The Lark by E. Nesbit

The Lark
Sherpa posing (/sleeping) next to The Lark.

Well, two days in to 2016 and I’ve finished a novel that I’m pretty sure will be on my Top Books 2016, unless a lot of truly spectacular things come along; it’s already on my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. The Lark (1922) by E. Nesbit is an absolute joy – charming, witty, dry, affectionate, and wry all in one go. May I offer a hearty thanks to Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow who first alerted me (and anybody who reads his excellent blog) to its existence, and a second hearty thanks to whichever person donated it to a charity shop in Yeovil, of all unlikely places. And, while I’m at it, a third hearty thanks to Lily P. Bond, who apparently bought this book at Ilminster Fair in 1925, and a fourth to Edith, who gave it to her mother with love at some unspecified date. (Copies can be found in ebook version for very little money.)

The novel starts off with a trio of children (Jane, Emmeline, and Lucilla) which is one of Nesbit’s few mistakes in this book, I think, because it will either disappoint those who like books about children or deter those who don’t: there is only a scene before they’re adults. The difference between their childlike naivety and their adult independence is, truth be told, only four years – but it might as well be a lifetime, so far as The Lark is concerned. As ‘children’, adventurous Jane decides to cast a spell which will show her the man she will marry (to the consternation of Emmie and Lucy): she wanders off to a wood to do so, and – lo and behold! – who should be passing but John Rochester. She sees him, he slips off, and the story is allowed to rush forwards to present day.

Now, if you’re thinking ‘Jane and Mr Rochester, how subtle, gosh I wonder what will happen to them’ then (a) you’re rushing ahead of yourself, and (b) Nesbit is consistently so knowing and self-knowing as a narrator that one can never get the upper hand. When he turns up again, and is ignored by the adult Jane, Nesbit coyly dismisses him as being ‘definitely out of the picture, which concerns itself only with the desperate efforts of two inexperienced girls to establish, on the spur of the moment, a going concern that shall be at once agreeable and remunerative’. It’s impossible to feel outraged at coincidences or unlikely behaviour if the narrator points them out too.

Jane and Lucie, you see, as destitute because their guardian has made bad investments with their inheritances (they are both orphans). ‘Destitute’ in this case means ownership of a beautiful cottage and £500, which this calculator tells me is the equivalent of over £20,000 today; this sort of destitute makes my full-time employment look rather inadequate. The indomitable pair decide to treat their misfortune (for such we must accept it) as ‘a lark’, and I can’t help agreeing with Scott that this is an excellent excerpt to quote:

“I want to say I think it’s a beastly shame.”

“No, no! “said Jane eagerly. “Don’t start your thinking with that, or you’ll never get anywhere. It isn’t a shame and it isn’t beastly. I’ll tell you what it is, Lucy. And that’s where we must start our thinking from. Everything that’s happening to us—yes, everything—is to be regarded as a lark. See? This is my last word. This. Is. Going. To. Be. A. Lark.”

“Is it?” said Lucilla. “And that’s my last word.”

This sentiment recurs – when one is unhappy, or bad things happen, they force themselves to laugh it off. It’s endearing rather than sickeningly Pollyannaish because they don’t find it easy, and they constantly tease one another about it. Their sarcasm and quips are delightfully witty, even if they retain a slightly cumbersome Edwardian propriety. In this particular instance, they must find a way to generate an income from within the narrow straits of a gentlewoman’s education – and land upon selling flowers. There are enough in their small garden to last them a day, but rather more can be found at an old shut-up house in the neighbourhood.

They manage to charm the old man who owns it to let them sell flowers from the garden room and – would you believe it? – he turns out to be John Rochester’s uncle. But Jane is far from pleased to see him, and insists that they can only be friends. There is much to enjoy about Jane and Lucy setting up a flower shop (including an improbable encounter with their future gardener in Madame Tussaud’s) – I love any story about people setting up a shop, particularly slightly feisty women in the 1920s. As The Lark develops, they will also start taking in paying guests – rather far into the novel, actually; it could have appeared earlier – and find their lives increasingly entangled with Rochester. Other characters I haven’t even had time to mention are the sceptical cook, the flirtatious maid Gladys, and the arrival of Miss Antrobus, who is supposedly Rochester’s intended. And there is a hilarious section involving poor Lucy disguising herself as an invented aunt.

The Lark could really have been about anything; it is Nesbit’s style that carries the day. There are more than hints of it in her children’s novels, but here – the first of her adult novels that I have read – she can give full rein to her dry humour and ability to show light-hearted exchanges between amusing, intelligent characters whom you can’t help loving. The whole thing is an absolute pleasure, and would be perfect between Persephone covers. It’s pretty rare that I’m sad to see a book end, but I will confess to feeling a little distraught that my time spent in Jane and Lucy’s company is over – until I re-read it, of course.


The Return of Alfred by Herbert Jenkins

Quite a few of us, around the blogosphere, have delighted in the frothy joy of Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins – my own review was not the first, but was among the most deliriously enthusiastic. Naturally, it sent me off buying a whole bunch of other Jenkins novels – none of which I have read. Instead, I listened to an unabridged recording of The Return of Alfred (1922).

This came free, courtesy of Anna Simon, reading at Librivox. Here it is, if you’d like to listen to it yourself. This is my first experience with Librivox and, I’ve gotta say, I was pretty impressed. Anna Simon is an excellent reader, with a lovely tone and great subtle distinctions between voices (without going quite into ‘dramatisation’ style). Cynics, have a listen.

But what of the novel? Well, if you think Patricia Brent, Spinster was overly reliant on coincidence, then you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Return of Alfred revolves around a gentleman (whose real name I have forgotten; curse not being able to turn back the pages of an audiobook!) who masquerades as James Smith when distancing himself from an overbearing and cantankerous father. Said father wants ‘Smith’ to marry a neighbouring woman, in order to join their estates, but Smith is a determined war hero with independence coursing through his veins – oh, and he’s very witty too – so, false name and canvas bag in hand, he hops on a train. Only it goes no further than a village in the middle of nowhere, where Smith is thrown out into the rain. He scales the fence of the first house he comes to… and is joyfully greeted as the long-lost Alfred.

The greeting is joyful from the butler, that is. All of Alfred’s family are dead or absent, but his butler, governess, and sundry others are thrilled to see him after an absence of around a decade. The neighbours aren’t so sure; Alfred has done some misdeeds in his time. Yes, dear reader, we have to swallow that Smith has an exact doppelgänger – and that nobody at all believes his protests that he is not the man they believe him to be. These protests are constant and unswerving throughout the novel, and at no point do they seem to make the slightest impression on anybody except a fantastic young boy called Eric, who bases his adjudication on Smith’s cricketing ability.

So, why does Smith stay, rather than high-tailing it onto the next village asap? Readers of Patricia Brent, Spinster might be able to guess the reason – yes, it is a case of love at first sight, with a woman whom he has glanced at a window. That is enough, it seems, to make him stay put. And she is barely more delineated than that for large chunks of the novel. The love story rather holds sway in Patricia Brent, Spinster; in The Return of Alfred, we are more interested in the possible outcome of the mistake (given the nemeses Alfred apparently has, that Smith must now encounter) – and I spent my time wondering if the was a reason that nobody believed that Smith was not Alfred.

As you can tell from my teasing tone, I found The Return of Alfred all rather improbable – but also another total delight. There is a chapter where Jenkins indulges himself far too much in describing a cricket match (the chapter is twice as long as the others, and nothing unexpected happens in the cricket match; it was the only chapter that I found dragged) but, besides this, it is all great fun. Incidentally, I have discovered that I much prefer to read comic books than listen to them, as I always want to ‘do’ the pacing and comic timing myself, and found myself re-saying things in my head with a different rhythm, excellent though the narrator’s reading was.

So, it’s not quite up there with Patricia Brent, Spinster for me – which would probably have been true whether I’d read or listened to The Return of the Alfred – but it certainly proved to me that Jenkins wasn’t a one-trick pony when it comes to silly, delightful tales of extremely unlikely events. Smith is fab, the villagers are amusing, and Eric’s abbreviations were more than dece. Thank you, Librivox, for making this book freely available to all!

Oh, and fun fact – this, and Patricia Brent, Spinster, were originally published anonymously; this one was simply ‘by the author of Patricia Brent, Spinster‘, and dedicated: ‘To those in many countries who have generously assumed responsibility for the authorship of Patricia Brent, Spinster – this book is dedicated by the author’.

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

I’ve reviewed The Red House Mystery today, over at Vulpes Libris – a detective novel by the man who is probably my all-time favourite writer, A.A. Milne. Usually I’d just point you over there, but I hope my fellow foxes won’t mind me posting the review here too, since I’d really like to have my much-loved author reviewed in the Stuck-in-a-Book archives as well…

The Red House MysteryNowadays, The Red House Mystery is likely to provoke the words “I didn’t know A.A. Milne wrote a detective novel”; back in the day, you’d have been more likely to hear astonishment that the author of The Red House Mystery had turned his hand to children’s books. For, although Milne arguably only ever wrote one detective novel (Four Days’ Wonder just about counts as one as well, I’d suggest, but that’s another story), for a while it was the thing for which he was most famous. Having earned his name as a Punch humorist, he turned his hand to The Red House Mystery in 1922 and it was an enormous success. Two years later would come When We Were Very Young, and another two years later arrived a certain Bear of Very Little Brain – but, between 1922 and 1924, A.A. Milne and crime went hand-in-hand. And a few years ago The Red House Mystery was reprinted: hurrah.

I first read it sometime before that, in around 2002, when copies were traceable but the novel was certainly not in print. I enjoyed it, but that was about all I remembered when I decided, recently, to give it a re-read.

Everything kicks off ‘in the drowsy heat of the summer afternoon’; The Red House is occupied with various guests, but it is the servants who take centre stage at the beginning. Mrs Stevens (the cook-housekeeper) is talking to her parlourmaid niece Audrey about the colour of a blouse the latter will wear. That isn’t a detail that has any bearing on the later plot; it’s just an indication of the sort of domestic triviality that Milne so loves describing, whatever sort of fiction he is writing. And, indeed, whatever sort of fiction he is writing, he can’t avoid giving his prose an air of comedy. Both Stevenses are rather given to inconsequential conversation, and Milne throws in some fun verbal tics. Audrey relays the news that Mr Mark’s brother has returned from Australia (Mr Mark being the owner of The Red House); Mrs Stevens replies:

“Well, he may have been in Australia,” said Mrs Stevens, judicially; “I can’t say for that, not knowing the country; but what I do say is he’s never been here. Not while I’ve been here, and that’s five years.”
Upon being assured by Audrey that the brother has been absent for fifteen years, she says:

“I’m not saying anything about fifteenth years, Audrey. I can only speak for what I know, and that’s five years Whitsuntide. I can take my oath he’s not set foot in the house since five years Whitsuntide.”
You either like that sort of thing or you don’t. If you don’t, there is still the mystery to hang around for; if you do, you’ll find that Milne could write just about anything and you’d lap it up.

What he has written is a murder mystery that is pretty decent. My refusal to reveal any details at all about a detective novel has rather stymied this review, but suffice to say that it doesn’t revolutionise the genre particularly. That is to say, this was before the Golden Age had really taken hold, so the genre hadn’t come close to being clichéd. For context, The Red House Mystery came out the same year as Agatha Christie’s second novel. So, we have clues strewn willy-nilly, secret passages, midnight assignations, costumes, and all sorts of things that would be considered too hackneyed now. How nice to have been able to use them with impunity!

Milne lays out some ground rules for detective fiction (or, at least, his favourite detective fiction) in an introduction. Plain writing (no ‘effecting egresses’), no predominant love story, and ‘for the detective himself I demand first that he be an amateur’. He can be a extremely shrewd man, but not a specialist – or, at least, his specialism ought not to help him solve the murder. As Milne writes:

What satisfaction is it to you or me when the famous Professor examines the small particle of dust which the murderer has left behind him, and infers that he lives between a brewery and a flour-mill? What thrill do we get when the blood-spot on the missing man’s handkerchief proves that he was recently bitten by a camel? Speaking for myself, none. The thing is so much too easy for the author, so much too difficult for his readers.
The detective Milne creates is, indeed, an amateur; a guest at The Red House. He is Anthony Gillingham, and is intelligent, charming, quietly witty, and essentially an incarnation of Milne himself, so far as I can tell. It is difficult to get much of a sense of him here, besides his likeability, but I would have loved to see him feature in more detective novels. Sadly, that was not to be.

I have glossed over the surface of the plot, but that is to be expected. Importantly, The Red House Mystery is cosy crime at its finest. Milne does not have the genius for plotting that Christie had – but who does? This novel can certainly hold its own with the second tier of detective novelists and, I would controversially argue, is rather better than the Dorothy L Sayers’ books I’ve read. If you’ve somehow missed it, go and treat yourself.