The Masters by C.P. Snow

The MastersSometimes you read books you think you’ll dislike, and they’re wonderful surprises. Sometimes… the opposite happens. This is one of those times.

I recently read The Masters (1951) by C.P. Snow – a 1951 novel that nobody read during the 1951 Club, incidentally. It was chosen for my book group, and I was eager to get to it. The 1951 Club taught me that it was a stellar year for literature, and Snow was one of those names that has been on my peripheries for years. I’ve read books by his wife (Pamela Hansford Johnson) and I’m sure I’ve heard him recommended somewhere.

The Masters is in the middle of the Strangers and Brothers series, published between 1940 and 1970 and covering several decades in the life of Lewis Eliot. We were assured by our book group recommender that it didn’t matter, starting in the middle – during which time he is a don at an unnamed Cambridge college. (I thought the whole series was about the college until I started this paragraph and read the Wikipedia entry for the series.) While most books in the series cover substantial periods of time, this one is only concerned with a couple of months. The college seems curiously devoid of students, or at least students who do anything noteworthy; the novel is only about the dons and their relationships.

He was the one man in the college whom I actively disliked, and he disliked me at least as strongly. There was no reason for it; we had not one value or thought in common, but that was true with others whom I was fond of; this was just an antipathy as specific as love. Anywhere but in the college we should have avoided each other. As it was, we met three or four nights a week at dinner, talked across the table, even spent, by the force of social custom, a little time together. It was one of the odd features of a college, I sometimes thought, that one lived in social intimacy with men our disliked: and, more than that, there were times when a fraction of one’s future lay in their hands. For these societies were always making elections from their own members, they filled all their jobs from among themselves, and in those elections one’s enemies took part.

And it is an election that takes centre stage in the novel. The Master has a terminal illness, and the dons (after a brief nod to the sensitivities surrounding the situation) start trying to decide who will be the next Master. This is done by a vote between the 13 dons, and two candidates quickly emerge: Jago and Crawford.

The rest of the novel is about who is voting for whom.

That’s it.

There are no real subplots, no deviation, and absolutely no reason why anybody might care who wins this election. Characterisation is laboured and yet still unfulfilling – Snow gives us a lot of words about everybody, but hardly any vitality. And every conversation is about who might vote for Jago (for Eliot is cheering him on) and who might be tempted away to Crawford. Is it all a metaphor for something? Would it have meant something else in 1951? I don’t know. I just found the whole thing went round and round in circles, and was unbearably monotonous.

I thought for a while that it was because the scene didn’t interest – having been at an Oxford college for nearly a decade, I was able to see how silly and childish many of the protocols were that older male members of college were clinging onto – but a different author could have made me care. I kept thinking how captivating it would be in the hands of Anthony Trollope. After all, the basis of The Warden is hardly scintillating, until Trollope makes it so.

So – definitely the biggest disappointment of the year so far. Not the worst book I’ve read this year, probably, but the most disappointing. All the same, I’m quite looking forward to a heated discussion at book group…

Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy

Margaret Kennedy DayI’m sneaking into the final moments of Margaret Kennedy Day – an annual event organised by Jane of Beyond Eden Rock – with a novel that I’d intended to read for the 1951 Club: Lucy Carmichael. The only thing that put me off then was its heft (it’s just under 400 pages) – but I managed to read it over a few days, and can throw my hat into the ring.

Lucy Carmichael is a slightly misleading title because, while she is certainly central to the novel, I’d argue that it’s almost as much Melissa’s book – and it is certainly she who opens up the first chapter, in this rather beguiling paragraph:

On a fine evening in September Melissa Hallam sat in Kensington Gardens with a young man to whom she had been engaged for three days. They had begun to think of the future and she was trying to explain her reasons for keeping the engagement a secret as long as possible.

She tells her fiance about her best friend Lucy, whose wedding is coming up soon – to an explorer who wants to be a botanist. Melissa describes her to a sceptical fiance – because the description doesn’t make her seem as pretty or wonderful as Melissa clearly thinks (and Melissa’s brother, Hump, has been similarly unimpressed in the letters she sends, thinking of her as Bossy Lucy). The reader sees this doubt, and finds themselves wanting to side with Lucy before she arrives on the scene.

One thing leads to another – I won’t say what – and the scene shifts: Lucy is now working at an institute that a kindly benefactor has built in a remote area for the benefit of the dramatic arts. The drama becomes about the Committee, and which play the young people should perform. This is perhaps the mainstay of the novel – this, and the will-they/won’t-they between Lucy and Charles, the son of Lady Frances – doyenne of arts and general social queen on this small stage. It means that we don’t see much more of Melissa, which is a shame, because she was that rare thing: a successfully-drawn witty character. Lucy herself is also winning – kind and wise and impulsive and thoughtful; an intriguing mix – but I still don’t think she deserved having the novel named after her.

I’m not sure this novel entirely knows what it wants to be. It feels rather as though Kennedy picked a setting and a plot – Lucy becoming part of a dramatic institute in a provincial community with much in-fighting – and decided to extend at both ends. We see how she ended up there; we see what happens afterwards. Lucy Carmichael, in short, is too long. It’s also too loose and baggy. There is the making of a truly exceptional 250 page novel within these covers, but I felt like the structure needed tightening. In fact, almost every scene needed tightening; it came across like a draft where Kennedy put down everything that came to her, and it should have had another winnowing.

river readingThe main case in point was, because the institute only turns up quite a significant way into the book, I couldn’t find myself much caring what happened there. The stakes weren’t high enough.

That sounds like I didn’t enjoy the novel, which isn’t true at all. In fact, I rather think that I might end up liking it more and more, the further away I get from it, when I forget the bits I found slow. And, indeed, when I forget everything except the impression it had on me – this is my third Kennedy novel, after Together and Apart and The Forgotten Smile, and I can’t remember even the tiniest detail about either of them.

This isn’t the glowing review that perhaps Margaret Kennedy Day should inspire. I don’t think I’m quite in the camp that adores her – but I also realise that it’s not the sort of novel that should be read so quickly. The writing is great, there is wit and thoughtfulness; Kennedy is clearly trying to inherit the mantle of Jane Austen (and there are many references to Austen throughout; Melissa and Lucy are both aficionados) and that’s an admirable intention, even if it highlights the disparity between their achievements are ‘structurers’. There is a lot to love here, and I did love the final chapter so much that I almost forgave everything else – but it’s always a shame when a novel doesn’t quite become (in my opinion, at least) quite the success it could have been.

Hackenfeller’s Ape by Brigid Brophy

Hackenfeller's ApeAs you may have heard mentioned in the latest episode of ‘Tea or Books?’, should you listen to that, I’ve recently read Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953) by Brigid Brophy – inspired by listening to a ‘Backlisted’ episode on one of her novels, and hearing her daughter speak at a conference. I think I’d bought the novel (novella?) some time before that, based entirely on the fact that short Virago Modern Classics are often interesting – and it proved to be really rather good.

I’ve read a couple of books about monkeys and humans relating one way or another – though they were both written a little earlier; Appius and Virginia by G.E. Trevelyan is about a woman trying to teach a monkey as though he were a child, while His Monkey Wife by John Collier is… well, what it sounds like. Hackenfeller’s Ape is less adventurous in its premise: the ape remains firmly an ape, and nobody is trying to get him to be anything else.

Professor Darrelhyde is (as the Virago blurb informs me) ‘a diffident bachelor’, and he’s been stationed at London Zoo to observe the mating practices of Hackenfeller’s ape – more particularly, that of Percy and Edwina. In the world of the novel (look, I don’t know if this ape even exists), the mating has never been observed, and it will be a service to science for the Professor to make notes. Only it seems the Percy isn’t keen. Edwina keeps making approaches that he refuses – and Brophy judges brilliantly the amount that we should be let into his perspective, with a certain haziness where Percy can’t quite understand his own ape-motivations.

Halfway through, things change a bit – as the Professor (and a would-be pickpocket who reluctantly joins forces with him) tries to rescue Percy from being sent into space. Bear with me – it sounds absurd, but it works.

What makes Hackenfeller’s Ape so good is Brophy’s writing. She balances light, insouciant dialogue with pretty elaborate and philosophical prose. It shouldn’t work properly together, but it really does – it makes for an intoxicatingly good mix. Here’s an example of her writing from near the beginning – where she describes the humans who have set up the zoo:

These were the young of a species which had laid out the Park with an ingenuity that outstripped the beaver’s; which, already the most dextrous of the land animals, had acquired greater endurance under the sea than the whale and in the air had a lower casualty rate for its journeys than migrating birds. This was, moreover, the only species which imprisoned other species not for any motive of economic parasitism but for the dispassionate parasitism of indulging its curiosity.

She also has a knack for wry observation that was a pleasure to read – not that dissimilar to Elizabeth Taylor, thinking about it. I can imagine either of them penning this line (which is Brophy’s): ‘He smiled in a way which, in the middle-aged man, was boyish. In a boy it would have been sinister.’

It continues, with drama and pathos, poignant and action-packed in turn. And all – may I remind you – in hardly more than a hundred pages.

My conclusions, after finishing this novella, are that I’d read Brophy writing anything. She handles this frankly bizarre premise, and mix of styles, with excellent adeptness – and it gives me great hope for diving into more of her novels in future. It will be intriguing to see how her writing works over a broader canvas.

Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols – #1951Club

Merry HallAnd so we come to the end of the 1951 Club – what fun it has been (even though I think I might do most of my catching-up with it after the week is over – again, why on earth did we decide on Easter week?!) – and I’ve saved my favourite book of the week til last. It’s the entirely, utterly, scrumptiously delightful Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols.

I had planned to start writing this review by saying that I’d never read a book by Beverley Nichols, but discovered – while looking through my review list for other 1951 books – that, a handful of years ago, I read and reviewed a selection of essays he wrote with Monica Dickens. How embarrassing that I remember none of this. So, to all intents and purposes, this is my first Beverley Nichols book.

Which isn’t to say he’s new to me. I’ve long believed that I would love his books – and huge numbers of people whose views I trust wholeheartedly have vouched for him. I’m in the happy position of owning another 12 books by him, bought over the past 13 years (!), with this belief firmly in mind – which has, happily, been entirely justified.

Merry Hall is the first book in a trilogy (I am already well under way in the sequel, Laughter on the Stairs) about Nichols buying and doing up a Georgian house with several acres of garden and woodland. It’s non-fiction, presumably heavily tinged with fiction, and it is – well, I am going to use the word ‘delight’ a lot in this review, I can sense.

It begins with house hunting. When I am not having to do it myself, I adore house hunting, and will read any length of it – though, in Merry Hall, it doesn’t last very long. Money is clearly no object, and Nichols buys this substantial property in more or less a trice.

Most of the book examines the plants and planting arrangements that Nichols decides upon, with Oldfield his gardener, and I thoroughly enjoyed it while often not really understanding it. My knowledge of flowers and plants is nil, and I got less from this than somebody more practically-minded might have done. As such, I’ll mostly write about the rest – because there is just as much to love about Merry Hall for those who don’t have green fingers.

It was previously owned by Mr and Mrs Stebbings, and (before that) the Doves – known as the Doovz to the broad-accented, old, and extremely talented Oldfield. Nichols takes an immediate and long-lasting position of loathing to Mr Stebbings, who apparently did every single wrong with house and garden, from planting elm trees – how Nichols would have welcomed Dutch elms disease! – to his choice of wallpaper. (In Merry Hall, he focuses almost entirely on the garden – Laughter on the Stairs looks at the house.) This is a keynote of Nichols’ writing – he is very, very sure of his own taste, and very, very dismissive of anybody else’s. Luckily, he does it in a very, very amusing fashion.

Mr Stebbings has passed on to a better place, but he has an acolyte remaining in the area: Miss Emily. One hopes – for his sake and for hers – that there was no prototype for Miss Emily – or, if there was, that she is sufficiently altered in these pages so as not to recognise herself. In fact, the edition I’m reading was published for The Companion Book Club in 1953 and, rather delightfully, still has the little pamphlet with which it was initially distributed – and, in that, Nichols writes ‘where the female characters are concerned, I have naturally been obliged to invent a few elementary disguises, which are familiar to all authors who wish to avoid libel actions’.

Miss Emily is ‘one big flinch’ – she pops up regularly at Merry Hall, disparaging everything Nichols has introduced and lamenting every element of Stebbings that has been removed. Nichols can’t stand the sight of her, but she is always there – along with her friend Rose, apparently a note flower arranger, who tortures flowers out of their original shape – much to Nichols’ discuss. Terrible person that I am, my favourite moments in the book were when Nichols talks about how appalling he finds this pair – and is similarly wittily irate about a succession of labourers who do not labour. Of course, he wouldn’t dream of doing any of the hard work himself. (Curiously, he is much nicer about Emily and Rose in the sequel – I wonder if locals recognised themselves and threatened action??)

Nichols is everything one expects of a rich, creative, aesthetically-minded gent – albeit maybe more usual in one of the 1920s than the 1950s. Here’s a representative sample of his thoughts:

It is the same when you are furnishing a house. If you have only just enough money to buy a bed, a chair, a table and a soup-plate, you should buy none of these squalid objects; you should immediately pay the first instalment on a Steinway grand. Why? Because the aforesaid squalidities are essentials, and essentials have a peculiar was, somehow or other, of providing for themselves. ‘Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’… that is the meanest, drabbest little axiom that ever poisoned the mind of youth. People who look after pennies deserve all they get. All they get is more pennies.

While I don’t agree with Nichols’ politics or his cheerful snobbery – though neither of these things stop me loving every moment of the book – there is one area in which I am in wholehearted agreement with him. I don’t think anybody has ever written as wonderfully about cats.

Nichols has two cats – One and Four. These whimsical names supposedly come from the idea that he would have 100 cats over the rest of his life. One is Siamese (the second Siamese of the 1951 Club!) and Four is a black cat, and he writes beautifully about their character and mannerisms, with every bit of the devotion that cats deserve. They weave in and out of the narrative, and won my heart completely.

There is so much I would like to say about this book, but I have already written quite a bit – and I suspect I’ll be writing more about Nichols often over the years. Basically, this is a very funny, very charming book that reminded me a lot of A.A. Milne’s Edwardian stories. It probably says quite a lot about me that my favourite 1951 Club book is completely anachronistic – but I will say to anybody who has yet to read Beverley Nichols: don’t be like me and put it off for a decade; read something by him immediately.

The Street by Dorothy Baker – #1951Club

1951 ClubYou might well know the name Dorothy Baker. A few of us read Young Man With a Horn for the 1938 Club, and Cassandra at the Wedding is another well-known book by her. And, when I saw The Street in 2011, it was Baker’s name that rang a bell – though, at that point, I hadn’t read her.

Here’s the curious thing. I think I’d suspected this before, but without confirming it – this Dorothy Baker is a different Dorothy Baker. While the famous one wrote about quirky things in America, The Street is about the working classes in the Black Country. I’ve dug around but not managed to find out much about this Dorothy Baker – except that she is, according to a library catalogue, connected with the BBC. Very mysterious, and something I’d forgotten to investigate until after I’d put it in my pile for the 1951 Club.

So, having read four extremely good books for the 1951 Club (one to be reviewed tomorrow), it’s about right that this one should only be OK. It’s certainly not a dud – but it’s very novel-by-numbers.

It’s all about Dora – a kind, anxious, emotional young girl living with her grandparents, having been more or less deposited on them by feckless (but slightly glamorous) parents. They’ve kept her three siblings, who never emerge from the shadows of the novel, but this unusual situation is never really alluded to – instead, Dora’s parents exist as occasional threats that she might be torn away from her life on the street.

While the novel is called The Street, we don’t see all that much outside of Dora’s grandparents’ house, and her school. And I think Baker fondly believes she has captured a snapshot of working-class life – which I absolutely can’t believe she has. There is the occasional moment of drunkenness thrown in to show ‘real life’, and poverty which demonstrates itself only in the miserly whinging of various passing uncles, but the characters mostly speak in the anonymous tones of middle-class stock characters. It could very easily have been a provincial house party.

The writing certainly isn’t bad – each scene is engaging, if a little earnest at times – but what holds The Street back from being a very good novel is the lack of momentum in it. There is something of a plot, mostly around the deaths and marriages of Dora’s relatives and her own (rather naive) budding into early adulthood, but not much pulls the reader through the novel. It wasn’t a chore to read by any means, but I would also quite happily have given up at any juncture without any real curiosity about what happened next.

We need light and shade, don’t we? It’s just as well that I didn’t get too exaggerated a view of 1951’s merits – consider this a slight lull before, tomorrow, I finish the week with my favourite of all five.

Darkness and Day by Ivy Compton-Burnett – #1951Club

Darkness and DayWhen we chose 1951, I was mostly excited that I could finally read an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel for a club outing. I’ve mostly been reading authors and books that I’ve long meant to get around to (which has been lovely), but I also treated myself to what I think is my 10th Ivy Compton-Burnett novel. I’ve got to the stage where I can’t remember which I’ve read and which I haven’t – because all the titles are the same. You’ll see what I mean when you see a sample of the ones I’ve read: Parents and Children, Mother and Son, Elders and Betters, A House and Its Head, A Heritage and Its History. Have I read A Father and His Fate? A God and His Gifts? I don’t know.

Her 1951 novel is Darkness and Day, which is the last of her novels that I bought (I have them all, except her first novel, Dolores – which I thought was impossible to find, but apparently the 1971 reprint is widely available). It starts off with a much smaller cast than I’d anticipated – just Sir Ransom Chance (what a name!), his daughters Anne and Emma, the servant Mrs Jennet, and the housekeeper/companion/dogsbody Miss Hallam. Anne and Emma could be considered the darkness and day of the title (though this later has myriad interpretations): the older sister is cynical and selfish; the younger is selfless and kind. The scene is a deliciously odd debate between servant and master as to whose place in life is better:

“I envy you, Jennet,” said Sir Ransom. “Because it is the proper thing to envy people placed as you are. Not because I really do.”

“Well, I shouldn’t expect it.”

“Do you envy me? That is not the proper thing. But tell me if you do.”

“Not on every count, Sir Ransom.”

“You mean you have longer to live. Why do people always think of age? Or why do they ever think of anything else? I often wonder why I do. Perhaps I don’t.”

“Well, I have the advantage of thirty years there.”

“Jennet, we do not talk of our advantage over people.”

“It is not a thing I can often do. I am not in danger of the habit.”

But we end up seeing surprisingly little of them – the cast gets much wider when we move to another house.

Like all Compton-Burnett’s novels, this one is set in late Victorian opulence. The families live in enormous houses, usually with a big household staff – and the house down the road is one such. The second son of the house is returning home, bringing his wife Bridget and two young daughters, Viola and Rose. They bring with them a secret; one that led to them leaving, and which has blighted their lives.

Some people say that nothing happens in Compton-Burnett’s novels. Well, I defy any novel to match this one for plot and twists – which I shan’t spoil here – and it ties together many different characters in an unlikely but satisfying way. What makes ICB’s novel so unusual is that it takes you a while to work out what the bombshell is. In a swirl of people correcting each other and talking about the inconsequential, the bomb is dropped, almost in passing. And several characters see their world in a whole new light – the darkness and day here represent ignorance and enlightenment, as is made (sort-of) explicit in the text.

What can I say about Compton-Burnett’s writing that I haven’t said before? This novel has the same unique, love-it-or-hate-it style of all her others. It’s mostly dialogue, there is a lot of pernickety arguing, and it is (if you like it) very funny indeed. The keynote of a Compton-Burnett novel, I realise, is that there is no such thing as an acknowledged truth. Whether it is a maxim or an attitude or what, no character will allow an assumption to stand unchecked – instead, it is passed around the characters until it is unrecognisable.

This is true (as always with ICB) with characters of any age or strata. The servants, the masters, and the children will all debate and analyse in the most highbrow words imaginable, and my favourite sections were when Miss Hallam attempts to be a governess to Viola and Rose. She approaches the task with affected good humour and gentleness; they meet it with stony independence and a refusal to take anything at face value. It is very, very funny.

“Are you painting?” she said, in a tone of pleasant interest.

“Well, you can see we are,” said Rose.

“Yes, I can. It was a useless question, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was.”

“But I am afraid painting is not lessons.”

“Of course it is not, or we shouldn’t have been doing it before you came.”

“Well, you don’t want to do it now I am here.”

“We do want to,” said Viola.

“I mean that I cannot let you do it.”

“You did not say what you meant.”

“How can you prevent us?” said Rose, continuing her work.

“I am not going to prevent you. I am going to ask you to put away your painting things, and I am sure you will.”

This confidence was not justified and the minutes passed.

How did this stack up against other ICB novels? Well, besides the slightly uneven apportioning of time spent with characters – it felt odd to kick off with several characters that we barely saw again until much later in the novel – I thought that Darkness and Day was fantastic. It’s not worth especially tracking this one down, though, because all her novels are pretty much the same – which does make me feel a bit of a fraud for including it in the 1951 Club. Yes, it was published in 1951, but Ivy Compton-Burnett paid absolutely zero heed to the changing fashions of writing, and continued writing in exactly the same way for forty years. Sorry for cheating – but I couldn’t resist.

Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh – #1951Club

Opening NightNgaio Marsh is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to read for many years – and I don’t think I’ve actually read anything by her, though I wouldn’t swear to it. Anybody who loves Agatha Christie has probably at least thought about trying her contemporaries – and, in my time, I have given Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers attempts (liking one and rather disliking the other). Well, Marsh is probably my favourite of that trio of anti-Christies, based on Opening Night – but I am a sucker for anything set in the theatre. This one falls in the middle of her writing career – though the heyday of the Golden Age of Detection was surely coming to an end.

Martyn Tarne (are any women actually called Martyn?) has come from New Zealand to England with the ambition of becoming an actress. Indeed, she has done this a little in NZ – but London is calling her, and she has come to the weary end of auditions (and also to the end of her money) when she arrives at the final theatre on her list. It’s The Vulcan (the novel was called Night at the Vulcan in the US) – notorious as the site of a murder in the dressing rooms some years earlier, but now re-established as a respectable theatre. Only there’s no part going.

But… Ella Hamilton needs a dresser. Martyn is in the right place at the right time. She becomes Ella Hamilton’s dresser.

From this moment, we are thrown into a wonderfully-realised world of 1950s theatre – cattiness, competition, camaraderie and all. Ella Hamilton is married to Bennington, but having an affair with Poole. A nervous young actress, called Gay Gainsford, is unsuccessfully trying to play a part that Martyn would love to play. The cantankerous author of the play wanders around, telling people they’re appalling and quoting Shakespeare at them. A friendly Frenchman comforts everybody and does their work for them. It’s a fantastic ensemble, and I adored being in this melee of rehearsals and reprisals. Marsh is rather a witty writer – I enjoyed this description of the play:

Martyn tried to find out from Cringle what the play was about. He was not very illuminating. “It’s ’igh-brow,” he said. “Intellectually, it’s clarse. ‘A Modern Morality’ he calls it, the Doctor does. It’s all about whether you’re brought up right makes any difference to what your old pot ’ands on to you. ‘ ’Eredity versus enviroment’ they call it. The Guv’nor’s enviroment, and all the rest of ’em’s ’eredity. And like it always is in clarse plays, the answer’s a lemon. Well, I must go on me way rejoicing.”

But I was beginning to wonder if it was a murder mystery at all. I knew Marsh was a detective novelist, and this edition was published by The Crime Club, but page after page was going by without a hint of a death. Well, fear not – eventually it comes, although not until halfway through. Opening Night is clearly far more about the wonderful setting and characters, rather than a drawn-out detection process.

There is a detective on the scene – Inspector Alleyn. I believe he is a regular in Marsh’s novels, as perhaps his assistant Fox is, but they weren’t particularly distinctive in Opening Night. Alleyn is wry and wise, and a little paternal to Fox – but they don’t seem very vivid against the backdrop of the theatrical characters Marsh has created. I’m sure they would, after reading several in their series.

Marsh obviously has a fondness for the theatre, and there are some nice references. I enjoyed this one, having enjoyed the first two plays mentioned – though I have no idea what Sleeping Partners is or who wrote it:

“Tell me, Mike,” Alleyn said, “are many young women of your generation like that?”
“Well, no, sir. She’s what one might call a composite picture, don’t you think?”
“I do, indeed. And I fancy she’s got her genres a bit confused.”
“She tells me she’s been playing in Private Lives, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, and Sleeping Partners in the provinces.”
“That may account for it,” said Alleyn.

Nobody will ever topple Christie in detective fiction stakes (as I probably say with dulling regularity when I mentioned detective novels), but I loved reading Marsh – Opening Night was a real 1951 delight. Indeed, the year is shaping up to be pretty special.

School For Love by Olivia Manning – #1951Club

School For LoveI wish I could remember who bought me School For Love by Olivia Manning… I know that I’ve had two copies at different times, and currently have one, but other than that its history is clouded in the vagaries of my terrible memory. Anyway, it’s been on my tbr for a while – as has Manning more broadly, though I have shied away from the Balkan Trilogy because anything that comes in a trilogy seems like too big a commitment to make to the uninitiated.

I started School For Love with absolutely no knowledge of what it was about (having not read the blurb or the introduction). It came as something of a surprise that it was set in Jerusalem, and that there wasn’t a school in sight. Instead, recently orphaned Felix has arrived at the house of a distant sort-of-relative, where he is being offered a place as a paying guest. Felix is young, devoted to his late mother, and rather lost in this confusing 1945 world. Miss Bohun seems like a Godsend, and he is grateful for the place in her household – which also has eccentric Mr Jewel in the attic, a maid, a sort-of servant (Frau Leszno), and that servant’s son – Nikky, who is almost always described as handsome whenever he is mentioned. Later, a Mrs Ellis also joins the house – a glamorous woman (in Felix’s eyes), unconcerned with the mores and opinions of the house.

Oh, and a Siamese cat called Faro. (Incidentally – this NYRB Classics cover is so perfect that it’s almost unbelievable.) That’s also not the last time you’ll hear about Siamese cats in the 1951 Club…

Manning creates an astonishing character in Miss Bohum – because she is in many ways bad, but it is also impossible to view her actions too severely. She is a miser, clearly taking as much money as she can from her houseguests, while also pretending to be self-sacrificing and motivated entirely by kindness – indeed (and this makes her less wicked than she could be), she seems genuinely to believe these are her motivations. She can imagine slights and unkindnesses in those around her – while we also learn that she has subtly forced people out of the house, taking it over as her own when this was never the original intention.

The nuance of Manning’s depiction of characters also comes in showing them to us through Felix’s perspective. Not directly – the novel is in the third person – but his views colour all our understanding of them. And he spends much of the novel being in loyal agreement with Miss Bohun – unthinkingly, because she should be right about things. He feels cross on her behalf when she talks of people’s ingratitude; he accepts her edicts as gospel. Only as the novel continues does he – conflicted – begin to feel the scales fall.

I haven’t even mention Miss Bohun’s cult, the ‘Ever-Readies’. What a great choice on Manning’s part. I would have loved to see a little more about them, as she wrote very entertainingly about them, but I suppose it is part of the effect to keep them a bit cloaked and mysterious.

We don’t see very much of 1945 Jerusalem, so School For Love isn’t much of a case history of a time and place – instead, it is a character study, and a depiction of how a young, uninformed boy feels when transplanted from all he knows. It’s a little bit like The Go-Between, in the sense of an innocent seeing a world he doesn’t quite understand – more affected it than anybody could quite realise. The plot is really that: his gradual comprehension of the people around him, and the fall of the idol of Miss Bohun – but in a measured, quiet way. It is all rather beautiful and poignant, and vividly real.

My only real quibble with the book is its title – which does very little to evoke the content of the novel, and might well make somebody think they were going to read a rather different sort of story. It is explained, fairly late in the book – Mrs Ellis quotes part of a Blake poem:

Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love

And that is why she thinks of life as a school for love. It is one of many things that Felix learns, though not in the way that Blake describes. And what I learned is what a good novelist Olivia Manning is. The 1951 Club got off to a great start with me – I hope it’s also going great for you!

A Wreath for the Enemy by Pamela Frankau

A Wreath for the EnemyPamela Frankau is one of those names that has been around the edges of my consciousness for years – it’s hard to read about interwar fiction, academically, without seeing Pamela and Gilbert Frankau (her father, it turns out; I had assumed brother) mentioned a lot. Yes, I’ve got her confused with Pamela Hansford Johnson in the past, but having read A Wreath for the Enemy (1954) now, I shan’t make the mistake again – mostly because I thought it was really, really good.
Many thanks to my good friend Caroline for giving me a copy of this book – Caroline was in my Oxford book group and, very sadly for us, moved away a while ago. We’ve stayed in touch, and she sent me A Wreath for the Enemy because she thought it would be up my street. What an unusual, clever, innovative novel it is. And how’s this for an opening line?

There had been two crises already that day before the cook’s husband called to assassinate the cook.

It is told in three sections, though with overlapping sets of characters. In the first, we see Penelope Wells and her family – looking after an eccentric hotel on the French Riviera. She calls her father and stepmother by the first first names, and is one of the most deliciously unusual child characters I’ve ever encountered. She is an adolescent, but one who has learnt language from books rather than friendships – guess who can relate? – and her conversation is a delight. It would be precocious if the character were showing off, but she isn’t; it’s simply the only way she knows how to communicate.

“Painful as it is to refuse,” I said, “my father has acquired visitors and I have sworn to be sociable. The penalty is ostracism.”

What a creation on Frankau’s part. She has brilliantly drawn a girl turned eccentric by her upbringing (when we meet her, she is writing her Anthology of Hates) who is quirky without being irritating, and a world away from a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. For the reader, she is endearing and interesting – but with an undercurrent of sadness: she has not chosen her upbringing any more than anybody else has, and she clearly has some understanding

Penelope meets the Bradley family, and is enamoured by the children Don and Eva. They come from a strikingly conventional family (Penelope’s father calls them ‘the Smugs’), and they find her enticing – she, in turn, admires the conventionality of them. It is an unusual but entirely plausible friendship – which lasts until a disreputable woman known as The Duchess comes to stay at the Wells’s hotel. The Bradley parents are shocked… and the section ends with something tragic, beautifully understated while at the same time having a significant emotional impact on them all.

The second section jumps forward a few years, and is from the perspective of Don. He is now at a boarding school, and beginning to rebel against his father’s conventionality – chiefly through his friendship with Crusoe. Crusoe is an older man in a wheelchair, brusque and direct with all, but with evident fondness for Don and a certain amount of wisdom. But absolutely no regard for ‘doing the right thing’, in the British-upper-class sense, and Don has to choose between his father’s commands and the new world he has glimpsed – while also still affected by the events of the first section of the book. And I shan’t talk too much about the final section – but Penelope is back, everybody is older, and new challenges come to the fore.

What makes A Wreath for the Enemy so brilliant, to my mind – well, it’s the writing, and the quirkiness, and the great humour – but it’s also the unusual way in which it’s written. It’s as though Frankau took a traditional novel, threw it up in the air, and wrote up what fell to the ground. It should feel disparate and jagged, but the different elements are ingeniously combined. It’s something of an abstract portrait, where the reader is left to fill in some gaps – but can understand a whole world of half a dozen characters, just be the brief moments we see them.

I will confess that I had always rather assumed that Frankau wasn’t very good. She was so prolific, and (I think I’m right in recollecting) disparaged in the highbrow/middlebrow debate – but both these facts are true of authors I love, so I should have realised that she’d be a winner. If any of her other novels are up to the quirky, imaginative, and confident calibre of A Wreath for the Enemy, I greatly look forward to reading them. And I have The Willow Cabin next on my tbr…

Others who got Stuck into this…

(I could only find one, but it’s a lovely one.)

Fleur Fisher: “This is lovely: a quite beautifully written book that speaks so profoundly. I find myself wanting to say so much, and at the same time being almost lost for words.”

H.G. Wells and His Family by M. M. Meyer

As I’ve probably said before, I love books about authors from a unique perspective. AllHG Wells the famous ones have biographies written about them, of course, and I daresay there are several authoritative and scholarly biographies of H.G. Wells that I could have bought – but I’m rather more intrigued by the personal angle. Show me a book that only one person could have written, and I’ll run towards it. My favourite is probably the book about Ivy Compton-Burnett written by her secretary (Cecily Grieg or Cicely Greig or some variant on that – one day I’ll learn which), but I would also recommend H.G. Wells and His Family (1955) to any Wells enthusiasts.

 

Who was M.M. Meyer? Well, she was the governess to Wells’ children. Her experiences looking after the two boys form the mainstay of this book – even if we first hear of them as ‘Professor G.P. Wells and Mr F.R. Wells’ in her introduction, with a touching pride in their achievements and maturity. As the first paragraph states, though:

Some of the most cherished memories of my long career as a Swiss governess in England take me back to the four and three-quarter years that I spent in the literary household of Mr. and Mrs. H.G. Wells – first t Spade House, Sandgate, then at No. 17 Church Row, Hampstead, and finally at Easton Glebe, near Dunmow, Essex.

As this paragraph might suggest, Meyer isn’t the most sparkling prose stylist in the world. The memoir is quite prosaic in form, relating incidents one after the other, but it is the tone of happy nostalgia – as well as Meyer’s unique placement to observe these moments – that make the book so enjoyable. Whether it’s the family playing a variant of consequences (‘consequences’ is called ‘exquisite corpses’ in American English, I believe? Or was? I read the entirety of Exquisite Corpse by Alfred Chester without knowing that, and it was baffling), or the only time Wells shouted at her, these are stories that nobody else could relate first-hand – and a biographer would flatten, losing the moving enthusiasm that Meyer clearly has about every aspect of the family. She even includes pictures of their consequences and other doodles, having preserved them for years.

What did I know about Wells before I opened up this book? Well, besides a relatively small percentage of his books (sidenote: I bought The Bulpington of Blup by him recently; who knew THAT existed?) and the fact that he was A.A. Milne’s maths teacher, it was mostly his adultery. His serial womanising seems to be the keynote of his personal life in biographers’ eyes. It’s refreshing that Meyer doesn’t mention it – possibly it was not widely known in 1955, but you get the impression that she wouldn’t have talked about it either way. But it does make the reader smile a little guiltily over notes like this, which appears in a section she writes as a diary:

September 27th. Miss Rebecca West arrived to-day. She looks about twenty-two years of age, and is very vivacious. She writes in the Freewoman, and has just reviewed Mr. Wells’s new novel Marriage.

This book is doubtless only a footnote in a literary or biographical analysis of H. G. Wells – but how enjoyable it was. If anybody has any other recommendations for this sort of book – notable authors as known by their friends, employees, or acquaintances – then please do let me know!