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It is 1884 and thirty-two-year-old spinster Amelia Peabody, having inherited a modest fortune from her scholarly father, has set out to finally see some of the world.  Full (some might say overfull) of confidence in her vast knowledge, quick-wittedness, and moral superiority, she has bludgeoned her away across Europe – maid and companion unhappily in tow – and arrived in Rome.

And it is in Rome that her story, Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, begins:

When I first set eyes on Evelyn Barton-Forbes she was walking the streets of Rome – (I am informed, by the self-appointed Critic who reads over my shoulder as I write, that I have already committed an error.  If those seemingly simple English words do indeed imply that which I am told they imply to the vulgar, I must in justice to Evelyn find other phrasing.)

In justice to myself, however, I must insist that Evelyn was doing precisely what I have said she was doing, but with no ulterior purpose in mind.  Indeed, the poor girl had no purpose and no means of carrying it out if she had.  Our meeting was fortuitous, but fortunate.  I had, as I have always had, purpose enough for two.

What follows is a perfect homage to Victorian adventure novels, with exotic settings, dastardly villains, sweet young lovers, a deadly threat…and Amelia.

Amelia is the masterstroke.  She is bold and forceful and often right but frequently entertainingly blind to that which is directly in front of her.  Peters has great fun in making this clear to the reader even as Amelia, our narrator, remains ignorant.

After learning of Evelyn’s tragic circumstances (but also her impeccable lineage), Amelia becomes determined to take care of her.  Evelyn, far, far, far more rational than Amelia, points out that this seems inadvisable:

‘I might be a criminal!  I might be vicious – unprincipled!’

‘No, no,’ I said calmly. ‘I have been accused of being somewhat abrupt in my actions and decisions, but I never act without thought; it is simply that I think more quickly and more intelligently than most people.  I am an excellent judge of character.  I could not be deceived about yours.’

Evelyn, starving and destitute, has her rescuer and Amelia finally has some colour in a life that has been far too quiet for far too many years.

Together the ladies continue on to Egypt where Peters, an Egyptologist, quickly and entertainingly guides us through the major tourist sights, presents to us the noted archaeologists of the day, and, most importantly, introduces us to two young men, the brothers Radcliffe and Walter Emerson.  Walter and Evelyn are immediately dazzled by one another’s good looks, sweet personalities, and overall aura of kindness.  Like Amelia, you can only look on in approval.  Elder brother Radcliffe, generally called by his surname, and Amelia have a different and far more combative initial impact on one another.

Amelia and Evelyn set out in a dahabeya to cruise the Nile and coincidentally (nothing is coincidental when Amelia is involved) find themselves visiting the site the Emerson brothers are excavating.  Soon they are an integral part of the excavation team, which is thrilling enough, but then mysterious things begin to happen.  Can the ghostly shape that seems to be disturbing them in the night truly be a mummy?  No.  Even they know that.  Most of the time. But the truth is as sinister as any true Victorian pulp novelist could have wished.

I read this book first in my early teens and didn’t appreciate it.  I was still at a stage in my reading when I wanted protagonists to be relatable.  Amelia was so old (how things change!) and rigid and didn’t she know how ridiculous she was?  I put it down without thinking of reading on.

I came back to it in my late teens as though it was an entirely different book.  It wasn’t but I was an entirely different person, one who was finally capable of appreciating Peters’ comic brilliance.  I adored it and read on through the entire series (or at least the seventeen books that were then available).

The series is fantastic and I’m thinking of rereading it in full this year.  Amelia mellows with time, which is necessary to sustain our sympathy for several decades, and other enticing characters are introduced, but the freshness of Crocodile on the Sandbank does fade away a little.  Other pleasures replace it (young Ramses!  Older Ramses!) but Peters was free to have such fun with this first book and it shows.  It is never anything but a delight to reread it.

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For me, the 1920 Club this week has been a chance to discover some of the few works of A.A. Milne that I hadn’t already read.  I started the week with The Stepmother, a slight one-act play, flipped through the articles featured in If I May, and have now finished the week with the best of the bunch: The Romantic Age, a three-act comedy.

In her late teens, Melisande Knowle longs for the romance of knights and ballads, for a world of courtly love and grand gestures.  Instead, she is plagued by all the trappings of middle-class comfort and a family – two parents and her visiting cousin Jane – who can’t see why tennis games, dance parties, and perfectly nice young men from the stock exchange to partner with at both are to be sneered at rather than enjoyed.  This is made particularly clear to Bobby, a young man lamentably employed on the stock exchange, who is visiting for the weekend and deeply infatuated with Melisande, when he attempts to propose:

MELISANDE: Oh, Bobby, everything’s wrong.  The man to whom I give myself must be not only my lover, but my true knight, my hero, my prince.  He must perform deeds of derring-do to win my love.  Oh, how can you perform deeds of derring-do in a stupid little suit like that!

Poor Bobby.

The Knowles casually lament their daughter’s romantic flights without taking them too seriously.  For Mrs Knowles, an invalid not overburdened with brains, part of the problem comes back to her daughter’s name.  She thought her husband had suggested Millicent, a perfectly nice sort of name, the kind that belongs to a nice, helpful sort of daughter.  To discover her baby was saddled with the outlandish Melisande was quite a shock – one which, years later, Mrs Knowle still hasn’t entirely recovered from.  To protect her daughter from the absurdity of her name, the family calls her Sandy.  As you’d expect, the young lady herself finds this disgusting but her mother has very strong reasons for doing so:

MRS KNOWLE: Well, it never seems to be quite respectable, not for a nicely-brought-up young girl in a Christian house.  It makes me think of the sort of person who meets a strange young man to whom she has never been introduced, and talks to him in a forest with her hair coming down.  They find her afterwards floating in a pool.  Not at all the thing one wants for ones daughter.

JANE: Oh, but how thrilling it sounds!

MRS KNOWLE: Well, I think you are safer with “Jane,” dear.  Your mother knew what she was about.  And if I can save my only child from floating in a pool by calling her Sandy, I certainly think it is my duty to do so.

Contemptuous of the romances she’s heard tell of in real life, Melisande dreams of something more dramatic for herself.

And she gets it.  Into her life comes Gervase Mallory.  Romantically named, romantically handsome, and, at the time, romantically dressed in blue and gold on his way to a costume ball.  It is a shock of attraction for them both and when they meet again they find they both can weave a beautiful fantasy of their love.

But in the third act – the best of all – it all unravels.  Melisande, confronted with the idea of Gervase the man rather than the fantasy, of a man who when not dressed in blue and gold instead wears a loud golfing suit, who when not frolicking in glades with her is so unromantic as to work on the stock exchange, promptly convinces herself that he is not worth loving.

Gervase, however, while happy to spin a romantic tale, is rather more practical than the object of his affections.  After his first glimpse of Melisande he’d encountered a peddler in the woods, Master Susan, and had a conveniently timed conversation about the benefits of a friendly marriage:

SUSAN: When you are married, every adventure becomes two adventures.  You have your adventure, and then you go back to your wife and have your adventure again.  Perhaps it is a better adventure the second time.  You can say the things which you didn’t quite say the first time, and do the things which you didn’t quite do.

Susan is also helpful in reminding Gervase that looks are not the only thing that matter in the long term:

GERVASE: Do you believe in love at first sight, Master Susan?

SUSAN: Why not?  If it’s the woman you love at first sight, not only her face.

Thanks to this encounter (and just being altogether more sensible than his beloved), Gervase arrives for the reunion with his feet on the ground and his heart already given away.  Melisande, not even remotely prepared to believe the real world could have any acceptable romance to offer her, is horrified and the entire scene is delightful.  There are so many Milne plays I wish I could see performed and this has moved high up on that list.

Lighthearted and fun throughout, the play also doesn’t neglect its minor characters.  Bobby, realising he’s had a lucky escape from Melisande, quickly transfers his attentions to her pretty cousin Jane, which is all very satisfying.  Mrs Knowle flutters about – a kind but featherbrained sort-of-person – while Mr Knowle shows up every so often to be surprisingly funny.  They are a kinder, fonder version of the Bennets:

MR KNOWLE: […] We have a visitor coming, a nice young fellow who takes an interest in prints.

MRS KNOWLE: I’ve heard nothing of this, Henry.

MR KNOWLE: No, my dear, that’s why I’m telling you now.

MRS KNOWLE: A young man?

MR KNOWLE: Yes.

MRS KNOWLE: Nice-looking?

MR KNOWLE: Yes.

MRS KNOWLE: Rich?

MR KNOWLE: I forgot to ask him, Mary.  However, we can remedy that omission as soon as he arrives.

MRS KNOWLE: It’s a very unfortunate day for him to have chosen.  Here’s Sandy lost, and I’m not fit to be seen, and – Jane, your hair wants tidying –

MR KNOWLE: He is not coming to see your or Sandy or Jane, my dear; he is coming to see me.  Fortunately, I am looking very beautiful this afternoon.

All ends well, of course, proving that romance can survive in the modern age – just not quite as Melisande had envisioned it. (Thank goodness.)

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Not to content to simply debut multiple new plays in 1920 (not to mention welcome a son who would eventually gain immortally as Christopher Robin), A.A. Milne also put forth If I May, a collection of typically light pieces he’d written for various publications.  Milne published multiple volumes like this over his career and while, for my part, I think the collections of his writing for Punch (The Day’s Play, The Holiday Round, Once a Week, and The Sunny Side) are the best, this book still holds some charm.

Milne bounces from subject to subject with whimsy that was typical of both his style and the era.  He contemplates the glory of his grand garden (several small beds and containers), the romances that can be divined from the game of chess with its courtly players and countless intrigues, and struggles with awkward social engagements.  For the most part, they are light pieces and some of them go so far as to be charming – not enough of them, though, to make this a really good book.  It’s still an entertaining one to pass time with but, with one exception, I don’t think any of the pieces are memorable.

As with anything by Milne, there were eminently quotable passages.  Here are a few of my favourites:

Given our current housebound state and the consciousness of the household projects needing attention, who cannot relate to this:

In the castle of which I am honorary baron we are in the middle of an orgy of “getting things done.”[…]

I have a method in these matters.  When I observe that something wants doing, I say casually to the baroness, “We ought to do something about that fireplace,” or whatever it is.  I say it with the air of a man who knows exactly what to do, and would do it himself if he were not so infernally busy.  The correct answer to this is, “Yes, I’ll go and see about it today.”  Sometimes the baroness tries to put it on to me by saying, “We ought to do something about the cistern,” but she has not quite got the casual tone necessary, and I have no difficulty in replying (with the air of a man who, etc.), “Yes, we ought.”

Right now we are luckily spared the need to go to awkward dinner parties but I certainly haven’t forgotten this feeling:

I am as fond of going out to dinner as anyone else is, but there is a moment, just before I begin to array myself for it, when I wish that it were on some other evening.  If the telephone bell rings, I say, “Thank Heavens, Mrs Parkinson-Jones has died suddenly.  I mean, how sad,” and, looking as solemn as I can, I pick up the receiver.

And if I hadn’t already loved Milne, I would have become a convert at this clear-sighted description (even a hundred years latter) of a certain – and very common – type of interaction between the sexes:

…it is only the very young girl at her first dinner-party whom it is difficult to entertain.  At her second dinner-party, and thereafter, she knows the whole art of being amusing.  All she has to do is to listen; all we men have to do is to tell her about ourselves.  Indeed, sometimes I think that it is just as well to begin at once.  Let us be quite frank about it, and get to work as soon as we are introduced.

“How do you do.  Lovely day it has been, hasn’t it?  It was on just such a day as this, thirty-five years ago, that I was born in the secluded village of Puddlecome of humble but honest parents.  Nestling among the western hills…”

And so on.  Ending, at the dessert, with the thousand we earned that morning.

It is light, frothy entertainment and all very well-suited to our current situation – it gives you a smile and demands absolutely nothing of your brain in the process.  Turns out that the post-war need for levity is exactly right for 2020.

But there was one piece that I think I will remember, amidst the froth.  It is the final essay, in which Milne, now in his late-thirties, is examining a desk he’d purchased when he first moved to London as an aspiring young writer.  Unlocking it, he finds in the cubby holes old notes and letters in response to his early submissions for publication and reflects on how far he has come since then:

There were letters from editors; editors whom I know well now, but who in those distant days addressed me as “Sir,” and were mine faithfully.  They regretted that they could not use the present contribution, but hoped that I would continue to write.  I continued to write.  Trusting that I would persevere, they were mine very truly.   I persevered.  Now they are mine ever.  From what a long way off those letters have come.  “Dear Sir,” the Great Man wrote to me, and overawed I locked the precious letter up.  Yesterday I smacked him on the back.

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Is The Stepmother by A.A. Milne the shortest possible thing I could have chosen to start The 1920 Club off with?  Very possibly and I love it for that; it means I was able to sneak something in on Sunday afternoon to start the week with.  And it’s a suitable way to start: for me, this week is going to be devoted not just to 1920 but even more specifically to the works of A.A. Milne.  1920 fell during his most prolific period and, remarkably, I still have a few things left by him I haven’t read or reviewed yet, like this short one-act play.

The Stepmother premiered in November 1920, just a few days after the second anniversary of the armistice.  The war’s legacy is felt in the story, which is brief and rather sentimental – far from the more substantial and far more polished works Milne premiered both the year before (Mr Pim Passes By) and the year after (The Dover Road).  It’s a slight work and, yes, an inferior one but still enjoyable.

We open at the London home of Sir John Pembury, MP where a young man – the Stranger – has arrived and demanded to speak with Sir John.  He will not give his name and refuses to say what his business is, insisting the butler tell Sir John only that “someone from Lambeth” is here to speak with him, confident Sir John will know what that means.  The Stranger warrants one of Milne’s typically detailed introductory notes:

[The butler] has already placed him as “one of the lower classes,” but the intelligent person in the pit perceives that he is something better than that, though whether he is in the process of falling from a higher estate, or of rising to it, is not so clear. He is thirty odd, shabbily dressed (but then, so are most of us nowadays), and ill at ease; not because he is shabby, but because he is ashamed of himself. To make up for this, he adopts a blustering manner, as if to persuade himself that he is a fine fellow after all. There is a touch of commonness about his voice, but he is not uneducated.

With the butler gone to fetch Sir John, the Stranger is not left alone long before Lady Pembury comes in.  She is, as Milne makes clear in another introductory note, just the right person for a disgruntled young man to meet:

In twenty-eight years of happy married life, she has mothered one husband and five daughters, but she has never had a son–her only sorrow. Her motto might be, “It is just as easy to be kind”; and whether you go to her for comfort or congratulation, you will come away feeling that she is the only person who really understands.

The Stranger quickly (it is a one-act play after all with an obvious title) quickly reveals his reason for coming.  Lady Pembury, faced with the knowledge that not only does her husband have an illegitimate son whom he knew about but that this son, having lost his job, has now come to demand money, steels herself magnificently and in a few short moments mothers the boy in a way he has been missing since the death of his own mother two years before.  Alone in the world and down on his luck, he has become something he is embarrassed by, pride destroyed to the point where he is preparing to blackmail his own father for money.  Lady Pembury, she who has always wanted a son to mother, teases out the best parts of him, finding the man who wants to stand on his own, to take responsibility for himself and to one day present himself to his father not as a beggar but as a son to be accepted.

The Stranger’s meeting with Sir John is not at all the one he’d planned, in the end, and he goes off with a much-needed sense of optimism about the future.  Lady Pembury, on the other hand, goes on with her life quietly and calmly but with its foundations shaken.

For a writer who was excelling at artful waffling – pages of his plays from this era consistent of charmingly light dialogue that bubbles along like champagne – this is a melancholy piece.  It is sentimental and gives you hope that the young man will piece his life together, as so many young men were trying to do.  He will do it alone and be honorable and keep his pride.  But he will struggle, as he has been struggling for years, and the tiredness and loneliness will not leave him any time soon.  In comparison, Lady Pembury’s disillusionment with her husband is mild but something, some innocence, has been taken from her as well.

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We all need good things to look forward to right now.  So, in case August 20th is not already circled in your calendars, I give you notice: Virago is finally releasing paperback editions of the three wartime Angela Thirkell novels they had previously only made available as e-books (presuming, of course, no massive delays as a result of the pandemic).

The trio (with my old reviews of them for quick reference) are:

Cheerfulness Breaks In

Growing Up

Peace Breaks Out

The covers are also new for the paperbacks and a vast improvement on the generic ones used for the e-books.  I’m not totally convinced about the cover for Peace Breaks Out but I think bunting and street parties, while horrifying to Thirkell’s middle class characters, sell books so can’t complain.

The books are available for pre-order here and will presumably start showing up on other book sellers’ websites soon.

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After years of looking for a copy of Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp (and not being able to stomach the $300+ price tag attached to used copies), I finally employed my interlibrary loan system to help me track it down.  For the eminently reasonable price of $15 dollars they found it for me in the wilds of Utah and now, after almost ten years of waiting, I have finally had a chance to read it.

First published in 1930, Rhododendron Pie is the story of the Laventie family.  The country-dwelling Laventies take great pleasure in their cultured and sophisticated tastes when compared to their pitiful rural neighbours and this is, we learn on the first page, a tradition that the family has carried on for many generations:

…deep-rooted in Sussex history, they had nevertheless a fantastic strain in their blood which served to alienate them almost entirely from their worthy neighbours.  Generation after generation of eldest sons set off on the Grand Tour and had to be sought out, years after, in Paris and Vienna and St Petersburg when the death of their sires left Whitenights masterless.  They came home middle-aged men, urbane, travelled, generally impoverished, occasionally debauched: and the good Sussex squires asked them to dine.  It was usually about six months before all invitation ceased.

In the current era, this family trait is exhibited by Mr Laventie, a louche aesthete who goes travelling (and philandering) every so often and returns with a gift for his invalid wife and even more distain for his rural neighbours, eldest daughter Elizabeth, a sharp-tongued and observant essayist, and son Dick, an artist.  Mrs Laventie, disabled for many years, stays quietly in the background for the most part while daughter Ann struggles to find where she fits in.  Not unnaturally, she shares the tastes and prejudices of her opinionated family members, as we all absorb the world view of those we grew up with.  But even early in life there are signs that a more conventional soul lurks beneath: it is Ann, alone among the Laventie children, who quietly loathes the family birthday tradition of pies filled with artistic but inedible flowers.  Rather than beautiful mounds of rhododendron flowers, Ann longs for juicy apples to fill her birthday pie.

Ann is our heroine but, as in the way of so many Margery Sharp novels, heroine may be too strong a word.  It implies perhaps more fondness than Sharp cares to elicit from us.  What I love about many of Sharp’s other novels is how pointed they are and how callously she treats many of her protagonists.  Here in her first novel she hasn’t quite achieved that style but the early glimmerings are there.  She gives us enough in Ann to care about but not so much that we don’t still find her frustrating in her moments of meekness and uncertainty.

And there are many such moments.  Ann, young and isolated from the glamorous world of artists and liberal thinkers that she has been brought up to view as her rightful sphere, is infatuated when Gilbert Croy arrives at Whitenights.  A daring film producer, Croy is handsome and flatteringly attentive to Ann.  It is only when the action moves to London that Ann, who has decided she is in love with Croy and willing to marry him, realises how little her values align with those of her father, her siblings and Croy.  For in the country the family’s affectations were relatively harmless – at least to themselves.  They may have made cutting remarks about the stolid neighbours (particularly the sprawling Gaylord family) and discussed their beliefs in personal expression and free love but in Sussex the neighbours found them too odd (and perhaps too amusing) to take much offense and there was little chance of a belief in free love causing problems when there was no one intellectual enough around to love.  London, where all three children find themselves, is another matter.

Following Elizabeth and Dick to town, Ann finds herself part of their social circles and not at all sure of her surroundings.  Everyone she meets seems somewhat lost in their pursuit of individual pleasures and free love seems to be causing more pain than anything.

When she retreats home to Sussex, Ann’s London experiences help her see her old surroundings and old country friends in a new way.  And when she falls in love with one of those neighbours whom her family so despise – a young man who is so gauche as to work in a bank, epitomizing the type of conventional thinking that so outrages Mr Laventie – the family is aghast.

It’s an entertaining story but, for me, a forgettable one.  Sharp was very young when she wrote it – only twenty four or twenty five – and everything is a bit simplistic.  The elements that would make her excellent later are there but it’s a bit of wasted potential when she wasn’t yet confident enough to truly make fun of her eminently laughable creations.

What it worth $15?  Absolutely.  Is it worth $300?  Certainly not.  Spend your money instead on one of her later, better works (my favourites are The Flowering Thorn and Something Light).  But if you can track this down, there is still plenty to enjoy.

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Searching about for something quick to read for this weekend’s mini Persephone readathon, I settled on How to Keep Your Home Without Help by Kay Smallshaw.  It’s been sitting unread on my shelves since late 2011 so this was the perfect excuse to delve into it.

Published in 1949, this detailed housekeeping guide is targeted at the young housewife so I couldn’t help but think of my grandmothers as I was reading it.  Born in 1920 and 1921, they were both married at the time this book was released, running their own homes, and carrying for small daughters (and presumably a little bit for large husbands).  And I can confidently say that if they had read this book they would have a) laughed heartily at it and then b) throw it against a wall.

In terms of actual cleaning tips, the book has plenty of helpful suggestions that still stand.  It assumes complete idiocy so if you grew up in a hovel and never saw someone vacuum a room you would be well served by it.  However, idiots from hovels are not actually the target audience.  Smallshaw has a very clear idea of her readers’ upbringing, as she makes clear with assumptions throughout the book as to how her readers grew up:

Mother was not so far wrong when she insisted that all the rooms must be “turned out” every week.  Mother, however, had regular help.  She did the cooking herself and she had a washer-woman in weekly so that she could concentrate on housework alone.

This, clearly, is where she would have lost my grandmothers (actually, the upholstery whisk mentioned as a key piece of equipment might have done that.  But if they’d made it past that, this would have done it).  My Canadian grandmother grew up on a dairy farm.  Her mother decidedly did not have regular help and the cleanliness of the house was secondary to the cleanliness of the dairy.  My Czech grandmother, on the other hand, grew up in middle class comfort, with a governess, a chauffeur, a cook, and a cleaner.  She was never taught to cook, never mind clean, on the assumption that she would always have staff to do it for her.  You needed to know how to set a menu, not cook it.   More importantly, she grew up with the assumption that she’d be going to university and then getting a job – something that clearly never troubled the mind of Smallshaw’s ideal reader.

Both my grandmothers ended up having very different lives than their mothers but both were united in one attitude: to be houseproud is a sin when there are so many more important things in life.  Whereas for Smallshaw, it seems that being houseproud is a woman’s entire raison d’etre.  (See Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virgina Nicholson for a full portrait of this claustrophobic mindset.)

When Smallshaw sticks to cleaning basics, it’s not too contentious (except for her bold statement that it doesn’t matter if you dust or do the floors first.  This is madness – always dust first.  No arguments).  Her standards are insane and clearly meant to occupy a bored housewife by finding as many unnecessary things as possible for her to fill her day with.  Your home would in fact be sparkling but your mind would be screaming out for stimulation if you allowed yourself to be held captive by your possessions in this way.  She has helpful and deeply condescending tips to save yourself from the heavy work, such as “A clever wife induces the husband to regard the boiler as his special province!”  The exclamation point is a dagger to the heart.

While I trust her cleaning tips (but not the deranged schedule she recommends), I am less confident that following her cooking tips would yield good results.  Her idea to make efficient use of the steamers seems particularly unappetizing:

Use the bottom of the steamer for a light sponge pudding or batter.  The next compartment will take potatoes, and on the top, fillets of fish between two plates.

If my grandmothers had made it through the upholstery whisk, and miraculously through the assumptions about what their mothers had done, I know their contempt for Smallshaw would finally have peaked in the chapter on budgeting.  In “helpfully” guiding her simpleminded readers, Smallshaw advises:  You’ll be remarkably lucky if your estimated expenditure comes within your income!  At this stage, you and your husband will probably agree on the housekeeping allowance you can have…The idea that they would have let their husbands be involved in managing the money is the laughable one.  My Canadian grandmother broke free of the farm after high school and worked in a bank, where she eventually became assistant manager during the war.  Even without such formal training, it was the norm in many farming families for the wife to manage the money.  They usually had more education than their husbands (who often left school at the start of their teen years) and were more confident with numbers.  My other grandmother ended up in a dual-income house where, aside from doing the shopping and sometimes cooking Sunday lunch, households duties were pretty evenly shared.  The idea of him “letting” her have a portion of their shared income would not have gone over well – and I presume it would never even occurred to him.

Smallshaw concludes the book with a bit of an about face.  After extolling the virtues of obsessive cleaning, she then concedes that her readers may eventually have children, at which point standards collapse entirely.  If the reader had made it through to the end, perhaps this would have given them some hope.  It is a welcome acknowledgement of reality after many pages of fantasy.

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Well Walk from New End Square by George Charlton

It’s been an absolutely beautiful Sunday here and, despite having been determined to do lots of reading this weekend, I have been weak.  Instead I’ve been enjoying the pale winter sunlight and the spring-like temperatures.  Sunshine in winter – especially in a Vancouver winter – always feels like a gift.  The more typical torrential rains will return soon enough (tomorrow, to be precise) so to waste such weather would have been unforgiveable.

Despite neglecting my books this weekend, I have managed to get some reading done already this year.  I’ve somehow managed four books, though none of them were very long or challenging.  Two were pleasant and forgettable but I’d thought I’d share a little about the two extremes: one which was very beautiful and one which turned out to be very bad.

My least favourite, and by far the most scarring, was Brief Flower by Dorothy Evelyn Smith.  Originally published in 1966 (and, as far as I can tell, never republished thank goodness), it is the story of Bunny’s adolescence, those last years of childhood as she matures into adulthood, told many years later by the adult Bunny.  Raised in squalor and hunger by Laurie, an unsuccessful author with a drinking problem, and the equally useless Madge on the Yorkshire coast, Bunny has no idea who her parents were and, when we meet her at the age of ten or eleven, doesn’t seem particularly to care.  She hates being cold and hungry and not having any clothes that fit her but loves her wild life at the farm and adores Laurie (despite him literally belting her when he’s had too much to drink).  But then her wealthy grandfather appears and Bunny goes away to live with him for a year, after which she must decide which home – and which set of loved ones – to stay with.  The story follows her for the next few years, though the “brief flower” of her youth, and I HATED it.  It’s so disappointing because Smith’s writing is good and her supporting characters are truly excellent, but the entire story is overwhelmed by bizarrely sexual overtones right from the beginning (when, let’s remember, Bunny is about 11).  And the ending was so off-putting that I feel sullied for having read it.  I’m not a particularly sensitive reader but this was such a jarring combination of factors that the end result was very disappointing.  If you see this one, pass right on by.

Far more successful was Poems of Arab Andalusia translated by Cola Franzen.  I first became interested in the Arab poets of Andalusia when I read The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay.  Kay’s books are infused with poetry and I loved the style of the verses.  It pushed me to read some of the works that had inspired Kay and ever since I’ve been happy to pick up any volumes that come my way.  This year, as I’m planning a trip to Andalusia for the autumn, I plan to be reading even more.

This is a slim book originally published in 1989 but its roots go back to the 1920s, when the versions the translations are based on were originally published by Emilo Garcia Gomez.  The poems themselves of course date back much further, to the 10th through 13th centuries when much of modern-day Spain was ruled by the Islamic Moors.

The poems are sensual and beautiful and my favourite was “Remembering Silves” by King Al-Mu’tamid of Seville, the 11th century “Poet King”, who was dethroned and lived his final years far from the home he loved:

Well, Abū Bakr,
greet my home place in Silves
and ask the people there
if, as I think, they still remember me.

Greet the Palace of the Balconies
on behalf of a young man
still nostalgic for that place.

Warriors like lions lived there
and white gazelles
in what beautiful forests
and in what beautiful lairs!

How many pleasurable nights I spent
in the shadow of the palace
with women of opulent hips
and delicate waists:

blonds and brunettes.
My soul remembers them
as shining swords and dark lances.

With one girl I spent
many delicious nights
beside the bend of the river.
Her bracelet resembled
the curve of the current

and as the hours went by
she offered me the wine
of her glance or that of her glass
and sometimes that of her lips.

The strings of her lute
wounded by the plectrum
caused me to shiver
as if I had heard a melody
played by swords on the
neck tendons of the enemy.

When she took off her cloak
and revealed her waist,
a flowering willow branch,
it was like a bud
opening to reveal a flower.

I’m not usually a poetry lover but how could anyone fail to love that?

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As we enter the last hours of 2019, I’m not quite ready to let this year go.  I loved 2019; it was full of achievements, wonderful times with family and friends, lots of travel (I went to Europe twice!  And on my first trip I absolutely fell in love with Brittany) and, most excitingly, a new nephew.

With all that going on, I completely collapsed as a blogger, reviewing almost nothing, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t reading!  Here are my favourites (ranked, obviously) from this year:

10. Clouds of Witness (1927) – Dorothy L. Sayers
I reread Strong Poison for the 1930 Club and enjoyed it but it was this earlier volume that reminded me of all the things I love about Sayers.  Here she has set up a perfect country house murder scene, made even more perfect by the fact that this time it is Lord Peter’s own family members who are suspected of the murder.  Sayers introduction of the other houseguests as they eat breakfast is perhaps the best scene she ever wrote and the entire novel just shines.  It also allows plenty of time for Charles Parker (let everyone else be in love with Lord Peter, for me it’s always been the solid, hardworking Charles), which I can only view as a good thing.

9. Home Fire (2017) – Kamila Shamsie
Good lord, what a book.  Set across three continents and told by a variety of narrators, Shamsie crafts a heartbreaking contemporary retelling of Antigone.  Unforgettable.

8. A Green and Pleasant Land (2013) – Ursula Buchan
Such fun!  Buchan tells the story of how Britain worked to improve food production during the Second World War.  It’s full of the sort of little details I love – did you know tomatoes were grown in ornamental pots outside of gentlemen’s clubs in St James? Or that, pre-war, only 9 of every 100 onions eaten were grown in the UK? –  and does a wonderful job of highlighting the professionals whose hard work and innovation truly made a difference.

7. Mountain Lines (2017) – Jonathan Arlan
I have no idea how this passed me by when it was first published but I’m so glad I stumbled across it this year.  Arlan writes humorously and honestly about his journey along the GR5 trail from Lake Geneva to Nice. For me, this was the perfect style of travel memoir and inspired me so much that I literally put the book down mid-chapter to reach out to my friend and convince her to go hiking in Austria.

6. Piglettes (2015) – Clémentine Beauvais
An utterly joyful YA novel about three teenage girls who, having been cruelly and publicly named by their peers are the ugliest girls in their town, band together to pursue the things they want most.  By cycling to Paris.  While selling sausages.  It is full of energy and humour and insecurity and confidence and I defy anyone not to love it.

5. Last Witnesses (1985) – Svetlana Alexievich
A bleak but incredibly moving oral history of children’s lives in the USSR during the Second World War.

4. A Brightness Long Ago (2019) – Guy Gavriel Kay
A new novel from Kay is always cause for celebration and this one absolutely did not disappoint.  It ranks among his best works and artfully weaves Italian Renaissance history into Kay’s fantasy world, laying the foundations for the events of Children of Earth and Sky.  It is intelligent, entertaining, and through Kay’s uncharacteristic use of the first-person perspective for much of the book, even more poignant than usual.  I loved it and look forward to rereading it again soon.

3. The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) – Rosemary Sutcliff
Inspired by Slightly Foxed’s reissuing of this, I picked it up for a reread and was immediately caught up in Marcus’ story and quest for the eagle of the famed lost legion.  This is historical fiction and children’s writing at its absolute best.  It’s a book my father loved as a child, that I loved, and that I hope the next generation of our family will love just as much.

2. Invisible Women (2019) – Caroline Criado Perez
Until last week, I was certain this was going to be my #1 book of the year.  But then a charming Russian count appeared and that was that.  But this was still the single most impactful thing I read this year.  Caroline Criado Perez, the Oxford- and LSE-educated journalist and human rights campaigner (and reason Jane Austen is now on the £10 note), looks at how data bias harms women around the world.  Why do more women die in car accidents than men?  Because cars are designed to be safe for men (there are no crash test dummies based on female body composition).  Why are women 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed when they have a heart attack?  Because their symptoms are different from men’s (and men are the ones who are studied).  The examples go on and on and become more and more maddening.  Invisible Women is an extraordinary and extraordinarily important book and one that should make you mad, regardless of your gender.

1. A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) – Amor Towles
This is a perfect example of why you must always wait until the absolute last moment to select your best books of year: I only finished reading this on Saturday.  And I’ve been bereft every day since that I don’t have more of it to read.  I never wanted this charming story of a Russian count confined to a grand Moscow hotel to end but when it did it was so satisfying and right that I physically hugged the book to myself.  This is clearly going to be a favourite for years to come.

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Sometimes the stars align and an author produces a work so perfect, so utterly satisfying and joyous on every page, that you never want the reading experience to end.  That was what I found when I picked up A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

Now, this is hardly an unheralded gem.  It was well-reviewed and widely read when it came out in 2016, appearing on several prize lists, and Bill Gates, a reader par excellence, has shared his own love of it.  So I am, as usual, a little behind the times.  But the beauty of books is that they wait for the reader to find them when the time is right and, for me, this was the perfect time.

The story opens in 1922 in Moscow as Count Alexander Rostov is being sentenced by a people’s committee.  Their usual inclination to dispose of a member of the leisured class is checked by one thing: a poem written by Rostov more than a decade before that was sympathetic to the revolutionary cause.  And so their verdict is unusually lenient: house arrest for life.  But Rostov has no home of his own – the family estates having been seized – and lives in the Metropol Hotel at the heart of Moscow.  So it is there that he, age 32, is sentenced to live out the rest of his days.

And so it is within the walls of this last pillar of old-world elegance that our tale unfolds, a place where ballerinas from the Bolshoi dash in for a drink, where the French chef ensures that every dish is a masterpiece, and where every detail is thought of, cared for, and perfected.  It is a world that suits Rostov well and, even after he is moved into a dingy attic room from his stately suite, he finds ways of adapting to his new circumstances.

It is this graceful adaptability that provides the true charm of the novel.  Rostov is a product of his upbringing and it is the gentlemanly traits he has been trained in that allow him to weather his trials.  Before his incarceration, his days were, as he explained during his trial, devoted to “Dining, discussing.  Reading, reflecting.  The usual rigmarole.”  He was a friend to poets and princesses, a world traveller, and darling of hostesses for his easy conversation, excellent manners, and ability to smooth difficult situations.  He knew the world and loved its many pleasures.  Now captive in the hotel, he must set about building a life on a smaller scale, mastering his new world and seeing to the little preferences and pleasures that make life – whether it be in a palace or a prison – tolerable.

This he does with such ingenuity and nonchalance that it is impossible not be charmed by him.  If you grew up reading about orphans living in attics or poor young women making sad garret rooms into welcoming havens, you will be delighted by Rostov’s immediate actions.  And then even more delighted as through the years he makes a true home at the Metropol, finding new friends and a purpose.

The story follows Rostov over the course of thirty-odd years, years where he is largely insulated from the wider changes happening in Russia.  But he is not oblivious to them, staying as well-informed as ever (as any good gentleman would), and as Russia becomes increasingly dangerous, he begins to worry about the future of those he loves.  For, in thirty years, he has found people to love: friends, a lover, and a daughter-of-sorts whom he has raised from childhood.

A Gentleman in Moscow reminded me of nothing so much as an Eva Ibbotson novel, which is just about the highest praise I can think of.  It has the same charmed nostalgia of her books, capturing a world of lost European elegance, and Rostov shares the same optimism and practicality as Ibbotson’s protagonists, who, when faced with disaster, can smile, persevere, and use all their charm and talent to bring about a solution.  It is also peopled with delightful secondary characters: a willowy actress, who throws tantrums but has enough humility to clean up after them; a serious child who introduces Rostov to all the secrets of the hotel; a shy seamstress with a lazy eye and a warm heart; and so on.  Towles, like Ibbotson, takes care to make each character memorable and loveable and, in doing so, creates a world that is just a little kinder, a little more fantastic, than the one we know.  Just the kind of world we like best to escape to in a novel.

 

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