Miss Carter and the Ifrit

Miss Carter and the IfritTo look at Miss Georgina Carter you would never have suspected that a woman of her age and character would have allowed herself to be so wholeheartedly mixed up with an Ifrit. For Georgina Carter was nearing fifty (she was forty-seven to be exact) and there was something about her long, plain face, her long upper lip, her long, thin hands and feet that marked her very nearly irrevocably as a spinster. That she wore her undistinguished clothes well, had a warm, human smile, was fond of the theatre and had never occasioned anyone a moment’s trouble or worry, were minor virtues which had never got her very far.

Georgina herself now accepted her state and age without apparent hatred or remorse; in fact she assured herself she was rather glad to be approaching fifty. It was, she felt, a comfortable age, an age past expectation, hope or surprise. Nothing very shattering, nothing very devastating could happen to one after that age. It was a placid, safe harbour. One could indeed then spend the rest of one’s life fairly comfortably with a job in the Censorship for the duration, a smallish private income (which, unfortunately, tended to get smaller) and a flat in an old-fashioned block in St. John’s Wood, untroubled and untormented by any violent emotion or gross physical change. 

Miss Carter and the Ifrit, by Susan Alice Kerby seems to be very popular at the moment, and I can see why – because it is utterly delightful. It’s another of those forgotten books brought back to life by Dean Street Press under the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint and it’s an absolute winner. 

It is a bleak and chilly November day and Miss Carter has been without heat for a fortnight when she spots a man selling wooden blocks in the street below her flat… So she buys load. That evening she enjoys an egg (a fresh one!) that a friend has given her, and sits by her blazing fire knitting socks for her nephew before settling down to read a biography of Lady Hester Stanhope. She adds a block of wood to the fire and:

The next thing she knew was that there was a loud explosion. The room seemed filled with smoke. The floor rocked. She was hurled from her chair. Her last thought before losing consciousness was: “I didn’t hear the warning—”

When she comes to everything is normal, but there is a strong smell of sulphur in the air, and…

…there on the floor, protruding from the far side of the tallboy, were what appeared to be a pair of slippers. They were large, they were red, they were leather, they were obviously masculine—and they had curiously pointed toes that curled back over what might or might not be an instep, depending upon whether the slippers were occupied or not.

She discovers the slippers are occupied, by a ‘very large, very dark man’.

His clothes were quite extraordinary. He wore a pair of curious green breeches, full at the top and narrowing down to fit tightly over his calves. His wide cut coat was high buttoned and made of heavy ruby red satin, embroidered embroidered with strange designs in gold and silver thread. On his head was an elaborate coral coloured turban ornamented with a bright bejewelled feather.

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This must be Sinbad, in a CH Ward illustration, but I think Abu Shihab (aka Joe) would have been dressed a little like this, and I love his red shoes and the turban with it’s curved feather. I found it at Pook Press, which is a lovely site.

His name is Abu Shiháb, and he is an Ifrit (a being a bit like a Genie) who was imprisoned in a tree thousands of years ago. Now Miss Carter has freed him and he is her devoted slave. Miss Carter (Georgina) is not sure whether he is a criminal, a spy, or a madman – or whether it is she herself who is mad, or ill. Despite her misgivings, she lets him stay, and calls him Joe, after Stalin (the book is set during the final months of the war, when Stalin was still regarded as a benevolent ally), and an odd kind of relationship relationship develops, with neither of them understanding the world the other has come from. 

If you read and loved the Arabian Nights when you were a child, then you will love this, and will be familiar with the Ifrit’s magical powers and his style of speech. I think Miss Carter’s childhood reading must have been much more practical and prosaic than mine, because she is completely bemused when he addresses her as ‘princess, who is as lovely as the young moon’, or ‘Mistress of the Secrets of Sulayman’, or ‘moonflower’. She has trouble explaining that we don’t have slaves in England, but she appreciates the benefits provided by his supernatural powers. Take this for example:

And the tray was burdened with curiously shaped, vividly coloured dishes, and these dishes were filled with strange and wonderful fruits and sweetmeats. There were pomegranates, glowing like pale garnets in a deep blue bowl. Frilled by green leaves and on a flat yellow dish was a bunch of black grapes powdered with silver, each grape perfect and the size of a small plum. Warm, brown dates contrasted with fat bright oranges. Purple figs and smooth-skinned apricots made a pyramid on a base of emerald green glass. Flat sugared cakes and squares of a substance resembling Turkish Delight spilled out of oval shaped turquoise boxes. Small stemmed dishes held in their chalices mounds of sorbet which gave off a faint lemony perfume. There were several long throated flagons of emerald glass set in frames of beaten silver, with goblets to match.

Isn’t that just wonderful? It’s as good as Christina Rossetti (think of all those luscious fruits in The Goblin Market) or Keats ( the feast that Porphyro prepares for Madeline).

There are misunderstandings and complications with friends and work colleagues when she is distracted by Joe – fortunately he can vanish when required, but Georgina finds it increasingly hard to explain the luxuries she acquires! People are aware that exotic cakes and posh frocks are unavailable because of rationing, so they are bound to wonder how she gets these things.

As the story progresses she and Joe both change. He becomes more and more human, determined to use his powers for the good of mankind – he even tries to intervene in the war, but finds Hitler protected by an Ifrit even more powerful than himself. And he turns Georgina’s life around, so in an odd way she becomes more human too. She admits she has never really ‘lived’, sleepwalking through life, never doing what she really wanted to. Now, instead of just existing, she enjoys life. She has a new-found confidence, and when she dons a couture dress a surprisingly attractive woman is revealed. She even goes travelling with Joe (flying without a plane!), and has a ‘chance’ meeting with the man she loved when she was young, at which point you can see that this fairy tale story will have the requisite happy ending – thanks in no small part to Joe.

I loved this. The contrast between the richness Joe brings to Georgina’s life and the bleakness and deprivation of war-torn Britain must have made it very appealing at the time it was published, and I think it retains it charm, and still has something relevant to say about fear, and freedom, and finding yourself. It’s beautifully written, the characters are well drawn  and believable, and the story was wonderful. It’s tender, sweet and funny, a light-hearted, enchanting fantasy that is grounded in the real world in way that makes it very, very credible. 

Tom Tiddler’s Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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