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Archive for the ‘Helen Ashton’ Category

Washing on the Line by Percy Harland Fisher

It’s a drizzly spring day here, making it perfect for getting all the indoors tasks that I’ve been avoiding while the weather has been fine off my checklist.  I’ve baked, done laundry, tidied up, and now with the house ready to tick along for another week I’ve turned to online things.  I managed to update my travel blog (with a piece about a Czech spa town I visited last autumn, if you’re interested) and, finally, I sat down and caught up with my reviews for A Century of Books.

Part of what I love about A Century of Books is the variety of things you get to read for it.  The actual writing of 100 reviews I love less, which is how we end up with short little notes instead.  Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Literary Lapses by Stephen Leacock (1910) – Leacock is so dependably funny and never more so than in this polished collection of sketches.  They were all so good it was impossible to pick a favourite, though I might lean towards the first two stories: “My Financial Career”, about feeling uncomfortable in banks, and “Lord Oxhead’s Secret”, a melodramatic spoof about a bankrupt earl.  Simon liked it so much it made his list of “50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.”

Mackerel Sky by Helen Ashton (1930) – Definitely one to skip.  This badly done portrait of a very bad marriage between two equally self-absorbed young people was a chore to get through and worth reading only for the insights it gives into women’s working lives (hours, pay, etc) during the 1920s.  Wife Elizabeth spends her days working hard in a dress shop so her husband Gilbert can focus on his writing and so she can feel martyr-like.  As her doctor points out:

“You’ve been bullying that young husband of yours till he can’t call his soul his own, and rubbing it into him all the time how much more efficient you are than he is.  You’ve been trying to do his job as well as your own, and encouraging him to be lazy, and spoiling your own health and nerves and temper in the process.”

The impact of this behaviour on their relationship is predictably awful.  And Gilbert is no better, going off and having an affair right under her nose and expecting to receive no criticism whatsoever about it.  The most hopeful moments are when it seems like their marriage will break up.  Which it doesn’t, frustratingly.

Four Gardens by Margery Sharp (1935) – After a wonderful encounter with Sharp earlier this year (when I read The Flowering Thorn), I was keen to read more by her and Barb, my favourite Sharp expert, recommended this (one of her own favourites).  And it was absolutely lovely, telling the story of Caroline Smith from young adulthood to widowhood traced through the gardens she has made.  It is much quieter and gentler than I’ve come to expect from Sharp but no less excellent for that.  If only it were in print and readily available!

Pistols for Two by Georgette Heyer (1960) – a mildly enjoyable but extraordinarily repetitive collection of short stories from Heyer, featuring far too many people wanting to run off to Gretna Green (it’s mentioned 25 times in less than 200 pages).  It is also sadly short on Heyer’s trademark humour – and Heyer without humour is frankly pointless.  The title story, about two life-long best friends preparing to duel each other over a pointless jealousy, was my favourite in the collection while the rest have quickly faded from memory.  There was a surplus of nineteen-year old heroines with big eyes and bouncing curls so the few exceptions – a debutante’s mother oblivious to her own suitor and a thirty-something spinster chasing after a runaway niece (bound for Gretna, naturally) in the company of her one-time fiancé – stand out.  I’ll keep my copy as part of my larger Heyer collection but it’s clear the short story was not her form.  (FYI, this collection was reissued recently as Snowdrift with three additional stories added to the original collection.)

Something Wholesale by Eric Newby (1962) – after returning from a German POW camp at the end of WWII, Eric Newby was at loose ends when his parents decided he should join the family wholesale clothing business:

“It’s only a temporary measure,” they said, “until you find your feet.”  They had a touching and totally unfounded belief that I was destined for better things.  It was a temporary measure that was to last ten years.

Newby would eventually go on to become a great travel writer – perhaps not quite the “better things” his parents had planned – but learned much during his decade dealing with buyers, models, and others up, down and around the British Isles.  With a great sense of humour and obvious affection he recounts those days in this wonderful and highly enjoyable memoir.

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser (1969) – Such joy!  Such fun!  Such political incorrectness!  I knew from the very first lines that I was going to enjoy this:

Hughes got it wrong, in one important detail.  You will have read, in Tom Brown, how I was expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness, which is true enough, but when Hughes alleges that this was the result of my deliberately pouring beer on top of gin-punch, he is in error.  I knew better than to mix my drinks, even at seventeen.

Taking the villain of Tom Brown’s School Days for his (anti-)hero, Fraser sets about to show “how the Flashman of Tom Brown became the glorious Flashman with four inches in Who’s Who and grew markedly worse in the process…” and does it with great style and an even greater sense of humour.  We follow Flashman from school to the army, which tosses him from Scotland to India to the dangerous Afghan frontier.  His unapologetic selfishness and cowardice bother him not at all and, more often than not, are taken for the reverse by his obtuse comrades.  With quick wits and flexible morals, he not only survives his early adventures in Afghanistan but comes away a hero.  And so the legend and fame of Flashman begins.  His further adventures are chronicled in great detail in 11 further books and I can’t wait to read them.

Judgement Day by Penelope Lively (1980) – A difficult book to review.  On the one hand, this story of people in a small village is beautifully written and full of the clear-sighted observations I love about Lively’s work.  On the other hand, I felt remote from everyone and everything in it.  But I’m not convinced that was a bad thing.  Indeed, it echoed the way the main character views everything, including herself:

She observes herself with a certain cynicism: a woman of thirty-five, handsome in her way, charged with undirected energy, a fatalist and insufficiently charitable.  In another age, she thinks, there would have been a vocation for a woman like me; I could have been a saint, or a prostitute.

Even months after finishing it, I’m still working out my reaction to this one.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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“Daffodils” by Arthur Baker-Clark

The sun is out here this afternoon and everyone is wandering around, staring with confusion at blue skies, shadows, and other consequences of sunlight that have become foreign to us over the last few months of near-constant rain.  Most importantly, it feels, if only for a few hours, like spring is really coming and that the snow drops aren’t just here to lure us into a false sense of optimism.  Here’s hoping.

I’ve spent an entertaining weekend acting as moral support for my mother, who, at age 63, has decided she wants to sew again after abstaining for more than thirty years.  My grandmother was extraordinarily talented and my mother once upon a time was very good herself – they may have been poor when they immigrated to Canada but they were extraordinarily well-dressed.  My mother’s powder blue jumpsuit circa 1970 is still remembered fondly by every boy/man who ever saw her in it.  However, a busy corporate career, two time-consuming children, and a healthy disposable income had my mom cheerfully turning away from her sewing machine for the last several decades.  Now semi-retired and looking for hobbies, she’s decided this is the way to go.  I remember absolutely nothing about sewing so am in no way useful but I am a cheerful and positive presence (I am told) and am enjoying the entire process immensely.

What I am expert at is reading.  I’ve been reading steadily and am entertaining myself right now by flipping back and forth between The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh and The Blue Zones of Happiness by Dan Buettner.  The Blue Zones book looks at happiness research from around the world and identifies habits, attitudes, and structures from these places that people around the world can imitate to improve their own happiness.  Evelyn Waugh could have used some of these.  In his thirties he appears to have been merely rude and intent on making several enemies per year.  As he aged, he became exceeding ornery and determined to make enemies of everyone he met.  His much more charming correspondent, however, remains sunny and optimistic even when going through her own personal struggles.  And Mitford got to live in dynamic Paris rather than dreary England so that surely helped (echoing an important lesson of Buettner’s book: it’s hard to be happy in depressing surroundings, especially when all the people you see are also miserable).

These are probably the two most interesting books I’ve read all month.  Here’s a taste of a few other things I’ve been reading that weren’t quite worthy of getting their own dedicated posts:

Yeoman’s Hospital by Helen Ashton (1944) – this story of a day in the life of a country hospital was a bit too slow moving and detailed for me.  I like the idea and the doctor characters were nicely done but the story dragged terribly every time the focus shifted to the nursing staff.  While there is no obvious war-related storyline, it’s interesting to see how social changes wrought by the war are integrated into the story.  For example, when the senior doctors are considering filling positions they remark on how the most capable young doctors available are generally women since the best men are enlisted.  This is certainly reflected in their hospital staff: one of the central characters is a very accomplished female doctor whose skills are never in doubt.  She does have a needlessly overwrought romantic life, though, which makes for one of the tiring plotlines in an already tired novel.  Definitely not Ashton’s best and easily skippable.

The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill (1982) – I found a book where Hill isn’t immensely annoying in every second paragraph!  This chronicle of a year of country life is beautifully observed and elegantly written.  It isn’t quite up to the standard of books like A Country Life by Roy Strong or Adrian Bell’s trilogy (starting with Corduroy) but it was a very pleasant read.  She is particularly good in writing about winter and autumn (her favourite season) and conjuring up cosy indoor scenes and spartan outdoor ones.

Miss Billy by Eleanor H. Porter (1911) – this sounded charming: the story of an eighteen-year old girl who, when her last surviving relative dies, seeks out her father’s closest friend (William) after whom she (Billy) was named.  William generously invites her to come make her home with him and his two younger brothers only realising her gender when he goes to meet her at the train station.  Cute, yes?  In execution, it’s awfully bad.  Billy is annoying from her first appearance, not a single character is fleshed out enough to ever become interesting, and the plot is both flimsy and absurd.  Billy is paired up with each of the brothers at one point or another and it’s all very unconvincing.  The main point in the book’s favour is how short it is and I finished it with relief.  What is truly horrifying is that there are two sequels!

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Åkeson McGurk (2017) – McGurk, Swedish by birth, was living and raising her children in Indiana with her American husband when her father became ill.  Wanting to be closer to him while he went through treatment, she moved to Sweden for six months with her two daughters while her husband remained in America.  Having been frustrated by how difficult it was to get her girls in America to enjoy the outdoorsy lifestyle she grew up with (concerned neighbours often stopped their cars to offer her a life when they saw her – well dressed for the elements – out walking in rain, snow or cold weather) she is excited to see how they will react to life in Sweden, where active lifestyles are the norm and schools prioritize outdoor playtime.

The verdict?  The secret to Swedish parenting is to make your children go outside in all weather and to teach them from childhood to enjoy nature as part of their daily life.  I grew up and live in a very outdoorsy place so there was lots familiar from the Swedish approach but the institutional issues McGurk saw in the US education system (particularly reduced time for outdoor play during recess and lunchtimes) are definitely things we’re seeing – with concern – here in Canada as well.  Overall, very entertaining and sensible.

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Bricks and MortarAfter reading Simon’s celebration of Persephone Books over at Vulpes Libris a couple of weeks ago, I realised a) how long it had been since I read one of those lovely dove-grey books and b) how much longer it had been since I actually reviewed one.  Determined to remedy both these lapses, I picked up Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton.

On the Persephone website, there is a sidebar with all the different categories that their books can be classed under.  Looking for a book about Career Women?  About Country Life?  About London, or Mothers, or Suffragettes?  They have you covered.  But out of the more than one hundred books they have published, only nine of the titles fall under the category of Books about Men.  Bricks and Mortar is one of these and follows the career and family life of a London architect over the course of forty years.

We meet aspiring architect Martin Lovell in Rome in 1892.  Young and awkward, he is no match for Lady Stapleford, an impoverished widow on the lookout for a respectable husband for her beautiful daughter, Letty.  It is a tiresome courtship for young Letty, being dragged around Rome to marvel at ruins when she would much rather escape the heat or enjoy a picnic, but soon enough matters are brought to a satisfactory conclusion: Martin, amazed at his good luck, finds himself married to the most beautiful girl in the world and Lady Stapleford finds herself rid of the expense of bringing her daughter out in society.  Letty, perhaps, is not so happy as the others but she is at least free of the mother who bullied and abused her.

The young Lovells head back to England and begin building their life together: Martin throws himself into his work, which he loves, and the small family grows to include first a daughter, Stacy, and then a son, Aubrey.  It does not take long for Martin to realise that his wife is not the kind of partner he would have hoped for – she shares none of his interests, is petty and fickle, and spoils her son while berating her daughter – but he makes the best of his life, delighting in his work and, eventually, in the company of his daughter.

Though Martin is doubtlessly our hero, he is a solid, steady man and the drama of the book comes from Stacy’s struggles to claim some independence and then happiness for herself.  A lively, intelligent girl, Stacy spends her childhood and young adulthood at war with her mother; much as her father may love her, he is too timid to be any sort of buffer between them.  She has dreams and passions that it takes her father years to recognize and at times it seems that her life may be destined to be an unhappy one.

I loved seeing Stacy through Martin’s eyes.  She is as close as he comes to having a soul mate, someone who understands him, loves him, and shares his interests, and yet, despite his affection for her and their closeness, he is still that rather simple man who Lady Stapleford seized on in Rome all those years ago, oblivious to people’s private struggles and motivations.  There is no one in the world he loves so well as Stacy and yet her actions come as a shock to him, though not perhaps to the reader.

The most steadfast relationship in Martin’s life is with his work and this passion is the source of most of the book’s best passages.  From his twenties until his sixties, his interest in architecture never fades.  He is always able to take pleasure in a well-designed structure, in taking over and fixing up homes of his own, and in travelling and seeing foreign styles of buildings.  He knows he will never be famous, never design anything that will be remembered, but that does not lessen his enthusiasm.  He has left his mark on the world and, what’s more, enjoyed every minute of it.

I found Bricks and Mortar both slyly funny and rather touching.  The male perspective is a refreshing change from Persephone’s usual female-centred offerings and an enjoyable addition to their catalogue of middlebrow domestic fiction.  After years of having it sit neglected on my shelf, I’m so glad that I finally read it.

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