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.

Hackenfeller’s Ape by Brigid Brophy

Hackenfeller's ApeAs you may have heard mentioned in the latest episode of ‘Tea or Books?’, should you listen to that, I’ve recently read Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953) by Brigid Brophy – inspired by listening to a ‘Backlisted’ episode on one of her novels, and hearing her daughter speak at a conference. I think I’d bought the novel (novella?) some time before that, based entirely on the fact that short Virago Modern Classics are often interesting – and it proved to be really rather good.

I’ve read a couple of books about monkeys and humans relating one way or another – though they were both written a little earlier; Appius and Virginia by G.E. Trevelyan is about a woman trying to teach a monkey as though he were a child, while His Monkey Wife by John Collier is… well, what it sounds like. Hackenfeller’s Ape is less adventurous in its premise: the ape remains firmly an ape, and nobody is trying to get him to be anything else.

Professor Darrelhyde is (as the Virago blurb informs me) ‘a diffident bachelor’, and he’s been stationed at London Zoo to observe the mating practices of Hackenfeller’s ape – more particularly, that of Percy and Edwina. In the world of the novel (look, I don’t know if this ape even exists), the mating has never been observed, and it will be a service to science for the Professor to make notes. Only it seems the Percy isn’t keen. Edwina keeps making approaches that he refuses – and Brophy judges brilliantly the amount that we should be let into his perspective, with a certain haziness where Percy can’t quite understand his own ape-motivations.

Halfway through, things change a bit – as the Professor (and a would-be pickpocket who reluctantly joins forces with him) tries to rescue Percy from being sent into space. Bear with me – it sounds absurd, but it works.

What makes Hackenfeller’s Ape so good is Brophy’s writing. She balances light, insouciant dialogue with pretty elaborate and philosophical prose. It shouldn’t work properly together, but it really does – it makes for an intoxicatingly good mix. Here’s an example of her writing from near the beginning – where she describes the humans who have set up the zoo:

These were the young of a species which had laid out the Park with an ingenuity that outstripped the beaver’s; which, already the most dextrous of the land animals, had acquired greater endurance under the sea than the whale and in the air had a lower casualty rate for its journeys than migrating birds. This was, moreover, the only species which imprisoned other species not for any motive of economic parasitism but for the dispassionate parasitism of indulging its curiosity.

She also has a knack for wry observation that was a pleasure to read – not that dissimilar to Elizabeth Taylor, thinking about it. I can imagine either of them penning this line (which is Brophy’s): ‘He smiled in a way which, in the middle-aged man, was boyish. In a boy it would have been sinister.’

It continues, with drama and pathos, poignant and action-packed in turn. And all – may I remind you – in hardly more than a hundred pages.

My conclusions, after finishing this novella, are that I’d read Brophy writing anything. She handles this frankly bizarre premise, and mix of styles, with excellent adeptness – and it gives me great hope for diving into more of her novels in future. It will be intriguing to see how her writing works over a broader canvas.

The Three Sisters by May Sinclair

The Three SistersI want to have a stern word with Virago Modern Classics – or, at least, whoever was in charge of cover design back in the 1980s. Normally pretty great, the choice of cover image for their reprint of May Sinclair’s 1914 novel The Three Sisters is pretty unforgivable. I’m going to give you a top tip, right from the start: this is not a novel about the Brontes.

It seems, to me, completely bizarre to put this famous painting on the front of a novel which is only very, very loosely inspired by the Bronte sisters – an ‘imaginative starting point’, as the blurb acknowledges. But we’ll forgive that and put it to one side. The similarities are that there are three sisters in a remote Yorkshire vicarage – that’s about it. They don’t have a brother or two deceased sisters; they aren’t writers; their personalities aren’t even that similar. And the vicar has lost three wives – variously to death and abandonment – and has settled into an angry, unwilling celibacy.

The sisters are Mary, Gwenda, and Alice Carteret. Gwenda is passionate and artistic, striding over the moors and wanting much more than the small community can offer her. Alice is considered weak by all, but has an iron core of determination – and not a little spitefulness. Mary is rather less easy to grasp on the page – starting off staid and dependable, and gradually getting rather less pleasant.

Into this world comes the one eligible man in the district – Dr Steven Rowcliffe. In turn – or, indeed, somewhat all at once – the sisters fall in love with him. He finds these attentions annoying and beguiling, depending which sister is under consideration: it is clearly Gwenda that has caught his eye, but he must cope with all three of them eyeing him as a prospective husband material.

Their father is firmly against any of them marrying anybody, though. He is fired by selfishness, cloaked in supposed holiness. Like most vicars in fiction, he sadly doesn’t come across very well. (Septimus Harding might be the only sympathetic clergyman I can remember, and also by far the closest to the real vicars I have known. Do better, novelists.) His faith and morality seems mostly to emerge in unkindness – such as making the maid Essy leave when she is discovered to be pregnant. It does, at least, lead to an amusingly handled scene where Essy tells her mother – who pretends astonishment, whereas she really ‘only wondered that she had not come four months ago’.

Despite a slightly stereotypical set up, The Three Sisters is really engaging. Sinclair was ahead of the curve, in terms of the psychology of romantic relationships, but – more importantly – she knows how to make the reader find the relationships between all the characters interesting, whether sister/sister, father/daughter, or maid/employer. The dialogues between Gwenda and her father remind me of Austen’s battle-of-wits exchanges, and the prose treads the line between beautifully descriptive and pulling-the-plot-forward extremely well. Sinclair was a very good writer.

But…

Oh, but…

WHY the dialect and transcribed accent? This accounts for probably no more than one in eight pages, but it’s pretty unbearable when it comes. Only the working-class characters speak this way, in what I suppose is meant to be Yorkshire voices, but could equally be anything from Cornwall upwards. I can’t face typing out any of it, but here’s a photo of some of the dialogue…

The Three Sisters accent

Unsurprisingly, I skimmed most of this. Why not just write ‘she spoke with a heavy Yorkshire accent’, and leave it at that? But the rural/dialectical novel was running unchecked around 1900-1920, so Sinclair was only falling into the trap of her time. Suffice to say, if this had accounted for much more of the novel, I definitely wouldn’t have finished it.

But, if you can face with skimming over these pages, there is a lot to like in The Three Sisters – particularly in the second half, where the wheels start to fall off a bit. It’s a sensitive, often fairly wryly amusing, and very well crafted novel. Just don’t expect it to be about the Brontes.

 

Others who got Stuck into it:

A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore: “this book is a strange hybrid of Edwardian values and Victorian conventionality”.

Fleur Fisher (Beyond Eden Rock): “May Sinclair spins a compelling story, full of rich descriptions of people and places, and with a wonderful understanding of her characters and their relationships.”

A Wreath for the Enemy by Pamela Frankau

A Wreath for the EnemyPamela Frankau is one of those names that has been around the edges of my consciousness for years – it’s hard to read about interwar fiction, academically, without seeing Pamela and Gilbert Frankau (her father, it turns out; I had assumed brother) mentioned a lot. Yes, I’ve got her confused with Pamela Hansford Johnson in the past, but having read A Wreath for the Enemy (1954) now, I shan’t make the mistake again – mostly because I thought it was really, really good.
Many thanks to my good friend Caroline for giving me a copy of this book – Caroline was in my Oxford book group and, very sadly for us, moved away a while ago. We’ve stayed in touch, and she sent me A Wreath for the Enemy because she thought it would be up my street. What an unusual, clever, innovative novel it is. And how’s this for an opening line?

There had been two crises already that day before the cook’s husband called to assassinate the cook.

It is told in three sections, though with overlapping sets of characters. In the first, we see Penelope Wells and her family – looking after an eccentric hotel on the French Riviera. She calls her father and stepmother by the first first names, and is one of the most deliciously unusual child characters I’ve ever encountered. She is an adolescent, but one who has learnt language from books rather than friendships – guess who can relate? – and her conversation is a delight. It would be precocious if the character were showing off, but she isn’t; it’s simply the only way she knows how to communicate.

“Painful as it is to refuse,” I said, “my father has acquired visitors and I have sworn to be sociable. The penalty is ostracism.”

What a creation on Frankau’s part. She has brilliantly drawn a girl turned eccentric by her upbringing (when we meet her, she is writing her Anthology of Hates) who is quirky without being irritating, and a world away from a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. For the reader, she is endearing and interesting – but with an undercurrent of sadness: she has not chosen her upbringing any more than anybody else has, and she clearly has some understanding

Penelope meets the Bradley family, and is enamoured by the children Don and Eva. They come from a strikingly conventional family (Penelope’s father calls them ‘the Smugs’), and they find her enticing – she, in turn, admires the conventionality of them. It is an unusual but entirely plausible friendship – which lasts until a disreputable woman known as The Duchess comes to stay at the Wells’s hotel. The Bradley parents are shocked… and the section ends with something tragic, beautifully understated while at the same time having a significant emotional impact on them all.

The second section jumps forward a few years, and is from the perspective of Don. He is now at a boarding school, and beginning to rebel against his father’s conventionality – chiefly through his friendship with Crusoe. Crusoe is an older man in a wheelchair, brusque and direct with all, but with evident fondness for Don and a certain amount of wisdom. But absolutely no regard for ‘doing the right thing’, in the British-upper-class sense, and Don has to choose between his father’s commands and the new world he has glimpsed – while also still affected by the events of the first section of the book. And I shan’t talk too much about the final section – but Penelope is back, everybody is older, and new challenges come to the fore.

What makes A Wreath for the Enemy so brilliant, to my mind – well, it’s the writing, and the quirkiness, and the great humour – but it’s also the unusual way in which it’s written. It’s as though Frankau took a traditional novel, threw it up in the air, and wrote up what fell to the ground. It should feel disparate and jagged, but the different elements are ingeniously combined. It’s something of an abstract portrait, where the reader is left to fill in some gaps – but can understand a whole world of half a dozen characters, just be the brief moments we see them.

I will confess that I had always rather assumed that Frankau wasn’t very good. She was so prolific, and (I think I’m right in recollecting) disparaged in the highbrow/middlebrow debate – but both these facts are true of authors I love, so I should have realised that she’d be a winner. If any of her other novels are up to the quirky, imaginative, and confident calibre of A Wreath for the Enemy, I greatly look forward to reading them. And I have The Willow Cabin next on my tbr…

Others who got Stuck into this…

(I could only find one, but it’s a lovely one.)

Fleur Fisher: “This is lovely: a quite beautifully written book that speaks so profoundly. I find myself wanting to say so much, and at the same time being almost lost for words.”

Blood on the Dining-Room Floor by Gertrude Stein

If Swallows and Amazons is a great book to be reading while the brain is a bit confuzzled, then Blood on the Dining-Room Floor (1948) probably isn’t.  But it came to mind the other day when Dorothy Richardson was mentioned – simply because I’d mixed up who wrote it – but by then I’d pulled it off the shelf, and the fab Picasso cover, combined with the book’s brevity, meant I thought I’d give it a whirl.

Every great writer has, I imagine, been called a fraud – and many frauds have been called great writers.  Which is Gertrude Stein?  I haven’t read anything else by her, and the introduction to this edition more or less says that Blood on the Dining-Room Floor wasn’t a success, but I spent the whole time thinking ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’.  But then I thought… there are plenty of people who say that about Virginia Woolf’s fiction, which I think is sublimely brilliant – so it’s just as likely that this novella is brilliant and I simply don’t get it.  Here’s a sample sentence:

A little come they which they can they will they can be married to a man, a young enough man an old man and a young enough man.
Well, sure, Gertrude, why not?  Not all the novella is that obfuscatory, but it’s also far from unique in the narrative.  In theory, I’m not anti experimental writing – but as I get further and further from my undergraduate days, my tolerance for unconventional grammar and deliberately cloaked meaning gets lower and lower.

And what’s it about?  Well, the writer of the blurb optimistically calls Blood on the Dining-Room Floor a detective novel, but since it’s more or less impossible to work out who any of the characters are, up to and including the person whose blood is on the dining-room floor (a more prominent death in the book is the maybe-sleepwalker who fell out a window), then it can only be called a detective novel in the loosest sense conceivable.

An interesting experiment to read, and it’s always possible that my cold-ridden delirium played its part, but… I can’t call myself a Stein fan as of yet.  Anybody read this, or any of Stein’s more famous work?  Could I be yet persuaded?

Together and Apart – Margaret Kennedy

I think Together and Apart (1936) by Margaret Kennedy might just be the most 1930s novel I have ever read.  Not that it is the best (though it is very good) but that it is somehow quintessentially 1930s, stuffed with all the ingredients I have come to expect – marital politics; sensuality tempered by an intrinsic conservatism; a sense of change which is both progressive and nostalgic; fraught family gatherings; women discovering their voices, but torn between the roles of wife, mother, and independent woman; people explaining their feelings to each other at elaborate length.  Of course, none of these themes are unique to the 1930s, but they recur so often in novels of that decade that, together, they evoke the 1930s for me.  (Before I go any further – thank you Rob, who gave this to me in the Virago Secret Santa back in 2011, making Together and Apart possibly my only black Virago Modern Classic.)

It all starts off with that touchy-for-the-1930s topic of divorce, with Betsy writing to her mother about her proposed separation from her husband, the celebrated librettist Alec, and it’s worth quoting at length…

Well now Mother, listen.  I have something to tell you that you won’t like at all.  In fact, I’m afraid that it will be a terrible shock and you will hate it at first.  But do try to get used to the idea and bring father round to it.

Alec and I are parting company.  We are going to get a divorce.

I know this will horrify: the more so because I have, perhaps mistakenly, tried very hard to conceal our unhappiness during these last years.  I didn’t, naturally, want anybody to know while there was still a chance of keeping things going.  But the fact is, we have been quite miserable, both of us.  We simply are unsuited to one another and unable to get on.  How much of this have you guessed?

Life is so different from what we expected when we first married.  Alec has quite changed, and he needs a different sort of wife.  I never wanted all this money and success.  I married a very nice but quite undistinguished civil servant.  With my money we had quite enough to live on in a comfortable and civilised way.  We had plenty of friends, our little circle, people like ourselves, amusing and well bred, not rich, but decently well off.  Alec says now that they bored him.  But he didn’t say so at the time.
Divorce was no longer the great unthinkable, but you don’t have to be cynical to detect a hint of false brio in Betsy’s assured tone.  The respective mothers leap into action – and they remind me rather of the mothers in Richmal Crompton’s Family Roundabout.  Betsy’s mother is weak and anxious; Alec’s mother is domineering and formidable.  Neither, it turns out, is particularly good at bringing the separated couple back together, and there is rather a sense that they might have inadvertently accelerated the split…

From here, Margaret Kennedy weaves a complex and evolving pattern.  I expected the novel to focus on the married couple, seeing whether or not they could mend their rift, but Kennedy’s world is far wider than that.  I might even criticise it for being a little too wide, in that it occasionally seems to lose focus a bit as she tries to encompass a school, four or five households, and the minds and opinions of a dozen or more principal players.

As with the G.B. Stern novel (and because I’m rushing up so many posts!) I don’t think it’s worth elaborating at length about the plot.  Kennedy shows us the consequences of actions, and movingly depicts the ways in which separation affects everyone – not just the ‘think of the children’ angle (although this is shown a fair bit, the children are all quite flawed of their own accord) but the married couple themselves.  The split between Betsy and Alec is never final and certain in their minds – both are plagued by regret or, more to the point, uncertainty about their decision (regret would be a form of certainty which neither can reach).  I have never been married, and of course never divorced, but I was still impressed by the nuances in Kennedy’s writing…

…with the caveat that this is the 1930s, and I often find that the dialogue in 1930s novels is never quite as nuanced as one might wish.  People do explain their emotions at length, and have oh-gosh-darling moments, but that all adds to the good fun of it all.  My first Margaret Kennedy book was her biography of Jane Austen, and it is interesting to see how her own fiction compares.  Well, of course Austen is better – but you can see where Kennedy learnt a bit about portraying human nature in its complexities, and I think Jane would rather have enjoyed reading this if she’d been around in 1936.

The Cynical Wives Brigade (A Woman of My Age – Nina Bawden)

When Karen mentioned that she’d bought some Nina Bawden books, I commented that I had a few on my shelves, but had never got around to reading her – and, hey presto, a joint readalong of A Woman of My Age (1967) was born.  Karen’s already posted her review here, but I have to admit that I have yet to read it – because I wanted to give you my thoughts before I discovered hers.

I didn’t know what to expect from Nina Bawden – I’ve never even read her famous children’s books – so I started the novel with more or less a blank canvas. Elizabeth is the heroine (if the term fits… which it doesn’t, really) and is in Morocco with her husband of eighteen years, Richard.  The heat is stultifying and their companions a trifle wearying – the obese, overly-friendly Mrs Hobbs and her quiet husband, and the unexpected friend from home, Flora. Unexpected to Elizabeth, anyway…

As their journey across the country continues, the web between these characters gets more and more complex, as secrets are revealed and alliances kindled – but the mainstay of the narrative is Elizabeth’s musings on her past life, as her marriage to Richard is slowly documented, and considered in minute detail.  For Elizabeth is nothing if not introspective – she’s even introspective about being introspective, which does lead to one amusing line at least:

She peered appraisingly at herself in the mirror, pulling faces as if she were alone, and I was embarrassed by her candour. (Though I have as much interest in my appearance as most women, I feel it is somehow degrading to admit it.  Before we came away, I bought a special cream supposed to restore elasticity to the skin, but I destroyed the wrapper on the jar and the accompanying, incriminating literature, as furtively as I had, when young, removed the cover of a book on sex.)
Before I go further, I should put forward the weak statement that I quite enjoyed A Woman of My Age, because I’m going to harp on about the things I didn’t much like.  So, while I do that, please bear in mind that Bawden’s writing is always good, her humour (when it comes) is sharp and well-judged, and her characters are generally believable.  There is even some pathos in the account of Elizabeth’s ageing relatives, but I shan’t comment much on that – because they are pretty incidental.

Elizabeth’s age, referred to in the title, is 37.  She has been married for nearly half her life, and is obviously rather dissatisfied.  We know this, because she often tells us.  Sometimes (in this mention of her early married life) it is almost laughably stereotypical:

We were bored with our husbands.  They were sober young men, marking school books, studying, advancing into an adult world of action and responsibility.
This is, I shall admit now, my main problem with the novel – and that which inspired my title to this post.  Elizabeth is a card-carrying, fully-paid-up member of the Cynical Wives Brigade.  You may remember how little I liked Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year – you can read my thoughts here – and a lot of A Woman of My Age is cut from the same cloth. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been a wife, and because I wasn’t around in the 1960s, but I find this gosh-is-my-privileged-life-wonderful-enough unutterably tedious, not to mention the casual adultery that all these characters indulge in.  Adultery seems, at best, a stimulus for another tedious, introspective conversation or contemplation.  Children, as with Drabble’s novel, are included simply to show the passage of time, and none of the adult characters seem to have any particularly parental instincts.

Was this a 1960s thing?  Well, Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (1960) is one of my favourite novels, but I can’t deny that it is very introspective – but Jane isn’t a wife, so she manages to escape the Cynical Wives Brigade.  I haven’t read many novels from this decade, but already I get the idea (supported by this novel) that it’s full of this type of navel-gazing, morally-lax types.  For someone born in the 1980s, incidentally, there were a couple of moments which are very of-their-time, and rather shocking to me. (Were these views still acceptable in the 1960s?? Both are from Elizabeth’s point of view, and neither seem ironic.)

As a result, I drank more than was sensible in my condition: like a lot of women, I always felt more unwell during the first three months of pregnancy than afterwards, and alcohol went to my head very quickly.
and

I was surprised at the violence of his remorse – after all, he had only hit me
I suppose I can’t blame Bawden for that, if those were still prevalent opinions and actions in the time.  But what I can blame her for is making an interesting scenario and potentially interesting characters get so dragged down by the dreariness of reading about Elizabeth’s self-pity and moping. To do her justice, another character in the novel does accuse her of exactly these faults. I cheered when I read this:

If they are a sample of your usual conversation I’m not surprised that he doesn’t listen to you.  You’re no more worth listening to than any bored, spoiled young woman, whining because the routine of married life has gone stale on you.  It really is very provoking, to a woman of my generation.  When I was thirty, we didn’t have the vote, we had to fight for a place in the world.  Now you’ve got it, most of you don’t bother to use it.  I daresay it’s dull, being tied to a house and young children, but it was a life you chose, after all, you were so eager to rush into it that you didn’t even take your degree.
I’m always curious when authors incorporate criticisms of their novel or characters into the narrative itself.  Is it a moment of self-awareness, to distance themselves from the voice of the narrator?  Is it the belief that recognising one’s faults is the same as correcting them?  Or is simply a moment of regret, for the direction a novel should have taken?

(I should make clear – a lot of the things Elizabeth complains about are probably genuine issues. But complaining does not a novel make.)

And I haven’t even mentioned the big twist at the end.  I don’t really know what to say about it.

I’m still glad that I read Nina Bawden, and I’ll have a look at the other one’s on my shelves to see if they’re any less frustrating.  Right now I’m off to see what Karen thought… come join me?

Love at Second Sight by Ada Leverson

Whilst rooting around for a 1916 title for A Century of Books (you should have seen me, scrabbling through my books, opening covers, reading publication details, reshelving huffily) I stumbled upon Love At Second Sight by Ada Leverson.  It’s the third book in The Little Ottleys, of which I have previously read the first – Love’s Shadow – which was rather brilliant.  This is the only time A Century of Books has really rather compromised my reading plans – in that I skipped past the second title in the trilogy (Tenterhooks) straight to the third.  But someone had spoken on The Little Ottleys at a recent conference, and given away the plot, so it wasn’t as calamitous as it could have been.

Look away if you don’t want to know what happened in the first two novels… but they’ve (to be very brief) set up the fairly loveless marriage of Edith and Bruce; Edith falls in love with Aylmer Ross, but will not leave her husband, even when he asks for a divorce himself (having run off with another woman); he comes back to her, and everything settles down into what it had been before – which is to say, an amusing, charming, patient woman, and an exasperating man.  Bruce is best summed up by this wonderful quotation from Love’s Shadow: “He often wrote letters beginning “Sir, I feel it my duty,” to people on subjects that were no earthly concern of his.”  As for the lovely Edith, I’ll hand over to Leverson to describe her.  An author should show and not tell, as a rule, but all these qualities in Edith have been exemplified in previous books, so it is forgiveable that Leverson wants to let us know what a wonder she is, so that we can get on with the show.

She was a slim, fair, pretty woman, with more vividness and character than usually goes with her type.  Like the boy, she had long-lashed grey eyes, and blonde-cendre hair: her mouth and chin were of the Burne-Jones order, and her charm, which was great but unintentional, and generally unconscious, appealed partly to the senses and partly to the intellect.  She was essentially not one of those women who irritate all their own sex by their power (and still more by their fixed determination) to attract men; she was really and unusually indifferent to general admiration.  Still, that she was not a cold woman, not incapable of passionate feeling, was obvious to any physiognomist; the fully curved lips showed her generous and pleasure-loving temperament, while the softly glancing, intelligent, smiling eyes spoke fastidiousness and discrimination.  Her voice was low and soft, with a vibrating sound in it, and she laughed often and easily, being very ready to see and enjoy the amusing side of life.  But observation and emotion alike were instinctively veiled by a quiet, reposeful manner, so that she made herself further popular by appearing retiring.  Edith Ottley might so easily have been the centre of any group, and yet – she was not!  Women were grateful to her, and in return admitted that she was pretty, unaffected and charming.

Love At Second Sight opens with a scream.  The Ottleys’ son Archie has, it seemed, used Madame Frabelle’s mandolin as a cricket bat, and she is not best pleased.  And who might Madame Frabelle be, you ask?  The Ottleys want to ask much the same thing.  Their delightfully forgetful and absent-minded friend Lady Conroy introduced them (although later denied ever having heard of her, and in fact asks for an introduction herself) – and Madame Frabelle arrives for a visit.  Which has lengthened itself into many, many weeks.  She is charming, a great listener, given to understanding people – noticing their subtlest of thoughts, predicting their actions, and invariably being wrong about everything.

Indeed Edith did sincerely regard her opinion as very valuable.  She found her so invariably wrong that she was quite a useful guide. She was never quite sure of her own judgement until Madame Frabelle had contradicted it.
Madame Frabelle is determined that Edith is in love with Mr. Mitchell, another of the Ottleys acquaintances.  What neither Madame Frabelle nor Bruce notice is that Edith is in love – with Aylmer, who has returned from fighting in France with a broken leg.  Edith has to face a quandary – whether or not to leave her husband…

As I say, I haven’t read Tenterhooks, where a similar story takes place, so I can only contrast this with the first book in the trilogy.  In that (again, c.f. my review here), we see a marriage which is irksome and unequal, but in a comic fashion.  All the will-they-won’t-they plot concerns a multitude of other characters, none of whom have stayed in my mind, and the central Ottley marriage is stable, if awful.  Bruce’s absurd lack of self-awareness is hilarious, and his terribleness as a husband is darkly humorous – in Love At Second Sight, more is at stake, and more than a punchline is likely to come out of this incompatible couple.

Which is not to say that the novel isn’t funny.  It is very amusing, especially when Lady Conroy wanders onto the scene.  Ada Leverson was friends with Oscar Wilde, and his influence is apparent – if anything, rather more so than in Love’s Shadow, because she turns to the epigram rather more frequently in Love At Second Sight – par example, ‘she was a woman who was never surprised at anything except the obvious and the inevitable’.  Sometimes this clash of serious storyline and comic prose was a little disconcerting – I thought the balance worked better in Love’s Shadow – but  this is still a wonderful little book.

Of course, what you should do is get the trilogy and read them in order!  I’ll read Tenterhooks one day, and then everything will fall into place properly…

At Mrs. Lippincote’s – Elizabeth Taylor

I intended to read At Mrs. Lippincote’s (1945) back in January, in its rightful place for Elizabeth Taylor Centenary year, but somehow it didn’t happen… and then I went to a wonderful Celebration of Elizabeth Taylor in Reading, and one of the book groups was discussing this title.  I would have written about the day in Reading properly (where I got to meet lots of lovely ladies from the LibraryThing Virago group) but it happened just before Muriel Spark Reading Week, so I had other things to take blog prominence!

Well, better late than never – I’ll give you my thoughts on At Mrs. Lippincote’s.  The short review is that this is my favourite, of the five or six Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read.  My usual confusion over characters didn’t occur, and I didn’t even have that tiny this-feels-like-homework response I sometimes get with Taylor.  Instead, I just enjoyed her beautiful writing and intriguing characters, and only had one misgiving – which I’ll come to later.

The Mrs. Lippincote of the title has gone to a residency not unlike Mrs. Palfrey’s at the Claremont, and has let her house to Roddy Davenant (an RAF airman) and his wife Julia, for the duration of the war.  The idea of living in somebody else’s house is a very rich vein for a novelist, and it is mined (can one mine a vein?) beautifully by Taylor.  Mrs. Lippincote is very present through her absence, and the constant possibility of her visitation and judgement.  All her possessions are still in the house, and Julia makes her home amongst them, treading the line between running her family’s home and living in a stranger’s house.  She looks at an old photo of Mrs. Lippincote’s family at an elaborate wedding:

“And now it’s all finished,” Julia thought.  “They had that lovely day and the soup tureen and meat dishes, servants with frills and streamers, children.  They set out that day as if they were laying the foundations of something.  But it was only something which perished very quickly, the children scattered, the tureen draped with cobwebs, and now the widow, the bride, perhaps at this moment unfolding her napkin alone at a table in a small private hotel down the road.”
While Taylor is great at delving into characters and relationships over the course of a novel, she is also fantastic at painting complete portraits with a few imaginative details.  A bit like synedochal snapshots of people’s lives.

Roddy’s cousin Eleanor is also living with them, and anybody who has read Rebecca West’s excellent novella The Return of the Soldier will be familiar with the dynamic of the wife/husband/husband’s cousin.  (It is a cousin in The Return of the Soldier too, isn’t it?)  Eleanor, indeed, does think that she would make a better wife for Roddy – and she is probably right.  Roddy and Eleanor aren’t on the same wavelength – neither are the ‘bad guy’, but our sympathies are definitely with Julia, who is a wonderful character.

I would be confident that you’d all love Julia, or at least empathise with her, but I’ve just reminded myself of Claire’s review: ‘Julia is an odd character and certainly not a very likeable one.”  Re-reading her post, I’m starting to change my mind a bit… but I’ll stick to my guns and explain why I did love Julia.  She is intelligent and artistic, coping with the dissatisfactions of her life with stoicism and wit.  She hasn’t been handed the home or husband that she would ideally choose, but makes the best of the situation she is in – as well as being sensitive and thoughtful about the wider conditions of the country.  When talking to the Wing Commander (Roddy’s boss), she argues the point for education for his daughter Felicity:

“They will try to stuff her head with Virgil and Pliny and Greek Irregular Verbs.”

“All Greek verbs are irregular,” Julia murmured.

“I think it nonsense.  What use will it be to her when she leaves school?  Will it cook her husband’s dinner?”

“No, it won’t do that, but it will help her to endure doing it, perhaps.  If she is to cook while she is at school, then there will be that thing less for her to learn when she’s grown-up: but, if she isn’t to learn Greek at school, then she will never learn it afterwards.  And learning Greek at school is like storing honey against the winter.”

“But what use is it?” he persisted.

“Men can be educated; women must be trained,” she said sorrowfully.
A little heavy-handed perhaps, but a point worth making – and, incidentally, a battle subsequently won (although neither girls nor boys are likely to study Greek irregular verbs now… at least not at the sort of school I attended.)  The Wing Commander is another really intriguing character.  He has all the firmness and professionalism you’d expect of a Wing Commander, but also a literary side which baffles Roddy.  He’s a bit awkward with children, but manages to engage Oliver Davenant in a discussion about the Brontes – a theme which runs throughout the novel, potential mad-woman-in-the-attic and everything.  Oh, I’ve not mentioned Oliver before, have I?  He is Julia’s ten year old son, and which of us could fail to greet a fellow bibliophile?

Oliver Davenant did not merely read books.  He snuffed them up, took breaths of them into his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of words.  Some emanation from the book itself poured into his bones, as if he were absorbing steady sunshine.  The pages had personality.  He was of the kind who cannot have a horrifying book in the room at night.  He would, in fine weather, lay it upon an outside sill and close the window.  Often Julia would see a book lying on his doormat.
He is incredibly sensitive and fairly weak, in a determined-invalid sort of way, but his friendship with Felicity is more or less the only straightforward one in the novel.  Which brings me onto my sticking point with At Mrs. Lippincote’s – the ending, which I shan’t spoil, is a crisis between two characters which comes rather out of the blue, and doesn’t feel very consistent with the rest of the narrative.  At Mrs. Lippincote’s, like all the Taylor novels I’ve read, is more concerned with characters than plot – nothing hugely unbalancing occurs, and the focus is upon the way people live together and communicate.  Until the end, which feels a bit as though Taylor wasn’t sure how to conclude a novel, and decided, unfortunately, to end with a bang.

I shall take a leaf out of her book (not literally, that would be vandalism) and end in a manner which I usually do not – with a quotation.  At Mrs. Lippincote’s is thoughtful, clever, and perceptive, but it’s also often very witty – and I’ll finish with a quotation which amused me.

Eleanor, whom he [Oliver] did not really like, set sums for him every morning and corrected them when she came home for tea.  Occasionally, he had a right answer, in much the same manner as when one backs horses a great deal, now and the one of them comes in for a place.
(See all the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Celebration reviews for this title here.)

Early Young

One of the best books I’ve read this year was William by E.H. Young – a few of us did a joint read back in February, and I became a confirmed fan of Emily Hilda’s, after having previously enjoyed Miss Mole. In a manner not unknown to me, I had stockpiled EHY novels long before I knew whether or not I would like her, and so when I saw that someone at the conference I’m attending this week would be discussing The Misses Mallett (1922), I was able to prepare.

My received understanding about EH Young, from various reviews and from Virago’s judicious selection of novels to reprint in the 1980s and 1990s, was that her first three novels were rather mediocre and that The Misses Mallett (also published as The Bridge Dividing) was something of a momentous turning point. After that (so I understood) she wrote nothing but gems. After all, nothing separates those early rural novels from the sophistication of William except one novel: yes, The Misses Mallett.

I had great expectations. And, I’m sorry to say, they rather faltered. The topic showed such promise, especially given my predisposition towards spinster novels of the 1920s. And there are plenty of spinsters around – let me hand you over to my favourite one, Caroline:
“The Malletts don’t marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We’ve been terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she hasn’t married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.”Caroline, Sophia, and Rose are sisters, Rose being rather younger than the first two – who are drawn rather two-dimensionally, if amusingly. Caroline is fairly feisty, and spends her autumnal years reliving imagined conquests of her youth, and alluding to improprieties which she, in fact, has never had the opportunity to commit. Sophia is mousy and quiet and traipses after Caroline, excusing, correcting, and loving her. They have their own touching dynamic, even if their characters aren’t hugely evolved. It is with Rose, and later their feckless brother’s daughter Henrietta, that the reader is supposed to sympathise. They are from the same mould – affected intensely by their emotions, but compelled by society to quash their wilder affections, etc. etc. And they’re both tangled up with love for the (to my mind) wholly unattractive Francis Sales. He’s off the market anyway, married to an invalid wife of the variety who alternates catty remarks with lunges after her smelling salts.

To be honest, much of this plot reminded me of the most unlikely excesses of Thomas Hardy. People fall in love from distances of a hundred metres, flash their eyes all over the place, and emote wildly through woodland and over moors. Here’s an excerpt:
She did not love him – how could she? – but he belonged to her; and now, if this piece of gossip turned out to be true, she must share him with another. Jealousy, in its usual sense, she had none as yet, but she forged a chain she was to find herself unable to break. It was her pride to consider herself a hard young person, without spirituality, without sentiment, yet all her personal relationships were to be of the fantastic kind she now experienced, all her obligations such as others would have ignored.I haven’t read anything by Mary Webb et al, but this has to be the sort of thing Stella Gibbons was parodying in Cold Comfort Farm, no? (Which reminds me – review of Stella Gibbons’ Westwood coming soon, promise.) I’m being a little cruel to EHY here, perhaps, but only because her later novels are so brilliant. It’s somewhat reassuring that she wasn’t born with inherent subtlety and style.

I’m skimming over the plot rather, because it’s a bit predictable. I’ve watched enough corny films to know that the Rugged Hero will eventually be passed over for the Male Best Friend. In Henrietta’s case, the latter appears in the wonderful character of Charles. He is like a lump of real gold amidst fool’s gold – when EH Young went on to write better, much better, novels, she need not have been ashamed of creating Charles. He is a wonderful mixture of the aesthetic and inept. He lives for beauty in music, much in the way that characters in EM Forster might, but he also lacks confidence and is unnervingly self-aware.
Charles blinked, his sign of agitation, but Henrietta did not see. “He’s good to look at,” Charles muttered. “He knows how to wear his clothes.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

Charles heaved a sigh. “One never knows what matters.”As a hero he defies cliche, and thus is a nod towards the sort of complex characters which Young would later form. It’s just a shame that the Misses Mallett themselves, inoffensive though they might be, never really reveal any inspiration on Young’s part. A novel about 1920s spinster sisters living together could have been deliciously fun or painfully poignant, or even both, but there are only brief moments when The Misses Mallett could be said to be either. A serviceable novel, certainly, and good enough to pass the time – but unworthy of the pen which would later create William and Miss Mole, and goodness knows whatever other sparkling or clever works.

I’m very glad that this wasn’t my first encounter with EH Young, as it might well have also been my last. Instead, I shall chalk this up to experience – and go foraging for one of her later novels next time. Can anybody at all step forward to defend Young and, equally importantly, those Misses Mallett?