At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

At Mrs Lippincote's cover

At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor was first published in 1945 but my copy is a Virago reprint. This was her first novel, I’ve read almost all of her other novels and I think that this one is obviously not quite as polished as some of her later books. To begin with I wasn’t really too enthralled with this one because I didn’t really like any of the characters but I ended up really enjoying it.

The setting is World War 2 and Julia’s husband Roddy is in the RAF. He has been posted away from London and Julia and their son Oliver have gone with him. They’ve rented an old house and Roddy’s unmarried cousin Eleanor is also part of the household, she’s teaching in a local school.

To begin with Julia is portrayed as a rather annoying and quite rude woman. Eleanor has always been in love with Roddy, so she thinks that Julia is off-hand with her husband, and to be honest she isn’t going to win any ‘best wife’ contest. Worse than that though is Julia’s attitude to seven year old Oliver who hasn’t even started school yet, Julia’s terribly over-protective of him, and it does him no good.

By the time the reader gets towards the end of the book though everything falls into place, and what had seemed like peculiar behaviour on the part of some of the characters becomes completely understandable.

There’s a painful conversation between Julia and her husband who basically thinks that education is wasted on females – and you just know that this is something that Elizabeth Taylor had witnessed herself, indeed I even witnessed that attitude within my own family in the 1960s. How times have changed for the better!

The Virago copy of this book has an interesting article by Elizabeth Taylor which had first been published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1953. It’s a two and a half page snapshot of her life – from her birth in 1912. At the end of it she says: “I think I have no hobbies. In my spare time I like to look at pictures, to write letters to my friends, or just to reflect on the English climate – a subject which is endlessly fascinating and elusive, of which one is unconscious. I do not know where English literature – or the lovely English landscape – would be without this weather.”

Now I just have three of her novels still to read – The Wedding Group, Blaming and The Sleeping Beauty.

No Highway by Nevil Shute

No Highway cover

No Highway by Nevil Shute was first published in 1948. Shute was of course an aeronautical engineer and pilot and he worked in that industry at the same time as he was writing his earlier books. In No Highway Shute has plundered his experiences of working within the aviation industry.

The tale is told by Dr Scott, the head of the Structural Department at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. Theo Honey is one of the employees he is in charge of, Honey is a strange character as far as everyone else is concerned, he has weird ideas about religion and being able to gain information through using a planchette. Honey’s wife was killed when their home was bombed during the war and he has been left to bring up their young daughter on his own.

Honey is completely obsessed by his research on stress and metal fatigue in aircraft and he thinks he has discovered that the newest trans-Atlantic Reindeer aircraft is likely to suffer catastrophic damage involving the tail falling off after they have flown around 1400 hours.

Nobody wants to believe his research outcomes and his weird interests are used against him, to paint him as someone not to be taken seriously. One Reindeer aircraft has already crashed into a mountain but as usual the crash has been blamed on pilot error. Honey and Scott believe that if they don’t stop the other Reindeers from flying then more people will die in crashes. Honey is sent off to Canada to look for evidence of metal fatigue on the crashed aircraft, and ends up taking desperate action to stop the plane he is on from flying on when it stops to refuel.

This is a good read, at times quite gripping and also involves quite a lot of romance as Honey is one of those men who are obviously in need of the love and care of a good woman to nurture and protect him. He brings out their mothering instincts, much to the amazement of the more worldly men around him. .

Murder Among Friends by Elizabeth Ferrars

Murder Among Friends by Elizabeth Ferrars was published in April 1946 and it’s sometimes titled Cheat the Hangman. It begins at a party which is being given by Cecily Lightwood, the setting is London in wartime and the guests at the party are mainly literary types. They’re all waiting for Aubrey Ritter to turn up, it seems like without him the party is never going to get going. He doesn’t have far to come, in fact he’s living in a flat just upstairs.

Another visitor to the block of flats alerts them to the fact that a murder has been committed. It seems like a very simple case to crack and the culprit is caught and convicted very quickly. But is the verdict correct?

I enjoyed this one which has a good wartime/blackout atmosphere, when it was an advantage to have a heavy drinker with you who could tell you how many steps up every pub had from the pavement, when you went out on a pub crawl.

There’s an interesting cast of characters and clothes are important in the book, with lots of descriptions of what the women in particular were wearing, such as:

Her coat was of a grey Indian lamb, worn over a scarlet woollen dress which was held in round her far from slender waist by a belt of gilded leather. She had a heavy gilt necklace round her throat and chunks of gilt screwed on to the lobes of her ears. With her fair hair done up in a gaudily striped turban, showing on her forehead in a cluster of dishevelled curls, with her fresh, fair skin, blue eyes and soft full lips, gaudily daubed with a few haphazard strokes of lipstick, she was like some magnificent doll, come to exuberant life.

In fact clothes play quite an important part in this book.

This one qualifies for the Read Scotland 2015 challenge as Elizabeth Ferrars was of Scottish descent despite being born in India and she lived in Edinburgh for 20 years.

The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin

I should really have enjoyed this book as it has all the elements which I usually like, 1940s setting, a railway journey and also it involves a theatre company of actors who are rehearsing for their opening night, a scenario which I’ve enjoyed in the past, but unfortunately there were no likeable characters, in fact most of them I wouldn’t have wanted to spend any time with at all, so it was harsh to be stuck in a book with them.

It’s a Gervase Fen mystery, first published in 1944, so it’s the first in a series of nine books featuring him, I can only surmise that the books got better further into the series, this is the first one which I’ve read. Fen is an Oxford professor who also writes mysteries, this is also a scenario which I’ve enjoyed in the past. In fact Crispin copied this from Michael Innes, even nicking one of his characters names. Going on the evidence of this one Michael Innes is a much better writer, and would also qualify for Read Scotland 2014 as he was a Scot.

In the 1930s and 40s there seemed to have been an awful lot of snobbery amongst some crime writers. It’s understandable I suppose, especially if the writer was working as an academic too. They obviously wanted their colleagues to think that they weren’t engaged in writing dross and this led to them dropping in screeds of Latin and in this case German too. I did both those languages at school so it isn’t a problem for me but it must be a frustration to people who aren’t able to translate for themselves. I know that much as I love Dorothy Sayers – it did so annoy me when she went as far as writing in Greek – I mean really! Even when I was at school the only boys who did Greek were the couple who wanted to become ministers – and yes of course in that dim distant past they were all boys.

Anyway, back to the book, there was some humour, always a plus as far as I’m concerned but there was also a lot of nastiness, especially about the women, it was all quite mysoginistic, even by 1940s standards. I wasn’t even impressed with the mystery part of it, I could only give it 2 stars on Goodreads.

I believe that the last book in this series is his best one – The Moving Toyshop. I wonder if I could just skip the other seven and go straight to that one!

Keep the Home Guard Turning by Compton Mackenzie

This book is like Dad’s Army (I love that programme) but instead of the south of England setting we find ourselves on the Scottish islands of Great Todday and Little Todday. The islanders are fierce rivals and even have different religious affiliations with Great Todday being staunchly Protestant and Little Todday Catholic. In earlier days they spent their time stealing each other’s sheep.

World War 2 has broken out and the islanders are living in fear of a German invasion, although some of them think that if Hitler invades then they will be able to improve him with their hospitality in the shape of whisky, which everyone seems to quaff at an amazing rate, ‘just a sensation’ is the usual offer, but a sensation is a very big dram indeed!

This is an amusing read and for me it came to an end too abruptly. I couldn’t find anything about a sequel to this one which was first published in 1943. But amazingly I was browsing in a local bookshop (Burntisland) when I came across Rockets Galore which was first published in 1957 it has the same setting and I now realise that his famous book Whisky Galore was published in 1947 and as that is set on the islands too I should be reading that one next. Whisky Galore was of course made into a very popular film and the TV series Monarch of the Glen was based on one of Compton Mackenzie’s books too.

This is the first book by Meckenzie which I have read but some of his earlier books are available free from Project Gutenberg.

The House That Is Our Own by O. Douglas

As usual this is another book about houses and homes. O. Douglas seems to have been writing her dreams. As a spinster I suppose she spent most of her life living in her parent’s homes and longing to have a place of her own, so until she could do that she fulfilled her wishes by building fictional homes.

Kitty and Isobel are living in an hotel, as people sometimes did especially during World War 2 – this book was first published in 1940. But they are both hankering after something more permanent.

Surprisingly they don’t pool their resources and buy a home together, Kitty decides to take a service flat in London, but Isobel falls for a ramshackle old historic house in the Scottish Borders which she finds when she is on holiday there.

The House that is Our Own is full of wit and wisdom, such as:- you’re much too easily pleased with everything. The world will simply make a footstool of you if you ask so little from it. I wish I had realised that many moons ago!

Kitty and Isobel look at lots of flats in London. Are there really people who would live in a basement, always in artificial light, and be willing to pay £150 a year for the privilege?
How shocked they would have been if they were told how much it would cost to rent a flat in central London in 2013!

This was another enjoyable comfort read from O. Douglas which I chose deliberately when we were having our house put in order prior to putting it on the market, it was a shock to us because we had been under the impression that the house was perfect and ‘ready to go’. So I could have done without the fictional workmen which turned up in the book at a time when we were dealing with actual workmen unexpectedly. Such is life.

House-Bound by Winifred Peck

House-Bound was first published in 1942 but it has been reprinted by Persephone.

It’s that World War 2 setting again, but this one is also set in Edinburgh which Winifred Peck decided to rename Castleburgh for some reason. It begins at a registry office for servants, but there are no servants to be found as they’ve all given up domestic drudgery in favour of earning more money, independence and ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort, and who could blame them!

The middle class ladies of Edinburgh blame them, that’s for sure, but when Mrs Fairlaw (Rose) is told that millions of women do their own housework she decides that that is just what she will do. Rose has been born into quite a grand family and married Stuart Fairlaw who had inherited the family pile, Laws House, originally an ancient tower house but much enlarged over the years and very inconvenient and difficult to keep clean.

Rose is completely clueless about housework and cooking and even wonders if you have to use soap to clean the potatoes! Stuart can see that his wife is exhausted by all her domestic duties but as a man it never occurs to him to lend a hand, and Rose doesn’t expect him to. Their children are grown up and off in various military services.

This book is funny in parts but also sad too as the war takes a toll on family members. Rose is a strange mother/step mother with obvious favouritism towards one child and this has had an unfortunate effect on the rest of the family.

Eventually a Mrs Childe comes to help Rose with the housework a few hours each day and she attempts to teach Rose the mysteries of domesticity, there’s so much of it going on that I felt quite exhausted. Did you know that you are supposed to clean your cornicing regularly, I didn’t – and don’t!

It’s an enjoyable read and Rose is a really likeable character, there’s also some input from the US army in the shape of Major Hosmer, who tries to help Rose with her problems. One thing which did amuse me was the constant references to Rose and her friend Linda as being old and basically past it, so it’s a bit of a shock to realise that they’re only in their early 50s.

I do believe myself that the 50s is the new 30s!!

Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton

I had absolutely no idea that Richmal Crompton had written books for adults. Happily I’m familiar with her Just William series for children of all ages but apparently she always wrote a William book and an adult book at the same time, so she has written a lot, but this is her most successful book for adults. It was another library choice.

It’s a Persephone book but it was first published in 1948. It’s really about two very different families who have become related by marriage. Each of the large families are headed by widows, Mrs Willoughby is a control freak and is very much in control of the family business and purse-strings, there’s plenty of money about but there’s that whiff of nouveau richeness about them and that dreadful vulgarity ‘trade’ as far as the Fowlers are concerned.

Mrs Fowler, is completely different, bookish, very airy fairy and relaxed about everything, the family is comparatively down at heel, old gentry, but definitely classier than the Willoughbys and much loved by everyone.

It’s all about family dynamics and how the personalities of the various family members and their actions impinge on each other. That probably doesn’t sound all that exciting but I did enjoy this one. Bizarrely Mrs Willoughby is described as having an eagle’s-beak nose which she points at her family when she is annoyed with them and they are all terrified of her.

The two women have very different ways of bringing up their children but the outcomes are not so different, both women come to realise that things could have been better if they had been a bit more like each other.

The women characters, all of whom seem to do a lot of sewing and knitting, are the backbone of the book and although there are plenty of male characters they are very much minor ones in comparison.

I’ll be looking out for more of Richmal Crompton’s adult books, but I don’t think they’re all that easy to come by, apart from the few which have been reprinted fairly recently.

The Old Bank House by Angela Thirkell

This book was first published in 1949 so we’re still in the middle of food shortages and rationing despite the fact that the war has been over for three years. Food is often a topic of conversation but the inhabitants of Edgewood still seem to manage to do quite a lot of entertaining. For me, as this was my ‘book at bedtime’ it was quite confusing at times. I think Angela Thirkell is an author who quite uniquely has several characters in her books with the same names or variations on the theme, so it can be confusing, specially if you’re tired. She was being really too true to life as at the time she was writing it was common for new babies to be called after a favourite relative or friend, as everyone in my family was. I could really have been doing with a list of characters and their connection to other characters at the beginning because it was almost as bad as War and Peace, some characters are known by three names or titles, depending on who is with them at the time and it was a wee while before I had them all straight in my head again. It doesn’t help that I’m reading the books out of order as I haven’t managed to find them all yet.

I did enjoy the book though, technically it might not be the best writing style, at times she rambles like crazy but it all adds to the charm. Thirkell shamelessly nicks ideas and even dialogue from the classics, you could play a game with it all – spot the quote – but after all, there’s nothing new under the sun!

As ever, there are people to be paired off but I think the most important part of the book is the acceptance of Sam Adams as a force for good in the town. He may not have been one of their sort and frankly a bit common on the outside but he learns fast and beneath all his loud bluster there lives a sensitive and kind soul.

In fact I find just about all of the characters to be recognisable, which makes me wonder if anyone recognised themselves in these books as it seems clear that Thirkell must have used her friends, family and neighbours as copy. There are so many bits in this book which I’ve heard people say or said myself, or felt. One person says when his mother dies that it’s strange being on the front line now, a feeling that we all have I’m sure when we are ‘orphaned’ no matter what age we are.

Mr Macpherson, Martin’s land agent features in this book, speaking broad Scots which Thirkell manages to write very well, and that isn’t an easy thing to do. However she did have the advantage of a Scottish father and presumably grandparents too. Her first husband must have been of Scottish descent too, being a McInnes. The author Colin McInnes was her son. In fact it’s quite a surprise to me that Angela Thirkell isn’t claimed as a Scottish author herself. Oh all right, I’ll claim her as a Scot anyway.

Growing Up by Angela Thirkell

I was really chuffed to be able to get three Thirkell books at the market in Cambridge because they’re as rare as hen’s teeth here. Growing Up was first published in 1943 and this one is a first edition, though I’m really not interested in things like that, and it’s obviously not deemed to be valuable because it cost me all of £2. The book was reprinted in 1990 I think.

Angela Thirkell used Anthony Trollope’s setting of Barsetshire for her books and also a lot of the characters are supposedly descendants of Trollope characters. Thirkell nicks ideas quite shamefully really but her books are always entertaining and amusing although I think that in common with many authors of that era she throws a lot of characters at you and it can be a wee bit confusing at times until you get them all sorted out in your mind.

It’s set mainly in the villages of Winter Overcotes and Winter Underclose – and I can assure you that I saw places with far stranger names in my recent sojourn to the south of England – and of course it’s wartime with everybody worried about their loved ones who are off who knows where fighting for King and Country. All of the women seem to be knitting in what spare time they have, which isn’t much as they’re doing their bit and even the married women are working at the hospital, otherwise they would feel like traitors.

War doesn’t stop romance though and yet more inhabitants of Barsetshire discover that they know each other’s ‘people’ and end up pairing off. There’s fun and daftness on the way as ever and these books must have helped people through it all.

I’ve been reading the books out of order, just as I get them really but one day I intend to re-read them as they were written, if I ever manage to get them all. You can see a list of her publications here, if you’re interested.