The Citadel by A.J. Cronin

The Citadel cover

The Citadel by the Scottish author A.J. Cronin was first published in 1939. It was the fifth book that he had had published and prior to taking up writing he had been a doctor for ten years. The Citadel must have been cooking away in his head for several years before he wrote it. This book is much more important than most fiction as it has been regarded as having been instrumental in the setting up of the National Health Service.

At the beginning the setting is 1924 in a coalmining village called Drineffy in Wales where Dr Andrew Manson has taken his first position after graduating. He’s going to be the assistant to a doctor who has worked there for years and is popular, but Andrew quickly discovers that he will have to do all of the work as Dr Page is bed-ridden, having had a stroke. This doesn’t stop Page’s spinster sister from grabbing the vast majority of the money from the ‘business’ leaving Andrew with less than a pound a week for pocket money. It’s a miserable dirty and poverty stricken place but Andrew works hard and is popular and he’s interested in doing research into lung diseases so he has plenty of interesting case, and to cap his happiness he marries Christine, a young schoolteacher. But not everyone is happy with the young doctor, he has made some enemies and that culminates with Andrew leaving the village to work in a larger Welsh town.

Andrew and Christine eventually end up moving to London where he buys a deceased doctor’s practice, but most of his patients are poor so life is still a struggle. When Andrew meets up with one of his friends from university he can’t help being jealous of his riches. He wasn’t as clever or hard working as Andrew but had concentrated on looking prosperous and soon was, with wealthy patients, most of whom were not at all ill but were lonely or hypochondriacs. The successful medics were selling medicine which was mainly made up of coloured water with a bit of ether added. In fact they weren’t any better than snake oil salesmen. Andrew is seduced by the high lifestyle and as he gets richer his marriage deteriorates until he and Christine are barely speaking to each other. She longs for the countryside and a garden but spends her days standing in a cupboard making up the fake medicines.

A tragedy wakes Andrew up to what he has been doing, and he realises that so many of his Harley Street colleagues are charlatans doing much more harm than good and doing very well out of it financially.

This is a sad book at times, but is a great read and when it was published it was Gollancz’s highest selling book. As you can imagine Cronin made plenty of enemies, and a group of medical specialists tried to have the book banned which probably just about guaranteed its success.

The Citadel was made into a film in 1938 and there was a BBC adaptation in 1983.

Classics Club Spin # 23 – Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell omnibus

I feel it’s a bit of a cheat putting Angela Thirkell’s Summer Half on my Classics Club list as it doesn’t really fit in with my idea of a classic but I’m trying to work my way through the books I have in my house and I don’t have many classics unread. Having said that – this is a re-read for me as I read Thirkell’s books just as I managed to get a hold of them, and now I’ m reading them again, in the correct order. Summer Half was first published in 1937.

Colin Keith’s father expects him to continue with his law studies and go on to be a barrister, but Colin feels bad about living off his parents, he feels it’s time to earn some money so he applies for a teaching post at the prep school at Southbridge. He’s nervous about the boys though, would he be able to cope with them? When he’s successful he’s in two minds about it as he really does enjoy his law studies.

The other teachers are a friendly set though and Colin settles down. Philip Winter is another young teacher there and he has the misfortune to be engaged to Rose Birkett, the headmaster’s daughter. Rose is beautiful to look at but she’s an intensely annoying dimwit with a tiny vocabulary. Philip is her third or maybe fourth fiance- and she’s only 18. The older boys in the school are incensed at the way Rose treats Philip and young Tony Morland and Eric Swan particularly do their best to protect him from her constant flirting with any other handy males.

As the setting is mainly the school there’s a lot of fun with the boys, particularly Hacker who is their classics scholar and is a bit of a nerdy character. He has a pet chameleon and in Hacker’s attempts to look after his pet he inadvertently causes mayhem in the school, but such fun!

“Mr Carter pointed out that the classics appeared to be no preparation for life, in that they did not, so far as he could see, even train a boy to think.”

I had to laugh when I read the line above as it’s so true. You just have to think of Boris Johnson who allegedly reads ancient Greek, but can barely string a sentence together in English.

This one was perfect light reading for Covid-19 times.

Two People by A.A. Milne

 Two People cover

A.A. Milne is obviously best known as the author of the Winnie the Pooh books which are beloved by people of all ages, but he also wrote quite a few books which were aimed at adult readers. This one was first published in 1931.

Two People must be the most autobiographical of his novels. Reginald Willard is wealthy enough not to have to work and he leads a perfect life, has a beautiful young wife Sylvia and a lovely home in the country. He adores his wife but when he tells her that he has just finished writing a book he’s understandably quite surprised by her lack of interest in it, she doesn’t even want to read Bindweed and says she’ll leave it until it is published. That seems unlikely to happen as far as Reginald is concerned, but Bindweed does find a publisher and the book becomes the must buy of the season, it’s wildly popular although nobody seems to have actually read it, it’s talked of everywhere.

Reginald is increasingly aware that his wife and he don’t share many things in common and her friends aren’t the sort of people that he wants to socialise with. He seems to be under the impression that Sylvia is a bit of an air-head, and is surprised when others find her interesting and amusing.

They decide to move to London for a while, but this just makes it more obvious that they don’t have much in common and Reginald seems to resent the fact that Sylvia makes a lot of friends of her own, males included.

I enjoyed the London based half of this book most, mainly because more interesting and amusing characters were introduced. It was an enjoyable read.

The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson

The Young Clementina cover

The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1935 and the story is told in three parts. It’s told by Charlotte who is working in a library in London which isn’t exactly heaving with life and fun. She’s really very lonely and scrapes along on very little money, it’s all very different from what she expected from life when she was younger. She had been engaged to Garth and so had been destined to be the ‘lady of the manor’ but Garth had to go off to World War 1 and when he came back he was a very changed man.

A lack of communication from both sides leads to the end of their relationship, but twelve years down the line Garth comes back into Charlotte’s life, asking her if she will go to live in his home to look after his young daughter who is Charlotte’s god-daughter, while he goes off exploring. Charlotte is in two minds about it, mainly because she knows that after a year or so of comfort and servants in beautiful surroundings she will find it much more painful to return to her dismal poverty stricken existence.

Charlotte eventually discovers what had changed Garth’s attitude towards her and there’s a happy ending. I really enjoyed this one which has a good mixture of mystery, romance, lovely rural descriptions and social commentary with the ludicrous situations that couples had to get into in order to get a divorce back in the 1930s when the book was written.

Attitudes change over the years, however I was absolutely shocked when a male character in this book in all seriousness declared his love for a thirteen year old girl, the man was much older, old enough to be the girl’s father. But Charlotte wasn’t fazed at all and just asked him to wait four years!! Had I been Charlotte I would have beaten him off with a brush! In fact I might have informed the police. How times change.

D.E. Stevenson was of course a Scottish author and Robert Louis Stevenson was her second cousin.

Rosabelle Shaw by D.E. Stevenson

Rosabelle Shaw cover

Rosabelle Shaw by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1937. I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I realised that D.E. Stevenson had named a character Rosabelle. I was at school with a girl with that name and I’ve never heard of anyone else having it – well not until I read about the tragic drowning of Rosabelle of Ravenscraig Castle which inspired Sir Walter Scott to write a poem which you can read here.

Rosabelle Shaw is set in Scotland, it begins in Edinburgh 1890 where Fanny quickly ends up marrying and moving to a new life in rural Scotland where her husband John is a farmer. Rosabelle is their first-born but as you would expect John is keen to have a son eventually, but when a ship is wrecked on the nearby rocks the only survivor is a baby boy. John does his best to track down the parents but has no success. Unfortunately Fanny has already bonded with the baby which she names Jay, and she has no intentions of giving him up anyway. From the beginning the child comes between the couple and things only get worse as the years go on.

I ended up enjoying this one although for a large part of the book the manipulative and deceitful nature of Jay and the way that Fanny puts Jay before her own children and husband made it an uncomfortable read, but it eventually ends well for the Shaw family.

I might be reading too much into D.E. Stevenson’s writing but it seems to me that she often gives a wee nod to other Scottish authors, there’s the use of the unusual name Rosabelle – a nod to Scott, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the house of Shaws appears in Catriona – Robert Louis Stevenson’s sequel to Kidnapped.

I rather like the cover of the 1967 edition of the book which I managed to borrow from the Fife libraries reserve stock. It looks like an authentically Scottish scene for the historical setting.

Evensong by Beverley Nichols

Evensong Cover

Evensong by Beverley Nichols was first published in 1932 and it’s one of his straight novels, there are very few mentions of anything botanical at all, apart from flowers sent to a well-know operatic diva. Sadly, mine didn’t have its dust cover, shown to the right.

Pauline is a young Canadian woman who is travelling to England to be with her Aunt Irela who is a famous opera singer. Pauline is now alone in the world after the death of her father and she ends up being a paid companion to her aunt. This is no easy task as Irela is a bit of a monster, manipulative and spoiled, she has to be the centre of attraction, but she’s also miserably mean. Nichols wrote what can only be called an homage to Jane Austen when he has Irela arguing with herself over how much (little) money she should give her niece as payment.

Time is catching up with Irela though and her voice is nothing like as good as it once was, she can’t hit top C now and has to have well known arias re-scored so she can still sing them, not that she would ever admit that.

There’s a love interest for Pauline of course, but can she break away from her aunt? Or will she be stuck running after her forever?

This was enjoyable, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as his better known garden/home books such as Down the Garden Path or A Thatched Roof.

The Children Who Lived In A Barn by Eleanor Graham

Mobius Dick cover

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham was first published in 1938. My copy is a Persephone reprint. The author is probably better known as an editor for Puffin and Penguin books, and as such she obviously knew better than anyone that the best way to write a book for and involving children is to get rid of the parents as fast as possible, which she duly does in this book.

The Dunnet family consists of the parents and five children who range in age from thirteen to seven. Susan is the eldest and luckily she’s a very level-headed and competent girl, she has to be because their rather feckless parents take off for Switzerland where Mrs Dunnett’s mother has taken ill. They’re completely confident that Susan can look after everyone until they get back, but they don’t return and even worse the children are evicted from the family home as the landlord wants the house.

The villagers are mainly helpful and a farmer offers them the use of an old barn to live in. They set to work making it habitable and as the summer approaches they make a decent job of looking after themselves although the bulk of the work has fallen on Susan who has to learn how to wash and sew. She’s at her wits’ end trying to make ends meet.

Susan has become a little mother figure with help from a local teacher, the baker and some others, but the local district visitor is determined to get them all put into a ‘Home’ for orphans. She’s a thoroughly despicable character, but to be fair nowadays there is no way that ‘home alone’ children would be allowed to look after themselves, they’d all be taken into local authority ‘care’ immediately.

This is a charming story even although the reader has to suspend disbelief, not only when the children are allowed to stay in the barn, but also the reason why the parents haven’t returned is fairly pathetic and totally unlikely. It’s well written otherwise although I have to say that it always annoys me when the youngest girl in a family is portrayed as spoiled and whining as is Alice in this book – such nonsense as I should know!

There’s a preface by the author Jacqueline Wilson in which she explains that when she was growing up it was normal for children to be given a latch key and to be by themselves at home – until their mother got home from work. All quite true, there were millions of us growing up like that, really bringing ourselves up, I don’t know when it was decided that children had to be chaperoned all the time, possibly around the late 1970s.

I’m fairly sure I didn’t read this one when I was wee, I think I would definitely have remembered it as it would have been right up my street. Have you read it?

This one is on my Classics Club list – another one bites the dust.

The endpapers are taken from a 1938 screen printed design by John Little.

Arrowhead

Green Money by D.E. Stevenson

Green Money cover

Green Money by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1939 but World War 2 doesn’t come into it apart from a very brief mention of Hitler. This one isn’t one of her best, it would seem that 1938/39 wasn’t a good time for Stevenson’s writing and given what was going on in the UK at the time that isn’t at all surprising.

George Ferrier is twenty-five years old and enjoying a holiday in London when he meets a man called Mr Green who had known his father years ago. It turns out that Mr Green is a wealthy widower with one daughter and he is in need of a third trustee to look after her best interests if he should die. He decides that George is the man he needs, the upshot of which is that not long after that George has the onerous duty thrust upon him when Mr Green dies suddenly.

The daughter Elma has been brought up in Victorian ways by a governess and when she gets a bit of freedom it goes to her head, she’s very pretty and has men flocking around her and she ends up in a dangerous situation, and George has the job of tracking her down. He discovers that the other two trustees are anything but trustworthy.

There are lots of other characters and George’s Irish mother Paddy gave the author the opportunity to write some dialogue in that style, there are moments of humour and the moral of this tale is that it’s more important to be honest and decent than clever.

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.