A Book for G. B. Stern Day: Another Part of the Forest (1941)

A few years ago I spotted a book by a Virago author I had hardly read among the literary biographies in the library. I picked it up for a look, not really meaning to bring it home until I had found and read some more of her novels, but when I saw that it hadn’t been out of the library for decades I had to bring it come, and when I began to read I was captivated.

It wasn’t a conventional autobiography, it was the first of a series of books where the author talked about people, places and things she loved, moving from subject to subject and back again as one thing made her think of another.

I didn’t learn a great deal about the facts of her life, but I learned a great deal about the people she loved, the places she visited, the things she collected, the dogs who were her companions, the books she read and loved …

That book had to go back to the library but I started to hunt down the volumes that followed it.

‘Another Part of the Forest’ picks up where that book left off – the author comments that she was ready to start on this book as soon as this one was finished – but time passed, the world changed, and so this book feels a little different. It was written in the early years of the war, by an author who loved to travel and socialise but has accepted the sense of settling down and living quietly in the English countryside.

When I read that first book began to feel that I was among the crowd at a literary cocktail party, listening to a wonderful raconteur a little way away. I didn’t know her but I loved listening to her talk, and I was sure that if I did know her I would like her. This book feels like a quieter party, with that same raconteur telling more stories; different stories more suited to different company at a different kind of gathering.

This time she speaks of childhood memories, recalling seaside holidays, and the discovery of authors who would be lifelong favourites.

“Broadstairs meant the kingdom of shells among the rocks at low tide, shells pearl and pink and purple, flawless in form and tiny as tropical butterflies and fish; it meant lumps of chalk twinkling on the powdery sands through the sunlit rock archway at the foot of a flight of rocky steps, dark and uneven and smelling of seaweed, that plunged adventurously downward from the parade right through the cliff. It was because one or other of us nearly always slipped down those steps that we were not allowed iron spades. We were also not allowed to take off our shoes and stockings or bather for the first three days – an inexorable rule, and probably a very silly one. Those stairs are gone now, and the way down to the sands is frank and open and concrete. I suppose it is all for the best. At the Bleak House end of the bay was a little inn and a rough jetty and a lifeboat shed, and a couple of figure-heads against the tarred wall; one, I think, a highlander of the Waterloo period. A steep cobbled path led up to the cliff, winding coyly past a house called Cosy Nook which I thought the most beautiful name a house could have =, and mentally adopted for my own future habitation; then , with a dark thrill, it ran past Bleak House – or we ran past it, for our nurses declared it was haunted; Dickens had lived there, we were told, but Dickens meant nothing to me till I was thirteen, when for four or five years he meant everything ….”

Authors and books fall into stories quite naturally, sometimes in passing and sometimes considered at more length.

G. B. Stern refers to a party she hosted for seventy literary figures, and I would love to know who they were. Maybe Somerset Maugham, as she was a guest at one of his house parties. Maybe H G Wells who was at the same house party and gave her a writing case for Christmas. Maybe Elizabeth Von Arnim. The author went on a picnic with her and imagined that she was a character in one of her books. Certainly Sheila Kaye-Smith, who was a close friend and co-author of two books about Jane Austen.

It is for Jane Austen that the author creates a box labelled ‘perfect’ – for authors with a small but flawless body of work who should not be lost among literary giants. Her knowledge and passion was wonderful, she wrote about the author and her characters so naturally, she made me think and she made me want to pick up the books again.

“I asked Paul to stop. We were just outside Pleshey, and I saw a house that I wanted. Paul obligingly drew up, but cancelled my gratitude by the remark: “It’s beyond your means.” I think indignation was justifiable: !it’s not beyond my means because I haven’t got any. So I can never go beyond my means. And that house just suits me.” He agreed that it was a good house, sober and not gaudy; old brownish bricks; the architecture in the style of a Jane Austen house, with a drive up to the white pillared porch and entrance, and bow windows round at the side, bow windows harmonious and inevitable. ‘”I believe there are few country parsonages in England half so good,'” said General Tilney in ‘Northanger Abbey.’ “‘It may admit of improvement, however. Far be it for me to say otherwise; and anything in reason – a bow thrown out perhaps; though, between ourselves, if there is one thing more than other my aversion it is a patched-on bow.”‘ A smaller building at the side of the garden, the “littlest house” which the biggest house had spawned in accordance with all my earlier psychological observations, was shaded by a richly-coloured copper beech; I think here must have been the stables where Mr. Bennet kept the house which his wife would not allow Jane to ride when she went to visit the eligible Mr. Bingley; rain threatened, and Mrs Bennet hoped her beautiful daughter would catch cold and have to satay that night. I cannot refrain from all these Austen ruminations, for the house was of just the right size, sobriety and gentlemanliness for the Bennets or the Morlands. It was not a noble enough mansion for Sir Thomas Bertram, or Darcy, or the Elliots; but, on the other hand, too big for the Dashwoods after their change in fortune; for it was clearly stated that when Willoughby offered to give Marianne a horse, Elinor sensibly and priggishly pointed out that it would involve their mother in much extra expense and trouble, as there were no stables attached to the cottage, and moreover an extra manservant would have to be hired to jog along behind Marianne on her rides.

Paul drove slowly by . “I shall buy it,” I said firmly. And he repeated: “It’s beyond your means.” “There’s no tax on dreams,” I said …’

This is a book full of people, places and houses, and with less room left for the thoughts and ideas that I remember from the first book; understandably given the times and circumstances when this book was written.

I was happy to read more about the author’s collections. She collected paperweights, and deployed them to hold down the pages of her manuscript as she wrote this book out of doors. She also collected sticks, and I loved reading her account of striding out with one that had a light embedded at the top. She loved dogs, and, though she thought that six was enough, when her husband brought home another puppy in May and said it was an early Christmas present she couldn’t quite accept the justification but they worked out another one.

There are so many things in this book – big things and small things – that I could pull out.

In case you are wondering where the title came from:

‘In the spring, a year ago, I was wandering with a friend in Savernake Forest. I cannot tell how early or how late in the spring, for the season had poured down  rain and sun in absent-minded fashion, so that some of the flowers had been dilatory in appearing and others had hastened along sooner that was reasonable, though not too soon for welcome. Therefore on that glorious morning, wood anemones and primroses and violets and the first bluebells were all out together. conquering the green moss; the branches is the trees, not yet impenetrable with foliage, allowed the sun to pass through and slide softly down the tree-trunks into pools and puddles of golden light. I cannot remember that any birds were singing; my impression was that this delectable wood lay around us in clear silence. My companion remarked that it gave her a lovely slippery feeling of something not beyond but beside its own beauty, as though the whole scene was about to vanish at any moment; and I exclaimed, led by this remark to sudden discovery: “Of course. It’s Act III, Scene IV. It’s another part of the forest!”

I am so glad that I picked up that first book, that I found a new literary friend, that it led me to this second book, that I have the third book on hand….

Danger Point – or, In The Balance – by Patricia Wentworth (1941)

I realised that it was a long, long time since I had investigated a mystery with Miss Silver. The delay was partly because I was wonderfully distracted by lots of Patricia Wentworth’s other books being sent back out into the world; but it was also because after loving books one and two I was rather disappointed in book three. I reached the point when I realised that it was time to try book four, and I am so glad that I did. It’s my favourite Miss Silver book to date.

The story begins on a train, with Miss Silver travelling back to London after a seaside holiday. An attractive young woman – clearly in a state of shock – rushes into the compartment. Miss Silver is concerned and she very tactfully begins a conversation; her companion responds, thinking that Miss Silver is rather like her old governess.

Lisle Jerningham was a wealthy young woman with a brand new husband, and she was terribly afraid that he was going to kill her. She had just overheard  a conversation that suggested that husband’s first wife died of an accident, that that money she left him had saved his family home. Now he had run out of money again, he had acquired another wife with money, and maybe she would have an accident too …

12114131When the train reached London Miss Silver pressed one of her business cards into Lisle’s hand, and said that she should call if there was ever anything at all she might do to help.

Lisle felt terribly alone. She was American and she had no family or friends of her own in England. Her money was managed by a trustee and she knew that Dale, her husband, was unhappy that he wouldn’t produce the funds that he needed to save the family home. He said that if Lisle was only a little more persuasive he would have the money and everything would be alright, but that she really didn’t understand how important it was. She didn’t understand, but she had tried for her husband’s sake.

The only person who seemed to care about her was Dale’s cousin Rafe, but Rafe was charming to everyone and so she could never be sure that he really was her fiend. She knew that Dale’s other cousin, Alicia, whose rich, titled husband died in an accident at about the same time that Dale’s first wife hated her. Dale and Alicia had been expected to marry, and she wondered if maybe they would when they had the money to secure the future of the family home that they both loved.

Lisle had already had one accident – she had nearly drowned – and she would have others.

A young woman was found head at the foot of a cliff, and a young man was charged with her murder. It seemed to be an open-and-shut case, but Lisle feared that it wasn’t.

A newspaper report about the trial caught Miss Silver’s eye, she realised that it was very close to the young woman she had met on the train, and she decided that she had to investigate. She knew the local policeman from her days as a teacher – he had been one of her pupils – and so she asked him to recommend a local boarding house, and she told him a little of what Lisle had told her.

It was lucky that she did, because Lisle really was in terrible danger.

I found a great deal to like in this book.

Lisle was more damsel in distress than heroine, but I understood the difficulty of the position she found herself in; with nobody outside the family circle to turn to, and not know who inside the family circle she might trust. I appreciated that she was young and inexperienced, that she coped with a great deal and that she found some courage when she most needed it.

I was inclined to like her, and I found it easy to understand why she thought and acted as she did.

I loved the echoes of Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ in Lisle’s situation; and the echoes of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in Miss Silver’s relationship with ‘her’ policeman.

The details of characters, clothes and settings were so well drawn, as they always are in Patricia Wentworth’s books, making this a lovely period piece.

I continue to be impressed with Miss Silver’s knitting speed and prowess, and in this book I learned that she can crochet too!

The dialogues between Lisle and Dale as he tried to make her understand why his family home was so important, and she stood her ground because she knew there were other things that mattered more, were wonderfully well done.

The playing out of the story was so dramatic – a lovely mixture of the sensation novel and the golden age crime novel – and I was on the edge of my seat until the very end of the story.

The ending that she chose made me realise that Patricia Wentworth had understood the psychology of her subject matter perfectly.

The is definitely Miss Silver’s best case to date – though she wasn’t at the centre of the story she did have an important role to play – and it won’t be too long until I move on to the next one.