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Posts Tagged ‘Dean Street Press’

We come to books in a variety of ways, I find. I came to this one through a Twitter conversation – the subject of which I can’t remember now, but two people mentioned having absolutely loved this book and I soon found myself buying it. I don’t need much convincing where Dean Street Press books are concerned. I later discovered I already had an e-book version on my kindle – sent to me by the publisher, but I am glad I have the real book version to keep.

Ruby Ferguson was a prolific writer, Apricot Sky was her sixth novel under the name Ruby Fergusson, although she had also published several mystery novels under the name of R C Ashby between 1926 and 1934. Additionally she published a series of children’s pony books – the Jill series during the 1940s and 50s. The only book by her I had read was Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary which Persephone has reissued, though it is some years since I read it.  

Apricot Sky is one of those wonderful middlebrow titles that is a sheer joy to read. I read the majority of it during the last few days of my half term holiday, it was perfect company. Set in the Scottish Highlands three years after the end of the war, featuring a large lovable family, their optimism, love, humour set against the ups and downs of normal (sometimes chaotic) family life is absolutely irresistible. There are all the usual deprivations left over from the war, in terms of food shortages etc – but they aren’t dwelt upon and the characters seem capable of rising above such petty concerns.  

Mr and Mrs MacAlvey are a generally loving and cheerful middle aged couple, despite having lost two sons during the war. They are however, still surrounded by the remainder of their large family. There is Raine, newly engaged to Ian Garvine, the younger brother of the laird of Larrich, the sprawling old farm where Raine and her sister spent much of their time growing up. Cleo is just returned from three years in America – everyone excited at her coming home and wondering if she will have become all American. She still harbours a secret love for Neil Garvine, laird, older brother and everyone thinks confirmed bachelor. Raine and Cleo’s brother James lives not too far away with his neurotic wife Trina – who utterly smothers their two slightly nervous children. The housekeeper is Vannah – who after many years is really just another member of the family, and loved by all.

Three MacAlvey grandchildren live in the MacAlvey homestead too – orphaned during the war they slightly wild and adventurous – spending hours out of the house messing around in boats and delighting in the long summer holidays. These three, Primrose, Gavin and Archie keep everyone on their toes with their summer exploits. When the children hear that their English cousins are coming to visit – they are dismayed – fearing an end to their holiday adventures. The beginning of the stay is certainly not auspicious.

“It was a relief when the dinner gong sounded. The children made their way to the bottom of the table, where they usually sat in unobtrusive silence, avoiding any awkward questions from their elders, but this did not suit Cecil and Elinore, who waited to be given places by Mrs MacAlvey. Very soon Cecil was intelligently discussing the shooting prospects with Mr MacAlvey, while Elinore chatted in a sophisticated way with Cleo and Raine and was obviously making a big hit.”

Clearly, Elinore and Cecil are nothing like the MacAlvey children, Elinore in her silk stockings and court shoes at fourteen and sixteen year old Cecil in a tie and smart tweed sports jacket seem very buttoned up and prim. Soon enough, Elinore and Cecil get drawn into their cousins’ adventures which aren’t without risk.

Cleo quickly settles back into her old home with relief – planning on going to Edinburgh to find a new job after the summer. She is delighted to see her sister so happy, and throws herself into the wedding planning, and helping Raine and Ian decide what alterations need to be made to the old house before it welcomes its new mistress. Cleo proves to have a good eye for this kind of thing.

“I’m haunted by an awful dread,” said Raine. “It was a wedding Mysie once went to. The bridegroom never turned up and the bride swooned at the altar.”
“Have you practised swooning?”

As happy as she is for her sister, Cleo is saddened to see that Neil seems barely to notice her, while every time he is anywhere near her, she can barely concentrate. She tries hard to reacquaint herself with Neil, but is distressed by how stilted and strained their conversations seem to be. It doesn’t help that a glamourous young widow, Inga Duthie has moved into the area, a tenant of Neil’s, at ease with everyone, who in turn think she is wonderful. Cleo decides she can’t stand her. So, she is less than delighted to have to go and take tea with her.

“‘Of course I am a fool’ thought Cleo joylessly applying lipstick, ‘and I have a diseased mind. No wonder nobody likes me.’

In this low-spirited mood she found herself putting on a green linen coat and skirt which did not suit her and an organdie blouse which was wilted from having been worn before.

‘As if I cared’ she told her unpromising reflection in the mirror. I’m not competing.’”

There are visitors galore – one of whom talks endlessly about her operation, a garden party, visits to the neighbours, hikes, picnics and lots of wedding talk. So in a sense there isn’t really much plot – but who cares? It’s a simply charming story of a lovely family, everyday life, adventurous child exploits and romance set against the stunning landscape of the Scottish Highlands. Its definitely the kind of book I am always sad to finish, it was such a pleasure spending time with this family. It is also a novel which is frequently delightfully funny.

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I finished my March reading with Cecil – the final novel by Elizabeth Eliot. Cecil is the fourth novel by Elizabeth Eliot I have read, all of them reissued by Dean Street Press. With all of them, I have really enjoyed the way she creates characters, exploring them within a story spanning several decades. In this novel, like in two of those previous novels Eliot tells the story of her eponymous character through the eyes of another. It is an interesting lens through which to tell a story, one that I imagine is difficult to get right. The character telling the story can’t possibly know everything, and yet they need to know enough to tell the story, Elizabeth Eliot seems to get this limited perspective just right. There is both humour and darkness here, and Eliot’s gift of observation sits alongside her skill as a darn good storyteller perfectly.

Lady Anne, the wife of Charles Guthrie narrates this story, which starts in the 1870s. From old age she looks back on the life of her husband’s half brother Cecil, telling the story of the relationship between him and his mother, the beautiful, dominating Lady Guthrie, who married a man many years older than herself. Although the novel is named for Cecil, Lady Guthrie is necessarily the main focus of the novel – for her influence upon Cecil, his life and everything that happens to him is key. Lady Guthrie is that wonderful thing, a brilliantly written monster, who sees herself entirely differently.

“As I waited for the carriage I realised that whereas before I had been accustomed to think of her as a selfish and often foolish woman I now regarded her as a veritable ogress.”

Cecil is Lady Edythe Guthrie’s adored son – he has been petted, coddled and gushed over his whole life by his mother, a woman prone to sudden, unexplained illnesses (which will often occur when most convenient to her) and adept at manipulation. The two have a strong bond and even as an adult, when away from home Cecil writes long and affectionate letters home to her. Lady Anne, her husband, the mild, dependable Charlie, and their cynical American cousin Nealie, watch from that unique and privileged position enjoyed by family as Cecil’s life is systematically destroyed by Lady Guthrie’s absurd and selfish domination.

“What dark secret could there possibly be in the boy’s life that would not be at least suspected by us? It was Lady Guthrie’s almost insane desire to possess her son and keep him for ever chained to her side that was so horrible.”

As a young man, Cecil falls in love, and despite the fact the couple are still very young, Cecil is eager to marry. Lady Anne is concerned from the first that Lady Guthrie will somehow ruin it all, and as things transpire she has reason to fear. Cecil appears oblivious to his mother’s behaviours, her illnesses that mean he must immediately return home to her side, her pretended support – that to others looks rather different and slightly malevolent. Time and again, Anne, Charlie and Nealie conspire gently, charmed by his happiness and obvious love, wanting only to save him from his mother. Later, Lady Anne and Charlie even manage to take Cecil’s manservant Thompson into their confidence, someone else who cares what happens to Cecil but is powerless against the power of Lady Guthrie.

“Intensive preparations for the wedding started a full month before it was due to take place. It was to be in the grand manner, although of course big weddings were then much smaller affairs than they became later. In those days, although the custom was already beginning to change, people invited only their relations and more intimate friends to see them married and didn’t bother with persons whom they had only met once in their lives.”

For the reader, there is a poignancy in witnessing Cecil’s slow decline, all the promise, love and optimism that we witness when he is a young man starting out, replaced by illness, addiction and manipulation. There is an inevitability to parts of this story, Elizabeth Eliot is too subtle just to tidy everything away neatly, and we sense from the start there is no happy ending in store for Cecil. Still, there is a shocking, unexpected element to this story, which really makes it a wonderfully compelling read.

Elizabeth Eliot shows us in this story of a late Victorian family, that we can’t ever really know all there is to know about the people around us.

A lovely conclusion to my March reading, as I enjoyed spending time among the leisured classes of the late Victorian age, the houses, house parties, carriages etc being rather a lovely escape from reality.

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My third read by Doris Langley Moore; My Caravaggio Style was also my first proper read for #readindies – during what has become a shockingly poor reading month. Well more of that in my round up post in a few days. A thoroughly entertaining final novel from Doris Langley Moore – who even makes a brief appearance herself in this story in which she uses her lifelong obsession with Lord Byron in imagining a major literary hoax. Dean Street Press publish four novels by Doris Langley Moore – I have the fourth on my tbr already.

The novel is narrated by bookseller and author Quentin Williams, who as the novel opens has just received the not too princely sum of just over four pounds in royalties from his two already published biographies. He is in the bookshop where he works, feeling very fed up and underappreciated when an American manuscript dealer comes into the shop. Quentin can’t quite help himself from trying to impress the American. Further irritated by the man’s name – Earl Darrow, Quentin begins to drop some not so very veiled hints that he has possibly unearthed a copy of Lord Byron’s memoirs – those famously burned by his friends after Byron’s death. The hook is baited – and all Quentin has to do, he thinks, is reel him in – only that won’t be at all easy.  

He must buy himself some time – several months at least. So Quentin comes up with some fairly elaborate tales – one of which involves the said manuscript being hidden in his great aunt’s cluttered house in Wales. Unfortunately, due to work commitments he won’t be paying his annual visit to Wales for several months.

Darrow seems convinced, and very much interested – and Quentin promises to contact him, once he has been able to verify his own suspicions about the manuscript. Darrow will soon be back in the US – and so now Quentin has given himself about four months to produce a manuscript that will fool all the Byron experts.  

““My finest, ferocious Caravaggio style”—that was his own phrase for his later manner; and that was the style I was aiming at, an interplay of light and shadow that would rivet the attention and, ultimately, draw the eye to darkness.”

Driving his decision to commit this audacious fraud is the knowledge that he already knows a huge amount about Byron, Quentin has been obsessed with him for years. Planning a new biography, hoping to cast the poet in a better light than he often has been, Quentin has already amassed a huge amount of material.

Naturally he will also need to keep his project a secret from anyone else – and this includes his beautiful fiancé Jocasta – a model who he is desperate to marry, when funds allow. Quentin lodges in Jocasta’s old room in her grandparents’ house, while Jocasta lives in London with fellow models – but while he is working on the manuscript he will have much less time to spend with her. Very aware of how beautiful his fiancé is, Quentin is so insecure as to be nervous of her running around socially without him. So, Quentin comes up with a little bit of easy Byron research for her to do for him, it’s not work he actually needs doing, but Jocasta won’t know that, and she will feel happy to be involved and will keep her busy when not working. Meanwhile he buries himself away having told everyone he is working on a novel that will hopefully sell much better than his biographies, and allow he and Jocasta to finally get married.

Quentin gets down to work, he has bought a couple of old notebooks that date to the right period – and decides to write in pencil. For Quentin is not trying to reproduce Byron’s writing, but to produce what will be taken for a copy, hurriedly written out by one of the people Byron is known to have trusted to read the memoirs. It’s the style and the contents that Quentin must struggle with – which Byron will emerge from these memoirs? – and will it be enough to fool the scholars, doubters and experts who will gather to inspect them? He does feel moments of doubt himself, moments of guilt about what he is about to do – but plows on regardless.

There are a couple of things that Quentin hadn’t bargained on, however. The first is just how enamoured with Byron Jocasta becomes, starting out happily helping her beloved – she is soon thoroughly obsessed with all things Byron, and reads everything she can get her hands on. Jocasta is soon on her way to being something of an expert herself – she may not be an academic but she is very smart – and almost certainly far too good for Quentin. Jocasta’s interest is such, that Quentin even starts to feel jealous – of a man who has been dead for over a 130 years (at that time) – and his jealousy starts to affect the way he presents Byron in the manuscript he is working on.

Secondly when he finally makes the trip to Wales to unearth the hidden manuscript – that he is of course carrying with him – he finds his aunt’s house has undergone a huge decluttering. With his aunt’s odd friends and her tetchy housekeeper also getting in the way, Quentin really has his work cut out for him.

“The scheme which had brought me to Wales absolutely hinged on the fact that I would find there a fairly large house filled to overflowing with the minor family possessions of three generations and left in the keeping of a decidedly careless housewife who never bothered about them. I’d relied upon being able to persuade her, forgetful and indifferent as she was, that a manuscript book she’d never seen before must have been lying amongst the lumber for years unnoticed. But if there had been this idiotic clean sweep, my task might not be easy or indeed possible.”

Finally all that is left to do is to make the announcement of his amazing discovery, and sell it to Darrow, the American manuscript dealer who so raised his hackles so many months before. Will he pull it off?

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It may not have escaped your notice that I have read quite a lot of the books re-published by Dean Street Press. They publish many of the kinds of books I love, they have become a reliable source of mid twentieth century women’s writing.

Often, when I have written about DSP books in the past I have had comments from people saying how they would love to try some DSP or already love DSP themselves – so I hope some of you will find a book among this little lot that you like the sound of enough to try.

So, in a kind of reverse order – I found it almost impossible to rank these – my top ten of DSP middlebrow novels is:

10. Company in the Evening by Ursula Orange (1944)

With it’s unapologetic happy ending – Company in the Evening was written at a time when that’s what people needed. Narrated by Vicky in a first person confessional style – it is immediately very readable. The story takes place in the middle of World War two, people have begun to tire of wartime strictures, losses have been suffered in some families. It has quite a modern feel to some aspects, with Vicky working three days in the office and two at home, while juggling being a single mother – she does have help though in the shape of an old family retainer. Vicky offers her brother’s widow a home in her house, she has no real wish to share her home, and the two are very different women. Some interesting 1940s social snobbery, though we can see how that is changing.

9.A House in the Country by Ruth Adam (1957)

 I chose to read this because I had so loved Ruth Adam’s novel I’m Not Complaining. This novel (which could almost be a memoir) was written about a time when Ruth Adam and her husband and children shared a large country house with several friends. It charts their ups and downs of the whole process from acquiring the house and divvying up rooms to tackling a difficult boiler, and living with the privations of wartime. Straightaway, we sense that perhaps this story of a love affair with a house won’t be an entirely happy one. There is still a lot of joy in this book, and it was a pleasure to spend time with.

8 Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore (1948)

Elinor MacFarren is a middle aged single woman, and in the summer of 1945, finds herself obliged to enter into a house share with another woman. She is living in what has been the family home, where she lived once with her brothers, and where she helped to raise her nephew. Now she is alone, and money is tight. Miss MacFarren has spent her adult life writing about botany, publishing several books, and has something of a reputation in the field. She also has a wonderful collection of old botanical prints and some beautiful, antique pieces of furniture in the house of which she is very proud. Antonia Bankes arrives and proves to be an utter nightmare – it’s brilliantly written and really made me shudder, oh just the thought of living with someone like that.

7 Mrs Martell by Elizabeth Eliot (1953)

Mrs Martell is a character none of us are supposed to like, in her Elizabeth Eliot has created a marvellous character, selfish, self-serving, and always set on getting just what she wants.

As the novel opens, Mrs Martell, Cathie is a divorcee in her late thirties, who is satisfied that she can often pass for just thirty. Exploring her character fully, with both honesty and wit, Eliot charts the life of this woman from her teenage years through to a time not long after her second marriage. Elizabeth Eliot is such a good observer of people, and Mrs Martell is a wonderfully monstrous character.

6 Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski (1942)

I loved this novel because it features women in the workplace, during the war. In the office of the Ministry for Foreign Intelligence is an office of women translators – there are two tables of nine translators, and the never the twain (for what reason nobody knows) shall meet. The women of table two, bicker and fuss, trying constantly to out manoeuvre one another, while completely ignoring their colleagues on the other side of the room, who might as well not exist. Wilenski’s two main characters are sharply contrasted. Elsie Pearne is clever and efficient she has worked hard her whole life in various offices of business at home and abroad. She is though horribly embittered and considers herself far too good to be among these women, most of whom she considers idiots. Anne Shepley-Rice is a cheerful, pretty young woman. Anne arrives in the middle of an air raid to take up her position in the translators’ office at table two – sitting right next to Elsie – who decides to make a friend of Anne. Elsie is particularly a brilliant character study – and the relationships between the office women is really well done.

5 A Game of Snakes and Ladders by Doris Langley Moore (1955)

After the end of World War One two young women, Lucy a vicar’s daughter sensible and unflappable, and Daisy, pretty, ambitious, and highly self-interested are performing with a theatre company in Egypt. Lucy is about twenty seven, Daisy a couple of years younger, and the two had been thrown together by their touring company while in Australia, a fairly superficial friendship had developed. In 1919 Lucy is still nursing a heartbreak from during the war. When the show in Cairo comes to an end Daisy decides to stay in Egypt, Lucy meanwhile is keen to return to England. Of course, things don’t quite work out for Lucy in the way she expects – and the novel follows her over the course of almost twenty years through a variety of trials and tribulations.

4 The Woods in Winter by Stella Gibbons (1970)

Which I only read very recently, I loved it from the first sentence. Our heroine is Ivy Gover – a middle-aged, curmudgeonly char woman. When we first meet Ivy, she is living in one room in London. She inherits a small cottage in the countryside, something she has always wanted and takes possession as soon as she can, where she sets up home with a rescued dog and a pet pigeon. She has slight witchery skills, and is at one with the natural world around her.

3 The House Opposite by Barbara Noble (1943)

I do love a book written during WW2. The House Opposite provides an extraordinarily vivid picture of what it was really like to live in London during the Blitz. Normal life goes on just the same in a sense, yet the nightly bombardment is never far away whether in people’s minds or in the everyday conversations with neighbours and work colleagues. Work must still be attended – if the buses are running – food acquired and cooked, the minutiae of everyday life attended to, just as if bombs aren’t falling from the sky almost every night. Elizabeth is a young woman living at home with her parents, working in London and keeping her affair with her boss a deep secret.

Across the road in the house opposite Owen Cathcart is just eighteen years old, having finished with school he awaits his call up, hoping to go into the RAF. An overheard and rather unfortunate remark from Elizabeth in the past has rather coloured his view of both Elizabeth and himself – and it is with some resentment that Owen takes up his fire watching duties alongside her. For years Owen has hero worshipped Derek his slightly older cousin – he starts to fear what his feelings might mean – and is confused and angry a lot of the time.

2 Miss Carter and the Ifrit by Susan Alice Kerby (1945)

A delightful bit of whimsy.  Miss Georgina Carter is a woman in her late forties – she lives alone in a small London flat and works in the censorship office. When Georgina buys some blocks of wood for her fire that have come from a blitzed roadway, she can have no idea what adventures will result. With a new biography of Lady Hester Stanhope to read, she is looking forward to a cosy evening by a good fire. Throwing one of the blocks onto the fire later she is more than a little surprised to find that the act of burning releases a very long-imprisoned Ifrit (similar it seems to a genie). His name is Abu Shiháb, and he declares himself to be Miss Carter’s slave – a word Georgina passionately objects to. She decides to call him Joe – and the relationship that develops between them is just delightful, she teaches Joe and he helps her in a little romance.

1 Beneath the Visiting Moon by Romilly Cavan (1940)

Beneath the Visiting Moon is a little longer than some of the other Dean Street Press titles I have read – a fully satisfying novel that combines family life, romance and the trials of growing up. Scott recommended it particularly for fans of Guard your Daughters, and I can see why, although this novel isn’t as dark as Tutton’s brilliant novel, there are shadows, glimpsed fleetingly at a distance.

There is a large supporting cast of eccentric characters, in whom we can see some slightly darker elements hidden beneath the surface. When Elisabeth Fontayne remarries – two families are blended and have to start living together. A coming of age type novel set in 1939 – a time where threat hung in the air.

Well that’s them – sorry, bit of a longer post today.

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Well my reviewing is really all over the place at the moment. There are books I read at the beginning of December that I still haven’t reviewed, and here I am writing about something I read a few days before Christmas. However, I was eager to tell you all about this as soon as I could, it was such a delight.

Stella Gibbons was a very prolific writer, and many of her novels have previously been reissued by Vintage with their recognisable red spines. However, they didn’t reissue them all, but the wonderful Dean Street Press have reissued five that were previously unavailable. The Woods in Winter was in fact the last novel that Stella Gibbons wrote for publication first published in 1970 – although another novel also written in the 1970s was discovered not long ago and reissued by Vintage. I had only read about six Stella Gibbons novels before this, and this one has reminded me how remiss I have been.

I know I have read a lot of Dean Street Press books – one day I will do a top ten or something – but The Woods in Winter is definitely one of my top DSP novels. A novel about solitude, ageing, the natural world, and unique relationships it is an absolute joy from beginning to end.

Our heroine is Ivy Gover – a middle-aged, curmudgeonly char woman – and who doesn’t love a char woman? When we first meet Ivy, she is living in one room in London. She supports herself with the pension money from her three dead husbands and money she gets from charring. The opening line of the first page reveals the story to be set around forty years before Stella Gibbons was writing – I couldn’t help but sense an old woman, going back to a time when she was most happy. Ivy Gover’s life on the other hand hasn’t been easy, losing three husbands, cleaning for other people, finding reading and writing a challenge – and always she wanted to live in the country where she had grown up. Miss Helen Green is one of the people Ivy chars for – a young woman uncomfortable with the fashionable set of bright young things she is friends with – unsatisfied in her current romance, yearning quietly for so much more.

Suddenly Ivy’s life changes forever, she receives a letter from a solicitor – that Helen has to help her make sense of – telling her she has inherited a small cottage from an uncle, in the Buckingham countryside, near to where she grew up. Ivy wastes little time. She rescues a dog, that she knows has been tied up and mistreated – and takes possession of her new home as soon as she can.

“…for the first time in her life, she was living as she had always unknowingly wanted to live: in freedom and solitude, with an animal for close companion. Her new life had acted upon her like a strong and delicious drug.”

Her canine companion is Neb – a ferocious beast with anyone but Ivy – the bond he and Ivy has is absolute. She saved him. When Ivy and Neb move into the cottage, it is the start of winter, the thatch in the roof has a large hole – and mice and cockroaches are also resident. Only, Ivy treats all creatures with respect and affection, and lets them be. As the cottage is only leasehold, the land around it is owned by Lord Gowerville – who is not responsible for repairing the roof – and poor Ivy can’t really afford it. Ivy though has other talents – she is a kind of wise woman, at one with the natural world around her.

“Calmly and irresistibly, the singing and light flowing out from the cottage with something else began to pull. They pulled with heat, and luring sounds sweet and harsh, and the other force that has no name. In woods, away across the dark field and up the hill; and in hallows in the hedge, and in crevices which had remained dry under the grass swept sideways by winter winds, this pulling was felt; and strange, microscopically small eyes opened, as soft or horny lids stirred, and faint shivers ran along spines covered in chitin or fur. The wind swept greatly over the great trees, rocking slowly in blackness.”

By curing Lord Gowerville’s dog – she earns his respect and protection and gets her roof repaired for free. Now she is comfortably settled with her dog, the mice, cockroaches, and a pet pigeon. Ivy is very content – yet despite her anti-social instincts she can’t help but to have some surprising effects on her neighbours. We meet Angela Mordaunt, a sad spinster living with her domineering mother, still mourning her dead fiancé, also the romantic local vicar and Lord Gowerville’s unpleasant agent. The Cartaret sisters, friends of Helen Green arrive on the scene – who for something to do it seems – open a tea shop in the nearby village. However, Ivy’s greatest challenge arrives in the shape of a twelve year old boy called Mike, a runaway who shows up at her door. The relationship that develops between Ivy and Mike is poignantly portrayed – and it’s hard for Ivy, knowing that where Mike is concerned she has to do the right thing, even if it breaks her heart.

There is a touching conclusion to this novel – set at the time when Gibbons was writing, which gives us a beautiful sense of time passing, and moving on set within the same landscape. It also highlights the divisions that existed in the 1970s (and still do) between those who push for progress and those who wish to protect the countryside from the ravages of that progress.

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Still catching up with my October reads. Somewhere in England, the sequel to Nothing to Report was one of the books I read while I was away (and ill) in Devon at half term. It was perfect reading for my tired, ill brain.

Many of you will know how I love a novel written during the Second World War – and for those of you who like that period, Dean Street Press have lots of good ones that bring the period to life in a way that modern writers writing about that period can’t quite manage.

“Mary listened, to the sounds made by the traffic in the cobbled street outside, and thought how odd it was that it had needed a second German War to bring back to English county towns at noon the sound of horses’ hoofs as a predominant note.”

The tone of Somewhere in England is a little more sombre I think than Nothing to Report. That seems to reflect the times in which we find ourselves, we have very much entered into the serious part of the war, people are already deeply affected and altered by wartime experiences, life has changed, there are people to be worried about, young women widowed and soldiers who have already come home wounded and in need of care.  

“I’m about to enter my twenty-third year,” repeated Elizabeth, her dark eyes filling with tears. “It’s not natural, the life I’m living here—a housemaid without even any fun on my evening off.” “A very wise friend of mine said to me the other day, in a letter,” remembered Mrs. Hungerford, “I think that this should be called ‘The Lonely War.’ Most people are separated from those they love best just now. Nearly all are having to contend with some difficulties, and some with very great difficulties. . .”

This novel starts a couple of years after the end of that earlier novel – and the Second World War is in full swing. People and places have been altered by the war, they are doing different things, living in different places. As the novel opens Phillipa-Dawn Johnson (Pippa), is preparing to travel to Woodside the country hospital in the former home of our old friend Mary Morrison. Things have changed quite considerably for Mary since we last met her – and though the nursing staff are marshalled to within an inch of their lives by a matron, it is Mary who oversees the day to day running of the hospital she decided to set up at the beginning of the war. Mary isn’t the only character from Nothing to Report who we meet again rather changed by the war, Mrs Bates we now discover has had her debilitating rheumatism cured by the rise of Hitler, and is getting stuck in the best she can.

The first part of the book is told mainly from Pippa’s point of view. She is only eighteen, a bit of a history buff she embarked upon a lot of research before she arrived at Woodside, so she knows everything there is to know about the history of the house. She is very keen. She is also very kind, and really wants to do her best for the patients. Through her gauche young eyes we experience Woodside as it is in 1942. Meeting the staff she will be working alongside – some of whom readers of the earlier novel will be familiar. A dedicated reader of the historical novels of Rosanna Masquerier, Pippa is absolutely delighted to find her doing war work – Acting Quartermaster at Woodside. Two of the nurses; Elizabeth and her sister-in-law Lalage interest Pippa enormously, she is desperate to become friends with them – but sadly finds herself rather brushed aside.

“It was horrible to be eighteen, and not wanted, and she had never meant to be pushing, and of course, if she had thought for a moment before she spoke, she would have realized that Elizabeth and Lalage, who were twenty-one and twenty-two, couldn’t want to go out with her. Probably Lalage had been bored to death by all her questions about country people and things, and had been longing to shake her off, but had been too kind-hearted. Probably Elizabeth had agreed with Lalage that she would do the snubbing.”

One person Pippa does make friends with is Lady Merle – and her dog, who Pippa is allowed to walk. Pippa thinks Lady Merle is the living image of Elizabeth Tudor in later life a description the lady herself doesn’t seem to mind at all.

Like the earlier novel, this is also a story of village life. A place filled with memorable rather eccentric characters, romance and as it is war time the concerns of those left behind. There is also the Grand Fête to be organised, which has become a huge community effort.

This is a delicious, gentle sequel to Nothing to Report – another winner from the lovely Dean Street Press.

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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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The third of the four and half books I read while I was in hospital was The Late Mrs Prioleau from Dean Street Press. I had had it for some time on my kindle – and I think I wanted to read it for the simple reason that I hadn’t seen anyone else talking about it and was therefore intrigued. It was the only novel that Monica Tindall published – and some background to the novel and to Monica and her family is provided in the introduction written by her niece Gillian Tindall.

Gillian Tindall tells us that her aunt came to think of the book as weak – and while there are a few small weaknesses in the novel, I think overall it is a novel of some subtlety and is definitely worth reading. In terms of style and story, it is rather different to many of the books being re-issued by Dean Street Press. Certainly, Monica Tindall does an excellent job of very gradually building up a picture of the titular character – who we first encounter in her coffin on the day of her funeral – as does her new daughter-in-law Susan, our narrator.

“The first and only time I saw my mother-in-law was when she lay dead in her coffin. Beside her knelt Austin, her eldest son, his face buried in a wet handkerchief and his fat body shaken by sobs. The patchy spring sunshine flickered against the drawn blinds and outside a wind from the sea blew thinly over the marshes. The air in the bedroom was at once cold and stuffy, smelling of damp and illness and old clothes.”

New Zealander Susan is newly married to Henry, the youngest of Mrs Prioleau’s four adult children – Henry has had little to do with his mother, or indeed any of his family for years. Gradually it seems Mrs Prioleau drove everyone away, everyone that is but Austin, her eldest son, her spoilt fat baby, who on the day of the funeral can be heard weeping, wailing, and carrying on to the most ridiculous extent – making himself rather ill in the process. Susan senses that there is a darkness at the heart of this family, a darkness she wants to understand for her husband’s sake.

It is 1939, war is expected any day – and of course soon the whole of Europe is swept up in the conflict. The novel takes us from these early days of war, through the dark days of the blitz to around the middle of the war. With everyone it seems, busy or away – it is Susan who is gently persuaded by the family solicitor to help Austin go through Mrs Prioleau’s belongings, sorting through and disposing of what needs to be got rid of. It is a long way from being a job she wants. Austin had not made a very good impression on Susan at the funeral – and now she must spend several days with him in his mother’s house. Both the family solicitor and the family doctor want to get Austin away from the house for his own good – they consider him to be rather fixated on his late mother – who had been his whole life while she was alive. If Austin isn’t bad enough – there is also the parrot to contend with, a fairly sinister creature with the uncanny knack of mimicking his dead mistress – much of what he says sounding really quite malevolent.

“A shrill voice from down the stairs broke suddenly in on the silence. “Austin!” it called. “Austin!” Then came a low, rather malicious chuckle which made me think I was not going to like Henry’s sisters. “Draw in now,” said the voice on a gentler note. “Draw into the fire and warm yourself.” I went downstairs wondering that they had arrived so silently and that I had not heard them talking to Henry. “Fine morning!” An uncertain tenor voice greeted me. “Fine morning!” Through the open door of the kitchen Mrs Prioleau’s grey parrot looked at me with a hard, yellow eye and chuckled. “That parrot!” Henry appeared and threw a cover over him. “How they put up with him I don’t know. I hated him when I was a child, and I think he’s worse than ever now.”

It is the time that Susan spends in Mrs Prioleau’s house with Austin that starts her wondering as to what kind of woman her mother-in-law was. Having spent time working as both a journalist and a detective fiction writer, Susan is fairly well placed to try and get to the truth behind her husband’s dysfunctional family.

As the years of the war go on, Susan is separated from her Henry for long periods of time, waiting as so many did during those years for the dreaded communication one hoped would never come. She has the chance to spend time with both her sisters-in-law – and with the late Mrs Prioleau’s sister. Bit by bit a picture emerges of the woman Helena Prioleau was. What was it though, that turned a popular, attractive, witty young woman into a bitter, spiteful old woman who drove most of her family away from her? Helena’s story is told in flashback, taking us back to the end of the nineteenth century, a story of disappointments, rash decisions, a great love affair and a marriage of convenience. There are some shocking stories from Helena’s later years, including an incident of animal cruelty, a rumour that a servant was driven to suicide, and a plethora of nasty letters.

There is a little twist in the tale too – which I must say I saw coming, but it didn’t spoil the story for me. A quick, engrossing read overall, psychologically it is very astute, and it such a shame that the author didn’t produce more books.

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Popping up with a quick review, as I try to catch up a little. It’s about two weeks since I finished reading Bramton Wick, a period during which I have been reading quite slowly. My usual blogging timetable has gone out of the window, so bear with me.

Bramton Wick was perfect for an overtired weekend just as I began to feel quite unwell. I have previously read three other Elizabeth Fair novels all re-issued by Dean Street Press – and I really enjoy her world – small villages, eccentric characters, and a touch of romance. However, this one was her first published novel. Her observations are often highly amusing – her quirky characters all too believable. I was particularly struck by this quote from Stevie Smith on the back cover – taken from the time the book was originally published. Many of you will remember how – despite reading quite a number – I have struggled a bit with Angela Thirkell – and although publishing a little later than most of Thirkell’s – Elizabeth Fair was a writer of a similar type who didn’t fall into that trap of uncomfortable snobbishness that I find so unpalatable in many Thirkell books.

“Miss Fair’s understanding is deeper than Mrs. Thirkell’s and her humour is untouched by snobbishness; she is much nearer to Trollope, grand master in these matters.” – Stevie Smith

Bramton Wick is a tiny village – the setting of this delightful feel good debut. Here we encounter all the tensions, resentments and potential romances that exist in such a small community. Elizabeth Fair peoples her village with a variety of recognisable types – the romantic, the cynical, those who really need a shake up, the selfish and those who are too put upon. We have a lot of post war, genteel poverty, living cheek by jowl with those who are far better off.

There is Mrs Cole, with her two adult daughters, Gillian and Laura, Gillian was widowed in the war. Mrs Cole herself has long been a widow and she is still smarting somewhat from having to give up the big house – Endbury after her husband’s death. The house she has had to see Lady Masters lauding it over them all from ever since.

“She wondered how Lady Masters got her parlour maid to carry the coffee right across the lawn. But of course, Lady Masters got things simply by always having had them and by taking it for granted that she always would have them.”

Lady Master’s son Toby, a good friend of both Laura and Gillian’s is one of two local young men who really need to settle down and decide what they want to do with themselves. The other one is Jocelyn, who is living with his aunt and uncle – the uncle just about as irascible as it possible to be, his poor wife something of a door mat. Laura wonders whether she would like to marry Toby or not because if she did she would be able to return her mother to Endbury in time. Mrs Cole’s landlord proves not to be quite as awful as she thought – though nothing like his father – and the practical thinking Gillian meets a wealthy man with a terrible sense of dress.

Nearby at a cottage loomed over by the railway embankment live Miss Selbourne and her friend ‘Tiger’ – Miss Garrett – they once drove ambulances together in the First World War. They now have a dog kennels and a house that is a complete shambles – Miss Selbourne seems to do everything, Tiger being quite good at staying in bed or not feeling up to things she doesn’t like doing. Tiger is also the most appallingly bad driver – as we see a couple of times. These are the two best characters in the novel for me, and the novel opens with them preparing to go off to the local dog show. In another cottage close by live the three Misses Cleeve, from where much of the local gossip emanates, rather delightfully described by Elizabeth Fair as being ‘all remarkably like toads.”

This relatively short domestic comedy was a perfect little slice of escapism. A novel where of course everything gets tidied up quite nicely at the end – and how we all need that now and again. Although firmly in the category I call comfort reads – not everything in Bramton Wick is cosy – and yet it is the kind of book to curl up with under a blanket and hide from the realities of the twenty-first century.

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I think I chose to buy and later to read Much Dithering primarily for the title. I had certainly never heard of Dorothy Lambert who – I see from the introduction to this edition by Elizabeth Crawford – was a pretty prolific writer. In fact, several of the characters from this novel had already appeared four years before this novel was published in a play written and produced by Dorothy Lambert, performed by Shepherdswell Village players.

The Much Dithering of the title is a village – a village that some people think is terribly sunk in the past – sleepy, old fashioned and in need of some modernisation. The pace of change is set by the lady of the manor – she has put her foot down over the question of a petrol pump outside the village pub to begin with.

“The most striking thing about Much Dithering was its peacefulness. The few people who saw it from charabancs on morning or evening circular drives said: “Isn’t it quiet?” And some said they thought it was a lovely place to be buried in, but while they were alive they preferred a place with more life, if you know what they meant.”

Jocelyn Renshawe is the heroine of this lovely little comedy of manners. Jocelyn is the very young widow of the local squire. Downtrodden by years of doing the bidding of her aunt and mother-in-law (the aforementioned lady of the manor). Jocelyn sees herself as ‘a specimen of human cabbage’ utterly unaware it seems that she is a very attractive young woman – and thus the reader is assured of her goodness (rolls eyes – but never mind).

Having lived with her spinster aunt in the village as she grew up – married off to Lancelot, the sickly, weak son of the local squire in her teens – poor Jocelyn knows practically nothing of the outside world. Her husband had died of a chill a few months before his own father died, and so the property that might have been hers has instead gone to a nephew of whom no one knows anything and is somewhere abroad. Jocelyn lives quite comfortably meanwhile in the Dower house – though less comfortably as the novel opens as her mother Ermyntrude has decided to pay a rare impromptu visit.

Ermyntrude is a woman to set anyone’s teeth on edge and really couldn’t be more different to her daughter. Now Jocelyn can be found doing good works and generally keeping her aunt and mother-in-law happy. Ermyntrude is quite disgusted at the life her daughter has lived – though it clearly suited her to off load her offspring on to her aunt. Ermyntrude in fact despises her daughter, she has her own reasons for coming to Much Dithering and they aren’t in any way maternal. Widowed for the second time, Ermyntrude lives in London hotels and spends her life visiting friends. She prides herself on still being young, and in looking much younger – and is currently in hot pursuit of who she hopes will be her third (much younger) husband. Adrian Murchison-Bellaby is the son of a family who having made their fortune in potted meat have recently bought a new country home – in Much Dithering – and Adrian is planning on spending several weeks there while on leave from his regiment. Concerned that Jocelyn might age her a little – she insists on her daughter not calling her mother – a deceit that doesn’t fool anyone. Adrian has already begun to tire of his dalliance with Ermyntrude – especially on meeting the pretty young widow at the Dower house. Adrian’s sister Jasmine has caught the eye of the young lothario at the pub, much to her family’s horror. The family are keen to make a name for themselves in local society – but as ‘new money’ are completley beneath the notice of Jocelyn’s mother-in-law.

“The dinner party at the Murchison-Bellaby’s was a rather difficult affair. The mixture of Jasmine’s London friends and what she contemptuously termed ‘the village people’ was not altogether a success. The vicar was still unable to take part in social events owing to his lumbago, but Mrs Pomfret came determined to make the most of her opportunity to enlist the sympathy and interest of the new and wealthy parishioners in her numerous activities. Ermyntrude came resolved on creating the right impression on Adrian’s people. She had never met any of them but was convinced she had only to be seen to conquer any prejudice that might have to be overcome. Jocelyn came rather diffidently, for she dreaded new acquaintances, especially rich and (she was sure) clever, smart people with whom she would feel shy and out of things. A few days spent in her mother’s company invariably upset her usual serenity and made her feel stupid and ‘Impossible.’

Jocelyn’s aunt and mother-in-law have decided that Jocelyn should re-marry and they have set their sights on the elderly Colonel Tidmarsh – a very dull retired army man. Not long before Christmas a stranger arrives in the village, Gervase Blyth – who rescues Jocelyn from a rainstorm as she out delivering leaflets – later manging to set almost everyone else against himself and falling under suspicion as a jewel thief. However, he also helps to open Jocelyn’s eyes as to the narrowness of her life.

Much Dithering is a real cheer up of a book, Jocelyn is a lovely heroine and the reader is fairly assured of a happy ending. Sometimes I think I would like a less conventionally happy ending with these books but it’s still a satisfying, quick little read. Perfect for tired weekends or when under the weather.

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