The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg

 

When we did the 1947 Club and the 1951 Club, I noticed in my own reading – and I think in the reading across the blogosphere – that the war was surprisingly absent. I say ‘surprisingly’. Perhaps there is nothing unsurprising about people wanting to put hell behind them for a few years, either unwilling or unable to face what had passed. It’s interesting, in my 1968 reading, that two strands have emerged – the bright, bold, intoxicating world of the ’60s emerging, and a more concentrated look back over the shoulder at the past. Few books could be more eye-opening than Christabel Bielenberg’s 1968 memoir The Past is Myself, reprinted a few years ago in a beautiful Slightly Foxed Edition.

Bielenberg’s surname sounds German – and, indeed, is – but she was raised English. (Or Irish… it seems to be conflated. After Greensleeves, is this becoming a 1968 pattern?) She married Peter Bielenberg during the interwar period, and adopted German citizenship in 1934 – Germany was her home and she seems to have been broadly accepted. Oddly, her Englishness doesn’t seem to have been much of an issue throughout the Second World War – at least it isn’t mentioned as being so in The Past is Myself – but her staunch resistance to Nazism was a constant threat to her life. It starts in 1932, sort of, but much of the book (unsurprisingly) focuses on the bulk of the war. But I did think this was great:

The history of the years between 1935 and 1938 in Germany could be summarised by a conversation overheard between two Hamburg dock-workers, sitting over their beer in a riverside pub (Hamburg dock-workers are not renowned for their garrulity). “Ja, ja, ja,” sighed the one, and again after a long pause, “ja, ja, ja”.” “Listen,” said his friend, gazing mournfully into his beer-mug, “can’t you, for one moment, stop discussing politics?”

This memoir tells of life in Germany for somebody who despised Hitler and his policies – for somebody who was ‘Aryan’, but violently opposed every step of the Nazis’ campaign. Like Mathilde Wolff-Monckeberg’s excellent On the Other Side, this gives an important perspective that helps us remember that an individual is not their country.

Bielenberg takes the reader painstakingly through the events of each month, each week, and for the first half the memoir it is a case of slowly escalating horror. We probably all know what happened – the Nuremberg laws and the gradual removal of the rights of Jewish people; the increase in political prisoners and Hitler-worship; the erosion of every public voice of dissent. Bielenberg expertly puts us into the world of somebody who hated Nazism but, after initial protest, realises that dissent means death – and then anybody could be an informant.

Just the same we knew that when meeting new people, they would probably play the game as we did. The conversation at first would be guarded and noncommittal. We knew that we were none of us Nazis, but were we all of us, drunk or sober, also discreet? Had we other mutual friends? Were they real friends or just names dropped to impress? I would find it hard to describe the wary approach, the half-finished sentence, the guarded reference which led at the time to mutual confidence, and to the realisation that the air had at last been cleared and all present could sit back and indulge in plain high treason. The procedure was a delicate one, one that had to be carefully learned if we valued our lives, and would trust our fellows sufficiently to put our lives in their hands.

Though published in 1968, Bielenberg delivers the narrative as she experienced it, day by day and moment by moment. She seldom, if ever, gives hints of what was to come for her own family and friends, nor does she include particularly detailed accounts of what later became widely known, in terms of concentration camps. So we don’t see the full scale of the horror that the Nazis implemented – though there are glimpses: a man she meets on a train who has been part of the SS extermination team, for instance, or the rumours of cattle trucks which come back to those in Berlin. Hers was not the worst experience of the war, of course. She was never sent to a concentration camp – though her husband spent time in dire conditions in a prison (through connections to those who organised the foiled plot to assassinate Hitler) and there is a significant section dealing with Christabel’s interrogation when trying to have him released.

It is revealing to read about somebody anti-Nazi, pro-Britain who also suffered at the hands of British and Allied bombers – caught between two enemies, in a way. She writes about the indiscriminate cruelty of bombing campaigns brilliantly:

There was no moon, and there were three air raids in the three nights that I was in Berlin. The bombs fell indiscriminately on Nazis and anti-Nazis, on women and children and works of art, on dogs and pet canaries. New and more ravaging bombs – blockbusters and incendiaries, and phosphorus bombs that burst and glowed green and emptied themselves down the walls and along the streets in flaming rivers of unquenchable flame, seeping down cellar stairs, and sealing the exits to the air-raid shelters.

Indeed, even without seeing the full evil of the concentration camps, I was still left afresh with the shock at how evil people can be. For how many thousands of Germans must have been coopted into targeting Jewish people, running death camps, being part of the cruel regime? The millions who felt helpless to prevent or oppose it – well, that I can understand. Particularly in the nationalistic, often xenophobic world we are seeing more and more of. People often talk about Trump and Hitler together, and say that Trump is no Hitler. I absolutely agree that he is not Hitler as Hitler was in, say, 1942. But the similarities between Hitler in 1933 and Trump in 2017 are many – targeting a faith group, playing on brash nationalism to do so, trying to quieten dissent from others and calling the unpatriotic if they do it. Reading this book brought home those similarities and dangers.

The Past is Myself (stupidly vague title aside) is in many ways a brilliant book, with an unstinting portrayal of what her life was like and, to the extent that she was able, what Germany was like. I’ve been very enthusiastic in this review. I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t think it’s a brilliant book. Something in the writing style, or the structure? I don’t know. Usually I find it quite easy to pinpoint why I haven’t found a book worked perfectly, but there’s something elusive here. It’s still exceptionally valuable as a resource, and very good in doing what it does, but I probably wouldn’t rush to read anything Bielenberg wrote on any other topic.

Still, a sombre and poignant end to the 1968 Club for me.

 

Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

This is normally the time in our club weeks that I start to wind down, and maybe do a round up, but I’ve read so much for the 1968 club that I’m keeping going! Sorry that I’ve not been rounding up reviews quite as assiduously as I should have been, but it’s really exciting to see people join in – and I’ll put together a full list before too long. But still this review and another one to come before the end of the week!

Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw is testament to the fact that I will eventually finish those books that I got halfway through and forgot about. I bought it after Jenny from Reading the End enthused about it somewhere… I thought it was on her blog, but her review was in 2008 and I bought it in 2015 so WHO KNOWS. Well, I read 150pp of it when it arrived, and somehow it fell down the pile of the books I was reading concurrently… it’s almost like I knew that the 1968 Club would come along and give me the proper moment to finish it.

Greensleeves was rescued from obscurity by (a) the aforementioned Jenny, and (b) Nancy Pearl, celebrity librarian – and the copy I have was published in her oddly-titled ‘Nancy Pearl Book Crush Rediscoveries’ series. The novel is about an eighteen-year-old girl, Shannon, who has never quite felt she belonged – and not just for the reasons that most people that age feel that way. She has been shunted between various parents and parental figures, between parts of America and Ireland and England (‘Ireland’ is several times called ‘Britain’, I think. Hmm, McGraw, hmm), and she has serious misgivings about her future.

So, sure, she ends up going undercover as a spy in a boarding house, trying to work out whether or not there are grounds to contest a weird will left by a Mrs Dunningham – she has bequeathed money for people to go skydiving or maintain a weed garden or study useless subjects, etc. A change is as good as a holiday. And Shannon is so used to being several different people that adding another doesn’t seem too big an obstacle – so she disguises her accent (and her intellect) and becomes Georgetta. She has a towering 60s bouffant, bright clothes, and half the brain Shannon has – but more confidence and charm in speaking with people. That’s the idea, anyway – the number of made-up relatives, and a certain awkwardness and uncertainty which she can’t quite hide, prove stumbling blocks occasionally. Shannon/Georgetta becomes a waitress at the local restaurant (or ‘luncheonette’) – a perfect vantage from which to question people.

Only she didn’t quite account for the presence of Sherry (male despite name; friendly, charming, and optimistic regular of the restaurant, who nicknames her Greensleeves) or Dave (rude, but sexy, 20-something occupant of the boarding house). She finds herself in something of a love triangle.

What makes this novel not annoying, though, is that the central issue isn’t Boy A vs Boy B, but Shannon trying to come to terms with her own personality. She does this through trying to understand others – whether that be Sherry and Dave, the other beneficiaries of the will, or the deceased Mrs D. It’s a very true portrayal of what it means to be on the cusp of adulthood when your background is too myriad to make your path obvious.

But mostly the book is great because it’s so energetic. There is pep. The characters are slightly quirky, Sherry is a real love, and there is a sense of optimism and kindness that pervades it, somehow even when people aren’t behaving kindly.

As for the 1968 Club – this feels very representative of a certain sort of 1960s America, because of fashion and dialect, but it also feels extremely modern in the way it’s written. Other 1960s novels carry something of there period in each paragraph, for better or worse, whereas Greensleeves could have been written this week – I would totally have believed it was a historical novel, if a gap of 50 years makes something historical.

I imagine this novel would mean much more if one read it as a teenager – do press it upon any teenage readers who might enjoy it – but it’s still great fun to read as an adult, and has one of the few will-they-won’t-they narratives that made me actually care.

Thanks Jenny for bringing it to my attention initially, and thanks 1968 Club for making me finally finish it!

The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor – #1968Club

When I was going through the 1968 titles I had for the 1968 Club, I spotted that there was an Elizabeth Taylor there that I don’t hear all that much about. And that’s probably going to change this week, of course! But The Wedding Group – one of her final novels – is one that I knew nothing at all about. I must have read a review or two occasionally, but it hadn’t stuck. And I thought – why not?

I don’t consider myself an Elizabeth Taylor superfan, though her writing is impeccable, and I truly love some of her novels. And yet, despite no superfan status, I seem to have read almost all of her novels. Spoilers for how I feel about this one: it’s not her best, but it’s good. My early sense is that it’s not going to remain with me in the way that others have done. But I read it on a plane, and that’s never an ideal reading scenario, so… take this review with a pinch of salt??

It starts with a description of a many-layered family in Quayne that we don’t end up seeing that much of – it’s more of a restrictive, mistrustful background to illustrate the world that Cressy has come from. It’s an artistic world – the blurb to my Virago edition tells me that the grandfather of the clan is based on Augustus John (though Chris’s post mentions other potentials) – but it’s one that is instinctively wary of elite intellectual sets, modern life, and everything that Cressy longs to explore. Mostly, she wants to escape her oppressive mother Rose. And the vision of what she wants to experience is very 1968:

It was to that world beyond the beech woods that Cressy was looking. She dreamed of Wimpy Bars and a young man with a sports car, of cheap and fashionable clothes that would fall apart before she tired of them. In that world she might find a place for herself.

She rebels and gets a job in an antiques shop – which isn’t exactly the quintessence of teenage rebellion in 1968, but is, on the other hand, very Elizabeth Taylor. There she (re-)meets David, a journalist in his 30s who has previously visited Quayne and written about the family with some superior mild distaste. Indeed, he has wrongly labelled her in a photograph, and received a letter from her putting him right – he obviously thinks she is self-conscious, silly, and odd. What he doesn’t realise is that he is all those things too, in a slightly different way.

The strength of the novel, I think, is in the drawing of David’s mother Midge. As the novel starts, he lives with her – only later does he move (though no further than next door), and grows to question her influence on him. He feels that he cannot go to London, as he dreams of doing, because she is scared to be on her own – his father lives not too far away, oblivious and indifferent to the pain his selfishness has caused the family.

As with The Soul of Kindness, where Taylor shows us the real imprisoning agony of being a hypochondriac, in Midge we see a compassionate depiction of a woman whose terror of being alone is real – while still exasperating to those around her. In one scene, Midge believes she is about to be burgled – she leaves her jewellery on the stairs, and cowers in fear upstairs. It’s very moving, and shows that nothing is one-sided – for Midge is also a restrictive force when it comes to her son, though without the intentional stifling of Quayne. Rather, it is her need of him that has kept him tied to her apron strings. This is the fascinating relationship of the novel.

Oh, incidentally, I love when Taylor allows her own authorial comments to seep through. This is rather brilliant – I quote both paragraphs because it shows Taylor’s observational powers, and the way she makes the ordinary seem bizarrely profound – as well as the disjoint between what people are doing and the thoughts they vocalise:

The sandwiches they had ordered were now put in front of them, and Nell lifted a corner of one of hers and peered short-sightedly inside – hard-boiled egg, sliced, with dark rings round the yolk, a scattering of cress, black seeds as well.

“The reason, they say, that women novelists can’t write about men, is because they don’t know what they’re like when they’re alone together, what they talk about and so on. But I can’t think why they don’t know. I seem to hear them booming away all the time. Just listen to this lot, next to me.”

So, there is a lot to admire and appreciate in The Wedding Group, and it’s possible that I’d be raving about it if I’d never read another Taylor novel. But I almost take her writing talent and perceptiveness for granted – and this novel has too many scenes (and, dare I say, characters) that don’t quite go anywhere, and don’t leave much of a mark. Or perhaps it’s just because I read most of it on a plane, who knows. Unfair to judge her by her own standard, perhaps, but I don’t think 1968 was quite Taylor’s year – though, equally, she is incapable of writing a bad novel.

Another Part of the Wood by Beryl Bainbridge – #1968Club

So much of my 1968 Club reading has been non-fiction about the first half of the 20th century, and it’s about time I interspersed a novel that is well and truly 1960s. Another Part of the Wood was Beryl Bainbridge’s second published novel, and there are already many hallmarks of what makes Bainbridge so unusual – a cast of unpleasant, warring characters; unexpected catastrophes; not quite letting you know what is going on. The copy I read is one I bought in 2012, and was from a Penguin series where each cover was designed by Allen Jones. I do love it when reprint series like this look beyond the obvious. We don’t need another edition of Frankenstein.

Another Part of the Wood takes place at a holiday camp, but one which feels very much like a prison camp – a group of people are staying in extremely basic huts, without plumbing or sufficient food. It’s in rural Wales, but the ‘holidaymakers’ have come from the town – George, the owner of the site, isn’t expecting all of them; nor is his stuttering, anxious assistant Balfour. Characters pop up out of nowhere, with unspecified pasts and past relationships, adding to the chaotic tangle Bainbridge creates. George is only really expecting Joseph – a man with big ideas and ideals, who has come from London intending to discuss politics and philosophy. He comes with Dotty, a girlfriend who is tiring of him, and his son Roland. And a mysterious boy (man? It’s unclear) with the ominous name Kidney. He is clearly disturbed in some way, and must take his pills regularly, though Joseph is keen to get him off them – and seems to believe that a bit of fresh air is all he needs. What does he need? We don’t know, because Bainbridge tells us so little – making him all the more sinister as an unpredictable entity.

This is a short novel, and much of it focuses on the claustrophobia of these characters (and Lionel and May, who also come; Lionel’s salient characteristic is that he had a buttock shot off once) and the fraught tension as they bicker and singularly fail to enjoy themselves. Lynn Barber writes in her introduction to this edition that Bainbridge’s initial drafts were often ten times the length of the final novel – that she’d cut away and cut away, making sure nothing superfluous came in. The sparseness works; her writing style is confident even at this early stage, and not a word is wasted – indeed, we aren’t told enough to know quite where we are.

We can feel a dread that something terrible will be the climax to the novel – but also that other moments of huge significance will be thrown away as everyday mundanities. And all I will add about the plot is another word: wasps.

In case you want proof that this is quintessential 1968, here’s a description of a coat that Dotty gets from a shop:

The flowered coat was made of some kind of velvet. It rippled and shone. It was orange and blue and green and black, with a mustard-yellow ground, and there were buttons small as beads going from wrist to elbow. Balfour thought it was terrible.

He prayed she wouldn’t wear it now. He visualised her stalking, swathed in velvet, through the busy market town, the bell-bottoms of her denim trousers flaring out beneath the long and violently coloured hem.

It’s not replaced my favourite Bainbridge (which is Injury Time), but this is my fifth book by her, and it’s helping build up a picture of a strange, assured, quirky novelist who knew exactly the sort of book she wanted to write, and wrote it.

I Follow But Myself by Frank Baker #1968Club

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll have heard the words Miss Hargreaves more than you would have believed possible. (And yet people still call it Mrs Hargreaves! I need to work harder.) It’s perhaps my favourite novel, and I’ve read it many times since I was introduced to it in 2003 or thereabouts. And since 2004, I’ve had Frank Baker’s autobiography waiting on my shelves – so when I saw it was published in 1968, I knew that it was finally time to read it.

So, why has it taken me thirteen years to read I Follow But Myself? Partly – as I explained on the latest episode of our ‘Tea or Books?’ podcast – because I save up books I’m excited about reading until The Perfect Moment. Partly because my love of Frank Baker hasn’t fared brilliantly outside of Miss Hargreaves – I’ve read three or four other books by him, and they’ve not been very good. My worry was that I Follow But Myself would follow that trend. So, essentially, I’d built it up into quite a behemoth of a reading experience even before I opened the first page.

Baker organises his autobiography in quite an unusual fashion – told through portraits of nine people who were important in his life. These are mostly people who were not noted outside of the lives of those who knew them, but it does include a couple of famous names – Edward Garnett and Arthur Machen. But the best chapter is certainly, to my my mind, the one where he writes about Amy Carr – an old, kind, helpless lady he knew, forever anxious about others, besotted with Shakespeare, writing poor poetry, and in turmoil over whether or not she could believe in God. His portrait of her is affectionate and true, showing an intimate friendship, and its waning – through to her sad end in increasingly small rented rooms, and her death. It is a beautiful, poignant chapter – and the book is worth the read just for this handful of pages.

Amy Carr unfailingly gave me courage when I most needed it; she made me see the intrinsic value of such uncelebrated lives as hers; she was a pure artist who kept her vision; she was the pure in heart. And if, at the end, above the Atlantic Ocean, falling and restlessly swaying beyond the Cassiterides, she was not given the Light of the Glory of God, then life does not makes sense and our eyes were given us for nothing. But I will believe that she was thus rewarded.

Whoo. *Wipes eyes* *Continues*.

As a thread through these portraits, we also see Baker’s life and career – at least at first. This trajectory becomes a bit looser as the book continues, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that the strongest chapters are towards the beginning. And I had to jot down this description of Alfred Rose (topic of the third section, and somebody Baker knew through his religious education):

Looked like the Devil… yes; he did. His big bent nose flared to sensuous nostrils, like the nostrils of one of the darker people in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment; a quiff of greying black hair sprang up, Mephistophelean fashion, from his balding pate; hair coiled over his knuckles; his lips were tight and thin, the upper jaw prominent; his black and grey morning clothes with the shining polished black shoes were like a Civil Service camouflage, concealing hooves and little black batlike wings. I often imagined I could see Dionysiac horns prodding out from just behind his ears, which were large. But the most satanic thing about him was his voice: deep and soft, with an insidious sibilance, the unmistakable serpent song. And perhaps it was this which really charmed, for I never liked his appearance, yet charmed I certainly was.

This is not very like Miss Hargreaves, but it is similar to much of his other fiction – though stronger and more successful, somehow, in non-fiction. It gives you a taste of his writing style – whirling, seeing beyond the obvious, slightly obfuscatory. Curiously, for the autobiography of a writer, he never feels quite at ease writing about his writing. He was an actor during WW2, touring with Sybil Thorndike amongst others, and seems much more comfortable writing about this stage – but when it comes to his novels, he only really writes about the first one. I haven’t read The Twisted Tree, though I have it on my shelf (mais naturallement), and we see quite a lot of his drafting and re-drafting it – and one of the most successful chapters is the one focused on Edward Garnett, already famous as a writer and editor who had brought D.H. Lawrence to prominence. Mutual friends had invited Garnett and Baker to stay, and it was important that Baker didn’t let on his own writing ambitions – wanting a friendship to develop naturally, so that Garnett wouldn’t feel that he was being taken advantage of. It’s the funniest section, and paints Garnett as the most realistic sort of grotesque.

Otherwise, in terms of his own writing, there is a list of characters (only given because he is discussing Dickens’ influence on him), and the odd mention that he is working on a particular novel. The process of writing Miss Hargreaves is not described; the novel is only mentioned in passing a couple of times, chiefly as a financial success, and he admits that he is sick of it. A shame, for I would have dearly loved any context to its creation.

But it isn’t just Miss Hargreaves who gets very few moments in this book – Baker’s wife and children are scarcely mentioned either. He sometimes dates things by when his marriage took place, and drops in the occasional reference to his children, but he doesn’t describe his courtship or wedding, nor do any of these people seem to be much of a presence in Baker’s life at any point.

Indeed, Baker remains rather an enigma. Sometimes we hear almost uncomfortably personal discussions – he writes a lot about masturbation, unexpectedly, and the guilty it caused him as a teenager; he discusses homosexuality in a way that feels a bit like he is describing his own experiences, but never quite gets there. His views on priests and schoolteachers spending time intimately (though not more than that) with young boys are pretty odd, if not autobiographical. Most unexpectedly, when working as a secretary at a boys’ school, ‘I found myself sacked for a crime I had not only never committed but of whose nature I was totally ignorant. Sodomy’. And then he will turn to another description of somebody he knew, or their way of experiencing the world, and retreats into the shadows.

So, as an autobiography, it is curious – and leaves the reader curious. It was done in exactly the way he wanted it, and not the way anybody else might have asked. He has certainly followed but himself in its crafting. But it is worth it for the chapters on Amy Carr and Edward Garnett alone – I have the feeling I will often return to those. The rest is a bonus.

 

Bloomsbury by Quentin Bell #1968Club

The first book I finished for the 1968 Club was a book that is very much not about the 1960s – Bloomsbury by Quentin Bell, which looks back at the lore of the Bloomsbury Group. And he does this in something under 100 pages, rather bravely. But he is almost uniquely qualified to do so – being Vanessa Bell’s son, and thus Virginia Woolf’s nephew. (Incidentally, I’ve realised that much of my reading for the 1968 Club has been non-fiction looking back at earlier decades of the twentieth century. Whether that says more about me or about 1968, who knows…)

It’s clear that this isn’t an exhaustive biography of all members of the Bloomsbury Group – I’m going to assume you know what that is; in brief, it was the artistic and literary (and, er, economic) elite living in Bloomsbury, many of whom were related or had liaisons. But Quentin Bell quietly rails against the ways in which the group is depicted – which hasn’t really abated since 1968. As he points out, there was never such a thing as a homogeneous Bloomsbury Group – he even draws out a map/diagram of who was in the inner circle at which time. And he isn’t interested in gossip:

I am not required nor am I inclined to act as Clio’s chambermaid, to sniff into commodes or under beds, to open love-letters or to scrutinise diaries. On the present occasion I shall leave Bloomsbury linen, whether clean or dirty, unaired.

He sounds quite defensive, and indeed he is. He argues that Bloomsbury ‘has been criticised from a bewilderingly large number of points of view’, and he spends much of the first chapter defending them against accusations of elitism or taste that was too backward-looking or too biased. As he points out, with some examples, there was no unified taste or point of view from Bloomsbury. Intriguingly, he dwells for a while on what D.H. Lawrence thought of them all, tracing the individual relationships and commentaries that Lawrence made – challenging the idea that he hated them collectively. If it comes from a place of defensiveness, it is nevertheless well collated and argued.

Thus it is rather a surprise to come across, on p.61 of around ninety pages, ‘Nevertheless I think that the mistrust and dislike of Bloomsbury was very understandable.’ As a tangential outsider/insider, he can look back from 1968 and play roles on both sides of the courtroom. He puts it well with a comparison to an aristocratic family from Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day:

The Hilberrys are very sympathetic, despite their virtues, not simply because they have money and privilege but because they assume that they will, in the natural course of things, play a leading role in the cultural life of England. Members of Bloomsbury were accused of arrogance, of intellectual snobbery. But it was worse than that; they did not need to be arrogant; they could afford not to be snobbish.

He notes that his appearance on the scene of the Bloomsbury Group was towards its end, and he briefly describes how it disintegrated – his word – in a section that I wish could have been much longer. Perhaps the ends of such things are always harder to describe than their beginnings, if they do just slowly disintegrate – ending, appropriately enough, not with a bang but a whimper. The way that Bell describes it is the book’s most beautiful sentence:

The nineteen-twenties made it and broke it; it was then that it soared, burst in lazy scintillating splendour and slowly expired in still glowing fragments.

As I’ve mentioned, Bloomsbury is very short – only 89 pages of written text, though also a lot of extra sections of photos. These include some Vanessa Bell cover designs I haven’t seen before (though, frustratingly, in black and white) and his access to archives is certainly enviable.

Altogether, I could have wished Bloomsbury a bit longer, and maybe organised a bit more intuitively – but it’s a valuable part of a large puzzle that we lovers of the 1920s and ’30s are likely to be fascinated with forever.

The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars

A little while ago I got a very nice email from someone called Vicki, saying how much she enjoyed reading Stuck-in-a-Book, and asking if she could send me one of the books she loved as a sort of thank you. Well, I was very touched, and – not one to turn down a book recommendation or, indeed, a book – said yespleasethankyouverymuch. And shortly afterwards Betsy Byars’ The Midnight Fox (1968) arrived.

I hadn’t heard of it, but I think The Midnight Fox is well known in some circles. Yet again, having only read Enid Blyton for years on end means that I don’t know that much about other children’s classics. But now I have read, and very much enjoyed, this sweet and touching tale of a holiday on a farm.

The premise has a surprising number of similarities with Philippa Pearce’s much-loved children’s book Tom’s Midnight Garden, published ten years earlier. In both, a boy named Tom must reluctantly go and stay with his aunt and uncle, and greatly misses a boy called Peter. In both, a certain midnight aberration becomes an obsession, and changes the stay into a much happier event; Peter is written to from a distance, and becomes an accomplice in the discovery. I doubt that Byars plagiarised the book, but the similarities amused me.

The story is simple – Tom is beguiled by the beauty of this unusual fox, who is entirely black. He starts to look out for her, and becomes increasingly keen to observe her playing with her small fox cub; he is almost bewitched by this elegant, elemental life lived near to him – and must find a way to stop his hunting uncle from trapping the fox.

What makes it such a special little book? The style, I think. It’s not told with the gung-ho naivety of some children’s books, but treats Tom’s anxieties and concerns seriously – not least because we read it in the first person. Here is the opening…

Sometimes at night when the rain is beating against the windows of my room, I think about that summer on the farm. It has been five years, but when I close my eyes I am once again by the creek watching the black fox come leaping over the green. green grass. She is as light and free as the wind, exactly as she was the first time I saw her.

Or sometimes it is that last terrible night, and I am standing beneath the oak tree with the rain beating against me. The lightning flashes, the world is turned white for a moment, and I see everything as it was – the broken lock, the empty cage, the small tracks disappearing into the rain. Then it seems to me that I can hear, as plainly as I heard it that August night, above the rain, beyond the years, the high, clear bark of the midnight fox.
Thanks again, Vicki, for sending me this book; it was so generous and kind of you. I really enjoyed reading it – and I especially think this would be good to read aloud to a child, if any parents are on the look-out for something!

A Cab at the Door – V.S. Pritchett

photo source

More Slightly Foxed!  Yay!  Well, this one was actually a little bonus – earlier in the year, when they sent me the fabulous Look Back With Love by Dodie Smith, they inadvertently sent me A Cab at the Door by V.S. Pritchett first.  And then very kindly said I could have both.  Having recently adored Blue Remembered Hills, I realised I couldn’t go long without another fix of Slightly Foxed, and so grabbed A Cab at the Door (1968).

I have to confess, I’ve spent much of my adult life confusing V.S. Pritchett and V.S. Naipaul (he of the I’m-better-than-all-women rant).  As crimes go, it’s not the worst, and I hadn’t actually read anything by either of them – but now I’m sure that Pritchett is going to be my favourite V.S.  Sorry, Italian astronomer V.S. Casulli.  Tough break.

Like all the Slightly Foxed Editions (of which this is no.3), A Cab at the Door is a memoir – stretching further than some, in that it takes us beyond childhood, up until the time Pritchett breaks away from his parents and leaves home for France.  Like most memoirists, Pritchett seems to have been blessed with more amusing, regional relatives than the average person (c’mon, my relatives, be more comical) but although we have entertaining visits to these, the dominant character in this memoir is Pritchett’s father.  And I choose the word dominant deliberately.  Whatever other merits the book has, I think its greatest achievement is a rich and complex portrait of the sort of man who would simply appear as an ogre in fiction.

Father (if his name is mentioned, I have forgotten it – as I invariably forget names) is selfish, arrogant, and angry.  His cruelty is that peculiar brand which stems from monumental self-delusion – he drives his family deeply into debt, but appears to believe it is none of his doing.  He has constant ambition to better himself and his standing in society (and even achieves it to a degree, eventually, becoming a Managing Director) but doesn’t care how his failures along the way ruin and sadden his wife and children.  His wife – a lively and somewhat crude woman – is all but forbidden from entertaining, and is constantly carted from pillar to post, as they move to escape his debts.  The eponymous cab at the door is Pritchett’s familiar childhood sight, waiting to take them to their next home.

But because this is non-fiction, Father is not the caricatured evil man, nor his wife the stereotypical woman whose character is squashed out of her.  Instead, despite his unkindness to his younger son, and his unpredictable behaviour towards Victor himself, there is still love in him.  His wife still has moments of shrieking with laughter; Victor can still bond with his father over literature, occasionally, even if his own early attempts at writing are loudly derided.  And what novelist would have the masterstroke of making Father become a fierce proponent of Christian Science?  It is a truly exceptional portrait of a complicated man – and a portrait which is never finished to the artist’s satisfaction, simply because he could not be comprehended.  Pritchett writes this brilliant paragraph towards the end:

Right up to the day of his death in his eighties, none of us children could settle our view of him.  It was simple to call him the late Victorian dominant male without whose orders no one could think or move.  It was only partly true that he was a romantic procrastinator, egotist and dreamer, for he was a very calculating man.  Sometimes we saw him as the unchanged country boy, given to local shrewdness and gossip.  (He loved the malicious gossip of his church and his trade.)  Sometimes we saw him as a pocket Napoleon, but he never even tried to obtain the wealth or power he often talked about.  His mind was more critical than creative and he was appalled by criticism of himself.  He would go pale, hold up his hand and say, “You must not criticise me.”  He sincerely meant he was beyond criticism and felt in himself a sort of sacredness.
A Cab at the Door doesn’t have the warmth and delight of other Slightly Foxed books – it doesn’t intend to – and so, while Pritchett cannot compete with Dodie Smith and Rosemary Sutcliff for my affections, his task is different and executed incredibly well.

There are, of course, other angles and facets to this memoir, but I thought it worth identifying and discussing the one which set it apart from others that I have read.  Perhaps not one to curl up with in front of the festive log fire (for that, get Look Back With Love or Blue Remembered Hills, I cannot encourage you enough) but certainly an impressive portrait of a frustrating man, exactly the right ratio of objective and personal, an exemplary achievement.