Tea or Books? #44: Monogamous vs Polygamous, and The Village vs To Bed With Grand Music

After a bit of a hiatus, we’re back with an episode about Marghanita Laski and whether we read one book at a time or many books at once. And because that’s a bit of a mouthful, I’m calling it monogamous vs polygamous. Sorry if you’ve come to this podcast hoping for something else – but stay! We have books.


 

Tea or Books logoWe’ve really missed doing the podcast, so it’s great to be back! Do get in touch to let us know which you’d pick in each category, and any topics you’d like us to cover in future episodes. Our iTunes page is here, and we love reviews from those willing to go through the hoops required to leave them!

Here are the books and authors we mention in this episode (fewer than usual, which either means I forgot to write them down while editing the podcast, or we’ve lost our touch!):

Reading the Rocks by Brenda Maddox
Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley
Contested Will by James Shapiro
The Village by Marghanita Laski
The Osbornes by E.F. Benson
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Henry James
The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
Three Fevers by Leo Walmsley
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
The Boat by L.P. Hartley
Marching With April by Hugh Charteris
And Even Now by Max Beerbohm
Secrets of a Woman’s Heart: Later Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett by Hilary Spurling
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards
Vanity Fair by W.M. Thackeray
To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski
The Village by Marghanita Laski
The Provincial Lady in Wartime by E.M. Delafield
Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh
The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski
Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski
Love on the Supertax by Marghanita Laski
Richmal Crompton
One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
Dorothy Whipple
Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther
The Heir by Vita Sackville-West
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

I read To Bed With Grand Music (1946) by Marghanita Laski for the excellent Undervalued British Women Writers conference I went to a while ago, but it’s been one of those titles I’ve had on my real or imagined tbr pile for a long time. It seems such an unusual novel – and so risky that Laski published it under the pseudonym Sarah Russell.

To BEd With Grand Music

It takes place during the Second World War, and our ‘heroine’ – in a fairly loose sense – is Deborah, whose husband has been called up to fight for King and Country. Before he leaves, he initiates a frank chat about what will happen whilst he’s gone. He can’t, he assures her, be expected to remain celibate. He is sure (he adds) that she will understand. Deborah isn’t happy about it…

But, once alone, she rather quickly falls into her own life of dalliances, kicking off with an American soldier named (of course) Joe. It’s rather more nuanced than that, but the reader can see it coming – she finds her scruples gradually worn down, and after the first, the scruples more or less don’t exist. We are taken on a rather dizzying whirl of the men she has relationships with in London – well, some are rather briefer than relationships – and Laski does a great job of delineating them and demonstrating what their appeal is to Deborah. Sometimes it is power, sometimes money, sometimes charm, sometimes looks. One of them, mais naturallement, is French.

Meanwhile, her son is left in the countryside (with the rather more affectionate and capable housekeeper), and Deborah feels only occasional pangs of guilt.

Deborah understood him. “You’re at least the third person,” she said, ” who has asked me if it mightn’t be better if I went home to my chee-ild. Well, darling, that’s just one of the things I’ve really thought out for myself and I know it’s better to be happy than unhappy, and not only for me but for my baby as well. I like this sort of life, in fact, I love it, and seeing as how I’m hurting no one and doing myself quite a lot of good, I rather think I’ll carry on with it. I’ve come to the confusion that conventional morals were invented by a lot of unattractive bitches to make themselves feel good.”

Laski balances two things well – a real investigation of what might confront a woman in Deborah’s position, and (I think I’m right in saying) some sort of satire. It feels like a parody of the Casanova type – there is a real treadmill of conquests – but the tone remains firmly realistic, never allowing hyperbole to creep in, or any laughter from the author. The mix works well, even if it ends up wrong-footing the reader a bit.

This isn’t as sophisticated as some of Laski’s novels, perhaps chiefly because it’s only really doing one thing. The plot, or even the scenario, is really the point of the novel – an exercise in examining one woman and her choices, rather than a more complex canvas. As such, it works very well at what it is trying to do, and shines a light on a part of the war that most 1940s fiction left in darkness, but it is not her most ambitious novel. But, for the parameters she sets, it is both very good and very intriguing.

 

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

“No matter where you stand on the issue of Deborah’s character, this is an absolutely fascinating, brilliantly written portrayal of a completely different side of wartime life” – Book Snob

“This is a very interesting book to compare to Laski’s other World War II title, Little Boy Lost.” – The Bookbinder’s Daughter

“And so I found another Marghanita Laski book that I could argue with while reading. She is so good at that!” – Fleur in Her World

 

Tea or Books? #28: scary vs not scary, and The Home-Maker vs The Victorian Chaise-Longue

Two Persephone titles will help solace us in these bizarre post-election days.


 

Tea or Books logoWe’ve been away for a while because I lost my voice – sorry! – but Rachel (Book Snob) and I are back, talking about The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski and The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Before that, we chat scary books, because we haven’t recorded since Hallowe’en.

The world is a scary place right now. I have not come to terms with Trump being President-Elect at all. The idea that somebody could wage a campaign in that way and win… it’s just inconceivable. So let’s turn to books, at least for a moment or two.

We’d love to hear what you’d pick in each of these categories, and any ideas for future episodes. Listen above, via your podcast app of choice, or at our iTunes page. Why not even rate and review us?

Here are the books and authors we mention in this episode…

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham (I think I forgot to say the title of any of hers…)
The Real Mrs Miniver by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
Private Demons: the Life of Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson
The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Agatha Christie
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Edgar Allan Poe
Mist and other stories by Richmal Crompton
Ghost stories by Edith Wharton
Casting the Runes by M. R. James
Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Don’t Look Now and other stories by Daphne du Maurier
Goosebumps
Point Horror
Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym
The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski
The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Seasoned Timber by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Her Son’s Wife by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Love on the Supertax by Marghanita Laski
Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood
Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski
To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski
The Village by Marghanita Laski

At Laski


If you’re familiar with Stuck-in-a-Book and my reading habits, you’ll know that it usually takes a while for books to work their way up the tbr pile. Understanding friends are very kind, and don’t complain, but Hayley (also known as Desperate Reader) will be pleased to finally read my thoughts on the book she very generously bestowed upon me: Love on the Supertax by Marghanita Laski. Truth be told, it might have been a loan originally, but Hayley sweetly said I could keep it. Crime does pay, it turns out.

Marghanita Laski is a name a lot of us know, and a lot more people encountered her through Persephone Books, who publish her novels The Village, Little Boy Lost, To Bed With Grand Music, and The Victorian Chaise-Longue. I’ve read the second and fourth of those, and haven’t quite been able to put my finger on what it is that defines Laski – those novels had little in common, and Love on the Supertax throws another tone into the mix, leaving me very satisfied, but rather confused.

Love on the Supertax (1944) is Laski’s first novel, and is a very amusing romp through the battle of the classes, and the eternal question of whether romance can flourish between people of different classes. This has been a theme in the English novel from Richardson’s Pamela onwards. But I don’t recall it being done in the way Laski does… in that Clarissa is desperate to leave her privileged background and become part of the socialist working-class. Yes, you’re thinking, we’ve been here before with Lady Chatterley, and still aren’t sure we want our wives and servants reading it. Well, fear not; there is no sense of Clarissa getting a thrill from dabbling below her class – instead, Sid feels he is wandering below his. For it is accepted by all that he would be marrying below himself, if uniting himself with posh Clarissa – not the other way around.

A fairly simple start for a satire, perhaps, but it works so well. The scene where Sid introduces Clarissa to his parents is hilarious – her wafer-thin slices of bread don’t go down well. Here’s another taster, to give you the idea:
“No,” said Sid Baker. “I think you’re a good deal too much influenced by superficial differences, and that you attach too much importance to heredity. Personally, I think environment is far too influential. I’d guarantee that if you took an aristocrat’s child at birth and placed it in a working-class home with all the environmental advantages that would entail, that child at twenty-one would be indistinguishable from me.”I loved Love on the Supertax, and it adds another string to Laski’s complex bow, for it is again so unlike the other Laski novels I’ve read. A quick read, it has charm and wit – and although I daresay it was motivated by a serious point, Laski has the writerly wisdom not to over-emphasise any social critique. Instead, this is a tongue-in-cheek and very amusing novella casting an unusual view on 1940s England. Thanks, Hayley!

Things to get Stuck into:

Economy Must Be Our Watchword – Joyce Dennys: I feel a bit guilty suggesting this, since it is more or less impossible to find, but Dennys’ tale of a selfish and unself-aware (or self-unaware??) woman trying to economise is so, so very hilarious.

Little Boy Lost

Well, I’m still heading back to healthiness (though still not eating much – could be a cheap day out tomorrow!) and have managed to finish another Persephone. This is the one which lots of people raved about last year, and which made it to the top of my Persephone Must Read List. Oh, and it’s short. Step forward Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski.


Like Miss Ranskill Comes Home, this novel is from the late-1940s – but while Todd’s novel offers an unusual perspective on the war, Laski turns her eye to the chaos of the post-war world. Hilary – whose wife Lisa was killed by the Gestapo – is visited by another underground activist and told that his (Hilary’s) son is missing. Hilary has only seen his son once, the day after he was born. The rest of the novel follows Hilary to Paris as he tries to track down his son, and work out whether or not the boy he finds (Jean) is indeed his son.

Hilary is fairly taciturn, self-absorbed, and not particularly alert to the feelings of others – but he is someone still a very sympathetic character; even for someone like me who doesn’t have children and can’t tap into the desperation of his search. It doesn’t hurt, on the sympathy front, that Hilary is described as:

a fast reader and dreaded nothing more than to be stranded without print. He would read anything sooner than nothing, fragments of sporting news torn up in a lavatory, a motor journal on a hotel table, an out-of-date evening paper picked up in a bus. He would covetously eye the books held by strangers in trains, forcing them into conversation until he could offer his own read book in exchange for something new. But if, by ill-luck, he was reduced to reading nothing but haphazard chance finds that offered his mind only the bare fact of being print, he would become dreary, unhappy, uneasy, like a gourmet who suffers from indigestion after eating bad food.
That description could make me forgive Hilary a lot – even, almost, when he starts criticising Winnie-the-Pooh as unreadable. I can only assume Laski hadn’t read it of late, otherwise my opinion of her has gone down a lot….

Although the plot is fairly simple, its handling is beautifully subtle, especially as the novel progresses. Some of the earlier scenes are closer to thriller than ‘literary fiction’, for want of a better word – in that they seem to be about plot rather than character. But once Hilary has found Jean, their parallel emotional journeys are drawn brilliantly well. Hilary is reluctant to become attached to a child who might not be his; Jean is unused to any special attention, but is wary of accepting it with its unpredictability. It’s all done quite beautifully.

With all this subtlety, it is such a shame that Laski crams in a ridiculous last-minute character and accompanying quandary. I shan’t reveal too much, but it comes down to Hilary having to decide between lust and love, but the lust aspect is insultingly unconvincing and the character representing it seems the afterthought to an afterthought.

Putting this aside (and the novel would have been so much better without it) Little Boy Lost is an exceptional novel, and I’m very grateful to all those who waved flags for it last year. Now, should I go and add another tick to the poll?