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!

 

Richmal Crompton and me

richmal-cromptonWhen I’m asked who my favourite authors are, I often find myself immediately giving the answers I would have given ten years ago or more: A.A. Milne, E.M. Delafield, Richmal Crompton. I would have unhesitatingly rattled those off in 2002, because they were the three authors I had discovered for myself in my first ventures beyond obvious, in-print choices. I’ve written before about discovering A.A. Milne, and these other two weren’t very dissimilar. I started reading Richmal Crompton’s novels because I loved her William series and stumbled across Family Roundabout in Hay-on-Wye; I started reading E.M. Delafield because I’d bought a 1940 anthology called Modern Humour (featuring A.A. Milne) and loved an extract from Delafield’s As Others Hear Us. Perhaps not the usual way to discover EMD, but I’m grateful for it.

Picking up that old red hardback of Family Roundabout changed my life in enormous ways. I don’t know if things would have happened anyway, somehow, but the path would have been different. I loved Family Roundabout, and so was surprised when (in 2003) I saw that it had been reprinted. I picked up the Persephone edition in my local library, and started to explore what else they had republished – seeing ‘E.M. Delafield’ in their catalogue confirmed that I might rather like this publishing house. Exploring reviews of Family Roundabout on Amazon led me to one by a lady called Lyn. This was in the days when Amazon included reviewers’ email addresses, so (with the boldness of youth) I emailed Lyn to say how much I loved Crompton, and had she read many others? You might know Lyn as I Prefer Reading. Very kindly, she didn’t quietly ignore the enthusiastic email of an 18 year old, but instead told me about an online book discussion group – which I joined and, over a decade and a third of my life later, am still a member of. It was that group that helped form my reading tastes further, which led to my choice of DPhil topic (and, I daresay, to me doing a DPhil at all), not to mention StuckinaBook and, thus, my job at Oxford University Press. Basically almost everything in my day-to-day life can be traced to picking up that Richmal Crompton novel in 2003.

But is she still one of my favourite writers? Now, I would find it too difficult to give a list, in all probability – but, if pushed, I wouldn’t question including Milne and Delafield. I’d umm and ahh over Crompton. Yes, I still want to collect everything she’s written – but that’s partly the thrill of the chase. Some of her books are entirely impossible to track down (though not as many as before, given Bello bringing them back into print – including the Print on Demand review copy I’m writing about today). But buying books and reading books are entirely separate pleasures, and I’m no longer quite sure that Richmal Crompton deserves such a high place in my affections. Is she a great writer? No. Is she even consistently very good? I might have to conclude not. But is she a delight to read? Absolutely.

My criteria for favourite writers might now include an adept or unique style, or a way with humour that sets apart. Crompton doesn’t have those things. But what she does have is a knack for putting together a domestic novel which, if not par excellence, is certainly astonishingly archetypal. Somehow she is the quintessential interwar writer. Her subjects tend to be three or four families in a village, interacting and fighting, learning about themselves, and often changing for the better. Under the quiet surface of her extremely readable prose are alcoholism, abuse, affairs, and that’s just the ‘a’s. She packs in more than a soap opera. In fact, her novels are almost like soap operas – the amount of incident, the slightly exaggerated characters. Sometimes she excels herself – I would argue that she does this in Family RoundaboutFrost at Morning, and Matty and the Dearingroydes. Occasionally she significantly under-performs, and that is when she is saccharine (see, for instance, The Holiday).

Portrait of a FamilyWhat of Portrait of a Family (1932)? This is one that I’ve never been able to track down – despite once buying a second copy of Family Roundabout when I confused the titles. As with many Crompton novels, it looks at a sprawling family of people who are very different from one another. It starts with Christopher remembering the deathbed revelation of his wife Susan…

Suddenly she opened her eyes. She was smiling – just as she had smiled at him across the Rectory lawn. A feeling of hysterical relief seized him. It was all right. She couldn’t be dying if she smiled at him like that. She began to speak, but so faintly that he had to bend down his head to hear what she said.

“Did you – never guess?”

“What?” he said breathlessly.

“About Charlie – and me.”

Then her eyes closed and she lay motionless, as if her looking at him and speaking had been an illusion.

She seems to be confessing to an affair – or is she? The thought haunts Christopher, and he determines to discover the truth by asking his various children and acquaintances, in the most subtle way possible. This might be deemed enough plot for many novelists, but Crompton is determined to give every character their due. Christopher has three children, and they each have a spouse. Throw in some grandchildren, Charlie’s sister, a housekeeper, and each of them has a certain frenzied vitality. One of Christopher’s children is trying to escape a loveless marriage, another is seeing his destroyed by a selfish and paranoid wife, while the third seems genuinely content.

Characters tend to be either good or bad, and react morally or immorally to any set of circumstances that present themselves – so the woman who treats her husband badly will also smother (metaphorically!) her children, ruin people’s parties, snap at the maid etc. etc. Crompton certainly delineates characters differently, with their own set of neuroses or tics, but – though they are very different from one another – the same types appear and re-appear throughout her novels. I had a very strong sense of deja vu while reading Portrait of a Family, to the extent that I genuinely began to wonder if I’d already read it – but I couldn’t possibly have done. The same scenarios, the same character thoughts, the same outcomes – all have appeared elsewhere in her writing, and will reappear later. Goodness knows why she returned so often to the same wells.

BUT – and it is a really significant but – her novels are such a compulsive delight to read. Portrait of a Family is in the stronger half of her novels, certainly; in that body of hers (below the best and above the worst) that differ from one another only slightly. And it’s addictive. It’s unputdownable. It’s oddly relaxing, given the amount of strife that happens. I would wholeheartedly recommend it for an afternoon or two of delightful reading – even while recognising that Crompton is not the calibre of novelist I once thought.

So, where does this leave me and Richmal? I will still continue to read her every now and then, with my expectations adjusted appropriately. I will forever be grateful for the path she inadvertently led me down, but – on the strength of her writing alone – she might not be one of my favourites any more. But there are still few more entertaining ways to spend a Sunday afternoon than reading one of her soap operatic novels.

 

Winifred and Virginia

I’m sure that most of us have authors who follow us around – not literally, you understand, although I swear Ian McEwan keeps getting on the same bus as me and the authorities have been notified.  No, I mean the authors we keep seeing mentioned, or on the shelves of bookshops, or recommended to us, and we’re sure that we’ll love them, only… we never quite get around to reading them.

Well, Winifred Holtby is one such author for me.  I’ve known about South Riding for about as long as I’ve been reading novels, and it used to be in more or less every bookshop I visited.  Eventually I took the hint, and bought it.  And, of course, there has been the recent television series, not to mention the beautiful Virago reprints.  So… I read her book about Virginia Woolf.

Yep, I’ve still not read any Holtby fiction, even though my shelves are full of the stuff, but I have read Virginia Woolf (1932), which my friend Lucy gave me back in 2010.  Oh, and having mentioned in my Felixstowe talk that I sometimes put sketches on SiaB, I realised that (a) I still need to make my Year Six Sketches post, and (b) I haven’t put up a sketch for ages.  So there’s one of an early draft of the cover for Holtby’s book…

You’ve got to admire Winifred Holtby’s guts for writing about Virginia Woolf in the early 1930s.  Not only was Virginia Woolf alive, but their respective reputations were even further apart than they are now – Holtby was a respected writer on women’s issues, but as a novelist, she was realms away from Woolf.  In a literary society more firmly divided into highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow than we would now recognise, it was audacious (to say the least) for Holtby to dare to write critically about Virginia Woolf.  I use the word ‘critically’ in its neutral sense – that is, an assessment.  Holtby subtitled this ‘a critical memoir’, and it is far closer to an analysis and critique than it is a memoir – indeed, let’s call a spade a spade.  For much of the time, Virginia Woolf is an appreciation.  And that suits me down to the ground.  Reading Holtby’s book reminded me that Woolf is, in my opinion, the greatest writer of the 20th century.

Let’s set the scene.  When Holtby was writing this, Woolf had recently published The Waves, easily her most experimental book.  (I imagine few people would have guessed that her final two novels [The Years and Between the Acts] would be a return to more traditional narratives; until that point, her writing had got steadily more and more experimental with prose style).  So she had certainly done enough to establish her place as one of the best and most important writers alive, with Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Orlando, and The Waves (sometimes known as The Big Four, possibly only by me) under her belt – but, of course, none of her diaries or letters had been published.  It is very intriguing to read an account by a woman who knew her tangentially, and had met and corresponded with her, and yet knew so much less of her internal life than has been revealed now to anybody who buys a copy of A Writer’s Diary (which is exceptionally brilliant) or flicks through the six volumes of her letters.

But Holtby can do what none of us can do, and give a firsthand impression of Woolf:

Tall, graceful, exceedingly slender, she creates an impression of curbed but indestructible vitality.  An artist, sitting near her during a series of concerts given by the Léner quartette, said afterwards, “She makes me think of a frozen falcon; she is so still, and so alert.”  The description does in some measure suggest her elegance veiling such intellectual decision, her shyness lit by such irony.  Meeting all contacts with the world lightly yet courageously; withdrawn, but not disdainful; in love with experience yet exceedingly fastidious; detached, yet keenly, almost passionately interested; she watches the strange postures and pretences of humanity, preserving beneath her formidable dignity and restraint a generosity, a belief, and a radiant acceptance of life unsurprised by any living writer.
The biographical section of Virginia Woolf focuses chiefly on what it would be like to grow up with Leslie Stephen for a father – a man of letters, known for his work on the Dictionary of National Biography – and doesn’t look much at her adulthood, marriage, or the Bloomsbury group.  Perhaps that is to be expected, knowing that Woolf would read it (and not being a prurient person – what halcyon days those must have been!)  So, instead, she turns her attention to Woolf’s writing.

I have to say, I was really surprised by how modern Holtby’s criticism felt. I knew that Woolf was much admired during her lifetime, but so much of Holtby’s critique was so adroit, and covered arguments I’d assumed were rather more recent (such as comparing Jacob’s Room to filmmaking, or noting the importance of time in Mrs Dalloway.)  Even her assessment of Woolf’s greatest and least achievements seemed to me completely to reflect decades of later discussion – with Night and Day at the bottom, and The Waves at the top.  Comments like this one were illuminating:

She has never understood the stupid.  Whenever she tries to draw a character like Betty Flanders or Mrs. Denham, she loses her way.  They are more foreign to her than princes were to Jane Austen. Her imagination falters on the threshold of stupidity.
How beautifully phrased, too!  As I say, I’ve not read any of Holtby’s fiction – I have read part of Women and the odd essay – but it seems that something of the precision and beauty of Woolf’s writing has been picked up by Holtby, and seems to lace her sentences here.  And that mention of Jane Austen reminds me – Holtby names a chapter ‘Virginia Woolf is not Jane Austen’.  Curious that the distinction was felt necessary, but I think Holtby puts forth an excellent point when she says that Night and Day is a somewhat failed attempt to write in the Austen school of fiction.  One of the reasons it doesn’t work is explained by Holtby:

The events of a novel must appear important.  Trivial though they may be, they must create the illusion that they fill the universe.  Jane Austen was able to create the illusion that a delayed proposal or an invitation to a ball could fill the universe, because, so far as her little world was concerned, it did.  But in England during the twentieth-century war no single domestic activity was without reference to that tremendous, undomestic violence.  At any moment a telegram might arrive; the sirens might signal an approaching air-raid; somebody might come unexpectedly home on leave.  The interest of every occupation, from buying groceries to writing a love-letter, was in some measure deflected to France, Egypt or Gallipoli.
But reading about Woolf’s early, non-experimental fiction probably isn’t why anybody would pick up a critical memoir.  Instead, I was keen to find out how her characteristic, Modernist prose struck Holtby.  Woolf is now famous for distorting the sentence, for stream of consciousness writing and playing with the conventions of prose.  She is not alone in doing this, of course, but she is perhaps the best.  Well, Holtby writes brilliantly about that too.  This paragraph describes the earliest of Woolf’s experimental novels, Jacob’s Room, and the segue from that to her Big Four:

She had thrown overboard much that had been commonly considered indispensable to the novel: descriptions of places and families, explanations of environment, a plot of external action, dramatic scenes, climaxes, conclusions, and almost all those link-sentences which bind one episode to the next.  But much remained to her.  She had retained her preoccupation with life and death, with character, and with the effect of characters grouped and inter-acting.  She had kept her consciousness of time and movement.  She knew how present and past are interwoven, and how to-day depends so much upon knowledge and memory of yesterday, and fear for or confidence in to-morrow.  She was still preoccupied with moral values; she was immensely excited about form and the way in which the patterns of life grow more and more complex as one regards them.  And she was more sure now both of herself and of her public.  She dared take greater risks with them, confident that they would not let her down.
Yes, Winifred, yes!  What an excellent understanding of the elements of the traditional novel that Woolf kept, and those that she left behind her.  Which does beg the question – if she was able to identify Woolf’s genius so perfectly, and analyse the techniques she used, why did Holtby herself not try them?  (Or at least, I have always assumed her novels followed a more traditional format.)  To some is given the gift of being at the forefront of literature; to others, the ability to recognise it.  Each needs the other.

Not that Woolf seems to have been particularly grateful.  Marion Shaw’s introduction (in the edition I have, pictured) is useful on the myriad mentions Woolf makes of the biography in her letters and diaries.  I shan’t go into detail, but essentially Woolf was rather patronising and contradictory – par for the course for a woman who wrote wonderfully, but would have been rather a nightmare to know, particularly if one happened to be poorer or younger than her (and she’d have hated me for being a Christian).  Would Holtby have minded about this reception?  I rather think she might – she clearly puts Woolf-the-writer on a pedestal, and probably wanted to please Woolf-the-woman too.  Or, who knows, maybe Holtby would have been satisfied with having paid homage to the novels, and not worried too much about the author?

The only biography I’ve read of Virginia Woolf before this one was Hermione Lee’s exhaustive tome – and, my goodness, it was exhausting too.  Very scholarly, incredibly thorough, and quite a chore to read.  For my money, Winifred Holtby’s is much more worthwhile for the average reader – a unique perspective on one of Britain’s greatest writers, by one whose fiction I now really must read…

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding: Readalong

Right, books at the ready!  I’ve re-read Cheerful Weather for the Wedding ahead of seeing the new film (which I’ll be doing in one week’s time, at The Phoenix in Oxford, which has a one-night-only screening) and I’m opening up this post for discussion.  It won’t be one of my usual reviews, because I’ve actually already reviewed the novel (novella?) here, but more of a hub for conversation about it.

But I’ll give you a quick overview of my thoughts on re-reading Cheerful Weather for the Wedding.  It might be worth popping over and reading my thoughts in 2009, if you’d be so kind… basically I loved every moment, particularly the hilarious secondary characters.  Most memorable were mad Nellie (who spouts irrelevant conversations she has had with the plumber, while addressing the tea-tray) and brothers Tom and Robert, who come to a contretemps over the latter’s unorthodox emerald socks.  (I’m assuming that everyone knows the basic plot by this point – Dolly is uncertainly preparing for her wedding to Owen, with a houseful of eccentrics helping and hindering her – and a bottle of rum within reach.)

This time around, I found the novella a little less amusing, but mostly because I already knew where all my favourite bits were coming.  It is testament to Strachey’s humour that Nellie, Tom, and Robert have remained firmly fixed in my mind, down to their individual lines (“Put your head in a bag” still makes me grin) but inevitably surreal moments of humour heavily rely upon novelty.  Her cast of near-grotesques were still a delight, but not quite as much the second time around.

This, however, left me more able to appreciate other aspects to Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (and not just that sublime cover – I kept closing the book just to stare at it for a bit longer.)  I’d appreciated Strachey as a comic writer, but hadn’t really noticed how gorgeous some of her other writing is.  Her propensity to describe every character’s eyes when they arrive on the scene was slightly unnerving, but depictions of buildings and countryside were really lovely, and contrasted well with the surreal descriptions of people.  I couldn’t resist this excerpt…

Dolly’s white-enamelled Edwardian bedroom jutted out over the kitchen garden, in a sort of little turret.  It was at the top of the house, and reached by a steep and narrow stairway.  Coming in at the bedroom door, one might easily imagine one’s self to be up in the air in a balloon, or else inside a lighthouse.  One saw only dazzling white light coming in at the big windows on all sides, and through the bow window directly opposite the door shone the pale blue sea-bay of Malton.

This morning the countryside, through each and all of the big windows, was bright golden in the sunlight.  On the sides of a little hill quite close, beyond the railway cutting, grew a thick hazel copse.  To-day, with the sun shining through its bare branches, this seemed to be not trees at all, but merely folds of something diaphanous floating along the surface of the hillside – a flock of brown vapours, here dark, there light – lit up in the sunshine.

And all over the countryside this morning the bare copses looked like these brown gossamer scarves; they billowed over the hillsides, here opalescent, there obscure – according to the sunlight and shadow among their bronze and gauzy foldings.
It can’t just be me who wants to move in immediately?  But I couldn’t leave you without a moment of Strachey’s wonderfully wicked humour…

“How are your lectures going?” asked Kitty of Joseph, a kind of desperate intenseness in her voice and face.  This was her style of the moment with the male sex.
And now over to you!  If you post a review of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding during the week, please pop a link in the comments (I’ll probably do a round-up later in the week) but I’d also like this to be a place for discussion – do reply to each other’s comments, and I’ll join in, and it’ll be FUN.  I won’t post for another two or three days, to give everyone a chance to see this.

Here are some questions to start things going:

Did you enjoy the novel, for starters!?

What do you think Julia Strachey was trying to achieve – what sort of book was she trying to write?

Why do you think Strachey made it so short?  Would it have worked as a longer novel?

Who were your favourite characters?

If you’re re-reading, how did you opinion change this time?

How do you think it will translate to cinema?

Ssshhhh…

Let’s start the week as we mean to go on – with a review of a rather good book. The book in question is Secret Lives (1932) by Mr. E.F. Benson. Thanks to Nancy for bringing this to my attention absolutely AGES ago, I was finally able to get around to it just before I was struck down with illness.

It’s no secret that I love, love, and love the Mapp and Lucia series, as do many of you, but I hadn’t read any other EFB novels – despite having quite a few on my shelves. Secret Lives is reportedly the closest to that series and, although it isn’t as good as them, it certainly has the same spirit.

Think Lucia in London for the setting – i.e., we’re not in a Tillingesque village, we’re instead on the exclusive Durham Square in London. Exclusive, indeed, because Mrs. Mantrip’s father had systematically whittled his tenants down to the respectable and well-to-do, making sure Durham Square became the residency of choice for the highest society in London. And, for all that, it is incredibly provincial in its in-fighting, and the fact that everybody knows everybody else’s business. For a start, there is the matter of dogs in the garden. Mrs. Mantrip’s father (whom she reveres, and whose Life she is gradually writing – or, indeed, thinking about writing) expressly forbade it. But Elizabeth Conklin and her ten Pekinese – all circling her on leads – are keen to oppose. Cue all the wonderful cattiness and polite venom which fans of Mapp and Lucia have come to expect.

But then the title comes into play. ‘Below the seeming tranquillity of the Square surprising passions and secret lives were seething in unsuspected cauldrons.’ Margaret Mantrip’s secret passion, despite her outward literary pretensions, is for the novels of Rudolf da Vinci. Think Marie Corelli – i.e. atrociously written, probably addictive, lots of swooning heroines and dashing heroes.

The only distinguished thing about it, from a literary point of view, was its unique lack of distinction. It was preposterous to the last degree, but there was a sumptuousness about it, and, though nauseatingly moral in its conclusion, there was also fierceness, a sadism running like a scarlet thread through its portentous pages.
Margaret keeps these titles on a bottom shelf, hidden by a curtain and surrounded by her father’s collection of theological titles… And then there is mysterious Susan Leg who has recently moved into the Square – very wealthy, but says ‘Pardon?’ and ‘serviette’ and serves caviar spread on scones. What’s going on?

It doesn’t take an overly-perceptive reader to realise quite quickly that Rudolph da Vinci and Susan Leg are one and the same. And, indeed, E.F. Benson doesn’t leave us in the dark for long. In the hands of a lesser novelist, Leg’s unveiling might have been the denouement – but Benson is more interested in the intrigue and humour to be found in deception and social superficiality. Throw in an anonymous society columnist and a scathing reviewer, and there is enough confusion and hypocrisy all round to make the most ardent Tillingite happy.

As I said at the beginning, Secret Lives doesn’t match the brilliance of the Mapp and Lucia series, where every character (even when a bit two-dimensional) is a delight – but, once you’ve exhausted that series, this is a wonderful place to look. And a middlebrow novelist being biting about lesser novelists – and, especially, about critics – is always good fun. Thank you, Nancy, for recommending this novel – I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

I forgot about the Books to get Stuck into feature on my Persephone reviews (N.B. the poll results, with all 163 votes, are up now – thanks for voting!) but here they are, back again. Obviously the best companion novels, if Secret Lives sounds intriguing, are the Mapp and Lucia series, and Tom Holt’s or Guy Fraser-Sampson’s sequels, but here are some other suggestions:

Books to get Stuck into:

Elizabeth Taylor: Angel – although not very similar in tone, the wonderfully awful and self-unaware Angel is also modelled on the Marie Corelli type.

Rose Macaulay: Keeping Up Appearances – funny and arch, this 1920s novel has a mediocre novelist, but also all sorts of secrets and secret lives tangled up together, and is definitely worth seeking out.