A Book for Monica Dickens Day: Flowers on the Grass (1949)

I knew that Monica Dickens was an interesting author. I knew that she had written a marvellous range of books, works of fictions and non fiction, stories for children and stories for adults; but when I picked up this book – with flowers in the title and on the cover, with my own name as the title of the first chapter – I really didn’t expect such a distinctive novel.

Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view but linked by the presence of the same man.

Daniel was an only child, and when he was orphaned at the age of fourteen he became the ward of an elderly relation who wasn’t much interested in him. When he was expelled from Eton, his guardian sent the troubled boy to another distant relative in Italy, hoping that he would have no more responsibility and the scandal would be quickly forgotten. Daniel was happy there. His new guardian gave him a great deal of freedom, and he found that he loved the bohemian lifestyle and that he had a gift for art.

When war broke out he returned to England, he joined the army, and he met a distant cousin named Jane. She knew Daniel’s history, she appreciated what he had been through, and she fell in love with him. It was Jane who supported him when he was shattered by his experiences, and who guided him towards a new life in the English countryside.

Daniel’s stability and domestic happiness was shattered by Jane’s sudden and unexpectedly death. He abandoned his home and work and sets off,  not entirely sure where he would go or what he would do, only certain that he could not stay.

He would drift from place to place and from job to job. He doesn’t fall apart on the surface, but he withdrew and he began to drink heavily.

When he took a room at a small hotel a maid named Doris was concerned for him. She helped him to keep his dog – Jane’s dog – illicitly in his room, she smuggled out his empty wine bottles bottles and she made excuses for him and tried to help him when his behaviour became somewhat erratic. It was inevitable that the hotel owner would find out and that Doris would lose her job; but Daniel had a strong sense of justice, he was worldly wise, and he found a way for her to get her job back.

After that Daniel found a landlady who rented out a room in her house so that she could have a little money in her pocket without having to ask her husband or her sons, and because she liked having company in the house. She thought that her new lodger was charming, but her boys saw that he was idle and when they found that he had a talent for art they found a role for him in their business. He did a good job, but he found out a little more that they wanted him to know. In the end they thought he might get them in to trouble; he didn’t, but they found themselves paying a price as Daniel moved on again.

Some years later, when Daniel is working for an advertising firm, he rents a room from an attractive war widow named Valerie, who makes ends meet by taking in lodgers. They become good friends, she enjoys modelling for his sketches, but he resents her commitment to her role and her friendship with her other, more conventional lodger, Mr. Piggott. They talk of marriage, and it is then that Valerie realises that her feelings for Daniel are not strong enough to stop her thinking of herself as her widow.

There are other stories between these: Daniel has a spell as a tutor to an epileptic young man in Cornwall, who is unsettled by an approach and attitudes quite different to his predecessors; he sees a holiday camp very differently to the young man who looks after him when he comes to make sketches for an advertising campaign, and they make each other question their futures; he takes a position at a modern, experimental school where he might harm or he might help a troubled young woman named Pamela, who was a loner like him …

In the end an accident, a stay in hospital and a chance to help the patient in the next bed brought his story full circle and made me realise just how far Daniel had come.

I loved reading these stories. Each one was different, and distinctive, but they sat quite naturally together.

Some are stronger than others, but they all work.

The characters and settings were so clearly and distinctively drawn in that I found myself drawn in and wanting to know more about them and their situations before Daniel appeared and I found out how they would affect his life and how he would affect theirs.

When I read Daniel’s progress often felt secondary, but now I have put the book down I am thinking of him more and realising how very clever Monica Dickens was, writing this novel about his life as a chain of short stories about other people. She wrote with warms and understanding, and she conveyed the happiness in their lives as well as their sorrows.

The stories that Monica Dickens told in this book, the lives that she portrayed, created panorama of post-war England; its strengths and its weaknesses, the problems that it faced and the potential for the future that it held.

Her voice was strong and true, making this a book for both the heart and the head.

A Book for Dorothy Whipple Day: Because of the Lockwoods (1949)

Of all of the authors I thought about when I was compiling my Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, I think that Dorothy Whipple is the one whose long neglect is most inexplicable and the one I would be most confident in putting in the hands of a devoted reader who doesn’t know how wonderful books from the recent past can be.

She wrote such absorbing and compelling novels, filled with beautiful writing, with characters who live and breathe and happenings that ring so very true. Her books are so alive that it impossible to put one down without spending a great deal of time thinking about what had happened and what might be happening in the world that she brought to life after her story ended.

In this book, she tells the story of the Hunters and the Lockwoods, who are neighbours in a Northern mill town. They had been peers, with children of similar ages, but that changed after the sudden death of Richard Hunter. His practice as an architect had suffered during the war, he had hoped that  business would improve when peace came, but he didn’t live long enough to find out; and so Mrs Hunter and her three children must adapt to much humbler circumstances, and the relationship between the two families must change.

The situation would always be difficult and it was exacerbated by the characters of the two women, who were friends but not close enough to be anything other than Mrs Lockwood and Mrs Hunter to each other; the former inclined to be grand and gracious and the latter inclined to be accepting and appreciative …

Mrs Lockwood asked her husband, a solicitor, to help Mrs Hunter to deal with her late husband’s papers. He was reluctant to get involved, and utterly graceless, but after relying on her husband to deal with everything and having no idea what to do, Mrs Hunter was so grateful for his advice, and accepted it all without a moment’s hesitation.

She didn’t know that Mr Lockwood had taken advantage of her ignorance, and let her believe that her husband repaid a loan that he had granted after seeing that his receipt was missing. The way he suggested he should recoup the loan cost her a great deal, and his advice, which was inadequate but authoritative, would cost her a great deal more over the years.

Mrs Lockwood continued her to visit Mrs Hunter, even after she moved to a less desirable part of town. She enjoyed having someone who was always ready to listen to stories of her family and what they had been doing, who she could make presents of clothing that she had been seen in enough times, and somebody who would always be grateful for an invitation. Mrs Lockwood thought that she was being kind, and Mrs hunter was grateful.

Thea, the youngest of Mrs Hunter’s three children, came to bitterly resent the family that she saw was patronising hers, the family that had so many things she would have loved and took them for granted.

Her feelings grew stronger when  Mr Lockwood arranged for her older siblings, Martin and Molly, to leave school at the earliest opportunity and take uncongenial jobs because he didn’t want the trouble of helping to find a way for them to follow the career paths that they wanted. She wanted to make sure that the same thing wouldn’t happen to her, but she didn’t know how.

When Thea found out that the Lockwood girls were going to school in France for a year she was desperate to find a way to go to. It seemed impossible, but a teacher who saw that she had a great deal of potential found a way for her to go to the same school and work for her keep. The Lockwoods were horrified that she didn’t know her place, that she should think that she could have the same advantages as their daughters; but she took to the new school and life in France in a way that they never would.

Thea’s sojourn in France ended in tears, but an unexpected find in the lining of her father’s old bag and the generosity of spirit of a new neighbour would be a catalyst for change for the Hunters and that Lockwoods …

Endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Because of the Lockwoods’

I felt so much as I read about them.

I was angry at the Lockwoods completely unjustified sense of superiority, but at the same time I could see that they were oblivious and that they really did think that they were doing the right thing.

I was moved when Mrs Hunter was shattered by the loss of her husband and unable to face the future, but there were times when I thought that she really could have, should have, done a little more to help herself and her children.

Thea was a joy to read about. I loved her spirit and her ambition for herself and her family. I worried when she made  mistakes, when she wouldn’t listen to anyone, but I appreciated that her heart was in the right place and that she would learn.

I appreciated the intelligence of the writing, the very real complexity of the characters and the relationships, and the wonderful emotional understanding of everything she wrote about that Dorothy Whipple had.

There is so much more than I have written about, but I can only – I should only – say so much.

I loved what the author had to say.

She said that families who looked in on themselves – and both the Lockwoods and the Hunters were guilty of this – would not thrive and grow as families who looked out to the world could and would.

She spoke of social injustice and of how society was changing after the war.

And she wove this into her story quite beautifully, so that you could think about how cleverly she wrote or you could simply enjoy the drama, the romance, the suspense ….

Mr Lockwood’s misdeeds hang over this story, until it comes to a dark and dramatic conclusion.

I loved all of the book but I think I loved the final act most of all, because it was so profound and so emotional.

The ending was sudden, I was left wondering what happened next. I would have loved to have been told, but I think I know, and sometimes it is nice to be able to speculate …


A Book for Women in Translation Month: The Farm in the Green Mountains by Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer

A long heading, because this is a book with a lovely descriptive title, written by an author with a long name; and because I have to highlight was by a woman in translation because I had no idea that it was when I first caught sight of it and decided that I really wanted to read it.

This book is based on letters that the German author sent home from America during the World War II, and that when she went home after the war she re-worked for a newspaper column. Not long after that they were collected in book form, and some years later they were translated and an English language edition of the book was published.

(I love the translation by Ida H Washington and Carol E Washington, and the clever way they used English that was perfectly correct but not quite the way a native speaker would speak.)

Alice and Carl Zuckmayer, and their two daughters left Germany at the start of World War II.  Zuck was a playwright,  his most recent play had satirised the militarisation of Germany, and the couple were concerned that the authorities were taking the satire very seriously.  They moved to Austria, then to Switzerland, before finally deciding to settle in the USA.

30805220This book is an account of the years they spent living in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in the Vermont countryside.

It is clear that Alice – I call her Alice because I feel that I know her very well after reading her book – did a great deal of reworking of her material. The book had a beginning and an ending, there is some progression, but most of the chapters are written around a particular theme rather than a particular period of time; and it is clear that she has thought back over her years in America, adding more memories and more consideration of what she has to say.

Alice fell in love with her new home at first sight.

‘There were mountains wooded with firs, spruce, pine, beech, birch, elm and maple trees. In the woods there were weasels, marteens and foxes. It was a landscape that resembled the one at home even in details, and yet it was totally unfamiliar and foreign. It was as if we had come onto an enchanted, bewitched wood in which every shape had been transformed, over which even the moon hung in a different corner.

The farmhouse was run down, but the landlord was pleased to have tenants and organised all of the work needed to make it habitable. Then Alice and Zuck had to work out how best to support themselves, and after a thorough investigation of the possibilities open to them they decided that their best option was to become poultry farmers.

They took that very seriously, they clearly worked very hard, and they came to love what they were doing. The chapters about the farm birds are wonderful, they recognised that those birds had their own distinctive characters and their own society, and that makes the chapters that stories about them a joy to read.

They were practical and thoughtful – they worked out how to help sick birds logically and scientifically – but they were unsentimental and they didn’t lose sight of the fact that they were farmers – only birds that were not destined for slaughter would be given names.

Alice was very impressed by the USA.

‘It is a new world, and everything that happened in the old one is forgotten and not chalked up against on you the big board of the new world, but it isn’t written up to your credit either. It is called starting from the beginning. “To start all over again,” is one of the most meaningful sayings which America has produced … ‘

You see, she really thinks about things!

She devotes a whole chapter to the USDA, which she describes as ‘this powerful support system, this unique institution’, she appreciates the community around her, and it is clear that she thinks of the farmhouse not as a temporary refuge but as a proper home.

I loved her voice; it was warm and witty. I loved her thoughtfulness and her practicality; her readiness to work hard and her readiness to enjoy whatever life in America could offer her.

‘Great tree trunks stand in front of the town hall, driven a yard deep in the earth, and powerful lumberjacks stand by the trees and wait for the signal to compete in felling the trees with their axes. Blow follows blow until one tree after another falls …

Then it is the women’s turn. A piece of tree trunk too big to fit in the highest and widest fireplace must be cut through with a two-person saw. Now our Miss Perkins walks on to the scene, seventy-nine years old, and saws with Miss Patenaude, who is only seventy-six years old. And while they are sawing, precisely and powerfully, you catch a vision of the age of the pioneers. When they win and receive the first prize, you realise why women in America are not inferior to men. What wonderful things are the American celebrations.’

The book is firmly focused on the couple’s life and farm. Their daughters are only mentioned in passing, America coming into the war is only referenced because they have to register with the authorities, and when Alice mentions that a former farm hand who has come from the war in Japan considerably changed she doesn’t stop to wonder why.

I loved the chapter about the telephone – a party line shared with eight other households!

‘With the telephone we could find out how out neighbours were living, what they were thinking, when they were doing laundry, what was happening to them; from their voices we could tell if they were sad and out-of-sorts or happy and optimistic.’

I adored the chapter about the library – Alice’s love of the place, of books, of learning really shines – but I can’t quote it because it works so very well as a whole.

The book doesn’t end with a war.

Germany will always be home, but returning is difficult.

‘We found enemies again, too. They were unchanged. A few had been destroyed. Others sit behind bars. Many have assumed straight-jackets of de-nazification to convince people that they are normal again, but they are just waiting for a new era of insanity, when crimes will again be legally permitted and the mentally ill will again achieve power and honour.’

A return to Vermont stirs happy memories and brings reunion with friends and neighbours, but the couple has the wisdom to know that they have to move on. The world – and their old neighbourhood – is changing and the passing of the years means that they couldn’t put in the work that the farm needed and do the other things that they wanted to do.

I am so glad that Alice wrote those letters home, that she re-worked them, and that they were compiled and translated so that I could read this lovely book.