A House in the Country by Ruth Adam (1957)

It was a plain hardback book without a dust jacket, sitting on a shelf waiting to catch somebody’s eye. Many people would have passed it by but I recognised the name of an author who has been published by both Virago and Persephone. It had a title that I was sure I had read about, and that suggested the book might well be my kind of book.

It was.

Whether it is fact or fiction isn’t entirely clear, but the author’s words and my reading makes me think that it is fiction lightly fictionalised, to smooth rough edges and make it work as a story.

‘This is a cautionary tale, and true.

Never fall in love with a house. The one we fell in love with wasn’t even ours. If she had been, she would have ruined us just the same. We found out some things about her afterwards, among them what she did to that poor old parson, back in the eighteen-seventies. If we had found them out earlier… ? It wouldn’t have made any difference. We were in that maudlin state when reasonable argument is quite useless.’

It began during the war as a group of Londoners, family and friends, spun stories of the home they would love to have when peace finally came.

‘It must be one of those houses that’s been built, bit by bit. over hundred of years.’

‘It must have great windows that let all the sunlight in’

‘It ought to have a river running through the garden.’

‘There’ll be three or four kitchens, with red-flagged floors and hams hanging from the ceiling and we shan’t have to live in any of them.’

‘It must stand alone. Not another house within half a mile, at the very least. There must be miles and miles of green fields, washing right up to its garden walls.’

They hadn’t thought that it would ever be a reality, but not long after the war one of them saw an advertisement in the personal column of The Times that sounded just like their house.

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When they thought about it, they realised that if they pooled their resources the dream could become a reality; and when they went down to see the house they agreed that it must.

‘They say that when a stranger’s face seems familiar, it is because it is like a forgotten face of your childhood. I don’t know if that is true about people. But I know it is about houses. When I stood for the first time in the hall of the manor, it was not strange to me. It was the house I had promised to have, so that my mother could come and stay in it.’

The house was everything they had hoped it would be, but of course there were practicalities and problems that they hadn’t considered. In the post-war world the house had come relatively cheaply because many people had realised that there were more comfortable ways to live. War-time regulations still on place put limits on the refurbishment of the property, and the age where people either were or had household staff was over.

There were wonderful tales told as maids came and went. One girl arrived with a suitor in the forces, went out in clothes she took from the wardrobe of one of the household and left expecting a baby; another had a husband who pilfered money from the box by the telephone; and another seemed perfect until she went for the cook with a knife. Finally they found two girls who worked happily and effectively together, and later they employed a married couple who were hardworking but possibly a little too down-to-earth ….

Luckily the group was blessed with a gardener cum handyman who loved the house and knew how everything worked and how to keep the wheels running smoothly.

The house itself was a joy

‘Every bedroom had a dressing-room. We all became remarkably tidy. You wouldn’t have known our bedrooms as belonging to the same people who had once had coats flung on the bed and overflowing suitcases on all the chairs. The house imposed order upon us, whether we liked it or not. When you have thirty-three rooms, you feel obliged to keep something in each one, and the possessions which had filled the little suburban house to bursting-point now vanished quietly into the depths of the manor.’

Most of the management of the household fell onto the shoulders of the author, because she was the only one who didn’t go out to work and because she and her husband – who worked for the BBC – were the only ones who had brought children. She coped wonderfully, with the people, with the kitchens, and with everything else that came with running a manor house and grounds.

She loved it, but she saw it clear-sightedly.

‘She was an aristocratic lady on our hands. All ideas for making her work for a living were wrecked on the fact that she was born to be served and not to serve.’

Her tone and her storytelling were wonderful. She caught the changing times perfectly, and she wove in some astute social commentary.

‘The gracious life in the front wing, after all, depended entirely upon service in the back wing, and it didn’t seem a justifiable way of living.’

The story is very focused on the house and the experience. I couldn’t tell you much at all about her children, the other members of the household, or what happened before or after. That served the book well, and the account of life in the house – the stories that could be told and the small details that could be recalled – were so engaging and so well drawn that I only thought about that when I put the book down.

Inevitably, over a period of time, the household changed. One man grew tired of commuting, and of living with other people’s children. One woman, who had been romantically involved with some-one else in the household, married someone who definitely didn’t one to move in. Another man was sent to work overseas.

That meant that the household finances were terribly stretched. Sub-letting part of the property was an unhappy experience, but providing lodgings for holiday-makers was much more successful and provided some lovely stories.

‘She loved to hear someone tell a long, painstakingly funny story brought back from the village pub. She never could follow the story. It was the reception she waited for.

“So the English really do laugh out loud when friends are together,” she would say contentedly.

We supplied her with ‘The Edwardians’ to read in the evenings, explaining the phrases to her when she got stuck. Then we sent her off, with a packet of sandwiches to spend the day at Knole, telling her it was Chevron House, in which the book was set. We awaited her return with sympathetic interest. She came in and looked at us speechlessly.

“It’s too much,” she said at last. “It was too beautiful, and too large. I’m going straight to bed.” ‘

The author continued to love the house – her bond deepened when her fourth child was born there – but in the end she had to acknowledge that the workload was too great and the finances could not be managed.

She was philosophical.

‘In April when we bought daffodils off a street- barrow and say to each other when we go home, ” I suppose the magnolia must be out,” we always add, “Thank goodness someone else has got to sweep up the fallen petals.” ‘

I am so pleased that I found this book, and it would be lovely if it could be reissued; because I can think of many other people who would love it too.

The Eye of Love by Margery Sharp (1957)

‘The Eye of Love’was the first of Margery Sharp’s books I read, back in the days when it was a Virago Modern Classic. The founder of the Library Thing Virago group – a lovely lady named Paola – mentioned that Margery Sharp was one of her favourite authors, I liked the sound of this book, and so I picked up a copy.

I loved it!

I loved the two sequels!

Margery Sharp became one of my favourite authors!

When a whole set of Margery Sharp’s out of print books – including this one and its  sequels – were sent back out into the world last year, by Open Road Media, I thought it might be time to revisit ‘The Eye of Love’.

It was!

I loved it all over again!

‘The Eye of Love’ is a quirky and charming fairy-tale romance like no other that I have ever read.

29372657It tells the story of a middle-aged couple: Miss Dolores Diver, a rather gawky middle-aged lady, who wears a comb in hair and shawl around her shoulders because believes she has the looks and the character of a Spanish Rose type; and Mr Harry Gibson, a rather stout gentleman who has inherited responsibility for his family business.

In the hands of some authors such characters would appear silly or foolish; but not in Margery Sharp’s hands. She writes about them with great wit, with great affection, and with understanding of their foibles and their perception of each other, looking through the eye of love.

She made me love them, and she made them utterly real.

A rather eccentrically dressed lady I see in town might be a Miss Diver; a quite unremarkable man I see dressed for business might be a Mr Gibson.

I love that!

I love that every single person I might pass in the street has their own life story to be told, and – I hope – somebody who sees them through the eye of love.

Harry & Dolores had happy years together, enjoying simple pleasures and precious hour that they spent together, but they were to be separated. Harry’s business was struggling, he had a chance to make that business – and his widowed mother’s life – secure, but that depended on his marrying the daughter of his new business partner.

He didn’t like it at all, but he knew that he had to do the right thing

The lovers are both distraught, and while Dolores struggles to manage without Harry’s financial and practical support, Harry struggles to work up any enthusiasm for the wedding and new home that his mother and his fiancée are happily planning.

What will happen?

Will true love conquer all?

cc207ceb20d74b024e2fb3160e096d40Wrapped around this romantic comedy is the beginning of the story of Martha, Miss Diver’s orphaned niece. Martha is a stolid and self-possessed little girl, a true individual who is sweetly oblivious to the cares and concerns of others and sails through life’s storms, set on the course that she knows is right for her.

Martha’s passion is art, and all she wants to do is draw the world around her. She is single-minded in her quest for the materials and the time she needs to do that, and along the way she both helps and hinders her aunt in her new role as a landlady; as well as acquiring a very interesting and very sensible patron.

Margery Sharp spins a story that is both lovely and clever in this book. Her writing has both wit and charm, and is acute without ever being unkind. I think that she understood, and that she smiled at her characters.

There are so many lovely details, and a great many moments that strike a chord.

I loved the friendship that blossomed between Harry and his future father-in law. I was entertained by the machinations of the ladies who worked in Harry’s showroom. I was concerned when Dolores’s lodger took her to be a wealthier woman that she was and began to lay plans. I had horribly mixed feeling as I saw how happy and proud Harry’s mother was during the wedding preparations. I was interested in what Martha learned as she drew the gas oven.

Those are just a few of a great many things.

Most of all,  I cared  about the plight of the star-crossed lovers.

I knew the ending I wanted –  and of course I remembered it from the first time I read the book – but I didn’t remember exactly how the story got there until it did.

That ending  – and the whole story – was so cleverly constructed and so well told.

I loved the balance of the predictable and the unpredictable.

The first time I read ‘The Eye of Love’ I saw Dolores and Harry as the stars, and it was only when I moved on the sequels that I realised how significant it was that this was the beginning of Martha’s story.

She is definitely a one-off, but she is also an archetypal Margery Sharp heroine: an honest and independent woman, following her own instincts rather that social convention, and charting her own, independent course through life.

I have to love that!

You really should meet Martha. And Harry. And Delores. And Mr Joyce ….

I’m sorry that I shall be leaving Dolores and Harry behind, but I’m looking forward to following Martha’s adventures when she goes to art school in Paris all over again.

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Margery Sharp Day is less that two weeks away – the celebration of her 112th birthday party is happening on 25th January 2017.

There’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!

Just click the picture for all of the details you might want to know.

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Two Girls in Paris: Jam Today by Oriel Malet (1957)

Oriel Malet was a success in the literary world at a very early age. She was just twenty when her first novel, ‘Trust in the Springtime’, was published and she was only three years older when her second book, ‘My Bird Sings’, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. 51p8RonqCTL__SX373_BO1,204,203,200_Her prize money bought her a motorcycle, and a trip to Paris.

‘Jam Today’ tells the story of the six months that the author spent in that city, with her good friend Flavia.

It’s a lovely book; light as air; made buoyant by youth, love, and charm.

The pair had no need to work or to study – though they take a few art classes and do a good bit of reading, for their own amusement and to impress their families – they were there to enjoy life, to explore the city, and to meet the people.

Their base was an apartment borrowed from a family friend:

“A flat in Paris had conjured up visions of a bare room close to the sky, perched like a bird’s nest in one of those tall dark houses on the Left Bank. Ours was in the seizième, close to the Bois du Boulogne. Many French people find this quarter convenient and pleasant to live in, but it is expensive and has blocks of exclusive flats with wrought-iron doorways, long streets full of parfumiers, and the kind of shop that has one hat on a stand in the window, against velvet curtains on little brass rails … We were not however prepared for the magnificence which greeted us when we pushed open the solid wooden doors of the Rue de la Faisanderie, and at first we stood rooted to the threshold with surprise. A great chandelier, like a tree bearing mysterious fruit, blazed down light upon the crimson carpet. A warm scent rose to greet us, that would always be associated with this place, this moment. It was a rich scent of wood fires, old furniture, and French cigarettes. The fire was in the salon, whose white walls flickered enticingly in the firelight.”

The concierge was warm and welcoming, but after their ascent in a lift ‘which looked like a great glass birdcage, and wobbled ominously when we stepped into it’ our heroines found that the central heating wasn’t working and that the housekeeper – claiming that she was too ill, with some unnamed malady – would not be supplying the meals that they had been promised.

Undaunted, they decided that a walk to the shops to buy provisions would warm them up, while the handyman sorted out the heating. It sounded simple, but in a strange country on a Sunday it was anything but. After a few ups and rather more downs the pair decided that maybe they should eat in a café.

“We could not help reflecting on the power of food; how beaming these people seemed, and how cross the cold travellers in the bus. Suddenly Flavia raised her glass in the air, and cried: “Vive la France!”

It was the only French she knew, apart from ‘oui’ and ‘non’ and ‘le metro.’  I was amazed, but our frieds at the new table were enchanted. Raising their glasses back, they shouted in reply: ‘Vive L’Angleterre!’ Flavia beamed, her eyes shining, her cheeks pink.

‘Paris in wonderful,’ she said”

That was the first adventure – the first of many.

The girls  somehow fell in with Ivan, a moody would-be poet, dramatist and artist at a drawing class. They entertained his aunt, who would never go anywhere without her horse, at their very first dinner party. They made friends with  runaway honeymooners, after  the dog they were walking stole and ate their lottery ticket. They wangled an invitation to tea with singer Yvonne Printemps…

The mixture of story, character and city is quite irresistible. I suspect that the author may have embroidered a little; but there’s a something about the way that the story ebbs and flows that tells me that she didn’t embroider too much, and that this book catches the essence of a special six months of her young life.

It’s vivid, it’s witty, and it’s utterly involving and engaging. The writing is lovely; and there’s light and shade, there’s thoughtfulness, as well as bags of youthful charm.

I’m sorry that ‘Jam Today’ is long out of print, and that Oriel Malet is so little read nowadays.

It took me quite some time to track down a copy, but it was worth it, it really was …

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