Archive for the ‘eBook’ Category

Another Part of the WoodAlmost exactly a year ago, I bought a Kobo Touch e-reader.  I have been thankful for it many times since then but probably never so much as when I recently discovered that my library’s e-book collection included a copy of Another Part of the Wood by Denis Mackail.  I have been eager to read more by Mackail since discovering the charms of Greenery Street in 2010 and especially since becoming a wee bit obsessed with the many books written by his elder sister, Angela Thirkell.  Though Mackail was a busy writer (you can find his full bibliography here) his books have fallen sadly out of print.  Greenery Street is readily available from Persephone and, thanks to Bloomsbury Reader, Another Part of the Wood can also easily be got, albeit only as an ebook right now.  And it is well worth getting.

When eighteen-year old Ursula Brett, known to most as Noodles, leaves her respectable but unexceptional school (the kind that is very proud that it has never trained a girl for higher education), she is excited to have (in her mind at least) passed from schoolgirl to proper grown-up woman.  But neither St Ethelburga’s nor Noodles’ disinterested guardian have done anything to prepare the pretty, friendly young woman for a world full of men.  Almost immediately after leaving school, she runs into trouble:

For though no one seems to be quicker than Noodles at identifying rather awful men when they cross her path, experience suggests that no one is less capable of dealing with them once they have done so.

First, she finds that she has attracted the unthreatening but determined attentions of a ne’er do well neighbour.  She is properly horrified by his interest but not so horrified as her guardian, who packs poor Noodles up and humiliatingly sends her back to St Ethelburga’s.  (Coincidentally, being sent back to school after having graduated has been one of my more intriguing recurring dreams since I left my own school, though I think my dream self views the whole exercise as less traumatic than poor Noodles does.)  After a few disastrous weeks back at school, where it is discovered that she has forgotten most of what they taught her before she left, Noodles finds herself running away to join a seedy variety show in a seaside town.  As you do.  Noodles remains remarkably plucky (an adjective I don’t get to use as often as I’d like) throughout her adventures , even as her innocent approach to the world undergoes a necessary change: Noodles quickly learns that her polite ideas about being nice to everyone who is nice to her isn’t always the best or safest approach.

Meanwhile, as Noodles is bouncing around from school to home to school to seaside, her brother Beaky and his flatmate Snubs are toiling away at unimportant jobs in London.  Beaky is struggling with his passion for the lovely Sylvia Shirley while Snubs, the more level-headed of the pair, takes an usual amount of interest in the updates Noodles sends her brother.  When she disappears from St. Ethelburga’s, the two young men set off in search of her, with their adventures (and misadventures in poor Beaky’s case) proving just as amusing as Noodles’.  The story bounces between them, Noodles, and, on occasion, Sylvia, tracking the parallel activities of all the characters until they all come together for a very happy ending.

This is a fun and funny book and for me half the joy was seeing how Mackail’s work fits in with that of his friends A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse, two of my favourite authors.  The characters’ nicknames are certainly Wodehousian: how well I could imagine Drones members or visitors to Blandings called Noodles, Snubs, or Beaky.  And there are definite flashes of A.A.M.-esque frivolity:

‘Oh, look at them all!’ says Sylvia – meaning the human beings.  ‘Aren’t they marvellous!’

They are.

‘Oh, look at that fat one!’

The fat one is really a splendid example.

‘And that one with the bare legs!’

The one with the bare legs might not appeal to all tastes, but is distinctly worth looking at.

Published in 1929, Another Part of the Wood is a comic novel very much of its time.  In other words, it is perfect for me.  I dearly hope more of Denis Mackail’s books are reissued soon.

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My excitement about having more time to blog while on vacation obviously hasn’t translated into actual blogging.  I should have anticipated this since, as always, Claire in holiday-mode is busier than Claire in work-mode.  But it has been a lovely break, if not a restful one.  The weather has been perfect, we’ve just had a fabulous party for my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary, and I have been reading like a fiend.  So far, unemployment is treating me very well.

I have been feeling guilty over the past few weeks for not blogging about the three books in Phillip Rock’s Greville Family Saga but just could not work up the enthusiasm to do so in detail.  The books, originally published in the late seventies and early eighties, have recently been reissued and are being marketed on the strength of their similarities to Downton Abbey.  The first book, The Passing Bells, opens in the summer of 1914 and follows the characters through the first half of the war.  Circles of Time picks up a few years later, looking at the impact of the war in both England and Germany, and the trilogy concludes in A Future Arrived, which jumps forward to the Second World War.

The Passing BellsI read The Passing Bells countless times as a teenager and still love it.  It is just as soapy as I remembered but it is great fun.  The writing is not brilliant and it feels very much of its time but it is an entertaining story and Rock is excellent at incorporating historical events into the story.  That is the real issue with the first book: the events and the characters’ experiences are generally better described than the characters themselves.   But Rock does manage to fit a lot of different perspectives in to this relatively short book, between the people at home, the frontline nurses, the career soldier who finds himself enraged by the waste of human life, the young romantic who goes mad after his experiences in France, and, most importantly, the young American journalist who records everything in clear-sighted journal entries that are the highlight of this volume.

circles-of-timeCircles of Time, perhaps because it doesn’t have any big historical events to structure itself around, is a much less eventful book and focuses more the personal lives of the characters from the first book.  It is a fine, entertaining story but the structure is a little uneven and I can’t quite put my finger on why that is.  The book takes a serious turn in the second half when Martin Rilke, the Greville’s American cousin, now a famous journalist, visits his Rilke cousins in Germany and witnesses firsthand the absurdities of the Weimar Republic (from mad hedonism in Berlin nightclubs to assassinations in the streets) and the beginnings of the Nazi party in Bavaria.

A Future ArrivedThe third book, A Future Arrived, is a mess.  Honestly, I wouldn’t even recommend reading it.  The structural problems that plagued the first two books completely finish this one off, and the situation is not helped by the introduction of younger characters who are either poorly developed or second-rate copies of their elders.  It is a messy, unsatisfying book that lacks the historical detail that redeemed the flaws of the earlier novels.  Just read the first two books and forget there is a third one.

Sorcery and CeceliaAs for other books, I enjoyed Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer but am afraid I don’t have all that much to say about it.  It is an epistolary Regency-era fantasy novel – and isn’t that a mouthful?  It is the kind of fantasy I like the least – magic has never done it for me – so I think I enjoyed it less than other reader might have but both main characters (Kate and Cecelia) are great and the book is really very fun.  There are two more books in the series and I’ve already got one of them loaded on to my Kobo.

More Baths Less TalkingMore Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby, which I read just before Sorcery and Cecelia, is a collection of Hornby’s monthly columns for the Believer about his reading choices and I got some great reading recommendations from it.  I love Hornby’s picks – he mentions many books I have already read or which are already on my TBR list – but, ultimately, he is still Hornby and I still just don’t like him all that much.  I don’t dislike him, but I have very little in common with him and don’t find his viewpoint particularly engaging or his style particularly interesting.  It is entirely a matter of taste.  There are three other volumes of earlier columns that I will probably track down one day but I’m not going to rush out to grab them.

I have some more exciting books to review soon, ones that I want to do justice to with dedicated posts – an excellent Monica Dickens novel, a lacklustre Persephone, and two fabulous Georgette Heyers among them – but for now I’m headed back to the pool.  Work, work, work!

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I can’t overstate how immensely useful Elizabeth von Arnim has been for one of the trickiest decades of A Century of Books, the 1900s.  She has been one of my favourite authors for ages but all of the books I’ve read this year for the project were new to me: The Benefactress (1901), The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (1905), Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907), and now The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904) and The Caravaners (1909).

adventuresofelizabethLike all of the Elizabeth books, The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen is exactly what you would expect it to be based on the title (much like Elizabeth and Her German Garden is about Elizabeth’s garden in Germany or The Solitary Summer is about, surprise, a summer spent in solitude).  Elizabeth, accompanied by her invaluable maid Gertrud, has decided to take a holiday to the German island of Rügen, leaving her husband and children behind.  Unencumbered by dependents, she is free to be the Elizabeth who indulges in long walks and light meals, able to think about the beauties of nature rather than the demands of her family.

But, of course, Elizabeth does not find the peace she had dreamt of.  Though her trip is a short one – only eleven days – she finds herself kept quite busy between her new acquaintances and her old ones.  The Harvey-Brownes, an English mother and son, she can just about handle, but an unexpected encounter with her unconventional cousin Charlotte proves a bit more frustrating.  A strident feminist and deeply annoying woman, Charlotte has abandoned her husband (an aged professor) and now lives and lectures in England.  Elizabeth cannot agree with her cousin’s extreme views, especially when Charlotte begins criticizing Elizabeth’s life, with her garden and babies.  When the professor appears, an irritatingly condescending and benignly amorous septuagenarian who has not seen his wife in more than a year, things get even more complicated.  His wife wants nothing to do with him while the Harvey-Brownes, great admirers of his work, won’t leave him alone.

As much as I enjoy Elizabeth’s (almost) solitary wanderings and musing on her surroundings, the book is funniest when she is the company of others.  Able to observe and comment on the Harvey-Brownes, Charlotte, and the Professor, we see once again that wit that makes von Arnim’s books so delightful.  The laughs are more gentle than in her other books and it did take me a while to ease into the story but it was still a solidly enjoyable read, just not the best example of von Arnim’s powers.

The CaravanersLike The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen, The Caravaners is also written in the form of a travel journal although this time the travels are in England and the author, instead of the delightful Elizabeth, is one of the most obnoxious characters von Arnim ever created.

When Baron Otto Von Ottringe and his wife Edelgard embark on a caravanning holiday in Southern England, neither they nor they companions know what they are getting themselves in to.  The indignities of life on the road are one thing – the economies of caravanning do not make up for the inconveniences, Otto quickly realises – but it is Otto’s interactions with his fellow travellers that truly sour the trip for everyone.  Except Otto, our pompous, chauvinistic, lazy narrator, has no idea.  What he does notice is how his wife rebels against his authority once they start out, talking back to him, dressing in the more modern style of their travel companions, and generally not behaving at all in the way of a proper German wife.  And goodness knows Otto has plenty to say on how a good German wife should behave:

…older and married women must take care to be at all times quiet.  Ejaculations of a poetic or ecstatic nature should not, as a rule, pass their lips.  They may ejaculate perhaps over a young baby (if it is their own) but that is the one exception; and there is a good reason for this one, the possession of a young baby implying as a general rule a corresponding youth in its mother.  I do not think however that it is nice when a woman ejaculates over, say, her tenth young baby.  The baby of course will still be sufficiently young for it is a fresh one, but it is not a fresh mother, and by that time she should have stiffened into stolidity, and apart from the hours devoted to instructing her servant, silence.  Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all.  Who want to hear her?  All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we wish, for a change, to tell her about our own thoughts, and that she should be at hand when we want anything.  Surely this is not much to ask.

Otto is awful.  I completely recognize that.  Like those forced to travel with him, I would resent and then avoid him at all costs.  He has no manners, mistreating everyone he views as below his level, and views his wife as a being who neither requires nor desires his affection or respect.  While his courtly manners are deployed on the other women of his party, Edelgard is ignored: No woman (except of course my wife) shall ever be able to say I have not behaved to her as a gentleman should.  Otto is the ultimate portrait of the pompous, poorly educated, undiscerning, war-mongering and overbearing German man so often to be found in von Arnim’s books.  It is sharply but almost too viciously done and by the end I was more upset with von Arnim than I was with Otto.

This kind of humour, where the narrator unknowingly makes himself the object of ridicule, fills me with pity.  Once his companions’ contempt for him became clear, and Otto’s obliviousness remained intact, I spent the rest of the book blushing in embarrassment for him, even as his blunders gave them more and more reasons to avoid his company.  There was something very cruel about the scene at the dance, where everyone darted away as soon as Otto approached.  I know how and why I am supposed to find it amusing, I just don’t.  There is enough sense about Otto – he is particularly sympathetic when pointing out the absurdities of travelling by caravan and how ill-suited he and his upper-class companions are to roughing it – that he cannot be entirely dismissed as a fool.

It is a very humourous book and another wonderful example of von Arnim’s versatility but, for me, it was too uncomfortably cruel to really enjoy.

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

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

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

‘Monsieur Harding?’ he says.


‘Bon!  Une lettre.’

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

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

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

My manner changed at once.

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

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

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

“Very good, sir,” said the secretary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I read In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim in the place where it is set: the mountains of Switzerland.  I hadn’t realised at the time that it was set in Switzerland – I was reading it on my e-reader so there was no jacket blurb to remind me – but it was wonderful to begin the book on my first day in Wengen and discover the protagonist describing the very scene that had greeted me on my arrival:

I was prepared to arrive here in one of the mountain mists that settle down on one sometimes for days, – vast, wet stretches of grey stuff like some cold, sodden blanket, muffling one away from the mountains opposite, and the valley, and the sun.

It was quite reassuring to know that the weather hasn’t changed that much over the years, between the summer of 1919 when the book is set and the summer of 2012 when I was there.

The book takes the form of a fictional diary written by an Englishwoman returning to her holiday home in the Swiss mountains for the first time in five years, since the summer of 1914 when war was declared.  The years have not been good ones, for her or anyone else.  She has had a particularly difficult last year (we never learn the details) and is depressed and withdrawn, miserable with a “desperate darkness and distrust of life[…]in my soul.”  She has returned to Switzerland, to the home that used to be filled with friends and laughter and so much youthful optimism.  Now, almost all of those friends who used to join her there are dead and she is very, very alone:

Here I am once more, come back alone to the house that used to be so full of happy life that its little wooden sides nearly burst with the sound of it.  I never could have dreamed that I would come back to it alone.  Five years ago, how rich I was in love; now how poor, how stripped of all I had.  Well, it doesn’t matter.  Nothing matters.  I am too tired.  I want to be quiet now.  Till I’m not so tired.  If only I can be quiet…

Slowly, she begins to heal.  She begins to notice the beauty around her, to take joy in her letters and books, to feel interested in life again.  And then the tone of the book changes completely.  This first bit was quiet but lovely, full of the diarist’s humourous everyday observations and reflections on the rehabilitation of her soul.  But then she meets two widowed sisters, the very respectable Mrs Barnes and the very adorable Mrs Jewks.  They have been living in Switzerland together for some time, though they – especially Mrs Barnes – are still vocally patriotic Englishwomen.  Suffering from the heat lower down in the valley, our diarist takes pity on the middle-aged sisters and invites them to stay with her.  Though their presence makes life decidedly awkward – especially since Mrs Barnes appears terrified to share any personal details about their lives with their hostess and so is never relaxed in her presence – the company is good for our diarist and the mystery they present keeps her inquisitive mind busy.  As their visit lengthens, the diarist finally uncovers their quite innocent secret and the explanation for why they have remained in Switzerland for so long rather than returning to England.

With the introduction of Mrs Barnes and Mrs Jewks, the story shifts from one of von Arnim’s thoughtfully introspective books towards one of her charming fairy tales.  Both women are so endearing: Mrs Barnes, though outwardly reserved, is incredibly devoted to her sister and would do anything for her, and Mrs Jewks is simply the sweetest, most loveable creature in existence, who likes nothing more than to please others.  They have had some difficult years – especially Mrs Barnes, who felt the shame of their self-imposed exile most keenly – but after they meet our diarist things began to change.  When the diarist’s terribly respectable uncle – for what could be more respectable than a dean of the Church of England? – arrives, a happy ending seems within grasp.  Uncle Rudolph, a widower, quite naturally falls in love with the entirely lovable Mrs Jewks, which would solve the sisters’ problems, and, as his niece observes, the acquisition of a sweet wife would be a welcome change from his lonely existence:

It must be a dreadful thing to be sixty and all alone. You look so grown up.  You look as though you must have so many resources, so few needs, and you are accepted as provided for, what with your career accomplished, and your houses and servants and friends and books and all the rest of it – all the empty, meaningless rest of it; for really, you are the most miserable of motherless cold babies, conscious that you are motherless, conscious that nobody soft and kind and adoring is ever again coming to croon over you and kiss you good-night and be there next morning to smile when you wake up.

It is a nice book but a rather odd mix.  I enjoyed the story of Mrs Barnes and Mrs Jewks but I am more drawn towards the kind of writing von Arnim displayed at the beginning of the book, when the diarist may have come across other characters but only in passing: the focus was on her, on her thoughts and feelings, and no one could write those kinds of passages as well as von Arnim.  As I read more and more of her work, it is those introspective books where you really get to know the intelligent, outspoken and always humourous heroines I am most drawn to: Elizabeth and Her German Garden has long been my favourite, though now Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (to be reviewed soon) is challenging it for supremacy.  In the Mountains begins with the same kind of promise as those books but changes abruptly into something still nice, but not quite as wonderful.  It was the perfect book to read in Switzerland but that does not mean it was a perfect book.

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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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When Anna Estcourt was twenty-five, and had begun to wonder whether the pleasure extractable from life at all counterbalanced the bother of it, a wonderful thing happened.

So begins The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim, another of her fairy tale stories in the same vein as Christopher and Columbus and The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (not to mention The Enchanted April, which everyone else seems to adore but is my least favourite von Arnim).  It is one of her earlier novels – first published in 1901 – and, as in the two books that came before it (Elizabeth and Her German Garden and The Solitary Summer), von Arnim clearly drew on her own experiences for inspiration.  And isn’t it any writer’s prerogative to write about what they know, especially if they can do it over and over again so delightfully?  In von Arnim’s case, that was the plight of the well-born foreigner living in rural obscurity in Germany.

Anna Estcourt, pretty, bright and still unmarried at twenty-five, has grown up under the guardianship of her benignly disinterested elder brother and his bossy, social climbing wife, Susie.  With no money – and therefore no independence – of her own, Anna is like a child under Susie’s thumb (and is far meeker at times than Susie’s own daughter).  Susie cannot understand why Anna will not make the most of her good looks and good name to catch a wealthy husband.  But Anna, a rather dreamy, idealistic soul, refuses to compromise her ideals just to get away from Susie:

‘…isn’t it simply terrible to be expected to encourage any wretched man who has money?  I don’t want anybody to marry me.  I don’t want to buy my independence that way.  Besides, it isn’t really independence.’

When Anna’s Uncle Joachim, her German mother’s brother, comes to visit, he and Anna immediately strike up an affectionate friendship.  Neither can entirely understand the views of the other – Uncle Joachim believes “It is a woman’s pride to lean on a good husband.  It is her happiness to be shielded and protected by him” – but nonetheless he, having met the exhausting Susie, can understand Anna’s desire for independence from her.  And so, when he dies a few a months after his visit to London, Anna finds herself an heiress, the inheritor of his prosperous Pomeranian estate, with the instruction that Uncle Joachim

trusted his dear Anna would go and live there, and keep it up to its present state of excellence, and would finally marry a good German gentleman, of whom there were many, and return in this way altogether to the country of her forefathers.

Anna has no intention of marry a good gentleman – German or otherwise – now that she has a generous annual income to fund the independent life she has dreamed of for so long, or of living in rural obscurity in Northern Germany, but she almost immediately sets out to visit her new property (after first struggling to locate it on a map), with her sister-in-law Susie, her niece Letty, and her niece’s governess in tow.

Anna does not get off to the best of starts with many of the locals, having absolutely no understanding of local customs or social hierarchies, but quickly falls in love her new home.  Feeling blessed by good fortune, she soon decides that the best way to use her home and her fortune would be to throw open her doors to distressed gentlewomen, to give them the rest and comfort and independence they long for but can never have when relying on relatives or, if without family, scrambling to make a living.  It is a beautiful, noble plan, though highly impractical as everyone tells her, and it isn’t long before Anna starts to regret her generous impulse, which has created an exhausting amount of work and stress for her.

While there are certainly more than enough of von Arnim’s trademark speeches about the tyranny of men and woman’s desire for and right to independence, this book actually has a male hero – not something typical in her works.  Axel Lohm is the only other major landowner in the region and the only gentleman, too (something Anna recognizes with relief the first time she sees him, having exhausted her patience with crass peasants).  He is the steady, good German gentleman Uncle Joachim had dreamed Anna might marry, a bachelor in his early thirties who has been devotedly attending to his estate, having bought his siblings out after their father’s death.  For years, he has been doing his best on his own, but it is a lonely life for an intelligent, thoughtful man, whose family members can always think of something they would rather be doing than visiting him, or, if they do find themselves visiting, do their best to get away quickly.   When Anna arrives, beautiful, warm, kind, intelligent Anna, they quickly become friends and it is not long before he falls in love with her, though he does his best to repress his feelings knowing that she does not welcome them.  All of Anna’s affection and energy is to be devoted to her distressed gentlewomen, not to some man.

Axel is my favourite type of male hero – quiet, calm, responsible, stable – and my sympathies were all with him as he struggled to counsel Anna on her project, though in her enthusiasm she refuses to listen to any warnings, and then to conceal his love for her, knowing that any offer he made would be rejected.  Anna dreamt for years of the kind of independence Axel has, but they were just that – dreams.  In Axel, we glimpse the weighty reality of such independence and his acute loneliness.  He has the freedom Anna always longed for but that alone cannot make him happy.  It is only as Anna’s troubles begin to pile up that she starts to recognize that absolute independence is very isolating and very, very tiring.  She has no one to share her burdens with, no one to help her see the way through a particularly overwhelming situation.  She finally realises the limits of her much longed for independence: ‘I want someone to tell me what I ought to do, and to see that I do it.  Besides petting me.  I long and long sometimes to be petted.’

It is a surprisingly eventful novel, full of many comings and goings, and von Arnim indulges in an extravagantly dramatic final act that felt a bit jarring in comparison to what I think of as her typical style.  I am used to thinking of her as a cool, humourous, unemotional storyteller, the writer of novels where the comic foibles of all the characters, major and minor, are exploited to excellent effect. (That reminds me that I still owe you a review of Introduction to Sally, which is riotously funny.)  This is undoubtedly the least comic of her books that I have yet to read, which I think makes it particularly interesting and no less satisfying.  It is still amusing – von Arnim could never be anything but – and quite light, but in showing an unusual amount of respect for her characters she creates a very different reading experience.  Usually, I come away from my encounters with von Arnim impressed by her skill, thankful for her neat turn of phrase and gift for capturing and relating the ridiculous.  Never before have I finished one of her books caring so much about the characters, as I did for the genuinely sympathetic Anna and Axel.

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If there is one fictional character I wish could be brought to life, it would have to be the unflappable Psmith.  Psmith, Journalist by P.G. Wodehouse, published in 1915, though not my favourite of the Psmith books, does a wonderful job of highlighting all of the characteristics that make Psmith so irresistible as he calmly bounds through a rather eventful trip to New York, involving the reinvention of a saccharine newspaper, a crusade against slum landlords, and the less-than-friendly advances of dangerous gangsters.

Mike Jackson is touring America with his cricket club and, loathe to be left behind, Psmith has accompanied his friend across the Atlantic.  However, counter to all laws of nature, it is Mike who is the center of attention once they arrive in New York, leaping from match to match, from party to party, with Psmith in the unfamiliar role of hanger-on.  The high life he had envisioned has not materialised and Psmith is becoming less and less enthralled by the reality of this American tour:

I have been here a week, and I have not see a single citizen clubbed by a policeman.  No negroes dance cakewalks in the street.  No cowboy has let off his revolver at random in Broadway.  The cables flash the message across the ocean, ‘Psmith is losing his illusions.’

Luckily, at just that moment he becomes entangled in the life of one Billy Windsor.  Billy is the temporary editor of a particularly awful publication called Cosy Moments.  The editor and owner are both abroad, leaving Billy in charge of the loathed newspaper with its sentimental columns and complete lack of anything that could be called news.  But, a honest and forthright young man, he feels duty-bound to hold up the standards and traditions of the newspaper that was left in his charge.  Psmith feels no such compunctions.  He is enchanted by the newspaper world and charmed to meet Billy:

‘I had long been convinced that about the nearest approach to the perfect job in this world, where good jobs are hard to acquire, was to own a paper.  All you had to do, once you had secured your paper, was to sit back and watch the other fellows work, and from time to time forward big cheques to the bank.  Nothing could be more nicely attuned to the tastes of a Shropshire Psmith.’

Having in only a few moments discovered the extent of Billy’s power and his dissatisfaction with the paper’s current offering, Psmith exerts his considerable charm to convince Billy to change the paper to be as he would like it.  The twee articles are cut, new sensational writers are hired, and, with Psmith as an honorary co-editor, the paper takes off.

One of the first issues the paper takes on in its new guise is the atrocious slum housing that abounds in certain parts of the city.  It is not long before their investigative journalism and outraged editorials catch the eyes of those in power.  As they pursue their chosen cause, Psmith and Billy find themselves in direct and often violent conflict with gangsters.  If Psmith had longed for local colour, he certainly found it.  But Psmith does not flinch in the face of such opposition.  He is as witty and languorous as ever, but there is steel in him:

Psmith was one of those people who are content to accept most of the happenings of life in an airy spirit of tolerance.  Life had been more or less of a game with him up till now.  In his previous encounters with those with whom fate has brought him in contact there had been little at stake.  The prize of victory had been merely a comfortable feeling of having had the best of a battle of wits; the penalty of defeat nothing worse than the discomfort of having failed to score.  But this tenement business was different.  Here he had touched the realities.  There was something worth fighting for.

For me, this is the weakest of the Psmith books.  The story does suffer from the absence of Mike, who disappears early on with the rest of the cricket team while Psmith decides to remain in New York with Billy and the paper.  Psmith needs a good straight man to play off of and Billy Windsor is a poor substitute for the easily embarrassed Comrade Jackson.  Wodehouse’s particular brand of Psmith-honour is best appreciated in long speeches and this tale is so action focused that there is little opportunity for the lengthy ramblings that Psmith excels at.  Wodehouse’s New York is an absurd place and can at times grate.  It is peopled entirely with men, all of whom have an uncertain understanding of English and are blessed with incomprehensible accents, all gleefully and painstakingly recorded by Wodehouse.  I understand the allure of local colour but it got a bit excessive.  Still, it is a fun, fast-paced story and I can never come away from an encounter with Psmith without being reminded of my deep affection for him.

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A.A. Milne is proving incredibly useful for my Century of Books: Belinda, an oh so silly and far from brilliant but still fun comedy, allowed me to check off 1918 from my list.  Of the 22 years I’ve completed (meaning actually posted reviews for), 6 of them have been done with books and plays written by Milne.  How convenient to have discovered my love for him just as I was beginning this project!

It is the end of April and Belinda Tremayne, a middle-aged beauty, is down at her country home in Devon.  A light-hearted and skilful flirt of the very best sort, Belinda has two local gentlemen vying for her affections: Harold Baxter, a middle-aged statistician, and Claude Devenish, a twenty-two year old poet.  They are not quite up to the usual standard of Belinda’s admirers but she is in the country and it is only April.  She must make do with what is available.

I would like to pause to appreciate Milne’s gift for bestowing the most perfect names on his characters.  What could be more perfect for an impish beauty of a certain age than Belinda?  Or Harold Baxter for a deeply unexceptional and entirely dull man?  And Claude Devenish is the perfect name for a poetic young man fond of floppy hair and awful verse.

As the play opens, Belinda is delighted to find her eighteen year old daughter Delia returned from Paris and Delia is equally enchanted to hear all about her mother’s most recent conquests.  It would be too upsetting for the men, they both agree, to be reminded of Belinda’s advanced age by the presentation of an adult daughter so they decide to introduce her to Messrs Baxter and Devenish as Miss Robinson, Belinda’s fictitious niece.  It is a plan that gives them both much amusement, and why not?  It is hardly as though Belinda is in love with either man.  She may like to have men propose to her – adore it, in fact – but she is not going to marry any of them.  Even if she did feel affection towards them, she still has a husband, somewhere.  Tremayne and Belinda parted ways eighteen years before, after only a few months of marriage, before she even had time to tell him about the pending arrival of Delia.  They were both young and not quite capable of handling the little daily conflicts that crop up in any relationship:

BELINDA. […] he was quite certain he knew how to manage women, and I was quite certain I knew how to manage men.  If one of us had been certain, it would have been all right.

Baxter and Devenish, both passionately devoted to Belinda, present an amusing rivalry when they appear together to pledge their devotion.  Devenish enters into it with the hyperbolic spirit of a poet, a speech deeply improved by Baxter’s derogatory insertions:

DEVENISH. Money – thank Heaven, I have no money.  Reputation – thank Heaven, I have no reputation.  What can I offer you?  Dreams – nothing but dreams.  Come with me and I will show you the world through my dreams.  What can I give you?  Youth, freedom, beauty –

BAXTER. Debts.

After they have both proposed to Belinda, she sets for them what should be an impossible task: to find Miss Robinson’s father.  His name, she tells them, is unknown and he can only be known by a mole just here on his arm.  Once he is found, she says, she may consider their proposals.

But a gentleman with a mark just here on his arm has just arrived in the neighbourhood, bizarrely enough, and begins paying suit to Belinda under the pseudonym of Robinson.  He knows her in an instant but eighteen years is a long time and Belinda, Mr Robinson having very properly left his arms and any marking they might have covered when in her presence, does not recognize him.

Meanwhile, Devenish is no longer so keen to win the hand of the fair Belinda now that he has seen her ‘niece’.  He falls instantly and most suitably in love with the age appropriate Delia, who is not quite so romantic as her mother:

DELIA. What lovely flowers!  Are they for my aunt?

DEVENISH. To whom does one bring violets?  To modest, shrinking, tender youth.

DELIA. I don’t think we have anybody here like that.

Belinda is delighted with this transference of affections, being very fond of Devenish but not at all romantically inclined towards him.  With him removed, there is only one lover more to get rid of before she’s left with the only one she wants: her husband.  I must say, the unravelling of identities at the end is treated remarkably calmly and presents the weakest scene in the whole play.  It would have been much stronger if Jack Tremayne had expressed some amount of amazement or anger at being presented with an 18-year old daughter he knew nothing about.

I did love Delia.  She is one of Milne’s no-nonsense young women: practical, game for anything, and fondly but not irrationally affectionate.  I particularly admire her ability to quickly transform Claude Devenish into a presentable human being, convincing him to abandon his awful poetry, cut his silly long hair, and put his mind to getting a job:

DEVENISH. I don’t quite see your objection to poetry.

DELIA. You would be about the house so much.  I want you to go away every day and do great things, and then come home in the evening and tell me all about it.

DEVENISH. Then you are thinking of marrying me.

DELIA. Well, I was just thinking in case I had to.

I do wonder how familiar Angela Thirkell was with this play, since this Delia seems to have much in common with Thirkell’s Delia Brandon, daughter of the widely-adored Lavinia Brandon (see The Brandons).

This is a fun little play, but by no means a brilliant one.  It nothing else, it is amusing for the opening scene of Belinda attempting to gracefully manoeuvre herself into a hammock, knowing what a lovely image she will present when found reclined in it.  Of course, it does not quite work so well as planned but Belinda is more than capable of a little improvisation.  I unfortunately read this as an e-book and the edition available via Project Gutenberg was an acting version, with lots of distracting blocking notes but none of Milne’s narrative flourishes.  They were deeply missed.

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