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.

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.

Journeying Wave by Richmal Crompton #1938Club

richmal-cromptonThis review is part of the 1938 Club: add your reviews to the comments here.

I’ve written about her a few times now, but Richmal Crompton still feels like an author who lives chiefly in my pre-blogging days. In those heady days, probably around 2002-4 mostly, there were few enough authors on my radar that I could afford the luxury of delving into everything a single author had written. In Crompton’s case, it wasn’t everything – partly because so many of her books were unfindable or unaffordable; partly because I read about twenty over a short space of time, and needed a bit of a breather. My blog may not have reviews of all the many Crompton novels I read and loved, but it’s beginning to reflect what a substantial part she played in developing my reading life: I went into that in more depth in a blog post entitled ‘Richmal Crompton and me’.

Journeying Wave is now readily available, thanks to Bello, but I have actually had a 1938 edition on my shelves for a little while. The 1938 Club was an excellent excuse to take it down, and I even read it a few weeks ago in an effort to be super prepared. Naturally that means I’ve forgotten some of the finer details – but, truth be told, I’d forgotten some of them before I’d even got to the end of the book. On the scale of Crompton novels, I’d place it in the top half – it was quite moving and very gripping in that must-read-on-even-though-there’s-not-really-any-tension way that Crompton was expert in – but, gosh, what a lot of characters and plotlines.

The event that kicks them all off is the revelation of Humphrey’s affair. Crompton’s theme here – thesis, even – is the ‘journeying wave’ that a single action can create. I think she made up the term ‘journeying wave’, but it’s essentially the butterfly effect. How will Viola asking Humphrey to leave affect their children and wider families?

The same ‘types’ of many Crompton novels are here. There is the studious young woman who never thinks about men (until one particular man makes her rethink her priorities). There is the man who is in business when he would be better suited for the rural world. There is the selfish mother who uses her children as props to her own social success.

And, most typical of all for Crompton, there is the pair of women, one dominant, one weaker; the dominant one is controlling the life of the other, always thinking it is for her own good. In this instance, it’s elderly twins Harriet and Hester. Hester clings to the recollection of the one day she could call her own, and starts to rebel. It’s curious that an archetype as specific as this sort of pairing should recur in almost every Crompton novel, but there it is – and it is just as moving as usual.

For some characters, the discovery that Humphrey could have a child from an adulterous affair rocks their sense of trust. For others, it shows that life can change, and that they need to grab opportunities. For others, simply having Humphrey or Viola on the scene, offering a fresh perspective, changes things that way. The ‘journeying wave’ motif is quite cleverly done; it makes it more realistic that so much would change in the lives of so many characters over a relatively brief period. In Crompton’s novels, often the same number of things (and sometimes exactly the same things) happen to as many people, but with less obvious justification for such a meeting of incident.

The one unusual portrait in Journeying Wave is Humphrey himself, and he is perhaps the least successful portrait at the same time – because he seems both too decent and too simple to commit adultery. Not ‘simple’ as in stupid; he just comes across as plainly happy with the life he has, and unwilling to rock any sort of boat. He has to, in order to set off the motions of the novel, but it never seems quite believable that he would have done.

But credibility hardly matters. More important is the joy of being in the surrounds of a Crompton novel. Nobody writes as captivatingly as she does, though even when the stakes are high for the characters, they feel low for the reader. We race through the novel, but we know that the high drama is happening in some sort of relief; there will probably be a happy ending and, even if not, very similar characters will appear in the next Crompton novel we read. But as soon as that first page is opened, and I get an opening paragraph like this…

The light filtered softly through the drawn curtains, grew stronger, and flooded the big square bedroom, which, despite the up-to-date furnishings, still retained a vague suggestion of Victorianism. The bay window, the high ceiling, the ornate marble mantelpiece, struck the note of more settled spacious days, and the chintz pelmeted curtains and chintz skirted dressing-table seemed tactfully to bridge the gap between the old and the new.

…I know that I’m going to have a wonderful few days of reading, and will enjoy every moment.

(Oh and, somewhat to my surprise, someone else read Journeying Wave during 1938 Club week! Do go and read the thoughts of the aptly-named RichmalCromptonReader.)

Young Man With a Horn by Dorothy Baker #1938Club

Young Man With a HornThis review is part of the 1938 Club: add your reviews to the comments here.

I was so pleased when Kate at Vulpes Libris asked the other foxes if they’d like to celebrate the 1938 Club this week (they said yes!) and so, of course, thought it would be nice to house one of my reviews over there.

You can read my thoughts on Young Man With a Horn by Dorothy Baker over there (spoilers: I really liked it). I’m really pleased that, so far, all the books I’ve read and am reading for the 1938 Club are books I’ve had on my shelves for a while – the Baker has been there for about four years. Before that, though, I often saw this copy in the secondhand bookshop on Walton Street in Oxford. I kept not buying it, and it kept being there, and eventually I decided I should probably just make my purchase and take it home. And I’m glad I did!

Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly #1938Club

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

Enemies of PromiseMy first review for the 1938 Club (thanks so much for the support so far, btw!) is a book I’ve had on my shelves for about 12 years. Worse than that, it’s not even my book – I borrowed it from my aunt and uncle back then, and haven’t managed to return it yet. Well, Jacq and Dan, you can have it back now, thanks v much!

Enemies of Promise is a useful starting point for the 1938 Club because it is Connolly’s overview of contemporary literature. This is not without its omissions and faults – indeed, at times it seems to be only omissions and faults – but it’s a useful and interesting look at how a critic in 1938 saw the period’s writing in broad brushstrokes. The first two-thirds are literary criticism. Rather surprisingly, and baffling, the final third is an autobiography of Connolly’s schooldays. It feels so tacked onto the end, and I confess to skimming it in the end – I didn’t care about the names of his Eton friends, or which schoolteachers he liked or disliked. Why was it included? This post will concentrate on the rest of Enemies of Promise.

What does the title refer to? Well, the enemies of promise are the many things which stand between a promising author and his/her (though in Connolly’s eyes it seems to be ‘his’ invariably) eventual success: ‘whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising’. He deals with these in turn – they range from success to failure, from singleness to marriage, from drink to sobriety. Indeed, there is scarcely a hope for anybody – and it is curious that Connolly doesn’t have the self-awareness to laugh at the many lines he has drawn all over the sand.

Still, these sections are certainly interesting, if not much more than the reflections of an individual. What Connolly pronounces about the dangers of anything in particular are only really backed up by anecdote and bias; it is enjoyable and engaging, but could hardly be called fact. It’s this section that contains probably the most remembered line from Enemies of Promise: ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. This sounds almost feminist until you realise that is the male author whose productivity is being ruined by the intrusive wife and her be-prammed offspring. It doesn’t seem to cross Connolly’s mind at all that women might write.

But the substance of Enemies of Promise comes before these sections, engaging as they are. If the pram line is the most remembered, then the most influential line of argument is where Connolly writes about style: specifically the ‘Mandarins’ vs the vernacular. The latter includes Hemingway, Orwell, and others who strive to write plainly and realistically. I’ll let Connolly define Mandarin himself:

[Mandarin describes the style] beloved by literary pundits, by those who would make the written word as unlike as possible to the spoken one. It is the style of all those writers whose tendency is to make their language convey more than they mean or more than they feel, it is the style of most artists and all humbugs and one which is always menaced by a puritan opposition. To know which faction we should belong to at any given moment is to know how to write with best effect and it is to assist those who are not committed by their temperament to one party alone, the grand or the bald, the decorative or the functional, the barqoue or the streamlined that the following chapters are written.

This quotation tells us two things about Connolly. The first is that apparently nobody ever introduced him to the semi-colon; the second is that he believes himself to consider the Mandarin and the vernacular equally good, if not misused. His examples, throughout the rest of this section, suggest that he is actually rather prejudiced against the Mandarin – in which class he puts Woolf and Stern (when it comes to specifics, he believes in women writers!), then traces back both styles right through the history of English literature, considering Lamb, Keats, Butler, Dryden, Forster more or less on a level playing field.

Connolly can be pithy about writers – I particularly enjoyed ‘one finds much dandyism in Wilde and some in Saki who, however, adulterated his Wilde to suit the Morning Post‘, Gertrude Stein as ‘rinsing the English vocabulary, by a process of constant repetition, of all accretions of meaning and association’, and his description of ‘Sylvia Beach’s little bookshop where Ulysses lay stacked like dynamite in a revolutionary cellar’ – but more often we see somewhat laboured and lengthy quotations from writers across the centuries, and somewhat hasty pronouncements after them.

His conclusions are – and I do recognise the irony here – the swift and absolute conclusions of the young man. He was only 35 years old when he wrote this; in five years’ time, I don’t think I’d feel qualified to divide up all of literature or make such bold and unequivocal declarations about it. He somewhat spoils his adeptness as a critic by the sweeping statements he makes; naturally, Enemies of Promise is remembered for these rather than its many nuances. (To be fair to Connolly, I daresay I also won’t be able to write with his fluid elegance.)

What is his solution? Well, as the reader could perhaps have predicted at the beginning – it is compromise:

At the present time for a book to be produced with any hope of lasting half a generation, of outliving a dog or a car, of surviving the lease of a house or the life of a bottle of champagne, it must be written against the current, in a prose that makes demands both on the resources of our language and the intelligence of the reader. From the Mandarins it must borrow art and patience, the striving for the perfection, the horror of cliches, the creative delight in the material, in the possibilities of the long sentence and the splendour and subtlety of the composed phrase. 

[…]

From the realists, the puritans, the colloquial writers and talkie-novelists there is also much that he will take and much that he will leave. The cursive style, the agreeable manners, the precise and poetical impact of Forster’s diction, the lucidity of Maugham, last of the great professional writers, the timing of Hemingway, the smooth cutting edge of Isherwood, the indignation of Lawrence, the honesty of Orwell, these will be necessary and the touch of those few journalists who give to every word in their limited vocabulary its current topical value. But above all it is construction that can be learnt from the realists, that discipline in the conception and execution of a book, that planning which gives simply-written things the power to endure, the constant pruning without which the imagination like a tea-rose reverts to the wilderness.

He also writes about what shouldn’t be taken from each of them, but I am in danger of typing the whole book out. I do recommend this to anybody interested in the history of literary criticism, or anybody wondering how the 1930s were viewed by those in the midst of them – and it will also be interesting to see all the 1938 Club reviews coming in, and thinking about how they correspond to Connolly’s definitions of Mandarin and vernacular – and which of them have outlasted that bottle of champagne.

My Sister Eileen – Ruth McKenney

There aren’t enough unashamedly lovely books around. Too many modern books (it seems) feel they have to be either trivial or miserable, as though the only way to be literary was to be grim. There is a market for uplifting books, but these tend to be insultingly light reads (pastel-coloured romances) or forgettable books you buy from the pile by the till. Comedy, meanwhile, is apparently represented by arch or melancholic writers whose novels strike me as either entirely unamusing (I’m looking at you, Howard Jacobson) or tragedy decorated with jokes.

This is a broadbrush and uninformed portrait of modern literature, of course, but my sense is that we are experiencing a good decade for literary and experimental fiction with its serious face on, but missing out on well written joie de vivre. The exception that comes to mind might be David Sedaris’ non-fiction, which is very funny, but even this is decidedly melancholic.

So, what am I suggesting as an antidote? It’s every bit as lovely as Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages and Herbert Jenkins’ Patricia Brent, Spinster – it’s Ruth McKenney’s My Sister Eileen (1938). You might have guessed that from the title of this blog post.

I bought it a little while ago, after seeing it fleetingly mentioned in a review of Joanna Rakoff’s excellent My Salinger Year, and I was excited when a beautiful copy arrived. Still, it felt like an indulgence to be saved, and I didn’t dive straight in. My recent holiday felt like a very good opportunity to treat myself. As I expected, it’s lovely and funny and good.

It’s non-fiction – of the elaborated and exaggerated variety, I imagine – and is mostly about Ruth and Eileen’s childhood, although there are also some chapters devoted to their time living in an extremely dingy New York basement (and it is this section, I believe, that is used in the film version – which I have bought but not yet watched).

Their childhood is certainly played for laughs – it is very amusing. I wasn’t especially sold on the first chapter, which is about crying at the cinema (and the sisters’ demand that a story should be entirely tragic, or it barely counted as a story at all). But from the second chapter onwards I was completely sold. The second chapter (‘Hun-gah’) details the sisters’ attempts at amateur performances.

Eileen’s only ‘bit’ was playing a 1920s song called ‘Chloe’ (Eileen is ‘absolutely tone-deaf and has never been able to carry a tune, even the simplest one, in her whole life. She solved the difficulty by simply pounding so hard in the bass that she drowned herself out.’) The infant Ruth, on the other hand, had a foray into acting – via an experimental drama teacher who allotted her the part of ‘Hunger’ (which, incidentally, was also her only line – to be repeated). There is a wonderful climax in a scene where the sisters have been asked to amalgamate their performances into one for their assembled relatives:

Eileen played and sang first. Just as the final notes of her bass monotone chant, “I GOT-TUH go wheah yew ARE,” and the final rumble of the piano died away, I burst dramatically through the door, shouting “Hun-gah! Hun-gah!” and shaking my matted and snarled locks at my assembled relatives. My grandmother Farrel, who always takes everything seriously, let out a piercing scream.

Glorious.  And so the tales go on. We hear how Ruth was almost drowned by a Red Cross Lifesaving Examiner, how the sisters’ father was obsessed with experimental washing machines, how they enlivened a camp bird-watching, etc. When they move to New York, these adventures turn to the complexities of a basement window that drunks would yell through, a cheating landlord, and (the story that inspires the cover), the time when Ruth – then a reporter – was followed for a day by the Brazilian Navy. It’s so wonderfully silly and delightfully told. If it were not true (or at least based in truth) it might be criticised for being all over the place – but truth is not neatly arranged in logical or probable order, of course.

The Eileen of the title, incidentally, has another claim to notoriety – she married Nathanael West, and also died in the car crash that ended his life. This was actually two years after My Sister Eileen was published, so naturally it is not mentioned – but it lends a certain poignancy to the collection (and may influence the two sequels – one of which I now have, the other of which seems ungettable in the UK).

That moment of pathos aside, I think any lover of the Provincial Lady et al would also delight in this book – I certainly did, and was very glad to have found it.

Scoop – Evelyn Waugh

A few bloggers seem to have been reading Evelyn Waugh at the same time as each other – Rachel wrote about Decline and Fall and Ali wrote about Vile Bodies – only my review is coming rather belatedly, as I finished Scoop (1938) about a month ago. Oops. But it’s great, and very funny, so better late than never, I’m getting my review specs on (they’re the same as my usual specs, by the way.)

This is my fourth Evelyn Waugh novel, and I still haven’t read Brideshead Revisited.  I found the first couple too cruel for my liking, then thought The Loved One had the perfect mix of barbed wit and affection.  Well, Scoop continues in this vein – ridiculous and farcical things happen, people are mean and selfish, but always with a covering of good-humour – helped, chiefly, by the incredibly loveable lead character.

Like Decline and Fall, Scoop opens with a series of coincidences and misunderstandings (unlikely, but not impossible) which propel the central plot.  Unlike Decline and Fall, these misunderstandings are not malicious – but they end up with the wrong Mr. Boot being sent to the Republic of Ishmaelia by the Daily Beast.  Instead of the pushy young John Boot who’s been badgering the absolutely wonderful character Mrs. Stitch (the novel opens with her multi-tasking – on the telephone, directing the painter, answering correspondence, doing a crossword, and helping her daughter with her homework at the same time) to get him sent out there, it is William Boot, writer of the rural matters column Lush Places, who is accidentally sent.  Boot is an affable, quiet, honest young man (supposedly in his 20s, but he never comes across as younger than 45) who wants to live out his life in rural peace.  Who better to mire in the world of sensationalist foreign reporting?

Before he sets sail, there are my favourite scenes in the novel – where William Boot is meeting with an editor of the newspaper, Mr. Salter.  William thinks that he is going to be reprimanded for his sister mischievously exchanging ‘badger’ and ‘great crested grebe’ in his copy – which leads to a brilliant cross-purposes conversation with Mr. Salter, who has never stepped a foot outside London, and has the impression (shared by so many Londoners today!) that people from the countryside do nothing but drink pear cider and lean on gates.  As a staunch countryside person at heart, I laughed heartily at the limited views of the town-dweller, and the horror he felt when the great crested grebe reared its great crested head…

But things are sorted out, of course, and off William goes to the Republic of Ishmaelia (when it is suggested to him that he might well be fired if he refuses to go.)  Before we get there, I want to share this wonderful snippet of the way Mr. Salter deals with the newspaper’s proprietor:

Mr. Salter’s side of the conversation was limited to expressions of assent.  When Lord Copper was right he said, “Definitely, Lord Copper”; when he was wrong, “Up to a point.””Let me see, what’s the name of the place I mean? Capital of Japan? Yokohama, isn’t it?””Up to a point, Lord Copper.””And Hong Kong belongs to us, doesn’t it?””Definitely, Lord Copper.”
So practical! So wise! So deliciously funny on Waugh’s part.  It’s also a taste of his satirical tongue – for that is what the rest of Scoop essentially performs; a satire on journalism.

Boot and a dozen or so other journalists land in Ishmaelia, where nothing whatsoever seems to be happening, and have to send back copy in the form of telegrams.  While some journalists are fabricating spies and making the most out of the smallest incident, this is a telegram Boot sends back:

NO NEWS AT PRESENT THANKS WARNING ABOUT CABLING PRICES BUT IVE PLENTY MONEY LEFT AND ANYWAY WHEN I OFFERED TO PAY WIRELESS MAN SAID IT WAS ALL RIGHT PAID OTHER END RAINING HARD HOPE ALL WELL ENGLAND WILL CABLE AGAIN IF ANY NEWS.
Waugh has great fun crafting the telegrams from both sides, and it is here that his satire of journalism is both loudest and (I daresay) closest to the bone – with words like ‘ESSENTIALIST’ and ‘SOONLIEST’ abounding, not to mention ‘UNRECEIVED’ and ‘UPFOLLOW’.

The satire becomes rather a farce, as most of the journalists head off to a place which doesn’t exist, and the most famous reporter sends in his copy without even visiting the country.  It’s all very amusing and enjoyably broad, which makes the inclusion of a romantic interest (even one who is desperate for him to store rocks for her, and suggests that he marry her so that her extant husband can become British by extension) feels a little out of kilter, and I wouldn’t have been sad if Kätchen hadn’t been included.

Indeed, despite the focus of the novel being Ishmaelia – and Boot being adorable – I preferred the scenes set in England.  Perhaps that’s because I could understand a comedy on office politics, rural matters, and eccentric families (about a dozen bedridden relatives and servants fill his country pile) better than foreign reporting, or perhaps Waugh was on firmer footing himself.  Either way, I was always pleased when things turned back to Blighty.

As a round-peg-in-a-square-hole story, Waugh could scarcely choose a man less fitted for the role he is forced into – and that, of course, is the intended crux of Scoop‘s humour.  It’s just a bonus that he does everything else so well on top of this – otherwise the joke would probably have worn thin.  And, as I say, there is enough good-humour and camaraderie in Scoop to prevent Waugh’s mean streak from dominating, and so gentle souls like me are left entirely free to revel in the farcical hilarity, and not get anxious about the victims!

Dear Octopus – Dodie Smith

When I was reading Dodie Smith’s first volume of autobiography, Look Back With Love, the title which cropped up most (and most intrigued me) was her play Dear Octopus (1938).  She didn’t write much about its creation or production, since obviously she didn’t write the play during her first eleven years, but she makes allusions now and then.  My attention was grabbed by the mention of family reunions, John Gielguid, and that curious title.  Actually, I’ll instantly put you out of your misery, lest you think this is a play set in an aquarium.  The title derives from the speech Nicholas gives at his parents’ Golden Wedding Anniversary:

“To the family – that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to.”

Despite being an only child, Dodie Smith seems very able at portraying sibling relationships within large families.  (Indeed, one character claims to be ‘crazy about large families’, and their husband caustically remarks ‘That’s because you’re an only child.’)  Rose and Cassandra always seemed very believable in I Capture the Castle (albeit Thomas rather less so) and Dear Octopus is no different.  The size of the cast, and the various familial and marital relationships, was rather dizzying – but, of course, it would have been rather easier to identify everyone when seeing it on the stage, rather than reading the play.  We discussed reading plays a couple of years ago, and it seems that I am in a minority – although it has to be said that I do prefer reading plays with small casts, rather than the mammoth ensemble of Dear Octopus.

The situation is a tried and tested catalyst for all manner of action: a family reunion.  I don’t think there’s much point in me going into specifics, but it involves all the expected angles.  A daughter returns after a seven year absence, holding a secret; a sister-in-law holds resentment about a long-ago rejection; siblings compete and misunderstand each other; children try to understand the adult world; the gathering draws further attention to one family member who has recently died.  And, naturally, there is a romance plot threaded through – which culminates rather too neatly, perhaps, but everyone likes a bit of feel-good theatre.

There is plenty in Dear Octopus which does remind one of the insouciance of much of I Capture the Castle – and, indeed, Cassandra’s faux-sophistication.  Like this, for example:

MARGERY: Ken’ll carry on with anyone who crooks their little finger at him.
HILDA: Don’t you mind?
MARGERY: Not in the least.  It’s a safety valve.

Young love and young marriages are treated quite flippantly at times, although elsewhere the oncoming war (they must have known it was oncoming?) does crash through this flippancy:

LAUREL: Your father’s picture.  He was exactly your age when he was killed. (Suddenly.)  Oh, darling, darling–
HUGH: What?
LAUREL: Sometimes I wish we were quite middle-aged.
HUGH: Good lord, why?
LAUREL: So that you wouldn’t have to go if there’s another war.
HUGH: It’ll take a damn good cause to get me to war.
LAUREL: Oh, you all say that.

But the focal point is not budding romance – it is the security and trust of a fifty-year long marriage.  There is a lovely sense through that the anniversary couple in question (Charles and Dora) can cope with the antics of their family because of the depth of their bond.  For a young(ish) unmarried woman, Smith conveys this very well, and very calmly.

Dear Octopus doesn’t reinvent the wheel.  There are a lot of plays in a similar mould, and even with a similar tone, but Smith’s construction and balance throughout is so well done that this seems like an exemplar within its crowded genre.  Perhaps it won’t overly excite the reader, or transform any lives, but it does its job rather well.  I don’t know how often the play is revived now, but you do get a chance to see it, grab the opportunity.  Otherwise, I recommend you track down a copy, and have an entertaining afternoon…

Try Anything Twice

[N.B. this post migrated from my old site and, like all of them, it messed up the quotations a bit – this one has turned into one huge paragraph and I no longer know where the gaps should be!]

Good things come to those who wait, we are told, and that’s generally how I treat books which come to my shelves. A few leap immediately to hand, read within minutes of arriving, but most are left – like fine wines – to mature. And so it is that Try Anything Twice by Jan Struther, which arrived in October 2007 from lovely Ruth (aka Crafty Person), has finally been read. And it’s like a hot cup of tea on a wintery afternoon.

Jan Struther is best known for Mrs. Miniver – which I wrote a bit about back here – the voice of quintessential middle-class Englishness leading up to World War Two. Though she altered dramatically for the film, there was still that kernel of being England’s everywoman (within the remit of those with servants and children at boarding school and jolly outings.) Though Try Anything Twice doesn’t feature Mrs. M, the voice is instantly recognisable. Published in 1938, the volume collects articles and essays that Jan Struther wrote for Spectator, New Statesman, Punch, and other journals. They’re all from that middle-class world, but what an observant world it can be – whether noting the vagaries of updating an address book (‘Zazoulian, the little Armenian painter. His pictures are not very good, nor his conversation amusing, and it is eighteen months since you saw him: but a “Z” is a “Z”‘) or going to a Registry Office to find a nanny (one who is neither a dragon nor a duchess) or the poetic potential of a builder’s plans.

As always with short stories or essays or poems – anything where there is no uniform whole – it is near impossible to write a convincing review of Try Anything Twice, especially since I read it over the course of some weeks. Verity’s review is worth seeing, by the way, but for now I think the best way to talk about the book is to give you a sample. It’s not necessarily the best in the book, but it’s fairly representative of the style of Try Anything Twice. All of the book is actually available online, but of course (!) it’s better to get hold of the book itself. If you like the following, as they say, you’ll like the book. Ladies and Gentlemen; ‘With Love From Aunt Hildegarde’

THERE are three ways of choosing presents for other people. The first is to choose something you think they would like; the second, something you would like yourself; the third, something you think they ought to have. Of these methods the first is the wisest but the least common; the second is less wise but more usually followed; while the third is wholly unforgivable and accounts for much of the post-Christmas bitterness from which we are apt to suffer. My great-aunt Hildegarde is an almost fanatical devotee of the third method. Many people would call her an ideal aunt; that is to say, she gives us presents not only at Christmas but for each of our birthdays and often in between times as well. But her gifts have, so to speak, a sting in the tail; they represent her unspoken criticisms on our habits, customs and whole mode of living. Whenever we see her firm capable handwriting on a parcel, or a box arrives from a shop with one of her cards enclosed, we pause before unpacking it any further, sit back on our haunches and wonder what we’ve done wrong now. “I know,” says T. “Last time she dined here the spout of the coffee-pot was chipped and it dribbled all down her frock.” “No,” I reply, “I know what it is. The menu-card was propped up against the candlestick, and she said how awkward it was the way it kept slipping down.” And when we open it, sure enough, if it isn’t a new china coffee-pot it is a pair of menu-holders–contrivances which we particularly dislike, even when they are not made from tooled gun-metal in the form of two hedge-sparrows rampant, regardant and proper. Once she came to tea with me on a pouring wet day and found nowhere to park her umbrella. The next day a large tubular object arrived. It had vaguely military associations, but it had been so converted and distorted that it was difficult to tell whether it had originally been a large German shell or part of a small field-gun used in the Russo-Japanese War. A third possibility is that it was once a moth-proof travelling container for a Balkan field-marshal’s top-boots. At any rate, it takes up a great deal of room in the hall. And another time, I remember, she wanted to write a note at my desk and was scandalised because there was no proper pen and ink–although, as I explained, I had three fountain-pens, any of which I was willing to lend her. Four days elapsed and I began to breathe more freely. But on the fifth there came a small square parcel containing a silver-mounted ink-pot with my initials irrevocably engraved upon it (which accounted, no doubt, for the delay). Like the umbrella stand, it was a convert; but in this case there was no difficulty in guessing its original function. To make matters quite clear, Aunt Hildegarde had attached a note saying: “I feel sure you will like to have this little memento of poor dear Blackie, on whose back you took your first ride. This is the very hoof which she used to lift so prettily to shake hands. May it bring you lots of inspiration for your little poems!!” I groaned, filled it with fountain-pen ink and set it fair and square in the middle of my writing-table, where it remains to this day, a constant reminder of the agonies and humiliations of childhood; for it was the self-same hoof with which Blackie once stood for a full five minutes on my toe, I having neither the strength nor the courage to remove her. I do not wish to look a gift-hoof in the mouth or to seem in any way ungrateful, but the thing is getting on our nerves. Not only are we developing an inferiority complex about our own home but we are becoming self-conscious about entertaining Aunt Hildegarde. We dare not give her grapes, lest she should think that we are hinting at grape-scissors; nor lobster, for fear of invoking a set of silver-plated picks. But however careful we are we cannot think of everything. We did not, for instance, foresee that she would give us an electric clock for Christmas. It is true that when she came to stay with us a month ago our drawing-room clock was not behaving quite as a good clock should. One day it was a few minutes slow and she missed the weather forecast on the wireless. And another day it ran down altogether and made her late for church. “Your Uncle Julian,” she said gently, “used to wind all the clocks in the house every Sunday morning.” But this mild fragment of reminiscence did not at all prepare us, though perhaps it should have, for the grey maple rhomboid which now adorns our mantelpiece. At least, it looks like maple, but it is actually (so the accompanying leaflet informs us) made of steel, which can neither shrink nor warp, neither rust nor tarnish. It runs off the electric mains; it needs no winding; it is guaranteed to keep absolutely perfect time; and ever since it came into the house we have felt acutely ill at ease. Our old happy-go-lucky days are over. No more can we think comfortingly as we start out rather late for a dinner-party: “Oh, well, perhaps our clock is fast,” nor, when we arrive there to find hostess champing and fellow-guests ravenous, can we murmur, “We are dreadfully sorry, but our clock was slow,” for our friends have already got to know about our new, our abominable possession. Gone too are sundry minor pleasures, such as listening for the radio Time Signal and leaping up to make a half-minute adjustment; and, better still, squandering pennies in a lordly way by dialling T.I.M. And gone–worst of all–is the small friendly sound which used to accompany our thoughts, the balanced alternation of tick and tock, like the footsteps of a little dog walking very quickly beside you on the pavement. Time now proceeds for us in a series of hard metallic clicks, one every minute, each identical with the last: it is a large, slow, hopping bird of prey which follows relentlessly behind us. For fifty-nine seconds it stands still; we escape it; we are immortal; and then with a sudden deft leap it catches us up again. Better never to escape; better to have our little trotting dog. But there is nothing to be done about it. If we did not use the clock, or if we banished it to the dining-room, Aunt Hildegarde would not only think us both mad and decadent–for what sane responsible citizen would not jump at the opportunity of being always certain of the time?–but she would also be terribly hurt. It was touching to see her when she came to tea yesterday, gazing up with reverent eyes at the angular, impersonal, implacable monster on the mantelpiece. “Your Uncle Julian,” she said, “would have found it such a boon.” The vulture took another hop forward.