Marriage by Susan Ferrier

Marriage cover

Marriage by Susan Ferrier was completely unknown to me until I saw it displayed in Kirkcaldy’s main library recently. I had never even heard of the author but she was a well known and successful author in her day – and a friend of Sir Walter Scott. Marriage was first published in 1818 but Virago reprinted it recently. She was writing at the same time as Jane Austen of course but her writing is completely different and so much more modern in feeling. In the blurb Susan Ferrier is described as having been one of Scotland’s greatest writers – I certainly enjoyed this one.

When the novel begins Lady Juliana is just seventeen – and a half as she says. Her father Lord Courtland has decided it’s time to speak to her of marriage, he obviously wants to see her settled with a wealthy husband. Juliana is of a more romantic temperament and she believes that she should be united to the choice of her heart.

‘The choice of a fiddlestick exclaimed Lord Courtland in a rage. What have you to do with a heart? what has anyone to do with a heart when their establishment in life is at stake? Keep your heart for your romances, child, and don’t bring such nonsense into real life – heart indeed!’

The upshot is of course that Juliana rejects the elderly and unattractive gentleman chosen by her father and she elopes to Scotland with a handsome young man that she has only just met. He’s a penniless soldier but he comes of a ‘good’ family who own an estate in Scotland. It’s all a huge eye-opener for Juliana as life in a remote part of Scotland amongst her husband’s very eccentric relatives is not what she expected it to be. There’s no money despite the estate and it isn’t long before Juliana is the mother of twins! Both girls.

Juliana can’t even bring herself to look at the smallest child as she’s not pretty like her sister and she gladly gives Mary to her husband’s childless aunt to bring up. Juliana regrets hugely her elopement and leaves her husband, taking Adelaide with her to London.

After sixteen years Mary gets the opportunity to go to London and meet her mother and sister for the first time. Of course the sisters are like chalk and cheese with Mary being strictly brought up to put others first and Adelaide turning out to be a spoiled brat – just like her mother.

There’s a lot of humour in this book and a lot of Scotland too, some great characters and a lot of observation on human nature and character. Like many writers around that time Ferrier delighted in giving some of her characters apt names including one Doctor Dolittle, a name which was taken up over 100 years later by the author Hugh Lofting. She was paid much more than Jane Austen was for her books, it must have helped to have Sir Walter Scott as a friend. Unfortunately she only wrote three books as she ‘got religion’ and gave up writing to concentrate on that although to be fair she campaigned for the abolition of slavery and probably thought that was more important than writing entertaining books.

If you are interested in giving this book a go you can download it from Project Gutenberg here.

The Virago book has an introduction by Val McDermid.

Click here to read what The National Library of Scotland says of Susan Ferrier’s novels:

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

The Song of the Lark cover

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather was first published in 1937 and it’s a chunky read at 581 pages. I’ve read quite a lot of books by Cather, I think this is the seventh and it’s the one that I’ve least enjoyed. It begins well with the setting of Moonstone, a small town in the American West where Thea Kronberg is one of a family of seven children, their father is a local Methodist minister and there’s some rivalry between them and the local Baptists. The blurb on the back says that it’s a Cinderella story – but who is the Cinderella character – certainly not Thea.

From the beginning it’s obvious that Thea has been singled out as the special daughter of the family. She’s pretty and blonde, everybody’s favourite. The local piano teacher thinks she has talent and she has to spend lots of time practising the piano, but eventually it’s her voice that she concentrates on and when she’s old enough she moves to Chicago to take lessons there.

Along the way Thea makes friends with various men. She’s one of those females who gets on much better with men than with other women. Everything leads to Thea’s eventual fame and fortune of course, but it’s at a cost to everyone else. She is completely focused on her career. She only went back to Moonstone once after leaving home, and didn’t even go there when she knew that her parents were dying. Her mother who had been so happy to put Thea up on a pedestal died thinking that having a family wasn’t really worth the bother. But Thea’s upbringing made it almost a certainty she was going to be a selfish diva.

There are a few mentions of the other daughter of the Kronberg family – Anna, the younger girl. She is the true Cinderella. Whilst Thea was getting all the attention poor Anna was the one doing all the housework that Thea was too special to do. Anna is portrayed as a bit of a fanatical Christian, but maybe she was hoping to get some attention and love from her father the minister. She was never going to be loved by her mother. Anna is seen as being embittered, but who wouldn’t be under those circumstances? She drops completely out of the book about half-way through. I want to know what happened to Anna who was so neglected by everyone.

Apart from that the book is just far too long, it really drags in the middle and could have been doing with being cut by about 200 pages. However as ever there are some lovely evocations of the countryside although Chicago is more of a shadowy place so you don’t get much of an idea of what it was like.

I read this one for The Classics Club.

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

Palladian cover

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor was first published in 1946 but my copy is a Virago reprint. I have to say that although I enjoyed the book it isn’t up there amongst my favourites. It’s a bit of an homage to Jane Eyre and Jane Austen, a slightly updated Gothic tale and so is quite predictable. There’s even a character who is obviously based on Branwell Bronte. Having said that there is some lovely and humorous writing and well observed characters that you can’t help thinking are so real – they must have been based on someone she knew. There also seems to be a lot of product placement, long before such things occurred surely. Sanatogen, Bengers, Ryvita and more – bizarre, I can’t imagine the author was paid for the mentions.

Cassandra Dashwood’s father has died, she’s now on her own and homeless. She visits her old school and her headmistress arranges for Cassandra to become a governess at Cropthorne Manor which turns out to be everything Cassandra wants – a crumbling, mouldy pile of a house. She has already decided that she will fall in love with her employer Mr Marion Vanbrugh. Yes he IS a man, I believe that was John Wayne’s real name.

The blurb on the back says: Just as Jane Austen wittily contrasted real life with a girl’s Gothic fantasies in Northanger Abbey, so Elizabeth Taylor examines the realities of life for a latter-day Jane Eyre in this sharply observed work.

This is Taylor’s second book to be published, and they always say that it’s the second one that they find most difficult to write, I think it tells in this book. I’d give it a 3.5 on Goodreads – if I could.

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.

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

elizabeth taylor
Elizabeth Taylor

 A View of the Harbour cover

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor was first published in 1947, but my copy is a Virago Modern Classic reprint. It has an introduction by Sarah Waters and she says:

Elizabeth Taylor is finally being recognised as an important British author: an author of great subtlety, great compassion and great depth.

I don’t really understand that use of the word ‘finally’ because I’ve always been under the impression that Elizabeth Taylor has long been well thought of as a writer, certainly her books have been reprinted by Folio books and they are very fussy about who they reprint.

In a View from the Harbour Taylor evokes the shabby dreariness that is essentially the atmosphere of most English coastal towns. It’s set just after WW2 and Newby is the sort of place where everyone knows what is going on, there’s nothing else to do really except watch the movements of your neighbours.

Robert is the local doctor and his wife Beth is a successful novelist whose characters’ lives seem to be more real to her than what is going on in her own family. There’s a big age gap between their two daughters, Prudence and Stevie, with Prudence having left school having been a big disappointment to her parents. She’s not an academic girl and for that reason her parents see her as being a complete failure as a human being and something to be ashamed of really.

But Prudence is the one who realises that her father is having an affair with the next door neighbour. Tory is a beautiful divorcee and she has been Beth’s best friend since their schooldays. Tory can’t understand why her husband left her for another woman, especially one in a uniform. She is the sort of self-obsessed bitch of a woman that a husband could get very fed up with though. Finding herself with no man she has no qualms about filching her best friend’s husband Robert. Tory is all make-up, clothes and corsets whereas Beth is all kids, specs and typewriter.

Robert in turn feels sorry for himself because his wife isn’t a wonderful home-maker and spends her time writing books. He isn’t impressed with the fact that she’s a successful novelist at all and just wants her to give it up and devote her life to looking after him and their daughters.

Prudence is aghast by her father’s behaviour but he hardly notices her existence and has no idea that she is smart enough to know what is going on. Thankfully Beth remains unaware of their treachery.

Meanwhile, Bertram is a newly retired naval officer who has pitched up in Newby where he is trying his hand as an artist and seeking to insert himself into the society of the locals. He butters up one lonely war widow, giving her hope for the future, before moving on to Tory. He’s an absolute creep but Tory, dumbfounded by her husband’s defection and needing admiration from men in general becomes glad of his company.

It is a triumph of writing that this book is such a good read because there is a distinct lack of likeable characters, usually a real necessity for me. The younger daughter Stevie is a manipulative wee minx and I would have sorted her out in no time flat!

Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns

sisters by a river

I’m still catching up with writing about some 2015 books, this one was the last book I read last year.

Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns was first published in 1947 but I read a Virago reprint. If you’ve read about the Mitford sisters and their upbringing then this one will seem very familiar to you. But that is no bad thing, it’s just very autobiographical apparently and Comyns and the Mitfords had a lot of things in common, such as lots of sisters, a large property but lack of cash and parents who were nutty or I suppose I should say eccentric given the class structure. It’s definitely another case of – if that family had been poor and working class then they would have been taken into care. Having said that, I really enjoyed this book.

The tale is told by one of five sisters, her spelling is less than perfect which is a wee bit annoying at the beginning, but I got used to it. One child is not mentioned beyond the fact that they would hate to appear in the book, so they don’t, presumably that one was a boy. The setting is the banks of the River Avon and a large house called Bell Court which eventually contains five sisters.

After she had six babies at eighteen monthly intervals Mammy suddenly went deaf, perhaps her subconscious mind just couldn’t bear the noise of babies any more. …

Mammy had always looked and been rather vague, she had a kind of gypsoflia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps, now she grew vaguer still and talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentances half finished or with a wave of her hand she would add an ‘and so forth’. She was taken to several specialists but they could do nothing, one good thing being deaf stopped her having more babies, she was only twenty seven and might have had masses more, somehow being deaf put a stop to them.

Every cloud has a silver lining I suppose!

This is a witty and amusing read, although towards the end it takes a more tragic turn.

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons was first published in 1938 but my copy is a Virago Modern Classic. This is a really enjoyable read, four stars on Goodreads I’d say. Inevitably though I find myself saying that you shouldn’t expect it to be as funny as Cold Comfort Farm, which truly did have me laughing out loud a lot, wayback when I was a teenager, I don’t know what effect it would have on me now though.

Anyway, in Nightingale Wood Viola has been widowed after just one year of marriage. Her husband Teddy had come from a wealthy family, his parents were appalled that their son had lowered himself to marry a girl who just worked in a shop. Viola ends up moving in with her parents-in-law, Mr amd Mrs Withers and their two almost middle-aged daughters Tina and Madge. Everyone seems to have given up hope of them ever getting married and moving out, so it’s a very strange household which Viola finds herself living in.

Mr Withers is miserably mean with money and he’s amazed to discover that his son died leaving his widow just about penniless, although as Teddy worked for his father and he was paid pennies in wages it’s a mystery how he was supposed to leave money to Viola. She would leave their home, The Eagles, if she could but she has no family of her own to help her.

That makes it all sound pretty depressing but really it isn’t. One of the sisters-in-law is in love with the chauffeur, the other one adores dogs, and the very well off Spring family are always entertaining the rest of the local nobs.

Viola falls for Victor Spring, the very handsome son, but he has been going out with a girl forever. Is there any hope for Viola?

You’ll have noticed that this bears more than a passing resemblence to a fairy tale. But is has a fair share of humour in it too, mostly from Viola, a very likeable character.

As I said, it was published in 1938 and it has the snobbishness and even anti-semitism which you sometimes come across in books from that era. It also mentions the possibility of a coming war, and that scoundrel who would have been crowned King Edward VIII, if we hadn’t got lucky.

The book has an introduction by Sophie Dahl.

Conversation Piece by Molly Keane

Conversation Piece by Molly Keane, sometimes known as M.J Farrell, was first published in 1932 but my copy is a Virago reprint from 1991. Prior to reading this one I think I had only read Two Days in Aragon by this author and I remember enjoying that one. I enjoyed this one too although it is one of her earliest works when she was really writing about her own life experiences, growing up in Ireland in an Anglo Irish family. Those people occupied a strange place in Irish society, not really liked or accepted by the ‘real’ Irish people but tolerated for what they brought, their wealth and employment for the locals. A love of horses seems to have been their main reason for existing, breeding, racing, doing point-to-points and hunting with them.

This is the story of Oliver who is invited to Pullinstown by his uncle Sir Richard, a widow with a son and daughter, Willow and Dick. The atmosphere is anything but friendly until Oliver’s cousins realise that he is a good horseman, then he is accepted as one of them.

If you like horses and dogs then you’ll probably enjoy this one but if not then you might want to give it a miss as there is an awful lot of horse and dog chat, races and hunts described, but always in an amusing way and considering there are a few hunts described at length, she doesn’t dwell on the end result. They are always trying to get the better of their neighbours in horse sales and of course the neighbours are trying to do exactly the same thing.

To begin with it you could be forgiven for thinking that the family is a cold one and their father remote and uncaring but in reality the relationships are very close.

Keane is best when she is writing the dialogue of the Irish servants, she obviously had a good ear and memory for conversations and as a person brought up in the west of Scotland in a town which had loads of Irish immigrants, most of whom had arrived there in the 1950s, I found it all very authentic – so I did.

Still on the subject of horses – did you ever read Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s books when you were young? I did but I had completely forgotten about her until I noticed that her obituary was in the Guardian today, she was 90. Apparently she also wrote detective novels and a gothic novel under the name Josephine Mann. You can read her obituary here.

The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

The Land of Green Ginger was first published in 1927. It begins in South Africa where Joanna Burton is living with her parents but after their deaths she has to leave for England to live with some aunts and can only dream of returning to South Africa when she’s older. It’s set mainly in rural Yorkshire where Joanna, her husband Teddy Leigh and their two small daughters have settled after the end of the First World War.

Teddy had proposed to Joanna before he went off to the trenches, and full of love/lust/excitement? Joanna had accepted his offer of marriage. She thinks they’ll have a charmed life but her friend Rachel predicts doom and gloom and when Teddy returns from the trenches with his health broken it’s left to Joanna to keep their farm going and try to make ends meet.

I found this to be quite a depressing book. I must admit that when I was reading it I was under the impression that Winifred Holtby had died of TB and I thought to myself – how could she possibly write a book about a man dying of TB too? But it turns out that Holtby died of Bright’s disease.

The book does have some similarities to what has been going on all over the UK over the last few years, with a large number of men being brought in to rural Yorkshire where they are helping to plant trees. It doesn’t go down too well with the locals, particularly the men who are in need of work and are not at all happy about the foreign men who have caused trouble in the pub and amongst the local women. All very topical, but a bit bleak all round. I feel in need of something a bit more upbeat now.

Love by Elizabeth von Arnim

Love cover

Love by Elizabeth von Arnim is the book which I got in this month’s Classics Club Spin. I’m quite late in getting around to writing about it, but you know what it’s like, sometimes life just gets in the way of what you really want to be doing!

I really enjoyed this book although it is quite a sad read because Elizabeth von Arnim was writing about her own experience of having a relationship with a much younger man, which ended badly. This book was first published in 1925.

Catherine was obsessed with a play called The Immortal Hour which has been playing at King’s Cross. She had seen it umpteen times and eventually she strikes up a friendship with Christopher who shares her obsession. Christopher had noticed Catherine long before she was aware of him. He was drawn to her petite figure and beauty and took her to be a young woman who didn’t have much money as she always wore the same clothes. He wasn’t to know that Catherine had a married daughter and she was only hard up because her late husband had been so afraid that if he died she would attract fortune hunters that he decided to leave everything to his daughter, and left his wife to struggle along on a very small annual allowance. It didn’t seem to occur to him that his daughter would eventually become heir to his large fortune and in turn would be the target of fortune hunters, particularly one local vicar!

By the time Christopher saw Catherine in the cruel light of day he was already in love with her and was just shocked at how tired she was looking. As you would expect Catherine is charmed when she realises that he thinks she is much younger than she is and her happiness means that people see only laughter lines, not the age wrinkles which are really there.

So begins a battle with gravity and time and Catherine ends up spending time and money on the artistry of a marvellous make-up woman to try to be worthy of her younger man.

When Catherine’s son-in-law, who is a clergyman, finds out about her friendship with Christopher he is absolutely appalled, but Catherine points out to him that her daughter is actually over 30 years younger than he is. Surely he should be the last person to complain about an age gap between a couple, but he doesn’t see it that way.

This novel is all about hypocrisy, what is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander, but somehow often isn’t. The relationship between Catherine’s daughter Virginia and her husband Stephen is really much worse as Stephen had dodged marriage over the years, much to his mother’s chagrin, but she wasn’t to know that her son had been eyeing up young Virginia since she was in short socks! Nowadays we would say he had been grooming her and he married her as soon as she turned 18, Catherine could have been bloody minded and made him wait until her daughter turned 21, hoping that by that time she had seen sense and wasn’t so enamoured by what she obviously saw as a father figure, something which she lacked due to her own father’s early death.

Well, I don’t know about you but I feel that when the age gap between a couple is so large that one of them is old enough to be the parent of the other, then it is distinctly weird, and the few such relationships which I’ve had experience of viewing from a distance have definitely been paternalistic/maternalistic. But I suppose if that’s what makes them happy then who am I to complain.

Mind you, although I never had a daughter I must admit that if I had had one then if a man old enough to be her father had come sniffing around after her – I would have beaten him off with a brush!

Another great read from Elizabeth von Arnim.