Down The Garden Path by Beverley Nichols

Down the Garden PathI suppose it was inevitable, if sad, that the shine would have to come off eventually. This has been the Year of Beverley Nichols chez moi, but this is my first venture with him that hasn’t proved quite as runaway a success as the others. Would it have become the YoBN (yes) if this had been my first experience with him? Possibly not. But Down the Garden Path remains entertaining – if overshadowed by his later work.

I don’t know how popular this opinion is. I asked on Twitter a while ago, and those who replied agreed with my preference for the Merry Hall trilogy over the Allways trilogy (albeit I still have two to go). For those not yet in the know – in the 1930s, Nichols wrote three books about his house, Allways, and its garden. Fast forward to the 1950s, and he wrote three about Merry Hall – which I had always assumed was a pun on ‘merry Hell’, but am no longer sure. Based on Down the Garden Path (1932), they cover similar ground – moving to a new house; developing the garden; getting entangled with neighbours good and bad.

The main difference, I think, is tone. While Nichols is still light-hearted in Down the Garden Path, he has yet (to my mind) to develop the easy hilarity of his later books. The jokes hit home, but aren’t developed with the same glee. The neighbours and staff are half-portraits, compared to Oldfield (gardener) and Miss Emily (officious neighbour) in the latter trilogy. In the former, the neighbours don’t even get names – they’re all Mrs W and Mrs X. It’s hard to see what’s different except that the second trilogy is a better version of the first.

Having said that, the highlights in Down the Garden Path were, I found, those anonymous interlopers. If they don’t reach the heights of his jovial nemeses in the Merry Hall trilogy, then they certainly provide amusement. Nichols is at his finest when sassing people – and the visitor who prances through the garden imagining herself to be some sort of muse is only mildly less entertaining to read about than the neighbour who criticises everything she sees in his garden.

Ah, the garden. I read all these books as a fraud – somebody who doesn’t know anything at all about gardening. Occasionally curiosity bites and I google the flower he is mentioning (and find that our tastes don’t match; his favourite flowers look a little twee to me) but generally I read past, waiting for a more gossipy anecdote to take centre stage.

If you are a great expert, with a case of medals from the Horticultural Society on your mantelpiece… if you have written treatises on the Ionopsidium Acaule (which, by the way, is well worth growing)… if you have a huge drooping moustache and a huge drooping head-gardener, then you had better throw this book aside. I am not writing for you.

As you see, he claims that his gardening prowess is rather basic in this one – putting me even more to shame – but perhaps this book was more aimed at gardeners than the others were? Or, at least, Nichols got better at satisfying the ignorant and the knowledgeable at the same time?

I should mention, before I close, those intriguing snippet – ‘Mrs E. M. Delafield, who is the only living writer with whom I should ever dare to take a trip to Cranford, hurled dizzying insults at me in numerous publications.‘ – None are quoted! I want to know so much more!

So, it was an enjoyable read, for sure. But my hopes were a bit high, and I didn’t race through it as I did the other three. I’ll still read the two sequels (which I’ve had for ages) but perhaps not with quite the same alacrity. But, fear not, 2017 is still very much the YoBN.

Ian and Felicity by Denis Mackail

Ian and FelicityFans of Greenery Street – one of the loveliest of Persephone Book’s novels, about a young married couple being happy – may not know that there were a couple of sequels. One is a collection of short stories that I haven’t read, and I have an inkling that not all of them feature Ian and Felicity Foster; one of them features them SO much that they’re right there in the title. Ian and Felicity was published in 1932, seven years after Greenery Street. That doesn’t sound that long, but prolific Mr Mackail had published eight books (!!) in between – and so it is with a sense of nostalgia that we head back to the young couple to find out how they’re getting on down the line.

I should add at this point that Ian and Felicity is extremely difficult to track down, and the copy I read belongs to my friend Kirsty (who somehow managed to find a copy on ebay). I borrowed it approximately a zillion years ago, but finally got around to reading it a little while ago.

In America, the novel was called Peninsula Place – and that gives you a clue that the setting has changed a little. Ian and Felicity have outgrown their Greenery Street flat, and now have two children and a bigger town house a little way away from their first marital home and another step up the property ladder. They look back fondly (as the reader must) on that happy place – but this replacement is no less happy. Mackail (thank goodness!) has not started writing a gritty novel or a miserable one. Things continue in much the same tone – though with added parental anxieties, and the occasional wondering (often quickly quashed in slightly over the top internal self-reflection) whether life wasn’t all a bit simpler back in the Greenery Street days.

I loved reading Ian and Felicity. It was light and fun and an antidote to the unhappy marriages that populate so many novels – even those that are otherwise not unhappy books. My main qualm with it was the complete and utter lack of plot. I don’t need a lot to happen, but I would have liked more structure to the novel – it’s so episodic that it feels more like a series of notes, or loosely linked vignettes, than a novel. It wasn’t a big obstacle, but I don’t think it would have taken much to give this more of an overarching structure, and it would have lifted the novel into a whole new territory. (My only other qualm was how much Ian seems to loathe spending even a moment with his children, and how normal and admirable we’re supposed to think this; different times, of course, but this is not a model of every 1930s fictional father.)

But, as I say, it was still a lot of fun. Here’s a bit of the opening, to give you a taste:

“Dinner!” said Felicity, as she passed the open drawing-room door. “Come along, darling!”

“What’s that?” said her husband’s voice.

“Dinner, darling.”

“Supper, you mean,” said Ian’s voice; but he was coming. “Don’t exaggerate,” he said, actually appearing. “I’ve been in to look once, and I know just what we’ve got. Blancmange, again.”

“Well, darling, you know it’s Sunday.”

“As if I could forget it,” said Mr. Foster. But he smiled as he pulled down the front of his waistcoat, and he would certainly have pinched his wife’s arm with his other hand, if she hadn’t dodged him and gone through into the dining-room.

Harmless fun, isn’t it? Impossible to find a copy, but if you badger your local library, they might find one in the stacks. Or you might strike it lucky like Kirsty – keep an eye out on ebay!

 

The ABC of Authorship by Ursula Bloom

ABC of AuthorshipOne of the Project 24 books I mentioned the other day was The ABC of Authorship (1938) by Ursula Bloom – and, just as I couldn’t resist buying it, equally I couldn’t resist immediately reading it. For sound advice in 2017, it’s pretty useless – as a glimpse into the world of writing in the 1930s, it’s great fun.

I say ‘writing’, but I should clarify that she is chiefly concerned with only one small corner of authorship. While she does devote a chapter to novels at the end, and airily passes by poetry in a handful of sentences, this book is chiefly concerned with stories in small magazines. That alone dates it. There was a proliferation of small magazines in the early twentieth century, both regional and national, and they were happy hunting ground for the budding author. Bloom devotes a lot of The ABC of Authorship in advising how best to approach these – down to individual magazines, and whether they would prefer (say) a story about a dashing hero or a domestic scene. I imagine it was fairly useful advice in 1938 – though the editors of those magazines may have been inundated with a certain sort of story.

Let’s be clear who Bloom was and the sort of market she’s talking about. She is apparently in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific author ever – and wrote (gulp) over 500. I’ve read three of them, all novels she wrote under the pseudonym Mary Essex – she had various pseudonyms, and wrote under her own name too – and they were witty and enjoyable, and pretty good examples of light middlebrow fare. Under other names, and when writing for magazines, I think she favoured writing a little to the south of middlebrow – though certainly not racy. But she is certainly well placed to talk about getting stuff out there – she seems, as far as this book shows, to have written stories and serials every day, as well as those hundreds of novels.

She kicks off with a chapter called ‘Let’s Have a Look at Yourself’ – essentially saying “are you aware that you actually have to do something?” From here, we get chapters on how to find a plot (including, amusingly, plagiarising straight from plays you see), the business side of Fleet Street, writing features (she apparently once dictated 1000 words about a European queen over the phone), writing articles, writing serials, and the vagaries of the Editorial Mind. This last is mostly about editors being real people too – but also advising that you buy all the small magazines out there, make notes as to their contents, and know when styles changed. Thus you may impress editors.

She scatters examples throughout – some that she has had published, some suggestions, and one that appears to be ripped off from Mary Cholmondeley’s Red Pottage – and they occasionally make for entertaining reading. While a lot of her advice is practicable and doubtless useful to those who bought this book in 1938, it’s hard not to smile at some of the things that she thinks make for good inspiration. Her original thoughts include writing an article on ‘Look to your future’, or a piece called ‘Don’t be Lonely’. She advises that any serial, if lagging, can be livened up with a bull that’s got loose.

My favourite gosh-haven’t-times-changed moment came when she advised that you could always make money with ‘informative verse’, adding ‘I have taken household tips from magazines and have set them into two-line verses, for which there has never been any difficulty in the way of a sale’. Imagine finding any editor in the world who’d give you good money for the examples she offers:

The perfect gent knows it’s a sin
To tuck his napkin ‘neath his chin.

A heinous friend I had, called Nelly;
She used a spoon when eating jelly!

What should you not do? I mentioned that she wasn’t racy – I perhaps didn’t go far enough. Amongst other things, she advises not writing about adultery, the Royal Family, or having lost a child.

It’s hard not to warm to Bloom in this book – I hope it’s clear that I’m smiling rather than sneering. She is so positive, so encouraging, and clearly extremely successful. I sincerely hope that lots of young writers found her advice got them on their way to writing careers. She couldn’t have known the window into the past that she’d be providing 80 years later, or how much this man in 2017 would enjoy the book.

A Pin To See The Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse

A Pin To See The PeepshowAs promised when I wrote about E.M. Delafield’s novel Messalina of the Suburbs, I also wanted to write a review of the other book we discussed in our recent podcast episode (check out Rachel’s review) – two novels based on the same murder. F Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin To See The Peepshow was published ten years later than Delafield’s novel – and 12 years after the murder itself – and is, in many ways, strikingly different. It’s also extremely good.

Julia Almond is the name that Jesse adopts for the Edith Thompson character (despite a peculiarly disingenuous note at outset suggesting that ‘every character in this book is entirely fictitious, and no reference whatever is intended to any living person’). She lives with her mother in a working-class area, and is poor and a little neglected. Here the similarities with Delafield’s treatment of the character end – for Julia is entirely out of place in her background.

She is very intelligent and sensitive, artistically-minded and the prize of her class. If Delafield’s character spoke like the woman behind the tea counter in Brief Encounter, Julia is every atom Celia Johnson. Throughout the whole novel, people speak of her as being extremely special and unusual; a butterfly who should not be crushed on a wheel. It’s a curious decision on Jesse’s part – it works, but it lionises the Thompson/Bywater case into something that perhaps it was not.

For the same pathway is trod in this book as in the other – in essentials, at least. Julia marries older, respectable, boring Herbert. It is partly for security, partly to get away from home (which her interfering female cousin has invaded), and partly because she has already felt the pain of love when it is dashed: Jesse invents a beau who is killed in war. But where Delafield made the husband an ogre, Herbert is much harder to dislike. Julia does not find him interesting or attractive, and makes this clear to him – not wanting to hurt him, but holding him to an agreement they made before, that they needn’t share a bed when married. Once the ring is on her finger, he thinks this was a silliness that they needn’t keep to. Both are realistic, relatively sympathetic portraits of people locked in an unhappy marriage.

Parallel with this storyline is one I found equally interesting – Julia’s rise in the shop world. The real Edith did work in a shop, and it was really captivating to see how Julia’s affinity for style and design found a home in this world. Jesse does a great job of giving all the different staff members fully-realised characters, and if Julia’s rise through the ranks is a little Cinderella-esque, then it also gives us the chance to travel with her to Paris catwalks.

And along comes Leonard. It’s not actually the first time we meet him (more on that later), but he comes back into her life: a younger, handsome, beguiling man. It isn’t long before Julia and Leonard are having an affair – and Julia has given her heart to him, writing him letters which reveal too much, and planning out a future for the two of them that cannot happen while Herbert is still married to her. Leonard is drawn brilliantly – making the reader uneasy and suspicious even while we see him through Julia’s loved-up rose-tinted glasses.

And, of course… Herbert is killed by Leonard, in a drunken rage. Like Delafield, Jesse paints an innocent portrait of Julia – innocent of murder at least. But, where Delafield finishes her novel before the story is over, Jesse takes us to prison with Julia – through the appeals and the desperation and to the final denouement – though I shan’t spoil what this is. By carrying on in this way, Jesse builds a really complex psychological portrait. Her novel isn’t quite the page-turner that Delafield’s is, but it is much more nuanced – Jesse has put far more emphasis on depiction of character, though there is still plenty of drama and sensation too. It’s rather a masterclass in how to take a real story and turn into a novel – one which must include plenty of supposition and elaboration, but with such bravado that you don’t feel you can question it without damaging a beautiful construction.

And Leonard? He first turns up as a child at school, where Julia is a slightly older child. He has a toy peepshow that she is intrigued to see (slightly ashamed, for she might be too old for that); she must give a pin in payment to look at it, because the children have started ‘a purely arbitrary rite decreed by fashion’ of collecting pins.

And at once, sixteen-year-old, worldly-wise London Julia ceased to be, and a child – an enchanted child – was looking into a fairyland.

The floor of the box was covered with cotton-wool, and a frosting of sugar sprinkled over it. Light came into the box from the red-covered window at the far end, so that a rosy glow as of sunset lay over the sparkling snow. Here and there little brightly-coloured men and women, children and animals of cardboard, conversed or walked about. A cottage, flanked by a couple of fir trees, cut from an advertisement of some pine-derivative cough cure, which Julia saw every day in the newspaper, gave an extraordinary impression of reality and of distance. This little rose-tinted snow scene was at once amazingly real and utterly unearthly. Everything was just the wrong size – a child was larger than a grown man, a duck was larger than a horse; a bird, hanging from the sky on a thread, loomed like a cloud. It was a mad world, compact of insane proportions, but lit by a strange glamour. The walls and lid of the box gave to it the sense of distance that a frame gives to a picture, sending it backwards into another space. Julia stared into the peepshow, and it was though she gazed into the depths of a complete and self-contained world, where she would go clad in snow-shoes and furs, and be able to tame savage huskies and shoot bears; a world of chill pallor, of an illimitable white sky, both only saved from a cruel rigour by the rosy all-pervading light.

Firstly – what a great paragraph. Secondly – it’s interesting that Jesse chose this image for the title of her novel. It’s a curious novel, and presumably this moment is supposed to illustrate much more. It could be lots of things – showing Julia’s rich sense of fantasy life? Her blurring of reality and illusion? Her own eventual status as a spectacle for the watching world? I’m not sure – perhaps all. It’s an element of mystery that seems to sew the novel together – into a rich, enticing, and detailed portrait of a person who (fittingly) can’t quite reflect the real Edith Thompson. Jesse, too, has overlapped fantasy and reality until you can no longer see the seams,

Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

night-flightDid you know that the author of The Little Prince wrote about dangerous flights in South America? Well – now you do! My review of Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is over at Shiny New Books, and the beginning of it is here:

If the name Antoine de Saint-Exupéry means anything to you, it probably only means one thing: The Little Prince. It was this contrast between legacy and his 1931 novel Night Flight that intrigued me to pick up a copy when Alma Classics printed it with a new translation by David Carter – and what an intriguing little book it is.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys #ReadingRhys

I had enthusiastically signed my name (figuratively) for Jean Rhys Reading Week run by Eric and Jacqui, back whenever it was announced, and promptly put it to the back of my mind – and hadn’t spotted that it had started until I saw people tweeting about it. Luckily I had Voyage in the Dark (1934) on my shelf – thankfully it’s short, so I was able to read much of it on the train to London yesterday.

reading-rhys

Voyage in the Dark is one of the rare copies I have where I have omitted to write where and when I got it inside, so I have no idea when I picked it up – but I do know that I’ve been mulling over reading another Rhys novel since I read Wide Sargasso Sea when I was 18, and liked it at least to an extent (though my impressions have mostly left me now). How very many people have read Wide Sargasso Sea and nothing else by Rhys? I suspect it’s a common refrain this week.

The novel – novella? – tells the tale of Anna Morgan, who has moved from her West Indies home to England and has recently lived with a stepmother who clearly considers her more of a burden than anything else. Anna is one of those characters who combines naivety with worldly wisdom – things have not gone well for her, but she retains something of a childlike optimism about the world. Or maybe just a childlike view of the world.

Anna must fend for herself – but (though at times this involves a rather haphazard training as a manicurist and a stage performer) this chiefly means relying on men. She skirts on the edge of being no better than she ought to be, let us say, but she also falls in love with an older man – Walter – who lavishes her with attention, but is never quite trusted by the reader. Discussions about men and women and their interactions are given in the bawdy, cynical voices of Anna’s friends, or the conservative tones of her stepmother or landlady, but we seldom hear a narrator’s perspective – or even much of Anna’s own. She is fixated on Walter alone, rather than men in general – though does get immersed in this sort of conversation:

“My dear, I had to laugh,” she said. “D’you know what a man said to me the other day? It’s funny, he said, have you ever thought that a girl’s clothes cost more than the girl inside them?”

“What a swine of a man!” I said.

“Yes, that’s what I told him,” Maudie said. “‘That isn’t the way to talk,’ I said. And he said, ‘Well, it’s true, isn’t it? You can get a very nice girl for five pounds, a very nice girl indeed; you can even get a very nice girl for nothing if you know how to go about it. But you can’t get a very nice costume for her for five pounds. To say nothing of underclothes, shoes, etcetera, and so on.’ And then I had to laugh, because after all it’s true, isn’t it? People are much cheaper than things. And look here! Some dogs are more expensive than people, aren’t they? And as to some horses…”

“Oh, shut up,” I said. “You’re getting on my nerves. Let’s go back into the sitting-room; it’s cold in here.”

Voyage in the Dark seemed to me to fuse comedy and tragedy in the way of a certain sort of interwar novel. Indeed, it blends fairy tale and realism in a manner that should cause disjunct in the reading experience, but actually blends very effectively.

voyage-in-the-darkActually, the writer I was most reminded of was Barbara Comyns – who does the same matter-of-fact depiction of harsh realities almost as though they were fantasies. Rhys has a greater simplicity to her tone – and, I have to confess, much though I enjoyed reading the novel and was impressed by her handling of character, I was a bit surprised. Rhys is so often mentioned as being among the greater writers of the period, and this novel felt like a very good example of something that a lot of people were doing in the 30s, 40s, and 50s – rather than an example of unique or unusually excellent authorship.

In Eric’s excellent review, he writes a lot about the influence of the West Indies on Anna’s life and on the novel. I have to confess I saw these only in fleeting moments, and I daresay a lot of the questions of identity were lost on me – but that certainly doesn’t prevent me valuing the book, and being very glad that I’ve read more Rhys. Perhaps it is all a matter of expectation. I’m not sure I’d elevate Rhys to the highest echelons of writers, based on this novel alone, but I am certainly more likely to return to her again now that I’ve better made her acquaintance.

 

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

EdwardiansWriting with one hand at the moment, for various boring health reasons, which is why you’re likely to get a few short posts from me for the time being. Including this Shiny New Books link to an excellent novel by Vita Sackville-West. The more I read by her, the more I think her social history has unjustly overshadowed her writing – and The Edwardians was her bestseller. And while you’re there, check out Five Fascinating Facts about VSW.

While Vita Sackville-West is today best remembered as having (probably) been the lover of Virginia Woolf, and as the mind behind the garden at Sissinghurst, she was also a novelist of repute during her life. Indeed, The Edwardians – now republished alongside All Passion Spent by Vintage, both with Gosia Herba’s striking cover designs – was such a phenomenal seller that it helped keep Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s publishing house, Hogarth Press, afloat. Has this 1930 novel stood the test of time? Short answer: absolutely. It is somehow both riotous and thoughtful, borrowing from the modernists without losing its popular touch.

The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

The Wheel SpinsI think I’d seen two different versions of the film The Lady Vanishes (the Hitchcock and the remake) before I knew it was a novel, and after that I tried to keep an eye out for it in bookshops. There was the small issue that at no point could I remember the title or the author. Even writing the heading to this post, I wasn’t sure whether it was The Wheel Spins or The Wheel Turns. Hitchcock knew what he was doing when he changed the title.

With my unreliable memory, I don’t recall the exact ins and outs of this adaptations, so I can’t say precisely how the book differs, but there certainly seemed to be some difference in tone. But I shan’t assume any prior knowledge on the part of the reader, you’ll be pleased to know. And we’ll quietly forget the films for the time being, excellent though they are.

Iris Carr starts off the novel coming to the end of a luxurious Italian holiday with a group of friends who are lively or obnoxiously boisterous, depending on whom you ask at the hotel. They head off back to England a little before she does, and she is left to ignore the other residents – from the vicar and wife who are keen to tell anybody about their children to the spinster ladies who strongly disapprove of youthful insouciance. They, in turn, are quite keen to keep out of anybody else’s business, for somewhat unlikely reasons that later become essential to the plot but (more rewardingly, to my mind) also lead later to my favourite lines in the book:

“You live in Somersetshire,” he remarked. “It is a county where I have stayed often. I wonder if we know any mutual friends.”

“I hate every single person living there,” said Miss Rose vehemently, sweeping away any claimants to friendship.

Iris, let us be honest, is not a particularly sympathetic woman. She seems unrepentantly selfish, quite rude, and snubs the overtures of friendship that are offered. She hopes, indeed, to travel back to England without them – but they do all end on the same train after all.

She is not, however, in their carriage – instead, after a curious incident of being knocked out briefly on the train platform – she squeezes herself into a carriage next to a friendly middle-aged lady, Miss Froy, and a peculiarly unfriendly set of others – including a formidable-looking baroness. Miss Froy is something of an adventurer (not, I assure you, an adventuress) and babbles away cheerily to Iris about her travel and exploits. It may not surprise you to learn that her response is to be pretty bored and inattentive, but she puts up with it for a while.

After Iris has had a quick nap, she wakes up to discover Miss Froy is missing… and when she asks the people in the carriage, they deny having ever seen her.

It’s an excellent premise for a novel (or a film), but it does require watertight plotting. At no point do we ever truly believe that Iris has imagined any of this – which I seem to recall felt like a possibility in the film – so, instead, we have to try to work out where Miss Froy is, and why everybody is lying.

One of those is answered very well (if not entirely unguessably – it felt obvious to me, knowing what happened, but perhaps it might not have done if I’d not seen the film); the other had a fair few holes, but none that let the novel down overall. And that was because White writes both engagingly and well. Indeed, her prose is more fluid, witty, and accomplished than many of the detective novelists of the period that I have read.

If her characterisation tends to caricature at times, she demonstrates greater nuance in Iris – who is an impressively believable combination of damsel in distress and determined sleuth, picking the most realistic elements from both stereotypes to create a non-stereotypical character. She actually behaves in a way that one might believe a person would behave, unlike 90% of thrillers – for The Wheel Spins often feels like it has crossed the line into thriller territory.

But my favourite elements were closer to normal: Miss Froy has two elderly parents – which came as a surprise, as I’d rather imagined her to be rather elderly herself until they appealed – and the narrative occasionally heads back to England to see them proudly and enthusiastically preparing for Miss F’s return. As is their adorable dog. It is all rather touching, and lends pathos that is often missing from high dramas. You can’t, for example, imagine Bulldog Drummond’s parents flicking through a photo album.

All in all, this is an endearing and enjoyable classic crime that was well-serviced by being turned into a Hitchcock film. Thank you Kirsty for lending it to me!

 

 

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier #1938Club Guest Review

When I told family and friends that I was co-leading the 1938 Club, I encouraged anybody who was interested to contribute their own review. A few of my IRL friends have indeed been doing 1938 reading along with us, and my friend Sarah has written this fantastic review of one of my faves, Rebecca. Do make her welcome!

RebeccaI have strong memories of watching Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Rebecca as a kid – the atmosphere, all in black and white, Maxim driving the heroine around in Monte Carlo, and the fancy dress party at Manderley. A few years ago I read du Maurier’s collection of short stories including The Birds – she has clearly made several strong contributions to the public consciousness.

So I came to Rebecca with some expectation, and also a sense that I knew the story. Neither mattered (and my feeling that I knew what happened was wrong, in any case!) as I was instantly drawn in. I love it when a book is so easy to get into, and you feel like you’ve been reading it for much longer than the first few pages. At various points along the way the book would bring back elements of the story that I remembered, but this didn’t bother me and I happily followed it, expecting some things and being surprised by others.

While the nameless protagonist and narrator is in many ways annoying, I found her very easy to empathise with in the first half – perhaps because I can remember being an awkward, shy girl, but also I think du Maurier does a fantastic job of bringing her character to life and making her inner monologue realistic and relatable. She goes off on involved fantasy daydreams at the drop of a hat, thinks (tamely) bitchy thoughts about her obnoxious employer Mrs Van Hopper, and for me is just the right mix of awkward, hopeful, embarrassed, daydreamy, and sullen, with bouts of confidence that then get shot down. I’ve made her sound awful! She’s not, she’s really quite endearing. And her first love/obsession for Maxim de Winter, the handsome stranger who shows her kindness and attention and entertains her in the absence of any friends at all, is really understandable and well drawn. Of course as readers, you feel that something’s not quite adding up, but it’s how du Maurier wants you to feel. You buy it; you’re along for the ride and eagerly waiting to see what will happen when they get back to Manderley.

The not-quite-right feeling that you get from the start of the relationship between Maxim and the narrator is continued and built upon once we get to Manderley, with the creepy staff, the disused wing of the house, the ‘blood red’ rhododendrons, and the obsessive references to Rebecca – for a good portion of the book it feels like she is mentioned on every page, which is obviously a device to make you feel like our narrator – to feel the oppressive, overwhelming force of Rebecca everywhere and in all the characters you meet. Here, I started to feel slightly frustrated by the spinelessness of our narrator, and the crappy attitude of Maxim (I don’t care if you’re Troubled and Brooding, you can pull yourself out of it enough to know you’re being horrible), but it didn’t really matter as I was invested in the story. I found myself trying to second guess the plot developments and the truth about Rebecca – but in an enjoyable way; trying to pick up on clues and events to work out what they meant. That sustained suspense is what du Maurier has done really effectively in this novel.

There are some lovely observations that stand out as being very much of their time – like when a dead body is discovered and an investigation must take place – and part of the ensuing chaos is that the lady of the house misses lunch, and decides they won’t change for dinner that evening. Similarly, when her husband comes under suspicion of murder, and our narrator frets that his scone is going cold. The party they host, too, sounds fabulous – if you had servants to run it for you in your stately mansion – hundreds of people in fancy dress dancing to the live band in the ballroom, with food and drink laid out, games rooms, fairy lights throughout the extensive grounds, and a fireworks display; all cleared away by the staff first thing in the morning.

In the end, the characters are not completely believable (although maybe they were more so in 1938; but I’m still genuinely puzzled by facts such as that Maxim and the second Mrs de Winter actually seem to love each other), and much of the plot is a little thin (why did Maxim marry Rebecca in the first place? Are we to believe that the sole reason why Rebecca was so despicable, so wicked, was simply that she was sleeping around and threatening to bring shame upon Manderley?! Why doesn’t Frank, Maxim’s confidante who shows the most kindness to our narrator, tell her the truth about Rebecca?).

The writing isn’t brilliant or outstanding, but it’s really good – solid, clean writing with enough description and atmosphere but that doesn’t get bogged down, and feels more modern and fresh than a book that’s nearly 80 years old.

It’s not the scariest or thrilleriest thriller that you’ll read, but despite all of the misgivings above I found it really enjoyable – a well written, compelling, interesting story that has left a fresh impression on me. I think it will continue to stand out as leaving a lasting memory, even if it’s just a sense of the suspense created, the atmosphere of Manderley, or some of the characters, like I had from watching the film around 20 years ago. I’ll definitely look forward to reading my next du Maurier.

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham #1938Club

This review is part of the 1938 Club: add your reviews to the comments here.

I read the Persephone, but couldn't resist sharing this Puffin cover.
I read the Persephone, but couldn’t resist sharing this Puffin cover.

According to the pencil note inside of my copy of The Children Who Lived in a Barn, I bought it on 18th June 2009 in London, though whether that was at the Persephone shop or not, I couldn’t tell you. As I said before, one of the lovely things about this sort of theme week is that it gives me the opportunity to take down books from my shelves that I have left too long neglected – and The Children Who Lived in a Barn was precisely the sort of book I wanted to read over the past few days, feeling sorry for myself with a cold.

Eleanor Graham isn’t one to cloak the story of her book. It is, indeed, about children who live in a barn. The children are Sue, Bob, Joseph, Samuel, and Alice – in that age order, with Sue the eldest at 12. Joseph and Samuel are twins known as Jumbo and Sambo, or Jum and Sam, and are the sort of storybook twins who speak in unison and share a single character. As for the rest, Sue is resourceful and domestic, Alice is feminine and a little spoiled, and Bob is adventurous and a bit stubborn. Graham hasn’t reinvented the wheel when it comes to the children’s characters. She is particularly, if not surprisingly, old-fashioned when it comes to gender roles (“Why on earth were we made girls, Al? Boys can always run off and do things outside, but we always have to tidy up indoors”.) But her premise is rather unusual.

The children’s parents are called suddenly away to visit an ailing relative – and are taking the then-modern and relatively unusual step of flying there. But the children don’t hear back from them… and then they are evicted by the obstreperous man who leases their house… There are threats from local busybodies (more on them soon) that the children will be divided up, until a kindly local farmer offers them the use of his barn. And they take him up on it.

The barn is a bit less basic then one might imagine – it has a stove, a tap, and other bathroom requirements are mysteriously never mentioned. Still, it stretches credibility a touch to believe that parents would blithely leave five children of 12 and under to their own devices, even without the possibility of eviction on the horizon. But this, of course, is fantasy – and nobody (in 1938, at least) turned to children’s literature for gritty realism.

There are some locals who share my mistrust of the situation – but the District Visitor (‘the D.V.’) and her ilk are treated with short shrift by Graham. Without exception, they perform their duties with rudeness and rigorous unkindness. Here’s Mrs. Legge in action:

“We have been working very hard indeed on your behalf and have now decided on a plan of action. Oh, yes, you got here first – but we had actually arranged for you to do something of the sort, for a time at least. The summer lies ahead of us and you won’t suffer any great hardship in camping out here for a few weeks or even months. You must not, of course, just run wild. But we shall see that that does not happen. We must know that you are observing the decencies of life, that the place is being kept clean and in order, that you have enough to eat and that you are attending properly to hair, teeth, nails,and so on. So for the present you may stay here and we have appointed Miss Ruddle to come here and inspect every Friday at half-past-four.” 

It is clear that the reader is supposed to cheer on the situation of the children living in the barn, looking after themselves, and I was more than willing to suspend disbelief and everything else, and get behind Sue et al. It was just too enjoyable and charming a story not to.

Once they’re in situ, the book is quite episodic – as many children’s stories of the period were. So we see Alice’s interactions with poor Miss Blake (who spends a great deal of time making her an ugly frock; the ugliness and Miss Blake’s strict manner are enough for us to dispose of her pretty swiftly), Bob’s apprenticeship at a barber’s, Sue’s education in washing clothes – and they are all dealt with and left behind as the next adventure rears its head. I don’t recall the twins doing much besides speaking in unison, but presumably they had their own adventures at some point.

The one that everyone seems to remember, and which I had come across in the Persephone Quarterly (as was) and other discussions was… the haybox! Apparently this is a legitimate way to cook things, more or less like a slow-cooker, and has beguiled generations ever since the book first came out. I was more interested in ‘Solomon’, a passing tramp whose use of any and all wise saws earns him his nickname. Graham wrote him wittily, and I have a penchant for characters who use aphorisms willy-nilly.

Being a 1930s children’s book, it perhaps won’t surprise you that nothing particularly awful befalls any of the children and (spoilers) the parents turn out to be fine too – but the events and stakes scarcely matter. If Journeying Wave was a comforting rollercoaster for adults, this is the same for children. I can see myself reading and re-reading this delightedly had I first come across it as a child – and, to be honest, I’d happily revisit it now. The Children Who Lived in a Barn is charming fun, and must have been very welcome respite at a time when the world was clearly about to change.