A friend from my book group kindly lent me Abbie (1947) by Dane Chandos about a million years ago, and I’ve somehow only recently got around to reading it. I think it looked almost too inviting – it seemed a delicious treat of a book that I didn’t think I quite deserved. And I thought it might be a sweet, old-fashioned children’s book, which isn’t something for which I’m always in the mood.
Well, I was right and I was wrong. It isn’t remotely sweet or a children’s book, but it is wonderful.
You (like my friend) are probably aware of my penchant for characterful old ladies in books, and Abbie does not disappoint. The episodic novel is narrated by Dane (I thought it might even be a sort of autobiography, until I discovered that Dane Chandos was actually the pseudonym for two authors, Peter Lilley and Nigel Millett) who, from his schooldays onwards, has a close and amusing relationship with his Aunt Abbie.
Abbie is composed of interspersed letters and narrative – the letters being from Abbie, who jaunts off around the world (she hires camels in Algeria, haggles in French markets, skis in Switzerland) but always returns to her East Anglian garden. Gardening is perhaps the least exotic of her hobbies, but it is also her most passionate. She judges everyone on their gardening abilities, she is willing to steal and deceive for her art, and this piece of dialogue (which I choose more or less at random) is from one of the chapters on gardening:
“Drat the regatta. We’re too late now, anyway. I have to get those camellias put in. Now please take care of them, Arthur. Do not make an impetuous gesture. Cotoneaster twigs are very delicate. Prenez garde! These old gaffers should not be allowed on the roads, especially when there are such handsome almshouses at Upper Dovercourt.”
Abbie is an interesting creation. Battleaxe types are always a joy to read in some measure, but the author’s (or, in this case, authors’) task is to keep them on the right side of sympathy – or open them entirely to ridicule. It is that which separates the Lady Catherine de Bourghs from the Miss Hargreaveses of this world. Abbie is certainly not a figure of fun – much depends on the reader developing the fondness for her that Dane (the character) clearly has for his aunt. How successful is this?
Well, the negatives. She is unabashedly xenophobic – but not racist in particular, because every non-British person (indeed, every non-British non-upper-class person) meets with her disdain. She is quite selfish. She is rude, abrupt, and tells everyone to ‘Prenez garde!’ all the time.
And the positives. She is very funny – sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. She loves her nephew and her husband. He is called Arthur, is calm and sensible, and balances out her forthright sense of purpose. He is also, along with Dane, capable of quietening her down. The authors give us enough examples of Abbie being bested (my favourite being in the garden theft incident, by a confident neighbour) that we can afford to like her.
Make no mistake, she would be a horror to know as a person – and her xenophobia is only understandable as a product of her time – but I couldn’t help loving reading about her energetic exploits and astonishing self-confidence. The more low-key her social battles (arguing with a waiter, or going for a dress-fitting) the more I loved it – things got a bit out of hand with runaway camels and the like. But my taste always leans to the domestic and social minutiae.
Any fan of slightly silly, very funny, early twentieth-century novels will find a lot to like and laugh at in Abbie. And, even better, I’ve just discovered that there is a sequel, Abbie and Arthur! Thanks Caroline for lending this to me, sorry it’s taken an age to read it…