China to Me by Emily Hahn (1944)

Writer Emily Hahn – known to her friends as Mickey – traveled from the USA to China in 1935 and she didn’t come home until she was repatriated – with her daughter – in 1943.

She hadn’t intended to stay for so long, but she found so many reasons to stay and establish a life there.

She was offered an interesting job, in newspaper journalism; and that led her into a business partnership and a romantic alliance with her – married – Chinese publisher.

She mixed with the rich and powerful, mainly British and other European expatriates.

She found and furnished an apartment in Shanghai’s red light district, and she kept a pet gibbon who she named Mr. Mills and who often accompanied her to social events.

Starting to read this book was a little like stepping into a party not knowing any of the other guests and catching the voice of a warm and witty raconteur with a great deal to talk about. I can’t say that I got the whole story straight, but I picked up lots of details and I was intrigued.

That might have happened because the author was a columnist for the New Yorker and was writing for an audience who already knew the shape of her story; it might be because she was anxious to publish this account but wary of saying too much during the war; and it could be significant that she had a serious opium habit for the first few years she spent in China ….

As time passed key events became a little clearer.

Mickey was commissioned to write a book about the three famous Soong sisters. Each sister had married a  prominent Chinese men – military leader Chiang Kai-shek, revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, and wealthy finance minister Kung Hsiang-hsi – and each had used that to establish their own position of power and influence.

She traveled inland to the mountainous city of Chungking to interview the first of  trio, and gaining her confidence and trust opened the doors she needed opening to complete her book.

There isn’t a great deal about the sisters in this book but there was enough to pique my curiosity, and to make me very glad that I have a copy of that book.

Then Mickey moved to Hong Kong. She began an affair with the local head of British army intelligence and she gave birth to their baby. That was planned, because she thought that a baby would steady her and he agreed ….

She was still in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded – on the same day that they attacked Pearl Harbor. That raised this book from interesting to compelling, as she vividly describes of the confusion, the uncertainty, the deprivation and the fear of living under enemy rule.  She struggled to feed and care for  her infant daughter and to make sure her that her lover, who was a hospital-bound prisoner, had the food and medicine that he needed.

The book closes in 1943 when Mickey is repatriated to the US with her daughter; the outcome of the war and the fate of the man she loved still uncertain.

Emily Hahn was a proud feminist and fearless traveler, and the kind of woman who lived life as she felt it ought to be lived without waiting for the rules to be changed.  That made her wonderful company, but it was her skill as a writer and her interest in the people around her that really elevated this memoir. She made clear and insightful observations about the people around her – and herself and how they dealt with cultural differences, the changes that politics and the war brought, and all of life’s ups and downs.

You won’t find a comprehensive account of the history that Emily Hahn lived through in this book, you won’t find much at all about people outside her social circle; and there is so much detail in more than four hundred pages that I can’t say that I took it all in. But I can say that those pages weren’t enough, because brought her own life back to life on the page so vividly and she really made me understand what it was like to be in her position.

I was sorry to part company, but I did understand that the book had reached a natural end.

Green Dolphin Country by Elizabeth Goudge (1944)

A long time ago, when I made the transition from junior to senior member of the library, my mother steered me towards a number of authors whose books she loved and that she thought I might love too. I read some of them then, I read some of them later, but it was years before I began to read Elizabeth Goudge, who I knew was a particular favourite.

Her books didn’t appeal to me at all back in the day, and when their author fell out of fashion and her books disappeared from the library shelves I forgot all about her. I can’t remember how or where I found her again, but I’m very pleased that I did.

I’m also pleased that I didn’t read her all those years ago, because I think that the qualities that make her an interesting writer are better appreciated with a little age and experience, with an awareness that life is short and may take unexpected and difficult turns.

I always liked the look of ‘Green Dolphin Country’, but because it was such a very big book I picked up others first. This year though, when I was looking for a book to read on Elizabeth Gouge’s birthday, I decided that its time had come; and I had a lovely few days caught up with the story, the characters, the world, through nearly half a century.

The story opens on one of the Channel Islands – the author has given the fictional name of St. Pierre – in the middle of the 19th century. Two very different sisters were growing up there. Marianne was sixteen, she was dark and lacking in beauty, she had a passionate temper and she was bright and curious about everything the world had to offer. Too bright and too curious for the age and the place where she lived. Eleven year-old Marguerite was fair and pretty, she was vivacious, she loved her life, her home and her family, and she wanted nothing more than happiness for the people she loved and the world around her.

The courses of both their lives begin to change when a newly widowed doctor and his thirteen year-old son, William, come home to the island. Marianne is quick to see something happening, to investigate and to make friends; Marguerite follows a little more cautiously, and makes an equally good but quite different impression.

Marianne plans to win William as her own; but it is clear to everyone except her that he sees her as a friend – maybe the sibling he never had – and that  Marguerite is the girl he loves – and will always love – above all others. She isn’t a fool by any means. Knowing that she wasn’t a beauty and that she couldn’t match the feminine ideal of her time Marianne set about becoming the most chic, the most witty of her social circle and she succeeded; she just couldn’t understand that there were some things that she could never change, that never could be changed.

William joined that Royal Navy, and he tried to secure his future with Marguerite before he sailed away, but circumstances – and a little manipulation from Marianne – resulted in him leaving before he had said many of the things he had intended to say. When he was ashore in the  Far East William was tricked and robbed and couldn’t reach his ship before it sailed. That meant that he was AWOL from the Navy, and that he would be arrested if he travelled back home. He was extremely lucky to meet someone he knew, and to be offered the chance travel to a small colony in New Zealand to build a new life.

Over the course of the next few years William established himself, and then he was able to write home to ask the girl he loved to sail across the world to be his bride. He was tired, he had been drinking, he had a great deal to say, and somehow he wrote the name Marianne when he had written to write Marguerite ….

It sounds improbable, but this twist in the tale was inspired by a real-life story in which exactly the same thing happened!

Marianne travelled to New Zealand with no idea at all that she was not expected; Marguerite was left at home struggling to understand what had happened; and William waited with no idea at all he had sent for the wrong girl.

That is just the beginning of a wonderfully rich tale of love and adventure in times and places where the world was undergoing great change. I had worried that it would be a tale of a great love lost, but of course in Elizabeth Goudge’s hands it was much more than that: it was a story that illustrated that the journey to grace so often begins by accepting that we may not be able to have what we want most and by finding strength to do what we must.

There are lessons about loyalty and friendship, about the depth and complexity of marriage, about the human spirit  in the darkest and happiest of times, and the emotional and spiritual lives of the characters at the centre of the story were illuminated so very well.

Marianne is at the centre of the story, and she a very difficult character to like. Her spirit is wonderful, but she was manipulative, she could see no point of view but her own, and there were some lessons that it seemed she could never quite learn. I couldn’t ever say that I liked her, but I could understand who she was and why she spoke and acted as she did, and I believed in her; as I did in William and Marguerite.

There is a wonderful supporting cast whose stories are woven around the stories of those three, and that did much to make the world in this book live and breathe.

Elizabeth Goudge wrote that she never travelled to New Zealand, and that she researched as much as she could and imagined the rest. I suspect that she  imagined too much, that many of the pictures she has drawn were not true to life, but for the purposes of her story I think that they work.

She wrote so beautifully. I loved the descriptive prose that drew me so close to her characters and allowed me to see the places they saw and the world that they lives in so very clearly. It also served to control the pace, to allow time to absorb the human emotions that are the lifeblood of this book. It is a big book but I find myself wising that it could have been bigger, that I could have stayed longer and seen more. I would have like rather more time with Marguerite, though I do understand why New Zealand was the main focus of the story.

I couldn’t see how there could be a right ending, but there was, and it was so utterly right – emotionally and spiritually – that there was a smile on my face and there were tears in my eyes.

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp (1944)

I have been utterly charmed by Cluny Brown.

She’s a girl who never does anything that’s exactly wrong; but she’s also a girl who never really does anything that is usual or expected.

She simply followed her heart; oblivious to the strictures that hold most people back.

One day she took herself out to tea at the Ritz; another day she stayed in bed, eating oranges, because she read in a magazine that it would give her vitality.

To many Cluny was a breath of fresh air; but to her Uncle Arn she was a worry. He was a plumber, he had brought up the orphaned Cluny and he was a very conventional man. He worried that his niece didn’t know her place.

The final straw came when, in her uncle’s absence, Cluny set out to unblock a gentleman’s sink.

The correct costume for a young lady going to fix a gentleman’s sink on a Sunday afternoon has never been authoritatively dealt with: Cluny had naturally to carry her uncle’s tool-bag, but as an offset wore her best clothes.

She did an excellent job and the customer was charmed; Cluny was delighted to be offered a cocktail, and she regretfully declined the offer of the use of the loveliest bath she had ever seen. When Uncle Arn arrived and heard Cluny’s account of what had happened, he was aghast.

He consulted Cluny’s Aunt Addie, and between them they decided that the best thing would be to find Cluny a job in service.

Nothing could be easier, in that year 1938, than for a girl to go into good service. The stately homes of England gaped for her. Cluny Brown, moreover, possessed special advantages: height, plainness (but combined with a clear skin) and a perfectly blank expression. This last attribute was not permanent, but the lady at the registry office did not know, and she saw in Cluny the very type of that prized, that fast-disappearing genus, the Tall Parlourmaid.  Addie Trumper too knew what was what; she had been in good service herself, and with footmen practically extinct felt there was no table in the land too high for Cluny to aspire to.

Cluny was dispatched to Devon to work as a maid at Friars Carmel, the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Carmel. She took her new job in her stride; she loved taking the neighbours dog – who she had met on the train down from London – out on her day off; and she was captivated when the village pharmacist took an interest in her, tried to educate her, and maybe even to court her.

$T2eC16J,!)QE9s3HEE8GBP7j)lUWTw~~60_12Adam Belinski had arrived at Friars Carmel not long before Cluny. He was a distinguished Polish intellectual, in exile after giving a contentious lecture in Bonn that offended his German hosts. Andrew, the only son of Sir Henry and Lady Carmel,  was sure that the Nazis would be trying to track him down, he wanted to do something to help, and so he offered him sanctuary.  Belinksi  was not so worried, but he was delighted to be offered a home in a quiet country house where he can work, and nurture his growing fame, without distractions.

Upstairs and downstairs at Friars Carmel were separate spheres; but in each sphere was a person who was oblivious to their position, who reached out from their sphere, and those two people met.

Cluny and Belinski met when she was in the library, looking for a certain piece of poetry.

“‘Would you write it down for me?” she asked. “I want to learn it.”

Mr. Belinski obligingly went to a table and did so. Cluny followed…to watch over his shoulder and admire again as the neat lines ran out of his pen. For the first time he had really impressed her.

“I do think you’re clever!” she said sincerely.

“I am, very clever,” replied Mr. Belinski, without looking up. “Who is Mr. Wilson?”

“He’s the chemist.”

“If he is endeavoring to form your mind with this sort of stuff, he must be a great fool.…”

But Cluny, without paying much attention, took the finished copy and folded it very carefully and put it in her apron pocket.

Meanwhile, Andrew, who fashioned himself as a cosmopolitan young man but was really rather conventional, was courting the lovely Betty Cream. She fashioned herself as a modern girl, he wasn’t at all sure that he could win her heart, but he had to try.

Belinski was charmed by Betty; and Betty was intrigued by Cluny, who she decided ‘looked like somebody.’

And so there was a lovely tangle of characters.

The principals were are beautifully drawn; the other characters were not so finely drawn, but all were drawn well enough to play their part.

That was my one disappointment; there were so many characters I would have liked to known a little better than I did.

I loved the way Margery Sharp told Cluny’s story; I loved the way she set it so well against a time of social change; and I loved her wit and intelligence as much as I ever did.

The ending was beautifully set up, and I can understand why some people didn’t like it, but I thought that it was exactly right for Cluny.

She was the wrong girl for a conventional happy ending; she was the wrong girl for an ending at all or for a fixed future.

I just wish there was a sequel, because I would love to read the next chapters of her story.

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Margery Sharp Day – her 111th birthday party is happening on 25th January 2016.

MargeryThere’s no need to RSVP – though it would be lovely to know if you might come –  all you need to do is to read a Margery Sharp book between now and then, and post about it on the day!

All of the details are here.

I know that’s not quite as easy as it sounds, because all but one of her books are out of print, but I can make it a little easier for one person, because I have a spare copy of ‘Cluny Brown’ to give away.

It’s not a new copy – this is an out of print title – but it is a hardback copy that has been much read and much loved.

It you’d like it just say so in a comment. I’ll make a draw in a couple of days, so that the book can travel anywhere in the world in time to be read for the big day.

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