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Archive for April, 2012

When Rachel reviewed Excellent Women by Barbara Pym earlier this month, I knew it was time for me to finally read it for myself.  I have tried a few of Pym’s books over the years but I have never come away particularly impressed by any of them.  I liked her writing style and generally finished each book because I found her amusing but her stories and characters, though promising, never quite lived up to expectation.  And yet I’d been told time and time again by other readers that I would love Pym.  Finally, with this book, I’ve seen what there is to love.

Mildred Lathbury is a spinster in her early thirties, residing in an unimpressive neighbourhood of London, alone in a flat that shares a bathroom with the downstairs neighbour.  She is one of those excellent women whom everyone else relies upon, all of them assuming that in her respectable spinsterhood she can have no major concerns of her own and so can give herself over to the concerns of others.   It is a fate she views, half amused, as inevitable:

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

Mildred certainly finds much to keep her busy, especially once Rocky and Helena Napier move into the flat beneath hers.  The Napier’s strained relationship provides a seemingly endless demand for Mildred’s well-honed skills as an excellent woman.  She is always standing by, ready to provide a bit of distraction, an evening of unthreatening conversation or simply a cup of tea depending on the circumstances.  And there are also Father Malory and his sister Winifred, great friends of Mildred’s, needing her calming presence themselves when Julian Malory unexpectedly becomes entangled with the beautiful widow Allegra Gray.

Mildred is fascinated by the messy emotional entanglements of others but just isn’t the kind of person to have them herself.  She is intrigued by romance and marriage but is not someone given to recklessly falling in love at the drop of a hat.  She is young enough that people around her still assume she will get married but she does not seem at all certain that that is what she wants.  Mildred enjoys male company, yes, is flattered any time the handsome ex-serviceman Rocky seeks her out and enjoys his well-practiced charm, and she does like taking care of Father Malory, but she is conscious that she is generally the one doing all of the work in these relationships.  She gets a bit of attention, a lengthy to-do list and effusive thanks.  It all makes for a busy life.  But, crucially, she still has some control and independence.  Mildred has the ability to take on as little or as much work as she wants for whoever she likes.  She is not bound in the way a wife would be and is not at all certain that excellent women should marry:

 ‘You could consider marrying an excellent woman?’ I asked in amazement.  ‘But they are not for marrying.’

‘You’re surely not suggesting that they are for the other things?’ he said, smiling.

That had certainly not occurred to me and I was annoyed to find myself embarrassed.

‘They are for being unmarried,’ I said, ‘and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state.’

‘Poor things, aren’t they allow to have the normal feelings then?’

‘Oh, yes, but nothing can be done about them.’

Mildred is surrounded by dull males who all her acquaintances seem to think she would be terribly lucky to marry.  There is the fussy William Caldicott, more interested in the food than her when they meet for their annual lunch.  There is Everard Bone, Helena Napier’s colleague who Mildred is at least marginally intrigued by but who seems to be mostly mindful of her use as an excellent woman who could help index and correct the proofs for his book.  And then there is Julian Malory, who everyone seems to consider Mildred’s rightful property but who she can’t work up any romantic enthusiasm for.

It all makes for a fantastic book.  Pym’s style of comedy – dry and unrelenting – has always appealed to me but here she finally supplies characters that I can really enjoy.  I am not sure I would particularly like any of them if we met in real life (well, probably Father Malory, though his meekness would drive me mad quite quickly) but they are certainly entertaining.  There is, however, something particularly harrowing about reading Barbara Pym at the age of twenty-six.  I am not quite young enough to be entirely confident of a future with a husband and children nor am I old enough that that path has been clearly closed off.  How much less terrifying Pym must be to read once that particular question has been settled, when you can settle down to enjoy her great skill rather than viewing all of her spinsters as the shape of things to come.

I do wonder how male readers relate to Excellent Women.  I know they enjoy it but can they understand the particular blend of loneliness and freedom that characterizes Mildred’s life?  Understand her frustration over everyone else thinking they know what she wants, trying to order her life for her, when she is deeply conflicted about her own desires?  It seems to be such a typically female position.  What single woman hasn’t sat horrified at the dinner table while friends or relations probe into her personal life, plotting how they can ‘fix’ it?:

‘What will you do after we’ve gone?’ Helena asked.

‘Well, she had a life before we came,’ Rocky reminded her.  ‘Very much so – what is known as a full life, with clergymen and jumble sales and church services and good works.’

‘I thought that was the kind of life led by women who didn’t have a full life in the accepted sense,’ said Helena.

‘Oh, she’ll marry,’ said Rocky confidently.  They were talking about me as if I wasn’t there.

‘Everard might take her to hear a paper at the Learned Society,’ suggested Helena. ‘That would widen her outlook.’

‘Yes, it might,’ I said humbly from my narrowness.

‘But then she would get interested in some little tribe somewhere and her life might become even more narrow,’ said Rocky.

We discussed my future until a late hour, but it was hardly to be expected that we should come to any practical conclusions.

People may have ideas on bachelors and how they should live their lives but how rarely they seem to voice them, at least as publically as they do with unmarried women!  But, at least in my experience, such interventions are always done out of an honest desire to save the desperate spinster from a life of pathetic loneliness.  Whether it is true or not, there is definitely still the idea that a man, single though he may be, need never really be lonely, not so long as there are excellent women about to pet and care for him, making it their business to organize his work, his home, and his self, if given the chance.

My earlier encounters with Pym may have left me indifferent but I adored this.  The other books were funny and stylish but I had no emotional reaction to them whatsoever.  That was certainly not the case here.  It is easy to see why so many readers consider it her best work.

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Library Lust

Though I hate that there are two separate bookshelves rather than one continuous unit, I love how many books this room can hold.  That is the most important feature of any library, after all.  I am not wild about the furnishings – you know me, I love pale, cool colours – but I do like how unfussy everything is.

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Finally, I am able to make my contribution to Simon and Harriet’s Muriel Spark Reading Week!  I always feel like I should have stronger reactions to Spark’s books, which is part of why it has taken me most of this week to finally get around to posting.  Her books are fascinating and inventive and suitably thought-provoking but I’ve never really clicked with any of them.  I always finish each book thinking how well-crafted it was rather than how much I enjoyed that.  There are certainly worse responses one can have but it is not a particularly satisfying way to feel.  With the exception of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, there has never been a moment where Spark has engaged me emotionally and I’ve never felt particularly eager to reread any of her books.  Spark has a sense of humour I enjoy and I appreciate that she feels no need to create likeable characters (I can’t think of any in the six of her books that I’ve read) but I can’t quite put my finger on why I feel so coolly towards her.

Spark’s books are generally a touch bizarre and Loitering with Intent is no exception.  Fleur Talbot, aspiring poetess and novelist, finds herself employed by the shady Sir Quentin Oliver as secretary for his Autobiographical Association, a group of dull but august persons intent on writing about their lives in as illiterate a manner as they are capable.  Fleur is hired to ‘polish’ these manuscripts, “to rectify any lack or lapse in form, syntax, style, characterization, invention, local colour, description, dialogue, construction, and other trivialities.”  As she is drawn into the association and gets to know its members, all captivated by the mesmerizing Sir Quentin and easily cowed by his judgements, it does not take long for her to notice the eerie parallels between her new acquaintances and the characters in her first novel, Warrender Chase.  And what is even more bizarre is how, long after the novel is finished, events keep unfolding exactly as she had written them.

Part of the charm of the book is how completely awful all of the characters are.  They are each, in their way, repellent and that is what makes them so appealing.  Sir Quentin is the most repellent and, it necessarily follows, the most fascinating.  He is comically snobbish and criminally manipulative and I wish there had been more of him.  Fleur, with her single-minded focus on the fate of her novel, is equally selfish but rather less interesting to me.  This is a bit of a problem since the entire novel is narrated from her point of view, from her perspective as an older, established author looking back on her beginnings.  That premise itself of course begs questions about how reliably she is relating her own history: is this what really happened, or has she taken the same liberties with her own autobiography as she did when she was ‘improving’ the autobiographies of the members of the association?  Are the allegations of plagiarism as unfounded as she claims?

Like any Spark novel, the best thing about Loitering with Intent is all the questions it leaves you pondering long after you’ve finished reading.  Spark is not a simple author and the real benefit from her books comes in the days and weeks after you’ve closed the cover, when you’re left remembering a certain character or wondering if there was more to the story than you’d originally thought.

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader 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.

Only two books for me this week and both, unusually for me, relatively new releases.  I have so many books both from my own collection and from previous library hauls waiting that it is probably for the best that I keep my loot small for the next little bit as I try to make a dent in that pile.

No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel – I adore this cover and, after reading NPR’s review, am intrigued by the story.  It seems like the kind of book I’ll either love or will abandon after twenty pages.  I’m eager to find out which it is.

In 1939, the families in a remote Jewish village in Romania feel the war close in on them. Their tribe has moved and escaped for thousands of years- across oceans, deserts, and mountains-but now, it seems, there is nowhere else to go. Danger is imminent in every direction, yet the territory of imagination and belief is limitless. At the suggestion of an eleven-year-old girl and a mysterious stranger who has washed up on the riverbank, the villagers decide to reinvent the world: deny any relationship with the known and start over from scratch. Destiny is unwritten. Time and history are forgotten. Jobs, husbands, a child, are reassigned. And for years, there is boundless hope. But the real world continues to unfold alongside the imagined one, eventually overtaking it, and soon our narrator-the girl, grown into a young mother-must flee her village, move from one world to the next, to find her husband and save her children, and propel them toward a real and hopeful future. A beguiling, imaginative, inspiring story about the bigness of being alive as an individual, as a member of a tribe, and as a participant in history…

The Astaires: Fred & Adele by Kathleen Riley – after reading Elaine’s review, I cannot wait to get started on this.

Before ‘Fred and Ginger’, there was ‘Fred and Adele’, a show business partnership and a cultural sensation like no other. It is difficult in our celebrity-sated era to comprehend what a genuine phenomenon the Astaires were. At the height of their success in the mid-1920s the siblings were seasoned transatlantic commuters, ambassadors of an art form they had helped to revolutionize, adored by audiences, feted by royalty, and courted socially by the elite in just about every field of endeavour. They seemed to define the Jazz Age, a fascinating pair who wove fascinating rhythms in song and dance. The story of Fred and Adele Astaire is extraordinary and it is told here in depth and within its historical and theatrical context. It is not merely the first part of Fred’s long and illustrious career; it holds a significance and a fascination of its own, as well as having implications for Astaire’s subsequent career, which have not been fully appreciated.

What did you pick up this week?

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Bookish Deliveries

I love getting mail.  Every morning when the mailman comes I rush to the door to see what he has brought me.  Usually that means a thrilling collection of real estate flyers and bills.  Not so yesterday.  Yesterday, he brought me three lovely book-sized packages.  There is no better way to get a week started.  Here is what came:

Ninepins by Rosy Thornton – Rosy kindly asked a few weeks ago if I would be interested in a review copy of her newest novel.  Of course I was!

Four Plays by A.A. Milne – a very thoughtful surprise from Simon to encourage my newfound love of A.A. Milne.  I enjoyed both To Have the Honour and Belinda and am really looking forward to reading The Dover Road and Mr Pim Passes BySimon’s review of Mr Pim last year (in its novel rather than play form) was what started me thinking of trying AAM’s adult works and it has been the one I’ve been most eager to get my hands on – I know exactly what I will be reading next!

A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf edited by Leonard Woolf – hello lovely new Persephone!

I must say, looking at the Persephone events listing is deeply frustrating when you live an ocean (and the width of a continent beyond that) away.  I am particularly jealous of everyone who will be going on the September outing to Bognor Regis where social historian Juliet Gardiner will be leading a walk.  I am not planning to visit the UK when I’m in Europe this September but I can’t help but feel a little tempted.

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A.A. Milne is proving incredibly useful for my Century of Books: Belinda, an oh so silly and far from brilliant but still fun comedy, allowed me to check off 1918 from my list.  Of the 22 years I’ve completed (meaning actually posted reviews for), 6 of them have been done with books and plays written by Milne.  How convenient to have discovered my love for him just as I was beginning this project!

It is the end of April and Belinda Tremayne, a middle-aged beauty, is down at her country home in Devon.  A light-hearted and skilful flirt of the very best sort, Belinda has two local gentlemen vying for her affections: Harold Baxter, a middle-aged statistician, and Claude Devenish, a twenty-two year old poet.  They are not quite up to the usual standard of Belinda’s admirers but she is in the country and it is only April.  She must make do with what is available.

I would like to pause to appreciate Milne’s gift for bestowing the most perfect names on his characters.  What could be more perfect for an impish beauty of a certain age than Belinda?  Or Harold Baxter for a deeply unexceptional and entirely dull man?  And Claude Devenish is the perfect name for a poetic young man fond of floppy hair and awful verse.

As the play opens, Belinda is delighted to find her eighteen year old daughter Delia returned from Paris and Delia is equally enchanted to hear all about her mother’s most recent conquests.  It would be too upsetting for the men, they both agree, to be reminded of Belinda’s advanced age by the presentation of an adult daughter so they decide to introduce her to Messrs Baxter and Devenish as Miss Robinson, Belinda’s fictitious niece.  It is a plan that gives them both much amusement, and why not?  It is hardly as though Belinda is in love with either man.  She may like to have men propose to her – adore it, in fact – but she is not going to marry any of them.  Even if she did feel affection towards them, she still has a husband, somewhere.  Tremayne and Belinda parted ways eighteen years before, after only a few months of marriage, before she even had time to tell him about the pending arrival of Delia.  They were both young and not quite capable of handling the little daily conflicts that crop up in any relationship:

BELINDA. […] he was quite certain he knew how to manage women, and I was quite certain I knew how to manage men.  If one of us had been certain, it would have been all right.

Baxter and Devenish, both passionately devoted to Belinda, present an amusing rivalry when they appear together to pledge their devotion.  Devenish enters into it with the hyperbolic spirit of a poet, a speech deeply improved by Baxter’s derogatory insertions:

DEVENISH. Money – thank Heaven, I have no money.  Reputation – thank Heaven, I have no reputation.  What can I offer you?  Dreams – nothing but dreams.  Come with me and I will show you the world through my dreams.  What can I give you?  Youth, freedom, beauty –

BAXTER. Debts.

After they have both proposed to Belinda, she sets for them what should be an impossible task: to find Miss Robinson’s father.  His name, she tells them, is unknown and he can only be known by a mole just here on his arm.  Once he is found, she says, she may consider their proposals.

But a gentleman with a mark just here on his arm has just arrived in the neighbourhood, bizarrely enough, and begins paying suit to Belinda under the pseudonym of Robinson.  He knows her in an instant but eighteen years is a long time and Belinda, Mr Robinson having very properly left his arms and any marking they might have covered when in her presence, does not recognize him.

Meanwhile, Devenish is no longer so keen to win the hand of the fair Belinda now that he has seen her ‘niece’.  He falls instantly and most suitably in love with the age appropriate Delia, who is not quite so romantic as her mother:

DELIA. What lovely flowers!  Are they for my aunt?

DEVENISH. To whom does one bring violets?  To modest, shrinking, tender youth.

DELIA. I don’t think we have anybody here like that.

Belinda is delighted with this transference of affections, being very fond of Devenish but not at all romantically inclined towards him.  With him removed, there is only one lover more to get rid of before she’s left with the only one she wants: her husband.  I must say, the unravelling of identities at the end is treated remarkably calmly and presents the weakest scene in the whole play.  It would have been much stronger if Jack Tremayne had expressed some amount of amazement or anger at being presented with an 18-year old daughter he knew nothing about.

I did love Delia.  She is one of Milne’s no-nonsense young women: practical, game for anything, and fondly but not irrationally affectionate.  I particularly admire her ability to quickly transform Claude Devenish into a presentable human being, convincing him to abandon his awful poetry, cut his silly long hair, and put his mind to getting a job:

DEVENISH. I don’t quite see your objection to poetry.

DELIA. You would be about the house so much.  I want you to go away every day and do great things, and then come home in the evening and tell me all about it.

DEVENISH. Then you are thinking of marrying me.

DELIA. Well, I was just thinking in case I had to.

I do wonder how familiar Angela Thirkell was with this play, since this Delia seems to have much in common with Thirkell’s Delia Brandon, daughter of the widely-adored Lavinia Brandon (see The Brandons).

This is a fun little play, but by no means a brilliant one.  It nothing else, it is amusing for the opening scene of Belinda attempting to gracefully manoeuvre herself into a hammock, knowing what a lovely image she will present when found reclined in it.  Of course, it does not quite work so well as planned but Belinda is more than capable of a little improvisation.  I unfortunately read this as an e-book and the edition available via Project Gutenberg was an acting version, with lots of distracting blocking notes but none of Milne’s narrative flourishes.  They were deeply missed.

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Library Lust

This is easily my favourite of the rooms I’ve featured this year.  There are plenty of bookshelves but they are hardly the focus: just look at that wall of windows!  You know I can’t resist natural light.  Though this photo came to me without a credit, it is clearly IKEA – I have spent too much time flipping through their catalogues not to recognize their products and their excellent styling.  If I had a room like this in my home, I think you’d have trouble ever convincing me to go out.

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Following Miss Bunting, Peace Breaks Out by Angela Thirkell begins in the spring of 1945.  After years of war, the end is finally here and the people of Barsetshire are not at all ready for the “Brave and Revolting New World” that awaits them.

For me, this is the most moving of Thrikell’s books dealing with the war.  All of the wartime books are fascinating (as well as simply entertaining) but what makes this so special is seeing how everyone cracks now that the wartime facade of calm and unquestioning compliance with government dictates is no longer necessary.   They are finally able to openly voice their frustration and their anger and their pain – in typically subdued Barsetshire style, but nonetheless – and it can be quite painful to witness.

With Miss Bunting’s death in 1944, the older generation began to feel the coming end of the world they knew.  Now, finally, it is here.  After years of anxiety and deprivation, of fear and grief, the war has been won but at what cost?  They behaved so well, “conscientiously doing their duty in a world they didn’t understand, a world which did not want them” but they are not to be rewarded with a return to the gracious style of living they so enjoyed.  A Labour government has been elected by a thankless nation, there is no end in sight for rationing, and the only thing that seems to have happened over the past six years is that too many boys have died and everyone else has grown older with nothing to show for those years but grey hairs and wrinkles.  It is not an inspiring sight and there are few optimists left in Barsetshire.  Mr Birkett, headmaster of Southbridge School, is horrified by the homogenized new world being promised them:

 ‘Soon there will be practically no eccentrics left in England, and the mediocre will have it all their own communal way.  I hope I’ll be dead then.  And I’ll blow up the school before I go.’

Laura Morland, in her own daft, dramatic way, is equally pessimistic (and, since Thirkell was writing with the benefit of hindsight, completely correct):

 ‘It is really good-bye to everything nice forever,’ said Mrs Morland in her deepest tragedy voice, ‘from today onward.’

‘Don’t be a fool, Laura,’ said Lord Stoke, who had happened to hear her.  ‘World’s got to go on somehow.’

‘But it is all going to be horrid forever,’ said Mrs Morland.  ‘We shall have a horrid winter and probably the Government will send all our coal and all our food to the Russians or the Mixo-Lydians, and there will be millions of conferences with millions of foreigners eating what’s left and commandeering all the hotels.  And no clothes, and everyone being rude.  And we shall be so tired,’ said Mrs Morland sadly, ‘that we shan’t even try to protest.’

The moment that really got me was not one of these glib speeches but a quiet scene: Lady Fielding alone with a cup of tea, daring to imagine just for a moment that none of it had ever happened:

The sights and sounds were much as they had always been and Lady Fielding thought that if she sat quite still, never moving, hardly breathing, the war and the more dreadful peace would turn out to have been a dream.

She wants so badly to erase those awful years.  But then a plane flies overhead and her fantasy is destroyed and for one awful, incredibly painful moment, she snaps.  The young adults, like Lady Fielding’s daughter Anne, are mostly ignorant or at least careless of what has been lost.  Not the older generation.  They trusted that all their suffering during the war, the endless anxiety of having children and spouses in uniform and overseas, the exhausting efforts to make do, and the cheerlessness of a life without even the smallest pleasures of a new outfit or a good meal, would be rewarded.  What they are instead presented with is a world none of them are particularly eager to live in.  Their innate sense of fairness has been violated.  They felt that they were being asked to put their real lives on hold and would be allowed to return to them once the war was won.  As long as the war continued, there was at least a glimmer of the pre-war world.  With the arrival of the peace, it vanishes.

It is not everyone who is so pessimistic.  The young people – and the not-so-young, in David Leslie’s case – are happily rushing about the county, entangling themselves in delightful flirtations.  David, despite his receding hairline, is still happily and cold-bloodedly breaking young hearts, though he is really far too old to have any business doing so, a fact his niece Clarissa enjoys callously reminding him of.  But David is always entertaining whenever he shows up and it is particularly nice to see him cut down to size by women of varying ages.  Suitable matches are made and yet another young man falls in love with a beautiful older woman and it is all very nice.  Particularly delightful, for me at least, is the engagement of Anne Fielding and Robin Dale.  If Lydia (Keith) Merton is my favourite Thirkell character (and she undoubtedly is), then Anne and Robin are my favourite couple.  We got to know them both so well on their own in Miss Bunting and to see how perfectly-suited they are that there was never really any doubt of how things would end up between them.  Still, it is immensely satisfying to get to that ending after two books.

This is a much more fun book than I have perhaps made it sound, though dissatisfaction with the new world is a major theme.  But with so many romantic pairings to juggle and so many important events to be dryly commented on, this book does not lack for amusing moments.  I am particularly fond of Thirkell’s description of the multicultural V-J Day celebrations in London (probably also an excellent illustration of why Thirkell may not agree with politically correct readers):

They then walked aimlessly about London, swelling the already gigantic crowd of Esquimaux, Tibetans, Americans, Free French, Tierra de Fuegans, Poles (who owing to each supporting a different kind of Government seemed even more numerous than they were), Mixo-Lydians, Canadians, Slavo-Lydians, Australians, Indians (which to the English mind roughly included any Persians, Arabs or South Sea Islanders who happened to be about), Argentines who had loyally come into the war the day before, Chileans who were all called Eduardo O’Coughlin or Ignacio Macalister, a clergyman who had once lived on Tristan da Cunka, Irish labourers out of whose large wages paid by the Saxon Oppressor Dark Rosaleen was doing very nicely while her sons pursued a divil-may-care policy of sitting on doorsteps all day smoking and contemplating the repairing jobs they had been imported to do, Lapps, Swedes, Broccoli, Calabresi, Chinese who being used to three million people dying of famine or being drowned in floods were unimpressed by crowds, some Russians one supposes, practically the whole of the Balkan states, the head chief of Mngangaland, who was in England with a large retinue to put his eightieth and favourite son to Balliol, and the President of the Republic of Sangrado, so-called from the great Liberator Shaun O’Grady (murdered 1843).  And all these people walked up and down London all day, with very little to drink and little or nothing to eat, and squashed each other loyally in front of Buckingham Palace, irritably in the Strand, angrily in Trafalgar Square, furiously in the Tubes as long as they were open, and drove the long-suffering Metropolitan Police nearly demented by being funny at night in Piccadilly Circus.

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader 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.

Marg has the Mr Linky this week!

Simon T and Harriet are hosting Muriel Spark Reading Week from April 23rd  to 29th and I had lots of fun going through the library catalogue and picking out what I wanted to read.  I ended up with Loitering with Intent, which is on Simon’s list of “50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About” , and Curriculum Vitae, because I cannot resist an autobiography.  I had wanted to reread A Far Cry From Kensington but, inexplicably, the library has only one copy and it has been checked out.   I might still get it in time but I am not holding my breath.

I also picked up Indiscretion by Jude Morgan.  This, the story of Caroline Fortune who, after her father is ruined, takes up the position of companion to a wealthy widow, was my introduction to Morgan.  I only read it once, shortly after it came out six or seven years ago, and don’t remember all that much about it so I’m interested to see how it compares to his other books which I know and love.

Reading Jennifer Kloester’s enjoyable biography of Georgette Heyer last week made me want to reread all of her Regency books immediately.  Since, for this week at least, Muriel Spark is taking precedence when I have time to actually read, audio-books seemed the perfect solution, allowing me to enjoy both Friday’s Child and The Toll-Gate while I’m working on other tasks.  These audio-books are a bit older (the covers probably gave that away) and not as slickly produced as the Naxos ones but they are unabridged, which is nice.

What did you pick up this week?

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Delightfully, I have come to the point where I am already rereading some of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books, which I only just discovered last winter.  When I first read Miss Bunting by Angela Thirkell, it was only my third encounter with her and I was just getting to know her style and her vast, amusing array of characters.  Returning a year later after having read a dozen more of her novels, I was in a much more comfortable place to enjoy this simple but brilliantly executed story.

More than usual, I think, this is a novel about nothing, just people stumbling along through the summer of 1944.  Seventeen-year old Anne Fielding, under the care of the incomparable Miss Bunting (last seen in Marling Hall), is developing from a timid and frail girl into an intelligent and beautifully-behaved young woman, someone whose company everyone enjoys.  Robin Dale, returned home from Italy minus a foot, is attempting to educate a few young minds at his small school but is mostly succeeding in getting in his aged father’s way at home in the Rectory.  Jane Gresham is trying to carry on as normally as possible, not knowing if her husband who has been missing in the East for several years is alive or dead.  The gauche and deadly dull Heather Adams is cramming for Cambridge and nursing a desperate passion for Mrs Gresham while her forceful father, Sam Adams, is being loud and excessive and embarrassingly useful.  The magnificent Mixo-Lydian refugee Gradka is preparing wonderful meals for the Fieldings and occasionally shocking them with her bloodthirsty passion against the Slavo-Lydians.  And Miss Bunting is quietly and calmly observing them all.  This is not a book where Things Happen, just where people interact in the course of daily life and it is marvellous.

I do think this is the most gloriously snobbish of Thirkell’s novels, which is part of the reason I adore it so.   Republican ideals of equality have no place in Barsetshire but sadly ‘progress’ can not be blocked out entirely, leading generally to awkward confusion and embarrassment in situations where deference was once obviously due and pleasantly observed.  There is no adequate response now for trades people who find themselves discovered by the disapproving Miss Bunting while slacking off their duties and being given cups of tea by the innocently welcoming Anne:

Miss Bunting took her pince-nez from a pocket, put them on, and looked searchingly at the intruders.  Most willingly would have bowed, scraped, curtsied, made a leg, bobbed, tugged a forelock; but civilisation in its backward progress has eliminated all these forms of respect to age or position as uneducated, undemocratic and shameful.  So they all went red in the face and looked up, down, around; anywhere but at the newcomer.

Poor Lady Fielding, a classic and well-meaning snob, has no idea what to do with Sam Adams when he begins intruding into her world.  The loud manufacturer and his daughter should be so completely outside of her social circle and yet there they are, everywhere she looks.  It is an association she cannot avoid but certainly has no idea quite how to handle.  But, because this is Thirkell’s world, even they know their place.  Miss Bunting also knows her place: she is simply superior to all other beings, regardless of their status, and is recognized as such by one and all.  She is even able to subdue the irrepressible Gradka:

Miss Bunting came to Hallbury with Lady Fielding to inspect her new domain, and in one interview reduced Gradka to a state of subservience which roused Lady Fielding’s admiration and curiosity.

‘How did you do it?’ she asked Miss Bunting subsequently, awestruck.

‘I was in Russia before the last war with a daughter of one of the Grand Dukes,’ said Miss Bunting.  ‘The Russian aristocracy knew how to treat their inferiors.  I observed their methods and have practiced them with some success. ‘

‘But you can’t exactly call Gradka inferior,’ said Lady Fielding, nervously wondering whether she was listening outside the door. ‘Her father is a university professor and very well known.’

‘I think,’ said Miss Bunting, ‘that you will find the facts much overstated.  The young woman, who is probably listening outside the door at the moment, is an inferior.  No well-born Mixo-Lydian would dream of being connected with a university.  Until this war they kept up the habits of a real aristocracy: to hunt and get drunk all autumn and winter, and to go to the Riviera and get drunk in the spring and early summer.  For the rest of the year they visited their palaces in Lydianopolis where they entertained ballet girls and got drunk.’

Whether Gradka overheard this or not, we cannot say, but from that moment she recognized Miss Bunting as a princess and the household went very well. 

One of the joys of reading this now that I know the series so much better is my increased appreciation of the running jokes.  The war against the Bishop and his wife amused me enough the first time around but how much more I enjoyed it now, seeing it as a common cause that has bound kindred souls together through the years.  When the delightful Mrs Morland meets Anne Fielding for the first time, anti-palace sentiment acts as a sort of shibboleth, proving Anne as someone with the right sort of mind:

‘Tony always says that I fly at people and kiss them in a kind of higher carelessness,’ she said.  ‘But I do assure you I never kiss people I don’t like.  If I did begin to kiss the Bishop’s wife, even by mistake, something would stop me.’

‘I only met her once,’ said Anne, finding it, to her own great surprise, quite easy to talk to someone as celebrated as Mrs Morland, ‘at a prize-giving at the Barchester High School and she said prizes really meant nothing, so all the girls who got prizes hated her.  If I’d had a prize I’d have hated her too.  But I hated her anyway because she had a horrid hat.’

Mrs Morland looked approvingly at a girl who had such sound instincts…

As always with Thirkell’s wartime books, the details here are utterly fascinating.  Double summertime, which is barely mentioned in so many other wartime books but is a positive obsession in Barsetshire, is driving everyone mad by keeping them in constant confusion over what the ‘real’ time actually is.  Young Tom Watson (best friend of Jane Gresham’s little boy, Frank) is raising rabbits.  There are constant laments about all the things that one wants but cannot get, from petrol to bath sponges to items for clearing drains that I cannot even begin to pretend I understand (but which Sam Adams certainly does).  Robin and Dr Dale have a particularly perfect exchange over longed-for pork products:

‘Roast pork and crackling,’ said the Rector, gazing into space.  ‘Yorkshire hams.  Trotters.  Pig’s face and young greens.  Gammon rashers.  Everything.’

Father and son were silent for a moment in contemplation of these raptures.

‘And pork pies with lots of jelly,’ said Robin in a low voice.  ‘No, Father, be a man.  Think of Spam.’

There are mentions of all the young men and women of Barsetshire in uniform, deployed around the globe from America to Egypt.  There is Jane Gresham, who does not know if she is widow or wife.  And of course there is Robin Dale.  Healthy and only twenty-six, he lost his foot during the invasion of Italy and so finds himself the only young man left in his corner of Barsetshire.

The relationship between Robin and Dr Dale is an interesting one, particularly considering some of Thirkell’s romantic pairings in other books (August Folly’s Helen Dean and Charles Fanshawe come to mind) that echo Dr Dale’s late marriage to a much younger woman.  At twenty-six and eighty-two, son and father are several generations apart and the one woman who could have bridged the divide between them has been dead for many years.  They love each other dearly and have a very fond relationship but are at such different points in their lives – one just starting out, one drawing to the end – that their living together is not ideal for either of them.  It is not precisely a condemnation of late-life marriages and procreation, just a reminder of the consequences.  Dr Dale may not be able to relate to Robin, may occasionally say that Robin should have been his grandson, but there is no question that the boy is very precious to him.  Robin, equally, adores his father, even if he is “sometimes too like an elderly clergyman to be real.”

It seem tragic that I’ve gotten this far in my review without saying much about Gradka, the most magnificent Mixo-Lydian ever to have drawn breath, but I am rambling on and need to save something to talk about when I inevitably reread this next year.

As the novel concludes, with the death of a major character and the looming end of the war, there is a sense of a certain way of life coming to an end and a terrifying uncertainty taking its place.  The older generation are definitely worried (the next book, Peace Breaks Out, is almost entirely devoted to their mournful cries) but the youth – as represented by Anne, Robin, and Jane – seem relatively unperturbed.  Sam Adams’s direct talk and businessman ways may make them a touch uncomfortable but more than their elders they seem able to acknowledge and accept the spirit in which his attentions are meant and, more importantly, to recognize that he has a rightful place in their world.  Uncertain though it may be, they are all young enough to be excited at what the future might hold for them – and too young, perhaps, to know what it is they are losing.

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