Company in the Evening – Ursula Orange – Wartime comedy and romance

This extremely enjoyable novel by Ursula Orange was originally published in 1944, but it is far more than another wartime novel. Indeed, the mid war setting hardly makes reference to the ongoing bombing in London. This is a first person novel which seems very ahead of its time, featuring a woman coping, just, with the slings and arrows of a job, a live in relative, a small child and recent divorce. Her reactions as recorded in this novel are so understandable; even the title of the book reflects just what she claims she does not need, company in the time she relaxes from her job in London. This is a book from an era when the servant problem existed, but the problems which emerge are far more personal than employer problems. This is a book which tackles many themes, not all of them stuck in the mid twentieth century, and is an honest, funny account of life.

Vicky, narrator and chief protagonist, is on her way to her widowed mother’s house as the book opens. Up until now she has arranged her life very much on her own terms; after a carefully arranged divorce from Raymond she is bringing up her daughter Antonia with the assistance of Blakey, cook, sort of nanny and general servant. Sadly, her brother Philip has been killed in the early part of the war, leaving a very young pregnant widow, Rene. It is partly to move Rene back with her that Vicky is making the visit, partly to relieve her mother of the burden of a large house. While she realises that such sacrifices are demanded of many at this time, she regrets her loss of independence as she has an organised life involving three days a week working for a literary agent. Rene proves to be a difficult housemate, unsure of Vicky and soon at odds with Blakey. Barry, a local headmaster, has been seeing Vicky for a while, but she is not interested in more than friendship. In a traumatic episode, Vicky runs into Raymond, and her life becomes more troublesome.

This is a well written, involving book with plenty of humour amongst the annoyance of daily life. I enjoyed Vicky’s internal monologue, convinced that her determination to bring up Antonia alone is a responsible one, but also guilty that she has no siblings, proud that she behaves well without much discipline, and that she appreciates small treats. I enjoyed her minute examination of conversations, her understandings and misunderstandings, as they all seemed drawn from life. The problems that she encounters in her paid work are particularly appropriate for the novel, as a short story author behaves delightfully badly. This book is very well written and full of observation, controlled and well planned given the time of writing, when the outcome of the Second World War was not decided. Altogether this is a book ahead of its time in terms of realistic romance, daily life described and humour. Having just checked my review of Orange’s other reprinted book, the strangely named “Tom Tiddler’s Ground” (see https://northernreader.wordpress.com/2017/05/04/tom-tiddlers-ground-by-ursula-orange/) this book has a similar honest humour and is equally enjoyable. It is definitely a great discovery on the part of Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press, and I am really grateful for the review copy.

 

A Notable Woman – The Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt edited by Simon Garfield

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This is an unusual book in many ways. It features a woman’s diaries which covers most of her life, yet she was not a great celebrity. It does not focus on the Second World War or any other specific period of great upheaval, except the mid twentieth century generally. While Jean Lucey Pratt did write a biography of an actress which achieved some notice, her other writings disappeared. She was in many senses an unremarkable woman, but her journals which cover two thirds of the century disclose personal observations and thoughts on her life and the world generally that their very honesty compels attention. They have a unique quality of drawing the reader in beyond their actual content; a portrait of any individual can be fascinating if they are as well written as this one, especially edited with such skill as is shown here by Simon Garfield.

Jean Lucey Pratt started to write her journals in 1925, when she was fifteen. She described her family, her friends and those she was attracted to with accuracy that they soon emerge as real people, behaving as oddly and unexpectedly as family and friends appear in a young person’s eyes. Soon her attraction to people emerges, her feelings described with such searing honesty that she becomes a person of consequence. Her coverage of the war years is not dramatic and adventurous, as she finds the work that she can do does not involve a uniform. She goes on to describe her love life, her disappointments and her attachments. Friends bring joy and confusion, and she finds great interest in her somewhat solitary life in a cottage as she listens to the radio and lives with cats and kittens. Her writing is vitally important not only as an expression of her talent, as she is aware of her perilous financial situation, and knows she must try to raise money by any means while she tries to maintain her small household. Ironically it is these journals for which she will be remembered, even if she had little idea of their value as social documents.

This is not a book for everyone as it has little plot, beyond a life story, and that is one which is geographically and socially limited. If you are interested in the minutiae of the daily life of a woman of the twentieth century, this is a fascinating record of real life. Garfield’s editing apparently removed much of the cat- based repetition which could have become boring, but this is a record of the daily incidents in the life of a woman with few romantic illusions, but many relevant observations. I took a long time to read it, and genuinely enjoyed it as a book, and recommend it as both a good read and a fascinating social document.

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…