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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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Mrs Martell is the third of Elizabeth Eliot’s novels that I have read, one of authors Dean Street Press have brought back to us. Like her other novels this one is titled with the name of her central character, written in the third person, whereas in other Eliot novels we see the eponymous character through the eyes of somebody close to them.

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. Though Cathie Martell is a monstrous woman, who it is impossible to sympathise with, Elizabeth Eliot makes her reader want to read about her. Cleverly, Eliot does give us a character who we care about, who we root for – and provides some balance.

Born into genteel poverty and reliant on her Aunt Violet to pay her school bills the young Cathie had her sights set considerably higher. Cathie’s mother was clearly ruled by her daughter, allowing her to have everything too much her own way.

“Aunt Violet, Cathie realised, was one of the problems of her life. If Aunt Violet had not had money, Cathie would have forbidden her mother to see her and that would have been that; but it isn’t possible to put an absolute ban on one’s only rich relation, particularly when that relation pays one’s reduced school bills.”

Disliking being told what to do, Cathie resented her aunt’s interest in her – and was anxious to cut ties with her when she could. At school Cathie was at the centre of her own world, her beauty making her a figure of some interest to the other girls. On leaving school she took up a profession at a Madame Sondheim’s beauty parlour, something her aunt strongly disapproved of and married her first husband as soon as she could. However, the death of a couple of male cousins in the war means it is Cathie who inherited her aunt’s money after all.

Now she is divorced, living in a flat at the top of a house in Baker Street, on the ground floor is an antique shop where a murder was recently committed. When a handsome young journalist comes to her door looking for a human interest story, Cathie can’t help flirting terribly with him. Richard Hardy is a pleasant distraction for Cathie Martell – and a possible fall back – but he isn’t who she really has her sights set on for her second husband. However, Cathie is not a woman to ever let an opportunity for male attention to pass her by, she is always on the alert – even when just catching a train.

“Even so, an encounter with a tall and handsome stranger would have been a pleasant interlude, but alas, he did not appear. Once, in the corridor, and right at the beginning of the journey, she thought she had found him; but later when he came into the dining-car he was surrounded by a gaggle of five or six bright adolescents all of whom addressed him as ‘Daddy’; and they were accompanied by a depressed middle-aged woman who inevitably was Mother; impossible to imagine her as having ever been anything else.”

Laura West is a distant cousin of Cathie’s, she is married to Edward, Edward’s beautiful family home Abbotsmere, lies outside of London in the countryside, where the staff gossip about their employers.  Laura is the innocent in the tale, a kindly, sometimes nervous young woman, who has been disappointed in her ability to have a child. She buys two small dogs and takes them home much to her husband’s irritation – the staff like Laura – and can see the trouble that lies ahead. The trouble that Laura is incapable of seeing, and which comes in the shape of her cousin Cathie Martell. Cathie and Edward are already betraying Laura with secret meetings and late night phone calls – and Cathie is not one to just settle for that. Cathie has her sights firmly set on being ‘the beautiful Mrs West’ and while it isn’t obvious to poor Laura, others have certainly worked out what she is up to.

“Laura was heartbreakingly beautiful and yet she could be quite maddening. It seemed to Edward that she made no effort at all to please him. She was pathologically inconsiderate and there were times when she looked quite ugly.”

What Elizabeth Eliot does quite cleverly I think, is make us care for Laura, it becomes obvious that Edward is unworthy of Laura, that in fact he and Cathie are of a type. Laura doesn’t always know how to behave when in society and hates to irritate Edward, she rather enjoys sitting in the kitchen chatting to the servants, and she adores her two little dogs. The reader can’t help but want Laura to be free of Edward.

This was another very enjoyable read from Dean Street Press, Elizabeth Eliot’s voice is witty and sharp, she understands the motivations of people – both good and bad. Throughout the novel Eliot’s observations are deliciously sharp – a shooting party in Scotland, a ski resort in Switzerland to which she takes her characters gives her ample opportunity for exploring several ‘types’ and she does so brilliantly.

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When I read my first Elizabeth Eliot book; Alice I just knew that I would enjoy all of her books. Alice was the first of her novels published in 1949, Henry was published a year later. It employs the same device as that earlier novel, with a narrator telling the story of themselves along with a key figure in their life, in this case a brother.

Henry is narrated by Anne Palliser – Henry is her older brother. Anne is another lovable Elizabeth Eliot heroine, rather insecure and quirky. She is youngest of three siblings; her brother is about eight years and her sister Sophia ten years her senior. They grow up at Trelynt, a large mansion in Devon. With parents, siblings and governesses on hand to tell her what she is doing wrong, Anne has perfected the art of giving herself a bit of a talking to.

“The trouble with you, Anne, is that you’re always imagining things.’ Who had said that? Probably mother. Or the governess before she left to get married. How disagreeable, and it was all the fault of the sub-conscious. . .  Why didn’t the sub-conscious ever turn up things like: ‘Anne, how beautiful you are looking today.’ Or even: ‘That’s a good girl finishing up all your dinner.’”

After the war, Anne escapes her overbearing mother and moves to London, where she takes up residence with a couple of writers and takes a job as secretary to the very eccentric Lady Merton. Lady Merton is a woman who rather misses the efficient organising that the war gave her the opportunity to enjoy. So, somewhat bizarrely she continues to organise canteens across the country – insisting they will still be required.

As Anne strikes out on her own, her older brother Henry remains a focus. He is a force of nature, irresponsible and charming. In the opening pages, Anne looks back to a time when as a child walking down the long driveway of the family’s large Devonshire home, Henry (who should be away at school) appears out of nowhere on a motorbike. At seventeen he’s run away from Harrow – he takes a delighted Anne into the village and buys her tea. The family are not well off – the house is much too large – but boys have to be educated correctly, so it was Harrow for Henry and governesses for the girls. Henry doesn’t return to Harrow – instead he quite literally runs off and joins the circus. After which Anne doesn’t see much of him for a few years, he has been married and divorced and taken up a mistress by the time Anne is living in London and working for Lady Merton.

Henry turns up and is introduced to Lady Merton – and Pamela Merritt a doctor who is part of Anne’s new crowd. Henry’s a gambler and a flirt – but Anne is a little surprised to see him spending so much time with Pamela. When the large family house passes to him, following the death of his father, Henry decides he won’t sell, as everyone had assumed he would – but will marry the doctor and open a maternity home. Henry’s original idea had been to open a nursing home for drunks – but Pamela decides a maternity home would be better. What could possibly go wrong?

Well quite a lot as it turns out – Mrs Isaacs who comes to Trelynt to convalesce and never leaves, new mothers, cross husbands and a former school friend of Pamela’s turning up in the local Panto company raking up bad memories. Anne pays several visits to her former home, getting involved in the new and often chaotic atmosphere. Meanwhile, Anne thinks she might have fallen in love with Gerald, who is writing a murder mystery. She is also trying desperately to avoid moving back in with her mother who has now taken a flat in London.

“I had gone away but mother had followed me. If father had lived she wouldn’t have been able to. It was the greatest pity that father had died.

For a moment I tried to be fair. Perhaps mother would really like to be rid of me and Sophia; but she considered us to be her duty. Family love, family feeling, they were conventions, they didn’t mean anything. Mother was not a vampire, she was only trying to conform to convention. I hated her and I was sorry for her.”

Henry is a novel that is darkly comic and fully engaging, but there is a lot going on beneath the surface. There is the cruelty and anxiety caused by dysfunctional families, hidden beneath Eliot’s humour is the reality that growing up inside such a family isn’t comfortable. It is this I think that has caused Elizbeth Eliot to be likened to Barbara Comyns, and while of course she isn’t exactly like her, there are certainly similarities. I enjoyed this one very much, and I’m looking forward to Mrs Martell and Cecil (Elizabeth Eliot clearly liked the eponymous novel).  

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alice

Review copy from the Publisher

Elizabeth Eliot was a new name to me. Well done to Dean Street press for bringing these neglected writers to a whole new audience. I had already seen some good reviews of this novel so I was fairly sure this would be a good match for me – it certainly was. Alice was Elizabeth Eliot’s first novel – and a very assured debut it was.

I had seen Elizabeth Eliot’s writing likened to that of Rachel Ferguson and Barbara Comyns – well the cynic in me took that with a pinch of salt. However, now I can see why that comparison has been made. Eliot’s writes in very much her own style – and yet there is much to remind us of those other writers, small quirky events and odd conversations give it a slightly altered feel. This is a writer who understands that the world has dark corners, and not every home is a settled one, not every ending happy.

“To live in the world as not of the world,’ Alice said. ‘That always sounded so nice, as if one had a little world of one’s own floating about inside the big one.”

Margaret is our narrator – and Alice is her best friend, we follow them from their final year at a boarding-school in the 1920s – where it is quite possible to persuade your headmistress not to expel you – to just before World War Two. Margaret; an only child – is the daughter of a beautiful society woman, a notorious divorcee, who finds her daughter a little dull. Alice the daughter of a wealthy landed family – rather eccentric and fond of hunting. The girls regularly visit one another’s homes – here servants play an important role. Margaret lives mainly with her grandmother – where she spends a lot of time with her grandmother’s maid Ellen, gossiping. It is Ellen who is the most comforting figure in her life – someone who can be depended on. The servants represent the world that Margaret and Alice feel they are missing out on – sheltered as they fear they are, from the real world that exists beyond their reach.

“But the servants! Anything might happen to them. They might go in a train to Woolwich and meet the love of their lives, or be murdered almost for the asking. Not that one wanted to be murdered exactly, but there was frustration in being denied the possibility.”

Both Alice and Margaret have wonderful imaginations and rather enjoy dreaming up dark and dreadful fates for others. They wonder at the lives they might have lived had they been born into a different world.

“You see,’ Alice was very earnest, ‘if we’d lived in the slums and our mother had had fifteen children, and our father had got drunk and knocked us about, we should have been brought up against “real life.”’ ‘Daddy does drink—a bit.’ Anthony was hopeful. ‘It’s what makes him do card tricks after dinner.”

School is Groom Place – another slightly odd world, a school without uniform, that employs a chaperone to sit in on the one lesson taken by a man. Margaret describes it as a ‘fourth-rate school which went in for midnight feasts.’ That was the kind of school I wanted to go to back in my Mallory Towers days.

After school, Margaret and Alice are presented at court – and thrust upon the world – with not very many people looking out for them. Margaret enrols in the cheapest secretarial college she can find, with a view to earning her living. Young men start to come into their lives, and Alice’s love life falls foul of her beautiful elder sister who manages to steal away her first real boyfriend. Margaret knows that this won’t be something Alice gets over easily – she understands that there is a darkness in Alice, that isn’t immediately obvious to others.

“Then very clearly I saw Alice, and her eyes were wide with fear, and I knew that she was afraid of something tremendous. The time of the Deserted Garden was at an end. My mother and the dentist were the fears of children. Jennifer and I would never have to contend with the terrible fears that beset Alice, for Alice was afraid of life itself. Like, the winter sea, against which no man could stand.”

Margaret’s mother re-marries and her step-father brings his daughter ‘Poor Jennifer’ into the dysfunctional family. With Margaret’s mother and step-father in Devon and Poor Jennifer in Sussex – Margaret is left more and more to her own devices in various places around London.

Alice marries unhappily, and Margaret is drawn deeply into the darkness of her friend’s life. Taking up sailing in Weymouth, with a whole host of other odd characters. Her marriage already failing, Alice meets another man, older – and rather controlling. Suddenly Alice decides she will take up acting – and enrols in an acting school. Against the odds Alice is a great success, but it seems as if everything has just been a little too much for this fragile young woman.

I thoroughly enjoyed my first experience of Elizabeth Eliot, and I shall no doubt be adding the other three Elizabeth Eliot titles that Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press have brought out; Henry, Cecil and Mrs Martell.

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