Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Challenges’ Category

Once you’ve proven yourself as a novelist, what do you do next?  Do you turn out novel after novel, perhaps improving, or perhaps churning out forgettable fodder?  Or do you try something entirely different, striking out into the unknown and – to your readers – the unexpected?  I know which sounds like more fun to me.

In 1954, Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford was released to indulgent – and no doubt frustrating for the author – praise from the critics.  With seven novels already behind her, Mitford had a fine reputation but, intoxicated and in love with her new home in Paris, she was eager to write about something other than the romantic trials of the English.  She threw herself into researching Louis XV’s famous mistress and the result is something between the froth of a novel and the impartiality of a biography.

My first encounter with Mitford the biographer was her last book: Frederick the Great.  Published in 1970, it’s a wonderful book, full of colourful anecdotes skillfully threaded through a well-structured and well-researched account of a difficult man’s fascinating life.  From the very first chapter of Madame de Pompadour, it was clear how much Mitford had learned about the art of biography in the period between those two books.

The approach to the codified world of Versailles is, paradoxically, familiar and affectionate.  Individuals are described as dears (or the opposite) in a chatty tone, with Mitford enjoying a good gossip over their foibles despite most of them having been dead for the better part of two hundred years.  She is particularly critical of Louis XV’s queen, a Polish princess who, “though an exceedingly nice woman, was dowdy and a bore.”  Mitford believes “[she] might have played the part of mistress as well as that of wife, if she had had more character.”  Instead, her husband was forced to go find new bedmates and friends to keep him constantly entertained.  The Queen, having given birth to 10 children in the first 12 years of their marriage, seems to have been completely at ease with that – and who (except Mitford) can blame her?

The character of Louis XV is the gap at the center of the book.  He sounds to have been a man of extraordinary energy, thoughtless selfishness, and enormous appetites.  But what actually attracted people to him is less clear.  He suffered immense losses as a child, after which he “retired into a world of his own, concealing all his thoughts and feelings from those around him, and nobody every knew much about them for the rest of his life.”  No one woman ever seems to have held his attention sexually – Madame de Pompadour was his chief mistress for a time, but there were others before and after, not to mention the girls of no significance who were procured for a bit of bed play, most never even knowing the identify of their lover.  (Which of course makes Mitford’s criticism of the Queen ever harder to accept.)

But what of Madame de Pompadour herself, a woman who would go down in history for her exquisite taste, her intelligence, and her support for the artists and thinkers that modern France continues to revere?  As a child, a fortune teller predicted she would one day rule the heart of a king and within the family she was then nicknamed Reinette and given all the education and training a king’s mistress would need, however unlikely it seemed that a young bourgeois would ever be picked for such a role.  She grew up, she married, she became a mother…and she met the King.

Mitford paints a very romantic picture of the attraction and whirlwind that kicked off the relationship, with countryside cavorting and masked balls, obvious to the entire court, before she was officially installed in the palace.  She was far from the first mistress but she was the first from outside the court, so a crash course in the bizarre intricacies of Bourbon etiquette was required.  But she found her feet quickly, cunningly (innocently?) made herself appealing to the Queen, and was soon established in the world where she would live for the next twenty years until her early death, firmly first in the King’s affections if not always in his bed.

Indeed, she was, Mitford states, “physically a cold woman.  She was not strong enough for continual love-making and it exhausted her.”  Since Louis XV seems to have liked nothing more than continual love making, it must have been a great relief when the relationship turned away from the physical, as it did within 5 or 6 years due to her poor health, leaving them as companions.  All Madame de Pompadour’s early training, her talents, and her charms had combined to make her a delightful companion – one who could not be parted with even when the obvious purpose of the relationship had been extinguished.  It was, Mitford notes with some amusement, quite like a normal marriage.

I enjoyed reading this but it felt too much like a romantic biography rather than a true biography to me.  And yet how do you assert the individualism of a woman’s whose goal was to be an appendage?  For most mistresses, the chase, the conquest, and the victory might be the full story.  But I don’t think it was for Madame de Pompadour.  Mitford does look at Pompadour’s championing of Voltaire (always so hard – he did not make life easy for his supporters), her gifts as an actress, her establishing of a porcelain factory in Sèvres, and her involvement with politics during the Seven Years War, but I would love to see how Mitford would have approached this with more experience behind her.  It’s still a very enjoyable book but not as good an example of biography as she would eventually prove capable of.

Read Full Post »

The 1954 club has arrived!  It was a year full of fantastic children’s historical novels – The Eagle of the NinthKnight Crusader! – but I’m kicking the week off with a slightly more obscure choice: Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman, an adventure tale inspired by the first ascent of the Matterhorn.

Set in 1865 in the fictional town of Kurtal (aka Zermatt), we meet our hero, sixteen-year-old Rudi Matt, as a disgruntled dishwasher at the town’s best hotel.  Slight and cherubic, Rudi is nothing like the bulk of the town’s hearty men, who make their livings as guides for mountain-climbing tourists.  He is, his mother and uncle have decided, to be a hotelier and to train in Zurich after getting experience at home.  They want him far away from the dangerous mountains that have taken too many men from their town, his own father included.

But Rudi is a mountaineer in his heart, and escapes the kitchen to climb whenever he can.  He may never have known his father, the great Josef Matt who died on an expedition to summit the Citadel (aka the Matterhorn), the last great unconquered peak in Switzerland, but he inherited his spirit.

With a disconcerting comfort in bending the truth (a welcome and clever element that saves the Rudi from being too saccharine), Rudi finds himself slowly gaining the support of some in the climbing community – the intrepid Englishman, Captain Winter, and Teo Zurbriggen, a now crippled climber who was part of his father’s final expedition.  Rudi shares Captain Winter’s dream of conquering the Citadel and dedicates himself to being capable of the climb.  In the end, he is one of four men who attempt the ascent.

After an exhausting climb and close to the summit, a fellow climber is injured through sheer hubris.  Rudi, desperate for the glory of being the first man to ever reach the peak and eager to complete his father’s last journey, is torn.  Does he fulfill what he sees as his destiny and summit the peak, or does he follow the code of the mountain guides and care for his incapacitated climbing partner?  His own father knew what it meant to belong to the mountains – and died there not from an accident, but of exposure when he stayed with an injured client and was caught in a storm while waiting for help.

The 1950s was a golden era for children’s adventure tales and Ullman exemplifies the best of the tradition, writing suspenseful scenes along with solid character development.  The book is full of climbing action and it is wonderfully vivid and tense, carrying the reader along with Rudi through his painful and dangerous exploits.  As someone who hates heights, climbing is my idea of torture and I mean it as a compliment to Ullman’s skill that certain scenes made me queasy.  What an idiotic pastime – but what good material for an adventure tale.

With conflict like this, you can see why Disney adapted this shortly after it’s publication.  It’s a perfect blend of adventure tale and morality tale, with sublime scenery to cap it all off.  It was released in 1959 as Third Man on the Mountain with James MacArthur looking cherubic but decidedly more robust than Rudi is described (MacArthur played a Swiss teen again for Disney in Swiss Family Robinson in 1960).

Read Full Post »

We’re less than a week away now from the start of the 1954 Club and I can’t wait!  For those not familiar with it, Simon and Karen host twice-yearly reading weeks to encourage us to try books from a specific year.  It’s always a lot of fun to see what people pick and the clubs are really the only things that can predictably stir me from my sloth and get me to post new book reviews.

Being a planning-focused (some might say obsessed) person, I always enjoy pulling together ideas of what to read.  There were lots of interesting releases in 1954 (including my mother, who was born at the end of October 1954) so we are spoiled for choice.  Here are some suggestions if you’re still deciding what to read:

The Usual Suspects
When it comes to mid-century fiction, there are a handful of ridiculously prolific authors that I know I can always turn to and trust that at least one of them will have had a release that year.  In 1954, they all did.  These are all middling offerings from these authors but entertaining nonetheless:
The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer
Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie
What Did It Mean? by Angela Thirkell
Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse
Charlotte Fairlie by D.E. Stevenson

Children’s Books
What a year for children’s historical fiction!  Both The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff and Knight Crusader by Ronald Welch were published and they remain wonderful no matter the reader’s age.

A Bit of Non-Fiction
Non-fiction (like poetry) doesn’t get much love during these clubs but maybe 1954 will be the year everyone embraces it!
The Wilder Shores of Love by Lesley Branch
Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford
Slide Rule by Nevil Shute
(1954 was also a big year for cookbooks, including The Art of Eating by MFK Fisher, Italian Food by Elizabeth David, and The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book)

Happy reading!

Read Full Post »

Travel is one of my chief pleasures.  I am single, financially independent, and can mangle several languages well enough to be understood.  The world is my oyster.  Except when it’s not.

It’s been over two years now since I was last overseas and while it has been VERY exciting to get to travel a little more this year, I’m still sticking close to home and following government advice to avoid non-essential foreign travel.  I have yet to find any essential excuses.

This leaves me with plenty of beautiful places to still explore but there is only so much pleasure to be got from trees and mountains and ocean.  This is where books come in.

Armchair travel is one of the finest forms of travel.  It is accessible and affordable, requires little planning and leaves you with no jet lag.  Ideal really at any time but especially during Covid.

And one of the chief pleasures of armchair travel is that it lets you travel through time – an experience no airline or cruise ship can match.

I travelled back in time recently via Travels by Jan Morris, a collection of essays published in 1976, making this an ideal choice for this week’s 1976 Club.  Morris was by then already a well-established travel writer and this was her first book following the very personal Conundrum (now available as a Slightly Foxed edition), a memoir of her transition from James Morris to Jan Morris.  While Morris’ personality is a vital part of these essays, her gender is not – something that was probably reassuring to her conservative readers who weren’t quite yet done processing their feelings about the change.

The opening essay – “The Best Travelled Man in the World: the example of Ibn Batuta” – was to me the best one in the collection.  In considering the 14th century traveller, Morris captures the romance and adventure that call all travellers – and all readers of travel writing.  We all long to see something that is truly new but none of us will ever experience it the way Ibn Batuta did.  On a similar biographical bent there is “A Profitable Exile”, about nabobs who went to India to gain fortunes and ill-health.

“Through My Guide-Books” is also a delight, as Morris walks us through her collection of guidebooks and picks out some timeless advice:

The heyday of the guide-book was the nineteenth century, when steam had made travel relatively easy, but the average tourist was still an educated person, able to appreciate Murray’s donnish quirks or Baedeker’s obscurer allusions to the principles of Gothic fenestration.  There are felicities, of course, to be found both in earlier and in later examples.  My favourite guide-book chapter, on the whole, is Chapter XII of Horrebow’s Iceland (1758), which is entitled “Concerning Owls in Iceland”, and which consists in its entirety of one phrase: “There are no owls of any kind in the whole island.”  The guide-book advice I most admire is given by E.M. Forster in his Alexandria (1922) – “The best way to see it is to wander aimlessly about” – while one could hardly improve the opening to Chapter IV of Mrs. R.L. Devonshire’s Rambles in Cairo (1931): “Of all the medieval rulers of Egypt, Saladin alone enjoys the privilege of being remembered by Western readers.”

The specific portraits of places – Dublin, Bath, Edinburgh, Washington, DC, Singapore, and Hong Kong – were less successful for me, though the Asian destinations were clearly written about with more engagement and enthusiasm.  The piece about Hong Kong is quite long and, having just put down Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera to read this, the colonial mindset felt a bit jarring.  It is absolutely what one should expect of Morris (indeed, Sanghera refers to Morris’ Pax Brittanica history of the British Empire in Empireland) but there are comments about the British rulers and the obedient Chinese residents that sit uncomfortably when reading today.

And then there is “On the Confederation Trail”, about Morris’ experience taking the train from Toronto to Calgary.  The entire essay reads like a pat on the head – kind but dismissive, which is a pretty accurate synopsis of how Canada was treated circa 1976.  Morris doesn’t show any particular admiration for Canada – not the way she delights in the bustle and energy of Hong Kong, for example – but can admit it has its good points:

The twentieth century, Canadians had been told, would be Canada’s, but they did not interpret this prophecy in any bombastic sense.  They would be rich, but they would be good.  They would be American in vivacity and inventiveness, but British in style and conscience.

It’s hard to be Canada: people are always saying nice things about you, just never with much enthusiasm.

Read Full Post »

I feel that aging, like most things in life, is best approached with preparation.  Lots and lots of preparation.  That may mean exercise and skin care regimes, visioning and bucket lists, but it also means reading about those who have gone before to arm yourself with knowledge of what to expect.

Judging by How Did I Get to Be Forty…& Other Atrocities by Judith Viorst, I should be prepared for an intense volume of neuroses to set in over the next five years. 

Viorst has been chronicling the trials of aging in verse since publishing It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty (one of my favourite Persephone titles) way back in 1968.  Now ninety, she has faithfully added a volume to mark each decade and while I look forward to the pensioner years, the trials of being forty held the dual appeal of being both a) closest to my actual age and b) published in 1976, making it perfect reading for this week’s 1976 Club.

I truly love It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty so had high hopes for this, but was left entertained but indifferent.  The galloping rhymes of the earlier volume are harder to find here, as is the humour.  The poems feel bleaker; there is no longer the sense that you can laugh off the fears and frustrations of the speaker.  The signs of aging have become unavoidable and adultery or divorce – now more potent since friends have experienced them first hand – are tragedies waiting to befall her rather than the neurotic fancies of a younger woman.

Cheerful stuff. 

But there is fun to be had!  Squandered potential is more comfortable territory and more easily mined for laughs (and relatability) in “Facing the Facts”:

I’m facing the fact that
I’ll never write Dante’s Inferno
Or paint a Picasso
Or transplant a kidney or build
An empire, nor will I ever
Run Israel or Harvard,
Appear on the cover of Time,
Star on Broadway, be killed
By a firing squad for some noble ideal,
Find the answer
To racial injustice or whether God’s dead
Or the source
Of human unhappiness,
Alter the theories of Drs.
S. Freud, C.G. Jung, or A. Einstein,
Or maybe the course
Of history,
In addition to which
I am facing the fact that
I’ll never compose Bach cantatas,
Design Saint Laurents,
Advise presidents, head U.S. Steel,
Resolve the Mideast,
Be the hostess of some major talk show,
Or cure the cold,
And although future years may reveal
Some hidden potential,
Some truly magnificent act that
I’ve yet to perform,
Or some glorious song to be sung
For which I’ll win prizes and praise,
I must still fact the fact that
They’ll never be able to say,
“And she did it so young.”

Having recently participated in a frankly mind-boggling pub conversation about diamond cuts and go-to jewelers, I also found “College Reunion” alarmingly easy to relate to, as the speaker marvels at the women she and her old school friends have turned into:

…we’ve all turned into women who know genuine in jewelry and
                Authentic in antiques and real in fur.
And the best in orthopedists for our frequently recurring
Lower back pain.

And we’ve all turned into women who take cabs instead of buses
                And watch color, not the black and white, TV,
And have lawyers, gynecologists, accountants, dermatologists,
                Podiatrists, urologists, internists, cardiologists,
                Insurance agents, travel agents, brokers, ophthalmologists,
And no ideal how we all turned into these women.

To be fair, I have always been this woman (I was very proud of my Rolodex full of business cards when I was 12) so there is little to marvel at for me.  But, to my friends’ shame, I still don’t know much about diamonds.  

The sharpest poem in the bunch (and the one with the strongest rhyming scheme – it’s so effective when used well!) is “The Good Daughter”, where the speaker tells of her dutiful cousin Elaine and Elaine’s no-good yet inexplicably preferred brother Walter:

The boys Elaine went with were all that her folks
And their gin club and swim club expected.
(The girls Walter went with her folks only prayed
That he wouldn’t come home from infected.)

Like It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty – and I imagine the subsequent volumes – How Did I Get to Be Forty… & Other Atrocities is best as a record of the era and culture that produced it.  The ideals of the 70s are on display, as the speaker longs to be “The Sensuous Woman” (“Beneath my beige knit (polyester) such cravings will smolder/That Uncle Jerome, if he heard, would pass out from the shame”), wishes she had something other than “drop-out Buddhist bisexual vegetarian Maoist children”, and begs someone to put a stop to her endless self-improvement programs (including Primal Scream Therapy and Consciousness Raising).  It’s a fun way to pass a little time (a very little – it’s an extraordinarily thin book) but hopefully not a dependable guide for me of what’s to come. 

Read Full Post »

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!

Read Full Post »

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!    

Read Full Post »

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?

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »