Saturday, June 29, 2013

A hot, fraught summer

Heat Wave, Penelope Lively

I think if Penelope Lively hadn't already won the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger in 1987, this book would have been a strong contender in 1996.  In my opinion, it is one of her best, with The Photograph (and much better than Moon Tiger).  Re-reading this week, I kept putting the book down to savor its richness, to consider the tangle of relationships past and present at its center, and to marvel at Penelope Lively's genius.

On the surface, this seems a simple story.  Pauline is spending the summer at her cottage, World's End, "a grey stone building set on a hillside somewhere in the middle of England."  It is actually a conversion of three workers' cottages into two.  She lives in the smaller, where she works as a free-lance editor.  In the larger, her daughter Teresa is staying with her husband Maurice and toddler son Luke.  Maurice is a well-known author of "books on quirky aspects of history that flattered the reader by being simultaneously scholarly and inviting."  He is currently writing a history of tourism, which "will discuss the ways in which the natural and the manmade environments have been exploited in the interests of commerce."  It is expected to be provocative and controversial, and so it may lead to a TV series based on the book.  He has retreated to the country to finish writing and editing. 

Thus, World's End, on this May afternoon which shades off now into evening, as Pauline tidies her desk, leaves her study and goes down that odd precipitate staircase to see what she has got in the fridge for supper.  And thus also Pauline, Teresa, Maurice.  Mother, daughter, son-in-law and husband. Neighbours, relatives, poised for this agreeable summer of industry and companionship.

Into this agreeable summer comes James, Maurice's editor, driving down from London with his partner Carol, to spend weekends at the cottage working on the book.  Most of those weekends include a visit to a local tourist site, a stately home, a medieval theme park offering a "Robin Hood experience," all material for Maurice's book.  The weekend visitors bring a new element, changing relationships and upsetting the balance of the group.  Soon Maurice is traveling up to London, for more research and additional meetings on the book.  Pauline watches in growing dismay, concerned first for her daughter and grandson, seeing disturbing parallels to her own marriage to Teresa's father Harry, which ended long ago in divorce.

At the heart of the story is Pauline, and I found her a completely sympathetic character.  We see the events of the story through her eyes.  Frequently in fact she is literally watching, looking out of the cottage windows, standing back from the group, observing, detached.  She is not really detached, though.  She loves Teresa and Luke with fierce maternal love.  She does not love Maurice, whom she knew casually for years before he met and married her daughter, fifteen years his junior.  In addition to her present observations, Pauline is often caught up in sudden memories, sparked by some word or sight, flashing back to her own parents, her marriage, Teresa's childhood.  In one of the early chapters Pauline remembers visiting Teresa in the hospital just after Luke's birth, which segues into her memories of Teresa's birth.  The past and present run constantly together, as often happens in Lively's books.

Penelope Lively weaves together so many elements in this book, keeping them balanced, each adding rich layers to the story she is telling.  Marriage and parenthood are at the heart.  We see Teresa and Maurice's marriage (through Pauline's eyes), while through flashbacks we gradually learn about Pauline's to Harry.  Pauline sees Teresa with double vision, both as her child, with all the memories of their life together over 29 years, but also now as a mother herself.  Luke, at 15 months, is constantly exploring the world around him, absorbing everything, changing daily, in a process that seems to fascinate Lively.  There is also Pauline's work: she is editing a high fantasy novel, which she thinks a good book but not one likely to do well in the current market (which may reflect Lively's own reading tastes).  There are discussions of editing and writing, of the publishing world, mixed in with Maurice's discourses on the historical tourism industry, all of which I enjoyed.  As always, Lively considers too the history of place, in this case the cottage that once housed the workers who worked the surrounding fields.  From her windows, Pauline watches the growth of the summer wheat, musing on agriculture down through the ages, and the reality of life in the country, too often idealized by city dwellers.

From her windows, she can see the crops suffering over the long slow months, in an unprecendented heat wave that threatens the harvest and the farmers' livelihood.  The temperatues rising outside parallel the increasing tension within.  Lively builds this up slowly but relentlessly, and you cannot help but share Pauline's unease, watching with her from the sidelines.  The ending comes like a thunderclap, irrevocably changing all the lives at World's End. I would love to read a sequel, to know where these people are now.  Then I would know how to interpret that final ambiguous paragraph.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rhoda Broughton's first novel

Not Wisely But Too Well, Rhoda Broughton

I had no idea who Rhoda Broughton was when I came across her 1883 novel Belinda at a library book sale some years ago.  It was the green Virago cover that caught my eye - all too rare in Houston these days, as I've lamented before.  I was intrigued enough by the back cover summary to buy it.  It's the story of the title character, Belinda Churchill, who loses her first love and marries instead her sister's jilted fiancé (her seventh, by the way), a cold and ceremonious Oxford don.  The novel caused a minor scandal when people began to speculate that the unpleasant Professor Forth was based on Mark Pattison, who according to the notes was also George Eliot's model for Edward Casaubon.  I enjoyed Belinda's story, despite wanting to shake her more than once (her light-hearted sister and grandmother may be frivolous but they are also much more fun).

I discovered later that Rhoda Broughton was well-connected to the Victorian literary world.  She was the niece of Sheridan Le Fanu, who helped get her first two novels published, and a distant connection of Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  She lived in Oxford for many years, well-known for her literary parties - and her strong, freely-expressed opinions.  Henry James was a close friend, and Anthony Trollope admired her work.  She is one of only four women that he discusses in the chapter of his Autobiography, "On English Novelists of the Present Day," commending her characters and their natural dialogue.

Though I enjoyed Belinda, I didn't feel an immediate need to find more of Rhoda Broughton's books.  But when, within the last couple of months, I came across two more of her novels at Half Price Books, I decided that the book universe was trying to tell me something.  I chose to start with this one, not realizing it was her first published, under a pseudonym, in 1867.  It is the story of Kate Chester, a young woman of twenty, staying with her brother and sister at a dreary Welsh seaside resort.  They are orphans after the recent death of their mother, staying with their aunt and her husband.  Their uncle, a clergyman, looks and sounds so much like a sheep that none of them can take him seriously.  He is also a hypochondriac beyond compare, who would have been perfectly at home with Mr Woodhouse and his weak gruel.  Kate, the youngest of the siblings, has auburn hair, green eyes and a retroussé nose, and most of the men she meets seem to find her irresistable (to the dismay of her older sister Margaret).  But she only has eyes for one: Colonel Dare Stamer, the second son of the local squire's family, "a big, powerful figure; a figure deep-chested, clean-limbed, thin-flanked, that promised strength -"  Bored with the provincial society of the watering-hole, he is happy to flirt with Kate, but they soon find themselves deeply and passionately in love.  They cannot marry, however, and Kate tries to forget him in making a home with her sister, and eventually in charitable work in the London slums. Like Trollope's Lily Dale, she vows never to marry another.

One of Trollope's criticisms of Broughton was that "she has made her ladies do and say things which ladies would not do and say.  They throw themselves at men's heads, and when they are not accepted only think how they may throw themselves again."  He might have been thinking of Kate Chester when he wrote that.   Fionn O'Toole, who edited the Pocket Classics edition I read, argues in the introduction that it is the emotional openness of her heroines, their frankness about their feelings, and their physicality, which made her books so shocking to Victorian readers - and also made them best-sellers. 

In many ways she was an author ahead of her time. Her open, forthright style and candour, the scathing ridicule of spurious social niceties and middle-class pretensions, as well as the uninhibited emotional honesty of her unorthodox heroines all contributed to her reputation for being 'indecent.'  She is an author who caused a sensation in the true sense of the word, rather than just a 'sensation novelist' as such.  Melodrama and tragedy frequent her work, but the accent is less on the sensational event as on the effect of passionate emotions upon youthful immaturity and innocence.  There are male villains to be sure, to whom her women fall irreparably and willingly victim.  What is most shocking about Rhoda Broughton's novels, however, is the way they strip away the façades and veeners of a respectable woman's life and mock the society in which she is trapped.

This book isn't just a polemic, though.  It's also a really good story, with a plot that twists and turns. The story is told in the first person, but it's never clear who the narrator is, except that it is someone who knows the Chesters well.  Whoever it is, he or she is very fond of hints and foreshadowings, some of which are red herrings, particularly the early death of one character, mentioned in the first chapter, and hinted at several times later.  One of the plot twists caught me absolutely and completely off-guard, jolting me into a loud exclamation of surprise.  I happened to be sitting on the veranda of a restaurant at the time.  Fortunately, there was no one at the near-by tables to hear me.  It wasn't just the plot that held me, though, it was also Broughton's characters.  I came to care about Kate and her sister Margaret, and I hated to see Kate making the choices that she did.  I never thought Dare Stamer was worthy of her!  But in her charitable work, which starts with the fashionable "district visiting" expected of young gentlewomen, Kate comes under the direction and guidance of a childhood friend, James Stanley, now the curate of her parish.  He is one of those really good saintly Victorian clergymen, who stands out sharply against the lazy Reverend Piggott and the wicked Colonel Stamer.  I think he's now my favorite curate, after Frank Wentworth, Margaret Oliphant's Perpetual Curate, though I wish he could have had a happier story.  Trollope admitted in a letter to Broughton that this book brought him to tears, and I bet it was Reverend Stanley who did.

The edition I read is by Alan Sutton Publishing, and I'm thankful they rescued this out-of-print classic.  It has no explanatory notes, though, which is a shame.  Broughton quotes constantly from poetry and song, and there are frequent literary and Scriptural allusions, not to mention a couple of Greek quotations for good measure.  I would love to have a Penguin or Oxford Classics edition of this, because I'm sure fully understanding the allusions and quotations would enhance the story even more.

Trollope also wrote of Broughton, "There is nothing wooden about any of [her] novels." That's certainly true of the two I've read, and now I'm really looking forward to reading more.  The other book that I found recently is her second, Cometh Up as a Flower.  I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I actually have two copies of this.  I'd love to pass one along, so if you're already a Broughton fan or you'd like to try her, you can email me or mention it in the comments section.  If there is more than one request, I'll do the traditional drawing.  Of course many of her books are also available through Google Books and Project Gutenberg.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Miss Cayley's cousin

The Type-Writer Girl, Grant Allen (writing as Olive Pratt Rayner)

Even before I finished Charlotte Yonge's The Clever Woman of the Family, I was browsing the Broadview Press site, hoping they had reprinted more of her novels.  I didn't find any of her books, but in the excitement of discovering this book, I didn't even mind.  I had no idea that Grant Allen wrote under pseudonyms!  This is one of two books that he wrote as "Olive Pratt Rayner."  The other is called Rosalba: The Story of Her Development.  Both of "Mrs. Pratt's" books are available through Google Books, though not Project Gutenberg for some reason.

Grant Allen's name caught my eye, as did the title, and then the description sold me:

    Juliet Appleton is an officer's daughter who is forced to make her own way in the world after her father's death.  Having been trained in typewriting and shorthand, she obtains employment at a law office, only to find that she cannot bear to work with her unpleasant colleagues and employer.
    Juliet possesses some of the characteristics of the infamous "New Woman": she has attended Girton College, she smokes cigarettes, and she travels the countryside on her bicycle.  After various adventures, Juliet finds a new opportunity as a type-writer girl for a publishing company . . .

Of course this reminded me immediately of Miss Cayley's Adventures, one of my favorite books of this year.  I couldn't resist ordering a copy, and I read it shortly after it arrived.  It does indeed have more than a few similiaries to Miss Cayley, which was published two years later.  I don't want to say too much about the plot, except that Juliet's adventures take place for the most part in England, in and around London.  Like Miss Cayley, she relies on luck as much as her own determination and skills.  She even makes a good friend named Elsie, helping her hone her typing skills and finding her work, though unlike Lois Cayley she can't invite her Elsie on a European jaunt.

I enjoyed this book, but despite the similarities, to me it didn't quite have the magic of Miss Cayley.  For one thing, it's half the length, just over 120 pages in the edition I read.  Even though it's shorter, it feels a bit padded, with descriptions of scenery (on those bicycle rides, for example), as well as musing on literature, even before Juliet goes to work for a publisher.  She frequently compares her adventures with The Odyessy and with the plays of Shakespeare.  The legend of St. Nicholas providing dowries to three poor girls also plays a big part in her adventures, as does Bizet's opera Carmen.   (I very much appreciated the footnotes in the Broadview edition, which explain the many literary quotations and allusions).  The language seems a bit flowery and high-flown.  I don't know if that's because Grant Allen was trying to disguise his normal style, or because he was trying to write in what he considered a woman's voice.  Either way, the narrative voice doesn't sound completely natural, to my mind.

In the end, though, I did enjoy this, and I've already downloaded Rosalba, which is apparently set in Italy.  Perhaps she will be an Italian "New Woman."  Now I'm curious to see what other pseudonyms Grant Allen used, and what he was writing under them.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Death in the stocks

Death in the Stocks, Georgette Heyer

I gave up on a book Sunday when it hit too many of my personal "ick" factors - in this case, child murder, incest, and fratricide.  I felt like I needed something to cleanse my reading palate afterwards, and Georgette Heyer was a perfect antidote.  I've been meaning to read this book for a while, it's my favorite of her mysteries.

The story opens late one night in the small village of Ashleigh Green.  When PC Dickenson returns from a bicycle patrol, he discovers a dead man sitting in the old stocks on the village green, stabbed in the back.  The victim is Arnold Vereker, a rich industrialist from London who recently bought a cottage in the area.  The police call there the next morning, where they find a young woman who says she is his half-sister  Antonia (she insists on the half part).  She has a bull terrier with her (always a sign of the Heyer heroine at least in the mysteries), and blood on her skirt.  Antonia tells them that she came down to "have it out" with Arnold over a letter that he wrote her, but she refuses to discuss the letter or to answer further questions without a solicitor present, so the police have no choice but to take her to the station and wait.

Her solicitor Giles Carrington, "a tall loose-limbed man in the mid-thirties," with "a pleasant lazy voice," arrives later and convinces her to cooperate with the officers, who now include Superintendent Hannasyde from Scotland Yard (a familiar character from Heyer's other mysteries).  Giles is able to fill the police in on Arnold Vereker, another client of his and his cousin as well.  Tony and her brother Kenneth are the children of a second marriage, but treated as his cousins too.  There was another brother from the first marriage, Roger, shipped off in disgrace many years ago, who is presumed to have died somewhere in South America, leaving Tony and Kenneth the heirs to their brother's estate.  For Tony, that means a comfortable sum.  Kenneth on the other hand inherits the Shan Hills Mine Company and its holdings, a legacy of £250,000.

It is Tony who brings the news of their half-brother's murder back to Kenneth, in the studio flat that they share in London with Murgatroyd, once their mother's maid and now their cook-general (more like their keeper). Kenneth is a painter who is convinced that his work will someday be worth more than all his brother's wealth, but he is very happy to inherit that wealth.  From the moment Tony arrives, she and Kenneth begin to spin theories about the murder, trying to work out how it was done, building up and demolishing cases against themselves and any possible suspect they can identify.  Kenneth has no alibi for the night of the murder - he claims he was walking about the city on his own for most of the night - and he happily argues for the position as chief suspect, since he had the best motive.  His fiancée Violet, though she is a devoted reader of detective novels, is not amused by their game.  Neither is Tony's fiancé Rudolph (the subject of Arnold's letter), and the police are taken aback by their frivolous attitude toward the murder and their casually repeated statements about how much they disliked their brother.

Kenneth and Tony come across as complete brats in this book - though Tony shows signs of reform in the end.  I don't think I'd want to spend too much time in their company, but they are geat fun to read about, with their outrageous theories and their unconventional talk.  There are hints very early on that both have chosen the wrong partner, though I'm not sure that Kenneth at least deserves any better.

Heyer's detective stories are generally darker than her historical novels, many of which include some type of mystery in the story, like my favorites The Quiet Gentleman and The Talisman Ring.  I do think that her mysteries are a bit uneven in quality.  I've read complaints about the plots being improbable, or too simple, but since I never manage to work out who-done-it, that has never bothered me.  The best, like this one, have the crackling dialogue that she wrote so well, and the laugh-out-loud moments, which always draw me back to her books again.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Leading different lives

Flowers on the Grass, Monica Dickens

If this book is any indication, I am going to enjoy Monica Dickens' fiction just as much as the memoirs that introduced her to me.  That's good, since in my first enthusiasm I've collected a few of her books (as often happens with new literary crushes).  This one I bought under a misapprehension, though, from a section in her autobiography where she was talking about a cottage that she bought in Hertfordshire: "Under these idyllic conditions, I wrote a novel called Flowers on the Grass, which began and ended in this cottage."  In the next paragraph, she went on to talk about an idea she had had for years, to write a book about alternative lives, along the lines of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life.  I didn't realize she was talking about different books (and one still unwritten at that).  So I started this one, expecting time slips and alternate selves - and it took me a couple of chapters to figure out my mistake and abandon my assumptions.

This book is, however, about different lives.  As Dickens explained, "I used the idea of a man disappearing from view and leading different lives as a stranger in different settings."  This man, Daniel Brett, had a difficult childhood. Orphaned at 14, he became the family's problem child, expelled from Eton and sent to live on Capri with a "disreputable great-aunt who had hitherto been outside the pale, but now proved her uses."  There he learns to draw and paint, but his studies are interrupted by the Second World War.  Returning to England and military service, he meets again one of his cousins, Jane.  She has been in love with him for years, yearning to make a home and family for him, in a cottage that sounds exactly like the one Monica Dickens found in Hertfordshire.  A tragedy in that cottage leaves Daniel alone again, and disinclined to stay there.

In each of the chapters that follow, Daniel is in a different place, a different job, a different life.  Each is titled with a person's name, and we're introduced first to that person.  We learn a little about them, who they are, what they do, how they live. And then Daniel wanders into their story.  The events that follow are told from their point of view.  In one chapter we meet Doris, a maid at a seaside hotel, preparing No. 4 for a new guest.  In another, George is finishing a meal at a roadside café.  On his way north with a truckload of goods, he reluctantly takes up a hitch-hiker.  In one of my favorite chapters, we meet Dickie, a host at the Gaydays Holiday Camp near Whitby, smart in his white slacks and bright-blue sweater, full of camp spirit.  To some of these lives, Daniel brings change, challenge, upset.  He is more open, to connection, to friendship, even to love, with some.  With others, he simply passes through their lives at a particular moment.

Each of the stories is self-contained, and only at the end do any of the characters reappear.  With most of the chapters, the ending came too soon for me.  I wanted to follow these people further into their lives, even if it meant abandoning Daniel.  I was particularly concerned about Pamela, a young student at an awful avant-garde school where Daniel briefly joins the faculty.  I suppose it's too much to hope that any of these people turn up in other books.  I also enjoyed the different settings, slices of life in England in the late 1940s.  I was impressed with the range of characters, most of whom felt like real people.  Dickens writes about them with warmth and empathy, while allowing them their faults and weaknesses.  She doesn't mock them, not even Dickie - though Daniel does, often.  Her narrative voice is different here, less sardonic and snarky, but equally observant.

N.B. The spell-check option has disappeared from my tool-bar.  No matter how many times I proof my drafts, I always find another mistake just after I hit the publish button - so mortifying.

Friday, June 14, 2013

An interrupted holiday in Provence

Madam, Will You Talk?   Mary Stewart

When I think of Mary Stewart, I think of her Merlin series, particularly of The Crystal Cave, my favorite.  I can't remember how old I was when I first read these books, but her Merlin Emrys is my Merlin.  No others need apply.  Though I've read a couple of her contemporary stories, I really have no memory of them, other than the entries in my reading diary.  Then last year I began seeing posts about her books on some of my favorite blogs, like Anbolyn's, Helen's and Katrina's.  They convinced me that I have been missing out on some wonderful stories.  And the gloriously bright and retro covers on the new Hodder editions made me want to run out and buy them all, just for the pleasure of admiring them on my shelves.

But as happens too often, I got distracted by other things.  So it was a pleasant shock last Sunday to come across a whole shelf of Mary Stewart's books, in the Hodder editions, at Half Price Books.  I didn't in fact buy them all, in part because I'd also found a Barbara Pym (Less Than Angels) and an Eva Ibbotson (Magic Flutes).   I virtuously restricted myself to two (while reserving the right to come back the following weekend for more).  I chose Madam, Will You Talk?  from the back-cover blurb:

It sounds idyllic: a leisurely drive through the sun-drenched landscape of Provence.  But Charity's dream holiday turns into a nightmare as she becomes embroiled in a murder attempt . . . and she finds herself falling in love with the suspected murderer.

I didn't realize until later that this was Stewart's first novel, published in 1955.  What a wonderful way to begin!  I enjoyed this book so much.  While I had a pretty good idea where the story was heading, some of the plot twists still took me by surprise.  I took to Charity Selborne, the narrator, straight off, even before she informed us, "I get on well with cats.  As you will find, I have a lot in common with them, and with the Elephant's Child."  As the book opens, she has just arrived in Avignon with her friend Louise, whom she has invited to join her for a two-week holiday in Provence.  Louise is an artist as well as an art teacher, but she is much less interested in playing tourist than Charity is.  Charity makes friends with a boy, David Shelley, staying at the same hotel with his stepmother.  From another guest, she learns of a tragedy involving David and his father, and realizes why he seems so unhappy and isolated.  She invites him to join her on a day trip from Avignon to Nîmes.  There they meet someone from David's past, who thinks Charity his keeper.  Soon she finds herself in a desperate race to Marseilles and then out of it, trying to shield David while unraveling the truth of the family's tragedy.

As much as  the characters, I loved the setting: Provence, baking in the summer sun (much like Houston these days), the towns with their Roman ruins and their cheerful crowds.  Then there is Marseilles,

sliced in two by the straight line of the Canebière, the busiest street in Europe, where, sooner or later, all the world passed by.  It was said that if you sat in the Canebière long enough, you would see passing by you every soul that you knew.

And in the harbor at Marseilles, the Château d'Ilf.  Charity, a bit distracted on her visit there, doesn't mention the Count of Monte Cristo, though I'm sure the tour guides do.

I could perhaps have done with a little less description of the long drives, even the white-knuckled chases.  And I confess that I prefer my heroes less domineering and prone to violence (however great the provocation).  These are mere quibbles, however. This book was another perfect summer read, and a great antidote for a not-so-great week.  I'm looking forward to more Mary Stewart, including a reading week that Anbolyn is organizing.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A pet-sitter investigates

The Cat Sitter's Pajamas, Blaize Clement

I've noticed that after I've spent some quality time in the Victorian era, as with The Clever Woman of the Family,  I often have a reactional impulse to read something very much of my time, preferably with a spunky independent heroine who takes no guff from anyone - a modern-day Amelia Peabody.  Dixie Hemingway, the main character in Blaize Clement's series of mysteries, is a perfect answer to that, and this book was a perfect summer read.

Dixie ("no relation to you-know-who") lives on Siesta Key, a barrier island off the Florida coast, on the Gulf of Mexico just west of Sarasota.  Every time I read one of these books, I want to book an immediate flight to Sarasota:

I live here for the same reason so many famous people have second or third or maybe eighth homes here - because it's a paradise of riotous colors, balmy sea breezes, cool talcum sand beaches, and every songbird and seabird you can think of.  Snowy egrets walk around in our parking lots, great blue herons stand vigil on people's lawns, and if we look up we see the silhouette of frigate birds flying above the clouds like ships without a home.

Dixie grew up on the Key, in a house on the beach that her grandparents built many years before.  Her brother and his partner now live in the house, and she has an apartment over the carport.  She moved back in with her family after her husband and small daughter were killed.  In the aftermath, Dixie gave up her job as a sheriff's deputy.  She now has her own business working as a pet-sitter, mostly for cats, dogs, and birds (she doesn't mind snakes but hates feeding them live mice).  Through her work, Dixie sometimes finds herself in the middle of criminal cases that involve her clients.  She often involves herself more deeply than her brother or the police think she should, if she feels someone needs her help, and she is willing to cross moral and ethical lines to provide that help.

In this book, the seventh in the series, Dixie's clients include Cupcake and Jancey Trillin, who have left their cats in her charge while they travel to Italy.  Cupcake is a star athlete, a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whom Dixie met in the previous book (Cat Sitter Among the Pigeons).  When she arrives one morning at their home in an exclusive gated community, she is met by a nearly-naked woman who announces that she is Cupcake's wife.  Dixie steps outside to call the Trillins and then the police.  When two officers arrive, they enter the house with her to find a woman dead in the living room, her throat slit.  But it's not the woman Dixie met, who later finds her, asking for her help.  Dixie feels compelled to help her, though at the same time she wants to protect Cupcake and Jancey from both accusations of complicity, and the storm of publicity that a dead woman in a star athlete's home will set off.

Like the other books in the series, this one has an intriguing mystery for Dixie to unravel.  I always enjoy the characters, human and animal, who make up her extended family, and who often help her in her cases.  I love the vivid sense of setting that Blaize Clement evokes, though in this book perhaps some of the description could have been pruned back a bit.  On the other hand there is just enough description of Dixie's work and her animal clients, which as a cat-owner I think are presented pretty realistically. (After a  stressful day at work, I often think that I will give it all up and become a pet-sitter.)  I have to say though that I don't think Dixie or her creator have been well-served by her publisher, Minotaur Books.  The last few covers have featured cutsie kittens whimsically posed, with punning titles like this one.  Neither the covers nor the titles have anything to do with the stories, and to my mind they give a false impression of cosiness, as if Dixie were a Florida version of Miss Marple, with cats instead of knitting.  These books are not noir, but they aren't G-rated either.  In this one, there are frequent (though non-graphic) references to the sexual abuse that one character suffered as a child, and another character's head gets blown off.

I was sorry to learn that Blaize Clement died in 2011.  I enjoyed following her blog and had wondered when she stopped posting to it.  According to an obituary I read, she left the manuscripts for two more books in the series, as well as materials her son will use to write others.  I don't usually read continuations, but I will keep an eye out for these.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Clever women

The Clever Woman of the Family, Charlotte M. Yonge

Devoted myself to Miss Yonge's last novel, The Clever Woman of the Family; her best, I think, since Heartsease.  She has no great creative or constructive power; she can produce but two finished portraits of woman-kind (Amy and Laura in The Heir of Redclyffe, Lady Temple and Rachel Curtis in this last book, Violet and her sister-in-law in Heartsease), but all she writes is pure, refined, womanly, healthy, and wholesome beyond the work of any living novelist.  Anthony Trollope comes next . . .   - George Templeton Strong, diary entry, July 13, 1865.

Over the past week I have also devoted myself to this book.  I've now read three of Charlotte Yonge's novels, and I like each one better than the last.  I can't agree with Strong that she has "no great creative or constructive power."  This story is more complex than either The Daisy Chain or The Heir of Redclyffe, with a larger cast of characters and a mystery to be unraveled at its heart.  It is the story of two sets of sisters, one set of brothers, and a brother and sister.  The "clever woman" of the title is Rachel Curtis, who is introduced in the first chapter, living with her older sister Grace and their widowed mother in the seaside town of Avonmouth (standing in for Exmouth).  Their estate, The Homestead, of which Grace and Rachel are joint heiresses, includes much of the land around the town, which is becoming popular as a winter resort.  Rachel has just turned 25, and she longs to be doing something to improve the lives of the local people, particularly the girls who are apprenticed too young to lace-making.  She want a purpose, a mission.  She spends her spare time in study, but she has no one to discuss and debate with, no one to guide her reading, which has made her rather dogmatic and overbearing.  People agree with her to escape confrontation, or they just avoid her conversation all together.

A mission soon comes to hand with a letter announcing the impending arrival of her cousin Fanny and her family from India.  The daughter of a soldier, Fanny went out to join her parents in South Africa when she was 16.  At her father's death, which quickly followed her arrival, she married his old friend Sir Simon Temple, aged 60 to her 16.  Now, nine years later, Sir Simon has died, and Fanny is returning to England as Lady Temple, with seven children, including a new-born daughter, Stephana.  (There is also a son named Leoline, though the others have more usual names).  Rachel determines to take charge of the widow and her children, appointing herself tutor to the boys and chaperone to the mother.  The boys do not take kindly to her regime, and gentle Lady Temple is quick to defend and excuse them.  Rachel, finding her theories of education and child management falling short of the reality of six troublesome boys, agrees to give up  charge of them to a new governess.

Fortunately, there is a candidate close at hand in Alison Williams.  She and her sister Ermine live in a small cottage with their niece Rose.  Ermine, the elder, is in a wheelchair, having suffered terrible burns in an accidental fire that left her unable to walk.  She spends much of her time caring for Rose, a winsome child of seven, the daughter of their brother Edward.  In the second great tragedy of their family, Edward was accused of fraud, in connection with an industrial process that he was developing, and fled to the Continent.  Alison and Ermine have been ostracized by their family for insisting on his innocence.  In their poverty and isolation, the offer of a position with the Temples comes as a great relief.  Alison handles her new charges very easily, and she gets on well with Lady Temple.  Rachel, meanwhile, finds herself drawn to Ermine, recognzing in her a well-read, educated, thinking person, with a deeper understanding than Rachel herself.  Ermine listens patiently to Rachel's theories and dogmas, but she isn't afraid to challenge, and she will not be intimidated or overborne.  Rachel learns from one Williams sister as the Temple boys do from the other.

Though she gives up charge of the boys, Rachel still feels herself the guardian of their young mother (like Rachel, aged 25).  Lady Temple is good-hearted, simple and generous.  Though she is determined never to marry again, having loved Sir Stephen deeply and sincerely mourning him, Rachel keeps a suspicious eye on every man who comes near her.  She particularly resents Colonel the Hon. Colin Keith, whom Sir Stephen made the guardian of his family with Fanny's Aunt Curtis.  Fanny depends on him for everything, she refers all questions to him, especially those involving the boys.  Rachel also keeps a close eye on the Colonel's distant cousin Captain Alexander Keith.  Alick served under Fanny's father, and his sister Bessie, who also knew the family, comes to stay with Lady Temple.  Rachel, suspecting every man of designs on Lady Temple, never notices that both men have other reasons for staying in Avonmouth.

I did enjoy this book, for its twisty plot but also for its characters.  I felt for Rachel, who like Jo March in Little Women has great energy and talents, but no real outlet for them.  According to the introduction, this book addresses the problem of "surplus women" in British society in the mid-19th century, when "women outnumber men to such an extent that not all women can expect to marry."  Rachel does not plan to marry, but to work at some mission, once she discovers the proper one.  At age 25, she considers herself past the marrying age anyway, a point of view not shared by her older sister Grace.  Alison Williams is another young woman who has made a career as a governess instead of marrying.  But as much as I enjoyed this book, it also left me a little uneasy, because more than any other 19th-century novelist I've read, Yonge makes her characters pay for their mistakes, their sins, and retribution falls heavily on the women.  Perhaps that is why 19th-century readers like George Templeton Strong saw her books as so "pure, refined, womanly, healthy and wholesome."  In this book, one character's misbehavior leads to her death, and another's mistakes cost the life of a child.

I was also uncomfortable with Yonge's insistence that women's intellect, and even their souls, must be guided and shaped by the men in their lives.  Here is another parallel with Little Women: Rachel must find her Professor Bhaer, to tone down her stridency, to make her realize that she is not as educated and well-informed as she thinks she is.  In the end, it takes two mentors, one of whom helps her find again the faith that she thought lost to rationalism.  "And after all, unwilling as she would have been to own it, a woman's tone of thought is commonly moulded by the masculine intellect, which, under one form or another, becomes the master of her soul."  As a 21st-century woman with an unmastered soul, I am absolutely unwilling to own that.

And yet in other ways this book is surprisingly progressive.  Yonge also gives us Ermine Williams, a truly clever woman, who seems to have succeeded where Rachel failed in shaping herself without a master.  And Yonge gives us not one but two characters, physically maimed and handicapped, both of whom are loved and marry happily.  One character even has a home prepared and made handicap-accessible.  A third character, Alick and Bessie's uncle Mr. Clare, is blind but still continues as rector of a parish, with the help of a curate.  I can't think of another 19th-century novel that I have read where anything like this happens - where physically disabled characters can be central and heroic while also living normal lives.  In another unexpected twist for a novel of this time, Yonge makes one of the male characters - again, a central and heroic one - a tender and devoted nurse, much in demand.

Admist all the discussion of serious reading, I was tickled to find two of my favorite characters are fans of Anthony Trollope.  Alick Keith is visiting his uncle, to whom he often reads aloud.  Mr. Clare asks, "You have not by chance got Framley Parsonage?"   Alick tells him no, but that they will get a copy.  Mr. Clare goes on to say, "Bessie has it.  She read me a very clever scene about a weak young parson bent on pleasing himself; and offered to lend me the book, but I thought it would not edify Will Walker [his curate]."  Instead, they settle down to read Silas Marner.

I was so surprised and happy to find this book at Half Price Books.  I always look in the "Y" section at used-book stores but without much hope, since so few of Yonge's books have been reprinted and they are very hard to find.  The edition I found is from the Broadview Press, which has published many 19th-century novels in editions like this one, which has not just an introduction by a professor of English, Clare Simmons, but also appendicies with supplementary information on Yonge herself, on the "Surplus Women" question, and some background historical information (on the British army in the period of the novel, for example).  I have since discovered that my copy of Margaret Oliphant's autobiography is also a Broadview edition.  I can only hope that they will continue to reprint women writers, and I am hoping specifically for more of Yonge's novels (which are available as e-texts; I still prefer print).

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Four lives in London

Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym

When I found a copy of this at Half Price Books last week, I decided it would be my first choice for the Barbara Pym Reading Week.  As I've mentioned before, I read some of Pym's books many years ago.  I enjoyed them, but they made no lasting impression on me, and I can't even remember now which ones I read.  Once I started blogging, I found such enthusiastic readers that I knew I had to try her books again.  I began with Excellent Women, which left me eager to read more. 

Quartet in Autumn was not what I expected in a "Barbara Pym novel."  I had no idea that any of her books included the phrase "F*ck off," even spoken by a passing unnamed character.  That made me realize that though I've read so little of her work, I've unconsciously type-cast her books: quietly ironic social comedies of spinsters, curates, tea, frustrated romances.  Actually, this book has all of those, but in a very different kind of story.  It is set in London in the 1970s, with immigrants swelling the population amid economic uncertainties.  The quartet of the title are two men, Norman and Edwin, and two women, Marcia and Letty.  All four are in their sixties, coming up on retirement after working together in an office for years.  We learn almost nothing about their work, what they do during office hours, other than talk.  Though circumspect, never sharing too much information, they know each other's situations.  Yet though each is single, and on his or her own (despite Edwin's married daughter and grandchildren), they don't meet outside of the office, even at lunch.  All go their own way, and the story follows them each in turn.  Looking back, it seems to me that we learn almost as little about Norman's life outside the office as his work inside, other than his constant worry about inflation and his fondness for butter beans.  Edwin's life is the Church, and he follows the liturgical year through the High Church parishes that he visits in turn.  Marcia has recently had a serious operation, and it is clear that she is not completely well, physically or mentally.  Her neighbors have noticed some odd behavior, though Janice, the social worker who visits regularly, never seems to notice that Marcia simply stonewalls her (Janice's inexperience is matched only by her self-complacency). 

Of the four, the two women are the closest to retirement.  While Marcia owns her small house, Letty plans to share her old friend Marjorie's cottage in the country.  But when Marjorie's situation changes, Letty loses that comfortable future and must make new plans.  She has already lost one home, when a Nigeran immigrant buys the house where she has rented a room for many years.  Though Letty has some concerns about living among Africans and immigrants, which her office-mates share, it is her new landlord's congregation, meeting in his flat and singing exuberant hymns, which finally drives her to move.

Barbara Pym does something wonderful with these quiet lives.  I agree with the cover blurb from The Financial Times about her "Extraordinarily delicate irony, fine writing, understated humour, and some bleak perceptions about the human condition."  I am still thinking about her people, wondering what happened to them, how their stories turned out.  Anbolyn has also written about Quartet in Autumn, and now I'm off to read her review, and see what other people are reading for the week - and maybe find my next book.