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Archive for July, 2012

I have been collecting Slightly Foxed Editions over the past few months but The High Path by Ted Walker is the first one I have actually read and, I have to say, it sets a very high standard.  A memoir of Walker’s Sussex youth, the book begins in 1932, two years before Walker’s birth, when his father moved south from Birmingham in search of work, and continues on through to 1953, just when Walker is getting ready to leave for Cambridge.  The working-class Walker family had their hard times – multiple generations lived in one cramped house, money was scarce, and Ted’s sister Ruth died when she was only a few weeks old – but this is the memoir of a very happy childhood.  And there are few things I love more than happy childhood memoirs.

Born in 1934, Walker’s childhood memories really begin during the war.  He was an only child until he was ten and, in the absence of any brothers or sisters, his favourite companion was his father.  He had school friends and admired other male relatives but his father was the center of his world.  One of Walker’s earliest memories is the evening routine of welcoming his father home.  His description of it gives a sense of how much he adored his father – getting so much pleasure from being carried by him and watching him eat – and also how beautifully detailed his writing is:

…in the kitchen, even had I been blindfolded, I could have recognized him: for he brought into the house an entire anthology of smells I associated with nobody else: the hair-oil smell of his cap; the open-road gustiness of his flapping coat; and then the redolence of his trade: sawdust and shavings of pitch-pine and mahogany, a toolbag rankness of nailsacks and creosote, carpenter’s pencil and linseed oil.  With water scaldingly hot from the kettle on the hob, straight away he would wash his hands as methodically as a surgeon; and then I would nuzzle at his own essential fragrances – sweat and Nut-Brown shag at the nape of his neck – when he carried me through to the living-room table.  Here his dinner would be waiting for him (my mother and I would already have had ours) and I would watch him, cat-like, eat every mouthful.

What is particularly interesting is that all this was written when Walker’s father was still alive.  The High Path was published in 1982 when Ted Walker was only in his forties and he refers to his father several times in the present tense, still always in the admiring terms of his childhood memories.  As the book wears on, you realise how far apart the men’s lives drifted – Ted advancing on to a university education and a writing career that his carpenter father could not easily relate to – which makes it all the more poignant.  The easy companionship that existed when Ted was a child – when he and his father shared a French tutor and played cricket in the backyard – may have disappeared but the love and admiration definitely remained.

Walker was a poet and perhaps it is his poetic nature that occasionally leads him to contemplate the “what ifs?” in his life.  I love when writers do this.  It is why Making It Up is my favourite Penelope Lively book and I would be thrilled if every memoirist devoted a good third of their book to such questions.  Few do but I am happy to content myself with a couple of paragraphs from those whose minds wander down such paths.  I was particularly moved by his thoughts on his sister Ruth and what life would have been like for them had she lived.  There is something about the potential of unknown siblings that is unsettling but endlessly fascinating.  As adults, Walker and his brother (who was ten years younger, so their childhoods did not really overlap) were good friends but their relationship is very different from the one he imagines he and his sister, so close in age, might have had:

…the notion of my having had a sister often disturbs me, and I cannot drive past that cemetery without thinking of Ruth.  Had she lived, she would now have been a woman in her mid-forties, perhaps with a family of her own; one with whom I could share a confidence: a woman, I mean, who might be spoken to not as a man may speak to his wife, mother, daughter, mistress – all of whom have understandably vested interests when it comes to the intimacies of his heart.  Only a sister, much of an age, might be expected to take a neutral, unsentimental yet not unsympathetic stance about a man’s conduct or his state of mind.  There have been many times in my life when I could have done with knocking on Ruth’s door of an evening and having a chat in her kitchen.

The bulk of Walker’s memories are from the war years but the war plays a remarkably small role in them, not particularly impacting his school days or friendships, the things that really matter to a small boy.  To him, having been so young when the war began, a lot of what the older children viewed as novelty and the adults viewed as terrifying was normal.  If you only know rationing and blackouts, there is nothing noteworthy about them.  Still, there are moments when the war surfaces: he recounts how his uncle was killed by a mine and how he felt when his father showed him the pictures from Belsen.  He also remembers how he got hooked on the fudge given to him by Canadian soldiers stationed nearby, which he would do almost anything to get more of.  One of the strongest images of the books, for me, was of Ted and his friends rushing down to the beach the day it was reopened in 1945 – not even pausing to take off the roller skates they had been using when they heard the news:

When we reached the stony road by Glazebrook’s off-license, we did not stop to remove our skates.  Absurdly on our wheels, we trod across the shingle and down to the sand we sank into.  The tide was far out, the sun was just setting.  There were hundreds of people strolling, their faces lit with pink delight.  This, then, was what Peace was: to stand and gaze at the unsinister sea; to pick up a streamer of bladder-wrack and watch it lift with the wind.  We took off our skates and ran about crazily.  We paddled, kicking the water, tasting the salt on our lips.

How strange and wonderful, after years of living by the sea, to finally be able to enjoy it.

The book continues through Walker’s teen years, touching on his academic progress, his growing love of languages, and his first love, Lorna.  Lorna and Walker met at a dance when she was sixteen and he almost fifteen but that was it.  First love was true love and they married shortly after finishing university, had four children and remained together until her death in 1987.  Walker’s second memoir – The Last of England – deals with Lorna’s painful final illness and Walker’s difficulty dealing with her death.

I knew nothing about Walker before I began reading – well, I knew from Slightly Foxed that he was a poet but I have never read any of his work – so I had no particular attachment to him but I loved him by the end.  The writing is strong but simple, full of rich images but no excessive flourishes or sentimentality.  This book is simply the fond remembrances of a man thankful for his happy upbringing and, as such, it is perfect.

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The Ugly Duckling by A.A. Milne is, to the best of my recollection, the only Milne play I have actually seen performed.  It was a decade ago and a schoolgirl production for an evening of one-act plays but I have actually seen it, though of course I am sure that at the time I never looked closely enough at the program to see who had written it.  Given how rare it is to find Milne plays being performed, it makes me feel quite happy to know that I have at least seen one.

The Ugly Ducking, from 1941, is another of Milne’s fairy tales, which is delightful news as he has such fun with them that the reader always benefits.  Here, the King and Queen are hoping to marry off their daughter, Princess Camilla, to Prince Simon.  Princess Camilla is not exactly like other princess though.  She’s not quite…that is to say, she doesn’t have…well, the King really puts it best:

KING. What you are trying to say in the fewest words possible is that my daughter is not beautiful.

CHANCELLOR. Her beauty is certainly elusive, Your Majesty.

KING. It is.  It has eluded you, it has eluded me, it has eluded everybody who has seen her.

Yes, Princess Camilla, though she is the nicest person in the kingdom, is not a looker and her lack of beauty has proved rather inconvenient in the quest to find her a prince.  Her parents are determined to get her married though, since, as the King tells her, “Now the great fact about marriage is that once you’re married you live happy ever after.  All our history books affirm this.”  The upcoming visit of Prince Simon, who has lived his life in such remote locations that it is hoped he hasn’t heard the rumours about Princess Camilla’s appearance, gives them a chance to be clever and the King and Queen hatch a plan.  When Prince Simon arrives, Princess Camilla’s stunning but lamentably dimwitted attendant Dulcibella will pretend to be the Princess and will (by whatever means necessary) get the Prince to agree to a marriage.  Then Princess Camilla will marrying him wearing a very heavy veil so he won’t know the difference until after the wedding.  It is, the King assures Princess Camilla, “a harmless ruse, of which you will find frequent record in the history books.”  Princess Camilla, surprisingly calm and seemingly rather bemused, consents to her parents’ plan.

But when Prince Simon arrives, he too has switched places with his attendant and so he and Camilla meet incognito.  Unlike everyone else, he is immediately struck by her beauty (a godmother’s blessing having made everyone else see her as plain until she meets her prince) and the two get on very well indeed, discussing how best to approach the castle when the drawbridge is out of commission – both Prince Simon and Camilla are apparently gifted acrobats, when necessary.  With true love found, and her godmother’s christening blessings finally explained to her mystified parents, things are nicely tied up in the promised happy ever after.

All of the dialogue is enjoyable but the highlight for me was this exchange between the King and Dulcibella, when he was coaching that gorgeous idiot on how to behave when masquerading as the Princess.  It is dialogue like this that makes me adore Milne so very, very much:

KING. Come in, my dear!

(DULCIBELLA comes in.  She is beautiful, but dumb.)

Now don’t be frightened, there is nothing to be frightened about.  Has Her Majesty told you what you have to do?

DULCIBELLA. Y-yes, Your Majesty.

KING. Well now, let’s see how well you can do it.  You are sitting here, we will say. (He leads her to a seat.)  Now imagine that I am Prince Simon. (He curls his moustache and puts his stomach in.  She giggles.)  You are the beautiful Princess Camilla whom he has never seen.  (She giggles again.)  This is a serious moment in your life, and you will find that a giggle will not be helpful.  (He goes to the door.)  I am announced: “His Royal Highness Prince Simon!”  That’s me being announced.  Remember what I said about giggling.  You should have a far-away look upon the face.  (She does her best.) Farther away than that. (She tries again.)  No, that’s too far.  You are sitting there, thinking beautiful thoughts – in maiden meditation, fancy-free, as I remember saying to Her Majesty once…speaking of somebody else…fancy-free, but with the mouth definitely shut – that’s better.  I advance and fall upon one knee.  (He does so.)  You extend your hand graciously – graciously; you’re not trying to push him in the face – that’s better, and I raise it to my lips – so – and I kiss it – (he kisses it warmly) – no, perhaps not so ardently as that, more like this (he kisses it again), and I say, “Your Royal Highness, this is the most – er – Your Royal Highness, I shall ever be – no – Your Royal Highness, it is the proudest –“ Well, the point is that he will say it, and it will be something complimentary, and then he will take your hand in both of his, and press it to his heart.  (He does so.)  And then – what do you say?

DULCIBELLA. Coo!

KING. No, not Coo.

DULCIBELLA.  Never had anyone do that to me before.

KING. That also strikes the wrong note.  What you want to say is, “Oh, Prince Simon!”… Say it.

DULCIBELLA (loudly).  Oh, Prince Simon!

KING. No, no.  You don’t need to shout until he has said “What?” two or three times.  Always consider the possibility that he isn’t deaf.  Softly, and giving the words a dying fall, letting them play around his head like a flight of doves.

DULCIBELLA (still a little over-loud). O-o-o-o-h, Prinsimon!

KING. Keep the idea in your mind of a flight of doves rather than a flight of panic-stricken elephants, and you will be all right.  Now I’m going to get up, and you must, as it were, waft me into a seat by your side.  (She starts wafting.)  Not rescuing a drowning man, that’s another idea altogether, useful at times, but at the moment inappropriate.  Wafting.  Prince Simon will put the necessary muscles into play – all you require to do is to indicate by a gracious movement of the hand the seat you require him to take.  Now! (He gets up, a little stiffly, and sits next to her.)  That was better.  Well, here we are.  Now, I think you give me a look: something, let us say, half-way between the breathless adoration of a nun and the voluptuous abandonment of a woman of the world; with an undertone of regal dignity, touched, as it were, with good comradeship.  Now try that.  (She gives him a vacant look of bewilderment.)  Frankly, that didn’t quite get it.  There was just a little something missing.  An absence, as it were, of all the qualities I asked for, and in their place an odd resemblance to an unsatisfied fish. 

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Library Lust

credit: Country Living

All cabins should come with full bookshelves and a rolling ladder.

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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!

I think my library lesson this year is that Interlibrary Loans Are Amazing.  First, they brought me Angela Thirkell novels that neither the Vancouver library nor the university library had and now they are supplying me with D.E. Stevenson novels that I’ve never been able to find anywhere.  It is glorious.

Elza’s Kitchen by Marc Fitten – this was mentioned over at Cornflower Books last week and I immediately checked the library catalogue to see if we had a copy.  The Hungarian setting is particularly intriguing to me, since this is a book that centers on a chef and I can’t think of any other novel that touches on Central European cuisine – it’s difficult enough to find cookbooks!

Amberwell by D.E. Stevenson – I still have not made up my mind about D.E. Stevenson.  I have loved the two Mrs Tim books I’ve read (Mrs Tim of the Regiment and Mrs Tim Flies Home) but was thoroughly underwhelmed by Miss Buncle’s Book.  Clearly, more research is needed, so I ordered up a few of her books via interlibrary loan, knowing little more about them that what I could find out after a quick Google search:

Five young Ayrtons all grew up at Amberwell, playing in the gardens and preparing themselves to venture out into the world. To each of these children, Amberwell meant something different, but common to all of them was the idea that Amberwell was more than just where they lived — it was part of them. Amberwell drove one of its children into a reckless marriage and healed another of his wounds…and there was one child who stayed at home and gave up her life to keep things running smoothly.

Celia’s House by D.E. Stevenson – again, all I know comes from the summary on GoodReads:

Celia’s House, filled with effervescent warmth and cheer, is the story of Dunnian — a spellbindingly lovely family estate in Scottish Border country — and of the generations of Dunne family that live in it and love it dearly. Beginning in 1905 with ninety-year-old Celia Dunne, it delightfully portrays the bustling life of her heir and grand-nephew, Humphrey Dunne, and his family of five rambunctious children. It follows the family over forty years — through their youthful antics, merry parties, heartbreaks and loves and marriages, as each in turn comes to maturity and an understanding of the enduring satisfaction Dunnian gives to their lives.

What did you pick up this week?

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British “war guests” arriving in Montreal, 7 July 1940

I think I was eight when I first read The Guests of War Trilogy by Kit Pearson.  I can’t remember if I got the books from the school library or the public library, or even if I purchased them for myself (my parents’ book-buying ban having already been in place by then), but I do know that over the next four years I read them over and over again, absorbing every detail about the lives of Norah and Gavin Stokes, two English children evacuated to Canada during the Second World War. I loved these books.  I cried over them, I sighed over them, and I came away from them with a fascination for wartime social history which, as you well know, has stuck with me through the years.  I had been a bit scared to try them again as an adult – how could they possibly live up to my memories? – but am thrilled to report that I love them now just as much if not more than I did as I child.

The Sky is Falling (1989) begins in August 1940, when ten-year old Norah Stokes is having the best summer of her life.  The adults around her might be anxious about the aerial dogfights being waged in the skies above their Kentish village but for Norah and her friends the Battle of Britain is endlessly thrilling and they spend hours learning to identify all the different planes involved.  But Norah’s perfect summer is disrupted when her parents tell her that they have decided to send her and her five-year old brother Gavin to Canada as “war guests”.  For Norah who has joined her friends in reviling their classmates who have already been evacuated, it is a crushing blow.  She wants to stay in England, to take part in the war, not be sent away to safety like a coward.  But at ten, her opinion matters very little and soon she and Gavin are on a ship, bound for Canada.  Once they arrive they make their way to Toronto, where they are taken in by the wealthy, domineering widow Mrs. Florence Ogilvie and her timid middle-aged daughter, Mary.  Mrs Ogilvie had only wanted Gavin but was forced to take Norah as well, something Norah unfortunately overheard and instantly soured her against her new guardians.

The novel follows Norah’s unhappy first few months in Canada.  Norah is obnoxious, which is I think part of what I found so refreshing when I first read this as a child and what I still appreciate now.  As a reader, you feel her pain and anger and loneliness and can sympathize with her, but you still see how she is hurting those around her, especially Gavin.  Having been told by her parents to take special care of Gavin, Norah ignores him almost completely from the moment their journey begins.  At five, he is equally scared but much more adaptable and she lashes out at him when he begins to forget their family and home in England.  He is coddled by Mrs Ogilvie (Aunt Florence), who having lost her beloved son Hugh during the last war in thrilled to have a little boy in the house once more, and being kept so much in adult company is lonely.  Norah remains oblivious to his attempts to reach out to her, caught up in her own sorrow, and I think as an adult I feel the poignancy of those rebuffs even more than I did when I was younger.

Very, very slowly, Norah begins to find things that make life tolerable in Toronto.  She makes a few friends – one suitable, according to Aunt Florence, and one not – and finds a refuge at the public library, where the young librarian is only too happy to help an eager young reader find new books.  She worries constantly about her family in England, longing to return to them, but, finally, her tense relationship with Aunt Florence comes to a crisis point and a tentative peace in made between the strong-willed woman and the equally strong-willed girl.

My favourite book in the trilogy was always Looking at the Moon (1991) and my copy is ridiculously worn when compared to the other two books.  It is the most girly of the books, dealing with typically female coming of age rites like first love and periods, which is part of what fascinated me as a girl but mostly I adored the setting: the entire story takes place a Gairloch, the magical family cottage in Muskoka where days are spent swimming, sailing, and running around the island.

Set during the summer of 1943, Norah is now thirteen and has been in Canada for almost three years.  She has friends in Toronto, is settled into school and is doing well, and has atoned for the brief months she neglected Gavin after they first arrived.  She even gets along with Aunt Florence.  But as much as she loves Gairloch and adores being surrounded by her “cousins” there, the war and her family are constantly in her thoughts.  The contrast between her life and theirs weighs on her and, as always, she worries that Gavin is forgetting their parents and sisters.  But she is still a thirteen year old girl and her main worry that summer is her new love for nineteen-year old Andrew, one of the “cousins”.

Andrew is the family’s golden boy, the one who can do no wrong, the one who even Aunt Florence views as almost as perfect as her dearly loved Hugh.  He is smart and handsome, kind and obliging, and, as Norah learns, suffering under the weight of his family’s expectations.  As Norah gets to know Andrew better, he confides in her some of the things he cannot tell his family: his longing to be an actor, his fear of disappointing everyone, and his horror at the idea of being forced to kill people.  These conversations, though not the lover-like tête-à-têtes Norah likes to fantasize about, force her to reconsider her view of the war and her image of courage.

I was worried that reading this as an adult would reveal weaknesses I hadn’t seen as a child, but it did not.  Instead, I appreciated it even more, recognizing how perfectly Pearson captured the complexities of both Norah and Andrew, both of whom possess unusual maturity but also the typical contradictions and weaknesses of teenagers.  They feel spectacularly real to me.  And I don’t think I had ever fully appreciated the contrast Gairloch provides to the war-torn world.  It is the ultimate safe haven, where children and adults are free to play and relax and forget what is going on in Europe and Asia for as long as they can – until a letter comes from Norah and Gavin’s family or the rationed butter is all used up in one meal and reality intrudes once more.

The trilogy concludes in The Lights Go On Again (1993), which focuses on Gavin rather than Norah.  Beginning in late 1944 and stretching to the summer of 1945, the book focuses on Gavin’s reaction to the end of the war and the knowledge that he will soon have to return to a country and a family he doesn’t remember.  Norah he knows and loves but he can’t remember much of his mother or father, his two elder sisters, or his grandfather.  He has grown up in Toronto, sounds like a Canadian, and knows what it is like to live in a mansion in Rosedale, where there is always enough money for good clothes and endless numbers of toys.  He has enjoyed trips across the country and summers with the “cousins” at Gairloch.  He loves Aunt Florence and Aunt Mary and the thought of being sent away from them to stay with strangers, even his parents, fills him with dread.

Then the chance arrives for Aunt Florence to adopt him, for Gavin to stay in Canada forever, and he has to make the choice between the life he knows with people he loves and the unknown, where he ‘belongs’.  Norah is thrilled to be going home – five years in Canada has not dulled her longing for England – but Gavin is tortured by his conflicting loyalties.  To be separated from his sister is frightening, but how can he leave Aunt Florence and Aunt Mary, and all his friends at school, not to mention his dog Bos?

Even more than the other books, The Lights Go On Again focuses on the extreme differences between the Stokeses and the Ogilvies and the question of where is right for Norah and Gavin.  During the war, the Ogilvies offered safety but with it the kinds of opportunities Norah and Gavin would never have encountered even during peacetime in England.  They traded their lower middle class life in England for one of unusual privilege in Canada.  Now, they have the chance to retain all that – the promise of the best schools, a university education, and a portion of the Ogilvie estate when Aunt Florence dies – but what do they owe their family in England?  Is it better for Gavin to be with the people he already loves and who can offer him everything, or with the people he is related to but doesn’t remember?  The decision is easy for Norah, who has always viewed their stay in Canada as a sort of exile and prayed for the chance to return home, but Gavin, only ten years old, struggles to decide whether home means Canada or England.

Throughout the trilogy, Pearson does a wonderful job of balancing historical detail with universal childhood themes.  An eight-year old picking up the books for the first time might be most interested in Norah’s struggles at her new school, or Gavin’s experiences at the hands of a bully, but, like Gavin and Norah, can’t help but be touched by the details of the war that pervade each book.  This may be a young reader’s first brush with the Second World War, the way he or she first learns of wartime evacuees, rationing, prisoner of war camps, and V-2 rockets, and Pearson incorporates the details remarkably well – far less clumsily than most adult historical fiction writers, actually.  For me, this sparked a lifelong curiousity about wartime Britain that still drives much of my reading.  But, most importantly, these books left me with an appreciation and expectation of balanced storytelling.  Pearson does not tell simple stories and there is nothing simple about her characters, which is what makes these books just as satisfying to read now as when I first encountered them eighteen years ago.

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After an exhausting weekend, I wish I could just collapse into one of those garden chairs in the park for the next week or so and just sit still.  Why are weekends, particularly in summer, always too short?

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Library Lust

credit: Marie Claire Maison

I have been hanging on to this one for ages. The room is a studio, part of a guest house near Brussels (you can see more photos of the property at The Style Files), and the contents of the bookshelves look like they are well used by the studio’s resident.  This is a workspace, so there’s nothing particularly cosy about it, but I love its simplicity and functionality.  The room also perfectly suits my current summer-inspired desire for laid-back, country-style libraries.

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Last night with no book on the go, I picked up Peter Pan for the first time in years and read the first three perfect chapters before going to bed.  We all have our favourite opening lines but few (even my favourite “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”) match Barrie’s wonderful ”All children, except one, grow up.”  Is it possible to put the book down after reading that?  To not wonder who that one child is and why – and how – he doesn’t grow up?  In that one short sentence, in those six simple words, is the promise of the entire story: of Neverland and Captain Hook, of Tinker Bell and the Lost Boys, of all the extraordinary things that happen to the Darling children that every child and most adults wish would happen to them.  It is magic and it works just as well on me at twenty-six as it did at six.

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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.

I am feeling almost trendy with my picks this week – for once, the bulk of my loot is not only from this century but from the last couple of years!  And it isn’t even remotely obscure!  Every so often, it’s nice to read the same books as everyone else and be able to hold a normal dinner party conversation about books people might actually have heard of.

Every Day, Every Hour by Nataša Dragnić (translated by Liesl Schillinger)
Danielle mentioned this back in May and I immediately checked the library catalogue to see if we were getting a copy.

Straphanger by Taras Grescoe
I love Grescoe’s work (Sacré Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec, now incomprehensibly out of print, is my favourite) and am very excited to start on this “world tour of alternatives to car-based living”.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
I’ve passed this by countless times but it was on the fast reads shelf at the library and I’d listened to enough of the buzz to know it was a campus novel, and I adore campus novels, so I thought “why not?” and grabbed it.  I read it straight through on Tuesday afternoon and really enjoyed it; it’s a perfect, fun summer book.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Finally!

Jutland Cottage by Angela Thirkell
What would I do without my regular dose of Thirkell?

What did you pick up this week?

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When Anna Estcourt was twenty-five, and had begun to wonder whether the pleasure extractable from life at all counterbalanced the bother of it, a wonderful thing happened.

So begins The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim, another of her fairy tale stories in the same vein as Christopher and Columbus and The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (not to mention The Enchanted April, which everyone else seems to adore but is my least favourite von Arnim).  It is one of her earlier novels – first published in 1901 – and, as in the two books that came before it (Elizabeth and Her German Garden and The Solitary Summer), von Arnim clearly drew on her own experiences for inspiration.  And isn’t it any writer’s prerogative to write about what they know, especially if they can do it over and over again so delightfully?  In von Arnim’s case, that was the plight of the well-born foreigner living in rural obscurity in Germany.

Anna Estcourt, pretty, bright and still unmarried at twenty-five, has grown up under the guardianship of her benignly disinterested elder brother and his bossy, social climbing wife, Susie.  With no money – and therefore no independence – of her own, Anna is like a child under Susie’s thumb (and is far meeker at times than Susie’s own daughter).  Susie cannot understand why Anna will not make the most of her good looks and good name to catch a wealthy husband.  But Anna, a rather dreamy, idealistic soul, refuses to compromise her ideals just to get away from Susie:

‘…isn’t it simply terrible to be expected to encourage any wretched man who has money?  I don’t want anybody to marry me.  I don’t want to buy my independence that way.  Besides, it isn’t really independence.’

When Anna’s Uncle Joachim, her German mother’s brother, comes to visit, he and Anna immediately strike up an affectionate friendship.  Neither can entirely understand the views of the other – Uncle Joachim believes “It is a woman’s pride to lean on a good husband.  It is her happiness to be shielded and protected by him” – but nonetheless he, having met the exhausting Susie, can understand Anna’s desire for independence from her.  And so, when he dies a few a months after his visit to London, Anna finds herself an heiress, the inheritor of his prosperous Pomeranian estate, with the instruction that Uncle Joachim

trusted his dear Anna would go and live there, and keep it up to its present state of excellence, and would finally marry a good German gentleman, of whom there were many, and return in this way altogether to the country of her forefathers.

Anna has no intention of marry a good gentleman – German or otherwise – now that she has a generous annual income to fund the independent life she has dreamed of for so long, or of living in rural obscurity in Northern Germany, but she almost immediately sets out to visit her new property (after first struggling to locate it on a map), with her sister-in-law Susie, her niece Letty, and her niece’s governess in tow.

Anna does not get off to the best of starts with many of the locals, having absolutely no understanding of local customs or social hierarchies, but quickly falls in love her new home.  Feeling blessed by good fortune, she soon decides that the best way to use her home and her fortune would be to throw open her doors to distressed gentlewomen, to give them the rest and comfort and independence they long for but can never have when relying on relatives or, if without family, scrambling to make a living.  It is a beautiful, noble plan, though highly impractical as everyone tells her, and it isn’t long before Anna starts to regret her generous impulse, which has created an exhausting amount of work and stress for her.

While there are certainly more than enough of von Arnim’s trademark speeches about the tyranny of men and woman’s desire for and right to independence, this book actually has a male hero – not something typical in her works.  Axel Lohm is the only other major landowner in the region and the only gentleman, too (something Anna recognizes with relief the first time she sees him, having exhausted her patience with crass peasants).  He is the steady, good German gentleman Uncle Joachim had dreamed Anna might marry, a bachelor in his early thirties who has been devotedly attending to his estate, having bought his siblings out after their father’s death.  For years, he has been doing his best on his own, but it is a lonely life for an intelligent, thoughtful man, whose family members can always think of something they would rather be doing than visiting him, or, if they do find themselves visiting, do their best to get away quickly.   When Anna arrives, beautiful, warm, kind, intelligent Anna, they quickly become friends and it is not long before he falls in love with her, though he does his best to repress his feelings knowing that she does not welcome them.  All of Anna’s affection and energy is to be devoted to her distressed gentlewomen, not to some man.

Axel is my favourite type of male hero – quiet, calm, responsible, stable – and my sympathies were all with him as he struggled to counsel Anna on her project, though in her enthusiasm she refuses to listen to any warnings, and then to conceal his love for her, knowing that any offer he made would be rejected.  Anna dreamt for years of the kind of independence Axel has, but they were just that – dreams.  In Axel, we glimpse the weighty reality of such independence and his acute loneliness.  He has the freedom Anna always longed for but that alone cannot make him happy.  It is only as Anna’s troubles begin to pile up that she starts to recognize that absolute independence is very isolating and very, very tiring.  She has no one to share her burdens with, no one to help her see the way through a particularly overwhelming situation.  She finally realises the limits of her much longed for independence: ‘I want someone to tell me what I ought to do, and to see that I do it.  Besides petting me.  I long and long sometimes to be petted.’

It is a surprisingly eventful novel, full of many comings and goings, and von Arnim indulges in an extravagantly dramatic final act that felt a bit jarring in comparison to what I think of as her typical style.  I am used to thinking of her as a cool, humourous, unemotional storyteller, the writer of novels where the comic foibles of all the characters, major and minor, are exploited to excellent effect. (That reminds me that I still owe you a review of Introduction to Sally, which is riotously funny.)  This is undoubtedly the least comic of her books that I have yet to read, which I think makes it particularly interesting and no less satisfying.  It is still amusing – von Arnim could never be anything but – and quite light, but in showing an unusual amount of respect for her characters she creates a very different reading experience.  Usually, I come away from my encounters with von Arnim impressed by her skill, thankful for her neat turn of phrase and gift for capturing and relating the ridiculous.  Never before have I finished one of her books caring so much about the characters, as I did for the genuinely sympathetic Anna and Axel.

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