Archive for the ‘Handheld Press’ Category

When I had Covid earlier this year, I went down hard.  Racked with a cough that settled in my lungs, scarily familiar to the pneumonia I had some years ago (when my brother lovingly described me as sounding like a dying hippopotamus), and dazed with fever, I was in no mood to read.  But when the worst had passed, leaving me weak but relieved, I settled down with a book I’d been meaning to read for the last few years: Desire by Una L. Silberrad, a New Woman novel from 1908 that was one of the very first titles reissued by Handheld Press (and is still available as an e-book).

When Peter Grimstone meets Desire Quebell, she is a sparkling young figure in London society – stately, clever, and a master of light social gab.  For Peter, somewhat timid in the city where he hopes to establish himself as a writer, she is impressive but impossibly distant – until she reaches out with an unusual proposal.  Having just learned that her fiancé has a woman who has loved and supported him, and a child with her, she is determined to do the noble thing and drive him back to her.  Recognizing Peter as a discrete and trustworthy accomplice, she engages his help as a decoy suitor, during which time a legitimate friendship emerges between them.  Peter doesn’t agree with Desire’s plot and doubts the man will reacts as she plans, but while that doesn’t dissuade her, it does cause Desire to begin examining her actions and those of the people around her in more detail.  Peter does not understand why Desire cannot address the cad head on but for Desire it is unthinkable:

…custom and common sense always demanded of the people among whom she lived to tread lightly among the deeps of emotions if by any chance they had to be touched; one should always laugh at things even if it were sometimes for fear one should cry.  Desire had assimilated the lessons more completely than most…

Their friendship is disrupted when Peter’s father falls ill and Peter gives up his London literary dreams to return to his parents and run the family potteries.  Shortly after, Desire’s own path alters radically when her father dies and his estate is left entirely (and against his intentions) to her cold step-mother, with nothing for Desire, his beloved but illegitimate child.  Independent and extreme as always, Desire strikes out to live on her own and earn her way, disappearing entirely from her circle of friends.

When Peter and Desire find each other again, they do so as equals.  He’s struggling with the grindingly tedious business-side of the potteries and she has discovered a talent and passion for bookkeeping, making her perfectly positioned to help.  She soon takes over the bookkeeping, managing the potteries alongside Peter and moving into the family home, where she forms a particularly warm bond with Mrs. Grimstone and begins to shed the protective layers that were so much a part of her London persona.  Here she has the freedom to care about her work – which she does, passionately – and people in a way she never has before.  She blossoms with a new sense of purpose and industry, in a role that suits her many talents that she was unable to use in London drawing rooms:

…she listened and asked questions, showing [Peter] almost entirely the man side of her versatile self.  There was very decidedly a man side to her, a man with some of the great financial adviser’s characteristics, shrewd, far-seeing, accurate in perception of essentials, with a judgement for mass rather than detail: a person who brought the ways of the big world to the problems of Grimstones, and saw them in quite another light from what Peter did.

The company thrives under the joint leadership of Peter and Desire, as do they.  Working and living alongside one another, they become increasingly close until one day Desire realises this is much more than just friendship (though, wonderfully, that is the heart of their unique relationship).  However much she has softened, she has still not learned how to deal with all her emotions and so she flees.  It takes a very melodramatic twist featuring Peter’s ne’er do well brother to bring her back but all ends well and it is just wonderful.

I am predisposed to love a novel about a woman asserting her independence and learning to support herself, but it is the friendship between Desire and Peter that makes this book so special.  Desire is clearly the stronger personality, but Peter is able to disagree with her and make her reconsider things (sometimes), and he is willing to defer to and trust her with a business his family has built and relies on.  The companionship between them grows steadily and warmly and I loved it all so much.

This has gone firmly on to my shelf of favourites and I look forward to reading it again in sickness but also in health.

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When one thinks of the literature of the 1920s (as we’ve had cause to do recently thanks to the 1929 Club last week), we think of a world still coming to grips with the devastation of the First World War and the societal upheaval it caused.  We think of escapist mysteries with war-damaged detectives, and bleak memoirs of the Western Front, and women – loudly, angrily – asserting their place in the world.  We do not always think of ditzy debutantes but, joyously, that is what we get in The Trials of Topsy by A.P. Herbert, a collection of satirical pieces from Punch which was first released in 1928.

The dispatches, written with breathless illiteracy by Lady Topsy Trout to her dear friend Trix, record her navigation of London society – and, loathsomely, the country – while her parents eagerly await her selection of a spouse.  Topsy certainly has an active social life but, as we can tell from the opening, her ambitions may not be exactly aligned with her parents’ yet:

Well Trix darling this blistering Season is nearly over and I’m still unblighted in matrimony, isn’t it too merciful, but you ought to see poor Mum’s face, my dear, she’s saturated with the very sight of me poor darling, not that I don’t try…

Young Topsy is sage enough to recognize that an endless whirl of parties and over-the-top extravaganzas, while providing material for her letters to Trix, is no way to live, especially after meeting Mr Haddock (“only I do wish his name wasn’t Albert”) who has no shortage of down-to-earth interests.  He admits to writing a little and soon Topsy too finds herself writing for a paper.  When he takes up campaigning for a seat in Parliament, Topsy becomes a devoted campaigner – and an incredible hit with the proletariat in Mr Haddock’s humble riding.  He even engages her in good works, to her amazement:

Well, Trix, my partridge, I’ve just had the most drastic adventure, well when I tell you that Mr Haddock used to do good works at some settlement oasis or something in the East End and every now and then a sort of nostalgia  for Whitechapel comes over him or else it’s a craving for goodness or something, so he goes down to some morbid club and plays Halma with the poor, which I think is so confiding of them because I’m sure he can’t play Halma well one day he asked me if I’d care to go with him, but my dear the very thought of Halma merely decimates me, and my dear you know I dote on the poor but I never can think of a thing to say, well then he said would I help send some poor children off to the country, and that sounded more adequate because if you can’t think of anything to say to children you can always tell them to stop doing what they’re doing, and anything that means sending children somewhere else must be doing a good action to somebody, because I do think that children are a bit superfluous, don’t you darling, and besides I wanted to show Mr Haddock that I have a good heart really though I will not play Halma if it means a Revolution.

All these un-deb-like activities clearly have an impact on her many admirers.  Though Topsy claims to repel the most attractive of her suitors – “my dear the rows of men who’ve departed to India and everywhere just as I was beginning to think they were rather tolerable, really darling in my humble way I’m quite populating the Empire, because my dear I do seem to have a gift for dissipating the flower of our youth to the four corners” – some are determined enough to follow her changing interests and adapt themselves to her.  Just not always successfully:

Well my dear it seems poor Terence has decided I’m a high-brow and my dear since we last met he’s been reading a book, my dear too unnatural, my dear one of those cathartic female novelists who adulate Sussex and sin and everything, and my dear they’re always bathing in no-piece costumes, and of course my poor Terence was utterly baffled because it seems there isn’t a white man from cover to cover and no horses and scarcely a hound, well I must say I thought it was rather a lily-white gesture for a subaltern in the Guards to read a book for my sake…

While Topsy’s sense of grammar (if someone ever taught her how to use a period, she has long forgotten the lesson.  Thank goodness she seems not to have been introduced to exclamation points) is in doubt, her charm and energy never are.  She dashes through life with good intentions but her youth and ignorance generally lead her into trouble – all the better from the reader’s perspective.  This is classic Punch, making gentle yet still affectionate fun of an oblivious character and her class while still making her loveable.  And despite her ditzy moments, Topsy’s judgement is clearly excellent as evidenced by her review of a play – she arrived late so didn’t catch the title – she was sent to review:

…it was the most old-fashioned mellodrama and rather poor taste I thought, my dear all about a black man who marries a white girl, my dear too American, and what was so perfectly pusillanimous so as to make the thing a little less incompatible the man who acted the black man was only brown, the merest beige darling, pale sheik-colour, but the whole time they were talking about how black he was, my dear too English.  Well of course the plot was quite defective and really my dear if they put it on in the West End not a soul would go to it except the police possibly because my dear there were the rudest remarks, well this inane black man gets inanely jealous about his anaemic wife the moment they’re married and my dear she’s a complete cow of a woman, my dear too clinging, only there’s an obstruse villain called Yahgo or something who never stops lying and my dear for no reason at all that I could discover, my dear it was so unreasonable that every now and then he had to have the hugest solilliquies, is that right, to explain what he’s going to do next, well he keeps telling the old black man that the white girl has a fancy-friend, well my dear they’ve only been married about ten days but the black man merely laps it up, one moment’s he’s Nature’s honeymooner and the next he’s knocking her down, and what I thought was so perfectly heterodox he was supposed to be the world’s  successful general but my dear I’ve always understood the sole point of a real he-soldier is that they’re the most elaborate judges of character and always know when you’re lying, and if this black man couldn’t see through Yahgo it’s too unsatisfying to think of him winning a single battle against the Turks.

As the book ends, Topsy is contemplating a more active role in politics after assisting Mr Haddock’s campaign alongside the redoubtable private secretary Taffeta (“there’s simply nothing she doesn’t know except the love of a clean-limbed Britisher, my dear it’s rather poignant, but if you will wear pince-nez and brown boots and the badge of the Guild of the Godly Girls it does make it difficult for Destiny doesn’t it darling?”) and we can only quake with delight at the prospect of what she could get up to.  Thankfully, that is chronicled in Topsy, MP and I’m eagerly awaiting my library copy now.  Even better news is that Handheld Press is releasing a collection of the Topsy stories next year called The Voluble Topsy to bring joy to the masses – though no doubt headaches to Kate and co who have to proof all of Topsy’s characterful typos.

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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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