Saturday, February 17, 2018

Celebrating Dorothy Canfield Fisher with her short stories

Today, Jane's Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors celebrates one of my favorites, Dorothy Canfield Fisher. I don't think I am the only reader who met her through the Persephone edition of her 1924 novel The Home-Maker. I'm not sure whose review I read first, but it may have been Claire's at The Captive Reader. That was back in 2012, and I have been collecting her books ever since. I was lucky enough to find some on bookstore shelves, even in the original editions, and others on-line.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher published several books of short stories, and I have read all of them except Basque People (from 1931). I have found something to enjoy in each of them, many with familiar settings in Vermont or France (particularly in the Basque region). I can see connections to her novels, common themes that run through her fiction and non-fiction. Though I have read the books of short stories, I still wanted to read A Harvest of Stories, an anthology collected by DCF herself and published in 1956. I wanted to see which ones she chose, as the subtitle says, "From a Half Century of Writing." I hoped that she might have something to say about the stories or about the writing of them.

There are twenty-seven stories included, divided into three sections: "Vermont Memories," "Men, Women - and Children," and "War." DCF introduces them with a Prologue, "What My Mother Taught Me." In it, she explains the part her mother played in making her a teller of stories, one who has "to try with all one's might to understand that part of human life which does not lie visibly on the surface. And then to try to depict the people involved, and their actions, so that they may be recognizable men, women - and children." I love that in her stories, that she wants us to understand her people, to see not just what they do, but why - their motives, which they themselves don't always recognize or understand. And she has such compassion, such empathy for people. She sees them clearly, and she doesn't gloss over or whitewash, but she does understand, and she wants her readers to as well.

This collection includes some of my favorites. "Uncle Giles" is about a relative who considered himself a gentleman, someone who "should not be forced to the menial task of earning a living."
The tales of how Uncle Giles blandly outwitted [his able-bodied and energetic kinspeople's] stub-fingered attacks on his liberty and succeeded to the end of a very long life in living without work are part of our inheritance. For three generations now they have wrought the members of our family to wrath and laughter. He was incredible. You can't imagine anything like him. Unless you have had him in your family too.
"The Bedquilt," on the other hand, is the story of Aunt Mehetable, "of all the Elwell family...certainly the most unimportant," until she has an idea for a bold new quilt design. "A Family Alliance" is about the parents of a young engaged couple, meeting for the first time, trying to live up to the expectations that their children have created. It's very funny, and very sweet. And "As Ye Sow," the story of a busy mother whose young son and his friends are excluded from their class's Christmas entertainment, because (as she discovers) they are terrible singers. "Through Pity and Terror..." and "In the Eye of the Storm" describe life in France, under German occupation in the Great War. They are difficult to read even now.

I am so happy that Jane included Dorothy Canfield Fisher in her celebration. And if anyone would like a copy of The Home-Maker, I have one to share. I don't want to give it to the library sale, I want to give it to a fellow reader, to someone who I hope will enjoy her books as much as I do.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Gemini and the House of Niccolò, by Dorothy Dunnett

Gemini is the eighth and last book in Dorothy Dunnett's second series, "The House of Niccolò." When it was published in 2000, I read the Michael Joseph UK edition, specially ordered from an Edinburgh bookseller, because like a lot of us in the US I didn't want to wait for the North American edition.

I'm not sure I've read it again since then.

The Nicholas books were my introduction to Dorothy Dunnett. Almost 30 years ago, I came across the first book, Niccolò Rising, in the library. The cover images from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry caught my eye, because I had studied and fallen in love with medieval art in college. I was fascinated with the story inside, of the young apprentice Claes, who takes his mistress's dye-yard business into a much larger world of trade and finance - and espionage. I loved the setting of 15th-century Bruges, like seeing a Van Eyck painting come to life. I enjoyed the journeys that take Claes (later Nicholas) beyond Flanders, to Geneva and Florence and Lorraine. And then there are the family complications. Claes, raised in the Charetty family, is known to be the son of the late Sophie de Fleury, but her husband's family, the St Pols of Scotland and France, have always rejected Claes as a bastard, not the son of her husband Simon. His position, as a bastard, an apprentice stinking of the dye-yard, makes his rise in this story all the more compelling.

I think Niccolò Rising is one of Dorothy Dunnett's best books, with King Hereafter, her novel of Macbeth. I've read it countless times, as well as the second in the series, The Spring of the Ram, which follows Nicholas to the court of the Byzantine Emperor in Trebizond. There is a tragedy at the end of the second book, though, that shook me when I first read it, and I did not then continue with the series. It was only after I was introduced to (and became obsessed with) Francis Crawford of Lymond and his story that I came back to the Nicholas books (set earlier but published later).

A main focus of this second series is the international business that Nicholas builds, on finance and trade and an excellent mercenary company. He gathers a company of men and women, drawn to him by his personality, his gifts, his genius (for trade, for sailing, for music). There are others, rivals in business, and the competition between them is intense, sometimes violent. His encounters with the St Pol family are always fraught, to say the least.

There is so much packed into these stories, as they move between trade and war, across Europe, to Africa and Egypt. They are full of the politics of the different countries where Nicholas's company trades, into which he is sometimes drawn. The complicated stories, the masses of detail, can be overwhelming at times. But where I struggle with some of the later books is with the personal. The men and women around Nicholas, who form a kind of surrogate family, have high expectations of him, and they make demands on him. Nicholas often thinks of them as his nurses, or his keepers. They constrain him, and all too often they misjudge him. They see part of his complicated family history, they see his actions, they make assumptions, and they get angry with him. We the readers know the truth, know more of the story than they do, and it's clear to us where they are wrong, unfair, misguided. Nicholas often takes the blame for things that are not his fault, with punishing consequences. It is true that he doesn't always explain himself, though we see much more of his mind and heart that we do of Lymond. And he does make mistakes, he does things wrong, often with great deliberation. But unlike his companions I can't fault him for guarding his privacy, and their self-righteous judgements grate on me. There is also one particular feud, a war carried out over more than eight years, based on a completely wrong premise. I realize this may sound ridiculous, but I get so irritated on Nicholas's behalf that I have trouble with the later books.

Which is why I may have only read Gemini one time. I clearly remember, the last time I read the series, holding out to the seventh book, Caprice and Rondo, and then giving up.

The other day, I was thinking of an incident in Caprice and Rondo ("Date stones, sweetheart!"),  which happens toward the end of the book. When I went to check it, I ended up reading the last chapters, and then I picked up Gemini, to look at the first chapter. And then there I was, reading Gemini again. It felt wrong, on one level, because I am normally a strict series-order reader. But how quickly I fell back under Dorothy Dunnett's spell. And how lovely it was to see the end of Nicholas's story. I know its beginnings so well, from umpteen readings of the first two books. Here she brings it to a very satisfying conclusion, answering questions and tying loose ends together, and ending feuds. One character in particular is completely redeemed, in my mind. Of course, being Dorothy Dunnett, she puts her people through hell in the process.

About half-way through the book (which is more than 600 pages), I had the heretical (to me) idea of reading the series in reverse. One of the great pleasures in the series in seeing Nicholas grow and develop and expand. It's a crucial difference between this series and the Lymond Chronicles. There we meet Francis Crawford, only a few years older than the Claes of the first book, but fully developed, fully mature. Nicholas we see becoming. His story is also more complicated, and for me, it's a challenge to keep all of the plot lines (even the personal ones) straight, much more so than with Lymond. I think reading backward might help with that.

And besides, I've fallen again under that familiar spell. When in its grip, no other stories will satisfy. So here I am, surrounded by expiring library books and tottering TBR piles, deep in 15th-century Poland with Nicholas.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Spring Fever, by P.G. Wodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse loved imposters in his stately homes the way Patricia Wentworth loved people suffering from amnesia in her mysteries. In PGW's stories, Person A is prevented or refuses, for a good reason, to make a visit to a stately home. Person B volunteers for his own reasons to go in his place (it's usually a him). Though there are usually at least two people in on the secret, Person B generally carries off the masquerade - until Person A shows up, under false pretenses and pretending to be someone else entirely (let's call him Person C).

In Spring Fever, published in 1948, Person A is Stanwood Cobbold. His father has sent him over to England to get him away from Eileen Stoker, a Hollywood star with whom he has fallen in love. Discovering that Miss Stoker has just arrived in London, for a two-picture contract, Cobbold Senior orders Stanwood off on a visit to Beevor Castle. The Castle is the Kentish home of the fifth Earl of Shortlands, the head of Cobbold family. The American Mr. Cobbold has discovered that his family is a colonial branch of this noble family, and he has developed (from afar) a great reverence for and devotion to the Earl. Lord Shortlands has no idea who this American person is, and certainly didn't invite his son for a visit. But then his masterful daughter Adela, whose husband's money keeps the Castle running, learns that Stanwood is the heir to a fortune. She immediately plans to marry him to her youngest sister Theresa.

Stanwood, however, has no intention of leaving London while Eileen Stoker is there. So his friend Mike Cardinal, a Hollywood agent, volunteers to go in his place. His motive: he is in love with Theresa (Terry), who is steadfastly refusing to marry him. When Lord Shortlands comes up to London, with Terry, to collect Stanwood, he hits it off with Mike and agrees to the impersonation. The Earl has troubles of his own. He needs £200, to win the hand of his cook Mrs. Punter, who wants to retire from service and open a pub in London. Lord Shortlands has a rival in his handsome butler Melvin Spink. His only consolation is that Spink regularly loses all his money on the ponies.

At first all goes well, except that Terry continues to refuse Mike's proposals and won't tell him why. But then Stanwood appears, pretending to be a Mr. Rossiter, an expert in rare stamps (about which he really knows nothing). An expert is needed because a rare Spanish stamp turned up in an old album, which both Lord Shortlands and his butler claim belongs to them. The stamp may be worth as much as £1500, which is more than enough to win Mrs. Punter's hand.

This book was such fun, with a capital "F". Lord Shortlands is one of those persecuted fathers, but he and Terry have a close and loving alliance. She is just a good egg, and I was curious to find out why she kept turning Mike Cardinal down when she's clearly not immune to his charm and beauty. Maybe it's the influence of his Hollywood career, but their flirtatious conversations flow like the best screwball comedy. At one point, he woos her by reading selections from "Percy's Promise, by Marcia Huddlestone (Popgood and Grooly, 1869)" - which is how it's referred to in the text every time, and that made me giggle.

And then there's Augustus Robb, Stanwood Cobbold's personal attendant. He is a massive man, an ex-burglar who has found religion, quotes constantly from the Scriptures, calls Stanwood "cocky" - and wears horn-rimmed glasses. I thought immediately of Magersfontein Lugg, Albert Campion's man, though it's Campion who wears the glasses. Did PGW ever read Margery Allingham's books, I wonder? And that reminded me of Peter Wimsey telling Bunter in Strong Poison, "Well, then, don't talk like Jeeves. It irritates me."

Monday, January 29, 2018

Outrageous Fortune, by Patricia Wentworth

This 1933 book is one of Patricia Wentworth's "stand-alone" stories, and it is quite a wild ride. It begins with a young man lying in a cottage hospital, unconscious but occasionally muttering about Jimmy Riddell. He was found lying on a ledge of rock, above a treacherous bay where a ship was recently lost. A woman named Nesta Riddell arrives in response to a radio appeal, announces that he is her husband, and whisks him away. A short time later, another woman shows up, also in search of this young man. But she is looking for Jim Randall, the cousin she hasn't seen in seven years. It was clear from her first appearance that this young woman would be our heroine:
    "Miss Leigh?" said the day sister.
    "Oh yes," said Caroline Leigh in that warm dark voice of hers.
    Someone once said that Caroline's voice was like damask roses. He was an infatuated young man who wrote poetry. Caroline laughed at him kindly but firmly, and all her friends chaffed her about her crimson voice. All the same there was something in it.
Hearing that the unknown Jim has been taken away, Caroline resolves to track him down, just confirm that he isn't her Jim. Meanwhile, he wakes up in a small house in a small town. He has no idea who or where he is, but he has a nagging memory of a string of emeralds, shining in lamplight. Informed that he is Jim Riddell, husband of Nesta, he finds that hard to accept. And then Nesta tells him that he has stolen a string of emeralds, and she wants her share. Jim also learns that the owner of the emeralds, an American named Elmer Von Berg, has been shot, presumably during the robbery, and is at the point of death.

The story alternates between Jim and Caroline, as he tries to figure out who he is and what is happening, and she tries to find out where and who he is. There is considerable tension in those sections. In between her sleuthing, Caroline goes home, to the house that she shares with her older cousin Pansy Ann. Pansy (christened plain Ann) "sketched a little, and gardened a little, and painted a little on china. She also wrote minor verse..." Perhaps Patricia Wentworth meant her to add some humor to the story, to lighten the tension from time to time, but I feel like those sections interrupted a much more interesting story, and put it rather out of balance.

This was a fun read, even without Miss Silver. I still have a few of the non-series books to read, as well as two Miss Silvers, and two others featuring her frequent collaborators Ernest Lamb and Frank Abbott of Scotland Yard. I can't imagine how those two will manage to solve any crimes without her! I'm sure I'll still have something of Patricia Wentworth's on the TBR shelves when her turn comes in Jane's reading celebration (on November 10th). But if not, I've already discovered the joys of re-reading her books.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Romance of a Shop, by Amy Levy

This is the story of four sisters in London, left orphaned at the death of their father. With an inheritance of only £600 between them, they decide to open a photography studio to support themselves. Two of the four, Gertrude and Lucy Lorrimer, are already skilled amateurs, having turned the house's conservatory into a studio. The oldest sister, Fanny, is really a half-sister to the other three. Much more conventional, she agrees to the plan only reluctantly, though she does pledge her own independent income of £50 to their support. The youngest sister, Phyllis, has been rather spoiled by the others, who want to spare her any heavy work.

I learned about this 1888 novel from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock (actually from a review on her old blog, Fleur in Her World). Several elements of the story put this onto my reading list. I am partial to stories about orphans having to make their way in the world. I love those about women opening their own businesses, particularly with Victorian women stepping out of traditional roles. And I am fascinated with the history of photography, and with old photos (it's one of the things I love about working in archives). I immediately thought of the pioneering Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and the Broadview edition of the novel that I read mentions her in the supplemental material.

All of these elements come to play in the novel, which I found fascinating. I liked the sisters, and I wanted them to succeed. Amy Levy goes into detail about how they find a location for their work, as well as a place to live, and about how they organize their business. They have to contend with some opposition from an aunt, as well as Fanny's concerns about propriety. They struggle at first, and they lose some old friends, though their dear friend Constance Devonshire stays true. I was reminded here of Louisa May Alcott's stories, particularly An Old-Fashioned Girl, where Polly finds a supportive community of young women, working like herself. Levy also shows how the Lorrimers' business grows through different types of commissions, including photos for artists to work from, and pictures of the dead. As the notes explain, this was a regular event in Victorian life. I have seen photos of the dead, in coffins and out, in archives where I've worked, as well as in books. I find them disturbing, but I can understand how they must have brought comfort, in an age before the plethora of photos that we have today to document a loved one's life.

With these commissions, the sisters are introduced to London's art scene. The beautiful Phyllis makes quite an impression, and the well-known painter Sidney Darrell asks her to pose for him. (Fanny goes along as chaperone.) Meanwhile, they have also met Frank Jermyn, an illustrator for the London papers, and Lord Watergate, a respected amateur scientist (who wants Gertrude to make some slides for his lectures, another commission). Unfortunately Phyllis has developed bright eyes, high color, and a bad cough - and we all know what that means in a Victorian novel. She is also bored, with too much time on her hands, only helping occasionally in the studio, and therefore too susceptible to Sidney Darrell.

Amy Levy brings the sisters through their adventures to a neat and fairly happy ending (well, three-quarters of a happy ending). I was shocked to read in the introduction that she herself committed suicide (in her family home) at age 27, just a year after this novel was published. For me, that cast a shadow over the story that she told here. I learned that she published only two other novels, both in the year of her death. I'm interested to read more of her work, particularly her last novel, Miss Meredith. My Broadview edition includes some of her journalism, including a very interesting article on women's clubs; selections of her poetry; and a (very) short story. I appreciated the supplemental information, such as contemporary reviews of the novel, and excerpts from an 1857 article on photography. I was also interested to learn from the introduction that Amy Levy was the first Jewish woman to attend Newnham College; a photograph of her with her fellow women students is included.

Several people, Claire, Simon, and Barb among them, have started another Century of Books reading project this year. Meanwhile, my own Mid-Century of Books has sadly languished - I stopped even noting the years of the books I was reading. Now, however, I can add another year! Maybe I'll manage to finish a decade or two this year.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Innocents, for Margery Sharp Day

Happy Birthday, Margery Sharp! Once again Jane of Beyond Eden Rock is hosting a celebration in her honor. In fact, she has expanded her birthday calendar to include sixteen women authors. I'm looking forward to a year of reading and celebrating, especially with Dorothy Canfield Fisher up next in February.

For this month's author, I chose The Innocents, her last novel, which I first read about on Jane's blog.

I was just getting ready to write a brief summary of the novel, which is told in the first person, but I couldn't remember the narrator's name. It is only now, after paging through the book again for 10 minutes or so, that I realized she never names herself or is given a name. No one passing her on the street in her small East Anglia village even says, "Good morning, Miss X." I didn't notice this, reading her story. I remember that she is the daughter of the former vicar, that she is past middle age, that she never learned to swim, that she loves watching the artichokes in her garden grow. But I have no idea of her name, and that feels wrong now.

The story that she is telling begins with an Outdoor Fête, where a beautiful young woman from the village meets a visitor from America. Robert Guthrie, staying with his cousin Tom, is immediately taken with Cecilia, who runs a small dress-shop out of her cottage. He takes her back to the States with him. Six years later, in June of 1939, they return for Tom's funeral, on their way to a European holiday. They have brought with them their three-year-old daughter Antoinette. Both parents now have qualms about taking the child on their travels, and our narrator agrees to keep the little girl with her while they're gone. The outbreak of the war catches the Guthries in Austria. They manage to get back to New York, but without their daughter. Antoinette spends the war years with our narrator, developing a close bond and a regular routine with her.

Our narrator has never married, never spent much time with children, though she has watched the village's parents and children with an observant eye. She quickly realizes that Antoinette is not a normal child: "during those very first days of our life together it became clear to me that Cecilia's daughter was what in earlier times would have been called an innocent." She later uses the word "retarded" in passing, a standard term when this book was written in 1972 (and afterward for that matter). Our narrator accepts this, accepts Antoinette very much as she is, and sets out to make a happy and fulfilling life for her, within the boundaries of what she can do and be.

The war had little impact on their quiet village. But with peace comes Cecilia's determination to bring her daughter back to New York. When she arrives, however, it is clear that she has no understanding of Antoinette's situation, and in fact is in complete denial about it, though it must have been apparent even before their separation. Under her brisk treatment, Antoinette starts to regress, to shut down. Our narrator can only stand and watch. Nothing she says to Cecilia, no appeal for the child's sake, makes any difference.

I enjoyed this book very much. I was sometimes reminded of The Flowering Thorn, another of Margery Sharp's books about a woman taking on a child to raise. Both women lack experience with children, both learn as they go. But our narrator here has a bigger challenge, in dealing with a special-needs child, without the resources that a foster parent today would have. I liked our narrator very much. On the surface, she might have passed for one of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, but as she says herself, "I am not in the least sweet-natured."
I am highly critical, and easily displeased by circumstances which I unfortunately cannot control. It would accord better with my temperament, I often think, had I been born a fishwife, licensed to strong language and even physical belligerence; or else a tycoon with a retinue of understrappers, who when I said "come" or "go" came and went unquestioningly as helots. Being instead an elderly single woman of no position and small means, I do the best I can for myself by appearing sweet. . . Of course to preserve this fictitious character I need to do more than my share of disagreeables, such as watching by sickbeds till the doctor comes, at a pinch watching by corpses after he has left, breaking news of bereavements, and in general continuing to act as I'd acted all through my girlhood and then young-womanhood as an unpaid auxiliary curate. Early training stands me in good stead! I am nevertheless by nature far more fishwife or tycoon - who in the way of lack of inhibitions must have much in common - and have never doubted that in any real crisis I would react as ruthlessly as either, only so far there had been no occasion.
Margery Sharp dropped one or two large hints about how the situation with Antoinette might be resolved, so I wasn't surprised by the ending, though I was a bit taken aback. As I said, I did enjoy this book, in large part because of our narrator.

Thank you to Jane for hosting this celebration of Margery Sharp, and for inspiring me to read her books. I still have Lise Lillywhite and The Gipsy in the Parlour on the TBR shelves, but I've just been reading a review of In Pious Memory that greatly intrigues me.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Woman Next Door, by Yewande Omotoso

This is the story of two women, who live in neighboring houses in an exclusive enclave in Cape Town called Katterijn. We meet Hortensia James first, as she walks toward a wooded rise, a place of refuge from the home where her husband of sixty years is dying. When she and Peter bought that home, No. 10, she became the first black person to own a house in the development. In the thirty years that she has lived there, she has carried on a feud with the owner of No. 12, Marion Agostino. Marion, whose own husband has recently died, heads up a community association that keeps a close eye on the neighborhood. Hortensia found out about the association by accident, Marion having neglected to invite her. She began attending to make a point, even though the trivialities discussed often bore her, but there is always the chance of scoring a point off Marion, or getting under her skin.

The story moves back and forth between the two women, both in their 80s, telling us the stories of their lives, how they came to Katterijn. Marion was an architect with her own firm, until she gave up her career to stay home with her four children. In one of her first commissions, she designed the house where Hortensia now lives, and she has always wanted that house for herself. A lot of her antagonism toward Hortensia is rooted in that envy. Hortensia, born in Barbados, studied art in England. After graduating, she opened a design firm that produces award-winning textiles. When she and Peter (who is white) moved to Nigeria for his work, she opened a studio there, and carried it on to South Africa with their last move. Both women are intensely proud of their own work, their careers, but see the other's as a trade, nothing to brag about. I was pleasantly surprised to find two career women at the center of this story, one still actively working in her 80s. (The author has her own architectural practice, in Johannesburg, according to her author bio.)

One day an accident occurs at Hortensia's house, the effects of which boomerang to Marion's. In the aftermath, the two women slowly begin to talk, rather than just arguing or shutting down. Each has secrets, problems, anxieties she has been carrying alone. Each has been very much alone. But there is so much between them, not just the years of dislike, but the vast differences of race, of background, of experience. Marion, the child of Jewish immigrants fleeing Europe in the 1930s, grew up wrapped in white privilege. Throughout her life, she has closed her eyes to apartheid, to her own racism, to the way she treats her black housekeeper (who must eat from separate dishes, segregated between meals in plastic containers).

Hortensia, a black woman from the Caribbean, who has lived in England and in Nigeria, moved to South Africa after apartheid. As a black woman, she is very much aware of its history and its lasting effects, of the racism like Marion's that still lives. She experienced that racism herself, as a student in England, in marrying a white man, living in Nigeria. Yet she is also on some level an outsider in South Africa, an immigrant herself, which gives her a unique perspective. That's part of the complexity of this story. There are so many layers to their women, their histories, their lives. They are both so strong, have survived so much, but they are also both deeply flawed, as we come to understand.

This is the first of Yewande Omotoso's books to be published in the United States. I am so glad that I came across it on the "New Books" shelves in the library, and I've added her to my "author track" list there, so I'll get an alert about any new books (or if her previous book Bom Boy is released in the US).