Archive for the ‘Denis Mackail’ Category

Over the weekend I finished off P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe.  It’s less full of bon mots than you might expect (but rather full of balance sheet considerations) however it does contain some rather wonderful letters to or remarks about contemporary authors of Wodehouse’s acquaintance that must be shared.

My favourite letter was the one below, written to Denis Mackail on the publication of the entirely wonderful Greenery Street (still one of my favourite Persephone titles).  Whatever issues I may have with Wodehouse, his taste in books is not one of them!

Dear Denis,

I started the sale of Greenery Street off with a bang this afternoon by rushing into Hatchard’s and insisting on a copy.  They pretend it wasn’t out.  I said I had seen it mentioned among “Books Received” in my morning paper.  They said in a superior sort of way that the papers got their copies early.  I then began to scream and kick, and they at once produced it.

When I had got to page 42, I had to break off to write this letter.  No longer able to hold enthusiasm in check.  It is simply terrific, miles the best thing you have ever done – or anyone else, for that matter.  It’s so good that it makes one feel that it’s the only possible way of writing a book, to take an ordinary couple and just tell the reader about them.  It’s the sort of book one wishes would go on for ever.  That scene where Ian comes to dinner is pure genius.

The only possible criticism I would make is that it is not the sort of book which should be put into the hands of one who ought to be working on a short story.  Ethel [Wodehouse’s wife] got skinned to the bone at Ascot yesterday – myself present, incidentally, in a grey tophat and white spats – and I promised her I would work all day today at something that would put us square.  So far I have done nothing but read Greenery Street.

Yours ever,

P.G. Wodehouse (18 June 1925)

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Tales from Greenery StreetFor more than three years, I have been looking forward to Tales from Greenery Street by Denis Mackail.  Mackail’s Greenery Street, which I first read back in 2010 and which remains one of my favourite Persephone titles, is a delightful chronicle of Ian and Felicity Foster’s first year as a married couple and their adventures in housekeeping in Greenery Street.  In this sequel, Mackail returns to Greenery Street and turns his attention to the other residents, though Ian and Felicity do appear in the final story.

No one is nicer or more adorable than the youthful occupants of Greenery Street.  This idyllic London street is not so much a physical place as it is a stage of life, as the author explains in his introduction:

It is a phase through which the lucky ones pass – so real at the time that you can actually count the lampposts and paving-stones; actually live and laugh and weep there, and pay genuine rent to three-dimensional landlords for which they return tangible and objective receipts. 

Greenery Street represents those first difficult years of married life when young couples are struggling to live on too little money and with too little experience of running their own homes.  But they are enjoyable struggles and though each couple might experience the odd moment of frustration with their spouse, their relationships are never truly at risk.  Husbands might lose their jobs, wives might be driven to distraction by unmanageable staff, and all of them might feel slightly resentful of the children who, when they arrive, force their parents to leave their beloved Greenery Street in search of more generously-sized lodgings, but Greenery Street is an optimistic place and any shadows that may fall are quickly swept away.

Mackail, a contemporary and friend of some of my favourite comic writers (A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse, among others), has such a warm sense of humour.  While his sister, my beloved Angela Thirkell, could be rather caustic, Mackail clearly feels affection for his characters; he may laugh at them but he never does so in a disparaging way.  For example, one of the young wives sings “…with a freedom from self-consciousness and an entire refusal to be balked by ignorance of the words, which might have irritated us if we had lived next door to her, but can only charm and please us when we read about it in print.”  What a nice way to put that!

He is also excellent at balancing the relationship between spouses.  They all have their irrational moments, though the wives perhaps have a tendency to be right a little more often than their husbands.  When one husband loses his job, his wife attempts to console him with the reminder that the still have her allowance – scant comfort for him, as she quickly learns:

‘Do you think,’ demanded the head of the family, ‘that I can possibly – that I could ever dream of living on your allowance?  Do you think I could sit here and take money from your father and mother?’

Mrs. Hunter reminded herself that all men were imbecile children, and by this means just stopped herself asking the very reasonable question: ‘Why not?’  Nor did she point out that her husband had for several years owed many of his comforts to money derived from this precise source.  Nor – which was even cleverer of her – did she show by so much as the briefest pause that she had ever thought of either of these answers.

He shows real affection and understanding between husbands and wives and that is rare enough that you can’t help but be happy to have an entire book full of such relationships.

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Another Part of the WoodAlmost exactly a year ago, I bought a Kobo Touch e-reader.  I have been thankful for it many times since then but probably never so much as when I recently discovered that my library’s e-book collection included a copy of Another Part of the Wood by Denis Mackail.  I have been eager to read more by Mackail since discovering the charms of Greenery Street in 2010 and especially since becoming a wee bit obsessed with the many books written by his elder sister, Angela Thirkell.  Though Mackail was a busy writer (you can find his full bibliography here) his books have fallen sadly out of print.  Greenery Street is readily available from Persephone and, thanks to Bloomsbury Reader, Another Part of the Wood can also easily be got, albeit only as an ebook right now.  And it is well worth getting.

When eighteen-year old Ursula Brett, known to most as Noodles, leaves her respectable but unexceptional school (the kind that is very proud that it has never trained a girl for higher education), she is excited to have (in her mind at least) passed from schoolgirl to proper grown-up woman.  But neither St Ethelburga’s nor Noodles’ disinterested guardian have done anything to prepare the pretty, friendly young woman for a world full of men.  Almost immediately after leaving school, she runs into trouble:

For though no one seems to be quicker than Noodles at identifying rather awful men when they cross her path, experience suggests that no one is less capable of dealing with them once they have done so.

First, she finds that she has attracted the unthreatening but determined attentions of a ne’er do well neighbour.  She is properly horrified by his interest but not so horrified as her guardian, who packs poor Noodles up and humiliatingly sends her back to St Ethelburga’s.  (Coincidentally, being sent back to school after having graduated has been one of my more intriguing recurring dreams since I left my own school, though I think my dream self views the whole exercise as less traumatic than poor Noodles does.)  After a few disastrous weeks back at school, where it is discovered that she has forgotten most of what they taught her before she left, Noodles finds herself running away to join a seedy variety show in a seaside town.  As you do.  Noodles remains remarkably plucky (an adjective I don’t get to use as often as I’d like) throughout her adventures , even as her innocent approach to the world undergoes a necessary change: Noodles quickly learns that her polite ideas about being nice to everyone who is nice to her isn’t always the best or safest approach.

Meanwhile, as Noodles is bouncing around from school to home to school to seaside, her brother Beaky and his flatmate Snubs are toiling away at unimportant jobs in London.  Beaky is struggling with his passion for the lovely Sylvia Shirley while Snubs, the more level-headed of the pair, takes an usual amount of interest in the updates Noodles sends her brother.  When she disappears from St. Ethelburga’s, the two young men set off in search of her, with their adventures (and misadventures in poor Beaky’s case) proving just as amusing as Noodles’.  The story bounces between them, Noodles, and, on occasion, Sylvia, tracking the parallel activities of all the characters until they all come together for a very happy ending.

This is a fun and funny book and for me half the joy was seeing how Mackail’s work fits in with that of his friends A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse, two of my favourite authors.  The characters’ nicknames are certainly Wodehousian: how well I could imagine Drones members or visitors to Blandings called Noodles, Snubs, or Beaky.  And there are definite flashes of A.A.M.-esque frivolity:

‘Oh, look at them all!’ says Sylvia – meaning the human beings.  ‘Aren’t they marvellous!’

They are.

‘Oh, look at that fat one!’

The fat one is really a splendid example.

‘And that one with the bare legs!’

The one with the bare legs might not appeal to all tastes, but is distinctly worth looking at.

Published in 1929, Another Part of the Wood is a comic novel very much of its time.  In other words, it is perfect for me.  I dearly hope more of Denis Mackail’s books are reissued soon.

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credit: Joan Griswold

I’m never particularly eager to make favourites lists.  I love them but it’s such a brutal process: all those wonderful books that get cut!  I read roughly 200 books in 2010 and loved so many of them.  Usually I measure my favourite books by not just the initial reading experience but my desire to reread the book.  Since most of my books come from the library, the true test of a book is whether after reading it I want to search out a copy to own.  Except my opinion changes day to day, hour to hour, making lists rather difficult to compile with any confidence.  But lists, however stressful I may find them, are still fun and it was interesting to review my year with all its ups and downs and pick the ten titles that stood out for me.  Here they are, in order:

10. The Shuttle (1906) – Frances Hodgson Burnett
My most eagerly-anticipated Persephone title, I adored this tale of the effervescent Betty and her spirited quest.  The melodramatic ending, a trademark of FHB, did grate, which is why the book didn’t place higher on this list.

9. Can Any Mother Help Me? (2007) – Jenna Bailey
A wonderful collection of letters written between the women of the Cooperate Correspondence Club, mostly from the 1930s to 1960s, begun as a way of keeping active and engaged with intelligent society despite days surrounded by toddlers and dirty dishes.

8. A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True (2009) – Brigid Pasulka
Part multi-generational family saga, part fairy tale, this novel set in Poland during the 1930s and 1940s as well as the early 1990s was the best kind of surprise.

7. Why We Act Like Canadians (1982) – Pierre Berton
Combining two of my great loves – books about the Canadian identity and Pierre Berton – was always going to end well but Why We Act Like Canadians truly did the best job of any book out there at explaining Canadians both for foreign and domestic audiences.  With his usual romantic flair, Berton made this book not just fascinating but beautiful to read.

6. The Rehearsal (2008) – Eleanor Catton
The story of a community reacting to an illict relationship between a teacher and student at an all-girls school provided a very unique reading experience that forced me out of my comfort zone.  I was more than rewarded for my diligence with fascinatingly complex relationships and skillfully-executed themes.  This doesn’t seem to be a book for everyone but I loved it.

5. Mariana (1940) – Monica Dickens
Surprisingly hilarious, my first Persephone novel was nothing less than an absolute success.

4. Greenery Street (1925) – Denis Mackail
Immediately after finishing this charming book about a newly married couple I said that I wanted to live in it.  Now, not even two months after reading it, I already miss Ian and Felicity and their dear little home on Greenery Street.

3. Lunch in Paris (2010) – Elizabeth Bard
I adore this book, the story of Bard’s life in Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman.  The recipes are fantastic but Bard’s engaging voice and energetic but not overly romantic attitude towards her new French life made for a delightful read.  Easily the book I recommended the most over the course of the year.

2. Women of the Raj (1988) – Margaret MacMillan
This book may have left me with a phobia of cobras falling from the ceiling but it also provided an excellent education on the British Raj and the lives of European women in India.  It’s one of those books that I want to carry around with me always, just so I can press a copy onto random strangers.

1. Mrs Tim Flies Home (1952) – D.E. Stevenson
I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.

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If I could choose a novel to live in, Greenery Street by Denis Mackail would be as perfect a choice as any.  Do other readers do this?  Flip through novel after novel, auditioning characters, settings, and plotlines in search of that combination which suits them best, a sort of literary Goldilocks?  But how could you not want to live in a world with such sweet young residents as Ian and Felicity Foster of Number Twenty-three, Greenery Street?

Like most well-loved comfort reads (which this certainly is), Greenery Street isn’t about anything in particular.  It is a simple and delightful chronicle of the first year of a marriage, full of humour and affection.  How often do we see happy marriages in fiction?  Happy courtships most certainly, but so many novels dealing with married life seem to revolve around infidelities, abuse, or depression.  Cheerful stuff.  So to see a novel that celebrates the married state, revealing in its benefits to both partners, is most encouraging. 

I found Ian, the husband, to be a particularly touching character for his close resemblance to so many young males of my acquaintance.  His appalled reaction to Felicity’s revelation that she does in fact want to have children, despite her having insisted otherwise during their courtship, was identical to that of some of my newly married friends (and, I am assured, of my doting father who, when he married my mother at the age of twenty-two, was certain he did not want children).  And even if Ian hadn’t endeared himself to me after his marriage (which he did, time and again), I think I would have remained fond of him for his enthusiasm and awkwardness on first dining with Felicity’s parents.   

I must admit that I initially harboured some contempt towards Felicity for her inability to balance her chequebook but she really is a loveable creature and, like Ian, I couldn’t find it in me to stay mad at her for long.  Instead, I choose to blame her mother for this omission in Felicity’s education – a much more satisfactory conclusion.  Felicity’s cataloging of Ian-related knowledge over the first months of the marriage felt so very true to the behaviour of a new wife coming to terms with her husband and cohabitant, a very different and more complex creature than the young man who courted her.  Felicity is also the source of some rather comical maxims, stemming from her deep maturity and knowledge as a married woman and remarked on with amusement by the narrator:

‘…if I had a daughter and she got married, I should say: “now, then, my dear; I’ll tell you anything that you really want to know, but otherwise I’m not going to ask you any questions or give you any advice at all.”’

Would you really, Felicity?  What an extremely remarkable mother you would be. (p.92)

I am intensely jealous of her though.  I would dearly love to believe that after I marry my days will consist of lunching with my mother, giving directions to the servants, and visiting the library but, tragically, modern realities intrude.  Married or not, my life is most likely to resemble Ian’s daily grind in the City.  In fact, Mackail’s description of Ian’s work life sounds remarkably familiar:

In the course of three years he had learnt enough to be able to do nearly all the work of the man immediately above him, and to make the man immediately below him do almost all the work that he was supposed to do himself.  This system is known as ‘efficient co-ordination’, and carried to its logical conclusion implies that the head of the firm does no work at all, and that the junior office boy is ultimately responsible for everything.  Roughly speaking, this sums up the position in any smooth-running organization. (p.19)

From beginning to end, I was charmed by the Fosters and their dear house on Greenery Street.  All the delights of finding and setting up their first home together (and the less delightful task of paying off the related bills), of learning one another’s quirks and habits, and of dealing or, as the case may be, not dealing with disciplining the servants could not have been read with more amusement or interest.  Knowing, as the narrator forewarns us, that any couple’s time in Greenery Street is limited – those charming homes so well-suited for couples proving not quite equal to the housing of hopeful families – made the novel more precious, for even as I anticipated the announcement of a young Foster I couldn’t help but lament what his or her arrival would mean for Ian and Felicity and their beloved first home.    

The Persephone foreword assures me that there are not one but two sequels to Greenery Street: Tales from Greenery Street and Ian and Felicity.  Has anyone managed to track copies of these down?  I’ve fallen rather in love with Denis Mackail based both on this book and on Rebecca Cohen’s description of him as a shy but loyal man, bullied by his elder sister (Angela Thirkell), devoted to his wife, and considered by P.G. Wodehouse to be a ‘genius’, and feel I must read more of his works.

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