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Archive for the ‘A Century of Books’ Category

I don’t have any particularly strong memories of learning to read.  I read Lucy Mangan’s wonderful Bookworm earlier this year and marvelled at how well she can recall the books that made up her childhood.  For me, those memories are murkier.  I remember reading my first book by myself in Grade One (it was a very informative picture book about rabbits, cementing early my love of non-fiction) but things become hazy for a few years after that.  The Babysitter Club books were definitely involved and lots of fairy tales but the rest have been lost to time.  I don’t mind – it makes what came next stand out all the better.

When I was eight, I picked up Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery for the first time.  I had loved books before but reading hadn’t come to form part of my identity yet.  But I couldn’t put this book down.  I read it once, twice, three times and then went on to the sequels, which I read with equal intensity.  I spent the next two years reading and rereading everything Montgomery had every written – her novels, her short stories, and her diaries.  I fought with librarians in order to borrow books from the adult section of the library.  Any time I needed to do a presentation for school, she was my go-to subject.  I am not sure I have ever been as expert on any topic as I once was on Montgomery.

More than twenty years later, I am on my third or fourth editions of the books, having read my initial copies so often they fell apart (partially Anne of Green Gables and Anne of the Island).  But it had been a few years since I last read anything by her (the only book I’ve reviewed here is The Blue Castle, notable for the fact that every single person who commented on my review loves what I consider to be one of her more mediocre outputs) so, feeling like I’d been ignoring an old friend, I recently picked up Anne of Green Gables, her first and best book.

Published in 1908 but set thirty years earlier, the story of the orphaned Anne Shirley and her enthusiastic (and mistake-prone) approach to life was an immediate bestseller.  Though its heroine is an adolescent girl, the book was loved by its adult readers as much as by its youthful ones.  Young readers could delight in Anne’s imaginative whims and the scraps she got herself into; adults could enjoy Montgomery’s humorous treatment of her young heroine and the bemused exasperation of the adults who surround her.  And everyone could enjoy the happy story at the heart of the book.

For those not familiar with the story (who are you?  What is wrong with you?  Stop reading this immediately and go get a copy), the book begins with Matthew Cuthbert setting off from the home he shares with his sister, Marilla, wearing his good suit.  Their busy-body neighbour, Rachel Lynde, is immediately intrigued by this unusual behaviour and, upon investigation, is shocked to learn from Marilla that Matthew is off to pick up the orphaned boy they’re adopting to help out on the farm.  But Mrs Lynde is not half as surprised as Matthew and eventually Marilla when they discover a girl has been sent to them by mistake.  And not even a useful sort of girl but a thin, dreamy one who can’t seem to stop talking.  They have no use for a girl – especially one like Anne – but there’s something awfully winsome about her, despite her odd ways, and they find themselves keeping her.

The book follows the next few years of Anne’s life, as she makes friends in the small village of Avonlea, adjusts to life at the Cuthberts’ farm, Green Gables, and gets carried away by her imagination time and time again.  There is nothing very spectacular about the goings on; even the most dramatic moments – a deathly ill child, a sinking boat, a heart attack – are entirely plausible.  Which is part of how Montgomery creates the humour that fills the book – the juxtaposition of Anne’s romantic fantasies with the work-a-day world of Avonlea is even more amusing as an adult reader than it was as a child.  And what is particularly marvellous are the hysterics that Anne can (unintentionally) send adults into with her entirely earnest but extraordinarily dramatic pronouncements.  Thankfully, she has Marilla to help bind her to the earth, as she does when Anne is happily prophesizing her early death in the wake of being parted from her best friend, Diana:

“Diana and I had such an affecting farewell down by the spring.  It will be sacred in my memory forever.  I used the most pathetic language I could think of and said ‘thou’ and ‘thee.’  ‘Thou’ and ‘thee’ seem so much more romantic than ‘you.’  Diana gave me a lock of her hair and I’m going to sew it up in a little bag and wear it around my neck all my life.  Please see that it is buried with me, for I don’t believe I’ll live very long.  Perhaps when she sees me lying cold and dead before her Mrs Barry may feel remorse for what she has done and will let Diana come to my funeral.”

“I don’t think there is much fear of your dying of grief as long as you can talk, Anne,” said Marilla unsympathetically.

Anne is a redoubtable girl and, even when things go wrong (as they constantly do), her optimism cannot be extinguished:

“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

“I’ll warrant you’ll make plenty in it,” said Marilla.  “I never saw your beat for making mistakes, Anne.”

“Yes, and well I know it,” admitted Anne mournfully.  “But have you ever noticed one encouraging thing about me, Marilla?  I never make the same mistake twice.”

“I don’t know as that’s much benefit when you’re always making new ones.”

“Oh, don’t you see, Marilla?  There must be a limit to the mistakes one person can make, and when I get to the end of them, then I’ll be through with them.  That’s a very comforting thought.”

Montgomery was an extraordinarily uneven writer and, to my way of thinking, there are only a few other of her books where she gets the balance of humour and sentiment exactly right (Anne of the Island being the only other one in the series where she manages this).  But here, she does.  And it’s wonderful.  Anne can have her flights of fancy but she is also able to be entirely practical, when needs must.  She knows, from her varied life prior to Green Gables, how to save an ailing baby’s life, how to work hard, and how to go after what she wants.

And what she wants, she decides early, is to be good at school and go on to teacher’s college and eventually university.  It’s a goal that finds her going up against her rival, Gilbert Blythe, over and over again in the fight for top marks but that is the only conflict.  Everyone else views her intelligence and scholarly ambitions as something to be extraordinarily proud of and, looking back, I think that was probably one of the most important things I took away from the series.  Education is an important and unquestioned part of Anne’s life throughout the early books.  It probably would have been just as important in mine regardless but it helped to have a literary idol who shared my love of school (and of being at the top of the class).

Rereading this as an adult, it’s also interesting to notice how vivid the adult female characters are compared to the male ones.  Matthew is lovely but he is quiet and retiring.  He adores Anne and all her energy but has none of his own.  Marilla, who is left to do the heavy lifting in raising Anne, is clearly the more dominant personality.  And Rachel Lynde, their neighbour and friend-of-sorts, is hardly a meek and obedient wife.  Her husband is mentioned only rarely and is generally being directed around by his very able wife, such as when Mrs Lynde decides to go to a political rally in town:

Mrs Rachel Lynde was a red-hot politician and couldn’t have believed that the political rally could be carried through without her, although she was on the opposite side of politics.  So she went to town and took her husband – Thomas would be useful in looking after the horse – and Marilla Cuthbert with her.

And even among Anne and her friends, the desirability of men is discussed skeptically from a young age.  Anne dreams of an exotic, mysterious stranger to whisk her away one day; her friend Jane has a more realistic view of marriage:

“Jane says she will devote her whole life to teaching, and never, never marry, because you are paid a salary for teaching, but a husband won’t pay you anything, and growls if you ask for a share in the egg and butter money.”

Sounds like Jane’s mother could do with some assertiveness training from Rachel Lynde.

Anne’s own early dealing with romantic gestures aren’t particularly positive.  After teasing her about her red hair, Gilbert Blythe, Avonlea’s favourite son, spends the next few years trying to get back into Anne’s good books.  He eventually manages it but has to endure years of snubs, including this particularly harsh one after the initial insult:

Once, when nobody was looking, Gilbert took from his desk a little pink candy heart with a gold motto on it, “You are sweet,” and slipped it under the curve of Anne’s arm.  Whereupon Anne arose, took the pink heart gingery between the tips of her fingers, dropped it on the floor, ground it to powder beneath her heel, and resumed her position without deigning to bestow a glance on Gilbert.

That is stone cold, Anne Shirley.  But mightily amusing.

Oh, I love it all so much.  I love how Anne’s schemes fly over the head of her very tolerant but not particularly imaginative best friend, Diana; how humorously Montgomery contrasts Anne’s romanticized language with the plainspokenness of everyone else in Avonlea; and how the universe always grants Anne a suitably unglamorous end when her imagination gets the best of her.  I love how Matthew and Marilla change and soften because of her, how Anne becomes calmer and more practical under their steady influence, and how everyone proves they are deserving of a second chance.  Most of all, I love its humour, I love its heart, and I love that I can very clearly see parts of it in the person I became.

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I first encountered George Mikes back in 2012, when I read his delightful Switzerland for Beginners, and I knew immediately I wanted to read more.  Mikes, Hungarian by birth but English by choice, had a successful career writing humourous guides to various countries, observing the ways of the English, French, Germans, etc for the edification of befuddled outsiders.  And I knew even back in 2012 which of his books I wanted to read next: Über Alles, about his travels in post-war Germany, and Any Souvenirs?, in which he wanders around much of Central Europe – or, as I like to call it, the Best of Europe – spanning both sides of the Iron Curtain.

I just didn’t realise it would take me six years to track them down – five and a half years of which were spent exhausting my options through library loan systems.  They are readily and cheaply available for those who wish to buy them, as I eventually did, so let me save you five and half years: if you want to read them, just buy them.

I started with Any Souvenirs?, published in 1971, because as much as I love Germany, I love it in tandem with the rest of Central Europe more.  Mikes visits Bavaria, Austria, bits of Yugoslavia, and his native Hungary.  Where he doesn’t visit is the one country I am most interested in: Czechoslovakia.  In his defence, he did try to visit; they just wouldn’t let him in.  And he doesn’t even try to make it to Poland and excludes Switzerland because he’s already written a book on.  Such is his prerogative as author.

From my past experience with Mikes, I had been expecting something light but not particularly insightful.  Instead, I discovered a very succinct political and social history of the region peppered with sometimes humorous but always on-the-nose observations of the people.

After taking a quick look at Bavaria, Mikes heads into Austria, a country that may look to outsiders like Germany but which he enjoys for its comparative sloppiness and imperturbable happiness (my favourite chapter title belongs to the Austrians: “How to Lose an Empire and Stay Happy”).  He then journeys south to Yugoslavia.  He is fascinated by Yugoslavia, understandably, as Tito’s experiment was like nothing else and succeeded in a miraculous way.  However, the fear over what would happen when the great man himself was no longer there lurks over the visit:

The relative peace between nationalities – such as it is – is due mostly to [Tito’s] prestige, authority and the respect he commands.  One gathers the strong impression that this is very much the calm before the storm.  Would-be successors are positioning themselves for the battle and long knives are being sharpened.

Peace held longer than Mikes might have thought – Tito died in 1980 and the Yugoslav Wars did not start until 1991 – but I doubt he would have been surprised by what happened.

Finally, he reaches Hungary.  Mikes emigrated before the Second World War when he was still a young man so the country he returns to is more a place of memories than current connections.  It is a good section and by the far the funniest, the best bit of which was his startling realisation that the friends of his youth have now been immortalized by city planners:

Walking along a street in Buda, you remember Hungary’s great humorist, Frederick Karinthy.  Here on the corner used to stand the café he visited every day and where, at frequent intervals, he got into debt with the head-waiter, being unable to pay his bill.  Then you discover, with a start, that the street itself is now called Frederick Karinthy Street.  And somewhere else you see another street named after another friend who used to be unable to pay his bill in another café.  Yet another one reminds you that a third friend still owes you five pengoes, but as he, too, has now been turned into a street, you’ve haven’t much chance of seeing your money.  With a largish square you once had a drunken fight at three a.m. in the City Park and that statue there – so majestic on his pedestal – used to go to bed with one of your girl-friends.  It hurt very much at the time – it was certainly not the behaviour you expect from a statue.

img class=”alignleft size-full wp-image-12205″ src=”https://thecaptivereader.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/uber-alles.jpg” alt=”” width=”175″ height=”288″ />Travelling back in time, I then picked up Über Alles from 1953.  The rebuilding of Germany in the post-war period was miraculous and Mikes was amazed to see what had already been accomplished.  And what was being accomplished daily:

In Bavaria, Berlin and Hesse I saw people work till midnight.  Not only waiters but also bricklayers and decorators.  I saw others working as early as four in the morning.  Yet all these people jibe at the Swabians and make contemptuous remarks about them.  ‘Oh, these Swabians,’ they keep saying.  ‘They work too hard.’  I visited Stuttgart but failed to detect anything to distinguish the way the Swabians work from the way the rest of Germany works.  Perhaps they work twenty-eight hours a day – I could not find out.

In the midst of this rebuilding, Germany was still figuring out how to deal with its recent past and that makes for some interesting conversations – or struggles to have conversations, as Mikes searches for people who are willing to discuss the Nazis.  And making sense of the present is no easier as he wanders through divided but pre-wall Berlin.

It’s a well-done book and far more humorous than Any Souvenirs?  Most importantly, it gives me exactly what I want from Mikes: an extended essay on How to Become a German.  Here are the highlights:

You do not need to be a Teutonic god. You do not need to be six feet tall, broad-shouldered, fair, blue-eyed and divine in any particular way.  If your laugh chimes melodiously like church-bells sunk in the Rhine, that is all right; but if it happens to be an uproarious belly-laugh, do not worry.  If you are brave and vengeful like Siegfried, good for you; but if you are meek and humble that will do as well.  If you are lean and muscular like the warriors of the Nibelungenlied that must be good for your health; but if your girth borders on the miraculous and you have a treble chin as well as a treble neck, you are still eligible.

Go and have a haircut. Most people have an ordinary European haircut but a large minority – I always felt that only they were the true Germans – have their hair shorn off completely, except for a fetching little mane just above the forehead.  Then dress up.  Dress like a hunter but never go hunting.  OR as a golfer but never play golf…

Whatever you do, be stiff and formal like a foreign ambassador performing his official duty. I have always believed that ‘charm’ often conceals a streak of weakness.  The majority of Germans are completely free from this weakness…

Be decent, well-meaning and clean. And believe that cleanliness is one of the greatest of human virtues.  Look down upon the French because some – in fact many – of their lavatories are dirty…

Be highly cultured, quote Greek authors in the original, be interested in everything and amass a huge volume of factual information. If you have a chance – and you will often find one if you are on your guard – air your vast knowledge just to show that you possess it.  Be paternal to everybody and teach everybody his own business.  Do this benevolently, full of the noblest intentions and with the tact of a baby elephant…

Ah yes, that is what I had been looking forward to.

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I love A Century of Books, I really do.  But I hate the feeling of doom that encroaches as I slack off and my list of books to review grows ever longer.  (On the plus side, this means I am reading from years that are part of my Century and not going entirely off piste again.  Hurrah for me!)  The only way to silence this dread is with action and so I give you three very brief reviews of three very different and not entirely memorable books.  They vary from not at all good to absolutely delightful but all three are guaranteed to disappear from your memory relatively fast.

Let’s start in 1948 with the instantly forgettable Pirouette by Susan Scarlett.  Scarlett was the pen name under which Noel Streatfeild wrote a dozen light and extraordinary gentle romances.  They are all formulaic and trite but generally enjoyable.  Unfortunately, this one was just trite and formulaic.  It’s the story of Judith Nell, a young ballerina (and young means very young – only 18), who has just been offered a big professional break.  At the same time, her boyfriend accepts a job in Rhodesia and asks her to marry and go with him.  In the background are discontented ballerinas – one of whom is more than happy to go out dancing and drinking (and who knows what else’ing) with Paul while Judith struggles with her decision – and young men who see no future in England, only in Africa.  As we know, that’s not going to end at all well for anyone.  There are class struggles, career struggles, and familial struggles and yet it all manages to be quite dull.  The only good thing about it is the portrait of Judith’s family and how all its members struggle because of Mrs Nell’s stage mother ways.  It’s a bit overwrought but essentially good, especially the conspiracies that spring up between the other members of the family as they try to out manoeuvre Mrs Nell.


Much better but still forgettable was Meet Mr Mulliner by P.G. Wodehouse from 1927.  Mr Mulliner is a slight variation on The Oldest Member, here to regale unwilling listeners with stories of his family’s comic exploits (rather than The Oldest Member’s golf-focused yarns).  While I was delighted by the career of Mr Mulliner’s nephew Augustine, a once meek curate whose entire life is changed thanks to an extraordinarily effective potion created by his relative Wilfred Mulliner (whose tale is also told), the rest of the stories were a bit too repetitive and never truly caught my attention.  That said, a little Wodehouse is better than none.

And in the entirely satisfactory category of “frothy and forgettable but enjoyable” we have Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland.  First published in 1961 and recently reissued, this is a very amusing little book of de Havilland’s observations as an American among the French.  Shortly after divorcing her first husband, de Havilland met a charming Frenchman while attending the Cannes film festival.  Soon enough she was moving to France with her small son and marrying her Frenchman, taking on both a new spouse, a new country, and an entirely new culture.  Her stumbles as she finds her way are recounted with an impressively light touch and it’s delightful to see her enjoyment of the country.  And it’s one an enjoyment that hasn’t faded – she moved there in the mid-1950s and is there still at age 102.

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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There are not a lot of books I find worth staying up for on a weeknight.  Sleep is a wonderful thing and I take it seriously.  But last night I foolishly started reading just before (what should have been) my bedtime and ending up reading until almost midnight, caught up in the joyfully comic fantasy of Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon.

Adapted many, many times for the stage and screen, this tale from 1903 will already be familiar to many of you.  When his grandfather dies and leaves him a million dollars on his twenty-fifth birthday, Monty Brewster knows his life will change.  No longer does he need to work for a salary – good though he was at his work – or leave anxious tailors and tradespeople waiting for bills to be settled.  No, he can live as he likes and begin to help the people he loves live a little better too.  And he can pursue the girl he loves, knowing he has fortune enough to give her a life of luxury and ease.  Yes, the future is bright.  But only days after his first inheritance Monty learns of another: an eccentric uncle has left him seven million dollars – but only if Monty is penniless by his twenty-sixth birthday.  And penniless with conditions – the money must not be thrown away in excessive gestures of charity or idiocy – it must be spent wisely and reasonably and he may tell no one about the second inheritance.  With only a year to do it, Monty sets methodically to work.

I found the entire thing delightful.  Monty is, as we are told at the beginning, entirely admirable.  He has “a decent respect for himself and no great aversion to work”, the ability to stay calm in a crisis, to mix with all sorts of people, and to view things in perspective and with humour.  He is warm and friendly and trusting, yet with a solid business sense and no nonsense about him.  He is, in fact, a rather perfect hero and I loved reading about his successes in carefully spending his fortune – and his failures when his attempts to invest poorly or gamble away bits of his fortune backfire and find him with more rather than less riches.  It is no small thing to spend a great fortune but he sets about it methodically and sensibly, enjoying himself along the way.

Enjoying themselves far less are his friends and loved ones.  At first delighted by Monty’s well-deserved wealth, they are pained to see him frittering it away and constantly on the look out for ways to curb his spending and save him from himself.  The first flush of spending – lavishly decorating a new apartment, throwing extravagant dinner parties – was fun for everyone but as the year goes on and Monty’s excesses grow more and more extreme both his friends and society at large can’t help but lament his extravagance and judge him harshly for it.  And when you are being judged extravagant by New Yorkers at the turn of the century, in the most gilded city of the gilded age, you really must be an extreme case.

I think McCutcheon must have had fun dreaming up all the ways to spend a million – and carefully accounting for them in the ledger Monty keeps.  Silly parties can only help so much.  It’s when he hits on the idea of taking a party of friends to Europe that the money really starts disappearing.  First with the hire of a yacht.  Yachts will always be a wonderful way to spend money very quickly and get very little return.  True then, true now, true always.  And once in Europe Monty is wildly successful at spending.  He buys cars, hires a villa, rents out hotels, and hires an opera company and opera house for not just one night but two.  But the joyful spending of the early days in gone and as his birthday draws near it becomes a chore to rid himself of all his funds, made painful by the taunts of society and the disapproval of his friends.

There is, of course, a romance, though not the one Monty himself dreamed of when the year began.  It is obvious from her first introduction who his real love interest will be – a girl who knows him well, who can tease and speak freely with him – and it’s satisfying to watch them both realise their true feelings over the course of the year.  A little less satisfying when the girl is abducted off the yacht by an Arab sheik in the middle of the night and a daring rescue is then enacted but, oh well, McCutcheon was clearly getting bored with all the accounting Monty was doing and felt the urge to liven things up.

It’s all a bit of whimsy but whimsy is wonderful.  The second half is weaker than the first but it matters not.  It’s a quick book to read and the overall effect is so fun and sprightly that the odd weakness can be overlooked.  Definitely a book worth staying up late with.

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I love fairy tales and I love A.A. Milne.  When you put them together, I’m a happy woman.  And thankfully Milne used fairy tales – or at least fairy-tale-esque settings – in a number of his writings.  I’d already encountered this happy combination in his early novel, Once on a Time, in his one-act play, Portrait of a Gentleman in Slippers, and in his uproariously funny play, The Ugly Duckling, so I was delighted to find it again in The Ivory Door, a play from 1928. 

We begin with King Hilary and his son, young Prince Perivale, in the throne room having a friendly chat about life.  Perivale is eight- or nine-years old and starting to make sense of the world and his place in it.  His father, however, is making things a bit difficult by throwing in his king-ly perspective:

PERIVALE. […] Kings are the wisest men, aren’t they?

HILARY .It is commonly said so.

PERIVALE. And the handsomest, and the best swordsmen, and the cleverest painters, and the greatest generals, and – and everything.

HILARY. It is well that the people should think so.

PERIVALE. Shall I be when I grow up?

HILARY. So it will be said.

PERIVALE. But shan’t I be?

HILARY. It is almost too much to expect of one man, Perivale.

PERIVALE. Even if he is the King?

HILARY. The more so if he be the King.

And here we have our theme, ladies and gentleman: the gap between perception and reality, what people desire to be true and what is actually so.  It’s hard on a king to try and live up to romantic expectations and legends, as Perivale will discover.

But he will not discover it quite yet.  For now, he moves on to questioning his father about the mysterious ivory door in the throne room.  He’s been told it leads to hell or at the very least that to enter it means certain death.  And his father, wise as he might be (for all kings are wise), cannot tell him differently.  He can only tell him that what lies on the other side is unknown but the kings who have passed through the door have never been seen again.  It’s a legend that looms large in their kingdom – the Ivory Door that leads to certain death – and for Perivale the need to know the truth is intense.  But the key is lost so the door – and what lies on the other side – remains a mystery.

Years pass, good King Hilary dies, and Perivale becomes king.  But he has never lost his inquisitive nature and now he finally has the key to the Ivory Door.  And on the eve of his wedding, he decides he cannot live with the uncertainty any longer.  So he opens the door and goes through.

The legend of the Ivory Door, as one of the characters says, “…is our own; something which joins us together.  We talk of it often.  We tell each other stories.  We could not lose it.”  So when Perivale emerges unscathed and alive, having discovered the door merely leads to a passage that ends outside the palace walls, it is deemed impossible.  Perivale must be an impostor or some wicked soul switched in hell with the true, good King Perivale.  The arrival of his fiancée, Princess Lilia, only complicates matters.  After all, everyone in the kingdom knows their great secret: that the two met while in disguise as peasants and fell in love only to then discover one another’s true identities.  It is always thus for kings and princesses.  Except Perivale and Lilia had never set eyes on one another and the lack of recognition only serves to further condemn Perivale.  He may look like their king but King Perivale passed through the Ivory Door and therefore gone forever.  It is inconceivable, despite all the evidence, that Perivale could have lived.

On the Milne spectrum of silliness, The Ivory Door should be classed on the more serious side.  It has its moments of levity thanks to Milne’s typically snappy dialogue but is primarily a cautionary tale.  Perivale’s people had lived for generations with the legend of the Ivory Door.  It formed part of their identity.  And, as Perivale says, “when I came safely through the Door, I was telling each one of my people that he was a fool and a coward.  A fool to believe, a coward to fear.”  It is never safe to be the person who makes other feels like fools and cowards.  Only bad things can come from that.    

Bad things for Perivale, yes, but good things for the reader.  I really enjoyed this (as I always enjoy Milne) and loved that it was of a more serious bent than some of his other plays of the era.  I love a good comedy of errors about bigamy but a change is nice.

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Today marks the start of a Mini Persephone Readathon, hosted by the ever-enthusiastic Jessie, and I’m delighted to be taking part.  It’s just until Sunday – hence its “mini” status – so I thought I’d get started right away.

First published in 1946, To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski was published while the war was still fresh in everyone’s minds.  And that memory is important because already routines were beginning to be re-established and conventions once again adhered to, things that had briefly loosened during the topsy-turvy war years and provided undreamt-of freedom for so many.  Sometimes that freedom was productive – as for the men and women whose wartime experiences gave them careers their education or gender never prepared them for – and sometimes it was merely license to misbehave.  And wartime misbehaviour is Laski’s focus.

We meet Deborah Robertson just as her husband, Graham, is about to depart for Cairo.  Married for several years and parents to a young son, they are both upset at the idea of parting, trying to reassure one another of the strength of their passion.  Passion, rather than affection, is certainly the correct word and the shallowness of their relationship is made clear as Graham reassures his wife that he will “be missing you every hour of every day, thinking how bloody attractive you are.”  This is not a marriage of two minds, safe to say.

Before he leaves, Graham idiotically explains to his wife that the affairs he will have out East will only be with women he does not respect and so won’t mean anything and asks her to promise the same for her own affairs.  Deborah, claiming the moral high ground, asserts that she will be comforted by her love for him, will spend her time caring for their son, and will remain completely unchanged by their separation.

Subtlety is not Laski’s strong point (to be fair, she never attempts it) so, unsurprisingly, the rest of the book is about how unfaithful Deborah is and how much she changes.

Bored with her son and country life, Deborah soon seizes the chance to move to London on her own (leaving her son in the loving and much more capable hands of the housekeeper).  And even before she completes her move, she has her first affair.  It is a meaningless thing, done more out of a sense of inevitability than anything, but it sets her on a path that she soon finds impossible to give up.  Her attempts to abstain make her sour and petulant so, she decides, why not have fun.  To be twenty-four, beautiful and free in wartime London is a heady thing indeed.

One man leads to another, then another, and so on.  At first she can pretend love is involved but she soon realises that is not it.  Her relationships have nothing to do with her feelings about the men, except perhaps for what they can give her – beginning with nice meals out, stockings, perfume, small things.  But as she learns her new craft, her ambitions grow.  She looks at her friend Madeleine, far more used to this lifestyle than Deborah and able to attract what Deborah thinks of as “grown-ups”, and “longed to graduate into a class genuinely competitive with her, and yet had no notion of what qualities she lacked that consistently prevented her from doing so.”

Deborah figures out those qualities – with the not altogether willing assistance of a Frenchman whom she has poached from Madeleine – and from there her career as a tart is assured.  The men she sleeps with are barely people to her, only stepping stones on her path of self-improvement.  Her moral qualms disappear alarmingly quickly; it is much nicer to have a new bag or hat or piece of jewellery than anxieties.  And why shouldn’t she be happy rather than anxious or ashamed?  As she says:

“I know it’s better to be happy than unhappy, and not only for me but for my baby as well.  I like this sort of life, in fact, I love it, and seeing as how I’m hurting no one and doing myself quite a lot of good, I rather think I’ll carry on with it.  I’ve come to the conclusion that conventional morals were invented by a lot of unattractive bitches to make themselves feel good.”

Laski is extremely popular with Persephone readers and one of their best represented authors – they have reprinted five of her books now: Little Boy Lost, The Village, The Victorian Chaise-Longue, To Bed with Grand Music, and Tory Heaven.  And I can completely understand why.  She epitomizes the middle brow, writing about seemingly-serious topics in a titillating way with basic, extremely readable prose (Little Boy Lost is particularly difficult to put down).  Would I consider this a significant psychological portrait of a woman experiencing a moral crisis amidst a chaotic, collapsing social structure?  Hardly.  But, despite lacking nuance or depth, it is great fun.  Laski knew what people wanted: a bit of excitement and a touch of the taboo to keep them glued to the pages, confidently smug that they could never be as morally inept as Deborah.  It’s true but that is a very, very low bar to clear.

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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After reading 37 books by a single author, there comes the point when you think, “Surely to God I have read everything she wrote that was actually worth reading – and then some.”  At least, that was how I felt about D.E. Stevenson.  I read the good, I read the middling, and I read the bad (and I managed to review 20-odd of them).  And, after 37 books, I was pretty much done.  Until I wasn’t.  Knowing absolutely nothing about it, I decided on a whim to read Green Money and discovered that DES had basically decided to write a contemporary (for 1939) Georgette Heyer novel.  I was, understandably, delighted.

We meet our protagonist, George Ferrier, celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday with a little shopping on Bond Street.  After ten days of living it up in London and having his head turned by one pretty girl after another, he is heading home to the country but not before he has a fitting for a new pair of riding boots – hence Bond Street.  And it is in this Bond Street establishment that the fateful encounter occurs: George meets Mr. John Green, an old army friend of his father’s and now a very wealthy man.  The Ferriers live in rural obscurity – his scholarly father caught up in his studies, his horsey-mother caught up in the stables – so the families had not been in touch but it makes no matter.  A son of Ferrier senior must be a good sort.

Mr. Green quickly identified George – young, honest, good with people, and not overburdened with brains – as just the man he wants.  Mr. Green, though expecting to live for many years, wants to name a youthful trustee for his daughter in case anything should happen to him, his wife having died many years before.  There are three trustees already, middle-aged men like himself, but Green doesn’t think they’ll be of much use by the time he plans to die, many, many years from now.  So, he reasons, George is just the right man.  And the role of trustee is vital, he explains to George, since his beloved daughter is, like all women, “delicate, virginal, easily shocked and frightened.”  George, after a lifetime with his straight-talking Irish mother and decidedly capable female friends, tries to remain open minded but can’t quite square his new friend’s statement with the world as he knows it:

George had not thought of women in this light before, but he was always willing to consider a fresh point of view.  He thought of the various girls he knew: were they like flowers?  Not noticeably.  Were they delicate, virginal, easily shocked and frightened?  No, no, no.  He thought of his mother and smiled involuntarily.  “Oh, well!” he said.  “I dare say some girls may be like that.  I’ve always found them fairly hard boiled.”

George, as the story will bear out, has excellent people sense.  Mr. Green does not.

Unsurprisingly for the purposes of our story, Mr. Green soon dies and George comes into his duties several decades before he had expected to.  And this is where our Heyer-esque plot takes over.  George assumes partial guardianship of the teenaged Elma Green, who turns out to be breathtakingly beautiful but woefully ignorant of the real world.  Her governess, Miss Wilson (an exquisite creation), has raised her on 19th Century romantic novels and Elma has quite naturally turned into an outwardly docile creature, who meanwhile is longing for some sort of excitement.  Delightfully, her main ambition is to visit London and to see Vauxhall Gardens and the vulgar excesses she has read so much about (little knowing that Vauxhall closed 80 years before).  George is repelled rather than attracted by these antiquated manners and introduces his ward to the idea that men and women can be friends and that it’s not shame for a girl to have a bit of life in her.  It takes Elma a while to catch on but when she does…well, she’s a fast learner and, unfortunately for George, he isn’t her only instructor.

The complications are fast and furious.  George, confused by his sense of responsibility, wonders if he can possibly be in love with Elma when he spends most of his time wanting to escape her attentions.  George’s best friend, Peter Seeley, having fallen in love with Elma at first sight, is silently feuding with George, though George remains oblivious to this (as is common when you choose to feud silently).  George, his brain moving slowly but surely, begins to have his doubts about how Mr. Green’s estate is being handled.  Another trustee, concerned on a number of fronts, invites Elma and her governess to stay with his family at a seaside hotel frequented by some rather fast people where Elma, predictably, finds lots of trouble to get into.  And there is, as is only suitable in such a Heyer-esque novel, a updated 20th Century sort of elopement (headed for a hotel rather than Gretna Green).

I do love an exasperated hero running around trying to rescue an idiotic girl who has cheerfully dashed off to be ruined but I love it most when a) I am confident there is no possibility of romance between said hero and said idiotic girl, b) where there is a wonderfully capable heroine waiting patiently for our hero to realise he’s in love with her, and c) when I can be entertained along the way by entertaining supporting characters.  Green Money has it all.  Also, magic tricks.  But let us focus for a moment on the supporting characters.

Paddy, George’s mother, is Irish.  That’s basically it.  You can tell because she is obsessed with horses and speaks like Maureen O’Hara’s character from The Quiet Man every single time she opens her mouth.  She is wonderful though, a winning combination of loving and blunt, and is adored by her husband, son, and friends.  The Seeley family, the Ferriers’ neighbours and close friends, are a large family with lazy, rarely involved parents.  Of the children, adolescent daughter Dan is a particular favourite of George’s, eldest son Peter, a newly qualified doctor, is his best friend, and eldest daughter Cathy is…something.  Something very calming and certain and sensible and…well, you see where that is going.  And then, freshly introduced into George’s life, thanks to Elma, there is the magnificent Miss Wilson.  A governess at least one hundred years out of date, she is Elma’s prim and exasperated companion, who becomes utterly overwhelmed by her charge’s behaviour once they reach the resort.  She writes out her tale of woe to George and it causes confusion to him (and his parents, trying gamely to follow along as this farce progresses) and delight to the reader.  Miss Wilson, clearly, learned capitalization from Jane Austen (and D.E. Stevenson picked up a thing or two herself about comic old maids):

In the midst of my Anxiety and Trouble, I remembered Your Cryptic Words to which I was so misguided as to take exception.  You remarked that I should be well advised to keep my eye upon Elma!  I ask myself now, in the light of all that has happened, whether this remark was made with a Fuller Knowledge of the Pitfalls before me than I myself possessed.  At the time, of course, I was Confident of my Ability to watch my charge and to Guard and Guide her, no matter what Dangers or Difficulties should lie before us…

All ends well, naturally.  Those who are in love declare their love.  Those who want a quiet life return to the quiet life.  Those who want a horse, get a horse (that would be George’s mother, Paddy – remember, she is Irish.  As though you would ever be allowed to forget).  And I, happily, discovered that there was at least one D.E. Stevenson book left worth reading.

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