The Birds by Frank Baker

My reading sort-of-resolution – to read more of the books that have been on my shelves for years and years – continues apace with Frank Baker’s 1936 novel The Birds. It was his second novel, and his third was my much-adored Miss Hargreaves – would this finally be the novel that lived up to Miss H, after many swings and misses from Baker’s oeuvre?

Well, no, but it was interesting to read nonetheless. And it’s perhaps most interesting to read in relation to Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds. Which was, we are told, based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 short story ‘The Birds’; she claimed never to have heard of Baker’s novel, and Baker never went through with his threat to sue Hitchcock. (My edition was published in 1964, the year after the film came out, with a woman who looks suspiciously like Tippi Hedren on the cover – and the passive aggressive publishers note ‘Written long before Daphne du Maurier’s short story…’) It’s quite possible she never read it – it only sold a few hundred copies when first published. My edition is apparently ‘revised’, though I don’t know to what extent.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never read du Maurier’s story or seen the film, but I suspect at least some of the premise is similar – birds are attacking and nobody knows why.

About as large as starlings, but different in every other respect, they were neither pink nor purple as the messenger had surmised, but an ambiguous shade of dark jade green. This colour, catching the bright sunlight, sometimes shone blue, sometimes purple. It was an almost fluid colour. Each one had a little ruff of pretty feathers round his neck which stuck out like a hat above his head. The brightest part of their colouring was in the breast, from the throat downwards, where the feathers were smooth and of a glossy sheen which seemed to reflect all colours. Their little beaks were curved, not unlike a parrot; they had sharp, very lively eyes which gave them an inquisitive, impertinent expression.

There are some vivid scenes of the birds attacking – but they do not swoop and attack in crowds from the sky. Rather, they seem to target individuals – swindlers, unkind people – and disappear once their victims have been attacked or killed. But nothing will kill the birds themselves – not fire or bullets or anything.

This central thread of action is drawn well and engagingly, and the reader wants to know the secret behind the birds activities – and there is a secret of sorts, albeit one rather clouded in a bizarre philosophical spiritualism that Baker half-explains eventually, in a cloud of vague writing. But there is a conceit of the novel that palls very quickly – it is all told by the narrator to his granddaughter Anna, after some sort of world-changing event. All the mores and customs of the old world – that is, the 1930s world the reader would recognise – have been wiped completely. And, for some reason, none of them have been brought up until now. It means that Anna apparently doesn’t know anything about politics, religion, machinery, jobs… anything at all, really. And the narrator discourses about them at length – sometimes just explaining what they are; sometimes letting Baker indulge in some cynical satire. It was all rather self-indulgent and distracting.

I love Miss Hargreaves. You know that by now. But every other novel I’ve read by Baker ends up being so stodgy. And I’ve now tried four others – but I’ll keep persisting, on the off-chance that one of them will come close to the novel I love so much.

But the link to Hitchcock’s film, however unintentional, has given this book something of a lease of life – it was republished in 2013 and, if the #frankbaker tag on Instagram is anything to go on, has proven rather popular recently as Os Pássaros. Perhaps it’s a better book in… Portuguese? (According to Google Translate, at least!) Any Portuguese speakers out there, maybe give it a go.

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!



Muddling Through

One of the types of books I most love are those incidental, silly-humour books from between the world wars. The sort that is achingly middle-class and frivolous, neither lewd nor politically astute, but something that folk in the 1930s would have laughed through and put on their coffee tables. Sometimes those books are collections of essays, but occasionally they come in the shape of Muddling Through by Theodora Benson and Betty Askwith (illustrated by Nicolas Bentley).

The subtitle is ‘Britain in a Nutshell’, and such is what it purports to be. It considers England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland in turn, pointing out the national characteristics of each, and the distinctive traits of various regions. All is done in staccato sentences, which are supposedly comprehensive but, of course, are nothing of the kind. (‘Cambridge always wins the boat race. Cambridge has sausages.’)

Yes, the joke is rather one-note, and utterly silly, but it rather beguiled me – as a snapshot of a period, as much as anything else.

The other thing which made this a snapshot of its publication year (1936) was how generous the publisher is with space. It’s an above-average-height hardback, and a lot of the pages are almost empty.  It adds to the humour (because it becomes all the clearer that they are dismissing places and people in a handful of words) but, to those of us familiar with the ‘wartime restrictions’ notes in the wafer-thin-paper hardbacks which were soon to follow, it feels anachronistic.

So, a silly book, but just the sort of silly I love.

Together and Apart – Margaret Kennedy

I think Together and Apart (1936) by Margaret Kennedy might just be the most 1930s novel I have ever read.  Not that it is the best (though it is very good) but that it is somehow quintessentially 1930s, stuffed with all the ingredients I have come to expect – marital politics; sensuality tempered by an intrinsic conservatism; a sense of change which is both progressive and nostalgic; fraught family gatherings; women discovering their voices, but torn between the roles of wife, mother, and independent woman; people explaining their feelings to each other at elaborate length.  Of course, none of these themes are unique to the 1930s, but they recur so often in novels of that decade that, together, they evoke the 1930s for me.  (Before I go any further – thank you Rob, who gave this to me in the Virago Secret Santa back in 2011, making Together and Apart possibly my only black Virago Modern Classic.)

It all starts off with that touchy-for-the-1930s topic of divorce, with Betsy writing to her mother about her proposed separation from her husband, the celebrated librettist Alec, and it’s worth quoting at length…

Well now Mother, listen.  I have something to tell you that you won’t like at all.  In fact, I’m afraid that it will be a terrible shock and you will hate it at first.  But do try to get used to the idea and bring father round to it.

Alec and I are parting company.  We are going to get a divorce.

I know this will horrify: the more so because I have, perhaps mistakenly, tried very hard to conceal our unhappiness during these last years.  I didn’t, naturally, want anybody to know while there was still a chance of keeping things going.  But the fact is, we have been quite miserable, both of us.  We simply are unsuited to one another and unable to get on.  How much of this have you guessed?

Life is so different from what we expected when we first married.  Alec has quite changed, and he needs a different sort of wife.  I never wanted all this money and success.  I married a very nice but quite undistinguished civil servant.  With my money we had quite enough to live on in a comfortable and civilised way.  We had plenty of friends, our little circle, people like ourselves, amusing and well bred, not rich, but decently well off.  Alec says now that they bored him.  But he didn’t say so at the time.
Divorce was no longer the great unthinkable, but you don’t have to be cynical to detect a hint of false brio in Betsy’s assured tone.  The respective mothers leap into action – and they remind me rather of the mothers in Richmal Crompton’s Family Roundabout.  Betsy’s mother is weak and anxious; Alec’s mother is domineering and formidable.  Neither, it turns out, is particularly good at bringing the separated couple back together, and there is rather a sense that they might have inadvertently accelerated the split…

From here, Margaret Kennedy weaves a complex and evolving pattern.  I expected the novel to focus on the married couple, seeing whether or not they could mend their rift, but Kennedy’s world is far wider than that.  I might even criticise it for being a little too wide, in that it occasionally seems to lose focus a bit as she tries to encompass a school, four or five households, and the minds and opinions of a dozen or more principal players.

As with the G.B. Stern novel (and because I’m rushing up so many posts!) I don’t think it’s worth elaborating at length about the plot.  Kennedy shows us the consequences of actions, and movingly depicts the ways in which separation affects everyone – not just the ‘think of the children’ angle (although this is shown a fair bit, the children are all quite flawed of their own accord) but the married couple themselves.  The split between Betsy and Alec is never final and certain in their minds – both are plagued by regret or, more to the point, uncertainty about their decision (regret would be a form of certainty which neither can reach).  I have never been married, and of course never divorced, but I was still impressed by the nuances in Kennedy’s writing…

…with the caveat that this is the 1930s, and I often find that the dialogue in 1930s novels is never quite as nuanced as one might wish.  People do explain their emotions at length, and have oh-gosh-darling moments, but that all adds to the good fun of it all.  My first Margaret Kennedy book was her biography of Jane Austen, and it is interesting to see how her own fiction compares.  Well, of course Austen is better – but you can see where Kennedy learnt a bit about portraying human nature in its complexities, and I think Jane would rather have enjoyed reading this if she’d been around in 1936.