Mrs Harris MP – Paul Gallico

Is it a bird? Is it a ‘plane? No, it’s actually a book review on Stuck-in-a-Book! Sorry that it’s been so long since my last one. Especially since I’m going to talk about a book I finished over six weeks ago…

When I went to the Lake District a while ago, I took a range of books – some that benefited from a long, uninterrupted read on a train, and some that would fill gaps between dashing off on multiple buses to get to a wedding, get on a train, etc. And I turned to Mrs Harris MP (1965) by Paul Gallico when I was tired from the long journey and sitting on a bench waiting for a lift (that eventually didn’t come… but that’s another story).

Anybody familiar with Mrs Harris Goes to Paris (also published as Flowers for Mrs Harris) and Mrs Harris Goes to New York will doubtless already know and love the redoubtable Mrs Harris. A London char, she is a wonderful mix of no-nonsense and fairy tale. Her greatest dream, in the first book, was to own a Paris couture dress; in the second she heads off to New York on a quest, and in the third she wishes – as you may have guessed from the title – to become an MP.

The novel opens with Mrs Harris and John Bayswater the chauffeur disagreeing over a political broadcast. She thinks it’s all two-face hogwash, and that she could do better herself… which isn’t long off happening. ‘Live and Let Live’ is her political mantra, and it is tangled up with an argument about giving working people a chance, not being teddy boys, and above all not lying. She makes, still – perhaps more than ever, quite an appealing prospect in the world of politics. She is not interested in spin and self-promotion; she wants to stand for the little people. And Mrs Harris is so full of vim and character that the bland, careful politicians don’t stand a chance.

Except things are a little more complicated than that. In all his novels, to some extent or other, Gallico seems to offer a sting in his fairy tale. Sometimes that sting is extremely dark (as in the very brilliant Love of Seven Dolls), sometimes it’s fey (Jennie), but it’s always there. In Mrs Harris MP it appears in the machinations of her supposed political ally… and appears perhaps more subtly in the after-effects of Mrs. Harris’ political campaign.

Like the other novels in this series, Mrs Harris MP is light and frothy and completely enjoyable. All of which means that it was probably very difficult to write. Mrs Harris is a wonderful creation – and perhaps equally wonderful, in my eyes, is her timid but loving friend Mrs Butterfield. It’s all quite silly, with (in this one perhaps more than the others) a note of the serious – and if you are sick of deceitful or boring politicians, or of a government that sidelines the poor, then this might provide some much-needed respite.

The Foolish Immortals – Paul Gallico

I don’t think I’ve read any author whose work is as disparate as Paul Gallico (and I probably start all my reviews of his books by saying that.)  I started with the novel I still consider his best, of the ones I’ve read: the dark fairy-tale Love of Seven Dolls.  Then there is the whimsical (Jennie), the amusing and eccentric (the Mrs. Harris series), the adventure story (although I’ve not read it, The Poseidon Adventure surely falls into this category.)

I started The Foolish Immortals (1953) hoping that it would be in one category, it shifted into another, and then it revealed a whole new facet of Gallico’s writing arsenal.  Confused?  I’ll try to explain…

The concept of The Foolish Immortals immediately appealed to me, because it sounded like the sort of topic which could easily be given the Love of Seven Dolls treatment, revolving (as it did) around manipulation, wilful delusion, and a touch of distorted fairy-tale – the last of which seems to be the ingredient which appears, in some form or other, in all the Gallico novels I’ve read.

Hannah Bascombe is rich, old, American heiress, who has successfully invested the money her business man father left her to make herself one of the richest people in the world.  There is only one aspect of her life over which she does not have ultimate control – and that is its span.  She has, she notes, reached her three-score-and-ten, and cannot have many decades left to live.  And yet… and yet, she hopes that money and power might be able to secure her immortality.

Enter, stage-left, Joe Sears.  He is a poor man and a chancer, clever and manipulative, and sees an opportunity.  Having enlisted the dubious help of a young (but visually ageless) ex-soldier called Ben-Isaac (in case Gallico didn’t signpost it well enough, he’s Jewish), Sears manages to get an appointment with Hannah Bascombe.  To do so, he has to get past her beautiful, utterly dependent niece Clary – but, having manoeuvred his way to Hannah, he recognises her vulnerability, and thinks that it could be a good way to make himself some money…

“What if you were able to duplicate their years?  Supposing you were able to outwit the Philistines waiting to trample your vineyards by outliving them, like Mahlalaleel, Cainan, Jared and Enoch, generation after generation down through the centuries until no living man would remember when you were born and not even unborn generations of the future could hope to be alive when you died?”
He offers Hannah this possibility, based on the ages to which people are described as living in the Old Testament (often many centuries) – suggesting that he knows where they can find a food which will give Hannah the same longevity.  And it’s in Israel.

A bit of persuasion later, and they’re off.  Nobody really trusts anybody else on this venture, and everybody is out for themselves.  Things grow even trickier to decipher (for the reader too) when they stumble across a man purported to be Ben-Isaac’s missing, much-beloved uncle – a much-lauded academic who is, it turns out, working on the land.  Sears is, naturally, suspicious of this stranger, particularly when he takes over and Hannah appoints him the leader of their venture.  Who is scamming whom?

And this is where Gallico’s other genres come into play.  There is a sizeable amount of what I admired in Love of Seven Dolls, but Sears is never quite as credible a villain as Monsieur Nicholas – in neither a fairytale nor a realistic way – simply because Sears is quite an inconsistent character.  Which matches the change in genres – in Israel, things turn rather ‘adventure novel’ for a while, as they caught up in a shoot-out.  I know this sort of thing is supposed to be very exciting, but I find it unutterably tedious, and ended up skipping most of that section.

So we come onto the genre I’d yet to encounter in Gallico’s novels – the spiritual or religious theme.  As you might know, I am a Christian, but I don’t often read novels which feature faith – and, I have to say, I was a bit nervous to see how skilfully Gallico would handle it.  And, I’ve got to say, I was quite impressed – both the Jewish and Christian characters experience direct or indirect encounters with God while travelling through Israel, and these sections were moving (although, it must be conceded, entirely out of kilter with the rest of the novel.)

There are a few more twists and turns, a few more rugs pulled from under feet, and The Foolish Immortals concludes.  It is a very interesting, but maddeningly inconsistent novel.  Not inconsistent in quality (perhaps), but in style and tone.  It’s as though Gallico wanted to write a novel which took place in Israel, and couldn’t decide whether it should be about faith, boyish adventure, or unsettling manipulation – and so threw all of them in together.

Yet again, this is a book I’m criticising for not being written in the way I’d hoped it would be – but with, I think, greater justification than with yesterday’s post on Consider the Years, because in the case of The Foolish Immortals, it started off in the way I’d expected.  With this ingenious idea, Gallico could have written one of my favourite novels.  As it turns out, he’s written a good book, which I find quite intriguing, a little bewildering, and not insignificantly disappointing.

Mrs. Harris Goes to New York – Paul Gallico

(image source)

I’ve finished so few books lately, and have been so dissatisfied with the number of reviews I’ve been able to post, that I have turned to the small pile of books I finished months and months ago, but never quite got around to reviewing.  So I’m looking back over the hazy mists of time, trying to remember not only what I thought about a book, but what on earth happened in it.

Lucky for me, Paul Gallico’s 1960 novel Mrs. Harris Goes to New York has a little synopsis right there in the title.  The sequel to his charming novel Flowers For Mrs. Harris (published in America as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, and republished together recently by Bloomsbury, with its aspirate in place), Mrs. Harris Goes to New York does, indeed, see Mrs. Harris travel off to see the Empire State.  This time, though, it’s not with a dress in mind, though – she and her friend Violet Butterfield (familiarly Vi) are off to reunite a mistreated adopted boy with his long-lost American father.

In case you haven’t encountered Mrs. Harris before, she is a no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth charlady, who (in the first book) unexpectedly develops an all-abiding passion to own a Christian Dior dress like the one she has seen in the wardrobe of one of the women for whom she works.  Mrs. Harris is a wonderful creation – speaking her mind, with its curious mixture of straight-talking and dewy-eyed romance.  Romance for adventure, that is, not for menfolk – Mr. Harris is good and buried before the series begins. 

I mentioned in the ‘strange things that happened in books I read this year’ section of my review of 2012 that I’d read one book where somebody went door-to-door searching for people called Mr. Black (that was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and one where somebody went door-to-door searching for people called Mr. Brown.  That was Mrs. Harris Goes to New York – since she did not know exactly who might Henry Brown’s father, she needed to go and visit every Mr. Brown in New York…

Few native New Yorkers ever penetrated so deeply into their city as did Mrs. Harris, who ranged from the homes of the wealthy on the broad avenues neighbouring Central Park, where there was light and air and indefinable smell of the rich, to the crooked down-town streets and the slums of the Bowery and Lower East Side.
It’s a fun conceit for a novel – I wonder if Jonathan Saffron Foer was deliberately mimicking it? – and Mrs. Harris is an excellent character to use repeatedly in first-encounters – it shows how Cockney and brazen she can be, as well as the endlessly charming effect she has on everybody she meets.

Paul Gallico’s novels often hover on the edge of fairy-tale.  The first one I read, which remains easily my favourite (and is on my 50 Books list over in the right-hand column) was Love of Seven Dolls, which is very much the darkest of his books that I’ve read – but was still very certainly mixed with fairy-tale.  That was what saved it from being terrifyingly sinister.  The two Mrs. Harris novels I’ve read are much more lighthearted, and Mrs. Harris herself is very much a fairy-tale creation.  She enchants everyone she meets – and I mean that almost literally, in that she seems to be a fairy godmother, changing their lives for the better through Cockney wisdom and irrepressible optimism.  And perhaps a little bit of magic.

There are quite a few other Paul Gallico novels on my shelves, waiting to be read – including the next two in this series, Mrs. Harris, MP and Mrs. Harris Goes To Moscow, which Bloomsbury also publish and kindly sent me.  I’m also excited about reading The Foolish Immortals and The House That Wouldn’t Go Away.  I’ll report back on all of these as and when I manage to read them – but, for now, for when you want to be a little charmed yourself, you could do a heck of a lot worse than spending an hour or two in the delightful company of London’s finest, Mrs. Harris.

Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris – Paul Gallico

The Bloomsbury Group set of reprints remains, I believe, the best selection of reprints out there.  It doesn’t have the range of Penguin or OUP Classics; it doesn’t have quite the unifying ethos of Persephone or Virago, but there simply are no duds in their number.  Miss Hargreaves is obviously their finest publication, in my eyes, but as I work my way through the few I haven’t read, I continue to marvel at the treats they’ve brought back to a new audience.

For some reason, Mrs. Harris has been sitting on my shelf for two years without me getting around to reading her.  I even had a copy of Flowers For Mrs. Harris (the original UK title of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris [1958]) before the Bloomsbury Group existed, but hadn’t read that either.  How could I have waited for so long?  Mrs. Harris is a joy, and her little novel is bliss.

Mrs. Harris is a London char, whose job is to clean other people’s houses.  She takes a deep pride in her work, is very good at it, and can pick and choose her clients.  She, and her good friend Vi, are much in demand, and when she decides that she has had enough of a client, she simply drops her key through their letterbox, and moves on.  Mrs. Harris is the dictionary definition of indomitable.  Nothing phases her, and she is an eternal optimist.  She also speaks somewhat like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins, par example:

“Ow Lor’.”  The exclamation was torn from Mrs. Harris as
she was suddenly riven by a new thought.  “Ow Lor’,” she repeated, “if
I’m to ‘ave me photograph tyken, I’ll ‘ave to ‘ave a new ‘at.”
Now, although she is a wonderful character, it would be a lie to say that she has many layers of complexity and an inner introspection dying to emerge.  Gallico’s novel is simple and sweet, and he doesn’t overburden himself with psychological strife etc.  There is one central motivation of the novel, and that is Mrs. Harris’s desire for a Christian Dior dress…

It had all begun that day several years back when during the course of her duties at Lady Dant’s house, Mrs. Harris had opened a wardrobe to tidy it and had come upon the two dresses hanging there.  One was a bit of heaven in cream, ivory, lace, and chiffon, the other an explosion in crimson satin and taffeta, adorned with great red bows and a huge red flower.  She stood there as though struck dumb, for never in all her life had she seen anything quite as thrilling and beautiful.

Drab and colourless as her existence would seem to have been, Mrs. Harris had always felt a craving for beauty and colour which up to this moment had manifested itself in a love for flowers.
Yet now, flowers have been replaced by this longing for a dress that costs £450 – and in 1958, of course, that was an astronomical sum.  Coincidence, luck, and much determination (for Mrs. Harris is pretty much built out of determination) and three years later she is on her way to Paris…

It’s such a fun story.  Scarcely a jot of it is realistic – Mrs. Harris’s good humour and spirited nature act much in the manner of fairy dust, transforming all those she meets – but the novel is so enjoyable and light-hearted (albeit with occasional kicks) that the reader allows him/herself to be whisked along for the ride.  The contrast between shabby London char and elegant Parisian fashionista is, naturally, wonderful – and Gallico makes full use of the potential comedy in the situation.

Oh, it’s lovely!  It certainly isn’t very deep, even with an attempt for A Moral at the end, in the way that American sitcoms like to conclude events – but writing something sprightly and enjoyable is probably rather more difficult than writing something introspective and traumatic, and is certainly rarer.  Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is great fun, very short, and is a perfect way to spend a summer afternoon.

Coronation – Paul Gallico

God bless the Queen!  And God bless lovely Alice at Bloomsbury, who recently sent me a copy of Paul Gallico’s Coronation (1962).  I wish I’d had this in my hands over the Jubilee weekend, because it would have made perfect reading.  It still made pretty darn brilliant reading this weekend.

Here’s how the novel opens:

The wheels of the Coronation Special from Sheffield, due at St. Pancras Station at six o’clock in the morning of Coronation Day, 2nd June 1953, sang the steady, lulling dickety-clax, dickety-clax of the British Railways.  Approaching a crossing, the engine shrieked hysterically into the drizzly night as it pulled its heavy load through the countryside, London-bound.  In the third-class compartment occupied by the five members of the Clagg family and three other passengers, no one slept, though Granny kept nagging at the two children to try to do so because of the long exciting day ahead.
The Clagg family are absolutely adorable.  One can’t help love them.  They are the every-family, so resolutely normal, and excited to be on this once-in-a-lifetime trip.  The Claggs are Will (salt-of-the-earth foreman at a mill, hard-working and kind, never quite as eloquent as he’d like) and Violet (slightly fraught wife, anxious to please her children and society equally), Violet’s crotchety mother (known simply as Granny) and two children, Johnny and Gwenny (11 and 7 respectively.)  They’re both rather lost in worlds of daydreams – for Johnny, it is the prospect of being a soldier (preferably one who dies to save the Queen – good man!) and for Gwenny it is princesses et al.  Not really challenging gender stereotypes, Mr. Gallico, but nobody could describe Coronation as a challenging book in any way.  No, it is instead a delightful whirlwind through the Claggs’ day out in London for the Coronation, with occasional parallel glances towards the service itself.

The Claggs have managed, through Cousin Bert, to secure rather impressive tickets.  Initially 25 guineas each, they snapped them up for only £10 a piece (still rather a hefty sum in those days, of course – they have had a family vote to forfeit the annual seaside holiday in favour of the Coronation trip, despite Granny’s moanings.)  The tickets include shelter, seating, and – to Violet’s almost childlike excitement – champagne.  It isn’t just the children who engage in daydreams; Violet is pondering how it will feel to be like a lady in the films, having champagne poured for her by a butler…

Over this first section of the novel, as the train speeds towards London, there is an undertone that, perhaps, things are all a little too good to be true…

I shan’t spoil anything, but let’s just say that things don’t go entirely according to plan…

But this is not a dark tale like Gallico’s (brilliant) Love of Seven Dolls, nor overly sickly-sweet, as I found Jennie.  Although it does have something of the structure of a fable, the utter believability of the Clagg family prevents it feeling like something Aesop would have penned as a moral warning.  Each member of the family has their vices and irritations, but you can’t help desperately wanting good things to happen for them.  Creating one well-rounded, sympathetic, good-but-not-cloying character is impressive.  To give us five in one cohesive family, each yet different from one another, is sheer brilliance.

And then, of course, there is the Queen.  Although we don’t see anything directly from her perspective, Gallico captures the love which many Britons (and others) felt towards the Queen – and which monarchists like me still feel: ‘the journey to London was something very ancient in his blood, a drawing of himself as a loyal subject to the foot of the throne, a gesture, a fealty and a courtesy as well.’  It is too great a feat for me to put myself in the mind of a republican, but I’ll go out on a limb and assume that you would still be able to love this novel for its delightfully accurate portrayal of family dynamics, not to mention Gallico’s wit and sensitivity.

Oh, what a lovely little book it is!  It doesn’t match Love of Seven Dolls for me, because I think that is a novel of very rare excellence, but, in a different mould, it is a sheer joy.  I raced through the novel in less than 24 hours, and I’m sure I’ll read it again.  Hopefully for the Queen’s 75th Jubilee!

To finish – it doesn’t hurt that Bloomsbury have produced an exceptionally beautiful volume, with the incomparable David Mann designing the cover.  It’s a special little book – and perfect to read in this Jubilee year.

(Long live the Queen)

Everybody wants to be a cat…

When I was grabbing a book for the train down to Somerset, I decided upon Jennie by Paul Gallico. I bought it nearly three years ago, and have had numerous recommendations for it – especially from the appropriately nicknamed Dark Puss. After recently loving Love of Seven Dolls (more here) it seemed sensible to try more Gallico – with the bonus that Jennie would fit into the themes of my doctoral research even if, published in 1950, it’s a little too late for my period of study.

And I decided, since I was at home, it would be nice for Sherpa to pose sitting alongside my copy of Jennie. Sherpa had other ideas… as documented through this post.

There is a very simple story behind Jennie – an eight years-old boy called Peter suddenly discovers that he has turned into a cat. As you do. Unlike metamorphosis tales like Lady Into Fox, the novel isn’t focalised through those who witness the change – nor do we witness Peter trying to live alongside his family as a cat. They are quickly left behind, as Nanny throws him into the street (“Drat the child! He’s dragged in another stray off the street! Shoo! Scat! Get out!”) Peter dashes through the streets, is beaten unconscious by a territorial cat who doesn’t want to share his shelter, and by the time Peter comes to, he is in the company of Jennie.
Peter rolled over and behled the speaker squatted down comfortably beside him, her legs tucked under her, tail nicely wrapped around. She was a thin tabby with a part white face and throat that gave her a most sweet and gentle aspect heightened by the lively and kind expression in her luminous eyes that were grey-green, flecked with gold.
Jennie gives him a bath and a mouse (‘To his intense surprise, it was simply delicious’) and sets about teaching Peter how to be a cat – as, after a little hesitation, she believes his account of how he became a cat.

It is this vein of Jennie which gives it both its charm and somehow rescues it from being too fey or whimsical. Gallico captures the behaviour of cats so exactly (the first rule, at all times: WASH). If he’d kept an eye on the human observers, laughing at how cats misunderstood such-and-such, or inventing witty reasons for cats behaving so-and-so, then Jennie might well have been unbearable. Instead, it is… well, ‘realistic’ is hardly the word, but Gallico shows Jennie in as workmanlike a manner as possible under the circumstances. Her explanations of how strays must loiter in every doorway when exiting, to check the street for safety, make sense. The way she uses humans, and doesn’t trust them, chimes in with many of the timid cats one sees on the streets. I didn’t love the idea of cats greeting one another with faux-18th century decorum, nor the idea of some sort of feline telepathy, but in general Gallico didn’t overstep the mark.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, who wrote her own fantasy in the form of Lolly Willowes, said this in a 1929 lecture:
Since [the fantasist’s] main thesis surprises by itself, he must deny himself further surprises…. The novelist not only may niggle away with small licences all the time, he is a dull dog if he doesn’t. But the fantasist, having taken his initial liberty, must mind his Ps and Qs for the rest of his adventure…. The fantasist who has begun by asking for one vast initial credit must do on that credit to the end.Well said, Sylvia. And Gallico is almost always content to let the turning-into-a-cat liberty be the main one. True, there are some unlikely dramatic incidences as they board a ship to Glasgow, and Gallico sprinkles coincidences through the novel like nobody’s business, but…

When I wrote about Love of Seven Dolls I mentioned that it had something of the atmosphere of a fairy-tale – which didn’t hinder the pathos, but rather made the evil streak of the novel less striking. Jennie is even more like a fairy-tale – in fact, at times it felt like a Disney film. The characters are drawn with surprising reality, but the events are not. Easily the most interesting chapters were those where Peter was learning how to be a cat, or contemplating the relationship between owner and pet. I was less interested when merry escapades took over, and there is one spectacularly superfluous chapter about Lulu – an excitable, flirty, irreverent cat with whom Peter is briefly smitten. I think Gallico perhaps felt his initial conceit was flagging a bit, and so introduced this little ball of fire – but Lulu sticks out so obviously as a distraction to enliven proceedings that I feel she should either have arrived much earlier, or not been introduced at all.

It is the plotting and tone which made Jennie a bit of a disappointment to me. The characters of Jennie and Peter are great – and, as I’ve said, Gallico has really closely observed cat behaviour. But the tone is too sprightly, even with the sad aspects of the story. What I loved in Love of Seven Dolls was the dark, subversive tone intertwining with the whimsical. If Jennie doesn’t become too whimsical, it also never wanders into darker territory – it felt a lot like a children’s tale which wouldn’t stray too far from an accessible storytime-voice.

It is a really fun novel to read, and I’m sure a similar idea has been done much worse. But Lady Into Fox demonstrates how subtle and moving the metamorphosis novel can be; Love of Seven Dolls shows Gallico is capable of more – Jennie just didn’t live up to the hopeful expectations it had accumulated after three years on my bookshelf. But do give it a go – it might be just the novel you’re after.

Love of Seven Dolls

Well, I didn’t finish any other books on my second day of novella reading. It was quite a busy day, what with church and a talk by Henrietta Garnett (more on that soon) and I also fell asleep at 9pm, in the middle of Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington. Then I woke up at half midnight… and went to sleep again at 5am. Not best pleased with my head and its ideas about sleep cycles, but I’m hoping to be back to normal tonight.

Paul Gallico’s Love of Seven Dolls seemed to raise the most interest, of the novellas I have mentioned, and I also said I’d lend it to Verity tomorrow – so I’ll get writing about it right away!

35. Love of Seven Dolls – Paul Gallico

As I mentioned at the weekend, I haven’t read anything else by Gallico – so this might be a case of me later wishing I’d chosen something else by him – but I’m going to go out on a limb and put Love of Seven Dolls on my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. I suppose it’s one that doesn’t get mentioned much in the blogosphere. Jane (aka Fleur Fisher) has written a lovely, compelling review of it here, but I must confess I hadn’t remembered her review when I picked up Love of Seven Dolls in Oxfam a few weeks ago. (Indeed, I’d forgotten that I’d read Jane’s review until I read my comment on it just now! So many blogs read does addle my brain somewhat…)

Right, let’s kick off. We’re in Paris, and Marelle (known as Mouche – ‘fly’) is off to drown herself in the Seine. Orphaned, she came from Brittany to make it as a singer, dancer, or (if that failed) rely on more worldly assets. But she has met with no success at any of these pursuits (‘Mouche excited pity rather than desire’) and – terribly hungry, sad, and alone – she decides to end it all.

Not the cheeriest start for a story, but you’ll be pleased to know that she is interrupted – by a doll in a puppet booth. Carrot Top gets into conversation with her, steering her away from the Seine. He, supposedly, manages the others – and is caring and wry. He is only the first of the dolls to make Mouche’s acquaintance – there are six others, each beguiling in the extreme. There’s Ali the gentle, rather stupid, giant; vain Gigi; pompous Dr. Duclos the penguin; maternal Madame Muscat; Monsieur Nicholas the mender of toys, and listener to woes. And then there’s my favourite of all – crafty, wily Reynardo – who is, of course, a fox.

In her naivety, without truly believing the puppets to be real, Mouche talks with them. Her ingenuous nature – for her conversations are not forced or false – soon draws passers-by, and she becomes part of the puppeteer’s act. But, lest this sound too whimsical for your tastes, let me assure you it is nothing of the kind. For here is the puppeteer:
It was like a chill hand laid upon her heart, for there was no warmth or kindliness in the figure lounging against the pole, his fists pressed deeply into the pockets of his jacket. The shine of his eyes was hostile and the droop of the cigarette from his lips contemptuous.

Mouche, in her marrow, knew that this was the puppet-master, the man who had animated the little creatures who had laid such an enchantment upon her, yet she was filled with dread. For a moment even she hoped that somehow this was not he, the master of the dolls, but some other, a pitch-man, a labourer, or lounger from a neighbouring concession.
How can this man be the voices of such endearing puppets? Well, it seems he is not entirely sure himself:

For in spite of the fact that it was he who sat behind the one-way curtain in the booth, animated them, and supplied their seven voices, the puppets frequently acted as strangely and determinedly as individuals over whom he had no control. Michel never had bothered to reflect greatly over this phenomenon but had simply accepted it as something that was so and which, far from interfering with the kind of life he was accustomed to living, brought him a curious kind of satisfaction.

Once Mouche has joined the troupe, a pattern sets in. Michel is increasingly cruel and violent, desperate to remove her innocence through any means possible; the puppets are kind and restorative. Gallico creates a kind of mad cacophony – the magical enchantment of endearing puppets; the bitterness of a cruel man; the emotions of a girl who is experiencing both the greatest loneliness and the greatest friendships of her life. There is never the suggestion that Mouche is mad, and the reader accepts unquestioned her relationship with Reynardo, Carrot Top and the others. At the same time, somehow, Michel’s cruelties – though sad – are not deeply unsettling, nor even as shocking as they should be. Is it the fairy-talesque tones which thread throughout the narrative? I think it must be. Gallico, after all, draws from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Beauty and the Beast. The evil stepmother’s behaviour, in the former tale, does not shock us in the way that it would in a modern novel. Love of Seven Dolls is not a fairy-tale, but it borrows some of the atmosphere of them.

The story is bizarre, but it is not bewildering. Gallico weaves together the dark and light so skillfully that they do not jar – nor does either take precedence. We aren’t permitted to rest upon either, and are pulled along for the strange, captivating experience.

All the while, reading this novella, I thought that it would make a brilliant film – perhaps one with Tim Burton at the helm. Only after I’d finished did I investigate the history of Love of Seven Dolls. Gallico wrote a story called ‘The Man Who Hated People’ (1950), which was adapted into the film Lili (1953). Only then did Gallico complete the circle, after the success of the film: rewriting and extending the story to become the novella I have in my hands.

Love of Seven Dolls exemplifies many of the reasons I cherish novellas over longer works. There is no need for extemporaneous matter when a writer can create such a powerful and complex work in under a hundred pages. It really is an extraordinary little book, written so cleverly and compellingly. Do seek it out, if you possibly can – and Gallico has also been favoured with many beautiful covers. The top one is my copy; the other images I’ve tracked down online – aren’t they great?