The Boat by L.P. Hartley

The Boat

When Rachel and I discussed trains and boats in novels in an episode of ‘Tea or Books?’ – you can hear the episode here – David had a few suggestions in the comment section, one of which was The Boat (1949) by L.P. Hartley. I was particularly pleased to see him mention it because it was on my shelves. John Murray kindly sent me all their L.P. Hartley reprints a few years ago, and I’ve been fully intending to get to them – better late than never, as The Boat is brilliant.

Timothy Casson makes his living writing articles, usually travel articles, and has spent happy, carefree years touring Italy and the like. But now he has been requested to write about England, to support the war effort, and it is partly this stricture that finds him renting a house in an English village – having chosen a house next to the river largely because of its boathouse. He has a passion for rowing and for boats, and has proudly brought his boat with him. But he discovers that the local gentry aren’t happy at the idea of disturbing the fishing, and the landowner – who also owns the river – has to decide whether or not to allow him his rowing.

Such is through-thread of this novel, which is over 450 pages long. Such, one might say, is the river running through it – at just the right moments, perfectly judged, Hartley returns us to this theme. A letter may be sent to the old lady whose decision it is, or Timothy might make a bold decision against his plan – it crops up just often enough to remind the reader that it is something of an impetus. And it pays off in a bold climax – but the novel is not really about climaxes. It is slow, observant, gradual – brilliantly paced, while not being remotely pacey.

I talked a bit about this in another podcast episode – it really is one of the most brilliantly structured books I’ve read. I had to read it slowly. It took months, and I read many other books at the same time, but that was how it worked – gradually finding my way through the hundreds of pages, letting this life ebb along beside me.

For it is mostly about Casson’s life – about his relationship with his maid and cook (who are hilarious; I loved every scene in which they appeared, particularly when they considered themselves affronted), about his gardener, about a fledgling romance, about confusing conversations with the vicar’s absent-minded wife, about failures to ingratiate himself with the local landowners. Most touchingly, about a pair of young boys who are briefly evacuated to his house. Hartley puts together a village world – but, unlike most rural novelists, we are not introduced to that world as a whole. We feel our way through it, alongside Timothy, learning more and more about it but feeling forever at a slight distance. He is nobody’s equal in this social hierarchy.

Lest this sound worthy but dull, I must emphasise that The Boat is an extremely funny – often, as I said, through Timothy’s baffled methods of living with servants, but also through Hartley’s dry tone. His observation often has the mildest of barbs, and the balance of his sentences makes them joyful. While this isn’t the most amusing part by any means, it’s a section I noted down as enjoyable…

Mr Kimball was a sweet-pea fancier, and knew more about them than Timothy knew of all of the rest of the world’s flora put together. Like most experts, he had an attitude towards his subject which no amateur could hope to enter into; the beauty of the flowers he took for granted; what interested him was their size, shape, colour, the difficulties attendant on rearing them, their habits of growth and above all their prize-winning capacities. But even this last was devoid of excitement for him; the thrill of the prize was subordinated to and almost lost in the various technical points necessary to secure it. The winning of the award was not so much a crowning glory as the logical outcome of having fulfilled all the conditions, and he expatiated at equal length on Mariposa which had taken several first prizes and on Wolverhampton Wonder which, owing to an exaggeration of certain qualities, attractive to the public but fatal to the true harmony and balance of the bloom, was never more than Highly Commended. Timothy listened, bored as one must be with an accumulation of details outside the grasp of one’s mind, but respectful, because he recognised in Mr Kimball’s dispassionate approach to his hobby the signs of an austere idealism which was lacking in his own art. From time to time Mrs Kimball supplied the personal touch that her husband had left out – “Mr Kimball stayed up until three o’clock the night he thought Bradford Belle had caught cold,” and so on, but he clearly deplored these womanly intrusions, and quickly elbowed them out of the conversation.

You see, perhaps, that Hartley does not rush. Mr and Mrs Kimball aren’t important characters, but nothing is hurried in Hartley’s prose – but it is a wonder to read each unhurried moment. And somehow the more eventful moments didn’t feel out of place, but almost earned by the mellow timbre of the rest of the writing. I could have done without the letters he writes and receives from two off-stage characters (who remain off-stage throughout); I suppose are there to help us work out Timothy’s personality, and give him opportunity to reveal himself in ways that he can’t to these neighbouring strangers. See, I even argue myself out of my criticisms.

This is such a leisurely book, and also an extraordinary one. Thank you for prompting me to read it, David, and I hope that – in turn – I might have prompted some others to do so.

A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor


I recently went to a brilliant conference in Chichester called ‘Undervalued British Women Writers 1930-1960’. I mean, the only way this could have been more perfect for me is if they’d shifted those dates back to 1920-1950 – but I overlooked that, because there were papers on beloved authors including E.M. Delafield, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Barbara Comyns, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Taylor, Marghanita Laski, and more. My paper was on Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworths, which was great fun to talk about.

Once the conference programme came out, I did a bit of homework – reading Laski’s To Bed With Grand Music (review forthcoming) and Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses. I didn’t quite finish A Wreath of Roses (1949) in time to hear the excellent paper about it on my panel, but I’ve finished it now and it’s excellent. It’s vying with At Mrs Lippincote’s for my all-time fave Taylor novel.

It certainly starts more dramatically than most Taylor novels. I’m not going to spoil what happens in the opening pages, because it came as a very effective shock to me, but it’s something that Camilla witnesses as she is about to go and visit her friend Liz and Liz’s old governess. The moment is dramatic, but Taylor cleverly leaves the details undeveloped and the effect unspoken – it just quietly haunts both Camilla and the reader for the rest of the novel.

Like many Taylor heroines, Camilla is intelligent, literary, sensitive, and slightly wary of her way in the world. On the train, on the way to her friend, she meets Richard Elton – it is, she muses, the sort of name that an author would make up for a hero – and the meeting is not an immediate success. He is handsome and mysterious, but he also rebuffs her reference to Emily Bronte, and she ‘felt she had sacrificed Emily Bronte, throwing her in as a spur to conversation, uselessly’. There’s a great bit (not least for my conference paper) on how she and her childhood friend Liz had imaginary childhood tea parties for various literary luminaries – identified only as Emily, Charlotte, Jane, Ivy, and… Katie? Not sure who the last is.

When she arrives with Liz (and the slightly cranky ex-governess), she falls into trying to resurrect a friendship that has the significant obstacle of Liz having married a man (a vicar, no less) who Camilla intensely dislikes. He isn’t there, for the most part, but it colours their friendship – as does Liz’s baby boy, though that is a more nuanced obstacle, being chiefly a path down which Camilla cannot follow her friend. Oh, and the governess – Frances – is no stock character. I don’t think Taylor would know how to wrote one of those. She is a painter who, in her final years, is branching out into a whole new style of painting. In the midst of all this, two men arrive – one, a correspondent Frances has had for many years and never met; the other, Richard Elton back on the scene, darkly mysterious and intriguing.

There’s no author quite like Taylor for depending on my mood. Sometimes I love reading her beautiful writing; sometimes I find her writing impenetrable – and I think it must depend on how I’m feeling, rather than her writing. I’ll have to go back to A Wreath of Roses another time to see if I find it more of an obstacle then (though why would I put that to the test?) – this time, I was just able to soak in how good the prose was. Here’s the opening paragraph, to give you a flavour:

Afternoons seem unending on branch-line stations in England in summer time. The spiked shelter prints an unmoving shadow on the platform, geraniums blaze, whitewashed stones assault the eye. Such trains as come only add to the air of fantasy, to the idea of the scene being symbolic, or encountered at one level while suggesting another even more alienating. 

She is even better when she is writing about people. Time and again, Taylor shows everyday thoughts and moments in a nuanced, clear light. While A Wreath of Roses includes events that are much less ‘everyday’ than those in most of her other novels, and is certainly darker and more gothic, she still excels are crystallising the slippery truths behind friendships, enmities, uncertainties and identities.

I read bits of this in a graveyard next to a half-ruined priory, which was a pretty ideal place to read it – though the weather was warm and lovely, rather than hauntingly gothic. Context – my mood, the weather, font size, whatever – may have a lot to do with it – but I’m still going to say that this is one of the best Taylor novels I’ve read so far, and one I would certainly re-read.


Others who got Stuck into it:

“The characters are brilliantly observed, and this novel is a wonderful exploration of friendships.” – Heavenali

“It’s not all cozy rooms with lace curtains, plants in pots, ticking clocks, ornaments and coronation mugs, the wireless playing, and tabby cats waiting.” – Buried in Print

“One of the most moving and valuable studies of human isolation ever committed to print.” – Bentley Rumble


Delight – J.B. Priestley

In 2009 I read a fun book called Modern Delight, in which various authors and others talked about the things that most bring them delight. I mentioned it in a Weekend Miscellany, but don’t think I ever got around to a proper post about it.  It was enjoyable and fun, and for a good cause.  Also published at that point was a reprint of the book that inspired it – Delight (1949) by J.B. Priestley.

Somehow I didn’t get a copy of it then, but when I was in Malvern recently I stumbled across an original edition of Delight and couldn’t resist it – it became my dipping-in-and-out-of book. And (yes, this mini-review writes itself), it was a delight!

I haven’t read any of Priestley’s novels, although I’ve read one play and seen another – and read a fair bit of his journalism as part of my DPhil research. Delight shows quite a different side to him. Basically, it is short pieces on 114 things which delight him. Why this number, I don’t know.

Priestley claims to be an old grumbler (he was actually only in his mid-50s, and would live ’til a month shy of 90) and this was his way of making up to those around him.  And the things that delight him are truly delightful – covering the silly (charades, playing with small children, fantastic theories), the moving (coming home), the scholarly (Shakespeare re-discovered, discovering Vermeer), and the bizarre (mineral water in bedrooms of foreign hotels).  Above all, they are wonderfully engaging, often very amusing, and show a writer who knew how to put together a book that is at once utterly unnecessary and wholly (yes, again) a delight.  Here’s an excerpt from Delight no.1, about fountains:

And I believe my delight in these magical jets of water, the invention of which does credit to our whole species, is shared by ninety-nine persons out of every hundred.  But where are they, these fountains we love?  We hunger for them and are not fed.  A definite issue could be made out of this, beginning with letters to the Times, continuing with meetings and unanimous resolutions and deputations to Downing Street, and ending if necessary with processions and mass demonstrations and some rather ugly scenes.  What is the use of our being told that we live in a democracy if we want fountains and have no fountains?

Well – as someone who once traipsed around Torquay trying to find the precise fountain that my friend had seen in her youth, I can empathise.  But you need not worry about wanting Delight and not finding a copy – there are plenty around, particularly the 2009 reprint.  I can think of a few dozen bloggers and blog readers who would love this… it’s just the sort of gem that deserves to be on a reader’s shelves.

Yours Sincerely – Monica Dickens & Beverley Nichols

When my e-friend Sarah mentioned that Monica Dickens and Beverley Nichols had co-authored a selection of light essays called Yours Sincerely (1949), can you really imagine me not immediately buying a copy?  If you answered ‘yes’ then you’re either new around these parts, or you have a stronger sense of my self-control than is just.

So, back in autumn, it arrived – and I started reading it in a gradual way, such as befits this sort of book.  It is great fun.  I don’t know quite where the articles came from – they’re quite varying lengths, and don’t seem to have been written specially for this volume, but cover topics in the same line as Rose Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures.   Everything from ‘Planting Bulbs’ (reminiscent of Provincial Lady, no?) to ‘Sensuality’; ‘Talkative Women’ to ‘Coddled Men’; ‘Losing Your Temper’ to ‘Brides in White.’  All the sort of topics of middle-class chatter in the 1940s – but feeling, somehow, old-fashioned even for the 1940s.

Indeed, Beverley Nichols has no qualms in describing himself as ‘old-fashioned, out-of-date, and generally encrusted in lichen’.  Even when I agree with him, he’s so curmudgeonly that I felt like I wanted to distance myself from him…  it’s enjoyable to read, but not quite the laugh-out-loud, self-deprecating whimsy that I’d expected – and which Monica Dickens delivers in spades.  Sometimes he was just too saccharine and worthy for my taste…

You can’t bruise a plant and feel aggrieved because it grows up stunted or deformed or “odd.”  The slightest twist or wound, in it infancy, grows and swells, till in the end the plant is an ugly wretched thing that you have to throw onto the rubbish heap.

It is the same with children.  A lie, an injustice, a cruelty – these get under the skin.  And they too grow and swell, till at last a miserable man or a wretched woman is rejected by society.
Undeniably true, but… am I bad person for wishing that he’d been jollier?  I still haven’t read any of his books, and now I’ll be rushing towards them a little less eagerly.

Whereas Monica Dickens, after getting all serious in The Winds of Heaven, is on fine form in Yours Sincerely.  Lots of smiles all round, and never too earnest.  Just the sort of light essay which I adore, and which doesn’t seem to happen any more.  Here she is on proposing…

We’ve all dreamed much the same dreams, I expect.  You know – you’re in a diaphanous evening dress of unearthly beauty.  You’re the belle of the ball.  You’ve danced like a disembodied fairy and now you drift out on to a moonlit terrace, mysterious with the scent of gardenias. 

He follows, in faultless evening dress, no doubt (mine sometimes used to be in white monkey jackets), and says – IT.

Or, he says IT on the boat-deck of a liner gliding through phosphorescent tropic seas, or on a Riviera beach, or sometimes at the crisis of some highly improbable adventure.  He’s just rescued you – or you him – from a fire.  You’re besieged in an attic firing your last round at the enemy now battering at the door below.  You’re a beautiful nurse and he’s a dying soldier – but not irretrievably dying.

There are endless variations but always the same theme song : “Will you marry me?”  The implication is that when one is very young the actual moment of proposal is one of the high-spots of marriage.

I used to pester my mother over and over again to tell me how my father proposed.  I couldn’t believe she wasn’t holding out on me when she swore that he never really had.  She couldn’t remember when he started saying and writing : “When we’re married we’ll do so and so.”
I have a small section of a shelf devoted to light essays – it is only a small section, because I haven’t managed to find very many.  Alongside this and some by Rose Macaulay are Angela Milne’s Jame and Genius, A.A. Milne’s various offerings in this genre, J.B. Priestley’s Delight, Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Christopher Morley’s Safety Pins, and probably one or two others which have slipped my mind.  Any suggestions?

In the meantime, Yours Sincerely isn’t groundbreaking or even exceptionally good, but it’s a jolly, enjoyable contribution to that often-overlooked form of the familiar essay, and so steeped in the mores of the early 20th century that a flick through fills me with nostalgia for an age in which I never lived.

Ashcombe – Cecil Beaton

Firstly, I’m so thrilled about all the response to Muriel Spark Reading Week, which will thus definitely go ahead!  More info on dates etc. when Harriet and I have conferred…

Secondly – I’m a bit wary about putting this blog post up… because I don’t have a copy of the book myself, and it’s so lovely that, if I can convey that even slightly, all the secondhand copies online will disappear.  But I can’t afford the ones that are around now, so… I’ll just have to tell you about it, and cross my fingers that I stumble across an affordable copy somewhere.  Sigh.  Sometimes I love you guys too much for my own good.

Preamble over: the book is Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen-Year Lease (1949) by Cecil Beaton.  I wanted to read it because Edith Olivier features a lot (she first told Beaton of the house) and so I sat in the Bodleian and read it.  I also took lots of photos, but then I looked again at the photography permission form, and noticed that I’d promised not to publish any of them anywhere, including online.  Oops.  So I’ll have to see what pictures are available elsewhere.  (This photo comes from here.)

Ashcombe is about a house of that name, inhabited by Cecil Beaton between 1931-1946… actually, shall I let Cecil Beaton explain the book himself?  He kindly does so in a Preface:

My tenure of Ashcombe House began with new year of a new decade – the fatal decade of the nineteen-thirties.  “The thirties”, years marked by economic collapse, the rise of Hitler and the wars in China and in Spain, were essentially different in character from their notorious and carefree predecessors, “the twenties”, but they had one thing in common – living then you could still cherish the illusion that you might go on for ever leading your own private life, undisturbed by the international crises in the newspapers.  This illusion was finally and irrevocably shattered in 1939.

So utterly has the world changed since that summer day, nearly twenty years ago, when I stood for the firs time under the brick archway at Ashcombe, and surveyed my future home, that ways of living and of entertaining which the seemed natural today sound almost eccentric.,  Looking back through old diaries recording some of the parties that took place at Ashcombe in those days, it struck me that for this reason it might be interesting to try to string together in narrative form my recollections of that time.  The shape these recollections have assumed is that of a memoir of the house itself, but thought I see this little book primarily as a tribute of gratitude to Ashcombe, a house I shall never cease to regret, it is also and inevitably a story of the people who came to visit me there.
Someone wrote to him, on the book’s publication, to say how pleased he was that Beaton ‘made clear that we were not a group of delinquent Bright Young Things dressing up’.  And indeed, he introduces all the guests over the fifteen years as friends, rather than celebrities – even though amongst their number were Rex Whistler (who painted the image below), Salvador Dali, Diana Cooper, and other luminaries from the worlds of art, theatre, and literature.

(this picture came from a great blog post on Little Augury, which has several others from the book too)

But for me, there was one stand-out character in the book: Ashcombe House itself.  When Beaton first found it, with the help of Edith Olivier and Stephen Tennant, it was in neglected disrepair.  He eventually managed to negotiate a lease from its owner, Mr. Borley (who seems to have been appositely boorish) at a cheap rate, on the understanding that Beaton would do a great deal of restoration to the property.

And these were the sections I loved.  I’m a sucker for any property programme on television – they can be buying, selling, or building a house, but my favourites are when they transform them.  So it’s my hankering after Changing Rooms scaled up to a majestically bohemian and artistic standard.  There are plenty of photographs throughout, many showing ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots, and although they are (naturally) in black/white, they still give a wonderful picture of the process and the time.  Above all, the pictures and writing together create a three-dimensional picture of what Ashcombe was like to live in.  I love novels where houses play an important role, and it’s even more delightful when the house in question existed, and its effect was real.

Ashcombe, in this century, could be neither a gentleman’s home nor a farmer’s retreat.  It is essentially a artist’s abode; and, under the varying conditions in which I lived there, the house conformed to every change of my temperament and mood, proving as great a solace during the grey years of war as in the now almost forgotten days of gaiety.
Of course, Ashcombe alone might not give this effect.  It has latterly been owned by Madonna, which is rather a ghastly thought.  I doubt she has the same artistic sensitivities of Beaton, if her leotards are anything to go by.  Part of the charm of Beaton’s book is his character, and the friends he had.  I doubt I’d have been entertained by them so much if they were in a London townhouse, but transport them to the idyllic countryside of Wiltshire, and I’m enamoured.  I don’t mean that I was bowled over by the individuals themselves so much as the type of group.  It did make me wish for a moment that my friends were all artists and writers and theatre managers: we could go and paint murals on the walls of our country homes and put on impromptu plays in the garden.  Then I realised that my friends and I do sometimes paint together (albeit on canvas) and have been known to read out an entire Shakespeare play together – so I’m not doing too badly.   But I’ve never had a circus room (how delicious would that be?) and never had call to say “It’s too bad, they’ve broken my best silver bird-cage!”

(A painting of Ashcombe owned by Beaton, c.1770)

Sadly, of course, the years of his lease were not without sadness.  Beaton moves onto the war, and writes movingly of how it affected him and his friends – at least one of whom, Rex Whistler, was killed in action.  While this section was written no less well than the rest, perhaps it is of less especial interest than those parts of the book which focus on Ashcombe House – simply because so many other people have recorded the pain of war.  An anguish, if less extreme then no less real, comes when Beaton must end his lease and say goodbye to Ashcombe.  Or, rather, he is evicted when Borley decides that his son will move in.  Within his rights as a landlord, but still a desperately sad loss for Beaton, who so clearly loves the house.

What I didn’t expect, when I ordered Ashcombe to the library, was Beaton’s talent as a writer.  I knew him as a designer and photographer, but had not expected him to write so beautifully and simply about his house.  Without ever having seen the house, I now know it intimately – not the layout, but the feel of the rooms and the grounds and the surrounding county.

Beaton in the bathroom, surrounded by visitors’ hands(!)

Thinking about it, this might not be the ideal book for the city-lover.  Even though I currently live in a city, my heart is definitely in the fields and woods, and the spirit of the countryside.  The people there are friendlier.  The mix of nature and man and animal is much clearer to see, and beautiful even when at its most practical.  I will devote a post to this at some point, I keep building up to it, and Ashcombe is another piece in the jigsaw of why I love the countryside.  So if you love London (and so many of you seem to) or have never lived in a small village, then I don’t think you’ll be able to love this book in quite the same way that I do.  But, perhaps, as I can read books set in London with the passing interest of a tourist, so you can come on a reading charabanc, have a good look around, and then rush back to your streetlighting and taxis and neatly contained parks.  For people like me, who love villages and villagers and life in the middle of nowhere – who don’t really feel completely alive anywhere else – Ashcombe is not simply an ode to artistry, a toast to happy memories, and a lament against the far-reaching damage done by war; it is a paean to the countryside and to life lived amongst fields, and trees – and happy, playful friends, unaware of what was around the corner.