It Pays to be Good by Noel Streatfeild – An early cynical celebrity?

Noel Streatfeild’s 1936 novel features a character that was not at all likeable; she described her as “presented only to dislike and to entertain”. Flossie, or later “Virginia” is a dominant character in every sense, and this is a sort of biography of a girl whose self obsession is total. It is a novel of its time, when the differences between classes were changing and the world of entertainment becoming more cynical. The early cult of celebrity is held up for criticism, while black humour and dogged ambition changes lives and betrays the unsuspecting. This entertaining and enjoyable novel features some classic set pieces of poor girl made good, transformation by language and grooming, and an example of love in many forms.

Flossie is a baby born with great beauty and presence, but into a home where neither is understood. Yet she convinces her mother in her father’s absence to enter her into a photographic competition, then for dancing lessons. Mrs Elk, the interestingly named mother, is not a pushy stage mother, but is quite willing to fall in with Flossie’s tireless ambitions. She persuades her father to allow her to continue her stage work by a mixture of cunning and appeals, and she is taken in by a woman who is quite a realist in terms of preparing her for a new identity as “Virginia”. This woman, Mouse, is in a relationship with a married man, a situation which has implications for the end of the novel. Flossie becomes a incredibly controlled and controlling woman, attracting enough young men to keep her in funds. Her career becomes the central theme of the novel, her devious and conniving nature a demonstration of cynicism and power.

This is a most entertaining read, with a sort of convincing anti- heroine who plays off those around her to great effect. As Austen said about Emma, Flossie/Virginia is a character that only an author could love, but she is precisely constructed in every detail. The theatre setting is correct and atmospheric in detail, as would be expected from Streatfeild with her theatrical background. The special effects for every show which L.L. achieves are lovingly and indulgingly described as Streatfeild enjoys her depiction of show business. It is a sort of warning that “Beauty is the cause of much sorrow”, but is also mindful that Flossie deserves a sort of success. I found the descriptions of Flossie’s parents the most touching, with their baffled recognition of her beauty and Mrs Elk’s unreliable physical condition, yet their obsessions are meant to be funny as well as moving.  Her Pygmalion – like transformation into Virginia includes her speech, dress and whole manner, but this is a change with no room for sentiment. This book, reprinted by Greyladies and therefore made available to today’s readers, could be read as a book which depicts a woman using the only weapons available to her in order to get to the top. Her beauty is her only asset in a world where she does not come from a wealthy or influential background and the reader cannot help but admire her single minded determination at whatever the cost to those around her. I enjoyed reading this book with its consistent writing and black humour; I recommend it to both those who know Streatfeild’s adult novels and those who have previously just heard of the classic “Ballet Shoes”.

The Greyladies books are a really good way of rediscovering past classics, but I have struggled to get copies on occasions. Thank goodness for Heffers in Cambridge who made it so easy!

Tory Heaven or Thunder on the Right by Marghanita Laski – A bitterly insightful Persephone

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This is a most unusual book, even for Persephone who have managed to bring out a wide variety of novels and other books which reflect life in the Twentieth century. This is an extended satire in the form of a short novel, in which certain characters are depicted as living in a nearly familiar setting of a post war Britain most unlike they expected. Its bitterly insightful message, that rigid divisions in society are more than unfair, shows a world in which some people seem to get everything, while the vast majority serve or suffer. It is not a political manifesto as such, but a dystopian vision in which some things seem familiar yet frequently painful. It has disturbing echoes of a society in which nothing had changed after the cataclysmic events of the Second World War, yet in this version of life, so much was different. Its skilful writing avoids melodrama, yet manages to convey so much about the daily lives of so many people.

As the novel opens, set in 1948, five people, including a young man called James, are rescued from an otherwise deserted island. Echoing Persephone’s “Miss Ranskill Comes Home” by Barbara Euphan Todd, the castaways discover a different Britain from the one that they had left a few years previously. James is pessimistic about his return, as despite a comfortable background and a public school education, he had not found his role in life or indeed a means of supporting himself. He discovers to his astonishment that it is his very background which gives him automatic status as a class A citizen, able to live a largely idle life supported by non executive directorships and the fact that the vast majority of citizens are ranked below him. Indeed there is one class of people, C, who are totally dedicated to serving As. He soon finds the lifestyle of privilege and virtually unlimited credit much to his liking, as he discovers other As who are soon suited with women who are either available to marry or ideal mistresses. Women generally within his class are no longer expected or allowed to study at University or work for money; their expectations should be for neatly arranged marriage. Other women must work within the constraints of their own classes or aspire to a relationship outside marriage; James is soon ‘provided’ with a maid for his immediate needs. His family are delighted to welcome him back, but sad that they must live a circumscribed life, not allowed to mix with those in a different class on any level. James sees some of the other castaways, some of which have not been so comfortably settled. It is the political changes which have been introduced that convince him that no change will be possible. Those with a vote preserve the status quo, those without cannot change a system which remorselessly enforces the chasm between the haves and have nots.

This is both a book of its time, but also a book which arguably speaks to society today. We know what happened to Britain after the Second World War; the austerity, rationing and shortages which affected everyone. Here the solution is to toughen the divides so one class has as much as it wants, while the rest of society has to make do. The system of democracy has reverted to control by the already powerful and rich, with Trade Unions and intellectuals being ruthlessly suppressed. This is a skillfully written book, full of wry observations on a society with not totally unfamiliar elements. It is a story, a work of imagination, yet engaging in its black humour and recognisable characters. It is a strange satire, yet a readable novel for times beyond the 1940s. I was very grateful to receive a review copy of this book, which I found an really good, unusual read.

This book is one of the three new Persephone books just released.  I have actually got another review of an older book to post, so watch this space for more Persephone books!

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull – An Unusual British Library Crime Classic

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For something completely different, this is the classic crime novel! Originally published in 1934, this novel from the Golden Age of Crime writing is a completely different read from most of the excellent books in the British Library Crime Classics series. I was fortunate to receive a review copy and instantly devoured this unusual book. Told in the first person, which I believe is quite rare in this sort of novel, it shows just how difficult it is to commit not only the perfect murder but one which may pass a cursory examination. It is an enjoyable and deceptively funny book, depicting a clash of lifestyles and attempted low cunning by a hopelessly inept protagonist, with a twist towards the end.

Edward Powell is a man in the wrong place in quite the wrong time, at least in his eyes. He has grown up in rural Wales under the stern eye of his Aunt Mildred, and like many literary aunts she is unable, it would seem, to see his side in any argument. There are many arguments. Edward sees himself as a fashionable aesthete, fond of French novels, well cut clothes, unusual and splendid food, and light sparkling conversation. His aunt is a sturdily practical woman, with her endeavours to maintain relationships in the local community, garden and restrict her nephew’s worst excesses. After the suspicious and unmentioned deaths of his parents, Edward has been consigned to her care and financial management. He finds nothing attractive or even satisfactory about his enforced lifestyle among the peasants (as he sees them) and boring setting of the family home, Brynmawr. After a protracted tussle over picking up a parcel of books, Edward decides that the death of his aunt is the only answer to his plight, and starts to plan and make notes accordingly. His thoughts of ‘accidental’ car crashes and detailed plans are thus presented against his continual resentment of his aunt and the local inhabitants. Each movement has an impact on his clothes, his appetite, his relationship with his aunt as she cuts down on his desires to live an elegant life, with her enigmatic threats to “take action”.

This is a crime novel without much mystery, thanks to Edward’s complete inability to successfully organise any action, and his aunt’s stubborn conviction that he is in the wrong. In his excellent introduction to the novel, Martin Edwards places the story in its context of the others books being written at the time. He points out its significance in that there is no detective, no careful plot, no collection of clues. He sees it as “a slyly entertaining read”, and that is the reason that I enjoyed it so much. It is entertaining and satirical of the affectations of a young man with few if any redeeming qualities. He refers to his car as “La Joyeuse”, his fashionable Pekinese as  “So-so”, his collection of novels as his most precious possessions. He has few practical abilities and yet aims to achieve the murder of his aunt without any personal danger of discovery or prosecution. He is the opposite from most culprits who feature in the crime novels of the time in his sheer ineptitude. This is a very funny, very entertaining book which does not complicate the issues involved but just presents an enjoyable story which is recommended for the experienced classic crime reader as well as the intrigued newcomer to the genre.

After my delayed review of “Essex Serpent” this is a swift review! I genuinely read it really quickly, as I found the story so engaging. Roll on the next Richard Hull!

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry – An intense read!

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This is an enormous, intense book. Not in terms of length, although it is over four hundred pages long, but in terms of subject matter, themes, ideas and characters. It is not a quick read, as passages need to be savoured and ideas thought through. This is a fascinating and detailed book, with fantastic descriptions of the thin barrier between land and sea, truth and fiction, attraction and the sadness of loss. It is an historical novel with vivid descriptions of not only time and conditions, but of the mind sets of a world full of challenges to the accepted order. This novel deals with courage, questions, love, disturbed minds and bravery.  While sometimes there is a danger of the narrative arc becoming lost within the character’s agendas and the moving descriptions, overall it is a fascinating novel.

The story opens with the death of a character, almost to the relief of his wife, Cora Seabourne. 1893 is a year of discovery and change as people question the beliefs and understandings of decades, when even the natural world seems to be revealing its secrets. In her quest to find freedom and fossils, Cora and her faithful companion Martha encounter a clergyman in Essex, William Ransome. His coastal parish of Aldwinter is beset with fear of a giant serpent which is said to emerge from the sea to kill and devour people and animals. The events of New Year’s Day preface the novel, as a man is killed in mysterious circumstances at the edge of the sea.  The fear is real for those who live in this place where living and dying seems to be dictated by the mysterious and unknown. William’s parish is full of the fearful, and his fixation with a carved serpent in the church comes to dominate his own view. His family is remarkable, with his daughter desperate to further her understanding of the world around her, and his wife Stella becoming obsessed with the colour blue. Meanwhile the doctor that attended Cora’s husband, Luke, is fixated on her and the quest to perform the most seemingly impossible of operations.  His friend and benefactor, Spencer, is influenced into becoming involved in the plight of London’s poor and their appalling treatment by Martha, and he becomes involved in the whole story of Cora’s friendships. The intense relationship between Cora and William defies description as they acknowledge each other’s preoccupations and responsibilities, while the triumphs and tragedies of so many other people rage around them.

There are so many themes and issues within this novel that one read through is insufficient; Perry keeps a hold on the book’s essential ‘strangeness’ only with difficulty. It holds so many issues in tension, such as women’s changing roles, the conflict between faith and fear, the rights of those people who barely exist in London being denied access to good housing. Each character, however incidental to the plot, is well described, so that it can feel a little overwhelming. This book has many great aspects, descriptions and ideas, but it can be a tough read and frequently I needed to check back on characters. There are whole lines of narrative, such as the medical breakthrough in a first operation of its type that almost deserve a novel of themselves.  This is in all senses an amazing book, far more than an historical novel, and definitely worth the effort of reading it. If anything, it has so many ideas that it can sometimes be difficult to read, despite being beautifully written from the standpoint of various characters. I suggest clearing more than a few hours to savour it!

Yes, I know that everyone has already read, reviewed and discussed this book. I have even heard Sarah Perry talk about it twice at various book festivals, so I have got a signed copy (thanks to a friend who climbed onto a stage where she was busy signing them!). It was only last week that our book group actually got round to discussing it. Virtually everyone said that they had read it, but it was universally agreed to be a strange book and a challenging read. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of “Melmoth”, and promise I will read it considerably quicker when I do!

Outrageous Fortune by Patricia Wentworth – a Golden Age Gem

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This Golden Age Mystery, originally published in 1933, now reprinted by the excellent Dean Street Press, is quite simply a splendid mystery. It is one of the best representations of women as actual characters in a crime novel I have read for a while, despite the slight tendency for them to overdose on the romantic elements. It is however the women of this novel who push forward the action at every turn, and provide the comic relief when things get very heavy. There is no “Miss Silver” to be found in this Wentworth novel, and no real detective; despite this the action is gripping as the main male character, Jim, tries to clear his memory and name. It is unusual, as there is a shortage of details of the crime, but this works as the protagonists attempt to achieve their desires and sort out a very confused and foggy picture.

The novel opens in a small hospital where a mystery man lies muttering about green beads and seems to have totally lost his memory of who he is and how he got there. He is quickly claimed by a woman called Nesta, who states that he is her husband, and she bears him off to be looked after by Tom, her brother, and his wife Min. As Jim regains full consciousness, he is amazed to discover that he is apparently married and the only person to know the whereabouts of a priceless emerald necklace, removed when its owner, Elmer Van Berg was shot.  A local man, he is discovered by his younger cousin Caroline who has always idolised him, and who is determined to help him solve the riddle of his imperfect memory. Incidentally, she lives with Pansy Ann, who provides an innocent diversion to the main story with her romantic life. The characters move around finding more clues to what actually happened, and this interesting, seemingly impossible situation is finally resolved.

There are sometimes when a well written mystery novel really is really addictive and enjoyable, and this one fits the bill well. Its unusual premise does require a certain suspension of disbelief at times, but the characters are well drawn in terms of a mystery novel of the period, and I enjoyed even those who utter dire threats and seem determined to gain their own ends. Both the misguided and the misinformed have their roles to play, and there are several classic elements of secrets and foggy memory which are brought into play here. Dean Street Press have found some real gems of this period and reprinted them to great effect. I was really pleased to receive a review copy of this book, and found it to be a really good read with few pretentions except to be an enjoyable mystery with no gore or disturbance but a really well worked out story. For those who enjoy Golden Age Mysteries, especially those looking for a book where the female characters are not in the background, I can thoroughly recommend this novel.

I have been quite quiet here for the last week as Guests and Book Sale have rather dominated life. I have also been manufacturing bunting (well, helping,) and writing invitations. I returned from said Book Sale with a box of books, but some were for Northernvicar and a young friend, honestly! I was most  excited to get a copy of “Letters of Note”, the large hardback edition, which I have looked at for some time. It is not a book to read from cover to cover but a lovely book to dip into, so watch this space for future quotes…

Whatever Happened to Margo? by Margaret Durrell – The Human Zoo?

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This is a book that answers some questions about the continuation of other books. Fans of Gerald Durrell’s books about his family and other animals, or at least those who enjoy the tv adaptations of his books such as the current “The Durrells”, will find something to amuse and entertain them in this book, originally published in 1995, now reprinted by Penguin. Margaret (Margo being her name in her brother’s books) Durrell was the only daughter in the slightly unusual family transplanted in Corfu by her Mother in the early 1930s, who grew up surrounded by animals and unusual human characters. Not least among these characters were her brothers, including Lawrence (Larry) the famous novelist, who had friends and visitors who were certainly memorable. In this book Margaret establishes her own unusual houseful of characters who continue the challenges and frequent farce of life she evidently grew up knowing in Corfu. Her own portrait of the remarkable people in her house is often funny, sometimes a little shocking, and always memorable.

Margo has returned to the family home in Bournemouth in 1947 following her divorce with her two young sons. Following the advice of a wealthy aunt, she decides to establish a respectable boarding house opposite, taking in long term boarders who will bring her income and occupation. She finds a house which needs work, and true to form her workmen have their eccentricities such as seeking out beer secreted around the house. Leslie, the other brother, causes problems with his dubious business practices and new love, Doris. The lodgers who turn up over the next few weeks include a painter of nudes, a married couple with a loud husband and an unexpected extra, two nurses with active love lives, and men of no particular occupation. Jazz musicians and a retired nurse also find rooms in this apparently capacious house, along with a small woman and her large son, Nelson. Nelson proves to be quite a character, combining all the cunning of an adult of dubious morals with the apparent innocence of a child. Gerald, famous younger brother, turns up with monkeys and a python, and much farcical mayhem ensues as they escape. A chimney fire brings out the brave foolhardiness of Edward, the unexpected wealth of another tenant means a party, and even the supposedly completely respectable late arrival turns out to have an inconvenient obsession with lightbulbs. Mother frequently turns up to confuse the issue, but the great aunt visit of Agatha and Patience is near Wodehouse in its panic hiding of guests, promotion of one or two lodgers as near aristocracy, and fights between pets. There are several set pieces of crisis with disapproving neighbours and police who have to be placated by the most attractive nurses. There are also touching moments when illness threatens, but the narrative soon changes tone as Nelson’s worse excesses dominate. Mice breeding, disturbed girlfriends and even a rumour of brothel keeping means that Margo never gets the peace and respectability she originally aimed for, but overall that does not seem to grieve her too much.

This book sets out to show that living in a relatively confined space with other humans can be as challenging as running a menagerie, and just as unpredictable. It is probably exaggerated reality, and the writing style is almost as chaotic as the subject matter. It is undoubtedly an enjoyable read very much in the Gerald Durrell style, which is suitable given that escaped monkeys prove one source of dismay to Margo. Gerald also becomes involved in trying to diagnose what ails one lodger, as he appreciates that the human animal can be as fascinating as his collection. This is an entertaining look at life, with an ill assorted group of humans providing much material for a book of jolly reminiscence of life in post war Britain.

I managed to track a copy of this book down last Monday in a snowy, wet Sheffield, and have read it pretty quickly! It is a quick read, if not a great literary work, and would recommend it for an enjoyable, relaxing few hours.

Radio Girls by Sarah- Jane Stratford – An historical novel with biographies of some fascinating women

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This is fictional account of an exciting time in British history, specifically the new but ground breaking BBC. It is more than a historical novel, as it largely deals with the role of women in the BBC through the eyes of an American girl, drawn into the orbit of Hilda Matheson. The setting of a country going through nervous times as it recovers from one war and begins to feel the tensions which will build to another gives an authentic feel of 1926. A fictional character becomes the way in which the early BBC is examined and class issues are explored, especially in relation to the changing expectations of women. This accomplished novel is a well written, engaging read for those interested in the social history of the time, and the characters who dominated the worlds of politics and literature.

Maisie Musgrave is a girl with something of a past, but keen to make a new future. Daughter of actress, Georgina, she was born in Canada but grew up in New York. After a stint of nursing in at the end of the First World War, she has trained as a secretary but has found it difficult to get work in London. At last she gets a job in the BBC, assisting in both the offices of John Reith and Hilda Matheson. Reith is a firm and frightening man, determined to preserve the status quo despite the changes and challenges of broadcasting which is increasing in popularity. Matheson is a challenging woman who is actively seeking to use the “Talks” to promote change in the sort of programme offered to the early listeners to radio. She knows the women and some men who are making a difference in politics such as Lady Astor, and those who are changing the face of literature such as Vita Sackville West. As Maisie becomes more involved with the dynamic world opening out to her, her ambitions change. All is far from plain sailing however, as there are those both within the BBC and out who are determined to adapt the world to their views and interests.

Looked at objectively, this book sets itself high targets and hits most of them. The shadow of the “Great War” is still present, as is the fight for women to get the vote. Women are discriminated against even in a new organisation, but there are signs of change as they begin to get more choices. Maisie is unbelievably talented, but her naivety is a little overdone. I really felt for her as a character, however, as she learns to fight battles she never dreamt of to maintain her role and achieve her ambitions. The fictionalised portrait of Hilda Matheson is very interesting, and made me keen to find out more about this very real woman who fought battles on many fronts. The only really annoying aspect of this book is the anachronistic speech; phrases like “on trend” are rather startling coming from a 1920s character and reveal perhaps a lack of editing. Otherwise the research seems impeccable and never too heavily used; I learnt a lot about the period and some of the characters. This is a readable book and I recommend it as a book to enjoy while soaking up some of the history of both the BBC and life for a woman in 1920s London.

This is a book that I actually tracked down in a branch of Works, but I have seen it in many bookshops since. I think that the cover lets it down a little; it is far more than a ‘girl makes good against the odds’ book. It achieves far more.

This coming week preparations continue for a book sale next weekend. Held in the church hall at the end of our drive, it will feature hundreds of books. Guess who will be there…