Sue, Ann, and Erika were all intrigued by the opening to Tea Is So Intoxicating by Mary Essex, which I posted the other day, and asked if I would say a bit more about her. Here are those lines again:
It is highly probable that the tea shop would never have started at all if Commander David Tompkins hadn’t fancied himself at being something of a dab-hand at cooking.
Well, never let it be said that I ignore the cries of my people. I do misinterpret them a bit – because I don’t remember all that much about Tea Is So Intoxicating, I decided to read one of the other Mary Essex novels I have on my shelf – the equally wonderfully titled The Amorous Bicycle.
You see, I read Tea Is So Intoxicating almost a decade ago, and I read it immediately after finished Moby Dick. Anything would have been refreshing right then – and, while I knew I loved the novel, which is about the struggles of setting up a provincial tea-room, I didn’t know how much this depended on comparison. Whom could I ask? Nobody else knew anything about her. I’m the only person to own any Mary Essex novels on LibraryThing (since Geranium Cat very kindly gave me her copy of Six Fools and a Fairy.) And I bought Tea Is So Intoxicating on a whim, because it had a brilliant title and only cost 10p.
Turns out, I knew more about Mary Essex than I realised. But I’d nearly finished the novel before I discovered that, so I’m going to make you wait until the end of the review to unveil the surprise…
The Amorous Bicycle (1944) takes place in Queen Catharine’s Court, an ‘ultra-modern, ultra-select block of flats situated in South London, not too south of course, because that would not have had a desirable district number for notepaper, but fairly south.’ There is a huge cast of characters (which isn’t the only thing which reminded me of Richmal Crompton’s novels) and not really any principals – although the first we meet is Mr. Vyle, the resident manager of the building. He’s a bit of a coward, and unduly proud of his position, but basically a good egg.
I was going to go through the lot, but it might get a bit bewildering. Suffice to say, they do all become fully-formed – it just takes quite a few pages. Some are closer to stereotype than others – the retired Colonel and his ex-comrade cook are in the ‘closer’ category, not to mention the temperamental French chef for the building’s restaurant. There’s also the James family – a long-suffering mother who is more than willing to share her sufferings, her actressy daughter and casual son, and her estranged husband (preposterously called Henry James) who is ditched by the mistress he absconded with, and tries to go back to the family he hasn’t seen for a decade. There’s a coquettish young woman; a coquettish older woman; a browbeaten decorator determined to paint every flat ‘pile blew’; a lascivious doctor; a self-important, plagiarising novelist… the list goes ever delightfully on.
It all sounds a bit like a soap opera, doesn’t it? Well, it’s closer, as I said, to Richmal Cromptons novels – a useful comparison only, of course, if you’ve read any of them. Gossip and intrigue sustain the residents of the building, all of whom seem to be contemplating romantic alliances to greater or lesser extents.
I am no great fan of romantic novelists. If that is all they bring to the table, I must confess myself bored – but you probably know how greatly I prize good writing and Essex’s is certainly not bad. It would, admittedly, be infinitely better if she had never discovered the use of the exclamation mark. I think it can be used to great aplomb in dialogue (c.f. The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, still my forerunner for Read of 2011) but is nigh-on unforgivable in narrative. It always looks amateurish.
BUT – Essex’s writing is funny. Of course humour is subjective, but I think a lot of you might enjoy her humour too – it reminded me of E.M. Delafield, in that wry, observational style which occasionally does a little twist in the middle of a sentence. Her unexpected turns made me smile – she is especially good, I thought, at introducing characters with quick, witty sketches. Which is a mercy, given how many of them there are. Here are three examples:
He was under forty, and good-looking in a rugged, rather ugly way.
The next one hit a bit close to home…
Professor Tyrrell, unmarried, and completely self-contained, lived in Number Ninety-one. He was pedantic, he was finicky, he spoke repulsively correct English, in fact it was so correct that it was wrong.
And, self-deprecatingly, this was my favourite:
He was a vegetarian, and looked it.
Only the other day, when reviewing Edith Olivier’s Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady, I lamented that she hadn’t availed herself of the many opportunities to laugh at the absurdities of wartime. Well, Essex barely comments on the more serious aspects of war (all but one person seem miraculously unaffected by any actual fighting) but is rather wonderful on the deprivations suffered by economising housewives and frustrated customers.
She proffered the menu. It read Lunch 3s.6d. (and on the back Dinner 6s.). Bread, one penny, Napkin, one penny, Coffee, sixpence. Minerals and soda water. On reading the menu, which on the face of it looked to be lengthy and extremely good, one’s mood changed, because most of it had a tendency to boil down to Spam.
Indeed, it is the rumour of a far-off fishmonger selling ‘dabs’ (whatever they might be) which compels Miss Hungerford-Hawkes to belie the dignity of her years and procure a bicycle. This is the first, but by no means the last, mention of bicycles in The Amorous Bicycle. Essex’s title derives from the well-known rhyme ‘Daisy, Daisy’ (read it here, if you don’t know it.) For somehow, often quite tenuously, the advent of bicycles to Queen Catharine’s Court leads to all sorts of happenings, romantic and otherwise (and it is rather nice that Essex focuses on romances between those not in the first flush of youth – this is by no means a youthful romance-by-numbers novel.)
I did have to laugh at the following line – I know enough evangelical cyclists to understand. (Guys, it’s just a mode of transport. I don’t tell you at length how great walking down the street is. Just saying. Oh, and when I’m driving, please don’t cycle down the middle of the road, or jump red lights. Ta.)
Really, Mrs. Plaistow decided, people with bicycles were very much like people with babies, they just couldn’t stop talking about them.
And not everybody has a fondness for this wartime economy:
Mr. Vyle didn’t think so much of a nice bike. He found that biking made his ears cold, and he was fed to the teeth that he would probably have to give up his car because he couldn’t get the petrol for it and he knew that Mrs. Vyle would point out that other people had “ways.” Mr. Vyle hadn’t any ways. He was rather alarmed at the prospect of what might happen to him if he tried any tricks. All the same he’d see this blasted war somewhere else before he bought himself a nice bike, as Tutton suggested.
Incidentally, when I worked in Rare Books in the Bodleian, I dealt with a lot of boys’ comics from the early twentieth-century. Throughout the early 1940s the back cover held advertisements for a bike manufacturer (showing boys on bikes capturing Nazis; using their bike bells to win the war, etc.) but each said essentially “Sorry, bicycles not available during wartime, but keep an eye out once the fighting’s all over.” The residents of Queen Catharine’s Court do, admittedly, have some trouble procuring their vehicles – but a fair few manage it in the end.
While I was reading, I wasn’t trying to decide whether or not Mary Essex was a great novelist. She obviously isn’t. My quandary was whether or not she was good – and, exclamation marks aside, I decided that she was. I’d certainly read more by her, and have one more waiting on my bookshelf. Her characters and plots don’t reinvent the wheel, but are diverting enough, and her style is pleasantly amusing.
So, that twist I promised you. While hunting around on the internet, I discovered what I had already suspected – that Mary Essex was a pseudonym. What I had not expected was that I had already heard of Mary Essex under her actual name – which is (drum roll)… Ursula Bloom.
I expect a lot of you have heard of her. Perhaps you’ve seen her mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records. Because Ursula Bloom wrote over 500 books, under various names. In terms of quantity, she could look Barbara Cartland in the eye.
This discovery did leave me a bit shocked… how could someone so prolific actually write good books? I know a lot of you will think “All that matters is that you enjoyed it.” That’s partly true, but I’ve always been a believer that literary merit exists, and that books can’t be judged entirely subjectively, or on how pleasing they are to the reader. Was my judgement wildly off? There are so many books I have disparaged or discarded because of poor writing, yet I thought the writing in The Amorous Bicycle above average.
So… I am left puzzled. Did Ursula Bloom put extra effort into her Mary Essex titles, or am I so enamoured by the 1940s that I’ll forgive a wartime novelist that which I’d condemn from a 21st century writer? I don’t know… but I’d love any of you who’ve read any Mary Essex to comment, or if you’ve got one languishing on your shelves – grab it, read it, and get back to me.