who can do anything. We’re ordinary women, who married too young to get a training, and we’ve spent the best years of our lives keeping house for our husbands, Not that we didn’t enjoy it, but now you’re out on your ear like me at over forty. My husband died and didn’t leave me a cent, so I had to work But yours is living and is bound by law to provide for you.

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Author Dorothy Whipple.

In fact, I’m surprised at how many single women feature in the novel, all dealing with life in different ways. They may be minor characters, but they are there. The teachers at Anne’s school, educated, caring, kind but firm, seem to be happy and fulfilled preparing of girls for life in the modern world. Then there’s Miss Daley, old Mrs North’s housekeeper, and all the elderly ladies at Somerton (who all have a tale to tell), and Miss Beasley, one of Ellen’s ‘half-day’ dailies, who turns out to have been abandoned by her husband 30 years earlier, and proudly announces that she’s ‘not done too bad’. It’s an epithet that could be applied to all the single women in the book. Spinsters, widows, abandoned wives, they’ve all set to and made the best of life on their own, which is a tremendous achievement.

It’s easy to be dismissive of writers like Whittle who focused on small-scale domestic issues, but it’s those everyday dramas that are so important in people’s lives, and she portrays feelings and emotions that we can all relate to. And there are bigger issues there about women’s roles in society.

A Typing Ghost…

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The Comforters, by Muriel Spark, is probably the only novel to feature a talking typewriter. It ‘belongs’ to Caroline Rose, who is writing a book about the 20th century novel – Form in the Modern Novel, we are told. But she’s having difficulty with the chapter on realism… Which is hardly surprising when you consider that she now believes herself to be a character in a book and her life is turned upside down by Typing Ghost. Not only does she hear the ghostly tap-tappity-tapping of typewriter keys, she also hears a voice (or voices) reciting her every thought, word and action. It is, as I’m sure you’ll agree, most unnerving. Here is her first encounter with the Typing Ghost:

“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped, and was followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any problem with Helena.

There seemed, then, to have been more than one voice: it was a recitative, a chanting in unison. It was something like a concurrent series of echoes.”

Is what she hears real or illusory, she wonders. Is she going mad? Being haunted? Imagining things? Spark famously described how the Typing Ghost was inspired by her own hallucinatory experiences whilst taking Dexedrine. In her case letters formed and re-formed on the page, a phenomenon that couldn’t be replicated on a printed page. And talking about her craft in the early 1960s she explained: “Fiction to me is a kind of parable. You have got to make up your mind it’s not true. Some kind of truth emerges from it.” I think that needs to be borne in mind when reading The Comforters.

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The Comforters, by Muriel Spark.

Published in 1957, it was Spark’s first novel, but she was already a very accomplished writer. Her trade mark pared-back prose is already there, and the theme of religious belief, that blurring of boundaries, the mix of reality and unreality, sanity and madness, goodness and evil. The novel poses philosophical questions about life, art, belief and creation, revealing layer upon layer of meaning. It’s difficult to establish what is fact and what is fiction, because this is a book about someone writing a book who is herself a character in a book. I loved this – Spark’s witty, elegant prose is second to none, and she’s very funny, but also very malicious, and a bit of an iconoclast, knocking down societal institutions and behavioural norms. And, as always with spark, there is a dark edge to the humour.

It dodges about in time and place as the perspective shifts from character to character, and the various threads of the plot twist, and pull apart, and twine together again, taking in smuggling, bigamy and blackmail, with passing references to the possibility of a Russian spy ring and black magic. The characters (presented with superb ironic detachment) fail to connect with each other in any meaningful way, although they all seem, somehow, to be linked. And they are, on the whole, self-consciously self-obsessed.

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Muriel Spark. (Pic from Wikipedia)

There is Caroline herself, recovering from a mental illness and converting to Catholicism, which appears to bring her little joy or comfort – her three days at the Pilgrim Centre of St Philumena are unforgettably awful. Then there is her boyfriend Laurence Manders, who finds diamonds in his grandmother’s bread and wants to know about the strange men who keep calling on her. Who are they, and what do they want? And what about sinister Georgina Hogg, who is the kind of Christian who gets Christians a bad name. A former employee of Laurence’s charitable mother, she is now catering warden at St Philumena’s, but pops up elsewhere when least expected, revealing an uncanny ability to winkle out secrets best left undisturbed.

*This is my first contribution to the year-long celebration of Muriel Spark being held by HeavenAli to mark the centenary of the author’s birth. It’s dead easy to join in and you don’t have to struggle with one of those link thingies – read her introductory post here