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Archive for January, 2013

A Young Man's FancyA Young Man’s Fancy by Susan Pleydell is the book that I had hoped Summer Term would be.  A sort-of sequel, it returns to Ledenham School which, four years earlier, had experienced an eventful summer term when the headmaster’s daughter and niece were both in residence.  Now, with both women happily married off, the focus shifts to the headmaster’s youngest daughter, Alison Fielding.

At twenty-one, Alison is just as friendly and sensible as her older sister Clare but lacks the career ambition that gave Clare, a nurse, such purpose.  Now graduated from her domestic science program and back from travelling abroad, Alison is happy to settle down at Ledenham for the spring term with her parents:

Alison was one of those girls for whom no obvious career presents itself.  Her scholastic record was unimpressive, she had no particular bent and no ambition.  Her choice had finally fallen on domestic science on the grounds that people always have to eat and any mutt could do it, but when she finished her training she was in no hurry to begin.  As she left college an opportunity was offered to her to go abroad and now she was home and intending that a judicious choosiness about jobs would keep her there for some time.  The School House at Ledenham was a very good home and in her view she had not had nearly enough of it.

At first, her leisurely life at Ledenham seems very appealing.  She has her cousin Frances nearby (Frances having married one of the Ledenham School masters) and is great friends with all the young bachelor masters.  Predictably, there is one young master with whom she is particularly close: Angus Cameron has been her closest friend at Ledenham since he arrived there four years before.   It isn’t long before they both realise that something has changed in their friendship and Alison’s dream of a relaxing term is squashed as she and Angus struggle to conduct an awkward romance in full sight of an entire school’s worth of interested masters and boys.

There are subplots – another young master is in love with a Norwegian au pair but is also the target of an aspiring school governor’s daughter’s romantic fantasies; said aspiring school governor makes lots of trouble for Headmaster Fielding; and Oonagh, the headmaster’s replacement secretary, meddles in everyone’s business – but, unlike Summer Term, there is balance to the story.  Summer Term had too many surprises and slightly bizarre plotting.  Here, everything is nicely regulated.  Alison and Angus’s romance runs the course of the book and nothing feels rushed.  In Summer Term, I felt cheated because Clare, after winning the reader’s respect and affection, was hurriedly provided with a fiancé without any hint of prior romance and the focus shifted to Frances, who was largely ignored through the first half of the book.  In A Young Man’s Fancy, we stick to Alison throughout and it is a relief.   We get to know her far better than we did any of the characters in Summer Term and, more interestingly, we get to witness quite a few all-male scenes as the bachelor masters, who are housed together, discuss their various romantic struggles.  The characterization isn’t deep but it is far better than what was on offer in Summer Term and I did love getting to see more from the male perspective.

It is the perfect light novel, predictable and satisfying.  It is not great literature but it is just the thing to pick up when you want a nice, undemanding story – it would be the perfect sick bed book.  I can see myself rereading it with pleasure for years to come.

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badge-4Library 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.

 Library Loot 1

Ooty Preserved by Mollie Panter-Downes – Long before I knew Panter-Downes was a short story writer, a novelist, or a journalist, I knew she had written this book, which shows up in the bibliography of practically every other book about India I’ve read.  After loving her other books, it seemed like time to finally try this for myself.

Autumn Crocus and Call it a Day by Dodie Smith (alias C.L. Anthony) – More Dodie Smith plays!  Dear Octopus was very fun and I am interested to see how these two compare.

Library Loot 2The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry – Jenny at Shelf Love reviewed this last week and it sounds wonderfully funny.

Elizabeth Gaskell: A Portrait in Letters by J.A.V. Chapple – I have been wanting to read this ever since I discovered what a brilliant letter writer Gaskell was while reading Jenny Uglow’s biography of her.

 What did you pick up this week?

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AngelaMackailWhile it looks like Pomfret Towers will be the only Angela Thirkell title Virago is publishing in 2013, there is exciting news for 2014: according to The Bookseller,  The Brandons, Summer Half, and August Folly are set to be released in summer 2014.  These three titles are all perfect summer reading and Summer Half is one of my favourite books in the entire series.  Wonderful, wonderful news!

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51%2BcSzfloZLWhen I picked up Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey for the first time three years ago, I did so knowing that it is one of those Persephone titles that readers are divided on.  Many loathe it, others adore it.  I am firmly in the camp of the adorers.  I was charmed by it on that first reading and rereading it this month for Simon’s readalong I found it no less wonderful or humourous.

The humour is unapologetically black and the characters – except for a few supporting ones – fundamentally unlikeable.  On her wedding day, bride Dolly Thatcham is hiding upstairs in her bedroom with a bottle of rum while her family and friends – including Joseph, an old lover – mingle awkwardly downstairs.  Kitty, Dolly’s younger sister who is perfectly, horribly, awkwardly seventeen, and their young cousins Tom and Robert, who spend the whole day squabbling over a pair of loud and offensive socks, are the only characters who managed to win any sympathy from me.  Everyone else is awful, which is why I can laugh at their sufferings and delight in doing so.

The genius of the book is its determined lack of sentimentality: no one is treated tenderly, no romance given special treatment or sympathy.  Dolly is at the centre of a love triangle, about to marry Owen, a dull member of the Diplomatic Service, but driving Joseph, a student she had spent the previous summer going out with, almost literally mad with his unprofessed love for her.  And each of them is horrifically unappealing in his or her own way.  But that is what makes the book work.  We see everyone at their absolute worst, hysterical and brittle from the stress of the wedding, and Strachey turns that into comedy.

The first time I read this, I was struck by how it felt much more like a play than a novel (or, given its length, a novella).  Strachey never delves into the inner lives of her characters or even past events: everything is on the surface.  We are privy to exchanges of wonderful dialogue and are given rich descriptions of the surroundings, but that is it.  It was those descriptions that struck me the most on this reading, especially Strachey’s exaggerated use of colour, which she uses to make her characters appear almost grotesque: Kitty disgustingly observes that Owen’s skin appears lilac in a certain light; Dolly makes her face up with a “corn-coloured powder”; and, most strikingly, Mrs Thatcham’s eyes are described as orange.  These are not gentle descriptions but vivid, frequently repulsive ones.

As other bloggers have joined the discussion about this book as part of Simon’s readalong, it has been interesting to see how they reacted to Joseph’s revelation about Dolly in the final scene.  Some seem to take his word as fact but to me that seems problematic for a number of reasons (least of which being that the math doesn’t seem to work).  Joseph spends much of the book in a state of hysterical anticipation, building up to a confrontation with Dolly.  When it doesn’t materialize, he is disappointed, relieved, and still basically emotionally unhinged and desperate for attention.  All this leads to a dramatic tirade against Dolly’s mother, climaxing with some shocking information about her daughter that may or may not be true.  Personally, I am inclined to question it.  There is not one single thing that marks Joseph as a reliable source of information, especially given how he immediately enhances his facts once he begins sharing them and sees how his audience is reacting.

It was interesting to reread this again after a couple of years.  There was something electric about my first reaction to the book – my love for it was immediate and energizing and very surprising – that was lacking this time but I gained a new appreciation for details I had missed.  The experience was different – rereading always is – but it did not alter Cheerful Weather for the Wedding’s position as one of my favourite Persephone books and certainly, in my opinion, the funniest.

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Jane_Austen-1Two hundred years ago today, on 28 January 1813, T. Egerton brought out the first edition of Pride and Prejudice by “The Author of Sense and Sensibility”.  How many generations have read the book since then?  And, accordingly, how many readers have fallen in love with the immensely loveable Elizabeth Bennet since her first appearance?  Margaret Kennedy thought her “an entirely charming girl”, William Deresiewicz “would have taken her side against the world” and Sheila Kaye-Smith, who considered Pride and Prejudice Austen’s least impressive novel, thought that:

Elizabeth Bennet is the Jane Austen heroine I personally should most delight to meet…Elizabeth, with her saucy wit, with that faint, faint but so comfortable touch of vulgarity which she alone of all the heroines is allowed to possess, with her warm heart, her stout spirit, her loyalty, her gaiety, her sense, is to me one of the most endearing characters, not only in Jane Austen’s novels but in all of literature. 

Pride and PrejudiceI read Pride and Prejudice for the first time when I was fifteen.  Unlike some of my other classmates, I was eager to pick the book up, thrilled to finally discover the story that lay behind those famous opening lines, and ecstatic to have entire classroom-full of other fifteen year old girls with whom to discuss the book.  I did not need to be convinced of Austen’s brilliance; by then I had already fallen in love with Emma, delighted over Northanger Abbey, and, like Elinor, cried for Marianne in Sense and Sensibility.  But those reading experiences had been solitary.  Reading Pride and Prejudice in a classroom of twenty girls was a heady experience.  We swooned over Pemberley (and Mr Darcy), condemned foolish little Lydia for her reckless behaviour, and wanted more than anything to be just a little bit like Elizabeth Bennet, even with her obvious shortcomings.  It was the most fun I have ever had “studying” a novel, with the discussions carring far beyond the classroom.  All over the school, you could find girls reading ahead in their already tattered copies of the book, asking how far along their friends had got, wondering if it would be safe to talk to them about Darcy’s letter or Lydia’s elopement, not wanting to spoil the delights ahead for those who had not yet reached them.

My own aged paperback copy is falling apart now (it was not very good quality to begin with) but I can’t imagine ever letting it go.  No, that would mean I would never been able to pick it up and see my gushing notes in the margins or the little hearts I drew (in red ink, of course) around the speeches I found most romantic – judging by these hearts, I, unlike Elizabeth, found the first proposal very appealing.  It is easier for me now to see the book’s flaws – like Kaye-Smith, I consider it the weakest of Austen’s six novels – but it is never anything less than delightfully fun to read.

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Library Lust

library picture

I love when people contact me with suggestions for “Library Lust” and this week blog reader Karen went one step further: she sent me a picture of her own library!  “This is my library,” she wrote in her email, “the place where I read, write and study.  My happy place.”  Lucky Karen!

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Pretty Persephones

New Persephone Books

My New Year’s gift to myself was a generous Persephone order.  Three weeks later, here they are:

The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham

Tea with Mr Rochester by Frances Towers

Brook Evans by Susan Glaspell

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

The Hopkins Manuscript by R.C. Sherriff

I have to admit that I am most excited to read The Children Who Lived in a Barn but it is a sign of my evolving tastes that I ordered not one but two volumes of short stories.

I will not run out of books to read any time soon!

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EmmaI have picked up Emma again.  I do this frequently, opening it to favourite scenes when I do not feel like rereading it in its entirety.  A chapter before bed one day, another completely different one the next night and I am well set for another few Emma-less weeks.  It is rare that a month goes by without me making at least one foray into its pages.  I do not need to be reminded of what comes before or after to delight in the Weston’s Christmas party, to be both horrified and amused by Mrs Elton, or to blush with and for Emma over her behaviour at Box Hill.

Part of the delight of reading Speaking Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern recently was that they share my high opinion of Emma; I finally found a book about Austen that lavishes enough praise and attention on my favourite book to satisfy even me.  They find enjoyment in contemplating the fates of their favourite characters and, goodness knows, like G.B. Stern I have spent enough (and probably will spend many more) nights lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, worrying about how poor, dear, exasperating Mr Woodhouse handled his daughter’s marriage:

I was lying awake and worrying over my personal life and affairs, when a semi-conscious longing arose to worry my mind instead, over something which need not worry me at all.  Which sent me pondering on the life of Emma and Mr Knightley when they were married and lived, according to plan, with Mr Woodhouse at Hartfield.  How did it work out, especially for Mr Knightley?  (I wish he may not sink into “poor Knightley” at once.)  How much did he linger at Donwell regretting that he could not live there with his young wife, master in his own home like other men?  How soon came the first row, when Knightley forgot the respect due to his father-in-law?  And on whose side was Emma then?  Did Mr Woodhouse continue to insist on “wholesome” meals and “reasonable” hours?  Was it gruel, gruel everywhere and not a drop to drink?  Did he fuss in and out of season over possible damp airs in the warm evenings when husband and wife lingered where the sitting-room fire could not oppress them? – “but it is never safe to sit out of doors, my dear.”

No careless joy for them without loving reproaches and timid warnings of disaster.  And who sat with Mr Woodhouse and soothed his fears, while his beloved daughter was bearing her first child (that knock-out for little Henry as Donwell’s heir)?  Was that, too, to be demanded of Mr Knightley in the name of duty?

Oh, Miss Austen, it was not a good solution; it was a bad solution, an unhappy ending could we see beyond the last pages of the book.  There was no solution here for the most ingenious novelist except a gentle painless death-in-his-sleep for dear old Mr Woodhouse.

…So there I lay, and worried over them.

I love Mr Woodhouse, Emma and Mr Knightley as I love no other characters in literature.  To me, Emma will always be a perfect book and there are few reading pleasures as great as revisiting it.

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Summer TermWhen I was feeling sad for myself last week, coughing and sniffling away with only a box of Kleenex to keep me company, I went in search of an undemanding comfort read, picking up Summer Term by Susan Pleydell.  Reprinted a few years ago by Greyladies in Edinburgh, it was certainly undemanding enough to suit my weakened attention span but it wasn’t quite as satisfying as I had hoped, leaving me a little more frustrated than pleased.

As the book begins, Clare Fielding has returned home to Ledenham to assume housekeeping and hostessing duties for her father, the headmaster of a boy’s school, while her mother is away recovering from illness.  Having grown up at Ledenham School, Clare is used to the all-male environment; she is on easy terms of friendship with the young masters and is more than capable of handling any young boy who crosses her path.  But when her beautiful, glamourous cousin Frances arrives to stay with the Fieldings, the peaceful summer term Clare had imagined vanishes, as masters young and not so young fall over themselves to catch Frances’ attention.

Clare, though as shallow and undeveloped as all the characters here, is likeable.  Sensible, affectionate, and very capable (as befits her training as a nurse), everyone likes and respects her.  She loves her car, enjoys fishing, and is more at ease in slacks than a silk dress.  My greatest disappointment throughout the entire book was discovering that Clare was not to be the romantic heroine.  The first half of the book sets her up very nicely to be just that, until the sudden arrival of her long-standing love interest dashed all those hopes.  Yes, it is very nice that she found an excellent man to marry but how frustrating that he was so firmly established already and the reader was cheated out of witnessing any romantic developments.   And how disruptive that as soon as he arrived, attention suddenly switched to Frances and work began (a little late) on building her up into a likeable character, worthy of being called our heroine.

The campaign to popularize Frances relies on a) having a pompous character fall in love with her and be terrifyingly, sinisterly determined to pursue her despite her politely-stated disinterest in him, and b) reminding us that all the really nice characters – Clare, Mr Fielding, all the jolly, sporting young masters – like her.  For me, it was a case of too little too late or perhaps simply too much absurdity too late.  The behaviour of the unwanted lover, Henry Courtney, is so hysterical and theatrical.  He goes from urbane snob to unbalanced obsessive in unbelievably quick progression.  Without this excessive drama, I would have enjoyed the book so much more.

Summer Term is a nice, easy book but perhaps a little too disjointed to be truly satisfying as a comfort read.  Still, there are many nice, simple things about that I did like about it: Mr Fielding is a dear; Angus Cameron, a young, new Scottish master who is briefly infatuated with Frances, is very winning; and the solid reliability of Patsy, another of the masters, is appealing to both Frances and me.  Thankfully, despite not adoring this, I did move on to read A Young Man’s Fancy, which follows up with the residents of Ledenham School four years after the events of Summer Term (and which I’ll try to review soon), and that book was quite perfect.

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London War NotesLondon War Notes, 1939-1945 by Mollie Panter-Downes was my second book of 2013 and also my second book of the year by Panter-Downes, having started with her beautiful post-war novel, One Fine Day.  I loved the novel, though perhaps not quite as much as I loved Good Evening, Mrs Craven, a volume of her wartime short stories, but nowhere near as much as I loved this volume of wartime journalism.  Every fortnight throughout the war, Panter-Downes wrote a “Letter from London” for The New Yorker, giving American readers a glimpse into life during wartime as civilians dealt with rationing and bombs, suffered victories and defeats.  Published in 1971, this book contains all of the letters and provides one of the finest, most perfectly observed portraits of wartime England I have ever read.

Panter-Downes has a gift for relating small particulars that amounts to a kind of genius.  I loved her use of imagery in her fiction but was not sure how that would translate to journalism.  I need not have worried.  From the first letter it was clear that, if anything, as a journalist she was even more attuned to the details.  Her description of the civilian response to the declaration of war, with middle-aged women and retired officers mobilizing in the country, was wonderful:

All over the country, the declaration of war has brought a new lease of life to retired army officers, who suddenly find themselves the commanders of battalions of willing ladies who have emerged from the herbaceous borders to answer the call of duty.  Morris 10s, their windshields plastered with notices that they are engaged on business of the ARP or WVS (both volunteer services), rock down quiet country lanes propelled by firm-lipped spinsters who yesterday could hardly have said ‘Boo!’ to an aster. (3 September 1939)

She also manages to include information I didn’t know or had forgotten about and, more delightfully, to corroborate information I’ve gleaned from novels.  Having enjoyed Angela Thirkell’s rants about the awful standard of programming offered by the BBC during the war, it was great fun to hear someone else complain about it too:

…it does seem probable that schemes for reopening theatre and cinemas will be drawn up shortly.  Meanwhile, Britons find themselves dependent for entertainment on the BBC, which desperately filled the gaps in its first wartime programs with gramophone recordings and jolly bouts of community singing stiff with nautical heave-hos and folksy nonny-noes.  There has already been considerable public criticism of these programs and of the tendency of announcers to read out important news in tones that suggest they are understudying for Cassandra on the walls of Troy. (10 September 1939)

No wonder they had to reopen the theatres and cinemas if that was the only entertainment on offer!

Even though Panter-Downes was writing for an American audience, she does not pander.  She reports on what is happening in London and rural England, which is not necessarily what Americans were most interested in hearing about.  America’s entry into the war (and the bombing of Pearl Harbour) is over-shadowed by public concern for friends and family members working or stationed in the Far East:

On Monday, December 8th, London felt as it did at the beginning of the war.  Newsdealers stood on the corners handing out papers as steadily and automatically as if they were husking corn; people bought copies on the way out to lunch and again on the way back, just in case a late edition might have sneaked up on them with some fresher news.  Suddenly and soberly, this little island was remembering its vast and sprawling possessions of Empire.  It seemed as though every person one met had a son in Singapore or a daughter in Rangoon; every post office was jammed with anxious crowds finding out about cable rates to Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, or Penang. (14 December 1941)

Though she can touchingly discuss the fears of her fellow Englishmen and women, she is not sentimental.  Part of what I loved so much about Good Evening, Mrs Craven was her willingness to explore the anger and disgruntlement that lurked beneath the more acceptable stoicism or jolliness.  Here, somewhat surprisingly given her audience, she is just as open about the mood of bitterness and frustration that settled over the country during the darkest moments of the war in 1942: the Pacific theatre had opened, a German invasion seemed imminent, and even Churchill was no longer infallible:

His promises that Singapore would be held and that Rommel’s forces would be destroyed haven’t helped the public to view with equanimity to the ignominious British retreats in Malaya and Libya.  You hear people say that they have always trusted him in the past because they knew that he would let them have the truth, however unpalatable; now there’s an uneasy suspicion that fine oratory may sometimes carry away the orator as well as his audience.  You also hear people say that anyway they’ve had enough of fine oratory; what they would like is action and a sign from Mr Churchill that he understands the profoundly worried temper of the country… (14 February 1942)

Once the outlook for victory began to improve – perhaps especially once that started to happen – Panter-Downes was still there, perfectly observing and relating the mood of a population tense with anticipation:

Londoners, normally as good-tempered a crowd of people as you could hope to find anywhere, are beginning to show the strain of these first keyed-up days of a year which by now every statesman must have hailed as one of fateful decision…Naturally, a lot of the native good humour and manners is still around, but the surface impression is that everybody’s nerves are frayed.  Possibly it’s the inevitable hangover of the winter’s flu epidemic, plus four years of wartime diet, but it seems more likely to be an inevitable result of simply waiting for something to happen.  (30 January 1944)

The writing is unfaultable but the book as a whole can make for heavy reading.  Each letter is dense with details, providing an invaluable blend of political and domestic observations, but as a collection the flow is slightly awkward at times.  There are repetitions and contradictions which would not have been obvious to The New Yorker’s subscribers, reading these letters months or years apart, but which are noticeable here.  Still, editing the letters and removing content would have me up in arms: it might give the book a better flow but it would sadly impair its value as a historical document.  What I am truly bothered by is the editor’s apparent disinterest in providing any introduction to Panter-Downes or information on her life when she was writing these letters, and I am irritated his only half-hearted effort to clarify which battles and world events Panter-Downes references (though not always by name) in her letters.  Battles that once occupied the headlines are now long forgotten and though there are some explanatory notes I think more detail would make the book more accessible.

These letters lack the personal touch of diaries since Panter-Downes maintains journalistic detachment throughout, detailing the experiences of the everyman rather than relating anecdotes about herself (at least openly), but with her clear eye for detail Panter-Downes captured moments that other accounts omit.  She is calm in her reporting and thankfully unexcitable but knows exactly what will be of most interest to her readers – both then and now.  Having sampled three very different examples of her writing, I can now declare that it is Panter-Downes the journalist who impresses me the most.

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