Sunday, 19 August 2012

Upside-Down; or, Love Among the Ruins by Denis Mackail

Miss Mary Jesmond was one who on the whole avoided self-analysis. Certainly she thought, and certainly, since she was human, there were many moments when she thought about herself. But she did this simply. Though she had played a very considerable number of different -- or at any rate slightly different -- parts on the stage, in private life she had never considered herself as more than one character. She thought of this character's clothes and food, of her engagements and occupations, and undoubtedly of her responsibilities to others as well. But she had seldom if ever concerned herself with what one might call the character's psychology. She had given little or no time to the contemplation of how an actress must always be living at least two lives.
Today was my 5-year blogging anniversary and I can honestly say that I'd never have thought in 2007 that I'd still be here after 5 years. I have to add that financially it's been ruinous -- so many recommendations, so much good, informed book chat, such groaning bookshelves -- but a huge thank you is due nevertheless to everyone who visits here, and to all the friends I've made, for your comments and your valued company.

To celebrate, I'm in Thirkell mood, but with a difference. Angela Thirkell's brother Denis Mackail was also a novelist, though it's been suggested that there was a degree of rivalry between them. Anyway, like his sister, he was writing throughout the war, and indeed was nearly as prolific as she was, producing thirty-six books between 1920 and 1950. His 1943 book, Upside-Down; or, Love Among the Ruins, was set against the background of London as the Blitz was coming to an end in 1941; and it's interesting that its subtitle was to be used 5 years  later by Angela for one of the more low-key novels in her Barsetshire series (and there's an excellent discussion of that book this week at The Captive Reader).

The heroine of Upside-Down is Miss Mary Jesmond, actress, who may never have "soared" to the classics, but who has had a very successful career on the West-End stage, always in leading roles. Now in her early forties (albeit four years older than her entry in The Dramatic Directory) she has a slightly uneasy feeling that her career might be flagging just a little. Her last run was a mere eight weeks, and there's nothing new to look forward to, unless the rather unreliable Roy Vincent can be persuaded to write a new comedy for her. Meanwhile, her daughter Laura (because the Miss is as misleading as her age: Mary is actually a widow), of whom she had considerable hopes, has abandoned what might have been a promising future on the stage for war work. Mary had rather expected that she might live on vicariously in Laura's career, and is rather disappointed, but she's determined to remain in London with Laura, taking rooms ("with a fine view of the balloon-barrage") in a rather unprepossessing block of flats when their home is rendered unsafe by the bombing.

If some of the characters seem rather flat when compared with those of Angela Thirkell, that's partly because the theatrical types in Upside-Down are appropriately rather shallow. No-one, not even Mary, has quite the warmth and vivacity of the celebrated Jessica Dean of AT's later books, though Laura comes closest to it. The most engaging scenes are between Laura and her boss at P.S.3, Humphrey Knowles (incidentally, AT would never have given a government department as nondescript a name as P.S.3) and Mary and Laura's visit to the country with Humphrey is a delight. At first, Laura's relationship with Mr Knowles is shy and rather restrained, on both parts, but after Laura brings him home during an air-raid, he finds himself gravitating more and more in the direction of Cadwallader Close. When his mother comes up to town for the day he asks Laura about a good place for lunch, and she recommends the Evergreen Club, popular with the theatrical set. Of course, when they all happen to meet up, entirely by coincidence, Mrs Knowles and Mary and Laura take to each other immediately and an invitation is issued.

The wartime atmosphere, as you'd expect from a novel actually written during that period, is vivid -- nights camping out in the shelter with cushions and drinks, the anxiety that undermines relationships when no one knows where they'll be stationed next, let alone whether they'll survive:
In this sort of uncertainty it soon seemed that another twenty-four hours had passed, bringing, of course, its fresh anxieties and irritations, so that no individual could ever catch up with what was happening, and again, perhaps, the immediate foreground was all with which one could hope to deal. Had there ever been peace? Or would there ever be peace again?
As with AT's wartime books, there's little, really, to assuage the anxiety at the end, although there's a resolution of sorts. My copy contains this logo on the frontispiece


and I found myself thinking about its war-weary readers, settling down with a book about how fictional people were coping with the very real circumstances that those readers were experiencing daily. It must have been both comforting -- the feeling that you weren't alone -- and sustaining, a reassurance that everyone was getting on with things despite the difficulties. Yet this book also contains, at almost its mid-point, a genuine -- if very British -- exchange about the bombing itself. It takes place between two of the less lovable characters, both of whom, one feels, are almost equally misguided, but nonetheless there is a very clear, humane message behind the mild hilarity with which it's treated. I don't think Mackail can equal his sister at her sparkling best -- although Greenery Street (reprinted in 2002 by Persephone Books) is well-thought of, and a very pleasant read -- but for Thirkell lovers there's a lot to like in Upside-Down, and it displays much quiet wisdom and humour about rather ordinary people. Sadly, I think there's little hope of it being reprinted, and it probably doesn't really merit it, even as social history, but Mackail's work is certainly worth looking out for in charity and secondhand book shops.

18 comments:

  1. Happy blogging anniversary! I too never thought I would make 5 years so here's to the next 5...

    A very interesting book review, possibly not my kind of thing but you made me wonder how it must have been writing and reading during the war. Not easy, I'm sure. One thing I must do is give Angela Thirkell a go.

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    1. Thanks, Cath! Do give AT a try - one of the early ones like August Folly or High Rising, which are just joyously good fun.

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  2. Happy anniversary, and here's to many more!

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    1. Thank you - it's hard to imagine not doing it now!

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  3. Congratulations and Happy anniversary, I hope there are many more to come. My 5th anniversary was this year too and it certainly has affected both my reading and my purse! I can't say I've read either any of Angela Thirkell's books or her brother's - that's the problem, there are so many books I haven't read that I'd like to read and reading blogs highlights that :)

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    1. I'm starting to admit that I can't read everything I want to (yes, only now) and that's making me focus a little more on certain areas - but then I see something that sounds wonderful on your blog, or Cornflower's, or Cath's, and I can't resist :-)

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  4. Congratulations on the anniversary of one of my favourite blogs!

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  5. Amazing, I had no idea he wrote thirty-six books. Wow. I've read Greenery Street and liked it. I'd love to read something else by him. I imagine the other thirty-five are all hard to find??

    I linked to your post from the AT Appreciation Facebook Group -- hope that's okay.

    Congrats on your anniversary!

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    1. Hello Margaret, and thanks for the link to Facebook! Yes, the others are hard to find, I'm afraid, though they do turn up on Abebooks and similar. I have a feeling that, as with AT, his books may be easier to find the the US.

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  6. I have a book with the same logo - it was part of a voluntary code which laid down guidelines about the amount of paper used, the size of font, the amount of white space on pages etc, because paper was rationed in England during WW2 (vast quantities were needed for the 'war effort' for maps and instructions for troops and people directing operations, ration books, and all sorts of other stuff like that. Although it was a voluntary code, if people within the publishing industry did nit comply they were penalised by having their paper deliveries cut.

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    1. Hi Christine - it's fascinating, isn't it! I have some Penguins, and probably some Thirkells that have a short paragraph inside about complying with paper restrictions, but I think this is the only one I have with the actual logo.

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  7. A very happy 5th birthday! Time does fly, doesn't it?
    I've only read Greenery Street by DM, which I loved, and I have By Auction on my shelves. How strange that AT stole the subtitle of this for one of her novels - I knew it rang a bell for me!

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    1. Thank you Simon! And also, as someone in the Angela Thirkell Society pointed out to me, it was the title of a painting by their grandfather, Edward Burne-Jones. As soon as I remembered the painting, I realised that there are two scenes in Mackail's novel which probably refer to it.

      While I was writing the post I realised that this book had really grown on me - it will certainly go into the category, books I'm very fond of.

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  8. This sounds really very different from Greenery Street, a book I found so sweet and kindly and hopeful. I tried Angela, and just couldn't read her. I liked only one book - The Demon in the House. The others had such a whirl of characters that I just couldn't keep track of, if that makes any sense.
    Happy, happy blog anniversary! I'm so glad you are here.

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    1. I've been reading Demon in the House recently, Nan - it's fun! Thank you for your kind wishes _ I'm so glad you're here, too :-)

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