Tag Archives: UK

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

The novels of Patricia Highsmith, with their focus on the darker side of the human psyche, continue to be a source of fascination for me. First published in 1965, A Suspension of Mercy is another of this author’s domestic noirs – probably not quite in the same league as the marvellous Deep Water or The Cry of the Owl, but still very enjoyable nonetheless.

The novel revolves around Sydney Smith Bartleby, an American writer of crime fiction, and his wife, Alicia, who dabbles in painting. The couple have been married for around eighteen months and live in a quiet neighbourhood near Framlingham in Suffolk – the idea being that a remote countryside cottage would prove a suitable environment for them to engage in their creative pursuits.

While the Bartlebys’ lifestyle may on the surface sound very appealing, it soon becomes clear that the marriage itself is far from ideal. Following a series of rejections from publishers, Sydney is struggling to finalise his latest novel; furthermore, the TV scripts he has developed with his writing partner, Alex Polk-Faraday, have also proved difficult to place. Moreover, Alicia has little faith in her husband’s ability to write successful fiction. This, together with the Bartlebys relatively meagre income – mostly the allowance Alicia receives from her devoted parents – means relations between the couple are somewhat strained.

Sydney, however, has a very active imagination, perhaps too active given the nature of his fantasies. He is continually thinking up scenarios for the demise of both Alex and Alicia, the latter proving to be a particularly rich seam of morbid fabrications.

Alex had died five times at least in Sydney’s imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way, for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London. Then Alicia wouldn’t come back. The police wouldn’t be able to find her. (p. 33)

The couple’s problems are evident to those closest to them, their quarrels having being observed by Alex and his wife, Hittie, during their occasional trips to Suffolk – and by Mrs Lilybanks, the gentle old lady who has just moved in next door.

Now and again, Alicia goes away on her own for a few days, just down to London or Brighton for a breather from Sydney. It is on her return from one of these trips that she wonders if a more extended break might be in order, particularly when she suspects Sydney of deliberately refusing to come to a party just to annoy her.

‘You’d really like to kill me sometimes, wouldn’t you, Syd?’

He stared at her, looking tongue-tied.

She could tell she had touched the truth. ‘You’d like me out of the way sometimes – maybe all the time – just as if I were some character in your plots that you could eliminate.’

He looked at the half-peeled potato in her left hand, the paring knife in her right. ‘Oh, stop being dramatic.’

‘So why don’t we pretend that for a while? I can be gone for weeks. Work as hard as you like—’ Her voice shook a little, to her annoyance. ‘And we’ll see what happens, all right?’

Sydney pressed his lips together, then said, ‘All right.’ (pp. 69–70)

Having floated the plan, Alicia insists that Sydney should not try to contact her while she is away; she will get in touch with him when she wants to, but not before. Somewhat nonchalantly, Sydney agrees.

With Alicia gone, Sydney is free to immerse himself in the mindset of a murderer – possibly for research purposes, possibly for more sinister reasons. Allowing his fantasies to play out to the full, Sydney imagines that he has killed Alicia by pushing her down the stairs on the day of her departure. Moreover, the following morning, Sydney gets up at the crack of dawn, carries a rolled-up carpet (large enough to conceal a body) to his car, drives five miles to a secluded spot of woodland and buries it in a shallow grave. All the while, he behaves as if the carpet contains Alicia’s body, stiff and heavy following a night in the house.

As the weeks go by, many of the couple’s friends begin to express concern at not having heard anything from Alicia – surely she would have called or written to them by now? At first, Sydney implies that his wife has probably gone to stay with her parents, the Sneezums, down in Kent; but it turns out they haven’t heard from her either. (Alicia, as it happens, is holed up near Brighton, happily playing ‘house’ with her new lover, Edward Tilbury, whom she first at met a party some months earlier.)

Mrs Lilybanks too has her doubts, particularly as she was birdwatching from her bedroom window on the morning of the carpet episode, something she hints at when she drops over to see Sydney one evening. In this scene, Mrs L is enquiring about the carpet that used to be in the Bartlebys’ lounge, the very one she’d seen Sydney take to the car the morning after Alicia’s disappearance.

Mrs Lilybanks sat down slowly on the sofa, watching Sydney. ‘I really quite liked the old one you had here. I’d buy that from you,’ she said, forcing a chuckle.

‘But we haven’t got it. I took it–’ he smiled. ‘I took that old carpet out and dumped it. We didn’t want to give it house-room, and I doubt if anyone would’ve given ten shillings for it.’

Mrs Lilybanks heard her heart pounding under her green cardigan. Sydney had turned a little pale, she thought. He looked guilty. He acted guilty. Yet her unwillingness to believe he was guilty was keeping her from labelling him guilty, definitely. Now he was watching her carefully. (p. 116)

Soon the police become involved, and the finger of suspicion falls squarely on Sydney. The Polk-Faradays and Mrs Lilybanks are questioned about the nature of the Bartlebys’ marriage and Alicia’s state of mind at the time of her disappearance. The deeper the police dig, the worse it begins to look for Sydney: reports of the couple’s quarrels emerge, the burial of the carpet – albeit empty – comes to light; and Sydney’s notebook is found, a book which contains all manner of macabre fantasies on how to do away with one’s wife.

That’s probably all I ought to say about the plot; to reveal any more would spoil it, I think…

What I like about this novel and this author’s work in general is the exploration of the characters’ psychology and motives. In her 1954 novel, The Blunderer, Highsmith considers the possibility that any of us might resort to murder if pushed far enough. There is perhaps an element of that here too, although Sydney is not quite the ‘everyman’ we see in The Blunderer. There is something unhinged about Sydney and his overactive imagination, a blurring of the margins between the fantasies of his crime fiction and the mundane realities of everyday life.

While I couldn’t quite rationalise some of Sydney’s behaviour – there are several opportunities when Sydney could put a stop to the game that he and Alicia are playing, and yet he refuses to do so – I ended up going with it, largely under the assumption of there being some troubling mental health issues at play. Alicia ends up getting out of her depth, too. There comes a point when she can no longer face the shame of admitting she has been living in sin for several weeks, knowing that it would ruin her reputation and cost Edward his job.

In summary, this is a very intriguing novel, one that explores the dangers of allowing one’s fantasies to play out in real life. Definitely recommended for fans of this writer’s work.

A Suspension of Mercy is published by Virago; personal copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

Tea is so Intoxicating by Mary Essex

First published in 1950, Tea is so Intoxicating is another recent reissue in the British Library’s excellent Women Writers series, and it’s probably my favourite so far. Ostensibly the story of a couple’s quest to open a tea garden in an insular English village, Essex’s novel touches on various areas of British life in the years immediately following the Second World War. More specifically, it is a book about class, social attitudes, the pettiness of village life, and perhaps most importantly of all, the failure to recognise one’s own limitations.

The couple in question are David and Germayne Tompkins, who are relative newcomers to Wellhurst in Kent, the sort of village where everyone knows everyone else’s business. David is one of those men with big ambitions but precious little skills or knowledge to put his ideas into practice. He is also something of a self-conscious snob, forever envying other, more successful individuals for their achievements and contentment with life.

While recuperating from a short illness, David develops an obsession with cooking, convincing himself that he can produce dishes of the highest order when in fact his efforts are little short of disastrous. This, coupled with his experience in the accounts department of the Dolly Varden Cosy Tea Shops, Ltd., leads David to the view that he should open a tea garden in the grounds of the couple’s cottage – a rather primitive, poorly-equipped property that the Tompkinses have unwisely purchased at a knockdown price. Germayne, on the other hand, is somewhat dismayed at the prospect, fearful in the belief that poor David is getting carried away with himself…

She [Germayne] was dubious about the success of the proposed tea-house. But, meanwhile, David had launched himself out into the thought of selling lunches packed ready to take on the road with you, teas in the garden, teas in the inglenook, teas you took away with you, or teas you took away inside you. In fact, it was a comprehensive plan, and it covered every line of resistance that man could offer. His flights of fancy took him into realms of the type of lunch that no hiker or biker wants, but that did not worry him in the least. He would educate them. (p. 34)

Naturally, the villagers are opposed to the idea, viewing the Tompkinses as outsiders (or ‘foreigners’) who have no right to be opening a commercial venture in their back garden – especially one with the potential to attract all manner of hikers and bikers to the village, increasing the levels of noise and congestion. Mr Perch at the Dolphin is not happy about the proposal, mostly because his wife serves teas in the pub’s garden. The fact that there’s only enough space for four people in the Perches’ tiny outdoor area is neither here nor there.

David went to elaborate efforts to hide his true intentions. He explained that there was no question of competition at all, because he was catering only for the better-class tea-seeker; his Cherry Tree Cot would appeal only to the more sensitive with its fine china, delicate sandwiches, and home-made cakes. Naturally this did not mollify Mr Perch, who knew privately that his wife’s teas were shockers, and that any kind of competition would be too much for him. (pp. 52–53)

David doesn’t exactly endear himself to the locals when explaining to Mr Perch how their respective tea gardens are aiming for very different sectors of the market, his snobbishness and lack of self-awareness coming firmly to the fore. To compound matters, there is also the question of the Tompkinses’ relationship, a source of significant scandal and gossip amongst the villagers.

As it turns out, David and Germayne were not married to one another on their arrival at Wellhurst, Germayne having left her first husband, the dull but dependable Digby, for the more entrepreneurial David. In time, a divorce was secured, allowing David and Germayne to get married on the quiet, away from prying eyes. Nevertheless, somehow or other, these developments have become common knowledge, giving the residents of Wellhurst something else to disapprove of alongside the tea garden itself.

As the novel plays out, we see just how much of a mess David gets himself into as preparations for the Cherry Tree Cot lurch from one catastrophe to another. His lack of common sense and inability to get to grips with the practicalities come together to form the perfect storm – almost literally. Meanwhile, Germayne is at the end of her tether, run ragged by David’s ineptitude and blinkered vision. Add to the mix a flirtatious baker from Vienna (Mimi) and Germayne’s precocious daughter, Ducks, from her marriage to Digby, and the stage is set for all manner of chaos.

Alongside the high jinks of the tea shop, Essex also has time to touch on the social changes sweeping through Britain at the time, largely accelerated by the Second World War. Mrs Arbroath at the Manor – another vociferous opponent of David’s tea garden – bemoans the progressive nature of developments under the Labour government, desperately hoping to cling to the world of the past. Albeit rather lonely and tragic at heart, Mrs A is another blinkered individual whose snobbish attitudes reveal themselves all too clearly…

Mrs Arbroath steeled herself against what was coming to the world, and she clung on to her previous glory with two clutching hands. […] Her income had started to drop, which was the fault of that miserable surtax, which she had always thought was thieving, and she had had to sell a few fields. Instantly there had sprung up a pale mushroom growth of awful little houses, with asbestos roofs, which made her groan. She could do nothing about it, though she tried… (p. 87)

The story of Germayne’s earlier marriage to Digby is also nicely woven into the fabric of the book, granting Essex the opportunity to reflect on the relative merits of Germayne’s matrimonial matches. There is a message here about the value of dull yet dependable individuals over more exciting, erratic ones, something that prompts Germayne to reflect on the life she gave up with Digby. In all reality, perhaps the grass isn’t greener on the other side after all…

In short, I loved this highly amusing novel, complete with its insights into the trials and tribulations of tea gardens and village life. There is more than a hint of Barbara Pym’s social comedies here, with their sharp observations on human relationship and women’s lives – especially when the women in question are long-suffering individuals, frequently taken for granted by others. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is another touchstone, particularly in its portrayal of the villagers’ territorial attitudes and resistance to outsiders heralding change.

It’s such a joy to see this delightful novel back in print as part of the British Library’s Women Writers series, and I hope to see more of Mary Essex’s work coming through in the future. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

Fell Murder and Checkmate to Murder – two vintage mysteries by E. C. R. Lorac

Over the past few years, the British Library have been reissuing some of E. C. R. Lorac’s vintage mysteries as part of their marvellous Crime Classics series. (I jotted down a few thoughts about Fire in Thatch last summer, a book I very much enjoyed.) Lorac was the main pen-name adopted by Edith Caroline Rivett, who produced more than 60 novels between the 1930s and 1950s. Many of them featured the perceptive detective Chief Inspector Macdonald of the CID, including the two I’m reviewing here.

Fell Murder (1944)

The setting for this charming, unhurried mystery is the Lancashire countryside in the midst of World War Two, where the elderly Robert Garth is the head of one of the leading farming families in the district. Robert – a stubborn, hot-headed man by nature – is rather set in his ways, eschewing progressive developments in favour of more traditional farming methods. The old man’s obstinacy is a source of frustration for his daughter Marion, an industrious, hard-working woman who is keen to ensure that the estate remains profitable.

Also living at the farm are Robert’s second son, Charles, recently returned to England from Malaya, having lost pretty much everything; and a younger son, Malcolm, who is considered to be something of a weakling, more interested in poetry than working the land. The household is completed by Elizabeth Meldon, a switched-on Land Girl who helps with the farming activities.

Elizabeth Meldon studied her Garth kinsfolk with a cool dispassionate judgement. She saw the grim obstinacy of old Robert, for ever setting his face against any change: the energy and optimism of Marion, intent on learning new methods of farming and developing the land to its greatest fertility. In addition to the tug of war between Marion and her father was the constant irritation of the two ill-assorted brothers—Charles from Malaya, accustomed to native labour and as many cocktails as he cared to swallow, and Malcolm who was by nature more a poet than a farmer. “Never such a family of incompatibles,” said Elizabeth. (p. 32)

The novel opens with the return of Richard Garth, Robert’s oldest son, who left the district twenty-five years earlier following a disagreement with his father. The old patriarch had disapproved of his son’s choice of wife (now deceased), a rift that prompted Richard to move to Alberta to start a new life. Now Richard is back in England on a short break between sea voyages, not to see his family but to reconnect with the land he still loves very dearly. Nevertheless, when Robert Garth is found dead in one of the farm’s outbuildings, the sudden reappearance of the prodigal son seems all too suspicious…

Before long, Chief Inspector Macdonald of the CID is called in to investigate what clearly appears to be a murder. As is typically the case in these mysteries, there are plenty of potential suspects with various reasons for wanting the old man out the way – from Marion with her desire to have a greater say in running the farm to Richard with his long-standing grudge against his father to Charles who seems ill-suited to life on the estate.

What makes this mystery particularly engaging is the way Lorac portrays the farming community and local landscape. She writes lovingly about the details of day-to-day rural life during the war years, the rhythms and principles of working the land, and the blend of beauty and ruggedness of the terrain.

In Macdonald, Lorac has created a character with a deep understanding of country folk, particularly their fierce sense of community and suspicion of strangers. The detective seems to have an innate ability to connect with the locals, adapting his approach to gain their understanding and trust.

“…As I see it, coming here as a stranger, this crime is conditioned by the place. To understand the one you’ve got to study the other.” (p. 136)

In summary then, Fell Murder, is an enjoyable, leisurely mystery with a strong sense of place. Some readers might find the pace a bit slow and understated in tension, but I found it all rather charming. A very worthwhile entrant in the BLCC series.

Checkmate to Murder (1944)

Another wartime mystery, this one set in Hampstead on a miserable, foggy night.

As the novel opens, Lorac sets the scene in an artist’s studio where five individuals have gathered together for the evening. At one end of the main room, the temperamental artist Bruce Manaton is painting a portrait of his friend, André Delaunier, an actor dressed as a Cardinal, resplendent in his scarlet robes. Meanwhile, at the other end of the studio, two men are playing chess, wholly absorbed in the strategy of their game. Also present is Manaton’s sister, Rosanne, who shares the studio with her brother. Roseanne is preparing a meal for the party in the adjacent kitchen, slipping in and out to check on the blackout curtains and suchlike. It’s a scene somewhat reminiscent of the set-up in Hitchock’s Rope, where the housekeeper, Mrs Wilson, is helping with the preparations for the dinner party that forms the film’s centrepiece.

The Manatons’ gathering is interrupted by a Special Constable – a rather unpleasant chap named Verraby – who claims to have uncovered a murder on the premises. The victim is Mr Folliner, the owner of the building that houses the studio. Moreover, Verraby believes he has apprehended the perpetrator – Neil Folliner, the old man’s great-nephew, a Canadian soldier who just happened to be on the premises at the time.

At first, Verraby believes it is an open-and-shut case with Neil Folliner being the only possible suspect. However, when Chief Inspector Macdonald in brought in to investigate, the net of potential perpetrators widens, with the activities in the artist’s studio soon becoming the focus of attention. There are reports of old Mr Folliner having accumulated a lot of money before his death, all stashed away in a cash box in the house. However, there is no sign of the loot in the old man’s flat or on the alleged perpetrator, thereby creating another perplexing detail to add to the mix.

This is a very clever mystery in which points of detail prove crucial to unravelling the crime. From the position of the guests in the studio to the history of the building’s occupants to the weather and background noises – all these things play their part in the puzzle.

In Macdonald, Lorac has created a very engaging character, a detective who combines a thorough, dogged approach with a fair degree of humanity and sympathy. It is a delight to watch him go about his work. During his investigations, Macdonald is ably assisted by his colleagues, Jenkins and Reeves, both of whom add an element of camaraderie to the inquiry.

Finally, the wartime setting is beautifully evoked, creating an environment of suspicion, uncertainty and constrained resources – a situation well-suited to opportunistic crime. All in all, this is an absorbing, atmospheric mystery for a dark and foggy night – a most enjoyable contrast to the gentleness of Fell Murder.

My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing review copies. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via these links here and here to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website). 

Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay

The English writer Rose Macaulay – whose work spans the first half of the 20th century – seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment. First with the Virago reissues of Crewe Train and The World My Wilderness, and subsequently with the more recent publication of some of her earlier work by Handheld Press and the British Library. Dangerous Ages – recently reissued by the BL as part of their beautiful Women Writers series – falls into the latter category. It is novel that considers the lives of women at various points in the lifecycle, the perpetual trajectory from birth to death.

Macaulay takes as her canvas various generations of one middle-class family, alighting on each of the women in turn to explore their hopes, preoccupations and in some cases their disappointments. It’s a novel where characterisation plays a prominent role, with emotions and outlook being more important than plot.

Central to the novel is Neville, who at forty-three is considering resuming her studies to be a doctor – an ambition she sidelined in favour of marriage and motherhood some twenty years earlier. Now that her children – Kay and Gerda – have grown up, Neville is conscious of not wanting to end up like her mother, Mrs Hilary, a woman whose life seems empty and purposeless.

Neville looked down the years; saw herself without Rodney, perhaps looking after her mother, who would then have become (strange, incredible thought, but who could say?) calm with the calm of age; Kay and Gerda married or working or both. …What then? Only she was better equipped than her mother for the fag-end of life; she had a serviceable brain and a sound education. She wouldn’t pass empty days at a seaside resort. She would work at something, and be interested. Interesting work and interesting friends–-her mother, by her very nature, could have neither, but was just clever enough to feel the want of them. The thing was to start some definite work now, before it was too late. (p. 21)

At sixty-three, Mrs Hilary is both too old and too young – caught in the no-man’s-land of middle age with little to focus on. Gardening, knitting or other such activities hold no interest for this woman – likewise parish work or other charitable pursuits. It is notable she is rereferred to as ‘Mrs. Hilary’ (and not ‘Emily’) throughout the book, a point that emphasises just how much of her identity has been defined by marriage and motherhood. Stuck in the fusty provincial resort of St. Mary’s Bay, Mrs Hilary bemoans the fact that no one seems interested in her life anymore. This lack of visibility feeds a degree of jealousy, particularly toward Nan, her younger daughter, whose life by comparison seems busy and vivid.

He was interested, thought Mrs. Hilary, in Nan, but not in her. That was natural, of course. No man would ever again want to hear stories of her childhood. The familiar bitterness rose and beat in her like a wave. Nan was thirty-three and she was sixty-three. Nan had men all about her, all being interested; she had only the women of St. Mary’s Bay. Nan could talk about Workers’ Education, even though, being selfish, she mightn’t want it, and Mrs. Hilary could only talk about old, unhappy, far-off things and fevers long ago, and the servants, and silly gossip about people, and general theories about conduct and life which sounded all right at first, but were exposed after two minutes as not having behind them the background of any knowledge or any brain. (p. 72)

Nan is a particularly interesting character in the book. A writer living in rooms in Chelsea, she is by nature an intelligent, cynical, sardonic creature – someone who goes her own way in life irrespective of conventional expectations. Nevertheless, there is a man in Nan’s life – an idealistic socialist by the name of Barry Briscoe, who manages a Workers’ Education Association in the city. Nan has long been the object of Barry’s affections; however, just when Nan decides that she will finally agree to marry Barry, he falls for Gerda (Neville’s daughter), who at twenty represents the modern face of womanhood.

Also featured in the novel is Grandmamma (another woman referred to only by her role), who in the twilight of her life is content for nature to take its course. In her own particular way, Grandmamma is cleverer and more fulfilled than her daughter, Mrs Hilary, with whom she shares a home.

Then there is Rosalind, the spiteful woman who is married to Mrs Hilary’s son, Gilbert – a literary critic of some note. Rosalind – whom Mrs H considers to be ‘fast’ and immoral – seems to delight in taunting her mother-in-law, preying on her obvious weaknesses and insecurities.

She [Rosalind] was pouring out tea.

“Lemon? But how dreadfully stupid of me! I’d forgotten you [Mrs Hilary] take milk…oh, yes; and sugar…”

She rang, and ordered sugar. Mothers take it; not the mothers of Rosalind’s world, but mothers’ meetings, and school treats, and mothers-in-law up from the seaside. (p. 75)

Rosalind has a habit of taking things up and dropping them just as quickly when they bore her, psychoanalysis being her current preoccupation. In short, she wishes to use the technique to analyse her mother-in-law’s ‘case’ with a view to identifying any underlying complexes. Initially, Mrs Hilary is disgusted by the notion; although ultimately, she experiments with analysis herself in the hope that it might illuminate a path to personal fulfilment.

What Macaulay does so well here is to capture the interactions between these individuals, with all their nuances and subtleties. She really is very skilled at conveying the challenges for women at different stages of their lives – the ‘dangerous ages’ of the book’s title.

In essence, the novel explores how best to find fulfilment in life, especially for a woman in middle age. Along the way the narrative touches on several topical issues of the day from the desirability or not of marriage (Gerda and Barry have opposing views on this point) to free love and lesbianism to the value of psychoanalysis. The novel was first published at a time when Freudianism was in fashion.

It’s lovely to see this engaging novel back in print as part of the ongoing Macaulay revival. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant Nymph (1924) was Margaret Kennedy’s most commercially successful novel, spawning both a play featuring Noel Coward and a film starring one of my favourite actresses, Joan Fontaine. As a book, it shares much with another of my recent reads, Edith Wharton’s 1928 novel, The Children: a man who enters into a relationship with an underage girl; an unconventional family living a bohemian lifestyle; and a brood of rather engaging, precocious children to name but a few. While the Wharton explores these issues from the male perspective, Kennedy’s novel places a young girl at the centre of its narrative. The individual in question is Tessa, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Albert Sanger, a brilliant yet difficult composer who lives in a rambling chalet in the Austrian Alps.

As the novel opens, Lewis Dodd, a young English composer of some promise is travelling to Austria to visit the much-feted Sanger, whom he views as something of a mercurial genius. With his rather conventional upbringing, Lewis finds himself attracted to Sanger and his ‘circus’ – an assortment of children from various marriages, Sanger’s current wife, the beautiful but lazy Linda, and various hangers-on. Their lifestyles are free-spirited and unconventional with little regard for the customs of the broader society at large. For instance, it is Sanger’s eldest daughter, Kate, who manages the household, her desire for some degree of organisation far outweighing that of Linda.

Young Tessa is the constant nymph of the novel’s title, a wonderfully unfiltered, warm-hearted girl, who at fourteen is already wildly in love with Lewis and his passion for the arts. Lewis, for his part, is also attracted to Tessa with her wild, unfettered innocence, viewing her as the most interesting of Sanger’s daughters.

He has always thought her the pick of the bunch. She was an admirable, graceless little baggage, entirely to his taste. She amused him, invariably. And, queerly enough, she was innocent. That was an odd thing to say of one of Sanger’s daughters, but it was the truth. Innocence was the only name he could find for the wild, imaginative solitude of her spirit. The impudence of her manners could not completely hide it, and beyond it he could discern an intensity of mind which struck him as little short of a disaster in a creature so fragile and tender, so handicapped by her sex. She would give herself to pain with a passionate readiness, seeing only its beauty, with that singleness of vision which is the glory and the curse of such natures. He wondered anxiously, and for the first time, what was to become of her. (p. 68)

Tessa longs for a time when she is grown-up, a point when it will be possible for her to enter into a more fulfilling relationship with Lewis; and while nothing is explicitly said, there is a sense that Lewis understands this too, casting an air of destiny over their connection.

Nevertheless, when Albert Sanger dies, this idyll is fractured, and the family is at risk of being split up. The two eldest children, Caryl and Kate, are old enough to fend for themselves, leaving their younger siblings – Tessa included – to be catered for elsewhere. As a consequence, Florence and Robert Churchill – who are related to Sanger’s second wife, now deceased – travel to Austria with a view to bringing the children back to England.

With her traditional breeding and refined lifestyle, Florence is enchanted by the young Sangers. Nevertheless, their wild, unconventional existence proves something of a surprise, prompting Florence to decide that the children should be sent to boarding school where they will receive a proper education.

In a further unexpected twist, Lewis is drawn away from Tessa by the beautiful Florence with her sophisticated lifestyle and strong standing in society. Florence, for her part, is seduced by Lewis’s artistic temperament and role as a musician. However, their sudden marriage is not a great success, primarily as a consequence of unrealistic expectations and subsequent frustrations for both parties. While Lewis feels constrained by the conventions of London society, Florence finds her new husband rather challenging to fashion. It’s a conflict captured in the following passage, which touches on the balance between art and civilisation/humanity – one of many sets of opposing forces in the novel.

[Florence:] “Your attitude is completely wrong. You put the wrong things first. Music, all art…what is it for? What is its justification? After all…”

[Lewis:] “It’s not for anything. It has no justification. It…”

“It’s only part of the supreme art, the business of living beautifully. You can’t put it on a pedestal above decency and humanity and civilization, as your precious Sanger seems to have done. Human life is more important.” (p. 209)

Meanwhile, Tessa and her siblings are also finding it difficult to adapt to a new life, highlighting the tension between an ordered, conventional lifestyle and an unstructured, bohemian one. The constraints of boarding school prove unbearable for Tessa and her sister, Paulina, prompting them to run away with their brother, Sebastian. The relationship between Lewis and Tessa is rekindled when the latter returns to the Dodds’ London home, a move that reveals the intensity of Florence’s jealousy towards her young cousin.

As the novel’s denouement plays out, Tessa must try to reconcile her love for Lewis – something she views as her destiny – with other complicating factors, most notably her ties to the family and the constraints of a conventional society. By the end of the narrative, Tessa is only fifteen, a factor that dictates society’s view of any sexual relationship she may wish to have with Lewis.

While Kennedy has created a very interesting moral dilemma here, I feel she could have gone a little further in exploring the psychology of her characters, particularly in the case of Lewis. It’s something Wharton delves into quite deeply with The Children, probing Martin Boyne’s state of mind in her characteristically incisive style. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s central characters are recognisable, believable and beautifully drawn, factors that add an extra layer of poignancy to the novel’s ending which I would rather not reveal.

There is some terrific humour here, too. Kennedy has a sharp eye for an amusing scene, highlighting the absurdities of the Sangers’ unfettered existence and the moral outrage of Florence’s family at the prospect of her marriage to Lewis.

[Robert:] “I can’t think what her father will say. If he’s got any sense, he’ll forbid it! He’ll forbid it! But I suppose he’ll blame me. How could I have prevented it? How could I have foreseen it? Who could have thought that Florence, FLORENCE, a sensible woman like Florence, not quite a young girl either, would dream of doing such a thing. A delicate-minded, well-bred girl, to take up with a wretched mounteback, a disagreeable, ill-conditioned young cub, with the manners of…of…well, he hasn’t got any manners. And goodness knows if he ever washes.” (p. 154)

Tessa’s siblings are another source of joy, especially Paulina, whose wonderfully unfiltered letter to Lewis on the trials of boarding school life is one of the book’s most amusing highlights.

If you’re interested in hearing more about this novel, the marvellous Backlisted team covered it in one of their recent podcasts, which you can find here. It’s well worth a listen to hear more about some of this novel’s rather controversial elements, particularly the depiction of an underage relationship and the anti-Semitic sentiments the book contains. (Very much a reflection of the era in which it was written, but it’s certainly something for contemporary readers to bear in mind.)

The Constant Nymph is published by Virago Press; personal copy.

The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge (1945)

This is wonderful – a story that compresses the key moments of a man’s life into just 75 pages. It’s the debut novel (or novella) by the English writer Elizabeth Berridge, whose Sing Me Who You Are (1967) I read earlier this year.

The novella opens with a notable event as Stanley – an assistant at a traditional Estate Agents in Belgravia – proposes marriage to his girlfriend, Ada, following an outing in the rain. It’s a touching, self-effacing scene, one that captures something of the tone in this thoughtful little book.

After a long engagement, Stanley and Ada marry. However, their hopes of a bright, optimistic future are somewhat tainted by a difficult honeymoon, particularly as their attempts at lovemaking leave Ada traumatised by the experience. Stanley, for his part, feels angry and ashamed, trapped in his own sense of isolation as he surveys the world outside.

The sight of the flat sands, the quietness of the night, emphasised by the slight sea-noise of dark waters, bought him uncomfortably face to face with himself. Time seemed absent. This was an hour that would not tally with his accustomed thoughts – not only was Ada a stranger to him, he was a stranger to himself. He was conscious of life and death flowing in and around him, desolating and building his spirit, testing and judging. He had never felt so helpless. (p. 22)

On their return home, the Brents slip into a life of routine and domesticity. Two daughters come along; various illnesses and disabilities are hinted at; and suddenly WW1 breaks out (although Stanley is not admitted to the army, presumably for health reasons).

What Berridge does so well throughout the book is to convey the feeling of a life slipping by. Stanley is rather passive and unambitious, qualities that are reflected both in his marriage and in his approach to work. Despite being made a junior partner at the firm, Stanley fails to see that the world around him is changing. He is too snobbish and wedded to tradition to take advantage of the demand for modest properties, a trend that accelerates in the years following the war. There is a degree of passivity too in Stanley’s response to his wife’s brief dalliance, something that gives Ada a sense of freedom and enjoyment. In another affecting scene, the two briefly reconcile when Ada realises the foolishness of her actions and Stanley reveals his deep-seated fear of loss.

As the years go by, the Brents continue to drift apart, fuelled by Ada’s ambitions for her daughters and Stanley’s inherent inertia and possibly depression – signs of an increasing dependence on alcohol begin to appear, especially when Stanley enters middle age.

…but he, Stanley Brent, why should he be lonely? Was it his own fault that Ada treated him so impatiently? Was he so impossible? Take that remark she had flung at him this morning, so final it had sounded. She seemed to know just what to say to agitate and make him appear muddle-headed. What he thought of as calmness was to her merely torpor. But what had she said? Like a splinter it had penetrated the surface of his mind; he could feel it working on his nerves, hurtfully. (p. 56)

There is such poignancy in Berridge’s portrayal of Stanley, which succeeds in capturing the loneliness a man can feel, even when he is surrounded by his family. As a novella, it highlights the small yet significant moments in day-to-day life, the unspoken tragedies of missed opportunities and other lives that might have been lived. Berridge accentuates this theme with a recurring motif, an unfinished tune on a violin that signals a connection between Stanley and Ada’s step-father, Monsieur Boucher, another man whose life seems shrouded in melancholy.

I really loved this novella, which manages to pack an impressive depth of feeling into a very compact story. The book itself comes in a beautiful hardback edition from Michael Walmer’s publishing house. My thanks for kindly providing a review copy.

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

The British writer and journalist Penelope Mortimer is perhaps best known for her 1962 novel The Pumpkin Eater, a semi-autobiographical story of a woman’s breakdown precipitated by the strains of a fractured marriage. Mortimer also drew on her own experiences for Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, a collection of sharply unnerving stories of motherhood, marriage and family relations, many of which uncover the horrors that lie beneath the surface veneer of domestic life. First published in 1960, this excellent collection has recently been reissued by the publishing arm of Daunt Books – my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

In The Skylight, one of the standout stories in this volume, a mother and her five-year-old son are travelling to France for a family holiday in a remote part of the countryside. The weather is stiflingly hot, conditions that make for a tiring journey, leaving the woman and her child anxious to arrive at their destination (a house they have rented in advance). On arrival, they find the property all locked up with the owners nowhere in sight. The only potential point of access is an open skylight in the roof, too small for the woman to squeeze through but just large enough for the child. So, with no other option at her disposal, the woman proceeds to instruct her son on what to do once she drops him through the skylight. (Luckily, there is a ladder to hand, making it possible for them to reach the open window.)

This is a brilliantly paced story, shot through with a mounting sense of tension as we await the narrative’s denouement. In a tale strongly reminiscent of the work of Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson, much of the horror comes from the imagination – our own visions of what might be unfolding inside the house once the young boy has entered through the skylight. Sound plays a particularly important role here; for instance, the torturous sound of a dripping tap serves to accentuate the intense feeling of unease…

In the silence she heard, quite distinctly, a tap dripping. A regular, metallic drip, like torture. She shouted directions to him, waiting between each one, straining to hear the slightest sound, the faintest answer. The tap dripped. The house seemed to be holding its breath. (p. 21)

Children appear in many of the stories, partly as a way for Mortimer to highlight some of the challenges of motherhood. Interestingly though, it is often the knock-on responses of the fathers to their offspring that precipitate crises for Mortimer’s female protagonists, rather than the actions of the children themselves. In the titular tale – another highlight of the collection – we gain an insight into the lives of Madge and William Browning, two writers who live with their daughter, seven-year-old Bessie. Also living in the house are Melissa (15) and Rachel (9), Madge’s daughters from a previous marriage. The story opens with what appears to be a commonplace domestic setting – a family waking up at home on an ordinary Saturday morning. However, the apparent mundanity of the scene is swiftly undercut by Mortimer’s pin-sharp observations on the underlying tensions at play.

Madge never went down to breakfast. She refused, out of a strong feeling of self-preservation, to acknowledge its existence. William’s temper was unreliable in the early morning, and particularly on Saturdays, with Rachel and Bessie lolling about in a holocaust of cornflakes and burnt toast, the German maid reading letters from home while the coffee boiled dry and the neighbouring children, small, ugly and savage, standing in a row outside the french windows watching him eat, a curiosity which they observed once a week, swarming over the low walls dressed for holiday in feathers, jeans and their mother’s broken jewellery. (pp. 34–35)

Rachel in particular in a source of irritation for William, prompting an eruption of violence as the story progresses. While Madge tries to hold it together for the family, desperately clinging to a false picture of domestic stability she has constructed for herself, William succeeds in undermining her efforts, forcing a confrontation between the couple – this despite Madge’s desire to shield the children from witnessing their marital conflicts. It’s an excellent story, full of telling insights into the presumptions William has made about Madge’s role as primary caregiver within the family.

In other pieces – Such a Super Evening being a case in point – Mortimer demonstrates her eye for sharp humour. The story is narrated by a modest married woman, the wife of a barrister, who is delighted by the prospect of having the infamous Mathiesons over to dinner. Philip and Felicity Mathieson – again, both writers – are a kind of literary power couple, often called upon to comment on various topical issues from childcare (they have eight children) to household management to cultural affairs. They appear to have it all – the perfect marriage, successful careers, remarkable children – in short, the whole shebang.

As the dinner party progresses, the scene becomes increasingly surreal, particularly as the Mathiesons begin to talk so openly about their lives. Gradually, throughout the evening, the ‘perfect couple’ reveal themselves to be money-grabbing, self-centred individuals, dismissive of many of the values they appear to project in public. It’s a deliciously amusing story, relayed in a gossipy style that works perfectly with the satirical subject matter. Another standout piece in this subversive collection.

Miriam’s earrings were quite still, petrified with shock. I cleared away and brought in the Tocinos del Cielo. I’m very proud of these, and perfectly happy to explain how I make them. However, no one seemed to want to know. They were all beginning to look as though they were at a funeral, except for Philip. He was talking about getting away from it all. (p. 67)

One of things that strikes me about this collection is how relevant these stories feel, sixty years after their initial publication. In addition to the topics outlined above, other themes include infidelity, the oppression of women, mental illness, unwanted pregnancies and the use of children as leverage in a marriage.

In the haunting story Little Miss Perkins, a mother – recovering in hospital following the birth of her baby – is sharing a room with a young woman at risk of miscarriage, their beds separated by a flimsy curtain. At first, the narrator assumes her roommate is traumatised at the thought of potentially losing her baby; but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this mother-to-be has other, more pressing priorities on her mind. Once again, there is a touch of Daphne du Maurier about this tale which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1960. It’s another story that blends flashes of dark humour with the underlying emotions of horror and tragedy. I couldn’t help but highlight this passage about the young woman’s doctor, complete with his slick appearance and patronising manner.

Her doctor, a Mr Macauley, was better dressed, slightly more suntanned than mine; otherwise, like all successful obstetricians, he looked like a one-time matinée idol who, in early middle-age, had struck oil. (p. 120)

In summary, this is a sharply devastating collection of stories – pitch-perfect vignettes that subvert the supposed idylls of marriage and motherhood with a spiky precision. There is a strong sense of foreboding in many of these tales, a feeling that flashes of rage, violence or cruelty may erupt at any moment… Very highly recommended indeed.

The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim is perhaps best known for The Enchanted April (1922), a delightful novel in which four very different English women come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera. It’s a book I love for its wonderful sense of escapism, where lives are reassessed and transformed. There is a hint of transformation too in The Caravaners (1909), but more of that later…

First and foremost, The Caravaners is a satire of the highest order, not least because the novel’s narrator – the German baron, Otto von Ottringel – is a colossal ass; a pompous, insufferable individual with absolutely no self-awareness.

The focus here is a summer holiday, ostensibly to mark Otto’s silver wedding anniversary. (The fact that Otto has only been married to his current wife, Edelgard, for five years is somewhat irrelevant. He’s already ‘banked’ nearly twenty years of marriage to wife number one, giving him twenty-five years in total, hence the celebration.) At first, there is talk of a trip to Switzerland or Italy; but when one of the von Ottringels’ friends, the genial widow Frau von Eckthum, extols the benefits of the horse-drawn caravan, Otto and Edelgard are enticed. While Edelgard is drawn to rose-tinted visions of a bohemian experience, Otto sees the caravan holiday more in monetary terms – a relatively cheap option compared to staying in a hotel.

So, the vacation is agreed: Otto and Edelgard will accompany Frau von Eckthum on a four-week caravanning holiday through the countryside of Kent. Also joining the group are Frau von Eckthum’s sister, the perceptive Mrs Menzies-Legh, and her husband, Mr M-L; two young women whom Otto dismissively refers to as ‘fledgelings’ and ‘nondescripts’; and two Englishmen – Jellaby, a socialist MP, and Browne, who plans to go into the Church.

Right from the start, Otto is shown to be egotistical, misogynistic and conceited. He believes that a wife’s first duty is to be submissive. She must be there to tend to her husband’s every need, to be seen and not heard, to be grateful and dutiful. Opinions are permissible now and again, but only if they are likely to be met with approval.

After a time I agreed. Not immediately, of course, for a reasonable man will take care to consider the suggestions made by his wife from every point of view before consenting to follow them or allowing her to follow them. Women do not reason: they have instincts; and instincts would land them in strange places sometimes if it were not that their husbands are there to illuminate the path for them and behave, if one may so express it, as a kind of guiding and very clever glow-worm. (p. 3)

The trip itself is highly comical, especially when related through Otto’s eyes. While other members of the group take delight in the novelty of the caravans, Otto finds the conditions cramped and uncomfortable – to the point where he longs for the more civilised environment of the hotel where one can be waited on hand and foot. Mucking in with menial jobs is beneath him, leading to a plethora of amusing scenes where simple tasks such as lighting fires or washing dishes prove either baffling or bothersome.   

No shelter; no refuge; no rest. These three negatives, I take it, sum up fairly accurately a holiday in a caravan. (p. 123)

Moreover, the weather is not what Otto was expecting from an idyllic English summer, leading to battles with lashing rain, swirling winds and damp fields. Manoeuvring the caravans into camps for the night also proves something of a challenge, especially when there are narrow gates and molehills to be negotiated…

So the Elsa [the von Ottringels’ caravan] in her turn heaved away, guided anxiously by me over the mole heaps, every mole heap being greeted by our pantry as we passed over it with a thunderous clapping together of its contents, as though the very cups, being English, were clapping their hands, or rather handles, in an ecstasy of spiteful pleasure at getting broken and on to my bill. (p. 88)

There are other annoyances for Otto too, from the scarcity of proper food – cold potatoes and cabbage make all too frequent appearances on the camp menu – to the behaviour of other members of the group. Von Arnim has a lot of fun with the cultural differences between the Germans and the English here, particularly around Otto’s attitudes to Browne and Jellaby. As an officer in the Prussian army, Otto considers himself superior to most of his companions. At first, he is exceptionally curt with Browne, dismissing the aspiring pastor as a complete non-entity – a view he swiftly revises once it becomes apparent that the Englishman is in fact a Lord. As for Jellaby, he is to be roundly ostracised, especially given the radical nature of his politics.

What von Arnim does so well here is to let the reader see how Otto is perceived by those around him, even though the novel is narrated entirely through the baron’s eyes. (The narrative does include some snatches of dialogue, but these are all presented within Otto’s recollections of the trip.) Mr Menzies-Legh, for instance, finds Otto insufferable, to the point where he makes himself scarce as soon as the baron appears on the horizon. Naturally, Otto is completely oblivious to any of this…

Menzies-Legh got up and went away. It was characteristic of him that he seemed always to be doing that. I hardly ever joined him but he was reminded by my approach of something he ought to be doing and went away to do it. I mentioned this to Edelgard during the calm that divided one difference of opinion from another, and she said he never did that when she joined him. (p. 151)

As for the transformation I referred to earlier, it is Edelgard who experiences something of an awakening. Encouraged by the influence of Frau von Eckthum and Mrs Menzies-Legh, Edelgard begins to adopt a more liberated approach to life, a development that Otto notes with clear displeasure.

Besides, I was rooted to the bench by amazement at her extraordinary appearance. No wonder she was not to be seen when duty ought to have kept her at my side helping me with the horse. She had not walked one of those five hot miles. She had been sitting in the caravan, busily cutting her skirt short, altering her hair, and transforming herself into as close a copy as she could manage of Mrs Menzies-Legh and her sister. (p. 76)

Mrs Menzies-Legh is particularly perceptive when it comes to Otto’s lack of appreciation for Edelgard. While conversing with the baron, she subtly draws attention to Edelgard’s many qualities – her unselfishness, astuteness and cheerful temperament – all aspects that Otto has failed to recognise or value in his wife.

‘Look how cheerful she [Edelgard] is.’

I bowed again.

‘And how clever, dear Baron.’

Clever? That indeed was a new way of looking at poor Edelgard. I could not at this repress a smile of amusement. ‘I am gratified that you should have so good an opinion of my wife,’ I said; and wished much to add, ‘But what is my wife to you that you should take it upon yourself to praise her? Is she not solely and exclusively my property?’ (p. 177)

During the trip, there are instances when Edelgard asserts herself in front of Otto, displaying elements of Bartleby-esque behaviour in the face of petty requests. It’s a cheering sight to see, but one wonders how long this transformation can be maintained, especially once the von Ottringels return to the suffocating atmosphere of their home in Germany.

In short, The Caravaners is a brilliantly-written novel, one that casts a sharply satirical eye over such subjects as misogyny, class differences, power dynamics in marriage and Anglo-German relations during the early 20th century – not to mention the delights and follies of caravanning in the inclement British weather. Needless to say, I absolutely loved it. 

The Caravaners is published by Handheld Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Harpole Report by J. L. Carr

Earlier this year, I read Carr’s excellent ‘football’ novella, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup (1975), in which a team of plucky underdogs overcome the mighty Glasgow Rangers to scoop the much-prized trophy. It’s a book that shares something with the author’s 1972 novella, The Harpole Report, which takes another British institution – in this instance, a Church of England Primary School – as its focus for a most amusing satire. It really is a terrifically funny book, a throwback to the golden age of British comedy in the 1970s.

In essence, the book constructs a picture of a term at St Nicholas C of E, during which George Harpole – who has taught there for some time – is appointed as the school’s Temporary Headmaster. (It turns out that the previous Head, Mr Chadband, has been granted a leave of absence, supposedly for the pursuit of professional studies. However, from one or two hints revealed during the book, the exact nature of these ‘studies’ appears to be somewhat dubious.)

The story unfolds through a combination of sources, including excerpts from Harpole’s journal; entries in the official school log-book; memos between Harpole and Mr Tusker, the Assistant Education Officer at the Local Authority; letters from Harpole to his fiancée, Edith Wardle; and various other documents. Interspersed with these vignettes are observations from an unnamed individual who has been commissioned to compile an independent report on Harpole’s tenure as Acting Head. It’s a very engaging technique, one that enables a surprisingly vivid picture to be pieced together from a variety of different perspectives, especially with the benefit of reading between the lines.  

As one might imagine, there are many trials and tribulations to be faced when running a school. During term-time, the well-intentioned Harpole must deal with a plethora of problems from disgruntled parents to sensitive members of staff and pupils, all set within an environment hampered by petty bureaucracy and constrained resources.

Some of the novella’s most amusing scenes are conveyed through the administrative memos from Harpole to Tusker and vice versa. In this passage, Tusker is responding to a complaint by Mr Theaker, the school caretaker, who has taken umbrage at being asked to hoist the Union Jack flag on a daily basis. The resultant memo from Tusker to Harpole is typical of this official’s communications, characterised by their antagonistic, narrow-minded style.

TUSKER TO HARPOLE

I was called upon to-day by the industrial disputes officer of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, complaining that you have instructed your caretaker, Mr E. E. Theaker, to hoist a flag each morning.

I would point out that the Local Educational Committee has laid down the principal duties of its caretakers are to maintain (a) Heat (b) Cleanliness (c) Security, and that Other Duties should only be undertaken when and if time permits. In view of this, no doubt you would like to re-consider the ill-considered position you have taken up, and I shall expect to hear what course of action in this vexatious matter you propose to take.

I note that you have not yet informed me why you require a second flag. (p. 7)

Theaker – a man who is something of a law unto himself – proves to be the cause of another incident when one of the teachers, Mr Pintle, discovers that his precious teaching aids for History lessons have disappeared from the school’s storeroom…

[HARPOLE’S] JOURNAL

…Just as I was going home, Pintle, almost incoherent, rage intermingled with grief, burst accusingly in. This being the season of the year when he does the Normans, he had been to the Surplus Apparatus and Staff Illustration Store to put back his Viking longship (made of 3,500 matchsticks) and to take out his cardboard Norman Keep. Apparently the Store was empty and the Keep (which he had made in his first year out of college) had gone. I hurried back with him and the little room was certainly empty of educational apparatus and now housed brushes, mops, cleaning paraphernalia, a child’s desk and an old armchair.

As I gazed unbelievingly at this, Theaker came round the corner. He was taken aback but rallied, declaring defiantly before I had time to speak, ‘Well, it was only full of junk.’ (p. 36)

This journal entry captures something of the book’s character, a humorous, idiosyncratic style that runs through much of Carr’s work.

By conveying Harpole’s approach and leadership of the school, Carr is able to touch on various social issues of the day, weaving them into the narrative in a wonderfully satirical way. The damaging impact of corporal punishment; the negative effects of streaming; and the unfairness of social discrimination, especially against girls, all feature at one point or another in the book.

Poverty, malnutrition and lack of support at home are also topics that Harpole must turn his mind to, especially when the Widmerpools (surely a nod to the odious Kenneth Widmerpool from A Dance to the Music of Time) move into the catchment area. The junior Widemerpools are a notoriously unruly bunch, with reading ages well below the expected levels. A programme of intensive reading produces some excellent results, if only this encouraging run of progress could be maintained…

In addition to these knotty sociopolitical issues, there are more light-hearted activities for Harpole to contend with, including Sports Day, school outings, and an amorous governor to name but a few.

Alongside Harpole himself – who emerges as a principled, well-intentioned man, battling against an archaic, bureaucratic system – the pen-portraits of the other teachers are beautifully sketched. There is young Miss Foxberrow, an energetic Cambridge graduate with progressive ideas; Mr Croser, a rather smug young teacher with strong moral standards; Mrs Grindle-Jones, a traditionalist rapidly approaching retirement; and Miss Tollemarche, whose note-taking on the attendance register is hopelessly inaccurate. Each one presents a particular challenge for Harpole in their own individual way.

Also of note are the letters from Miss Foxberrow to her sister, Felicity, commenting on Harpole and the various developments at the school. These too are wonderfully humorous, revealing something of Miss Foxberrow as a character and her growing admiration for the Temporary Head. Finally, on the personal front, there are the notes from Harpole to his fiancée, Edith, in which he relates the potential theft of a missing spanner and the subsequent lack of interest in the case from the police – another source of amusement in this sharply satirical tale.

In summary, this is a marvellously funny book that perfectly captures the preoccupations and absurdities of state-funded education in the early 1970s. A period piece imbued with nostalgia.

My copy of The Harpole Report was published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Death in White Pyjamas and Death Knows No Calendar by John Bude

Two highly entertaining Golden Age mysteries for the price of one here, lovingly reissued the British Library in one combined volume as part of their Crime Classics series. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

Death in White Pyjamas (1944) is one of those lovely country house mysteries where everyone is a potential suspect, and the crime itself involves several unexpected twists. There is a wonderful theatrical quality to the narrative, partly because all the leading players are connected to the Beaumont, a modest repertory theatre off London’s West End. 

The theatre is largely financed by Sam Richardson, a generous, amiable businessman with an interest in the cultural arts. Having made his fortune in biscuits, Sam is using his money to prop up the Beaumont, endeavouring to broaden the audience and strengthen its reputation. Leading the creative side of the venture is theatrical director, Basil Barnes, a somewhat slippery character at heart. Nevertheless, despite his rather superior manner, Basil is very good at his job, frequently coaxing excellent performances from his diverse and temperamental cast.

Sam was pleasant to everybody. Basil was condescending. He always looked on actors and actresses, as he had explained to Mr. Richardson, as so much raw material, only some of it was rawer than the rest. (p. 19)

The action takes place in the summer as the members of the company gather together for initial rehearsals at Old Knolle, Sam’s country retreat. Rather conveniently, Basil has just purchased a cottage nearby, which he is in the process of refurbishing with the help of Deidre Lehaye, the talented stage designer who also works at the Beaumont. Deirdre too is quite the character. Cynical, provocative and barbed, she likes nothing more than to make mischief for other people, finding and exploiting their weaknesses for her own personal gain.

Deirdre smiled lazily. She loved discovering the chinks in other people’s armour and shooting her pretty feathered darts through the cracks. But Angela was easy, so very easy. It was much more fun drawing a bead on Basil because his armour, forged of a colossal self-conceit, was of a far tighter fit. In fact she often wondered if he appreciated her attempts to wound him. (p. 28)

Also present at the house are Angela, the innocent young ingenue from the provinces – one of Basil’s ‘discoveries’; Clara, the rather demanding established actress; Willy, the seasoned actor with a gambling habit; and Rudolph, the aspiring playwright who also happens to be Clara’s nephew.

Interestingly, the crime itself doesn’t take place until we’re about halfway through the novel, giving readers a chance to spend plenty of time with all the characters before one of them is dispatched. During a particularly eventful night, a body in white pyjamas is discovered by the lake at Old Knolle, prompting an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death.

Bude has a lot of fun playing with some familiar character types here, and there are several potential motives for murder swirling around in the mix from blackmail to revenge to various jealousies. Once the identity of the victim becomes clear, it isn’t too difficult to work out who might have committed the deadly act. What’s more interesting, perhaps, is the unravelling of events leading up to the death. In other words, how the murder was carried out and the underlying reasons behind it.

In summary then, Death in White Pyjamas is a most enjoyable mystery with a theatrical twist – a story of late-night assignations, midnight wanderings and secrets under wraps.

Death Knows No Calendar (1942), is another hugely entertaining novel – a locked-room mystery with a devilishly clever twist. As with Death in White Pyjamas, the whodunit element of the crime is pretty easy to figure out, but the howdunit proves much trickier for the investigators to unravel. 

The setting for this one is Beckwood, the sort of village where everyone knows everyone else’s movements. Central to the narrative are John and Lydia Arundel, a married couple who live at the Oasts – a property incorporating an artist’s studio where Lydia paints portraits. John, by contrast, seems content to live on Lydia’s money, his former career on the stage having stalled some years earlier. Nevertheless, he retains the superficial charm of an actor, something that is noted by at least one other resident of Beckwood.

He’d never made a name for himself and he’d certainly made no money. His marriage with Lydia had hauled him at a single pull out of obscurity and poverty and set him up in Beckwood as a person of some consequence. Not that Arundel was a bad mixer or in any way a snob. On the contrary, he went out of his way to be pleasant to everybody in the parish. But that was just the point—this affability was not natural, it was assumed, cultivated, a part of the actor’s stock-in-trade. (pp. 231–232)

As the novel opens, the Arundels are hosting a party to christen their new bar, a traditional Edwardian-style saloon recently installed in the couple’s home. All the movers and shakers of Beckwood are there. The local rector, Peter Swale-Reid, clearly has some history with Lydia – a flamboyant woman who has attracted multiple admirers over the years. Stanley Hawkinge is another of the host’s casualties – a man who secretly carries a torch for Lydia in a kind of silent devotion. Also present are the party are Lady Dingle and her beautiful niece, Honoraria; and Major Boddy, a retired military man and lover of detective fiction. 

Late one afternoon, Lydia is found dead in her studio which had been locked from the inside – a practice she always observed when working. At first, the presence of a gun suggests suicide; however, as more details emerge, the possibility of foul play cannot be ruled out – at least for Major Boddy, who, with his enthusiasm for crime fiction, is something of an amateur sleuth. When the Coroner brings in a verdict of suicide, Boddy remains somewhat doubtful. So, ably assisted by former batman, Syd Gammon, the Major sets out to investigate the circumstances surrounding Lydia’s death to solve the puzzle himself.

Unsurprisingly, several suspects emerge, all with potential reasons for wanting Lydia silenced or out of the way. However, the real joy of this mystery lies not in the unravelling of the crime but in the manner of Major Boddy’s investigations. There’s plenty of amusing military-style banter here, particularly between the Major and his batman, Syd.

The morning after the inquest Major Boddy came to a decision. Breakfast over, he crossed into the lounge and rang for Syd Gammon.

“Look here, Gammon,” he said abruptly. “Going to take you into my confidence. Need your help.”

“Very good, sir.”

“What was your opinion of the Coroner’s verdict, eh? Don’t be tactful. I want the truth. Understand?” “Yes, sir. Quite, sir. Well, sir, it’s my fixed opinion that Mrs. Arundel was done in by second party.” “Ha! Exactly, Gammon! Now the question is, will you fall into line with me in an attempt to expose this second party, eh? Investigate on the Q.T., what? Keep our suspicions under our hat.”

“Very good, sir.” (p. 303)

Major Boddy makes a most engaging and perceptive sleuth as he goes about gathering evidence before sharing the results of his enquiries with the police. He’s a decent chap – kindly, tactful and level-headed, especially as various secrets begin to emerge.

All in all, this is another splendid mystery from Jon Bude – a tale of secret meetings, shifting identities and a smattering of romance. Ideal comfort reading in these strange, unsettling times.