A Century of Women, D.E. Stevenson

Bel Lamington duology by D.E. Stevenson

Titles: Bel Lamington and Fletcher’s End
Author: D.E. Stevenson
Published in 1961/1962

Plot summaries:

Bel Lamington: Bel Lamington finds London a very lonely place – until a charming young artist literally drops in on her rooftop garden…

Bel Lamington, an orphan daughter of an Army colonel, is brought up in an English village and flung into the whirl of London life to earn a hard living as a secretary while attempting to navigate romance, unexpected friendships and urban life. Shy, sensitive, and innocent, she is unaware of the pitfalls that surround her.

But when Bel is offered a chance to leave London and venture to a fishing hotel in Scotland for a much needed holiday with an old school friend, things begin to change. There she learns that you cannot escape from your troubles by running away from them…

Fletcher’s End: The joys and contentment of newly-wedded life, set against the tranquil beauty of the English countryside, are the subject of this volume by the beloved novelist, D.E. Stevenson. The author of Bel Lamington continues the heartwarming story of the gentle heroine who came to London and fell in love with her employer, Ellis Brownlee.

Shortly before Bel’s marriage to Ellis, her friend, Louise Armstrong, goes house hunting for the Brownlees and discovers a charming but neglected old stone cottage in the Cotswolds. Bel adores the house, called Fletchers End. Equally enthusiastic, Ellis buys the place from the absentee-owner, Lieutenant Commander Lestrange, and, after a picture-book wedding, the happy couple move in.

As she embarks on her new life as a devoted wife, Bel loyally guides Louise through her own romantic tribulations. She also enjoys sharing with Ellis the excitement and satisfaction of decorating their first real home, as well as unravelling the mysteries of the old stone cottage.

But with the unexpected arrival of Lieutenant Commander Lestrange, the peace of Fletchers End is suddenly threatened…

These two very light, old-fashioned romances are available on Kindle Unlimited. Originally published in 1961 and 1962, they tell the story of Bel, young and somewhat impoverished woman living and working in London, and her travails. The first book gets her married off, and the second book deals with the purchase of a first home, renovation, a tiny bit of drama, and the romantic life of her best friend, Louise.

There isn’t a lot of substance to the pair of books, but they are extremely sweet and I liked all of the characters a lot. The friendship between Bel and Louise is quite lovely and is unmarred by the sort of jealous nastiness that can sometimes pass for tension in books of this sort. Bel is a working girl when the books begin, and she is extremely capable at her job. While they were published in the early 1960’s they had a more old-fashioned feel to them to me, more 1950’s or even 1940’s in atmosphere. There wasn’t any real focus on the rapid social change occurring during the 1960’s.

These two simple little books don’t offer the same though provoking social commentary as something like South Riding, but they were free and a pleasant way to while away a few hours reading something entirely unchallenging.

Stevenson is having a bit of a renaissance these days, between her Miss Buncle and her Mrs. Tim series. Neither of those are available for free, so I haven’t dipped into them yet, although I do plan to read them at some point. I suspect that they are better than the ones that I have read, which are enjoyable, if a bit pedestrian, light romance. They are very comfortable books.

Winifred Holtby

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Title: South Riding
Author: Winifred Holtby
First published: 1936

Plot Summary from Goodreads: When Sarah Burton returns to her hometown as headmistress she is full of ambition, determined to create a great school and to inspire her girls to take all they can from life. But in the aftermath of the First World War, the country is in depression and ideals are hard won. Lydia Holly, the scholarship girl from the shacks, is the most brilliant student Sarah has ever taught, but when her mother’s health fails, her education must be sacrificed – there is nobody else to care for the children.

Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall stands for everything Sarah despises: his family has farmed the South Riding for generations, their position uncontested. Yet Sarah cannot help being drawn to this proud, haunted – and almost ruined – man.

South Riding is a rich, panoramic novel, bringing vividly to life a rural community on the brink of change.

I did struggle with this book at the beginning. There were too many characters, and I do maintain that Winifred Holtby spent far too much time on people who were not Sarah Burton, Emma Beddows or Robert Carne, most particularly Reverend Huggins, about whose hypocrisy I simply could not care, and the Sawdon storyline, with poor Lily dying of some sort of cancerous tumor. This is not a book written for the 2018 attention-span, which has been decimated by the influence of social media and our tendency to flit from one thing to the next. It’s a deep dive, not a surface treatment.

And once I let myself really get going in the book, I fell in love.

Sarah Burton, the schoolmistress of the South Riding girl’s school, is a marvelous character. Unmarried, by choice, not necessity –

She had been engaged to marry three different men. The first, a college friend, was killed on the Somme in 1916; the second, a South African farmer, irritated her with his political dogmatism until they quarrelled furiously and irreparably; the third, an English Socialist member of Parliament, withdrew in alarm when he found her feminism to be not merely academic but insistent.

– she said of herself:

“No chance of a love-affair here in the South Riding and a good thing too. I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.

Her story was the one that I loved the most – a youngish, not especially pretty but still immensely attractive woman who has managed by sheer force of will to get a school for herself. She sees the future in her girls, a future that doesn’t require them to give up themselves for a man. As she says to them (in possibly my favorite quote of the book):

Question your government’s policy, question the arms race, question the Kingsport slums, and the economics over feeding school children, and the rule that makes women have to renounce their jobs on marriage, and why the derelict areas still are derelict. This is a great country, and we are proud of it, and it means much that is most lovable. But questioning does not mean the end of loving, and loving does not mean the abnegation of intelligence.

There are dozens of amazing quotes, like the one above, and so much truth here. Emma Beddows was my second favorite character – a seventyish woman who is also a local Alderman, who sees the role of local government as the place where things get done. She says of herself:

I’m an old woman. But when you’re seventy you don’t always feel old. I know I don’t. There are times when you find yourself thinking of yourself as a girl. “Now the girl went downstairs.” “Now the girl put her hat on.” And then you look in the glass and there’s a stiff heavy lump of an elderly person facing you, your face all wrinkles and the life gone out of your limbs. But you can still feel young.

South Riding is a book that focuses on the public and private lives of women. The men are, largely, foils to the women, especially the bankrupt gentleman farmer, Robert Carne, who ends up as the object of devoted passion by both Miss Burton and Mrs. Beddows, though that passion is quite different between the women. It’s not a love story, though, unless the love is love of independence, of purpose, of a woman’s life lived beyond hearth and home, as this exchange between Mrs. Beddows and Sarah Burton illustrates:

‘You don’t believe then in a higher Providence?’

‘Not if it means just knuckling under as soon as things grow difficult, and calling that God’s will. I think we have to play our own Providence – for ourselves and for future generations. If the growth of civilisation means anything, it means the gradual reduction of the areas ruled by chance – Providence, if you like.’ . . .

We’ve got to have courage, to take our future into our hands. If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system.

“Take what you want,” says God. “Take it and pay for it.”

I think that South Riding will hold up well to rereads, and that I will likely get something new out of every reading. A story written around the activities of the local parish government is, perhaps, an odd way to tell a story about a place, but it works incredibly well here. And Winifred Holtby wasn’t wrong when she said:

‘all this local government, it’s just people working together – us ordinary people, against the troubles that afflict us all.’

Even with what seemed like a slow beginning, this was a five star read for me.

Various

Re-Joining the Classics Club!

I previously joined The Classics Club back in September of 2012, with a list of 50 books to read by December, 2017. I easily hit that goal, back on August 30, 2015. At that point, I was blogging on a different blog, which was self-hosted. I recently shut down that one after republishing everything onto a free blog. You can find my challenge list here, as well as my finish line post, which identifies all of the books, and a short recap of the project.

When I was considering projects for this blog, I decided to rejoin the Classics Club, with another 50 classics to read in 5 years. The project officially commences on 12/1/2018 and will finish on 11/30/2024. You can find the list of classics under the tab at the top of the blog, which you can also find here. In keeping with this blog theme, they were all written by women.

Various

Back to the Classics 2019

Karen @ Karen’s Books and Chocolate has decided to host the Back to the Classics Challenge again next year! You can find her announcement post, with the newest round of categories, here.

While I will likely make changes to this list, I thought I’d put together a first round of ideas for the categories. I am planning to read all women authors for this challenge, to fit into the theme of this blog:

1. 19th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1800 and 1899. My initial impulse is to read something by Elizabeth Gaskell – possibly Cranford. The other possibility would be to reread Middlemarch by George Eliot.

2. 20th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1900 and 1969: There are so many choices here! I think I’ll read something mid-century British for this one: Dorothy Whipple, Barbara Comyns, E.M. Delafield, etc.

3. Classic by a Female Author. Since everything I am reading will be by a female author, this category is totally open for me! I’ll decide how to fill it down the road a bit!

4. Classic in Translation. Any classic originally written in a novel other than your native language: I have been meaning to read Sigrid Undset’s Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy for several years. I think I will read the first installment for this category – The Wreath, which was published in 1920.

5. Classic Comedy. Any comedy or humorous work. Humor is very subjective, so if you think Crime and Punishment is hilarious, go ahead and use it, but if it’s a work that’s traditionally not considered humorous, please tell us why in your post. I don’t read very much comedy. I’m thinking of one of the Peter Wimsey mysteries, by Dorothy Sayers, for this category, since I find them frequently quite funny. Or maybe Angela Thirkell. Her Chronicles of Barsetshire are usually witty and satirical.

6. Classic Tragedy. Tragedies traditionally have a sad ending, but just like the comedies, this is up for the reader to interpret. I am definitely reading something by Edith Wharton for this category – possibly a reread of The House of Mirth.

7. Very Long Classic. Any classic single work 500 pages or longer, not including introductions or end notes: I love really long, doorstopper style books. I’m considering the Middlemarch reread for this one. Pretty much anything by Eliot would work, except for Silas Marner.

8. Classic Novella. Any work of narrative fiction shorter than 250 pages: I don’t read shorter works, so I’m going to have to look around for something for this one.

9. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean). Includes classic set in either continent or the Caribbean, or by an author originally from one of those countries: The easy thing to do would be to pick an American classic, but that seems sort of cheaty, so I’m going to look for something from the Caribbean or South America.

10. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia). Any classic set in one of those contents or islands, or by an author from these countries: I am planning to read one of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn mysteries for this category – Ms. Marsh was born in New Zealand. Alternatively, I may read Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career.

11. Classic From a Place You’ve Lived. Read locally! Any classic set in a city, county, state or country in which you’ve lived: I struggled with this one a little bit until I remembered Willa Cather. I was born in Nebraska, which is also the setting for her classic My Antonia. I’ve read it before, but not for many years, and I’ve long been considering a rereard.

12. Classic Play. Any play written or performed at least 50 years ago. Plays are eligible for this category only. This category is always a struggle for me because I don’t like reading plays. I’m going to try Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap and see if I have any more success with a mystery!