Mrs Martell

Mrs MartellIt takes courage and skill to write a novel where the central character is thoroughly unlikable, whilst ensuring that the book remains enjoyable, but that’s just what Elizabeth Eliot manages to do in her 1953 story Mrs Martel – and she does it extremely well. Rescued from obscurity by Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow (read his original review here), it’s been re-published by Dean Street Press under their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint, and is well worth a read.

Mrs Martell (Cathie) is a monster. A beautiful, self-obsessed monster woman will stop at virtually nothing to get what she wants. She’s been brought up in genteel poverty by her mother, who is too scared to try and restrain Cathie in any way whatsoever. Her Aunt Violet pays for her to be educated at a good (but inexpensive) school, where her beauty allows her to hold sway over staff and pupil alike. Aunt Violet is not completely taken in by Cathie, but is not up to the task of making her niece do anything she doesn’t want to do. And Cathie is not a bit grateful to Aunt Violet:

“Aunt Violet, Cathie realised, was one of the problems of her life. If Aunt Violet had not had money, Cathie would have forbidden her mother to see her and that would have been that; but it isn’t possible to put an absolute ban on one’s only rich relation, particularly when that relation pays one’s reduced school bills.”

On leaving school she visits France (which she refers to as being finished), works as a beautician, is married, divorced, inherits Aunt Violet’s money, and sets herself up in a little flat in London, with a maid who comes in each day to do all the things that Cathie doesn’t want to do, like answering the door, cooking, and cleaning. She seems to have few, if any, female friends, and although she has had a string of lovers, the gaps between them are getting longer.

Basically, Cathie is on the lookout for another husband who will provide her with the status and wealth she not only craves, but feels she deserves. She sets her sights on Edward, unhindered by the fact that he is already married – to her distant and much younger cousin Laura. Under the guise of friendship, she sets about undermining Laura’s confidence and sanity, eroding the marriage piece by piece. She’s not bothered about Laura, and never once considers Edward’s feelings, or sees him as a person in his own right: he’s just a means for Cathie to achieve a luxurious lifestyle, and she wants to possess him in the same way she possesses a hat or a pair of shoes that will enhance her beauty and make her more admired. 

She works hard at her beauty, and somehow it seems manufactured. There are exercises, and skin creams and potions, and lots of lying down to rest her face. Her hips are always at exactly the right angle, her beautiful legs and neat ankles are displayed to best advantage, and her face is carefully ‘arranged’. I think her beauty is what defines her, it’s how she sees herself, and she believes it gives her the right to have what she wants. Without her beauty she is nothing. For the moment, it seems, her beauty is untarnished, and her charm (mostly) undiminished. We learn that:

“There were evenings when Mrs Martell decked out in snoods and golden earrings appeared to be around thirty, and there were other evenings when she hadn’t tried at all and then she looked thirty-five. Her actual age was thirty-eight. So all the times when Mrs Martell had lain on her bed after luncheon, and all the hours she had spent patting this and that into her face, had after all been well spent.”

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Cathie’s snoods weren’t those peculiar scarf things described as such today. They were decorative mesh hair nets, which were often made from glittery, metallic threads, and embellished with beads.

And we are told:

“She was still very beautiful. But somehow it wasn’t enough. She deserved something better than this, and optimistically, almost as an idealist, she continued to seek for it; for some deep experience which should be all-satisfying. She had visions, which she managed to see through scudding clouds, of power and fame and of a great love.”

As the book progresses cracks begin to appear in the facade and, as her control slips, her true character becomes more and more apparent. She’s not a feisty ‘bad girl’ getting by on her wits and looks, like Scarlet O’Hara or Becky Sharp. The closest comparison would probably be with Louise in Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance which was published in the same year). Oddly, she is not as worldly and sophisticated as she likes to think – her view of life seems to be gleaned from gossip columns in women’s magazines, and has no connection with her own upbringing. For example, she knows she must get a job on leaving school, but she thinks:

The job must be the kind of job which ladies took for their entertainment, to fill in the time which might elapse between being presented at court and being married. Flower shops and interior decorators came quite definitely under that heading; mannequins and assistants in beauty parlours were better paid.”

Oh dear, I seem to have spent a lot of time writing about Cathie without mentioning the other characters, but she overshadows them all.  Laura is a thoroughly nice, rather shy young lady, who has no idea how to behave in society, enjoys talking to servants and people on trains, and likes possessions that have no value. Edward is a male chauvinist pig who is very aware of his position in society and, quite frankly, he deserves everything he gets. Many of the minor characters make brief appearances, so are not fully developed, but Eliot is very good at skewering the social pretentious and aspirations of the would-be upper classes, who are not quite what what they like us to believe, and there are some very funny moments.

The Diary of a Provincial Lady

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Today I’m copying over a slightly amended post for today ‘s offering for The 1930 Club is a slightly amended version of EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provinicial Lady, which has become a firm favourite since I first wrote about it way back in 2012. At that point I had a Virago hard-backed edition with a very chintzy, very pink Cath Kidston cover, and I still incline to the opinion that bright pink chintz does not belong on book covers. Anyway, I did eventually find a nice old Virago copy, which has the right sort if cover, and contains all the Provincial Lady Books, which is an added bonus. I must admit that for some reason I had it stuck in my mind that this was published further into the ’30s, but apparently it was first printed in 1930, so it’s perfect!

I’m sure most people have read this, but if not, , it’s a fictional diary of an upper-middle class woman living in a Devonshire village circa 1930. Thought to be based on life of the author, it charts her struggles to balance the household books, and to keep her home running as smoothly as possible while trying to solve various crises and keep everyone happy, from her husband and children to her friends, neighbours, servants and tradesmen. She deals with colds (herself and the children), measles (herself and the children), and a cat who is continually producing litters. Cash is always tight, and her bank balance totters from crisis to crisis, but she avoids disaster by pawning a great-aunt’s diamond ring.

It may not sound very exciting, but she records everyday events with self-deprecating warmth and humour – and a wonderfully ironic turn of phrase. She peppers her entries with memos and queries which veer from the practical to the philosophical. The tone is set from the very beginning:
November 7th.-Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed two bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa.
Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really, or even October, is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes, I do know, but think it my duty to buy Empire products. Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply. Unfortunately Vicky comes into the drawing-room later and says: “O Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworths?”
I like the way our heroine, who remains unnamed, tries to turn buying cheap bulbs into a virtue by saying she’s supporting the Empire, and then her young daughter lets the cat out of the bag by revealing the truth. This instantly shows the Provincial Lady to be short of cash, rather inept, since the bulbs should have been planted long ago, and not as strict with the children as she could be, or Vicky would never have made such a remark in public.
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A 1947 Macmillan edition.
The diarist is much too well-bred to say what she really thinks, or to stand up to other people, and consequently she frequently finds herself involved in things she had no intention of doing, whether it’s attending a function at the home of fearsome Lady Boxe, or inviting people she hates to accompany her family on a seaside picnic in the pouring rain. She’s equally incapable of exerting authority over the servants, especially the cook, who counters any kind of criticism with complaints about equipment – the range is perpetually faulty.

Nevertheless, social conventions must be obeyed, and there are certain ways of doing things, as we see when the parlourmaid gives notice and an agency supplies a house-parlourman called Howard Fitzsimmons, which our Provincial Lady feels is a most unsuitable name for a servant. She feels uneasy issuing instructions regarding his duties, but decides she must make it clear that the correct response when receiving an order, is not ‘right-oh!’

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Author EM Delafield.
You wonder how women like her, who didn’t work, filled their time, but she organises picnics and children’s parties, writes letters, attends parties and literary soirees, entertains at home, stays with a friend, and attends meetings – lots of meetings, for the church, the village show and the WI. She and her friends discuss the latest books and plays, politics, and even birth control, but what really interests them is village gossip. And our Provincial Lady writes which, for some unknown reason, I didn’t mention in my original review. She is a published author, whose work is printed in literary publications, and I suspect this, more than anything else she does, makes her neighbours view her with slight suspicion.
And why, when the family’s finances are so precarious, they live in some style, with a cook, a maid to clean the house, and someone who does the garden – and  a governess for Vicky! You get a glimpse into a vanished world, but it’s the people who bring the book to life. There are the Provincial Lady’s children, who bicker, and say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and have straight hair, and no musical talent, and lack the charm of other people’s offspring – but she loves them very dearly. Or Our Vicar’s Wife, who always outstays her welcome (on one occasion Robert, who rarely expresses an opinion – he always seems to be asleep or reading the paper – suggests they prevent her return by turns out the lights, locking the door, and going to bed. And Rose, her best friend, who is everything she is not – effortlessly elegant, fashionable and well informed,with wealthy and famous friends.
Most of all it’s the narrator herself who is such an attractive figure, because she isn’t perfect, and she doesn’t take herself seriously, and from a distance of almost 90 years we can still relate to her domestic disasters and her account of the goings-on of family and friends. Generally people are not bothered about big issues. It’s the little everyday things that concern them, because that’s what affects them directly, and that’s very much the case here. But along the way Delafield makes some very astute comments about Life, the Universe and Everything, usually in the form of our heroine’s ‘notes to self’. Here she is in philosophical mood about the differences between the sexes:

Mem: Very marked difference between the sexes is male tendency to procrastinate doing practically everything in the world except sitting down to meals and going up to bed. Should like to purchase little painted motto: Do it now, so often on sale at inferior stationers’ shops, and present it to Robert, but on second thoughts quite see  that this would conduce to domestic harmony, and abandon scheme at once.

I have often made the same observation and come to much the same conclusion! 

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Cats, Books and Squares!

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Cat in a bag… This is Gimli, who has a passion for bags and boxes!

Another bookshop post I’m afraid… because I’ve been staying in London for a few days looking after my younger daughter’s cat while she and her boyfriend went ‘Up North’ to see his family, and London is full of bookshops, so my ‘No New Books’ resolution has gone by the board! But London is full of all sorts of other things as well, and I had a lovely time wandering around looking at people, and buildings and parks, and thinking about the history beneath my feet. This is, I think, known as flaneusing, as described in a recent post by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, where she reviews Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin. A flaneur is a man who saunters around observing society and flaneuse, obviously, is the female equivalent. I find the word and the concept quite fascinating, and really must get hold of the book at some point.

Anyway, I digress (but maybe that is all part of flaneusing). No trip to London is complete without a visit to the Persephone Bookshop, and the nicest way to get there is to walk from Euston Station, taking in the Wellcome Collection and some of the Bloomsbury garden squares. The Wellcome Collection is fabulous and houses the most wonderful collection of medical exhibits collected by pharmaceutical company founder Henry Wellcome (1853-1936). It’s like a cabinet of curiosities on a grand scale, with some really bizarre things, so alongside blood-letting equipment and old surgical saws are magical amulets and a shrunken head – all sorts of objects from all sorts of places and all sorts of time periods, all designed to make people better, though I’m not at all sure how efficacious some of them would have been. Modern medicine is one of the things that convinces me progress is a Good Thing, especially when it comes to childbirth – avoid this display if you’re of nervous disposition! The Wellcome also has an interesting programme of touring exhibitions. The current one is ‘Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian Medicine’, but I’m saving that for my next trip! In addition there’s an excellent cafe and a small branch of Blackwell’s Books, where I succumbed to this, because it is such fun – a kind of alternative art activity book.

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Fortified by tea and cake in the Wellcome I walked up through the gardens in Gordon Square, Woburn Square and Russell Square, which I always think of as being little green oases in the busy city, though at the moment they are so muddy I’m not sure the word ‘green’ is totally appropriate, but even so daffodils and crocuses were blooming in Russell Square Gardens – the first I’ve seen this year.

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A daffodil in Russell Square.

These three squares were developed by the Dukes of Bedford, who owned a lot of land in the area, and were named for family connections. The 6th Duke’s second wife was Lady Georgiana Gordon, daughter of Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon; Woburn, as I expect you’re all aware, is the family estate, and Russell was (and, presumably, still is) the family surname.

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Georgian terraced homes Woburn Square.

The four sides of each square are lined largely with terraced houses – but don’t let that word ‘terraced’ fool you. These are not cramped Victorian homes for the working classes, but elegant Georgian establishments for well-heeled middle class professionals and businessmen who could afford servants to look after the children and do the cooking and cleaning. The central gardens were created for the residents, and surrounded by iron railings to keep the hoi polloi out. I guess garden squares like this must have inspired Mortimer Square, in Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, with its ‘gracious and imposing’ houses, and the central gardens fenced off with high wooden palings because the iron railings had been taken for the war effort (it’s set in the aftermath of WW2).

Anyway, I digress. Again. Today these three garden squares are open to the public, and boast a surprising amount of plants and wildlife – on a good day you can see birds, squirrels and a huge variety of insects. New railings have been errected to replace the ones removed during the war, and there are paths, water features, information boards, pieces of public art, and refreshment kiosks. On a sunny day you can sit and read, or just watch the world go by, and if you’re feeling energetic you can hunt for blue plaques or track down unmarked links to the past. When they were young author Virginia Woolf and her artist sister Vanessa Bell lived in Gordon Square (at number 46).

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Queen Square.

From Russell Square you head for Queen Square (and another garden). This was once called Queen Anne’s Square because a statue there was believed to be a memorial to her, but it is now thought to represent Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, who was treated for mental illness at one of the houses in the square.

Then it’s on to Great Ormond Street where you walk alongside the hospital, the first to provide beds for sick children, founded in 1852 by Dr Charles West, who was a friend of Charles Dickens. There I encountered a small boy in a wheelchair, with a tube in his nose, laughing and waving delightedly, and when I wave back he got even more excited, and his mother smiled and waved as well. Was he one of the young patients I wondered, for a breath of fresh air? Great Ormond Street takes you to Lamb’s Conduit Street, and the Persephone Bookshop where I bought these:

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I love the colours of this crochet blanket against the dove grey books.

Long Live Great Bardfield, by Tirzah Garwood and A London Childhood of the 1970s, by Molly Hughes were both on my Wish List, and I was going to get The Carlyles at Home, by Thea Holme, but at the last moment I changed my mind and got Richmal Crompton’s Family Roundabout instead. The shop is such a treat to visit, very calm and restrained, with shelves full of dove grey books, classical music playing softly in the background, and low lighting. There was even a vase of daphne scenting the air with its glorious perfume. The staff are there to help if you need them, but are happy to let you browse uninterrupted, and it’s all a bit like walking into someone’s book-filled sitting room. By the way, if you’ve lost any of those lovely Persephone bookmarks, they sell spares for 50p each.

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The Persephone shop is such a treat!

The building, apparently, was built in 1702-3, and has a basement which remains almost unchanged. The street was developed by Nicholas Barbon, who is thought to have been the first person to sell fire insurance to householders (during the reconstruction period after the Great Fire of London, so I imagine he must have done rather well for himself). He rejoiced in what must be one of the most unusual middle names ever ‘If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned’ bestowed upon him by his father, the Puritan Praise-God Barebone (remember the Civil War, and the Interregnum, and the Barebone’s Parliament?).

Lamb’s Conduit Street gets its name from a water conduit installed or restored by William Lamb in the 16thC, which channelled water from a tributary of the Fleet River into open wooden pipes, allowing it to run down into the city. He also provided 120 pails for poor women so, presumably, they had something to carry the water in!

 

A Novel Way Of Making A Living!

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Barbara Buncle is a frumpy, middle-aged spinster who knows nothing of life outside the village of Silverstream. She lives quietly in the cottage where she was once once a small fat child in a basketwork pram, and her old nurse Dorcas is now cook, maid and parlour maid. But Miss Buncle has a secret which turns village life upside down – for she has written a book, peopled by her fellow residents, and they are not at all happy with her portrayal!

Miss Buncle’s Book, by DE Stevenson, is a warm, light-hearted satire on village life between the wars, with its round of tea parties, church services and other events, and its strict social hierarchy. Everyone knows their place, from the delivery boy to Mrs Featherstone Hogg, who is very conscious of her status in the communty, and makes sure the community is equally aware of her position and accords her the deference she thinks she deserves. The one thing that (mostly) unites them is a desire to know who wrote the book – and to seek restitution from the author for besmirching their good names!

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I’m not going to try and describe the plot – there are too many characters (who are all exceedingly well drawn) and too many threads to follow, so you’ll just have to read it for yourself. However, I will say that much of the humour comes from the villagers’ efforts to track down the unknown author. The chief suspect is the doctor’s wife, and Barbara escapes exposure. It’s a kind of comedy of errors, as well as a comedy of manners.

The nature of Barbara’s novel – denounced by Mrs Featherstone Hogg as ‘the wickedest book that has ever been written’ – is never explained in great detail, but Mr Abbott (the publisher) thinks the book was written by ‘a very clever man writing with his tongue in his cheek, or else a very simple person writing in all good faith’. His nephew Sam believes it is penned by ‘a genius or imbelicile’. And we are told:

The first part of Chronicles of an English Village was a humdrum sort of affair – it was indeed a chronicle of life in an English Village. It might have been dull if the people had not been so well drawn, or if the writing had not been of that amazing simplicity which kept one wondering whether it was intended to be satirical or not. The second part was a sort of fantasy: a golden boy walked through the village playing on a reeed pipe, and his music roused the villagers to strang doings. It was queer, it was unusual, and it was provocative and, strangely enough, it was also extremely funny. Mr Abbott was aware, from personal experience, that you could not lay it down until the end.

And when Mr Abbott meets Miss Buncle he thinks she’s an unlikely sort of author (she’s certainly an unlikely sort of heroine).

She was obviously a simple sort of person – shabbily dressed in a coat and skirt of blue flannel. Her hair was dreadful, her face was pale and rather thin, with a pointed chin and a nondescript nose, but on the other hand her eyes were good – dark blue with long lashes – and they twinkled a little when she laughed. Her mouth was good too, and her teeth – if they were real – magnificent.

Meeting Miss Buncle in the street, Mr Abbott (who was rather a connoissseur of feminine charms) would not have looked twice at her. A thin, dowdy woman of forty he would have said (erring on the unkind in the matter of the age), and passed on to pastures new. But here, in his sanctuary, with the knowledge that she had written an amusing novel, he looked at her with different eyes.

And he is equally taken aback by her honesty when she admits she wrote the book in a bid to make money. because her dividends are so ‘wretched’. Initially she thought of other ways to generate an income, like keeping hens (but she doesn’t like hens), or taking in paying guests (but she doesn’t want to draw business away from an existing guest house). It was Dorcas who suggested the book, says Miss Buncle, and she wrote about people she knew because that was all she knew,and as she wrote she saw people differently, and fictional Copperfield became muddled with real-life Silverstream.

The book, re-named Disturber of the Peace, is a huge success, but its effect on the people of Silverstream is as disruptive as the appearance of the golden boy in Barbara’s book. Life is turned upside down as people do and say strange things. At times life begins to imitate fiction and it becomes apparent that for some residents the plot lines in the book provide the key to their future happiness, while others finally find their voice and stand up for themselves.

And the the fall-out following publication is as transformative for Barbara herself– like Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, this is a Cinderella story, with the requisite happy ending (I do love a happy ending). So I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that neither Miss Buncle nor her life will never be the same again.

*First published in 1934, Miss Buncle’s Book has been reissued by Persephone and I think it’s charming – I really enjoyed reading it. I’m linking this to the Persephone Readathon being run by Jessie at Dwell in Possibility. And this is another unread book to be ticked off the list!

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Vanessa Bell’s ‘Flowers Lit by Rays from a Table Lamp’ is shown on the endpapers. It was created for Allan Walton Textiles in 1934.

 

Mum, Memory, and Jane Austen

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Jane Austen, painted by her sister Cassandra c.1810.

My mother rings. She is reading Jane Austen (again) and would I like to join her (again). My mother reads a lot of Jane Austen – she always did. But her reading habits have changed. Once upon a time she would read (and discuss) Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Walter Scott, the Brontes, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell to name but a few (she always liked the classics best). But these days she finds the plots too complicated, and there are too many characters, and the books are too long. They scramble her brain she says, sadly.

But Jane Austen remains a constant, perhaps because her novels are shorter, with tighter plots, and fewer characters, and Mum knows them so well that I think the printed pages are a kind of aide memoire for the words inside her head, which is why she keeps reading them. Apart from that she mostly reads books from her childhood – Winnie the Pooh, Ballet Shoes, The Railway Children, Milly Molly Mandy, The Secret Garden. Again, these are things she knows almost by heart, and she can remember her mother buying them for her, and connect them with long-ago events. And the same goes for poetry. She reads a lot of poetry, but it has to be the poetry she learned in school when she memorised a poem a week, which adds up to an awful lot of poems. With a book to prompt her she can still recite many of them, as well as great chunks of Shakespeare. However, she can’t tell you what day it is, or what she ate for breakfast.

As her dementia advances her reading matter shrinks, along with the boundaries of her life, but she still gets so much pleasure from books, as long they are very, very familiar, fairly simple, and quite short.

When I visit we chat about books and chant poetry aloud – the strong, rhythmic, rhyming verses that she loves and remembers. Fortified by tea and cake, we read The Highwayman, The Listeners, The Rolling English Road, The Smugglers Song, William Allingham’s The Fairies, part of Hiawatha, some of Wordsworth’s work, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets, Christina Rossetti’s work, a selection of John Masefield, and lots from AA Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six… the list is endless, and she refers to the words much less than I do. We talk about poets and poetry, discuss highwaymen, smugglers and travelling, and she tells me about her childhood and the distant past.

Sometimes we discuss novels over the phone, and though her reading matter has become more limited she still finds something apposite to say about characters, politics, social issues, how people lived. Again, literature seems to jog her memory and she relates the books and people in them to her own life, however tenuous the connection may be.

Books and poetry are never going to restore my mother to the person she once was, but I’ve been surprised at the positive impact they have had, and how important it is to her, and to the family, that she should continue to read, and to talk about books. And since I love my mother, and I love reading as much as she does, I’m more than happy to join her in reading Jane Austen for the umpteenth time. She says we will begin with Persuasion, because it was Austen’s last book, so I have dug out my copy and started reading, and will report back on our progress as we go along.

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My younger daughter sent  this card, because I read to her and her sister when they were small, and Mum read to me, and her mother read to her.

 

The Street (but not the TV show!)

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The cover of my Virago edition shows a detail from ‘Harlem, 1934’ by Edward Burra.

Today’s  book is The Street, by Ann Petry, chosen because it is set in Harlem, just  like The Constant Sinner, and makes an interesting companion piece. As you might expect, some of the themes are very similar: there is crime, prostitution, even murder. But there the similarity ends for this novel, written in 1945 and published the following year, is much bleaker and much more of a political protest. And Petry is a far better writer than West. She doesn’t glamorise the street and its inhabitants: life there is hard. It’s sordid and shabby, and people are downtrodden and disillusioned, with no hope left. Some turn to crime because its the only way they can survive, and it offers a way out of the dirt, the degradation, and the poverty. But they show no mercy to anyone weaker.

The street itself is almost a living entity, as much a character as the people. It’s malevolent, overwhelming and oppressive, grinding the residents down, killing their last vestiges of joy, optimism, pride and independence.

‘There was a cold November wind blowing through 116th Street…  It found every scrap of paper long the street – theatre programmes, announcements of dances  and meetings, the heavy waxed paper that loaves of bread had been wrapped in, the thinner waxed paper that enclosed sandwiches., old envelopes, newspapers. Fingering its way along the kerb, the wind set the bits of paper to dancing high in the air, so that a barrage of paper swirled into the faces of the people on the street. It even took time to rush into doorways and areas and find chicken bones and pork-chop bones and push them along the kerb.

It did everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street. It found all the dirt and dust and grime on the pavement and lifted it up so that the dirt  got into their noses making it difficult breathe; the dust got into their eyes and blinded them; and the grit stung their skins.’

Into the street and the wind walks beautiful Lutie Johnson looking for a flat, and you feel the wind is trying to warn her off, to chase her away. Lutie knows this is not a good place. The flat she takes, like other flats in this house, in this street, is small, dark, dirty, and noisy. and everywhere smells of garbage. Jones, the sinister Superintendent (Supe or Super, as he is known), looks at her with lechery in his heart and mind. Then there is Mrs Hedges, enormously fat, with a bandana around her head, sitting by her window watching the world with her snake eyes. Sharing her flat, acting as her maids, are young girls who are not quite what they seem, for Mrs Hedges is a brothel keeper and, as she tells Lutie, a good-looking black girl can always earn extra money if she is especially nice to a white man.

Harlem 1934 by Edward Burra 1905-1976
This is a clearer image of the hole painting, created about a decade before Petrie wrote her book, but I can see why Virago selected it for the cover, because it has something of the feel of the book. Burra was English, but was known for his paintings of Harlem.

But Lutie is not interested. She wants a better, safer life for herself and her nine-year-old son Bub, and she aims to raise herself out of poverty by her own honest endeavours.  For the moment, this is all can can afford and anything – well, almost anything – is better than life with her drunken father and his current girlfriend.

Lutie once worked as a live-in a maid/housekeeper/cook for the wealthy, white Chandlers, but in her absence her jobless husband acquires another woman. So Lutie takes her son and moves in with her father. She takes a dead-end job, and scrimps and saves so she can learn the skills needed for an office job.

Proud and independent, she vows she will never be defeated and dejected like others in the street for her time with the Chandlers has given a glimpse of a better way of life (she is particularly impressed with their kitchen) and exposed her to new ideas. She has learned that America is the land of the free, and believes that if she works hard and saves her money she can be independent and will be able to move out of the Harlem slum and create a new life with improved opportunities for Bub.

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This is another of Burra’s paintings, set in London rather than Harlem, showing some of the Windrush immigrants clad in their zoot suits, which were very popular in the 1940s. I think Boots, the bandleader, might have worn an outfit like this.

She has the chance to earn extra money singing in a nightclub for band leader Boots Smith, but nothing is ever finalised, and the cash is never forthcoming. The story gets more complicated, because Jones, the Superintendent at the flats, has initially befriended Bub in the hope that this will endear him to Lutie, but she makes it clear she is not interested, and he is warned off by Mrs Hedges, a friend of Junto, who owns and controls everything in the area and wants to sleep with Lutie… To get his own back, Jones sets Bub up as the fall guy in a scheme to steal letters from tenants in neighbouring blocks, luring the boy with the promise of payment – and Bub, knowing that Lutie needs more money, agrees. He is caught by the police, and Lutie must raise 200 dollars to get him released and keep him out of reform school, so she turns to Boots for help. But she will only get paid if she is nice to Junto – and she won’t sleep with him. Finally, when Boots tries to have his way with she snaps, grabs a candlestick and beats him to death…

The story is told in multiple viewpoints and flashbacks, and there are back stories for many of the characters, so as their pasts are revealed you can understand why they are as they are, even if if you cannot warm to them. Big, fat Mrs Hedges  has faced tragedy and destitution with fortitude and courage, and her business may not be legal (or morally acceptable) but she provides a safe home for her girls and ensures they are well fed and well dressed. In many ways she’s as much a victim of life as her girls or Lutie.

Then there’s Jones, the abusive superintendent, who has spent his life in the bowels of ships and buildings, unable to form friendships or relationships with people, but desperately lonely and yearning for a woman. And there is Min, the meek, shapeless woman who lives with Jones and turns to Prophet David for help, though I’m a little unclear whether she wants to him love her or to keep away.  At any rate, she recieves a cross to go above the bed (which certainly keeps Jones at bay) and a potion to put in his drink.

And there are the Chandlers, who have their own problems and tragedies, which proves that money can’t buy happiness. And it’s interesting to see how Mrs Chandler’s attitude towards Lutie changes when other people are around – when the two women are alone she is quite friendly, but as soon as people appear the barriers go up and they are employer and employee again.

But the social divide can never be crossed – there’s a gulf between black and white, rich and poor, male and female. The issues that are so much part of Harlem life cannot be overlooked. Towards the end of the novel Petry writes of Lutie:

‘Her thoughts were like a chorus chanting inside her head. The men stood round and the women worked.The men left the women and the women went on working and the kids were left alone. The kids burned lights all night because they were alone in small, dark rooms and they were afraid. Alone. Always alone. They wouldn’t stay in the house after school because they were afraid in the empty, dark, silent rooms. And they should have been playing in wide stretches of green park and instead they were in the street. And the street reached out and sucked them up.’

And she adds:

‘The women work because the white folks give the jobs – washing dishes and clothes and floors and windows. The women work because for years now the white folks haven’t liked to give black men jobs that paid enough to support their families. And finally it gets to be to be too late for some of them. Even wars don’t change it. The men get out of the habit of working…’

And we know, and she knows, that it’s too late for her, and too late for Bub. There will be no rescue for either of them because they are black and poor, and the system is weighted against them. And it’s such a tragedy, because Lutie is so feisty, and has courage and principles and determination, and she is trying to protect her son and open up a new, better future for him, yet in the end her dreams are shattered and it is she who will be responsible for damaging him beyond repair and ensuring that he will never get that brighter future.

Ann_Petry__Beinecke_Library__Yale_Univ__
Ann Petry began her working life as a pharmacist but became a journalist, novelist and short story writer.

I’d never heard of Ann Petry, but I spotted this Virago edition in Astley Book Farm (the best second-hand book shop I know). Apparently, sales of the novel topped a million and it was the first time a black, female writer achieved success on this scale. She was also the first black, female writer to explore the problems of slum life in a novel. The book was based very much on what she saw during the six years she spent as a reporter in Harlem, and the work she undertook investigating the effects of segregation on children.

If you want to know more about her there’s an interesting (but short) article here and the website also has a video giving a brief history of Harlem, which I found really interesting.

Mary Stewart and An Apology!

Mary-Stewart_2912427b
Mary Stewart.

I am SO sorry people. Way back last August I posted a piece in which I volunteered to host Mary Stewart Reading Week to coincide with the centenary of the novelist’s birth on September 17, 1916. I’d acquired a little stack of her novels (from Oxfam – where else!) and I was all set to go. But, as with so many other things last year, it didn’t get done, because I spent so much time with my mother, providing her with a bit of company, chatting about the past, looking at old photos, listening to stories of her childhood, taking her to various appointments, chasing things up and generally sorting things out. Somehow, even when I was at home, I found I was so focussed on her, and so tired (and stressed) that I couldn’t get to grips with much else, though I have just about managed to keep up with my Distant Stitch creative sketchbook course, which has been something of a lifesaver, because however slow I may be I find it so therapeutic to be doing something creative. Now, however, we seem to have the right care package in place, Mum is happy, and I am hoping things really have settled down, so I can relax and try to ‘reclaim’ the activities I enjoy doing.

Anyway, here is a quick piece about Mary Stewart, who was enormously popular for most of the last half of the 20th Century. I thought there was less enthusiasm for her work these days, but her books are still published, so I guess I’m wrong.  I admit I didn’t know much about her, but I did a bit of research, so there is a potted biography in my previous post, along with a little bit about her writing.  In an effort to get back in to the swing of things I’ve done brief reviews about two re=reads – Touch Not The Cat, which I first read many years ago (long before computers and blogging), and Thornyhold, which I read a couple of years back, but never wrote about.

I have read a couple of her other titles, but I’m not writing about them today, and her brilliant retelling of the Arthurian legends is in a class apart, and deserves a post of its own. As far as the two books mentioned here are concerned, they’re not ‘great literature’ but they are very well crafted, undemanding ‘comfort reads’ – and sometimes that’s exactly what I want!DSCN7910

Touch Not the Cat is, I think, is a classic Stewart tale of ‘romantic suspense’. It’s a love
story, but woven in with that is a thriller, with a mystery
which must be solved before the past can be laid to rest, leaving our hero and heroine free to start their new life together. And on top of all that it’s a supernatural tale.

The plot is a little tricky to explain, but I’ll try to keep it simple. Bryony Ashley returns to her ancestral home after receiving a telepathic message from the man she calls her lover (although she does not know who he is) saying her father has died from injuries received in a hit and run accident. Before dying he uttered a mysterious warning, and as Bryony struggles to discover its meaning she begins to wonder if her father’s death is the accident it appears to be – or are dark forces at work, and was he murdered…

To make matters worse, precious items have disappeared from the house, vital parish registers are missing, a shadowy figure stalks the area, and there is the enigma of the family crest and motto to be puzzled out – involving a maze and the words Touch Not The Cat.

And Bryony is also desperate to find the identity of her telepathic ‘lover’, with whom she has been mentally linked since childhood, and he can hear her as clearly as she hears him. She is convinced her destiny lies with this man, but all she knows is that he must be a family member for, according to legend, the ‘sight’ is a ‘gift’ bestowed on some family members down through the generations. The obvious answer is that the unknown man must be one of her cousins – but the more you see of twins James and Emory, the more you hope it isn’t one of them, because they are so very unpleasant.

The intriguing history of an older love affair involving a long-ago Ashley ancestor plays out alongside Bryony’s story, and there are all kinds of twists and turns in the plot as hidden secrets are revealed, including a clandestine marriage (which explains the identity of the telepathic lover), and events move rapidly towards the cataclysmic climax of the novel (for which the word melodrama might have been coined). Before the requisite happy ending can take place there is a storm, a flood, attempted murder, and the speed of events in this grand finale just takes your breath away.

Re-reading this after so many years, I found that I hadn’t remembered the characters very clearly, or the plot. What had stuck in my mind were the descriptions of Ashley Court, the crumbling old manor house in the Malvern Hills, with its moat, the overgrown garden and maze, and the beautiful old summer house.

thornyhold-1Thornyhold  has one of the greatest openings I’ve ever read:

I suppose that my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to. But she met my father, who was a rather saintly clergyman, and he cancelled her out. She dwindled from a potential Morgan le Fay into an English vicar’s wife, and ran the parish, as one could in those days – more than half a century ago – with an iron hand disguised by no glove at all.

but I’m not sure the rest of the novel quite lives up to it. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a lovely, magical, feel-good novel, and I enjoyed it very much, but I thought the end petered out a bit, and it could have done with a bit more ‘bite’, and there were times when I was reminded of Cold Comfort Farm, and consequently almost decided this was a spoof on idyllic rural romances!

Our narrator is Gilly (Geillis) Ramsey a lonely, unloved child, who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. The one bright spot is a meeting with Cousin Geillis, whose view of life is, to say the least, quite unusual. Years later Cousin Geillis leaves her home to Gilly. Beautiful though it is, the old house has a slightly spooky feel, and the local villagers are all (well, almost all) a little peculiar. And it seems Cousin Geillis was pretty odd as well, for the villagers believe she was a white witch – and Gilly may have inherited her powers.

Gradually, Gilly begins to gain confidence, to find her place in the world, and to know what she wants from life. But her happiness is threatened by the ‘bad’ witch of the village, who covets the man she loves, and Gilly must choose whether to use the power of magic with its dark spells and nightmare dreams, or to rejoice in the ‘sane and daylight world’ of reality and common sense.

Gilly is an engaging heroine, but for me Thornyhold itself takes centre stage. The shabby, dusty old house and its neglected gardens are like a world apart, protected on three sides by woodland, and on the fourth by river, and I liked its sense of history and continuity, and the way that old values still hold sway.