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Archive for the ‘Challenges’ Category

Though the independent woman wasn’t yet a norm in 1936, there were certainly more of them than ever before and so the success that year of Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis should be no surprise.  Written for “extra women” everywhere – but primarily appropriate for New Yorkers, or widows and stenographers across America longing to think of themselves as cosmopolitan New Yorkers – Hillis confidently guides her flock towards achieving enjoyable, fulfilling lives.  It is easy to be swept away by her energy and conviction and there are worse people to be led by – the better part of a century later her advice is still largely applicable and deeply sensible.

Hillis knew her audience: some were young women excitedly starting careers and still anticipating romantic resolutions but many were older, tired, sometimes widowed or divorced, and unsettled in a society that took it for granted that a woman needed a man to have a “full” life.  Hillis is frank about this.  Yes, you will be an inconvenience to your married friends without a man.  Yes, you may not be wanted at dinner parties or bridge games without a partner.  You are inconvenient but, in this, you are not special:

It is a good idea, first of all, to get over the notion (if you have it) that your particular situation is a little bit worse than anyone else’s.  This point of view has been experienced by every individual the world over at one time or another, except perhaps those who will experience it next year.

This is what I love most about Hillis: she is funny and practical but most of all she is frank. 

Hillis tries to make her readers see the opportunities they have.  They can live graciously without having to be at another’s beck and call!  They can have true independence, to do what they like when they like it!  They can devote themselves to their passions – and Hillis is a great believer in having these – without inconveniencing anyone else!  They can nurture interesting groups of friends, be part of the social whirlwind, and retire to perfect peace when they want it at home.  There are joys to living alone, you just need to be intelligent enough to see them and it is this core message that remains absolutely true today: whatever your circumstances, it is up to you to turn them into something you like:

You can live alone gaily, graciously, ostentatiously, dully, stolidly.  Or you can just exist in sullen loneliness, feeling sorry for yourself and arousing no feeling whatever in anybody else.

Across twelve short chapters, Hillis guides her readers through all they need to know about living alone in style and, most entertainingly, illustrates each chapter with case studies of women who have either excelled or failed miserably.  She addresses how to create a beautiful home on a budget, how to stock a liquor cabinet, how to make friends (this chapter remains particularly valuable), how to spend your leisure time (another timeless section), how to make your home a place you want to spend time in, and, very frankly, how to handle the question of men.  Hillis does not assume all her readers will live as nuns and she provides practical, sisterly advice for their consideration:

Certainly, affairs should not even be thought of before you are thirty.  Once you have reached this age, if you will not hurt any third person and can take all that you will have to take – take it silently, with dignity, with a little humour, and without any weeping or wailing or gnashing of teeth – perhaps the experience will be worth it to you.

The sad truth is that whatever you decide, you’ll think you regret it.  You’ll hate the shabby end of romance, and you’ll detest missing it altogether.

If she is determinedly realistic in her musings on sex, she saves her romanticising for the vision of how women should conduct themselves while alone:

…a glass of sherry and an extra special dinner charmingly served on a night when you’re tired and all alone; bath salts in your tub and toilet-water afterward; a new and spicy book when you’re spending an evening in bed; a trim little cotton frock that flatters you on an odd morning when you decide to be violently domestic.  The notion that it ‘doesn’t matter because nobody sees you,’ with the dull meals and dispirited clothes that follow in its wake, has done more damage than all the floods of springtime.

Anyone who can sustain this has my congratulations.  I violated many, many, many of Hillis’ dictates when I lived alone and I am sure my morale would have been much higher if I’d followed them – but then my circumstances felt far removed from the case studies she references.  I was neither living in a charmingly decorated studio apartment nor, in my more generous surroundings, did I have a helpful maid or daily cleaner to come in, whisk away the mess, and serve me tea in bed.  Clearly there were oversights and I shall do better next time. 

Despite her belief in pampering yourself, Hillis is extremely practical on the question of money – she has endless suggestions for cheap entertainments in NYC, ideas for ways to meet people, and never, ever believes that money is the solution.  Money cannot buy you taste or happiness and it is far more fun, she assures us, to live well on what you have than to try to project a level of wealth your paycheque can’t support.  Wit, ingenuity and energy are the answer to living well, not a chequebook.  Hillis had so much good advice to share on this topic that her next book – Bubbly on Your Budget – was devoted to it and should not be missed.

While the case studies can tend to hilarious extremes, the core advice of Live Alone and Like It is grounded, practical and essentially timeless.  And written in Hillis’ breezy, forceful style it is irresistible.

Many thanks to Simon and Karen for organizing the 1936 Club this week and providing the perfect excuse for me to finally read this after so many years of planning to!

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When I find myself in times of trouble, my remedy is slightly different than The Beatles’.  I inevitably reach for a book and, more often than not when things are too dark or stressful or scary, that book is the delightful Little G by E.M. Channon.  In the not-quite seven years I have owned a copy, I have read it at least five times and – no surprise – it was one of the first books I read during the lockdown of spring 2020.  It is no less comforting this spring, with the dual motivation of reading it for the 1936 Club and to provide comfort amidst the dire Covid third wave we are experiencing here.

John Furnival is a pre-maturely stuffy, antisocial Cambridge mathematician who is ordered by his doctor on a long country stay to recover his health, which, his doctor chides him, has suffered due to:

Too much to eat: too much port and too much tea: too much work for your head, and not enough for your body.

Because the world of 1930s academia is forgiving of the need to do work – especially by dons with private incomes – Furnival is soon installed in a cottage in the village of Challingley.  The village, from the doctor’s perspective, is ideal.  It’s hilly enough to force Furnival to discomfort on his walks, quiet but full of sociable neighbours, and the cottage offers a large garden to rest or putter in.  Furnival is less convinced, disgusted by his new neighbours’ obsessions with their gardens, tennis parties, and, most horrifyingly of all, the pretty young widow at the center of the village’s social life.  But he is firmly drawn into the social whirl and realises – slowly and to his horror – what an unattractive foil he serves against this healthy, vigorous set.  Surely he – once a champion rower and tennis player – isn’t the sweaty old man set next to the village’s quick vicar or dashing doctor?  And at only thirty-seven!

While adult society may terrify or bore him in equal measure, Furnival finds himself much more at home with the cottage’s cat – the only creature he was immediately delighted to encounter in his new surroundings – and his next-door neighbours, three children living with their terrifying Aunt Agatha.  Rather to his surprise, the children are pleasant companions and it isn’t long before the three are slipping from their yard to his, eager for his stories and spoiling.  Furnival, for the first time in years, is giving thought and attention to something other than his equations (though his versions of children’s stories are very physics-focused).  But there is yet another resident next door, the children’s aunt Grace, who is that most terrifying of things – a young woman.  Thankfully she is not so terrifying as most of her species, being rather small and quiet, but also very capable and quick-witted and rather pretty…

Over the course of his time in the village, Furnival is forced out of his almost monastic mindset and learns once again how to be human.  He relearns how to care for others and to take care of himself and questions his long-held and unquestioned visions of a solitary, scholarly future.

This sounds very sweet, which it is, but Channon is a clever, funny writer and it’s that spark of humour that makes this book so memorable.  She is more than happy to skewer Furnival, but always affectionately, and the neighbours who most concern him (the female ones) aren’t nearly as one dimensional as his initial imaginings of them.  That’s not to stay this is a novel of great characterization and depth – it decidedly is not – but it’s far better than the sentimental drivel it could have been in another writer’s hands and I love it desperately.  The only sad thing about it is how difficult it is now to find copies.  It was reissued by Greyladies Books in 2012 but it’s almost impossible to find second-hand copies.  I’m not surprised – I certainly wouldn’t give mine up!    

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The 1936 Club, hosted by Simon and Karen, is taking place next week and I’m so looking forward to it. I love these reading weeks devoted to a specific year and 1936 offers particularly rich pickings. Here are some ideas if you want to participate but haven’t picked your book(s) yet:

From the archives:

Miss Elizabeth Bennet by A.A. Milne
August Folly by Angela Thirkell
Call It A Day by Dodie Smith
The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer

I’m hoping to read (or, mostly, re-read) at least a few of the following:

Little G by E.M. Channon – a long-time favourite that I find myself rereading almost annually yet have never written about on the blog

Murder in Mesopotamia or Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie – 1936 was a bumper year for Christie with 3 books published but these are the two I was able to find copies of

Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis – the classic lifestyle guide for women

War with the Newts by Karel Čapek – a bit of classic sci-fi from a favourite Czech author

The New House by Lettice Cooper – a chance to read something off of my Persephone shelf!

Miss Buncle Married by D.E. Stevenson – Stevenson, like Heyer and Christie, is always a reliable choice for the club and while this isn’t among my favourites of her books it’s a good, comforting one to have to hand (and also comes off the Persephone shelf)

It Pays to Be Good by Noel Streatfeild – 1936 was the year Ballet Shoes, Streatfeild’s most famous book, came out but she also published this adult title (available from Greyladies)

What will you be reading for the 1936 Club?

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After travelling to Germany in 1937, Walter Fish, a retired editor of the Daily Mail newspaper, returned to England convinced that war was coming.  His response was to find a home in the countryside for himself and his wife.  They’d planned to find something turn-key with a ready-made garden.  Instead they ended up buying “a poor battered old house that had to be gutted to be liveable, and wilderness instead of a garden”.  Almost twenty years later, in 1956, Walter’s wife looked back and chronicled what they did with their two acre plot in the classic gardening book We Made a Garden by Margery Fish.

Margery was in her mid-forties when they bought the house and Walter almost twenty years older.  They had married in 1933 after working together at the Daily Mail and while Walter had had gardens of his own in his previous homes, this was the first one Margery had ever been involved with.  In fact, surrounded by gardening-minded relatives, she’d been quite scornful of their pastime in earlier years:

I have always felt my family have been very forbearing towards me.  Before I was married I didn’t do anything in the garden.  Every weekend, when my sisters were navvying to make a garden round the little house we built, I sailed off on my bicycle to play golf.  And I never stopped saying the most scathing things about gardeners, what fools they were always to be working and never enjoying their gardens, and what was the good of having a lovely garden if you never had time to sit in it and enjoy it? […] I often wonder why some zealous gardening relation did not slay me with fork and spade in my unenlightened years.

Now with a space of her own, Margery threw herself wholeheartedly into the making of a cottage garden, making up in enthusiasm and energy what she lacked in knowledge.  With Walter also interested in the garden, she realised quickly that to make her mark on the space she would need to move quickly – before he could impose his own vision on the garden:

We all know the saying about fools.  When I think of it now I wonder how I had the hardihood to attempt such an ambitious scheme.  I had never done any gardening before we went to Somerset and had certainly never even thought about garden design.  It might have been the most abysmal failure, but I didn’t think about that.  My only thought was to get the project under way before Walter took an interest in what I was doing and complicated matters with too much criticism and advice.

Margery leads the reader through the garden, recalling how they handled different areas and challenges.  I particularly loved hearing about the areas where they failed or struggled – it’s always heartening to know this doesn’t just happen to you.  Margery was led by enthusiasm in the early years and sometimes, as with the stone garden, that led her to plantings that she’d regret:

I was instructed to plant what I could between the stones, to relieve the hard angular lines.  At that time it was literally a case of making bricks with straw as I had practically nothing to use.  Looking round the garden I came upon some stonecrop and pounced on it as an answer to prayers.  There wasn’t very much and I broke it into small pieces and poked them between the stones.  I had no idea that when it settles down in a place it not only starts raising a family but goes in for founding a dynasty as well. […] Sometimes in the summer my heart softens when I see its really pretty flat pink rosettes, but most of the time it is war. […] If, by an oversight, it is allowed to stay on a piece of a flower bed for more than a minute, in two minutes that flower bed will be a solid mat of stonecrop of a particularly luxuriant quality.  Every year I pull out barrowloads of it and I know I shall continue to do so until I die.

There were lucky successes, plenty of failures, and lots of marital conflict as Walter’s strong opinions (on watering, on certain plants, on caring for the drive, and on and on and on) had to be taken into account.  Walter died in 1947 and while Margery remembers him fondly throughout the book and his influence helped make her the gardener she became, she also obviously enjoyed the freedom she had after his death to shape the garden according only to her own ideas.  They started the garden as a “we” but Walter was a fair-weather gardener and it clearly became Margery’s main interest as time went on, a topic of which she never tired:

I could go on and on.  But that is just what gardening is, going on and on.  My philistine of a husband often told with amusement how a cousin when asked when he expected to finish his garden replied ‘Never, I hope.’ And that, I think, applies to all true gardeners.

I found this slim volume delightful.  Margery is an excellent and entertaining writer, full of informative gardening details but also a cheerful sense of humour.  So much of her has been poured into the garden and into the book that it’s easy to understand why it has stood the test of time and remains a classic.  Her garden has also survived and can still be visited today.  If I’m ever in Somerset, I’ll be sure to stop by East Lambrook Manor Gardens and see it for myself.

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Whenever Simon and Karen host one of their reading weeks, there are a few authors who bibliographies I immediately check.  It’s hard to find a year that didn’t have a book published by Angela Thirkell, Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer and in fact for 1956, the focus of this week’s reading, all three had new books out.  Spoiled for choice (though Thirkell’s talents were waning by then), I happily picked up Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer, looking forward to rereading the humorous story written at the height of Heyer’s powers.

We meet our hero, Sir Gareth Ludlow, on a visit to his sister’s home.  Adored and idolized by his nieces and nephews, we understand immediately the character of “Uncle Gary” but his sister, being an elder sister, also clues us into the key challenges of Sir Gareth’s life: he is thirty-five years old, unmarried, and, with their younger brother now dead, must think of an heir.  Having never fallen in love since the death of his vivacious fiancée seven years before, despite the many young women that have been thrown his way, the family is starting to despair.  But Sir Gareth has his own plan as to whom he wants to marry and is in fact just off to propose to Lady Hester Theale, an old friend and confirmed spinster of twenty-nine living quietly under her family’s thumb.

He sets off from London but soon crosses paths with Amanda “Smith”, a very determined sixteen-year-old runaway.  Amanda, loathe to reveal her identity, is happy to share the details of her situation and of her plan: an orphan living with her grandfather, she is in love with a military officer and determined to marry him.  She has run away from home in order to force her grandfather’s hand but, having run out of money, is trying to convince the innkeeper to hire her when Sir Gareth stumbles across her.  He takes it as a matter of course that the young lady must be rescued from herself but Amanda views Sir Gareth’s involvement less kindly:

‘I believe,’ said Amanda, after another seething pause, ‘that kidnappers are sent to prison, or even transported!  You would not like that, I daresay!’

‘No, indeed.’

‘Well!  I am just warning you!’ she said.

‘Thank you!  I am very much obliged to you.’

‘And if you,’ declared Amanda, bethinking herself of the groom, and twisting round to address him, ‘had one grain of manliness you would not permit your master to carry me off.’

Trotton, a deeply interested audience, was unprepared for this attack, and nearly lost his balance.  Much discomposed, he could only stammer an unintelligible answer, and glance imploringly at Sir Gareth’s back-view.

‘Oh, you mustn’t blame Trotton!’ said Sir Gareth. ‘Consider how difficult is his position!  He is obliged to obey my orders, you see.’

‘He is not obliged to assist you in kidnapping people!’ she retorted.

‘I engaged him on the strict understanding,’ said Sir Gareth firmly, ‘that that would form an important part of his duties.’

‘I w-wish you would not be so absurd!’ said Amanda, struggling to suppress a giggle.

Being a Heyer hero, Sir Gareth has no sinister intentions.  He abducts Amanda from the inn but takes her to Lady Hester.  Having already obtained her father’s permission to propose, the entire household is scandalised that Sir Gareth would bring such a young, pretty girl – clearly a mistress – along with him.  But his faith in Lady Hester is well-placed and Amanda is soon confiding in her – and also lecturing her about Lady Hester’s meek ways with her overbearing family:

‘I wonder you should not tell people who scold you to go about their business.’

‘I am afraid I have not enough courage,’ said Hester ruefully.

‘Like my aunt,’ nodded Amanda.  ‘She has no courage, either, and she lets Grandpapa bully her, which puts me out of all patience, because one can always get one’s own way, if you one has resolution.’

‘Can one?’ said Hester doubtfully.

‘Yes, though sometimes, I own, one is forced to take desperate measures.  And it is of no use to tease oneself about propriety,’ she added, with a touch of defiance, ‘because it seems to me that if you never do anything that is not quite proper and decorous you will have the wretchedest life, without any adventures, or romance, or anything!’

‘It is very true, alas!’ Hester smiled at her again. ‘But not for you, I think.’

‘No, because I have a great deal of resolution.’

But while Lady Hester trusts that there is no relationship between Sir Gareth and Amanda when they arrive, she also is certain that one will develop.  Amanda’s brightness and energy remind her too much of her long-dead friend who Sir Gareth once loved and so she rebuffs Sir Gareth’s proposal, despite being clearly, painfully already in love with him.  Heyer’s genius is in making the reader like Amanda but never share Lady Hester’s fears.

Unsurprisingly, Amanda has soon run away againand the rest of the novel takes place on the road.  The greatest danger to Amanda’s innocence comes from Lady Hester’s uncle, a middle-aged roué whom Amanda convinces to aid in her escape.  But Amanda, innocent though she is, is far from stupid and gives him the slip, setting off to disturb the lives of yet more people with Sir Gareth in hot pursuit.  When Amanda’s most ambitious plan goes awry, Sir Gareth is shot and becomes gravely ill.

Heyer loved a sickbed scene and this is no exception.  It allows her to show Amanda’s best qualities – her quick thinking and decisiveness – and also to allow Lady Hester, when summoned to Sir Gareth’s side by Amanda, to finally rebel against her family.  It also allows Heyer to amuse herself and the reader as Amanda and Hildebrand, a young aspiring playwright who had the misfortune to cross Amanda’s path and be roped into her schemes, squabble their way through Sir Gareth’s recovery, concocting ever more confusing relationships to one another to lend some propriety to their current circumstances.

Heyer revisited this plot – eligible bachelor crossing paths with beautiful runaway – many times but this may be my favourite version of it.  Amanda is her best and most well-rounded runaway and the humour is perfectly sustained throughout.  It had been years since I last reread it but I’m so happy I picked it up for the 1956 Club.

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At this stage in my reading career, how many types of wartime memoirs have I read?  Serious and humorous, military and political, front lines and home front, Allies and Axis, I’ve made a pretty good survey of the Second World War but I’m not sure I’ve ever read one that managed life on the home front as lightheartedly as Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson.

Anderson was in her mid-twenties when the war began, single and working in the F.A.N.Y.s, though not very devotedly.  When we meet her on the first page she is just about to go AWOL and get married, with no plan of returning.  This, as we learn, doesn’t seem wildly out of character given the number of jobs she cycled through before the war.  She has spent time as a “nursery-maid, a governess, a chaffeuse, a scene-shifter, a ballet-dancer’s dresser, and then I tried to emigrate to Canada […] as a mobile Sunday school teacher”.  She also found time to illustrate wrappers for toffees while living in a studio flat with three bohemian friends.  It is an incongruous and intriguing life for the daughter of a country parson but a good indicator of the adventurous and indomitable spirit that makes her so interesting to read about.

Anderson hadn’t enjoyed her time in the F.A.N.Y.s but she had found some peace there.  When she takes the time to analyse her reasons it with her usual humour and self-knowledge:

Walking home to the rectory, I tried to analyse my reasons for wanting to go back.  My heart had never been in the F.A.N.Y.s until Dunkirk.  The community life did not suit me.  Discipline did not appeal.  I was not a good F.A.N.Y., either technically or socially.  Could it be patriotism?  Knowing myself, I felt there must be some more selfish motive behind it.  Then I remembered telling Lucy I should feel safer right in the war.

That was it.  Anything might happen now, not only to my brothers and friends in the navy, the army, the air force, but to my parents, to Rhalou [a sister] with her little family, and to Lorema [another sister] still at school.  In the F.A.N.Y.s I should be safe from the impact.  Somebody else does your thinking for you in the army, and even your feeling.  And if I were killed, well, in the F.A.N.Y.s life was that much less interesting to want to cling on to.

Even though the F.A.N.Y. portion of her life is over with quickly, I did love hearing about it.  Her sketch of her commanding officer delighted me and seems like something from a Joyce Grenfell sketch:

We were commanded by a bubbly-haired old actress who, as the niece of a senior army officer, took her position very seriously.  In her talk she mingled a certain amount of army jargon, picked up at her uncle’s breakfast table, with the normal chatter we understood of hats and actors and horses.  Sometimes, judging by her modes of addressing us, she saw us as Mayfair Debutantes and sometimes as Men Going Over The Top.

Once Anderson dashes away from the F.A.N.Y.s to marry Donald Anderson, who is much older than her and whom she has been in love with for several years to the disapproval of her family, the focus becomes exceedingly domestic.  But for once in a wartime memoir we do not have to hear ad nauseum about the prices of things or about ingenious cooking on the ration (I’ve taken about as much of that as I can handle).  What we do hear a lot about is housing and, thankfully, I find that endlessly entertaining.  The Andersons bounce around frequently through the short war years, setting up homes in London, in the suburbs, and in the country.  As housing shortages and stretched finances make shared living both practical and necessary, Anderson takes on a variety of housemates and eventually latches on the brilliant plan of letting rooms to holidaymakers.  This turns out to be not so brilliant for someone with no hospitality training but is very funny.

During the war years Anderson had her first two children (she would eventually have five in total) and of all the domestic details I’ve read in diaries and memoirs I’m fairly certain I’ve never come across so many pages devoted to life in a maternity hospital.  The birth of Anderson’s first child was rather dramatic so she spent plenty of time at the hospital and I was fascinated by the details of it.

With her ever-changing accommodations, Anderson spends a fair amount of time bouncing around to friends and family as well.  Any time her mother appeared I was delighted as she seems a redoubtable sort of woman, equal to anything put before her (whether it be reconciling herself to her daughter’s elopement or living under the German flightpath to London):

My mother was very sceptical about the German raiders getting across the Channel at all.

‘Once,’ she said, ‘one got across and dropped some tiny little bombs on Eastbourne and then landed and gave himself up.  He was hardly out of the sixth form.’

There was a fifteen-mile-from-the-coast ban on non-residents and my mother was determined to keep all the secrets behind it.

‘Then what’s that whacking great crater down in the field over there?’ I asked.

‘One of ours,’ she assured me.  ‘They dropped it by mistake on their way out.’

‘Just as uncomfortable all the same to be hit by it.’

‘Anyways that was ages ago.  They’re much more practised now.’

As she spoke there was an enormous explosion on the marshes.

‘Marsh gas, I suppose?’ I teased her.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable book, sure to make you smile and even giggle throughout – a rare enough thing for a wartime memoir.

But what delighted me most was discovering facts about the rest of Anderson’s life.  I was tickled to learn that her fourth child is Janie Hampton, author of How the Girl Guides Won the War, a book I read and loved years ago.  But most impressive of all for me was the discovery that Anderson’s father had been the clergyman at All Saints’ Herstmonceux in East Sussex.  The last book Anderson wrote was about Herstmonceux Castle, including her memories of playing on the grounds through the 1920s and 1930s.  The castle is now owned by Queen’s University, the Canadian school where I studied, and serves as its international study centre.  I spent a term studying there in 2007 and it was the happiest part of my university years.  It’s a small, small world.

The Castle

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When I was little, there was nothing I liked more than a pioneer story.  Tales of families crossing the plains in their wagons, braving the elements, and relying on their wits and one another to get through the storms, blights, and assorted perils they faced.  The main way to feed this love was with endless rereadings of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books but there was a steady supply of mediocre imitations around, many of them from my father’s own childhood bookshelves.  And that is where I found The Children Who Stayed Alone by Bonnie Bess Worline, originally published in 1956 (as Sod House Adventure) but reissued in the mid-60s when my father was just the right age for tales of young pioneers.  Coincidentally, my mother was in fact a young pioneer at this same time but it meant something very different by then (although she looked adorable in her communist kerchief).

The title leaves little room for doubt about the book’s main event: with their father away getting supplies and their mother tending to a neighbour struggling with a hard labour, Phoebe and Hartley Dawson are left alone to take care for their five younger siblings.  A fierce storm arrives just after their mother’s departure and so they are left alone for several days to care for the children, tend the animals, and, most dramatically, care for the Native American woman and her sick child who have stumbled out of the storm into their little sod house.

For a child, it’s the ideal fantasy.  There’s nothing really scary happening and Phoebe and Hartley grow in confidence as they prove how well they can manage.  They also – Phoebe especially, to whom the bulk of the work falls – gain an appreciation for how hard their parents work to keep everything running smoothly.  The way this is presented can be cringingly didactic but great style isn’t a necessity for a genre of books aimed at ten-year-olds.

The bulk of the book covers the events of those few days alone and it’s a puzzle as to why Worline continued the story beyond that.  This has the flavour of a family story written out for a larger audience so I suspect she wanted to do justice to the loved ones who lived the events.  She follows them out of the cold winter into the hopeful spring and summer, which sees the family moving into a new wooden house, new neighbours settling where there had only been lonely prairie a year before, and the children preparing to start at the newly formed school, a scary prospect for kids who’ve never attended one.  And there is a happy if improbable reunion with the Native American woman whom they sheltered in the winter, whose father-in-law is the chief of the local tribe and who gives a grand and highly appreciated reward to his family’s young protectors.

For a book written in 1956, I was prepared for some outdated attitudes but was surprised by how well Worline’s tale has aged.  Obviously, the Native Americans are referred to as Indians, but not in any derogatory sense, and Mrs Dawson, even when she thinks they are launching a raid on her home and have captured her husband, remarks “Perhaps we have no right to the land.  I’ve never quite felt the Indians got a square deal.”  That is some impressive sang-froid.  Mr Dawson shows his own progressive values in his determination that all of his children, girls included, should go not just to school but also onto college.  He believes all of these young pioneers, regardless of gender, have a role to play for which college will help prepare them.  He is proud that their state has higher education for women and extorts Phoebe, shy and nervous about school, that she must:

…help this state grow into a good state to live in, a state that takes care of its people as a family takes care of its children.  I don’t know just how; but that is why I want you children to have the best education you can get, so you can find out how.

But let’s be honest: the greatest thing about reading these tales as an adult is hearing about the handsomely stocked pantries, winter feasts, and communal meals.  It’s all about the food and this book excelled at describing everything that was on the table.  When Phoebe and Hartley want to cheer up the younger children during the storm, they put together a party with freshly made popcorn, nuts, and taffy, which is as much a treat to pull and form into candy as it is to eat.  Phoebe admires the family pantry – full of potatoes, onions, dried and smoked meat, dried fruit, and preserves – all the more for remembering how bare it had been in earlier years, when crops had been poor and the family unprepared for what was needed to get them through the winter.  And when the Dawsons host neighbours from all around to help build their new house, the tables are fairly groaning with the massive spread laid out for the mid-day meal:

Besides the many varieties of corn and corn-meal dishes, there were bowls of Dutch cheese, deviled eggs and creamed hard-boiled eggs, wild greens wilted in bacon grease and hot vinegar, dried beef with hominy, sauerkraut, raw cabbage slaw, and many kinds of potato salad.

There were kettles of stewed chicken, cold roast pheasant and partridge, fried rabbit, and Mrs Pfitzer’s rabbit stew with dumplings which she had carried across the fields in a big iron kettle.  There was a kettle of boiled ham and beans, and a big baked ham.  The special treat of the Dawsons was roast lamb with fresh mint sauce from Mother’s mint bed.  There was wheat bread, and soda biscuits, real treats for everyone, and of course the butter Phoebe had churned the day before, and many kinds of jelly and preserves.  Last of all were the pies, dried apple and dried plum and dried peach; and gingerbread with a big bowl of whipped cream to spread on it, and Indian pudding, and thin, sweet pancakes spread with jam and rolled up while they were hot.

Reading these sorts of books as a child, back in the pre-internet days, I could only guess at what things like hominy, taffy, and creamed hard-boiled eggs were (I am still, internet-enabled though I am, confused about hominy).  But that was and is part of the fun.

This is not great literature and the children are nauseatingly good all of the time (all of it!  How is this possible?) but I still thoroughly enjoyed it and am delighted we’ve managed to hold onto my father’s copy for all these years.

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There is one reading day left before the 1956 club starts!  I love these reading events (hosted by Simon and Karen), which encourage bloggers to spend one week reading books published in a specific year.  1956 looks like it’s going to be a great one.

The club runs all week so you have plenty of time left to join in.  Here are some reading ideas:

Books from my archives:
Summerhills by D.E Stevenson
The Legends of Prague by František Langer
All the Books of My Life by Sheila Kaye-Smith

What I’m reading:
Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson
The Children Who Stayed Alone by Bonnie Bess Worline
Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer
We Made a Garden by Margery Fish

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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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