It is my pleasure to reminder readers that Virago will be reprinting three new Angela Thirkell titles this November. Time to place your pre-orders or, for those of you with self control, provide your families with a preview Christmas wishlist. They are all wartime novels and, to my way of thinking, they are some of her best. They are:
The Headmistress is probably my very favourite of Thirkell’s books and, having struggled to find a second-hand copy, I am delighted at the prospect of adding it to my library.
That said, I continue to object to Virago’s frankly irritating decision to release additional books in e-editions only, as they are doing with Growing Up and Peace Breaks Out. While I’d agree the three books they are printing this time around are better than the two being released as e-books, I’d still prefer a complete set. And I will never feel resigned to Cheerfulness Breaks In, my sentimental favourite of the series, being released as an e-book only. I’m not sure what, if any, their plans are for future releases – Thirkell’s post-war works are pretty sloppy – so hopefully they might go back and fill in these few gaps with proper reprints one day. We can only hope and encourage them!
Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.
Another slightly slow library week for me as I am pulling more books off my shelves to read these days. A good practice but I feel a bit odd coming home from the library with a mostly empty bag!
When in French by Lauren Collins – a memoir from Collins, a writer for The New Yorker magazine, about her experiences as an anglophone married to a Frenchman, living in Geneva. I am fascinated by this sort of foreign language memoir and read it as soon as it arrived.
The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson – an exploration of why Homer matters (now and always).
Chance Developments by Alexander McCall Smith – a very light collection of short “unexpected love stories”, each inspired by a photograph.
Mrs Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson – my inter-library hold on this came in last Friday, just in time for me to read it for the 1947 club.
What did you pick up this week?
Twenty five years ago this autumn, I met my best friend. We were five years old and met the way any five year old meets a new friend: a forcible introduction arranged by our parents. It was just before Kindergarten started, where she and I would make up two thirds of the female population of our class, and our parents thought it would be good for us to meet before school started. So my friend was brought over to my house, Lite-Brite in tow, and, as far as we can recall, we sat side by side at our respective Lite-Brites, diligently but silently plugging coloured pegs into the screens.
Now, a common love of Lite-Brite only gets you so far. But from the very beginning we realised we had something in common that all the other children found very weird and slightly suspicious: we got our Christmas presents on Christmas Eve. This is a very big deal when you are little and, in our minds, marked us out as rather special people. What it actually meant was that her father was from Germany and my mother was from the Czech Republic. Our respective Canadian grandparents lived too far away to hold much sway over the holidays, whereas our European grandparents lived nearby. So the holiday traditions we followed were theirs and were similar enough for us to feel a sense of a shared heritage.
This sense of heritage extended into the kitchen. As we grew up, we both became keen bakers and cooks. The Czech women I am descended from are famous for their lack of interest in anything culinary so it was my friend I could share my cooking adventures with. We experimented with all cuisines but it was the Central European recipes that bound us together. We could talk to anyone about making a quiche or homemade pasta and find hundreds of books to advise on how to do it perfectly. But, thanks to a dearth of books about Central European cooking, we alone could talk over how to make a feather light dumpling (something I have still to master), debate what the “correct” filling is for rouladen (still no consensus around whether or not there should be egg), and share our secrets for the perfect schnitzel (carrying these to the grave, sorry readers). It wasn’t an everyday thing and it wasn’t the core of our friendship but it was a way to explore our heritage and share it with one another.
We stayed together from Kindergarten to the end of university, moving through four different schools together. We made strudel with my Czech grandmother when we were little, lost our minds trying to get the streusel topping right on fruit cakes when we were teenagers, and caught up during busy times at university over homemade schnitzels. During high school, we co-wrote a food column for our school paper that was titled something like our “German Cooking Corner”. Because every teenage girl is naturally looking for a good Christmas stollen recipe, accompanied by bad puns and hilarious family anecdotes. (For the record, it was an excellent recipe, direct from my friend’s oma, even if it did call for 20 cups of flour. The danger of getting a recipe from a woman who came from a family of 12 and used to run a beer garden, I suppose.)
When I bake, she is always the person I wish was in the kitchen with me. But these days we live in different cities and in different countries. It isn’t so easy to make vanilla kipferl together at Christmas or pflaumenkuchen (the best of all possible cakes) in the summer. But now there is at least one way to bring our kitchens closer together…
Today is the release day for Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss, a book I’ve been eagerly waiting for ever since Weiss announced it was in the works. You may remember Weiss’ excellent memoir, My Berlin Kitchen, or know her from her outstanding blog, The Wednesday Chef. Now she has presented us with this gem of a baking bible, which, thanks to NetGalley, I have been using for months and which served as the inspiration for most of my summer baking. Some recipes are familiar favourites, others I remember from my travels , and some are entirely unknown to me (naturally, these are the ones I’m most eager still to try).
Weiss confidently guides the uninitiated through the wonderful world of traditional German baking. She gathers recipes from around the country (with the odd drift into Austria) and the results are a tempting introduction to the region’s too often overlooked delights. There is an entire chapter devoted to Christmas baking, which is inspired, and I appreciate that cakes and yeasted cakes are handled in separate sections (giving us that much more cake – never a bad thing). Yeasted cakes are something I have yet to master and I am hoping this book will give me the confidence to finally confront them. As much as I love my current plum cake recipe, I know I’d prefer it with a yeasted base.
All of the recipes I tried were excellent. One of the hits of the summer was the recipe for Swabian Streusel-Jam Slices. Made with apricot jam and a streusel topping with nuts, they were the perfect combination of sweet and tart, crunchy and buttery. And they travelled surprisingly well on hiking trips (which were necessary to burn them off as they were very more-ish). I lost track of how many times I used the Sour Cherry Streusel Cake recipe as inspiration, replacing the cherries with whatever fruit happened to be in season (it handled excessive volumes of blueberries very well indeed). I loved the simplicity of the Simple Rhubarb Cake and the equally straightforward Sunken Apple Cake has become one of our go-to recipes (I made it again over the weekend). And, for those who aren’t familiar with it from Weiss’ earlier book, she includes her recipe for plum butter (Pflaumenmus), which is absolutely delicious and so, so much better than any of the store-bought brands you can find.
I’ve only tried a handful of the recipes and I’m eager to move on to more, especially the savories and the breads. If I could whip up fresh rolls for a proper German-style breakfast one weekend that would be joyful (and require much more confidence with yeast than I currently possess). And who isn’t intrigued by a Cabbage Strudel?
These are exactly the kinds of recipes I want to be sharing with my friend. Which is why one copy of the book is on its way to her and another is on its way to me. We might not be able to share a kitchen these days but we can still share the recipes we love.
I had planned to read Chatterton Square by E.H. Young as my second book (following Hetty Dorval) for the 1947 Club. I’d started and was enjoying it but, knowing it had already been more than capably reviewed by Simon this week, could not fight the voice in my head that suggested ‘wouldn’t the world be better served if you reread and finally reviewed Mrs Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson?’ Yes, I concluded, yes it would. And so, on this very wet and stormy weekend, I settled down with my old friend Hester Christie, otherwise known as Mrs Tim.
The Mrs Tim books were inspired by D.E. Stevenson’s own diaries and experiences as an army wife and are written in a light-hearted, Provincial-Lady-esque style (E.M. Delafield’s diarist predates Mrs Tim by two years). In earlier books, we saw Hester struggle with great good humour and resilience through pre-war regimental life with two small children and then through the anxious war years. This volume opens in February 1946. Peace has come to England but Hester’s family is once more scattered: husband Tim is stationed in Egypt with no hope of any extended leave, sixteen-year old son Bryan is off at school, and Hester is busy deciding on a boarding school for her daughter Betty. When a friend declares that she has found Hester a job helping to manage a small country hotel in Scotland, Hester is properly horrified. In the depressing period just after Tim left for Egypt, she had considered the idea but never seriously. On the other hand, a life of solitude with little to do doesn’t hold much charm either:
I am in the mood when on forgets one’s blessing and counts one’s troubles, when nothing seems good and the world seems grey and drab. I have a son, but he has gone away. I have a husband, but I have not seen him for months. It may be years before I see Tim, it certainly will be years before we can settle down to a reasonably peaceful life. What is the use of being married when you can’t be together? It is misery, no less. All very well for Tony to say think of the future – I do think of it most of the time, but you can’t live on hope forever. There are times – and this is one of them – when the savour goes out of life, when you lose heart, when you feel you can’t go on, when you would give everything you possess for one glimpse of the person you love…
So off she goes, ready for a new adventure.
The small hotel is the home and business of Erica Clutterbuck, a gruff-mannered middle-aged woman entirely uncomfortable with having guests in her family home. Hester, as she soon learns, is there primarily to save Erica the horror of having to speak with the guests. It is a task Hester is remarkably well suited for as she is an irresistibly sympathetic figure, at times to her despair. Everywhere she goes people end up confiding in her and/or, having been misled by her slight appearance, taking a protective interest in her. She handles it all with humour and excessive good grace but takes no real pleasure in dealing with the guests. She does, however, find pleasure in a new friendship with Erica.
It is a simple novel, made up of little events rather than any sort of easily resolved narrative arc. Hester gets to know the guests at the hotel and becomes involved in their affairs but also runs into old friends of her own. Tony Morley surprises her by showing up at the hotel, a joyful reunion after six years without seeing each other. A dashing middle-aged bachelor, he is as much enamoured of Hester as ever and she is just as oblivious as ever, so secure in her adoration of the far-away Tim. There is also a madcap night of breaking and entering in Edinburgh with some young friends, new and old.
But the nicest reunions are with her children. Betty, who comes to stay during a school holiday, strikes up a friendship with Erica Clutterbuck that is at first bewildering to Hester but then less so as she realises how similar the two are. Bryan appears only briefly, having arranged to spend most of his break with friends, but the reunion between mother and son is lovely, even though it begins with rigid formality in front of strangers:
As I lead the way upstairs we are both completely silent, perhaps because there is nothing more to say. For my part, I am already deeply regretting that cool welcome and wishing with all my heart that I had thrown my arms around his neck and hugged him – and be damned to Erica!
It is too late now, of course. The deed is done.
We reach the third landing, and I open the door of the little room with sloping roof, which is to be Bryan’s room, and show him in.
‘It’s rather small,’ I begin, ‘but I dare say –‘
Suddenly I am seized in a bear’s embrace and almost strangled. The strong young arms are hard as steel. They go round me like a vice. ‘Darling!’ cries Bryan. ‘Oh,what a dear wee Mummy! I’d forgotten you were so small.’
It’s a lovely, gentle book but without the saccharine sweetness of some of D.E. Stevenson’s other novels. Hester has more bite in her than any of Stevenson’s other heroines, perhaps because she is based on the author herself? Regardless, I love Hester’s flashes of pique and acerbic asides. She is a hard worker, excellent friend, and devoted wife and mother, but she is always entirely human and I love that about her.
‘Hester!’ exclaims Grace in horrified tones. ‘Why didn’t you come to lunch with me?’
‘Too tired,’ I murmur. ‘Too fed up. Besides, bread and cheese and coffee is a perfectly good meal.’
‘It’s letting down the flag,’ says Grace reproachfully. ‘It’s back-sliding – that’s what it is. I wouldn’t have thought it of you, Hester. Think of the men who change for dinner every night on desert islands!’
‘I’ve never really believed in them,’ I reply, helping myself to another wedge of cheese. ‘And anyhow, I’ve slid.’
The first book, Mrs Tim of the Regiment, was reprinted a few years ago and is still readily available but the later volumes (Mrs Tim Carries On, Mrs Tim Gets a Job, and Mrs Tim Flies Home) can be harder to find. My inter-library loan system has proved invaluable in tracking them down for me over the years but I would dearly love to see them in print. Perhaps Virago might show an interest one day? Now that they are reprinting Angela Thirkell, anything seems possible.
My first choice for this week’s 1947 Club was a patriotic one: Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson. It has the honour of being the only Canadian novel so far to be reissued by Persephone books and has sat unread on my bookshelf for a shamefully long time.
The novella begins with the arrival of a beautiful and alluring young woman, Hetty Dorval, into the small town of Lytton, British Columbia, where twelve-year old Frances “Frankie” Burnaby lives on a nearby ranch with her parents. For Frankie, Hetty is exotic – as is any new arrival in a small town – and endlessly fascinating. When Hetty befriends her, it seems both wonderful to be acknowledged by such a person and uncomfortable, as Frankie is upset by Hetty’s request that she keep their visits a secret from everyone, including her parents, lest the locals view that as an invitation to come visit her too. “Under a novel spell of beauty and singing and the excitement of a charm that was new”, Frankie agrees to keep the secret though, inevitably, it comes out. And then her parents share with her the reason she cannot continue to see Hetty:
He found it difficult, I could see, to explain to me about ‘a woman of no reputation’. (‘Oh,’ I thought, sitting still and discreet like a bird that is alarmed, ‘I know, like Nella that went to stay with that rancher, and that woman with the funny hair!’ – we children just naturally heard and knew these things) and I learned that Hetty was ‘a woman of no reputation’. Father stopped short there. Apparently he could have said more. In my own mind, seeing Hetty’s pure profile and her gentle smile, I said to myself that Father couldn’t have believed these things if he had seen her himself. But a sick surprised feeling told me it might be true.
Frankie turns into quite the traveller as she ages, going first to a small boarding school in Vancouver (where her dorm room has a view across Stanley Park, which would be absolutely lovely), before crossing the Atlantic to attend school in England, followed by some time in Paris. Across the years and the different settings, she and Hetty Dorval run into each other time and again and with each meeting – and with each learned piece of gossip helping Frankie to compose Hetty’s tawdry romantic back-story – Frankie’s view of the woman moves farther and farther away from her childhood infatuation. By the story’s climax, when the widowed Hetty has wrapped herself around a dear friend of Frankie’s, Frankie can only see the shallow, manipulative woman who manoeuvres all situations to her advantage and cares nothing for the feelings of anyone but herself – an attitude which leads Hetty’s devoted nanny, who has cared for her and stayed with her since childhood, to a passionate and shocking outburst.
It is a very readable book, though I could do without some of the early descriptive passages about the scenery around Lytton. Apparently, these appeal to many other readers. Perhaps those readers have not had to wade through quite as much second-rate CanLit as we patriotically-obliged natives, where overly described scenery that adds very little to the story is de rigueur? Regardless, it is a minor quibble. Hetty Dorval is charmingly subtle and elegantly structured. A very worthy first choice for the 1947 Club!