After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

After Leaving Mr McKenzie cover

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys was first published in 1930. Previously I’ve read her very well known Wide Sargasso Sea and to be honest I seem to remember that I wasn’t nearly as enthralled by that one as many other readers have been, although it’s many years since I read it. I also read her Good Morning, Midnight and I found that one a bit depressing.

For me After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is a much better book, not exactly uplifting though. It’s the story of Julia Martin, a not so young woman (well not as young as many men prefer) who has had lots of gentlemen friends. Originally from London she made her way to France as a youngster, looking for adventure and a way out of the poverty of her family home and leaving her younger sister to cope with their mother.

Her most recent man had become disenchanted with her six months previously but he had been sending her a cheque every month and she squandered the money, so when he makes it clear that there will be no more cheques from him she realises that she’ll have to go out and find another man who will support her. But that’s easier said than done as she’s no longer as attractive as she once was.

I found this to be a poignant and atmospheric read, no doubt it’s autobiographical, it seems that Rhys had a sad life, one of those people who was her own worst enemy. You can read a bit about her here.

The Demon in the House by Angela Thirkell

The Demon in the House cover

The Demon in the House by Angela Thirkell was published in 1934, a busy year for the author it would seem. She so fell in love with her character Tony Morland who first appears in High Rising – that she had to write more about him. He is of course the twelve year old son of Laura Morland who is a writer, it’s difficult not to assume that the Morlands are based on Thirkell’s own family.

This was a first time read for me as I had trouble finding a copy to buy at what I regarded as a reasonable price, luckily I managed to borrow it from the library, albeit in large print.

As the youngest of Laura’s four boys and never having known his long dead father, Tony is rather pampered, but he’s an exuberant lad, always getting into scrapes, breaking windows, ruining clothes, washing the newly shelled peas down the sink, retrieving them from the u-bend and eating them! You get the idea, he’s a bundle of trouble but at the same time adorable.

This portrayal of the relationship between a young boy and his mother is by far the most realistic I’ve read, despite Tony’s exaggerated character. Every bike outing of Tony’s has Laura imagining the worst. At the end of the book she is sorting out the clothes for his school trunk, he’s moving up to the senior school and going from short trousers to long ones, a huge rite of passage for boys and mothers in those days.

What really surprised me about this book is the many mentions of Hitler. Tony says Hitler murders practically all Germans. He knows what he would do. He’d put an electric shock machine in his telephone and when Hitler answered the telephone he’d get electrocuted. If only it had been that easy.

I read this one for the 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Wild Strawberries cover

Wild Strawberries is the second of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books, first published in 1934 but my copy is a 1983 Hamlyn paperback.

This one revolves mainly around the Leslie family. I remember someone commenting years ago that the Leslies were their least favourite characters, and I can see that some people could find them very annoying indeed, but they’ve suffered tragedies that money can’t cushion. There is a sort of sense of entitlement pervading them but for me there’s just enough charm there to be able to forgive that, although I could see David Leslie far enough – as they say.

Lady Emily Leslie is so disorganised that she can’t get anywhere on time, not even to church, and it holds everybody up. Even when she gets there she causes chaos with her stage whispers as she tells everybody where to sit. The eldest son was killed in the Great War and the youngest son David is absolutely full of himself, has umpteen lady friends and never gives a thought to any of them. John who is son number two is the sensible one. His wife Gay died after just a year of marriage.

With the arrival of a family friend to stay for the summer and some French visitors who have rented the vicarage (I doubt if that was actually possible) the story evolves with the usual bits of romance, uppity servants and mothers of young children who are incredibly relaxed about them, not batting an eye when they cause havoc and mess. After all, why worry when the nanny will sort it all out!

This one is entertaining and interesting as David Leslie is hoping to get a job at the BBC which is in its early days and it seems that any ‘toff’ with the right sort of an accent could get a job there – even women! It’s obvious that most of the young men working there were gay, but sometimes settled for a ‘companionate’ marriage – to the right sort of girl – with money of course.

At one point David Leslie is at the railway station to meet someone and the London bank-holiday train disgorges lots of hikers, a few of which give him the Fascist salute – I wonder just how common that was in 1934, just a year after Hitler took power in Germany.

This book is one of my 20 Books of Summer.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

It’s the time of the year when if I’m not on holiday then I have people visiting me for a holiday, so I’ve just been too busy to blog recently, but a fun time was had by all as we dashed about the east of Scotland showing friends some sights. But back to blogging:

One of the books on my 20 Books of Summer 2017 list is Angela Thirkell’s High Rising, a re-read for me because I wanted to read them all in the correct order this time around. High Rising introduces many of the inhabitants of Barsetshire, that updated setting of many of Anthony Trollope’s books and featuring some of the descendants of his characters, but that is by the by as it really doesn’t matter if you haven’t read those books.

The book was first published in 1933 but my copy is a modern re-print with an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith. It mainly features Mrs Laura Morland, a widow with four sons, three of whom are out in the world, but her youngest son Tony is still at prep school and he’s the reason she keeps writing her very popular Madam Koska books, she needs the money they bring in to pay for his school fees apart from anything else. Tony is an exasperating little boy, absolutely full of himself and constantly boasting, but there’s a lot of comedy in Tony’s shenanigans. Thirkell had two sons of her own and I’m sure that she was using an actual boy as a template for Tony’s character, he’s obsessed by trains and has an urge to pass on all his railway information to anyone he comes across. Anyone with sons will recognise that stage, although in my day it was more likely to be dinosaurs or F1 racing.

George Knox is really just an adult version of Tony, someone who loves to hear his own voice, but he has taken on a secretary to help him write his books and there’s something odd about her. She seems to be far too familiar considering she is a type of servant, she is behaving more like a wife, and George’s friends fear she will hook him.

Can Laura save George from the clutches of the obviously mentally unstable secretary, whilst shedding her tortoiseshell hairpins? I googled kirby grips/Bobby pins to see when they were invented and it seems to have been in the 1920s, but Laura was sticking loyally to the old fashioned hairpins which do fall out easily, I know as I have some from way back then.

I enjoyed reading this one just as much as the first time I read it. If you want to read my more detailed review from then have a look here.

Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham

Death of a Ghost cover

Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham was first published in 1934 and it’s the sixth Albert Campion murder mystery, so fairly early in his career and for me that’s the problem with this book. As he matured Allingham wrote Campion as a much more interesting character than he was in his early days, he’s just too shadowy and one dimensional, I much prefer the older married Campion.

John Lafcadio was a great artist and he decided that to keep his name going as long as possible after his death he would paint several pictures to be unveiled after his death – one a year, beginning ten years after his death. I have to say that that is a great idea.

It’s the eighth unveiling of one of those paintings, so eighteen years after his death, and there are lots of famous people at the party, suddenly the lights go out – a shilling is needed for the electricity meter, and there’s a murder!

So begins Campion’s investigation, aided by Stanislaus Oates, but for me there’s just not enough of Campion and it’s all a bit predictable.

Miss Mole by E.H.Young

Miss Mole by E.H. Young was first published in 1930 but my copy is a 1934 re-print, at least the tenth time it had been re-printed so it was obviously a very popular book from the start.

To begin with I really disliked Miss Hannah Mole, there’s nothing attractive about her in looks or character, she seems to have a fleeting relationship with the truth and is quite happy to lie her head off if it suits her.
…Hannah was not scrupulous about the truth. She was not convinced of its positive value as human beings knew it, she considered it a limiting and embarrassing convention. The bare truth was often dull and more often awkward, while lies were a form of imagination and a protection for the privacy of her thoughts and, in a life lived in houses which were not her own and where she was never safe from intrusions.

I ended up admiring her though, she’s quick witted, humorous and kind – what more could you want in a friend?

She’s an odd looking person, almost 40 and dressed in peculiar clothes, although she never skimps on her footwear as she knows that people judge you by your shoes. She’s had a succession of jobs, mainly as companions to wealthy women, and she’s always being sacked from them as she’s not exactly dedicated to the work and she’s insolent to them, and when she gets a chance of a job as a housekeeper to a non-conformist minister whose wife has died she jumps at the opportunity to move up and look after his family and home.

For a large part of the book it’s swathed in mysteries such as – why is Hannah so poverty stricken if she has her own cottage that she’s renting out? There’s a hint of a man in the background, her sorrowful past. But in the end it all works out satisfactorily. This is the second E.H. Young book that I’ve read for the Undervalued British Women Novelists Group on Facebook.

Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh

Death in a White Tie cover

Death in a White Tie by the New Zealand author Ngaio Marsh was first published in 1938 but my copy is a 1949 reprint. It’s a Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn mystery and the setting is London high society where Lady Alleyn, the detective’s mother is going to be attending debutante balls, chaperoning the daughter of friends who are living abroad. It’s not something she’s looking forward to, the whole process is exhausting and she is a lot older than she was when she did it for her own daughter. It throws her into the society of old friends and it soon becomes apparent that not all is as it should be.

Alleyn is aware that there’s a blackmailer operating in London High Society, he has inside information and ends up attending some of the functions his mother goes to, in an attempt to unmask the blackmailer.

I enjoyed Death in a White Tie which kept me guessing and in some ways Marsh’s writing reminded me of A Game of Thrones as she had no hesitation in introducing the reader to a loveable character – only to dispatch him violently. That’s very different from Christie’s and even Sayers’s writing where you often don’t meet the victim until the body is found, or they are particularly unlikeable people.

I was interested in this passage:

How many of these women were what he still thought of as ‘virtuous’? And the debutantes? They had gone back to chaperones and were guided and guarded by women, many of whose own private lives would look ugly in this flood of hard lights that had been let in on Lord Robert’s world. The girls were sheltered by a convention for three months but at the same time they heard all sorts of things that would have horrified and bewildered his sister Mildred at their age. And he wondered if the Victorian and Edwardian eras had been no more than freakish incidents in the history of society and if their proprieties had been as artificial as the paint on a modern woman’s lips.

I think that’s a fair description of the Victorian and Edwardian era, but those years lasted so long that people forgot how bawdy and raucous society had been in earlier times. Writing like Chaucer’s would probably have shocked the Victorians rigid. Is all that Victorian prurience something we have to blame Prince Albert for? Was it the upsurge of a middle class due to industrialisation in Britain? Just wondering.

I know, I wandered again, but it’s an interesting subject. Getting back to the book, I think this is the best Ngaio Marsh book I’ve read so far.

Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom

I was asked by the publishers if I would like to review Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom, apparently because I’ve reviewed some D.E. Stevenson books in the past. I jumped at the chance because I had read and reviewed an old copy of Mrs Bunthorpe’s Respects by Ursula Bloom. I like her writing, it’s funny but also well observed. She was very prolific, apparently writing over 500 books under various names, she was 92 when she died and she started writing at a very early age.

I was a bit put off by the title. Wonder Cruise sounds a bit tacky to me and Mills and Boonish and when I saw the book cover it didn’t make me feel any better. But I did really enjoy the book which was first published in 1934.

Ann Clements is a 35 year old spinster, she was brought up in a country rectory, a very sheltered and quite boring life, her mother died when Ann was only eleven so Ann had taken over many of a vicar’s wife’s duties. Her brother is an evangelical vicar, he’s married with one daughter Gloria, Ann’s goddaughter and they live in London. When her father dies Ann realises that she has to find a way of supporting herself, the proceeds of the sale of the rectory furniture allow her to take a secretarial course. So for the past nine years she has been working in a London office, again her life is boring, hand to mouth and predictable. Then an amazing thing happens, she wins £350 in a sweepstake.

What should she do with it? Invest it at 3% bringing in a teeny amount of money a year – or splurge it on a Mediterranean cruise? Her brother is outraged by the whole thing, she shouldn’t have been gambling and she shouldn’t think of using the money for herself, he wants her to invest it for his daughter’s future. Sensibly Ann chooses the cruise which of course leads to a complete change in her life.

This is one of those wish fulfilment books, the sort of thing that legions of women must have hoped would happen to them and if it doesn’t happen then reading about it is the next best thing.

The blurb on the back of the book says:
A witty heartwarming read with great romantic and comic characters. This warm feel-good tale will make you smile, and you’ll be rooting for Ann to find lasting love and happiness.

But for fans of vintage fiction it’s more than that. It’s a real trip back to 1934, the attitudes, clothes and the amazing things that happen when you get your hair shingled. In fact I almost felt like getting my own hair shingled, but as I have never met a hairdresser yet who does what I ask them to do I thought better of it!

Why do publishers rarely get the covers of books correct? This one would have been so much more attractive if they had gone down the same road that the British Crime Classics have. Art Deco/1930s clothing, buildings or even a 1930s ship would have been so much better than the soppy effort they chose.
That aside, my thanks go to Corazon Books for giving me the opportunity to read Wonder Cruise – a good read.

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons was first published in 1938 but my copy is a Virago Modern Classic. This is a really enjoyable read, four stars on Goodreads I’d say. Inevitably though I find myself saying that you shouldn’t expect it to be as funny as Cold Comfort Farm, which truly did have me laughing out loud a lot, wayback when I was a teenager, I don’t know what effect it would have on me now though.

Anyway, in Nightingale Wood Viola has been widowed after just one year of marriage. Her husband Teddy had come from a wealthy family, his parents were appalled that their son had lowered himself to marry a girl who just worked in a shop. Viola ends up moving in with her parents-in-law, Mr amd Mrs Withers and their two almost middle-aged daughters Tina and Madge. Everyone seems to have given up hope of them ever getting married and moving out, so it’s a very strange household which Viola finds herself living in.

Mr Withers is miserably mean with money and he’s amazed to discover that his son died leaving his widow just about penniless, although as Teddy worked for his father and he was paid pennies in wages it’s a mystery how he was supposed to leave money to Viola. She would leave their home, The Eagles, if she could but she has no family of her own to help her.

That makes it all sound pretty depressing but really it isn’t. One of the sisters-in-law is in love with the chauffeur, the other one adores dogs, and the very well off Spring family are always entertaining the rest of the local nobs.

Viola falls for Victor Spring, the very handsome son, but he has been going out with a girl forever. Is there any hope for Viola?

You’ll have noticed that this bears more than a passing resemblence to a fairy tale. But is has a fair share of humour in it too, mostly from Viola, a very likeable character.

As I said, it was published in 1938 and it has the snobbishness and even anti-semitism which you sometimes come across in books from that era. It also mentions the possibility of a coming war, and that scoundrel who would have been crowned King Edward VIII, if we hadn’t got lucky.

The book has an introduction by Sophie Dahl.

The Provincial Lady in America by E.M. Delafield

The Provincial Lady in America by E.M. Delafield was first published in 1934 but my copy wasn’t published until 1939. It was published in paperback in 2005.

I read and really enjoyed Delafield’s other Provincial Lady books and liked this one too, although it might not have been quite as amusing as the others.

The Provincial Lady is invited to America to do a book tour, giving lectures in various American and Canadian cities. This comes as a great surprise to her because when her publishers suggested a tour she gave them a list of stipulations as to financial requirements and substantial advances. She’s quite shocked that they have agreed to all of her wishes.

After lots of preparations and a week long voyage on the S.S. Statendam she sails into New York and so begins a busy schedule where she meets plenty of odd characters, almost as odd as the ones she comes across in England!

It’s 1933 and if you know your America you’ll realise that that means The Chicago World Fair, a must visit obviously. Empire Exhibitions and World Fairs are a couple of Jack’s interests so even he liked the bits about the exhibits she had visited. She described the postcards that she bought there and Jack has most of them in his collection. Another place she’s determined to visit is Alcott House in Concord (have any of you been there?). Everyone tells her that Boston is exactly like England but she has never felt cold like it.

She’s swaddled in American hospitality and has a wonderful time shopping for gifts for everyone back home. The result is of course that she has a terrible problem with her luggage. She has piles of books to take back home, and everyone advises her to get a strap for them. I think that’s something particularly American. Anyway, her luggage problems are as nothing compared with being over-booked and over-bagged when you turn up at an airport nowadays. I wonder if there are any liners ploughing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic now? It’s tempting to travel that way if only so that there would be no strict baggage allowance.

Her Provincial Lady books are very autobiographical, and at one point she mentions that it’s very strange to be in a country where there isn’t a huge imbalance of women (or words to that effect). It must have been weird to live in a society with far fewer men around than there should have been, due to World War 1.

I started reading this one after I had given up reading Hilary Mantell’s Beyond Black, as after the incidents in Paris I just didn’t feel up to reading something which wasn’t light hearted. Have any of you read Beyond Black? The Provincial Lady in America was just perfect light reading.

Below is an image of the ship which she supposedly sailed to America in.

S.S. Statendam