There are a few books I’ve borrowed from friends and libraries which have now been returned, and so I’m going to give each one a paragraph or two, instead of a proper review. Partly so I can include them on my Century of Books list, but partly because it’s fun to do things differently sometimes. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I’ll get carried away, and write far too much… well, here are the four books, in date order. Apologies for the accidental misquotation in the sketch today… I only noticed afterwards!
Canon in Residence – V.L. Whitechurch (1904)
This was surprisingly brilliant. Rev. John Smith on a continental holiday encounters a stranger who tells him that he’d see more of human life if he adopted layman’s clothes. Smith thinks the advice somewhat silly, but has no choice – as, during the night, the stranger swaps their outfits. Smith goes through the rest of his holiday in somewhat garish clothing, meeting one of those ebullient, witty girls with which Edwardian novels abound. A letter arrives telling him that he has been made canon of a cathedral town – where this girl also lives (of course!) He makes good his escape, and hopes she won’t recognise him…
Once in his position as canon, Smith’s new outlook on life leads to a somewhat socialist theology – improving housing for the poor, and other similar principles which are definitely Biblical, but not approved of by the gossiping, snobbish inhabitants of the Cathedral Close. As a Christian and the son of a vicar, I found this novel fascinating (you can tell that Whitechurch was himself a vicar) but I don’t think one would need to have faith to love this. It’s very funny as well as sensitive and thoughtful; John Smith is a very endearing hero. It all felt very relevant for 2012. And there’s even a bit of a criminal court case towards the end.
Three Marriages – E.M. Delafield (1939)
Delafield collects together three novellas, each telling the tale of a courtship and marriage, showing how things change across years: they are set in 1857, 1897, and 1937. Each deals with people who fall in love too late, once they (or their loved one) has already got married to somebody else. The surrounding issues are all pertinent to their respective periods. In 1897, and ‘Girl-of-the-Period’, Violet Cumberledge believes herself to be a New Woman who is entirely above anything so sentimental as emotional attachments – and, of course, realises too late that she is wrnog. In 1937 (‘We Meant To Be Happy’) Cathleen Christmas marries the first man who asks, because she fears becoming one of so many ‘surplus women’ – only later she falls in love with the doctor. But the most interesting story is the first – ‘The Marriage of Rose Barlow’. It’s rather brilliant, and completely unexpected from the pen of Delafield. Rose Barlow is very young when she is betrothed to her much older cousin – the opening line of the novel is, to paraphrase without a copy to hand, ‘The night before her wedding, Rose Barlow put her dolls to bed as she always had done.’ Once married, they go off to India together. If you know a lot more about the history of India than I do, then the date 1857 might have alerted you to the main event of the novella – the Sepoy Rebellion. A fairly calm tale of unequal marriage becomes a very dramatic, even gory, narrative about trying to escape a massacre. A million miles from what I’d expect from Delafield – but incredibly well written and compelling.
Miss Plum and Miss Penny – Dorothy Evelyn Smith (1959)
Miss Penny, a genteel spinster living with her cook/companion Ada, encounters Miss Plum in the act of (supposedly) attempting suicide in a duckpond. Miss Penny ‘rescues’ Miss Plum and invites her into her home. (Pronouns are tricky; I assume you can work out what I mean.) It looks rather as though Miss Plum might have her own devious motives for these actions… but I found the characters very inconsistent, and the plot rather scattergun. There are three men circling these women, whose intentions and affections vary a fair bit; there are some terribly cringe-worthy, unrealistic scenes of a vicar trying to get closer to his teenage son. It was a fun read, and not badly written, but Dorothy Evelyn Smith doesn’t seem to have put much effort into organising narrative arcs or creating any sort of continuity. But diverting enough, and certainly worth an uncritical read.
The Shooting Party – Isabel Colegate (1980)
Oh dear. Like a lot of people, I suspect, I rushed out to borrow a copy of The Shooting Party after reading Rachel’s incredibly enthusiastic review. Go and check it out for details of the premise and plot. I shall just say that, sadly, I found it rather ho-hum… perhaps even a little boring. The characters all seemed too similar to me, and I didn’t much care what happened. Even though it’s a short novel, it dragged for me, and the climax was, erm, anti-climactic. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps my tolerance for historical novels (albeit looking back only sixty or seventy years) is too low. Sorry, Rachel!