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Archive for the ‘Publisher/Series’ Category

Once you’ve proven yourself as a novelist, what do you do next?  Do you turn out novel after novel, perhaps improving, or perhaps churning out forgettable fodder?  Or do you try something entirely different, striking out into the unknown and – to your readers – the unexpected?  I know which sounds like more fun to me.

In 1954, Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford was released to indulgent – and no doubt frustrating for the author – praise from the critics.  With seven novels already behind her, Mitford had a fine reputation but, intoxicated and in love with her new home in Paris, she was eager to write about something other than the romantic trials of the English.  She threw herself into researching Louis XV’s famous mistress and the result is something between the froth of a novel and the impartiality of a biography.

My first encounter with Mitford the biographer was her last book: Frederick the Great.  Published in 1970, it’s a wonderful book, full of colourful anecdotes skillfully threaded through a well-structured and well-researched account of a difficult man’s fascinating life.  From the very first chapter of Madame de Pompadour, it was clear how much Mitford had learned about the art of biography in the period between those two books.

The approach to the codified world of Versailles is, paradoxically, familiar and affectionate.  Individuals are described as dears (or the opposite) in a chatty tone, with Mitford enjoying a good gossip over their foibles despite most of them having been dead for the better part of two hundred years.  She is particularly critical of Louis XV’s queen, a Polish princess who, “though an exceedingly nice woman, was dowdy and a bore.”  Mitford believes “[she] might have played the part of mistress as well as that of wife, if she had had more character.”  Instead, her husband was forced to go find new bedmates and friends to keep him constantly entertained.  The Queen, having given birth to 10 children in the first 12 years of their marriage, seems to have been completely at ease with that – and who (except Mitford) can blame her?

The character of Louis XV is the gap at the center of the book.  He sounds to have been a man of extraordinary energy, thoughtless selfishness, and enormous appetites.  But what actually attracted people to him is less clear.  He suffered immense losses as a child, after which he “retired into a world of his own, concealing all his thoughts and feelings from those around him, and nobody every knew much about them for the rest of his life.”  No one woman ever seems to have held his attention sexually – Madame de Pompadour was his chief mistress for a time, but there were others before and after, not to mention the girls of no significance who were procured for a bit of bed play, most never even knowing the identify of their lover.  (Which of course makes Mitford’s criticism of the Queen ever harder to accept.)

But what of Madame de Pompadour herself, a woman who would go down in history for her exquisite taste, her intelligence, and her support for the artists and thinkers that modern France continues to revere?  As a child, a fortune teller predicted she would one day rule the heart of a king and within the family she was then nicknamed Reinette and given all the education and training a king’s mistress would need, however unlikely it seemed that a young bourgeois would ever be picked for such a role.  She grew up, she married, she became a mother…and she met the King.

Mitford paints a very romantic picture of the attraction and whirlwind that kicked off the relationship, with countryside cavorting and masked balls, obvious to the entire court, before she was officially installed in the palace.  She was far from the first mistress but she was the first from outside the court, so a crash course in the bizarre intricacies of Bourbon etiquette was required.  But she found her feet quickly, cunningly (innocently?) made herself appealing to the Queen, and was soon established in the world where she would live for the next twenty years until her early death, firmly first in the King’s affections if not always in his bed.

Indeed, she was, Mitford states, “physically a cold woman.  She was not strong enough for continual love-making and it exhausted her.”  Since Louis XV seems to have liked nothing more than continual love making, it must have been a great relief when the relationship turned away from the physical, as it did within 5 or 6 years due to her poor health, leaving them as companions.  All Madame de Pompadour’s early training, her talents, and her charms had combined to make her a delightful companion – one who could not be parted with even when the obvious purpose of the relationship had been extinguished.  It was, Mitford notes with some amusement, quite like a normal marriage.

I enjoyed reading this but it felt too much like a romantic biography rather than a true biography to me.  And yet how do you assert the individualism of a woman’s whose goal was to be an appendage?  For most mistresses, the chase, the conquest, and the victory might be the full story.  But I don’t think it was for Madame de Pompadour.  Mitford does look at Pompadour’s championing of Voltaire (always so hard – he did not make life easy for his supporters), her gifts as an actress, her establishing of a porcelain factory in Sèvres, and her involvement with politics during the Seven Years War, but I would love to see how Mitford would have approached this with more experience behind her.  It’s still a very enjoyable book but not as good an example of biography as she would eventually prove capable of.

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It is publication day for the 11 new editions of D.E. Stevenson books from the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint at Dean Street Press!

As long-time readers may recall, I discovered Stevenson back in 2010 and spent the next three or four years tracking down everything I could – not an easy task given that only a couple of her titles were in print (this was when the inter-library loan system became my BFF).  But readers no longer have that problem, thanks in large part to Scott for reissuing so many of her books.  There are now 19 D.E.S. titles available from Furrowed Middlebrow, and they include most of what I think are her best books.

Here are the 11 titles being released today (ranked by my preference for them, with links to reviews):

Excellent

The English Air (one of my top ten books of 2013)

Five Windows

 

Very Good

Green Money (one of my top ten books of 2018)

The Blue Sapphire

 

Good

Charlotte Fairlie

 

Sick Bed Reading

Anna and Her Daughters

Kate Hardy

The Tall Stranger

The Fair Miss Fortune

The Musgraves

Young Mrs Savage

 

You can see the beautiful covers for all the new edition’s on Scott’s blog.  I’m looking forward to replacing some of my tattered old copies and getting my hands on favourites – like Green Money – for the first time!

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It takes very little for a book to entertain me on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  All I ask for is a bit of romantic intrigue, a dash of humour, and ideally a Scottish setting.  Susan Settles Down by Molly Clavering fit the bill perfectly.

When Susan Parsons moves with her brother Oliver to Scotland, she’s not quite certain what awaits her.  The drunken cook is not an ideal introduction to her new home but, after years of following Oliver abroad during his naval postings while earning her own living writing, she is intrigued to try quiet country life in the home her brother has just inherited. 

Even more intrigued are all of the Parson siblings’ new neighbours, from the kindly vicar’s family to the dreadfully gossipy Pringle sisters to the neighbouring farmer.  Because what would the fun of a village novel be without villages to be upset/romanced/amused by the new arrivals?

The title gives the impression that Susan needs settling down but she is in fact very settled in herself when we meet her.  She has the poise of maturity but retains the ability to laugh at herself, a combination that endears her quickly to others.  Oliver, on the other hand, I find singularly unappealing.  He is still angry about the injury that has caused him to leave the navy and left him with a limp, and can lash out at those around him.  His sense of humour tends towards the juvenile and slightly nasty, with a penchant for baiting and embarrassing others.

There’s no plot to speak of – as it should be for a book of this sort – just a nice meandering flow as Susan and Oliver become more enmeshed in country life.  Oliver, mentored by neighbour Jed Armstrong, finds an interest in farming to help him move on from the dashing career he’s lost while Susan finds plenty to occupy and amuse herself – though she would be more amused if Jed would not bait her so often to lose her temper. 

By the end, both Oliver the lothario and Susan the spinster have found suitable spouses to help them settle even further into the community.  All is well and ends just as you predicted it would early in the book – exactly right for a Sunday afternoon read.  I loved Susan and enjoyed Clavering’s sense of humour (not to be confused with Oliver’s awful one), and look forward to rereading this in years to come. 

More recently, I picked up the sequel, Touch Not the Nettle, eager to be reunited with Susan.  A few years have passed since the end of the last book (this was published in 1939, while Susan Settles Down came out in 1936) and the married couples are all as happy as we left them.  Susan (now in her mid-thirties?  I’m struggling to remember ages from the first book but I feel like this was mentioned, though she is referred to by another character as a “young woman” here) wishes silently for a child, admiring her growing nephew, but thankfully this is not a book about that.  Instead, the central character is a visiting cousin by marriage, Amanda Cochrane.

Amanda’s aviator husband has gone missing and is presumed dead.  Amanda, tired of her husband’s philandering and spendthrift ways, had been planning to divorce him so her feelings about her uncertain widowhood are complicated to say the least.  Exhausted after living with her dramatic, superficial mother, she has retreated to Scotland for some much-needed rest and no hostess could be more considerate than Susan.

Without charm to conceal the lack of plot, I found this heavy going.  I still appreciate Clavering’s sense of humour but Amanda is a trickier character than Susan was, with heavy burdens she cannot free herself of.  Amanda is given a love interest in her new surroundings and he is awful.  Women can explain away a lot of bad behaviour to uncover the eligible man beneath but this takes it to a ridiculous level.  He is rude, vicious, and almost always drunk.  There are reasons (obviously) but it’s hard to ever see how he could seem appealing (his house is nice, maybe that’s it?).

The story gets exceeding dramatic, with madness, murder, and more deaths.  The characters from the first book are all happily distanced from this – continuing on in their cosily domestic worlds, exactly as I want them to – but I wish I had been too.  The sprightliness and good humour that I loved from the first book is gone and I have no desire to return again to Amanda’s dramatic life.

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When Dean Street Press reprinted eight of Molly Clavering’s books earlier this year, I was so overwhelmed with excitement that I barely knew where to start.   My only experience with Clavering had been Near Neighbours, reissued by Greyladies a few years ago, and I’d enjoyed it enough to want more.  Overwhelmed by choice, I chose Dear Hugo for my reintroduction to Clavering.  When, after all, have I ever been able to resist an epistolary novel?

Published in 1955, the story begins a few years earlier, in June 1951 when Sara Monteith moves to a village in the Scottish borders.  Sara’s fiancé, Ivo, had come from Ravenskirk and even years after his death in the war she remains faithful to his memory, though she is reticent for her new neighbours to know about that relationship.  It is to Ivo’s brother Hugo in Africa that Sara writes, with frank assessments of her new neighbours, humorous glimpses of her life – particularly enlivened after taking on the guardianship of a young cousin – and the occasional moments of grief for the man she has lost.

The correspondence between Hugo and Sara feels extremely well-established by the time we enter it as she is entirely frank in her letters to him.  Her frustrations with her new neighbours are clearly voiced and delightfully entertaining.  As in any village novel, Ravenskirk is peopled by a distinctive group of personalities, though Atty, Sara’s young ward, does tend to dominate the letters when he is home from school.  I thoroughly enjoyed Sara’s reports on Atty’s doings and sayings and her adjustment – as a single woman of around forty – to life with a lively boy underfoot.  Comparing notes with a neighbour and marvelling over Atty’s permanent dirtiness, she receives helpful (and timeless) motherly advice:

‘I don’t want to disillusion you, but they don’t really wash when they lock themselves into the bathroom for ages.  I think they fall into a kind of mystic trance or something, and running water helps them.  It’s the only way once can explain it.’

If Clavering had kept the focus on domestic doings, I could have left the book entirely happy and unconflicted.  But…she doesn’t.  Of course there needs to be an element of romance and there are in fact several men who appear as likely mates.  But romance is so entirely besides the point that they serve as frustrating red herrings rather than enjoyable plot points.

It is the conclusion to one of these romantic intrigues that Sara addresses in her last letter to Hugo and that left me frustrated rather than delighted by the book.  After being remarkably light-handed in her dealings with neighbours, Sara suddenly decides it is up to her to arrange the lives of her friends and tell them what is best for them, despite what they may think and want.  After only two years of village life, she has gone from amused observer to spinster busybody and it feels wrong for this charming character to act in such an awkward way.  Personally, I am all for arranging the lives of others but the circumstances here feel forced – as though Clavering wanted an ending that would surprise the readers more than she wanted to leave them satisfied.  In the end, she doesn’t achieve either effect – a poor end to an otherwise enjoyable book.

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When I find myself in times of trouble, my remedy is slightly different than The Beatles’.  I inevitably reach for a book and, more often than not when things are too dark or stressful or scary, that book is the delightful Little G by E.M. Channon.  In the not-quite seven years I have owned a copy, I have read it at least five times and – no surprise – it was one of the first books I read during the lockdown of spring 2020.  It is no less comforting this spring, with the dual motivation of reading it for the 1936 Club and to provide comfort amidst the dire Covid third wave we are experiencing here.

John Furnival is a pre-maturely stuffy, antisocial Cambridge mathematician who is ordered by his doctor on a long country stay to recover his health, which, his doctor chides him, has suffered due to:

Too much to eat: too much port and too much tea: too much work for your head, and not enough for your body.

Because the world of 1930s academia is forgiving of the need to do work – especially by dons with private incomes – Furnival is soon installed in a cottage in the village of Challingley.  The village, from the doctor’s perspective, is ideal.  It’s hilly enough to force Furnival to discomfort on his walks, quiet but full of sociable neighbours, and the cottage offers a large garden to rest or putter in.  Furnival is less convinced, disgusted by his new neighbours’ obsessions with their gardens, tennis parties, and, most horrifyingly of all, the pretty young widow at the center of the village’s social life.  But he is firmly drawn into the social whirl and realises – slowly and to his horror – what an unattractive foil he serves against this healthy, vigorous set.  Surely he – once a champion rower and tennis player – isn’t the sweaty old man set next to the village’s quick vicar or dashing doctor?  And at only thirty-seven!

While adult society may terrify or bore him in equal measure, Furnival finds himself much more at home with the cottage’s cat – the only creature he was immediately delighted to encounter in his new surroundings – and his next-door neighbours, three children living with their terrifying Aunt Agatha.  Rather to his surprise, the children are pleasant companions and it isn’t long before the three are slipping from their yard to his, eager for his stories and spoiling.  Furnival, for the first time in years, is giving thought and attention to something other than his equations (though his versions of children’s stories are very physics-focused).  But there is yet another resident next door, the children’s aunt Grace, who is that most terrifying of things – a young woman.  Thankfully she is not so terrifying as most of her species, being rather small and quiet, but also very capable and quick-witted and rather pretty…

Over the course of his time in the village, Furnival is forced out of his almost monastic mindset and learns once again how to be human.  He relearns how to care for others and to take care of himself and questions his long-held and unquestioned visions of a solitary, scholarly future.

This sounds very sweet, which it is, but Channon is a clever, funny writer and it’s that spark of humour that makes this book so memorable.  She is more than happy to skewer Furnival, but always affectionately, and the neighbours who most concern him (the female ones) aren’t nearly as one dimensional as his initial imaginings of them.  That’s not to stay this is a novel of great characterization and depth – it decidedly is not – but it’s far better than the sentimental drivel it could have been in another writer’s hands and I love it desperately.  The only sad thing about it is how difficult it is now to find copies.  It was reissued by Greyladies Books in 2012 but it’s almost impossible to find second-hand copies.  I’m not surprised – I certainly wouldn’t give mine up!    

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I can think of no better way to start off February than by taking part in Karen and Lizzy’s Reading Independent Publishers Month.  Independent publishers should always be celebrated – and thankfully often are in our corner of the blogging world – and I’m looking forward to seeing what others choose this month.

To start off the month a little early, I settled down yesterday afternoon with A House in Flanders by Michael Jenkins from Slightly Foxed (now sadly marked as “permanent sold out” on their website).  In addition to their peerless literary quarterly, Slightly Foxed reissues wonderful memoirs in gorgeous small hardback editions.  They have superb taste and have introduced me to new favourites as well as providing me with beautiful editions of old ones.  To me, a Slightly Foxed title is always an indication of quality, both in the writing and in the production of the physical book.  I will doubtlessly return to celebrate them further this month and it felt only reasonable to start with them.

At the beginning of the summer of 1951, fourteen-year-old Michael was sent by his parents in England to spend several months with “the aunts in Flanders.”  Despite not being actual relations – or having been seen by his parents since they visited on their honeymoon in the 1930s – the aunts are delighted to welcome this young man into their rural chateau, where Michael is quickly infatuated by the close-knit family:

…as I passed through the brick gateway perched on the front seat of an ancient black Citroen beside Joseph, the gardener who doubled as chauffer, and saw behind the trees the long façade of the house, I believe I had some premonition that a new life was about to unfold.  And if after only a day the world I had left behind seemed already remote, within weeks I no longer knew which was reality, the coldness and austerity of my existence in post-war England, or the dense fabric of extended family by which I was embraced, and within whose lives I had become entwined.

Each chapter focuses on a different character, beginning and ending with the formidable Tante Yvonne.  Then in her eighties, Tante Yvonne had taken charge of her five siblings when their parents died of typhoid when she was a young woman of twenty.  More than sixty years later, she remained at the heart of the family and of the village, always able to provide order where needed and deft counsel to those in need.  She never married and the story behind that is how Michael comes to understand his family’s link to the aunts.

Throughout the summer, Michael learns much of life.  He sees how the family cares for the mentally disabled illegitimate son of a brother who died in the First World War, he passes messages between an unhappily married nephew and his kind lover, and he lives amidst the tensions of a house containing six adult women who have somehow – mostly – learned to live with one another.  For him, coming from a chilly home with parents who have drifted apart without choosing to seek happiness elsewhere, it is an irresistible world and one he can’t imagine wanting to leave.  But there are those who want to, like the beautiful young Madeleine, who lives with her mother and aunts and is engaged to a handsome neighbour but is nonetheless unsettled and longs for something more.

Michael lives closely with two generations and it is fascinating to see how different events have shaped their lives.  For Tante Yvonne and her siblings, the First World War was the defining event.  Brothers and lovers were killed and maimed and nothing was ever the same for them after that.  For those born after that war, like Madeleine and her brothers, it was the more recent German occupation.  The wounds of that conflict hadn’t fully healed for anyone – the entire village remembers who collaborated and who was in the Resistance, and German tourists are far from welcomed when they appear.

Jenkins wrote the book fifty years after that first summer, looking back on a time and place that had remained vivid in his memories – as the best moments of our youths tend to do.  He conjures up an idyllic summer where he found a whole world of complicated people to care about and family histories – his own included – to unravel.  When, come September, he must return to England, the reader can easily understand his reluctance to leave.

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The only mistake I made in reading Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford this year was that I did it too early: this would have been the perfect book to soothe and comfort during the stressful early months of the pandemic but it was just as delightful when read in the calmness of January.

Published in 1933 (and reissued this spring by Handheld Press), Business as Usual tells with dashing epistolary style and comic illustrations the story of Hilary Fane.  Hilary, a young woman of twenty-seven with a history degree from Oxford and previous work experience as both a teacher and librarian, is trying to fill the time before she marries her fiancé Basil, a young doctor.  Anticipating at least a year before the wedding and, having been made redundant from her last job, Hilary is looking for a way to occupy herself.  As she explains to Basil:

…I know I couldn’t wait for you if I were idle, sitting about and trying to fill the gap between one lovely experience and another with those dreary little sociabilities that you despise as much as I do.  I wish I had the kind of talents that you’d really like to have about the house, my lamb.  It would all be so much simpler if my bent were music or if I could write.  But it isn’t any use, Basil, I haven’t any talents; even my drawings always got me into trouble.  I’ve just got undecorative ability and too much energy to be happy without a job.

And so she sets off, leaving her parents’ comfortable Scottish home for exceedingly humble lodgings in London and a job in a department store (a thinly veiled Selfridges).  She eventually finds herself working in the store’s library (I would never complain about going shopping if department stores still had these!) and the story follows her throughout the year as she advances at work, makes friends, and discovers the simple pleasures of her new life:

Oh, Basil, there are compensations!  It’s worth sleep-walking from nine to six all the week just to wake up on Saturday with half a day and a night and another day after that unquestionably one’s own.  I came out of Everyman’s and watched all the other people with hockey sticks and skates and suit-cases tearing for buses.  But I strolled, feeling marvellous.  Rather as if I’d kicked off a tightish pair of shoes.

Hilary is a wonderful character, full of energy and warmth and attractively straightforward in discussing anything on her mind.  Basil, we can tell from Hilary’s side of the correspondence, doesn’t share these traits:

I can fail and start again.  And with you to believe in my work, I could.

Only, now and then, I feel you don’t.  Do try to.  I mean, think of me as a creature, not just as a possible wife who will persist in doing things that tend to disqualify her.  I love you frightfully; but I want your companionship and tolerance and understanding even more than other things.  I wonder if you see?

Basil, the reader decides long before Hilary, must go.  Luckily, there is a very suitable replacement close at hand.

I love stories about work – I find hearing about people’s working hours and salaries and how they manage to live on said salaries endlessly fascinating – and I adore epistolary novels so the combination of the two was always going to be something that interested me.  But this book manages to be far more than interesting.  The reader cannot help but adore Hilary, who is endlessly curious, admirably efficient, and inspiringly intrepid.  It is a book to laugh over and to read for comfort and inspiration when you are feeling daunted by the world.  It is, frankly, quite perfect, which is why I am picking it up again as the book to see out 2020 with. It’s never too soon to reread great books.

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At this stage in my reading career, how many types of wartime memoirs have I read?  Serious and humorous, military and political, front lines and home front, Allies and Axis, I’ve made a pretty good survey of the Second World War but I’m not sure I’ve ever read one that managed life on the home front as lightheartedly as Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson.

Anderson was in her mid-twenties when the war began, single and working in the F.A.N.Y.s, though not very devotedly.  When we meet her on the first page she is just about to go AWOL and get married, with no plan of returning.  This, as we learn, doesn’t seem wildly out of character given the number of jobs she cycled through before the war.  She has spent time as a “nursery-maid, a governess, a chaffeuse, a scene-shifter, a ballet-dancer’s dresser, and then I tried to emigrate to Canada […] as a mobile Sunday school teacher”.  She also found time to illustrate wrappers for toffees while living in a studio flat with three bohemian friends.  It is an incongruous and intriguing life for the daughter of a country parson but a good indicator of the adventurous and indomitable spirit that makes her so interesting to read about.

Anderson hadn’t enjoyed her time in the F.A.N.Y.s but she had found some peace there.  When she takes the time to analyse her reasons it with her usual humour and self-knowledge:

Walking home to the rectory, I tried to analyse my reasons for wanting to go back.  My heart had never been in the F.A.N.Y.s until Dunkirk.  The community life did not suit me.  Discipline did not appeal.  I was not a good F.A.N.Y., either technically or socially.  Could it be patriotism?  Knowing myself, I felt there must be some more selfish motive behind it.  Then I remembered telling Lucy I should feel safer right in the war.

That was it.  Anything might happen now, not only to my brothers and friends in the navy, the army, the air force, but to my parents, to Rhalou [a sister] with her little family, and to Lorema [another sister] still at school.  In the F.A.N.Y.s I should be safe from the impact.  Somebody else does your thinking for you in the army, and even your feeling.  And if I were killed, well, in the F.A.N.Y.s life was that much less interesting to want to cling on to.

Even though the F.A.N.Y. portion of her life is over with quickly, I did love hearing about it.  Her sketch of her commanding officer delighted me and seems like something from a Joyce Grenfell sketch:

We were commanded by a bubbly-haired old actress who, as the niece of a senior army officer, took her position very seriously.  In her talk she mingled a certain amount of army jargon, picked up at her uncle’s breakfast table, with the normal chatter we understood of hats and actors and horses.  Sometimes, judging by her modes of addressing us, she saw us as Mayfair Debutantes and sometimes as Men Going Over The Top.

Once Anderson dashes away from the F.A.N.Y.s to marry Donald Anderson, who is much older than her and whom she has been in love with for several years to the disapproval of her family, the focus becomes exceedingly domestic.  But for once in a wartime memoir we do not have to hear ad nauseum about the prices of things or about ingenious cooking on the ration (I’ve taken about as much of that as I can handle).  What we do hear a lot about is housing and, thankfully, I find that endlessly entertaining.  The Andersons bounce around frequently through the short war years, setting up homes in London, in the suburbs, and in the country.  As housing shortages and stretched finances make shared living both practical and necessary, Anderson takes on a variety of housemates and eventually latches on the brilliant plan of letting rooms to holidaymakers.  This turns out to be not so brilliant for someone with no hospitality training but is very funny.

During the war years Anderson had her first two children (she would eventually have five in total) and of all the domestic details I’ve read in diaries and memoirs I’m fairly certain I’ve never come across so many pages devoted to life in a maternity hospital.  The birth of Anderson’s first child was rather dramatic so she spent plenty of time at the hospital and I was fascinated by the details of it.

With her ever-changing accommodations, Anderson spends a fair amount of time bouncing around to friends and family as well.  Any time her mother appeared I was delighted as she seems a redoubtable sort of woman, equal to anything put before her (whether it be reconciling herself to her daughter’s elopement or living under the German flightpath to London):

My mother was very sceptical about the German raiders getting across the Channel at all.

‘Once,’ she said, ‘one got across and dropped some tiny little bombs on Eastbourne and then landed and gave himself up.  He was hardly out of the sixth form.’

There was a fifteen-mile-from-the-coast ban on non-residents and my mother was determined to keep all the secrets behind it.

‘Then what’s that whacking great crater down in the field over there?’ I asked.

‘One of ours,’ she assured me.  ‘They dropped it by mistake on their way out.’

‘Just as uncomfortable all the same to be hit by it.’

‘Anyways that was ages ago.  They’re much more practised now.’

As she spoke there was an enormous explosion on the marshes.

‘Marsh gas, I suppose?’ I teased her.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable book, sure to make you smile and even giggle throughout – a rare enough thing for a wartime memoir.

But what delighted me most was discovering facts about the rest of Anderson’s life.  I was tickled to learn that her fourth child is Janie Hampton, author of How the Girl Guides Won the War, a book I read and loved years ago.  But most impressive of all for me was the discovery that Anderson’s father had been the clergyman at All Saints’ Herstmonceux in East Sussex.  The last book Anderson wrote was about Herstmonceux Castle, including her memories of playing on the grounds through the 1920s and 1930s.  The castle is now owned by Queen’s University, the Canadian school where I studied, and serves as its international study centre.  I spent a term studying there in 2007 and it was the happiest part of my university years.  It’s a small, small world.

The Castle

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Searching about for something quick to read for this weekend’s mini Persephone readathon, I settled on How to Keep Your Home Without Help by Kay Smallshaw.  It’s been sitting unread on my shelves since late 2011 so this was the perfect excuse to delve into it.

Published in 1949, this detailed housekeeping guide is targeted at the young housewife so I couldn’t help but think of my grandmothers as I was reading it.  Born in 1920 and 1921, they were both married at the time this book was released, running their own homes, and carrying for small daughters (and presumably a little bit for large husbands).  And I can confidently say that if they had read this book they would have a) laughed heartily at it and then b) throw it against a wall.

In terms of actual cleaning tips, the book has plenty of helpful suggestions that still stand.  It assumes complete idiocy so if you grew up in a hovel and never saw someone vacuum a room you would be well served by it.  However, idiots from hovels are not actually the target audience.  Smallshaw has a very clear idea of her readers’ upbringing, as she makes clear with assumptions throughout the book as to how her readers grew up:

Mother was not so far wrong when she insisted that all the rooms must be “turned out” every week.  Mother, however, had regular help.  She did the cooking herself and she had a washer-woman in weekly so that she could concentrate on housework alone.

This, clearly, is where she would have lost my grandmothers (actually, the upholstery whisk mentioned as a key piece of equipment might have done that.  But if they’d made it past that, this would have done it).  My Canadian grandmother grew up on a dairy farm.  Her mother decidedly did not have regular help and the cleanliness of the house was secondary to the cleanliness of the dairy.  My Czech grandmother, on the other hand, grew up in middle class comfort, with a governess, a chauffeur, a cook, and a cleaner.  She was never taught to cook, never mind clean, on the assumption that she would always have staff to do it for her.  You needed to know how to set a menu, not cook it.   More importantly, she grew up with the assumption that she’d be going to university and then getting a job – something that clearly never troubled the mind of Smallshaw’s ideal reader.

Both my grandmothers ended up having very different lives than their mothers but both were united in one attitude: to be houseproud is a sin when there are so many more important things in life.  Whereas for Smallshaw, it seems that being houseproud is a woman’s entire raison d’etre.  (See Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virgina Nicholson for a full portrait of this claustrophobic mindset.)

When Smallshaw sticks to cleaning basics, it’s not too contentious (except for her bold statement that it doesn’t matter if you dust or do the floors first.  This is madness – always dust first.  No arguments).  Her standards are insane and clearly meant to occupy a bored housewife by finding as many unnecessary things as possible for her to fill her day with.  Your home would in fact be sparkling but your mind would be screaming out for stimulation if you allowed yourself to be held captive by your possessions in this way.  She has helpful and deeply condescending tips to save yourself from the heavy work, such as “A clever wife induces the husband to regard the boiler as his special province!”  The exclamation point is a dagger to the heart.

While I trust her cleaning tips (but not the deranged schedule she recommends), I am less confident that following her cooking tips would yield good results.  Her idea to make efficient use of the steamers seems particularly unappetizing:

Use the bottom of the steamer for a light sponge pudding or batter.  The next compartment will take potatoes, and on the top, fillets of fish between two plates.

If my grandmothers had made it through the upholstery whisk, and miraculously through the assumptions about what their mothers had done, I know their contempt for Smallshaw would finally have peaked in the chapter on budgeting.  In “helpfully” guiding her simpleminded readers, Smallshaw advises:  You’ll be remarkably lucky if your estimated expenditure comes within your income!  At this stage, you and your husband will probably agree on the housekeeping allowance you can have…The idea that they would have let their husbands be involved in managing the money is the laughable one.  My Canadian grandmother broke free of the farm after high school and worked in a bank, where she eventually became assistant manager during the war.  Even without such formal training, it was the norm in many farming families for the wife to manage the money.  They usually had more education than their husbands (who often left school at the start of their teen years) and were more confident with numbers.  My other grandmother ended up in a dual-income house where, aside from doing the shopping and sometimes cooking Sunday lunch, households duties were pretty evenly shared.  The idea of him “letting” her have a portion of their shared income would not have gone over well – and I presume it would never even occurred to him.

Smallshaw concludes the book with a bit of an about face.  After extolling the virtues of obsessive cleaning, she then concedes that her readers may eventually have children, at which point standards collapse entirely.  If the reader had made it through to the end, perhaps this would have given them some hope.  It is a welcome acknowledgement of reality after many pages of fantasy.

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The greatest pleasure of feeling a bit under the weather is picking reading material to match your frail state.  No weighty tomes or complex sentence structure here please!  Just straightforward storytelling that will capture an invalid’s attention without wearing them out.

Enter Ten Way Street by Susan Scarlett.

Scarlett (the penname under which Noel Streatfeild wrote a dozen light romances – see previous reviews of Under the Rainbow, Babbacombe’s, and Pirouette) is always reliable in these circumstances and Ten Way Street fitted my mood perfectly.  Wrapped up with blankets and with a constant stream of tea to keep me hydrated, I fell into the undemanding story with pleasure.

Ten Way Street is the London address of Mrs Cardew.  Better known by her stage name of Miss Margot Dale, Mrs Cardew is a genius in the theatre but a tyrant at home where her three children (Meggie, age 12; Betsy, age 10; and David, age 7) are at the mercy of her self-obsessed whims.  Having pulled the children out of their day schools after clashing with teachers, Mrs Cardew has engaged newly qualified governess Beverley Shaw to take care of them.

For Beverley, used to the pleasant but austere orphanage where she grew up, the Cardew household is  a shock.  The children have been brought up as accessories to their mother and are dressed up and trotted out to show off in a way that boggles her mind.  They are used to fur accessories, exquisite clothing, and caviar.  What they are not used to is an adult who cares about them.  Beverley, of course, is that adult.

Streatfeild wrote often about actors and their world, inspired by her own decade-long acting career, and she was rarely kind.  Mrs Cardew is all things horrible but, for most of the book, seems at least plausible.  It seems sad but realistic that she would prefer to spend her time lavishing attention on male callers rather than her children, or that she would have little patience with childish ailments and insecurities.  The household exists in a state of nervous exhaustion, ever sensitive to Mrs Cardew’s unpredictable moods, and the strain shows on everyone – especially the children.  But they are all quick to excuse her for she is, when the mood strikes her, a Genius on stage.

Beverley, however, doesn’t think Genius excuses Mrs Cardew’s behaviour towards her children.  In best governess-school style, Beverley sets out to get the children on a proper diet (no more gorging on caviar) and on a proper school schedule (no more jetting off to dress fittings if she can help it).  She gives them what they need – attention and discipline – and, to the surprise of absolutely no one, they slowly turn from obnoxious brats into completely normal, lovable children.

An admiring witness to this transformation is Peter Crewdson.  Invalided back to England after contracting black-water fever in Deepest, Darkest Africa, Peter is a young biochemist who has inadvertently become the object of Mrs Cardew’s very determined affections.  Originally a friend of the children, Mrs Cardew “stole” him from them (something they are resigned to – this is not the first time their mother has stolen one of their male friends) but he still manages to break away to the nursery to visit them.  Which is where he meets Beverley.  Naturally enough, the two sensible young people fall in love but all is not well.  How will Mrs Cardew react when she discovers the governess has stolen the man she loves?  And how can Bevelery even think of leaving the children who are just beginning to blossom under her care?

The ending is extraordinarily melodramatic but, after a few scuffles and a runaway attempt, all is resolved in a neat happy ending.  It’s not great literature but it is exactly right for a reader with a head cold.

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