Friday, 24 February 2012

Look Back with Love by Dodie Smith

Published 1974

Oh heavens, where to start to describe this wonderful memoir of childhood? Dodie Smith, famous as the author of 101 Dalmatians, must have been the most delightfully trying little madam ever! It would probably be true for nearly anyone who'd been a child with a literary bent, but I kept finding things in common with her (including having been a little madam? Probably, I'm afraid. It's rather easy when children spend a lot of time with adults.) For a start, reading Look Back with Love took me back to the earliest, happiest days of my own childhood, when I lived with my grandparents, as Dodie did. Some of the resonances, it is true, must also be due to the fact that Smith is one of the writers who has been a part of my entire life - I can hardly remember a time when I wasn't reading about Pongo and Missus and the Dearlys, and in my teens I discovered Cassandra Mortmain and Jane Minton, and her voice is one of those I can conjure most easily in my head. But we shared other experiences too: (nearly) falling out of cars, family holidays in a car which was always coming to a halt on hills (why did adults never think ahead and take water for the radiator with them when they must have known it was going to boil?) and lots of theatre visits and theatre talk.

Dodie's mother, Ella, was widowed when Dodie was only 18 months old, and they moved to Old Trafford in Manchester to live with Ellas's parents, the Furbers, and her unmarried siblings, Harold, Arthur, Madge, Bertha and Eddie. In I Capture the Castle Cassandra talks about "capturing" her own family and acquaintances (and the castle itself) and here, Dodie herself captures her extended and opinionated family in Chapter Two. There's a wonderfully matter-of-fact tone about her writing always, and she tells everything at the same pace, which somehow manages to heighten the drama. It feels very much as though she's talking to you directly:
The youngest brother, Eddie, must have been in his early twenties as I first remember him. He was tall and thin with lank, dark hair, a wide forehead but a narrow face. He had a sardonic sense of humour but was the most sensitive of the family. Being the youngest, he had fewest rights - he had, for instance, no right to any particular armchair and it was years before he was able to treat himself to one. When he did, it was so large and comfortable that his brothers sat in it whenever they got the chance. He had a hard struggle to get going in business and once told me that, when he first started to apply for jobs, he had not even a penny to spend on stamps. So he would smear a little gum where the stamp should have been and hope the recipient would think it had come off in the post.
...though Auntie Bertha wrote excellent letters, her fear that the spelling and punctuation might be faulty always caused her to add a postscript  saying - '"Burn this."
Once Dodie started school she attended Mrs North's Girls' School, in a large Victorian villa, where every Wednesday afternoon they had dancing lessons.
dancing was an extra and my mother said it would be the ruin of her for such a large number of accessories were required. One needed an accordion-pleated dress, at least fifteen yards wide, for the skirt dance (wretched children not possessing such a dress did not "take" the skirt dance and were looked at pityingly).
(For the benefit of my readers, there are descriptions of the skirt dance here and here. I once, along with other members of the dance group I belonged to, made a Victorian ball dress for myself - six of us spent a weekend's dance course frantically accordion-pleating our skirts in our spare moments. Only six yards, though - the mind boggles at fifteen!)

The chapter on family holidays is bliss. Auntie Bertha was by this time married to Uncle Bertie, who acquired an already elderly de Dion Bouton - which Dodie describes as "an extremely open" car - so they all went on a touring holiday. This was in 1907, so it must have looked something like this:

Isn't that wonderful? It (sorry, she) was always running out of petrol, and finally, late in the afternoon and after Leominster, broke down:
For four hours, Uncle Bertie wrestled with the de Dion, while great flying beetles zoomed with menace in the twilight, the moon rose and lights appeared in the windows of the big Georgian house at whose gates we had come to a stop. A sympathetic maid came out and offered to bring tea, but this was declined; my mother and Auntie Bertha were pining for it, but Uncle Bertie feared it might delay him, should he suddenly be able to start.
It's fanciful of me, I know, but I can't help feeling that this Georgian house might have made an appearance in 101 Dalmatians, when an elderly spaniel offers a resting place to the dogs and the exhausted puppies.

Look Back with Love has recently been reissued by Slightly Foxed Editions in an elegant little volume. I find it hard to imagine that anyone could fail to be captivated by the lively Dodie. In her play of 1938, she described the family as "that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape; nor in our innermost hearts, ever quite wish to" (I wish someone would stage Dear Octopus again,* because I love it very much) and this memoir is a celebration of the family who inspired such affection. I'm conscious that I haven't done justice to her, because I just wanted to share all of it with you. I'm dying to read the second part of her autobiography, Look Back with Mixed Feelings, too, about her time as a drama student, because I know there would be more common ground there. Oh, and I didn't tell you the bit about Mrs Warren's Profession...*

* I watched a TV version once with my great-grandmother, and at the end she said, "I'm not quite sure, dear, what Mrs Warren's profession actually was"...neither was the young Dodie.

* Edited later because I noticed that I'd called it Dead Octopus - which would have been a rather different kettle of fish, LOL.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Wolf Solent: Classics Challenge

Katherine posted this month's prompts at for the Classics Challenge over a week ago, but I'm only just getting now to the point where I have anything to say! I'm choosing to answer her Level 1 questions:
What phrases has the author used to introduce this character? What are your first impressions of them? Find a portrait or photograph that closely embodies how you imagine them.
I'm reading John Cowper Powys' 1929 novel Wolf Solent (a hefty tome at over 600 pages, and the sort of dense writing that needs attention - though it also rewards it). The eponymous hero is described as follows:
Solent was not an ill-favoured man; but on the other hand he was not a prepossessing one. His short, stubbly hair was of a bleached tow-colour. His forehead as well as his rather shapeless chin had a tendency to slope backward, a peculiarity which had the effect of throwing the weight of his character upon the curve of his hooked nose and upon the rough, thick eyebrows that over-arched his deeply-sunken grey eyes.
He's not an ambitious man, but he nurses an arrogance which is borne of what he calls his "mythology", a sense of involvement in a cosmic struggle because he - uniquely? - is in tune with some sort of earthforce which resembles: 
great vegetable leaves over a still pool - leaves nourished by hushed noons, by liquid, transparent nights, by all the movements of the elements - but making some inexplicable difference, merely by their spontaneous expansion, to the great hidden struggle always going on in Nature between the good and the evil forces.
Solent is preternaturally aware of his surroundings, so that they intrude almost irritatingly on the reader - in part, perhaps, because it's a kind of writing which seems very oldfashioned now. Those vegetable leaves would seem very overblown to the modern sensibility, used to a much sparser style. I can't think I'd tolerate them in anyone more recent than Iris Murdoch (who admired Powys). But Wolf Solent was written in the twenties, and a little personal melodrama was more acceptable then. 

I'm not sure that I find Wolf Solent very appealing, but I did manage to cast him fairly fast, recalling John McEnery as Mercutio in the Zefirelli Romeo and Juliet (also stunning in the first TV adaptation of Our Mutual Friend and in Bartleby). He's right not only in appearance, but in his intensity - in fact, Solent has something of the quality of all those characters, but where Bartleby eschewed all contact, Wolf Solent wants now to embrace new experience and reality, even at the risk of his secret life. At thirty-five, he has left his tedious London existence, and life with his mother, to take up a new post on Dorset, in the village where his parents grew up. Returning to his roots, and to the countryside, is important to his nature mysticism, so we know that the move is likely to shake him to the core - as he travels to Dorset he dreams of finding a young woman, "tall and slim and white", who will let him make love to her out of doors.

By page 63 I feel I'm only just beginning to see Wolf Solent as a person. Of course, he's at something of a disadvantage at the moment - the uncertainty of a new job, a new home (with some rather odd fellow residents), and a new employer who has already described Solent's predecessor's death as a "betrayal", which would surely raise the odd concern....I feel I'm as much on a journey of exploration as our hero; surely there will be revelations about his parents, and we've already met a young woman.

There will be another post on Wolf Solent in due course - I think it will keep me going for some time!

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge

Published 1956

I've been reading Elizabeth Goudge since I was small. The first I read was The Little White Horse: I still have my original copy, have acquired and given away spares, and now downloaded it to my Kindle so that I always have it with me. Last week I read the opening chapters again while I was in London - it has one of the most magical beginnings I can think of, with a journey to a new home and life and the opening up of such possibilities... In my early teens I found her adult novels in the library and they've been part of my life ever since. She introduced me to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and to Devon before I ever went there, and shaped my notions of what families ought to be. I know that I will still be re-reading her books, for adults and for children, in old age. She loved dogs, and her animal characters are every bit as important as her human ones, all equal under heaven. She makes me feel, when I read her, a better person than I am.

I don't know that I can choose a favourite, but The Rosemary Tree is special to me, nonetheless. It's the story of the Wentworth family: John and Daphne, their three daughters Pat, Margary and Winkle, and also Great Aunt Maria, who lives in the family home, Belmaray Manor, which really belongs to John. The rest of the family live in the vicarage - Maria Wentworth doesn't really approve of her nephew being a vicar, nor did she approve of his marriage to his cousin Daphne, rightly perhaps, as it's not a huge success. John is much scarred psychologically by the war and regards himself as inadequate at everything he attempts, so he blames himself for the failure, and it's true that his chronic forgetfulness is a constant irritant, as is his refusal to sell the Manor. Goudge draws a very clear picture of the sort of genteel poverty which we don't really see today (that doesn't mean it doesn't exist, but we notice it less), both in the Wentworth family themselves and, even more poignantly, in the character of the teacher, Miss Giles, who makes Margary's schooldays a misery. Miss Giles is of a generation where the education of girls was deemed unnecessary and, now in the 50s, she faces an uncertain future as retirement looms.

My first school was a small private one not so very unlike that of the ghastly Mrs Belling, in an ordinary house not very well adapted to the needs of small children, but with a large garden. Mrs Belling's garden had a weeping willow tree, where Winkle retreats at every opportunity, so that she can escape to her dream country. Her own teacher, Mrs Bellings' niece Mary, is more indulgent than Miss Giles, so Winkle isn't as unhappy as Margary is. Pat, the eldest, is soon to go to boarding school, and has a harder shell than the others anyway, so she survives better, but not completely without effect. John isn't convinced that the school is very good for the children, but Mrs Belling seems such a sweet old lady, and Daphne won't have them sent to the village school. In one of the passages I love best, John, having learnt from Mary just how cruel Miss Giles can be, asks Margary if she would like to leave. The outcome is not what anyone would have expected.

There are two other important people in the story: Michael Stone, who has come to Devon on an impulse, driven out of London by his shame at having just left prison, and Harriet, John's bedridden old nanny, who is forced into the role of observer and, most importantly, intercessor. She's learnt through illness that only patience and prayer are left and she's the still centre at the heart of the book, keeping vigil so that others may be healed.

Goudge was the daughter of a clergyman, and Christian imagery, and the Christian literary tradition, are vital to all her writing, which is always about conquering weaknesses. Not just "any man's death diminishes me" but any man's pain or weakness, too. And if weakness can't be conquered head on, then it must itself be offered up. Although Maria Wentworth says she has no truck with the monastic life, and John, a natural mystic if ever there was one, has chosen to marry and rescue his unhappy cousin rather than let her suffer, for Goudge the ultimate life is that of the contemplative and the task of those in everyday life is to create the monastic cell within.

Now, I can imagine lots of people hating this, it really doesn't fit in with the pace of modern existence. But there are also many people who are conscious of the lack of a spiritual element in their lives. Some of my earliest memories are of time spent at the convent where my great aunt lived, and I've always felt drawn to that life myself. It's a bit of a problem therefore that I'm an agnostic, if not an outright atheist, but living in the country answers many of my needs, and I think Goudge is equally clear that there's a spiritual balm in nature. Indeed, she recognises a spiritual element in beauty of any form, whether manmade or natural, and looks for it in her characters. If there's the tiniest grain, she will find it, and so her books are imbued with joy.

This is much too grand a house for Belmaray, and too modern, but it is Devon (Lukesland), and Maria Wentworth is very proud of her rhododendrons - so I think we'll have some more, just to please her.

Friday, 10 February 2012

A Lesson in Dying by Ann Cleeves

I've mentioned here, I think, that I've been trying of late to track down novels set in Northumberland, and this was one of them. A Lesson in Dying is set in the south of the county, but you don't get a huge sense of place, really - it's recognisably the Northumbrian coast with its ex-mining villages, and there's mention of Morpeth and Blyth to locate it, but there's no sustained description of the area. Partly this is owing to the comparative shortness, which curtails description or leisured portrayal of characters - the word which came into my head was "workmanlike" - it set out its plot and then got on with it briskly. We've become used, of late, to long rambling detective novels with multiple red herrings and complex sub-plots, but here we have just 200-odd pages and not much exploration of the inner workings of people's minds.

I could certainly imagine it set not many miles away, and hear the local accents, but I think that depended more on my own knowledge of the area than its evocation by the author. I missed the kind of development and examination of motive and personality that we get in longer books, including of the lead detective, Inspector Ramsay - he is clearly intended to engage our interest and sympathies, but I never really felt that I got a handle on him, nor was my interest really piqued. You know how with a new protagonist you can be really itching to get the next in the series to see what they'll do next, and to learn more about them? For example, no one could have loved Andy Dalziel in the first of the Reginald Hill books, but you were certainly eager to be appalled by him all over again in the next! I've read one of the books featuring Cleeves' later creation, Vera Stanhope, and she's certainly a much more rounded character, although admittedly I read it after I'd seen the excellent TV series. I've yet to read any of the Shetland series, but I've heard good things said about them. Perhaps it didn't help that Ramsay is a loner - the chat between a detective and his or her sidekick is always illuminating, and we're missing that here.

A brief run down on the plot: Harold Medburn is headmaster of the small local school, but no-one likes him, he's a man who abuses his position of authority in the community. But a small town isn't a likely place for murder and, when Medburn's found dead, Ramsay is happy to fix on the obvious suspect, the dead man's wife. It takes the school caretaker, Jack Robson and his daughter to keep the investigation going, and Ramsay, faced with a lack of support from his own team, finds himself making an almost cynical use of their efforts to prove Kitty Medburn's innocence, even while believing that their faith may be misplaced.

All in all, it's a perfectly competent and readable novel, but not one to get excited about. And, published in 1990, it's another year crossed off the Century of Books, and a nice sub-theme of the twentieth-century detective novel beginning to emerge.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Look At Me by Anita Brookner

This is a painful little book. Appropriately so, since its theme is melancholia. Frances Hinton is a reference librarian who catalogues images of psychological disturbance while working extremely hard to maintain her own detachment from the complications of living. She lives in a block of flats in Maida Vale that is almost entirely populated by the elderly, walks to work and visits art galleries on long, oppressive Sunday afternoons. She would like to have friends but makes no effort to cultivate them, until she is taken up by the glamorous Nick and Alix, who are the kind of golden couple who are always surrounded by noise and vitality. Frances, who manages to be one of the world's over-thinkers while remaining essentially blind to what is going on around her, questions her own motives in allowing herself to be captivated by them, but utterly fails to interrogate theirs until too late. At the start of the novel she wields her detachment with a good deal of pride, turning sharp little vignettes of her acquaintances into witty short stories, and a novel is planned (it would be very Barbara Pym, I think):
When I feel swamped in my solitude and hidden by it, physically obscured by it, rendered invisible, in fact, writing is my way of piping up. Of reminding people that I am here. And when I have ordered my characters, plundered my store of images, removed from them all the sadness that I might feel in myself, then I can switch on that current that allows me to write so easily, once I get started, and to make people laugh. That, it seems, is what they like to do. And if I manage this well enough and beguile all the dons and the critics, they will fail to register my real message, which is a simple one. 'Look at me,' I would say. 'Look at me.'
I like Brookner, but I think I would like her better if she were more Pym herself. There are some delicious acid touches, especially in the exchanges between Olivia, the other librarian, and the regulars, but this is a serious book and, though brief,  it is at times quite slow. I did rather want to tell Frances ("I do not like to be called Fanny" she tells us and then almost everyone does) to stop thinking and join a film society or something, but at the same time I could understand why she was so guarded, and I didn't want her to be humiliated.

Look At Me shares a theme familiar from many mid-twentieth-century books, the fear of lonely old age. Frances makes monthly duty visits to Miss Morpeth, a retired librarian, and these are difficult occasions. There is little dignity about poverty in the elderly and Frances is afraid that her own future looks bleak. Her memories of her most recent Christmas, alone in her over-large flat with her late mother's housekeeper, lend urgency to her need for company and affection, for disruption to her ordered days.

I don't find Brookner easy to talk about - her writing is elegant and stylish, her wit sparse but dry, yet you wonder if she chooses to write about the alienated because she doesn't like excessive emotion herself. That's something I can understand, even approve of, but it doesn't leave a lot to enthuse about. Indeed, it would be rather ridiculous to try... So her novels are an occasional, if muted, pleasure. It must be some twenty years since I read Hotel du Lac. That's about the right interval, I should think.

This was 1983 in the Century of Books.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer

This is the edition I have; I don't think the dress is quite right for 1815, but not a bad effort!
It was a small miracle to find a Georgette Heyer novel I can't remember having read, and A Civil Contract is a delightful treat. My Century of Books is already beginning to reflect the diversity of writing in the twentieth century, and I'm being resolutely low- to middle-brow, so this seems an excellent choice for 1961. It's quite a late example - Heyer's career as a writer spanned more than 50 years and her Regency books are renowned for the meticulousness of their research and her knowledge of the period. Along with many others, I discovered her books in my teens and read them avidly, after which there was a long gap until relatively recently, when I found some battered paperbacks in the local library. Now a set of new (if horribly badly copy-edited) editions of both the Regency romances and her crime novels has appeared, and the latter, in particular, are obviously enjoying some success in station bookshops. Although they are quite formulaic, Heyer created some splendid characters, and any group of Heyer addicts can be found saying things like, "Frederica's the best, she's such fun and so reliable" or "My favourite heroine is Hero, and George is so wonderfully Byronic!" My own favourite is generally the one I'm reading at the time (though I do like Hero), and Jenny Chawleigh is an appealingly unromantic heroine who finds herself marrying Viscount Lynton to rescue him from destitution, while knowing that his affections are otherwise engaged. He's a nice man, a soldier who wouldn't have contemplated such an arrangement had he not a mother and two sisters to provide for, and a not-quite-rotting family pile in Lincolnshire.

Jenny's father, Jonathan Chawleigh, a Cit, provides broad comedy, but much of the story is about the sometimes painful process that the couple must undergo in adapting to each other, and Heyer does it beautifully. Here they are in the carriage together after their wedding breakfast:

"I'm not the wife you wished for, but I'll do my possible to behave as I should. You'll be wanting an heir, and I hope I shall give you one. I should like to have children, and the sooner the better. But that's for you to decide." She stopped, tightly folding her lips, and turned away her face, to look out of the window; but after a few moments, during which he tried to think of something, anything, to say to her, she spoke again, saying in a conversational tone: "This is a new thing for me, you know: to be going to stay in the country...."
A little later we see Jenny's determination to make it work. Adam becomes aware that:  
Jenny was sometimes shy, but never shrinking. The trend of her mind was practical; she entered into married life in a business-like way; and almost immediately presented the appearance of a wife of several years' standing.
Her concern for his comfort is paramount, but they come from very different backgrounds and she doesn't always immediately understand him, despite her best efforts. She does see that her father's generosity can be overbearing and that he has a tendency to trample on Adam's sensibilities without meaning to. She has, too, to deal with her long-suffering mother-in-law: Lady Lynton plays the role of martyr with much resignation and lots of protestations, never a care for her own comfort - even my own mother-in-law never managed to be self-effacing to quite so much effect - while Adam's aunt, Lady Nassington provides a lovely bracing contrast, being one of those indomitable females who always speaks her mind. But there's even more to contend with: Adam's first love, Julia, all fine feelings and vapours, is set to "make a cake of herself", swooning in public and making it absolutely clear to the ton that she's still in love with him, if she's not prevented. It falls, of course, to the practical Jenny to find a solution.

The Napoleonic War provides a background throughout the novel. I've mentioned Heyer's research already, and you can pick up quite a bit of history from her books. It's said that An Infamous Army is so insightful about Wellington's campaign that it was used as a text at Sandhurst, the British military college. I don't know whether that's really true, but I do know that Heyer had a vast collection of over 1000 books relating to her research. The books are all firmly located in the period: it's easy in A Civil Contract because the Battle of Waterloo takes place towards the end of the book, but you can have fun working out in which year a particular book is set (near the beginning of this one I was trying to date it from the building of Russell Square in London). I bookmarked this quote, both for its insight into the period and for its resonances with modern-day life:
...he thought no time could have been more ill-chosen for festivity than the present. He did not say so: his brief sojourn in London had made him realize that between the soldier and the civilian there was a gulf too wide to be bridged. It had been no hardship to cut his visit short. The season was in full swing: the looming struggle across the Channel seemed to be of no more importance to the ton than a threatened scandal, and was less discussed. To a man who had spent nearly all his adult life in hard campaigning it was incomprehensible that people should care so little that they could go on dancing, flirting, and planning entertainments to eclipse those given by their social rivals when the fate of Europe was in the balance.
I suppose, if I were to make a criticism, it would be that the main strand of the story is fairly familiar territory and that Heyer had covered it all 10 years before, but I think myself that many of the later books are as good as the earlier ones: Frederica and Cousin Kate were still to come when A Civil Contract appeared and, on the whole, if you like her, you'll suspend your critical faculties for the duration.

Finally, I thought we could have a brief look at covers over the years. Blogger won't let me arrange them very aesthetically, but here we are:

I like this, but it looks Victorian, not Regency: the hair is worn too low
This one works rather well,  I think, although it's the edition I complained is badly edited

This looks more like I imagine Jenny
Could anything be more unsuitable?

This is probably my favourite: like Lizzie Bennet, let's focus on the acres the heroine will acquire