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Posts Tagged ‘Betty Miller’

ontheside oftheangels

I wonder how many people have actually heard of Betty Miller, possibly not many, which is a tragedy. Of the seven novels she published during her lifetime, only one is currently in print – Farewell Leicester Square re-issued by the marvellous Persephone books. I am constantly saddened by the number of wonderful women writers of the past no longer in print. Betty Miller is an exceptionally good writer, her prose is delightful, but it is her assured portrayal of really quite complex characters – both male and female that I find particularly impressive.

During the Second World War Betty Miller’s husband was commissioned as a Major in the RAMC – a war office posting which lead Betty to write On the Side of Angels in 1944 – although due to a paper shortage it wasn’t published until 1945. The novel looks at how the lives of men were changed with the coming of war, and how the women in their lives had to change and re-assess their roles. The balance between civilian and non-civilian is a delicate one in this story of the psychological effects of war on both men and women.

“Along the main road, where a row of telegraph-poles with white china florets looked like giant hyacinths, came a group of men in khaki. They walked at a leisurely pace, talking together, the smallest on the far side leading a bicycle by the handle-bars. “There they are, now,” Claudia said. ‘ And coming from the hospital too, like good boys…’ she grinned ‘it seems we misjudged them’
‘Oh’ Honor said ‘but – look-look- look who’s –‘ Her voice seemed to retract in her throat: it was extinguished. Foolishly (for of course it was mere foolishness, Colin always said so), every sense in her body seemed to shrink. She looked about her, as if seeking a way of retreat, some cover that would mitigate the enormity of her presence on the bridge at that moment.
Claudia too had seen. The gold braid, the tabs: more unmistakeable, the characteristic stooping gait. ‘The C.O’ she said in a startled voice.”

In Betty Miller’s novel the RAMC hospital in the village of Linfield occupies a unique position, much against the village’s wishes the hospital dictates everything that goes on. The war has changed people, by the mere donning of a bit of khaki personalities are altered. Honor Carmichael and her two young sons have been uprooted to Linfield, living in rented accommodation, while Honor’s husband Colin; a former small town doctor, is stationed at the RAMC hospital.

“Don’t forget the Prisoners of Peace – the people who’ve had to live battened down, all their lives, pretending to conform, pretending to be what they aren’t. And that applies to most of us”

The hospital has become the focus of the whole village, uniformed officers to dance with and gossip over – the post office girl nicknamed Ginger Rogers (real name Ivy) a particular favourite with some. The hospital is also the scene for various power games and petty feuds, directed, in part at least by the C O Colonel Mayne – a manipulative man who barely tolerates the wives and children of his men. Colin is a little too enamoured of his C O putting his concerns above those of his family, desperate to impress. Along with many other men, Colin is able to almost live the life of a bachelor in this new uniformed society. At home Honor quietly submits to this way of life, running the house and caring for her little boys, while trying not to irritate Colin’s C O with her presence. A new favourite at the hospital is commando Captain Herriot who’s green beret turns the heads of both men and women.

Honor Carmichael’s sister, Claudia, arrives to stay, as the school where she teaches has been relocated from London. Claudia is engaged to Andrew, a solicitor recently invalided out of the army. Andrew’s discharge threatens to rock the already delicate balance of their relationship, as a man out of uniform is invisible – and Claudia has engaged herself to the uniform as Andrew cynically reminds her.

As I have already stated I think Betty Miller’s writing is superb, and although I really loved Farewell Leicester Square, I think I liked this one even more. I really need to locate more of Betty Miller’s work, although I am not supposed to be buying books at the moment. Thank you Jane for sending me this as part of my Librarything Virago group secret santa parcel.

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farewell leicester square

This was the book selected for me by the Classic club spin.

Betty Miller wrote ‘Farewell Leicester Square’ in 1935 but it was rejected at first no doubt due to the sensitive subject matter of anti-Semitism and the sense of disappointment which pervades the novel. The book finally appeared in 1941. Betty Miller was a young wife and mother when she wrote ‘Farewell Leicester Square’ but she must have been aware on some level at least of what was happening in Germany at this time, and this novel must have been her response to the Jewish experience as she saw it in England.
In Farewell Leicester Square we meet Alec Berman, who succeeds in his ambitions to make it in the British film industry. The novel opens on premier night of Berman’s film ‘Farewell Leicester Square’ – a film which epitomises his work, and comes to be his greatest success. The story then returns briefly to Alec’s teenage years in Brighton, one of three siblings in a Jewish family that expects him to join his father in the family business. Alec’s father is disparaging of his ambitions – ultimately throwing down an ultimatum that results in Alec leaving Brighton for London – and not seeing his family for seventeen years.
Alec is ambitious and as a sixteen year old he contrives to meet Richard Nicolls owner of the Ladywell film company at the Nicolls home in Rottingdean. Their home and the life he glimpses there seems to represent for him the world from which he feels excluded, but which he longs to be a part of.

“Their gaze passed him over, up and down, idly; without interest or curiosity. Then they continued on their way as though nothing were. Walking together without speaking: at one in their natural intimacy. Moving with unconscious assurance of young animals under the sun. Alec looking after them as they went, felt down to the roots of his being the contrast which emerged between himself and them: and it was at that precise moment, for the first time, that something new, the sense of racial distinctness, awoke in him …. A sudden knowledge of the difference between these two, who could tread with careless assurance a land which was in every sense theirs; and himself, who was destined to live always on the fringe to exist only in virtue of the toleration of others, with no birthright but that of toleration.”

Fourteen years later Alec is a success, and he finds himself married to Catherine, the daughter of Richard Nicolls. The marriage is over shadowed however by Alec’s over awareness of himself – he constantly examines other people’s attitude to him and his Jewishness – he suspects even his wife of looking down on him. Viewing himself continually as an outsider impacts upon Alec’s whole life, and his relationships. Alec’s preoccupation with how he is perceived begins to look a little like paranoia – as he begins to push away the only people who really don’t have any issue with his race. farewell leicester square1
This is the sort of novel which has people crying ..”but nothing much happens” – well nothing much does happen – the novel is an extremely good examination of middle class English life, ambition and the small almost invisible acts of anti-Semitism that exist there. There are some large gaps in the story of Alec and his career as a film maker – but in a sense that doesn’t matter – the story is much more about Alec Berman’s view of himself, and the way that in striving to make the sort of life for himself that he has always wanted, he does in fact lose something of himself. Alec is not a character I always felt able to sympathise with, in a way he pushes the reader away in the same way he pushes his wife away.
Miller’s writing is excellent. She slyly exposes petty everyday racism that is of course in fact far from petty, it’s destructive; in Alec it breeds a kind of paranoia – which blights his life. Miller’s portrayal of both middle class English life and the suffocating limits of Alec’s family home in Brighton is brilliantly done.

“There are some things, he thought, which one would remember always. The smell of those rooms in Landsdowne Road. Coming in out of an unbounded night – the sea, hedged between green-sleeked breakwaters, surging with prolonged thunder upon the empty clattering stones; and the lights all along the front, blown, winking before the breathless night-riding winds – to find this immured warmth: solid, motionless. To stand, eyes dazzled, flesh still ringing from the exterior cold, before this quiet room, warm with the accumulated fires of winter and the intimate life and breath of human bodies, with gaze as bright and alien as that of some animal come momentarily out of another existence. And conscious of course, of his own voluntary isolation; of this new priggish desire of his to rupture the dull bondage of flesh making him one with these people.”

Such writing – in my opinion – deserves recognition, and I am glad Persephone books saw fit to re-issue it. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel – and although it won’t be my favourite Persephone novel – it is one I am very glad to have read and it certainly makes me want to read more of Betty Miller’s work.

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