Doreen by Barbara Noble

 Doreen cover

Doreen by Barbara Noble was first published in 1940 but my copy is a Persephone. I really enjoyed this one which begins in London during the heavy bombing of the Blitz. Walking to her work as an office cleaner through devastated streets Mrs Rawlings whose soldier husband has left her, decides that she’ll have to do what most mothers have already done which is to send her only child, nine year old Doreen away to the country for safety. After the previous night’s bombing she no longer has any faith that the bomb shelter will keep her and Doreen safe.

When Helen Osborne, one of the secretaries at the office finds Mrs Rawlings in tears she wonders if she can help by offering a country home to Doreen with her married sister Francie and her husband who are childless. They haven’t been allocated any evacuees because their home is seen as being too remote from a village for convenience. Francie quickly agrees to the plan and in no time she’s imagining what the little girl will be like.

After a shaky start Doreen settles down to life in a situation very different from what she’s used to. She has gone from a one room slum in London to living in a large country house and as she has been well brought up and she’s also quite clever and likeable, it isn’t long before Francie loves Doreen, she has always been sentimental about children. Geoffrey her husband has left the decision to take Doreen in up to Francie. He suffers from asthma and blames himself for not giving her a child. But inevitably Doreen’s mother is torn and visiting Doreen in the country she realises that Doreen has moved into a very different class from her poverty stricken previous existence and she doesn’t approve of it, she’s jealous and she knows that when the time comes for Doreen to go home she’ll never settle to life in a London slum again. It isn’t going to end well, but this is a really good read.

Considering that Doreen was written so early on in the war Barbara Noble must have quickly realised how evacuating the children to the countryside was going to make all sorts of problems for all concerned. It’s something that I’ve always known about as I’ve known people who were affected by it. One man in particular that I knew was very much surplus to requirement in his own large family and being evacuated to a loving couple was a definite plus for him and no doubt for them too. Luckily they did keep in touch after he had to go back home and they were the family that he had always wanted to be part of, I don’t think his parents were that bothered about losing him though.

Bookish thoughts

Over the past few years some of the better known authors have been complaining about the paltry payments that most authors receive from publishers, and I had thought that with someone like Philip Pullman heading the campaign that something might actually happen. You can read the recent Guardian article about it here if you’re interested.

Evidently publishers paid no attention to authors’ complaints as things have got even worse. This is something I’ve known about for years as I do know quite a lot of authors and there are very few nowadays who can afford to be a full time author, it’s best viewed as a hobby for your spare time.

One of the problems is that publishers know how thrilled writers are to be actually published in the beginning and so they take advantage of them. Publishing is obviously a large and lucrative industry, but it must be just about the only one that treats their ‘golden eggs’ as if they are the last thing that has to be thought of. I find it particularly shocking that the person designing the book covers is usually paid just as much or more than the author gets, and we all know how bad the covers often are. The people at the top in publishing just seem to be incredibly greedy, I’m sure we’ve all noticed that even editors and proof-readers seem to be rarities now, so there must be hardly anyone actually on publishers’ payrolls.

Still the price of books just continues to rise, that’s just one of the reasons why I love secondhand bookshops as the books are so much more affordable, but apart from that you never know what treasures you might find, whereas an ordinary bookshop’s stock is usually very predictable.

I know that Persephone books have lots of fans, and I’m fond of them myself but I really don’t know how they can justify charging £14 for what is after all just a paperback in a shade of grey. Quite classy looking maybe – but overpriced.

Elsewhere in the Guardian I was pleased to see that a new book by Helen Dunmore has just been published. It’s a collection of short stories called Girl, Balancing. I still have a lot of Helen Dunmore’s books to catch up with, in fact I had only just ‘discovered’ her when it was announced that she was terminally ill. I’ll probably support a local library though and borrow it.

Having just read this post through I realise that I sound like a grumpy old curmudgeon – not that I’m worried about that!

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

 Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary cover

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson was first published in 1937 but it has been reprinted by Persephone Books and I was lucky enough to find it in a secondhand bookshop.

This book was apparently a favourite of the Queen as she was at that time (later the Queen Mother). I suspect that she felt very much in tune with Lady Rose, the main character in the book, as they shared very similar Scottish upbringings.

The book begins with a group of people asking if they can look around a grand house in the Scottish highlands. The old housekeeper is pleased to show them around, it’s a house that has seen better days and it’s hoped that new tenants will be found for it. Although the vistors are careful to let her know that they couldn’t afford to rent the house, the housekeeper is still happy to tell of the history of the place, the book switches from the present day to the past regularly, but is never confusing.

Like many wealthy Scots the owners of the house sent their only child – Lady Rose, to England to be educated. As she is very much a Scot, steeped in the romance surrounding the history of the country – particularly Mary, Queen of Scots – Lady Rose is very unhappy and is always happy to get back to her beloved Scotland. The story of her life is one of ups and downs and it’s an entertaining read which has been described as a love letter to Scotland. But it’s about snobbery, discrimination against women and money.

One thing did puzzle me – on page 164 wee Archie says:

“Tonight at the chair, we’ll have some battles where we beat the English.”

“We always beat the English” said Alistair hotly.

“Not at Bannockburn.”

“That was murder; Duncan says so. Wasn’t it Mamma?”

Well that is obviously wrong because Scotland did famously win the Battle of Bannockburn, I suspect that what the author meant to write was Culloden or maybe Flodden. I’m wondering if that was one of the reasons that the Queen Mother invited Ruby Ferguson to Buckingham Palace, to point out her mistake!

Ruby Ferguson was an English writer but Ferguson (her married name) is a Scottish surname, so maybe she married a Scot and fell in love with the country too.

I really dislike the endpapers though, completely inappropriate for the book, from 1937 of course but I feel that another more appropriate design must have been available for that year. The design is Masqueraders and I found an image of it on the V&A site.

masqueraders

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.

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.

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.