Posted in 20thC, Novels, Virago

In Which I Find A Virago I Hate

41EBFC6ZHHL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_
Mother and Son, by Ivy Compton-Burnett is that unusual thing – a green Virago that I couldn’t get along with,

Mother and Son, by Ivy Compton-Burnett  was bought at the same time as Mae West’s The Constant Sinner, and bears out my theory that you should never make assumptions about books. I bought the West book out of curiosity and, against all expectation, thoroughly enjoyed it. On the other hand I had high hopes for Mother and Son, and absolutely HATED everything about it – the characters, the story, and especially the way it was written. Sometimes, even when I don’t like book, I can appreciate the way it is constructed, and understand why other people would praise it, but not in this case. In fact I can’t understand why Compton-Burnett is so highly esteemed, and I was disappointed, because she’s admired by so many people, including Simon T over at Stuck in a Book, whose recommendations usually turn out to be excellent.

Plus IC-B gets a mention in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (which is brilliant – all book lovers should read it). He describes how the Queen, in pursuit of barking corgis, stumbles upon a mobile library van. Consequently, she discovers the joys of reading, and her first book, by Ivy Compton-Burnett, is selected because she made the author a dame.  “Yes, I remember that hair, a roll like a pie-crust that went right round her head,” she recalls. And when I looked at photographs of the author I realised how apt that description that is – but how terrible for a writer to be remembered for her hair rather than her prose!

Anyway, the novel opens as Miranda Hume, a strong-willed 80-year-old matriarch, is interviewing an applicant for the post of companion. But Miss Burke is as strong-minded as her prospective employer. During the course of the conversation we learn that Miss Burke believes housework has very little to do with companionship, which is very true, and made me recall Max de Winter’s first meeting with the nameless heroine of Rebecca,  when he says: “I did not know one could buy companionship,” and adds: “It sounds a strange idea.” The nature of companionship, and fear of being alone seem to be the main themes of the novel. The characters, as Hilary Spurling observes in her introduction, are not satisfied with the companionship on offer – but are unable to manage without it.

Until she can find a suitable person, Miranda falls back on the companionship of her middle-aged, son Rosebery – they seem almost unhealthily close. And there is her husband Julius, her orphaned teenage nephews and niece, Bates the maid, and Mr Pettigrew the tutor. It’s a strange, constrained sort of household, very different to the nearby establishment run by friends Miss Greatheart and Miss Wolsey (who take Miss Burke on as their housekeeper).

The book was written in 1955, but reads like something from an earlier age – it’s difficut tell when it is set. There’s not much of a plot, although hidden secrets are revealed, and none of the characters came to life for me; I found them unlikable, unrealistic and not very clearly defined.

I must admit that since Compton-Burnett is known for her strong use of dialogue, while I love lots of description, this was never likely to be my ideal read. I adore Dickens and Trollope and all those Victorian novelists who covered page after page with details of the weather, a dinner party table, slum housing and all sorts of other stuff. I want to know what people looked like, and where they lived and what they wore, and I like to find out what they thought and what made them tick. As far as I am concerned dialogue is fine, in small doses, and it should help reveal plot and character. But you don’t get that with Compton-Burnett. What you do get is a book full of dialogue, to the exclusion of all else. And very stilted dialogue it is. The speech patterns, words and language seem terribly old-fashioned, which could be due to the passing of time, but I refuse to believe anyone ever spoke like this in real life and especially not in the mid-50s.

On occasions I wondered if it was meant to be a parody: if Stella Gibbons had written things like ‘truly the flesh is weak’,  ‘my watch informs me of the hour’, or ‘do not look at me with an expression that pierces the heart’, we would know absolutely that this is not serious. In fact that last quote could just as easily come from Oswald Bastable, or any of Edith Nesbit’s other child heroes and heroines, using fantastical.high-flown language when playing together or describing their adventures.

And all the characters have the same voice, which is really, really irritating (and confusing). Everyone, whatever their age or social class, speaks in exactly the same fashion, without any hint of character or experience. If you read a page with the attributions removed you would have no idea who was speaking. In fact, there are great chunks of this novel where I was totally confused as to who said what. And there’s no emotion or feeling, or insight into character. It’s as if the’re bad actors mouthing lines which are witty but meaningless.

Ivy Compton Burnett
Ivy Compton-Burnett.

 

Posted in 20thC, Novels

Mae West and The Constant Sinner

Mae_West_LAT
Mae West: Vaudeville artist, film star, sex symbol, novelist and playwright. I imagine Babe Gordon looking very like her.

Babe Gordon leaned against the crumbling red brick wall of the Marathon Athletic Club in Harlem, at 135th Street off Fifth Avenue, and pulled at a cigarette. The Saturday night fight crowd picked its way under the glaring arc lamp in front of the main entrance like a slow-moving blackbeetle. Babe scanned the humans with an eye to business. Babe was eighteen and a prizefighter’s tart, picking up her living on their hard-earned winnings. Her acquaintances numbered trollops, murderers, bootleggers and gambling-den keepers. Two well-modelled bare legs were crossed at the ankles; her waist pressed to the wall rose to voluptuous breasts that almost protruded from the negligible neck of her black dress. Babe waited for Cokey Jenny.

The opening paragraph of Mae West’s The Constant Sinner sets the tone for the whole book, and the blurb on the back  (where, by the way, Virago spell her name wrong, calling her Babes) fills out the picture a little more, describing it as a ‘spirited lowlife novel’ and telling us, in the author’s own words,  that Babe is a broad who ‘would not have known what a moral was if it could be made to dance naked in front of her’.

You may deduce from this that Babe is not a good girl – good time girl is nearer the mark.. This is the 1920s I think, Prohibition is at its height, and the novel is peopled with dope pedlars, racketeers and prostitutes. When they have money (generally ill-gotten) they blow it all on having a good time; when the cash is gone they move on to something or someone new. Occasionally they even try their hand at a proper job – Babe briefly works as a model and a shop assistant. But there other ways of making money, all of them quicker, easier, and far more rewarding! Instant gratification is the order of the day, and the characters, especially Babe, live for the moment, moving from one experience to another, without any thought for the future or regret for the past.

constant sinner
One of the nice things about green-spined Viragos is that they include less literary titles alongside acknowledged classics

Babe hooks up with the Bearcat, a prize-winning boxer who has the makings of a champion. She also attracts the obsessive attention of Wayne Baldwin, son of a chain store owner. And let’s not forget Money Johnson, a mobster with a flamboyant lifestyle. As long as they have money and are willing to spend it on Babe she can’t keep away from any of them: she shuffles her men like a pack of playing cards. But they’re not enthusiastic about sharing her favours, and tragedy is inevitable…

Set on the mean streets of Harlem, featuring murder, drugs, drink, and prostitution, it could be a grim read, but this is Mae West and it’s a racy story told in a racy way, packed with the wise-cracking, witty quips you would expect from this legendary star. She portrays the glamour and excitement of rackety lives played out on the wrong side of the law and makes it seem almost like fun – but it’s not something you’d ever want to experience for yourself, and were you to meet any of these characters you wouldn’t trust them as far as you could throw them.

Racism and poverty are barely touched on and black and white live, work and party together, but there are moments when West gives a clear picture of the social mores of her day, and the hypocrisy of the wealthy middle and upper classes, such as when Wayne’s horrified family are told his young mistress is a common street-walker whose former lover was a black man who is now in jail. In fact, Wayne’s desire for Babe is fuelled by her association with Money Johnson – while the black mobster flaunts the white woman as a symbol of his power and wealth.

mae-west 3 (2)
In one scene in the book Wayne visits a nightclub and sees Babe ‘enveloped’ ermine. I know the furs her creator  is wearing in this picture are not ermine, but I think the effect must be pretty nuch the same.

In some ways the book, first published in America as Babe Gordon in 1930 (it changed its name the following year), is very much of its time – these days you wouldn’t be able to use the word nigger, or reproduce the speech of Harlem’s black residents the way Mae West does. But The Constant Sinner isn’t patronising, and her people are just people, irrespective of colour. Indeed, when the novel was published it must have been controversia, for not only does Babe  break the rigid moral code of the day, but one of her lovers is black – at a time when stringent segregation laws were enforced in many states, and inter-racial relationships were not acceptable, even in New York.

I bought the book partly out out of curiosity, and partly because it’s a Virago edition, and didn’t expect it to be all that good, which just shows how wrong you can be.  It romps along at the most tremendous pace and is great fun. I guess you’d have to call it pulp fiction, but it’s really not that bad: I’ve read far worse. West has a good ear for dialogue and creates great characters, even if they are one-dimensional, and our lusty heroine seizes life (and love) with zest and enthusiasm. As Babe hurtles from one situation to another it reminded me of those picaresque novels of the 18th century, built up from a series of loosely connected incidents, or a fast-paced Hollywood B movie.

The pace, and the light-hearted touch, are maintained until the very end, when the feel of the novel suddenly alters, like a piece of music changing from major to minor, and you realise that mo matter what happening now, there can be no happy-ever-after because Babe will never be happy with one man, in one place for very long.

PS: For those who’ve not heard of Mae West (1893-1980), she was a famous American vaudeville artist, comedienne and film star who sang, danced and acted. A busty, blonde sex symbol, she had a reputation as a bit of a bad girl – she was known for her bawdy double entendres and her many lovers, and was immortalised by WW2 fighter crews who named their life jackets after her! But there was more to her than that, because she also wrote plays, novels and film scripts, and in doing so fell foul of the censors – at one stage she was jailed for a short term for obscenity.

She insisted on creative control in all her films, and refused to sign contracts unless they contained a clause stating that the completed movie must, in every way, be to her satisfaction. Just think what an achievement that was when male actors had little or no control over the films they appeared in, and women had still less say, and even today stars would have trouble getting that kind of agreement.

Famous lines attributed to her include ‘Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?’ and ‘It’s not the men in my life that count, it’s the life in my men’. 

Posted in 20thC, Novels

Tea, Books And The Forsytes!

tea-or-books-logo

Yay! The latest Tea Or Books podcast, hosted by Simon T at Stuck In A Book and Rachel from Book Snob, is out and it’s a real goodie, considering the virtues of novels which take place during the course of just one day against the attractions of sagas where the stories unfold over many years. And in the second half of the episode the duo discuss a couple of chunksters – The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy, and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, both of which I’ve read.

This last charts the history of three generations of the Cazalet family, from 1937 through to the post-war period but the timescale seems longer, as there are multiple viewpoints, and past events are disclosed. I bought the books (All Change, Casting Off, The Light Years, Confusion and Marking Time) because I enjoyed the Radio 4 dramatisations, but I was disappointed. I’ve never really been a huge fan of Howard’s writing and, unlike Simon and Rachel, I couldn’t get along with the Cazalets at all. I couldn’t engage with the characters in any way but I kept reading in the forlorn hope that thing would get better (they didn’t). I even had trouble differentiating between the various people and had to keep flicking back to check who was who and how they connected with each other and, quite frankly, I couldn’t have cared less what happened to them, and when I turned the final page of the last volume I was so relieved to see the back of the family that I immediately carted them off to Oxfam!

But The Forsyte Saga is another matter altogether. I LOVE this but, again, my view is the reverse of Rachel and Simon – perhaps it’s an age thing! Anyway, it feels like serendipity is at work here, because I’ve been re-reading Galsworthy’s epic, on and off, for some months. I picked up my mother’s copy during one of my visits, then downloaded a version to the Kindle so I could read it on the train, and dug out some of my old Penguin editions of the individual novels. I haven’t finished the last three books in the saga (where the focus shifts from the Forsytes), but it seems an opportune moment to try and record some thoughts.

I’ve always been aware that Galsworthy is very critical of the upper middle classes, but having read Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph, with its emphasis on the clash between bourgeois respectability and bohemian creativity, I’m struck by the fact that he uses similar themes (though he’s more good humoured). He mocks them with wry self-amusement, acknowledging that he too is a member of the great Galsworthy clan, while exposing their absurdity. But the saga (comprising nine novels and four short stories) is also about relationships, highlighting sexual attraction and love and it touches on subjects like marital rape which are just as controversial more than 100 years later, as well as highlighting the importance of equality within relationships.

Nyree Dawn Prter
Nyree Dawn Porter as Irene in BBC television’s 1967 adaptation of The Forsyte Saga. She looked the part and really captured the spirit of Irene. I still think it was a brilliant production.

The Man of Property, the first book in the saga opens in 1886 as three generations of the wealthy family gather to celebrate the engagement between June (granddaughter of Old Jolyon) and penniless architect Philip Bosinney. Central to the novel (and, indeed, to the first two sections of the saga) is the doomed relationship between Soames Forsyte (June’s uncle) and his beautiful wife Irene, who cannot return his feelings – but she falls passionately in love with Bosinney, and he with her. They plan to elope, Soames rapes her (this is implicit rather than explicit) and Bosinney is killed falling in front of a tram.

I love the tongue in cheek way Galsworthy pokes fun at middle class values and people. And there are some wonderful characters here, especially among the older generation, particularly Old Jolyon, who is a hard-headed businessman, but is also kind, warm-hearted, generous, and tolerant.  His son Young Jolyon (June’s father) is estranged from the family after ‘making a mess of things’ by running away with the governess and fathering two more children. He’s interesting because he has a foot in both camps as it were – he is an artist, a bit of a rebel, an outsider who condemns the Forsytes for their love of possessions whilst retaining some of their characteristics.

And, of course, there is Irene, with her golden hair, dark eyes and perfect figure. She’s a skilled musician (she plays the piano) and is obviously well educated and cultured – an artistic woman, who enjoys beautiful things because they are beautiful and give pleasure, not because they have monetary worth. And she hates Soames with every fibre of her being. Yet she marries him, knowing she doesn’t love him. She even persuades him to agree that if the marriage doesn’t work he will let her go – a promise he later denies. You might wonder why she marries him, but you have to look at it in the context of the times. She is very young, she has no money, her father is dead, and her stepmother is about to marry again, and doesn’t want Irene in her life. So, after refusing him on previous occasions, she yields to Soames and escapes her home life. What else can she do, and where else would she go?

Once married she obviously feels trapped, like a wounded bird in a cage. She’s very passive, and remains an enigma – you never really feel you know her. But in his preface Galsworthy tries to explain:

‘The figure of Irene, never, as the reader may possibly have observed, present, except through the senses of other characters, is a concretion of disturbing Beauty impinging on a possessive world.’

Eric Porter Soames
Eric Porter as Soames in the 1967 BBC television production. 

It is Soames, the ‘man of property’ himself who dominates. A tragically flawed character who can only see the world in terms of financial value, he views his wife as one of his possessions. When I was younger I had no sympathy with Soames and thought him a villain, but it’s not as simple as that, and the older I get the more I pity him, although I certainly don’t condone his behaviour. He is an unlovable man, and if you read on through the saga you will find he has no better luck with his second wife than he does with Irene.

However, he cannot understand why she hates him so much.

The profound, subdued aversion which he felt in his wife was a mystery to him, and a source of the most terrible irritation. That she had made a mistake, and did not love him, and had tried to love him and could not love him, was obviously no reason.’

As he keeps saying, he does nothing wrong. He’s not bad looking, he’s decent, honest, upright, and has plenty of money. He puts her feelings down to nerves and emotion puts her hatred down to nerves and emotion. But in an odd sort of way I think he really does love her – he’s possessed by her beauty, by the idea of her (and the need to have a son), but she’s only thing in his life that he can’t fully possess or control.

The house he employs Bosinney to build for him becomes a symbol of the different outlooks. To Bossiney it’s about artistic freedom, creating something that’s the best of its kind, irrespective of cost: to Soames its worth is purely financial.

Reading through this it’s a bit bitty and lacks cohesion – it’s one of those posts that seems to have changed direction along the way, but it’s impossible to write about the entire saga, and equally difficult to stick to one book, because your view is affected by the whole.

Posted in 20thC, Novels, Virago

The Constant Nymph

constant nymph

I’m not quite sure what to make of The Constant Nymph, by Margaret Kennedy, and I’m not even sure I like it – but despite my reservations I sat up until 3 am to finish it, so it can’t be all that bad! It is, I think, a difficult book for modern readers. For a start there’s the vexing question of the relationship between a 14-year-old girl and an older man, not sexual, but disturbing nonetheless. Equally unsettling is the casual anti-Semiticism, which was surprisingly widespread when this novel was published in 1924. And the racism extends to a more general xenophobia, where foreigners are viewed with great suspicion by all true Englishmen – and Englishmen who consort with these strangers are the subject of even greater distrust. Additionally, there’s a pervasive ‘classism’ which I find very distasteful; for example, working class characters and peasants are regarded as stupid and hardly human, and are treated accordingly. To be honest, I feel a little mean highlighting class and race issues because they are not themes within the book – this is just the way people are, part of everyday life, and no-one questions it.

The story itself gets a little convoluted. Albert Sanger is a brilliant, tempestuous, avant garde musician living out the final years of his life in the Austrian Alps, with his mistress, a collection of children by various mothers, and a motley crew of  hangers-on. The children are known collectively as ‘Sanger’s Circus’ because of their:

“…wandering existence, their vulgarity, their conspicuous brilliance, the noise they made, and the kind of naptha-flare genius which illuminated everything they said or did. Their father had given them a good, sound musical training and nothing else. They had received no sort of regular education, but, in the course of their travels, had picked up a good deal of mental furniture and could abuse each other most profanely in the argot of four languages.”

The description seems more than a little unfair on Caryl and Kate, the children of Sanger’s first wife (who died) as they are by far the

Margaret_Moore_Kennedy_(1896-1967)
Author Margaret Kennedy.

most sensible members of the household, doing their best to keep things running smoothly and care for everyone else. Antonia, Teresa, Paulina and Sebastian are the offspring of Evelyn, his second wife (also dead), while Susan is the daughter of his current mistress, the stunningly beautiful but enormously fat Linda, who spends all her time in bed or in a hammock.

When Sanger dies unexpectedly, the children are left penniless, but the family of Evelyn, Sanger’s second wife, step in to help, and Cousin Florence is dispatched to bring the four orphans to England so they can be sent to school. Florence is beautiful, wealthy, well educated, and well dressed. Gentle, polite and sensible, she’s a devoted daughter – she’s looked after her father since her mother died. However, there are hints that Florence is not quite the paragon of virtue she appears to be, and her father’s reflections on her behaviour do not bode well for the future:

“From infancy she had always done exactly what she pleased with a persistance which belied the sweet placability of her manner. In the face of criticism or protest she exhibited none of Evelyn’s flaming defiance, only a pleasant disregard which had always vanquished him. Sometimes, viewing her unswerving pursuit of a chosen course, he was compelled to liken her to something slow, crushing, irresistible – a steam-roller.”

Florence, at almost 28,  is on the verge of becoming an old maid but she falls in love with composer Lewis Dodds, a friend of the Sangers. The couple marry, and back home in England Florence packs the children off to boarding schools (with the exception of Antonia, who marries another family friend, Jacob Birnbaum, a wealthy Jew, who has seduced her, on the grounds that if he doesn’t someone else will). Florence determines to to establish a kind of musical salon, using her connections to further Lewis’s career. But Lewis doesn’t want his career furthered. And, having opted out of polite society, he has no intention of rejoining it. A battle of wills develops, and to make matters worse the children run away from their schools, and the schools refuse to take them back…

the delphic oracle michaelangelo
At one point in the novel Tessa is described as looking like Michelangelo’s  Delphic Sibyl.

In fact, the marriage is doomed to failure, as everyone except Florence realises, for not only are their values and outlook on life very different, but Lewis is in love with Teresa, and Teresa (or Tessa as she is generally known), is in love with him, although she is only 14. As I said earlier, there’s no sexual element – their relationship is a a kind of pure meeting of minds. They are soul mates, destined to be together (think Cathy and Heathcliff rather than a conventional love story).

When the two are together even Charles, Florence’s father (and one of the nicest characters in the book) can see that Tessa and Lewis are a perfectly well-matched couple with the kind of rapport that Florence and Lewis can never achieve. Considering the situation he tells us:

“Teresa was, probably, the only woman in the world who could manage this man; she would respect humours without taking them too seriously, she would never require him to behave correctly, and, if he annoyed her, she would reprove him good-humouredly in the strong terms which he deserved and understood. How could they have failed to see it? Lewis was a fool! If he had married little Teresa she would have made a man of him, whereas mated with Florence he was nothing but a calamity.”

 

It’s a clash of worlds as much as a clash of personalities: natural versus artifice; conformity versus rebellion; order versus disorder; outsiders versus those who belong… Lewis, Tessa, Tony, Lina and Sebastian are wild, anarchic, passionate creatures who know no rules and trail chaos in their wake. Set against them is the conventional, well ordered society created by Florence and her friends, where appearance is everything, and talking about feelings is more important than the feelings themselves. The difference is shown in their approach to music: for Lewis and the Sangers music is part of the air they they breathe or the food they eat, and is every bit as necessary, but for Florence it is something to be taken up and enjoyed on special occasions, like a best dress. And there’s a poignant moment when Lewis recalls a magical moment in his childhood, when he heard a bird’s wings, and the response of the two women is very different, for while Tessa can feel the beat of the wings, Florence can only ask about the location.

It’s difficult to like the characters. On the whole they are not kind people – they are insensitive, thoughtless, and cruel to each other and to other people, and they are contemptuous about anyone they regard as less clever, or of a lower social order. But they drag you into their story whether you will or not, and although I didn’t enjoy this as much Troy Chimneys, there’s a lot to enjoy and admire, and Kennedy can be wonderfully satiric about people and situations.

I read this a while ago, but posted it today so I can take part in Margaret Kennedy Day, which takes place today, and is being hosted by Jane, at Beyond Eden Rock. 

Margaret Kennedy Day

Posted in 20thC, Novels

Is This Heroine Unlikable?

It pays to be good

It takes courage to write a novel with an unlikable heroine – but that’s exactly what Noel Streatfeild set out to do in It Pays To Be Good. “A tendency in my other efforts to make everybody lovable, has caused me, for the good of my soul, to produce Virginia,” she wrote to her friend Selene Moxon in 1935. “Obviously you are not meant to take her seriously; she is presented only to dislike and to entertain. She is also the answer to kind requests for a happy ending, I hope she amuses you.” Intriguing, I thought. However will she manage that?

Virginia, born Flora Elk, is known as Floss or Flossie to her parents, neighbours and school-mates (not friends – she’s not the sort of girl who has friends, especially not female ones). Flossie has two claims to fame. Firstly, it’s a miracle that she was born at all, and secondly, she is extraordinarily beautiful, with moonlight-silver curls and guileless blue eyes, which fill with tears when she doesn’t get her own way.

Her beauty is all the more startling because her parents, George and Fanny are so very plain. George a hard-working greengrocer, spends his spare time on the allotment, and has few aspirations in life, for himself or his family.  He wants his daughter to be a nice, sensible girl who will make a good wife for some man. And, as a stalwart member of the mission church, he fears beauty is a lure of Satan. But his wife, a remarkably silly woman, takes a different view.

Mrs Elk read serials in the papers, and knew the astounding power wielded by the beautiful. The possession of beauty might not make for goodness and sensibleness, in the sense that Mr Elk and the minister meant, but it did make for a life which was very much more exciting than that led by Fanny Elk in the Fordham Road.

“If you ’ave the looks, you use ’em, my girl,” she tells Flossie. And that’s just what Flossie does, encouraged by her doting mother, who doesn’t have much joy or beauty in her life, and is a martyr to her ‘inside’ which has been ‘all of a drop’ since Flossie was born. As a small child Flossie soon realises she can use her beauty to get what she wants – toys, sweets, choice titbits of food, nice clothes. But she gives nothing in return, she doesn’t cook, clean, sew or help out in the shop for ‘it seemed to Flossie insulting that she, so lovely and so wonderful, should be asked to do menial things’.

fossil-247x300
This is a picture of Posy Fossil, drawn by Noel Streatfeild’s sister Ruth Gervis for Ballet Shoes, but I think Flossie must have looked a little like this in her little red coat and cap.

When George marches off to war in 1914, Fanny enrols her daughter at the Madam Elise School of Dancing.  George, of course, knows nothing of all this, and when he returns he is horrified: no daughter of his is going to dance on the stage. But he is no match for Flossie’s wiles.

ballet shoes (2)
Another of Gervis’ illustrations for Ballet Shoes, showing the young dancers in their practice rompers and ankle-strap shoes (for character work). Streatfeild mentions Flossie wearing an outfit like this, and says she was proud of her romper.

Fast forward to the moment when Flossie is offered a leading role in a musical, purely on the strength of her looks. She can sing enough, and dance enough, but her accent is dreadful, and she can’t dress. Enter ‘Mouse’ (real name Margaret Shane), a beautiful, stylish, one-time actress, who is the ‘friend’ of an English aristocrat and knows everyone in the theatrical world and in society. She is persuaded to take Flossie under her wing and teach her how to speak, how to behave and how to dress. A band of professionals gather to help groom the future star, all with their own exotic back stories – and they create a new identity for her. Flossie becomes Virginia, a beautiful girl left in a convent who is, so the whisper goes, the daughter of mysterious foreign royalty…

She is, of course, a huge success with the general public, and attracts droves of adoring male followers who lavish money and expensive gifts on her. True to form, she gives nothing in return, and her heart – and virtue – remain intact. And she cuts her ties with the past and drops her parents without a qualm, just as poor George always knew she would. However, Mouse appreciates goodness and honesty and forms an unexpected friendship with the couple. There’s a kind of sub-plot going on with Mouse, her lover Jim (Lord Menton) and his wife Jasmine who, surprisingly, is friendly with Mouse. And there’s a host of other colourful characters, including Jim’s penniless nephew Derwent, who is in love with Virginia (as we must now call her); Mrs Hodge, a ‘sack of a woman held tightly in the middle by her apron strings’ who ‘does’ for Mouse, and newspaper magnate Ossie Bone, who has clawed his way out of the Liverpool slums.

Things get a little complicated, and I don’t want to give all the plot away (if I did that you’d never read the book), but Jim dies when a publicity stunt dreamed up by Virginia goes wrong, and Derwent (who’s pretty dozy really) inherits all the money, so you can probably guess the outcome.

Noel_streatfeild
Author Noel Streatfeild was an actress during the 1920s.

The book is never going to be classed as a literary classic: there’s not a lot of depth to it, while settings and characters are a little stagey perhaps, but nevertheless the people are very engaging and it’s a hugely enjoyable read. It’s very light-hearted and humorous, although there are sad moments amid the laughter, and serious issues about relationships, identity and the nature of celebrity, though these are never overtly spelled out.  Until fairly recently I hadn’t realised Streatfeild wrote novels for adults (I still have Ballet Shoes, White Boots and The Painted Garden on my bookshelves). Some of the themes, settings and characters are very similar to those in the children’s books with their rags to riches fairy tale approach, but Streatfeild, who was an actress for 10 years or so, obviously knew about the theatrical world and its larger-than-life inhabitants.

So, I hear you ask, did I like Flossie/Virginia? Well, she certainly amused and entertained me, and I couldn’t take her too seriously, because she’s really a little ludicrous, and that made me laugh, and you can’t dislike someone who makes you laugh.  She’s a heartless, selfish, self-centred, manipulative monster, who treats people abominably (especially her parents). But I found it hard not to like her a little, and at times I almost pitied her – she’s like a greedy, grasping, over-indulged child who’s never quite grown up (Supernanny would have stuck her in the naughty corner and sorted out her problems in five minutes flat). And you have to admire her self-belief, her confidence, her focus, and her shrewdness. She’s certainly more likable (and much more capable) than Angel, in Elizabeth Taylor’s novel of the same name, who is the only comparable literary heroine I can think of – the defining characteristic of both Angel and Flossy/Virginia is an overwhelming belief in themselves. They are both totally self-obsessed.

Mouse recognises this and tells Jasmine that Flossie’s purpose is to see that she is treated as befits her perfection: “If you or I were half as sure of anything as she is, that her beauty and brilliance give her divine right to the best of everything, we’d be much happier. And believe me, she doesn’t pretend, that’s how she really feels, and she’s quite incapable of believing that other people don’t feel the same way about her.”

I think it’s that character flaw, the inability to understand how others feel about her, and her belief that she deserves the best of everything, that somehow makes her seem more human, and makes it hard to dislike her – basically, the girl can’t help herself.

My copy of It Pays To Be Good came from Greyladies Books, who publish ‘Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone’, which sounds delightful. There are four categories: vintage crime; adult books by children’s authors; girls’ school stories written for adults, and Scottish country gentlewomen (the company is based in Scotland).

They deserve a mention because the book arrived very promptly (but I left it sitting on the TBR pile for ages and ages) and is beautifully produced, with easy-to-read print, good quality smooth paper, and a lovely cover. And I think we should support small, independent  publishers, especially when they are reprinting forgotten books.

Posted in 20thC, Novels

Mary Stewart Reading Week

Mary-Stewart_2912427b
Novelist Mary Stewart: Pic from Daily Telegraph, by Geoff Wilkinson.

Next month sees the centenary of the birth of novelist Mary Stewart, so I’ve volunteered to host a Reading Week in her honour – mainly because she wrote what has to be one the best ever versions ever of the Arthurian legends. The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, The Wicked Day and The Prince and the Pilgrim (known collectively as The Merlin Chronicles) are just wonderful, especially the first three. I must admit, I don’t know the rest of her work all that well, but I remember reading and enjoying Touch Not the Cat when it first came out, and much more recently I liked Thornyhold, so this will be a bit of learning curve for me.

And hosting a Reading Week is unknown territory as well: I’ve never done this before, although I’ve taken part in events organised by other bloggers. I’ve no idea if anyone will support it, but I’ll be enormously grateful if you do – and if anyone has any advice that would be lovely! I realise I’m a little late with this introductory post, which should have been published much earlier, but since Mary Stewart was born on September 17, 1916, I thought we could kick off on her actual birthday (Saturday, September 17), and run until Friday, September 23, which would give us a bit more time.

Mary Stewart, who died on May 9, 2014, at the age of 97, was credited with creating (or

DSCN7927
My old copy of The Crystal Cave, in which Merlin tells of his childhood and youth.

popularising) ‘romantic suspense’. In 1954, when her first novel was published, she was working part-time as a lecturer, but had always wanted to write. Encouraged by her husband she wrote a book , which she called Murder for Charity, and sent to Hodder & Stoughton under her maiden name, Mary Rainbow. The publishers liked it and issued it as Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart and the rest, to coin a phrase, is history. It was as an instant success and over the next 40 years Mary Stewart penned another 19 novels, as well as children’s stories and a volume of poetry.

She is regarded, first and foremast, as a superb story teller, but her heroines were utterly unlike most of the female protagonists featured in novels previously: they were modern women, who knew their own mind. They were intelligent, independent, and feisty, and were not afraid to seize life with both hands, make their own decisions, take the initiative in relationships, and cope with whatever problems came their way. The Guardian obituary says Stewart referred to this as her ‘anti-namby-pamby’ reaction to the ‘silly heroine’ of the conventional contemporary thriller who ‘is told not to open the door to anybody and immediately opens it to the first person who comes along’.  Her books were well researched and her love of nature and Greek and Roman history, music, theatre and art is obvious.

DSCN7910
Spotted this in a charity shop – very serendipitous in view of the Week!

As far as her private life goes, Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow (I can’t think why her publishers didn’t like that surname – I think it’s wonderful)  was a vicar’s daughter, born in Sunderland, and claimed she learned to read at the age of three, writing her first stories (about her toys) when she was seven. She attended boarding schools, which she hated, studied English at Durham University, and was a teacher during WW2. Then, in 1945, she met Frederick Stewart at a fancy dress party in Durham Castle, and they were married just three months later. In 1956, they moved to Edinburgh, where he was a professor of geology and mineralogy, and they spent their time in Edinburgh and at their second home, by Loch Awe, in the Highlands. Frederick became one of the UK’s leading scientists, and was knighted in 1974, making his novelist wife Lady Stewart, though apparently she hated using the title. He died in 2001.

I would guess she was at her most popular during the late 50s, the 60s and the 70s, and I’m not sure how widely read she is today but, unlike some novelists who fall out of favour, she is still published and her work seems to be widely available. It has been said that she built a bridge between classic literature and modern popular fiction, which makes me curious to read more, and it would be nice to remember her on this special anniversary, so please join in if you can. Just write a review on your blog and leave a message here, with a link, and I’ll co-ordinate them.

I’ve included a completed list of her work:

  • Madam, Will You Talk?(1954)
  • Wildfire at Midnight(1956)
  • Thunder on the Right(1957)
  • Nine Coaches Waiting(1958)
  • My Brother Michael(1959)
  • The Ivy Tree(1961)
  • The Moon-Spinners(1962)
  • This Rough Magic(1964)
  • Airs Above the Ground(1965)
  • The Gabriel Hounds(1967)
  • The Wind Off the Small Isles(1968)
  • Touch Not the Cat(1976)
  • Thornyhold(1988)
  • Stormy Petrel(1991)
  • Rose Cottage(1997)

The Merlin Series

  1. The Crystal Cave(1970)
  2. The Hollow Hills(1973)
  3. The Last Enchantment(1979)
  4. The Wicked Day(1983)
  5. The Prince and the Pilgrim(1995)

Children’s novels

  • The Little Broomstick(1971)
  • Ludo and the Star Horse(1974)
  • A Walk in Wolf Wood(1980)

Poetry

  • Frost on the Window: And other Poems(1990) (poetry collection)
Posted in 20thC, Short Stories, Virago

The Blush

DSCN7697Here we have another Virago (after all, LibraryThing’s All Virago All August is still running). The Blush, is a collection of 12 short stories by Elizabeth Taylor who, unlike Lisa St Aubin de Teran in my last post, could never, ever be accused of melodrama, although she can, on occasions, be much darker than you might expect.

Taylor is one of those wonderfully understated English authors whose work is notable as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. If you’re after thrills and spills and fast paced action then look elsewhere. Her novels and short stories are beautifully restrained observations on well-heeled, middle class life, failed relationships, disappointments and missed opportunities. And the 12 tales in The Blush are classic Taylor territory.

It’s a microcosm of the world she moved in, a world that even when she was first writing, in aftermath of WW2, must have seemed old-fashioned. With their home-counties settings, servants, and boarding schools they’re redolent of an earlier period of more gracious living. And, like people from that pre-war era (or, indeed, from the war itself) her characters know they must bear up, whatever the circumstances. They follow the unwritten rules of their social milieu, keeping up appearances and maintaining a stiff upper lip, unable to express strong passions or reveal their true feelings, even to their nearest and dearest, which is a kind of tragedy I think – but life goes on just as it always has.

And Taylor’s stories focus on the little things in life, the small things that seem unimportant to everyone else, but are everything to the people concerned, and the almost unnoticed moments on which a life can turn as a decision is made – or not made – and the future is mapped out.

I think my favourite in this collection is The Letter-Writers, where Emily and famous writer Edmund have been corresponding for 10 years, but have never met – until now. And both  know it is a risky step, because the reality may not match the picture each has built of the other. And, sure enough, nothing goes according to plan. Before his arrival Emily, who is unused to alcohol, drinks a  glass of sherry to steady her nerves, and the cat eats her carefully prepared lobster lunch. Over a makeshift meal of tinned sardines she runs out of small talk.

The silence was unendurable. If it continued, might he not suddenly  say. “You are so different from all I imagined”, or their eyes might meet and they would see in one another’s nakedness and loss.”

Then, just as you are thinking things can’t get any worse, local busybody Mrs Waterlow calls and refuses to budge. She’s never read any of his books, but she always reads the reviews in the Sunday papers (because, she says,  ‘we’re rather a booky family’). She even appropriates Emily’s encylopedia and looks up tapestry, which has pages of close print, to  (allegedly) settle a family argument.

The hot afternoon was a spell they had fallen under. A bluebottle zig-zagged about the room, hit the window-pane, then went suddenly out of the door. A petal dropped off a geranium on the window-sill – occasionally – but not often enough for Edmund – a page was turned, the thin paper rustling silkily over.”

Eventually, Edmund finds a novel way of forcing Mrs Waterlow to go, but the day is spoiled and his time with Emily curtailed. When he leaves, neither of them can speak about their feelings, or the events of the day.

She shrank from words, thinking of the scars they leave, which she would be left to tend when he had gone. If he spoke the truth she could not bear it, if he tried to muffle it with tenderness, she would look upon it as pity.He had made such efforts, she knew; but he could never have protected her from herself.

As he leaves she begs him: “If you write to me again, will you leave out today, and let it be as if you had not moved out of Rome?” And afterwards, with the last of the light, she sits down and starts writing him a letter… See what I mean about small things, and life carrying on the way it has always done. The life she writes about becomes more real (for for herself and her recipient) than real life and, unlike reality, it has no power to hurt her.

BellWeirLock02
The Ambush is particularly strong on Thames-side landscape, a landscape I recognise, because I was brought up in Egham, Surrey, not too far from Penn, in Buckinghamshire, where Elizabeth Taylor lived. I imagine the lock and weir in this story looking like the Bell Weir Lock of my childhood – and I was delighted to see from this picture in Wikipedia that it still looks much as I remember. ( Pic by Motmit – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https//commons.wikipemedia.org/w/Index.php?curld=4297316)

Then there is The Ambush, where Catherine is staying with Mrs Ingram, the mother of Noel, her dead fiance, in her riverside home. Mrs Ingram is one of those women who manages to arrange life to her own satisfaction, without seeming to lift a finger or exert her will on others.

“I love her, Catherine thought. I could never withstand her, no matter what she wanted of me.” Then she questions why such a thought came to her, and we consider what Mrs Ingram wants from Catherine. Does she want her to marry  Noel’s brother Esmé (who is so obviously not the marrying kind)? Does she want the daughter (or daughter-in-law) she never had? Or does she want a family to replace the sons she has lost – one dead, and the other about to return to his life abroad.  Eventually Catherine gives way to her grief, and cries for Noel and what might have been. And Mrs Ingram’s response is not so unexpected, because she has drawn Catherine into her orbit.

You see, I can’t stay, You do see? Her heart had been twice ambushed in this house and now she was desperate to escape. Yet did Mrs Ingram understand? She said nothing. She simply took Catherine in her arms and kissed her – but with a welcoming, gathering-in gesture as if to one who has come home at last rather than to someone preparing to go away.”

On the whole these are sad stories, about lonely, shy, diffident people who never fully engage with others, but it’s tempered with a lot of humour. Take The Blush, the story which gives its name to this collection. Mrs Allen receives a visit from Mr Lacey, husband of the woman who comes every day to the housework. Slackly corseted Mrs Lacey, with her orange hair and domestic difficulties, has revealed she is pregnant, and Mr Lacey has called to ask Mrs Allen not to employ his wife as a baby sitter while she and her husband attend cocktail parties, because it is too much for her in her condition. But the Allens have no children, and don’t go out much. Mrs Allen is much too embarrassed and polite to try and explain, and nothing more is said, but I began to wonder if it made her wonder about her husband’s late nights in his London office.

And there is Perhaps a Family Failing, where new bride Beryl, ‘provocative in chiffon’ is in a hotel room preparing herself for her wedding night – she’s read all the advice in women’s magazines. Her husband Geoff has not, alas, read the magazines, and consequently has no idea what is expected of him on this momentous occasion, so he spends the evening drinking in the hotel bar, forgets where he is or what day it is, and returns (very drunk) to his parents…

I could write about all the stories, but there simply isn’t room, and you really should

elizabeth taylor
Author Elizabeth Taylor.

read this yourself. But I will mention Summer Schools, which is the saddest of all.  Here sisters Melanie and Ursula (the Misses Rogers) are growing old in their childhood home, unhappy together, but unable to live apart. Then Ursula receives an invitation yo stay with an old schoolfriend, so out of spite Melanie books herself on a Summer Lecture Course about literature.  Neither enjoys their break – it merely highlights the emptiness of their lives. They are growing into the old ladies they must become, copies of elderly , spinster sisters they knew when they were young, laughably fussy, old-fashioned, unadventurous, set in their ways.

However, Ursula does have an adventure during her vacation, but it is not romantic, and she quickly brushes it from her mind. And Melanie invents a broken love affair with the lecturer in charge of the course (shades of Charlotte Bronte here I think). In reality she never really speaks to him, but I’m sure she convinces herself that they met, fell in love and parted in anguish because he is married. And somehow it is this that gives the sisters an interest and purpose in life. The fantasy will dictate their future and the way people perceive them, for Melanie will become Miss Rogers, whose life was blighted by a tragic love-affair, and Ursula can be the loving sister who gave up her life to care for her.

And, to finish, a brief comment about the lovely cover of this book, which is as delicate and restrained as Taylor’s writing. Sadly, I can’t tell you who painted this, because the book is very battered, and has an old sticker across the back, hiding the illustration attribution.

 

Posted in 20thC, Novels, Virago

A Virago for August!

“We are a photograph, the same photograph of every year with me a summer older, so a summer taller: lanky Joan, outgrowing the world around her. It is always Selsey Beach, a stretch of bare sand on the South Coast, and there are certain constants: myself, Granny, in her tight-bodiced dress, crocheting or gazing out to sea, and Mother with her green Antarctic eyes, cross-sectioned and sepiad by the camera. Mother, as beautiful as ever under her hat but with her cruel stare frightening even the seagulls off the beach. Or was it just empty? Out of season?”

DSCN7487 (2)

It’s Virago time! Library Thing is running its traditional ‘All Viragos, All August’, so my first offering is Joanna, by Lisa St Aubin de Teran, which I loved – it had me hooked from that first paragraph.There are moments when this novel feels overly melodramatic – positively gothic in some ways – and it explores some disturbing issues, including child abuse, mental illness, and what happens when the relationship between mother and daughter is damaged or twisted beyond repair. But it is a powerful story, beautifully written, and not easily forgotten.

It’s the story (actually, stories would be more accurate) of Amazonian red-haired Joan, her tiny, fragile mother Kitty, and her grandmother, Florence, and it’s written in four sections, with each member of the family telling her own tale (starting and ending with Joan), so you view them from three perspectives – as they perceive themselves, and as each of the other two see them.

I’m not sure this necessarily makes them more rounded, and I wonder whether any of the trio are reliable witnesses of the past, but they each tell the truth as they see it, and while parts of the narratives overlap, there are some discrepancies in the accounts, but together they build a picture of the events and circumstances which have gone to make the women what, and who, they are.

Florence and Kitty have been raised in luxury on the island of Jersey – Florence in the closing decades of the 19th century, and Kitty in the early years of the 20th century. But by the end of the First World War their charmed life comes to an end. Florence, newly widowed, discovers her husband has gambled the family fortune away, so her home and possessions must be sold to pay the debts, leaving her with what is described as a ‘pittance’. At the same time pregnant Kitty (who is obviously suffering from some kind of mental health issue) abandons her husband of just a few months and returns home. So mother and daughter move to London, where they live in self-imposed exile, and where Joan is born.

Towering over everyone else (in character, if not in stature) is diminutive Kitty with her glittering green eyes, her spite, her rages, her cruelty, her psychic ability to foretell a death – and her psychotic hatred of her daughter. It is a wonder that Joan is born at all, and nothing short of a miracle that she survives and thrives, despite Kitty’s violence towards her. Kitty is a monster. She has to be just about the worst mother you are ever likely to find. Her attitude towards her daughter goes way beyond dislike, or fear, or lack of bonding – she seems to see her as an abomination. She attacks Joan with her fists, and anything else that comes to hand – a broken, jagged-edged record and, finally, a carving knife. On that occasion (the incident which finally forces Joan to leave home), she tells the girl: “Red is the colour of the Devil.  You are red inside and out.” And when she tells the story of her life she refers to her daughter as ‘it’.

As time passes Kitty’s behaviour worsens, and to protect the girl from her mother’s uncontrolled rages Florence packs her off, first to a Catholic boarding school run by French nuns, and then to another, run by German nuns who support Hitler.

There is a brief respite when Kitty marries again, but we know the marriage is doomed to failure and she cannot sustain the relationship.

Throughout everything Florence continues to protect Kitty – from herself, and from the world around her – fearing that if people realise her daughter is mad she will be shut away in an asylum. As I read this book, I kept wondering whether Kitty was always ill, or whether it was her traumatic marriage that tipped her over the edge, or the pressure of living up to the fact that she looked exactly like her mother’s adored, sweet-natured, beautiful sister, who died young.

And how culpable is Florence for covering up Kitty’s behaviour, and keeping quiet about her abuse of the child? And how much does her silence affect what happens to Kitty and Joan and shape their future lives? Is she doing the best for them – or for herself? “I have always been needed, and that has made my life seem full,” she tells us. She has always known her daughter is not like other people. “Kitty was a victim of circumstance, a beautiful flower transplanted into the wrong soil,” she says.

 

Posted in 20thC, Novels, Uncategorized

The Left Bank

Paris in July-16 b

Bonjour mes amis! It’s Paris in July again,  thanks to Tamara at Thyme for Tea, who has been running her annual glorification of all things French for seven years, and I’m always amazed at how many different books, films, foods and songs people come up with. I love to see their contributions and, since there is no chance of me making it across the Channel for a holiday, I tend to view this as a kind of ‘virtual trip’ that is not as good as the real thing (obviously) but is, nevertheless, interesting and enjoyable.

I had stuff all planned out, and was going to a post a week but, once again, life has got in the way so I’m late to the party, but I’ve time to get some reviews done before the end of the month.. Originally I aimed to write about The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George, because I’d read reviews which made it sound sound delightful and charming. Books and Paris. What’s not to like, I thought. Quite a lot as it turned out. However, since this is supposed to be a celebration of Paris, all I will say is that it was like drowning in marshmallow. Initially I gave up at around chapter 15, but I did go back and struggle through the rest of it, and wished I hadn’t.

Jean Rhys (2)
Jean Rhys.

I needed an antidote, so I turned to Jean Rhys who, thank goodness, is neither charming, nor delightful, and exactly suited my mood at that point (I’m a contrary creature, and much as I love her work there are times when I require cheerfulness, and on those occasions she simply will not do). Anyway, if you’re looking for happy endings you won’t find them here. In fact you won’t find happy anything in her work – it is unremittingly bleak. But no-one portrays seedy, Bohemian  Paris quite like Rhys, and seedy, Bohemian Paris is exactly what you get in a selection of short stories from The Left Bank (subtitled Sketches and Studies of present-day Bohemian Paris). Her first published work, it was issued in 1927, with 22 short stories, of which nine appear in Tigers are Better-Looking, a later collection which also includes a selection of her other short stories.

 

DSCN1799 (2)
Tigers are Better-Looking: Short stories about Bohemian Paris.

I’ve concentrated on some of the tales from The Left Bank which appear in my 1982 Penguin edition of Tigers are Better-Looking. The book also has part of the original preface by Ford Maddox Ford – who gave Rhys her nom de plume (she was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams), launched her literary career, and had a corrosively torturous affair with her (which they both wrote about). Describing her work as ‘very good’, he says her business is with ‘passion, hardship, emotions’  and explains that ‘these sketches begin exactly where they should and end exactly when their job is done’.

I think that’s spot on, especially the last comment. These slender stories are almost snapshots, where events have coalesced at a particular point in time, and Rhys’s pared down writing means there is never a word too many. Come to that there is never a word too few either. There is no back story, and no future – just the grim present, with barely enough information to form a picture of what is happening. And Rhys never judges: she offers neither praise nor censure. Her characters are as they are, and you must accept them that way, however uneasy it may make you feel.

She writes mostly (but not always) about women. They are outsiders, not quite accepted by society, down on their luck, living in cheap hotels or the equivalent of boarding or lodging houses. They are blown hither and thither by the winds of fate, desperately searching for love. Mostly they have no inner resources or strength, no will of their own – they can’t take positive action to change their life, they need a man who who will look after them, tell them what to do, make them feel loved, cared for, needed. Yet the men they meet are no good. They are rotters, on the make, equally adrift in a world they cannot understand. We know know it, and so do the women. Despite everything, on the whole Rhys’ women are survivors, even when they hit rock bottom. In an odd way they are curiously naive, never quite losing hope that something will turn up, while at the same time being honest and clear-sighted enough to know it won’t. And there are odd glimpses of beauty, and you get the feeling that tough though things may be, these women have lived life to the full, and would not have things any different. Like Edith Piaf, they have no regrets.

A handful of the tales are set elsewhere, but they are still peopled with Bohemian drifters, and have that unmistakable ‘left-bank’ feel. Like the women of Paris, alcohol gets these women through their days, and Veronal gets them through the nights. (Veronal was a widely available barbiturate sleeping powder).

1922-travel-suit
Jean Rhys.

One of the few women who makes her own way in life is Miss Bruce, who we meet in Illusion. Tall, thin, and quite old, with large hands, bones and feet and a ‘gentlemanly’ manner, she’s an Englishwoman living and working as an artist in Montparnasse (with limited success). She always wears a neat serge dress in summer, and a neat tweed suit in winter, both outfits completed with low-heeled brown shoes and cotton stockings. And for special occasions she has a black gown of crepe de chine, ‘just well enough cut’.

But her hidden secret is revealed when she is rushed to hospital and the narrator goes with concierge to collect a nightgown, comb and other necessities for the sick woman. They open the door of the plain, sturdy, utilitarian wardrobe and the drab room gives way to  ‘a glow of colour, a riot of soft silks… everything that one did not expect. There are cosmetics, perfumes and the most beautiful clothes imaginable – but Miss Bruce has never been seen wearing any of them. Your heart goes out to this plain, sensible, elderly woman who craved a little beauty in her life.

In the middle, hanging in the place of honour, was an evening dress of a very beautiful shade of old gold; near it another of flame colour; of two black dresses the one was touched with silver, the other with a jaunty embroidery of emerald and blue. There were a black and white check with a jaunty belt, a flowered crepe de chine – positively flowered! – then a carnival costume complete with mask, then a huddle, a positive huddle of all colours, of all stuffs.”

Soeurs, Callot, Abendkleid, gestickt, Seidensamt (gelbgrün) & Goldlamé & Perle, Paris, um 1927 (Köln, Museum für Angewandte Kunst Köln, P 814.  (Foto: © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln, Wagner, Anna C., rba_c017305)
Could Miss Bruce’s gold evening dress have looked like this one, made by Soeurs Callot in 1927.

There are more clothes in Mannequin we meet Anna on her first day working as a model for fashion house, where she is to wear the ‘jeune fille’ dresses. At the moment she is wearing the black cotton, chemise-like garment  of the mannequin off duty, and she wouldn’t be out of place as a modern super-model:

“… the garment that she wore was very short, sleeveless, displaying her rose-coloured stockings to the knees. Her hair was flamingly and honestly red; her eyes, which were very gentle in expression, brown and heavily shadowed with kohl; her face small and pale under its professional rouge. She was fragile, like a delicate child, her arms pathetically thin. It was to her legs that she owed this dazzling, this incredible opportunity.”

The salon where buyers view the clothes (and the girls who wear them) is sumptuous in white and gold, but elsewhere is dingy. And the glamorous ‘goddess-like’models, with their ‘sensual, blatant charms, and their painted faces’ are envied by the the saleswomen, the dresser, and the sewing girls. But, like the decorated public salon, it’s all artifice. Anna spends an hour putting her make-up on, an hour being draped in a dress. One of the saleswomen pinches her, and she and the other mannequins seem perpetually bored, though they complain they are tired and the work is hard.

Anna tells herself she can’t stick it, but we know she can and she will. She will do this until she loses her figure and her looks, and faces an uncertain future. But, for the moment, she is happy, and walks into the ‘great, maddening city’ clad in a beautifully cut tailor-made and beret. I am not sure what a ‘tailor-made’ is – a suit, or a coat perhaps? Obviously something stylish though.

1920s-beret-hatad-384x500
Berets were very fashionable throughout the 1920s, and were worn pulled down like this. (Pic found at http://vintagedancer.com/

Actually, looking at what I’ve written so far, this post has changed direction again, because it’s much more about clothes than it should be! This was a re-read, and I’d never noticed before how important clothes in Jean Rhys’ work, and it’s sent me scuttling off to look at some of her other books again. Personally I blame Moira at Clothes in Books, which is one of my favourite blogs, for making me obsessive about clothes.

I’ll just mention one more tale, La Grosse Fifi, and yes, I am going to mention clothes again – Paris is famed for its fashion industry, after all. Here we’re in the Riviera. Roseau has no money, no man, no close friends. She’s bruised by life, tired and depressed. She’s befriend by Fifi, a wealthy older woman with a toy boy in tow. This Fifi.

“… she was stout, well corseted – her stomach carefully arranged to form part of her chest. Her hat was large and worn with with a rakish, sideways slant, her rouge shrieked, and the lids of her protruding eyes were painted bright blue. She wore very long silver earrings; nevertheless her face looked huge – vast… 

“Her small, plump hands were covered with rings, her small, plump feet encased in very high-heeled , patent leather shoes.”

9f22da49d6514d2d220d6267180092f1
Sheer nighties of silk, chiffon and similar materials were very fashionable, and were often trimmed with coloured laces and decorated with embroidery. This one, which looks similar, is from Boue Soeurs in 1927, in the Metropolitan Museum New York.

Her night attire is just as outrageous. “She was wonderfully garbed in a transparent nightgown of a vivid rose colour trimmed with yellow lace.” But the effect is spoiled by a dirty dressing gown, with the sleeves tied around her neck. Can’t you just visualise her? She sounds grotesque, but she has a heart of gold, and is as needy for love as anyone else – but there is a cruel fate in store for her.

Posted in 20thC, Novels, Virago

Troy Chimneys

Troy ChimneysSince I am still in catching-up mode I am trying to cobble together a hasty review on Margaret Kennedy’s Troy Chimneys, so I can take part in Margaret Kennedy Day over at Jane’s blog, Beyond Eden Rock. I must admit I know nothing about Margaret Kennedy, and I’ve never read anything by her, although this has been languishing on the bookshelves for years. I bought it it because:

a) It is a green-spined Virago, and you know how much I love them.

b) I liked the cover. It is, apparently, a detail from Captain Robert Orme, painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1756, and is held by the National Gallery in London. For some reason it made think of DK Broster’s Flight of the Heron, and I guess I’m not far out in that, because the Jacobite Rebellion was just 11 years earlier.

Anyway, the novel tells the story of Miles Lufton, who is, as the blurb on the back explains, a self-made politician in Regency England. His father is a clergyman, and his mother is generally regarded as an Angel. The couple have learning, taste and high moral principles  – but no money. They are poor relations of the great family at the nearby Park. However Miles is brought up alongside his cousin Ned (heir to the house and fortune), learns to ride, hunt and shoot, and acquires a taste for luxury that is way above his station, though he does not realise this at the time. It must be said that Miles has a very high opinion of himself.

“There was not a single activity in which I could not count myself superior to Ned,” he tells us. “I could out-ride him, out-shoot him, bowl him at cricket and beat him at cards. That I rode his ponies, and shot his fathers coverts did not occur to either of us. For Ned admired me almost as much as I admired myself.”

His education enforces that sense of superiority, for he is sent to Winchester, by the good offices of an altruistic gentleman who admires his mother at church … such things happen in novels, especially in the early 18th century. At school he learns that however clever and good-looking he may be, without money and position he is no-one, and will never get on in society.  So he sets out to make himself charming and amenable to the people who matter. He’s a very honest narrator, and makes no effort to dissemble, or disguise his behaviour and motives.

“… I worked and played, cultivated popularity, studied the foibles of the masters, and strove to recommend myself myself in that quarter where the most powerful influence was likely to be felt.”

At Oxford he is just as canny, and his friendship with the rather peculiar Ludovic (more correctly known as Lord Chalfont) provides a springboard for him to launch himself into society. With his charm, wit, intelligence and , with pleasing manners, he becomes the darling of the fashionable and wealthy – but the class distinction is always maintained. He is never their equal: he may flirt with their daughters, but marriage would never be allowed, and he knows this. He becomes what we would call a gofer, running errands for his new ‘friends’. Nothing is ever too much trouble and he’s always willing to arrange something, or fill an empty seat at the theatre or a dinner party. He is, basically, enjoying the good life by sponging off people. But he remains very clear-sighted about himself.

“I liked to stay with people who had nothing to do save amuse themselves. I liked that kind of life very well. I had no wish to be rich; I only wanted enough money to dress well, travel post, and purchase civility from the servants. Had I possessed an income of a thousand pounds per annum I don’t believe that I should have sought any profession. But I had not a hundred pounds, and it was clear I must do something.”

That something turns out to be politics. His friends help him find him a place in Parliament and, as an MP, he has ample opportunity to sybaritic lifestyle and promote his own self-interest.

Somewhere along the line he has acquired the nickname Pronto (after a character in a play, we are told) and develops a kind of split personality, in which Miles stands for decency and goodness, the opposite of his alter ego Pronto. He talks about himself largely in the third person (or perhaps I should say third people), almost as if he doesn’t exist, and he is telling a story about someone else. And as Pronto, the created character,  begins to take over he is very aware of what is happening to him, though he tends to blame others for the changes which bring out aspects of his character which always been there, but to a lesser degree. Talking about his society friends, he says:

“They liked me for my interesting poverty, my sensibility, my freshness, my innocence. They were therefore in great haste to destroy in me every quality which they had praised and found delightful, to corrupt Miles and conjure up Pronto in his stead.”

He is unable to let one or the other take over completely, and equally unable to merge the two halves of his personality into a complete whole. He cannot decide who, or what, he wants to be be, or what kind of life he wants to lead. And because of this, I think, he never fulfills his potential, and never achieves his goals. Late in the novel he meets up with Caroline Audley, who he knew years before. In those days, we learn:

“Her good graces might be valuable to Pronto, and he set himself to secure them. He paid her a good deal of attention, – not so great as to arouse expectations, he was too sharp for that, – but he certainly took more notice of her than other people did (… ). He may have indicated a little more admiration than he felt; most women expect that and like it. And he had a genuine regard for her, so that Miles was not entirely banished from the scene…”

But his regard is not great enough for a proposal of marriage. When they meet again he falls in love. He is haunted by Caroline, and dreams of making her his wife, so they can together at  Troy Chimneys, the beautiful house in the country which he has bought, but never lived in. However, the dream is unattainable, because he hurt Caroline so badly in the past.

I loved the way Margaret Kennedy writes, her portrayal of the characters, the delicate balance of their relationships, and the snippets of period detail.I had no idea what to expect, but I really enjoyed this book, and liked the structure, which had an early 19th century feel to it, very much in keeping with the period in which it is set, and epistolary novels were very popular. It opens with letters written some 50 years later, by which time Miles/Pronto has become a skeleton in the family cupboard, and is never spoken of. Then his memoirs come to light, and it is these that form the main part of the novel. Part diary, part reflection on life, they reveal his inner conflict, his hopes and fears, his desire to be something more than he is, and his bitterness that man of ability should be considered nothing and nobody if he has no money or position. At the end are more letters, in which you find out what eventually happened to Lufton.

Actually, he is much more likable than I’ve made him sound. He does have some very unattractive traits, but I ended up feeling sorry for him. In her introduction Anita Brookner gives the impression that he is a gifted man, from a loving family, who through some fatal flaw in his character wastes his talents and cannot push anything through to its conclusion. However, I’m not sure I agree with that, because he does seem to be so self-aware, and there are moments when he knowingly makes decisions which could have gone the other way. And I keep wondering whether the duality in his nature was always there, or whether it was something he created.

The obvious comparison, from a psychological viewpoint, would be Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but I think it would be more interesting to look at Margaret Kennedy’s novel alongside something like Edith Olivier’s The Love Child, or Frank Baker’s Miss Hargreaves, where imaginary people become real and take on a life of their own. Miles’ alter ego is like that, but within himself, rather than an external manifestation.

Now I’ve finished I’m not at all sure that I’ve done justice to this novel – there are so many aspects I haven’t mentioned, and other people will probably take issue with some of the things I have commented on, and really I should go through it again and whittle it down, but I’m going to leave it as it is.

margretknnedyday