Tag Archives: 20th century British fiction

The Sea Change: Elizabeth Jane Howard

“It’s the difference between leading a Jane Austen life and a Tolstoy one.”

Emmanuel Joyce, a famous playwright, half-Irish, half Jewish, his fragile, much younger wife, Lillian, and their faithful ‘fixer,’ Jimmy all live together in various hotels and travel back and forth between Britain and America. Their lives are intertwined in the production of plays-although Lillian, whose only child died decades earlier, isn’t sure just what her purpose is any more. They live out of suitcases, and plunge into social lives in New York and London, and Lillian “whose active ambivalence about Emmanuel’s work nearly drove him crazy at times” actively ignores her husband’s many affairs. Even though this is a pathological situation, the dynamic between the three characters works successfully. Emmanuel alternates between longing for solitude and treating his chronic invalid wife like a china doll, and it’s Jimmy’s multi-tasking job to squire Lillian around when she’s dumped into his hands. Everyone gets along, the system works, but no one ever addresses the pathological aspects of this threesome.

But things shift after a dramatic, unsuccessful  suicide attempt by Emmanuel’s secretary and latest mistress. After the event, Lillian employs, on impulse, a young girl who will accompany them to New York. This young woman, Sarah, has the same name as Lillian’s dead child, and so Emmanuel asks her to call herself Alberta, just to make things easier.

the sea change

‘Alberta’ comes from a large, closely knit, eccentric country family, and she’s the daughter of a vicar. A character who really belongs in a Jane Austen novel, she’s a unique, unpretentious, disarming combination of naiveté and sagaciousness. To work as a secretary for a famous playwright seems a fabulous opportunity, but given the fate of the last secretary, it’s clear that Alberta could unwittingly bring serious trouble into the Joyces’ lives. She’s certainly a catalyst for change.

The story unfolds through four narrative voices: Emmanuel, Lillian, Jimmy and Alberta–with the latter’s story partly told by long letters home. These shifting voices give the story grace, dimension and interest. We first see Lillian through the eyes of Jimmy; she seems high-maintenance and he calls her a bitch, and yet when we hear Lillian’s voice we discover she has hidden depths of sensitivity. Emmanuel, who at first seems all ego and bombastic self-interest is shown to be a self-made man, inspired by his drunken, brutal father whose poetic, self-pitying rants spiked and became dramatic performances during his drinking binges.

But his father lurched and jabbered on; charged with disastrous vitality-bored by everything but his own imagination of himself and haunted by all the chances he might have had.  

The character of Alberta, who is a breath of fresh air in the stagnant lives of the Joyces, is an absolute delight. She has a delicious sense of honesty and loves to repeat pronouncements from various eccentric relatives. Lillian is terrified that Alberta will become Emmanuel’s next mistress, and yet she can’t help really liking the girl. Emmanuel finds himself inspired and renewed by Alberta, and Jimmy… well Jimmy’s a bit of a cipher–even to himself.

Here’s a taste of Alberta’s spirit in this quote taken from a letter she writes home:

Then we had an extraordinary picnic lunch in an office with two men who had been at the auditions. They just ate yoghourt because they were dieting, but they talked about what they would have liked for lunch all the time we were eating ours, until I must say that it got quite difficult and hardhearted to go on eating it.

I recently read and reviewed Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View— another look at a stagnant marriage, but of the two novels, I much preferred The Sea Change for its generous look at human nature, and the subtle way, through the various narratives, we are reminded that we all have private sorrows.

review copy

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The Long View: Elizabeth Jane Howard (1956)

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel, The Long View begins in London. It’s 1950. Mr. and Mrs. Fleming (and I hesitate to call them Mr. and Mrs. as it makes them sound like some joint entity, which they are most definitely not)–Conrad and Antonia–have been married for 23 years. They have two children: Julian and Deirdre. Julian is on the brink of marriage to June Stoker and Daphne is in the throes of a love affair, which, even with an unexpected complication, is about to end.

It’s the evening of a dinner party for eight to celebrate Julian’s engagement to the very boring, very ordinary June Stoker. The dinner party is described in tedious, predictable detail before it occurs, and so we know that Mrs. Fleming isn’t looking forward to it but she “sank obediently to the occasion.” The big unknown of the upcoming evening is whether or not Conrad Fleming will bother to show up to the dinner party that he demanded and arranged.

Julian and Deirdre are total opposites. Whereas Julian is controlled. unemotional, doesn’t like fuss and has very distinct ideas about a wife’s ‘duty'( like his father), Deirdre is a mess. She’s constantly in the throes of some love affair or another and seems to always juggle two men at once:

one, dull, devoted creature whose only distinction was his determination to marry her, in the face of savage odds (the other, more attractive, but even more unsatisfactory young man).

In the build-up to the dinner party we also meet June Stoker, a young woman who’s marrying to escape a suffocating home life, and yet it’s also clear that marriage to Julian isn’t going to be an easy solution.

the long view

So the dinner party, with its awkward moments, takes place, and Mr. Fleming who has “constructed a personality as elaborate, mysterious and irrelevant, as a nineteenth-century folly” shows up. This is a man who doesn’t “care in the least about other people, […]. He cared simply and overwhelmingly for himself.” Thinking about his wife, he rues the fact that “he had at one period in their lives allowed her to see too much of him. This indirectly had resulted in their children.” His son, Julian, bores him, and he thinks his soon-to-be daughter-in-law is an “exceptionally, even a pathetically, dull young woman.” He expects the marriage to end badly for his son, with “two or three brats, and a wife, who, drained of what slender resources had first captivated him, would at the same time be possessed of a destructive knowledge of his behaviour.”

Mr. Fleming, who is very smug about “trying not to be a father of any kind,”  echoes Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Bennet, but Mr. Fleming is a much more malevolent version, and whereas Mrs. Bennet is really a horrid creature, Mrs. Fleming, who after 23 years of marriage is “literally exhausted” by her husband, now lives her life in a strangely disconnected way. With her sad acceptance, she echoes Mrs. Dalloway, and no doubt the upcoming dinner party was at least partially responsible for that. The dinner party is an event that we could expect the family to enjoy–at least on some level, but it only serves to reveal the pathology of the Flemings’ marriage, and leaves Antonia with the  acknowledgment that “after their first three years she had spent the remaining twenty fighting the battle of his boredom.”

Personally, I think the battle is long lost. We learn that Conrad Fleming is constantly unfaithful; the dramatics of his various mistresses amuse him (“During luncheon, a woman, nearly in tears, and with a Viennese accent, telephoned and asked for Mr. Fleming,”) and by the end of the evening, we see Antonia, at 43, contemplating “the skeleton of perhaps twenty-five years ahead of her on which she must graft some fabric of her life.”

While the pages of the Fleming’s lives move backwards in time, we are privy to Conrad Fleming’s thoughts, but always this is Antonia’s story. 1942 shows us the Flemings’ marriage in wartime, 1937–the Flemings are on a holiday in France, Conrad departs, unable to bear family intimacy for a moment longer, and he faces a crisis in his marriage. Then it’s back to 1927 to the Flemings’ wedding and a honeymoon in Paris. Finally it’s 1926, and a painfully shy 19-year-old Antonia is overshadowed by her aging beauty mother’s need to constantly criticize the daughter who possessing youth, is a potential rival.

The novel’s interesting structure begins by showing us a marriage in which both partners have reached some sort of toxic point in a relationship that is long past stagnation. But the glimpses of earlier years grant us a better view of the perennially unfaithful Conrad, a maddening character, who when he marries Antonia and sweeps her off to Paris, has very decided views:

“I’ve bought you a house, you know.”

“Have you? I wasn’t worrying. Why should I? Where is it?”

“Ah. I am not going to tell you tonight. If you don’t like it, we will get another. But I haven’t furnished it at all.”

“Then we shall not go straight back there?”

“Oh, no. The first step is to put you in it, and then choose things that will go with you.”

“Are they not to go with you also?”

“I am a chameleon,” he said, with a gentle sardonic gleam.

And so over the years, Antonia, now Mrs. Fleming “a great big beautiful doll” installed in the two beautiful homes the Flemings own, finds herself as she says “a sort of scene shifter for Conrad” a man who “likes an elaborate setting.”

By the time the book concludes, we have answers to how the Flemings’ marriage got to this point, and while I was very annoyed by Conrad and wished someone would puncture that insufferable ego, the book argued that we don’t arrive at any given moment in our lives by chance. We have walked certain pathways, turned at certain signposts; there are reasons why we are where we are.

Finally, I have to include this quote because I loved it. This is spoken by Antonia’s friend Leslie, who is a widow at the dinner party, but we also see her married and pregnant in France before the war. Here she is warning June, who isn’t even married yet, about what to expect when she’s pregnant.

Dreadful books about its age and weight at every conceivable moment, and ghastly yellow knitted matinee coats (what are they so often yellow?) and letters from hospitals, and photographs of other people’s babies so that you can see exactly how awful it’s going to look when it’s larger.

I liked this–didn’t love it. The novel slowed down at a few points, and the writing is very mannered. Still, I will definitely be reading more from this author. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s third marriage was to Kingsley Amis, and that makes her a stepmother to Martin Amis

Review copy

 

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Steffan Green: Richmal Crompton

“Has life played any practical jokes on you?”

In Richmal Crompton’s Steffan Green,  a look at village life in the 30s,  freshly divorced Lettice Helston decides to escape the prying eyes of her London friends by fleeing to the countryside. A wrong turn leads her to the picturesque village of Steffan Green and she finds herself renting a village cottage on a whim. Although Lettice thinks she’ll live in quiet solitude, she quickly becomes embroiled in village life.

The problem with ‘village life’ books is that they can become too quaint, but Steffan Green contains darkness combined with strong characterization, and the result is an interesting tale of life right before WWII.

Steffan Green

One of the main characters in the book is former suffragette, Mrs. Fanshaw, now the vicar’s wife, who believes that reading the old testament gives one a “certain sense of proportion.” Mrs. Fanshaw, a marvelous character who understands what people need and who tries to ‘mend’ problems in the village as they occur, has an entire philosophy built around her metamorphosis from suffragette to vicar’s wife. She makes Lettice one of her ’causes’ and slowly and relentlessly involves the newcomer in village life.

“Things are never as bad as they seem to be when you’re right up against them,” she said.” You’ve got to get away and look at them from a distance with other things round them before you can see them in the right perspective. On the whole, life treats us better than we deserve.”

Lettice’s neighbours are a married couple, Lydia and Philip Morrice and their new baby. As outsiders they aren’t quite embraced by the locals and Lydia, who wears trousers, is considered “indelicate” by the local gentry, the impoverished Mrs. Ferring who lives up at the castle. Even though Mrs. Ferring, who keeps informed through gossip, doesn’t ‘descend’ into the village much, she still rules local society.

There’s a strict hierarchy of class within the village, and while Mrs. Ferring and her two granddaughters live in penury in the old castle, traditions have not yet melted away. Further down the ladder of class, there are two village widows who each live with a son. There’s the snobby, insufferable Mrs. Webb who rules her poor son Colin with a rod of iron, and the toothless Mrs. Turnberry who is beloved by all the villagers. Mrs. Turnberry lives with her son, Frank, who can’t hold a job, steals and gets drunk. There’s a rivalry between Mrs Webb and Mrs Turnberry which rears its head whenever there’s a social event:

Lettice’s thoughts went back over the afternoon. Mrs. Webb, a plump little woman with smooth unlined skin and fair frizzy hair, slightly overdressed in beige georgette and pearls, conveying in voice and manner the elusive suggestion of the second-rate, had talked incessantly about her son, enlarging on his devotion to her and by implication on her own perfection as a mother. Mrs. Turnberry was dressed in a shabby navy-blue costume and not over-clean striped blouse. She had a swarthy gipsy face, bright brown eyes alive with humour, and she poked fun demurely but incessantly at Mrs. Webb, deflating her pretensions one by one as she tried to impress Lettice, and making sly little digs that were yet devoid of ill-humour.

Mrs. Webb rules her son, Colin, as she once ruled her husband, and Colin is manipulated by his mother’s suffocating ‘concern,’ her headaches and coldness. Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Turnberry should be social equals–after all Mrs. Turnberry’s other son, is a “respectable” solicitor. Mrs. Turnberry’s social position, however, has been assaulted by her wayward son, Frank’s behaviour, and this is one of the reasons the villagers love her–she’s chosen her son over class and status.

Further down the social scale, There’s also the “large, powerfully built”  Mrs. Skelton (who had ten children) who seems to clean for all of the village ladies.

Village life begins to shake up with the arrival of Mrs. Fanshaw’s “old school friend,” Miss Clare Lennare, a “fourth-rate Bloomsbury” writer who rents Honeysuckle Cottage in Steffan Green and stirs up all sorts of trouble while ferreting out her next plot. According to Mrs. Fanshaw:

She’s a novelist with quite a fair public. Her heroines are gentle helpless little women–stupid but appealing–the sort we meant to wipe off the face of the earth.

Miss Lennare employs Mrs. Skelton’s youngest child, Ivy to be her cleaner but instead makes the girl a ‘companion.’ Mrs. Fanshaw sniffs problems with the way Ivy is given expectations and promises that will not be met, and she makes a connection between Miss Lennare’s behaviour and Jane Austen’s Emma:

No, I think it’s just an Emma and Harriet Smith affair, except that Clare lacks the saving graces of Emma, and Ivy the saving graces of Harriet Smith. Clare’s stupid, and it’s the stupid people who do the most harm in the world.

The book’s touch of melodrama seems misplaced and mars the story overall–still I really enjoyed this (mostly) gentle tale of village life with its strict, stubborn societal gradations, and its not-so-disappointed suffragette turned vicar’s wife.

Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) is best known for her Just William books for children. She was a schoolmistress, and a suffragette. For health reasons, she left teaching and began writing full time.

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A Short Walk in Williams Park: C.H.B. Kitchin

My copy of A Short Walk in Williams Park, from British author C.H.B. Kitchin (1895-1967) includes a marvelous introduction from the author’s close friend, L.P. Hartley. This is a wonderfully written essay which gives a sense of the author’s character, life and work, but since it includes some detail about the story, I recommend saving it until you’ve finished the book.  Hartley acknowledges that A Short Walk in Williams Park isn’t Kitchin’s best novel, and on the surface, the story, running about 120 pages, seems simple enough, but there’s a richer vein to be tapped here–a sense of not taking life, love and the glories of nature for granted.

a short walk in williams park

Francis Norton, a wealthy bachelor who’s “retired from active business,” fills his days “exploring the London parks.” He has his favourite spots, and one of those is Williams Park:

It was so unexpected-a gem in a setting of down-at-heel gentility struggling against destitution. On the whole, he liked his parks small, and shunned the wide open spaces of Hampstead Heath, Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common. It was exquisite. The officials from the curator (if there was such a person) to the men who swept up litter and dead leaves, must have been experts and enthusiasts. It had a lake (which all true parks should have), a gothick band-stand of singularly intricate beauty and a fine statue of William IV, in whose reign the park was conceived. The king’s outstretched right hand now directs one’s gaze to a neo-Georgian tea-room, built of red brick, with an enclosed garden of its own, bordered by an artificial stream that washed the feet of willows and in due season generated a display of water-loving irises, primulas and hydrangeas. The trees are noble and never too dense, though they give shade enough to those who seek shade.

On one of his excursions, Francis overhears a conversation that takes place between two people–an unhappily married man and a young woman. Circumstances occur which lead Francis to take a role in the lives of Edward Harness, a teacher who’s married out of his class, and Miranda who works as a supervisor in a large shop. The extra-marital romance is complicated by Mrs Barbara Harness’s jealousy and also her “expectations.”   

While the story would seem to be about the young lovers, it’s really not; it’s about Francis, his sense of “vicarious romance” through his involvement with the couple, and also some vague sense of loss which Francis never specifies. But above all, there’s a sense of “ecstasy” as L.P. Hartley describes it–taking joy in the physical world.

He loved the moments of increasing lethargy-the astral body half emerging from the physical-when moral problems dissolve into an ethergic sensuality and even the inner mathematics of the brain transform themselves into purple and pink anemones or perfume the consciousness with hyacinths and carnations,-when a small cloud passing over the sun suggests images altogether unsorted by the optic nerve, and the quiver of a breeze against one’s hand cheers the self-doubting soul with a caress such as only a lover can give.

This is not a perfect novel, but in spite of its flaws, the book has something that I was drawn to. You know how it is–you sometimes run across an author who’s not perfect, but you connect with the work and its themes.

I didn’t quite understand Francis’s categorization of people into pigs or birds. Pigs seemed to be an unflattering categorization–although I’m not sure it was meant to be. Hartley says that Francis acts as a “deux ex machina” in the novel, and since I can’t put it better, I’m quoting Hartley on this one. But once again, there’s a lot here under the fairly simple plot thread. Miranda adores her married lover, and while Edward is certainly handsome, he’s also weak. And then what of Barbara, who’s described as a rather common woman, a domestic tyrant, and yet when confronted, she’s not altogether unsympathetic.

Ultimately, the novel argues for appreciating what we have and not taking anything for granted. Again that hint that this is a mistake that Francis made.

He paced for a while among the lime-trees, watching them walk together down the hill-side, and when they were out of sight, turned his gaze to the deserted tea-garden and the ruffled waters of the desolate lake. And with a sadness which refused to leave him, he thought, “They have gone down the slope to the level, conventional plain. And she, who would now be in tears if he were two minutes late, will soon be saying, ‘Why can’t he be punctual?’ and moan about the spoiling of a soufflé. And when he comes in, perhaps she’ll nag him a little. But does that mean everything’s gone? Or do these rare and precious ecstasies, which give a new shape and meaning to the universe, never die, but somehow survive in themselves, leaving us the hope that some day we shall recapture them?

Francis also ruminates on the nature of love–love that grows through familiarity and habit which he sees as a fairly common thing (“mate any dog with any bitch, and let them share the same quarters, and they will become devoted –after a fashion,“) and the much rarer love that few of us are fortunate enough to find–the “love of two burning souls–two indestructible atoms of passionate desire, who have sought one another from all eternity.”  There is also a hint about homosexual love in the sentence “to be safe, you must link love to procreation–the production of cannon fodder.”

 

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The Fat Woman’s Joke: Fay Weldon

“There were little gray clouds, here and there, like Alan’s writing, which was distracting him from his job, and Peter’s precocity, and my boredom with the home, and simply, I suppose growing older and fatter. In truth, of course, they weren’t little clouds at all. They were raging bloody crashing thunderstorms.”

Readers know that there are times when we feel the gravitational pull to return to writers who have special significance or those we’ve particularly enjoyed, and that brings me to Fay Weldon’s The Fat Woman’s Joke. This isn’t my favourite Weldon, but I love this book for its nasty humour and the way in which Weldon shows how food can both stabilize and destabilize a marriage.

The fat woman of the title is Esther Wells, a middle-aged woman, who when the book begins, has left her husband, ad executive Alan, and is living alone in a dingy basement flat. During the day she reads “science fictions novels. In the evenings she watched television. And she ate, and ate and drank and ate.”

This is the only proper holiday, she thought, that I have had in years, and then she thought, but this is not a holiday, this is my life until I die; and then she would eat a biscuit, or make a piece of toast, and melt some ready sliced cheese on top of it, remembering vaguely that the act of cooking had been almost as absorbing as the act of eating.

Phyllis, Esther’s friend, “invincibly lively and invincibly stupid,” comes to visit and is horrified to witness what she sees as her friend’s decline, but Esther, claiming that “Marriage is too strong an institution,”  is perfectly happy where she is.

Nothing happens here. I know what to expect from one day to the next. I can control everything, and I can eat. Were I attracted to men, or indeed attractive to them, I would perhaps find a similar pleasure in some form of sexual activity. But as it is, I just eat. When you eat, you get fat, and that’s all. There are no complications. But husbands, children-no, Phyllis, I am sorry. I am not strong enough for them.

Since Phyllis urges Esther to return to her family home, Esther, thinking that Phyllis is deluded in her vision of family unity, and for accepting whatever behaviour her serial philanderer husband Gerry, doles out, decides to tell her story.

the fat woman's joke

If there is a beginning to the breakdown of Esther and Alan’s marriage, it began, at least noticeably, during a dinner at Phyllis and Gerry’s house. Skinny Phyllis is a notoriously bad cook whereas plump Esther is a culinary whiz. Everyone pretends the meal is wonderful, and then dangerous undercurrents enter the conversation. Phyllis and Gerry’s relationship is obviously strained, and Phyllis, whose husband takes sneak peeks at Esther’s plump thighs, warns her guests that “discontent is catching.” That lines makes me think of the Woody Allen film, Husbands and Wives. The upshot of the evening is that Esther and Alan leave an evening of uncomfortable conversation with the decision that they are going to go on a diet.

Unfortunately, Alan and Esther’s lives revolve around food, and Esther isn’t as committed to the diet as her husband. When Alan goes to work hungry, suddenly he begins to notice his young temporary secretary, hobby painter, Susan who sets out to seduce Alan. Although Susan doesn’t know Alan’s wife, Esther, she hates her from afar, partly for her domestic complacency:

I don’t think she feels very much at all. Like fish feel no pain when you catch them. From what Alan says, her emotional extremities are primitive.

Esther’s story unfolds with asides from Susan, and also with Phyllis supposedly trying to ‘help’ patch up her friend’s marriage.  The Fat Woman’s Joke contains many of Fay Weldon’s themes: female body image, female roles (the good cook, the good wife and mother), the competitiveness and viciousness of female ‘friendships,’ the vulnerability of men to flattery, and the minefields of male/female relationships. The young women in the story, Susan and her friend, Brenda, are confident that life will be better for them, that they won’t end up like the Esthers of this world, but Esther has passed her youth, and knows that “equating prettiness with sexuality and sexuality with happiness,” is a very “debased view of femininity,” and while it’s “excusable in a sixteen year old,” a middle aged woman should know better. Esther knows that an aging woman’s “future is not green pastures, but the glue factory.”

Fay Weldon’s novels are not full of subtle, dainty undercurrents, and that’s not a criticism. Her aim seems to be to pull the male/female and female/female dynamic out from under the floorboards and expose it for what it really is. WAR. The conversations occasionally appear to be over the top, so we see Weldon’s characters having conversations that might not quite occur in real life, but are nonetheless the stripped down thoughts that we don’t articulate. This is the facet of Weldon novels that make them so funny–the messes these people make of their lives are comical even though we may know people who have done exactly the same things with tragic results. Ultimately, Fay Weldon is an author whose incredibly sharp wisdom has enriched my reading life immensely.

“One wonders which came first,” she said brightly,” the mistress or the female whine. It would be interesting to do a study.”

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The Sin-Eater: Alice Thomas Ellis

“In Llanelys the size of the dogs was in inverse proportion to the social status of their owners, except for poodles of course-the hairdresser and the barmaid from The Goat each had one of these. The doctor’s wife had two miniature dachshunds like unwrapped toffees and the solicitor kept a Jack Russell terrier, while the parvenus kept alsatians and labradors and enormous Afghan hounds.”

The Captain, the patriarch of a wealthy Welsh family is dying, and that brings various family members back to the ancestral estate at Llanelys. There’s daughter, Ermyn whose “future was shadowy and obstacle-ridden,” and son Michael as well as his wife, Angela. They gather at the family home with the other resident son, Henry and his Irish-catholic wife, Rose ostensibly to say goodbye to the Captain but also to celebrate the annual cricket match, locals vs. visitors.

In the days just after the war when the Captain had given the Elysian field to the village in a fit of grateful generosity and instituted the annual match  against the visitors, Llanelys had still been smart. Racy cotton-brokers and sober merchants had brought their families for the summer. Academics in shorts had made it their base for hiking, and among the Captain’s opponents had been a few as well-born as himself. But, gradually at first, and then with alarming speed, the people had taken over Llanelys and made it their own. Uncouth accents echoed on the wide sea shore, and the sand, ridged like buckled linoleum, felt the naked tread of inferior feet. The Grand Hotel had struggled to accommodate itself to the new demands, added an American bar, offered bingo evenings, but had finally gone under and was now merely a collection of holiday flatlets.

The annual cricket match, the culmination of the novel, has become a bit of a thorn in the family’s side. Tradition must be upheld, especially in light of the Captain’s imminent death and with Welsh Nationalism actively lurking in the background. This year, the cricket match is a debacle that sinks into an orgy of food, bad behaviour, and illicit sex while the house sheep, named Virginia Woolf, “because of the facial resemblance, which was very marked,” wanders the grounds feasting on Rose’s snapdragons while ruminating with seeming solemn intensity.

The Sin Eater

Author Alice Thomas Ellis often creates a character who is, to put it politely, ‘the cuckoo in the nest.’ A not-so-polite description would be a character who stirs up or draws trouble. In the trilogy, The Summer House, that character is the flamboyant, promiscuous, middle-aged, Lili. In The Sin-Eater, the trouble maker is the practically-minded Rose who manages Llanelys with a smooth, yet slightly disapproving touch. Whereas Lili disrupts life in Croydon, the wily Rose appears to sustain tradition and the established lifestyle with its out of control servants at Llanelys, but in reality, Rose is a subtle saboteur, whose roots were formed in a different class and a different religion.

The Captain, once upon a time, was an irascible force, but now he’s bedbound and given a ceremonial viewing by the family. The seven deadly sins: pride, lust, greed, envy, gluttony, sloth, wrath reside in these characters. Michael and Angela spend the entire trip to Llanelys “quarreling covertly.”

Neither of them were given to open displays of anger. They came from the same background–conventional, incurious, outwardly pacific. But confined spaces and solitude didn’t suit them. Without other people and distraction they regressed and bickered in a sexless, pre-pubertal way.

Yet, Angela, locked in a sexless marriage, falls prey to unbridled, unseemly lust when houseguest, journalist Edward arrives, a man whose “wife tried to kill him a few months ago,” so he escapes to Llanelys, mostly to eat, whenever he can.

‘Does your wife write too?’ she [Angela] asked Edward, hoping to discover by this means the true state of his feelings about his marriage. She didn’t believe Rose’s version.

‘She used to,’ he said rather abruptly. He was unwilling to discuss his marriage in front of Rose since it made her laugh. For some reason he had married a small but powerful and foul-tempered Scot with pretty, vicious features, a great mass of hair and a tendency to give way to intermittent fits of drunken violence. Her life, she was wont to tell him, was centred in her children, of whom there were three, and she didn’t give a damn for anyone else-not anyone, d’ye hear.

‘Did she write for a daily paper?’ needled Angela.

‘For a while.’ said Edward. ‘Did it take you long to get here? The roads were …’

It was too late. ‘She was a cub reporter,’ said Rose joyously. ‘She told me so. A little glossy, fluffy, sweet little cub reporter–till she turned rabid.’

‘She’s very highly strung,’ said Edward, ‘but they’ve just started her on a new pill. They’re very hopeful.’

Angela spoke to him for a while about the strides made by medicine in the field of nervous illness.

Henry looked unusually sombre.

As in The Birds of the Air, the story centres on a supposedly circumspect family gathering which gradually devolves into chaos. Not a great deal happens in this novel–there’s a country party for the local toffs and a cricket match, but the delight here is found in the interactions of the characters who mostly behave very badly indeed while pretending otherwise.

The two main characters–women on opposite sides of the attitude and stability equation–are the very capable Rose, a woman who gets what she wants, and Ermyn, a woman who has no idea what she wants. The daughter of the house, Ermyn, who always feels slightly out of sync with society in general, realizes that “there was something wrong with the world,” watches and draws conclusions. Even though she isn’t Catholic, she daydreams about being a nun, with the “church as a last resort,” and decides to read the bible. It’s through the unworldly Ermyn’s strange disconnected train of thought that we realize how peculiar she is.

Ermyn’s religious yearnings were the result not so much of an urge towards virtue as a fear of evil and unkindness. The Church seemed to her a very good and powerful thing, combining as it did the qualities of rocks and lambs-and kings she thought confusedly, and fish…

While Ermyn’s opinions are confused, fuzzy and rarely spoken, Rose’s opinions are sharp, tart, well-formed, and range from the Catholic church (“the Church has lost its head,”) to Freud (“psycho-analysis is Freudulent conversation,”), a do-gooder who works for the release of prisoners (“the only sins people are able to forgive are those committed against themselves,”) adultery (“a filthy habit […] like using someone else’s toothbrush,”) and even the English:

‘The English don’t have passions,’ said Rose. ‘They have tastes: for porcelain and flagellation, and Georgian porticos–things like that.

As with all Alice Thomas Ellis novels, this is delicate, lace gossamer, conversations loaded with innuendo about sins and sinners from characters whose behaviour is frequently suspect and very slyly funny.

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Saturday Night at the Greyhound: John Hampson (1931)

I stumbled across Saturday Night at the Greyhound by John Hampson while perusing Kindle titles from Valancourt Books. I’d never heard of the novel or the author before, so I was surprised to learn that this debut novel, published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, was a “smash hit” in its time. According to the introduction from Helen Southworth, Hampson was born in Birmingham, his family had a brewery, and after that failed he worked in hotels and restaurants. He spent time in prison for stealing books but eventually became a paid caretaker for a Down’s Syndrome child, and with this job to support him, was able to write. This is a very short novel, around 111 pages, a story of violence, domestic strife and pub life set in 1930s Britain.

Ivy Flack, born and raised in a Birmingham pub, knows the business very well, and on her own, or with her brother, Tom, she could have been a successful businesswoman. Unfortunately, Ivy, courted by many men, has the bad judgment to marry the worst of the lot. A series of financial disasters finds Ivy, Fred Flack and Ivy’s brother, Tom trying to run a Derbyshire rural pub, but failure is imminent. With Flack, drinking, giving away or gambling the profits, the Flacks are on the edge of ruin. Flack is one of those glib, egotistical men who never acknowledge their failures, and he refuses to face up to the fact that Ivy’s nestegg is practically all committed to debt. Flack loves running a pub; he’s generous with free drinks, and he’s on the tail end of an affair with barmaid, Clara. Clara, the bastard daughter of the local, now-dead squire, longs to escape from the village, and while she isn’t in love with Fred, she’s ready to use him as her ticket out. Clara’s mother, the malevolent Mrs Tapin also works in the pub. The pub can’t support the Tapins but Flack refuses to fire them.

Saturday nightThe book opens with Mrs Tapin who “ loved four things–money, gossip. thinking, and Clara.” She has “seen fourteen men take over the Greyhound Inn in her time. Fourteen and none of them made it pay.” Of course it doesn’t help the Flacks that Mrs Tapin is robbing them blind. Tom knows that the Tapins are no good, and he understands that if he and Ivy ran the pub alone, they’d scrape a living from it. Ivy, always weak where Fred is concerned, believes that her chronically unfaithful husband is tempted by other women, and she refuses to throw him out. So when the novel opens, our central characters, tied by their relationships to one another, are trapped trying to make a success out of the Greyhound.

There are some marvelous insights into the running of a pub, and exactly what separates a successful publican from a failure. Ivy, Tom and Fred are out-of-their-depth in the countryside where customers are marginal and free-spending travelers are rare. From their hard-working parents, Tom and Ivy learned how to run a pub:

From business acuteness they never refused to drink with a customer, but while beer was paid for, all they consumed was cold tea from a hidden jug.

Hampson’s story explores how decent, hardworking characters destroy themselves through love–Ivy in her relationship with Fred, and quiet, serious Tom through his love for sister. So in many ways Hampson constructs a different sort of love triangle.

While part of the novel moves back into Ivy and Tom’s publican history at the Crown and Cushion in Birmingham, the majority of the plot concentrates on one pivotal Saturday night at the Greyhound. Saturday night brings the most business to the pub, and this night is no exception, so the evening begins with preparation for the custom to come, and then follows the events of that evening.

Good old Brum, there was no other place quite like it. Those were the days; from the Bull Ring came a steady flow of custom during the house’s open hours. Market-men, porters from the Midland Station, and the street hawkers used the place regularly, and there had always been a good number of chance people.

Readers should be warned that there is an incident of horrible animal cruelty committed by one of the characters. It’s a scene with an image I would rather not have had planted in my head. We are obviously meant to see the act as horrendous, and it’s an incident that adds to the tension, but that didn’t make it any easier to read, and in a way, after that, the rest of the story paled in an anticlimactic fashion. Overall, animals don’t fare well in this story but serve to show the brutality of the human race; at one point a departing publican, who can’t sell his chickens to Flack, wrings their necks before moving on, and a villager regularly presents dead chickens at the pub, blaming the Flack’s greyhound for their deaths and demanding recompense.

Hampson introduces an upper class couple into the story, and one of the characters is deeply affected by the events she witnesses. Interestingly, she is the sole character altered by events, and this adds to the bleakness of the tale. The story is strongest in its setting and depiction of pub life with an overweening sense of evil that lingered after the last page of this ultimately unsatisfying tale. There’s an agelessness to the story; it could have easily been the 19th century, and that perhaps is due to the various human emotions that brace this tale: lust, love and hatred.

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A View of the Harbour: Elizabeth Taylor

After reading & liking  A Game of Hide and Seek, I wanted to read another Elizabeth Taylor novel I liked as much as Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. A View of the Harbour, set in a drab seaside town, immediately appealed to my imagination. A seaside tourist destination in the off season seems like a party where the guests don’t show– sad, neglected, with all the glamour and excitement gone.  A View of the Harbour is a marvelous look into the lives of a diverse handful of locals who live on the Harbour in Newby in an area known as ‘the old town’ while the ‘New Town’ has grown and expanded around another coastal point. The “pulsing” light from the reassuring presence of the lighthouse guides sailors on the majestic ocean, and there’s the subtle idea that while various passions simmer amongst Taylor’s characters, they lack any such guidance when making their decisions. Instead they employ various coping mechanisms to endure their lives.

The harbour “dingy and familiar, a row of buildings, shops, café, pub, with peeling plaster of apricot and sky-blue,” is home to a handful of businesses and residences. Mrs. Beth Cazabon, a published author of weepy, emotional novels is always scribbling away, working on her plots where characters drop like flies while her doctor husband, Robert, a seemingly emotionally detached man, is on call 24/7. Beth Cazabon’s mind lives firmly with her characters, so she’s a distracted wife, a mediocre housewife and an unsatisfactory mother in the eyes of the husband who married her thinking that writing was just a phase Beth was going through. While the Cazabons’ marriage functions, its more pathological aspects are manifested through the behaviour of their two strange children: Prudence and Stevie. There’s a fifteen year difference between Prudence and Stevie which “suggested that they were haphazardly conceived.” Prudence has health problems which have isolated and infantilized her to a great extent, and her sole companions are two Siamese cats she’s constantly fussing. The younger girl, Stevie, is a fey child who wanders around the house singing hymns, given to explosive emotional tantrums and who occasionally says the most inappropriate things.

a view of the harbourBeth’s best friend, the elegant, attractive, divorced Tory Foyle whose husband ran off with another woman during the war lives next door. Tory’s only child is now attending boarding school and his letters home cause Tory some alarm, yet at the same time, she realizes that she must allow her son to have certain experiences.

As a divorced woman, Tory is an object of interest, and widow Lily Wilson, the owner and operator of the waxworks museum is another subject of gossip. Both of these women, single and available are the object of scrutiny from bed-bound, paralyzed Mrs. Bracey who has nothing else to do except watch the more interesting lives of others. Mrs. Bracey lives with her two daughters Maisie and Iris, and from her bed, Mrs. Bracey terrorizes and controls Maisie while Iris manages to escape through her work as a barmaid at the local pub, the Anchor. Iris and Maisie lead very constricted lives due to their mother’s controlling nature, but whereas Maisie begins to long for her mother’s death, Iris escapes in fantasies that a Hollywood star will walk into her life.

Into these lives drifts retired naval officer and hobby artist, Bertram who arrives in the off-season, stays at the pub and observes the residents who live on the harbour even as he quietly insinuates himself into their lives and into their community. Bertram, a bachelor, has spent a lifetime evading serious relationships, and yet he strikes up a routine with the lonely widow, Lily Wilson, and is also attracted to Tory. There’s something about Bertram that’s not quite right, and he’s a character that will generate various opinions. He’s old-fashioned and polite, and yet there are shades of the emotional vampire in some of his behaviours–as though he must taste other’s problems before moving on.  He admits to feeling only “curiosity” about other people and acknowledges that he “always move[s] on” in order to avoid permanent involvement:

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.

These complex, well-drawn characters play out their lives and their personal dramas over the course of a few months. I won’t say much more about the plot, but I’ll add that the book’s strength lies in Elizabeth Taylor’s ability to create believable, imperfect, fascinating human beings who demand our empathy. Lily Wilson, for example, makes a marginal existence from the shabby little waxworks museum, and every night when she returns home from the pub, she must force herself to walk past the ghoulish figures. She depends upon the museum to make her living and yet she loathes the waxwork figures and is afraid to go to sleep at night. Mrs Bracey is arguably the most unpleasant character in the book for her treatment of her daughter Maisie, and yet Elizabeth Taylor still manages to generate empathy for this woman who is paralyzed, has “a hunger for life,” dreams of good health, and lives to upset other people. There’s a marvelous scene with Mrs. Bracey threatening clergyman, Mr. Lidiard that she may switch to Catholicism as the Catholic priests visit the sick more frequently. After an argument in which Mrs. Bracey tells Mr. Lidiard “shut your trap,” he decides to make a strategic exit:

Mr Lidiard put his cup very carefully into its saucer and stood up. ‘I must be off.’ He made a little bow to Mrs. Bracey. ‘I shall call next week if I may.’ His glance included Maisie.

‘I shall most likely have gone over to Rome by then,’ said Mrs. Bracey.

The decorators made way for him, drawing back a little in contempt for his cloth

‘And you can bring me a book next time,’ Mrs. Bracey suddenly shouted after him. ‘A travel book. A nice book about the South Sea Islands.’ She chuckled. ‘Some of the tricks these natives get up to, the dirty monkeys!’ But her face softened with tenderness and affection.

Beth Cazabon is another incredibly well-drawn character. Her husband thinks that her writing career is a “disease, a madness,” and here she is, in a moment of crisis as she admires Tory’s home and wishes that she was as good a housekeeper:

She would have liked to have achieved such a room as this for her family, and felt the old guilt about her writing coming over her, and the indignant answer trying to smother it–‘Men look upon writing as work.’ Even if she wished to be released from it, as she sometimes did wish, she knew that she could not. The imaginary people would go on knocking at her forehead until she died. ‘Haunted!’ she thought. ‘I’m haunted. Inside me I am full of ghosts. But I am nothing myself–I am an empty house!’

In the midst of all this passion, gossip and drama, Elizabeth Taylor seeds the story with touches of delicate humour. Here’s the creepy, tyrannical librarian:

Behind a counter was an old man with an ink-pad and a large oval stamp, with which he conducted a passionate erratic campaign against slack morals. His censorship was quite personal. Some books he could not read and they remained on the shelves in original bindings and without the necessary stigma ‘For Adults Only.’ Roderick Random stood thus neglected, and Tristram Shandy, vaguely supposed to be children’s books. Jane Eyre, bound and rebound, full of loose leaves, black with grease, fish-smelling, was stamped front and back. Madame Bovary had fallen to pieces.

A View of the Harbour will make my best-of-year list.

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A Game of Hide and Seek: Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve read four Elizabeth Taylor novels so far. Loved a couple of them and liked the others. A Game of Hide and Seek–a subtle, clever novel about middle-aged regret falls into the latter category.

The novel opens with its two central characters, Vesey and Harriet during the holidays in the countryside. Vesey is going off to Oxford in the autumn, “his next steps would take him over the threshold of a new and promising world” but for the moment he’s staying with his aunt Caroline and Uncle Hugo and their two children, Deirdre and Joseph. Former suffragette Caroline is best friends with Harriet’s mother, Lilian, and both women were once arrested for their beliefs. There’s the sense that there’s an immense gap between generations. Harriet “fulfilled none of the ambitious desires” of her mother, and Vesey is an annoyance to his uncle:

Hugo Macmillan had still much of that poetic ebullience which distinguished so many young men just before the 1914 war. He suggested in middle-age, a type of masculinity now perhaps vanished to the world; the walking tours in perfect spring weather, Theocritus in pocket: an aesthetic virility. He had gone on being Rupert Brooke all through the war–a tremendous achievement–and was only now, much later, finding his enthusiasms hardening into prejudices and, sometimes, especially with Vesey, into a techy disapproval of what he did not understand. His old-fashioned liberalism now contained elements of class-hatred; his patriotism had become the most arrogant nationalism. His love and sympathy for the women of his youth, his support in their fight for a wider kind of life, made him unsympathetic to the younger women who came after. Every feminality these young girls (he even called them Flappers) felt free to adopt and they were fewer than usual at that time) he openly despised.

Although Taylor never overworks this idea, there’s the sense that this younger generation are a disappointment for their elders: Hugo, who fought and survived WWI, feels “antagonism” for Vesey’s “laziness and his cynicism.” These days feminism is “a weird abnormality,” and Caroline and Lillian wonder what they fought for.

a game of hide and seekLong summer days are spent by Vesey and Harriet playing hide-and-seek with the children and while the game spins away the hours, it’s also a way for 18-year-old Vesey and Harriet to spend time together alone. Harriet is in love with Vesey, but Vesey looks forward to what he assumes is his brilliant future. While Caroline predicts a mediocre academic career for Vesey, he imagines himself as an influential “literary figure [rather] than as a man at work.” There’s an arrogance there that translates to occasional cruelty towards Harriet. Harriet’s romance with Vesey is brought to an abrupt halt, and Harriet begins work as a junior shop assistant in a dress shop. The “senior” assistants are all single women, desperate and rather sad, given to extreme beauty treatments geared towards increasing their shelf life–including man-eater Miss Lazenby who “was always plucking her eyebrows ” until she “had scarcely any eyebrows left, only an inflamed expanse.”

Harriet is gently courted by solicitor Charles Jephcott, a much older man who assumes a fatherly role rather than a romantic one. Charles is boring, respectable, courteous–everything probably to balance the outrageousness of his famous actress mother, Julia, whose main goal in life, and one in which she succeeds admirably, is to “draw attention to herself.” And so, at a bad time in her life, and because she has loved and lost,  Harriet agrees to marry Charles.

Fast forward almost twenty years, and Vesey, now a down-on-his-heels, second-rate actor returns, and all of Harriet’s feelings are reawakened….

A Game of Hide and Seek has some marvellously drawn scenes, for example when Charles insists Harriet attend a performance of Hamlet with Vesey playing Laertes. Charles knows full well that the play will be shabby, and he hopes that the performance will take some of the gilt from Vesey. Possibly the best aspect of the novel is its wonderful secondary characters: the shop assistants at the dress shop, the Jephcott’s Dutch servant Elke, who writes long letters home explaining her confusion about the English, Harriet’s daughter, Betsey who appears to have inherited her grandmother’s histrionic tendencies, and Charles’s awful mother Julia who finds Harriet “dull and slavish,” as she “hovers round [Charles] like a Praying Mantis.” She’s waiting for the marriage to crack and is delighted by the idea that her daughter-in-law might have a lover.

The novel, while exploring the depths of a revived love affair, is not sentimental or even romantic. Instead the novel asks questions such as: Do we get second chances in love?  Or is there a point at which it’s too late to begin again? There’s something very poignant about Vesey, twenty years on, stripped of his youthful arrogance, and what of Harriet who is afraid of showing her middle-aged body?

While I really liked the novel, and find that it sits well in my memory, I couldn’t help the sneaking thought that the sum of the story was not equal to its parts. The secondary characters remain very strongly in my mind, and their creation required a sharp, wicked sense of humour. However, for this reader, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Vesey would have fallen for the middle-aged Harriet any more than he fell for the 18-year-old version–although I did contemplate that perhaps she represented, for him, the moment in his youth when he thought he had the world at his feet. Living with Charles for twenty years has caused his dullness to infect Harriet, and although we know that she’s unhappy and unfulfilled, yet still I wasn’t convinced that Vesey was ever serious about Harriet. But then again, perhaps he wasn’t….Back to that game of hide-and-seek.

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The Crime at Black Dudley: Margery Allingham (1929)

I’ve been meaning to read Margery Allingham (1904-1966) for years, and what better way to start than with her first Albert Campion novel, The Crime at Black Dudley (1929).  The best way to describe the story is as a romp; there are elements of thrilling adventure in this tale and lots of humour introduced through the bizarre character of Albert Campion.

Most of the novel is set inside an isolated gothic country mansion–the Black Dudley of the title, and it’s here that guests gather for a weekend houseparty. There’s a small handful of guests: George Abbershaw, who turns out to be the main character, is a famous doctor who specializes in pathology “with special reference to fatal wounds.” George is there to pursue the attractive Margaret Oliphant, another member of the party. Also attending is actress Anne Edgeware, newly qualified doctor, Martin, his fiancée Jeanne, Cambridge rugger player, Chris Kennedy, a “stray young man” named Martin, and Albert Campion, who, according to Margaret is “quite inoffensive, just a silly ass.” The party is hosted by the Black Dudley’s owner, scholar, Wyatt Petrie, the “head of a great public school, a First in Classics at Oxford, a recognized position as a minor poet, and above all a good fellow.” Wyatt’s wheelchair bound elderly uncle, Colonel Gordon Coombe co hosts the event, and he encourages his nephew to bring young people down to the country in order to enjoy their company.

the crime at black dudleyWhat should be a jolly weekend in the country is immediately overshadowed by the atmosphere of the remote forbidding house and its unwelcoming grounds:

The view from the narrow window was dreary and inexpressibly lonely. Miles of neglected park-land stretched in an unbroken plain to the horizon and the sea beyond. On all sides it was the same.

The grey-green stretches were hayed once a year, perhaps but otherwise uncropped save by the herd of heavy-shouldered black cattle who wandered about them, their huge forms immense and grotesque in the fast-thickening twilight.

In the centre of this desolation, standing in a thousand acres of its own land, was the mansion, Black Dudley; a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress. No creepers hid its nakedness, and the long narrow windows were dark-curtained and uninviting.

But while Black Dudley is a daunting setting, there are definitely other bad vibes in the air, and Abbershaw with a “presentiment–a vague, unaccountable apprehension of trouble ahead” almost immediately senses that two “foreigners” who never leave the Colonel’s side are very unpleasant types who seem out-of-place with the rest of the company.

Well what entertainment is there to be had at night in a vast, forbidding mansion? Someone has the brilliant idea to play a game involving the Black Dudley Ritual dagger which was used to murder a guest back in 1500. Legend has it that the dagger “betrayed” the murderer by appearing to be covered in blood when placed in the guilty man’s hands. But nowadays, the dagger isn’t used in a superstitious way to discover a man’s guilt or innocence; it’s “degenerated into a sort of mixed hide-and-seek and relay race, played all over the house. All the lights are put out, and then the dagger is passed around in the darkness for a period of twenty minutes. The person left with the dagger at the end paid a forfeit.” And so the game begins:

At length the signal was given. With a melodramatic rattle of chains the great iron candle-ring was let down and the lights put out, so that the vast hall was in darkness save for the glowing fires at each end of the room.

It’s fairly easy to guess that something horrible is going to happen in the dark, but what isn’t so easy to guess is all that happens afterwards. Crime is blended with suspense and thrilling adventure, so this isn’t a standard who-dun–it.

Since The Crime at Black Dudley is the first Albert Campion novel, it would be reasonable to expect that this character takes centre stage, but no this is primarily Abbershaw’s story. There’s the sense, since Campion is not the main focus, that author Margery Allingham didn’t quite know what she’d created with this character. He comes off initially as a buffoon, a man who performs pathetic little magic tricks which seem to be more for his own amusement than anything else. That mask slips later on, and yet we still don’t know the real Albert Campion, a man whose talents and resourcefulness, under pressure, seem endless:

‘Well then, chicks, Uncle Albert speaking.’ Campion leant forward, his expression more serious than his words. ‘Perhaps I ought to give you some little idea of my profession. I live, like all intelligent people, by my wits, and although I have often done things that mother wouldn’t like, I have remembered her parting words and have never been vulgar. To cut it short, in fact, I do almost anything within reason–for a reasonable sum, but nothing sordid or vulgar–quite definitely nothing vulgar.’

This is a novel which features the upper classes of British society, so servants are mostly invisible and the one we see in any detail is as nutty as a fruitcake.  This is 1929, so German phobia–that dreaded “hun” reigns supreme, the women are frail creatures to be protected by the men, and the one bobby who appears towards the end of the book drops the ‘h’s in his speech. All these class, sex, and ethnic prejudices go with the territory, so they must be endured as relics of the age. I read some reviews by readers who found Albert Campion’s character annoying. I didn’t, but I will admit that I was a little surprised when he was initially introduced as a member of the party as he comes across as an upper-class twit, but this is a partially fake persona and Campion really comes into his own when things heat up.

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