Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane (1931)

Many stories set in Irish country houses have been told over the years, but few have the magic that is found in Molly Keane’s novels, when she wrote about a past that she remembered, with both love and clear-sightedness.

She began this story with a tumble of sentences, that fell somewhere between poetry and prose.

…. People drove about in dog-carts and pony traps.
Invitations were issued to tea.
Tea parties mattered too.
Women who powdered their faces were fast
Women who painted them – bad.
Hunting, low wages, feather boas, nipped in habit coats, curly bowlers, bunches of violets, black furs and purple hats were much in vogue.
A book called Three Weeks was both enjoyed and abused ….

Then eight year-old Easter Chevington wakes up early,and explores the delights of the nursery, until she hears her nanny stirring and creeps back into bed so the day can really begin. She is in her father’s country house, Puppetstown, where she lives with her father; her Great-Aunt Dicksie, who has lived there all her life and spends her days happily in her garden; her two boy cousins Evelyn and Basil, who are just a little older than her; and their beautiful widowed mother Aunt Brenda, who thinks that she will marry again one day but for the present is happy to be indolent in such a lovely setting.

The lives of the three children were filled with joys. They ran and played in the grounds; chasing the peacocks in Aunt Dicksie’s garden, distracting Patsy, the young boot boy, and running rings around O’Regan, the gardener. They ran rather wilder in the surrounding countryside; and they had so many  adventures and days to remember, out with their dogs and their horses.

Molly’s Keane’s writing was so rich and evocative that I could have been right there with them; and it seemed that though the seasons may change life at Puppetstown would always be the same.

Through a tangle of elder and laurel and twisting rhododendron they penetrated with the effortless accuracy of complete custom, to find themselves in the dim dark aisle of the Nut Walk. Here silence burned like a still flame behind green glass. The children’s sandalled feet padded without noise up the loamy path. The day was kept without. The golden July day was defeated. And beyond this darkness Aunt Dicksie’s own strip of garden lay like a bright sword of colour beneath the sun.

In the autumn the Nut Walk was the jolliest place of all. Filberts lay on the ground, splitting their creamy green jackets; round hazel nuts, polished like so many brown boots, were there to pick up. And walnuts, all ready to be crushed with enticing messiness from their coating of black slime, awaited the adventurer. But today the Nut Walk was drawn into itself, in a green and secret spell of quietness. Without words, the children hurried down the length of it an dropped themselves from a four-foot wall into the cheerfully brazen field below.

The Great War barely touched the family at Puppetstown. Easter’s father was killed, but he had always been a military man, he had often been away, and it had always been expected that one day he would not be coming back He was mourned and then life settled back into its usual pattern.

Aunt Brenda enjoyed the company of a British army Captain from the local garrison; but his visits were noticed by Irishmen fighting in another war, and so Aunt Brenda would witness the assassination of her Captain. Shocked the core, she rushed her sons and her niece to safety in England.

Great-Aunt Dicksie refused to go with them, insisting that she would not surrender her family home. She bolted the doors, she turned the ponies loose and she learned to live with just her memories and Patsy for company. Her garden became the focus of her life,  she spent the little money she had on seeds and bulbs;  leaving the house to go to rack and ruin, and dressing herself from the old clothes left in different wardrobes.

The  cousins learned to move in English society, a world quite unlike the one they had left behind. Evelyn was happy there, he fell in love with an  society beauty; but Basil still felt the pull of Ireland, and Puppetstown. He knew that Easter had inherited the house when she turned twenty-one, and he thought – he hoped – that she felt the same way.

“England,” Basil said; “she’s too crowded. We want a littler, wilder place. We’re half-English, both of us, Easter, but we haven’t got the settled, stable drop of blood that goes down with the English. Easter, the thing is we don’t see quite the same jokes. Isn’t this a mad way to talk? My dear, don’t think me an ass, but you do laugh in the wrong places for them. You’ll never be a success here – why you’re even conscious of their ghosts. Easter, dear, let’s run away from them all.”

“Where?” said Easter. The flame in Basil smote her eyes too, there was a sudden spear of light thrust through all her unacknowledged dark. “I know,” she said. “Basil listen, we’ll go back to Puppetstown. It’s everything that England’s not. And Aunt Dicksie’s there. And I’ve all my money. No one can stop us.” She hovered, disappointed here, “All the same – they’ll try. They’ll talk. We’ll have to slip off, Basil. Never tell a soul.”

They do just that, with no comprehension of how much they have changed since they left Ireland, and without thinking that Aunt Dicksie and Puppetstown could have have changed in their absence. Can they restore the house to its former glory, and have they grown up enough to all settle down happily together?

Molly Keane told a wonderful tale in this book.

I loved the arc of the story, and I loved the different arcs of the lives of the different characters. The country house and the people who lived and worked there came wonderfully to life; and their stories spoke profoundly, about family, about home, and about Irish history.

The ending was perfect.

I’d love to know what happened next; but I’m happy to be left to wonder, and to think about those halcyon childhood days at Puppetstown.

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby (1931)

‘Poor Caroline’ was the fourth of Winifred Holtby’s six novel to be published and it is a little gem, quite unlike the three novels that came before but recognizably the work of the same author; and another book that made me think what a distinguished and era defining author she might have become, had she only been given more years to live and to write.

The novel opens with two of Caroline Audrey Denton-Smith’s young cousins coming home to Yorkshire, after attending her funeral in London. They had felt no great grief for the woman they had never really known or understood, the woman their family had always regarded as a figure of fun; but they had enjoyed their trip to the big city and they had come home with a lovely new winter coat.

Their attitude was sad, but it was understandable.

The Caroline they had known had been a small, plump elderly spinster who dressed eccentrically, who had lived in the poorest of London bedsits, who borrowed money that she had no hope of paying back; because, though she had many grand plans that she was sure would make her rich and successful, they had all been hopelessly impractical.

She wrote a will full of generous legacies, but when she left this life she had not a single penny to her name.

Her last enterprise was the Christian Cinema Company, through which she planned to make British films that would be a corrective to the immoral offerings of Hollywood. She found some support, she was able to assemble a  board of directors and a little financial backing, but of course that wasn’t enough and the project – and Caroline – were doomed.

Each person who sat on the board of directors each had their own reason for being involved with the company.

The chairman was a minor aristocrat who was quite unqualified, but his wife had pushed him towards the position as she thought he would be happier if he had something to keep him busy.

A single-minded young inventor signed up because he was sure that the company would want his new type of film; and not realising that while he had been beavering away in his laboratory the film industry had developed something much better.

A Jewish businessman agreed join the board and agreed to provide some initial finance, in the hope that the chairman would arrange entrance to Eton for his son.

The proprietor of the Anglo-American School of Scenario Writing had put himself forward knowing that the company had no chance of success but quite certain that he could make himself a profit from a bunch of amateurs ….

Caroline was blind to all of this, she worked hard as secretary to move things forward, and two well meaning individuals helped to keep things going.

Eleanor de la Roux, a distant relative of Caroline’s, came to London from South Africa after her father had been killed in a car accident. She was an independent young woman who wanted a career, and she was inspired to invest most of her inheritance to to help the one relation who had welcomed her by a sermon …

Father Roger Mortimer, Caroline’s young and earnest parish priest, preached that sermon, and he was drawn into the Christian Cinema Company by his concern for a vulnerable parishioner and by his growing love for her young relation.

Each chapter is devoted to the story of one of these characters. The story-telling is immaculate, and I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Winifred Holtby had considered every detail of the different people, lives and relationships. They were beautifully observed, they were gently satirised, and the different stories spoke about so many things: class, race, faith, prejudice, family, loss, philanthropy, ambition ….

Each chapter was absorbing, and could have been the foundation of a different novel.

The ongoing consequences of the Great War were very well considered; and the many serious points were perfectly balanced by a rich vein of humour.

Every chapter ends with the words ‘Poor Caroline’ Each character sees Caroline in a different light but whether they are contemptuous, frustrated, infuriated or bemused, they all see her as a woman to be pitied.

But consider her words to a younger woman:

‘My dear child, when you’ve lived as long as I have, fighting and striving for what seems impossible, you’ll know there are some questions best left unasked. It will be. It must be. Faith. I will have faith until the heavens fall. Don’t you see, dear, that for people like us, who step off the beaten track and dare to scale the heights, there is no retreat, no turning back. There is no ‘If not’. It must be.’

‘What do you know about the worst? Wait until the iron has entered your soul, Wait until you have gone down to the depths in utter loneliness and risked everything, everything, even your own self-respect. Who are you to tell me about the worst when you have always led a sheltered life, with capital behind you, and a university education? When you have accepted the conditions that lead to utter nakedness of spirit? When your relations wondered if it wouldn’t be safer and more economical to get you certified and put away quietly in a nice mental hospital? When that have told you to give up the struggle and live on an old-age pension in a home for decayed gentlewoman? When there has been nothing, nothing left except success?

This is the story of a woman who had little education, who hadn’t married, who had worked to support herself, and who when she could work no more found that society had no place for her.

The way that is threaded through this book that told me that Winifred Holtby knew that the world had to change, that she knew how and that she knew why.

The book is strongest when it is considering the character and their stories, rather than the rather improbable story of the Christian Cinema Company. In many ways, it is quite unlike anything else of Winifred Holtby’s that I have read , but I saw common threads and shared concerns, allowing it to sit very well alongside those other novels.

‘Poor Caroline’ is both thought provoking and entertaining – I loved it!

Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Croft (1931)

There are times, when life is busy, when a vintage literary mystery is the perfect bookish prescription. When I needed that prescription I picked up this book, and it was perfect.

It begins with a passenger ferry in the English channel, sailing from Newhaven to Dieppe. Captain Hewitt sees a yacht adrift, with a man lying motionless on the deck. He sends a small boarding party and they find that the man has been shot dead, as has another man they find in the cabin.

There is no sign of a murder weapon, or the murderer.

Another man arrives on a motor launch. He is John Patrick Nolan, and he had come to join two of his partners in Moxon’s General Securities on a business trip, to meet a French financier named Pasteur in Fécamp. He identifies the two dead men as Paul Moxon, chairman of the firm, and his vice-chairman, Sydney Deeping.

29967411Back in England the investigation falls to the Sussex Police, and to Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard.

It appeared that Moxon’s General Securities was on the verge of collapse: and that maybe the partners, unable to meet their obligations, were fleeing the country with £1.5 million pounds in cash that was missing from the company’s strong room.

The investigation would be complex. It took in many people involved with and affected by events at the failing finance house; detailed nautical calculations and timetables; and the serial numbers and whereabouts of the missing notes.

It wasn’t difficult to follow. I didn’t try to work too much out, but I enjoyed watching capable professionals doing their jobs; and following the investigation and all of different developments.

The plot was very well constructed.

The characters were drawn simply; just clearly enough to allow the story to move forward.

Many of the details if the story still resonate: particularly the business failure, the executives abdicating responsibility and absconding, and ordinary people suffering life-changing losses. Technology has changed, the figures have changed, but almost everything else would be exactly the same today.

I appreciated that many of those working on the investigation had genuine concern for the families of the dead men and for the many people affected by the collapse of Moxons.

There are many days when I would rather read a mystery with more complex characters, with a plot that held more surprises, and with a story that was a little more profound.

But on the day that I read this book it had exactly the right amount of mystery and real human interest to engage and to entertain.

Saraband by Eliot Bliss

Saraband is a beautifully wrought and sensitively told coming of age story, set in early 20th century London.

Louie is a quiet and imaginative child, growing up in her grandmother’s house, surrounded by aunts and uncles. She perceives her father as a distant figure, her mother as completely focused on her much younger brother, and her grandmother as the centre of her world.

She loves being out in the world, and her story is scattered with her feelings about the world as the seasons change.

“All along the road from the river the frost made patterns on the ground, and how beautifully the air smelt . . . The sharp air hung over one’s head like the blade of a knife, she imagined it saying ‘Behold you shall be cold, behold you shall be cold . . .’ Winter had a most exciting smell, it made one think of people whom one knew and yet had never met, places where at one time or other one felt sure one must have lived and yet could not remember. Frost hung on the trees, it made them look as if they had gone white during the night from fear, it gave them a very queer stark look.”

She knows that the world is full of possibilities:

‘Whenever she went out for a walk by herself, smelling the cold air all along the road, with the trees stark and white on either side, the exciting feeling took hold of her, the feeling that at any moment she was going to meet somebody or something. She had had it for years ….’

I had to love her. And identify with her.

Louie’s world changes when her cousin Tim comes to stay. She expects to hate him, because he is a boy, because he will occupy the room that was the centre of her imaginary kingdom; but she doesn’t. She is smitten with a sensitive boy who can do something quite magical. Tim can make music.

That brings Louie joy, but it also draws out her underlying insecurity:

“To be beautiful and a musician seemed the height of human achievement. She looked upon him as a work of art, he was something marvellous and holy, something she could never be.”

Her relationship with Tim is a constant as her life changes, and it influences her other relationships. When she is sent to school she is drawn to the bold girl, who questions and breaks the rules. When she goes to secretarial college she becomes friends with a bohemian young woman who disappears long before the end of the course.

sarabandThis isn’t a plot-driven book; it is a book that tracks the progress of a life.  Louie is often passive; reacting to drama rather that creating them. She hadn’t expected to have to earn her own living, but her father lost his life and her family lost its fortune in the Great War. Secretarial college was a sensible step, and it chimed with her idea that she might one day be a writer.

The writing has a lovely clarity and lyricism as it captures Louie’s observation of the people, the places and the happenings in her life. The perspective is always hers.

I understood, and I cared.

I saw the influence of Dorothy Richardson – a friend of the authors – on her writing; but I found Eliot Bliss’s style to be simpler and more accessible. Louie remembered and considered things; I was particularly taken with passages late in the book where she remembered stories her grandmother had told her about her youth, as the end of grandmother’s life was drawing near.

That death, and its consequences for her family, was a turning point in Louie’s life. And not long after that she found herself in a situation where she had to stand up for a friend who could not stand up for herself.

That was her real coming of age. The end of this book but the beginning of a whole new story.

Eliot Bliss didn’t write that story; she wrote very little else. One more known novel, one lost novel, diaries and poems over a period of fifty years.

On the strength of this book, I would be happy to read them.

This is a quiet book, but it is both lovely and profound.

Louie’s thoughts and emotions are utterly real, her world is vividly painted, and Eliot Bliss caught and understand the nuances of her story so well.


Dawn’s Left Hand by Dorothy Richardson (1931)

The tenth of the thirteen volume series of novels that Dorothy Richardson titled ‘Pilgrimage’ – picks up the story of Miriam Henderson exactly where the ninth ended. She is on a train, travelling home, after a two week holiday in Switzerland.

She is happy and confident throughout that journey; but when she arrives back in London it seems that little had changed. She is still working at Mr Hancock’s dental practice; and she is still sharing a room with Miss Selina Hastings,back on friendly terms, or at least having reached an accommodation, after their relationship seemed have reached breaking-point at the end of the book before last.

Things are happening though, and things will change.

20160106_193046Much of this book follows Miriam as he encounters and she thinks about many of the people who have passed through her life. It might have been a test to see how much I remembered. She visited Dr Densley, who had become a suitor after that met when Miss Eleanor Dear was his patient. There were aspects of the life of a doctor’s wife that appealed to Miriam, but whem her thoughts suddenly shifted it was clear that she did not see her future there. Miss Dear herself had died. The Brooms, who Miriam came to know at her second teaching post, who she had visited often, were still in her life; as was Sissie Bailey, her former landlady who I am sure hadn’t been mentioned since Miriam, for reasons that were never made clear, left her boarding house.

What was telling was what wasn’t mentioned. The setting – London – had always been at the centre of Miriam’s thoughts, but now it seemed to be taken for granted. Maybe that, maybe the tour of friends and acquaintances was suggesting that Miriam was preparing to move, to change her life.

Michael Shatov was also absent, probably because two other relationships were central to this part of Miriam’s story.

When she was in Oberland Miriam had know that, back in London, Hyppo Wilson was waiting for her to make a decision. It was unsaid, but it was clear what that meant, and when she came home to a letter professing love any element of doubt was gone. The relationship was consummated. Miriam had felt no physical attraction, but otherwise her feelings remained opaque.

The pattern of the relationship was so familiar though; an intellectual bond, pushed into something else by a male who had to be dominant, not realising that he might be changing everything …

Meanwhile, Miriam was being pursued by a bright young woman – who even went into her room to write ‘I love you’ on her mirror. She was intrigued, she was flattered, but she was unsure of what it might all mean.

All of these different things came together to make a book that felt rather muddled and messy. There was much to hold the interest; but there was a lack of shape to this chapter of Miriam’s story, and that bothered me. It didn’t help that the steam of consciousness often seemed more random and less penetrable than it had before.

The last chapter went some way to redeeming things.

Miriam was spending a weekend at the country home of Hyppo and Alma Wilson. It was clear that Alma was either blind to the relationship between her husband and her friend, or that she was choosing to ignore it. Her brightness suggested the latter, and that she knew her husband’s foibles and understood and would maintain her position. That helped Miriam to understand her own position, and time and space in the country allowed her to think over may things.

She knew at heart that she was just a passing fancy for her young lady admirer. She thought about her sister Eve, who had written to he urging her to break with Hyppo Wilson; I was so pleased that Miriam who often failed to appreciate her sisters came to appreciate that. She thought of her sister Harriet, who had emigrated to Canada and who seemed to be making a success of her new life. Maybe that gave her food for thought.

Certainly she loved being in the country, and there was some lovely prose.

There were some rather odd passages, but I think that was when Miriam fell ill and so I am going to overlook them. I’ve learned that I have to do that sometimes, otherwise I would be completely bogged down, trying to understand things that Dorothy Richardson – through Miriam’s sub-conscious – will never make clear.

Over the course of the book it became clear that Miriam had matured, that she had a greater sense of who she was as a woman, in relationships and in the world,

And at the end it was clear that she had gained understanding, maybe made some decisions; because she seemed happier and more purposeful than she had for some time.

I do hope that will herald a new direction, that the next book will show that she has made decisions and is going to act upon them.

Miriam Henderson and Dorothy Richardson can both be infuriating; but they can also be inspiring, and ‘Pilgrimage’ is like nothing else I have ever read.

I’ll be glad to reach the end, but when I reach the end I want to read more about Dorothy Richardson and understand how she drew on life, how she came to write as she did, and why she chose to devote as much of her life as she could to writing about one woman’s consciousness.

The next book – a very short book – is already in my sights