Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple has been read and reviewed by a lot of my favourite bloggers and I’ve always just skimmed the reviews as I knew I wanted to read the book myself – eventually, so I had no idea what it was about really. I did like it, it’s well written and observed but it was the second book on the trot that I’d read about the break up of a long marriage in which the only mistake the wife seems to have made was that she trusted her husband too much.

The North family consists of Ellen and her husband Avery and two children, Hugh and Anne. They’re well off and live in the suburbs, not far from London. Their problems begin when old Mrs North, Avery’s widowed mother decides to advertise for a French companion. Mrs North feels that her son and his family don’t give her the time and consideration that she deserves, a paid companion who will pander to her every whim is exactly what she wants.

Ellen’s one flaw is that she doesn’t seem to realise that her husband is really a carbon copy of his mother. He’s selfish and immature and easy meat for an avaricious French woman. Louise might be younger than Ellen but she’s much more knowing where men are concerned and soon causes mayhem within the family.

This book was first published in 1953 at a time when divorce was beginning to be more common-place, but I found this to be a sad read and I did think to myself as I was reading it that I’d probably read a children’s Puffin book next, in an attempt to avoid the subject of divorce!

Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy

Troy Chimneys cover

Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy was first published in 1953 and my copy is a nice original hardback complete with dust jacket. Everyone seems to have been reading this one a while ago but I skimmed the reviews as I knew I would be reading it soon-ish. So I was quite surprised when I realised that the book’s beginning is set in 1879 with the prologue and then travels back to 1818 via The Lufton Papers which are the memoirs of Miles Lufton who eventually went on to become an MP. He was nicknamed Pronto by his acquaintances because of his active and slightly rapscallion personality.

In reality though Miles would like to retire to the country and Troy Chimneys, a house he had bought some years ago and had rented out until he needed it himself. There’s a bit of a romance and I liked the Regency setting but I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I thought I would.

One thing puzzles me though, I’ve looked at a few Goodreads reviews prior to writing this just to see if anyone mentioned the link with Jane Eyre, particularly towards the end of the book – but it seems that nobody got it – or thought to mention it – or maybe it’s just me.

Cork in the Doghouse by Macdonald Hastings

  Cork in the Doghouse cover

Cork in the Doghouse by Macdonald Hastings was first published in 1957. This is the second book by him that I’ve read, I don’t think these books are all that easy to find which is a shame because I really like his investigator Montague Cork who is now heading the Insurance Company that he has worked in all his life. In this book he knows that he should be thinking about retiring soon but he finds it hard to even allow his underlings to get on with their work without him looking over their shoulders.

One of his staff has agreed to insure a dog for a large sum of money. Honey is a Staffordshire bull terrier and her owner died leaving all of his money to the dog, until Honey dies, then the money goes to the descendants of the dog owner. There’s obviously an incentive for Honey’s life to be cut short.

I enjoyed this one which shows Monatgue Cork to be a keen dog lover despite the fact that Honey is anything but bonnie. She has been used in the past for illegal dog fighting and so Cork gets involved in a murky underground world peopled by a rough and violent element, not what Cork is used to but that doesn’t faze him at all.

The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning

The Doves of Venus cover

The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning was first published in 1955 and it really couldn’t be any other era. I suppose that to young people reading this book will seem like ancient history as everything is just so different nowadays. I don’t think the type of young women featured in the book exist now, I was born just at the back end of the 1950s – to older parents so a lot of the attitudes seemed very familiar to me.

The setting is London where eighteen year old Ellie has moved from Eastsea where she lived with her widowed mother and older sister. Ellie has hopes of becoming an artist and her relationship with a much older man Quintin leads to her getting a job in a shop painting old furniture. It’s a hand to mouth existence with every penny being counted.

Ellie has fallen hard for Quintin who is married but separated from his wife – off and on, but as far as he is concerned females are just to be used, picked up and put down at his convenience. But the older female characters are often manipulative and avaricious, this isn’t a book that portrays all women as being good while the men are all bad.

London has changed so much since the 1950s and there is now no way that a teenager working in a shop could rent a room in Kensington or Chelsea, and I’m happy to say that in the 21st century mothers have more ambition for their daughters than getting them safely married and off their hands before they are out of their teenage years.

I really enjoyed this one although it doesn’t come up to the heights of Olivia Manning’s Levant trilogy or her Balkan trilogy.

The blurb on the back says: ‘Manning writes always with a poet’s care for words and it is her usual distinction of style and construction that lifts the novel … far, far above the average run’ STEVIE SMITH, OBSERVER

This one was one of my 20 Books of Summer.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

A Game of Hide and Seek cover

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1951 and I was lucky enough to find an old Book Club copy with a perfect dust jacket which I think is lovely, but I’m drawn to covers that feature a house.

Harriet and Vesey are teenagers who have been friends since early childhood. Harriet’s mother’s best friend is Vesey’s aunt and he spends a lot of time with his aunt and uncle as his mother isn’t exactly the caring type. Harriet’s mother and Vesey’s aunt had been suffragettes who had even ended up being imprisoned in their young days. Harriet’s mother had believed that as women had got the vote then her daughter would be able to do anything she wanted, maybe become a doctor or judge. But as Harriet wasn’t good at passing exams she had ended up by being a huge disappointment to her mother.

Harriet has always been in love with Vesey but he blows hot and cold and she ends up getting married to Charles, a man much older than she is, more to get away from her ever disapproving mother than for any other reason. Charles is a damaged soul having been jilted at the altar previously and his mother can never let him forget it. Harriet and Charles have a daughter Pauline and the mother – daughter relationship isn’t any better than that which had been between Harriet and her mother.

It all goes a bit Brief Encounter-ish (actually mentioned in the book) when years later Harriet and Vesey meet up again and start seeing each other. Vesey has become an actor but his career hasn’t been a success. Harriet is ready to pick up the relationship where it left off in their teenage days – it’s not going to be good for anyone involved.

This book came after Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘widely acclaimed’ Wreath of Roses which I read decades ago so I can’t compare them now, but it is certainly a good read.

Elizabeth Taylor

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

The Winds of Heaven cover

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens was first published in 1955 but I believe that Persephone Books have reprinted it recently.

The year is 1951 and Louise has been recently widowed, she’s 50 something and her marriage wasn’t a happy one as her husband was self-centred and over-bearing, showing her no respect or love. Louise believes that the fact that she gave him three daughters instead of the son he craved made him behave as he did.

Unfortunately it isn’t long before Louise discovers that her husband has left her more or less destitute, he was heavily in debt and the house is mortgaged. This means that she has to rely on her three daughters for everything and although they are all very different characters they are all cold and reluctant to have their mother living with them, so they take turns at housing her for a few months at a time. The daughters have taken their cue from their father.

Louise feels unwanted and burdensome and does everything she can to be almost invisible in her daughters’ homes. On a visit to a London tearoom Louise is befriended by a man who sells beds in a department store. They are both lonely but this relationship seems doomed to fail as they are both rather socially inept.

I enjoyed this book which portrays south of England suburbia and its snobbish inhabitants so well, the pushy parents, social climbing and hypocrisy. The only gripe I really have about it is that Louise’s gentleman friend – who it turns out is a published writer of crime fiction ‘shockers’ as well as a bed salesman – is a good character who didn’t appear often enough in the book for my liking.

Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

Wildfire at Midnight cover

Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart was first published in 1956 but the story begins in 1953, just a few days before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. London is rapidly filling up with people who have come to get a view of the proceedings. Gianetta Drury is a model for Montefior a famous designer, and she could have a grandstand view from his premises above Regent Street, but perversely she wants to have a holiday away from the heaving city. At her mother’s suggestion she ends up going to the Isle of Skye and booking into a hotel recommended by her mother.

Gianetta is divorced and she’s shocked to discover that her ex-husband is also a resident at the hotel, but there’s an even bigger shock for her as she’s told that there has been a murder in the neighbourhood, and everyone except Gianetta is under suspicion.

The hotel is full of the usual hill walkers and anglers and in no time a couple of female hill walkers/mountaineers fail to return from their hike. With a murderer on the loose there’s even more than the usual worry in case they have been done to death, rather than just got lost in the mountains.

I really like Mary Stewart’s books. Apart from anything else you never know what you’re going to get when you open one of them, her books are never predictable. This one has plenty of mystery along the lines of Christie but also beautifully descriptive passages and just a wee bit of romance of course.

This is another one which counts towards the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

The Spanish Gardener by A.J. Cronin

The Spanish Gardener cover

The Spanish Gardener by Scottish author A.J. Cronin was published in 1950 and was made into a film in 1957, it looks like you can see the whole of the film online, if you’re interested. It stars Dirk Bogarde, worth watching for him alone but as I recall it’s an enjoyable watch. Actually I’m not sure if enjoyable is the word, given the storyline. It’s probably more acccurate to describe it as an interesting look at a psychological type.

Cronin was a doctor, a local GP in a small town (Dumbarton) in the west of Scotland and as such must have met a lot of characters in his daily life, some of whom inspired/appalled him so much that he felt the need to get their characters down on paper and write tales around them. He seemed to specialise in men who were bullying, self centred obsessives, going from the books of his which I’ve read in the past.

Mr Harrington Brande is an American consul who has been sent to a small town in Spain to do his diplomatic bit, he isn’t at all happy about being given the post as he thinks that he should have been given the top job in Madrid and he feels that he has been overlooked for promotion again and again. By Brande’s estimation he is superior to almost everyone, a sure sign of people that are in fact inferior to the rest of us. His feelings of superiority and snobbery leave him open to being easily manipulated by people who know his weakness for the upper classes.

Brande’s wife has left him, she was unable to stand his suffocating and controlling nature and was driven to leave him and their son Nicholas. She wasn’t allowed to have a normal relationship with her son anyway, not even having a say in what he would be named.

Nicholas has been treated as an invalid all his life, so not surprisingly he is a weakling, never having been allowed to go out and do what normal boys do. He has to spend a lot of time in bed reading, no fun for a 9 year old, but the beautiful surroundings of their new home entice Nicholas to go out and walk in the garden, where he makes friends with a 19 year old gardener, Jose.

Jose is supporting his whole family on the pittance that he manages to earn as the gardener, but he is also a very talented pelota player, a sort of local sporting hero. When Brande realises that Nicholas and Jose have struck up a close friendship he is consumed by jealousy, feeling that Jose is taking Nicholas away from him, so Brande sets out to punish Jose, with devastating consequences.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns was first published in 1950 and it’s very much autobiographical. The setting is 1930s London which has always been a grim place if you don’t have money.

The tale is told by Sophia who is about to get married to a young artist called Charles who is fairly feckless. His whole family seems to be against the marriage, apart from his father who is happy to go against his ex-wife’s feelings any time he’s given the chance.

Sophia is very immature for a 21 year old and Charles is completely self obsessed meaning that Sophia has all the worry of finding money for them to live on, but she is a really likeable character and the wonder is that she managed to put up with her husband for as long as she did.

What is it they say? – when poverty comes in the door love flies out the window – something like that anyway, and when you don’t even have money for milk or baby clothes then the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

In some ways this is a sad read with Sophia pushed to the limit with a husband who isn’t even interested in his child but on the other hand Sophia manages to be so stoical in awful circumstances and being quite matter of fact in the face of tragedy, she has a knack of getting on with all sorts of people, in the end I was really happy that she fell on her feet.

Maggie O’Farrell comments on the back page: I defy anyone to read the opening pages and not be drawn in, as I was… Sophia is a heroine in every sense – and one you will never forget.’

Jutland Cottage by Angela Thirkell

Jutland Cottage by Angela Thirkell was first published in 1953 and early on in the book the inhabitants of Barsetshire are quite despondent as the death of King George VI is announced, like everyone else it comes as a shock to them as they had thought he was getting better after an earlier health scare. They’ve just realised that they now have three queens: Queen Mary – King George’s mother, Queen Elizabeth the King’s widow and the new young Queen Elizabeth II – the one who should really have been called Elizabeth I of Britain if you ask me!

But most of the book is concerned with the Phelps family who live at Jutland Cottage. The head of the family is Admiral Phelps, retired from the Royal Navy but still fighting the battle of Jutland on a daily basis, with anyone who is willing to listen to his reminiscences. He’s not in the best of health and nor is his wife, in fact between them they are running their poor only child Margot ragged as she is running their house and smallholding single handed as well as looking after them.

Margot’s plight is taken up as a charitable cause by the neighbourhood and as she is taken in hand and spruced up by the very beautiful but dim and madly annoying Rose Fairweather nee Birckett, who it turns out has become very kind and thoughtful despite the fact that she is finding everything too shattering.

The Wiple Terrace inhabitants feature quite a lot in this book, single handedly taking on the national debt via booze tax by the sound of it as they sink enough alcohol between them to float a ship off.

This is the sort of book which I can’t help reading bits out of every now and again, and Jack is usually quite appreciative of the excerpts. Thirkell must have been a great observer of old married couples and their relationships, she’s so authentically amusing.

After reading quite a gruesome crime book it was a real treat to dive into the silliness and rambling writing of Thirkell and re-visit the towns and villages of her Barsetshire. This isn’t her best book, my favourites are the wartime books but I still loved it and for anyone interested in the social history of the time it’s a must. I only have a few of the Barsetshire books to track down now and I intend to re-read them all in order eventually as I’ve just been reading them as I’ve got them. If like me you are ticking them off in a notebook (it comes everywhere with me just in case I come across a booksale on my jaunts) as you go then you might be interested in this list of Thirkell’s books.