The disturbing popularity of The Sheik

My latest audiobook from Librivox was The Sheik (1919) by E.M. Hull, and it was a fascinating experience – and not only because I discovered that some people say ‘sheek’ rather than ‘shake’. (The recording was done by a group of people, taking different chapters, and an especial hat nod must go to M.J. Franck who is a brilliant reader.)

If you’ve done any reading about popular fiction in the early decades of the 20th century, you’ll have read about The Sheik. It was an enormous bestseller (selling over a million copies even before the silent film with Rudolph Valentino was released – which, incidentally, you can watch on YouTube). It kicked off a whole new lease of life for desert noir, or whatever they were calling it. And I’m pretty sure that almost nobody reads it nowadays.

I listened to it entirely out of my interest in literary history – not for the novel itself. You’ll understand why the more I explain, if you don’t already know about the novel. And this blog post will have spoilers, because I’m not expecting anybody to read The Sheik. Indeed, I urge you not to read it.

The novel tells of Diana Mayo, an independently-minded young woman who doesn’t want to kowtow to society’s restrictions. She’s not interested in romance or marriage, but instead wants to go exploring on her own – to the concern of her decadent brother. Indeed, she is rather an admirable and refreshing character. Against her brother’s advice, she sets out into the desert with some locals to guide her… and is ambushed. Some of the men are shot. And she is kidnapped by ‘the sheik’. There is rather a lot about how strong he is, and about how his strong arm pushes her strongly against his strong chest. He’s strong, in case that was too subtle.

The sheik is Ahmed Ben Hassan. And he has not intention of letting her go now that he has her. Indeed, between the second and third chapters he rapes her. He continues to rape her every day for several weeks – this is 1919; we don’t see those scenes, but we do get lots of scenes of him looking cruelly at her, laughing cruelly, smiling cruelly etc. Hull goes in for iterated statements.

And throughout all of this, Hull is crazy racist. Lots of sweeping statements are made about “the Arabs” and their supposed disregard for mercy. A lot of her horror seems to come as much from having had sex with “an Arab” as from being raped – though the word ‘rape’ is never used. It’s all pretty unpleasant.

It gets worse.

One day, out riding, she manages to escape. Long story short, she doesn’t get super far until Ahmed Ben Hassan catches up with her and makes her come back to his camp. And… she realises that she is in love with him. I knew this was coming, but I still shouted at the car radio when it happened. I think this brief excerpt sums up everything I hated about the plot of the novel:

Her heart was given for all time to the fierce desert man who was so different from all other men whom she had met, a lawless savage who had taken her to satisfy a passing fancy and who had treated her with merciless cruelty. He was a brute, but she loved him, loved him for his very brutality and superb animal strength. And he was an Arab!

I had thought it might be more like Pamela, where the power of her virtue forces him to repent – but, no, she is the one who changes to be his object. And – skipping forward a few chapters – phew, it turns out he’s actually European after all, so all’s well that ends well.

Hull writes surprisingly well and engagingly, and I’d enjoy reading her in an entirely different sphere – it doesn’t make much of a difference what a writing style is like when it’s about this. My main surprise – as with when Fifty Shades of Grey became so popular – is that so many people had this… taste? fetish? fantasy? Apparently in 1919 this passed for acceptable reading – unless all the millions of copies were read in secret, of course. It’s telling that, in the film, the sheik only thinks about raping her, but doesn’t actually do it.

I’ve no idea what E.M. Hull’s other novels are like (though I don’t hold out hopes for The Son of the Sheik), and I don’t think I’ll explore any further. This dip back a century has confirmed my worst fears from reading about the novel – and painted rather a disturbing picture of what was de rigueur in 1919.

The Osbornes by E.F. Benson

I’ve been off for a week in a beautiful chateau in the Loire Valley – this one, to be precise, in case you want to follow suit – though I left a couple of scheduled posts to tide me over. There were 17 of us, most of whom I’d only met a few times or not at all – but it was such a wonderful week. Beautiful surroundings, wonderful people, lots of fun, and lots of reading. I read four books in the five days we were there (because the first and last days were basically all driving) and one of those was The Osbornes (1910) by E.F. Benson.

The Osbournes

This is only the third book I’ve read by E.F. Benson that falls outside the excellent Mapp and Lucia series (which I’ve read twice). My shelves have plenty of his books on them, though, and I’d decided to stop buying them until I’d sampled some more – and loved Daisy’s Aunt around this time last year. Unintentionally, I picked a novel from the same year – yes, he had three novels published in 1910; check out his Wikipedia page to see how astonishingly prolific he was. Even more astonishing, both novels are really rather good.

The Osbornes considers a question that has echoed throughout English literary history almost from when it began: what happens when you love outside your own class? From Pamela to Lady Chatterley’s Lover and onwards, this topic has (in its different forms) been a peculiarly English preoccupation. And it is at the forefront of The Osbornes, where Dora falls in love with the Adonis-like Claude. Claude’s family is the Osbornes of the title – nouveau riche, and not ‘quite quite’.

Nobody disputes that he and his family are kind and good, but their money has not brought them a sense of what is right to say and what is not. Not that they have come from the gutter; Claude went to Eton and Cambridge, and the list of things that Dora’s family object to make for rather mysterious reading, over a century since the novel was written. Here is Dora’s (selfish, grabbing) brother on the topic of Claude:

“I think Claude has masses of good points: he simply bristles with them, but he gives one such shocks. He goes on swimmingly for a time, and then suddenly says that somebody is ‘noble-looking’, or that the carpet is ‘tasteful’ or ‘superior’.”

It’s not exactly spitting on the floor, is it? But it is enough to irritate Dora once they are married, and once the gleam of lust has worn off. She is very fond of his parents, but cannot help seeing the same things in them – Mr and Mrs Osborne (senior) come with them on a trip to Venice, but are more impressed by the metalwork they see than by the architecture. The size of the paintings in a gallery astonishes them, rather than the artists’ genius. It prickles Dora over and over.

You could draw a gallon of pure fresh kindness from that well-spring which also was inexhaustible, but even before you had time to put your lips to it, and drink of it, some drop – quite a little drop – would trickle in from the source of his vulgarity and taint it all. It was even worse than that; there was a permanent leak from the one into the other; the kindness was tainted at the source.

More on the kindness in a minute. But this did make me think – obviously we laugh at this sort of snobbery now, particularly when it’s so hard to see the nuances that bothered them so much. But I wonder if it has been replaced with other sorts of things – codes that we are used to in our families, and can’t imagine making new relations outside of that perimeter. This struck me when the topic of humour came up – I certainly wouldn’t say I looked down on people who had a completely different sense of humour from me, but it would make forming close bonds very difficult. We may feel angry with Dora and Jim from our 21st-century vantage (agreeing with the character who says “how God must laugh at our divisions of classes. We must look like children arranging books by the colour of their covers instead of their contents”) but that is to miss the point of the contemporary setting, perhaps? Any seismic class shift in England was still around forty years away.

The strength of this novel doesn’t lie, though, in this moral maze. It’s in the Osbornes – not Dora and Claude by Claude’s parents. I loved hearing all your suggestions for happy marriages the other day (and keep meaning to reply, not least because some of them certainly don’t meet my mental criteria!) and here is certainly one. Eddie and Mrs O (as they call each other) have one of the most beautiful marriages I’ve ever read about – and Benson treads just on the right side of saccharine for the reader to swallow it. They have been together since they had little, but in their riches want no more than each other’s company, laughing at the same weak family jokes that have occupied them for decades. There is a little wisdom in them, but only really a little – mostly, Benson paints strengths of character and, yes, kindness.

His wickedly funny cynical side doesn’t emerge in this novel, and an unkind reader might think there are moments in here that are too sentimental – but either I was beguiled by the beautiful French countryside, or Benson manages to get away with it. He remains funny throughout, and dodges a tricky societal quandary by having a bit of an easy out in the end, but somehow the ingredients all add up to another delightful offering from a pen that doesn’t seem able to do anything but delight.

Note: I accidentally wrote ‘Osbournes’ every time in my initial version of this post – thanks for noticing, Tony!

The Pelicans by E.M. Delafield

The Pelicans (1918) by E.M. Delafield was a wonderful find in a real life bookshop – one I visited with Rachel and Jenny – and one of my Project 24 books. Delafield is one of my very favourite authors, and this is about the 23rd book I’ve read by her – nothing beats finding one of them in the wild. Early warning, it might well be the worst book of hers that I’ve read, but it’s testament to her talents that I still liked it.

The Pelicans

The Pelicans starts with kindly, scatterbrained Lady Argent and her artistic son Ludovic discussing the recently orphaned young sisters Rosamund and Frances. They live near the River Wye and have had an idyllic childhood in many ways – but now they are to be taken away by a distant relative of their mother, who wishes to be called Cousin Bertha. Lady Argent thinks she is a paragon of kindness, and this is clearly the reputation that Bertha wishes to promote – and quite possibly believes herself. But Ludovic is not convinced, and the sisters are also rather daunted by the move. Her friendly approaches towards them leave them rather wary and confused – but off they go, to join Bertha’s daughter, a simpering and devoted companion, and a grumpy but affectionate husband (affectionate to the girls; he clearly loathes his wife but has determined to stay out of the way).

Delafield wrote about unpleasant women time and again, and they are very often the sort who project an appearance of capability and being the supposed centre of adoring crowds. This can sometimes be done comically, as in The Provincial Lady in Wartime, or with a rather darker overtone – Faster! Faster! or Humbug. In The Pelicans it rather falls between two stools. Even her darkest novels have amusing moments, and there are many in The Pelicans that I will come onto, but she hasn’t quite decided how to treat the character of Bertha. Ironically, by making her quite nuanced (because how many people are actually ogres in disguise?), she is less satisfying as a character – do we require more consistency in a fictional construct than we would encounter in real people?

My favourite sections came when Bertha talks to her neighbour and frenemy – no word describes it better, I’m afraid – Nina, who has a son about Rosamund’s age (there is a brief romance) and is a widow. They exchange spiky conversations where each tries to outdo the other, and subtly insult each other. It’s all so delicious, and I longed for those pages – particularly whenever Nina would use the Biblical analogy of Mary and Martha to compare them, which she does often, and which displeases Bertha immensely. Another of Nina’s traits is to remind her friend about her (Nina’s) status as a widow:

“It somehow gave me a little pang – it seemed to bring back that concert, years ago when Geoffrey and I were together.”

Bertha was too familiar with the singular power that the most unlikely incidents possessed of recalling Nina’s happier hours to accord more than a passing acknowledgement towards this tender tribute to the past.

The companion-cum-housekeeper (Miss Blandflower) was also a delight to read, with her verbal tics done beautifully:

“Here I am, last but not least,” agitatedly murmured the late-comer, while her hostess cordially embraced her, and presented Rosamund and Frances.

Miss Blandflower belonged to that numerous and mistaken class of person which supposes the art of witty conversation to lie in the frequent quotation of well-known tags and the humorously-intended mispronunciation of the more ordinary words in the English language.

These examples show you the way Delafield has with a sardonic sentence, familiar to anybody who has read any of her novels, and I could read it for hours. But this novel gives us rather more of a different sort of novel – one which sneaks into so many of her early novels: it’s about a nunnery. Frances becomes very involved in the Catholic church (Bertha is not Catholic, but has a deep interest) and this takes over – Frances goes on a retreat, and eventually decides to live there, and many of the scenes are in this new cast of characters. It doesn’t follow the well-worn path of bashing the church, thankfully, but it’s a new set of people when we haven’t really got full potential out of the original set, and they were not as interesting to read about. It got a little slow, though there were definitely highlights in the dialogue of a booming woman who lived at the nunnery (though not a nun) and considered herself rather more at home than those around her might suggest.

The main issue with The Pelicans is probably structure. It covers so much of the girls’ lives that we never quite linger at any one stage long enough – and the periods Delafield picks seem a little disjointed and unexpected, as though she’d plunged into their timeline at random. It was only her third novel; she got much better at this.

So – her humour and the way she balanced comic sentences was already there. The melodrama that popped its head up throughout her career was a little unbridled. She hadn’t quite worked out how to manipulate characters into the forms that would work best for her. But it’s always fascinating to see the development of an author, and – if this is perhaps at the bottom of my list of EMD reads – it’s pretty impressive that it’s still really rather good. Hurrah for Delafield!

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

Burning SecretBurning Secret (1913) by Stefan Zweig – translated by Anthea Bell and published in a lovely edition by Pushkin Press – was one of the books my friend Malie gave me for my birthday last year. Being honest, she gave me a voucher and I picked it – but I filled her in on my choices! It matches the Confusion edition I reviewed last year and now, of course, I want all of Pushkin’s Zweig series…

It’s another short and powerful novel – this one takes place in a hotel where the Baron is on holiday. He is bored and, for want of a better word, horny. I think that’s the first time I’ve used that word on this blog, but it’s the most apt.

He was welcome everywhere he went, and was well aware of his inability to tolerate solitude. He felt no inclination to be alone and avoided it as far as possible; he didn’t really want to become any better acquainted with himself. He knew that, if he was to show his talents to best advantage, he needed to strike sparks off other people to fan the flames of warmth and exuberance in his heart. On his own he was frosty, no use to himself at all, like a match left lying in its box.

He casts his eye around the hotel for the most desirable woman to have a brief affair with, and lands upon a woman staying there with her young son, Edgar. He is 12, but this is the 1910s – so he seems very young and innocent to modern readers. The Baron decides that the best way to approach the woman is via her son – so he sets up a jovial friendship with Edgar – ‘Edi’ – in order to get closer to his mother; without this ‘in’, he couldn’t be introduced.

His ploy works. Edgar is flattered and entranced by this friendship with an adult – having been lonely through the stay so far – and his mother is quickly beguiled into an adulterous affair with the Baron. Once his goal is achieved, the Baron no longer puts any effort into charming the child – and Edgar is hurt, abandoned, angry. He knows something is going on between his mother and the Baron – but no idea what; only that they have a ‘burning secret’.

As I say, Edgar’s innocent naivety doesn’t quite translate to 2017 – but age him down a few years and it would. We don’t quite get prose from his perspective, it remains in the third person, but Zweig does enough to put us in the Baron’s mind and in Edgar’s mind in turn. Zweig is expert at bringing strong, painful, awkward emotions to the fore – and he masterfully interweaves Edgar’s fierce and confused anger through the narrative.

The story is simple, and short – 117 pages – but it is such a brilliant depiction of how unthinking unkindness can affect somebody, and how emotions that aren’t quite understood by the child experiencing them can reverberate and have their impact. Like Confusion, this is an excellent novella about the power of recognisable conflicts in recognisable places. I can see I’m going to have to buy more Zweigs…

The Three Sisters by May Sinclair

The Three SistersI want to have a stern word with Virago Modern Classics – or, at least, whoever was in charge of cover design back in the 1980s. Normally pretty great, the choice of cover image for their reprint of May Sinclair’s 1914 novel The Three Sisters is pretty unforgivable. I’m going to give you a top tip, right from the start: this is not a novel about the Brontes.

It seems, to me, completely bizarre to put this famous painting on the front of a novel which is only very, very loosely inspired by the Bronte sisters – an ‘imaginative starting point’, as the blurb acknowledges. But we’ll forgive that and put it to one side. The similarities are that there are three sisters in a remote Yorkshire vicarage – that’s about it. They don’t have a brother or two deceased sisters; they aren’t writers; their personalities aren’t even that similar. And the vicar has lost three wives – variously to death and abandonment – and has settled into an angry, unwilling celibacy.

The sisters are Mary, Gwenda, and Alice Carteret. Gwenda is passionate and artistic, striding over the moors and wanting much more than the small community can offer her. Alice is considered weak by all, but has an iron core of determination – and not a little spitefulness. Mary is rather less easy to grasp on the page – starting off staid and dependable, and gradually getting rather less pleasant.

Into this world comes the one eligible man in the district – Dr Steven Rowcliffe. In turn – or, indeed, somewhat all at once – the sisters fall in love with him. He finds these attentions annoying and beguiling, depending which sister is under consideration: it is clearly Gwenda that has caught his eye, but he must cope with all three of them eyeing him as a prospective husband material.

Their father is firmly against any of them marrying anybody, though. He is fired by selfishness, cloaked in supposed holiness. Like most vicars in fiction, he sadly doesn’t come across very well. (Septimus Harding might be the only sympathetic clergyman I can remember, and also by far the closest to the real vicars I have known. Do better, novelists.) His faith and morality seems mostly to emerge in unkindness – such as making the maid Essy leave when she is discovered to be pregnant. It does, at least, lead to an amusingly handled scene where Essy tells her mother – who pretends astonishment, whereas she really ‘only wondered that she had not come four months ago’.

Despite a slightly stereotypical set up, The Three Sisters is really engaging. Sinclair was ahead of the curve, in terms of the psychology of romantic relationships, but – more importantly – she knows how to make the reader find the relationships between all the characters interesting, whether sister/sister, father/daughter, or maid/employer. The dialogues between Gwenda and her father remind me of Austen’s battle-of-wits exchanges, and the prose treads the line between beautifully descriptive and pulling-the-plot-forward extremely well. Sinclair was a very good writer.


Oh, but…

WHY the dialect and transcribed accent? This accounts for probably no more than one in eight pages, but it’s pretty unbearable when it comes. Only the working-class characters speak this way, in what I suppose is meant to be Yorkshire voices, but could equally be anything from Cornwall upwards. I can’t face typing out any of it, but here’s a photo of some of the dialogue…

The Three Sisters accent

Unsurprisingly, I skimmed most of this. Why not just write ‘she spoke with a heavy Yorkshire accent’, and leave it at that? But the rural/dialectical novel was running unchecked around 1900-1920, so Sinclair was only falling into the trap of her time. Suffice to say, if this had accounted for much more of the novel, I definitely wouldn’t have finished it.

But, if you can face with skimming over these pages, there is a lot to like in The Three Sisters – particularly in the second half, where the wheels start to fall off a bit. It’s a sensitive, often fairly wryly amusing, and very well crafted novel. Just don’t expect it to be about the Brontes.


Others who got Stuck into it:

A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore: “this book is a strange hybrid of Edwardian values and Victorian conventionality”.

Fleur Fisher (Beyond Eden Rock): “May Sinclair spins a compelling story, full of rich descriptions of people and places, and with a wonderful understanding of her characters and their relationships.”

Daisy’s Aunt by E.F. Benson

I have so many E.F. Benson books on my shelves – they’re not tricky to pick up in secondhand bookshops, if you’re patient – but almost all of them are unread. Besides the excellent Mapp and Lucia series, which I’ve read twice (though not for years), I’ve only read Secret Lives. And I thought it was about time that I remedied that. I’m so glad I did – Daisy’s Aunt (1910) is faintly ridiculous, but entirely enjoyable.

Daisy's Aunt

The opening scene, and opening paragraph, is classic Edwardian insouciance of the variety that Benson does charmingly:

Daisy Hanbury poked here parasol between the bars of the cage, with the amiable intention of scratching the tiger’s back. The tiger could not be expected to know this all by himself, and so he savagely bit the end of it off, with diabolical snarlings. Daisy turned to her cousin with a glow of sympathetic pleasure.

If you are not instantly charmed by both author and character, then I don’t know if I can help you. The scene has no other purpose – she almost instantly leaves the zoo, with her subservient friend Gladys in tow, and the incident is scarcely mentioned again. But it has set Daisy up as reckless, amusing, and rather lovable – which is just as well, as we have to take it as read that she is charming for much of the subsequent novel.

The novel, indeed, has all the benefits of the typical Edwardian novel, as well as its drawbacks (if such they be). It is frothy and indulgently charming (that word again) – and the plot makes almost no sense. But I’ll do my best. Look away if you want no spoilers at all, but these are the main facts which lead to the bulk of the plot:

  • Daisy’s young aunt Jeannie (after whom the US title for this novel, The Fascinating Mrs Halton, is named) is returning from a year abroad, and finds that Daisy is hoping a Lord Lindfield will propose.
  • Jeannie knows that Lord L was (ahem) a cad with Daisy’s sister in Paris – but had made a deathbed promise to the sister never to disclose this.
  • Oh yes, the sister (Diana) is dead, but most people thought she’d died five years before this.
  • The only solution Jeannie can see is to flirt with Lord Lindfield until Daisy sees that he is no better than he ought to be, and foreswears him.
  • There’s another gent who loves Daisy, and one who’s secretly engaged to Jeannie.

Phew! There we have it. Obviously Jeannie’s plan is ridiculous, even given the mores of the day, and there is any number of better plans, but she apparently can think of none of them – and does all this from love of Daisy. Jeannie Halton is, indeed, a kind and lovable woman, otherwise sensible and (yes) charming. Little does she know that Daisy has gone from thinking she might as well marry Lord L as anyone, to actually loving him…

Tangled webs, and all that. We see most things from the perspective of either Jeannie or Daisy, and the events of the novel chiefly take place during a house party in a beautiful riverside cottage – lots of the idle rich staying for a few days together, and gossiping about each other. One of my favourite sections of the novel, actually, was the indulgently long time Benson spends describing this idyllic house – from informal, winding garden to the welcoming rooms. And particularly this bit:

At the other end, and facing it, the corresponding kitchen range of the second range had also been cleared out, but the chimney above it had been boarded in, and a broad, low settee ran around the three sides of it. Above this settee, and planted into the wall, so that the head of those uprising should not come in contact with the shelves, was a bookcase full of delectable volumes, all fit to be taken down at random, and opened at random, all books that were familiar friends to any who had friends among that entrancing family. Tennyson was there, and all Thackeray; Omar Khayyam was there, and Alice in Wonderland; Don Quixote rubbed covers with John Inglesant, and Dickens found a neighbour in Stevenson.

My version of this library would be updated by a couple of decades (I have to confess to never having heard of John Inglesant), but doesn’t it sound wonderful?

And so the novel goes – never sensational, and always at least a little witty, but with genuine stakes for those involved. But the reader has no real anxiety. We know that such a novel, from such an author, can’t end but happily. It reminded me rather of Herbert Jenkins’ delightful Patricia Brent, Spinster; it is the same sort of delicious silliness that passes a sunny day beautifully. I’m glad that I’ve finally looked in more depth at my Benson shelf – and must make sure to return to it before too long.


Poor Relations by Compton Mackenzie

(To kick off: everybody in the UK, and around the world, is thinking about Brexit at the moment. I don’t think I have the heart to talk about it myself here, because it has broken my heart a little and – combined with our last general election – I no longer feel like I recognise or understand my own country. Victoria has written about it all brilliantly. And now I’m going to seek solace in books.)

Poor Relations

One of the books I read while I was in Edinburgh was by the appropriately-Scottish Compton Mackenzie. Like most people, I think all I knew about him was that he’d written Whisky Galore (which I haven’t read, though I’ve seen a bit of the film) and that his first name wasn’t Crompton (he often comes up when I’m looking for Richmal Crompton books by people who’ve made that error). It actually wasn’t Compton either, it was Edward, but let’s move on.

Well, according to the good people of Hutchinson’s “Pocket” Library – perhaps they put that in inverted commas because nobody has pockets big enough to fit this paperback – Poor Relations is a ‘famous novel’, and according to the Evening Standard, quoted on the cover, it is “Very witty and very amusing”. BOTH those things AT ONCE, people. (They aren’t wrong.)

The novel was Mackenzie’s seventh, published in 1919, and he went on to publish dozens of other novels before his death in 1972, including (I discover, on reading his Wikipedia article) one which is a sequel to Poor Relations. I also learn from Wikipedia that he went to Magdalen College, Oxford, as I did (floreat Magdalena!), and co-founded the SNP, as I did not.

I shall certainly look out for more by Mackenzie, as I loved Poor Relations. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t something as funny as this – his turn of phrase reminded me a lot of Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington, and the whole novel has the sort of levity that characterises the best of early-20th-century insouciant fiction.

John did possess another cap, one that just before he left England he had bought about dusk in the Burlington Arcade, one that in the velvety bloom of a July evening had seemed worthy of summer skies and seas, but that in the glare of the following day had seemed more like the shreds of barbaric attire that are brought back by travellers from exotic lands to be taken out of a glass case and shown to visitors when the conversation is flagging on Sunday afternoons in the home counties.

The main character is a John Touchwood. He is – as the narrative often reminds us – a ‘successful romantic playwright and unsuccessful realistic novelist’, and has made something of a fortune at plays which the public love and the intelligentsia rather despise. That intelligentsia include his brother and his brother-in-law, one of whom is a critic who makes no bones about his own infinite literary superiority, the other of whom was recently a vicar but has decided to leave that life in order to become, himself, a playwright. Both are insufferably pompous and rude to longsuffering John, and both are hilarious to read about.

In every direction, Touchwood is besieged by ‘poor relations’ – and they are more than willing to impose. Whether it is that ex-vicar moving into his country house and (without permission) erecting a garden room in which to write, or his other in-laws ditching their children with him a refusing to panic when they are lost in a zoo, John’s patience is repeatedly tried.

The novel is quite episodic. There is something of a romance storyline thrown in, with an admirably unflappable woman whom he hires as his secretary and who insists on behaving professionally until… well, you can probably imagine that there is a happy conclusion. Before that, we move from relative to relative, often returning to the same ones again, but without much evolution in the way they treat John. Which makes sense – how many of us have sharply changing relationships with our nearest and dearest?

John himself is very likeable. He is put-upon but not weak, and he gives as could as he gets in determined ripostes and eloquent rebuttals – while still putting his hand in his pocket most of the time, despite the lack of gratitude he gets from all sides. He reminds me of characters that A.A. Milne might have created in his Punch stories, albeit perhaps slightly steelier when needed.

After reading Poor Relations, I kept coming across Mackenzie novels in secondhand bookshops – but I didn’t really know where to start, especially since he wrote so many. They were all chunky hardbacks, so I left them there rather than weigh down my luggage – but if anybody has any suggestions for others they’ve enjoyed, that would be very welcome. And I heartily recommend tracking down a copy of Poor Relations!


Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm

Zuleika DobsonAKA a very weird book indeed. Over the years quite a few people have asked me if I’ve read Zuleika Dobson (1911), since it is often seen as the quintessential Oxford novel (after Brideshead Revisited, perhaps, but with the advantage of actually being in Oxford for the whole thing). Well, I hadn’t – and now I have. And what a strange little book it is. This review, incidentally, will have quite a few spoilers – because it’s difficult to write about otherwise, and because they’re probably pretty well known, and some covers give them away. I certainly knew most of the plot before I read it, and it didn’t much matter.

So, what happens? Zuleika opens the novel by turning up to Oxford; she is the niece of the Warden of Judas College (which, incidentally, does not exist – here’s a fun Wikipedia list of fictional colleges) and is there on a visit. Despite being ‘not strictly beautiful’, she is certainly beguiling. And beguile she does. Literally every man she meets (blood relatives excepted) falls in love with her on sight. It’s tiring.

Chief among these admirers – though initially the least disposed to reveal it – is the Duke of Dorset. He is diffident and buttoned-up, and doesn’t appear to be in love with her at first – which sparks off her love for him. Only when he reveals that (but of course) he does adore her does her love fade. It’s all very silly, but isn’t intended to be taken at all seriously. How can one take seriously a novel where nobody behaves with the slightest rationality?

It gets worse. And this is where the spoilers come in. The Duke swears he will die for her, if she does not love him. The idea spreads. And, as rowers race down the Cherwell or Isis or whatever that stretch of the Thames is called (after 11 years I still can’t remember), almost every single undergraduate in Oxford drowns himself for love of Zuleika.

Does she feel guilt about this mass suicide? She does not. Indeed, she remonstrates with the sole undergraduate who chickened out of the thing – in one of the most wonderfully composed insults that I can recall reading:

“You,” flashed Zuleika, “As for you, little Sir Lily Liver, leaning out there, and, I frankly tell you, looking like nothing so much as a gargoyle hewn by a drunken stone-mason for the adornment of a Methodist Chapel in one of the vilest suburbs of Leeds or Wigan, I do but felicitate the river-god and his nymphs that their water was saved today by your cowardice from the contamination of your plunge.”

What makes such a bizarre and surreal novel enjoyable? It certainly isn’t any spark of realism. Indeed,it is closest to a Greek myth. Zeus and Clio are introduced halfway through, but even before this it feels like mythology – in people’s heightened reactions, unlikely actions, and superlative traits. Zuleika is essentially a goddess of beauty – albeit one with occasional feet of clay, and a rather unpleasant character. But it was a moment of genius to make her an amateur (and terrible) magician. Some glorious moments of comedy come from that.

Most importantly, though, Beerbohm writes like a dream. He can turn a sentence beautifully, in the way of people like Oscar Wilde or Saki (whatever else these gents’ works have in common). The prose is a delight to read, but it does open to the accusation: is it all sparkle and no substance? Perhaps, but I don’t mind that, if the sparkle is done brilliantly. Zuleika Dobson is often described as a satire, but I couldn’t work out what it could possibly be a satire of. A satire must have a grounding in truth, and I couldn’t spot it here – unless it is that love makes people do stupid things.

But it doesn’t matter. I doubt a novel like this could exist outside of, say, 1890-1914. It is absolutely of its time. But I never think anything is ‘dated’ – I never know what people mean by that term; a discussion for another day, perhaps – and this curiosity is still great fun to read. Just don’t go looking for a moral.


Love Insurance by Earl Derr Biggers

Time for another link to a Shiny New Books review. And this one is an absolute joy – any fans of P.G. Wodehouse or early Hollywood will love this one. It’s the 1914 novel Love Insurance by Earl Derr Biggers.

As is my practice, I’ll give you the first paragraph of the review, and then send you over to Shiny New Books if you’d like to read more…

It’s fun occasionally to read a book that doesn’t take itself remotely seriously. And it would be impossible for Love Insurance (1914) by Earl Derr Biggers to take itself seriously for a moment – before a few dozen pages are finished, the reader has had to buy a number of extremely unlikely situations – but that all adds to the pleasure. It is unmistakably of its time (if A.A. Milne had written a novel in the 1910s, when he was still being guiltlessly insouciant, it might have been a lot like this) but that doesn’t mean it can’t still charm a century later.

The rest of the review is here…

This Is The End by Stella Benson

A Shiny New Review from Shiny New Books – of an old book, now reprinted by Mike Walmer. I loved I Pose by Stella Benson (review here) and leapt at the chance of reading her next book, This Is The End. Even though I kept singing ‘Skyfall’ every time I picked it up…

Here’s the beginning of my review:

One of the more unusual novelists being reprinted at the moment is Stella Benson. Her work is issued by Michael Walmer, a one-man publishing house that is reprinting various neglected novelists in the order their novels were originally published. This Is The End is Benson’s second (from 1917), and comes immediately before the one that is probably most remembered now,Living Alone, about very curious witches.
I want to say that This Is The End is not supernatural, but any definite statement about a Benson novel feels like a trap waiting to happen; the reader never quite knows which genre they’re reading, or what sort of response is required. Except that laughter will always be involved somewhere.