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Posts Tagged ‘Carola Oman’

It really felt like quite a long time since I had picked up a Dean Street Press book, when I took Nothing to Report out of the tbr cupboard. It was absolutely the right book at the right time, and an author I hadn’t read before. It is the first of two books – and I have had to buy the second, Somewhere in England too – because it is clear it will follow on, and on finishing this one I knew I would soon want to pick up the stories of these characters.  

I have always loved novels written and set during the Second World War (far preferable to modern historical novels I think) but there is an added poignancy perhaps to those novels set in the final months of peace. First published in 1940 Nothing to Report takes place largely in 1939 – the last short chapter in 1940 – and everywhere there is the talk of war, preparations well underway months in advance.

This is that lovely type of English middlebrow fiction where nothing very much happens, there are no great dramatic episodes, instead we have recognisable types, living ordinary lives in a small English village. So, in a sense all of life happens here – the ordinary and every day, the events that loom large in everybody’s lives. Carola Oman’s writing style is very slightly in that Provincial Lady tradition. There’s some gently amusing lines from a writer whose style I engaged with immediately.

“‘I have told Rose that there will be a chauffeur for dinner.’ She ended, frowning slightly at the slight cannibalistic sound of her sentence.”

Fortyish, unmarried distressed gentlewoman Mary Morrison is known as ‘Button’ among her closest friends. She now lives in a much smaller house; a converted seventeenth century cottage, her former large family home is nearby – but Miss Morrison is philosophical about having had to let that go. She is helped around the house by Doris, a very young girl from the village. Mary remains at the centre of village life surrounded by friends. One of her friends, Catha, Lady Rollo has just returned from India, and she is set on setting up a lavish household in the vicinity, with her husband and children. Catha’s son the socialist Tony is Mary’s godson – of whom she is very fond indeed, a different young man to his brother the perfect Crispin, and his sister Elizabeth who is due to be presented at court.

Each chapter title is a date – beginning on February 22nd, 1939, with the final chapter dated midsummer 1940. Throughout this period, war is a popular topic of conversation. Women of Mary’s generation certainly have reason to remember the First World War – Mary has recently renewed her first aid certificate coincidentally on the anniversary of her first certificate – as she recalls to her friend.

“I found that I was sitting for that examination on the exact anniversary of my last shot at it—quarter of a century ago—January 16th, 1914. And what’s more, under the questions, I had scribbled, in the high spirits natural to sweet seventeen, ‘Never again! not if I know it!’ Before I returned that paper to its file,” said Miss Morrison, “I added the words, ‘First Aid taken again January 16th, 1939. I did not know.”

With war looking more and more like a possibility, Miss Morrison hears from her widowed sister-in-law in London, Marcelle and her challenging daughter Rosemary who may soon be arriving to stay with Mary to escape the expected bombs. Another minor character, who we don’t see much of in this book is Miss Rosanna Masquerier an historical novelist – who is apparently a wry self portrait of the author herself.

“Hasn’t it gone into a cheap edition?” “I am glad to say it has,” affirmed Miss Masquerier, brightening. “Now I am so interested to hear that you are pleased about that,” said little Mrs. Mimms, to whom prolonged silence was an impossibility, whatever the circumstances. “I never know myself whether it is a good thing or a bad thing for an author when their books are sold off cheap.”

Many of the characters in this novel rely on Mary Morrison’s calm, sympathy and practical good sense – she is a very likeable character – and there may just be the chance of a late romance on the cards.

Although the majority of the characters are firmly upper class – as a reader I really didn’t get that sense of snobbery that some writers of this period fall foul of. In fact – Carola Oman shows us something of all classes living in her fictional village of Westbury-on-the-Green. Sheilah Hill and her sisters are portrayed as cheerful busy middle class young women, one of whom keeps house while one sister breeds bloodhounds and another cultivates flowers. The daughters of a Canon, Sheilah is about to leave for Canada to be married. When a young working class village man gets married – the whole village turns out to watch, no matter who they are – everyone it seems loves a country wedding, and supports the young couple starting out.

As the inevitability of war draws nearer – village life carries on, there’s an unexpected day out at Ascot – Elizabeth’s coming our ball in London and Mary’s annual holiday to Scotland. However, it is 1939, and we all know what happens next. The novel ends in Midsummer 1940 – and naturally not everything is quite tidied up neatly – just as in life. So, I really mustn’t leave it too long before I read Somewhere in England.

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