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Cheerfulness Breaks InSometimes, there is no accounting for what makes a book a favourite.  I’ve read twenty-three of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books now and, without even having to think about it, I can list off which ones I think are her best.  That said, my personal favourite ranks nowhere near the top of that list.  While the rest of her war-time novels are uniformly strong, Cheerfulness Breaks In, which focuses on the first year of the war, is disjointed, clumsy and full of decidedly un-Thirkell-like jingoism.  Despite these flaws, I adore it and have reread it five times since first discovering Thirkell in 2011.

Cheerfulness Breaks In opens with the wedding of Rose Birkett, the feather-brained and oft-engaged daughter of the much beloved headmaster of Southbridge school.  Manhandled down the aisle by her family, friends, and fiancé, the Birketts are shamefully delighted to be free of their exhausting daughter.  But one trial is about to be exchanged for another: they may be free of Rose (safely on the other side of the Atlantic, stationed in South America with her naval husband) but the war has just started and Southbridge is to play host to the evacuated Hosier’s Boys Foundation School from London.

Nearby, Lydia Keith, now twenty one (by Thirkell’s bizarre counting, which has little to do with arithmetic as we know it), has harnessed her energy and forcefulness for good.  Though “her family had thought that when she left school she might wish to train for some sort of work in which swashbuckling is a desirable quality,” Lydia has instead chosen to stay at home, running the estate and caring for her invalid mother.  She is no less blunt and unromantic than before – “To all such young men as were prepared to accept her as an equal Lydia extended a crushing handshake and the privilege of listening to her views on all subjects” – but she has moved beyond her girlhood.  While her girlfriends have exchanged Barsetshire High School for nursing wards and her closest friend, Noel Merton, has left his lawyer’s chambers for a military career, Lydia is bossing about matrons at Red Cross sewing parties and dishing out rabbit stew to grubby evacuees.  It’s not a particularly romantic life but, nonetheless, Lydia is our heroine.  Since she has always been my personal heroine, ever since her first appearance as a gauche sixteen year old, it is not difficult then to understand why I love this book.

Both the residents of Southbridge and Lydia find their worldviews upset during the first few months of the war.  Lydia finds herself uncomfortably (and unknowingly for a long time)in love and in Southbridge the Birketts and their friends must adapt to the evacuees in their midst.  These dual storylines are not gracefully managed so it is difficult to review them in any cohesive way.  Lydia’s story is a quite straightforward romance, though she does spend quite a bit of time capably counselling her friends and helping them set their own romances straight.  The situation in Southbridge, however, is altogether more interesting…

At the beginning of the war, Laura Morland moves in with the Birketts for the duration, having let her house in High Rising to friends from London.  This brings her into contact with members of the school community (familiar from Summer Half) but also other, less familiar neighbours.  There are Miss Bent and Miss Hampton, Barsetshire’s most entertaining and alcoholic lesbian couple, and, with the arrival of Hosier’s Boys Foundation School, there are Mr. And Mrs. Bissell.  The principal of Hosier’s, at first Mr. Bissell and his wife seemed like everything the Birketts had feared: common and Communist, they are the antithesis of Conservative, middle-class Barsetshire.  But, rather to everyone’s delight, Southbridge discovers that it is more broadminded than previously suspected and the Bissells find that the middle classes aren’t as entirely useless as they’d expected them to be.  Also, the lubricating powers of alcohol in easing class tensions are appreciated by all.

One of the things I have always appreciated about Thirkell is her cross-generational approach.  While her romantic pairings are largely restricted to the young (or young-ish), Thirkell does not neglect her middle aged cast whose concerns are mainly for their children.  Understandably during a time of war.  The Archdeacon’s wife, remembering the last war, boils with anger when she thinks about how this war will disrupt the lives of young people, especially her daughter Octavia and her friends: “Would these girls care to marry?  How many would lose a lover, a friend that might have been a lover. ..Were Octavia, Delia, Lydia to go on being nice useful girls for ever?  She almost champed with rage at the thought.”  The girls see the war and their involvement in it as a great adventure, which it was.  However, it is their mothers who count the years in terms of what has been postponed or lost.  Laura Morland is cursed with a novelist’s imagination and, with four sons of military age, spends more time than she ought imagining dramatic and highly improbable deaths for them all after learning of major battles.  She keeps herself busy and fretful:

…visualising her explorer son transported by magic from a thousand miles in the interior of South America to the scene of the naval battle and there dying a hero’s death, her naval son who was on the China Station circling half the globe in a few days only to perish among shot and flame, her third son having unknown to her become a Secret Service Agent and arrived at Las Palmobas in time to foil an enemy plot at the expense of his life, not to speak of Tony, now well known to be with friends in Gloucestershire for part of the Christmas Vacation, having got into the Trans-Atlantic Air Services and so to Las Palombas and a heroic if unspecified end…

While passages like the above are entertaining, Thirkell is uncommonly sentimental in this book.  I can forgive a clumsy narrative but I can’t quite forgive her for momentarily falling under the spell of the famed stiff upper-lip.  It is very unlike her and does not sit quite right with those of us who love her for her sharp-tongued ways.  Part of the great joy of her wartime books is the callous way in which her characters moan and complain about the government, the refugees, and their fellow citizens.  The most damning criticism we hear in this book is of The Times for daring to rearrange its sections:

Mr Keith said he could bear anything, even the Income Tax, if only The Times would stop fiddling about with the Crossword Puzzle and put it in its proper place, down in the right-hand corner of page three or possibly page five.  And as for putting it in small print, he would take in the Daily Telegraph if it went on.  One must have something to cling to in this world of shifting values…

These details are what make Thirkell’s wartime books so good and yet there are far too few here.  Yes, we hear a little about shirkers who run away to America (excellent plan, FYI) and repulsive refugees and evacuees, but even they are dealt with gently by Thirkell, which is entirely out of character.

And still, despite its flaws, I love it.  I love all the drinks parties at Southbridge, I love Noel Merton’s inability to keep himself from getting promoted, and, most of all, I love everything related to the admirable Lydia.  It may not be Thirkell’s best but I love it.

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The Past Is MyselfEver since Slightly Foxed released The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg, a memoir of Anglo-Irish Christabel’s wartime experiences in Germany with her German husband and children, I have been longing to reread it.  I’d read it twice before – one at the end of high school and once again at university – but it is a book I never get tired of.  My carry through this time was not particularly prompt and it took me until a few months ago to finally pick it up but the book was just as wonderful as I’d remembered.

Christabel moved to Hamburg in the early 1930s to study singing.  There she met a law student, Peter Bielenberg, several years younger than herself whom she married in 1934.  They were a happy couple and quickly started a family but the backdrop to these early years of their marriage was the rise and increasing violence of Hitler and his Nazi party.  Even in liberal Hamburg, the awful changes taking place in Germany could not be escaped.

In 1939, the Bielenbergs moved from Hamburg to Berlin.  Already deeply opposed to Nazi ideology and tactics, this move brought them into contact with other dangerously like-minded people – like the conservative dissident Adam von Trott, whose involvement in the July 20 plot in 1944 led to his execution and to Peter Bielenberg’s arrest and imprisonment.  Christabel’s heroic efforts to free Peter provide a tense, thriller-like climax to the book.

Christabel had renounced her British citizenship when she married but a change of passport cannot change your allegiances entirely, especially when you know your adopted homeland is in the wrong.  She eagerly followed whatever news she could get of Britain, devouring issues of The Times that Peter smuggled to her from the Foreign Office and listening to radio broadcasts from England.  Yet as comforting as it was to hear about home, she didn’t necessarily have faith that Britain would triumph.  Her feelings were conflicted.  Having seen how normal people changed under the Nazis, she was not naive enough to believe that the English had any particular moral superiority that would make them immune to the “collaborators, informers, crackpots” who helped the spread of fear so effectively in Germany:

It was on my birthday, June 18th, with my ear right up against it, as Nicky would have said, that I heard Churchill speak of England’s finest hour.  I listened, I knew what he meant, and I burst into tears; not so much because our governess had taught me that if ever a hostile power should occupy the Channel ports England sooner or later would be at their mercy, but simply because I wanted to be there.  Blessed, cockeyed, ignorant England, quite pleased, I would have said, to be rid of those bothersome continentals and to be on her own.

…I would like to think that Churchill’s words, steeped as I felt them to be in the very substance of my country’s history, and inevitably striking a chord somewhere deep down inside me, immediately quietened all my fears and banished forever the hideous vista of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich stretching away beyond the horizon of my lifetime.  But it was not so, because I knew too much.  Fighting in the streets, in the fields, on the hills there would surely be, and heroes, many heroes – but there might be others as well.  Collaborators, informers, crackpots who believe that Jews were Yids, and Negros ‘nigs’, and Italians ‘wogs’, and that only one race could rightfully consider itself to be the salt of the earth.  If such as these were international commodities, I knew there would be no drama about the aftermath.  There would be the tramp of marching boots and the loud knock at the door in the night, the creak and rumble of departing lorries fading into the distance of deserted streets; silence then, no drama, just silence, impenetrable silence.

When the Allies begin bombing Berlin, Christabel takes her three sons and decamps to a small village in the Black Forest where she quickly settles into a way of life almost untouched by the war.  It sounds like a wonderful place to have been a small child but unsettling for Christabel, knowing how much suspicion surrounded her husband and his friends and how closely they were being watched.  Still, the villagers provide a level of warmth and community spirit desperately missing from the other places Christabel lives over the course of the book.  They may have pictures of Hitler in their homes and offices but none of them seem to be particularly wedded to his beliefs.  They are warm and hospitable, to both Christabel’s family and, at one point, an American airman who appears out of the blue towards the end of the war.  I loved this episode.  No one is quite sure what to do or who to notify but they come together to offer the best of wartime hospitality – even to the enemy:

The mayor’s reserved table in the parlour had been spread with a spotless white cloth, and Nick was waiting behind the chair at the end of the table with a table napkin over his arm and a voluminous blue and white service apron covering his leather pants.  Frau Muckle had excelled herself – a splendid joint of roast pork with mashed potatoes and rich red cranberries, with dumplings to follow, feather light and topped with caramelized sugar.  Murmuring ‘zum Wohl’ Nicky kept the glasses filled with wine which was indistinguishable from vinegar, but which had not been served in the parlour for many a long year.

The American was obviously ravenously hungry and we watched a week’s rations disappear at a sitting.  Under the influence of the unaccustomed wine, the atmosphere became more relaxed.  The airman’s morose expression changed to one of slightly bovine puzzlement, and Sepp launched into some rather earthy tales which he insisted I should translate for our guest.

But, even while welcoming him, Christabel finds herself angry with the young man from Colorado, now accepting the hospitality of those he has been sent to kill:

I was suddenly resentful of this tall ignorant boy who had never heard of the Rhine and who flew nose to tail, nose to tail, and did not even know in which town he had left behind a trail of dead and dying.

When Peter is arrested and sent to Ravensbrück on suspicion of being a collaborator in the plot to assassinate Hitler, Christabel girds herself for battle and, using all her skill, charm, cunning, and connections, manages to get her husband released.  It is a fabulously dramatic sequence, written with all the skill of a modern thriller.

That said, I almost preferred the quieter moments, the ones that illuminate the wider reality of wartime Germany.  Peter and Christabel and their friends we know.  We know they oppose the Nazis and believe in all the “right” things.  But what of everyone else?  What of the millions of other Germans who weren’t risking their lives in acts of rebellion?  While on her way to Berlin, Christabel finds herself encountering exhausted Germans and retreating soldiers.  I think (I know, judging from some of the comments on recent posts) that some people still believe all Germans were Nazis or at least all soldiers were but that is never the way.  Christabel finds men who are tired and completely lacking in political beliefs.  All they want is to stop fighting and get back to their real lives:

They could have been a cross section of any army, anywhere, that little group of soldiers.  Blown about by the whims of higher authority, to the East, to the West, and now back again to the East.  They had no particular hates, no resentments, no particular ambition, except to stay alive and get back to their families – although some of them had no idea where their families were.  Heini, the little Berliner, could easily have been a London cockney, with his Galgenhumour, as the Germans call it; a tough, cynical, chirpy, unabashed sense of humour which seems to thrive only in big cities.

As he left, he squared his small shoulders, clicked his heels, raised his right arm and said: ‘Well, whoever still wants to listen, Heil Hitler, etc., etc.’  In one absurd gesture he somehow managed to caricature the whole rotten business.

More chillingly, she meets another soldier, one whom the war has drained of all cheerfulness, all ambition, and certainly all will to live.  A Latvian by birth, he was a member of the Einsatzkommando, mobile killing squads that were particularly active during the early years of the war, killing unimaginably large numbers of Poles and Jews.  The men who were members of these squads had an outrageously high suicide rate – not shocking given the face-to-face nature of the atrocities they committed daily.  The man Christabel encounters on the train is certainly suicidal but still hoping that he might be killed in war rather than having to do the job himself.  He recounts the sickening details of his role and, even having read this passage several times before, even having read widely on the actions of these groups in other books, his words are as unsettling to read as they must have been for Christabel to hear.

Christabel and Peter had a happy ending.  Once released from the concentration camp, Peter spent the short remainder of the war hiding out in the Black Forest.  Shortly after the war, the family immigrated to Ireland, where they ran a farm and where, in 1968, Christabel wrote down her account of these extraordinary and unsettling years.  After all they had been through, it was a well-deserved peace.

I think it is difficult to read any book about resistance without wondering a) what compelled these people to take such risks and b) what you would do yourself in similar circumstances.  Christabel and Peter, though not actively engaged in any plots themselves, knew what they were risking by being friends with more active conspirators.  Peter almost paid a heavy price for one of those friendships and the number of their acquaintances who were killed or imprisoned for their beliefs during the war is high.  But how do you cut old friends out of your life, especially ones who are acting in accordance with your beliefs when you are too scared to act yourself?  I suppose you hope that by providing them with a little support and friendship they might keep going, might win the battles that need to be won.  I couldn’t have done it though.  And knowing that about myself makes it so much easier to understand and identify with the millions of Germans who were swept along after 1933, as Hitler muscled his way to power and created a country ruled by fear and suspicion.  How much easier – and safer – it is to sit back and disagree silently than to risk confrontation and death.  And how much more convenient for the dictators.

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Mike and PsmithIn the way of many of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels, Mike and Psmith has a complicated history.  In 1909, Wodehouse published a lengthy (some people *ahem* might call it overly long) novel entitled Mike.  The first half detailed Mike Jackson’s entirely dull experiences as a school boy; the second half introduced the extraordinary Psmith, who made Mike’s remaining school days decidedly less dull.  Wodehouse reissued the second half (with a few changes) as Enter Psmith in the 1930s.  In 1953, the two parts of Mike were rewritten and reissued as Mike at Wrykyn and Mike and Psmith.  For those of us who, though fond of Comrade Jackson, have no interest in his solo adventures, Mike and Psmith is an ideal distillation of the story begun back in 1909.

When his father pulls Mike out of Wrykyn after too many poor reports from his teachers, Mike is aghast.  His dreams of captaining the cricket team have been shattered and it is with a heavy heart that he sets out for his new school, Sedleigh, determined to dislike it and to never play for its inferior cricket team.  Almost as soon as he arrives, he meets the school’s other new arrival: the exiled Etonian, Rupert Psmith, who, as he tells Mike, has just decided that morning to distinguish his patronym with the addition of a silent P.  Even as a youth, Psmith is deeply interested in those around him and within moments is attempting to discern Mike’s allotted role in the school:

“Are you the Bully, the Pride of the School, or the Boy who is Led Astray and takes to Drink in Chapter Sixteen?”

“The last, for choice,” said Mike, “but I’ve only just arrived, so I don’t know.”

The teenaged Psmith is already as elegant and composed as a statesman, comfortable leaning against the mantelpiece and admiring newcomers through his monocle.  Already he is “…one of those people who lend dignity to everything they touch.”  Within a few hours of his arrival, he has seized Mike as his boon companion, commandeered a study, and set up a retreat that sounds exceeding comfortable.  He is much at home by the time the other students realise what has happened.  Once they appear, Psmith is only too happy to host them:

“We are having a little tea,” said Psmith, “to restore our tissues after our journey.  Come in and join us.  We keep open house, we Psmiths.  Let me introduce you to Comrade Jackson.  A stout fellow.  Homely in appearance, perhaps, but one of us.  I am Psmith.  Your own name will doubtless come up in the course of general chit-chat over the tea-cups.”

Mike is rather swept along by the brilliance of Psmith, as Psmith thwarts pranksters, allies with influential school figures, and determines the best way to keep both himself and Mike from having to play school cricket.  Mike, a cricket addict, sneaks off and plays for the village team; Psmith feels no such desire, though he is happy enough to watch.  As he so beautifully puts it: “Cricket I dislike but watching cricket is one of the finest of Britain’s manly sports.”

Psmith’s method of escaping school cricket is to sign up for the school’s archaeological club, run by his and Mike’s housemaster.   Psmith is capable of cultivating an interest in anything and so it is with archaeology.   Rather like a royal prince bound by duty to pretend an interest in the quaint hobbies of the peasants, Psmith throws himself into the club:

…Psmith followed his leader with the pleased and indulgent air of a father whose infant son is showing him round the garden.  Psmith’s archaeological research struck a new note in the history of that neglected science.  He was amiable, but patronizing.  He patronized fossils, and he patronized ruins.  If he had been confronted with the Great Pyramid, he would have patronized that.

I have just realised that my fondness for Tony Morland owes no smart part to his similarities with Psmith; namely, their amazing sangfroid, their passionate interest in other people and things, and their extraordinary gift for condescending to others.  Fascinating.

Unfortunately, the book does rather revolve around cricket, which I have always found far too tedious to learn the rules of.  All I know of cricket has been learned through the pages of P.G. Wodehouse and A.A. Milne books and, as far as I am concerned, I know far too much.  By the end of the book, both Mike and Psmith have proved themselves heroes on the cricket pitch.  Before that can happen though, there are a few awkward moments when, with the school leaders hot on Mike’s trail after a misdeed, Psmith must do his best to confound their efforts.  Of course, being Psmith, he does this by talking circles – of sense and nonsense – around everyone.  Unsurprisingly, the headmaster finds it all a little bewildering:

The headmaster seemed to have some difficulty in proceeding.  He paused again.  Then he went on.

“Er – Smith, I do not for a moment wish to pain you, but have you – er, do you remember ever having had, as a child, let us say, any – er – severe illness?  Any – er – mental illness?”

“No, sir.”

“There  is no – forgive me if I am touching on a sad subject – there is no – none of your near relatives have ever suffered in the way I – er – have described?”

“There isn’t a lunatic on the list, sir,” said Psmith cheerfully. 

For me, these exchanges are so far preferable to Wodehouse’s descriptions of incomprehensible sporting achievements.  This is what Psmith does best (as can be seen in those other fine novels Psmith in the City, Psmith, Journalist, and Leave it to Psmith) and it is why he will always be my choice for fictional character I would most like to have with me in a troubling situation.  Or, frankly, any situation.  You can keep Uncle Fred and Gally, Jeeves and Lord Emsworth.  To me, Psmith will always be Wodehouse’s greatest and most charming creation.

 

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A Century of Books

When Simon first introduced the idea of his A Century of Books reading project in September 2011, I was impressed.  It seemed quite ambitious, this idea of reading one book published in each year of the 20th Century, and very tempting.  I resisted signing up immediately but the project proved irresistible.  I joined in and I am so glad that I did because it made for an extraordinary year of reading.

You can find the full list of what I read on my A Century of Books page but I thought it would be fun to mention a few things I’ve learned while doing this project:

Not all years are created equal – One hundred books is not a particularly large number for me (I’m currently reading my 233rd book of the year) but the adventure was in working within the parameters of the challenge.  Some years are ridiculously easy to find books for (at times, it seemed that every book I wanted to read had been published in 1912, 1925, or 1947) while others are excruciatingly difficult (I spent months searching for something I wanted to read from 1900 and 1969).

Plan, plan, plan for failure  – The pressure to read a book, whether you enjoy it or not, that fills in one of your “missing” years is intense.  But just because that book was published in a convenient year does not mean it is worth reading.  I kept an ongoing list of books published in all the years I had not yet completed so that I had multiple options to choose from.  If I started a book and was not enjoying it, I always had a second or third option to consider switching to.  There is no point in reading 100 books that you don’t enjoy.

Get to know your favourite authors really well – Angela Thirkell, Elizabeth von Arnim, Georgette Heyer, D.E. Stevenson and, of course, A.A. Milne were my best friends this year.  Between those five authors, I filled in 41 years of the century and, if I had wanted to, could have filled in at least ten more.

Use the buddy system – I know that a number of people have been working through A Century of Books at their own pace but, for me, the greatest motivation I had was knowing that Simon was also reading all the books in one year.  Every time he posted a new review I was reminded of how far I had fallen behind in my own reviews or my own reading and I rushed to catch up.  I really wanted to do this is one year and, thanks to Simon’s example and encouragement along the way, I did.

Prepare to be surprised – I knew I was going to have fun reading the books from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s – and I did – but the greatest thing about the project was finding delight in unexpected places.  The 1910s turned out to be possibly my favourite decade of all and the 1970s surprised me with some of my most thought-provoking reads of the year.  I was also shocked by how much I struggled to find books I wanted to read from the 1950s and 1960s.

Now that A Century of Books is done, I have to admit that I am looking forward to being able to read without checking the publication date of every book I pick up!  It did restrict my reading choices, particularly towards the end of the year, and though it was interesting to work within that kind of structure I am ready to be free of it.  I want to wallow in 18th and 19th Century authors, read 20 books all published in the same year of the 20th Century if I want to, and crack open all of the 21st Century biographies and memoirs I have waiting on my shelves.  And, maybe, after a year of reading like that I will be ready to do A Century of Books again in 2014.  I have already started on a booklist so I will be well-prepared if I do!

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Sylvester Georgette HeyerRereading Sylvester by Georgette Heyer this week has made me so happy.  There are a number of reasons why I pick the books I do: to learn something, to be challenged, to be distracted, etc.  But reading Sylvester reminded me of my favourite reason of all: to feel a delicious sense of joy bubbling up inside me, from the very first page to the very last.

Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle (first published in 1957) is, I think, one of the best novels Heyer wrote.  I rank it only slightly behind A Civil Contract and The Grand Sophy in my affections and there is every possibility that it will surpass both of those in coming years as I seem to love it more each time I read it.  And I reread it as often as I can.

Sylvester, Duke of Salford, is an arrogant young man, very conscious of doing his duty but completely unconscious of how he speaks down to those who annoy him.  He can be charming in company and has excellent, extremely polite manners but there is no warmth in his dealings with anyone outside his family.  His invalid mother, seeing how emotionally inaccessible her eldest son has become since the death of his twin, is perturbed but hardly knows how to raise the topic with Sylvester.  Sylvester, for his part, refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem.  He knows his behaviour to be perfectly correct for a man of his station:

Sylvester, who did not arrive at parties very late, refuse to stand up for country-dances, take his bored leave within half an hour of his arrival, leave invitations unanswered, stare unrecognizingly at one of his tenants, or fail to exchange a few words with every one of his guests on Public Days at Chance, was not very likely to believe a charge of arrogance…

When Sylvester comes to his mother to tell her he is planning to marry, she is momentarily thrilled, thinking that he has finally fallen in love.  Alas! Sylvester has merely realised that it is his duty to marry and would like her opinion on which young lady of their acquaintance he should pick.  He is a man who, having never been in love, believes like Charlotte Lucas that “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” and it is far better to find someone suitable than loveable:

‘Seriously, Mama, although I have seen some love-matches that have prospered, I have seen a great many that most certainly have not!  Oh! no doubt some husbands and wives of my acquaintance would stare to hear me say I thought them anything but happy!  Perhaps they enjoy jealousies, tantrums, quarrels, and stupid misunderstandings: I should not!  The well-bred woman who marries me because she has a fancy to be a duchess will suit me very well, and will probably fill her position admirably.’

Refusing the shortlist he had prepared, the dowager duchess recalls that during his childhood she had hoped for a moment that he might marry the daughter of her dearest friend once they were both grown.  Amused by this, Sylvester determines to go and meet this Phoebe Marlow and discover if they will suit.

When Phoebe, who had met and promptly been forgotten by Sylvester during her season in London, hears that he is coming to visit with the intention of making her an offer (a scheme her thoughtless stepmother reveals to her), she is appalled.  Not only does she not credit the idea that he could want her for a wife – at nineteen, she is clever and excellent with horses but has no beauty or accomplishments – but she also knows that her opinion on the matter will be of no importance.  Easily intimidated by her stepmother, Phoebe knows that if Sylvester makes her an offer she will be forced to accept.  So, after his arrival, she does the only thing she can think of: with the help of her lifelong friend Tom Orde she runs away from home, heading to her grandmother in London.  Of course, all does not go to plan.

For starters, Sylvester had realised soon after arriving that the silent, sulking young woman would be no wife for him.  As soon as the family learns of Phoebe’s disappearance – believing at first that she and Tom have eloped – he makes his excuses and is thankful to get away.  But the weather is awful and he finds himself forced to stop at an inn, which already has two other occupants: Phoebe and Tom Orde, who were forced to stop after their vehicle upset, breaking Tom’s leg and, to Phoebe’s greater concern, injuring one of the horses.

Forced to get to know one another under these unconventional circumstances, Sylvester and Phoebe discover that though they might have no interest in marrying one another, friendship is a definite possibility.  Impatient with Sylvester’s imperious moods, both Phoebe and the delightful Tom give their highborn friend the set downs he so desperately needs whenever he attempts to look down his nose at anyone or acts without considering the impact his actions may have on others, disarming Sylvester who had, until then, thought he knew himself very well.  But he is not too proud to accept their criticism, though he cheerily returns the favour.  A firm and surprisingly intimate friendship develops between them all on this equal footing and when Phoebe at last departs after the roads are cleared, she is running away from her stepmother only and not Sylvester, whom she looks forward to seeing again in London.

In London, their friendship surprises Sylvester’s friends and family, who have never seen him take this level of interest in a young woman.  The two, though they dare not admit it, are falling in love and all seems to be going well until the secret Phoebe has been keeping from him is finally revealed: having passed an uneventful first season the year before, Phoebe made the most of the hours she spent observing the Ton and has since written a lurid gothic romance featuring thinly disguised society folk as characters.  And Sylvester, cast as the wicked Count Ugolino, is her villain.  The casting had more to do with the extravagant slant of his eyebrows than any character flaws but due to an unfortunate coincidence the key plot elements of The Lost Heir are mirrored in Sylvester’s role as guardian to his young nephew.  The book is immediately popular and it is not long before Sylvester’s sister-in-law, Lady Ianthe Rayne, is convinced that the book was written as a warning to her to remove her son from Sylvester’s reach.  In refuting this, Phoebe unwittingly reveals herself as the author and, of course, Sylvester finds out, putting an end to the progress of their relationship.

From there, the book becomes a delicious satire of the gothic novel, with Tom and Phoebe reluctantly dragged along – almost kidnapped, really – when Lady Ianthe attempts, with her very foolish new husband, to spirit her son away to France without Sylvester’s permission.  Horrified that her book could have inspired such madness, Phoebe finds herself taking care of Edward, Sylvester’s rambunctious six-year old nephew, since Lady Ianthe is first too ill to do so herself and then simply too ill-at-ease with her son, who had always been cared for by nurses.  Lady Ianthe and Sir Nugent are comic rather than heroic and when a livid Sylvester arrives on the scene he is greeted by anyone of sense as the saviour rather than the villain of the piece.   All are returned safely to England but it takes a while longer for Sylvester and Phoebe to reconcile, though when they do it is perfectly written.  This may not be my absolutely favourite Heyer (yet) but the final scene between Sylvester and Phoebe (aided by his mother) is my favourite romantic climax in any of her novels.  I feel so nervous every time I read it, even knowing what is about to happen.  That is how invested I am in their relationship, that is how well Heyer evokes the tension and anxiety both characters are feeling before their confrontation, knowing that they love one another but uncertain of how to move forward together.

There are so many things to love about this novel.  It is wonderfully plotted, moving along at the perfect speed with no odd diversions or unnecessary meanderings.  It makes excellent use of Heyer’s extensive knowledge of the Regency era and Regency slang without those historical details becoming cumbersome.  It has a wonderful relationship between the hero and heroine that allows both to grow over the course of the novel and to confront how little they know of themselves.  It is funny and smart and never, never dull.  But mostly, it has truly magnificent supporting characters: the silly, stylish and well-matched Lady Ianthe and Sir Nugent; Phoebe’s demanding grandmother (who is also Sylvester’s godmother); Sylvester’s suffering but stoic mother; Sylvester’s rebellious nephew; and, most of all, Tom Orde, Phoebe’s lifelong friend and surrogate brother, who is full of good sense and is frustrated to no end by the unnecessary agonies Phoebe and Sylvester put themselves through.  Tom is perfection.  He is far to solid himself to ever be the hero of a Heyer novel but he is a perfect sidekick and I like to imagine he got the perfect ending he deserved, with a dependable, good-natured wife to give him many dependable, good-natured children and to support him when he became squire after his father’s death (at, one hopes, an advanced age since Mr Orde was also an excellent man).  Since Phoebe and Sylvester’s happiness is assured, Tom is the only one left to worry about.

It is a wonderful novel and it was a very happy way to end A Century of Books.  Yes, this is book #100 and I am so pleased that I saved it for last.  It was a fantastic reading project and it deserved to end on a high note.  I’ll talk more about the project as a whole on the weekend but for now I am just going to savour the fact that I am done.

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It is Christmas Eve and, though no stocking are hung by the chimney with care, all the presents are waiting under the tree to be unwrapped tonight, the potato salad is ready for our traditional Czech Christmas dinner, and I will be spending this peaceful day with nothing to do but read Sylvester by Georgette Heyer, my last book for A Century of Books and one of my favourite novels.  But this is not the only Georgette Heyer I’ve read this year and it is high time I mentioned the few I’ve reread over the past couple of months.  I am loving reading Heyer now at Christmas but there is really no season she is not suited for.

FredericaAlmost ten years ago, when I first just discovering Heyer, Frederica (published in 1965) was probably the third or fourth of her books that I picked up.  I have never forgotten how much I loved it on that first reading.  I had enjoyed the first few books but they were nowhere near as energetic or amusing as this.

The premise of the story is quite the romance novel cliché: after the death of her parents, Frederica has been managing her siblings and doing an excellent job of it.  Determined to see her beautiful sister Charis make a dazzling match, she takes her to London to track down the Marquis of Alverstoke, a distant cousin, hoping that he and his wife will sponsor Charis for the season.  There is no wife but, impressed by Charis’ beauty and Frederica’s single-mindedness, Alverstoke arranges for both girls to be brought out alongside one of his nieces.  At twenty-four, Frederica believes herself well-past the marrying age but no one else seems to agree.  As he spends more and more time with Frederica and her inquisitive younger brothers, Alverstoke begins to lose the blasé attitude that had so irritated his elder sisters and is infected by the Merrivile’s energy and optimism.  He and Frederica form a wonderful friendship and it does not take long for that friendship to ripen into love.

The first time I read this, I fell in love Frederica and the rest of the Merriville family and could easily understand how Alverstoke, finding himself entangled with them, could feel both overwhelmed by and attracted to their energy and intelligence – especially Frederica’s.  I particularly love the family focus here: Alverstoke’s elder sisters and their families are a daily (though not always welcome) part of his life and the Merrivilles – primarily Frederica, her beautiful sister Charis, and their two youngest brothers, Jessamy and Felix – are almost never apart.  Far too often in romance novels (though rarely in Heyer’s), the hero and heroine’s families are absent or only there to hinder them.  Here, we see how both Frederica and Alverstoke interact with their families on a daily basis, both supporting and, at times, annoying them.  Alverstoke’s sisters despair of what they see as his selfish disinterest in his nieces and nephews and Frederica’s siblings can find their confident sister a bit overbearing at times.  Our hero and heroine are wonderful characters but not, we are reminded by their relatives, perfect.

My favourite Heyer books are ones like this, where the characters are firm friends before there is any talk of love.  You see how they joke together, how they handle difficult situations (here, a disastrous balloon ride that injures one of Frederica’s brothers), and how happy they are in one another’s company.  When characters like this end the book in one another’s arms, there is never any doubt that their marriage will be a happy one.

Charity girlCharity Girl (published in 1970), which I read almost immediately after Frederica, is nowhere near as good but, like all of Heyer’s romances, is still great fun.  It is another friends-to-lovers story but the friendship here is longstanding.  Viscount Desford and Henrietta Silverdale have been friends since childhood and now, both in their late twenties, have spent years resisting their parents’ urgings that they marry.  Both insist – far too loudly – that they are not in love.  Desford may take delight in maligning Hetta’s other suitors but obviously that is only because he is such a good friend.

When Desford meets Cherry Steane, a ‘charity girl’ living at the mercy her demanding aunt and unpleasant cousins, he is upset by her circumstances but essentially disinterested.  However, when he meets her on the road the next day, running away from her relatives, he helps her.  With a pretty young girl on his hands, Desford hardly knows what to do so while he attempts to track down Cherry’s miserly grandfather he leaves the girl with the always dependable Hetta.  Hetta, willing as always to come to Desford’s aid, doesn’t quite know what to make of the relationship between her oldest friend and her new guest.  Could he have finally fallen in love?

Charity Girl has a bit too much in common with Sprig Muslin, published fourteen years earlier, which also features a romantic pairing of two old friends  prompted along after the hero assumes responsibility for a young runaway.  Sprig Muslin is much the better book but Charity Girl is fun too; though the supporting cast isn’t as delightful as in Heyer’s best books, Desford and Hetta are both excellent.  The quality of Heyer’s books did lag towards the end but the essentials were still there.

Lady of QualitySpeaking of lagging quality, Lady of Quality was Heyer’s last book (published in 1972) and is alarmingly similar to Black Sheep, which was published only six years before.  The story of Annis Wychwood and her involvement with a runaway heiress and her gruff guardian, Lady of Quality takes place in Bath and, for me, that was the best thing about the book.  Heyer’s books are always wonderfully full of detail, doing full justice to her extensive research about the Regency era,  and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Annis’ and Lucilla’s excursions into society, knowing how accurately Heyer was describing the activities available to young women in Bath.  As for the characters themselves, they are fine but the plot is ridiculously weak.  The ending is very slow in coming, prolonged by a pointlessly detailed spread of ‘flu through all the members of Annis’ household.  Heyer included many sickbed scenes in her novels – including excellent, pivotal ones in The Grand Sophy and Frederica –  but this is far from her best.  Rather than feeling exciting and fresh, the entire book felt lazy.  It has its moments but, on the whole, Lady of Quality is easily forgotten; I like to reread it every now and then but certainly not with the same frequency as I reread my favourites.

Now, back to reading Sylvester!  As fun as Frederica is (and it is clearly my favourite of these three), it does not come close to matching the joyful hilarity of Sylvester.  I rank A Civil Contract and The Grand Sophy as my top two favourite Heyer novels but Sylvester comes a close third.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  May you find many books under the tree and, more importantly, may you enjoy the time spent over the next few days in the company of your loved ones.

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The House on the CliffMaeve Binchy helped me through day one of this silly and inconveniently-timed cold I seem to have contracted but by the end of day two I was ready for something even less challenging and so I curled up Friday night with The House on the Cliff by D.E. Stevenson.  Everything about this book is simple – the writing, the plot, the characters – which makes it the perfect thing to read when your brain is feeling a bit fuzzy.  Though published in 1966, there are very few details in the story to date the book and it feels like something both written and set much earlier.

Elfrida Jane Thistlewood is twenty-one years old and working as an actress in London when she spots a mysterious advertisement in a newspaper, placed there by a law firm looking to make contact with her mother.  Elfrida gets in touch to let them know that her mother has recently died only to discover that her grandmother, who was estranged from her daughter after her youthful elopement, has died and left the family home, Mountain Cliff, to (in the absence of her mother) Elfrida.  It is extraordinary news and Elfrida, whose mother spent much of her final illness dreaming of her childhood home, cannot wait to see Mountain Cliff for herself.  When she does visit, she falls in love with it.  Despite having no money of her own to maintain it, she decides to keep Mountain Cliff, leave the stage (which she was not particularly attached to), and go and live there permanently.

As befits a light romance, everything goes relatively smoothly for Elfrida.  All of her neighbours love her and she loves them, finding the community of kind, sensible people she had longed for amid the flashy insincerity of her theatre friends in London.  Mountain Cliff’s invaluable housekeeper and handyman not only stay on after learning that Elfrida won’t be able to pay them but even invest some of their own money into building up the farm and maintaining the lands that come with the house.  There is a sinister cousin – a shifty character from Montreal – but his brief appearance does not do much to establish him as a real threat.  The only tension here – and it is never very tense – is over which of her admirers Elfrida will pick.  Will it be the matinee-idol she used to act with in London, the kind and well-off neighbour she befriended so easily, or the boyishly energetic junior partner at the law firm which has been handling her affairs?  It is clear from his first introduction which man will emerge victorious but, as always with Stevenson, it is fun to see the story unravel, especially since so little of the story is actually focused on romance.  Instead, mostly we see how Elfrida adjusts to her life in the country, falling in love with her new home by the sea.

The nice characters are nice, the nasty characters quite nasty, and nothing particularly unexpected happens in the entire book but it is just that which makes it delightful.  There is nothing wrong with reading about nice things happening to nice people.  There was not a lot here that particularly stood out for me – I doubt I will remember many of the details a month from now – but it was a pleasant story to immerse myself in for a few hours on a rainy night.  And it did remind me of one of the great attractions of Stevenson: she understands that there is no romantic fantasy as satisfying as one that revolves around real estate.  Books that feature several men vying for the attention of the heroine are fine; books that add in the unexpected inheritance of a fantastic house and the joy of establishing it as your home are much, much better.

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