Tag Archives: UK

Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey

The British writer Jane Hervey wrote the bulk of Vain Shadow – a sharply-observed portrait of a wealthy English family at a time of mourning – in the early fifties. The draft novel then lay in a drawer for ten years before being polished up by Jane and submitted to Gollancz for publication – the book itself came out in 1963. Now it is available again for a whole new generation of readers to enjoy courtesy of this Persephone edition published in 2015.

The narrative arc is a relatively straightforward one – that said, it is not without its small moments of drama. In essence, the Winthorpes gather together at their Derbyshire country estate following the death of the Colonel – the head of the family – from an unspecified but not unexpected illness. Over the four days that follow, members of this family work through the ramifications of the Colonel’s passing, make arrangements for his funeral and debate the contents of his will. Hervey maps out her story in four clearly delineated sections, each one covering a particular day and the events contained therein.

Right from the start, Colonel Winthorpe is painted as a tyrant, a man who made the life of his wife a terrible misery, having barked at her, glared at her and grumbled to her for over fifty years. Mrs Winthrope’s first thought on being informed of the death of her husband is one of relief – relief at no longer having to kiss him goodnight at the end of each day. Perhaps now she can have that longed-for peach bathroom, something her husband would never have agreed to if he were still alive.

Also joining the family gathering are the Winthorpes’ three middle-aged sons, Jack, Harry and Brian, together with the Colonel’s adult granddaughter, Joanna, who was brought up by the Winthorpes following the early death of her mother.

Hervey really excels at capturing the dynamics and tensions – both spoken and unspoken – between the various members of this family, particularly the three brothers, Jack, Harry and Brian. Jack, the eldest of the three, is married to a much younger woman, a rather spirited actress by the name of Laurine. In spite of her efforts to fit in with the Winthorpe family, Laurine had not won the Colonel’s approval, certainly by the time of her wedding – a factor which now leaves Jack wondering whether his father might have cut him out of the final version of his will.

While Jack is conscious of his position as the Colonel’s eldest son (and therefore the one who ought to be in control of the funeral arrangements), it is Harry, the punctilious middle child, who appears to be running the show. As the only unmarried son, Harry has lived at the family home for the duration of his life, managing the Winthorpe estate for his father, particularly so in recent years. Brian, the brightest and most perceptive of the three brothers, is somewhat frustrated by Harry’s exacting ways – so much so that this creates further pressure at what is already a stressful time.

On the night that subsequently turned out to be the Colonel’s last, Mrs Winthorpe, Jack and Harry had decided not to stay by the old man’s side as he lay in bed. (Brian and Joanna were in their own homes at the time, therefore not present at the estate.) When they gather together over breakfast the next day, all three are keen to justify their decision, both internally to themselves and externally to others. In this scene, Jack is talking to the Colonel’s nurse, the only person who was with the old man at the moment of his death.

Jack turned to her: ‘You must be very tired,’ he said, with immense concern. ‘I do hope you managed all right? You could always have come for one of us, you know.’

Harry looked up sharply. There it was again – just like Mother – what was the use of agreeing not to sit up if they were all going to start feeling guilty about it now?

‘I managed all right, thank you,’ Nurse said stiffly. It was not the first time she had been alone with someone while they were dying. No doubt it would not be the last. Didn’t they think her capable? (p. 25)

While most families would mourn the death of their patriarch, there is little in the way of expressions of grief or sadness here. In fact, the only people who seem to show any respect for the Colonel are the housekeeper, Upjohn, and the other members of staff employed by the estate – it is they who appear to know what is required of them at this time.

One of the things Hervey does very effectively in this novel is to move seamlessly between each character’s spoken words and their own private thoughts. In several instances, these two things are the direct opposites of one another, such that virtually every member of the immediate family seems to be thinking something entirely different to what they are saying. It all makes for quite an amusing read, even though a man’s death is central to the story.

There is humour too in many of the details Hervey includes to flesh out her characters, illustrating as she does so the petty grievances and resentments simmering away between various members of the family. Harry’s insistence on the fact that his eggs must be boiled for exactly four minutes, no more and no less; Laurine’s desire to wear an ostentatious diamond brooch to the funeral, possibly on her dress or maybe on her hat; the way some individuals secretly covet particular items from the Colonel’s personal collection of trinkets as they go through the process of divvying them up. There are many more. In this scene, Jack’s frustration at his mother’s concerns about the funeral flowers threatens to boil over as they make their way out the dining room – Mrs Winthorpe is the first to speak.

‘…Still you’re really satisfied with what you got?’

‘Yes, yes,’ Jack broke in. Good Lord, why on earth couldn’t she get a move on! Standing in the doorway like that holding up the traffic (and he was at the end of the queue). One felt such a fool, with Upjohn hovering about in the background like a black crow. (p. 98)

Alongside the Colonel and Mrs Winthorpe, there is another deeply troubled marriage at the heart of this novel, that between Joanna and her devious husband, Tony. The personification of charm on the outside, Tony is at heart a cruel and self-centred man, forever bullying and admonishing Joanna in private while publicly feigning to be nothing but sweetness and light. For two years, Joanna has been subjected to a litany of complaints from Tony, from the way in which she manages their home to her desire for a little independence now and again. Their relationship has been stifled by Tony’s displays of disappointment and resentment.

For two years she tried to be what Tony wanted, listened to his complaints, tried to do better, failed, tried again, failed…round and round liked a squirrel in a cage, day after day. And at night in bed she cried, after he had finished with her body and she was alone again. (p. 61)

Virtually all the Winthorpes have been taken in by Tony’s charisma and public performance – only Brian, and possibly Colonel Winthorpe himself, have not been entirely fooled.

Colonel Winthorpe’s death marks a definite turning point for Joanna. While it may be too late for Mrs Winthorpe to break free from the spectre of her husband’s tyranny, for Joanna the situation is very different. She is young enough and strong enough to move forward – to carve out a new life for herself in a relationship built on love.

Joanna saw the weariness on her grandmother’s face, and realised that she was too tired, after all these years, to protest any more. The complaints, displeasures, threats not always veiled, which had closed in on her day by day, month by month, year by year; throughout that long, long marriage, had gradually stifled even the faint tentative fluttering she might once have made towards freedom, while she had still been young enough and strong enough to escape. Now, she was beaten. (p. 180)

I really enjoyed Vain Shadow as a darkly comic insight into dysfunctional family dynamics at a time of heightened stress – there is much jostling for position and saving face going on here. As a novel, it also has some interesting things to say about ways in which women’s lives were often controlled by the men of the family back in the 1950s – the bullying husbands and disapproving elders seeking to put women in their place and restrict their enjoyment of life. Even Harry tries to interfere in Joanna’s future fearing a potential scandal if her marriage to Tony breaks up.

In some ways, Vain Shadow reminded me of Janet McNeill’s Tea at Four O’ Clock, another novel where the recently deceased makes their presence felt on the remaining members of the family. Both of these novels are very, very good, if a little claustrophobic at times – deliberately so, I think.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Mollie Panter-Downes was The New Yorker’s England correspondent for the duration of the Second World War and well beyond. During the war years, she produced a significant output for the journal, comprising a series of fortnightly ‘Letters from London’ and twenty-one short stories (roughly one every three months). Luckily for us, these insightful stories have been collected together in this beautiful edition from Persephone Books, initially issued in 1999.

In essence, these are stories of ordinary British people – mostly women – trying to cope with the day-to-day realities of life on the Home Front. While the war alters the lives of all the characters we encounter here, the battleground itself is elsewhere – off-camera so to speak. Instead, we see women trying to accommodate evacuees from the city, making pyjamas for soldiers overseas, or doing their best to maintain some degree of normality around the home in the face of constrained resources.

Panter-Downes’ style – understated, perceptive and minutely observed – makes for a subtly powerful effect. She is particularly adept at capturing the range of emotions experienced by her characters, from loneliness and longing to fear and self-pity.

In This Flower, Safety (1940), Miss Ewing, a wealthy lady from London, tries to escape the horrors of war by fleeing to a seaside town only to discover that even the most sedate of places can feel somewhat exposed. In her heart of hearts, Miss Ewing knows that her life will never be the same again.

Two or three of the stories touch upon one of the major consequences of war for those left behind – the need for families to accommodate distant relations, friends or evacuees in an effort to do their bit. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this often leads to tensions as individuals from different classes or social spheres try to get on with one another while living under the same roof. In other instances, it is merely a clash of personalities and personal habits.

In one of my favourite stories from the collection, Mrs. Ramsay’s War (1940), the titular character is finding her house guests – the ebullient Mrs Parmenter and her two Pekingese dogs – rather difficult to bear.

‘But how we shall revel in the spring when it comes!’ cried Mrs. Parmenter. ‘There! Don’t their brave little faces give you fresh hope?’ Mrs. Ramsay felt that it would take more than a few snowdrops to give her fresh hope. It would take something really big, like the back end of a Daimler loaded with Parmenter luggage going rapidly towards London. (p. 17)

It’s a beautifully observed story, one that also demonstrates the author’s talent for dry humour and wit. Combined Operations (1942) explores a similar theme as a young couple, whose London flat has been destroyed in a raid, outstay their welcome when they ‘visit’ friends in the country.

Other stories of evacuees, most notably, In Clover (1940), expose the snobbery and prejudices of the upper-middle classes. In this piece, the refined Mrs Fletcher is repulsed by the physical appearance of the Clark family, the dishevelled evacuees she is to accommodate in her pristine home.

She had known that her guests were coming from one of the poorest parts of London and it was natural they should look dingy, but she had imagined a medium dinginess that would wear off with one or two good scrubbings and a generous handout of gingham pinafores. The dinginess of the Clarks, which seemed to have soaked in far deeper than just their skins, was a setback, but Mrs. Fletcher met it with her most charming smile. She even drew one of the children towards her as she talked, and stood with an arm round his bony shoulders, trying not to shudder, thinking that she must take a good hot bath before she went anywhere near the nursery. (pp. 22-23)

Right from the start, it is patently obvious that Mrs Fletcher and Mrs Clark have very little in common. Unfortunately for Mrs Fletcher, her belief that money can solve almost every difficulty one encounters in life proves to be somewhat misguided.

There is a strong sense of loneliness running through many of these stories, augmented by feelings of isolation, inadequacy and loss. Panter-Downes is perhaps at her best when she mines this territory by delving more deeply into her characters’ emotions.

In Goodbye, My Love (1941), one of the best stories in the collection, a young woman must face the agonising countdown to her husband’s departure for war, the clock in the flat a constant reminder of their rapidly diminishing time together. This excellent story comes with a sting in its tail. Just as the woman is coming to terms with the absence of her husband, something unexpected happens – and what should be a happy occasion is instead tinged with anxiety.

It’s the Reaction (1943) is in a similar vein to the previous piece. In this, my favourite story in the collection, a lonely young woman is buoyed by the camaraderie of war when she finally gets to know her neighbours as they take shelter together during the Blitz. However, once the sequence of air raids is over, life in Miss Birch’s apartment block reverts to normal – and when she tries to rekindle the new friendships, Miss Birch soon discovers the fickle nature of relationships, even in times of war.

Mrs Chalmers, if she and Miss Birch met in the lift, said, ‘Do you know, I’ve been meaning and meaning to ring you,’ and at the back of her worried baby eyes and plucked eyebrows, Miss Birch could see the thought forming that one of these days they must really ask the old girl over, fill her up with gin, do something about it. After a while, even that thought disappeared. Mrs Chalmers simply said ‘Hello’ and smiled vaguely, as though Miss Birch were someone she had once met at a party. (pp. 139-140)

Other stories touch on the sense of absence or loss that can characterise a country at war. I loved this line from Fin de Siècle (1943) in which a young couple reflect on their friends’ house – now standing empty and forsaken following the occupants’ departure.

They had gone, and the integrity, the personality of the house had splintered like matchwood. (p.73)

The advent of social change which accompanied the war is another prominent theme, particularly in the later pieces. In Cut Down the Trees (1943), Mrs Walsingham, a member of the English gentry, opens her home to accommodate forty Canadian soldiers in support of the war effort. Interestingly though, it is not Mrs Walsingham who struggles to get to grips with a different way of life, but her elderly maid, Dossie – a woman who remains very fearful of change. In essence, Dossie bemoans the loss of the old guard, the disappearance of the caps and aprons who served the house and maintained order. This new practice of her mistress taking dinner in the kitchen will come to no good; the passing of old traditions and customs is something to regret rather than embrace.

She disliked the innovation intensely. It was all part and parcel of the unwarranted bad joke, the conspiracy against Dossie’s way of life, which they called a war and which had taken first the menservants and then the girls one by one, which had stopped the central heating, made a jungle of the borders and a pasture of the lawns, marooned the two old women in a gradually decaying house with forty Canadians, and made Mrs. Walsingham stop dressing for dinner. (pp. 149-150)

In Year of Decision (1944), an upper-middle-class couple try hard to preserve their old rituals however pointless they seem to be. The wife in particular struggles to keep on top of the house, a situation that leaves her feeling both frazzled and exhausted. The husband, on the other hand, longs for the action and excitement of war – instead, he finds himself confined to a Government office on account of his specialist knowledge, a valuable commodity in a time of crisis. In a sense, some aspects of this story feel like a bit of a rehearsal for One Fine Day, Panter-Downes’ wonderful novel about a couple adjusting to a new way of life following the end of the Second World War.

Oher stories in this fine collection feature a young woman facing up to pregnancy and the prospect of motherhood in the absence of her husband, a mistress who realises that she may never discover if her married lover is injured or killed in action, and the various members of a sewing circle as they gossip and bicker about all manner of subjects.

All in all, these are beautifully observed vignettes, shot through with humour, understanding, insight and humanity. Recommended for readers interested in the British way of life in the 1940s.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven is published by Persephone Books, personal copy.

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

Of the Muriel Spark novels I’ve read so far, Loitering with Intent is perhaps the most playful. In some respects, there are similarities with Memento Mori, Spark’s wonderful social comedy on the challenges of ageing – another vehicle for her razor-sharp wit coupled with a dash of the macabre. I had a lot of fun with Loitering, a marvellous slice of metafiction about the work of writers and the fine line between fiction and reality.

Loitering is narrated by Fleur Talbot, now a seasoned author with a long and successful career under her belt. In order to compile her autobiography, Fleur looks back on her early days as an aspiring writer in the mid-20th century, a time when she was eager to gain a foothold in the literary world.

The setting is London, the year 1949. Fleur takes a job working as a secretary for Sir Quentin Oliver, a rather odd character who runs the Autobiographical Association, a ‘special circle’ designed to support a small number of individuals in the production of their memoirs. By night, Fleur toils away on her debut novel, Warrender Chase, a dark and sinister story which she claims to be a work of fiction. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop her from taking inspiration from the world around her.

I was finding it extraordinary how, throughout all the period I had been working on the novel, right from Chapter One, characters and situations, images and phrases that I absolutely needed for the book simply appeared as if from nowhere into my range of perception. I was a magnet for experiences that I needed. Not that I reproduced them photographically and literally. I didn’t for a moment think of portraying Sir Quentin as he was. What gave me great happiness was his gift to me of the finger-tips of his hands touching each other, and, nestling among the words, as he waved towards the cabinet, ‘In there are secrets,’ the pulsating notion of how much he wanted to impress, how greatly he desired to believe in himself. (pp. 7-8)

Sir Quentin insists that the work Fleur is to undertake at the Association is top secret, to the extent that the opening chapters of the autobiographies are kept in a locked cabinet in his London apartment. It is alleged that the contents of the memoirs are incendiary, full of revelations that ought not to be revealed for several years in case they cause distress to certain persons still alive. In reality, however, the drafts are rather dull and poorly written. As a consequence, Fleur is encouraged by Sir Quentin to spruce up (and maybe even spice up) the texts, giving her licence to act as an editor of sorts as she goes along.

The members of the Autobiographical Association (AA) are an eclectic bunch. There are six of them in total including a French Baroness of indeterminate age, a defrocked priest who has experienced a loss of faith, and an elaborately dressed woman who was raised at the Czar of Russia’s court. Another writer might have chosen to expand on the lives of these characters in more detail, but Spark decides – rather wisely in my opinion – to keep the focus on Fleur and her immediate world.

As Fleur goes about her work at the AA, she begins to suspect that Sir Quentin is involved in some kind of sinister racket – possibly one that involves blackmail, although the financial circumstances don’t seem to fit. He appears to be quite wealthy while most of the members of the Association are not; some of them are actually quite hard up.

To complicate matters further, the boundaries between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ begin to blur. Some of the people Fleur encounters in her job start to resemble characters from her novel, Warrender Chase. Certain events from her book play out in real life. Particular phrases reverberate and echo through each story as life begins to imitate art.

In my febrile state of creativity, I saw before my eyes how Sir Quentin was revealing himself chapter by chapter to be a type and consummation of Warrender Chase, my character. I could see that the members of the Autobiographical Association were about to become his victims, psychological Jack the Ripper as he was. (p. 42)

To reveal many more details of the plot might spoil things, I think. Suffice it to say that Spark has a lot of fun in playing out the rest of the novel, a story that involves theft, duplicity and a dash of intrigue.

There are some brilliant characters here. Sir Quentin is quite clearly a crank and a terrible snob, in thrall to a social class that is rapidly fading away.

Fleur herself is a very engaging narrator – funny, independent and a little bit absurd. She is very protective of her novel, Warrender Chase, even though she believes at the time that it may never be published. I don’t think we’re meant to take her entirely seriously, especially as there appears to be an element of unreliability in her narration. Maybe trying to disentangle ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’ is all part of the fun here.

Sir Quentin’s elderly mother, Lady Edwina, is another marvellous creation – complete with her glamorous tea gowns and immaculately painted nails, she has a penchant for the dramatic entrance. In spite of the fact that Sir Quentin and his housekeeper, the rather bossy Beryl Tims, believe Lady Edwina to be a little senile, Fleur quite correctly intuits that there is nothing wrong with this lady’s mind. Far from it; she is quite sharp with a wicked sense of humour to boot, all of which makes for some interesting interactions with Mrs Tims.

In this scene, Lady Edwina enters a meeting of the AA ‘as if it were a drawing-room tea party, holding up the proceedings with the blackmail of her very great age and of her newly revealed charm’. It’s a real delight.

She knew some of them by name, enquired of their families so solicitously that it hardly mattered that most of them were long since dead, and when Mrs Tims entered with the tea and soda buns on a tray, exclaimed, ‘Ah, Tims! What delightful things have you brought us?’ Beryl Tims was amazed to see her sitting there, wide awake, with her powdered face and her black satin tea dressed freshly spoiled at the neck and shoulders with a slight face-powder overflow. Mrs Tims was furious but she put on her English Rose simper and placed the tray with solicitude on the table beside old Edwina, who was at that moment enquiring of the unfrocked Father, ‘Are you the Rector of Wandsworth in civilian clothing?’ (pp. 30-31)

All in all, Loitering with Intent is another excellent novel by Muriel Spark, full of ideas and knowing nods to the power of fiction. (I find her a consistently inventive writer.) There are stories nested within other stories here: Fleur’s recollections of her time at the AA; the biographies of the AA members, ultimately augmented by various developments in the book; Fleur’s novel Warrender Chase, of which we learn more as Loitering unfolds.

I’ll finish with a final quote from Fleur as she reflects on her work as a writer, an observation that seems just as applicable to Spark herself.

When I first started writing people used to say my novels were exaggerated. They never were exaggerated, merely aspects of realism. (p. 65) 

I am a little early for Ali’s #ReadingMuriel2018 schedule, but you can discover more about her project to celebrate Spark’s centenary here.

Loitering with Intent is published by Virago; personal copy.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

I have written before about my love of Barbara Pym’s novels, populated as they are by ‘excellent’, well-meaning women, amiable clergymen, fusty academics and one or two more spiky characters – usually female. It’s a world that seems at once both rather absurd and strangely believable, full of the sharply-observed details of a genteel English community in the 1950s. Jane and Prudence is another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life.

In this novel, first published in 1953, we are introduced to Jane Cleveland, the forty-one-year-old wife of Nicholas Cleveland, an Anglican minister, and her close friend Prudence Bates, a twenty-nine-year-old spinster who lives on her own in London. (The two women first met one another at Oxford Uni where Prudence was a pupil in Jane’s English Literature class.)

Towards the beginning of the novel, Jane, Nicholas and their eighteen-year-old daughter, Flora, are in the process of moving to a new parish in the country, clearly hoping that they will be greeted by a gaggle of eager parishioners. While Jane is amiable and well-intentioned, she is less than ideally suited to the role of a clergyman’s wife, liable as she is to mild indiscretions and a touch too much honesty. Her frumpy, ill-matched clothes give her the appearance of a farmer’s wife all set to feed the chickens, and her down-to-earth style means she lacks some of the social graces of her predecessor, the wife of the much-revered Canon Pritchard. Nevertheless, Jane and Nicholas love one another dearly, and they seem happy enough in their new home. If only they didn’t have to get embroiled in those petty disagreements amongst the more opinionated members of the parish council, then everything would be fine.

Jane’s real area of interest is in finding a desirable match for her friend, the bright, elegant and relatively independent Prudence. Much to Jane’s dismay, Prudence seems to have slipped into a sequence of unsatisfactory, shallow love affairs – mostly with unsuitable men.

As the novel opens, the primary object of Prudence’s attention is her boss, the rather remote academic/publisher, Arthur Grampian. For some months now, Prudence has been worshipping Dr Grampian from afar in spite of the fact that he is married and entirely unsuitable for her. (In reality, she is far too good for him.) Jane, however, has other ideas for Prudence, especially once she meets Fabian Driver, a handsome if somewhat vain young widower who lives in the village. In this scene, Jane tries to casually mention the existence of Fabian to Pru without appearing to have an agenda for doing so. Prudence, however, intuits quite clearly what Jane is hoping to seed by the comment…

Jane was too wise to appear anything but casual in her tone as she mentioned this eligible widower. She knew that the pride of even young spinsters is a delicate thing and that Prudence was especially sensitive. There must be no hint that she was trying to ‘bring them together’.

‘Yes – you said something about him eating the hearts of his victims,’ said Prudence, equally casual. She realised that Jane might have some absurd idea in her mind about ‘bringing them together’, but determined not to let her see that she suspected or that she entertained any hopes herself. So they were both satisfied and neither was really deceived for a moment. (pp.74-75)

In time, Prudence pays a visit to the Clevelands, the village whist drive being touted as the main social attraction of the weekend. Here she meets Fabian, and the pair slip away for a quiet drink together at the local pub. With her natural distrust of good-looking men, Prudence is a little wary of Fabian at first, but after a few dinners and trips to the theatre back in London, their relationship soon starts to develop.

Fabian himself is a very interesting character, perhaps more complex than he appears at first sight. I love this quote about his late wife, Constance, a passage that says as much about Fabian as it does about his former partner.

She had been a gentle, faded-looking woman, some years older than Fabian. She had been pretty when he had married her and had brought him a comfortable amount of money as well as a great deal of love. He had been unprepared for her death and outraged by it, for it had happened suddenly, without a long illness to prepare him, when he had been deeply involved in one of the little romantic affairs which he seemed to need, either to bolster up his self-respect or for some more obvious reason. The shock of it all had upset him considerably, and although there had been several women eager to console him, he had abandoned all his former loves, fancying himself more in the role of an inconsolable widower than as a lover. (p. 56)

As the story plays out, there are some unexpected developments, one or two of which show that we can find solace and a form of love with the most unlikely of potential partners.

Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. There is an opportunity to revisit the formidable Miss Doggett and her sharp-witted companion, Jessie Morrow, a wonderful pair of characters who were first created by Pym for her delightful social comedy, Crampton Hodnet. (The novel was originally written in the late 1930s but published posthumously in 1985.) There is also the gossipy Mrs Glaze, a sort of daily woman/help who seems to enjoy busying herself around the Clevelands’ house. Her observations on the comings and goings in the village are a real delight. Finally, there are Prudence’s work colleagues, the rather parochial Miss Clothier and Miss Trapnell, both of whom appear to be more interested in trying to take the moral high ground over their time of arrival at the office than in the duties they are to carry out once they get there.

Pym’s trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. In this passage, she manages to convey Miss Doggett’s self-assumed superiority over the other ladies who help out at the church while also describing their headwear.

It seemed that there was a particular kind of hat worn by ladies attending Parochial Church Council meetings – a large beret of neutral-coloured felt pulled well down to one side. Both Mrs Crampton and Mrs Mayhew wore hats of this type, as did Miss Doggett, though hers was of a superior material, a kind of plush decorated with a large jewelled pin. Indeed, there seemed to be little for the ladies to do but observe each other’s hats, for their voices were seldom heard. (p. 143)

While there is no curate here for the ladies of the village to fuss over and cherish, Pym does offer us a kind of curate substitute, the rather charming Edward Lyall, the local MP. Lyall proves to be an admirable replacement for the young innocent when he captures the villagers’ attention at the whist drive.

All in all, Jane and Prudence is another marvellous novel from Barbara Pym. Once again, she gives us an insight into the lives of her characters, women in particular, and their desire to feel valued.

In many respects, several of Pym’s central protagonists are women living on the fringes, their lives feeling somewhat unsatisfactory and unfulfilled – almost as if they have become accustomed to waiting in the wings, observing others from a distance. Nevertheless, by the end of her novels, one usually gets the sense that these individuals are somewhat better off, more content with the world and their place within in it. I certainly feel that’s the case here with Prudence – and with Mildred in Excellent Women, too.

Jane and Prudence is published by Virago Books; personal copy.

Two Recent Reads – Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler and The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

Something a little different from me today – a few thoughts on a couple of recent reads, both of which could be loosely classified as crime fiction.

Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (1938)

I really enjoyed this old-school spy mystery by the respected British writer Eric Ambler. (You can find my review of another of his books, the hugely entertaining crime caper Topkapi/The Light of Day, here).

Like some of Ambler’s other novels, Epitaph for a Spy features a relatively ordinary if somewhat naïve man who, through no real fault of his own, finds himself caught up in a mysterious network of intrigue and illegal activities. The man in question here is Josef Vadassy, a languages teacher and Hungarian refugee of uncertain status, who gets into trouble while taking pictures during his holiday in the South of France.

As it turns out, the reel of film that Vadassy has been using to test various photographic techniques also happens to contain images of covert naval defences in a nearby town – something our protagonist is completely unaware of as he submits the reel for development. When the chemist who develops the film sees nature of these pictures, he alerts the police and Vadassy is promptly picked up for questioning. (Importantly, the novel was published in 1938 when Europe was poised on the brink of war, hence the seriousness of the situation.)

Luckily (or maybe unluckily) for our protagonist, the police soon come to the conclusion that Vadassy almost certainly didn’t take the incriminating photographs himself – he’s far too gauche for that. Instead, it seems likely that someone else has been spying on the naval defences, someone with an identical camera to Vadassy’s as the two pieces of equipment must have been switched at some point (probably by accident) – the most obvious cause of the issue being some kind of mix-up between cameras at Vadassy’s place of residence, the local hotel. So, Vadassy is sent back to the Réserve with strict instructions to follow the authorities’ orders in the hope of uncovering the real spy. Should he fail to do so, the outcome almost certainly means deportation for our protagonist, effectively destroying his whole world.

Vadassy is supplied with a list of the hotel’s occupants to ‘investigate’ with a particular view to establishing details of any cameras in their possession – but the fun really starts when Vadassy decides to use his own somewhat misguided initiative to root out the culprit without arousing their suspicions.

Among the guests at the hotel we have a typically British major and his mysterious wife, an idiosyncratic Frenchman who proves to be very indiscreet, and a young brother and sister combo from America who seem to have something to hide – I found this couple’s backstory rather hard to believe, but that’s a fairly minor quibble in the scheme of things. There are more potential suspects too, of varying European nationalities – twelve in total including the Swiss hotel manager and his wife.

For the most part, the characters are interesting and well-drawn – I particularly liked Herr Schimler, a man who turns out to have had a very eventful past. There are a few red herrings along the way as Vadassy’s suspicions flit from one character to the next, all of which help to maintain engagement.

The moon had risen and I could see the outlines of the clumps of bamboo canes below. A little to the right of them there was a patch of beach. As I watched, the shadows moved and I heard a woman’s laugh. It was a soft, agreeable sound, half-amused, half-tender. A couple came up into the patch of light. I saw the man stop and pull the woman towards him. Then he took her head in his hands and kissed her eyes and mouth. It was the unshaven Frenchman and his blonde. (p. 47)

All in all, this is a very enjoyable mystery with a clear resolution at the finish. In a sense, it becomes a race against time for Vadassy as he strives to flush out the spy before he is due back at work – both his job and his right to remain in France are at risk.

In his review of this novel, Max describes the story as being akin to a classic country house crime novel, which seems like a very apt description to me.

I read this novel over the sunny Bank Holiday weekend at the beginning of May, and it proved to be a fine choice. A nice match for the gorgeous weather.

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes (1963)

This is the third novel I’ve read by Hughes, a somewhat underrated American crime writer from the mid-20th century. My reviews of the other two are here – In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse – both of which I would strongly recommend, the former in particular.

My comments on The Expendable Man are going to be fairly concise. Not because of any concerns about the quality of the novel – far from it, it’s actually extremely good! Rather, the less you know about it the better, especially if you think you might read it.

In brief, the initial set-up is as follows. Hugh Densmore, a young doctor, has borrowed his mother’s Cadillac to drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix for a family wedding. En route, he spots a rather dishevelled teenage girl waiting alone on a deserted section of the highway. Densmore wouldn’t usually stop for hitchhikers – but in his concern for the girl’s safety, he offers her a ride which she accepts.

From the word go, it’s clear that these two individuals come from very different social spheres; he is well-bred, educated and polite, while she is rough, brazen and resentful.

After a tense and uncomfortable journey, Densmore drops the girl at a bus station and assumes he will never hear from or see her again. But then things go drastically wrong for our protagonist, and his previously ordered world comes crashing down around him.

This is a brilliant story, one that may well cause you to question your own assumptions – and maybe expose some of your subconscious prejudices too. It’s also very gripping and beautifully written. Hughes has such a wonderful style; it’s a joy to read. Here’s how it opens.

Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the colour of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of dark horizon were discerned only by conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading bronze of the sun. (p. 3)

The Expendable Man was my choice for our May book group, and I’m happy to say that it went down very well. (We take turns to pick the book which makes for a fairly diverse selection across the year.) It’s very difficult to go into any details here without revealing spoilers, but suffice it to say that we had plenty to discuss — particularly about the social context at that time. (Some of the issues raised by the novel remain painfully relevant today.)

All in all, this is highly recommended – not just for lovers of crime fiction but for other readers too.

Epitaph for a Spy is published by Penguin, The Expendable Man is published by NYRB Classics – personal copies.

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

First published in 1947, A View of the Harbour was Elizabeth Taylor’s third novel, a beautifully-crafted story of the complications of life, love and family relationships, all set within a small, close-knit community. The setting is Newby, a sleepy, down-at-heel harbour town on the English coast a year or so after the end of WW2. In some ways, Newby reminds me of Hardborough, the fictional town in Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Bookshop, as it’s the sort of place where everyone – with one or two notable exceptions – knows everyone else’s business.

The town’s inhabitants are an interesting bunch. As ever with Elizabeth Taylor, each character is drawn with great care and attention to detail irrespective of whether they are likeable or not.

There is Beth Cabazon, the rather self-absorbed but amiable novelist, her husband, Robert, the local doctor, and the couple’s two children, twenty-year-old Prudence and five-year-old Stevie. Living next door to the Cazabons is Beth’s closest friend, Tory Foyle, a sophisticated and glamorous divorcee who finds life in Newby a little dull without her husband, Teddy. Then there is old Mrs Bracey, the longstanding proprietor of the town’s second-hand clothes shop, and her two daughters, Iris and Maisie. And finally (at least for now) there is Lily Wilson, the desperately lonely widow who lives above the local Waxworks Museum which she also runs for a living. This early picture of Lily goes a long way towards capturing the emptiness of her life, the feeling of fear and desolation as she contemplates yet another solitary night ahead.

When she saw the light swinging over the water she felt terror and desolation, the approach of the long evening through which she must coax herself with cups of tea, a letter to her brother in Canada or this piece of knitting she had dropped to the floor as she leant to the pane to watch Bertram, the harsh lace curtain against her cheek, the cottony, dusty smell of it setting her teeth on edge. (p. 13)

Into this mix comes Bertram Hemingway, a retired Naval Officer who intends to spend his time capturing the local scenery in a painting – ideally a magnificent view of the harbour which he hopes to leave behind as a memento of his visit. Bertram is lodging at The Anchor, the local pub where Iris Bracey works as a barmaid. Lily Wilson can be found there too, as she has started going to the pub just to avoid being home alone every evening – the eerie atmosphere created by the waxworks only adds to her anxiety.

Slowly but surely, Bertram comes into contact with virtually all of the town’s inhabitants, affecting their lives in subtle and not so subtle ways. At first, Lily Wilson wonders whether Bertram could be the answer to her loneliness, especially when he buys her drinks and offers to escort her home from the pub at closing time. However, while he may appear gallant on the outside, Bertram is most certainly not quite as caring on the inside. He has a selfish or self-centred streak – something Taylor carefully reveals to us as catches Bertram in a private moment.

He walked back to the pub, feeling very pleased with himself. Very tactfully he had done a great kindness. When he was kind to people he had to love them; but when he had loved them for a little while he wished only to be rid of them and so that he might free himself would not hesitate to inflict all the cruelties which his sensibility knew they could not endure. (p. 54)

Bertram, for his part, is more taken with Tory, whom he views as a bright and attractive woman – and, in time, as a possible future partner. With a view to settling down to a life of mutual understanding and companionship, Bertram proposes marriage to Tory, albeit in a fairly light-hearted but presumptuous way. Little does he know, at least at the beginning, that Tory is involved with Robert Cazabon, a furtive little affair that has been developing for some time – mostly in moments snatched here and there, supposedly away from the prying eyes of the town’s inhabitants. For the rather brisk and unappreciative Robert, Tory represents an escape from the crushing dullness and monotony of his life, the daily routine of patients, mealtimes and family responsibilities.

Luckily for Robert and Tory, Beth Cazabon is too wrapped up in the process of writing her novel to notice what is going on under her nose – the trials and tribulations of her fictional characters are of greater interest to Beth than those of her own husband and children. Prudence, however, is another matter. Considered slow or a little ‘touched’ by some of the locals, Prudence is actually much more perceptive than most people realise. She has seen Robert and Tory arriving home together, overheard snatches of conversation here and there – and naturally it doesn’t take long for her to put two and two together. Quite correctly as it turns out.

Also watching and absorbing the various goings-on in Newby is Mrs Bracey, a bawdy, gossipy woman who remains confined to her bed by a combination of disabilities and illnesses. With the arrival of spring, Mrs B asks to be moved to the upstairs bedroom where she can view the town from a suitable vantage point, supplementing the titbits of news she extracts from Iris on her return from the pub. Mrs Bracey is also wise to the true nature of Tory’s relationship with Robert, observing the situation with all its inherent deceit and secrecy.

So she watched them curtly greeting one another as they did this evening – Robert driving up in the car just as Tory rounded the corner – watched them exchange a few words, and Robert running his eye over Tory’s London clothes as if in disapproval; and she knew, as surely as if she could hear their words, how briefly, how cunningly, they laid their plans, their lives whittled down to those few moments when they could be together, a few words passing swiftly between them or their finger-tips contriving to brush together as if by accident, a glance, a touch, an innuendo in the presence of others – the rest darkness. (pp. 218-219)

As the story plays out, we wonder how far Tory will go in risking her friendship with Beth. Will her love (if it really is love) for Robert win out? Or will she make a clean break of it, choosing instead to save the feelings of her closest friend? You’ll have to read the novel to find out.

As I mentioned earlier, the characterisation is uniformly excellent here – not only the main players but several of the minor characters too. Prudence is spot on, mooning around all day with her two Siamese cats, equally disapproving of her father and Tory alike. Stevie, the Cazabons’ youngest daughter, is in a world of her own, forever speaking her mind or engaging in mild tantrums, much to Robert’s annoyance.

I also enjoyed the banter between the Braceys, especially the two daughters, Iris and Maisie, who have to share not only a room but a bed too. Iris, the daydreamer, longs for someone famous to come to Newby to liven up the place – Laurence Olivier, for example – while the more down-to-earth Maisie just wishes her mother would fade away and die. The need to care for old Mrs Bracey is stopping Maisie from having any kind of life of her own – she can’t even nip out to the cinema with one of the local lads for fear of her mother having a turn.

While the novel’s tone is quite dark at times, there are several moments of lightness too. Stevie’s outbursts are a delight, gloriously refreshing and unfiltered. Then there are the letters Tory receives from her young son, Edward, who is away at boarding school – little comic gems in their own right. Not to mention Mrs Bracey’s tendency towards indiscretion, especially when passing judgement on one of her neighbours.

I’ll finish with an example of one of the many things I loved about this novel – Taylor’s ability to rove around the town, capturing little sketches of various scenes as she goes. Here’s one of my favourites.

Lily ate fish and chips at the Mimosa Cafê, her book propped against a bottle of sauce. The fleet had come in and up at the market the floor was deep with fish, blue and black-barred, a mass of dinted silver, crimson-eyed. At the Anchor Iris was busy for once, with not a minute to wipe down the wet counter or to collect glasses. All over the harbour waters was a frenzied screaming of gulls. Mrs Bracey waited with impatience for her dinner and for her daughter to return at closing-time. Smells of stew crept round the kitchen. She trembled with exasperation, imagining the greyish meat slipping off the bone, the rings of onions, the pearl-barley, the golden sequins of fat glinting on the surface. And she thought too of the jug of draught stout Iris would bring back and her hands plucked peevishly at the bed covers. (p.43)

Several other bloggers have reviewed this novel. You can find links to some of them in this post about Simon and Karen’s 1947 Club.

A View of the Harbour is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party presents a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes.

The novel follows the final twenty-four hours of a three-day shoot, a landmark event in the social calendar of the Nettlebys and their immediate set. Our host is Sir Randolph Nettleby, a landowner and member of the old guard, one who values the long-established traditions of rural life and the gentlemanly spirit of the shoot. In this capacity Sir Randolph is ably assisted by his wife, Minnie, a slightly foolish but charming woman with a great appetite for socialising – she is the perfect hostess for the formal dinners and elaborate lunches which accompany the main attraction.

Present at the party are several esteemed guests, the rich and successful, the beautiful and decorative. All of these individuals appear to know one another quite well as they are all part of the same social set. There is Minnie’s bridge partner, Sir Reuben Hergesheimer, a well-travelled and wealthy financier who now views England as his adopted home; the rather pretentious and stuffy Bob Lilburn and his beautiful wife, Olivia, one of the most sensitive and sympathetic characters in the group; and Lionel Stephens, a very successful young barrister who has fallen for the lovely Olivia and all her charms. Also in attendance are the Nettlebys’ rather disapproving but practical daughter-in-law, Ida, and her four children, Cicely, Marcus, Osbert and Violet. (Ida’s husband, John, is abroad on business.) Nineteen-year-old Cicely, a romantic at heart, flirts openly with another of the guests, Tibor Rakassyi, the dashing Hungarian aristocrat who promises to invite her to see his homeland in the forthcoming months. Lastly (at least among the upper classes) we have two of the most interesting characters in the book, the rather conceited and ultra-competitive Lord Gilbert Hartlip, widely known one of the best shots in England, and his highly spirited wife, Aline, a knowing woman who has enjoyed several affairs in recent years. Her latest lover, the vacuous Charles Farquhar, has also been invited to participate in the shoot.

Aline was a fairly demanding guest and if the presence of the handsome but stupid (in Sir Randolph’s view) Charles Farquhar would keep her quiet so that her husband could concentrate on his shooting, Sir Randolph was perfectly happy to ask him. Gilbert Hartlip was one of the best shots in England, if not the best of all, and it was a pleasure to see him in action – sometimes a bit of an anxiety as well, for he had some of the star performer’s temperament and could be very difficult if he thought he was not being given his dues share of the best places. (p. 13)

In addition to the cream of society, we also meet the various servants and workers responsible for the smooth running of the event. Chief among these is Glass, the head gamekeeper who manages the finer details of the shoot, issuing instructions to his team of beaters on how best to raise the pheasants and woodcock on the right flight paths for each ‘drive’. A little like Sir Randolph, Glass is another traditionalist, a man wedded to the ways of the land. He would like nothing better than for his son, Dan, to follow in his footsteps to become assistant gamekeeper at the estate; but Dan is bright and intelligent with a natural aptitude for science and nature. As a consequence, he is torn between staying at Nettleby to support his father and going to college to further his education, an endeavour Sir Randolph has offered to fund.

Other members of the supporting classes include the thatcher and poacher, Tom Harker, whom Glass has enlisted (albeit somewhat reluctantly) as one of the beaters to man the event, and Cecily’s maid, Ellen, a friendly, kind-hearted girl who comes to the aid of young Osbert when his beloved pet duck goes missing on the final morning of the shoot. Also present are Albert and Percy, the young lads who load the guns for Gilbert Hartlip and Lionel Stephens during the periods of intense shooting which take place throughout the day.

As the novel unfolds, we learn more about the main characters, their distorted moral values and the rarefied world in which they circulate. What Colegate does so well here is to shine a light on the farcical nature of Edwardian society, the sheer pointlessness of the endless social whirl and the ridiculous codes that govern it. We see the elaborate preparations for lunch at the boat-house, an activity which requires the butler and footmen to transport a hot meal to its destination via hay boxes to keep it warm. There are the frequent changes of clothes throughout the day, with a need for each outfit to be perfectly suited to the particular occasion – not to mention the prospect of social embarrassment when one doesn’t have the ‘right’ kind of shirt studs to hand to wear at dinner. In this scene, Olivia Lilburn is making fun of her husband’s worries over that very matter; clearly these things are terribly important to Bob if not to his wife.

‘Oh, Society.’

‘Don’t dismiss it in that way, Olivia. Society is very important. I hate going into it inadequately equipped.’

‘It’s not a battle surely?’

‘In some ways it is not unlike a battle.’

‘In which he with the too-smart shirt studs bites the dust?’

‘Well…’ he began unwillingly to smile. ‘Sustains a setback maybe.’

Olivia laughed, putting her head with its thick crown of auburn hair back against the blue chaise-longue. ‘You are quite ridiculous.’

‘It’s all very well. You can dismiss these things if you like, but they are the structure of our lives and if we lose respect for them we lose respect for ourselves.’ (p. 38)

While Olivia Lilburn has come to the realisation that she is trapped in an empty and shallow world, there is little she can do to break away from it. For all her insight and sensitivity, Olivia is virtually powerless when faced with the well-established structures that govern her place in society. In this scene, Olivia has just been observing her husband, Bob, in conversation with Minnie Nettleby, rattling off the names of various people in attendance at some social function or other without showing the slightest interest in any of the individuals themselves. A sort of ritual ‘checking of the compass points’ as Olivia regards it.

The object of the thing appeared to be enumeration rather than enlightenment. Once she had said to him, ‘Supposing there are some other people somewhere, people we don’t know?’

He had looked at her seriously.

‘What sort of people?’

‘Perfectly charming people. Really delightful, intelligent, amusing, civilized…And we don’t know them, and nobody we know knows them. And they don’t know us and they don’t know anybody we know.’

Bob had thought for a moment and then he had said, ‘It’s impossible. But if it were not impossible, then I don’t think I should want to know such people. I don’t think I should find anything in common with them.’ (p. 120)

I love that quote; it seems to capture so much about these people and their abject disregard for others. While Colegate doesn’t overtly judge her characters, she does shine a light on their disreputable morals and skewed principles.

As the shoot progresses, a competition starts up between Gilbert Hartlip and the normally relaxed Lionel Stephens, a rivalry which is just as keenly felt between their respective loaders, Albert and Percy. Lionel, impassioned by his love for Olivia, begins to fire on all cylinders, shooting his birds with great speed and accuracy. There is even some suggestion of him encroaching onto Gilbert Hartlip’s territory, a development the latter does not welcome, keen as he is to maintain his reputation as one of the country’s finest shots. Significant tensions ensue, much to the dismay of Sir Randolph, who detests any attempts by participants to keep a count of their individual kills. At one point, the action is enlivened by the appearance of an animal rights activist who ultimately appears to find some common ground with the host, much to the surprise of some of the guests.

What makes this book all the more fascinating for readers is the knowledge that a whole way of life for this generation is about to be swept away with the advent of the Great War. Sir Randolph clearly fears change as the political and industrial developments of the day are already threatening to destabilise the familiarity of his world. He bemoans the decline of the agricultural industry and the long-standing traditions of rural life.

‘…For generations we ran the country; it did not suffer from our rule. If the landlord class goes, everything goes. It will be the ruin of rural England. Ida tells me I am prejudiced. Show me the man with blood in his veins who is not.’ (p. 28)

All in all, this is a brilliant novel, poised and subtle in its depiction of the shallowness of the society at the time.

While checking the details for this post, I was surprised to discover that the book had been published as recently as 1980. In many ways it actually feels like a much older novel, one that could have been written in the 1920s or ‘30s, such is the authenticity of the world Colegate creates here. It’s a very impressive achievement. There’s a film too, directed by Alan Bridges (who also adapted L. P. Hartley’s The Hireling for the screen, another book I read this year). I’m looking forward to watching it.

The Shooting Party is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.