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!

Patricia Brent, Spinster – Herbert Jenkins

Although I love all the books on my 50 Books You Must Read list, I freely admit that some are better than others, as regards literary merit.  Some are simply on there because they are incredibly fun and a delight to read – and Herbert Jenkins’ 1918 novel Patricia Brent, Spinster is among that number.

One of the things I love most about literary discussion online – be it on blogs or email groups or whatever – is that occasionally an unlikely novel will take centre stage.  As I read in a sage review somewhere (I forget where), somebody in the blogosphere always seems to be discovering Barbara Comyns.  Ditto with Shirley Jackson, and similar unexpected enthusiasms have been launched for books like Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington, Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters, and (of course) Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. I don’t remember quite where I first heard of Patricia Brent, Spinster, but I do know that last year lots of people in my Yahoo group were reading it, and that Thomas compared it to Miss Hargreaves. So it was one of them.  Right, let’s get onto the book itself, shall we?

Although officially I disapprove of lying, I love it when characters lie in books and TV shows – especially when they do it badly, or it leads to all sorts of unintended consequences.  It’s such a great device, perhaps because, rather than dealing with an enemy or antagonist, the victim has caused their own chaos – and thus must steer things back onto the right path.  It’s the starting point of Miss Hargreaves, and it is the starting point of Patricia Brent, Spinster.

I had assumed that Patricia Brent would be in her dotage – such are the connotations of ‘spinster’ – but in actual fact she is only in her early 20s.  Thus she is rather outraged when she overhears the older residents of her boarding-house talk pityingly about her being 27 and alone.  As Jenkins writes later in the novel:

A book could be written on the boarding-house mind, I think.  It moves in a vicious circle.  If someone would only break out and give the poor dears something to talk about.
Well, this is precisely what Patricia does.  Without giving it much thought, beyond the triumph of the moment, she announces to the assembled ladies and gents that she is off for dinner with her fiancée.  Her plan is simple – she will take a taxi to a fancy restaurant, eat alone, and return having scored a point.  Of course, she couldn’t have predicted that two of the women would find out where she would be eating, and follow her there…

Unable to admit to the lie, Patricia takes a different step – one which severs any attachment the novel might have had to real life – and plonks herself down at the table of a man eating alone, whispering to him to play along.  Rather than look startled or call the manager (as you or I might do), he is game – and they have rather a fun evening.

Peter Bowen is the man in question, an officer and a gentleman (or something like that), and – would you believe it? – he falls in love with her.  The rest of Patricia Brent, Spinster follows her reluctant realisation that she loves him too, and… well, you can probably guess everything that happens.

Not a moment of it is plausible from beginning to end – and, because it is consistently absurd, it is a total delight.  A likely incident would have ruined the whole thing, just as a moment of pathos deflates a farce.  Nobody seems to speak or behave as anybody outside a novel would, but Jenkins has created a masterpiece, in his own way.

You might not expect to love something of this ilk, but I defy you not to be charmed by it.  Along the way we meet Patricia’s aunt, her oft-stated ‘sole surviving relative’, who is every bit as interfering as you’d hope.  Bowen has a kind, wise, witty sister of the sort which cheerfully cluttered up the Edwardian era; Patricia’s political employer (she is a secretary) has a simple-but-honest father.  Nothing here is too original, but all is wonderful – and the writing is just as fun.  This sort of thing:

Mr. Cordal grunted, which may have meant anything, but in all probability meant nothing.
Oh, I loved it.  It’s a breath of fresh air, and as abundantly silly and heart-warming as you could possibly desire.  There are quite a few secondhand copies available (I got mine, with its bizarre dustjacket, for £1 in Felixstowe) but it’s also free on Kindle.  I’m not the first to cry the joys of Patricia et al, but I am among its most vociferous supporters.

Leaves in the Wind – ‘Alpha of the Plough’

Leticia gave me the very best kind of recommendation earlier in 2013, on this post – a recommendation for a book which I already owned, and was keen to read.  Perfect!  The book was Leaves in the Wind (1918), the author was ‘Alpha of the Plough’.  Not, as you may imagine, the author’s real name.  Alpha is, in fact, A.G. Gardiner (not E.V. Knox, as I thought at one point) – who chose the name when writing for The Star, as several contributors were named after stars. What a serendipitous recommendation, seeing as I’d bought the book out of (a) curiosity and (b) frustration at the lack of decent books in Dorchester’s charity shops.  And I ended up doing rather well.

It’s that variety of gem which doesn’t really exist any more (and how many times have I lamented its demise in my posts here!) – the personal essay.  All sorts of wonderful people wrote them, from Rose Macaulay to J.B. Priestley, and there seemed to be no lack of audience for them in the first half of the 20th century – even (maybe especially) during the First World War.

Gardiner covers a great number of jovial topics – from his companions of a bus to giving up tobacco, from smiling in the mirror to famous conversationalists – but there is also a hefty portion of the book given over to soldiers and war.  Difficult to avoid during wartime, and perhaps it is only to the 21st-century reader that the combination of the frivolous and fatal seems incongruous.  Gardiner was nearly 50 when the First World War began, and did not see active service in it – but he is a kind, insightful observer of soldiers, blinded neither by patriotism nor cynicism:

A dozen youths march, two by two, on to the “up” platform.  They are in civilian dress, but behind them walks a sergeant who ejaculates “left – left – left” like the flick of a whip.  They are the latest trickle from this countryside to the great whirlpool, most of them mere boys.  They have the self-consciousness of obscure country youths who have suddenly been thrust into the public eye and are aware that all glances are turned critically upon their awkward movements.  They shamble along with a grotesque caricature of a dare-devil swagger, and laugh loud and vacantly to show how much they are at ease with themselves and the world.  It is hollow gaiety and suggests the animation of a trout with a hook in its throat.
A central thread of Leaves in the Wind is humanity in the midst of war – the minutiae amongst the vast and awful.  The collection would be worth hunting down for that alone.  But I don’t want to give the wrong impression of Gardiner’s tone – because Leaves in the Wind is very often an amusing book too, and wanders onto the sorts of topics in which A.A. Milne would have delighted in his pre-war sketch writing days.  Such as gentlemen’s fashion:

I am not speaking with disrespect of the well-dressed man (I do not mean the over-dressed man:  he is an offence).  I would be well-dressed myself if I knew how, but I have no gift that way.  Like Squire Shallow, I am always in the rearward of the fashion.  I find that with rare exceptions I dislike new fashions.  They disturb my tranquillity.  They give me a nasty jolt.  I suspect that the explanation is that beneath my intellectual radicalism there lurks a temperamental conservatism, a love of sleepy hollows and quiet havens and the old grass-grown turnpikes of habit.
Quite frankly, I adore the idea of calling someone ‘an offence’, and will be putting it into practice asap.

This has been a speedy overview of a book which, though slim, is very varied – and, like almost all collections of personal essays, covers so many topics that an exhaustive review would be impossible, unless it was almost as long as the book.  Gardiner proves himself, in Leaves in the Wind, to have an impressive range of tone – from funny to solemn, and (more impressive still) sometimes both at once.

Thanks, Leticia, for pushing this to the top of my tbr pile – I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for any more furrows ploughed by this particular author.

A few little reviews…

It has come to my notice that it is December, and there are only 27 days left this year.  I have almost 20 reviews to write for A Century of Books… oops, didn’t work this out very well, did I?  (Well, I still have 10 books to read – but I have 4 of them on the go already.)  So I’m going to rush through five of them today – books that, for one reason or another, I didn’t want to write whole posts about.  But do still free to comment on them!

Daddy Long-Legs (1912) by Jean Webster
An orphaned girl is given a scholarship by a mysterious, anonymous man – she has only seen his back – and one of the conditions is that she must write updates to him, without getting any replies.  She nicknames him Daddy Long-Legs.  Can you guess what happens?  Well, I shan’t give away the ending.  I was mostly surprised at how modern this children’s book felt, despite being a hundred years old – a lot of it would have been at home in a Jacqueline Wilson story.  I enjoyed it, but did find it a little creepy, and rather repetitive, but these are probably signs of not having read it when I was the target age.

Metamorphosis (1915) by Franz Kafka
Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover that he is an enormous bug.  Which is going to make his job as a salesman somewhat difficult.  The reason I’m not giving this novella/short story its own review is that I don’t feel I have anything new to say about it.  Kafka is famed for his matter-of-fact approach to the surreality in this story, and rightly so.  What surprised me here was how middlebrow it all felt.  It is definitely comparable to David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox – which actually seems to have greater pretensions to literariness.

Married Love (1918) by Marie Stopes
Another one which surprised me – I’d always heard that Marie Stopes started a sexual revolution in the UK, offering knowledge about sex to the everywoman for the first time.  Turns out she is much more conservative, and less revelatory, than a lot of the other guides written around the same time, and earlier.  I read these guides for my current DPhil chapter, by the way – my favourite so far being the person who argued that sexual intercourse and reproduction were acceptable as separate impulses, because protozoa separated them.  Sure, why not?  (I wonder if I’ve just made all sorts of inappropriate search terms for this blog now…)

Miss Hargreaves: the play (1952) by Frank Hargreaves
This is something of a cheat, since it was never published – but it was performed, with Margaret Rutherford in the lead role.  Tanya tipped me off that copies of all performed plays were in the Lord Chamberlain’s archives in the British Library – so I had the great privilege and pleasure of reading the play, with Baker’s own penned changes.  It’s pretty similar to the novel, only with the action restricted to a few settings.  Such fun!

V. Sackville West (1973) by Michael Stevens
I’m a sucker for a short biography, and I hadn’t read one of VSW before, so I gave this one a whirl.  It’s a critical biography, so Stevens discusses and analyses the work while giving an outline of VSW’s life.  About halfway through I thought, “this feels way too much like a doctoral dissertation.”  Turns out it was a doctoral dissertation.  I think I’ll be turning to a more charismatic writer for my next biography of Vita, as this one was rather prosaic and charmless, although very thoroughly researched.

Right, well that’s five down!  How are the other Century of Bookers getting on?