Tag Archives: novel of manners

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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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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The Relentless City: E. F. Benson

“America sat high on the seas, grown like some portentous mushroom in a single night.”

Author E.F. Benson (1867-1940) seems to be best remembered for his Mapp and Lucia books which have made their way to television–definitely a way to keep that written word in print. I’d never read Benson before, but then I came across a 99cent offer for the kindle: The Relentless City.

the relentless cityThe Relentless City (1903) is a social satire, a novel of manners, built around a English man, Lord Bertie Keynes, set to inherit a title and a heavily mortgaged estate, and Sybil Massington, a young English widow. These two people decide that they want to marry wealth, and that translates to marrying Americans. Bertie must marry money, and Sybil finds herself admiring the American spirit. Bertie is cynical about his quest:

You don’t suppose the Americans really think that lots of us go there to find wives because we prefer them to English girls? They know the true state of the case perfectly well. They only don’t choose to recognize it, just as one doesn’t choose to recognize a man one doesn’t want to meet. They look it in the face, and cut it–cut it dead.

The Relentless City of the title is literally New York but it’s also the frenetic American way of life epitomized by self-made millionaire and workaholic, former railway porter, Lewis S. Palmer–a man whose whole life is directed, with intense preoccupation, towards the making of money.

Yet in the relentless city, where no one may pause for a moment unless he wishes to be left behind in the great universal race for gold.

The novel opens at the London Carlton, “full to suffocation of people,” and that includes the American Mrs. Lewis S. Palmer, a loud woman who appears to the “casual observer” to be dressed “exclusively in diamonds.” Mrs. Palmer flaunts her wealth and brags that whenever she’s homesick, her husband “sends to Tiffany’s for the biggest diamond they’ve got.” She’s enjoying her time in London, threatens to buy it, and suspects she’ll “rupture something” when she returns home to America. Even though she’s in the Carlton, that doesn’t stop her frequent screams whenever she’s amused. A great deal is made of Mrs. Palmer, her manners “of a barmaid,” & her behaviour in this first scene:

It was said of her, indeed, that staying for a week-end not long ago with some friend in the country, rain had been expected because one day after lunch a peacock was heard screaming so loud, but investigation showed that it was only Mrs. Palmer, at a considerable distance away on the terrace, laughing.

Bertie, who recently recovered from losing his first great love, actress Dorothy Emsworth, sails to America and is the guest of the Palmers at their opulent, ironically named home: Mon Repos where life is “not a holiday, but hard, relentless work of a most exacting kind.” As a Long Island hostess, one of Mrs. Palmer’s goals is to attract people to her social headquarters and away from Newport and rival hostess Mrs. John Z. Adelboden. Mrs. Palmer triumphs when she lures a minor royal to her home:

For only two days before the reigning Prince of Saxe-Hochlaben, a dissolute young man of twenty-five, with a limp, a past, and no future, had arrived like a thunderbolt in New York.

Mrs. Palmer organizes the most outrageously expensive parties. In one, she transforms a local beach into a lagoon with tiny cabinets complete with a change of clothes and fishing nets for all the guests:

The lagoon itself smelt strongly of rose-water, for thousands of gallons had just been emptied into it, and the surface was covered with floating tables laden with refreshments, and large artificial water-lilies. And scattered over the bottom of the lagoon-scattered too, with a liberal hand–were thousands of pearl oysters.

There was no time wasted; as soon as Prince Fritz grasped the situation, and it had been made clear to him that he might keep any pearls he found, he rushed madly to the nearest cabin, rolled his trousers up to the knee, put sandals on his rather large, ungainly feet, and plunged into the rose-watered lagoon. Nor were the rest slow to follow his example, and in five minutes it was a perfect mob of serge-skirted women and bare-legged men. Mr. Palmer himself did not join in the wading, for, in addition to a slight cold, wading was bad for his chronic indigestion; but he seized a net, and puddled about with it from the shore. Shrieks of ecstasy greeted the finding of the pearls; cries of dismay arose if the shell was found to contain nothing. Faster and more furious grew the efforts of all to secure them; for a time the floating refreshment-tables attracted not the smallest attention. In particular, the Prince was entranced, and, not waiting to open the shells where the oyster was still alive (most, however, had been killed by the rose-water or the journey, and gaped open), he stowed them away in his pockets, in order to examine them afterwards–not waste the precious moments when so many were in competition with him; and his raucous cries of ‘Ach, Himmel! there is a peauty!’ resounded like a bass through the shrill din.

In this lively, highly-entertaining novel of manners, there’s lots of scope here for the clash of cultures as English habits and values meet brash, disinhibited America, and the author seems to have great fun exploring the excesses of American high society. After the scene at the Carlton, Bertie’s friend, Charlie, portrayed as a much less progressive character than Bertie, weighs the pros and cons of Mrs. Palmer as part of the “barbarian invasion.” Bertie, the eldest son of an impoverished marquis, much later in the novel makes a statement that American culture is not less or lower than English culture–just different, and while this is an effort to establish differences rather than superiority, it’s a limp attempt as the majority of the book pokes fun at Grande Dame Mrs. Palmer, her ludicrous parties, and the planned stripping of a beautiful English ancestral estate for its coal by the new American owners. In The Relentless City, the American characters are here for laughs with generous dollops of humour in the vein of Oscar Wilde, and  while there are basically two love stories which unfold, there’s also a bit of villainy seen through the character of the dastardly Bilton. Ultimately, after meeting and mingling with the Americans the English characters are left shell-shocked more than anything else.

More intimately disquieting was the perpetual sense of his nerves being jarred by the voices, manners, aims, mode of looking at life of the society into which he was to marry. Not for a moment did he even hint to himself that his manner of living and conducting himself, traditional to him, English, was in the smallest degree better or wiser than the manner of living and conducting themselves practised by these people, traditional (though less so) to them, American. Only there was an enormous difference, which had been seen by him in the autumn and dismissed as unessential, since it concerned only their manners, and had nothing to do with their immense kindliness of heart, which he never doubted or questioned for a moment. What he questioned now was whether manners did not spring, after all, from something which might be essential, something, the lack of which in one case, the presence of in another might make a man or a woman tolerable or intolerable if brought into continuous contact.

 

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Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

The title of Barbara Pym’s first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle, might not seem to have any connection to the plot, but the quote appears early in the novel:

Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:

Something to love, oh, something to love! (Thomas Haynes Bayly)

I happen to share that feeling–people need something to love, and if there’s no person available, then let it be a dog, a cat, a hamster, or a budgie. If push comes to shove, a plant will do. Even my neighbor has his Harley Davidson since his missus departed for less turbulent pastures. Anyway, the need to have something to love is evident in Some Tame Gazelle, the story of two spinster sisters, Harriet and Belinda Bede, in their fifties whose lives are built around the local church and its clergymen. The sisters live together in a life of genteel comfort, and while they can afford a maid, there’s a little nip and tuck when it comes to meals if no guests are expected at the table. The two sisters are completely different: Belinda, the eldest sister is a romantic introvert whose male ideal, somewhat incongruously is the “dear Earl of Rochester.” Yes, Belinda in many ways is someone who doesn’t get the nuances of character as we later see through Belinda’s decades long devotion to the unrequited love of her university days–now the local, pompous married Archdeacon Hoccleve. Harriet, on the other hand, is an extrovert, a plump flirt who obsesses about her appearance, and always has a crush on whichever young, pink-cheeked, innocent curate is assigned to the local church. She’s a groupie of sorts: “She was especially given to cherishing young clergymen, and her frequent excursions to the curates’ lodgings had often given rise to talk.”

Some tame GazelleThe novel begins with bubbling excitement over the new curate’s attendance at dinner. Belinda is fully expecting Harriet “to be quite as silly over him as she had been over his predecessors,” and the relationships Harriet has with the series of curates who’ve passed through seem to cover all sorts of roles from surrogate mother & sons to vague courtship.  One of Harriet’s problems is that she doesn’t know whether to mother the curate du jour or giggle and flirt with him. Needless to say she does both–but she’s not alone in the parish when it comes to fussing over the curate. This seems to be a popular pastime with the single women, and whether or not they are too old to be jealously possessive about the highly-prized curate is beside the point. But in spite of the slight awkwardness generated when a mid-fities spinster fusses over a single man young enough to be her son, those involved seem happy with the arrangement. It’s one of those ‘no damage done’ situations with everyone glossing over the possibly unhealthy ramifications of these relationships. Harriet immerses herself in questions such as ‘is the curate getting proper meals?’ and whether he needs a new of pair of hand-knitted socks. For their part, the curates benefit by getting regular free meals.

So while the novel opens with the exciting prospect (for Harriet, at least) of a fresh, young, curate, The Reverend Edgar Donne, Belinda faces the thrill of the Archdeacon’s wife, Agatha going away on holiday and leaving her obnoxious husband behind. To Belinda, of course, the Archdeacon, “dear Henry,” can do no wrong, but we get a glimpse of the domestic trials of being married to the Archdeacon–an immature man of insufferable ego and full of constant complaints:

Belinda recognized the voice as that of the Archdeacon. He was leaning out of one of the upper windows, calling to Agatha, and he sounded very peevish. Belinda thought he looked handsome in his dark green dressing-gown with his hair all ruffled. The years had dealt kindly with him and he had grown neither bald nor fat.  It was Agatha who seemed to have suffered most. Her pointed face had lost the elfin charm which had delighted many and now looked drawn and harassed.

Belinda cannot fathom the reason behind Agatha’s bad temper and thinks that “Agatha should humour dear Henry a little more.” This is a position of some naiveté as Belinda, who has never moved beyond idealized love, has no idea how grueling married relationships can be and just how taxing and demanding her idol Henry really is. The prospect of Henry alone creates no small amount of speculation between the sisters and raises the question whether or not the Archdeacon is upset or delighted by his wife’s absence.

When the day came for Agatha to go away, Belinda and Harriet watched her departure out of Belinda’s bedroom window. From here there was an excellent view of the vicarage drive and gate. Belinda had brought some brass with her to clean and in the intervals when she stopped her vigorous rubbing to look out the window, was careful to display the duster in her hand. Harriet stared out quite unashamedly, with nothing in her hand to excuse her presence there. She even had a pair of binoculars, which she was trying to focus.

With Agatha away, the Archdeacon makes more visits to the Bede household, and Belinda makes a few visits to the vicarage. Vague long-distant memoires and lost opportunities are stirred accompanied by just a whisper of mild discontent.

How odd if Henry were a widower, she thought suddenly. How embarrassing, really.  It would be like going back thirty years. Or wouldn’t it? Belinda soon saw that it wouldn’t. For she was now a contented spinster and her love was like a warm, comfortable garment, bedsocks, perhaps, or even woolen combinations; certainly something without glamour or romance. All the same, it was rather nice to think that Henry might prefer her to Agatha, although she knew perfectly well that he didn’t. It was one of the advantages of being the one he hadn’t married that one could be in a position to imagine such things.

Some Tame Gazelle makes some interesting statements about love; we see Belinda still in love, decades past the initial onset, and she cannot see that the Archdeacon is flawed and not really worth her worshipful attention, and yet does that really matter? There are a couple of times when reality punctures Belinda’s image of the Archdeacon, but she turns away from her perceived disloyalty and criticism and chooses to keep her perfect image of the Archdeacon. Harriet, is a study is serial adoration, and she smoothly moves her infatuations from one curate to another. While no great crisis occurs in this delightful, humorous  novel of manners, nonetheless the calm, orderly world of the Bede sisters is threatened by the arrival of two eligible men including one of Harriet’s long-lost curates, now middle-aged Bishop Theo Grote,  who returns from darkest Africa. According to Belinda, Bishop Grote “doesn’t have all his goods in the shop window,” and as one of Harriet’s past pet-project curates, he’s now a eligible bachelor….

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A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

“It seemed as though life had been going on around me without my knowing it, in the disconcerting way that it sometimes does, like the traffic swirling past when one is standing on an island in the middle of the road.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for the unreliable narrator, but in Barbara Pym’s exquisite Novel of Manners, A Glass of Blessings, we have an unobservant narrator–quite a curiosity when you think about it. After all, we rely on the narrator to fill us in on what is going on, but here we have someone who is often clueless and certainly the last person to understand the implications of the events around her.

barbara PymFirst a bit about Barbara Pym (1913-1980)–a novelist who happens to be a great favourite of mine and is horribly under-rated. Pym never wrote a bad novel. Quartet in Autumn, a novel that concerns 4 single civil servants post-retirement is one of my all-time favourite books.  Her characters are often mired in the minutia of the worlds of anthropology, fusty academia, or the clergy: all great stomping grounds for the raw material to create novels. Pym’s stories are on the quiet side of life, so we read about lonely spinsters, confused vicars, the pettiness of church functions, and the hum-drum nature of village life.  A Glass of Blessings is an affectionate portrait of a young woman in 1950s Britain, Wilmet (named after a character on a Charlotte Yonge novel), a young married, childless woman who longs to be useful. Wilmet actually leads a very privileged life; she and her husband, Rodney live with his mother Sybil in her London home. Meals are arranged thoughtfully for Wilmet by her kind, sagacious mother-in-law, and the household chores are performed by a servant, and while all the day-to-day work is completed seemingly effortlessly and invisibly, thirty-three-year-old Wilmet feels superfluous. Not that she wants to take over the household management or start scrubbing floors. After all, she knows other women who ‘have’ to work and genteel spinsters who’ve gone down in the world and need to supplement their meager incomes.  So rather than think of getting a job, Wilmet tries to be “useful” through various projects, and given to incongruous thoughts & flights of imagination, she sets out to improve Piers Longridge, the underemployed, somewhat mysterious wastrel brother of her best friend, and to make a friend of dowdy spinster, Mary Beamish, whose enthusiasm for self-sacrifice and good works makes Wilmet “feel particularly useless,” rather inadequate and gratingly irritated.

a glass of blessingsNot a great deal happens in the novel–no great drama, but instead we see the people in Wilmet’s daily life and how she mis-reads situations in the months covered by the novel.  In many ways A Glass of Blessings is a direct 20th century link to Jane Austen’s Emma. Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse is someone who wants to dabble in match-making until her plots explode in her face. Wilmet, on the other hand, is just trying to carve a place for herself in the world and not having a great deal of success. Both Emma Woodhouse and Wilmet don’t see the obvious–the stuff that everyone else around them understands, and yet Emma and Wilmet are never the object of ridicule. While other books delve into the depths of passion through adultery and dynamic love affairs conducted by bored married women, Wilmet, without consciously realizing it, toys with these notions through the somewhat awkward attentions of her best friend Rowena’s husband, and the ever-growing importance she places on her friendship with Piers. Other quiet dramas in the novel concern Sybil and Wilmet’s Portuguese lessons, where the new curate, the very good-looking Father Ransome will live, the excitement of  blood donation, committee meetings, a trip to the hairdressers, and various ecclesiastical events.

Rather refreshingly, Sybil as Wilmet’s mother-in-law is an interesting character who likes her daughter-in-law. She is sympathetic to women who are married and juggle work and home responsibilities, considering them “splendid and formidable.”

I read in the paper the other day of a woman civil servant who was discovered preparing Brussels Sprouts behind a filing cabinet–poor thing, I suppose she felt it would save a few precious ten minutes when she got home.

Since a great deal of the novel concerns Wilmet trying to find a spot for herself in the world, it should come as no surprise that various characters possess specific notions of what a woman should and shouldn’t do. In one scene, for example, a colleague of Rodney’s comes to dinner and Wilmet asks for a dry Martini:

A shadow, surely of displeasure, seemed to cross James Cash’s face, and I guessed that he was probably one of those men who disapprove of women drinking spirits –or indeed of anyone drinking gin before a meal.

Part of Wilmet’s charm, and she really is very charming, is that she doesn’t really ever grasp what is wrong with her life and yet she doesn’t explicitly complain or even recognize that in many ways she’s caught in a shifting time. She’s the class of woman who’s not supposed to work, and since she has no home or children to occupy her, that leaves charity work–something that doesn’t have a strong appeal.  She’s “tried one or two part-time jobs,” but Rodney has “old-fashioned idea that wives should not work unless it was financially necessary.” While there’s no economic hardship, and Wilmet is very well taken care of (some could say pampered) she’s adrift without even fully realizing it. She’s so naïve that she doesn’t realize that she faces a quiet crisis in her life and in her marriage.

Here’s Wilmet thinking about her birthday present from her husband:

“And that reminds me, I saw Griffin at lunchtime and arranged about your present.”

“Thank you, darling.” Mr. Griffin was Rodney’s bank manager. I imagined the scene, dry and businesslike: the transfer of a substantial sum of money to my account, nothing really spontaneous or romantic about it. Still, perhaps something good and solid like money was better than the extravagant bottle of French scent that some husbands–my friend Rowena’s, for example–might have given. And the whole thing was somehow characteristic of Rodney and those peculiarly English qualities which had seemed so lovable when we had first met in Italy during the war and I had been homesick for damp green English churchyards and intellectual walks and talks in the park on a Saturday afternoon.

A great deal of Wilmet’s time is spent either thinking about the local church, St Luke’s with its High Anglican ceremonies or attending social events there. But in spite of this, A Glass of Blessings is not a religious novel in any sense of the word, so religious faith or conversion doesn’t appear–although Wilmet does make a rather limp effort to drag Piers off to various services. The church is seen as the centre of Wilmet’s life, and so the focus is on the impact created by the installation of a new male housekeeper at the vicarage who lavishes the rather worldly, and soon-to-retire father Thames with exotic dishes while bemoaning the plebian, boorish tastes of the much more down-to-earth Father Bode. Not everyone in the novel has religious beliefs. Wilmet’s mother-in-law, Sybil and her  “ bleakly courageous agnosticism”  is shared by her son, and Piers is an atheist. Sybil also believes in ‘good works’ through social endeavors, and while her interests do not enter the realm of ecclesiastical authority, she supports Wilmet in her church functions and attends tea parties with some of the parishioners including “distressed gentlewoman” the heavily-rouged Miss Prideaux.

Back to commonalities with Austen, Pym is also very generous to her characters. Both authors find the foibles of human nature greatly amusing, and both authors find rich material in daily life and in the social exchanges between characters.  A Glass of Blessings is the marvelous story of Wilmet’s maturation–not a particularly easy process for someone who is protected from the harsh realities of the world.

Review copy.

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Ménage by Alix Kates Shulman

Heather and Mack McKay’s marriage is in trouble–not overtly, and on the surface of things, they may seem to lead an enviable life, but when Alix Kates Shulman’s witty, intelligent comedy of manners Ménage begins, the rot is creeping into the foundations. Mack, at 36, is phenomenally successful & wealthy.  The CEO of his own company, he’s moved his wife, Heather away from her New York career, to their ecologically designed  ‘dream home’ in Wildbloom, New Jersey, built in homage to her “green ideals.” Heather, who once had pretensions to a writing career, has shelved those ambitions and now runs her home (and two children with the appropriate hired help) while soothing her ego with ecology articles for an online journal, The Ecology of Everyday Life. Mack’s continuing absences, facilitated by a small private plane, have left Heather marooned on the mountaintop home, resentful that she abandoned her career, and suspicious that Mack is having affairs:

Not that Mack flaunted his affairs or was indiscreet; he was so discreet that she had virtually nothing to confront him with. Still, there were too many signs to ignore: guilty gifts to her; his evasive behaviour when he returned from a trip; the way he disappeared in his plane every Sunday of the increasingly rare weekends when he was home; and most tellingly, her inability to reach him, though he knew it made her anxious when he turned off his phone.

Mack flies to L.A often and his continual “jabbering” about the glamorous sexually rapacious Hollywood-connected Maja Stern, leads Heather to suspect that Maja is Mack’s latest conquest, but she’s only partially correct. Following Maja’s typically dramatic break-up with has-been Balkan writer, Zoltan Barbu, she commits suicide. Mack misses out on his intended affair with Maja, and although he flew to L.A. to have dinner with Maja (hopefully followed by a passionate session in bed,) he finds himself, instead, attending Maja’s funeral as she had “chosen instead to dine alone on Seconal.” So by page 25, Mack runs into Zoltan Barbu at Maja’s funeral, and Zoltan suspects Mack must be Maja’s latest and final conquest:

Now that Maja was in no position to contradict him, Mack was tempted to use the traditional male prerogative of claiming the sexual victory that had so far eluded him but that he hoped to perhaps secure that very night. On the other hand, there was undoubtedly a certain moral benefit attached to proclaiming fidelity to one’s wife. He didn’t know which response was more likely to win Zoltan’s admiration and confidence. Which was more appropriate to the circumstances? Mack whipped out his handkerchief and coughed into it for the full thirty seconds it took to weigh the pros and cons of each response before saying, “Just friends.”

Zoltan, down on his luck, penniless, and about to be evicted from his grotty apartment accepts Mack’s seemingly kind offer of a plane ticket to New Jersey and a room in his home where Zoltan can write his next magnum opus undisturbed. It’s an open-ended offer–one which comes with no expiration date, but Zoltan is intelligent enough to understand that Mack, a man he considers a philistine, must be getting something out of the deal too. And of course, he is. Mack is delighted by the prospect of Zoltan moving in–after all, he thinks that a writer on the premises, a cultural trophy,  may help inspire Heather, and also Zoltan’s intellectual presence in the home helps assuage Mack’s guilt about leaving. Does Mack, who triumphantly carries Zoltan to his home rather as one might bring home an exotic new pet, see Zoltan as a substitute?

Deception, self-deception, shifting alliances and multiple mis-readings are all part of this deliriously witty novel. A marriage is an impenetrable relationship at the best of times, and in Ménage, author Alix Kates Shulman creates three characters who are all unhappy with their lives for various reasons, and who each see someone else in this delicately awkward triangle as the solution to their problems. Will Zoltan heal and revitalize the McKays’ marriage or bury it? The plot’s light and wise humour is assisted by the fact that none of the three main characters are pleasant people: There’s the hopelessly crass Mack who believes problems are solved by throwing money around, and then there’s Heather who’s idiotic enough to pride herself on being environmentally friendly even as she lives in her mountaintop mansion whose solar panels allow her to bury the fact that her husband is hardly saving the planet with his solo flights to L.A to catch a meal with an attractive woman. And then there’s Zoltan…part fraud, part hipster. Is he using the McKays or are they using him? And the answer to that question is entirely in the hands of the reader.

A throughly enjoyable read, Ménage is a novel version of the best of Woody Allen films, and I’m specifically thinking Husband and Wives (it can be no coincidence that Woody Allen is mentioned in the novel). The politics of any marriage are delicate; add a third person and the results can be unpredictable. While my favourite section occurs when Heather and Mack’s friends, Barbara and Abe Rabin arrive as “witnesses,” one of my favourite quotes is this:

Everything Heather said plunged Zoltan deeper into confusion. He feared that her eyes, bright with passion, would fill up and overflow again. The tears he had found charming his first night in this house now seemed as dangerous as Maja’s. Were all women the same? What he needed was solitude; what she needed was company: irreconcilable differences. She was daily becoming less fascinating and more terrifying, like a North American Madame Bovary: self-destructive, incapable of foresight, in love with danger

Author Alix Kates Shulman is considered an early radical feminist, and she’s arguably best known for her novel (which I haven’t read) Memoirs of a Prom Queen. When I first started reading Ménage and scrapped away the surface of Heather’s thwarted career, I thought I was about to read a fairly typical story of a woman who sacrifices self to the many demands of home life. Well yes in a way that’s true, but Shulman’s novel is far cleverer than that, and with wicked humour, the plot explores the delicate politics of marriage and its unspoken, treacherous negotiations.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Other Press.

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Filed under Fiction, Shulman Alix Kates