Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore – a 1948 novel of the entertaining battle for a home reprinted by Furrowed Middlebrow at Dean Street Press

Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore

While there are some exciting and brilliant novels written about the actual experience of being in London during the years of the Second World War, this exciting and brilliant novel looks at another Home Front battle – the immediate post-war years when accommodation in London was scarce, and accordingly there were problems. In this book, originally published in 1948 and now thankfully reprinted by Dean Street Press in the Furrowed Middlebrow series, this exceptional author has created two characters who are operating in the relatively small space of a house. Elinor MacFarren, unmarried, botanical writer and avid collector, decides to rent out part of her house to the highly recommended Mrs Antonia Banks, married to the absent American Captain Bankes who is currently with the Occupying Forces in Europe. This decision will lead to some frustrating, funny and always fascinating situations when the two women get into some entertaining battles – with weapons of their own devising. Both women learn something even if we usually see things from Miss MacFarren’s point of view, as she must bend her standards and even indulge in some uncharacteristic behaviour in order to cope with her exasperating tenant. The supporting cast of actress, nephew, husband friends and others mean that this delightfully memorable book is a pleasure to read. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this enjoyable book.

Miss MacFarren has always been independent, living in a family home, on good terms with her nephew Mory and through him obtaining glimpses of a very different lifestyle of films and the acting profession. As he is caught up in a tricky and potentially financially damaging affair, her small problems in maintaining the house come to the fore, especially in terms of affording the somewhat diffident services of Mrs. Manders. She has already had to part with some of her botanical collection and knows that even her best efforts at authorship will not sustain her for long. When her managing friend Harriet recommends a customer, Mrs Bankes, Mrs MacFarren arranges that the prospective tenant should visit. Despite misgivings at their first meeting, the arrangement is soon made, as Mrs Bankes goes on what would now be called a charm offensive and assures her surprised land lady of her care for the delicate items on display. She further promises to be a domestic paragon and take on the employment of the servant. Her actual arrival in the house is full of unwelcome surprises for the steady Miss MacFarren – too much furniture, large packing cases that are never to be fully unpacked and damage to the rooms are annoying enough, but what is somehow worse is the quantity of friends who also appear and continue to inhabit the supposedly shared spare room. It becomes obvious that Mrs Bankes has a chaotic social life, with scant disregard for her quiet landlady, and no concept of taking care of the expensive objects and pictures in the house. Miss MacFarren has been generous in her allocation of space and facilities to her paying guest but is sorely tried by the continual disturbance of telephone calls, callers and appropriation of everything including precious rations. Her attempts to complain are dismissed with half promises, and eventually even Mrs Manders is driven away. When Joss Bankes arrives, he is so charmed by the house that he somehow lessens the effects of his childish wife, but his stay is not long and if anything, Mrs Bankes becomes even more trying when he departs. While Miss MacFarren is quietly sent to drink, she discovers that he may have unexpected allies in dealing with her slippery tenant, but as cruelty and neglect begins to feature, she begins to despair.

While feeling sympathy for Miss MacFarren’s plight, it is fascinating to observe how she tries to cope with Mrs Bankes latest excesses. Mrs Bankes is always outwardly charming in her seemingly artless attitudes, but not much credit is given to her behaviour as the book proceeds. The advent of Maxine is surprising into Miss MacFarren’s life, but the young woman’s genuine charms are in such opposition to Mrs Bankes personality that it is an entertaining contrast. This is such an enjoyable book, full of clever observations and references to the difficulties of London life that I thoroughly recommend it as offering insight into the times, women’s lives and so much more.