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!

3 little links…

Here are three things I’ve written in other places this week… fill your boots!

1.) I reviewed Aldous Huxley’s The Genius and the Goddess at Vulpes Libris.

2.) 5 things you didn’t know about Mrs Dalloway over at OUP Academic Tumblr (although, spoilers, I think some of you definitely will know these)

3.) My favourite: 12 nouns that are always plural. The most geeky English language thing I’ve ever written AND the most cat-themed thing I’ve ever written. *drops mic*

Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis

Who first told me about Auntie Mame (1955)? A quick search through blog comments suggests that Vicki from Bibliolathas recommended her when I wrote about Abbie by Dane Chandos, but I already owned the book before that, so… who knows? Anyway, many thanks to whoever it was. Some years later, I took it off to America with me, and finished it on the ‘plane on the way back.

Auntie Mame

The narrator, like the author, is called Patrick Dennis – but it’s not entirely clear how autobiographical this novel is (indeed, it is the matter of much debate in the afterword by Matteo Codignola in the Penguin edition I have). It’s not even clear if it’s a novel or a series of short stories (more on that in the afterword too) – but what is clear is that Auntie Mame features the larger-than-life lady in question and her nephew going through various escapades over the course of many years.

We meet Mame when she takes in the young, recently orphaned, Patrick, against the better judgement of the staid Mr Babcock, who looks after Patrick’s finances. She is dressed in Japanese garb (she is always in garb of some variety; later she wishes to be thought Spaniard), hosting a party, and ushers impressionable Patrick into her socialite lifestyle. She is keen to educate him…

“My dear, a rich vocabulary is the true hallmark of every intellectual person. How now” – she burrowed into the mess on her bedside table and brought forth another pad and pencil – “every time I say a word, or you hear a word, that you don’t understand, you write it down and I’ll tell you what it means. Then you memorize it and soon you’ll have a decent vocabulary. Oh, the adventure,” she cried ecstatically, “of moulding a little new life!” She made another sweeping gesture that somehow went wrong because she knocked over the coffee pot and I immediately wrote down six new words which Auntie Mame said to scratch out and forget about.

You get a feel for the sort of thing. Mame is an irrepressible delight, and – as the novel progresses – we see Patrick both fond of and embarrassed by her. She gatecrashes his college ball; she looks after swathes of unpleasant evacuees; she becomes the unlikely nemesis of the horse-riding set. In one memorable episode, she launches into an anti-anti-Semitic tirade (an entirely admirable one – albeit one which changes the tone of the book quite suddenly). Each event is neatly tied up and self-contained, without any characters really changing – except in age and marital situation.

Each chapter also begins with the narrator-Patrick comparing Auntie Mame to the ‘Unforgettable Character’ of some hagoigraphic newspaper article. Every trait exemplified by this worthy woman is mirrored also, it seems, by Auntie Mame – mostly in an exaggerated and individual manner. This device for linking together unrelated stories isn’t, to my mind, entirely successful; although the afterword praises it for surmounting the difficulties of disparate tales, I think it just felt a bit forced and fake. It didn’t stop me enjoying Auntie Mame, but I’ve had enjoyed the book more without this touch.

But I still really liked Auntie Mame. Any novel about an eccentric spinster is likely to get a thumbs up from me. Perhaps she hasn’t joined Abbie and Miss Hargreaves and Patricia Brent (if one can really use the term ‘spinster’ about her) on the top tier, but it was a jolly fun read nonetheless.

Oh, and while I remember – I’ve figured out how to add those ‘like’ buttons to the bottom of posts! Of course, a comment is always best, but I thought it couldn’t hurt.

 

A review round-up

image source

As with 2012’s Century of Books, there are some books which – for one reason or another – don’t get their own blog post, but I still need somewhere to link to in my run-through of 100 books.  So… here is that place!  Or at least the first part of it.  Let’s call them mini-reviews; that sounds better.

The Perfect Stranger (1966) by P.J. Kavanagh
A friend lent me this; it is a memoir of a young man’s life – at Oxford, at war, and in love.  I certainly liked it, and it was rather moving, but that’s about all I remember now.

The Sittaford Mystery (1931) by Agatha Christie
I think my Reader’s Block is FINALLY over, and that means my Agatha Christie binge has probably come to an end too.  Whenever I read too many in a row, the plots have to be really good to impress me, and – well – I just read too many, I guess.  So I liked The Sittaford Mystery and I think it was probably quite artful, but I didn’t appreciate it as much as I could have done.  I did very much like the feisty, no-nonsense, secretly-sensitive heroine who took on the role of quasi-detective.  I think her name was Emily?

Inclinations (1916) by Ronald Firbank
Mike Walmer kindly sent me a copy of this, but I’m afraid I didn’t have a clue what was going on while I read it.  I love some books which are mostly in dialogue (I call Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett to the stand) but this one just baffled me.  Luckily Karen/Kaggsy enjoyed it more – read her review for more elucidation.

Riding Lights (1955) by Norman MacCaig
Green Song and other poems (1944) by Edith Sitwell
Every now and then I think I should try poetry. I don’t remember anything at all about these.

The Winds of Heaven – Monica Dickens

Firstly, just thought I’d let you know that I’m back in the blogosphere (after two or three days of not reading much) and have replied to all recent comments, including all the wonderful and interesting comments on the On Commenting post.

Having recently got all excited about Persephone publishing their 100th title, I decided to check my unread Persephones against my A Century of Books list, and see how many blank spaces could be filled.  I have loved doing A Century of Books, but there’s no denying that some of those blank spaces are frustratingly elusive.  However, this cross-referencing did fill up two gaps – which happened to cover the whole cross-section of Persephone’s ethos.  Today’s book is at the light, frothy end of the scale – the book I’ll review tomorrow is serious and important.  I’m very glad to have read both.

My parents gave me The Winds of Heaven (1955) for my birthday a year or two ago, and it’s been on my large pile of books I’m looking forward to reading – especially since I am already a huge fan of Monica Dickens’ semi-autobiographical, very hilarious One Pair of Hands and One Pair of Feet.  But haven’t yet, somehow, read Mariana.  Anyway, The Winds of Heaven is very different from those – gone is the humour, gone is the absurdity, and present instead is one widower’s lonely, awkward life, bustled from pillar to post (those pillars and posts being represented by three rather selfish daughters.)

Lest we be in any doubt that those heavenly winds of the title be metaphorical, the opening paragraph is this:

When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into the gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are; but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching miserably at their hats and hair.
Louise Bickford is certainly of the creep-about variety.  She is recently a widow, left with enormous debts by an unscrupulous and selfish husband, and must spend her days living with one or other of her three daughters, on rotation.  In this novel, Monica Dickens draws her characters with broad strokes.  Having recently read V.S. Pritchett’s complex and brilliant delineation of his father, it was even clearer that Louise’s husband Dudley is essentially a cartoon villain.  Louise is downtrodden by him, and throughout the novel he looms in her memories like a bogeyman, apparently unkind and cruel from their honeymoon onwards.  Indeed, nobody would read The Winds of Heaven for its range of subtle character portraits – every marriage in the novel has at least one ‘bad’un’, and sometimes two.  On the flipside, some characters are just hopelessly nice.  Here are the various daughters and families:

1.) Miriam – sharp, pre-occupied, but not cruel.  Husband Arthur – cross, irascibile.  Daughter Ellen – sensitive, withdrawn, kind.  Other children Simon and Judy – young, excitable.

2.) Eva – bohemian.  Lover David – unreliable.

3.) Anne – lazy.  Husband Frank – adorable.

I’m being a little unkind to Monica Dickens, and I should point out that none of this prevented me enjoying The Winds of Heaven to the utmost.  It just isn’t a finely-drawn, perceptive novel – it’s light and broad and completely, wonderfully entertaining.  It reminded me a great deal of Richmal Crompton’s novels, which I love but which (I now recognise) are far from great art.  Indeed, the relative staying with various families is a plot Crompton uses more than once, and to great effect in Matty and the Dearingroydes.

Having called this novel entertaining, I should add that its themes are often sombre.  Chief amongst these is Louise’s situation – being loved but unwanted by her family, an awkward imposition wherever she goes.  In the hands of Elizabeth Taylor this would be a subtly crafted, very moving story – in the hands of Monica Dickens, it is moving but never heartbreaking.  Serious themes do not a serious novel make.  Indeed, the novel is still more entertaining than it is cautioning or saddening.  In fact, I’m trying to work out why it was so fun to read, when there is almost no comedy in it, and the events are all rather melancholy – from miserable affairs to accidents with farm machinery.  I think it’s the same experience one has when watching a soap opera – the events are so over the top, and the characters embodying individual traits (Anne might as well just be a sign saying Selfish and Lazy) rather than complex personalities, that it’s impossible to feel distraught for them, and instead you can settle down to guiltless enjoyment of the spectacle.

All of which sounds like I’m damning Monica Dickens with faint praise – but I have admiration for authors who can create an action-packed, page-turning novel, with underlying seriousness, and still produce a credible narrative.  Dickens’ writing is never poor, and Louise herself is rather a well-drawn character – just one surrounded by characters who aren’t particularly.  And which of us lives on Elizabeth Taylor alone?  It is no mean feat to produce a loveable, engaging novel.  It’s the light end of the Persephone scale, but it’s perfect for a winter evening when you want something relaxing and enjoyable, with just the right amount of thought-provoking paragraphs laced into the mix.  Thinking about it, The Winds of Heaven is the literary equivalent of The Archers… and that, my parents would assure me, can be no bad thing.