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Archive for the ‘D.E. Stevenson’ Category

Five years ago in the late and lamented Slightly Foxed bookshop in Gloucester Road, I picked up Rosabelle Shaw by D.E. Stevenson (alongside a handful of other books).  I’d discovered D.E.S. a few years before but had never heard of this title.  I assumed it was obscure for good reason (already recognizing the varied quality of D.E.S.’s output) but for a meager £4 wanted to find out for myself.  So home it came with me only to languish for five years unread until I picked it up this August when I was home sick with a cold.

Unusually for D.E.S., this is a historical piece.  Opening in Edinburgh in the 1890s, we meet vivacious young Fanny who has caught the eye of the steady, determined farmer John Shaw.  The two are soon wed and Fanny finds herself living on John’s well-managed farm in East Lothian, unsure how to handle both rural life and marriage.  So far familiar stuff for fans of D.E.S.  Fanny is sweet and charming and finds a friend in the old local doctor and amusing – but useful – guidance in an old book.  The marriage is off to happy start and a daughter, Rosabelle, arrives followed a few years later by a son.

But the Shaw’s calm family life is disrupted by the arrival of a young boy, the only survivor of a mysterious shipwreck.  Saved by John Shaw, Fanny takes the orphaned child into her home and it is not long before the two are closely bonded.  Jay, the boy, grows into a jealous, calculating child and Fanny’s championing of him causes an understandable rift with John.  Her own children try to accept Jay as a sibling and playmate but his moody, brooding ways make it difficult.

The book then jumps forward to the eve of WWI.  Jay, uncharacteristically affable and forging a strong bond with his adopted father, is as dangerous as ever – especially to Rosabelle, who finds herself deeply attracted to him despite knowing how untrustworthy he is.  Meanwhile, her neighbour Tom watches with concern…

D.E.S. is hardly a known for her consistency but this is an unusually uneven novel, with abrupt mood changes and an embarrassingly loose plot with far too many cardboard characters.  And yet, that said, it was the perfect undemanding read for my sick day.  I loved the end of the book, with Rosabelle forging a friendly and loving partnership with Tom, having married him to provide a barrier from the alluring Jay but truly coming to love him.  It is the exact opposite of the highly dramatic scenes with Jay and far more in keeping with D.E.S.’s usual style, which she was still developing in 1937 when this was first published.  She’d only written a handful of books then and hadn’t yet settled into the light romances she would do so capably for the next three decades.  She still had a bit of melodrama left to get out of her system – Rochester’s Wife was published in 1940 – but it’s clear her lighter side was trying to break through while writing this.  The result is messy but a very interesting read for any D.E.S. fan.

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After reading 37 books by a single author, there comes the point when you think, “Surely to God I have read everything she wrote that was actually worth reading – and then some.”  At least, that was how I felt about D.E. Stevenson.  I read the good, I read the middling, and I read the bad (and I managed to review 20-odd of them).  And, after 37 books, I was pretty much done.  Until I wasn’t.  Knowing absolutely nothing about it, I decided on a whim to read Green Money and discovered that DES had basically decided to write a contemporary (for 1939) Georgette Heyer novel.  I was, understandably, delighted.

We meet our protagonist, George Ferrier, celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday with a little shopping on Bond Street.  After ten days of living it up in London and having his head turned by one pretty girl after another, he is heading home to the country but not before he has a fitting for a new pair of riding boots – hence Bond Street.  And it is in this Bond Street establishment that the fateful encounter occurs: George meets Mr. John Green, an old army friend of his father’s and now a very wealthy man.  The Ferriers live in rural obscurity – his scholarly father caught up in his studies, his horsey-mother caught up in the stables – so the families had not been in touch but it makes no matter.  A son of Ferrier senior must be a good sort.

Mr. Green quickly identified George – young, honest, good with people, and not overburdened with brains – as just the man he wants.  Mr. Green, though expecting to live for many years, wants to name a youthful trustee for his daughter in case anything should happen to him, his wife having died many years before.  There are three trustees already, middle-aged men like himself, but Green doesn’t think they’ll be of much use by the time he plans to die, many, many years from now.  So, he reasons, George is just the right man.  And the role of trustee is vital, he explains to George, since his beloved daughter is, like all women, “delicate, virginal, easily shocked and frightened.”  George, after a lifetime with his straight-talking Irish mother and decidedly capable female friends, tries to remain open minded but can’t quite square his new friend’s statement with the world as he knows it:

George had not thought of women in this light before, but he was always willing to consider a fresh point of view.  He thought of the various girls he knew: were they like flowers?  Not noticeably.  Were they delicate, virginal, easily shocked and frightened?  No, no, no.  He thought of his mother and smiled involuntarily.  “Oh, well!” he said.  “I dare say some girls may be like that.  I’ve always found them fairly hard boiled.”

George, as the story will bear out, has excellent people sense.  Mr. Green does not.

Unsurprisingly for the purposes of our story, Mr. Green soon dies and George comes into his duties several decades before he had expected to.  And this is where our Heyer-esque plot takes over.  George assumes partial guardianship of the teenaged Elma Green, who turns out to be breathtakingly beautiful but woefully ignorant of the real world.  Her governess, Miss Wilson (an exquisite creation), has raised her on 19th Century romantic novels and Elma has quite naturally turned into an outwardly docile creature, who meanwhile is longing for some sort of excitement.  Delightfully, her main ambition is to visit London and to see Vauxhall Gardens and the vulgar excesses she has read so much about (little knowing that Vauxhall closed 80 years before).  George is repelled rather than attracted by these antiquated manners and introduces his ward to the idea that men and women can be friends and that it’s not shame for a girl to have a bit of life in her.  It takes Elma a while to catch on but when she does…well, she’s a fast learner and, unfortunately for George, he isn’t her only instructor.

The complications are fast and furious.  George, confused by his sense of responsibility, wonders if he can possibly be in love with Elma when he spends most of his time wanting to escape her attentions.  George’s best friend, Peter Seeley, having fallen in love with Elma at first sight, is silently feuding with George, though George remains oblivious to this (as is common when you choose to feud silently).  George, his brain moving slowly but surely, begins to have his doubts about how Mr. Green’s estate is being handled.  Another trustee, concerned on a number of fronts, invites Elma and her governess to stay with his family at a seaside hotel frequented by some rather fast people where Elma, predictably, finds lots of trouble to get into.  And there is, as is only suitable in such a Heyer-esque novel, a updated 20th Century sort of elopement (headed for a hotel rather than Gretna Green).

I do love an exasperated hero running around trying to rescue an idiotic girl who has cheerfully dashed off to be ruined but I love it most when a) I am confident there is no possibility of romance between said hero and said idiotic girl, b) where there is a wonderfully capable heroine waiting patiently for our hero to realise he’s in love with her, and c) when I can be entertained along the way by entertaining supporting characters.  Green Money has it all.  Also, magic tricks.  But let us focus for a moment on the supporting characters.

Paddy, George’s mother, is Irish.  That’s basically it.  You can tell because she is obsessed with horses and speaks like Maureen O’Hara’s character from The Quiet Man every single time she opens her mouth.  She is wonderful though, a winning combination of loving and blunt, and is adored by her husband, son, and friends.  The Seeley family, the Ferriers’ neighbours and close friends, are a large family with lazy, rarely involved parents.  Of the children, adolescent daughter Dan is a particular favourite of George’s, eldest son Peter, a newly qualified doctor, is his best friend, and eldest daughter Cathy is…something.  Something very calming and certain and sensible and…well, you see where that is going.  And then, freshly introduced into George’s life, thanks to Elma, there is the magnificent Miss Wilson.  A governess at least one hundred years out of date, she is Elma’s prim and exasperated companion, who becomes utterly overwhelmed by her charge’s behaviour once they reach the resort.  She writes out her tale of woe to George and it causes confusion to him (and his parents, trying gamely to follow along as this farce progresses) and delight to the reader.  Miss Wilson, clearly, learned capitalization from Jane Austen (and D.E. Stevenson picked up a thing or two herself about comic old maids):

In the midst of my Anxiety and Trouble, I remembered Your Cryptic Words to which I was so misguided as to take exception.  You remarked that I should be well advised to keep my eye upon Elma!  I ask myself now, in the light of all that has happened, whether this remark was made with a Fuller Knowledge of the Pitfalls before me than I myself possessed.  At the time, of course, I was Confident of my Ability to watch my charge and to Guard and Guide her, no matter what Dangers or Difficulties should lie before us…

All ends well, naturally.  Those who are in love declare their love.  Those who want a quiet life return to the quiet life.  Those who want a horse, get a horse (that would be George’s mother, Paddy – remember, she is Irish.  As though you would ever be allowed to forget).  And I, happily, discovered that there was at least one D.E. Stevenson book left worth reading.

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mrs-tim-gets-a-jobI had planned to read Chatterton Square by E.H. Young as my second book (following Hetty Dorval) for the 1947 Club.  I’d started and was enjoying it but, knowing it had already been more than capably reviewed by Simon this week, could not fight the voice in my head that suggested ‘wouldn’t the world be better served if you reread and finally reviewed Mrs Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson?’  Yes, I concluded, yes it would.  And so, on this very wet and stormy weekend, I settled down with my old friend Hester Christie, otherwise known as Mrs Tim.

The Mrs Tim books were inspired by D.E. Stevenson’s own diaries and experiences as an army wife and are written in a light-hearted, Provincial-Lady-esque style (E.M. Delafield’s diarist predates Mrs Tim by two years).  In earlier books, we saw Hester struggle with great good humour and resilience through pre-war regimental life with two small children and then through the anxious war years.  This volume opens in February 1946.  Peace has come to England but Hester’s family is once more scattered: husband Tim is stationed in Egypt with no hope of any extended leave, sixteen-year old son Bryan is off at school, and Hester is busy deciding on a boarding school for her daughter Betty.   When a friend declares that she has found Hester a job helping to manage a small country hotel in Scotland, Hester is properly horrified.  In the depressing period just after Tim left for Egypt, she had considered the idea but never seriously.  On the other hand, a life of solitude with little to do doesn’t hold much charm either:

I am in the mood when on forgets one’s blessing and counts one’s troubles, when nothing seems good and the world seems grey and drab.  I have a son, but he has gone away.  I have a husband, but I have not seen him for months.  It may be years before I see Tim, it certainly will be years before we can settle down to a reasonably peaceful life.  What is the use of being married when you can’t be together?  It is misery, no less.  All very well for Tony to say think of the future – I do think of it most of the time, but you can’t live on hope forever.  There are times – and this is one of them – when the savour goes out of life, when you lose heart, when you feel you can’t go on, when you would give everything you possess for one glimpse of the person you love…

So off she goes, ready for a new adventure.

The small hotel is the home and business of Erica Clutterbuck, a gruff-mannered middle-aged woman entirely uncomfortable with having guests in her family home.  Hester, as she soon learns, is there primarily to save Erica the horror of having to speak with the guests.  It is a task Hester is remarkably well suited for as she is an irresistibly sympathetic figure, at times to her despair.  Everywhere she goes people end up confiding in her and/or, having been misled by her slight appearance, taking a protective interest in her.  She handles it all with humour and excessive good grace but takes no real pleasure in dealing with the guests.  She does, however, find pleasure in a new friendship with Erica.

It is a simple novel, made up of little events rather than any sort of easily resolved narrative arc.  Hester gets to know the guests at the hotel and becomes involved in their affairs but also runs into old friends of her own.  Tony Morley surprises her by showing up at the hotel, a joyful reunion after six years without seeing each other.  A dashing middle-aged bachelor, he is as much enamoured of Hester as ever and she is just as oblivious as ever, so secure in her adoration of the far-away Tim.  There is also a madcap night of breaking and entering in Edinburgh with some young friends, new and old.

But the nicest reunions are with her children.  Betty, who comes to stay during a school holiday, strikes up a friendship with Erica Clutterbuck that is at first bewildering to Hester but then less so as she realises how similar the two are.  Bryan appears only briefly, having arranged to spend most of his break with friends, but the reunion between mother and son is lovely, even though it begins with rigid formality in front of strangers:

As I lead the way upstairs we are both completely silent, perhaps because there is nothing more to say.  For my part, I am already deeply regretting that cool welcome and wishing with all my heart that I had thrown my arms around his neck and hugged him – and be damned to Erica!

It is too late now, of course.  The deed is done.

We reach the third landing, and I open the door of the little room with sloping roof, which is to be Bryan’s room, and show him in.

‘It’s rather small,’ I begin, ‘but I dare say –‘

Suddenly I am seized in a bear’s embrace and almost strangled.  The strong young arms are hard as steel.  They go round me like a vice.  ‘Darling!’ cries Bryan.  ‘Oh,what a dear wee Mummy!  I’d forgotten you were so small.’

It’s a lovely, gentle book but without the saccharine sweetness of some of D.E. Stevenson’s other novels.  Hester has more bite in her than any of Stevenson’s other heroines, perhaps because she is based on the author herself?  Regardless, I love Hester’s flashes of pique and acerbic asides.  She is a hard worker, excellent friend, and devoted wife and mother, but she is always entirely human and I love that about her.

 ‘Hester!’ exclaims Grace in horrified tones.  ‘Why didn’t you come to lunch with me?’

‘Too tired,’ I murmur.  ‘Too fed up.  Besides, bread and cheese and coffee is a perfectly good meal.’

‘It’s letting down the flag,’ says Grace reproachfully.  ‘It’s back-sliding – that’s what it is.  I wouldn’t have thought it of you, Hester.  Think of the men who change for dinner every night on desert islands!’

‘I’ve never really believed in them,’ I reply, helping myself to another wedge of cheese.  ‘And anyhow, I’ve slid.’

The first book, Mrs Tim of the Regiment, was reprinted a few years ago and is still readily available but the later volumes (Mrs Tim Carries On, Mrs Tim Gets a Job, and Mrs Tim Flies Home) can be harder to find.  My inter-library loan system has proved invaluable in tracking them down for me over the years but I would dearly love to see them in print.  Perhaps Virago might show an interest one day?  Now that they are reprinting Angela Thirkell, anything seems possible.

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Five WindowsI hope you are all having a lovely Valentine’s Day, enjoying the people and things you love.

Speaking of lovable things… the most delightful discovery of my week was that Greyladies has now released their reprint of Five Windows by D.E. Stevenson.

Five Windows is the story of David Kirke from his Scottish childhood to his early adulthood in London.  It follows him through five different homes: the manse where he grew up as the only child of loving parents, the townhouse in Edinburgh where he lived with his uncle while attending school, the seedy London boarding house where he lives after first arriving in the city, the cosy flat above a bookshop which he has the pleasure of making his own, and the house just outside London where he begins his married life.

It is one of my very favourite of D.E.S.’s books and I have been looking forward to owning a copy since I first read it in 2013.  Rereading it last year only confirmed my love for it and my desire to own it.  However, used copies were prohibitively expensive.  Greyladies to the rescue!

 

 

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Five WindowsWhile fighting a cold a few weeks ago, I spent a Sunday morning curled up in my living room, with the weak winter sunshine streaming in and all the necessities an invalid could need ready at hand: a blanket, a cup of tea, and one of the cosiest books I know: Five Windows by D.E. Stevenson.

I first read Five Windows back in 2013, when I was devouring several D.E.S. books per month.  It instantly became one of my favourites, classed alongside The English Air and the “Mrs. Tim” books, and my fondness for it has only increased after this reading.

Five Windows is the story of David Kirke from his Scottish childhood to his early adulthood in London.  It follows him through five different homes: the manse where he grew up as the only child of loving parents, the townhouse in Edinburgh where he lived with his uncle while attending school, the seedy London boarding house where he lives after first arriving in the city, the cosy flat above a bookshop which he has the pleasure of making his own, and the house just outside London where he begins his married life.

David grows from a quiet, gentle boy to a steady, thoughtful man.  While the sections dealing with his youth in Scotland are lovely – particularly for the relationship between David and his mother – the book improves dramatically when David moves to London to train for a career in law.  The Scottish scenes could be a bit cloyingly sweet; with the move to London, D.E.S. is able to deploy some of her (rather too rarely used) humour.  At the squalid boarding house where he initially lives, he finds himself initially taken in by the tacky glamour of several fellow boarders.  Initially drawn to them, even as he is uncomfortable with their careless approach to things he holds dear, David eventually comes to see the others for what they are and neatly, and quite wonderfully bluntly, cuts them out of his life.  David is that rare creature: the kind-hearted and good but entirely sensible young man.  He is also a delighted homemaker, taking real pleasure in doing up the flat he moves into after leaving the boarding house.  It is very sweet and David’s pride in his home is familiar to anyone who has gone through the same experience.

While in London, David begins to write.  As a child, writing had been a favourite pastime and in London he turns to it again, writing first a series of sketches about the city and then a novel.  He takes his work seriously – Mr. Trollope would be proud of David’s work ethic, though perhaps a little disapproving when David chooses to leave his steady job after selling his first book – and his hard work is rewarded with success.  What is more, his personal life also prospers: he falls in love with a girl he has known since childhood, recently arrived in London after escaping her rather awful family.  Naturally, there is one more home to be done up – the one they will share as man and wife – and all ends as it always does in a D.E.S. novel: happily ever after.

This is a really lovely book and the only negative I can think of is how desperately difficult it is to obtain reasonably priced copies!

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The Window of the Poet by Pyotr Konchalovsky

The Window of the Poet by Pyotr Konchalovsky

It is Margery Sharp day today, hosted by Jane in honour of the 110th anniversary of Sharp’s birth, and though I haven’t read anything recently by Sharp, I thought it would be a good time to share my thoughts on the two of her books that I have read before: Cluny Brown and The Eye of Love.  Neither book turned me into in a great fan, but I nonetheless look forward to reading everyone else’s reviews today.

Since I haven’t been reading Sharp this weekend, I’ve kept busy with other authors.  My plans for a hermit-like Saturday devoted to reading didn’t quite work out, but I picked up my inter-library hold on Katherine’s Marriage by D.E. Stevenson yesterday and am half-heartedly slogging my way through it.  It’s been a while since I read anything by DES and I’d forgotten how mind-numbingly dull her bad books are.  There is a reason I didn’t pick this up back in 2012, when I read the bulk of her other books.  It is a sequel to Katherine Wentworth and, if anything, might be even worse than that book.  I’ll keep reading for a bit to see if it improves at all but hopes are not high.

Here's Looking at YouI did finish Here’s Looking at You by Mhairi McFarlane on Saturday.  It’s a funny, light novel and I love McFarlane’s style but, most importantly, it is one of those books which had surprising overlaps with a number of my current interests.  I love this kind of serendipity.  The main female character, Anna, is a history lecturer at UCL (yay!  a heroine with a real job!), who specialises in the Byzantine Empire.  She and James, the male lead, are brought together when they work together on a exhibit for the British Museum about Empress Theodora.  Since I started reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium (which I didn’t finish back in the autumn but have now picked up again), I have been fascinated with all things Byzantine so this was a delightful coincidence.  But it did not end there: when Anna’s sister decides to get married in Italy, they go to their father’s home town of Barga.  I’m in the midst of planning a trip to Italy for this October and Barga, which I’d never heard of until a few months ago, is firmly on the list of places I want to visit on a day trip from nearby Lucca, where we will be staying.  I would have still enjoyed this book without these references but I enjoyed it so much more with them.

LeftoversSpeaking of chick-lit, I also finished Leftovers by Stella Newman this week.  This was one of my NetGalley reads and it was a good light distraction for a very busy work week.  Susie, the heroine, is thirty-six, single, and desperately counting the days until she will get her promotion and – with the accompanying bonus – be able to quit.  She’s still trying to get over her ex-boyfriend but there seem to be no end of men willing to replace him – if Susie were interested.  But this is not really a book about finding love.  It is about getting your life together, going after the things you want, and being happy.  Oh, and it is also about food.  Loving descriptions of numerous pasta dishes had me whipping up spaghetti carbonara (Nigella Lawson’s excellent recipe from How to Eat) the night I finished this.  The thing that irked me a bit (other than the seemingly endless supply of men who are interested in Susie) – and I wasn’t able to articulate this until I read Here’s Looking at You and felt the contrast – is Susie’s attitude towards her career.  I have more sympathy for books about women whose romantic lives are chaotic or lacklustre than for ones where the heroine is underemployed or just plain unhappy at work.  Susie works for an advertising company, with people she dislikes and clients that she absolutely hates.  But rather than try to find a role at another firm, she slogs on miserably (despite the urgings of her friends and family).  She even talks about how much she loves advertising – and then goes out and does something completely different at the book’s end.  Not an entirely satisfying read but still enjoyable in its way.  Enough so that I’ve now got Newman’s earlier novel, Pear Shaped, on my Kobo.

Now, off to make the most of my Sunday!

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The English AirI’ve just seen the very exciting news that Greyladies, one of my favourite small publishers, has reprinted The English Air by D.E. Stevenson.  This is both very wonderful and very sneaky, since there was little warning ahead of time that they would be printing it.  Still, what an excellent surprise.  I’ve already placed my order and can’t wait to have my very own copy of this, as it is one of my favourite D.E.S. novels (also a favourite of both Barb at Leaves & Pages and Lyn at I prefer reading).

With another Richmal Crompton book (Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle) slated to be reprinted in February, Greyladies continues to delight.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll continue rescuing Susan Pleydell’s books from obscurity and reprinting my favourite D.E.S. novels (Shirley, if you’re reading, Five Windows would be nice!).  Until then, I look forward to rereading The English Air and working through the rest of my Greyladies collection.

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