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!

Mark Only by T.F. Powys

Mark OnlySneaking in on the penultimate day of The 1924 Club, I have finished Mark Only by T.F. Powys – a rural novel from (of course) 1924, which I bought only recently and didn’t even realise was from 1924 until I got home. (Fab endpapers and previous owner’s bookplate to your left). Sorry The Crowded Street, sorry The Unlit Lamp, I definitely meant to read you – but that will have to wait for another time. (Do keep sending in your 1924 Club reads, of course!)

I don’t know whether it’s the Reader’s Block I’m feeling or something inherent in Mark Only, but I struggled a bit with this book. Every time I picked it up, I enjoyed reading it – his prose has a rhythmic simplicity that is enjoyable – but I would realise, after turning a dozen pages, that I had no idea what was going on. Even as I finished it, I feel like I might only have gathered the broad outline of the plot – but also a strong feel for what the novel is like, which is more important, I guess.

So why is it called Mark Only? Well, prepare yourself for a rib-tickling oh-no-he-didn’t opening scene: Mark’s baptism. It is all going a bit wrong because Hayball, the vicar, has spotted a dead centipede in the font.

My. Hayball knew that the cupful of water that Potten had brought would soon follow the other and be all run away, and there would only be the dead centipede left. He did not want to touch that. “It wouldn’t do,” he thought, “to baptize even the last child to be born in the earth with the decomposed body of a dead centipede.”

“What name?” he asked crossly.

“Mark,” replied Mr. Andrews, and then added a little louder, “Mark only.”

Mr. Hayball looked into the font. By putting his fingers to the bottom discreetly and warily, he might by good luck avoid the centipede.

“Mark Only, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

Lol, right? If you’re thinking ‘that’s a bit of a weak joke to hang a novel on’, then you’re not wrong. Apparently this slip of the tongue marks (ahaha geddit) Mark out for a life of misery. Because sure.

He’s not the sharpest tool in the box – but he’s a simple, well-meaning farm hand, more given to laughter than malice. Sad for him, he’s one of the few of this nature in Dodderdown. But before I go on, here’s another example of Powys’ prose:

Still looking over the gate, Mark saw Dodderdown with eyes that looked backwards. He had been down there when a child and had played with the kittens in the straw; he had run into the pond after the soft fluffy ducklings. His father had set him upon the great horse, with his little boots far from the ground as though they were lost to it. The other children used to throw mud at him because he had been baptized with “Only” for a name. That was a Dodderodwn not unkindly in all its aspects. There were pleasures in it, sugar pleasures, cake pleasures, and the sunshine that makes a child shout with joy when he sees a minnow a brook.

Not all bad, you see? For now…

I did a bit of googling, and came across an intriguing article that compares Powys to Tolstoy. Well, I’ve read two novels by Powys and none by Tolstoy, so am not best positioned to judge, but the article includes this extract from a contemporary review of Powys’ Mockery Gap, published in 1925, accusing Powys of

producing book after book (this last is the fifth in two years) depicting all rustics as dolts and rascals, bestially lustful and cruel, and all sophisticated characters as nervous wrecks and ineffectual sentimentalists.

Well, it’s not far out. Charles Tulk – a lame man who wanders the streets and earns his keep chiefly by stealing – is a bit of a Iago, maliciously trying to spoil the lives of those around him. Mark Only is singled out for poor treatment from him and from Mark’s own brother, James. Through some plot that I never quite disentangled, Mark Only is either led to believe that his wife has slept with James, or his wife has actually slept with James, or Mark is tricked into sleeping with someone else. Or possibly all of the above.

Part of the confusion comes from the fact that all the dialogue is dialect. We’re not in Mary Webb territory – thank goodness – because the prose doesn’t use dialect and is never overwritten, but every character thees and thous and thilks and thiks. There are SO many examples of bain’t. So many. I’m flicking the book open at random, looking for any dialogue, and…

1924 Club“I be coming,” she said, “I be coming, thee best bide for I, Peter. ‘Twas ‘ee then, Peter, that did take granfer’s waistcoat to wear ‘en. Don’t ‘ee now be a-going off to fair without I, and mind out I bain’t going to be late home, for they lanes be dark at night-time, an’ ’tis a pressing boy that ‘ee be.”

(I stopped typing before she got to the topic of cows, but it came soon.)

So, there are some pretty unpleasant people around. It gets a bit rapey at times, which is of course rather horrific. There is some comic relief in the form of two men who are scared of their wives, and spend their time commiserating with each other for marrying. Yep, that’s the comic relief. But for the most part, miserable things happen and Powys has a very gloomy view of rural life. It’s nice not to get unrealistically cheery village folk, but going the other way isn’t any more realistic: I wish he’d tempered his perspective a little more.

Having said that, I still enjoyed reading the prose, as Powys writes very well, and I’ll certainly get around to the other novels by him that I have on the shelf at some point. And, since rural novels were so popular in the 1910s and 1920s, I’m glad to have been able to add something representative of that vogue to The 1924 Club.

 

Virginia Woolf in 1924

VW diary vol 2I’ve been struck down with a little bit of Reader’s Block it seems – not sure how pervasive yet – so I’ve not finished any more 1924 books yet. What terrible timing! I’m hoping to finish off one more before the week is out, but for today, let’s take a look at how Virginia Woolf greeted the year in her diary. Spoilers: it’s not with an egalitarian worldview. Or short paragraphs.

2 January 1924: The year is almost certainly bound to be the most eventful in the whole of our (recorded) career. Tomorrow I go up to London to look for houses; on Saturday I deliver sentence of death upon Nellie & Lottie; at Easter we leave Hogarth; in June Dadie comes to live with us; & our domestic establishments is entirely controlled by one woman, a vacuum cleaner, & electric stoves. Now how much of this is dream, & how much reality? I should like, very much, to turn to the last page of this virgin volume & there find my dreams true. It rests with me to substantiate them between now & then. I need not burden my entirely frivolous page with whys & wherefores, how we reached these decisions, so quick. It was partly a question of coal at Rodmell. Then Nelly presented her ultimatum – poor creature, she’ll withdraw it, I know, – about the kitchen. “And I must have a new stove, & it must be on the floor so that we can warm our feet; & I must have a window in that wall…” Must? Is must a word to be used to Princes? Such was our silent reflection as we received these commands, with Lottie skirmishing around with her own very unwise provisoes & excursions. “You won’t get two girls to sleep in one room as we do” &c. “Mrs Bell says you can’t get  drop of hot water in this house…” “So you won’t come here again, Nelly?” I asked. “No, ma’am, I won’t come here again” in saying which she spoke, I think, the truth. Meanwhile, they are happy as turtles, in front of a roaring fire in their own clean kitchen, having attended the sales, & enjoyed all the cheap diversions of Richmond, which begin to pall on me. Already I feel ten years younger. Life settles round one, living here for 9 years as we’ve done, merely to think of a change lets in the air. Youth is a matter of forging ahead. I see my contemporaries satisfied, outwardly; inwardly conscious of emptiness. What’s it for? they ask themselves now & then, when the new year comes, & can’t possibly upset their comfort for a moment. I think of the innumerable tribe of Booth, for example; all lodged, nested, querulous, & believing firmly that they’ve been enjoined so to live by our father which is in heaven. Now my state is infinitely better. Here am I launching forth into vacancy. We’ve two young people depending on us. We’ve no house in prospect. All is possibility & doubt. How far can we make publishing pay? And can we give up the Nation? & could we find a house better than Monks House? Yes, that’s cropped up, partly owing to the heaven sent address of Nelly. I turned into Thornton’s waiting for my train, & was told of an old house at Wilmington – I’m pleased to find [how] volatile our temperaments still are – & L[eonard] is steady as well, a triumph I can’t say I achieve – at the ages of 42 & 43 – for 42 comes tripping towards me, the momentous year.

Now it is six, my boundary, & I must read Montaigne, & cut short those other reflections about, I think, reading & writing which were to fill up the page. I ought to describe the walk from Charleston too, but can’t defraud Montaigne any longer. He gets better & better, & so I can’t scamp him, & rush into writing, & earn my 20 guineas as I hope. Did I record a tribute from Gosse: that I’m a nonentity, a scratch from Hudson, that the V.O. is rotten; & a compliment all the way from American from Rebecca West? Oh dear, oh dear, no boasting, aloud, in 1924. I didn’t boast at Charleston.

 

The Majestic Mystery by Denis Mackail

This review is part of The 1924 Club. To discover more, and see all the reviews so far from across the blogosphere, visit my hub post or Karen’s hub page. Do keep new and old 1924 review links coming, and thanks for all the contributions so far!

Denis MackailWhen I was thinking about which obscurer authors I could sample for The 1924 Club, Denis Mackail came to mind. He is best known now as the author of the Persephone title Greenery Street and as Angela Thirkell’s brother. My housemate Kirsty had recently been reading and enjoying his books, and I had been intending to read more ever since I read Greenery Street in 2004. Despite a few of his titles on my shelves, I still hadn’t got around to it – but I didn’t own his 1924 novel The Majestic Mystery. Indeed, looking at the prices online for the very few available copies, I was surprised that anybody owned it. And then I discovered, somewhat surprisingly, that it had been released as an unabridged audiobook. I signed up for  free trial at Audible and was able to hear it.

The difficulty with blogging about an audiobook, of course, is that it’s much harder to check back for details – and much harder to give quotations. So this will necessary be a sketchier post than if I’d read the hard copy – forgive me! And there will also be some spoilers, though I shan’t say whodunnit.

The Majestic Mystery was Mackail’s only detective novel, if such it can be called – it belongs to the ‘amateur sleuth’ realm, and few sleuths come more amateur than this. Peter is our man; he has been on holiday to The Majestic Hotel with his friend James; they are both journalists on a newspaper, keen to rise above the literary pages and start covering front page news. And front page news takes place in front of them – in the form of the murder, by shooting, of a theatre manager who is staying at the hotel. Peter happened to be in the corridor at the time – so why didn’t he hear a gunshot, and should he be protecting the pretty young woman who ran out of the room just before he entered?

The hallmarks of a brilliant detective story are many and various, but – in the best – characters behave logically, and blind alleyways take place despite (rather than because of) the characters’ actions. Well, in The Majestic Mystery nobody seems to follow much logic. Peter decides to protect a woman solely because she is pretty – he has just met her, and has no idea whether or not she is innocent, and it causes all manner of delays and confusions. He sees somebody hide something down the back of the sofa, but can’t be bothered to cross the room to find out what it is. He tells all manner of lies for no obvious reasons.

And yet he is extremely affable, as is James – indeed, they are extremely similar. They come from the same school as a lot of A.A. Milne’s characters – witty, well-meaning, whimsical. They are incapable of being particularly serious, even in the face of murder, and do seem unusually stupid at times. The plot may be littered with unlikelihoods, but the writing is a delight. I wish I could quote it, but it’s the sort of light-hearted, insouciant, and extremely amusing prose that I love reading so much. Mackail does have an extremely light touch, and it more than makes up for a flimsy plot.

So, what sort of detecting does take place? As with seemingly all non-Christie practitioners of the genre, coincidence plays a large part. People also can never be at a scene without leaving some object behind them. And then, to cap it all, the only reason the mystery gets solved is because the culprit decides – apropos of nothing – to confess all to Peter about a year after the event.

Perhaps you can see why Mackail didn’t return to whodunnits. His is far from the weakest I have read, and there is a neat and almost plausible twist, but his strengths lie in prose rather than plot. A great detective novel can have good prose, of course, but what it really requires is a brilliant use of plot.

I should put in a word for the narrator Steven Crossley, who does a brilliant job both with the narrative and with the different voices. I’d definitely listen to him again, and he is pretty prolific. If you fancy joining in the 1924 Club and can listen to eight hours before the end of the week (!) then I certainly recommend The Majestic Mystery as being great fun, if not great genius.

 

Something Childish and other stories by Katherine Mansfield

This review is part of The 1924 Club. To discover more, and see all the reviews so far from across the blogosphere, visit my hub post or Karen’s hub page.

Something Childish

When I found out that Vulpes Libris were doing a Short Story Theme Week again, I thought Something Childish by Katherine Mansfield would be the perfect book to kill two birds with one stone – 1924 AND short stories? Yes please. Head over to Vulpes Libris to read my thoughts about it.

 

Conversations in Ebury Street by George Moore

This review is part of The 1924 Club. To discover more, and see all the reviews so far from across the blogosphere, visit my hub post or Karen’s hub page.

Conversations in Ebury StreetThis 1924 Club choice wasn’t quite what I was expecting to kick off with. In my reading (both recreational and academic) I’ve often thought of the 1920s primarily as the time when lots of new things were beginning and developing in the literary world, but (of course) for some writers it was also the end of an era.

One of those writers was George Moore – known now I believe chiefly, perhaps solely, for Esther Waters, which I have not read. In 1924 he was in his 70s (he would live to 1933) and had dozens of books under his belt. As such, he can be forgiven quite a self-indulgent idea: Conversations in Ebury Street is essentially a collection of musings, literary and otherwise, some of which are dramatised as conversations with real people – including notables like Walter de la Mare and Edmund Gosse.

This book entered my mental tbr piles in 2004, and my actual tbr piles in 2011, so I was rather delighted finally to have it rise to the top of my reading list (and I hadn’t even realised it was published in 1924). I first became aware of the book in my first term at Magdalen, writing about Anne Bronte, where I discovered that he shared my high opinion of Agnes Grey:

If Anne had written nothing but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall I should not have been able to predict the high place she would have taken in English letters. All I should have been able to say is: An inspiration that comes and goes like a dream. But, her first story, Agnes Grey, is the most perfect prose narrative in English literature. […] Agnes Grey is a prose narrative simple and beautiful as a muslin dress.

I actually recently re-read Agnes Grey and didn’t love it quite as much as I had in 2004 – more on that anon, if I remember enough about the re-read to write the post – but I still think it is an exquisite little book. That warm approval (‘the most perfect prose narrative in English literature’) made me want to make Moore’s acquaintance.

Well, I might have valued his view of Agnes Grey even higher if I’d known how difficult his approval was to secure. As far as I can tell, Moore does not like anything or agree with anyone. This can be quite fun to read about when he is tearing apart excerpts from Thomas Hardy or Tennyson; indeed, his literary and artistic analyses (though a bit self-congratulatory) make for good reading, even if the dialogues suggest that all Moore’s conversational opponents eventually recognise that he is right and they are wrong.

But what purpose, asked Mr. De La Mare, will be served by this critical examination of Mr. Hardy’s English? We are three men of letters, I answered, and it is our business to inquire why the public should have selected for their special adoration ill-constructed melodramas, feebly written in bad grammar, and why this mistake should have happened in the country of Shakespeare.

This is all good fun; you know I love books and books, and books about writers are just as enjoyable, if one is familiar with the writers. (I confess to skimming the section on Balzac, and those bits which quoted liberally in French.) Moore has an entertaining and discursive tone, wandering from idea to idea, a bit too pleased with himself and his theories – but that is forgiveable for a successful man in his 70s.

What is not so entertaining (and it would be remiss of me not to mention this) is his opinions on almost everything else. This makes up relatively little of the book, which is indeed focused on literary conversations, but sadly quite a lot of that comes at the beginning. His views are pretty repellent. He is openly racist, he doesn’t believe the working class should be taught to read (‘to bring about a renaissance of illiteracy, upon my word I would welcome a reawakening of theology’), and is generally against education:

every workman is aware that a boy released from school when he is fourteen is set upon learning a trade, but if he be kept at school till he is sixteen he very likely becomes part of the vagrant class.

Oh lordy me. It’s easy to be amused at stick-waving senilities like ‘an irreparable loss to our language is the second person singular’, and even when he suggests that learning French is a waste of time (despite then going on to say that Balzac is the greatest writer of prose fiction, ‘on this point there can be no difference of opinion’). But some of his opinions must have been widely reprehensible even in 1924.

I want to lace my recommendation of this book with a dozen caveats about things I don’t agree with, but I think they’d be obvious to anybody picking it up. So I’ll focus instead on what I did enjoy: it’s the sort of literary discussion that wouldn’t get published now, weaving from author to author, quoting line after line in analysis (particularly in creating a collection of ‘Pure Poetry’, being those written entirely without subjectivity, which was also published in 1924), and offering depth and knowledge in support. And, around this, hangs the history of Moore’s life and his ancestors’ lives, and the surroundings of Ebury Street. It’s a delightful setting in which to settle down, as though nestling in a deep armchair. It’s just a pity that it comes accompanied with so many unpleasant opinions outside the realm of literature.

So, I don’t think my first 1924 Club title is particularly representative of my feelings about the period, but it has been instructive to me to see the year not just as part of a wave of beginnings, but – as shouldn’t really have come as a surprise – also one which saw the end of some dynasties and forms, for better or worse.

 

Letters from England – Karel Čapek

When Claire recommended Letters from England (1924, translated by Paul Selver 1925) by Karel Čapek it was one of those very welcome recommendations – being for a book that I already had on my shelves.  Usually I note when and where I buy books, but this time I didn’t – I can only assume it was because the name rang a bell, the physical book is quintessentially 1920s, and I have a soft spot for books about England. And, oh, how fun this book is.

It doesn’t that Čapek shares my feelings about the relative merits of London and the rest of the country. It is amusing, in the 1920s, to hear him complaining about grim housing and traffic (goodness knows what he’d think if he visited it today), but I entirely agree with him about the ferocious busyness of the place.  It is rather easier to be funny when one is criticising than when one is praising, of course, and Čapek is very amusing in these early chapters.

These houses look rather like family vaults; I tried to make a drawing of them, but do what I would, I was unable to obtain a sufficiently hopeless appearance; besides, I have no grey paint to smear over them.
Oh, yes, he includes plenty of pen and ink illustrations, of the variety that are deceptively simplistic.  He is particularly good at animals, despite what he says in the text.

But – thankfully for the self esteem of the nation – he doesn’t just stay in London and criticise it.  Instead, he travels around the countryside and (belying his title) pays visits to Scotland and Wales, and writes about Ireland without actually going there.

Where are you to pick words fine enough to portray the quiet and verdant charms of the English countryside? I have been down in Surrey, and up in Essex; I have wandered along roads lined with quickset hedges, sheer quickset hedges which make England the real England, for they enclose, but do not oppress; half-opened gates lead you to ancient avenues of a park deeper than a forest; and here is a red house with high chimneys, a church-tower among the trees, a meadow with flocks of cows, a flock of horses which turn their beautiful and solemn eyes upon you; a pathway that seems to be swept as clean as a new pin, velvety pools with nenuphars and sword-lilies, parks, mansions, meadows, and meadows, no fields, nothing that might be a shrill reminder of human drudgery; a paradise where the Lord God Himself made paths of asphalt and sand, planted old trees and entwined ivy coverlets for the red houses.
You see his way with words, and his fondness for the long sentence.  We will forgive him referring to any group of animals as a flock, and believeing Essex to be ‘up’, because he is so expressive and enthusiastic an appreciator of the English countryside – which means so much to me too, in a way which transcends expression.  The countryside is the only place where I feel properly alive, and I would love to have accompanied Čapek on his travels, gasping at the beauty of the Lake District, admiring the simple aesthetic pleasure of a thatched cottage, and (for we are not perfect human beings) sharing eye-rolls at the sort of person who bustles hither and thither in a city all year, and never ventures out to visit a sheep.

Pink Sugar by O. Douglas

One of the shameful things about this year is realising how many books my dear friend Clare has given me over the years which I have yet to read.  Her name has appeared a few times already in my Reading Presently project (as the bestower of Four Hedges, Cullum, and possibly How The Heather Looks) and is likely to appear at least a couple of times more – but, for today, she is the provider of Pink Sugar (1924) by O. Douglas, the pseudonym of John Buchan’s sister Anna.  I’ll call her O. Douglas in this review, to make things simple.  It’s the only Greyladies edition I’ve read so far, although I’m thrilled that they have reprinted a couple of Richmal Crompton books, including the wonderful Matty and the Dearingroydes.  And, guess what, Pink Sugar is rather fab too.

Kirsty Gilmour is 30 and has made a home for herself in the Borders (so the blurb says for me), taking in an old aunt who fusses and worries, but is rather lovely, and three children Barbara, Specky, and Bad Bill. The novel opens in conversation between Kirsty and her livelier friend Blance Cunningham – Blanche was quite a witty character, and I was sad that she almost immediately departed the scene (she also said wise things like “People who knit are never dull”) but we are not at a loss for characters after her departure.

Kirsty is rather gosh-isn’t-the-world-wonderful at times, thankfully offset with some quick-wittedness; like Lyn I sympathised more with the minister’s unhappy sister Rebecca, and found the characterful novelist Merren Strang more amusing – but Pink Sugar needs someone like Kirsty at its heart, because it is neither an unhappy novel nor a caustic one.  It is emphatically gentle and life-affirming, where a cup of tea and a dose of self-knowledge are the inevitable accompaniments to evening.

The children veer a little towards Enid Blyton territory, but that’s no bad thing (especially compared to modern literature, where happy children seem such a rarity), and there is a wildly unconvincing love plot thrown in to tie things up, but Douglas’s good writing and refusal to bathe too deeply in sentiment made me able to love relaxing and reading this.

One aspect of the style I couldn’t get on board with was Douglas’s frequent recourse to Scottish dialect, for the maids, cook, etc.  It was so impenetrable that I ended up skipping forward a few pages every time it appeared, so fingers crossed that I didn’t miss anything of moment there…

And in case you’re wondering what ‘pink sugar’ has got to do with anything, as I was for quite a long while, thankfully it is explained by Kirsty in the narrative.  Excuse the rather long quotation, but I couldn’t find a neater way to cut it off…:

“I was allowed to ride on a merry-go-round and gaze at all the wonders – fat women, giants, and dwarfs.  But what I wanted most of all I wasn’t allowed to have.  At the stalls they were selling large pink sugar hearts, and I never wanted anything so much in my life, but when I begged for one I was told they weren’t wholesome and I couldn’t have one.  I didn’t want to eat it – as a matter of fact I was allowed to buy sweets called Market Mixtures, and there were fragments of the pink hearts among the curly-doddies and round white bools, and delicious they tasted.  I wanted to keep it and adore it because of its pinkness and sweetness.  Ever since that day when I was taken home begrimed with weeping for a ‘heart’, I have had a weakness for pink sugar.  And good gracious!” she turned to her companion, swept away by one of the sudden and short-lived rages which sometimes seized her, “surely we want every crumb of pink sugar that we can get in this world.  I do hate people who sneer at sentiment.  What is sentiment after all?  It’s only a word, for all that is decent and kind and loving in these warped little lives of ours…”
So ‘pink sugar’ is essentially akin to seeing the joy in life – and is, perhaps, a codified reference to any reader or critic who would sneer at Pink Sugar itself, as a novel.  Admittedly, it isn’t Great Literature, nor is it trying to be, but I think Douglas is doing herself an injustice with this sort of self-defence.  Pink Sugar isn’t a lightweight romance with no thought given to the style or characterisation.  It doesn’t stand on sentiment alone.



Others who got Stuck into this Book:


“The strength of the book is the atmosphere of village life.” – Lyn, I Prefer Reading


Pink Sugar is a lovely, sweet, frothy concoction of a novel” – Christine, The Book Trunk


“I am so very happy to have made the acquaintance of O. Douglas.” – Nan, Letters From a Hill Farm

The Flying Draper – Ronald Fraser

Out of all the books I’m reading for Reading Presently, this is the one I should have read before now… Tanya very kindly sent me The Flying Draper (1924) by Ronald Fraser, as she correctly thought it would be useful for my research (I’d actually requested a copy to the Bodleian library, and hadn’t had time to read it there) – but somehow I have only just read it.  So it’s going in the footnotes of my thesis…

Before I get any further – compiling my list of sketches from year six made me keen to include more in future.  Often I just can’t think of anything to draw, so I came up with the idea of drawing punning cover illustrations, for how the book might look if the title were a little different… So, instead of The Flying Draper

Ahahahaha… ;) As for the novel itself, the title does indeed give the game away.  For my research into middlebrow fantastic novels, Ronald Fraser provided a useful example which I hadn’t found elsewhere: the flying man.  My only previous experience with Fraser had been a novel I did use in a chapter on metamorphosis, called Flower Phantoms – it wasn’t hugely encouraging (which might account for the delay in reading The Flying Draper) since, although the idea of a woman turning into a flower was interesting, the novel itself was written in an equally flowery way.  Lots of swirling, whirling metaphors that ended up being so convoluted that they meant nothing at all, and all rather wearying to read.

The Flying Draper is much better; I thought maybe Fraser had developed his craft, until I discovered that it was actually written a few years before Flower Phantoms.  The narrator is aristocratic Sir Philip, who is rather a thin character of British decency, observing his energetic fiancée Lydia become absorbed in the life of another man – that man being Arthur Codling, the eponymous draper.  His flying happens rather matter-of-factly – the narrator and Lydia are a little surprised, but he doesn’t seem to be, when he flies off a cliff and into the sea, where he bobs around for a bit until he comes out.

The draper is a great character.  He is rather detached from everyday life and manners, observing the world around him wryly, being wittily offhand while selling fabrics, and having the potential to be a brilliant eccentric in the same mould as Miss Hargreaves.  But he never becomes quite developed.  His flying takes over from the establishment of a promising character, and oddly diminishes him as a force on the page.  Similarly, Fraser never seems quite sure how to develop the story, once he has thought about it.  There is an intriguing plotline about politics being disrupted and disturbed by Codling flying, and a branch of parliament and a branch of the church wanting to have him expelled or locked up or killed.  But then Fraser suddenly introduces a heap of young, bohemian characters who don’t seem to add much at all to the book.

It all gets a bit lost and winding at that point, which is a real shame – the flying draper was an interesting idea, and Fraser had lots of other ideas to follow it up – but he just shoved them all in, in any order, and hoped for the best.

And the style?  Well, some of it is still rather over the top, mistaking exotic and curious imagery for fine writing – such as the following…

“Codling has just published a book,” he said. “I read all I could of it last night. A sort of account of his doings during the three years of his absence from England. The finest book, I think, that was ever written; so cold, so calm, so clear, like an April evening; and, pervading it, hints of a passion, huge and heedless and flowering, like the passion of our earth, Philip, in spring. He has felt passion, that man. When he writes of love you smell blossom and you see daisies spring up in the carpet. He knows more of love than is in the brains and hearts of most men to understand. And that is just the trouble. He handles his themes, and especially that theme, so primitively and so coldly, Philip, that it will be death and perdition to the sentimental, who preponderate. For most people his philosophy will be like a lump of ice in the small of the back.”
…but Fraser shows a talent for amusing secondary characters, such as Codling’s landlady, which I’d have liked to see much more of:

“What I call a near-actress,” she answered. “Dances a lot and doesn’t say much. And a very pleasant young woman she is, and I don’t think I ever saw anyone so pretty in my life, Sir Philip. Blue-eyed and babyish, though very grown-up, hif you know what I mean. Hair like tow with a shine on it, and every bit her own, believe me or not. And a stink of powder like a Turkish harem. I did her up one night, Sir Philip, and the smell of powder and scent nearly knocked me down. But what she wore underneath! You never saw anything so flimsy. It’s my believe you could undress her with one motion of the ‘and, which no doubt she finds convenient, though I will say that she strikes me as being quiet for a hactress.”
Some people have a hatred of comic working-class characters in novels (I remember reading that Angela Carter hated them), but I love affectionate spoofs of middle-class and upper-class characters, and it would be silly of me to make an exception for Cockney landladies.

So, all in all, The Flying Draper certainly has its moments, and is an enjoyable enough read (and useful for my thesis, thanks Tanya!) – but, like so many second-rate writers (for Fraser, sadly, is that) the narrative lacks coherence and the promise of ideas is ultimately not matched by their execution.  The Drying Flapper, on the other hand, I would love to read.

Skylark

43. Skylark – Dezső Kosztolányi

I’ve been reading some pretty brilliant books recently, and not finding time to write about them, so prepare yourselves for some enthusiastic reviews coming up soon.  And let’s start the ball rolling with Skylark (1924) by Hungarian novelist Dezső Kosztolányi, translated into English by Richard Aczel, and a heartfelt köszönöm to him for doing so.  It’s gone on my list of 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.

Skylark came to my attention when Claire/Captive Reader put it in her Top Ten Books of 2011.  I added it to my Amazon wishlist, and waited… it felt, for some reason, like the sort of book which should really come as a gift.  Lucky for me, Our Vicar and Our Vicar’s Wife spotted it there, and it arrived in my Christmas stocking last year.  So, consider this a tick on the list for my Reading Presently project (where I’m intending to read, in 2013, 50 books which were gifts.)

Before I get on to the wonderful writing and moving story in Skylark, I have to talk about the book itself.  If I’m ever asked why I don’t want a Kindle, my one word reply will now be: “Skylark“.  This NYRB edition is quite stunningly beautiful – not just the lovely colours and image on the front, and that turquoise/mint green I love so much on the spine, but the feel, the flip-flop of the pages, the perfect flexibility-to-sturdiness of the cover… the physical book is a work of art here, and I am so pleased that the content matched up.

The novel starts as a not-quite-young-any-more woman called Skylark leaves her provincial town for a week, to stay with relatives.  Actually, it starts while her parents are packing for her departure:

The dining-room sofa was strewn with strands of red, white and green cord, clippings of packing twine, shreds of wrapping paper and the scattered, crumpled pages of the local daily, the same fat letters at the top of each page: Sárszeg Gazette, 1899. 
The stage is set for the importance of the home – and the way that it is subverted and disturbed by Skylark’s departure.

One might expect (I did expect) that a novel which starts with a character getting ready to leave her home will follow that character on her travels.  Particularly so in a novel whose title bears the name of that character.  What Kosztolányi does so cleverly is, instead, focus on the effects of her absence, leaving the reader to bear witness to the unsettled lives of Skylark’s father (Ákos) and mother (known simply as Mother or ‘the woman’ throughout.)

They have a very obviously unhealthy dependency upon their daughter – but, at the same time, long more than anything for her to marry.  A man who has been polite enough to smile at her is built up into a potential – and then a definite – suitor; when he fails to follow up on this non-existent intimation, he becomes a figure for bitter hatred, much to his confusion.  Mother and Father can barely cope with Skylark leaving town for a week, let alone forever, but this is still their aim in life, even while they realise that it is almost impossible.

And why?  Because Skylark is ugly.  Extremely ugly.  Not horrendously disfigured or anything, simply deeply unattractive.  From what we see of her before she leaves, and hear about her, Skylark also seems domestically very capable (if unambitious), unimaginatively kind, practical, and pretty dull.  But her parents, of course, love her dearly.

This narrative is so clever and subtly written.  It is a mixture of quite pathetic inability to manage in their daughter’s absence, with a glimpse of what life would be like without her.  They eat interesting foods at restaurants and talk to their neighbours; Ákos gets drunk at a local club (which resembles the Freemasons in some fashion), and this leads to the most moving, vital, and brilliant scene of the novel – where all the couple’s unspoken fears and thoughts come tumbling out.  Kosztolányi gives the viewpoint of both husband and wife, so we see the scene through two sets of eyes simultaneously.  It is heartbreaking and extraordinary, but it is not the sort of confrontation that ‘changes things forever’.  Things cannot really ever, we sense, be changed.

They had given her that name years ago, Skylark, many, many years ago, when she still sang.  Somehow the name had stuck, and she still wore it like an outgrown childhood dress.
That passage is from early in the novel, and I marked it as being the one which suggested to me that I’d be onto something special.  It was also the first sign of something I thought throughout Skylark, which was that Kosztolányi’s writing reminded me of Katherine Mansfield’s – which is about the highest compliment I can pay to writing.  He has the same delicate touch, and the same way of showing ordinary people stepping outside of their normal routines, even slightly, and finding that everything is changed thereby, however unnoticeable this is to others.  The subtlest shift in the way acts are performed – the way Skylark holds a birdcage; the seasoning Ákos puts on his risotto – are shown by Kosztolányi to hold enormous significance.

Like a short story by Katherine Mansfield, I imagine Skylark would benefit from being read in one sitting.  At 221 pages, it could be done.  I, sadly, seemed to read almost all of it on bus journeys to and from work, and thus the reading experience was too broken up.  I will have to read it again when I have an entire afternoon to spare.

The only part of this edition I didn’t much like was the introduction by Péter Esterházy, since it barely spoke of the novel at all.  Apparently he is one of the most significant contemporary Hungarian writers, but I wish he’d written this introduction more as a fan of Skylark, and less as a fan of his own thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about the style I aim at on Stuck-in-a-Book, and how I want my posts to be a bit amusing – but it’s very hard to be funny when I have nothing but praise for a novel.  So instead, I’ll finish by saying that I went to a 1970s murder mystery party on Saturday (the one I mentioned I was writing), and somebody said that I looked like a fraudulent spiritualist from an Agatha Christie novel – must have been the floral bandana that did it.  With that image in your mind… go and buy a copy of Skylark; make it this beautiful NYRB Classics edition.