Greengates by R. C. Sherriff (1936)

R. C. Sherriff is best remembered for writing the play ‘Journey’s End’, which is a major work about life in the trenches on the Western Front that is is still studied and performed. That is probably as it should be, but his novels deserved better than to be forgotten until they were rescued by the lovely Persephone Books.

This book is a story of ordinary and unremarkable people, the plot could easily be summed up in a sentence or two, and yet it is captivating; because its wonderful insight into character makes the book live and breathe, and allows the reader to believe that the author is speaking honestly and respectfully of people that he knew well.

This story begins on Tom Baldwin’s last day of work for a city insurance company before he retires. He knew how the final hours of his working life would play out, because he had worked in the same place for a great many years, and he played along; but as he waited for his train home he couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that nobody had thought that he was a long-serving member of staff who had been present at – and helped with – many other departures – and that maybe they might do something just a bit little different.

‘Mr. Baldwin felt unreasonably self-conscious standing on Broad Street platform with the clock under his arm. Although it was done up in brown paper and nobody could possibly guess what it was, he could not help feeling that a placard reading “RETIRED!” hung around his neck.’

A report in his newspaper about a man who had killed himself because he couldn’t cope with being retired was unsettling; bur Tom was quite sure that things would be different for him.

He planned to study history, and to write an accessible and engaging history of England for the reader who didn’t want to study but was interested in knowing a little more. He planned to go out and about with his wife, Edith, because there was still much they had to see, and learn, and discuss. And he planned to spend more time tending his garden, and to attend to all of the jobs around the house that he had been putting off.

It was a lovely plan, but it didn’t quite work in practice. A suburban garden only needed so much time and attention, the jobs around the house that had been put off time and time again over the years were still unappealing, and publishers made it clear that the market for popular history was already completely saturated.

Edith was supportive, and she appreciated the difficult transition that her husband was going through; but she was also rather put out by the changes to her own well-established routines that were forced by Tom’s constant presence.

Together all of the time, the couple found that they had little to tell each other, and nothing much to talk about

This was retirement as a tragedy; as a downward slope towards the end of life.

Was there an alternative?

One day Edith suggests a walk to a favourite spot in the countryside that the couple had enjoyed visiting on weekends before the war. The fresh air reinvigorated them and they chatted happily about things they were seeing and things that they remembered. They were had a lovely time, until they reached their destination and found that the lovely valley views they had been looking forward to had been spoiled by the building of a new housing estate.

‘The desolate charm of it – the wild, fragrant peace – had gone for ever: through the soft gorse field stretched broad hideous gashes of naked yellow clay, and clustering along them, like evil fungus to a fallen tree were hideous new houses – stacks of bricks – pyramids of sewage pipes – piles of white timber – mud stained lorries and sheets of hunched tarpaulin – a nightmare of perverted progress.’

They went down to take a look at the works, and to find out where they could complain about what was happening; but they found themselves being charmed by an extremely capable young salesman. He invited them to take a look around the show home, and curiosity got the better of them.  They were captivated by the clean, modern lines of the house and its modern conveniences, they loved its peaceful rural setting in an area they knew and loved, and each of them began to dream of a different life.

‘The Black and White Cottage by Mark Gertler

Back at home, they were delighted when they found that they both had the same dream. They began to look at their finances and at practicalities, and they came to think that they might be able to make that dream a reality.

That would be retirement as an exciting new chapter in life.

I found myself completely drawn into the lives of Tom and Edith Baldwin. They were ordinary people and they were so very well drawn that I found myself making comparisons with my grandparents, who I know moved from Devon to Cornwall around the time that this book was published. I saw their strengths and weaknesses, I understood their hopes and fears, and I was anxious to know what life had in store for them.

R. C. Sherriff wrote about them in a way that was beautiful and felt completely natural. I loved his turn of phrase, and I loved the way he caught domestic details and made me understand exactly what life in suburbia was like for the Baldwins, and what a new home and a different life could mean.

This is first and foremost a human drama, exploring the disappointments that can pull a life down and the delights than can pull it back up; but it is also a record of a time when ideas of how people might live were changing, exploring what that change might mean for ordinary men and women.

I was captivated and I only wished that the story could have gone on for longer, that I might have seen more of the minutiae of life in suburbia and life in the country.

The final chapter – a different perspective from some point in the future – didn’t quite work for me, but that was a small disappointment.

I loved the people I met, and I loved the book as a whole.

The Strange Case of Harriet Hall by Moray Dalton (1936)

I picked up ‘The Strange Case of Harriet Hall’ because I loved the title, and because I was intrigued by the premise, and because I saw echoes of another author of the period whose books I love in the premise and in the cover art.

When I started to read I realised that those echoes were faint and I came to love this book for its own sake.

It begins with Amy Steer, who is alone in the world. She has lodgings in London, she has been doing the rounds of employment agencies and scanning newspaper advertisements with little success; and her unsympathetic landlady has noticed her situation and wants her out. She has no idea what she should do when she notices an advertisement  in the personal column of the newspaper she is scanning, advising that relatives of Julius Horace Steer who responded could discover something to their advantage

That was the distinctive name of Amy’s father, who had died when she was just two years old. She quickly pens a response, and a few days later finds herself meeting Mrs Harriet Hall, the aunt she never knew that she had.

Amy’s new aunt explains she is her father’s sister, and that her advertisement had been running in the newspaper. And that she lived quietly in the country, thanks to the kindness of old friends.

She had been close to her nephew but they had become estranged, then she had remembered that her brother had left a daughter, and now she was inviting her niece to come and share her home in Larnwood.

Amy was taken aback. Harriet Hall – tall, eccentrically clad and heavily made-up – was not the sort of aunt she had expected; but of course, she reminded herself, her mother had never spoken to her about her father’s family, and she had been greeted so warmly and presented with a  generous gift of £100 to suitable clothes and to cover her train fare.

A few days later Amy was sitting on a train with a trunk full of  lovely new clothes. She struck up a conversation with a young man sitting nearby. He introduced himself as Tony Dene, they got on wonderfully well; but when he found that they were travelling to the same station and that she was the niece of Mrs Harriet Hall, his whole demeanour changed and he began to pull away from her.

Disembarking at  Larnwood station, Amy found herself alone on the platform. Tony Dene had rushed off without a word and nobody had come to greet her. She set out to walk the five miles to her aunt’s isolated cottage, telling herself that there must have been a misunderstanding over that time or date of her arrival.

When Amy reached her destination the door was open, the kitchen stove was warm, but her aunt was nowhere to be seen. She settled down to wait, but nobody came to the cottage, and so the next morning she set out to the Dower House, where her aunt’s friends lived.

The Dene family had bought the Dower House, not very long ago, and their reaction to her news was not at all what she had expected. Mrs Dene seemed nervous and in thrall to Mrs Hall, rather than showing the concern of a friend. Tony and his younger sister Molly made no secret of their dislike, and their older sister Lavvy, who was beautiful but brittle,and her mother’s favourite, expressed similar views.

Amy had been worried already and the reactions of the Dene family worried her even more, but she didn’t have much time to think about what the truth of the whole situation might be, because Tony – sent to check the cottage – found a corpse in the well at the bottom of the garden.

The local police were called in, they investigated slowly, steadily and systematically. It seemed that there were a number of suspects and that none of them had a decent alibi.

The Lord and Lady of the Manor were not at all happy. They disapproved of the engagement of their son and heir to Lavvy Dene, the daughter of an unknown family who bought rather than inherited properly, and now her family were caught up in a murder enquiry. They called the Chief Constable and he called in Scotland Yard.

Meanwhile, Amy realised that her own situation looked rather suspicious. She also realised that she had next to no money left, because she had counted on the support of her aunt, and because the police had told her not to leave the district she had to find some way of earning her living locally.

The plot that unfolds is well constructed, it had some interesting elements that I haven’t come across in a Golden Age mystery before, and a nice mix of things that I could work out and wonderful surprises.

I liked Inspector Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard – who I believe is a series character.  He was a capable professional, he was a decent and compassionate man, and he worked steadily and without any undue fuss. All of the characters and relationships were well drawn, and very effectively deployed.

There was much in the heroine’s situation and in the development of – and obstacles to – romance that made me think of Patricia Wentworth’s books; but the way the story developed was quite different and the heroine thought and acted for herself rather more effectively than most of the Patricia Wentworth heroines I have met.

I’m not sure what Miss Silver would have made of this mystery, but I think that anyone who had enjoyed following her cases would also enjoy this book.

The story is well told, the mystery is memorable, and I definitely want to read more by its author.

A Virago Modern Classic – Live Alone and Like It!

When I saw that pairing of publisher and title my first thought was that this was probably an interesting but worthy tract from the late sixties or early seventies, somewhere around the time that Virago was first born!

Wrong!

This book was written for an earlier generation, back in the 1930s.

It is witty, warm and wise; and its new incarnation, as a little hardback book with a cute pink cover, feels wonderfully right.

It would slip easily into a handbag, and it would be a lovely gift for the right person.

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I think that the thing I loved most about this book was the voice.

Imagine a friend who you think is a little bossy, but you know is usually right; and who you are sure has your best interests at heart and will do her level best to help you get up and get back on the right path when life has knocked you sideways. That’s what you have here. Not someone who will do it for you, but someone who will give you the confidence to do it yourself, and who will be the very best kind of cheerleader.

Now when this friend came to write her book, she had the wisdom to know that some are single by choice and that some are not at all happy to be single, and that a lady might be beginning a solo life when young, middle-aged or elderly, and that it might be forever or just for a little while.

Her advice is sound; and now I’m going to paraphrase a little:

You must enjoy arranging your home and your life just as you like!

You should know when you need to call on your friends!

You can pursue your interests and enjoy your leisure!

You would be wise to think about the etiquette for a single lady in social situations!

You really can live your life exactly as you want, follow whatever interest you want!

She understands that the single lady needs to know that there are lots of tasty meals she can rustle up for herself, that a single bed really is something to be appreciated, that there are lots of way to entertain guests, and that there are some very effective ways of getting rid of a gentleman caller who lingers for too long.

Her text is peppered with lovely little black and white drawings, and her advices is interspersed with accounts of a wonderful array of single women. Some of them have got things wrong, but the majority have got things right and demonstrate that there so many different ways you can be solo and successful.

There’s little about the duller kind of practicalities. Jobs that need doing round the house, living within your means, finding tradespeople, that kind of thing. This is a book about having style, about having confidence, about living your life to the full!

It’s a period piece, but so much of what it says still holds good, and the only thing that feels out of date is the assumption that you will have a maid.

The voice still speaks clearly, and though I know that one was a real Vogue editor and the other was fictional, I couldn’t help wondering if the author of this book and the Provincial Lady had ever met.

Well, they were contemporaries, and I’m sure each would have been wonderfully entertained by the other!

Together and Apart by Margaret Kennedy (1936)

I love Margaret Kennedy’s writing, but I didn’t rush to pick up this book because I wasn’t that taken with the subject matter. The disintegration of a marriage, and all of the fallout from that, in upper middle-class England between the wars ….

When I finally picked the book up – thinking of Margaret Kennedy Day, which is only a couple of weeks away – I was hooked from the first page. It is a wonderfully engaging human drama; beautifully written and rich with understanding and insight.

It all begins with a letter.

Betsy Canning wrote a long letter to her mother, explaining why her marriage was much less happy than it appeared, why her husband’s rise from suburban civil servant to successful librettist and the changes that it brought to their lives hadn’t suited her; and why, therefore,  they had agreed to divorce.

She hoped that her mother would understand and support her; but  Mrs Hewitt was terribly shocked and rushed back from her holiday in Switzerland, pausing only to send a telegram:

” … horrified … ‘do nothing irrevocable till I see you …”

Mrs Hewitt went immediately to Mrs Canning, her ‘fellow mother-in-law’, so that they could work together to set things right. But by the time she arrived she was in a state of nervous collapse, and the formidable Mrs Canning set out for her son’s Welsh holiday home without any real understanding of the crisis she was going to have to resolve.

Alec had persuaded Betsy to think again about divorce, they had agreed to go away for a while alone to talk it over, but Mrs Canning’s arrival and her efforts to reconcile the couple didn’t help at all. The peace talks collapsed, there were bitter arguments, and the mood of the house changed.

Alec decided that he has to go away.

Joy, his wife’s mother’s help, followed him. She was infatuated, he was charmed, and so they left together.

And so the stage was set for a terrible scandal and an acrimonious divorce.

Margaret Kennedy managed all of this drama beautifully. She drew her characters and relationships quite simply but so well that it was easy to understand why events played out as they did. I saw that Betsy and Alec could have been happy together, that their relationship could have been beautifully balances; but I could also see that it so easily unbalance and break.

The stories of what Betsy and Alec do next are fascinating. His career is damaged by the scandal surrounding is divorce and when he learns that Joy is expecting a child he realises that they are irrevocably bound together. She had liked the idea of independence but she is flattered by the attentions of Lord St Mullins and finds the lifestyle that marriage to a peer could bring her rather appealing.

The stories of the effects on their elder two children are more profound. Kenneth  sides with his mother, and says that he will never speak with his father again; but he is troubled and that makes him easy prey for school bullies who will lead him into a great deal of trouble. Eliza would rather go to her father, but she fears losing touch with her siblings, and she is disturbed when she finds that there is a new baby in her fathers home.

Margaret Kennedy weaves a wonderful plot from these and other threads; drawing in enough to give a clear picture of the world around the different members of the Canning family as they spilled out of the family home.

She spoke clearly about how quickly events can run out of control, about how decisions can have so many repercussions, and about how vulnerable children are, even – and maybe particularly -when they are very nearly grown up.

Her characters are not always likeable, but they are real, fallible human beings, and their stories are full of real and varied emotions.

Everything rings true.

Some characters learn and grow; some characters don’t.

I loved the use of letters in this book, and this passage from a letter written by a family friend really struck me:

“I don’t see how any of them can ever be happy again. You say it is love gone bad. Do you think that is because they are all denying the truth? Love doesn’t go bad, however unhappy it makes you, unless you poison it yourself. It isn’t the injuries and wrongs that they can’t forgive; it’s because they know, Alec and Betsy know, and Joy does too, that in spite of everything, in spite of all they’ve done and said to hurt each other, they can’t bear to be apart.”

I loved that while this book is very much of its time there is a great deal about it that is timeless.

There were interesting details and points to ponder. I wondered if Joy, who became rather down-trodden, was suffering from post-natal depression. I noticed that she and Lord St Mullins had many shared interests and concerns. I wondered what would happen to the family of German refugees granted a home on the Cannings’ estate in Wales,

I’m inclined to agree with Margaret Kennedy’s daughter, Julia Birley, who writes into the introduction to the Virago edition of this book that this was one of her mother’s best half dozen.

It’s not my favourite, but it is a very good book, I’m very glad that I finally picked it up, and I think that Margaret Kennedy did what she set out to do very well indeed.

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Circumstances mean that Margaret Kennedy Day will be a little more low key than usual this year, but it will work just as these days usually do.

If you need a reminder, last year’s introduction is here.

If you need inspiration, you can see what we read last year here

But it’s really quite simple.

All you need to do to take part is read a book and post about it on the day.

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I See More Golden Age Mysteries ….

…. we seem to be living in a Golden Age for reissues.

The books are tricky to write about without giving too much away, and so I’m going to briefly mention two that I’ve read recently that are quite different but feel like a natural pair.

I’ve been distracted lately – by life, by family, by work – and books like this have been lovely therapy.

One grew from a quiet beginning into an engrossing story; the other had a fabulous beginning that it couldn’t quite live up to.

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton (1936)

One dark November evening Sir Wilfred Saxonby was found dead on the train he used regularly to travel from his London office to his country home. He was alone in his carriage; the door locked on his request. A gun, engraved with his initials lay close to his body. His son and daughter were both away, traveling abroad at his suggestion. As the local police worked, slowly and methodically, so many things suggested that Sir Wilfred had died by his own hand.

There were unanswered questions though, and so an officer from Scotland Yard was summoned.

26077475Inspector Arnold believed that there had been a murder; and that to carry out the murder there must have been an elaborate conspiracy. He called in his old friend Desmond Merrion – a criminologist and amateur detective – and between them they untangled the puzzle.

I can’t say much at all about the plot without giving too much away, but I can tell you many things I loved about this book.

I believed in all of the people in the story, and the things they said and did. The crime was extraordinary, but I could quite easily believe that this was the same world where my grandparents lived, and that maybe they had read about the case in the newspaper, and talked about it.

I appreciated the relationship between Arnold and Merrion. One was a steady worker with all of the resources of the police at his disposal; the other was an ideas man in possession of the sharpest of minds. They made a great team and they had a mutual respect that I really appreciated.

And I loved that small pieces of evidence were assembled, steadily building a case against the murderer. The plotting is clever and complex, red herrings are very well deployed, and the story twisted and turned beautifully. It’s very much a puzzle mystery; there’s a solid motive for the murder, the psychology is there but it is very simple.

I had to keep turning the pages, and I was sorry to reach the last one.

But I see that Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion investigated quite a few more cases, that one is already on its way back into print, and I hope that others will follow.

Calamity in Kent by John Rowland (1950)

Reporter Jimmy London is convalescing at a small seaside town in Kent and when he meets a lift attendant who has found the body of a man who has quite clearly been murdered in his lift. Jimmy takes charge of the situation, and he hopes that he will be able to climb the career ladder,  selling an exclusive inside story to one of the daily papers.

It seems that luck is with Jimmy: his good friend Inspector Shelley from Scotland Yard is on the spot and takes charge of the investigation. He agrees that Jimmy can have any news about the case first, in exchange for a little help with the case. Because Inspector Shelley realises that people will talk to a reporter in a way that won’t talk to the police, and that the reporter will bring a different perspective to the case.

26077481He played Jimmy and Jimmy played him too. He didn’t mention that he had searched the body before that police arrived, that he had found a notebook, and that he was planning more investigations of his own. He would tell the police what he found out, but he wanted it to be his own enquiry and his own story.

It was a good story, and Jimmy was a charming and engaging narrator. I enjoyed the period setting,  the seaside location,  and some very interesting characters that Jimmy met in the course of his investigations.

I’m sorry that my credulity was stretched a little too far. Too many people were rather too ready to talk to Jimmy, about themselves, about what had happened, and about what they knew.  And I couldn’t quite believe how much latitude Inspector Shelley gave Jimmy; or how grateful he was when Jimmy put forward suggestions that an Inspector from Scotland Yard would surely have thought of himself.

The final denouement was dramatic; but it was also ridiculously improbable.

I was well entertained and I was interested enough to read to the end, but reading more books in this series isn’t high on my list of priorities.

But certain other other Golden Age mysteries are ….

Caroline by Richmal Crompton (1936)

I knew that Richmal Crompton had written books for grown-ups as well as for children, of course I did. I’d seen a few books reissued here and there, I’d read much about how good she was, but I didn’t realise that she wasn’t a children’s writer who dabbled in adult books, that she had written a great many books over the course of her writing career, until I caught sight of a wonderful range of titles on the horizon, courtesy of the lovely Bello Books.

Look at them all!

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I was so curious to know what lay behind that lovely array of covers, and I was delighted to be able to pick up the first one. The book I picked up was ‘Caroline’, the book with the green cover, bottom left. I thought I knew what to expect; a book about home, family, and the lives of the middle classes between the wars. And that was what I got, but in a way that I didn’t expect at all.

If I had just the one sentence I’d describe ‘Caroline’ as ‘middlebrow domestic psychological suspense’, I’d say that I found it very easy to be caught up with the characters and their stories, and I’d say that I really enjoyed it.

Caroline was adored by her family. They loved and respected her, and they appreciated everything that she did for them.

Her mother had run away from her husband, leaving her children behind, when Caroline was just four years-old. Her father remarried,  but his second wife died and then he died too. Caroline had won a university place, but she gave it up to raise her three young half-siblings.

She poured all of her ambition into her new role, determined that their futures would be secure, and that they would be able to have the things she had foregone. No mother could have done more, and no mother could have been prouder.

But can you spot the problem?

Caroline saw no way but her own; Caroline could not let go; and Caroline always knew best.

She was a force of nature!

Her family knew that, and they always accepted that whatever Caroline might say or do was right, because she loved them and she had their best interests at heart. Their spouses, their friends might disagree, but they were steamrollered every time.

It was horribly believable; unsubtle at times, but I understood the psychology.

Everything changed when Caroline’s mother reappeared. Caroline was eager to welcome her, expecting to be able to play the ministering angel to a frail elderly lady, who would be so very grateful to be forgiven and cared for by such a wonderful daughter.

Philippa was grateful; but she was fit, active and independent; and she had enough experience of life and the world to see exactly what Caroline was and what she was doing to the family she loved.

Caroline, it seemed, was just like her father.

That was the beginning of a battle to do the right thing for the family. Though of course neither mother or daughter would call it that, and all of their tactics were covert.

Would they help or harm the family?

Could there, would there, be a happy ending?

I read very quickly, because the writing was so engaging, and the characters so knowable. They all infuriated me at times, but I understood why they were who they were, and why the story played out as it did. There’s enough detail and complexity in the plot and the characters to ensure that things are always interesting.

They key to the story was getting Caroline’s character right, and Richmal Crompton did that. She loved and wanted the best for her family, but she couldn’t see that what she thought would have made her happy might not work for them, and she didn’t understand that loved changed everything.

Her mother’s comment that she was just like her father was timely, and it really made me think and helped me to understand each woman.

You could say that Caroline was a domineering matriarch; but you could also say that she was a tragic figure.

Her story is firmly rooted in its era, but there is much in the careful study of the family that is timeless. A woman trapped by the role that she is expected to play ….

I could quibble about one or two details; but they don’t matter too much because the big picture is right.

I have to say that this is a very good story, well thought out and well told.

And that I’m looking forward to finding out what’s inside those other books!

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Deborah by Esther Kreitman (1936)

When I picked this book up I knew nothing of the title or the author; I took it on trust, to add to my collection, because it was a green Virago Modern Classic.

“All the world has heard of the great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer and of his brother Israel Joshua. Few have heard of their sister Hinde Esther who lived in obscurity and also wrote novels.”

This is an autobiographical novel, set in Poland’s Jewish community in the early years of the twentieth century. Deborah was the daughter of a rabbi, raised to dedicate her life to one thing: ‘the bringing of happiness into her home by ministering to her husband and bearing him children.’

DeborahHer father was mystical, impractical and almost fatally unworldly; her mother was educated, sceptical, but accepting of the role she had been given. Deborah was less accepting. She was bright and curious; she saw her brother being encouraged to study, being allowed to speak freely, being allowed to come and go as he liked; she wanted the same things, but she could not have any of them.

It was clear that this would be an unhappy story, but it was utterly involving though, because the whole of Deborah’s world – the people, the places, the way of life – were  so richly evoked, so utterly real.

Life takes the family from a tiny village, to a Hasidic court in a larger town, and finally to Warsaw. It is there that Deborah comes of age, and when she meets other Jews who are prepared to stretch or break the rules of their society she thinks that she has found her place in the world. But she encounters things that her life has not prepared her for, she is confounded by  expectations of what a rabbi’s daughter must be, and things go terribly wrong.

Heartbroken, almost completely broken, Deborah submits to an arranged marriage.

It is a disaster, and story ends as Deborah descends into madness and Europe descends onto war.

Esther Kreitman told her story wonderfully well. She was clear-sighted and intelligent, she understood why the world was what it was, why people were what they were. But that didn’t stop her being angry about her situation, or passionate about the things she believed in.

She pulled me right through the story; I was involved with Deborah, I cared about her, I wanted to know how her story would play out, from the first page to the last.

I wish I could say more but I can’t, because this novel is almost too vivid, too real. It makes me feel horribly inarticulate.

This book is a wonderful profound testament; catching a life and speaking of an aspect of women’s history I have never encountered in fiction before.

I wish I could tell you that the author found the place that she wanted in the world; but sadly I can’t.

I’m so pleased though that she did have a son, and that he translated this book that she wrote in Yiddish, many years after the fact, into English.

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