Archive for the ‘A Century of Books’ Category

Oleander, JacarandaPenelope Lively is, among other things, a memoirist who does not like to write memoirs.  She considers her most recent book, the delightfully named Dancing Fish and Ammonites, “the view from old age”.  In 1994, when Oleander, Jacaranda was published, she was equally coy about calling it a memoir, choosing instead the typically cautious and thoughtful “A Childhood Perceived”.

Born in 1933 in Cairo, Lively spent the first twelve years of her life in Egypt.  So much of Lively’s fiction revolves around history and memory but in this case it is Lively’s own history and her own memories that she examining.  And examine them she does, contrasting the vivid memories of childhood with what her now adult mind realises must have been the reality.  She can be a harsh and unsympathetic judge at times but is never anything less than an extraordinary gifted and articulate writer.

Lively may have been born in Egypt but there was nothing in her upbringing to tie her to that country:

… I was growing up in accordance with the teachings of one culture but surrounded by all the signals of another.  Egypt was my home, and all that I knew, but I realized that in some perverse way I was not truly a part of it.

With her parents on the perimeter of her daily life (her father was bank manager while her mother enjoyed a rather active social life), Lively was largely raised by her staunchly British nanny-cum-governess, Lucy.  Lucy sounds like the prototypical middle-class nanny, full of patriotic zeal, a distaste for foreigners, and pithy aphorisms.  Between Lucy and school, Lively grew up with the knowledge of the supremacy of a country she belonged to but where she had never lived:

England was pink.  I knew that from Bartholomew’s atlas.  Pink was good.  And there was plenty of it, too, a global rash; lots of the rest of Africa, and India slung there like a pear, and New Zealand and Australia and Canada and much else.  I learned history from a book called Our Island Story, much approved by Lucy.  It had glossy romantic pictures of national heroes, with potted accounts of the finer moments of the nation’s rise to pink glory.  Boadicea and King Arthur and Sir Walter Raleigh and Kitchener and Queen Victoria all somehow rolled into one to produce essence of Englishness.  The atlas reinforced this triumphant digest of the Whig interpretation of history.  Up there at the top is brave little England.  Britannia rules the waves.  Goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester Square.  This sceptred isle.  John Bull.  The white cliffs of Dover.  I imbibed it all with a whisper of unease: did I truly have a claim to all this?

I look back in dismay.  There has been a lot of unlearning to do.  And can it all be unlearned?  Is there perhaps deep within me some unreconstructed layer which believes pink is best and that it has been uphill all the way from brave Boadicea to good Lord Kitchener?

That last paragraph leaves me unsettled, or at least perturbed.  It is a very politically correct reaction, especially for 1994, but it feels perhaps too much of its time.  I look forward to reading Dancing Fish and Ammonites to see if she still feels this way now, twenty years later.  To me, this seems an exhaustingly guilt-ridden overreaction, one that allows only for absolute truths (which rarely exist).

Despite her thorough schooling in Britain’s past glories, Lively’s childhood identity was that of the outsider.  In Egypt, she grew up in the ex-pat community, a community bound together by the shared “home” that Lively barely knew.  Sent to England at the age of twelve (following her parents’ divorce), she experienced an upsetting disconnect from the England she had imagined and found herself once again the outsider:

This was England, then.  But it bore no resemblance whatsoever to the hazy, glowing nirvana conjured up in the nostalgic chatter to which I had half listened back in Egypt.  Back in the real world.  Nobody had mentioned the cold.  Or the rain.  Or the London dirt which was not the aromatic organic dirt of Egypt but a sullen pervasive grime which left your hands forever grey and every surface smeared with soot.  In my mind I had created a place which seems like those now out-dated advertisements for environmentally destructive products like petrol or cigarettes – all soft-focus landscape, immutable good weather, gambolling animals and happy laughing folk.  I had never seen such advertisements and I suspect the image was based on Mabel Lucie Attwell illustrations spiced with Arthur Rackham and Beatrix Potter.  Certainly I would not have been surprised to find toadstool houses and the odd gnome, or people wearing poke bonnets and pinnies.  I might well have felt on home ground then – I had grown up with that kind of thing, in a sense.

In Egypt, European society was strangely flat: like most ex-pat communities or outposts of empire, it was homogenously middle-class.  It wasn’t until British soldiers began arriving in Cairo during the war that Lively had her first introduction to the British class system – a system she had not quite mastered by the time she had to move to England:

I was in something of the same position as the average Egyptian.  I too had known only one kind of British person.  Now I too discovered that English is spoken in many different ways, and that there were apparently mysterious gradations of Englishness which appeared in some perverse way to mirror Lucy’s definition of degrees of non-Englishness.  It was bewildering.  My previous indoctrination had been that English was an exclusive club.  If you spoke English you were a member of the club, and that was the end of it.  Now I discovered – slowly and incompetently – that things were quite like that after all.  It was more complicated, and bafflingly so.  I was quite devoid of the innate social perceptions of any home-bred British child.  I had not acquired them by the time I came to England in early adolescence, and was to continue to commit what were seen by my relatives as solecisms and gross errors of judgement.

I finished the book desperate to continue on with Lively, to know what happened when she went to university (where she discover that, despite what her teachers told her at school, other young people did like to read and had in fact been doing quite a lot of it) and how the rest of her life went on from there.  It is fortuitous timing that I waited until now to read Oleander, Jacaranda since I now have Dancing Fish and Ammonites to move on to – with great joy and anticipation!

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Drawn from LifeAfter reading the delightful Drawn From Memory, I could not wait to pick up Drawn From Life by E.H. Shepard.  While the first book focuses on one year of Shepard’s childhood, this volume lets us follow him through more than a decade of his life, from the death of his beloved mother when he was ten to school and then art school, right up to his marriage in his early twenties.

Because of the large time period covered in this book, Shepard does not linger lovingly over small events the way he did in Drawn From Memory.  Or rather he does, but not as frequently.  He tells of the time spent living with his aunts immediately after his mother’s death, of his school days, of his joyous family holidays in France, Germany, and various regions of England, and of his beginnings as an artist.  I loved hearing about his time at art school and his first (shared) studio.  Shepard and his friends do not seem to have had any pretentions of artistic grandeur.  They come across as nice middle class boys and girls, working very hard to earn a living with their pens, pencils, and brushes.  Luckily, there seem to have been plenty of contests with cash prizes and scholarship awards to help keep them afloat. P1080166 P1080168

The book picks up some structure towards the end, after Shepard realises he is in love with his close friend and fellow art student, Florence Chaplin.  Tortured by this revelation, he makes himself almost sick during a summer holiday, pondering all the reasons why he can never tell Florence of his love: she is cleverer than him, she is three years older than him, and, even if she would have him, how could he, with no steady income, support a wife?  Thankfully, this angst-ridden holiday ends with a visit to a close family friend, a woman who wisely reprimands Shepard for his black outlook and reminds him that “no girl ever minds being told she is loved”.  Florence, or Pie as she is known (Shepard’s own nickname was Kip), isn’t quite as sure of her own feelings when Shepard declares himself but she soon realises that friendship has also turned to love on her side.  Pooling their joint earnings (Florence was working on a mural at Guy’s Hospital at the time), the two decide to marry.P1080163 P1080165

One of the most touching things about these final chapters, as Shepard and Florence prepare to start their new life together in a small cottage outside of London, is how closely involved Shepard’s siblings are in the preparations for his wedding.  After their father’s death, the three Shepard siblings lived together.  Though Ernest was the youngest, he was the first to marry and both Edith and Cyril were delighted for him.  On the day of his engagement, Shepard describes coming home and spending the night talking over his future with Cyril in the bedroom they shared.  Once he takes the lease on a decrepit cottage in the country, both Edith and Cyril commit themselves to helping him make it not just habitable but cosy: Edith and Ernest camp in the cottage while the work is being done, with Cyril coming down from London on the weekends to help.  They are a close-knit trio and it is wonderful to see that the sibling affection from childhood only intensified with age.

The book ends in 1904 with Shepard’s marriage but also with the promise of a successful future: he has just sold a painting for £100 and been introduced to the senior cartoonist at Punch.  Wide-spread fame was another twenty years off but he was firmly set on his path.  The only sadness I felt at the book’s end was knowing that there was no third volume of memoirs to detail his adult years.  What a loss!

UPDATE: As of December 2018, this (alongside Drawn from Memory) is back in print from Slightly Foxed.

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0375504419_0Educating Alice by Alice Steinbach – Steinbach, to me, is that well-meaning person who desperately wants you to like them and who is so earnest that you wish you could like but, really, you just spend every encounter wanting to hit them with something blunt. In this second travel memoir (following Without Reservations), Steinbach roams the world and indulges in too much introspection and overly romanticized prose.

9780375724596_custom-2efde7beec18b0b581c86a38388313349857619e-s6-c30The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman – a much more likeable Alice, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift is a wonderful comedy about a young, socially-awkward surgical intern in Boston (but of course – this is an Elinor Lipman book) who finds herself being wooed by Ray Russo, who seems very likely to be a conman. But at least he’s a man. It is fabulous and hilarious. Alice is marvellously blunt, Ray is exquisitely slimy, and the two friends Alice makes over the course of the novel – sassy Sylvie and supportive Leo – are friends I would love to have myself. Very, very fun.

The Ladies' ManThe Ladies’ Man by Elinor Lipman – I’ve read almost all of Lipman’s novels now (only My Latest Grievance awaits) and I have to say that this is not one of my favourites. That said, my least favourite Lipman is still better than almost anyone else’s best. Thirty years ago, Adele Dobbin was jilted by her fiancé, Harvey Nash. Suddenly, he shows up on the doorstep of the Boston apartment Adele shares with her two sisters with a belated apology. An inveterate ladies’ man, Harvey (now going by Nash Harvey) attempts to charm a series of women over the course of the book. Though the Dobbin women prove immune to his charms (one of them goes so far as to break a casserole dish over his head when he attempts to hit on her), his arrival does inspire them to look to the romantic lives they have largely ignored. Lipman is as clever and witty as ever, I just think there were too many characters splitting focus here, making for an uneven flow.

forever girlThe Forever Girl by Alexander McCall Smith – In that weird space between not good and not horrifically bad. So…inoffensively bad? There were some good moments but the characters were completely flat, every last one of them.

Spring MagicSpring Magic by D.E. Stevenson – I wish I had more to say about this book. It is pure escapist fantasy, about Frances, a young Cinderella-like woman, who is able to escape from her aunt after their London home is damaged by a bombing during the Second World War. The aunt heads into the country with the expectation that Frances will accompany her. Instead, Frances heads for a fishing village in Scotland to figure out her life and develop some independence. Her stay is enlivened by the arrival in the neighbourhood of a regiment of soldiers – and the officer’s wives. The socializing from then on is reminiscent of the Mrs Tim books, since the military wives prove far more interesting than Frances and her mild romantic problems. It’s a sweet book but not quite as energetic as DES’s best works.

JoieJoie de Vivre by Harriet Welty Rochefort – hands down the best – and most entertaining – book I have read about the French. Having lived in France and been married to a Frenchman for forty years, Rochefort is more than qualified to discuss the good, the bad, and the mysterious elements of French culture and the French psyche. She is humorous and does not over romanticize or demonize – an all too common failing of this sort of book. Very enjoyable.

Waiting on You by Kristan Higgins – Higgins is back on form after her disappointing last book.

It Felt Like a KissIt Felt Like a Kiss by Sarra Manning – despite a title that makes the book sound like it is about domestic abuse, this was actually a rather interesting look at what happens when a young woman’s greatest secret – the identity of her famous father – is leaked to the press by a vengeful ex-boyfriend. The romance was less than convincing but the way Ellie’s life was twisted by the press with complete disregard for the truth was all too disgustingly real.

UnstickyUnsticky by Sarra Manning – A very fluffy premise – what happens to a young woman when she agrees to become the mistress and hostess for an older art dealer – but a surprisingly engaging and interesting book. I really enjoy Manning’s writing and though her books are always long, none of it feels like filler. I did find Grace’s liberal use of “like” wildly irritating, though that thankfully faded over the course of the novel, and was thrown by some of the little details of the scenes set in BC: Vancouver, which has the same climate as London, can hardly be described as the “icy hinterlands of British Columbia.” Also, where on earth did they find a Caribbean nurse in Whistler? But these were minor, minor issues and for the most part I loved the book. I also couldn’t help thinking that Clare Carrington from The New Moon with the Old would approve.

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PastoralI do love a good old fashioned novel, full of straightforward but excellent storytelling and a nice mixture of action and romance. The kind of stories, in short, that Nevil Shute made a career of writing and of writing well. It had been ages since I last read anything by him but when I picked up Pastoral earlier this year I was reminded of just how entertaining his books are.

Published in 1944, Pastoral is set at an air force base in Oxfordshire during the Second World War. Though centered around the romance between Flight Lieutenant Peter Marshall and WAAF Section Officer Gervase Robertson, what the book does particularly well is give a sense of how bomber crews and those supporting them at command experienced the war.

After only a few encounters, Peter is certain that he wants to marry Gervase. She is lovely, good at her work, and, most importantly, knows about fishing. I think that is an excellent recommendation for any man or woman. But, rather than biding his time until he knows Gervase feels the same way about him, Peter impulsively proposes. Not surprisingly, Gervase refuses him. She is only nineteen and, though Peter is not much older, doesn’t feel the same sense of certainty or urgency that he does.

Peter, who has been flying bombers for 15 months and has been on 51 raids, has seen too many of his friends shot down or not return home after raids. He, with his 15 months of experience, is considered one of the old timers and certainly one of the very lucky few. But it isn’t the fear of being shot down that throws him off his game: it is the rejection he receives from Gervase. As the Wing Commander says, “The great adventure on this station isn’t bombing Germany…They don’t think anything of that. Falling in love is the big business here.” The usually calm and steady Peter becomes brusque with his crew and careless with his work. When grounded, this is not a major problem. In the air, it has disastrous results.

I adored the tense scenes both in Peter’s bomber and in the operations room back in Oxfordshire but, most of all, I loved the scenes with the senior officers gossiping about and despairing over their underlings’ behaviour:

The wing commander sat up suddenly. “If she’s going to marry him, I wish to hell she’d get on with it,” he said irritably. “I’m fed up with her. If young women would just stop and think before they shoot the boyfriend down, we’d have a lot more pilots.”

The old squadron leader nodded. “Girls have to be very wise these days,” he said.

“So do commanding officers,” said Dobbie. “I’m going to get a job as Aunt Ethel in Betty’s Weekly when the war’s over.”

You know things won’t end horrifically after reading exchanges like that. Of course they don’t and it is all quite excellent.

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Drawn From MemoryPublished in 1957 but focused on events that took place in 1887, Drawn From Memory by E.H. Shepard is an utterly charming memoir about Shepard’s life as a seven-year old boy growing up in a close-knit middle class family in Victorian London. It is also, as Shepard’s advises in his introduction, a memoir of the last entirely happy year the family had, which adds a special poignancy to the entire book; shortly afterwards, Shepard’s adored mother became ill and then died, leaving her devoted family devastated. But while she lived, what a happy family they were!

The youngest of three children born to a London architect and his wife, Shepard grew up in a home where the arts were encouraged. His parents moved in artistic circles (Frank Dicksee was a family friend and Shepard’s maternal grandfather was a member of the Royal Academy) and from an early age they encouraged Shepard to become an artist. Though the child did not have any intention of doing so (he “considered an artist’s life to be a dull one and looked for something more adventurous”), his early drawings, some of which are included in the book, were certainly impressive and I can understand why his father showed them off with such pride to his artist friends. Even if they are “mostly concerned with battle scenes.”

E.H. Shepard - Battle Scene

But, for the most part, this is not a book about a budding artist. It is a book about childhood memories. Shepard recalls the figures of his home life (his nurse, the cook, his elder sister Ethel and brother Cyril), devotes a marvellous chapter to his four easily shocked maiden aunts, and recounts events that impressed themselves on his young mind. Some of these events were of general significance – such as Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, an event which Shepard celebrated with the purchase of a Belgian flag (“As Cyril and Ethel had each bought a Union Jack, I thought a change was called for.”) – but most of them are episodes significant only to the Shepard family. He remembers Christmas celebrations, a visit to the pantomime, an expedition to a tennis party in Highgate, and family holidays to Eastbourne and, best of all, a farmhouse in Kent. The chapter devoted to “Pollard’s Farm” is as perfect description of childhood bliss as I have ever read. They are spoiled there with food, freedom, and proximity to animals. Of all the happy moments in the book, this is by far the happiest.E.H. Shepard - JubileeE.H. Shepard - Pollard's Farm, BreakfastE.H. Shepard - Pollard's Farm, Hay Loft

But there are moments scattered through that remind us that this perfect happiness cannot last. Knowing that Shepard’s mother would soon become ill is difficult enough – that poor young woman, about to be separated from her lovely family – but towards the end Shepard reduced me to tears by mentioning coming across his brother’s grave in France during the First World War. Cyril died in July 1916 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

E.H. Shepard’s illustrations of A.A. Milne’s books and particularly of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows were such an important part of my childhood that it feels particularly appropriate to now know more about his childhood.  This book is begging to be reissued and Slightly Foxed, who after all first alerted me to it in their Winter 2010 issue, would seem a natural publisher.

UPDATE: As of December 2018, this is back in print – from Slightly Foxed no less!

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Leadon HillI’m not entirely sure what I expected when I picked up Leadon Hill by Richmal Crompton but it certainly wasn’t what I got. I have this idea of Greyladies books as cosy and entertaining, an entirely rational conclusion based on my very enjoyable experiences with their books by O. Douglas, Susan Scarlett, and especially Susan Pleydell. Well, Leadon Hill is entertaining but in a most unsettling way.

Published in 1927, Leadon Hill is a small English village where Marcia Faversham has recently moved with her husband and three children. As the novel begins, John Faversham sets off (with his wife’s blessing) on a four-month fishing holiday with his friends. If Marcia were left truly alone it might not be so bad – she is an intelligent enough woman to be able to amuse herself – but she is left at the mercy of her inquisitive neighbours who illustrate the more poisonous aspects of village life. And yet Marcia gets off relatively easily (with the gossip only that her husband is leading a double life with a woman or family hidden somewhere else) compared to Miss West, who becomes Marcia’s neighbour when she rents the house next door.

Born and raised in Italy by her English father, Helen West grew up hearing about the beauty of the English countryside. And, now living in it, she does find it beautiful. What she was not prepared for was the stifling small-mindedness of the village gossips, who are never happier than when spreading vile rumours about one another and gasping whenever someone does anything outside their narrow view of what is proper. As an artist and as a beautiful young woman living alone, Helen is a target for gossip immediately. But it is her open-mindedness and thoughtfulness towards others that truly challenges the village’s most firmly-held prejudices.

It is a rather horrific but all too realistic portrait of what it is like to live in a small community. There are those who are intelligent and broadminded – Marcia, for one, and a lovely couple called Elliott – but they are outnumbered by neighbours who are confident in their view of the world and unforgiving of any transgressions. The worst of these neighbours is Miss Mitcham, a woman whose capacity for cruelty is thinly veiled by the seemingly innocuous way in which she delivers her devastating character assassinations:

‘It’s a beautiful little place, isn’t it? And in the heart of it sits Miss Mitcham like a maggot at the heart of an apple, poisoning it. I think that woman will be rather surprised when she finds out, as please God she will one day, how wicked she is. She’s one of the wickedest women in the world. …There’s more humanity, less meanness in any drab woman of the streets than in that woman.’

Helen’s gentle philanthropy is twisted until it appears as an insult to those who received it whereas the outright cruelty of the local landowner is cheerfully overlooked when he marries the girl whom he bullied and impregnated. Used to an environment where curiosity is encouraged and kindness taken for granted, Helen wilts in her new surroundings until a visit from an old friend helps her find her way again – and provokes a new round of devastating rumours.

It is a chilling little book and a very well done one.  It has reminded me of how much I appreciate the anonymity that comes with living in a major city and the freedom of choosing who knows the details of my life.

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Gran-NannieI am slowly warming to Noel Streatfeild.  I wasn’t very impressed by our first encounter (Saplings) but everything I have read by her since then has, in varying ways, delighted me.  Gran-Nannie (recently reprinted as Tea By the Nursery Fire), which I read earlier this year, was no exception.

Based on the family’s stories about her father’s beloved nanny, Streatfeild has created a fictionalised account of the life of Emily Huckwell.  Emily, a gardener’s daughter born in the 1870s, goes into service when she is only eleven.  She starts as a nursery maid but over the years advances to under nurse, then nannie, and, in her old age, gran-nannie to the children of the boys and girls she once cared for.

Like Emily herself telling a bedtime story or a homily to the children, Streatfeild is absolutely matter-of-fact about the realities of Emily’s situation.  There is no question about getting to choose her life’s path – Emily knows that she, like her mother and grandmother before her, will go into service.  She does, however, go after the kind of work she wants and what she wants is to take care of children. Working briefly for one family, she is soon passed on to another younger and poorer family: the Burtons.  Emily comes just before Mrs. Burton has her first child and ends up staying with them for the rest of her life, caring for all of the Burton children: John, Henry, Thomas, Mary, Matthew, and Lucy.  Mrs. Burton is a disinterested mother and so it is Emily who sees the children through all the major events of their lives and it she who they run to with their news and their problems.  Emily never marries, her one romance having come to a tragic end, but the Burton children are her family and they adore her as much as she does them.

A very affectionate tribute to someone who was clearly a beloved member of the family.

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False ColoursI finished rereading False Colours by Georgette Heyer early this morning and oh, it was good.  Heyer really could do things that no other writer can, creating that perfect blend of comedy, intricate plotting, and careless but exquisite period detail.

False Colours begins with Kit Fancot arriving in the dead of night at the London townhouse of his twin brother, Evelyn, Earl of Denville.  Kit, currently posted to Vienna as a minor but promising diplomatic aide, is back in England to settle the affairs surrounding an inheritance he’s received from his godfather and, while he’s there, to see his brother and his mama (who is an absolute darling).  Instead, Kit finds that his twin has disappeared.  No one seems particularly worried about this as it’s the sort of thing the dashing Evelyn is apt to do but it has come at a particularly inconvenient time, on the eve of a party to introduce Evelyn to the family of the girl, Cressy Stavely, he has recently proposed to.  With his mama’s encouragement, Kit finds himself masquerading as Evelyn, a situation he finds increasingly uncomfortable as time goes on and Evelyn is nowhere to be found.

Despite the comic setup, this is one of Heyer’s less madcap efforts, which is perfectly fine by me.  Though young (only twenty four), Kit is a sensible and responsible young man, though by no means a stick in the mud.  Though he and his brother had fun switching places as children, it is tad more complicated to impersonate Evelyn as an adult.  It is also all rather confusing for Cressy who, having made up her mind to refuse Evelyn’s offer, suddenly finds herself warming to him, or rather to Kit.

As much as I like Kit and Cressy and, once he shows up, Evelyn, the star of the book is really Lady Stavely, Kit and Evelyn’s mother.  Only forty three, Lady Stavely is still a beauty and still much in demand.  Suitors of all ages trail after her in London and she is charmingly vain about her appearance.  She is frivolous and featherheaded about finances (she has run up quite a hefty debt) but she is also warm-hearted and in possession of an excellent sense of humour.  She adores her sons, and in return they adore her, but she is not blind to their faults and not above scolding them when necessary:

“That sounds to me like a quotation,” said her ladyship mistrustfully.  “And it is only fair to warn you, Kit, that if you mean, after all I have endured, to recite bits of poetry to me, which I am not at all addicted to, even at the best of times, I shall go into strong convulsions – whatever they may be!”

Lady Stavely is also supported by her most loyal cicisbeo, Sir Bonamy Ripple.  He, having spent the last twenty seven years in love with Lady Stavely, is a devoted bachelor but one who has heartily enjoyed his bachelorhood, filling it with excesses of all sorts.  Better even than Kit and Cressy’s happy ending is Lady Stavely’s decision to finally marry Sir Bonamy, a decision he played very little part in.  Still, in one of the book’s best scenes she charmingly and very cleverly talks him round to the idea.  One is left in no doubt that they will both be very happy together.

Altogether delightful and a very pleasant way to start my day.

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The Dreaming SuburbBefore I knew about Eva Ibbotson, before I discovered Georgette Heyer or had ever heard of D.E. Stevenson, there was one author whose books I knew I could always turn to when I needed an easy, absorbing read: R.F. Delderfield.  Poor old Delderfield has gone rather out of fashion these days, though he was quite popular from the 1950s to the 1970s, but it is hard to think of any writer who can best his absorbing family sagas.  I wasn’t quite up for a reread of his “God is an Englishman” or “A Horseman Riding By” series – both of which are excellent – but I did pick up The Dreaming Suburb earlier this year.

Spanning over twenty years – from the summer of 1919 to the summer of 1940 – The Dreaming Suburb follows the lives of the residents of an avenue in a modest London suburb, focusing on several families.  There are the Clegg sisters, stalwart Edith and dotty Becky, who take in lodgers over the years to make ends meet.  There are the unhappy Firths, ruled over by the strict and sour Mrs. Firth until one by one they begin to break away.  There is the lovely young widow Mrs. Fraser and her romantic son Esme, who uses the fields behind the Avenue to play out his childhood fantasies of knights and daring rescues.  And there are the Carvers: solid Jim Carver and his seven wildly different children, including the sharp, business-minded Archie, the co-dependent and always resourceful twins, Berni and Boxer, and the dependable Judy, whose childhood adoration of her neighbour Esme Fraser matures into unrequited love.

From the Spanish flu to the Battle of Britain, from silent pictures to talkies, from the General Strike to Mosley’s Blackshirts, Delderfield chronicles some of the most eventful years of the century on very human terms.  He shows what these societal changes meant for ordinary people.  This is not a saga involving manor houses and leisured lives; almost everyone here, male and female, works and works hard.  The people are often foolish and petty, they make mistakes that cannot be easily undone, but they also find happiness.  This is Delderfield’s tribute to the ordinary man/woman and as such it is excellent.

The companion to The Dreaming Suburb is The Avenue at War, which focuses on a much shorter period that the first book.  I don’t love it quite as much as I do this but after reading the one you really have to read the other, just to know how everything ends.  Taken together, they are immensely satisfying.  Delderfield is not a “great” writer but he certainly writes great, readable books.

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The Summer After the FuneralJust a quick review today of The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam, a slim novel that is just as entertaining, if not so well formed, as Gardam’s other works.

After her elderly father’s death, Athene Price and her two siblings are shuffled off out of sight for the summer.  Elder brother Sebastian heads north to what he has described to his family as a Buddhist retreat (it’s not), younger sister Phoebe (better known as Beams) is sent to join a sickeningly jolly family by the sea, and Athene herself is bounced from one middle-aged female acquaintance to another – or at least that is the plan.  Meanwhile, their mother bounds round the country in search of gentile employment (for, though written in 1973, the book is set between the wars), writing breezy and slightly bossy letters to her offspring to update them on her findings:

My darling Mim, say your prayers, not particularly for us for we have nothing to fear (see Matthew vi.28: lilies of the field) but for the poor people of Putney who are entirely without occupation other than stirring their tea about.  The streets round Larpent Avenue are utterly silent and everyone makes a great point of not knowing the people next door.  A curious Christianity and I have told both them and this curate and continue to do so.  They have not one word to say in reply.

Athene is a model of all the virtues, an ideal daughter and sister, as dependable and calm as she is beautiful.  Compared to her siblings, her summer plans seem quite boring: a few weeks with her godmother, then a family friend, and then an aunt.  All perfectly respectable and perfectly dull, especially compared to what her siblings have planned.  But, of course, things do not go quite as planned.  She does quite well at the lifeless hotel where she spends the first few weeks, a period enlivened only by glimpses of a handsome boy, but once she moves on to her next destination things go horribly awry.  The next few weeks see Athene running away and spending the night in the cottage of a middle-aged painter before holing up in an empty boys’ dormitory and falling in love with a married schoolmaster.  It is only when the summer draws to an end that others discover what an eventful time she has had and Athene herself finally begins to deal with the fallout from her father’s death.

The plot is a little too flimsy and sequential to be all that interesting and the character development is minimal.  What is so fun about this book is Gardam’s wonderful way of turning a phrase.  What style she has!  When discussing the oddness of Athene’s name, Gardam contrasts it with the names that were normal at the time “back when middle-class English females were called breezy, artless names that went well with tennis.”  I love that.  Gardam also momentarily abandons Athene’s adventures to check in with her siblings.  Though Sebastian’s narrative is pretty standard, Gardam allows herself a bit of a freer rein when it comes to Beams, letting us glimpse the young girl’s summer diary:

Part 1, Sub. Sect. 1. Page 1.

My name is Beams, short for Moonbeams (big glasses), Phoebe at the font.  Ugly as sin.  Alas for me.

I am at present staying in Wales with the Padshaws.  I care nothing for the Padshaws and the Padshaws care nothing for anybody.  What they care about – all they care about – is things like caulking, tacking and drying facilities.  They have a boat.  They worship this boat.  It is a most interesting thing to observe, this boat worship, and I have already made a small study of it anthropologically.  I intend to become a psychiatrist eventually but at present I am studying anthropology as I believe that psychiatrists get pressed for time.

I could happily devour an entire book written from Beams’ perspective.

Not a special book and not a memorable one, but still a very enjoyable read.

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