Archive for the ‘Greyladies’ Category

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

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

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

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

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Babbacombe'sOn Friday afternoon, I returned home after work to that most delightful of things: a package of books.  A few weeks ago, I shamelessly begged Shirley at Greyladies to send me two of their Noel Streatfeild books and now here they were: It Pays to Be Good and, written under her penname of Susan Scarlett, Babbacombe’s.  Lacking any willpower whatsoever (reminder to self: spend rest of today studying), I curled up last night next to the fire and read Babbacombe’s start to finish.

The story begins as Beth Carson leaves school.  A well-respected and much admired Head Girl, she is now transitioning from the world of children into the world of adults.  She is, proudly but also nervously, about to start work at Babbacombe’s department store, where her father, George, has worked for more than thirty years.  George is delighted to share his work world with his much-beloved daughter and confident that she will do well as an assistant in the Gowns department.  Her mother, Janet, is glad of the contributions Beth will be able to make to the always-strapped family finances now that she is earning.  Beth’s four younger siblings are proud but also cheerfully indifferent towards their sister’s new career, more interested in their own lives (proving again that Scarlett/Streatfeild knew what she was doing when it came to writing children).

Into this happy family comes Dulcie, George’s seventeen year-old orphaned niece.  George and Janet take her in out of family feeling, however, it’s not long before they realise that Dulcie is a cheap, nasty piece of work.  With no interest in building a career at Babbacombe’s (why bother, she thinks, when she plans to marry young?), she takes a position as an elevator girl, enjoying the dashing uniform and the male admiration that comes with it.  At work she is merely lazy; at home, she needles, complains, and takes a particular dislike for Beth.  The two girls are similar in age but that is all they have in common.  When Dulcie discovers that David Babbacombe, the owner’s son, has taken an interest in Beth, her animosity only grows.

Beth is, essentially, an Anthony Trollope heroine.  She is, in the words of another Greyladies book featuring a Trollope-esque female (The Glenvarroch Gathering by Susan Pleydell), “very, very pretty and neat and you noticed how good her manners were, and yet she was comfortable and full of fun.”  She is honest, dependable, hard-working, devoted to her family, and, from the beginning of their relationship, deeply conscious of the social gulf that exists between her and David Babbacombe.  Indeed, like a true Trollope heroine Beth spends a significant amount of time halfheartedly pushing David away because she thinks he, despite his father’s humble origins, is too far above her touch.  David heartily disagrees and pursues her in a gentle way (assisted by his delightful dachshund – his most trusted confidante – and a friendly and romantic dentist ).  Dulcie does her best to get in the way (trying to attract David and create trouble for Beth) but generally fails: David is not divertible and Beth has confided to her parents all her romantic woes.  To Dulcie’s dismay, she discovers how difficult it is to create drama when everyone else is honest and straightforward.

I loved the warmth of the Carson family, the kindness of Mr. Babbacombe, the romance between Beth and David, and, yes, the awfulness of Dulcie.  It’s always so satisfying to have an odious character to loathe.  This was just the right sort of cosy, light book for this weekend.

Now back to studying.

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The English AirI’ve just seen the very exciting news that Greyladies, one of my favourite small publishers, has reprinted The English Air by D.E. Stevenson.  This is both very wonderful and very sneaky, since there was little warning ahead of time that they would be printing it.  Still, what an excellent surprise.  I’ve already placed my order and can’t wait to have my very own copy of this, as it is one of my favourite D.E.S. novels (also a favourite of both Barb at Leaves & Pages and Lyn at I prefer reading).

With another Richmal Crompton book (Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle) slated to be reprinted in February, Greyladies continues to delight.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll continue rescuing Susan Pleydell’s books from obscurity and reprinting my favourite D.E.S. novels (Shirley, if you’re reading, Five Windows would be nice!).  Until then, I look forward to rereading The English Air and working through the rest of my Greyladies collection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fair Miss FortuneHow many books are there in the world which feature both twins and the opening of a tearoom?  I mean, the number of books about the opening of tearooms has to be pretty minute and to then throw twins in as well?  And yet, after reading The Fair Miss Fortune by D.E. Stevenson, I have now read two such books (see Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim) so who is to say that there aren’t more out there?  (I rather hope there are.)

Published by Greyladies in 2011, The Fair Miss Fortune was written in the 1930s but was considered ‘“too old-fashioned” to appeal to the “modern” market’.  It is certainly old fashioned, though hardly more so than Stevenson’s other books, and while far from her best work, it is a fun little story.

When Captain Charles Weatherby returns home to the small English village of Dingleford to visit his mother, he has no idea how his life is about to change.  He is happy to be back with his beloved mother but less happy when she, an invalid, encourages him to go out and socialise with their neighbours.  They are all eager to see him after his years in India and the housebound Mrs. Weatherby is eager for Charles to report back on all the latest gossip.  Though a grown up man in his late twenties, Charles is rather scared of the party his mother is urging him to attend, telling him how nice it will be:

Charles was quite sure that it would not be nice, for he was shy with the shyness which besets the exile when he returns to his native place.  He had been abroad for three years – no more – but he was convinced that these people would not want him; that they would have forgotten him; that they would find him awkward and gauche, his clothes old-fashioned and shabby, his manners strange.  He felt that it would have been easier to meet these people one by one, casually, in the village, or on the golf course; he felt that to plunge right into the whole crowd jabbering together in an over-heated room was going to take the kind of courage he did not possess. 

And the party is rather ghastly for Charles, save for two things: he is reunited with his childhood friend Harold Prestcott and he learns about Dingleford’s newest resident: Miss Jane Fortune.  Miss Fortune, a pretty young lady of nineteen, has arrived with her nanny in tow to open up a tearoom in the village.  Before too long, Charles – a man of action – has made friends with Miss Fortune and is well on the way to being in love with her.  And the lady seems to be feeling much the same, until she is suddenly cutting him in the street, acting coldly towards him when they do meet, and generally not behaving at all like the adorable Jane.

Of course, she is not behaving as herself because she is not herself.  Jane’s identical twin sister Joan arrives in Dingleford fleeing the attentions of a sinister Frenchman.  Hoping to avoid discovery by said Frenchman, she decides not to announce her presence and so, with Jane’s half-hearted approval, Joan masquerades as her sister.  The two girls make certain that they are never out and about at the same time but their very different characters and very different romantic inclinations make rather a mess for both Charles and Harold, who have both fallen in love with Miss Fortune – thankfully, each with a different Miss, though they have no idea.  Of course, all ends well, though I have serious doubts that the tea room will ever be opened.

It is a short, undemanding little book and, to be honest, I can understand why it was not published earlier.  It is far from Stevenson at her best.  But, that I said, I am happy Greyladies printed it and that I had the chance to read it.  I sped through it before bed on Sunday night and it was the perfect thing to end my weekend with.

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Rainy Day by George Ellis Carpenter

Rainy Day by George Ellis Carpenter

Few publishers provide as many excellent comfort reads – perfect for any season but especially the dark, cool days of autumn and winter – as the Edinburgh-based publishers Greyladies.  I own a handful of their books and have reviewed some here already (Eliza for Common, Summer Term, A Young Man’s Fancy) and have many more I can’t wait to read.  These are comfort books extraordinaire, the sort of reading that you long for when ill or upset, or simply too exhausted to focus on anything remotely challenging or clever.  Their two newest releases – The Glenvarroch Gathering by Susan Pleydell and Under the Rainbow by Susan Scarlett – arrived on my doorstep recently, though at the time I was too busy between work and studying for an exam to read them.  This week, having passed the exam and having somewhat settled into work, I read them both with delight.

Under the RainbowSusan Scarlett was the penname used by Noel Streatfeild for her light and formulaic but still enjoyable romances.  In Under the Rainbow, she writes about a young vicar, Martin Richards, who feels that it is his calling to work among the poor.  Spiritually, it is work he is well-suited for.  Physically, the harsh conditions in the London slums where he begins his career destroy his health.  Sent by his Bishop to an idyllic corner of Sussex, Martin is aghast when he sees his new home:

He nearly had a fit when he first saw the vicarage.  It was one of those enormous vicarages built in the early days of the last century, when the vicar always had a large family, when the cost of living was far lower, and when the vicar was usually a younger son with just sufficient allowed him by his father to enable him to keep a horse, officially for riding around his parish, but actually for hunting two days a week. 

Longing for a dirty tenement or a simple cottage, the vicarage is not at all the home he wants.  But it is the home he gets and, before long, it begins to fill up.  First, he acquires a housekeeper, the invaluable Bertha.  Then, an elderly and mean-spirited aunt arrives.  Shortly after that, his niece and nephew are orphaned and so they too come to live at the vicarage.  Finally, to take care of them and mediate the power struggles between Bertha and Aunt Connie, Judy Griffiths, a nice and extraordinarily capable young woman with a mysterious past, also moves into the vicarage.

It is a simple story and utterly predictable but I loved it.  I stumbled a bit over the more religious passages – something I don’t remember from the two or three other Streatfeild books I’ve read.  They are logically incorporated but still a bit surprisingly.

The Glenvarroch GatheringA little (but only a little) less cosy and altogether more energetic was The Glenvarroch Gathering by Susan Pleydell.  In order to make a little more money one summer, the McKechnie family (or, more specifically, the University-aged McKechnie children) decide to take in paying guests.  They have a large home by the sea in the West Highlands and, to the family’s surprise, they manage to find a group of people eager to come and stay: a good-natured American couple, a schoolboy who is classmates with the youngest McKechnie boy, a young University lecturer working on a grim novel, a schoolmistress longing for something more adventurous than her life in the Midlands, and a glamourous brother and sister from London.  The younger visitors are quickly taken up by the McKechnies and a busy summer begins, full of picnics, hikes, and flirtations.  But some of the visitors are not what they seem and the uncovering of sinister secrets leads to a dramatic (but relatively quickly and harmlessly resolved) sequence of events.  Everyone ends up with the person they should and it is all quite excellent.  Reels are danced, kilts are worn, bad guys are caught…what more could I ask for?

Though I enjoyed all of the characters in this book, I had a few particular favourites.  Pat McKechnie and Jo, both schoolboys of eighteen, were each a wonderful combination of childish enthusiasm and adult clear sightedness.  They admire the older girls they are surrounded by and Jo is rather taken with Fiona McKechnie but, unlike the older set, they do not get caught up in any messy flirtations, leaving them free for much more enjoyable activities.  But they are useful and Jo is particularly observant.  As a Trollope fan, I loved the moment when he realised who it was that one of the McKechnie’s friends reminded him of:

He searched his mind for what it was that made Maisie seem faintly familiar, and got it with some intellectual triumph.  He had lately discovered the works of Anthony Trollope, and Maisie was like some of those girls, very, very pretty and neat and you noticed how good her manners were, and yet she was comfortable and full of fun. 

My other favourite was Mrs McKechnie, the universally-beloved lady of the house.  Though her husband, the Professor, is rather distant and spends much of the book hidden in his study, Mrs McKechnie sees all without even interfering too much.  An ideal mother, really.  I also loved that she was an early riser; her early morning routine, possible thanks to a husband who is a very sound sleeper, sounds most appealing:

Mrs McKechnie very rarely did anything outside herself, so to speak, during her morning solitude.  She had developed a highly efficient routine, and the position of the pillows, easy accessibility of tea-tray and cigarettes, the ancient woolly, so familiar that it almost wrapped itself around her shoulders, and the replenished hot-water bottle if the morning were chilly made together a perfect, luxurious comfort in which she half sat, half lay blissfully alone and gave herself up to thought.  She enjoyed thinking, and she did it well, not after the fashion of her husband’s scholarly mind, concentrating on one subject to unfathomable depths, but with a wide range and a livelier imagination than his, though a similar capacity for immersing herself in the thought of the moment enabled her to understand his detachment. 

I had never heard of Pleydell before Greyladies started reprinting her books but, having now read three of them, I cannot wait to read the rest.  Please, please, please let her other books be in their sights for future publication!

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