A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer

Penguin, 2011, 671p.

A Civil Contract cover

A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer was first published in 1961 and it’s quite different from her other books as there’s really not much in the way of humour in it, no witty repartee between couples. There’s a lot of history in it, but it’s never dry. Apparently Georgette Heyer hated this book and she had a very tough time writing it. The problem was that her mother was seriously ill and in fact dying while she was writing it, so it would have been strange if she had been able to write in her normal fashion. I’d like to be able to tell her how much I enjoyed it though, in fact I think it’s my favourite so far, despite the fact that I so enjoy her more usual witty dialogue.

A Civil Contract features Adam, Lord Lynton, a young man who has only just come into his title after the death of his father. His father had been a spendthrift, womaniser and a gambler and has left nothing but debts. The only way out of the mess his father has left him with is to sell the family estate. Adam’s mother is dead against that and he isn’t keen on it himself.

Adam’s lawyer knows a way out of the problem – he suggests to Adam that he can arrange a marriage between him and the daughter of a very wealthy businessman whose ambition is for his only child to marry into the aristocracy.

So – very different from Heyer’s more usual romantic relationships and the upshot is a more realistic progress of the development of a marriage.

Sometimes music accompanies me in my mind as I read a book and with this one it was Mama Cass’s It’s Getting Better. Completely inappropriate for a Gerorgian setting I know but the sentiment is the same. It occurs to me that you have to be of a certain age to remember Mama Cass though!

The Two Mrs Abbots by D.E. Stevenson

 The Two Mrs Abbots cover

The Two Mrs Abbots by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1943 and my copy is an original hardbak, sadly minus the dustcover. It’s the third book featuring Barbara Buncle although she is now of course Barbara Abbot as she’s now married to her editor Arthur and they have two small children, a boy and girl. Barbara is kept busy as a mother, wife and with various war work that she’s involved with, so she has given up her writing for the duration. She’s also the type of person that ends up helping everyone else and giving them her time, and often gets little thanks in return. I think a lot of women will recognise the situations she finds herself in with selfish individuals around her. As you would expect there’s the usual trouble about rationing and evacuees although it’s not the children who are a problem but the mother.

The other Mrs Abbott is Jeronina, usually known as Jerry (a blight on her considering who the enemy is in WW2). She’s married to Arthur’s nephew who is in the army doing his bit in Egypt (possibly). She’s not alone though as Markie her old governess is living with her, and they’ve also had a whole battalion of soldiers billeted on them.

D.E. Stevenson was of course Scottish and if she didn’t set her books in Scotland she often had some Scottish characters in the book. In this one Markie is from Fife and she’s thrilled to discover that one of the soldiers is also a Fifer, well they are very clanish!

There are various stories in this one, quite a lot of characters, one being a young female writer of romances that are very popular but not the sort of thing that Barbara and Jerry are impressed with. I’m wondering who it was that D.E. Stevenson was thinking of when she wrote that character!

There’s plenty of wit and charm as you would expect but this one isn’t as funny as Miss Buncle’s Book, it’s still well worth reading though.

The Traveller Returns by Patricia Wentworth

The Traveller Returns cover

The Traveller Returns by Patricia Wentworth is a Miss Silver mystery and it was first published in 1948. As has often been said by many people – you can’t beat a vintage crime read when you’re in need of a respite from your own world. Not that there’s anything desperately wrong here at Pining but I’m just so fed up with the weather and this never ending winter. Snow again – and although that isn’t unusual at Easter in Scotland, it is unusual when we’ve had so much snow on and off since October.

Anyway, back to the book. The Traveller Returns cheered me up despite the weather. The setting is Britain in wartime. Philip Jocelyn’s wife Anne had died in the dark on a beach in Brittany while trying to escape Nazi France early in the war. Three years have passed since then and Philip has fallen in love with Lyndall who had been one of Anne’s bridesmaids.

But Anne turns up back in England and walks into her home – mink coat, pearls and all, she says that it was her cousin Annie Joyce who had died on the beach. Annie and Anne did look remarkably alike apparently but Philip isn’t convinced although everyone else is. He’s sure it was his wife Anne that he had had to bury quickly.

Enter Miss Silver, retired governess and now successful private detective, although you wouldn’t know that from her shabby appearance. All is well as she gets to the bottom of it all, whilst knitting up stockings and socks for Ethel’s husband and three little boys. A very enjoyable read.

Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson

Listening Valley

Just a couple of weeks ago I managed to buy an old copy of Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson in Edinburgh, sadly it doesn’t have it’s dust jacket though. I can’t say I’m all that keen on the cover of the paperback above, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

The book begins with the Edinburgh childhood of Louise and Antonia Melville. On the surface they have a very comfortable upbringing, it would seem that money was no problem. But in truth they’re really emotionally neglected children, brought up by the nannie. They both have the same problem – they weren’t born a boy and both parents wanted a boy, particularly their father as his family home was a castle and he wanted to pass it on to a son. In disappointment he ended up selling the castle. Their mother was a bridge fiend and playing bridge seemed to take up all of her time. She was disappointed because she thought of her girls as being very dull compared with other children she met, but as she never took the time to get to know her daughters she had no idea of their real personalities at all.

Inevitably both girls marry young, Tonia marries a man even older than her father is but he’s kind and wealthy and gives her some badly needed confidence, in wartime they move to London and experience the Blitz.

Eventually the action moves back to Scotland where Tonia settles close to what had been her father’s country estate. But the war is still very much in evidence with an airfield very close by. Tonia’s home becomes a meeting place for young airmen who never knew when their number would be up.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one, it has some truly ghastly characters in the shape of sponging relatives, I have a feeling that they crop up from time to time in Stevenson’s books, she must have been bothered by some I think! I bet they never read her books though.

Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson

Music in the Hills cover

Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1950 and it’s the sequel to Vittoria Cottage. The setting is the Scottish Borders, not any specific town apparently but I imagine the countryside as being like that around Stevenson’s beloved Moffat.

James Dering has been in Malaya, chasing bandits for some years and he’s glad to get back to Scotland. He has made his way to Mureth where his Aunt Mamie and Uncle Jock have a farm. James is thinking about becoming a farmer too, he loves the countryside and animals but he’s not sure if he’ll be good at farming.

James had spent some time in London before making his way to Murath, but his romance with Rhoda an aspiring artist had ended badly and he is nursing a broken heart. Will the change of air heal him, or at least help him to discover what he wants to do in the future?

With a cast of couthie characters this is a bit of a comfort read although not everyone or everything in the neighbourhoods of Murath and Drumburly is sweetness and light. Aunt Mamie is perfect though, although she wouldn’t agree with me about that. She envies the way others can talk with ease to strangers and acquaintances, she feels too shy and knows that she’s often seen as being a bit snooty. A lot of readers know that feeling I suspect!

Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson

Vittoria Cottage cover

Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1949 and the blurb on the back of this 1968 library copy says: It is a family novel, and few writers can do this sort of thing better than Miss Stevenson, in which there is a thread of suspense enough to keep the reader guessing to the end. GLASGOW HERALD

That says it all really but if you want to know a bit more – Vittoria Cottage has been in the Dering family for generations, but the most recent owner has died and left his wife Caroline and three children as the inhabitants. The husband was a moaning grump, always feeling sorry for himself so he’s no loss and it’s a comfortable life for Caroline, especially as she has help with the housework from an adoring villager with the wonderful name of Comfort Podbury. Caroline’s two daughters and son are young adults, the son being in Malaya in the army fighting bandits/terrorists.

Caroline is completely honest with herself, she adores her son whereas her daughters are just daughters and Leda in particular she dislikes a lot, she’s too much like her miserable father. When Leda gets engaged to a young neighbour Caroline knows it isn’t for the best but there’s nothing she can do about it.

Meanwhile there’s a new man in town and Caroline likes him – a lot, although he’s a bit of a mystery. Things get more complicated when Caroline’s actress sister turns up.

With a cast of villagers providing some more interest and tension this turned out to be an enjoyable comfort read.

This seems to be the first of a few Stevenson books featuring the Dering family so I’ll have to track down the others, luckily Fife libraries seem to have quite a lot of her books in their Reserve Stock. No doubt they held on to those ones as she is a Scottish author.

The English Air by D.E. Stevenson

The English Air cover

I realised recently that the reserve stock books in Fife’s libraries are now available to borrow after being unavailable for a few years due to the refurbishment at Dunfermline, so I requested a couple of old D.E. Stevenson books from the catalogue, I’m not sure if they have been reprinted recently. She was of course born in Edinburgh and was related to Robert Louis Stevenson.

The librarian seemed quite amused that I was borrowing these books – more fool her! The English Air turned out to be a great read, first published in 1940. The setting is mainly England although the story does take us to Scotland a few times and to Germany briefly.

Sophie Braithwaite is a well-off widow, living in a house big enough to allow her brother-in-law to inhabit his own wing. She has a grown up daughter and son and they’re waiting on Sophie’s sister’s son Franz to arrive, he is half German and has been brought up by his father in Germany, his mother died young. It’s 1938, a time when Neville Chamberlain was going backwards and forwards between London and Munich, trying to avert war. He was criticised for this ‘appeasement’ but in reality it gave us breathing space and a year to ‘tool up’ for war. Something that Nazi Germany had been doing for the previous five years.

I really enjoyed The English Air, Franz becomes part of his cousins’ social group, their sense of humour is often a mystery to him, he’s really very German as you would expect, especially as his father is a Nazi. But as Franz becomes more comfortable in the free and easy atmosphere of Britain he begins to see the advantages of not having to look over your shoulder all the time as Germany is being ruled by fear and violence.

I suppose this is a bit of propaganda, the lesson being that not every German is a bad German. It’s not surprising that writers all wanted to write their own book about the beginnings of the war. I seem to have been reading a lot of them recently and bizarrely I always find that scenario to be a bit of a comfort read, this is one of my favourites by D.E. Stevenson so now I’m keen to read her other wartime books. The other one of hers that I borrowed was Vittoria Cottage, published in 1949. I’ll be chatting about that one soonish.

The Tall Stranger by D.E. Stevenson

The Tall Stranger cover

The Tall Stranger by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1957 and I was lucky enough to find this one in a second-hand bookshop in Kirkwall, Orkney.

I see D.E. Stevenson as being a sort of updated O.Douglas in her writing style and content, although not quite as ‘churchy’.

This one begins in London where the people are having to cope with a horrendous fog that has lingered for almost a week, but thankfully about half-way through the book the action moves to the clear air of the Scottish borders.

Barbie and Nell are great friends and flatmates. In some ways they’re quite different with Nell being happy running around with lots of different boyfriends and cheerfully accepting lots of gifts from them. She works as secretary for a doctor. Barbie is much more choosy about men friends, and at the beginning of the book she’s in hospital, seemingly having lost the will to live.

When she improves enough to be able to travel she goes to Scotland to stay with her Aunt Amalia/Lady Steyne who lives in a lovely old house called Underwoods. There she meets up with her step-cousin, someone she hasn’t seen for years, and at first Barbie is charmed by him.

This was a good read, D.E. Stevenson’s books have the reputation of being light comfort reads, but they also have a serious side. Barbie has a career that she loves and is very good at, she’s an interior decorator and the thought of giving that up to please a husband isn’t a pleasant one for her. Quite a modern concept for 1957 I think.

Also there’s a moment in this book when Barbie realises that she’s not at all happy with her discovery of an unexpected trait in her fiance’s character. It’s a shock and a game changer for her, she’s wise enough to have a complete re-think about her future. I’m sure that this is something that must have happened to a lot of people, and they have looked back and thought – that was the time when I should have taken steps to change things.

Not just a comfort read.

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.

Frederica by Georgette Heyer

Frederica Merriville is the eldest daughter in her family and has been thrust into a position of authority due to their mother’s early death. Frederica is only in her 20s but has absolutely no ambitions for herself, beyond looking after her younger siblings. She’s determined to get her beautiful young sister Charis married off successfully and with this in mind she takes her off to London to launch her into high society.

The Marquis of Alverstoke is their very distant cousin, he’s in his 30s and very much the man about town, wealthy and fashionable and has had more than a few affairs but has managed to dodge marriage.

To Alverstoke’s astonishment he finds himself being charmed by his young relatives, particularly the youngest Merriville boy, Felix who is obsessed with steam and the technological advances of the day.

The story is heavily littered with Georgian slang and has plenty of humour. It reminded me of an English upper class version of O.Douglas’ books, which almost always feature a managing but young mother figure of motherless children, and particularly a cheery and lovable lad aged about ten.

A comfort read.