First and Last by V.L. Whitechurch

Guys, I don’t know if you realise, but I’m hilarious. And that’s why I decided the last book of 2017 and first book of 2018 would be… First and Last (1929) by V.L. Whitechurch. Well, at least I amuse myself.

This is my second novel by Whitechurch – the first was the very amusing Canon in Residence – and I picked it up in a bookshop in Stratford-on-Avon a few years ago, when I was (happily enough) hunting for more books by him. He is one of the few vicar-authors, indeed canon-authors, and the title of his novel is a reference to the Bible: ‘so the last will be first and the first will be last’. Jesus actually says it twice in the Bible and, in scriptural context, I think it’s mostly about how the poor are not excluded from Heaven, and nor are those who find faith late in life.

The novel isn’t really about either of those things.

It is about what happens when somebody from a poor background – young Tom the fisherman – comes into vast fortune, through a combination of luck and ability. He saves a rich man who gets caught in sailing difficulties and, in turn, is offered an education far beyond the means of his family and his class (particularly given that this section is set in 1881). The other character we follow is Alan, the stepson of the vicar, who has to leave the vicarage when his stepfather dies – most of the inheritance goes elsewhere, and his future looks much poorer than he realised.

Such is the set up of the characters and their fates (and an ill-advised dose of dialect from local fisherman alongside). The novel skips forward forty years, where Tom is Sir Thomas, a rich businessman (and war profiteer) whose fortune is partly ill-gotten; Alan is a clergyman with a very small income, widowed and not very happy with his life. Tom has a son; Alan has a daughter. You can probably guess what happens when they re-emerge in each other’s lives… but it all happens charmingly and interestingly. Whitechurch is a great storyteller.

I didn’t mark down any passages to quote, so here’s a bit I’ve picked more or less at random, to give a sense of his prose:

The Reverend Alan Crawford, Vicar of Lingmarsh, was tired – tired in body and in mind. He had been paying a round of parochial visits in his widely scattered country parish, trudging along lanes thick with mud, taking ‘short cuts’ over fields to outlying cottages, all the afternoon.

Altogether he had paid seven calls, and each visit, with, perhaps the exception of one, had added to his sense of weariness – a weariness that had come over him before ever he fared forth on his parochial round.

I really enjoyed reading First and Last, and I think any fan of middlebrow novels from the interwar period will love the characters, pace, and comfort of the novel. What prevents it being a brilliant novel, to my mind, is partly the lack of humour (did I imagine it in Canon in Residence, which I recall being tantamount to farce?) and partly the ways in which the characters lean to stereotype. The good people are a little too good; the wicked a little too wicked. First and Last isn’t at all moralistic (in the negative sense), but it does follow firmly trodden moral paths – and, as a parable is unlikely to show thorough nuance in its participants, so First and Last does paint a little in black and white.

But, given these limitations, I think it’s a delightful and absorbing book – not great literature, but certainly a great read. And a great way to kick off 2018 and A Century of Books.

Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols

My friends Kirsty and Paul bought me a pile of books for my birthday which were PERFECTLY chosen, which says what good friends they are (and how loudly I talk about the things I like) – one of which was Beverley Nichols’ novel Crazy Pavements (1927). This has undoubtedly been the Year of Beverley for me, but I had yet to read any of his novels – indeed, I don’t think I own any, though I did almost accidentally spend about £60 on one earlier in the year, under the impression that it was £2.

This was Nichols’ fourth novel, written before any of the gardening books, and it is quintessentially 1920s in many ways. Brian – an unusual name for a hero, but we’ll let it slide – is a handsome young gossip columnist, writing anonymously about the day-to-day doings of the rich and famous, but living in not-so-well-to-do situations himself. How does he know so much about the habits and sins of the titled people of London? The long and short of it: he makes it up.

This section of the novel was Nichols at his most irrepressible; his most effervescent. I loved it, and laughed a lot. It’s everything I want from the slightly (but only slightly) cynical voyeur of the Bright Young Things. Or at least the titled classes, for it is the sort of gossip column more interested in Lord and Lady Such-and-Such than in film stars. And his editor is a glorious creation: she is constantly trying to misinterpret his innocent words (or, indeed, innocent silences) as the most outrageous innuendos, so that she can look shocked and chew her pen and say ‘oh, you are wicked‘, to his horror and embarrassment.

I enjoyed the whole novel, but it was certainly the first few chapters that I truly loved. But such things cannot be stretched to 80,000 words – I do beg your pardon, Michael Arlen – and so we must move to the next scene. Most people do not question Brian’s fabrications, either because they are on long sea voyages (he notes these, as being the best subjects to choose) or because the lies are more flattering than the truth. But Julia is different. She demands a retraction and an apology.

When an awkward Brian turns up at her house, he – would you believe it – falls instantly in love with Julia. In turn, she is surprised that he is so handsome and gauche. The former attracts; the latter is an amusing challenge. She thrusts him into her echelons of 1920s chatter and glamour.

He was already beginning to understand the technique of these people’s conversation. The chief knack seemed to be in a stupendous exaggeration of everyday statements. If, for instance, the waiter forgot to give one a wooden ‘spinner’, with which to take the fizz out of one’s champagne, the right phrase was, ‘this is more than I can bear’, or ‘this is agony‘. ‘Divine’, ‘amazing’, ‘shattering’, ‘monstrous’, were all employed for the most ordinary feelings and facts. He found himself wondering what language they would have to speak if anything really awful did happen. They would either have to relapse into Russian, or else express themselves in dumb-show.

Nichols keeps his wit about him, if you’ll pardon the pun, but the mantle of a Serious Novel About Love gets a bit in the way at times. The story takes us on a fish-out-of-water journey, in which Julia and Brian learn that their different backgrounds are more of an impediment than they realised – as is Julia’s insouciant refusal to commit to a single person. As usual, the romantic elements of the plot didn’t hugely interest me, and I got the feeling that they didn’t enormously interest Nichols either (he seems much more authentic when describing the fall out between Brian and his kind housemate Walter) – but there is enough of humour to more than make up for it.

As a grand love story against the odds, this is a bit novel-by-rote. But as a comic novel showcasing Nichols’ witty and very 1920s view of the world, it’s a total delight. The Year of Beverley closes out successfully.


Are They The Same at Home? by Beverley Nichols

Are They The Same At Home

The Year of Beverley continues! I actually read Are They The Same at Home? (1927) steadily over a few months, dipping in and out of it, and finished it during my hinterland in the internetless years. (It felt like years; it was not.) I bought it back in 2010, and it’s a collection of his encounters with… well, with more or less everyone you can imagine from the cultural world of the 1920s.

Indeed, this isn’t going to be a review so much as a list – at least at the bottom – because I think this could be a wonderful little resource for fans of any of these people, and you probably wouldn’t stumble across it by accident. Each chapter describes his interview or friendship – and I say ‘describes’ because almost none of these are set out like discussions; instead, he gives his impressions, he darts around the topic or the room or the theatre, he throws in a few choice words from the subject – and the matter is closed. It is fanciful, fey, and entirely Nichols. It tells us very little in hard fact, and everything in impression. I came away knowing not what these people were like, but what Nichols thought of them.

Each essay is like an impressionist painting, giving us the outline and the character, if not the exact portrait. When he writes about Rose Macaulay, for instance, he spends half the time talking about whether or not people need to wipe their glasses when they cry – Macaulay says no; American friends of his say yes. No biography of Macaulay would use this as a keynote, but he is able to extrapolate much about her lack of romantic imagination – linking in, neatly, her most recent (and, of hers, my favourite) novel Crewe Train. Only Nichols could put together feats like this with such bravado and such delightful inconsequence. They are nothings, but delightful, almost accidentally insightful, nothings. Any lover of the 1920s world should have this on their shelves.

And who were they? Well, they came mostly from the arts, but with some sportspeople and politicians thrown in. While I knew who all the authors were, and have read most of them, there were plenty of names from other spheres which meant nothing to me. An impressive variety. And here they are, all 61 of them. In alphabetical order, as in the book, with one out of order at the end. Why? Who knows.

Senorita de Alvarez
Michael Arlen
Lilian Baylis
Thomas Beecham
Hilaire Belloc
Arnold Bennett
E.F. Benson
Lord Berners
Edna Best
John Bland-Sutton
Andre Charlot
Alan Cobham
C.B. Cochran
Duff Cooper
Noel Coward
Arthur Conan Doyle
Alice Delysia
Sergei Diaghileff
Gerald du Maurier
Jacob Epstein
George Gershwin
Eugene Goossens
Philip Guedalla
Sacha Guitry
Seymour Hicks
Anthony Hope
Aldous Huxley
Margaret Kennedy
Theodore Komisarjevsky
Ronald Knox
Philip de Laszlo
John Lavery
Suzanne Lenglen
David Lloyd George
W.J. Locke
Frederick Lonsdale
Edwin Lutyens
Rose Macaulay
John McCormack
Eddie Marsh
Cyril Maude
W. Somerset Maugham
Nellie Melba
Florence Mills
George Moore
Beverley Nichols
Cyril Norwood
Sean O’Casey
William Orpen
Arthur Pinero
Landon Ronald
Osbert Sitwell
Marie Tempest
Edgar Wallace
Hugh Walpole
H.G. Wells
Rebecca West
Jimmie White
Ellen Wilkinson
P.G. Wodehouse
Georges Carpentier



Our Women: Chapters on the Sex Discord by Arnold Bennett

1920s women

You know who needs to comment on the role of women? It’s Arnold Bennett! In 1920! Look, obviously nobody is looking for a man’s opinion from nearly a century ago to help with contemporary debate – but I can’t resist this sort of glimpse back into the past. A bit like the Ursula Bloom book I talked about the other day, albeit a different sphere. And so, yes, my relaxing holiday reading started with Arnold B’s chapters on the sex discord. What, you didn’t see it at the airport in their 3-for-2?

Bennett proudly labels himself a feminist, which was rather a surprise to me (and a welcome surprise). His definition of ‘feminist’ definitely doesn’t match up to any 21st-century definition, but I daresay none of our definitions will find favour with 22nd-century feminists. We’ll leave some of his more controversial opinions for later…

A positive? He is a big fan of women having jobs. Yes, he does more or less think these should work around their domestic duties, but it’s… something? But he does rail against the current state of things, with women expected never to change their role at all, never earning money and yet having vital places to fill in civilised society. True, his vision of the far future is female pilots (IMAGINE), but he is at least thinking that things could be different from how the world is organised in 1920.

The first chapter is ‘The Perils of Writing about Women’, where he acknowledges potential minefields (and, incidentally, his own complete lack of knowledge of Havelock Ellis). ‘Change in Love’ and ‘The Abolition of Slavery’ follow on next, setting the scene for ways the world may change – and that women should be more appreciated for their contribution to that world. I doubt a 2017 author would throw around ‘slavery’ in the flippant way he does, but he’s doing his best.

Where things get super troubling – and thus, at the same time, super interesting from a reading-for-historical-interest angle – is the chapter ‘Are Men Superior to Women?’. Spoilers: Bennett thinks they are.

Some platitudes must now be uttered. The literature of the world can show at least fifty male poets greater than any woman poet. Indeed, the women poets who have reached even second rank are exceedingly few – perhaps not more than half a dozen. With the possible exception of Emily Bronte no woman novelist has yet produced a novel to equal the great novels of men. (One may be enthusiastic for Jane Austen without putting Pride and Prejudice in the same category with Anna Karenina or The Woodlanders.)

Firstly – who on earth would pick The Woodlanders as their ammunition in favour of Thomas Hardy?? Secondly – this is obviously something I don’t agree with, but when he goes on to ‘can anybody name a celebrated woman philosopher’ and so forth, the obvious argument is ‘well, women didn’t get a chance until quite recently’. He tries to rebut this, but pretty unconvincingly… it’s all rather a peculiar position to take, and not very coherently argued, and rather undermines other parts of the book. Still, this all works together to make it an interesting history piece.

At other times, he wrote things that would have been SO useful in my doctoral thesis. It’s a few years too late for me, but I had to highlight this for anybody who might want to write about spinster lit of the 1920s at any point…

I will not attempt to determine at what age an unmarried virgin begins to incur the terrible imputation of spinsterhood; it varies, being dependent on a lot of things, such a colour of hair, litheness of frame, complexion, ankles, chin (the under part), style of talk and of glance. I have spinsters of twenty-five, and young girls of at least forty. 

My favourite section of the book is definitely the end. It’s probably not a coincidence that this is where he stops writing about theories and starts writing fiction – he dramatises the same situation in two chapters, one from the wife’s viewpoint and one from the husband’s. The scenario is pretty simple: an argument about a flower show on the day that their son is coming home from boarding school. I don’t think the scenes are as instructive as Bennett thinks they are, but it shows that he is on much firmer ground – and certainly more fluid and more entertaining – as a writer of fiction than of, well, anything else.

While Bennett’s views are, of course, not today’s – it’s quite impressive that a man in his 50s in 1920, and a man who was very much considered one of the old guard, should even have thought of writing it. And for anybody who wants to know more about the 1920s and issues around gender at the time, this is an interesting (surprising, frustrating, etc.) book. Add it to the list for when you’re feeling particularly able to cope with reading things you don’t agree with, maybe?

Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield

Messalina of the SuburbsRachel and I did a recent podcast episode on Messalina of the Suburbs (1924) by E.M. Delafield and A Pin To See the Peepshow (1934) by F. Tennyson Jesse – both based on the same real life murder – but I know that plenty of people don’t listen to podcasts, so I’ll review ’em both too. First up: the E.M. Delafield (which I actually read second of the pair).

Believe it or not, this it the 23rd book I’ve read by EMD, and I still have plenty of others on my shelf left to read. Thank Heaven, fasting, for a prolific favourite author! It’s not super easy to find in book-form, but the ebook is very cheaply available – and, while it’s not one of her absolute best, I certainly found it a really good novel.

As far as I know, this was her only novel written about real life events – and written very shortly after them; the Thompson/Bywaters trial had only recently finished while she was writing the novel. You’ll find plenty of detail about all of that on Wikipedia, but essentially a woman was in a love triangle with her husband and her lover – the lover killed the husband in a sudden attack, but the woman was also tried for the crime of complicity. Whether or not she was complicit is something by Delafield and Jesse consider – I shan’t say the outcome of the trial for now.

Delafield’s novel seems pretty faithful to the set up (though, like Jesse, she makes the husband much older than he actually was). And we start off seeing the early life of the woman she calls Elsie – the tone being set by the opening words “Elsie, I’ve told you before, I won’t have you going with boys”. (Indeed, it was set before you open the novel if you happen to know who Messalina was – which I did not. Another one for Wikipedia, if you’re interested.)

The woman speaking is Elsie’s mother, and Delafield paints a world of respectable poverty for Elsie and her sister and mother. Lots of “She’s a good gurl, my Elsie” style dialogue – which was very entertaining to read, for the most part (Delafield can’t help being funny, even in a serious novel) though I have no real idea how much people ever did talk in this way. Certainly the working-class characters talk in a mix of salt-of-the-earth cliches, but people do speak in cliches, don’t they? Is it patronising, or is more patronising to put eloquence into the mouths of characters who probably never had it? Hard to say.

After a brief stint as a sort of housekeeper, during which Elsie gets entangled with the father of the family and is ousted, she marries a pushy man called Horace. He becomes rather an ogre as soon as she has a ring on her finger – alienating her from her family, demanding that she does as she’s told, and so forth. It’s a little cartoonish, but the whole novel is a little heightened, even stagey, so it more or less works. It does, however, mean the reader isn’t terribly heartbroken when Elsie starts an affair with good-looking Leslie – or (skipping forward, because I’ve already spoiled the crisis) when a drunk and angry Leslie kills Horace…

Delafield often treads a path between romance novel and her usual sardonic eye. Those aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, of course, but it’s still a careful tightrope to walk – because her wit might undercut how seriously we might be meant to take the relationship between Elsie and Leslie. But she makes it work, because she’s fabs.

The love-affair of Elsie Williams and Leslie Morrison swept on its course, and in the early days of their madness neither of them paused for an instant to count its possible cost.

It seemed indeed, as though Fate were deliberately simplifying their way.

Horace Williams appeared unable to give his attention to anything beyond his newly-discovered digestive trouble, and remained constantly indoors through the hottest and finest of the summer days, experimenting upon himself with drugs, and studying tables of dietetic values.

Occasionally, the need to add in things that really happened – particularly letters that were sent, in which ‘Elsie’ suggests she is trying to poison her husband – mean that the narrative has a bit of a jolt. Delafield tidies away required moments in slightly clumsy asides, that make the reader feel that perhaps the real people weren’t quite like this. But they are small jolts, not earthquakes.

The novel ends during the trial – which came as rather a surprise to me, as the book was far from finished. It turns out there was a collection of short stories at the end, which were enjoyable enough (though mostly about how terrible women can be to women) – but made the ending feel more abrupt to me than it probably is. Still, the novel is definitely up to Delafield’s usual excellent calibre, and I recommend getting hold of a copy.

If you listened to the podcast, you’ll know that (much as I liked this novel) I preferred A Pin To See The Peepshow – so I hope I get around to writing about that one soon!

The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner

The True HeartThis beautiful, beautiful edition of The True Heart (1929) by Sylvia Townsend Warner was given to me as part of a wonderful Secret Santa present from Christina (the secret was eventually revealed!) in a Virago Modern Classics LibraryThing exchange. That was back in 2014, and it recently got to the top of my list by being nominated by Ali when I asked people to tell me what to read from my tbr. Thank you both, because I loved it!

It is slightly shaming that, despite writing about Warner at length in my DPhil thesis, I had only read a few of her novels. Because my thesis was thematic, I concentrated on the novels which fit the criteria (they had to be fantastic, for one thing – if you want to know about fantasy vs fantastic, then that can be another post one day!). That meant that I spent a long time reading the diaries, letters, essays etc of Warner and others, but didn’t look too hard at the novels which came after the ones I was interested in.

I was also rather nervous – because, while I love and adore Lolly Willowes, I liked Mr Fortune’s Maggot rather less, and was bored rigid by Summer Will Show and The Corner That Held Them. That may well be because of my struggles with historical fiction, and I know those novels are well-loved by many. But it meant I was curious how I’d feel about The True Heart.

The novel has two things in its favour: it’s set in the Victorian period, which is apparently within my remit for acceptable historical fiction (and within living memory when Warner wrote it), and it was written in the 1920s. Yes, that is often enough for me to fall in love with a book, but in this case it’s notable because I think Warner was at her best with her first few novels – and this one was her third.

I’ve rambled long enough without actually telling you anything about the plot. Apparently it is a retelling of Eros/Cupid and Psyche, though I had forgotten that when I was reading it (and don’t know the myth, thinking about it, so who knows.) Our heroine is Sukey Bond – a bright and imaginative orphan, who leaves her orphanage to be farmed out to… well, aptly, a farm. She is 16, and the place out in the Essex marshes has been found for her by Mrs Seaborn – a woman whom Sukey admires and idolises beyond all others. In the months that passes, it is a sort of idol of Mrs Seaborn that she keeps in her mind, while she tries to get her head around her new scenario. Here’s a fairly length excerpt, which gives you a hint of Warner’s greatest strength – her style. I love how her writing mixes the pastoral, the emotional, and the wryly amusing.


She hoped that Zeph would offer to take her to the sea, for though she knew that she had but to follow the windings of the creek eastward to find her way there by herself, she lacked courage to go alone. Herds of cattle and horses grazed over the marsh; but she did not dread these, for she soon discovered that the worst they did was to follow her, snorting and inquisitive, but not intending her any harm. It was the sea itself that she dreaded. The Bible had taught her that the sea was to be feared. storms arose there, the cruel floods clapped their hands. Perhaps a wave would take hold of her and bear her away, or perhaps she would see a ship wrecked.

She hoped in vain. Zeph had a poor opinion of the sea; he would have thought it no compliment to a respectable young girl to offer her a sight of that inscrutable nuisance. When they set out he turned his face firmly inland, conducting her to inspect Mr Hardwick’s new silo. Sukey gazed with due respect at this rarity. It reminded her of the Tower of Babel, and she thought how dreadful it would be if Zeph suddenly began to speak French.

The family are chiefly of the ‘poor but honest’ variety, though the girlfriend of one of the sons (Prudence) is more of a minx who is determined to subjugate Sukey. She has recently been in Sukey’s maid role, and thinks that the best way to elevate herself to equality with the family is to distance herself from her former life. Sukey continues to be something of a naive innocent.

It is with this frame of mind that she meets Eric. She first mistakes him for the third son of the family, but is quickly disabused on this front. He is, in fact, Mrs Seaborn’s son – a kind, nature-loving young man, usually silent. His first overtures to Sukey are offering to show her where he has found a secret orchard. And, drawn to kindness and gentleness, Sukey falls in love with him. They get engaged, in private, near a church – which Eric thinks they can just climb into to be wed.

It is only later that he has a seizure, and Sukey is told by the malicious Prudence that Eric is considered an ‘idiot’. He is taken away from the farm.

We follow Sukey as she quits her job, leaves her things, and goes to find Eric – hoping to be welcomed by the Mrs Seaborn she has built in her head. That’s not quite how things go. And the rest of the novel sees Sukey try to win the freedom and independence that she and Eric need for their simple, harmless love. Along the way she meets curious characters (including Queen Victoria!) and there are amusing incidents – my favourite being where she offers to be a maid at a house which, the reader quickly realises, offers other services…

This is a beautiful book, unsentimental in every scene, but never cynical or too detached. Rather, it shows the strength of a character and the gentle power of determination. Above all, it shows Warner at her best descriptive power and storytelling ability.

I don’t think it’s up there with Lolly Willowes, which is truly a tour de force, but The True Heart is still a great novel and I’m grateful to Christina and Ali for working together – albeit unknowingly! – to get me to read it.

Others who got Stuck into it:

Heavenali: “The novel is deceptively simple, but it is a glorious non-sentimental celebration of love, and the wonderful capacity of the human heart.”

Rough Draft: “The beautiful and deeply textured descriptions and the odd encounters give the novel a fantastic, dream-like quality.”

Over the Footlights and Other Fancies by Stephen Leacock

It is for books such as this that I put off creating my Top Ten Books of the year until the last possible movement. I wanted to read something reliably enjoyable on Christmas Day (and, as it turned out, Boxing Day) and was mulling over what it would be – when Stephen Leacock leapt to mind.

Over the Footlights

I would probably cite Leacock as among my favourite writers, and have read a fair few of his books (and amassed more), but I haven’t actually read one of his since I was 18, around 13 years ago. Which is fairly absurd, given how many I have unread, and how much I enjoy him. Indeed, along with A.A. Milne, E.M. Delafield, and Richmal Crompton, he was in the first tranche of authors I collected – and those who helped form my taste. Would I still like him after all this time, with at least a thousand more books read since I last read one of his?

What’s the opposite of burying the lede? Obviously you’ll have gathered by now that I did, very much, enjoy Over The Footlights and Other Fancies (1923). Like other Leacock books, it is a collection of short pieces – in this case, they are mostly – as the title suggests – theatrically themed. The ‘other fancies’, at the end, are not; we will come onto those.

How to describe these pieces? They are not spoofs, because they are too kind and too subtle for that. Imagine, if you will, a genre being ever so slightly heightened, and presented while at the same time being affectionately observed – dialogue interspersed with the reason for it being thus phrased – and you’ll begin to grasp what Leacock is doing.

It is somewhat surprising that his theatrical topics remain recognisable to the 21st-century reader (or at least this one; and any with a working knowledge of turn of the century theatre). Things kick off with a wonderful melodrama, ‘Cast up by the Sea’ (‘Why didn’t he explain? Why didn’t he shout out, “Hiram, I’m not a villain at all; I’m your old friend!” Oh, pshaw! who ever did explain things in the second act of a melodrama? And where would the drama be if they did?’). There’s a parodic Ibsen, and exemplars (of a fashion) of Russian plays new and old. Even the cinema gets a look-in, with a desert bounty picture (‘Dear Man’s Gold’), as does Greek tragedy as performed by a university drama club. It’s all wonderful stuff, requiring only the smallest of acquaintances with the genre in question to amuse.

My favourite – though perhaps it is because I know this genre best – is ‘The Soul Call’. It’s Leacock’s version of the 1920s problem play – about knowing oneself and – well, I’ll let Leacock explain:

At the opposite pole of thought from the good old melodrama, full of wind and seaweed and danger, is the ultra-modern, up-to-date Piffle-Play.

It is named by such a name as The Soul Call, or The Heart Yearn, or The Stomach Trouble – always something terribly perplexed and with 60 per cent of sex in it. It always deals in one way or another with the “problem of marriage”. Let it be noted that marriage, which used to be a sacrament, became presently a contract and now a problem. In art and literature it used to constitute the happy ending. Now it’s just the bad beginning.

We all recognise this sort of play, I suspect, if we have any fondness for the 1920s. And if you’re reading my blog, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that you probably do.

This particular play is about Lionel and Helga, married (respectively) to Mabel and Charles, who have decided to poison their partners because they are holding them back from ‘following the higher call of their natures’. I hope my pronouns in that sentence were disentangleable. In between giving us their dialogue, and some amusing stage directions, Leacock also gives us the views of the sympathetic (albeit small) audience. After the first act, they are generally pro the poisoning plan, but have yet to see Mabel on stage. In the second act…

Mabel Derwent goes over to the Hindoo tray and picks up a big cream-candy out of a box and eats it, and says, “Yum! Yum!” with animal relish. All the audience look at Mabel. They see in her a dashing, good-looking woman, a blonde, all style, and with just a touch of loudness. All the women in the audience decide at once that she ought to be poisoned; but the man aren’t so sure.

Leacock has that knack of coming across as warm and likeable in his writing – how, I don’t know; whether or not it was true, I also have no idea. Somehow it is impossible for him to come across as cynical or malicious – so he can tease the genres of the day without seeming to dislike them, and without alienating the audiences who watch any of these sorts of plays and films. It’s whimsical – which became a dirty word around 1920, but shouldn’t be; whimsy requires the same keen observational power that powers poignant or reflective writing.

Once the ‘footlights’ section is over, we move to the ‘other fancies’, many and various. Here, Leacock gives freer reign to his more surreal humour. I suppose a parodic play requires restraint, to keep it amusing, while tales of daily life can take a step into the bizarre – such as the sketch about how and why Leacock purportedly shot his landlord, or how his neighbour’s daily updates on nature drive Leacock murderous with rage. (Not all his pieces are about feeling murderous, honest.) He writes amusingly about his exploits trying (not so hard) to catch black bass, about the indignities of Prohibition (which I hadn’t realised got as far as Canada), and about how a comet was going to destroy the earth and nobody much minded:

I find the same attitude everywhere. I heard a little boy last Sunday, on his way into church, say to his mother, “Mother, is it true that a comet is going to hit the world?” And she said, “Yes, dear, the newspapers say so.” “And where shall we be after it this us?” “I suppose, darling,” she answered, with a touch of reverence, I admit, in her voice, “that we shall be dissolved into nebular nucleus with an enveloping corona of incandescent hydrogen.” After that they passed into church, and I heard no more.

Look, you either love that or you don’t. If you do find it funny, you’re in luck – there is an awful lot of Leacock out there to read. I am castigating myself for leaving it so long before I went back to his books. This one was every bit as wonderful as I’d remembered.

Leacock’s star has rather faded, I think, certainly outside of his native Canada, and that’s a pity. I urge you to go out and find something by him, if you’ve enjoyed the quotations in this review; I imagine plenty of his books are available free for ereaders, and some (Literary Lapses, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town) are fairly easy to find as real books. I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading some more Leacock from my shelves this year – who fancies joining me?

Confusion by Stefan Zweig

ConfusionDo you ever go to a bookshop and love the displays and feel of it so much that you want to buy something almost as a souvenir? I don’t often buy new books, but a morning browsing in the London Review of Books bookshop last September (when I had a lovely time with Rachel, incidentally) was so fun that I wanted to pick something to take home with me. And I couldn’t resist the beauty of Pushkin Press editions, and an author I’d been meaning to try for ages. Step forward Confusion (1927) by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Anthea Bell. I think the cover art was created by Petra Borner, as she gets a note on the jacket (“Her roots are prominent in her work, which often merges natural and magical elements, with bold lines and colours.”) It is definitely lovely.

Confusion is a novella, and I don’t think it’s particularly at the forefront of the Zweig’s literary reputation – but I thought it told a very interesting tale. It is from the perspective of a revered and ageing Languages and Literature Professor, Roland, who has (as his brief introduction explains) recently been given a Festschrift dedicated to him by his department; ‘nothing short of a complete biographical record’. It is this gift that makes him feel an oversight:

The carefully compiled index comprises two hundred names – and the only one missing is the name of the man from whom all my creativity derived, who determined the course my life would take, and now calls me back to my youth with redoubled force. The book covers everything else, but not the man who gave me the gift of language and with whose tongue I speak: and suddenly I feel to blame for this craven silence.

And that takes us to the rest of the book. One of my pet literary peeves is a book which starts with the present day and then leaps back to the past, to wind back to the present – but in Confusion the present day is really only a vantage for stepping back – and that backward glance only encompasses a short period of time. A period that was extremely influential in Roland’s life.

The story is simple, really. After a brief stint as a rather riotous student at one university, more interested in finding willing local girls to share his bed than fine minds to share his study, Roland is asked to leave. A little reluctantly, he enrols in another university – and eventually goes along to a lecture, not expecting very much.

He is immediately beguiled. The lecturer – I want to say that we never learn his name, but it’s equally possible that I just don’t remember it – weaves a tale around literature that captivates Roland. The way he delivers the talk transfixes Roland, introducing him to theories and perspectives and attitudes that leave him excited and desperate for more. (Sidenote: this is the sort of teaching experience one sees occasionally in fiction; I never had it – but I am certainly grateful to Mrs Walker, Miss Little, and Mr Brooks – the teachers who most excited me in my subject throughout high school. Thanks y’all, even though you’ll never see this. I’m not sure I ever had quite that touch-paper moment at university, but that’s perhaps because I didn’t need it; I was already in love with literature. And that, perhaps, dates back to Miss McGovern in Year One.)

But the relationship does not stay purely academic. Roland and the teacher become friends, and he is welcomed into their domestic life – meeting the teacher’s wife too. She is young, dignified, kind, and unhappy. Roland cannot help getting involved in their lives.

From then on I became attentive in a new way; hitherto, my boyish veneration of the teacher whom I idolized had seen him so much as a genius from another world that I had entirely omitted to think of his private, down-to-earth life. With the exaggeration inherent in any true enthusiasm, I had imagined his existence as remote from all the daily concerns of our methodically ordered world. And just as, for instance, a man in love for the first time dares not undress the girl he adores in his thoughts, dares not think of her a natural being like the thousands of others who wear skirts, I was disinclined to venture on any prying into his private life: I knew him only in sublimated form, remote from all that is subjective and ordinary. I saw him as the bearer of the word, and the embodiment of the creative spirit. Now that my tragicomic adventure had suddenly brought his wife across my path, I could not help observing his domestic and family life more closely; indeed, although against my will, a restless, spying curiosity was aroused within me.

Confusion is so brief that I don’t want to spoil the denouement, though it is a natural conclusion to what has gone before and certainly isn’t played for shock. But the way it is told is what is important – and Zweig’s writing (in the hands of Anthea Bell) is beautiful, rhythmic, and with the natural balance and sensitivity of the born storyteller.

So, Confusion probably isn’t regarded amongst Zweig’s foremost fictions – or, who knows, for all I know it is – but I certainly loved reading it. And now I need to resist the urge to buy all of his books in Pushkin editions and no other.

The Other One by Colette

The Other OneDark Puss! I did it! I read a novel by Colette! I think I remember you, or someone, suggesting that this wasn’t the best one to start with – but The Other One was the novel on my shelf, so it was the one I read. And, better yet, I liked it!

The Other One had a couple of things stacked against it before I started. Firstly, I haven’t had the best of luck with French literature (this novel was published in 1929 as La Seconde and translated by Elizabeth Tait and Roger Senhouse, at least in my edition; I don’t know enough about translation to know if they are commonly associated with Colette. Confusingly, a previous novel was translated as The Other Woman.)  Secondly, it’s about a love triangle – and I find novels about the agonies of people committing adultery exceptionally tedious.

So, why did this one work for me? (Spoilers ahead.) Perhaps primarily because, for the most part, nobody is suffering any agonies at all. Indeed, I spent much of the novel thinking that this was an amicable arrangement for all parties – and I’m still not sure if that was me being duped by Colette, or missing some signals that Fanny wasn’t aware of her husband’s affair. Because when she does become aware, there are some very poignant, excellently handled scenes. More of that anon.

The novel concerns Farou, a theatre impresario who is of the unattractive the-genius-must-be-tolerated variety. Unattractive to the reader, that is, or at least this reader; women seem unable to resist him. The two women in question are far more appealing, nuanced characters. His wife Fanny is controlled, witty, and covers selfishness with charm. Her confidante and companion is Jane, who is Farou’s secretary and mistress, but who admires Fanny as vehemently as she admires Fanny’s husband.

So, yes, I’m still puzzling over whether or not we’re supposed to think that Fanny knows what’s going on. But there is a stark scene about two thirds of the way through this short novel where Fanny spies the two together in the bathroom, and after that her poise is shattered. All comes out, but it isn’t the flinging-plates-and-screaming of stereotype or soap opera. One of my favourites moment in The Other One came during the scene where Fanny lays her accusation before Jane:

The violent slamming of a door in the flat interrupted her. The pair of them, their hands on their hips, in a pose of acrimonious argument, listened to it.

“It’s not him,” Jane said at last. “If it were he, we’d have heard the outer door first.”

“It makes very little noise since the new draught-excluders were fixed,” were Fanny. “In any case, he never comes in here before dinner.”

This sort of domestic detail, at this crucial moment, was tensely funny – as well as revealing a great deal about the dynamic between these women, even in a situation like this. Colette has really built up complex portraits of these women, and the novel seems much more about their dynamic than it is about Farou (or about his son, who is also in love with Jane, in a subplot that lent a bit of depth but not much else).

Oh, and the writing is pretty lovely throughout. Here was another bit I highlighted (and by ‘highlighted’ I, of course, mean that I made a tiny note in pencil):

There they stayed till lamp-time, shoulder against shoulder, with few words passing, silently pointing to a bat, a star maybe, listening to the faint fresh breeze in the trees, imagining the reddening glow of the sunset they never saw unless they climbed the hill opposite.

I’ve heard from Colette aficionados that The Other One isn’t necessarily the best or most exciting place to start with Colette, but I was long overdue reading a book by her, and this one was on my shelf in Oxford. And if this one isn’t considered particularly special amongst her output, then I’m in for a treat – because I thought it was great! I can only imagine how much I’ll enjoy her writing when she has her sights on a topic that I find more interesting, given how successfully she convinced me with this one.


Mist and other ghost stories by Richmal Crompton

MistAt Christmas, a very kind lady (and fellow bibliophile) living in the village next to my parents’ village gave me a copy of Mist and other stories (1928) by Richmal Crompton. It was published last year in a nice (limited) edition by Sundial Press, in a series called Sundial Supernatural. I’ve been aware of this collection for many years, but it was virtually unobtainable – so this reprint is very welcome.

You might be surprised to hear the name ‘Richmal Crompton’ and the word ‘supernatural’ mentioned together. She is, of course, chiefly remembered as the author of the William books, starting with Just William; in our corner of the blogosphere, she may also be known for her addictive domestic novels featuring wide casts of family members or villagers. Yet, though Crompton often used the William books to tease those who believed in the occult (who can forget the spiritualists she lampoons in those stories?) she had a longstanding interest in the occult herself.

In novels, this only came to the fore in The House (published as Dread Dwelling in the US), which I was lucky enough to borrow from someone a while ago. In that novel, the evil spirit of a house manages to terrorise its inhabitants. As Richard Dalby writes in his introduction to this collection, The House presages works like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but it was also a theme very much in the air of the time.

It’s also returned to often in Mist and other stories; houses and their inhabitants have inextricable links or apparent enmities. Here, for instance, is a section from ‘Marlowes’:

It was a bitter disappointment to us. We’d looked forward so long to this. We’d found exactly the house we’d wanted. And then – it wouldn’t have us. We decided at the end of the first month that we couldn’t stand it. We’d have to go. You can’t live in an atmosphere of hatred like that. We felt bewildered and unspeakably wretched. We couldn’t sleep. We weren’t going to try to find another house. We wanted this and no other, and as this didn’t want us we’d have to back to America. Often when we were out on the fresh sunny downs behind the house the whole thing seemed ridiculous.

You’ll be pleased to know that things work out ok for them, once they’ve sorted out some of the anxieties the house has about its present and former occupants.

More often, the stories here deal with love triangles – often a previous spouse or lover haunting the current one, whether as a ghost or through possession. ‘Harry Lorrimer’ doesn’t deal with a previous lover, but does include possession:

They were not Harry Lorrimer’s eyes. Or, rather, they were Harry Lorrimer’s eyes in shape and colouring, but – it was not Harry Lorrimer who looked out of them. And there was worse. For the eyes were the eyes of a man without a soul. And if you’ve never seen eyes like that then pray God you never may.

I was a bit worried that the stories would be scary, particularly since I read most of them on dark winter evenings – but I needn’t have worried. Those looking for stories in the manner of M.R. James will be disappointed, but I welcomed stories that were interested in the psychology and minutiae of dealing with the supernatural, rather than trying to scare the reader.

Crompton, bless her, doesn’t do twists. In none of these stories was I shocked. The good people invariably remain good; the bad people are clearly bad. Never does it turn out that the haunted damsel was deviously behind everything all along – which could have been quite fun, thinking about it, but it was also reassuring to see short stories about ghosts that are preoccupied with other things than terror. Essentially, it is precisely how a domestic novelist would approach the occult.