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Archive for the ‘A Century of Books’ Category

For years, my favourite of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels has been Elizabeth and her German Garden.  It is such a joyous, entertaining, and comforting book that I can go back to it again and again and always be delighted.  I have loved many of her other novels, of course – The Pastor’s Wife, Christopher and Columbus, and Introduction to Sally stand out in my mind – but none of them have had quite the same magic.  None, that is, except Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther, which has now overtaken Elizabeth and her German Garden as my favourite.

An epistolary novel first published in 1907, Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther has only the barest of plots, which exists only for form’s sake, providing structure and a reason for Rose-Marie Schmidt to be writing these entirely wonderful letters.  And they are wonderful, just as Rose-Marie is wonderful.  Part of what usually attracts me to von Arnim is her talent for writing unsympathetic characters and having great fun at their expense, but Rose-Marie is a heroine in the same mould as Elizabeth, one who the reader can not only love but admire for her intelligence, independence, and wonderful sense of humour.

Rose-Marie’s letters begin when Roger (Mr Anstruther), a young Englishman who has spent a year boarding with the Schmidts in the small town of Jena while he was there studying German, confesses his love for her just before his departure.  The first flurry of letters – written every day, of course – reveal Rose-Marie’s amazement and joy that her feelings for Roger are returned.  They are silly, doting love letters but already Rose-Marie has revealed herself as an unusually funny and perceptive correspondent.  Her home life is dull and unpromising and Roger’s declaration brings with it not only the joy of love returned but the promise of a future away from her sour stepmother.  Forced to sit through one of her stepmother’s speeches about Roger in the wake of his departure, one in which she congratulates her step-daughter on being too old and, damningly, ‘sensible’ to have attracted Roger’s attentions, Rose-Marie cannot help but bristle:

 ‘I fear, though, he is soft.  Still, he has steered safely through a year often dangerous to young men.  It is true his father could not have sent him to a safer place than my house.  You so sensible –‘ oh, Roger! – ‘Besides being arrived at an age when serious and practical thoughts replace the foolish sentimentalness of earlier years,’ – oh, Roger, I am twenty-five, and not a single one of my foolish sentimentalnesses has been replaced by anything at all.  Do you think there is hope for me?  Do you think it is very bad to feel exactly the same, just exactly as calf-like now as I did at fifteen? – ‘so that under my roof,’ went on my stepmother, ‘he has been perfectly safe.’

Rose-Marie may not be the sensible spinster her stepmother sees her as but she is an intelligent woman, who, though happy to be in love, cannot see the point in defying convention and families – as Roger, the sentimental fool, is inclined to do.  She has read widely and knows the romance of rebellious love, of Tristan and Isolde, of Romeo and Juliet, only works if the lovers die at just the right moment, at the very height of their passion.  Living on to face the inevitable denouement and consequences of their folly would not do at all:

My point is, that if you want to let yourself go to great emotions you ought to have the luck to die at an interesting moment.  The alternative makes such a dreary picture; and it is the picture I always see when I hear of love at defiance with the law.  The law wins; always, inevitably.

Rather soon after their correspondence begins, you realise that Roger is regretting the rashness of his declaration and it is not long before their engagement is broken off.  This is when things start to get fun.

After a brief break, their letters resume again.  Rose-Marie has been ill but is now “…busy reading Jane Austen and Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth – books foreordained from all time for the delight of persons getting well…” and is happy to mend her friendship with Roger in the wake of their break.  These are the letters that make the book so very wonderful.  Rose-Marie writes friendly letters full of details of her own life, her philosophical ponderings, and her deliciously frank assessments of Roger’s character and actions.  They are amazing: candid, playful, witty, and, above all, intelligent.  Another character complains about Rose-Marie by saying “…there is something indescribable about her manners – a becoming freedom, an almost immodest frankness, an almost naked naturalness, that is perilously near impertinence” but it is that freedom and that frankness that makes her so marvellous.

Rose-Marie is entirely unlike the other people in Jena, having nothing in common with the rural hausfraus and their daughters that make up the rest of her social circle.  There is one girl who is her particular friend – a young woman whose fiancé broke their engagement, leaving her family shamed and poorer after all the expenses they had incurred preparing for her wedding – but though Rose-Marie loves her they are far from intellectual equals.  Jena is a town that prizes conventionality and sober respectability – no one who reads these letters could think Rose-Marie conventional or sober.  She reads widely and, most importantly, thinks about what she had read.  She delights in the natural world while maintaining a healthy skepticism of those who romanticise it.  She faces all her struggles with a sense of humour that is sharp but never cruel.  And she, no matter how upsetting the situation, never indulges in dramatics or sympathizes with those who indulge in dramatics of their own.  She calmly states or reasons out her arguments and there is a steadiness about her, a calmness and maturity that is very attractive.  She knows who she is and is content with the woman she has become:

At twenty-six I cannot pretend to be what is known as a young girl, and I don’t want to.  Not for anything would I be seventeen or eighteen again.  I like to be a woman grown, to have entered into the full possession of whatever faculties I am to have, to know what I want, to look at things in their true proportions.  I don’t know that eighteen has anything that compensates for that.  It is such a rudderless sort of age.  It may be more charming to the beholder but it is not half so nice to the person herself.

The point of this book is to get to know Fräulein Schmidt – Mr Anstruther’s character is revealed early on and found wanting – and she is a woman well worth knowing.

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I have read a lot of A.A. Milne’s work this year.  I have read his autobiography, original plays and adaptations, a children’s book, articles from his days at Punch, even wartime poetry…I have not so much sampled his work as attacked it, attempting to conquer as much as I could as quickly as possible.  It has been a delightful assault but none of it quite prepared me for Peace with Honour.  It is shockingly different from the rest of his work and I think that it is his best book – certainly his most important.

Published in 1934, Peace with Honour is Milne’s plea for pacifism.  None of his other books can come close to matching the passion with which he pleads his cause, his earnestness as he attempts to challenge his audience’s belief in the usefulness and inevitability of war.  He had been a pacifist even before his experiences during the First World War but his time in France certainly brought home the pointless wastefulness of it all and the contrast between the sentimental attitudes in Britain towards the war and its soldiers and the horrifying reality influenced him greatly.  As the 1930s began, with fascism and its accompanying militarism spreading in continental Europe, he wanted to challenge his reader’s notions about the purpose and value of war and ensure that the attitudes that had propelled them into the First World War were routed:

It is because I want everybody to think (as I do) that war is poison, and not (as so many think) an over-strong, extremely unpleasant medicine, that I am writing this book.

Milne argues clearly, intelligently and even amusingly in the best rhetorical tradition, laying out what he views as the obstructions to pacifism and then slicing through them with a blend of factual and emotional arguments.  There is nothing particularly calm or cool about his writing: you have no doubt that this is a book he poured his soul into.  It is literally a matter of life and death and it roused all his emotions.  He knew his aim was idealistic and ambitious, that it would upset people and be next to impossible to implement universally, but he had to try.  With the lives of future soldiers and civilians on his mind, with their deaths on his conscience, he had to try:

Nations fight in order to bring about the complete surrender of the conquered to the will of the conqueror.  That surrender is obtained by deliberate ‘slaughter and ruin.’  The last war involved women and children and the accumulated wealth of civilisation in slaughter and ruin.  The next war will involve them in a much greater slaughter and ruin.  This seems to be a good reason for making the next war impossible.  It does not seem to be a good reason for saying: ‘Can’t we agree to make the next war a nice war like the last war?’

Milne looks at the reasons nations go to war (material gain, honour, prestige, pride), the doubtful role of religion and morality, and, what seems to gall him most, the romantic conventions that surround war, even after the senseless slaughters of the First World War.  People wishing to commemorate their fallen heroes at sanitized memorials, ignoring the lingering deaths and crippling disfigurements that moved far beyond the battlefields, rouse all his anger:

We know […] that, of the casualties of the last war, not all were killed on the battlefield; that hundreds and thousands died painfully of wounds – in bed; that hundreds of thousands died slowly of gas-poisoning or disease – in bed.  Yet the sentimentalist, knowing this, still visualises death in war as something which comes cleanly and swiftly and mercifully, leaving its victim no more time for awareness than is necessary for a last message to his mother.

Milne is horrified that such thinking could have survived the war.  That people can still find ways to justify war as noble when they know how ignobly soldiers died less than twenty years before shocks him.  He has no time for the heroes these people speak of and no stomach for tributes to the glorious dead, who in death have been named as heroes through no act of bravery or impressive accomplishment, simply by virtue of their having died while in military service:

A man is indeed a hero if, longing for life, he accepts death of his own will.  How many heroes do we commemorate each year?  How many of the ‘immortal dead’ have deliberately died for their country?

Neither in its origins nor in its conduct is war heroic.  Splendidly heroic deeds are done in war, but not by those responsible for its conduct, and not exclusively and inevitably by the dead.  Of the ten million men who were killed in the last war, more than nine million had to fight whether they wanted to or not, and of these nine million some eight million did nothing heroic whatever before they were killed.  They are no more ‘immortal’ than a linen-draper who is run over by a lorry; their deaths were no more ‘pleasant’ and ‘fitting’ than the death of a stockbroker in his bath.

Milne is adamant throughout the book that there is no such thing as a just cause for war.  Ever.   Oh, the irony.  At the end of the book, Milne accuses the world’s leaders and opinion makers of lacking the imagination to envision a world where all the nations of the earth could agree to universal peace.  But Milne also lacked imagination: he could not conceive of circumstances under which he would condone war and yet by the end of the 1930s, his hatred of Hitler was so intense that he was a full supporter of war.

What changed?  When Milne wrote Peace with Honour, he was thinking of and fighting against the idea of war as a way to resolve an argument between two or more nations, usually over territory or resources or – worse – a matter of pride.  These were wars where there was economic value at stake or emotional value but never anything of real worth – nothing that one could objectively judge as right or wrong.  One nation wanted something another had and so they tried to take it.  One nation wanted to appear stronger or become larger so they attacked another.  An oppressed group wanted freedom so they fought their oppressor.  Those were the only kinds of war the world knew and that was what Milne reacted against.  These were not causes worth dying for and, more importantly, they were causes that could easily (if perhaps more slowly) be settled by diplomatic rather than violent means.  If Hitler had just been another Napoleon, intent on creating an empire, I think Milne would have remained a pacifist.  But Hitler wasn’t another Napoleon.  For Milne, it became a battle of Good versus Evil.

Milne actually examines the rise of fascism here but his conclusions are very, very wrong.  He believed that fascism by definition requires a war-like mentality of aggression and absolute obedience – true enough – but he thought that Hitler’s intention was more to unite and control his population than launch attacks on other countries.  Instead, the only thing Milne was correct in thinking was that fascism in either Germany or Italy would not survive another European war:

…however completely Fascist leaders may seem to have forgotten the horrors of the last war, we may be sure that the supreme horror of war is vividly in their minds: the knowledge that those who lead their country to Armageddon have no chance of surviving defeat and but little hope of enjoying victory.  Nothing is more certain in the uncertain future of Europe than that, if Fascist Germany or Fascist Italy is involved in the next war, it will not  a Fascist Germany or a Fascist Italy which will come out of it.  Even if (which is unlikely) civilisation survives that war; even if Germany is still a nation and Italy is still a nation; it is absolutely certain that there will be no Hitler, neither will there be any Mussolini, who will direct their destinies.

Knowing the violence with which Milne opposed Hitler, it was fascinating to read this and attempt to reconcile Milne’s passionate pacifism with his later Churchill-esque zeal for war.  It is surprising how easy that is to do.  He lays out his arguments so clearly, illustrates them with such approachable examples and analogies, that you are never in doubt as to what he believes and what he thinks is right and it is easy then to see how he could have viewed the war against Nazism as just.

There were so many other passages I wish I could have quoted but that is the kind of book this is.  Milne’s arguments are extraordinarily well done, so passionate, so heart-felt and so well-written.  It is an idealistic and overly hopeful book, especially in light of what was going on elsewhere in Europe at the time, but it is persuasive.  If I could only pick one of Milne’s books to share with other readers, this would be it.

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When I was little – eight or nine years old maybe – I was utterly fascinated by the idea of one-room schoolhouses.  Reading Glengarry School Days by Ralph Connor, published in 1902 but more likely set during the 1870s of the author’s youth, reminded me very much of that old fascination.  Its schoolroom scenes have much in common with those from some of my favourite childhood books – L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series – but offer a decidedly and irresistibly male perspective on growing up.

Set in a rural farming community in Ontario, Glengarry School Days follows the adventures of the boys of Glengarry.  The existence of females other than mothers is acknowledged but not encouraged – the dark days of the Glengarry school include the period when two “girl” teachers reign over it – so instead we hear quite a lot about the boys’ games, their rivalries, their friendships and also their lives away from school, including both their chores and their hobbies.  It is an episodic book, each chapter standing alone, offering glimpses into Glengarry and its youth over a period of some years.

Though the book really centers around Hughie Murray, the minister’s son, I was most intrigued by Connor’s portrait of Thomas Finch, who is slightly older than Hughie but still a close friend.  A large and awkwardly-spoken boy at the beginning of the book, Thomas unexpectedly becomes Connor’s way of discussing masculinity.  Yes, Thomas is large and strong but when his mother falls ill with breast cancer, he is the one who does most of the caring for her, not his sister.  He is as “gentle as a woman” in nursing her and everyone in the community admires him for it.  He plays hockey and works the farm – very masculine pursuits – but at no time is that presented as being at odds with his nursing of his mother.  Connor doesn’t belabour the point – I have made more of it here than he does in the entire book – but I still think it is an important one: tenderness is just as natural an aspect of a man’s character as it is of a woman’s.

Ralph Connor was the penname for Charles Gordon, a Presbyterian/United Church minister, which explains why the book has such a strong moral tone – but not an unpleasant one.  I found it far more palatable than, say, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s or Louisa May Alcott’s books.   Hughie, for example, struggles with keeping secrets from his adored mother but rather than let things come to a dramatic crisis point, Connor lets Hughie work through his angst in a much more natural, internal way.  It felt true to the sort of dilemmas children do find themselves in and Hugh came off as a normal child who dearly loved his parents rather than a saintly one who would never sin again.

But the moral and religious strength of Glengarry is not limited to improving its boys; it also gets hold of Jack Craven, the last in a string of teachers the school has during the course of the book.  Craven comes to Glengarry after his wild ways get him thrown out of college – just the sort of reject who all too often was in charge of such rural schools.  He is not a natural teacher and prefers to follow his own preferences rather than any well-rounded lesson plan.  He also does not bother to discipline the children, though they come to love him and so a sort of discipline does develop.  Slowly, under the influence of his admiring pupils, Craven begins to feel the duty to reform.  But it is really Mrs Murray, the minister’s wife and Hughie’s mother, who inspires his transformation.  She is one of those perfect, saintly women who always say exactly the right thing and who, without a word of reproach, with only their consideration and support, can shame one into wanting to be a better man.  Such Madonna-like characters used to be very popular – especially as minister’s wives – and are now terribly unfashionable (for better or for worse).  Regardless of current standards of political correctness, it is under Mrs Murray’s influence that Jack Craven is inspired to evolve from rakish youth to theological student.

I really loved this book.  I loved the descriptions of meals that could rival even the dinners in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books; I loved the excitement of the students over the “treat” of a spelling match; I loved that it addressed – intelligently – some of the challenges about growing up and the urge that even the most polite children feel to rebel.  Mostly I just loved the fun of it, of getting a glimpse into a childhood that felt very real and very relatable but still very different from my own experiences growing up a hundred years later.

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At the very top of the pile of books I took with me on holiday last week was High Rising by Angela Thirkell.  Thirkell is perfect holiday reading (though I am rather of the opinion that she is perfect for every situation and mood) and, after having read the twenty-one books that follow this, it seemed time for me to finally read the first of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, initially published back in 1933.  And there could be no more appropriate day to post my review as the beautiful new Virago Modern Classics editions of High Rising and Wild Strawberries are being released today.  (Can you guess what items one and two are on my Christmas wishlist this year?)

High Rising has a few minor differences from the later books in the series – some of the action actually takes place outside of Barsetshire!  A film actress other than the terribly prolific Glamora Tudour is mentioned! – but it is assuredly a Barsetshire novel, ending with not one but two engagements.

The book centers around Laura Morland and her friends in High- and Low Rising.  A widow with four sons, Laura took up novel writing as a way to pay the boys’ school fees after her husband’s death.  Now the author of a very successful series of thrillers aimed at women and with only one son (Tony) left at home, Laura is in her mid-forties and quite comfortable.  More comfortable, of course, when Tony is away at school, his presence being enough to shatter anyone’s nerves with his constant prattle (his obsession here is with model trains) and complete disinterest in the thoughts or feelings of anyone else.  Laura adores her son but has little patience with him:

When, for a quarter of a century, you have been fighting strong young creatures with a natural bias towards dirt, untidiness and carelessness, quite unmoved by noise, looking upon loud, unmeaning quarrels and abuse as the essence of polite conversation, oblivious of all convenience and comfort but their own, your resistance weakens.  Tony was no more trying than Gerald had been […] or John, or Dick, but she was older, and less able to deal with his self-sufficient complacency.  She had sent him to school at an earlier age than his brothers, partly so that he should not be an only child under petticoat government, partly, as she remarked, to break his spirit.  She fondly hoped that after a term or two at school he would find his own level, and be clouted over the head by his unappreciative contemporaries.  But not at all.  He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more, and, if possible, less interestingly.  Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive.

Tony, it must be said, is incredibly irritating in this book.  I adore him in later books where his egoism and confidence is so advanced past that of any ordinary human being as to make him irresistibly fascinating but here he really is just an obnoxious schoolboy full of incredibly dull conversation.  It is a frighteningly accurate portrayal of the average prepubescent, right down to his longing for any kind of audience at all: he is just as happy to address his remarks to Sylvia the dog as he is to any human.

The book takes place between Christmas and Easter (allowing us to see Tony on his school breaks) and focuses on a small group of Laura’s friends as they gossip and try to organise one another’s lives.  The main focus of their concern is George Knox, a widower and author who Laura has been friends with for many years.  He is entangled – though he does not quite realise it – in a dangerous situation with his new secretary, Miss Grey (known to her enemies as “the Incubus”).  With the assistance of Laura, Amy Birkett (the wife of the headmaster of Southbridge School), and Laura’s own secretary, Anne Todd, the Incubus is routed and George is free to follow his heart – once he takes the time to listen to it.  Laura is also responsible for matching Sibyl Knox, George’s daughter, with Adrian Coates, Laura’s publisher.  It is an easily sorted affair – Adrian being very receptive to Laura’s guidance and occasional knocks over the head – but the exchanges between the love-addled Adrian and the exasperated Laura were some of the most amusing in the book.  When he, consumed by unspoken love for Sibyl, drinks too much at a New Year’s Eve party and crashes his car when driving Laura home, her wrath is magnificent.

For me, the real delight of High Rising was getting to know Laura Morland.  Honestly, I thought I had known her.  I had, after all, read twenty-one Barsetshire books and Mrs Morland shows up in at least fifteen of them.  I thought our acquaintance was pretty firm.  I knew her as the hair-pin dropping, slightly absentminded, self-deprecating but incredibly successful author of “good bad books” and, of course, as the frequently exasperated mother of the always trying Tony.  I adored her already but this book gave me even more reason to, delighting me by revealing new aspects of her character.  She can be direct and forceful, not just in dealing with Tony and his friends but also with her hapless male friends, specifically Adrian and George, who both do their best to try her patience over the course of the novel.  Any woman who can refusal a proposal by saying “You great mass of incompetence and conceit, you revolt me” is worthy of my admiration.

High Rising is a delightful introduction to Barsetshire and I am thrilled that for once I will be able to post a review of an Angela Thirkell novel knowing that other readers will easily be able to track down a copy if they so wish!

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Reading A.A. Milne’s The Day’s Play and Once a Week, both collections of pieces he wrote for Punch during the 1900s and 1910s,  this year has reminded me how much I enjoy good humourous writing.  The obvious next step was to reacquaint myself with one of my very favourite humourists and so I picked up Behind the Beyond by Stephen Leacock.

It was famously said that during the height of his fame more people had heard of Stephen Leacock than had heard of Canada.  Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town remains popular a hundred years after its initial publication but, though some of his other works remain in print, they are sadly less known.  Behind the Beyond came out in 1913 but the pieces in it are just as funny today as they were then.

The book begins with the title piece, a fantastic parody of a night at the theatre, making fun of both the play itself (here an all-too plausible melodrama, about an intergenerational love triangle with a dying heroine, the quality of which varies dramatically as the acts progress) and the audience’s reaction to it.  It is the audience that makes this piece still so funny because, honestly, people never change:

‘Monsieur Harding?’ he says.

‘Oui.’

‘Bon!  Une lettre.’

‘Merci, monsieur.’ He goes out.  The audience feel a thrill of pride at having learned French and being able to follow the intense realism of this dialogue.

All of the stories are little bits of nonsense but they are well-written nonsense, the kind of inconsequential but amusing writing that there used to be a huge market for in the popular magazines and newspapers of the day but, alas!, no longer.  Leacock muses on, among other things, visits to the dentist and barber, an encounter with a genial hustler on a train and, at length, the tourist experience in Paris.  I loved “Making a Magazine”, a satirical piece about a struggling author who dreamt he was the editor of popular magazine, the kind of man who had tortured and disappointed him so many times in his waking life:

“I came to say, sir,” the secretary went on, “that there’s a person downstairs waiting to see you.”

My manner changed at once.

“Is he a gentleman or a contributor?” I asked.

“He doesn’t look exactly like a gentleman.”

“Very good,” I said. “He’s a contributor for sure. Tell him to wait. Ask the caretaker to lock him in the coal cellar, and kindly slip out and see if there’s a policeman on the beat in case I need him.”

“Very good, sir,” said the secretary.

I waited for about an hour, wrote a few editorials advocating the rights of the people, smoked some Turkish cigarettes, drank a glass of sherry, and ate part of an anchovy sandwich.

Then I rang the bell. “Bring that man here,” I said.

I found it particularly interesting to read this after having read so much Milne this year because the overlap is so clear.  It is easy to distinguish between the two author’s styles – Milne would always be more aggressive, trying to fit in more laughs per line, though not always successfully – but their topics are very similar and they are equally playful in employing various rhetorical devices for comic effect.  What I do really do notice when comparing Milne’s youthful writings with Leacock’s more mature efforts (Leacock was 14 years older than Milne) from the same period is the polish.  Leacock’s work feels finished in a way Milne’s, however delightfully entertaining I may find it, doesn’t.  Every story in this collection is good.  Yes, some stand out but they are all amusing and, more importantly, the humour is sustained through each story, never petering out after a strong start or coming on strong after a weak beginning.  Leacock’s writing feels refined, like the art that it was, and you can easily understand why he was one of the leading humourists of the day.

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I have incredibly fond memories of reading Edith Nesbit’s books as a child.  Five Children and It, The Enchanted Castle, and, of course, The Railway Children (which Simon reviewed not that long ago) were all favourites.  But I had never read any of her adult books so when I saw that Girlebooks had The Incomplete Amorist available, I thought I would give it a try.

Published in 1906 (the same year as The Railway Children), The Incomplete Amorist is not at all what I, as a fan of Nesbit’s children’s books, had been expecting.  The tale of a stupidly complicated love quadrangle between four equally dull (though in very different ways) lovers, it is disappointingly melodramatic and not in the fun way of, say, The Shuttle, which at least has a wonderful heroine to redeem the more outrageously dramatic twists.

Though most of the story takes place in Paris, it begins in England when the eighteen year old Betty, bored out of her mind by the monotony of her country life, meets Eustace Vernon, a thirty-something painter and world-class flirt.  At this point, the book seemed promising.  Nesbit writes the most wonderful description of Betty’s calculating and egotistical mother, who some years earlier had

…died resentfully, thanking God that she had always done her duty, and quite unable to imagine how the world would go on without her.  She felt almost sure that in cutting short her career of usefulness her Creator was guilty of an error in judgement which He would sooner or later find reason to regret.

And even Betty’s efforts at self-improvement made her seem quite sympathetic, as she tried to fill her days with something other than the parish duties that are expected from her as the vicar’s (step)daughter:

At eighteen one does so pathetically try to feed the burgeoning life with the husks of polite accomplishment.  She insisted on withholding from the clutches of the parish the time to practise Beethoven and Sullivan for an hour daily.  Daily, for half an hour, she read an improving book.  Just now it was The French Revolution, and Betty thought it would last until she was sixty.  She tried to read French and German – Télémaque and Maria Stewart.  She fully intended to become all that a cultured young woman should be.  But self-improvement is a dull game when there is no one to applaud your score.

But no, Betty is revealed as very, very dull and so is almost everyone she comes across.  When her secret (though, at least on her part, relatively innocent) meetings with Vernon are discovered, her father is horrified.  Thanks to the intervention of her worldly and quite wonderful aunt (the only interesting character in the whole book), Betty soon finds herself in Paris, studying art.  At first she is there under the chaperonage of an eminently respectable woman but before too long Betty finds herself on her own and it just so happens that is when Vernon re-enters her life.

It has only been a few months since they parted in England but, true to form, Vernon has filled that time with more love affairs.  In Paris he is already renewing his acquaintance with an old lover, Lady St. Craye, but Betty – more confident and more focused now that she has experienced independence and her art is improving – catches his interest.  She also catches the interest of his much more respectable and forthright acquaintance, Robert Temple, though Temple also wonders if he might not be in love with Lady St. Craye.  They are all entirely useless, though Lady St Craye and Vernon gain the additional honour of being entirely unsympathetic.  Betty and Temple are stupid enough to deserve some of our pity; Lady St Craye and Vernon are far too calculating and their view of love as a game of tactics is repellent (as is Nesbit’s inclination to let us know all of their very repetitive thoughts).

I think I could have forgiven the book its painfully dull characters and predictable final pairings if it had had a sense of humour.  Sadly, aside from a few arch remarks in the first part, this is a book that takes itself altogether too seriously.  What fun someone like Elizabeth von Arnim could have had with this concept!  There is a happy ending and there are some rather sweet scenes towards the end – particularly the sentimental reconciliation between Betty and her loving but distant stepfather – but The Incomplete Amorist in no way lives up to the excellence of Nesbit’s children’s books.

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I am not drawn to poetry.  I was never one of those sentimental adolescents who spends hours scribbling their feelings in verse and, aside from a brief infatuation with Tennyson, was never particularly drawn to the works of any major poet.  So what compelled me to pick up Summoned by Bells by John Betjeman, a memoir in blank verse from 1960?

I actually got on with it much better than I had expected.  I had liked what I had read of Betjeman’s work before – light verse being my only poetic preference – but really knew very little about his early life, except that his teddy bear had inspired Sebastian’s Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited.  Here, he covers the years leading up to his departure from Oxford (“failed in Divinity!”), which suits me perfectly: childhood memoirs are always my preference.

Betjeman is so good at creating very personal and very vivid images with his poetry, this passage about his beloved teddy bear (Archibald Ormsby-Gore) being a perfect example and one of my favourite excerpts from the book:

Safe were those evenings of the pre-war world
When firelight shone on green linoleum;
I heard the church bells hollowing out the sky,
Deep beyond the deep, like never-ending stars,
And turned to Archibald, my safe old bear,
Whose woollen eyes looked sad or glad at me,
Whose ample forehead I could wet with tears,
Whose half-moon ears received my confidence,
Who made me laugh, who never let me down.
I used to wait for hours to see him move,
Convinced that he could breathe.  One dreadful day
They hid him from me as a punishment:
Sometimes the desolation of that loss
Comes back to me and I must go upstairs
To see him in the sawdust, so to speak,
Safe and returned to his idolator.

Blank verse is an interesting format for memoir and I did learn a lot about Betjeman’s early life – there was a terrifying nanny, a father disappointed by his son’s disinterest in joining the family business, a few darling nursery school love affairs, and some miserable years at school – but I longed for more detail.  And in prose.  I cared far more about the facts that I did about the style in which they were conveyed, which has always been my problem with poetry.  Where the prose writer would indulge in expansive detail, the poet practices artful restraint.  It is an impressive skill but not one I can fully appreciate, not when I am so nosy as to long for more information!

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When I saw Under a Cruel Star by Heda Margolius Kovály, a memoir about life in Czechoslovakia from 1941 to 1968, in the House of Anansi catalogue last spring, I immediately asked if they would send me a copy.  They, being extraordinarily kind and exceeding prompt, did so immediately and I am ashamed that it took me until October to finally read it because it is truly an extraordinary book.

It is the sustained power of the book that is most remarkable.  Beginning with Kovály’s wartime experiences in the Lodz Ghetto and then in a labour camp and continuing through until the autumn of 1968, when she left Prague after the Russian invasion, there is not a single moment when her story lags.  It is horrifying, capturing some of the worst features of the 20th Century, but mesmerizing and wonderfully told.

Kovály was a survivor.  The rest of her family perished in the Holocaust, but not she.  Towards the end of the war, she and fellow female inmates were being marched west, away from the ever encroaching Eastern front.  She and a couple of the other girls managed to escape the guards, despite their weakened states:

People often asked me: How did you manage?  To survive the camps!  To escape!  Everyone assumes it is easy to die but that the struggle to live requires a superhuman effort.  Mostly, it is the other way around.  There is, perhaps, nothing harder than waiting passively for death.  Staying alive is simple and natural and does not require any particular resolve.

When she finally reaches her home, when she returns to Prague…for me this was the most affecting portion of the whole book.  She wanders from friend to friend, trying to find someone who will shelter and help her.  Her best friend, who had sworn when Kovály and her family were deported to do all he could for them, is horrified when she appears at his door and rushes her away.  Other can supply food, some clothes, maybe a bed for night but there is no warm welcome to greet her.  After so many years spent living under Nazi rule, everyone is terrified and fear is the most common reaction to Kovály’s sudden appearance at their doors.  And why not?  After years of occupation and with the war’s end in sight, “what”, as one of Kovály’s friends asks, “sense is does it make anyway to risk one life for another?”  The posters in the streets, listing the names of people – sometimes entire families – killed for trying to help people like Kovály are a daily reminder of what danger her friends face by being in contact with her.

She eventually finds shelter and, finally, the war ends and she can emerge from hiding.  But, of course, nothing goes back to normal.  She is reunited with old friends who had been interned in other concentration camps – including Rudolf Margolius, who she would soon marry – but her family is gone as well as most of her possessions.  She and other Holocaust survivors did not receive a universally warm welcome back to Prague, as Kovály details in one of the most moving passages of the book:

Sometimes a bedraggled and barefoot concentration camp survivor plucked up his courage and knocked on the door of prewar friends to ask, ‘Excuse me, do you by any chance still have some of the stuff we left with you for safekeeping?’  And the friend could say, ‘You must be mistaken, you didn’t leave anything with us, but come in anyway!’  And they would seat him in the parlour where his carpets lay on the floor and pour herb tea into antique cups that had belonged to his grandmother.  The survivor would thank them, sip his tea, look at the walls where his paintings hung.  He would say to himself, ‘What does it matter?  As long as we’re alive?  What does it matter?’

At other times, it would not turn out so nicely.  The prewar friends would not make tea, would not suggest any mistake.  They would just laugh and say in astonishment, ‘Come on now, do you really believe we would store your stuff all through the war, exposing ourselves to all that risk just to give it back to you now?’  And the survivor would laugh too, amazed at his own stupidity, would apologize politely and leave.  Once downstairs he would laugh again, happily, because it was spring and the sun was shining down on him.

It would also happen that a survivor might need a lawyer to retrieve lost documents and he would remember the name of one who had once represented large Jewish companies.  He would go to see him and sit in an empire chair in the corner of an elegant waiting room, enjoying all that good taste and luxury, watching pretty secretaries rushing about.  Until one of the pretty girls forgot to close a door behind her, and the lawyer’s sonorous voice would boom through the crack, ‘You would have thought we’d be rid of them finally, but no, they’re impossible to kill off – not even Hitler could manage it.  Every day there’re more of them crawling back, like rats…’  And the survivor would quietly get up from his chair and slip out of the waiting room, this time not laughing.  On his way down the stairs his eyes would mist over as if with the smoke of the furnaces at Auschwitz.

The entire book is a consideration of the moral choices made under trying circumstances, of how human nature responds to the repressive force of totalitarianism, be it fascism or communism.  Though these forces – and the common passivity of most citizens when faced with an oppressive regime – shaped her life, Kovály retains a remarkably fair-minded perspective.  Her focus is not on her emotional reaction to her situation.  We hear about her feelings, yes, but more often we see her trying to make sense of what happened to her, trying to describe how and why people were acting in the ways that impacted her life, trying to track the moral descent that began with the Occupation and persisted after the war’s end:

Those who had compromised their integrity during the Occupation now began to calculate and plan, to watch and spy on each other, to cover their tracks, eager to secure the property they had acquired through collaboration with the Germans, by cowardice or denunciation, or by looting the homes of deported Jews.  Their sense of guilt and fear of retribution soon bred hate and suspicion directed mainly at the real victims of the Occupation: the active and passive resisters, the partisans, the Jews, and political prisoners; the honest people who had stood their ground and had not betrayed their principles even at the cost of persecution.  The innocent became a living reproach and a potential threat to the guilty.

For Kovály and her husband, communism seemed the answer to this kind of easily warped self-interest.  She does a particularly good job of explaining why they were drawn to communism and explaining the significant role their wartime experiences played in that:

A strong sense of solidarity had evolved in the concentration camps, the idea that one individual’s fate was in every way tied to the fate of the group, whether that meant the group of one’s fellow prisoners, the whole nation, or even all of humanity.  For many people, the desire for material goods largely disappeared.  As much as we longed for the comforts of life, for good food, clothing, and homes, it was clear to us that these things were secondary…

I will never agree with their reasons for being attracted to communism, but she makes their choice understandable and sets up the tragic situation that they, with Rudolf’s role in the government as Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade, help create.

By the early 1950s, Kovály realises that communism – or at least the communist government her husband is part of – is not going to provide the changes they had dreamt of.  The longed for equality is more distant than ever, as Party members live ridiculously indulgent lives and the Party itself gives preference to its members of ‘peasant’ stock as opposed to the bourgeois intellectuals, like Kovály.  Betraying an interest in theatre, music and literature was something to be avoided at Party banquets, where it was viewed as a sign of elitism.  These years, when the horrible corruption and suspicions beginning to take over everyday life, were awfully painful to read about, especially as they ended with Rudolf’s arrest and eventual execution after the sham Slánský trial in 1952. 

The life of a widow of a traitor is horrible but logistically fascinating.  Companies could not afford to hire employees in bad standing with the Party, so it was difficult for Kovály to find legitimate work to support her and her young son, Ivan.  The Party was responsible for housing, so naturally Kovály and Ivan were evicted from the nice apartment they had lived in during her husband’s tenure as deputy minister and rehoused in a dirty, frigid hovel.  Friends would not talk to her and other parents would not let their children associate with Ivan.  That is why they call it totalitarianism: the government truly does have total control over your life.

Kovály touches only briefly on the years following her second marriage in 1956 (to Pavel Kovály, an old friend) and leading up to 1968.  Her excitement during the Prague Spring was wonderful to read about, the joy at, after so many years of seeing the worst effects of communism on her society, finally seeing that there were still people who cared enough to demand to know what their government was doing, who wanted a role in shaping their own destiny:

All these young people had been reared in a society walled in by censorship, where the expression of any independent opinion was routinely treated as a crime.  What could they know about democracy?  How could they even know what they wanted?  But as the evening progressed, those of us who were much older grew even more amazed and impressed.  We were taken not only by the precision and clarity of the ideas that were voiced but by the high level of the discussion and the discipline of that mass of young people.  They knew exactly what they wanted and what they did not want, what was open for compromise and what they refused to give up.

Kovály left for American in the fall of 1968, tearing herself away from the city she loved.  She was encouraged that the yoke of unquestioning obedience had been broken but was not willing to spend any more of her life in the oppressive darkness of a totalitarian regime now that the Russians had invaded.  When the barbarians once again have control, and you have spent all your life fighting them to no avail, it is time to leave.  She wrote this book in exile, publishing it in Czech with 68 Publishers in Toronto (the publishing house run by Josef Škvorecký and his wife Zdena Salivarová that was devoted to publishing works by Czech and Slovak exiles and dissidents) in 1973.  Her exile was not permanent though: I understand that Kovály and her husband returned to Prague in the mid-1990s and she lived there until her death in 2010.   It is not an easy city to give up, as she well knew:

Prague is not an uncaring backdrop which stands impassive, ignoring happiness and suffering alike.  Prague lives in the lives of her people and they repay her with the love we usually reserve for other human beings.  Prague is not an aggregate of buildings where people are born, work, and die.  She is alive, sad, and brave, and when she smiles with spring, her smile glistens like a tear.

This review is now almost twice the length of what I write for most books, but then Under a Cruel Star is a very special book and probably deserves three or four times more than this. Kovály spent a large portion of her life living ostracized and endangered because of the policies of the governments at the time.  That taught her to loathe totalitarianism but it also taught her about people: how little pressure it takes for a friend to abandon you, how weak those communal bonds really are when tested, and how much stronger the instinct for self-preservation is than the instinct to fight for one’s moral beliefs in order to uphold the honour or accountability of their government.  Kovály shows neither the worst of humanity nor the best – just the average.  The everyman who, under Nazis or Communists, keeps his head down and avoids any entanglements that could cause him or his family trouble, even when he might feel a moral imperative to act.  But fear and self-preservation are usually stronger than even the most dearly held ideals.  These are the important lessons of the book and also the warnings: self-interest may be natural but it also means the destruction of justice and truth, of trust and a life truly worth living.

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

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2012 is apparently my year to aggressively delve into the world of intensely domestic, monotonously cosy, Scottish-set second-rate light romantic novels.  There has been a lot of D.E. Stevenson but I have also been sampling the works of O. Douglas (Anna Buchan).  My first few encounters with Douglas (Eliza for Common, Penny Plain and Priorsford) did not wildly impress me but I still enjoyed her writing.  I had decided she was nice, occasionally even clever, but not for me.  And then I read Taken By the Hand, published in 1935, and fell completely head over heels.

Taken By the Hand is the story of Beatrice Dobie, a rather quiet young woman who is used to living in the shadow of her outgoing mother.  But when her mother gets sick, Beatrice must face the idea of a future without her:

It had been so delightful to have a mother who did the work and the talking, leaving her to dream.  Beatrice quite realised that she was an anomaly in this age of competent young women.  She liked to look on at life, and the very thought of driving a car, or gliding, or indeed doing anything on her own, terrified her.  But what was to happen to her if she lost her bulwark?  If this mother so big and strong and dear was going to leave her she was lost indeed – but this was not a time to think of her own plight; she must try to calm her mother’s fears.

Sadly, her mother does die.  All of their friends – really her mother’s friends – worry about Beatrice, knowing how ill-prepared she is to face the world on her own.  What she really needs, they decide, is someone to take her by the hand and guide her through life, as her mother had done.  But Beatrice is not entirely alone in the world and moves to London to stay with her elder brother and his family.  Though she gets along rather well with her much older brother, the rest of his family is awful and Beatrice feels perpetually out of place.  It isn’t until she makes friends with the cheerful Sellars family that she really starts to be happy again.

Honestly, it has been quite a while since I read this and it is not the sort of book where every detail sticks in your mind.  What does stick is the wonderful warm feeling I got from reading it.  Beatrice is one of those quiet, good heroines who manages to be entirely wonderful rather than insufferable.  And the Sellars family is, to a man, delightful, though some are more delightful than others: my Angela Thirkell-conditioning to view all struggling young schoolmasters as potential love interests helped me warm to Christopher, the eldest son, particularly quickly.  If there was any doubt that they were a right-thinking family, just witness this conversation about Jane Austen:

When she closed the book, Christopher turned to Beatrice and laughing, remarked, ‘What a dangerous neighbour Miss Austen must have been!  ‘Round-cheeked, preternaturally capped, sedate!’… Isn’t it Chesterton who says that Jane Austen may have lived in towns where women were protected from the truth, but there was precious little of the truth protected from Jane Austen!’

‘But,’ said Beatrice, ‘she only laughed at people who deserve to be laughed at, like the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse, and the terrible Mrs Elton; and Mr Collins and Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.’

‘Mrs Bennet,’ said Christopher, ‘I can’t believe in.  She was too utterly foolish to be the wife of Mr Bennet and the mother of Elizabeth.’

Any time characters progress from reading Austen (aloud! En famille!) to discussing her, I cannot help but love them.

This is really a charming, heart-warming novel.  I have read two more of O. Douglas’ books since Taken By the Hand (Olivia in India and The Proper Place) and found them both wonderful but this remains my favourite.  Greyladies has been reprinting O. Douglas’ books in recent years and I can only hope they are planning to reissue this too.

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“Still Life with Books and Flowers” by Ethel Sands

I adore November.  It is probably my third favourite month, though I have only ever bothered to rank the top three (in case you’re wondering: 1. February, 2. April, 3. November).  Vancouverites will tell you that November is the most miserable month here, as it rains every single day and the sun never emerges.  This, I think, is what makes it so wonderful.  I get a little grumpy if the sun tries to stick around more than an hour or two a day this time of year.  There is nothing I like more than going out into the woods on a rainy day and walking about for a few hours.  And to be inside afterwards, warm and dry, curled up with a book while you listen to the rain…heaven.  The rest of the city is resentfully going into hibernation but I find myself more energetic than ever.

And I will need energy if I’m going to do what I’m thinking about doing.  I want to learn how to quilt, which would also mean having to learn how to use a sewing machine again.  I reread Jane Brocket’s The Gentle Art of Domesticity a few weeks ago and was so drawn to the bits on quilting that I immediately placed a library hold on Jane’s The Gentle Art of Quilt-making.  I sat down with it Saturday night, planning to flip through it in front of the television but it wasn’t long before I had abandoned my show (a rerun of As Time Goes By – forgive me Judi Dench) and had focused all my attention on the book.  Now, I know next to nothing about quilting so almost everything I read was new to me and it was all enthralling.  In the introduction, Jane talks about “how much I loved quilts and how much I wanted to make one, but…I was convinced it was all rules and regulations and…I thought it would be too difficult.”  A friend convinced her that there was no need to feel intimidated and then that was that.  After a weekend course on the basics of quilting, which you better believe I am already on the lookout for in my area, off she went.

The book focuses on 15 of Jane’s quilts and the inspiration behind their designs.  Because I am a total geek and information-hungry beginner, I found the actual directions even more interesting that the stories.  I went to bed Saturday night dreaming of fabric combinations and quilt patterns.  It was all very obsessive and very wonderful.  On Sunday afternoon, still feeling inspired, I decided to root through one of our chests and pull out some of the old family quilts.

Most of the quilts we have were made by my great-grandmother during the 1930s or my grandmother during the 1950s and 1960s.  Some are falling apart and stained while others are still in perfect condition but all of them use the most amazing patterned fabrics.  These old patterns always make me think of the endpapers in Persephone books.  I found these three particularly striking:

My only other completed reading this week was done on the go – a volume of Maeve Binchy short stories read while travelling around the city by bus.  I could not have had a more appropriate book to keep me company this busy weekend since the London-set Victoria Line, Central Line stories are focused around characters who also travel by public transit.  Victoria Line was originally published in 1978 and Central Line in 1980, making this the earliest of Binchy’s work that I’ve read; until now, I had only tried her novels.  Most of the stories aren’t particularly memorable – though there are a few exceptions, mostly for the stories with more sinister tones – and all seem to revolve around women with unstable but rarely addressed romantic relationships but they were enjoyable to read and made for a pleasant way to pass the time on my travels.

I am still working away at Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim and am falling more and more in love with the heroine with every page.  It is an epistolary novel so I am reading it one letter at a time, savouring the gnädiges Fräulein’s every thought, almost all of which (in the way of von Arnim) are worth remembering.  Being the same age as Fräulein Schmidt, I particularly loved this sentiment:

Dear Mr Anstruther, — It is kind of you to want to contradict what I said in my last letter about the outward appearance of my life, but really you know I am past my first youth.  At twenty-six I cannot pretend to be what is known as a young girl, and I don’t want to.  Not for anything would I be seventeen or eighteen again.  I like to be a woman grown, to have entered into the full possession of whatever faculties I am to have, to know what I want, to look at things in their true proportions.  I don’t know that eighteen has anything that compensates for that.  It is such a rudderless sort of age.  It may be more charming to the beholder, but it is not half so nice to the person herself.

How could I not love a book with such a heroine?

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