Ankle Deep by Angela Thirkell

This is one of the books which I bought on our fairly recent road trip to England when I managed to buy four Thirkell books, three of them at the Cambridge market. I can’t remember if Ankle Deep was one of those ones, anyway I do know that I pounced on it thankful to get anything by Thirkell which I haven’t read. When I started reading it I was a bit shocked at the state of it because it’s an ex-library book from Enfield, London – of all places. I love books to be pristine, even after I’ve read them but my copy of Ankle Deep looks like it might be possible to get TB from it. It’s the sort of thing which I would normally handle with long tongs, but I steeled myself and dived into it.

This is the first novel which Thirkell wrote and to begin with I was a wee bit disappointed when I realised that this isn’t one of her Barsetshire books because I really do find those ones to be such a scream, but it wasn’t long before I found myself getting totally caught up in the world of
Fanny, Arthur, Valentine, Aurea et al.

Aurea is a young married woman who moved to Canada after her marriage but she has left her husband and children in Canada while she pays a visit to her parents in London. Aurea is not happy in Canada and is no longer in love with her husband so when she meets Valentine Ensor, a young divorced man about town who spends his time entertaining ‘charmers’ by the score, she falls for him in a big way, but it’s all very chaste and funny.

Fanny’s husband Arthur had been an old flame of Aurea’s and Fanny is determined to throw them together again, mainly so that she can play the field more thoroughly than usual, she normally has a string of admiring males tripping around her. She’s one of those life and soul of the party people, a flibbertigibbet if ever there was one. She plans to find a new wife for Valentine, despite the fact that she introduced him to his first wife, who turned out to be madly promiscuous.

Ankle Deep was published in 1933 and I think Angela Thirkell was really using her own ‘set’ as copy, I’m sure quite a few of her friends would have recognised each other and maybe not been too keen on their own portrayal in the book.

I hope if you fancy reading this book you’ll manage to get a copy which is a lot less manky than mine is. I’m not giving you a close view of it, I’m not that cruel but if you want you can see it second from the bottom of this pile, which was my book haul from our trip in October.

October 2011 books

Priorsford by O. Douglas (Anna Buchan)

Priorsford is a sequel to Penny Plain which you can read about here. It was published ten years after Penny Plain and the story has moved on just about the same amount of time. Jean now has three children and is living in England at her husband’s estate. It’s years since she has been to visit the folks back in Priorsford (Peebles) in Scotland so when her husband has to go away for the winter with a friend who is very ill, she takes the chance to move her family back to where she grew up so that she can catch up with all her old friends and neighbours. Mrs. Duff Whalley thinks the worst, of course, as that type always does.

I think I enjoyed this one more than Penny Plain which was a wee bit too preachy in parts for my liking. This is an enjoyable comfort read but there are plenty of mentions of the hard times which so many people were experiencing in the 1930s. The problems were all so similar to what’s going on today and I briefly thought to myself that we’ve always had periods of unemployment and poverty – and then I remembered what it was that got us out of the 1930s depression – war! They’re going to have to come up with a better solution this time around!

This excerpt is towards the end of the book when Jock is complaining about his office job:

‘It’s a good opening,’ Betty reminded him. ‘Just think how many there are who would be thankful for it.’

‘Oh, I know,’ Jock agreed. ‘There are dozens of men who were with me at Oxford, most of them better scholars, all of them quicker in the uptake, and they simply can’t get a bally thing to do. And people rave about the youth of our country having lost the spirit of adventure, and asking why they don’t go to the Colonies and carve out careers for themselves. But these men have little or no capital, and the Colonies don’t want them.’

As you can see, Priorsford is more than a comfort book, it delves into the problems of the day, but the inhabitants of Priorsford are much the same as before so they’re all recognisable ‘types’. Jean as a wife and mother is rivalling the mother in Little House on the Prairie books for being mild mannered and almost saintly, the way she puts up with her husband and family!

I’m looking forward to going to Priorsford (Peebles) soonish and I want to go to where the Laverlaw meets the Tweed, local legend has it that Merlin is buried there! Have you heard about that Evee, and did you ever discover the location of The Riggs?

The Unfinished Clue by Georgette Heyer

This book was first published in 1933 and for some reason seems much more like an Agatha Christie book than the others which I’ve read by Heyer. So if you’re a fan of Christie you’ll probably really enjoy this one. I didn’t dislike it but I was just a wee bit disappointed that there wasn’t much of the witty repartee in it which I’ve come to expect of Heyer. Maybe her humour was more a feature of the later books, it’s a shame really because as far as I’m concerned there’s always a place for a bit of fun, even when there’s been a murrrderr!

It’s a classic country house whodunnit, a favourite setting of mine and it’s a plus that I didn’t guess who the culprit was until very late on in it. Either my brain wasn’t in gear or it was more of a puzzle than the last P.D. James book which I read.

It wouldn’t be a Heyer without romance, she seemed to be incapable of leaving it out of any of her books. It’s daft how quickly it all happens though – certainly no problems with her men being incapable of commiting!

The blurb on the back of the book says:

‘Miss Heyer’s characters are an abiding delight to me… I have seldom met people to whom I have taken so violent a fancy from the word “Go”.’ DOROTHY SAYERS

I’m pleased that good old Dorothy was generous with her praise of another crime writer, it wasn’t always the case, especially with female crime writers. I believe Margery Allingham was a bit of a bitch where Sayers was concerned which must have been a bit awkward as they both lived just one train stop from each other and were often on the London train at the same time.

I do love vintage crime but feel that there are far more crime writers I should be giving a go. Any recommendations vintage or modern?

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

This is another book from my 2011 reading list and a quick read. I think I’ve said before that you never really know what you’re going to get from Evelyn Waugh. To begin with A Handful of Dust is one of his satirical books on the lifestyle of the English upper classes but exactly half way through it turns into something much less comfortable.

Brenda and Tony Last have been married for several years and have one small son – John Andrew. Tony is really only interested in his family stately pile which is one of those very gothic places which is decorated in a sort of mock Arthurian style. Brenda hates his rural idyll and is bored stiff there.

She’s so desperate that she starts an affair with John Beaver, a young mummy’s boy type whom everybody dislikes. Brenda has no interest in John Andrew at all and spends all of her time in London with John Beaver who is penniless and is hoping to be able to live off Brenda’s husband when she gets divorced and is given alimony.

Quite a bit of the book concerns the hoops which people had to jump through to get a divorce in those days. In fact I can remember as late as the 1970s that men used to go off to seaside hotels and pretend to be having an affair with someone so that their wife could get their divorce without the wife’s lover being named as correspondent. How gentlemanly they were!

Anyway, when Brenda demands loads of alimony Tony quite rightly sees red and takes himself off abroad to avoid going to court. He gets involved with an explorer and ends up in a god awful place where disaster follows disaster.

I really disliked the end of this book. Apparently the American version has a different ending and I would have preferred that one. If you’re interested in knowing more about it have a look here. It is included in the Modern Library List of Best 20th Century Novels. I can’t say that it would make it on to my list. It was readable but I wouldn’t say it exactly set the heather alight!.

My copy of A Handful of Dust is an ancient Penguin from 1953 which originally belonged to my grandad but it was first published in 1934. Evelyn Waugh is mentioned quite a lot in Deborah Devonshire’s autobiography so now I can’t think of him without picturing him rubbing a bottle of alcohol into his hair when he was absolutely stinking drunk – which he often was. He did become part of her set though which he would have been very pleased about as he was a monumental snob, by all accounts.

Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham

This book was first published in 1931 and it’s another book featuring Albert Campion as the eccentric detective. He’s a sort of upper class silly-ass on the surface but underneath it all he’s in control and has lots of contacts with unlikely people.

Look to the Lady is set mainly in the village of Sanctuary in Suffolk but it begins in London where Percival St John Wykes Gyrth, the heir to a large house called The Tower in Sanctuary has been living rough on the streets since he has had a fall-out with his father. The Gyrth family have had a Chalice in their possession for hundreds of years, it’s about 1,000 years old and steeped in legends and unknown to them there’s an international ring of art thieves after it.

In London, whilst looking for a bench to sleep on, Val’s amazed to see an envelope with his name on it amongst the rubbish on the pavement. Let’s face it, it isn’t a common name, so it must have been meant for him but the address on the envelope is completely unknown to him and someone has already torn the envelope open and it’s empty!

Val decides that he has to make his way to the address to see what he can find out about the envelope and its missing contents. At his destination he finds Magersfontaine Lugg, ex-burglar but now man-servant to Albert Campion, and Lugg gives him Campion’s card.

Mr Albert Campion
At Home

Any evening after twelve.
Improving Conversation
Beer, Light Wines, and Little Pink Cakes.
Do come.
17, Bottle St,W1
(Entrance on left by Police Station).

On leaving Lugg, Val Gyrth takes a taxi to Campion’s address but soon realises that he’s being kidnapped. So begins a story of possible murder, kidnap, attempted murder and a wee bit of romance thrown in for good measure.

If you like vintage crime you’ll probably enjoy this one. It has a good atmosphere of the 1930s and I especially enjoyed it because some of the action takes place near where I used to live in Essex and so when the village of Coggeshall and town of Witham were mentioned it was a bit like seeing an old friend again.

I’m not very good on vintage cars so I looked up a few of the makes which were mentioned in the book Delage and Frazer Nash – very stylish.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D E Stevenson

A lot of people have been reading and writing about this book recently, so when I saw it sitting next to ‘Mrs Tim’ the other day in my local library I just had to borrow it. I was only supposed to be taking books back and NOT LOOKING – but you know what it’s like.

It’s set in England during the 1930s and people like Barbara Buncle are finding things very hard indeed. Like many genteel people of that time she is living off the small amount of money that the dividends from her inherited investments pay out. Times are hard and consequently the dividends are poor. Paid employment is out of the question, buying hens as an investment is considered and rejected. So Miss Buncle decides to try her hand at writing a book and she uses her own village of Silverstream and most of its inhabitants as ‘copy’.

She sends the resulting book Disturber of the Peace off to the publisher, Abbott and Spicer and Arthur Abbott decides to go ahead and publish. Miss Buncle has been a bit too faithful with her copy, in fact her fictional village Copperfield and its inhabitants are almost a carbon copy of Silverstream and so it isn’t long before the village folks are revolting!

In the second part of Disturber of the Peace, Barbara Buncle decides to (write) right all wrongs by having a ‘golden boy’ walking through the village playing a reed pipe, and when people hear him it makes them do things that they wouldn’t have dreamt of doing before.

In that way Miss Buncle herself takes the part of the golden boy of her book. But the villagers are still clueless as to who the author is and some of them are determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

The storyline is really clever and the whole thing is very funny, it’s a great comfort read. It was her most successful book although I really liked Mrs Tim too.

D E Stevenson was a cousin of Robert Louis S. and so was part of that famous family of lighthouse builders/engineers. Dorothy called her books her ‘lighthouses’ and I think that they really must have been like that as she was so popular during the dark days of World War II she probably saved quite a lot of people their sanity.

Had she been born a boy she almost certainly would have been a lighthouse engineer/designer, as I believe that R.L. was deemed to be a bit of a failure when he didn’t go into the family business.

Although Miss Buncle’s Book is set in an English village, it wasn’t part of Dorothy’s experience as she lived in Scotland her whole life, moving from Edinburgh to Glasgow when she married and then eventually settling in the Border town of Moffat, where she is buried.

Moffat is certainly a nice wee town, it’s a while since I’ve been there but as I recall it has a statue of a sheep in the middle of it and a shop which sells lovely freshly made vanilla ice-cream.

Next time I go there I’m going to take some photos of the town and look for her grave. I hope the good ice-cream shop is still in business!

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle cover

Dodie Smith began writing this book in 1945 but it’s set in the 1930s and people have been telling me that I should read it for at least 30 years so I put it on my 2011 Reading List to make sure that I got around to it this year at last.

I really enjoyed this book and I wish that I had read it when I was about 17, which happens to be the age of Cassandra Mortmain, the narrator. Although Cassandra is supposedly telling the story through her diary which she speed writes in great detail and using her own version of shorthand, it doesn’t read like a diary to me, which is a plus.

Cassandra lives with her beautiful older sister Rose, their schoolboy brother Thomas, a step-mother called Topaz and their father James Mortmain who had written a very successful book years before but had been unable to write anything else after a traumatic incident. They live a very spartan life as tenants of Godsend Castle which has no electricity or running water and in fact they have very little to eat and virtually no clothes because they have hardly any money and no means of earning any. Rose despairs of ever being able to meet anyone and get a life of her own.

Then the Cottons, who have just inherited the castle and nearby Scoatney Hall arrive and it’s all quite Pride and Prejudice-ish. I have to say that the father, Mortmain did annoy me because he seemed to be unconcerned that his family was starving and they had had to sell everything of value. But I suppose he was supposed to have a problem with depression.

I really liked Cassandra and I know that people have thought that she seemed to be too immature for a 17 year old but I felt that she was just right for a young woman who had led a sheltered life in the country and was the product of genteel poverty. It’s a class thing, if she had been brought up in a working class family she would have been more mature because she would have had to leave school at the age of 14 and earn a living somehow.

Cassandra and Rose were in an even worse position than an Austen or Bronte character because they didn’t have the possibility of becoming a governess, which was the only occupation open to women in their position in the past. They were unemployable.

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say about the story but I can see why this is such a popular book with people, and Joan, I thought of you when Cassandra mentioned the horror of the butcher shop.

I have to admit that like Rose and Cassandra, I inherited a fur coat from an elderly lady although not something as horrific as a bearskin. It’s actually a vintage mink which is about 60 years old and I’m the third owner of it, or maybe even the fourth. It’s not something that I would ever have bought, but when you think about it, mink are so ghastly to all other animals that I can’t imagine what else they were put here for. It takes up a lot of space but I don’t see the point in destroying it now, it’s a historic artefact to me. Obviously Dodie Smith had a thing about fur as she want on to write 101 Dalmations.

I don’t like the film tie in cover which Virago chose for the book, especially when you think of what the cover could have been like. I think Virago covers have gone down-hill recently, I liked the old ones.

Mrs Tim of the Regiment by D.E. Stevenson

D. E. Stevenson was regarded as old fashioned when I was a youngster way back in the 1970s and I would never have picked up one of her books then, but I’m really glad that I read this one. This is a combination of two books which were published in 1932 and 34 and the first half of it is written as the diary of a young Army wife, mother of a young son and daughter.

I know it sounds deadly dull but it’s not at all. It’s full of humour and the second part of the book which was originally published separately as ‘Golden Days’ is an account of Mrs. Tim’s experiences in Scotland when her husband is sent there by the army. Lots of Scottish words, there’s no glossary but I think they are all easy to get from the context.

The Times Literary Supplement said : ‘The writer’s unflagging humour, her shrewd wordly wisdom, and her extremely realistic pictures of garrison life make it all good reading’.

D.E. Stevenson was a second cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson and her father was the lighthouse engineer David Alan Stevenson.

Some of Stevenson’s books have been reprinted and luckily my local library has quite a few so I’ll definitely be requesting more of them. I read this as part of The C P R Book Group Ceilidh.

It gets a resounding HEE YOOCH!

An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson

An Expert in Murder cover

Recently I’ve been buying and reading quite a few books by Josephine Tey so when I saw that Jo at The Book Jotter was reading this book featuring Tey as a character I thought I would see what it was like.

There have been quite a few books published which have been written in the style of 1930s crime novels but I’m not sure if this one was meant to fall into that category.

It begins in a classic vintage crime way with a train journey, the quickest way to get that 1930s ambience. Tey who has had great success with a play in London’s west end is travelling from Scotland to London and falls into conversation with a young woman, Elspeth, who is a big fan of the theatre.

That’s as far as I’m going with the story because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. I think it’s a good read if you’re into crime but I think I would have enjoyed it even more if Nicola Upson hadn’t woven the story around Tey’s life. For me it almosts seems like cheating when it’s a work of fiction which has sort of hi-jacked a real person and I’m not really keen on the idea. I can see why it would appeal to a publisher though as a sort of gimmick. I just didn’t think it was necessary.

I thought the twists and turns of the story were very good and that should have been enough. It reminded me a lot of Dorothy Sayers’s Strong Poison in parts especially her Harriet Vane, which is no bad thing I suppose.

Being a bit of a nit-picker there were a few things which annoyed me which other people probably wouldn’t have picked up on. One was a character’s use of the phrase, ‘Tell me about it,’ in that modern way which I don’t recall ever hearing anyone use before the 1980s. There was quite a bit of use of the F word, which really doesn’t bother me at all but it doesn’t fit in with vintage crime and it jarred with me for that reason. I know it would have been used in reality. Lastly, at one point Elspeth’s mother takes her large hat off and puts it on the floor!! It’s supposed to be the 1930s when women didn’t remove their hats at all unless they were sitting in their own home and they would definitely never put one on the floor. I told you I was nit-picking.