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.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

One Fine Day cover

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes was first published in 1947 but my copy is a 2011 Virago, how I hate those new Virago covers, bring back the original green ones, please.

This book was written in 1946, a time when everyone was trying to adjust to a normal life without war, it’s not made easy by the fact that everything post-war has changed, especially for those who had had some money and were used to servants looking after them. It’s a day in the life of Laura, a middle class wife and mother of Victoria, a ten year old. Laura’s not terribly domesticated and she’s a bit of a dreamer so she’s struggling to cope with cooking and mending.

Laura Marshall’s husband is getting into the routine of commuting by train to London from Wealding in Sussex every morning, but he’s also constantly worrying about the state of his garden and house, there’s no help to be found anywhere and it all seems to be crumbling around him.

This is so well written and observed, Panter-Downes has Laura comparing the differences between her middle class husband’s standoffish attitude to his own daughter and a local working class man’s obvious adoration of a young relative. They’re poverty stricken and slovenly, but happy. Of course Stephen had gone off to war, leaving a small girl behind and he’s having trouble recognising that wee one in the self-contained ten year old that she has become while he was at war for five years.

When Laura makes a visit to the local ‘big house’ she thinks:
All those windows, she thought in horror. For the rest of her life, now, she would see things from the point of view of cleaning them. Confronted by a masterpiece of architecture, she would think merely, How much floor to sweep, how many stairs to run up and down. The world had contracted to domestic-house size, always whispering to the sound of somebody’s broom.

There’s quite a lot of humour in the book, often in the way that the ‘lower orders’ express themselves. But Angela Huth who wrote an introduction to the book seems to have missed some of it, as she’s under the impression that the big house is being turned into some sort of institution.

In fact the family in the big house has decided to hand it over to the National Trust and retreat to a self-contained flat in the property, as many such stately home owners did around that time. Perhaps Huth didn’t understand the ‘joke’ that the charlady gives the information that National Trusses will be taking over the big house. Most of the humour is from the way the working class people speak but it isn’t really in any nasty condescending way.

It’s a very enjoyable read and I just hope that I can get my hands on more of her books. You can read her obituary here.

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!!