Parson’s Nine by Noel Streatfeild A most enjoyable book to read and savour

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This 1932 book tells the story of a family through the eyes of various people within that family over a period of about twenty years, before, during and after the First World War. This is no experimental novel of different narrators or points of view; it is a straight narration of a family where nine children grow up, face the challenges of life, endure the War and some loss, and where that leaves them in a new world. This is not a book of war or tragedy; although a family with so many young people in 1914 suffer, there is much more to this book. This is a book of humour and the small things that make up family life, of women who want more, who make gestures of independence and protest. It is not a melodramatic saga, but a book of what feels like real life, by a writer skilled in pushing each character to the limit and not beyond.

Catherine is married to David, a spiritually minded vicar who needs to occasionally be challenged on his touching but sometimes misguided assumptions about his family and their real feelings. When her first child is born, David brings Catherine a list of nine names from the biblical apocrypha, and unsurprisingly she is taken aback to think of having nine children, let alone in the exact order as specified. It comes to pass that “God blessed them with nine exactly” in the correct order and Catherine is determined that there will be no more. It is at Christmas that we first see the busy Vicarage full of children, each displaying the characteristics that will stay with them, as they comment on church life, death and Christmas presents. Catherine finds herself with a legacy which will allow her a holiday alone, then send the older sons to school and engage a governess for the girls. Miss Crosby is determined that each daughter will have the opportunity to develop her talents, even go to college. She also becomes so interested in women’s suffrage that she gets into trouble; another event that must be interpreted for David. Each of the children as they grow up shows their particular traits, as one loves gardening, another the family dog, and Esdras finds biblical quotes for all occasions. As war approaches assumptions are made about who will take part in which way, and the implications of those choices continue to affect who is left.

The subject matter of the novel is not miserable, or over dramatic. The style is gently amusing, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps and grasp the implications of the written record. It is a carefully written book, generous to the characters, full of tiny details which make it a convincing story. It feels like a book of its time, but beautifully written and controlled. I really enjoyed reading this book, appreciated its subtle wit, and found that it carried me along with its fascinating story. This is a book to be savoured and a pleasure to read, and I was really pleased to find it in my local library in its Greyladies edition.

I have been finishing off plenty of books over the last few days, so I ought to have something to post about!

High Rising by Angela Thirkell – a most enjoyable introduction to Barsetshire

This early Thirkell novel is notable for introducing some significant characters to the Barsetshire establishment that were going to reoccur throughout the chronicles, Laura and Tony Morland. Other characters such as George Knox reappear, such as Mr Middleton, notorious for their ceaseless talking and self promotion. This novel begins in the festive season, but the events continue well into the new year, so is certainly not limited to winter reading, despite the cover on the Virago Modern Classics edition. Other characters such as Anne Todd, Stoker and the quickly notorious Una Grey all play their part to make this one of the most memorable of Thirkell’s novels.
The novel opens with a school prize giving in which Tony and his friend, rejoicing in the nickname of Donk, threaten to create mayhem, until Laura, Tony’s long suffering mother, takes him home to their cottage. Her servant, Stoker, takes charge, while Laura reacquaints herself with local author and personality, George Knox. All is not well in the household, as he has acquired a new secretary, who is spectacularly efficient and seems to be scheming to marry her employer. Sybil, George’s daughter, is unhappy as she is becoming attached to Adrian, Laura’s frequently bewildered publisher. Anne Todd is Laura’s secretary, who is also caring for her elderly mother, gaining the admiration of the local Doctor. There is festive drinking, a car accident and proposals of marriage, as people enjoy parties, visits and London evenings out to see King Lear. Laura is self depreciating about her writing, but she actually succeeds in attracting the devoted following that Thirkell herself wanted and probably achieved. Underlying the adult happenings, Tony tries to develop a splendid railway and express his delight in accidents and dogs. He develops his characteristic personality and is even involved in one of the dramatic scenes at the end of the book when all is revealed.
This is overall one of the cheerful interwar books in which the events are happily worked out, people feel real and there is a satisfactory plot. The servants are happy in their work, manage their employers well, and are not disparaged. The difficulty that has been seen in this novel is the treatment and discussion of Una Grey, the secretary with designs on her boss. She is in a difficult situation as a single young woman who needed to support herself by working or find a husband, and it is perhaps a little cruel of Laura and others to refer to her as the Incubus because of her devotion to George. While there are women who need to work in the Barsetshire set as the chronicles proceed, especially during the war years, their work tends towards the voluntary and not many have to work to survive as Miss Grey must, and it seems unfair to criticise her. However, she does proceed to show some nasty characteristics, and maybe the reader’s sympathy is more drawn to Anne Todd, for her devotion to her mother and her lack of financial prospects. Altogether this is a most enjoyable book and a very good starting point for the Barsetshire novels.

Although this was one of the first Thirkell novel I read, the VMC edition makes it a joy to re read.Does anyone know if there are more reprints to come in the series, or is “Miss Bunting” the final effort?

One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens

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A selection of covers for a well established book. Curiously, I think the most recent one is the least enticing…

This is a 1952 book which looks back on the wartime year of a young woman who decides to train as a nurse to help the war effort. She does not need the money; she is not forced into the hospital by conscription, she “could not make up her mind what to be”. She finds many snags to each of the choices, A.T.S. requiring little work, the W.V.S involves ungrateful evacuees and the Land Army requires mangel- wurzel pulling in the early morning. The idea of nursing “Had always attracted me.” and she embarks on a journey to a hospital, any hospital who will allow her to start training immediately.

For those who may not relish the idea of a medical memoir, the writer is far more interested in her situation in the new way of life she discovers at the hospital. The other nurses of all ranks are discussed as some eat their body weight, others fall in love with local servicemen, some are determined to run the hospital on strict lines, or at least whichever ward Dickens is sent to in a haphazard way.  She works nights, fails to sleep during the day, and is occasionally invited away from the hospital for social engagements. One of the funniest situations is when she visits a school and is hailed as a source of a diagnosis of an odd rash. It is a funny book, despite or perhaps because of its setting. She assists at the last minute saving of a woman, and nurses private patients with their many and various requirements. There is a moment when the war seems about to intrude with extra patients, but as in many cases it is an anti climax, as is well suggested in the build up to the anecdote.

This is a well written, amusing book full of tales which have the suggestion of truth. It is not a sentimental tale, but more in the spirit of “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” which is high praise.  As a tale of the Home Front it is almost modern in its humour, and is far from a grim recall of danger survived. Dickens emerges as an independent young woman with a keen flair for honest observation. It is of its time, but is well written and engaging, and given its subject matter, a surprisingly cheerful read. I found it a fascinating picture of war time life, cheerful in contrast with other books of the time, and can recommend it to anyone interested in the life actually lived by some of the people of Britain at a time of challenge.

At the moment life at the Vicarage is busy. Today Northernvicar and I went to Leeds to see a couple of museums as part of our M.A. course. We know how to live! Selwyn, the Vicarage cat, was so appalled by his abandonment that he fell down the back of a cupboard on our return…

The Late Mrs Prioleau by Monica Tindall

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This fascinating book from Furrowed Middlebrow is many things, a family story, a mystery, a wartime novel, but most of all it is a portrait of a woman’s life. Told by Mrs. Prioleau’s daughter in law, another Mrs Prioleau, it is a largely dispassionate hunt for the details of a life which had a tremendous effect on those around her, especially her children. Reaching back into the late nineteenth century, the background of much of the novel is the displacement resulting from the Second World War, as people discover more about themselves and those they love. The narrator, Susan, has the style of a murder mystery writer who tries to cope with the tension and the damaged siblings of her husband, largely away at war. Her realisation of all the elements of a life she only observes when it is at an end provokes a parallel realisation from the reader that choices made can reverberate through the years.

The book opens at the funeral of a matriarch, as the eldest son, Austin, is distraught at his mother’s death. It becomes obvious that he is an obsessive character, left bereft by the loss of his mother who kept a stern watch over every element of his life. Susan becomes involved in trying to clear the house, move Austin on, at the gentle insistence of a doctor and family friend. She soon discovers that the older woman kept clothes and items not really consistent with her life as recalled by those around her. Austin makes scenes, is obsessed by his dogs, and generally continues to behave in an odd way. While Susan is told that he suffered shell shock in the First World War, his bizarre behaviour seems to reveal more questions than answers.

This is not a miserable book, as it is lightened by the burden of a parrot, and other odd incidents which surround a dysfunctional family. It becomes obvious, however, that both daughters of the family tried to get away from home as soon as possible, even if that meant that they made poor choices. The grandchildren are allowed an almost dangerous amount of freedom, but they appear essentially resilient. Susan’s own war work takes her to many places, and gives her opportunities to find out more about the family. I wanted a resolution to all this searching, and I was not disappointed by the revelations of the book.

This was sadly the only book published by Tindall, a carefully written story of lives consistent with difficult choices. I think it has a lot to say about women’s lot in the early twentieth century, and much of its background of the writer enduring life on the Home Front contributes to our understanding of women’s experience. The narrator is from New Zealand so she gives a largely dispassionate account of British life under trial. The thoughtful introduction written by Gillian Tindall portrays a writer with more talent than ambition, whose sole novel more than deserves this reprint by Dean Street Press. I was very pleased to get this copy of the book to review and recommend it as an unusual and touching novel.

I have quite a pile of review books to get my teeth into at the moment; more murder from Dean Street Press, some classics and some soon to be published titles from Legend Press, and Martin Edwards’ “The story of Classic crime in 100 Books”. I think that the latter might mean I spend more than a few pennies on classic crime novels myself…

Mariana by Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens is a popular author for those who enjoy mid twentieth century British Women writers, especially as many of her books were autobiographical. It is no wonder then, that Mariana was the second book published by Persephone, and reprinted in their “Classics” series. The date of original publication, 1940, may suggest war time novels, but much of this book is pre war, the story of a girl growing up and meeting the challenge of what seems like an intensely felt life. The beginning and end of this novel are set in the early part of the war, with all the heightened emotions and appreciation of danger, but this is essentially the story of a girl, a young woman, finding life and love.

The first element of the novel may strike a chord with anyone who spent childhood holidays in the same place, with the same people. “Mary” is the main character of these reminiscences; we see her experiencing childhood adventures and the first stirrings of romance with a relative, Denys, enjoying the predictable pleasures of childhood. An only child, she lives with her mother and actor uncle in a small London apartment and finds school challenging. This is no misery memoir as her decision to go to drama school is described in all possible detail, a very funny account of her struggles to conform to the idiosyncratic demands of the course, and the glorious final performance which distinguishes her career as a would be actress.

Throughout her life her mother is a permanent if fascinating character, allowing much experimentation in the face of her own romantic confusion and business endeavours. When Mary goes to Paris and gets engaged in a set piece of scenery and charm, her mother is accepting as always, being secretly perceptive to what her daughter actually wants from life. Marriage is seen as important, not just to be drifted into, even if it brings the potential for pain.

This is a gentle book about how women had choices in the interwar period that their mothers lacked. It is a funny and entertaining book, with characters who could be real, living in circumstances not all of their choosing, but making the best of things in this time.  The style is friendly, with no great melodrama but understandable emotions. I can recommend it for those who are keen on “middlebrow” novels, and I am glad that Persephone have kept this particular Dickens book in print.

I recently enjoyed rereading this book; for me it has become a comfort read, a novel that has many touching incidents. Heaven knows that we could all do with such a thing at the moment. I found one or two other Monica Dickens books on a forage in Barter Books; I am inspired to find out where they have been (double) shelved…

Jane Austen At Home by Lucy Worsley

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“The perfect marriage of author and subject” it declares on the cover of my proof copy of this book, and I think that it is in this instance correct. Worsley covers this subject so well, in such detail, in such a readable style, that it is looking like my book of the year. With chapter notes, an extensive bibliography and index, this book is such a thorough examination of the life and homes of Jane Austen it would cover all requirements for a biography short of degree level study, and even then it would form the beginning of in depth work. Yet it is an easy to read book, which made me want to carry on reading. Quite an achievement!

I am sure that Lucy Worsley had a lot of help in researching and producing this book, which she mentions in the Acknowledgements section. This is a long read, with observations on subjects allied to Jane’s actual life, such as the practice of sending fairly small babies away from the family to be nursed, examined. Even if you are not an enormous fan of Jane’s novels, this book is a remarkable resource on the life of an unmarried woman at this time, when she was truly dependant on family money with her only option to marry well. The fact that Jane did publish successful novels in her lifetime gave her some money, but sadly so little compared with the popularity of her work with millions of readers since. In some ways this is a sad book, but any sort of historical work has to deal with illness and death. She at least avoided the fate of many of her contemporaries; death in childbirth was a fact in her family, as well as illnesses that we would regard as minor today. There are many points of departure for the reader to find out more about, such as the writings of Fanny Burney who was a forerunner of Jane as novelist of women’s lives.

There has been at least one article alleging that parts of this book, theories concerning Jane have appeared in our publications. My view is that a relatively short life, restricted so much by the domestic, has been poured over in such detail by so many that there will be an overlap or common points whenever a work of this length and detail is attempted, especially for the non academic reader as well as the specialist.

This is a fine book, enjoyable and nicely challenging, enabling further study if required, detailing the whereabouts of artefacts and buildings today, as well as the sources for sections on the inheritance of Jane’s brothers and much more. In this book it is possible to discover exactly how much Jane, her sister and mother had to live on, as well as her probable feelings at having to leave the Rectory at her father’s retirement. This is not a book of the novels; the assumption is made that the reader will be familiar with those texts, but there is detail about where Jane was when they were written and something of their main themes.

In short, this is a very worthwhile book for anyone interested in the life of Jane Austen, but also valuable for someone requiring a more academic resource. It is worth buying or borrowing!

If you have access to iplayer, there is “Jane Austen: behind Closed Doors” in which Lucy Worsley visits most of the houses mentioned in this book. It was on BBC2 on Saturday 27th May, so has a little while left to be viewed on catch up. One friend said she had watched it twice already, I advised her to go and buy the book! I am so glad to have read it, thanks to the publisher for supplying the proof copy.

Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange

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This reprint of Orange’s book is a welcome addition to the Furrowed Middlebrow series published by Dean Street Press, and it is one of the best I have read. As a fan of Angela Thirkell’s novels, I thought I knew this territory well; a wartime look at life in a village with the focus on some individuals out of their comfort zone. This book is set in the early days of the Second World War, before bombs fell in blitz, when evacuees were debating whether to stay in countryside safety or return to London, when people were preparing for challenges to everything they knew.

Caroline Cameron is a young woman who seems to have it all, child, husband, money and a lovely home. Constance Smith has a lovely home in a village, Chesterford, but no children and a distant husband, Alfred. When war threatens Constance welcomes not only her old school friend Caroline, her daughter and Nanny into her home, but also an evacuated mother and child. Challenges soon emerge as Alfred’s behaviour becomes more flirtatious and ambitious, and the mother from London   struggles to look after her child. When Constance’s brother George comes to the village, Caroline is diverted by his sense of humour, but also embarks on an affair in London with an actor. Mysterious letters, Constance’s developing affection for the evacuee child and the scandalous behaviour of a local teenager threatens the peace of the village long before war wreaks havoc in the country at large.

This all seems rather grim, but Orange is a skilful and amusing writer. I particularly like the asides in brackets after many characters, especially Caroline, speak, revealing what they wished to say in reality. It is this factor, together with a stronger plot, which is the main difference from Thirkell’s writing, as well as it being a stand alone book. It features many strong characters, well written and believable.  For example, Caroline spends the weekend with her lover at friends’ house, and although these characters only appear briefly they are very funny, with no idea if they have servants or how they survive. I really enjoyed the working out of the plot and thought that the characters were consistent and realistic in many ways.

This is an easy to read and involving book, of its time and reflecting the uncertainty of 1941, when no one knew how the war would proceed. The characters, though a little confusingly named, are funny, realistic and generally understandable. It is in many ways a jolly book, despite the time at which it was written, and a rewarding read. It does not totally resolve the situations it creates, and it is not a substantial piece of writing, but I would recommend it to anyone interested in this period and the experience of women at the onset of war.

Dean Street Press are publishing excellent reprints of Golden Age Crime novels, and they are worth seeking out. I have downloaded several onto my kindle, despite not being a fan of ebooks, and they have been useful to read on my kindle app when waiting around. I still prefer physical books, and have so many waiting for  attention (putting on shelves?!?) that seven days in a week are far from enough! Still, who needs to be able to see the carpet?