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Reading The Truth About Blayds by A.A. Milne, I had no difficultly understanding why it was one of Milne’s favourites of his many plays.  Written in 1920, during his most productive period, it is devoted to the thing he loved to write about most: middle class struggles with morality.  And, for once, that struggle doesn’t take the form of bigamy, something we can only be thankful for (see Mr Pim Passes By, Michael and Mary, and, to some extent, Belinda for Milne’s delight in that subject).

We open on the household of Blayds, the great Victorian poet, the (as some call him) “Supreme Songster of an Earlier Epoch”.  His family is gathering to celebrate his birthday, which is delightful because it gives Milne a chance to introduce them all one at a time.  Milne excels at character descriptions in his stage directions and he surpasses his usual genius here.  Those gathering include Blayds’ two adult daughters, his grandson and granddaughter, and his overly attentive son-in-law.  It is for this son-in-law that Milne truly shines:

William Blayds-Conway was obviously meant for the Civil Service.  His prim neatness, his gold pince-nez, his fussiness would be invaluable in almost any Department.  However, running Blayds is the next best thing to running the Empire.

Can’t you just picture him?  A man who not only added his wife’s name to his own upon marriage but who has made it his life’s work to serve as secretary to his great father-in-law, curating every slip of paper that has passed through Blayds’ blessed hands, recording every word he utters in order to capture the brilliance for posterity.  Blayds, old but no fool, can see exactly what his son-in-law is doing and what the future will bring, as he explains to a birthday visitor, Mr Royce:

Blayds: My son-in-law, Mr Royce, meditates after my death a little book called “Blaydsiana.”  He hasn’t said so, but I see it written all over him.  In addition, you understand, to the official life in two volumes.  There may be another one called “On the Track of Blayds in the Cotswolds” but I am not certain of this yet.

While Mr Blayds-Conway is happy to have his life’s direction set by his relationship to Blayds, his children are not.  Both daughter and son feel that they are held slightly captive, particularly twenty-something Oliver who has found himself working in politics despite his love of mechanics:

Oliver: Do you think I want to be a private secretary to a dashed politician?  What’s a private secretary at his best but a superior sort of valet?  I wanted to be a motor engineer.  Not allowed.  Why not?  Because the Blayds in Blayds-Conway wouldn’t have been any use.  But politicians simply live on that sort of thing.

They need to live up to the Blayds name and find that takes quite a lot of work.

But then the critical discovery is made that Blayds’ fame is based on a grand deception.  This comes after his death so there are many things for the family consider.  Money, legacy, and the value of their own name all weigh heavily as they try to decide what to do.  Perhaps the Blayds name wasn’t such a curse, not really, not when it came with respect and a healthy income, and served to open so many doors into the best places.  As the Blayds-Conway family members rationalise their selfish instincts into a protective cocoon of moral comfort, Blayds’ younger daughter and the journalist Conway can only look on in amazement and repulsion.

It’s all very neatly done, with excellent dialogue throughout and a tidy ending, but it doesn’t have as much heart as Milne’s best plays.  Here it seems the concept was very much the thing, not the characters.  He carries it off very well but I still longed for the world of The Great Broxopp or, bigamy and all, Michael and Mary, with real-feeling characters.

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After reading Anne of Green Gables in July, I was reminded of an eternal truth about books in a series: you can never read just one.  Or at least I can’t, particularly when it is this series which so dominated my childhood reading.  How could I leave Anne after just one book?  So I read on, quickly progressing through first Anne of Avonlea and then Anne of the Island.

Anne of Avonlea is an odd book or perhaps it is just a very typical second book, written in a rush to capitalise on the extraordinary success of Anne of Green Gables.  Published in 1909, only a year after Anne’s debut, Montgomery seems to have lost her sense of humour – and her sense of characterization.  When the first book ended, Anne was maturing and recognizing (with humour) her tendency towards indulging in overly dramatic flights of fancy.  In this book, she embraces those melodramatic tendencies wholeheartedly, becomes dreamier than ever without ever really coming back down to earth, and is insufferably condescending to her more prosaic friends.  She has relapsed to a stage which readers of the first book thought she had outgrown and no one benefits from it.  (There is a very good discussion of this in The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly.)

The book still has its moments but Montgomery, desperately short of plot ideas, covers by introducing new characters at every turn.  We meet Mr Harrison, a grouchy farmer with a foul-mouthed parrot; Davy and Dora, twin relatives who Marilla takes in after they are orphaned; Paul Irving, the most sickeningly sweet child ever written; and Miss Lavendar, who is even more prone to silly fantasies than Anne.  None of these count as improvements to Avonlea society, as far as I’m concerned.

As usual, it is Anne’s humblest adventures that are the most entertaining.  Montgomery writing about ethereal fantasies and really anything involving Paul Irving is insufferable.  Montgomery writing about village gossip is delightful.  The disastrous repainting of the church is one of the book’s greatest moments and Anne’s horror at having to strap one of her misbehaving students – and then find he respects her more for it, thereby crushing all her high ideals – is marvellous.  And these moments are made better because they offer not just Anne’s perspective but a whole array of them, from besotted but still level-headed Gilbert Blythe, from sharp tongued Rachel Lynde, and from quietly amused Marilla.

If Anne of Avonlea is both frustrating and disappointing, Anne of the Island, happily, is an entirely different experience.

Published in 1915, Montgomery has several years to figure out how to next approach Anne’s story (and to write many sentimental stories and novels to expunge her overly dramatic tendencies).  The result is the 2nd best book in the series and one of the most important books of my childhood.

The novel covers Anne’s four years of college, which takes her away from Avonlea and from Prince Edward Island entirely, over to Redmond College in Kingsport, Nova Scotia (a fictionalised version of Dalhousie University in Halifax, where Montgomery studied).  She is accompanied by some familiar faces, Charlie Sloane and Gilbert Blythe, and joins up with friends Priscilla Grant and Stella Maynard, who she met at teacher’s school in Anne of Green Gables.  And, most importantly, she makes two very important new friends over her four years: Philippa Gordon and Roy Gardner.

Roy Gardner enters Anne’s life during her third year of college, an answer to all of her romantic fantasies.  Having by this point survived – and rebuffed – multiple marriage proposals (most very easily, with due horror, but one with great pain) since none of the men matched her vision of a future husband, it is almost too perfect when Roy appears in the midst of a rainstorm, perfection made flesh:

Tall and handsome and distinguished-looking – dark, melancholy, inscrutable eyes – melting, musical, sympathetic voice – yes, the very hero of her dreams stood before her in the flesh. He could not have more closely resembled her ideal if he had been made to order.

But ideal men aren’t very interesting – a fact the reader recognizes long before Anne.  Roy is clearly a red herring but it is easy to understand why a wealthy, worldly, handsome man who adores her has so much appeal.  He is so far removed from the Avonlea boys she’s grown up with, although the Redmond girls seem to think the Avonlea boys have a certain appeal, especially handsome, intelligent, and determined Gilbert Blythe, now studying to become a doctor.  Really, there is no doubt that Anne and Gilbert will end up together but my god does Montgomery put her readers through an emotional rollercoaster before that happy ending comes.

The other character of note is the marvellous Philippa Gordon.  I loved everything about this book as a child but it has only been on rereading it as an adult that I’ve recognized how much Philippa enriches the story.  Philippa is a contradiction from her very first introduction: a beauty from a wealthy Nova Scotian family, she could have married well (to her choice of suitor – both Alec and Alonzo are waiting for her still) but chose instead to come and study mathematics at university.  Despite an active social schedule through all four years, Philippa handles her academics with aplomb and sits at the top of the class.  And, perhaps most importantly, she can do what Anne cannot do: acknowledge when she is wrong, recognize a chance at happiness, and go after it with all her considerable energy and determination.

Phil and Anne approach their romances from very different perspectives.  Anne has dreamed of her ideal man for years.  She knows just what he will look like, has devoted considerable time to composing his perfect speeches, and can envision an idyllic future spent staring into one another’s eyes.  For her, the idea that Roy Gardner, her fantasy made flesh, won’t be as satisfying a life partner as Gilbert Blythe, her intellectual equal who would rather work beside her than worship her, is one she fights against.  She has a fixed vision and it is one that she sticks to.  When she finally consults her heart, it is almost too late.

Phil, on the other hand, never believed in romance.  She believed in marriage, certainly, and expected that one day she would marry one of the rich young men from her social circle and settle down to a life like the one she’d always lived.  Her time at Redmond is her way of postponing – at least for four years – having to decide which of the interchangeable eligible young men she will accept.  She throws herself into university life and has a marvellous time.  But then something changes.  She meets Jonas Blake, an awkward young minister, and that’s it.  Jonas is exactly the sort of man Phil has always joked about not being tempted by – ugly, poor, and far from at ease in company – but she falls in love almost immediately.  And when Jonas doesn’t dare to think she could be interested in him, she makes it very clear that she is.  Phil, knowing what she wants, is not going to let her chance at happiness slip away.

Nor is she about to let Anne do the same.  Marilla and Rachel Lynde may want to tell Anne that she is making a mistake by rejecting Gilbert, but they don’t.  Phil, on the other hand, is more than ready to do so.  Repeatedly.  For years.  Phil is not afraid of a little blunt talking and I love her for it.  As a child who found Anne too whimsical and Diana too timid, Phil was the first Montgomery character – and one of the first literary characters – I ever truly identified with.  And that hasn’t change remotely in the 23 years that have passed since I first encountered her.

Anne of the Island isn’t quite as good as Anne of Green Gables but it is close.  I could write about it endlessly but I’ll save that for another day.  I’ve read it countless times already and I shall certainly return to it again.  And again.  And again…

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

After many happy years, Linda has decided to cut back on the amount of time she spends blogging and so will no longer be co-hosting Library Loot.  She’s been a wonderful co-host and I will miss her!

What her departure does offer is an opportunity for another blogger to get involved with Library Loot.  I am looking for a new co-host so if you’re interested let me know!  Leave a comment or send me an email (check out my contact information).   All you need is a love of your library and a blog!

Until there is a new co-host, I’ll be continuing to share my loot every two weeks.  If you want to share weekly, you can use the most recent post to share your link (or, you know, volunteer to co-host.  Just an idea).

Yorkshire by Richard Morris – I love the very un-English bragging in this subtitle: a lyrical history of England’s Greatest County.  It also happens to be where much of my father’s family is from, so I’m biased enough to agree.

The Perfect Alibi by A.A. Milne – more Milne!

The Roy Strong Diaries: 1967-1987 – I think this marks the point where I give up any idea of finishing ACOB in one year.  I am simply drawn to too many very, very long books.  I’ve been looking forward to reading Strong’s diaries ever since I first encountered him back in 2012 (when I read The Laskett and A Country Year, adoring them both) and plan to savour every page.

Home and Garden by Gertrude Jekyll – I was inspired to pick this up (though it’s long been on my to-read list) after Penelope Lively mentioned it in her marvellous A Life in the Garden

Love Among the Chickens by P.G. Wodehouse – I’m not expecting much from this very early Wodehouse but, completist that I am, I’m intrigued.

Martini Henry by Sara Crowe – Crowe’s first novel, Campari for Breakfast, was absolutely delightful and completely earned its comparisons with Love, Nina and I Capture the Castle.  I can’t wait to catch up with Sue and Aunt Coral in this sequel.

The Greek Escape  by Karen Swan – This doesn’t sound like something I’d usually try but it’s dark and starting to get cold here so anything that can aid in sunny travel dreams has some appeal.

The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson – A secret doorway into a magical world at King’s Cross station?  Eva Ibbotson beat J.K. Rowling to that idea with this children’s book from 1994.  I read Ibbotson’s adult novels (now rebranded as YA) throughout my teens but am only discovering her children’s books now and am loving them.

What did you pick up this week?

And, more importantly, would you be interested in co-hosting Library Loot? 

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).  

credit: Alexander James (via House and Garden)

The Great Broxopp by A.A. Milne is often referred to as prophetic.  Written in 1921, it features a man who feels his life has been blighted by his father’s commercial success with the baby food he used his infant son to advertise.  Milne’s own son was still an infant when this was written – years away from being immortalized as Christopher Robin – but the parallels are very clear.  But, sadly for Milne, the fictional son is much more forgiving than his real one would one day be.

The play opens, perfectly, on young Mrs Broxopp conferring with her maid of all work, giving instant insight into the family finances:

Nancy: Yes, Mary?

Mary: It’s about the dinner, ma’am.

Nancy: (With a sigh.) Yes, I was afraid it was.  It isn’t a very nice subject to talk about, is it, Mary?

Mary: Well, ma’am, it has its awkwardness like.

Nancy: (After a pause, but not very hopefully.) How is the joint looking?

Mary: Well, it’s past looking like anything very much.

Nancy: Well, there’s the bone.

Mary: Yes, there’s the bone.

Nancy: (Gaily.) Well, there we are, Mary.  Soup.

Mary: If you remember, ma’am, we had soup yesterday.

Nancy: (Wistfully.) Couldn’t you – couldn’t you squeeze it again, Mary?

Mary: It’s past squeezing, ma’am – in this world.

Broxopp, you see, is not yet great.  But the first act is brief and by the time we meet him again twenty odd years later, greatness has been achieved.  A born salesman, he has built a successful business and established a comfortable life.  He and his wife live in a large home in the best part of town.  They have a butler who used to work for a duke.  Their son, Jack, went through Eton and Oxford and is now pursuing his dream of becoming an artist (heavily subsidized by his father).  They have the success they dreamed of and are proud of it, with the Great Broxopp still excited each day to look for ways to make the business – and the name of Broxopp – even greater.

Young Jack, on the other hand, wants to abandon the name entirely.  He has fallen in love and plans to marry the lovely, eminently sensible Iris.  But Iris – and even more importantly Iris’s father, the masterful Sir Roger Tenterden – can’t stomach the name of Broxopp and the commercial activities that it is associated with.  Jack, for his part, is more than happy to abandon a name that has plagued him all his life:

Jack: I’m simply fed up with Broxopp’s Beans.

Broxopp: (Surprised.) But – but you haven’t had them since you were a baby.

Jack: (Seeing the opening.) Haven’t had them?  Have I ever stopped having them?  Weren’t they rammed down my throat at school till I was sick of them?  Did they ever stop pulling my leg about them at Oxford?  Can I go anywhere without seeing that beastly poster – a poster of me – me, if you please – practically naked – telling everybody that I love my Beans.  (Bitterly.)  Love them!  Don’t I see my name – Broxopp, Broxopp, Broxopp – everywhere in every size of lettering – on every omnibus, on every hoarding; spelt out in three colours at night – B-R-O-X-O-P-P – until I can hardly bear the sight of it.  Free bottles given away on my birthday, free holidays for Broxopp mothers to celebrate my coming of age!  I’m not a man at all.  I’m just a living advertisement of Beans.

Broxopp shows his greatness in what he does next.  He accepts his son’s point of view and, to smooth his son’s way into a respectable future with no taint of business, he sells the business and changes the family name to Chillingham, his wife’s maiden name.  And then they retire to the country to live sedate, unexceptional lives in beautiful surroundings.

When we meet them again, all seems to be going well enough but the Great Broxopp is not so great anymore.  Country life does not suit him and he yearns to be back at work, to have something to strive for every day.  Jack is married but still living off his parents, not making much of an effort at his art, and Iris’s father, Sir Roger, has been left in charge of everyone’s money but will tell no one about any of it.  And then the inevitable happens: the money disappears.  Mismanaged by Sir Roger (with a final, artful push from Mrs Broxopp), the Broxopp fortune is lost.  But the loss brings a new beginning for everyone and no one could be happier than the Great Broxopp, now facing a challenge worthy of his ambitions.

Milne’s dialogue is not up to his snappiest best but I loved this play.  It had a huge amount of heart and the central relationship between Mr and Mrs Broxopp was wonderful, a true and supportive partnership.  They worked together to build Broxopp’s Beans and we have no doubt as the play ends that they will work together again to make the name of Chillingham just as great.

Knowing Milne’s life, it’s not difficult to see the factors from his own life at play here.  From all I know of Daphne Milne, I suspect her family would have shared Sir Roger’s prejudices about being too closely associated with business.  And I know for certain Milne himself felt that work and success were something to be proud of and celebrated, not looked down upon.  But the one thing he couldn’t foresee was that he would put his own son under a spotlight many, many times greater than the one Jack Broxopp grew up in.  And his son, unlike Jack Broxopp, would never quite forgive him for it.

Happy Czechs in 1963

Yesterday was an important anniversary but today is an even more important one for me personally.  Fifty years ago today, my mother began her journey to Canada.

It began with a small journey, but my grandmother was distracted and terrified.  Her country, which had been so wonderful in her youth, had been occupied for the second time in her life.  Instead of Germans, Russians had now rolled into the streets of Prague.  Everything she had hoped and planned for her life had come to nothing.  But she had two daughters and she wanted better for them – and for herself.

She was a forty-seven-year old widow who had spent a few months taking English lessons, trying to recall a language she’d learned thirty years before and never had need to use.  She and her twenty-year old daughter were breaking the law – not just by leaving but by “kidnapping” a minor (my mother).  She had the visas for Canada, and a letter for the Czechoslovak border guards about going there to attend her brother’s wedding, and a lot of nerve.  With one suitcase a piece (after all, who would flee the country with so few belongings?), they set out.

They were lucky.  The border guards were – even months after the Soviet occupation began – miraculously still Czech and no one asked too many questions.  They made it through to Austria.

Which is when my mother, who had been stewing silently, reminded my grandmother of the one thing she had forgotten that day.

Her youngest daughter’s 14th birthday.

Eventually, she was forgiven.  My mother acknowledged that her birthday probably wasn’t the highest priority of the day – but, mind you, I think this took a while.  Possibly years.  Young teenage girls aren’t known for their emotional generosity, particularly ones who are already distraught about leaving their beloved homeland.

My grandmother felt guilty all her life for that slip, but she shouldn’t have.  She gave my mother a wonderful present that day: a future where she was able to live freely, conquer first school and then the business world based on her own (considerable) merit, travel widely, and dream of a big, bright future.  For all three women, it was a journey with a very happy ending.

But it’s been a good reminder to us all never to forget my mother’s birthday.

Happy Canadians in 1981