Tea or Books? #38: male characters by women vs female characters by men, and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont vs At The Jerusalem

Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Bailey, and a bit of a debate about male and female characters. Here’s episode 38 – which is unusually short, but hopefully fun nonetheless. I’ve left in an amusing moment of drama…


Tea or Books logoMany thanks to Kaisha for suggesting men written by women vs women written by me – we had fun discussing it, and very much welcome everybody’s feedback. For the second half, we debate two books about old people’s homes – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor and At The Jerusalem by Paul Bailey, which have a sort-of connection that readers of Virago Modern Classics introductions might have cottoned on to.

Do let us know any topics you’d like us to discuss – and which you’d pick from each category. Check out our iTunes page over here – ratings and reviews through iTunes or podcast apps always much appreciated. And hopefully we’ll back with a special guest next time…

Books and authors we mention in this episode are as follows…

The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells
Ann Veronica by H.G. Wells
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Don’t Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford
Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Pamela by Samuel Richardson
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
Ian McEwan
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Mrs Harris series by Paul Gallico
Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Provincial Lady series by E.M. Delafield
Ian and Felicity by Denis Mackail
Charles Dickens
Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli
Adam Bede by George Eliot
The Professor by Charlotte Bronte
Shirley by Charlotte Bronte
Elizabeth Gaskell
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
V.S. Naipaul
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
At The Jerusalem by Paul Bailey
Ivy Compton-Burnett
Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster

8 things I learned by writing a poem every day of Lent

I’ve been meaning to write a post since Lent ended – because I achieved my aim, of writing a poem every day during Lent! Some were definitely hastily written at 11.30pm – witness my only haiku – but there are quite a few I’m pleased with, and it was a good experiment (albeit one I was glad to finish). I feel like it got me more into the habit of writing, as well as showing me where I need to learn more about poetry.

Lent poetry book

And here are eight things I learned – as well as a list of all the titles, because that seems quite fun to me. I love titles, me.

1.) There don’t seem to be as many poetic forms as I thought

One fun thing was trying my hand at a variety of poetic forms – and I think I ended up liking these more disciplined poems most. I wrote a sestina, two sonnets, a villanelle, a triolet, found poetry (using a recipe book), and the aforementioned haiku. I even wrote a limerick in French. (It is important to note that I don’t speak French.)

But I found it difficult to track down many more types of poetic form – beyond a dozen variants of the haiku.

2.) I made up some forms

I daresay I’m not the first to do these – but I play around a bit. I took all the words of ‘Nurse’s Song’ by William Blake (from Songs of Experience) and rearranged them to make a different poem. I took one of my poems and put it through Chinese Google Translate three times to make a different poem. Less experimentally, I kept returning to an abcdc rhyme scheme, which I liked (and which I used on day one).

3.) Free verse were my cheat days

This is absolutely not what free verse should be, I know, but when it was the form I turned to when I wanted to write a poem quickly. My apologies to proper poets.

4.) RhymeZone and Oxford Dictionaries Thesaurus became among my most-visited sites on my phone

I spent so much time on these, trying to find a synonym that had the right stresses, or a word that rhymed with ‘own’.

5.) My favourite poems meant something

Reading them over, it’s the most personal poems that I like best – though I can’t decide if that’s because they mean the most, or because I wrote better when they hit closest to home.

6.) It’s hard not to be earnest

I wrote a few comic verses, and enjoyed it, but I always seemed to be far too earnest as soon as I picked up the pen. Which is annoying, because I try to keep a light, witty element in almost any prose I write (“Does he?” you ask) and I need to remove that block.

7.) Poetry Prompts was useful

Poetry Prompts is a handy Tumblr which I often flicked through when I was out of ideas – and it would often give me an idea for a line or image, even if it didn’t end up being the theme of the whole poem.

8.) It’s way more fun than giving up chocolate


And here are all the titles I wrote over the 46 days of Lent:

  1. Beginning
  2. The Man Who Loved Virginia Woolf Too Much
  3. A Rope at Chawton
  4. February Sonnet
  5. Hands
  6. The Best Laid Plans
  7. Mirror in the Attic: a Sestina
  8. Chickens and Hens
  9. On the Surprise of the Inevitable
  10. Ellen
  11. John and Joan Were Off to the Coast
  12. Morning
  13. Needs Must
  14. Defeat
  15. The Three Little Pigs
  16. Crumb
  17. 8pm Phone Call
  18. Goldilocks: Philosopher
  19. As Brittle as She Was
  20. She
  21. World Poetry Day
  22. No Regrets
  23. Westminster Bridge, March 2017
  24. My Personal Blitz
  25. She Wears Pearls to the Supermarket
  26. Frowning
  27. Unbliss
  28. Innocence From Experience
  29. At a Wedding
  30. Burn all the Candles
  31. Still Life
  32. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  33. In Translation
  34. Coffee Shop Limbo
  35. On Being a Bad Poet Because of the Theatre
  36. Piano Lessons
  37. Coffee Shop Limbo (2)
  38. Certain Women
  39. Une erreur poétique
  40. Good Things (A Villanelle)
  41. In Translation in Translation
  42. Do Poets Ever Smile?
  43. Railway Station Triolet
  44. Sundial
  45. Good Friday
  46. Split Ends

A Pin To See The Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse

A Pin To See The PeepshowAs promised when I wrote about E.M. Delafield’s novel Messalina of the Suburbs, I also wanted to write a review of the other book we discussed in our recent podcast episode (check out Rachel’s review) – two novels based on the same murder. F Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin To See The Peepshow was published ten years later than Delafield’s novel – and 12 years after the murder itself – and is, in many ways, strikingly different. It’s also extremely good.

Julia Almond is the name that Jesse adopts for the Edith Thompson character (despite a peculiarly disingenuous note at outset suggesting that ‘every character in this book is entirely fictitious, and no reference whatever is intended to any living person’). She lives with her mother in a working-class area, and is poor and a little neglected. Here the similarities with Delafield’s treatment of the character end – for Julia is entirely out of place in her background.

She is very intelligent and sensitive, artistically-minded and the prize of her class. If Delafield’s character spoke like the woman behind the tea counter in Brief Encounter, Julia is every atom Celia Johnson. Throughout the whole novel, people speak of her as being extremely special and unusual; a butterfly who should not be crushed on a wheel. It’s a curious decision on Jesse’s part – it works, but it lionises the Thompson/Bywater case into something that perhaps it was not.

For the same pathway is trod in this book as in the other – in essentials, at least. Julia marries older, respectable, boring Herbert. It is partly for security, partly to get away from home (which her interfering female cousin has invaded), and partly because she has already felt the pain of love when it is dashed: Jesse invents a beau who is killed in war. But where Delafield made the husband an ogre, Herbert is much harder to dislike. Julia does not find him interesting or attractive, and makes this clear to him – not wanting to hurt him, but holding him to an agreement they made before, that they needn’t share a bed when married. Once the ring is on her finger, he thinks this was a silliness that they needn’t keep to. Both are realistic, relatively sympathetic portraits of people locked in an unhappy marriage.

Parallel with this storyline is one I found equally interesting – Julia’s rise in the shop world. The real Edith did work in a shop, and it was really captivating to see how Julia’s affinity for style and design found a home in this world. Jesse does a great job of giving all the different staff members fully-realised characters, and if Julia’s rise through the ranks is a little Cinderella-esque, then it also gives us the chance to travel with her to Paris catwalks.

And along comes Leonard. It’s not actually the first time we meet him (more on that later), but he comes back into her life: a younger, handsome, beguiling man. It isn’t long before Julia and Leonard are having an affair – and Julia has given her heart to him, writing him letters which reveal too much, and planning out a future for the two of them that cannot happen while Herbert is still married to her. Leonard is drawn brilliantly – making the reader uneasy and suspicious even while we see him through Julia’s loved-up rose-tinted glasses.

And, of course… Herbert is killed by Leonard, in a drunken rage. Like Delafield, Jesse paints an innocent portrait of Julia – innocent of murder at least. But, where Delafield finishes her novel before the story is over, Jesse takes us to prison with Julia – through the appeals and the desperation and to the final denouement – though I shan’t spoil what this is. By carrying on in this way, Jesse builds a really complex psychological portrait. Her novel isn’t quite the page-turner that Delafield’s is, but it is much more nuanced – Jesse has put far more emphasis on depiction of character, though there is still plenty of drama and sensation too. It’s rather a masterclass in how to take a real story and turn into a novel – one which must include plenty of supposition and elaboration, but with such bravado that you don’t feel you can question it without damaging a beautiful construction.

And Leonard? He first turns up as a child at school, where Julia is a slightly older child. He has a toy peepshow that she is intrigued to see (slightly ashamed, for she might be too old for that); she must give a pin in payment to look at it, because the children have started ‘a purely arbitrary rite decreed by fashion’ of collecting pins.

And at once, sixteen-year-old, worldly-wise London Julia ceased to be, and a child – an enchanted child – was looking into a fairyland.

The floor of the box was covered with cotton-wool, and a frosting of sugar sprinkled over it. Light came into the box from the red-covered window at the far end, so that a rosy glow as of sunset lay over the sparkling snow. Here and there little brightly-coloured men and women, children and animals of cardboard, conversed or walked about. A cottage, flanked by a couple of fir trees, cut from an advertisement of some pine-derivative cough cure, which Julia saw every day in the newspaper, gave an extraordinary impression of reality and of distance. This little rose-tinted snow scene was at once amazingly real and utterly unearthly. Everything was just the wrong size – a child was larger than a grown man, a duck was larger than a horse; a bird, hanging from the sky on a thread, loomed like a cloud. It was a mad world, compact of insane proportions, but lit by a strange glamour. The walls and lid of the box gave to it the sense of distance that a frame gives to a picture, sending it backwards into another space. Julia stared into the peepshow, and it was though she gazed into the depths of a complete and self-contained world, where she would go clad in snow-shoes and furs, and be able to tame savage huskies and shoot bears; a world of chill pallor, of an illimitable white sky, both only saved from a cruel rigour by the rosy all-pervading light.

Firstly – what a great paragraph. Secondly – it’s interesting that Jesse chose this image for the title of her novel. It’s a curious novel, and presumably this moment is supposed to illustrate much more. It could be lots of things – showing Julia’s rich sense of fantasy life? Her blurring of reality and illusion? Her own eventual status as a spectacle for the watching world? I’m not sure – perhaps all. It’s an element of mystery that seems to sew the novel together – into a rich, enticing, and detailed portrait of a person who (fittingly) can’t quite reflect the real Edith Thompson. Jesse, too, has overlapped fantasy and reality until you can no longer see the seams,

Stuck in a Book’s Weekend Miscellany

I’m off to Mottisfont by the time you read this (or, indeed, I may well have come back and we’ve carried on with our lives) – there’s an exhibition of Rex Whistler art that I’m excited about seeing. But that doesn’t mean that I’ll leave you miscellaniless (yes, it’s a word).

1.) The blog post – do see Kaggsy’s round up of the 1951 Club. And we’ve picked our next club year! Actually – you’ve chosen it: in the comments on our round ups, 1968 got the most votes. So, 23-29 October 2017 will be the #1968club! I’m already excited about it, as it seems (somewhat to my surprise) that I have lots of books from 1968 that I want to read. Maybe I’m not quite such an interwar-reader as I thought?

2.) The book – is by Will Rycroft. Will – erstwhile blogger, Waterstones employee, actor, and generally lovely bloke – has written about his experiences performing in War Horse, with the excellent title All Quiet on the West-End Front. It’s with Unbound – in case you’re unfamiliar with the format, it’s a crowd-funding publishing house. To find out more about the book, and look into funding options if you’re interested, head over to Unbound.

3.) The link – treat yourself to a video of a grammar/punctuation vigilante. My brother Colin and my friend Mel both live in Bristol and love good grammar, but promise it wasn’t them.

Tea or Books? #37: does studying books ruin them? and A View From the Bridge vs Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and schooldays – we’ve got it all in episode 37 (depending on your definition of ‘all’).

Tea or Books logoIn the first half of this episode, we meander around the topic of whether or not studying a book at school ruins them for us. The topic was suggested by Karen (thanks Karen!) and it was really fun to discuss from the perspective of student and teacher. We got a bit preoccupied by Shakespeare, but that’s true of all the best of people.

Rachel and I went to see an amazing production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter theatre – tickets here! – and it inspired us to compare it with Arthur Miller’s play from around the same time, A View From the Bridge.

Check out our iTunes page, listen above or via your podcast app of choice, rate and review if you so wish, and send us any suggestions you have for future episodes! Thanks for those who tweeted their responses to our school question.

The books and authors we mention in this episode are:

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
Richard Yates
Wallace Stegner
William Maxwell
Alice Munro
Gossip From Thrush Green by Miss Read
Dorothy Whipple
Fairacres series by Miss Read
Richmal Crompton
Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols
E.F. Benson
A Case of Human Bondage by Beverley Nichols
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
The Three Sisters by May Sinclair
Pink Sugar by O. Douglas
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Emma by Jane Austen
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
The House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert DeJong
Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee
Beloved by Toni Morrison
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
All My Sons by Arthur Miller
Noel Coward
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
At The Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

A #1951Club wrap-up (and where next?)

1951 ClubI hope you’ve all enjoyed the 1951 Club – and Easter. I know that I’ve really enjoyed both – it’s always so fun to see people reading such different titles across the blogosphere and elsewhere, and it’s also fun when a smaller group band together to read the same title, as happened on Instagram with My Cousin Rachel. So many reviews and different authors – thank you! Between us, we’ve built up a complex and interesting picture of 1951.

I’ve been so busy this week that I haven’t had time to seek out and round up the reviews – so I’m doing that now. Below are all the reviews I could find – if you’ve written one and I haven’t found it, let me know!

Next time – in October, we’ll be doing this all again with a year from the 1960s. Karen and I would like your suggestions – so, if you have a particular one to advocate for, let us know which year and why. We’ll put our heads together and make a choice soon.

The Loved and Envied by Enid Bagnold
Leaves and Pages

The Street by Dorothy Baker
Stuck in a Book

A Grave Case of Murder by Roger Bax
My Reader’s Block

Molloy by Samuel Beckett
Recent Items
The Bookbinder’s Daughter

Where were you, Adam? by Heinrich Böll
Lizzy Siddal

The Glass Harp by Truman Capote
Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie
Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings
Monica’s Bookish Life
She Reads Novels

Darkness and Day by Ivy Compton-Burnett
Stuck in a Book

Come In Spinner by Dymphna Cusack & Florence James
Words and Leaves

Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies
Consumed by Ink

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
Lizzy Siddal
Bag Full of Books
The Emerald City Book Review
Teereads on Instagram

The Quarry by Friedrich Durrenmatt
Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert
I Prefer Reading

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Annabel’s House of Books

The Well at the World’s End by Neil Gunn
1st Reading

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein
Booked For Life

The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer
I Prefer Reading
Desperate Reader

Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer
She Reads Novels

Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson
What Me Read
Intermittencies of the Mind

The Age of Longing by Arthur Koestler
Lesser-Known Gems

Murder Comes Front by Frances & Richard Lockridge
My Reader’s Block

A Mouse is Born by Anita Loos
Lesser-Known Gems

I Could Murder Her by E.C.R. Lorac
My Reader’s Block

The Woman Surgeon by L Martindale
Briefer Than Literal Statement

School for Love by Olivia Manning
Jacqui Wine’s Journal
Stuck in a Book
Books and Chocolate

Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh
Stuck in a Book

Forbidden Colours by Yukio Mishima
Lesser-Known Gems

The Devil’s Elbow by Gladys Mitchell
Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

The Blessing by Nancy Mitford
Pining for the West

The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat
My Bookstrings

Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols
Stuck in a  Book

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes ed. Iona and Peter Opie
Kate Macdonald

Lost Children by Edith Pargeter
Briefer Than Literal Statement

A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell
Hard Book Habit

Fabia by Olive Higgins Prouty
Joie de Livre 

The Sunday of Life by Raymond Queneau
Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Memories of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge
Lesser Known Gems
Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Lise Lillywhite by Margery Sharp
Beyond Eden Rock

Maigret’s Memoirs by Simenon
Lizzy Siddal

Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife by Simenon
Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

The Teahouse of the August Moon by Vern Sneider
Bookprint on Instagram

The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck
Ink Stains on a Reader’s Blog

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
Harriet Devine
Madame Bibilophile Recommends
The Blank Garden
The Indextrious Reader
The Book Satchel

All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
Staircase Wit

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
Harriet Devine
Lady Fancifull

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
Intermittencies of the Mind

The Invisible Collection & Buchmendel by Stefan Zweig
Desperate Reader



Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols – #1951Club

Merry HallAnd so we come to the end of the 1951 Club – what fun it has been (even though I think I might do most of my catching-up with it after the week is over – again, why on earth did we decide on Easter week?!) – and I’ve saved my favourite book of the week til last. It’s the entirely, utterly, scrumptiously delightful Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols.

I had planned to start writing this review by saying that I’d never read a book by Beverley Nichols, but discovered – while looking through my review list for other 1951 books – that, a handful of years ago, I read and reviewed a selection of essays he wrote with Monica Dickens. How embarrassing that I remember none of this. So, to all intents and purposes, this is my first Beverley Nichols book.

Which isn’t to say he’s new to me. I’ve long believed that I would love his books – and huge numbers of people whose views I trust wholeheartedly have vouched for him. I’m in the happy position of owning another 12 books by him, bought over the past 13 years (!), with this belief firmly in mind – which has, happily, been entirely justified.

Merry Hall is the first book in a trilogy (I am already well under way in the sequel, Laughter on the Stairs) about Nichols buying and doing up a Georgian house with several acres of garden and woodland. It’s non-fiction, presumably heavily tinged with fiction, and it is – well, I am going to use the word ‘delight’ a lot in this review, I can sense.

It begins with house hunting. When I am not having to do it myself, I adore house hunting, and will read any length of it – though, in Merry Hall, it doesn’t last very long. Money is clearly no object, and Nichols buys this substantial property in more or less a trice.

Most of the book examines the plants and planting arrangements that Nichols decides upon, with Oldfield his gardener, and I thoroughly enjoyed it while often not really understanding it. My knowledge of flowers and plants is nil, and I got less from this than somebody more practically-minded might have done. As such, I’ll mostly write about the rest – because there is just as much to love about Merry Hall for those who don’t have green fingers.

It was previously owned by Mr and Mrs Stebbings, and (before that) the Doves – known as the Doovz to the broad-accented, old, and extremely talented Oldfield. Nichols takes an immediate and long-lasting position of loathing to Mr Stebbings, who apparently did every single wrong with house and garden, from planting elm trees – how Nichols would have welcomed Dutch elms disease! – to his choice of wallpaper. (In Merry Hall, he focuses almost entirely on the garden – Laughter on the Stairs looks at the house.) This is a keynote of Nichols’ writing – he is very, very sure of his own taste, and very, very dismissive of anybody else’s. Luckily, he does it in a very, very amusing fashion.

Mr Stebbings has passed on to a better place, but he has an acolyte remaining in the area: Miss Emily. One hopes – for his sake and for hers – that there was no prototype for Miss Emily – or, if there was, that she is sufficiently altered in these pages so as not to recognise herself. In fact, the edition I’m reading was published for The Companion Book Club in 1953 and, rather delightfully, still has the little pamphlet with which it was initially distributed – and, in that, Nichols writes ‘where the female characters are concerned, I have naturally been obliged to invent a few elementary disguises, which are familiar to all authors who wish to avoid libel actions’.

Miss Emily is ‘one big flinch’ – she pops up regularly at Merry Hall, disparaging everything Nichols has introduced and lamenting every element of Stebbings that has been removed. Nichols can’t stand the sight of her, but she is always there – along with her friend Rose, apparently a note flower arranger, who tortures flowers out of their original shape – much to Nichols’ discuss. Terrible person that I am, my favourite moments in the book were when Nichols talks about how appalling he finds this pair – and is similarly wittily irate about a succession of labourers who do not labour. Of course, he wouldn’t dream of doing any of the hard work himself. (Curiously, he is much nicer about Emily and Rose in the sequel – I wonder if locals recognised themselves and threatened action??)

Nichols is everything one expects of a rich, creative, aesthetically-minded gent – albeit maybe more usual in one of the 1920s than the 1950s. Here’s a representative sample of his thoughts:

It is the same when you are furnishing a house. If you have only just enough money to buy a bed, a chair, a table and a soup-plate, you should buy none of these squalid objects; you should immediately pay the first instalment on a Steinway grand. Why? Because the aforesaid squalidities are essentials, and essentials have a peculiar was, somehow or other, of providing for themselves. ‘Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’… that is the meanest, drabbest little axiom that ever poisoned the mind of youth. People who look after pennies deserve all they get. All they get is more pennies.

While I don’t agree with Nichols’ politics or his cheerful snobbery – though neither of these things stop me loving every moment of the book – there is one area in which I am in wholehearted agreement with him. I don’t think anybody has ever written as wonderfully about cats.

Nichols has two cats – One and Four. These whimsical names supposedly come from the idea that he would have 100 cats over the rest of his life. One is Siamese (the second Siamese of the 1951 Club!) and Four is a black cat, and he writes beautifully about their character and mannerisms, with every bit of the devotion that cats deserve. They weave in and out of the narrative, and won my heart completely.

There is so much I would like to say about this book, but I have already written quite a bit – and I suspect I’ll be writing more about Nichols often over the years. Basically, this is a very funny, very charming book that reminded me a lot of A.A. Milne’s Edwardian stories. It probably says quite a lot about me that my favourite 1951 Club book is completely anachronistic – but I will say to anybody who has yet to read Beverley Nichols: don’t be like me and put it off for a decade; read something by him immediately.

The Street by Dorothy Baker – #1951Club

1951 ClubYou might well know the name Dorothy Baker. A few of us read Young Man With a Horn for the 1938 Club, and Cassandra at the Wedding is another well-known book by her. And, when I saw The Street in 2011, it was Baker’s name that rang a bell – though, at that point, I hadn’t read her.

Here’s the curious thing. I think I’d suspected this before, but without confirming it – this Dorothy Baker is a different Dorothy Baker. While the famous one wrote about quirky things in America, The Street is about the working classes in the Black Country. I’ve dug around but not managed to find out much about this Dorothy Baker – except that she is, according to a library catalogue, connected with the BBC. Very mysterious, and something I’d forgotten to investigate until after I’d put it in my pile for the 1951 Club.

So, having read four extremely good books for the 1951 Club (one to be reviewed tomorrow), it’s about right that this one should only be OK. It’s certainly not a dud – but it’s very novel-by-numbers.

It’s all about Dora – a kind, anxious, emotional young girl living with her grandparents, having been more or less deposited on them by feckless (but slightly glamorous) parents. They’ve kept her three siblings, who never emerge from the shadows of the novel, but this unusual situation is never really alluded to – instead, Dora’s parents exist as occasional threats that she might be torn away from her life on the street.

While the novel is called The Street, we don’t see all that much outside of Dora’s grandparents’ house, and her school. And I think Baker fondly believes she has captured a snapshot of working-class life – which I absolutely can’t believe she has. There is the occasional moment of drunkenness thrown in to show ‘real life’, and poverty which demonstrates itself only in the miserly whinging of various passing uncles, but the characters mostly speak in the anonymous tones of middle-class stock characters. It could very easily have been a provincial house party.

The writing certainly isn’t bad – each scene is engaging, if a little earnest at times – but what holds The Street back from being a very good novel is the lack of momentum in it. There is something of a plot, mostly around the deaths and marriages of Dora’s relatives and her own (rather naive) budding into early adulthood, but not much pulls the reader through the novel. It wasn’t a chore to read by any means, but I would also quite happily have given up at any juncture without any real curiosity about what happened next.

We need light and shade, don’t we? It’s just as well that I didn’t get too exaggerated a view of 1951’s merits – consider this a slight lull before, tomorrow, I finish the week with my favourite of all five.

Darkness and Day by Ivy Compton-Burnett – #1951Club

Darkness and DayWhen we chose 1951, I was mostly excited that I could finally read an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel for a club outing. I’ve mostly been reading authors and books that I’ve long meant to get around to (which has been lovely), but I also treated myself to what I think is my 10th Ivy Compton-Burnett novel. I’ve got to the stage where I can’t remember which I’ve read and which I haven’t – because all the titles are the same. You’ll see what I mean when you see a sample of the ones I’ve read: Parents and Children, Mother and Son, Elders and Betters, A House and Its Head, A Heritage and Its History. Have I read A Father and His Fate? A God and His Gifts? I don’t know.

Her 1951 novel is Darkness and Day, which is the last of her novels that I bought (I have them all, except her first novel, Dolores – which I thought was impossible to find, but apparently the 1971 reprint is widely available). It starts off with a much smaller cast than I’d anticipated – just Sir Ransom Chance (what a name!), his daughters Anne and Emma, the servant Mrs Jennet, and the housekeeper/companion/dogsbody Miss Hallam. Anne and Emma could be considered the darkness and day of the title (though this later has myriad interpretations): the older sister is cynical and selfish; the younger is selfless and kind. The scene is a deliciously odd debate between servant and master as to whose place in life is better:

“I envy you, Jennet,” said Sir Ransom. “Because it is the proper thing to envy people placed as you are. Not because I really do.”

“Well, I shouldn’t expect it.”

“Do you envy me? That is not the proper thing. But tell me if you do.”

“Not on every count, Sir Ransom.”

“You mean you have longer to live. Why do people always think of age? Or why do they ever think of anything else? I often wonder why I do. Perhaps I don’t.”

“Well, I have the advantage of thirty years there.”

“Jennet, we do not talk of our advantage over people.”

“It is not a thing I can often do. I am not in danger of the habit.”

But we end up seeing surprisingly little of them – the cast gets much wider when we move to another house.

Like all Compton-Burnett’s novels, this one is set in late Victorian opulence. The families live in enormous houses, usually with a big household staff – and the house down the road is one such. The second son of the house is returning home, bringing his wife Bridget and two young daughters, Viola and Rose. They bring with them a secret; one that led to them leaving, and which has blighted their lives.

Some people say that nothing happens in Compton-Burnett’s novels. Well, I defy any novel to match this one for plot and twists – which I shan’t spoil here – and it ties together many different characters in an unlikely but satisfying way. What makes ICB’s novel so unusual is that it takes you a while to work out what the bombshell is. In a swirl of people correcting each other and talking about the inconsequential, the bomb is dropped, almost in passing. And several characters see their world in a whole new light – the darkness and day here represent ignorance and enlightenment, as is made (sort-of) explicit in the text.

What can I say about Compton-Burnett’s writing that I haven’t said before? This novel has the same unique, love-it-or-hate-it style of all her others. It’s mostly dialogue, there is a lot of pernickety arguing, and it is (if you like it) very funny indeed. The keynote of a Compton-Burnett novel, I realise, is that there is no such thing as an acknowledged truth. Whether it is a maxim or an attitude or what, no character will allow an assumption to stand unchecked – instead, it is passed around the characters until it is unrecognisable.

This is true (as always with ICB) with characters of any age or strata. The servants, the masters, and the children will all debate and analyse in the most highbrow words imaginable, and my favourite sections were when Miss Hallam attempts to be a governess to Viola and Rose. She approaches the task with affected good humour and gentleness; they meet it with stony independence and a refusal to take anything at face value. It is very, very funny.

“Are you painting?” she said, in a tone of pleasant interest.

“Well, you can see we are,” said Rose.

“Yes, I can. It was a useless question, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was.”

“But I am afraid painting is not lessons.”

“Of course it is not, or we shouldn’t have been doing it before you came.”

“Well, you don’t want to do it now I am here.”

“We do want to,” said Viola.

“I mean that I cannot let you do it.”

“You did not say what you meant.”

“How can you prevent us?” said Rose, continuing her work.

“I am not going to prevent you. I am going to ask you to put away your painting things, and I am sure you will.”

This confidence was not justified and the minutes passed.

How did this stack up against other ICB novels? Well, besides the slightly uneven apportioning of time spent with characters – it felt odd to kick off with several characters that we barely saw again until much later in the novel – I thought that Darkness and Day was fantastic. It’s not worth especially tracking this one down, though, because all her novels are pretty much the same – which does make me feel a bit of a fraud for including it in the 1951 Club. Yes, it was published in 1951, but Ivy Compton-Burnett paid absolutely zero heed to the changing fashions of writing, and continued writing in exactly the same way for forty years. Sorry for cheating – but I couldn’t resist.

Other books from 1951 for the #1951club

I will be catching up with rounding up reviews soon – sorry I’ve had rather a hectic week! – but I also wanted to do a post about other books I’ve read 1951. Where there are links, they lead to review, but I haven’t written about all of them. (Still three more reviews to come from me this week, hopefully!)

1951 Club

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Quite a few people are reading this one, and I think it’s brilliant – you can hear Rachel and me talk about it in an episode of Tea or Books? that is, I should warn you, rather spoilery.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

His books are all so different – well, that’s true of the four I’ve read – but this story about an affair and the person observing it is heartbreaking and brilliant.

Here’s How by Virginia Graham

I love both Say Please and Here’s How by Virginia Graham – this is a faux instruction manual for everything under the sun, from how to play the piano to how to plumb. Follow that link for some hilarious examples!

They Came To Baghdad by Agatha Christie

I never hate an Agatha, but I will say that They Came To Baghdad is pretty far down my list… it’s one of her novels where she doesn’t concentrate on a domestic scene, and it all gets a bit overblown and silly for my liking.

Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

Her second novel, and perhaps her oddest – not really in terms of what happened, but in her rather disjointed prose style. It makes for very interesting reading, particularly if aligned with her biography, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a good place to start!

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

My review is very short, and suffers from the odd quotation formatting that all my old reviews got when I moved to WordPress – but I remember struggling with the first half of this novel, then getting it, and then being wildly impressed by the writing.

My Turn To Make The Tea by Monica Dickens

The third in her autobiographical series – she is a journalist, and she is funny about it, but it doesn’t live up to One Pair of Hands or One Pair of Feet, where she writes about her time as a cook and a nurse respectively.

The Letters of Elizabeth Myers

Elizabeth Myers was married to one of the Powys brothers, and I really loved this collection of letters that I picked up as a whim. She died young – in her 40s, I think – and the book is organised by correspondent, so you have to keep coming up against her death. It’s oddly poignant.

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It turns out I own more than thirty books from 1951, and I’ve quite a few unread – but, from the ones I have read and am reading, it turns out it’s a rather intriguing year with plenty of gems. And the 1951 Club keeps bringing up more!