Archive for the ‘A Century of Books’ Category

I have read a lot – a lot – of D.E. Stevenson this year and there is more to come: I currently have three of her books out from the library, unread.  But I never know how to review her books because they are so much of a muchness, which is how we ended up here with a massive post of brief reviews for seven of her novels.

I started my D.E. Stevenson reading this year back in August with Celia’s House (1943), which is a bit of a strange book.  It is a reworking of Mansfield Park (why?  Of all of Jane Austen’s stories to use as a template for your own work, why this one?) that ignores all of the risqué and entertaining parts of the original story.

The book begins in 1905, when Celia Dunne decides to leave her house Dunnian to her great-nephew Humphrey on the condition that he leave it to his daughter Celia – a daughter he hasn’t yet had.  A sailor with a delicate wife (Alice) and three small children  (Mark, Edith and Joyce) already, Humphrey is thrilled to be left the home.  Mark and Billy and Celia, his two siblings born at Dunnian, also adore the house.  In addition to their own children, Humphrey and Alice take in Debbie, a distant cousin who comes to them when she is seven, after her mother remarries and moves to India.

Massive time jumps take the novel through the children’s’ untroubled youths, into their early adulthood in the 1920s, and all the way through to 1942.  At the heart of the story is Mark, who becomes a doctor and is the Edmund Bertram to Debbie’s Fanny Price.  It is not a clever reworking of Austen’s story, just a watered down retelling featuring benevolent parental figures who would like nothing more than to see Mark and Debbie together and rather toothless reproductions of the Crawford siblings.

In terms of family stories, Stevenson does a much better job with Amberwell (1955)and Summerhills (1956), detailing the lives of the Ayrton siblings who grew up at Amberwell, the family estate on the West Coast of Scotland.  Much of the first book focuses on their childhood, spent sharing adventures in Amberwell’s wonderful garden or holing up in the cosy nursery, a domain entirely their own where their distant parents seldom venture.  The two boys (Roger and Thomas) are sent off to school but their younger half-sisters (Connie, Nell and Anne) remain at home and as tightly knit as ever.  But then they begin to grow up.

The beautiful but dull Connie makes an early marriage, leaving Amberwell for her equally dull husband’s side.  For the others, their connection to the house is much more precious.  Roger, the heir, adores it and feels it is part of him.  Anne loves it but the poisonous words of her bitter Aunt Beatrice, whose heart broke when she had to leave Amberwell when her brother inherited, drive her into a foolish marriage.  Tom finds Amberwell is the only place that can settle him down after his traumatic experiences during the Second World War and Nell, well Nell is the one who keeps Amberwell alive for all of them during the dark years of the war, raising Roger’s motherless son, taking on the work of absent housemaids, and generally holding everything together so that all the siblings still have a home to return to.  This is really her story and she is wonderful.

Amberwell’s ending is cruelly abrupt but at least there is Summerhills, the sequel, which picks up shortly after the end of the first book.  It doesn’t have the excitement or sensational events of Amberwell but it does provide a very satisfying, pleasant conclusion to the Ayrton siblings’ stories with almost everyone appropriately paired off and their happy futures secured.

Vittoria Cottage and Young Mrs Savage, published in the late 1940s, are pleasant but forgettable stories about widows finding new love.  Both Caroline, from Vittoria Cottage, and Dinah, from Young Mrs Savage, had rather awful first husbands: Caroline’s was a pessimist who could never see the positive in anything and Dinah’s a charming cad, who lied and cheated on her.  Though they are at different points in their lives – Caroline is in her early forties with three practically adult children while Dinah is not yet thirty and has four children under eight  – it proves remarkably easy for them to find gentle, intelligent new love interests.  These aren’t bad books but then neither is either one particularly good.  Still, they are pleasant enough when you just need something unchallenging to pass the time.  I loved the seaside setting of Young Mrs Savage but, on the whole, I think Vittoria Cottage was the better of the two.   It is also the first in a triology so I am looking forward to the next two books.

And then there are the books about Sarah Morris.  Sarah Morris Remembers came out in 1967 and, so far, is my favourite non-Mrs Tim D.E. Stevenson book.  It follows Sarah through her childhood during the 1920s and 1930s and into young adulthood during the war.  I adore this kind of gentle coming of age story, especially ones set during this period, and Stevenson does an excellent job.  Sarah’s life isn’t particularly extraordinary; she is the daughter of an English country vicar, with two elder brothers and one spoilt younger sister.  (In any family with more than two children, Stevenson always seems to have at least one sibling who is irredeemably selfish and seems to exist entirely outside of the family circle.)  While in her early teens, Sarah’s brother brings home a university friend, an Austrian with the delightful name of Ludovic Charles Edward Reeder (his middle names having come from his Scottish mother), who quickly becomes very close with Sarah.  I love the name Ludovic (or Ludo) but he chooses to go by Charles among his English friends so Charles we must call him.  Over the years, they fall in love and by the late 1930s are ready to be married.  After the Anschluss though, Charles must return to Austria where his father, a prominent landowner but outspoken critic of Nazism, has been arrested.  Charles then disappears, presumably taken prisoner or dead, and the war begins.  Sarah, who spent her teen years studying languages having been inspired by Charles’ multilingualism, finds herself working as an interpreter in a department store once she and her father move to London and so the years pass.  Inevitably, the lovers are reunited and it is all very wonderful and satisfying.  Of all the books I’ve mentioned here, this is the only one I’m eager to buy for myself and which I look forward to rereading.

On the other hand, Sarah’s Cottage, which was published a year later in 1968 and continues Sarah’s story from the late 1940s onwards, is an altogether different matter.  Now married, Sarah and Charles have built a cottage on her grandfather’s estate in Scotland and, after having been separated by the war for so many years, are looking forward to a quiet life together.  And it is very, very quiet.  There are friendships with neighbours and some family issues revolving around Sarah’s elderly grandparents and also the care of her neglected niece but, essentially, nothing happens in this book and not in a charming, endearing way.  No, in a boring, tedious, why-isn’t-this-as-good-as-the-first-book way.  There is an idyllic Scottish setting and we get to see more of Sarah’s wonderful grandparents but those are the only real positives.  The book is scattered and episodic, clumsily catching up with Sarah after lapses of several years.  She will talk to another character about events that took place years before as if they happened the previous week.  I found that particularly frustrating and none of the characters or their endeavours were enough to keep me that involved in the story.

For me, the only trouble with these D.E. Stevenson books is that none of them have any real sense of individuality.  These books are all pleasant and gentle, but they all blend together, featuring characters and locations that are barely distinguishable from one book to the next with writing that is simple and clear but lacks any sort of flair.  I do like flair but the only time D.E. Stevenson seems to have any is in the Mrs Tim books (which is why I will be giving Mrs Tim Gets a Job the individual attention it deserves and am not lumping my review of it in with the rest).  Still, there is a time and a place for this sort of novel.  You don’t always want authors like Angela Thirkell, Georgette Heyer or Agatha Christie, whose distinctive style and strong authorial voice can be overwhelming in large doses even though it makes them much more fun to read.  Stevenson is much gentler and (outside of the Mrs Tim books) seems to shy away from any sharp humour, opting instead for straightforward family stories and light romances.  These she does very well.  Her books are always nice and always just right for a cosy afternoon or a dopey sick day when you want something enjoyable but not too challenging.

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I cannot remember the last book that made me cry as much as Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle and I mean that as the highest form of praise.

Last month, Lisa posted a review of The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle, a book I had never heard of before.   Like so many children, I grew up reading L’Engle’s children and young adult books but she was never one of my favourite authors.  I liked A Wrinkle in Time, was bizarrely attached to Many Waters, and still keep my copies of A Ring of Endless Light and Troubling a Star on my bookshelf today but I never felt the urge as I did with other authors to find about more about L’Engle herself.  So, until I read Lisa’s review, I had no idea that she had written quite a bit of non-fiction, mostly about faith, but also a set of four memoirs called the Crosswicks Journals, named after her family’s home in Connecticut.

Two-Part Invention is the last of the four journals, published in 1988 but focused on the events of 1986, when L’Engle’s husband of forty years, the actor Hugh Franklin, was dying of bladder cancer.  Diagnosed in the spring and dead by the end of September, his illness was intense and very difficult to read about.  I always struggle to read about illness but this was especially tough, perhaps because the indignity of it felt so cruel, with one ailment piling on top of another and then another as his body weakened.  And, of course, it is made that much more painful since we are witness to L’Engle’s thoughts as she is forced to watch this happen to the man she adores.

The majority of the book is not about Franklin’s final illness but about his life with L’Engle: the subtitle of the book is “The Story of a Marriage”.  L’Engle takes us back to her childhood in New York City and, later, in Europe, where the family moved in hopes of finding a climate better suited to her father’s lungs, damaged during the First World War.  Later, there are her college years (now back in the States) and her early twenties in New York, where, after auditioning for Eva Le Gallienne, Margaret Webster and Joseph Schildkraut, she found herself hired as an understudy for a Broadway play.  I loved reading about her years in the theatre, mostly because it is a world entirely foreign to me.  She was never going to be a great actress – nor did she aspire to be – but she was an excellent observer and her stories about the other actors and their experiences on the road fascinated me.  And it was in the theatre that she met Hugh and they began their courtship.

That background takes up only the first hundred pages or so and I loved it.  Then, moving on to the next section, I was in for a bit of a shock as L’Engle’s started talking about religion and its role in her life.  Since it had barely been mentioned at all until then, I wasn’t quite prepared but then I never am when religion makes an appearance in any book or conversation.  It has never been part of my life, nor have I ever been close to anyone even vaguely religious.  I find it fascinating to read books by intelligent, thoughtful believers, which L’Engle certainly was, but it can make for very strange reading.  For example, I am always momentarily taken-aback when I come across people asking others for prayers or when someone says they have considered a problem “prayerfully” (as their doctor did regarding Franklin’s treatment).  It is a lovely and tender sentiment but it is utterly foreign to me and it took some time to get used to the casual frequency with which prayer is mentioned.

But get used to it I did and, truly, I think this is one of the best perspectives on faith that I have ever read.  Her faith played a major part in L’Engle’s life and it was interesting for me to see what comforted her and also how her experiences made her reflect on her relationship to God and with her religion.  She is not pushy or preachy about her beliefs; this is simply her faith and it is what sustains her.  I really don’t think she could have cared less about trying to convince any non-believers among her readers (which I, as an emphatic non-believer, appreciated).  When she ponders questions of faith (as she does frequently), she does so for her benefit and understanding, not ours.  It makes for a deeply personal book, especially since these reflections and so closely tied to her feelings about her husband’s illness and decline.

Really though, the focus is not on faith or death but on love, specifically the love that sustained L’Engle and Franklin through forty years of marriage.  I grew up surrounded by wonderful examples of healthy, supportive long-term relationships and so the lessons L’Engle notes are ones I grew up hearing, especially “a long-term marriage has to move beyond chemistry to compatibility, to friendship, to companionship.  It is certainly not that passion disappears, but that it is conjured with other ways of love.”  That evolution wasn’t always easy but L’Engle recognizes that the difficult years played just as much of a role in cementing their marriage as the happy ones:

Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static.  Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up.  There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs.  I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen.  The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys.  I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over.  Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without.

Throughout the book, L’Engle embraces all that life has to offer, both the joys and the pains.  I was struck by the warmth and love that filled her life, obviously in her marriage but also in the close bonds she maintained with her three children and grandchildren, and her many friends and godchildren.  She and Franklin seem to have had a gift for loving and accepting others and there was a real sense of tenderness in all their relationships, both the long term ones and even the short term ones with Franklin’s dedicated team of nurses and doctors.  I was left with a longing to belong to the Franklin/L’Engle circle of friends – it sounds like a wonderful group to be part of and their marriage, rock solid but always evolving, was at the heart of it.

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Oh dear.  If there is one book I recommend you not read it is Tommy and Grizel by J.M. Barrie.  Barrie is hit and miss at the best of times so I did not have had high expectations going in but I still didn’t expect something this dull and repetitious.  If I hadn’t been reading it for my Century of Books (I was really eager to check 1900 off), I would have abandoned it after the first hundred pages.

Tommy and Grizel is the sequel to Sentimental Tommy, which I’ve never read but the title alone gives you a pretty firm idea of Tommy’s character.  His biographer, who is relating Tommy’s life to us, is not overly fond of his subject, which leads to some delightfully critical remarks.  The book actually began well; the narrator’s constant jabs at Tommy and determination to not say anything that would make the reader think well of him are rather amusing.  For example, when Tommy launches himself on London and his idea of himself begins to inflate, he wants to leave behind the name of his childhood.  Our narrator will have none of it: “…to be called Tommy by anyone was now detestable to him (which is why I always call him Tommy in these pages).”

When first arrived in London, Tommy works for Pym, a hack writer of sensational stories.  He dictates these to Tommy and, slowly, Tommy begins adding his own polishes, awed by his own talent.  What he actually creates is incredibly poorly written sentimental drivel that no one wants to read.  Pym is horrified when he finally finds out about Tommy’s modifications:

The plot was lost for chapters.  The characters no longer did anything, and then went and did something else: you were told instead how they did it.  You were not allowed to make up your own mind about them: you had to listen to the mind of T. Sandys; he described and he analysed; the road he had tried to clear through the thicket was impassable for chips. 

T. Sandys finally makes his mark as the author of the extremely priggish and extremely popular Letters to a Young Man About to be Married, in which he waxes poetic on the nobility of women and the responsibility of man.  So far, so good.  The narrator was still making enough fun of Tommy to keep me interested.

But then Tommy returns to his home town in Scotland and is reunited with Grizel, his childhood love with as tragic a background as a sentimentalist could wish, and the rest of the book is a tedious and wandering exercise in descriptive writing.  I could not bear it.  The narrator doesn’t want us to like Tommy and, trust me, I was at no time tempted to like him.  Or Grizel.  Or, really, anyone in the entire book (except maybe the narrator and even he earned my wrath by going on and on and on).

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In 1940, Behind the Lines by A.A. Milne was published as a diary of the first nine months of the war, written in light verse.  That makes for about as strange a book as you would expect, war and light verse not always being the most obvious companions.  But like any wartime diary, there is something terribly fascinating about it, particularly since Milne is not afraid to express strong opinions and attaches to each poem explanatory notes that give further insight into his feelings at the time.

Some focus on domestic affairs – the chore of drawing the blackout curtains (and mislaying the pins), the confusion of travelling by rail when conductors no longer call out the name of the next station, or the horrid scarcity of salted butter (a favourite topic for Milne through the years – he loathed unsalted butter, likening it to Vaseline) – while others turn a sharp eye on the government and its foes.  He is particularly good with poems about Hitler’s Germany, his passionate hatred of Hitler serving as his muse.  “Unity”, about a meeting of Hitler and his associates, was my favourite poem in the book and the one that most perfectly matches form with subject as he imagines the inner thoughts of and petty rivalries between Goering, Goebbels, Ribbentrop, et al.  His commentary is particularly pointed in these poems; in “The Supermen”, he ridicules Hitler’s fantasy of Aryan dominance and the superiority of the German mind when the Führer has so restricted their freedoms that these “supermen” have no chance to think for themselves:

A race of supermen indeed!
Who may not talk or think or read,
Or hear what all the world has heard,
Till Teacher kindly gives the world.
Their wonder-brains!  so ill-designed
To use the functions of the mind
That any thought remotely free
Unsettles the machinery.
One doubtful rumour from the Dutch
(It seems) would disengage the clutch;
One broadcast message from the Turks
Would absolutely crash the works;
One leaflet from a British plane
Would pulverise the wonder-brain!

Of the poems focusing on England, the more personal ones are the best, perhaps because they come closest to being a true diary (as opposed those that give more general commentary on society).  Part of what I like about Milne is that in all of his books you get to glimpse him.  And how better to get to know a person than to hear them voice their frustrations, as Milne does in “Weather Report”, lamenting that the local weather is no longer printed in the paper thus stealing the pleasure he used to get from knowing how the temperatures at his home compared to those in nearby villages and towns:

For in the happy days of old
One scanned the news to see
If Littlehampton were as cold,
Or Looe as hot, as we.
But now comparison is gone –
Not least of Hitler’s crimes
Is that he put the kybosh on
The weather in The Times.

I crack the still unrationed egg,
I carve the rationed ham,
I know it’s cold in Winnipeg
And cold in Amsterdam;
I munch the sparsely-buttered toast,
I stir the tasteless tea,
But know not (what intrigues me most)
The min. at Brightlingsea.

What is most interesting, to me at least, is Milne’s commentary on the moral implications of the war.  A lifelong pacifist, he had written Peace with Honour in 1934 detailing his beliefs and explaining why he was averse to war, or at least war as the world had known it up to that point.  But war with Hitler was another thing entirely, as he makes clear in “To America”:

Well, are you coming in?
It’s a fight between Good and Evil,
It’s a fight between God and the Devil.
Where do you stand today?
Which are you for?  You have chosen, yes,
But is it enough for men to bless
The men who fight, and to turn away?
Is it enough for women to cry,
And to say “Poor things” when the innocent die?
Is it enough to give your prayers,
And then – go back to your own affairs?
It’s a fight for all that you counted dear,
It’s a fight for all that you fought to win:
The fight is on, and the issue clear:
Good or Evil,
God or the Devil…
Well, are you coming in?

This idea of Good versus Evil comes up repeatedly and, knowing that other pacifists or conscientious objectors would have something to say about his apparent change of heart, he addresses them directly in one of his notes:

…I think that there is a difference between refusing to “use the sword” to defend oneself, and refusing to use it to defend the innocent and helpless.  I cannot believe that, if Christ in His journeys had come across a sadist torturing a child, He would have been content to preach a parable.  The Conscientious Objector does believe this.

Frankly, the majority of the poems are forgettable and a number feel laboured and are quite awkward to read.  Yet, every so often, there is one that pops out at you and it is those ones that make this book special, along with Milne’s reflections about the circumstances under which they were written.

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By this point in my life, reading Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw is more an exercise in memory than in comprehension.  I think I first read the play when I was fourteen but even by that time I had seen the excellent Leslie Howard/Wendy Hiller film countless times, watched the film of My Fair Lady so often I had memorized every song and knew the details of every Cecil Beaton costume, and attended stage productions of both the play and the musical.  Since then, my familiarity with the play has only grown and so actually reading it seems slightly superfluous – what is the point when you have almost every line memorized?

Still, it is too enjoyable not to revisit every now and then.  The story of Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl transformed under the guidance of the eccentric Professor Henry Higgins into a well-spoken young woman who is able to infiltrate the highest level of society without betraying her origins, is Shaw’s masterpiece.  The dialogue is as sharp and the characters as memorable now as when the play premiered a hundred years ago.  Eliza herself is, as Higgins eventually admits, magnificent, full of intelligence and passion.  Her father Alfred Doolittle (always a favourite in any production) is hilarious right from his first scene, when he attempts to get money off of Higgins and Colonel Pickering after hearing that they have abducted his daughter for no doubt nefarious purposes.  Poor Doolittle meets a suitably comic fate, reduced to a lifetime of respectability after an unwelcome inheritance traps him into the dreaded world of middle-class morality.  Henry’s mother Mrs Higgins is as formidable and quick-witted as you would need to be to raise a son like Henry but it is Higgins himself who is always my favourite.  Full of boundless energy and arrogance, easily distracted and even more easily irritated, he is an irresistible but intensely frustrating character, which is the genius of Shaw.  You can understand why Eliza is attracted to him but, at the same time, you can understand why she leaves him.  Higgins has made a profession out of changing other people but he himself will never change.

Pygmalion deals with some fascinating themes, not the least of which is female emancipation.  Higgins himself admires independence but, in turning Eliza into a model lady, he creates a creature unable to stand on her own.  As a flower girl, Eliza had independence and a job, lowly as it was; as a lady, her options are considerably narrower.  Even Higgins cannot think of much for her beyond marriage:

HIGGINS. I daresay my mother could find some chap or other who would do very well –

LIZA. We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court Road.

HIGGINS. What do you mean?

LIZA. I sold flowers.  I didn’t sell myself.  Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.

But that is just the sort of woman he hates most, the docile, doting wife without any agency of her own.  He professes to hate Eliza’s attempts at domesticating him, berating her for thinking that such small acts in service of his own comfort would make him like her better:

LIZA. Don’t sneer at me.  It’s mean to sneer at me.

HIGGINS. I have never sneered in my life.  Sneering doesn’t become either the human face or the human soul.  I am expressing my righteous contempt from Commercialism.  I don’t and won’t trade in affection.  You call me a brute because you couldn’t buy a claim on me by fetching my slippers and finding my spectacles.  You were a fool: I think a woman fetching a man’s slippers in a disgusting sight: did I ever fetch YOUR slippers?  I think a good deal more of you for throwing them in my face.  No use slaving for me and then saying you want to be cared for: who cares for a slave?

It is only once Eliza rejects him thoroughly and unapologetically that he truly comes to like her and to see her as a person in her own right rather than just the result of his brilliant tutelage.

When the play was published in 1916 (it was first performed in 1912), Shaw included an epilogue “What Happens Afterwards” in the form of an essay, trying to put an end to producers’ attempts to give Eliza and Higgins the romantic happy ending that so jarred with their relationship as Shaw wrote it.  While I adore Acts Four and Five of the play (which see Eliza and Higgins’ most intense and emotional confrontations), this is the most interesting part of the book to me.  Eliza marries the foolish fop Freddy and they struggle to make a living running a flower shop, eventually taking business classes so they have at least some idea of what they should be doing.  It is not a luxurious life but it is the one Eliza chose and Freddy, though he may be a bit dim, worships her.  And though Eliza never regrets her marriage, neither does she give Higgins up:

She is immensely interested in him.  She has even secret mischievous moments in which she wishes she could get him alone, on a desert island, away from all ties and with nobody else in the world to consider, and just drag him off his pedestal and see him making love like any common man.  But when it comes to business, to the life that she really leads as distinguished from the life of dreams and fancies, she likes Freddy and she likes the Colonel; and she does not like Higgins[…]Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.

As always, this was fun to reread and now I am feeling the need to revisit the 1938 film.  No one could be quite so perfect a Higgins as Leslie Howard.

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As we settle into autumn here, with the days growing shorter and the rain falling all day and all night, it is undoubtedly the time to start picking up cosy books to be read by the fireside.  Penny Plain by O. Douglas, if you haven’t read it yet, would be a perfect choice.

At twenty-three, Jean Jardine is entirely responsible for her two teenage brothers and one younger, adopted brother.  She keeps their tiny cottage in the small Scottish town of Priorsford as warm and as welcoming as you could wish a home to be, despite their limited funds.  Though she hardly considers it, hers is a life of duty: she always puts others before herself, patiently and generously giving her time and energy to her family and neighbours.  When Pamela, an aristocratic Englishwoman in her early forties, comes to stay on holiday near Jean, she immediately recognizes the younger woman’s sterling qualities and strikes up a warm friendship with her.  Pamela quickly identifies herself as worthy of our respect after proving that she shares her new friend’s passion for reading:

‘I needn’t ask if you are fond of reading,’ Pamela said.

‘Much too fond,’ Jean confessed.  ‘I’m a ‘rake at reading’.’

‘You know the people,’ said Pamela, ‘who say, ‘Of course I love reading, but I’ve no time, alas!’  As if everyone who loves reading doesn’t make the time.’

Pamela dreams of using her own wealth to help Jean see more of the world and to give her a bit of pleasure after years of necessary servitude.  And when Pamela’s brother Lord Bidborough arrives he is even more entranced.

There is something very old and staid about Jean – far too old for a girl of twenty-three – that makes her unusually appealing.  Yes, I admire an energetic do-gooder brimming with happiness and optimism as much as the next person but Jean is better than that: she is steady, reliable and deeply responsible.  This is exactly what her brothers need her to be but she has not made herself over for their convenience: this is who she is.  As she complains to Pamela,

‘I never know why people talk so much about youth.  What does being young matter if you’re awkward and dull and shy as well?  I’d far rather be middle-aged and interesting.’

Jean isn’t precisely charming nor is she winsome (those are adjectives I’d probably reserve for Pamela) but, better than that, she is sensible.  There is something very refreshing about a heroine who you can respect, of whom you can think “yes, this is someone I would trust completely.”  And she is very, very good without somehow being insufferable.  Anyone who she encounters is sure to be met with kindness, from the lowliest beggar to the loftiest millionaire.  This is precisely how Jean finds herself with a large and very surprising inheritance that changes her circumstances dramatically.

Penny Plain is a sweet book in the very best sense of the word.  It is not challenging or ground-breaking and the characters are not original or even particularly memorable.  But as you read you feel wrapped up in their world, in the cosy but occasionally cloying community of Priorsford and, more specifically, in the close-knit Jardine family.  Jean’s fairy tale is quite straightforward – there is an upright hero as well as a mysterious benefactor and a sort-of fairy godmother – but it is immensely satisfying.  As much as I love witty quips and sharp satirical observations, sometimes a sentimental story simply told is just what I need.   This is an ideal comfort read, the perfect book to be read next to a fire on a cold, wet night, curled up under a blanket, with tea close at hand.

The sequel, on the other hand, is less impressive.  Priorsford came out in 1932 and picks up the story of Jean and her family a decade after the events of Penny Plain.  With her husband out of the country for an extended period of time, Jean (now living in England) packs up her children and heads north to Scotland.  It has been a while since I read this and I can remember absolutely nothing about it.  Actually, that’s not true: I do remember a surprising amount about Jean’s husband’s travels but that is far from the focus of the novel.  What goes on in Priorsford has completely faded from my mind, though I’m sure it was very pleasant and inoffensive.  Suffice it to say, the sequel doesn’t exactly improve on the original.

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When I was little, I used to write a lot of letters.  There were the usual ones to grandparents and pen pals but the bulk of my correspondence went to my favourite authors.  Almost any time I read and enjoyed a book, I would sit down and write to the author (provided they were living – though at my most fanciful stage there might have been some letters written to L.M. Montgomery that I saved in my diary).  I kept this up for two or three years, probably from the age of nine to eleven, encouraged and provided with stamps by my parents.  But no one – absolutely no one – received (and answered, it should be noted) more letters from me than Gordon Korman after I discovered his Bruno and Boots series that starts with This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!

There is something irresistible to a child about novels set at boarding schools.  There’s the Chalet School, there’s Hogwarts and, for me at least, there was always Macdonald Hall.  Located somewhere near Toronto, this fictitious boy’s school was the home for many years (and seven books) of Bruno Walton and Melvin “Boots” O’Neal.  When the series begins Bruno and Boots, best friends and roommates, are having a wonderful time until their headmaster Mr. Sturgeon (“The Fish”) decides to separate them after one too many of their spectacularly inventive pranks.  Bruno finds himself rooming with the brilliant but very odd Elmer Drimsdale while Boots is unfortunate enough to land with the snobbish hypochondriac, George Wexford-Smyth III.  Whatever it takes, the two boys vow, they will find a way of being reunited.

It is a slim book and the other characters aren’t as fully realised as later in the series but it is very well done.  Bruno and Boots’ plans – first to annoy their roommates into forcing another change, then to try to frame them for outrageous pranks – are simple but their tactics are typically original, from Bruno’s freeing of Elmer’s ant colony (wild creatures should not be caged, he explains) to Boots’ elaborate hoax convincing George that he is suffering from a rare and life-threatening illness that has infected half the school.  Through it all, there is The Fish, the omnipotent headmaster who has a far better sense of humour than he can allow the students to see.

Korman wrote This Can’t Ben Happening at Macdonald Hall! as an English assignment when he was twelve.  When I was ten that filled me with wonder.  Now it just makes me a bit depressed.  Bruno and Boots are loveable – as all harmless and good-natured pranksters are – and unforgettable but it was amazing to me how vivid and sympathetic some of the supporting characters are too, especially Elmer Drimsdale and The Fish.  The portrayal of Mr Sturgeon is surprisingly nuanced for an adolescent writer, capturing the adult sense of responsibility and discipline but also acknowledging the components of his personality he cannot share with the students, like his sense of humour and real affection for the boys.   But mostly I am impressed by the humour and the pacing – I find the jokes just as funny as an adult as I did when I was nine or ten and the story never lags.

I can think of countless other children’s and YA books that don’t come close to being this smart and I cannot think of any other fictional school which I would have been more excited to attend.  If only my gender hadn’t ruled me out for admission!  Though there was always something attractive about Miss Scrimmage’s School for Young Ladies, located directly across the road from Macdonald Hall, with its shotgun-wielding headmistress and innocent-looking schoolgirls whose pranks could best anything the boys ever concocted…

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I finally managed to get my hands on an A.A. Milne play Simon hadn’t read but, instead of being able to taunt him with how wonderful it was (which was obviously what I’d been hoping to do), Sarah Simple proved a bit disappointing.  Of all the Milne plays I’ve read so far this year, it is easily my least favourite, perhaps because it goes back to one of his favourite themes – the misplaced spouse.  After a certain point, there are only so many careless couples you can stomach.

William, now in his mid-thirties, was married years ago to Sarah.  They were both young and foolish and it wasn’t long before Sarah ran off with another man, leaving an illegible note that confused William as to the identity of his wife’s lover.  Not knowing where she was or with whom, he gave up looking.  Now, with the widow Marianne Bell-Mason wanting to marry him, William is quite happy to have an absent wife.  But suddenly, after years with no contact, Sarah returns and is only too willing to give William a divorce.  She will need to be discovered at a hotel with another man in order to give him grounds and it is decided, for simplicity’s sake, that that man should be William in disguise.  It all ends much as you would expect it to, and certainly as Sarah had planned it to.

There are some good exchanges between the characters, particularly between Sarah and Marianne when they first meet, but entertaining as that rivalry is, it highlights a very major issue: Sarah simply isn’t likeable.  She abandoned her husband and now she wants him back and, as far as she’s concerned, that is that.  I didn’t like William either – he’s a waffling nincompoop – but at least he appears mainly lazy and incompetent whereas Sarah seems heartless.  She is marvellously, subtly catty in her remarks about Marianne though, so she has some entertainment value:

WILLIAM. As it happens, she is just my own age.  Thirty-six.

SARAH. What a very odd coincidence.  Which of you said it first?

In addition to the three lovers, William’s twin niece and nephew also appear for, as far as I can tell, no earthly reason.  They are deeply comic characters without being particularly amusing – a waste of good material.  Still, they provide a welcome distraction from the ridiculous adults.  They receive one of Milne’s typically wonderful introductions (for all the flaws this play has, the introductions are still superb):

AMYAS and ALFTRUDA…are twins, seventeen years old.  Both of them take AMYAS with a seriousness which is comic, pathetic or merely irritating according to your mood.  When he grows up, he will probably be one of those critics who are always uneasy if anybody else shares their enthusiasms.  His present enthusiasm is for films; which means the particular films of a particular German producer.  ALFTRUDA mothers him with one hand, and acts as his impresario with the other.

Marianne (Mrs Bell-Mason) also gets a perfect introduction that can’t help but make you feel sympathetic towards her:

MRS BELL-MASON feels extremely motherly, though she is under the impression that she is merely in love with [William], for she is at an age when being a mother would be common form, and winning a lover something of an achievement.  She, too, is attractive, and, as WILLIAM is finding out, soft and kissable; a little on the large side, but pleasantly so.  She is by no means without humour, though relationship to an Earl and marriage to a Canon have brought it certain limitations.  It is just possible that Nature meant her for the most charming sort of courtesan, but the Canon saved her – or spoilt her, according to the point of view.

Though Sarah isn’t likeable – or, perhaps worse, memorable – I don’t think that is the real problem with the play.  Milne wrote Sarah-like characters elsewhere, fast-talking, determined women without much sentiment to them, and they came off well in other circumstances.  No, Sarah wasn’t the main problem, nor was the return to the exhausted topic of errant spouses (which Milne addresses in any number of variations – see Belinda, To Have the Honour, The Dover Road, and Mr Pim Passes By, among others).  Milne was good at writing about relationships that involved affection but this play revolves around attraction and sex heedless of real emotion.  And that he could not write about – not well at least.

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Adaptations, be they for the stage or screen, of favourite books are tricky things.  In the hands of a bad writer, the results can be horrifying.  But in the hands of a good writer who loves the source material as much as his intended audience, the final product can be magical.  Case in point: Toad of Toad Hall by A.A. Milne, a stage adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved The Wind in the Willows from 1929.

I was pretty confident going into my reading of the play that Milne would not disappoint.  He seldom does and the fact that this is really the only one of his plays still regularly performed seemed promising.  By focusing on the exploits of Toad, somewhat at the expense of the other characters, he doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the book but he still comes out with a product that is delightfully entertaining and which entirely lives up to magnificent of Toad.  Indeed, it seems entirely natural to have Milne’s recognizable dialogue coming out of Toad’s mouth; they are a perfect match.

There was a moment of panic for me very early on in the play when I saw that Milne had changed Rat’s most famous, most quotable remark on the joys of boats to a much more generalised statement about the pleasures of river-side living:

There is nothing – absolute nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about by a river.

How could he do that?  How dare he?  But I was willing to overlook this travesty – if Kenneth Grahame could, then so could I – and the rest of the play was a joy.

The other animals that I love so much in the books are paid scant attention here.  The wonderful relationship between Rat and Mole is barely touched on and Badger – oh, what Milne has done to Badger!  Instead of the gentle but stern paternal figure I love so much in the book, here he is presented as a doddering old man, more interfering than guiding.  As he despairs over Toad’s recklessness (“Alack!  Alack!  O, hapless Toad!  O, ill-fated animal…I knew his father, I knew his grandfather, I knew his uncle, the Archdeacon”) he loses all the authority with which Graham invested him.  He has great comedic value but he is not my Badger.  Instead, he seems rather like Mr. Woodhouse, happiest when allowed to moan about the ills of the world and lament the dangerous behaviour of others.  His attempts to help Toad don’t seem to reflect any legitimate concern or affection for that poor misguided creature, just a feeling that he owes it to Toad’s ancestors.  It works very well but the change in characterization takes a bit of time to get used to.

Toad of Toad Hall, as the title suggests, focuses on the Toad-centred episodes from The Wind in the Willows.  One of the cleverest things Milne does is incorporate Toad’s story into scenes where he hadn’t originally played a part.  In the book, when Mole finds himself lost in the Wild Wood, his fear comes more from the strangeness of his surroundings than from any visible threat.  But here, Milne installs a chorus of ferrets, weasels and stoats – the fearsome residents of the Wild Wood – who emerge from the darkness to sing their hatred of Toad.  Their vicious curses and rhythmic chant of “Down with Toad” give a much more immediate sense of terror and, as far as the narrative is concerned, successfully establish our villains.  It is a brilliant addition and I can only imagine how effective it must be when staged.

The highlight of the play has to be the lengthy courtroom scene, where Toad is brought to justice for his reckless behaviour.  Here Milne gets creative, creating new dialogue and characters, and the result is delightfully entertaining.  It is also the scene that proves just how wonderfully suited Toad is to Milne’s clever and flippant dialogue.  On being accused on insulting a police offer by calling him “fat-face”, Toad is all innocence in a speech only Milne could have written:

TOAD.  I didn’t mean him any more than any one else.  I just murmured the expression to myself.  It’s a way I have.  I’m that sort of person.  I murmur things to myself.  It’s the result of a highly strung temperament and an artistic nature.

But, of course, Toad’s contrition vanishes the moment the sentence comes down and his arrogance – the thing that has most attracted readers to him for all these years – returns:

JUDGE. Any last words or valedictory utterances?

TOAD (boldly). Yes.

JUDGE (kindly). Well, well, what is it?

TOAD. Fat-face!

JUDGE (aghast) Fat-face?  ME?

TOAD (wildly). All of you!  All the whole lot of you!  All fat-faces!  I am Toad, the Terror of the Highway, Toad, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the Lone Trail, before whom all must vie way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night.  I am the Toad, the handsome, the popular, the successful Toad.  And what are you?  Just fat-faces.

Oh, Toad.

Part of the fun of reading adaptations is admiring (or, in less successful cases, critiquing) how they are done.  By choosing to centre the story on Toad, Milne sacrificed the more subtle elements of The Wind in the Willows but, given how difficult it would be to do justice to them, it seems a clever choice.  He certainly succeeded in creating an entertaining comedy about the exploits of Toad and I can only imagine how fun it must be to see this show performed.

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It is the Thanksgiving long weekend here in Canada and I have been putting it to good use.  Errands have been run, rooms have been cleaned, volunteering hours have been logged, walks have been taken, pies have been baked (and consumed at Sunday’s family dinner), and, most importantly, books have been read.  There was an unintentional theme to my reading this weekend so that even as I was enjoying the stunning weather here in Vancouver, my thoughts were in Scotland keeping company with the characters in my books.

I started with Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson.  I have officially decided that I am a D.E.S. fan but I find her books vary widely in quality and this one did not impress me.  Published in 1964, it is the story of a young widow (Katherine Wentworth), living in Edinburgh and raising her two young twins and teenage stepson.  I really, really wanted to like this book but whether it was the clumsiness of the first-person perspective or just the dullness of Katherine herself, I could not find it in myself to care about the heroine.  She was nice but, for a book that is written from her perspective, strangely distanced from the reader.  There is a predictable love story between her and the brother of an old school friend that is complicated only by his sister’s bizarre behaviour.  Still, the reader is never in doubt that Katherine will end up with her “solid and sensible” suitor, even though Katherine is remarkably mute about her feelings towards him for most of the book.  The only real tension in the story comes from a decision Simon, Katherine’s stepson, has to make about reconciling with his father’s family and, for that reason, Simon comes across as the only really interesting character as he struggles to figure out where he belongs and what he wants.

On the other hand, I loved Stevenson’s Listening Valley, which I read next.  Growing up in Edinburgh during the 1920s and 1930s, Antonia Melville lived happily in the shadow of her elder sister, Lou.  But when the teenage Lou elopes (with, it must be said, a very nice and quite unobjectionable man), Tonia is left alone and insecure.  She finds happiness and confidence in a marriage to a much older man who adores her but she is left a widow a few years later.  Still only in her early twenties, she is horrified when her husband’s relatives try to bring her under their control and so runs away to an old family house she inherited in the small Scottish Borders’ town of Ryddelton (one of D.E.S.’s favourite settings).  Here, in the house where her great-aunt Antonia had lived, Tonia begins to settle down and create her own life.  She becomes friends with Celia Dunne (of Celia’s House) and with a number of the R.A.F. officers stationed nearby, including one whom she had known as a child in Edinburgh.  The romance is well-handled and satisfying but the real pleasure of the story comes from seeing Antonia grow in confidence.  This begins with her marriage but she really blossoms once she takes over Melville House and realises how well she can manage on her own.  Published in 1944, Listening Valley is recognizably a wartime novel.  Most of the time it is relatively subtle: there is a detailed description of an air raid during Tonia’s time in London and the war becomes even more present once she arrives in Ryddelton and comes to care for the flyers who visit her home.   But there is also the most laughably awful spy I’ve come across in a while, whose dastardly plans are uncovered by Tonia’s vigilant housekeeper/neighbour.  That particular part of the story I could have done without.  Still, it is a lovely, cosy read and a perfect example of why I am drawn to D.E. Stevenson’s work.

I then moved on to Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith , the most recent installment in his never-ending Scotland Street series.  This was a real disappointment.  I felt that he rambled more than usual, at the expense of character development.  Even Bertie, frustrated to still be six when he feels that he has been that age for years and years now (as he has), failed to delight in his usual manner.  Oh well, better luck next time.  That said, I was charmed by the idea of Big Lou becoming an overnight internet sensation after a Danish documentary filmmaker discovers her.

I am quick to recover from disappoint though and  am now half-way through The Proper Place by O. Douglas and loving it.  My reactions to O. Douglas’ books have been all over the place (which you would already know if I’d gotten around to reviewing the ones I’ve read in a timely manner – bad Claire!) but the delight I get from her good books far outweighs my frustration with the less impressive ones – rather like my feelings about D.E. Stevenson, really.  This, the story of Lady Jane Rutherford, her daughter, and her niece, who have to relocate after her husband’s death and the sale of their family home, definitely counts as a good one.  How could I not love a book that has characters who share my own literary tastes?  When, among a small gathering of friends, Nicole Rutherford proposes that everyone share an amusing story or joke, one of the guests won my approval by remembering a piece by A.A. Milne (one, as it happens, that I haven’t yet come across in my reading):

‘But I do remember one thing, Miss Nicole,’ Simon said, ‘one of A.A.M.’s Punch articles on how to dispose of safety-razor blades.  The man had been in the habit of dropping worn-out blades on the floor, and his wife protested that the housemaid cut her fingers and dropped blood on the blue carpet.  ‘Then’ said the husband, ‘we’ll either have to get a red carpet or a blue-blooded housemaid…’ I always think of that when it comes to discarding a razor-blade, and laugh!’

It has been a busy weekend, especially when you consider that I’ve only had a few hours each day to read between all my other activities.  And I still have a few hours of freedom left to enjoy this evening before it is back to work tomorrow – plenty of time to finish off The Proper Place!

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