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.

 

The Suburban Young Man – E.M. Delafield

Can we talk about how  pleasingly this bookmark goes?

I started reading The Suburban Young Man (1928) when Tanya was giving a paper on it at a conference we both attended – that link will take you to her great review of it, which includes interesting research into Delafield’s writing of the novel.  Well, I didn’t manage to finish it then, and it went back on the shelf for 18 months or so… and recently I picked it up and swiftly read through to the end.

It’s definitely not one of EMD’s best books, but it’s EMD – so it’s still definitely worth a read.

The main characters are aristocratic Antoinette and the eponymous young man – Peter – who is married to the saintly housewife Hope.  They begin an extramarital affair which is entirely a meeting of minds – Delafield, as with her better-known The Way Things Are, never takes things as far as the bedroom door, let alone further.

Much of the novel is taken up Antoinette and Peter telling each other how well they are suited, even though their backgrounds are so different.  One of the assumptions the novelist makes (and all the characters make) is that the suburbs – here represented by ‘Richford’ – are entirely beyond the pale, and culturally mired in the commonplace.  That view is essential to many interwar novels, but it falls rather flat for the modern reader.  Still flatter, for this modern reader, is all the earnest discussion of romance.  Delafield is at her weakest when she tries to be earnest – she is so, so much better at lifting the veil on self-delusion, or the comedy of everyday life, and not with paragraphs like this:

He was unable now to view himself as disloyal to his wife with any sense of conviction, and this not because technically he had remained faithful to her.  Merely he could not feel that he had taken from Hope anything that she had ever possessed, or would ever have wished to possess.  They had married one another neither by reason of passion nor from any strong sense of affinity, and the liking and admiration that he felt for many aspects of her personality had increased, rather than diminished, of late; nor did he think that she liked him less.
Hope is an absurdly tolerant character, who invites Antoinette to tea and has rational discussions about the possibility of her husband running off.  Their marriage is pretty emotionless, but she is almost violently rational, and it’s not terribly convincing.  More interesting (to me) are the scenes of Antoinette as a worker in an office, and discussions of what it was like for the newly-poor(ish) upper-classes to need employment.

Tanya wasn’t a fan of Norah (Peter’s sister-in-law) but I have to say that, along with Antoinette’s vague but surprisingly wise mother, Norah was my favourite character.  Mostly because it gave a chance for Delafield to show her claws, which I delight in.  Here’s a couple of examples.

Norah burst out laughing, as she invariably did at any opprobrious epithet, however applied.

Norah made a grimace that might have suggested a spoilt child in a prettier woman.
So, although I wasn’t hugely impressed when I put it back on the shelf in 2012, I rushed through the second half in 2014. Delafield’s writing is dependably engaging, and I certainly enjoyed reading The Suburban Young Man. But I’ve now read 23 books by Delafield, and this one is probably towards the lower end of the list, and I wouldn’t avidly encourage you to seek out the (extremely scarce) copies of this one.

Since Delafield came out of copyright recently, I’m hoping that more of her books will be reprinted – and not just endless copies of the (admittedly exceptionally good) Provincial Lady series.  But I shan’t shed too many tears if The Suburban Young Man is left to languish a bit longer.

Cullum – E. Arnot Robertson

I’ve been meaning to read something by E. Arnot Robertson for years, and as part of Reading Presently I picked up Cullum (1928), which my lovely friend Clare gave to me, it being one of her favourite books.  Being a tale of a young woman’s first doomed love affair (we are told in the first line that it is doomed) and featuring my bête noire, fox-hunting, I was a little nervous… but needn’t have been.  Cullum is really good – moving, engaging, and – most importantly – witty.  A novel about love and hunting without humour would have been unbearable.

The girl in question – possibly the one looking poignantly to her left on the cover of my Virago Modern Classic – is 19 year old Esther Sieveking, half-English, half-French, and entirely ready for a sexual awakening which will take her beyond her circle in Surrey.

Which of us could fail to empathise with this statement – one which probably brought most of us to the blogosphere in the first place?

I was desperately eager to find a companion who could enter into the intangible world of books and ideas, where I spent half my time.
Esther thinks she might have found a way out when she learns that a poet, one Mrs. Cole, is living nearby… My mean side emerges in my love of fictive character assassinations, particularly those given in measured, well-paced prose.  If it helps, I share four out of five of Mrs. Cole’s listed traits:

I learnt in ten minutes that she was a vegetarian, a teetotaller, a non-smoker and an anti-vivisectionist, and that she had innumerable other fads.  She was of the type that should have had many children, instead of only one son and many affectations.
She is a poet.  Nobody likes mocking writers like writers, and here is a demolition of Mrs. Cole’s poetry:

I was shown a collection of worn cuttings that had become illegible at the folds through constant handling. They contained sad little pieces of verse which always referred vaguely to ‘you’ in the last line.  ‘You’ had either jilted her of passed away; it was impossible to tell which, but they were all melancholy and had the most comprehensive titles; ‘Life,’ dealt with in eight of ten lines; ‘Love,’ inaptly, being a little longer.
Mrs. Cole isn’t herself a very important character, but she does provide the means by which Esther meets Cullum Hayes.  I don’t seem to have bookmarked any paragraphs which describe him, but essentially he is perfect for Esther.  Handsome, amusing, and persistent, he speaks romantically when needed and flippantly when needed.  Considering the other potential suitors in her life have, to this point, been of the damp, somewhat pathetic variety, the arrival of Cullum is easily enough to sweep her off her feet, and (seemingly) she him his.  (That ending of that sentence almost makes sense, and was too fun to write to ignore.) (So was the ending of that one.)  And, boy, does it get passionate – particularly for 1928.

Did I want him!  Many times, when I was with him and when I was alone, at nights, I had longed for him, almost faint for a second with the desire for his kisses, which I could only imagine.  Love, feeding on itself, had grown greatly.  Cullum obsessed me; all of me, mind and body.
So why did this not aggravate me, as pontifications on love are apt to do?  It was the humour which surrounded them.  Robertson is very amusing on the travails of working for a rubbish women’s magazine if one has any literary pretensions, and also quite biting of the huntin’ fraternity (Esther does hunt, but hates the idea of it at the same time.)  Here’s a sample which made me smile…

I saw a great deal of him.  He formed a habit of dropping in two or three evenings a week at my boarding-house.  Sometimes we talked, or if I had brought back some work to finish from the office, he read or smoked in the arm-chair in my bedsitting-room, to the thrilled horror of several elderly boarders of both sexes, who were convinced that he was my lover, since he had been allowed into a room which undeniably held my bed, even though it might be disguised as a sofa during the day.  That was conclusive.  The old ladies believed the worst because they secretly hoped it was true; the dear old gentleman because, in the virile period of his youth, it would have been so.
And, of course, Cullum turns out to be a bad’un – a liar and delusional fraud, and repeat offender at that.  I don’t know why Robertson chose to reveal that in the opening line – perhaps to avoid the trap of the novel being structured like a romantic penny dreadful? – but it gives Cullum a structure oddly akin to The End of the Affair – except we see the beginning, middle, and end, all the while knowing how it will end.

Having compared Cullum to The End of the Affair, I should point out the difference that tone makes.  The structure and the emotions may have significant overlap, but Cullum – for all its passion and anguish – still felt like a fun, light book with dark moments.  The End of the Affair, on the other hand – even with the comic detective – was a dark book with light moments.  And here ends a spontaneous comparison of two books I doubt anybody has compared before!

Thanks, Clare, for another gem.  I really should immediately read all the books you give me, shouldn’t I?

Young Entry – Molly Keane

I usually run a mile from Irish novels of a certain period – memories of The Last September make me shiver at the thought of Irish Troubles novels – but I was attracted by Molly Keane’s Young Entry (1928), very kindly given to me by Karyn when we met up in Oxford last year. Any sort of political upheaval seemed a distant irrelevance to the carefree heroines of Keane’s first novel (written at the sickeningly young age of 20) – a dollop of romance, high-spirited teasing, and countryside dalliances seemed a fitting antidote to the more serious or tragic end of Irish literature (for which there is, of course, a place – but that place is not on my bookshelf.)

Well, the heroines did not disappoint – except perhaps in an unexpected name. Prudence and Peter (yes, they are both women) are described thus – first Prudence:

Her demeanour in public places was totally perfect.  Had she been a boy one would have looked at her and at once said – Eton.  As it was, those who knew her, if they saw the back of her head and shoulders across a crowded room, said: “Prudence Turrett – couldn’t be anyone else.”  And those who did not know her asked immediately who she was.
And lest you think she’s a totally passionless society great, I rather loved this description earlier in the novel:

A ladder in a favourite silk stocking could reduce her to tears, just as a phrase of wild poetry made her drunk with ecstasy, or a witty story moved her to agonies of mirth.  She did things to distraction – always.
And then, more level-headed, there is Peter (it is so strange thinking that Peter is a woman, given it is Our Vicar’s name – I’ve known a Peta or two, but are any women called Peter?):

Having long ago come to the conclusion that young men did not sparkle in her company, she very wisely restrained all impulse in herself to sparkle in theirs; and left matters at a satisfactorily comfortable companionship. 

These companionships were many.  Brilliant young men liked Peter, because she gave them time to make their cleverest remarks.  Lazy men liked her because she never attempted to stir them to energy.
I’m usually one to value character over plot, and Keane’s characters were a joy – showing all the signs of a young writer, in both a positive and negative way.  Good, that they were lively and enthusiastically drawn, and bad, that they were emotionally rather immature and over the top.  And yet, above and beyond this, the plot defeated me.

Much of Young Entry I enjoyed, particularly when it concerned the friendship of Prudence and Peter, and even their budding (and unlikely) romances – but, as Diana Petre points out in her introduction to the Virago reprint, a 20 year old Molly Keane could only write about the limited world she knew, and that was the society hunting set.

And so there is a lot about hunting.  I’m not just ignorant about the ins and outs and mores of hunting, I actively loathe it.  I have no problem with culling foxes humanely – I am a country boy at heart, and I know that country life is not all fluffy bunnies; I trust farmers to know what needs doing on their land.  What makes me shocked and angry and everything within me recoil is the idea that killing should be turned into a game or a sport.  It’s not often that I demonstrate such strong feelings on this blog, and I don’t want the comment section to become and to-and-fro on the topic of hunting, but I wanted to explain why there were reams of Young Entry that I could not enjoy.  Extracts like this one…

Peter was different.  More of a purist than Prudence; the hounds and their work was her joy, her interest and delight.  It supplied for her the poetry of existence.  She rode a fast hunt well enough; but in a slow one, with hounds working out each yard of a stale and twisting line, almost walking after their fox, she was nearly as happy.  While Prudence fretted and chafed, longing to get on, Peter – her eyes alight, alert for every whimper, watching, always watching – was content to see hound-work at its prettiest and most difficult.  Her soul blasphemed in chorus with that of the huntsman, when his hounds were pressed upon; and was with him also in ecstasy when the line was hit off afresh after a successful cast.
There are many scenes of hunting, and many which require knowledge of hunting.  They didn’t simply bore me, in the way that depictions of sporting matches would do, they upset and ired me. So when major plot points and character movements concern the social correctness (or otherwise) of hunting in certain areas, and Keane seems to think we will both know and agree with these principles, I was left rather lost.

I’m still very grateful to Karyn for giving me this novel, as it was fascinating to see where Keane’s writing career began and spot the seeds of what was to come – but, let’s just say I’m glad that she didn’t stop here.