Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Finally I’ve managed to get around to writing up my post for this wonderful novel. It’s not the first time I’ve read it but I recently reread it, after conversing with my mother about it and the ‘new version’ of it, called Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Apparently, it’s just as ‘nice’ but I will reserve judgement until after I have read it.

For those of you who do not know the book, it tells the story of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew a forty-something spinster, mediocre governess and, ostensibly, overall failure. In a mix-up she ends up meeting Delysia LaFosse who had apparently advertised for a governess. Comically, throughout the novel, Miss Pettigrew keeps a keen eye out for any sign of the chidren she is to be in charge of, but they somehow fail to materialise. Instead, Guinevere is introduced to a string of Delysia’s lovers, friends and enemies. The scene is the roaring twenties and the world is full of glamour, cocktails and endless parties. Instead of being sent to the nursery, Guinevere is tasked with getting rid of Delysia’s abusive lover and then with reuniting two of Miss LaFosse’s friends. She herself cannot explain where the sudden knowledge of life and the sudden courage come from – although I hazard a guess that two sherries on an empty stomach might help. Miss Pettigrew’s sudden resourcefulness, her unconventional approach to things and her ability to think on her feet astonish Miss LaFosse and amuse the reader.

Needless to say (sorry for those who don’t like spoilers) this light-as-a-cream-cake novel ends happily.

However, the superficiality and glamour that make this novel so fun and frivolous also irk me slightly, which is why Miss Pettigrew will always be a guilty pleasure, to be polished off in an evening. The epitome of life is, apparently, to end up with a nice man who is rich enough to support one in style, drink cocktails and dance until 6am. And yet I can’t help but like this Cindarella-esque story, when the lovely, kind-hearted Miss Pettigrew finally finds happiness and love. I’m just a bit of a romantic after all.

 

Just a heads-up, I am going on holiday so won’t be posting until I get back at the end of September. Then I will have hopefully finished Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and will have also written up posts on the other two books I have recently finished.

Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife

I actually wrote this ramble after I first read the book, about two years ago. However, I recently reread it because it is the sort of book which is easy to read but also very rewarding every time. When I first read it and watched it, I was about 4 months behind everyone else regarding the ‘trend’ – as usual. I only started watching the series after my grandmother and I were talking about her life in the East End at teaching college in the fifties. Call the Midwife is set in the same time period and is, according to my grandmother, fairly accurate. Obviously such productions take artistic license and I am sure that it wasn’t quite so clean on the streets, but the reassurance of general accuracy is comforting somehow. Then I read the books and (as always) they were even better, but this time the BBC had done a good job. Actually, the BBC adaptations are usual good. Of course they edited but where they had it made sense.

The TV series made me cry with laughter and cry with sadness. The most stirring scene was one I didn’t remember from the book, namely the death of Mater, Chummy’s mother. Oh how I cried – it was so so sad!! All the portraits are heartfelt and real and the tragedies are not oversentimentalised. I thought. Because I’d seen the TV-series I knew which books I did or did not want to read. I do not think I could read In the Shadow of the Workhouse without crying over every page. That book features the veteran and the siblings shown on TV and Jennifer Worth’s style of writing is so open and easy to read but so astute that it makes it even more poignant.

Some stories are only one chapter long; some portraits of a family are strung out over several chapters. But what always amazed me was the casual acknowledgement that nurses and midwives in their uniform would never be molested or even really talked to because their profession was so respected. In uniform they could go where even policemen would only go in pairs (and only if they couldn’t help it). This respect is something to long for when many women of whatever profession cannot walk the streets without comments, jeers or even physical abuse. And yet the midwives’ respectability also seems to imply that life for women in the East End at that point would have been more dangerous than Worth admits. She mentions all kinds of women, the more well-to do (perhaps in a comparative way) as well as the homeless and completely destitute. But while she always emphasises the communal spirit that played down problems the gaps in her writing imply a more dangerous and problematic world. However, as Worth says towards the end of Farewell to the East End which describes the changes brought about by the demolition of the docks and the rehousing of families, the destruction of the community of the East End was not necessarily a turn for the better. The houses were bigger, cleaner and safer. However, tearing a family apart that was not defined by blood-ties, makes me wonder how high the cost was.

Now while that last bit sounds as if I’m a bit of an ‘oh let’s go back to the old days’ kind of person which (at my age) would seem more than a little odd, as I have no idea what life was like in the fifties, I do think that the idea of asking someone to ‘watch my baby out here while I pop in to the shop to get bread’ is very nice.In this day and age the concept of trust has changed and the concepts of responsibility, of health and safety and of childcare have changed drastically – some for the good and some, arguably, for the worse.

The occasional problem with TV series and novels is a tendency to romanticise life in the past, the present or even in the future. It is easy to stand at a distance from a culture or a time and say: ‘This is ideal’. Generalisations are never good (an oxymoronic sentence, surely?). I appreciate the difficulty of ‘getting it right’; it seems as if you either romanticise or exaggerate, in this case, squalor and dirt. And because of this Worth’s focus on the community or family allows a glimpse of life in the East End without judging or pretending to be the complete image. A window into a way of life. Not good. Not bad. Just perceptive – with maybe a few embellishments.

Sinclair McKay, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park

Having ended my last post with a reference to The Provincial Lady in Wartime (which probably only those very careful readers of mine who happen to know the book will have noticed), this post ties in quite neatly with the Second World War theme. I am aware that a post on the First World War would be more appropriate, considering the ongoing commemoration of the outbreak a century ago, but I have not recently read any great books on the Great War – other than the already written-about book about the Scotting Women’s Hospitals. So, for now, to the Second World War.

I actually read this book last year, and blogged about it too, but I came across it again the other day and, amid the recent re-opening of part of Bletchley Park to the public, renewed my interest in the subject. Before I read this book, I did not know that Bletchley even existed. I’d heard of Alfred ‘Dilly’ Knox, but only because I’ve studied his brother Ronald Knox’s work. I’d never heard of Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman or Tom Flowers before. And yet those four were part of the code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park where they broke into Enigma and its Japanese equivalent during the Second World War. I’d certainly heard of Enigma.

II didn’t understand much of the code-breaking technique – cribs and hints because you recognize names etc. But having never seen anything written in code I think I am excused. This fact also made me admire the men and women even more, because they came into the whole job having about as much of a clue as I do now. And they shortened the war by two years without being able to tell anyone that they did it. One of the saddest things I read in the book was that one of the young men could not even tell his father on the latter’s deathbed how vital his work had been – and his father had died thinking that his son had shirked his duty. Little did he know that his son’s sense of duty was so acute that, even 10 years after the war had ended, he couldn’t divulge the secret work. This young man was not alone. All of the young people working at Bletchley felt that they couldn’t tell their nearest and dearest. However, nobody asked and that was what astonished me most. Although I did like one girl’s way of making people lose interest: she said she was a typist. Which was true but no one was to know what she was typing up.

What I liked especially was the balance between the war and civilian life. Every other chapter or so was dedicated to the culture and day-to-day life of Bletchley Park. It reflected the general British sentiment of “carry on as if there wasn’t a war on”. Despite the bombs (and Bletchley was lucky to receive only two direct hits – another reason for the intense secrecy!) and despite rationing there were stories of dances, plays and pantomimes, love stories, stories about the stealing and disappearance of tea mugs – stories that lightened up an otherwise grim story.

The book unites the familiar tales of the Battle of Atlantic, the Blitz and D-Day but the backdrop of Bletchley Park (or BP as the code-breakers referred to it in code) gave the world a whole new dimension as well as giving rise to even more conspiracy theories. However, the author does a very good job of remaining objective and academic and lets the story speak for itself.

In addition to this book I would recommend Mavis Batey’s biography of Dilly Knox. He was a character and her memoirs of this great scholar, historian and friend are touching and fascinating at the same time. Batey herself is part of McKay’s book. She worked with Dilly breaking the code and it was interesting to read an insider’s view of the whole period. Not that, when you read closely, much is revealed. The secret of Bletchley still holds somehow, even if the basic facts are known.

Rethinking my reading has also made me want to revisit Das Boot, a German classic about a U-boat during the war in the Atlantic. It’s a fascinating account of a cat-and-mouse game but the roles of cat and mouse are constantly interchanged. I am a bit tired of World War Two – as a young woman who went through the German school system, we spent much time on what is called ‘Aufarbeitung’ – making sense and learning about that black period of German history. However, books such as McKay’s and Batey’s show that, even for one weary of the topic there are always different aspects to learn about.

E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady

First off – I bought myself a kindle thinking I would read great classics and yet I always get stuck on things which could be described as ‘social history’ and which very few people would describe as great literature. Then again, who cares? I haven’t laughed so much when reading in a long time.

The Provincial Lady, whose name we never actually know, lives in Devon and is permanently short of cash. However, a trip to the pawn shop to pawn the diamond ring (again) usually concludes with purchasing a new hat (very unbecoming), toothpaste (children averse to brushing teeth – maybe they just eat the paste?) and other odds and ends – quite unfathomable how they were bought.

The slightly sarcastic comments about her neighbours whom, one can tell, the protagonist sort of likes really make the whole book seem very real. According to various sources (mainly google) the diary is an only slightly fictionalised version of the author’s life. It seems bizarre that, only 80 years ago, positions such as housemaid and cook were seen to be necessary by even the impoverished upper middle class. There had to be money for the cook and the maid because one did not really know what to do without them. This helplessness leads to another hilarious situation where the only housemaid to be found (because the others are too posh and expensive) is actually a houseman. The permanent awkwardness in the house abides until the houseman gives his notice – to the relief of mistress and ‘maid’ alike.

Then there are the ‘dear children’ – seldom referred to without the quotation marks, showing a perceptiveness about the position of children in society which is quite poignant. Even though the children are separate from their parents (at school or with the wonderful French Mademoiselle – I wish I spoke enough French to understand her!), they are the constant topic of conversation. After the weather of course. However, in The Provincial Lady in America the wonderfully perceptive lady travels to the States to promote her book. After numerous tea parties involving cocktails rather than actual tea, and visits by ‘friends’ in high places, the lady wishes nothing more than to go home to her children and her husband, reflecting a deep love for family despite all the disparaging sarcastic remarks throughout.

The obligatory annoyingly rich aristocrat (Lady Box), in The Provincial Lady at War, refuses to shelter London refugees but instead opens a hotel for wounded soldiers which (at the end of the book) is still empty. A bit Dad’s Army really, with the elderly lady in her nurse’s uniform, constantly trying to enlist the villagers and the Provincial Lady to nurse and train at the unoccupied hospital.

I always find it a trifle strange that it’s so hard to convey the humour in this book to someone else because the humour lies in the everyday observances made by the lady. The ‘Queen’s English’ in which the diary is written seems almost quaint to the modern reader (which I am despite my literary and musical tastes) and, as already suggested, some of the social conventions are funny because of their out-dated nature. Yet though this book is definitely light reading and could be classed as a guilty pleasure, a lover of social history like myself will probably enjoy it. The characters in the book often seem more like caricatures or comical derivations of their real counterparts but then who knows? Lady Box might be as real as Granny Bo-Peep.

Yes really.

Marion Zimmer Bradley, Rediscovery

When you’ve be wanting to read a book for several years (or, in this case, reread it) then it sometimes takes on an almost mythical status in the mind. It becomes the best book ever written and then, when the book is finally there, it sort of falls flat.

Well, Rediscovery wasn’t quite that bad but, unfortunately, it wasn’t far off. When I was younger I devoured all the Marion Zimmer Bradley books I could get my hands on – starting from The Mists of Avalon when I was about 12 (usual The Lord of the Rings stage, I think). I loved the slightly mystical language, the feminist emphasis on the importance of women and of course the stories about princesses and magicians and all that. When I had finished all the Avalon books in print at the time I began to read the Darkover novels. The novels are a curious mixture of science fiction, space exploration and conquest and fantasy elements such as psi-powers and laran (the Darkovan word for telepathy). I pilfered the library for books and, when that source ran out, bought them in English for myself. However, for some strange reason, I could never get hold of Rediscovery in English. It was only available in German – until now.

So what is it about? Well. On the planet Darkover the inhabitants, descendants from an old crashed Terran spaceship, have been living in relative peace for a couple of hundred years. They have developed their own feudal society, led by the Comyn, a caste of mostly red-haired people with telepathic powers. And then the Terran (so people from planet Earth) turn up and want to colonize a planet they conceive of as backward and simplistic. Which it is most definitely not.

The story centers around two sets of main characters, a Darkover twin brother and sister and three Terran friends. The Darkovan twins are Comyn and the young man, Lorill, will some day become the most powerful man on the planet. His sister, Leonie, is going into a Tower, essentially designed to control and teach the use of telepathic powers and the base for all ‘magical’ activities on the planet. There used to be many Towers but by the time this story is set, they have all been destroyed – the Ages of Chaos is, a bit like the European Dark Ages, a period of which not much is known. By this time, however, there are only five Towers left and Arilinn, the Tower which Leonie joins, is the most powerful. As people who have read the other books will know, Leonie is to become a ‘sorceress’ and eventually she will become the most powerful woman on the planet. Not bad going. 

The three Terrans are very different. David and Elizabeth are a young couple of anthropologists looking for a planet to settle down on, marry and have lots of children. Their best friend Ysaye is a young woman of African heritage (this is important for the story) who is a computer tech on the spaceship. She is allergic to almost everything and loves the sterility of the spaceship. Because all the members of the original ship that landed on Darkover were Caucasian, none of the Darkovans have ever seen a person with dark skin before which leads to some rather amusing incidents. However, the overall tone of the book is quite somber and the story raises some interesting questions.

As referenced previously, Darkover’s history is defined by a period known as the Ages of Chaos, when the misuse of telepathic powers led to wars and massacres. Since then the Darkovans have observed the Compact which forbids the use of long-distance weapons. Every weapon used must bring the user in equal danger to the one he or she is using it against. Therefore, swords and short bows are allowed whereas the Terran guns are not. Although the Terrans see themselves are far more civilized and progressive, their weapons are seen by the Darkovans as cowardly and weak. Bradley raises interesting questions about weapons of mass destruction here, I think, which, set in the fantasy world of Darkover, only seem transgressive when one seriously thinks about that subject.

Then there are the fires. Darkover’s climate is akin to that of Scandinavia or Siberia. The hills are covered with resinous trees which burn very easily. Therefore, when a forest fire breaks out, feuds are forgotten as everyone tries to save the country from burning up. Bandits join the law-abiding folk in the fire truce but, again, the Terrans don’t look too good. Spoilers here so I won’t tell you what happens though yet again Bradley challenges the modern individualism that seems prevalent in Western society.

Whilst I found it a less easy read than when I was younger and, I continue to appreciate the detail and the intricacy in Darkovan society. I can see that some ideas might challenge a modern reader but, somehow, they also make sense. Although the language is not up to Tolkien’s high literary standard, Marion Zimmer Bradley has created a world just as interesting and fascinating. And that’s why I read and reread her Darkover novels.

A Nancy Mitford post

This is another post I wrote a while back but as I haven’t posted for a while I need to update it and I’ve just been so busy that I haven’t had the chance to finish a book, let alone write a blog. A friend of mine recently reminded me of Nancy Mitford so I looked up this post and here you go:

After I’d finished Deborah Devonshire’s memoir, I thought it might be interesting to actually read some of her sister Nancy Mitford’s novels. I didn’t expect them to be this good or this funny. I think that they might actually be some of the best novels I’ve read in a while. The three novels were collected in an omnibus edition and they go together well. They are all set in the interwar period, in the world of debutantes, dukes and affairs. The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate are both narrated by the same person, a young woman named Fanny, whose aristocratic parents are uninterested in her and so she grows up with her aunts and cousins. Fanny herself is a shadowy character. It is obvious that she is there as a narrative means. Every so often she divulges something about herself (she was a debutante; she married a professor; her house has this sofa). Furthermore, she narrates scenes set in Paris and southern France with such certainty that, although she explains her knowledge with detailed letters, Fanny remains a thinly disguised stylistic means. As for the main characters – they really deserve to be in the centre because they are fascinating.

The Pursuit of Love is about Fanny’s first cousin Linda. The girls are very close friends and are debutantes together. Linda marries a stuck-up banker’s son which completely contrasts her own upbringing as an aristocrat’s daughter. To me, as a middle-class girl, it seemed that rich people would all think similarly and such a difference between aristocracy and the nouveau riche, as I suppose one would have to describe Linda’s husband, never occurred to me. I don’t want to give much away. The novel is short and easy to read and is excellent partly because of its style and wit and also because of its twists. The end is surprising but, somehow, inevitable. Having thought about it again there really is no other way the book could have ended.

Love in a Cold Climate is about Linda’s neighbour, Polly (or Leopoldina) Montdore. The main focus here is the lack of Polly’s love life following her time as a debutante. Fanyn has moved to Oxford with her husband and narrates the story from there. Eventually Polly marries a most surprising candidate, who was never really a candidate before. It seems strange to say that nothing really happens until then; however, somehow it seems as if there are so many things happening that the reader can hardly keep up. Although Love in a Cold Climate is more critically acclaimed, I think I preferred The Pursuit of Love because it is a novel of extremes: funny, shocking, sad.

The Blessing was, I thought, the most comical and satirical but also the most frustrating novel of the three. Every so often I come across a character whom I would like to strangle. Emma Woodhouse is one. Sigismond de Valhubert is another. He is the blessing referred to in the title; more specifically he is the oldest son of Grace (an English rose, an only daughter) and Charles-Edouard (a Frenchman whom Grace marries whilst her fiancee, Hughie, is away on a tour of duty somewhere during the Second World War). For a while the couple are very happy. Sigi is born while his father is fighting in the war. After the war Charles-Edouard (a sign of his ‘poshness’ and sophistication – he has no nickname. And he is never just Charles) takes Grace, Sigi and Nanny to France. Grace loves the country house she stays in but Charles-Edouard prefers Paris (because that’s where his mistresses are…) and so they move there. Grace is presented as naïve and gullible; she doesn’t suspect Charles-Edouard of having mistresses, because he apparently loves her so much. Now, in Charles-Edouard’s mind these things are perfectly compatible. He loves his wife, therefore he has mistresses. Right. By this time Sigi is about eight and already a pain. Eventually Grace catches Charles-Edouard and mistress two in flagranti and moves back to Britain. Sigi goes with her and, manipulative sod, manages to thrwart his father’s attempts to contact Grace. Eventually Sigi goes to live with his father and enjoys an immense hold over him. Grace’s ex-fiancee Hughie, who is in love with one of Charles-Edouard’s mistresses, turns up as well to make things easier for Sigi to continue to obstruct his parents’ reconciliation.

SPOILER!!!!! Thank goodness the sod gets his comeuppance.SPOILER END!!!

O Douglas, Priorsford Series

What if Jane Austen had been writing in the 1930s? I think it might have turned out something like Priorsford. This eponymous village in the Scottish Borders has the air of Longbourn or Hartfield. There is a small village, with the outlying estate(s) and the characters inhabiting them. In all the novels an outsider comes in to the small community of Priorsford, be it a young Scots woman who has grown up in London until she is drawn to the country of her birth (The House that is our Own). Isobel falls in love with the estate and eventually its absent Laird – sounds a bit like Elizabeth Bennett who falls in love with Pemberley. Or Lady Pamela Reston, who comes to Priorsford because her childhood sweetheart mentioned it, lodges with a village lady and is the recipient of confused looks for living beneath her station (Penny Plain). Then Pam introduces her young friend Jean Jardine to her brother Lord Bidborough and well… I’m afraid none of the novels are very good at keeping the reader in suspense.

Yet as I mentioned in a previous post, I do really enjoy social history and reading about the ways that people lived. O Douglas’s novels are mainly autobiographical and Cranford-esque. Nothing much happens but people are born, people fall in love and people die – in different times and circumstances and that is what I really enjoyed.

I have learned that this type of novel is called a novel of manners. Well, some characters might suggests that the books should be called novels about the unmannered. Yet those are the characters that are the most interesting because lovely lovely Jean Jardine is always bound to end up with the lovely lovely Biddy. But what about the wonderfully named Mrs Duff-Whalley, the social climber whose intrusions have put all of Priorsford on edge? There seems to be no solution. She must be banished to The Towers, to her own home and judged that she might have been great if she had been a man but as a woman she is unpleasant. Language like this fascinates me because at the moment we are living through another such debate. What are women ‘supposed’ to be like? Is there a ‘supposed to’? In the minds of some there is. In the minds of some, there are ‘supposed tos’ for both men and women – and any differentiation is frowned upon and, in novels, often punished by, at the very least, social ostracising. This post certainly took a little turn from my more comfortable beginning about Jane Austen and nice little Romantic towns called Priorsford. But who said nice little Romantic towns were not interesting? Just as the upper middle class lady is fascinating, so is the ‘quiet’ life of the lady in the village, the woman who is rich enough for a servant or a cook, who does not have to work but who must do something with her life. But what?