Tag Archives: British

First World Problems: Heyer style

And, this is the second review that has been sitting draft forever – it was originally published January 24, 2015.

Death in the StocksDeath in the Stocks by Georgette Heyer
Series: Inspectors Hannasyde & Hemingway #1
Publication Date: July 1, 1935
Pages: 262
Genre: mystery

In the dead of the night, a man in an evening dress is found murdered, locked in the stocks on the village green. Unfortunately for Superintendent Hannasyde, the deceased is Andrew Vereker, a man hated by nearly everyone, especially his odd and unhelpful family members. The Verekers are as eccentric as they are corrupt, and it will take all Hannasyde's skill at detection to determine who's telling the truth, and who is pointing him in the wrong direction. The question is: who in this family is clever enough to get away with murder?

Heyer is better known for her romances than her mysteries, and for good reason, honestly. This was a reasonably entertaining mystery, but was really nothing special. It is very much a class-based mystery, as are many of the golden age mysteries.

The book begins with the grisly discovery of a body in the stocks in the village of Ashleigh Green – Arnold Vereker has been stabbed. Arnold is the wealthy eldest brother of the Vereker family, and the prime suspects are his two siblings: the smashing Antonia, who is engaged to Rudolph, and employee of Arnold’s and not a particularly suitable partner for Antonia, and Kenneth, the artistic freeloader who is engaged to the beautiful and expensive Violet. It’s obvious that Arnold has been murdered for his money. The question is which of the suspects, all of whom loathed Arnold, is the guilty party.

I get the sense that Heyer was a bit of a snob, mostly from reading biographical stuff about her, but also from her books. This mystery – along with the one other mystery I’ve read of hers – relies heavily on the “Bright Young Thing” trope that is common in golden age mysteries. The BYT is a young, generally extremely attractive, female character who is a bit bohemian, who always ends up marrying someone whom she will enliven, at the same time that he will steady her. She is sort of a precursor to the MPDG (manic pixie dream girl) character trope that we’ve seen more recently.

The BYT is always desirable, and is the “heroine” of the piece. She is usually attached to someone who is not good for her – as Tony was at the beginning of this story. Giles is the perfect foil for the BYT – he is steady, but not staid, and head-over-heels for the girl. He is a Mr. Knightley, as opposed to a Mr. Wickham or a Mr. Willoughby. Not interesting enough to carry the book on his own, he’s the classic nice guy who deserves to win the hand of the cool girl. As soon as Giles ends up in the same room with her, we KNOW that he is the guy for Tony.

Violet, on the other hand, is NOT a BYT. First of all, she’s not that bright. And she’s a gold-digger – she is not sufficiently light-hearted or bohemian. It isn’t Violet’s lower class roots, but her actual lack of class, that excludes her. Being a BYT wasn’t actually dependent on having money – it was all about attitude. One could sponge off others, but not be a gold-digger, as long as one was convincingly able to maintain the fiction that money was unimportant. I know this makes no sense, but this is the sense I make of the trope after reading tons of these books.

Ultimately, the relationship with money in books of this time period can be really conflicted (as it was for Heyer herself!). Having money is perceived as admirable, but making money is grubby and greedy. So, Tony & Kenneth could live off of Arnold’s labor, and still feel his superior because, you know, they didn’t care about money. Even though the money that allows them to eat comes directly from him. It’s schizophrenic at best, hypocritical at worst.

Unfortunately, this trope has not worn well in the modern era of rising inequality. I found Kenneth deplorable, and Tony annoying. I wanted them both to get off their underwhelming, overindulged asses and do something – anything – useful. Arnold was awful, but he was no more awful than the people around him. He might have even been less awful. At least he was capable of feeding himself.

Tying this back to Heyer, she was involved in a tremendous conflict with Inland Revenue during her lifetime. She wrote because it paid the bills, but was constantly fighting about taxes, and at one point set up a LLC to try to lessen her tax burden, then basically got caught treating the LLC like it was her bank account, and the tax authorities got pissed and told she owed a bunch of money. Which I believe she ultimately paid, but she was not happy about it. She, herself, was more like Arthur (probably) than like either Violet or Antonia/Kenneth, but I think that she clearly sympathized with “the gentry” and the “leisured class.”

Over all, this is a reasonably enjoyable golden age mystery, although I never find Heyer’s mysteries as well-plotted as Christie’s or as enjoyable and quirky as Sayers. She’s definitely a second tier mystery novelist. And all of the characters could have used a swift kick in the ass.

#Throwback Thursday: Talking about female independence: Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer

For this throwback Thursday, I’m going to repost some old reviews of Georgette Heyer books that I wrote six years ago. They’ve been sitting in draft since I started moving things over to this blog and this seemed like a good time to get them published.

Originally posted on August 20, 2014

Lady of QualityLady of Quality by Georgette Heyer
Publication Date: May 1, 1972
Pages: 307
Genre: historical fiction, romance

Independent and spirited, Miss Annis Wychwood gives little thought to finding herself a suitable husband, thus dashing the dreams of many hopeful suitors. When she becomes embroiled in the affairs of the runaway heiress Lucilla, Annis's life becomes more complicated, as she soon encounters her fugitive's uncivil and high-handed guardian, Mr. Oliver Carleton.

Befriending the wayward girl brings excitement and unexpected consequences, among them greater interaction with Lucilla's guardian, who is quite the rudest man Annis has ever met..

This was Georgette Heyer’s last completed book, published in 1972. She died on July 4, 1974, at the age of 71, which means that she was writing Lady of Quality in her late sixties.

I am struck by a few things reading this book. First, the writing seems both tired and a bit manic at times, as though Ms. Heyer had perhaps become a bit exhausted with writing in the same style and theme for so many years. Lady of Quality was her 34th historical romance (georgian/regency) and, if wikipedia is to be believed, her 55th novel.

Now, onto Lady of Quality.

Annis Wychwood is the titular lady of quality, and the main character of the book. She is a lady of nine-and-twenty who considers herself to be quite on the shelf – a Heyerism for an unmarried woman who has outlived her place in the Marriage Market. She is also a woman of independent means. She has inherited a respectable fortune, and is able to support herself more than adequately.

A typical Heyer novel spends, if not equal time on the hero, much time developing the hero’s character. In this book, however, the hero remains little more than a cardboard cut-out plot device throughout the book. Heyer spends more time looking at the various types of woman who might have existed in regency society, and evaluating their independence.

There are really four women who are evaluated in this way: Annis, Miss Maria Farlow, Lucilla, and Lady Wychwood, the wife of Annis’ of brother. Of all four, Annis is the only female character who is not under the protection of someone else.

Miss Farlow is under the protection of Annis, and if she weren’t, she would need to find a different protector. She is a woman of no means at all – we are never told how old she is, although the implication is that she is elderly. Elderly in this case probably means about my age. As an unmarried spinster of no fortune nor employment whatsoever, she is the very definition of superfluous humanity. She exists in the nearly invisible world of genteel poverty, unable to work (too well-bred) unable to marry (too unbeautiful) and unable to live on her own (too poor). She is nothing more than a burden. She is reminiscent in some ways of Miss Bates, from Emma, but even Miss Bates has a home of her own, albeit a poor one.

The treatment of Miss Farlow is cringe-inducing. No one ever acknowledges her as a person with value, her humanity is barely acknowledged. People are impatient with her foibles, constantly rude to her, and she is shoved in and out of rooms with no thought at all to her feelings. Even Emma, as thoughtless as she often is, is made to feel shame for her rudeness to Miss Bates. Someone desperately needed to shame Annis, Mr. Carleton and Lord Wychwood for their utter disregard for her feelings. She had no choice but to take it from them, and imagining how she must have felt about having to accept such monstrous treatment is physically painful.

Lucilla, as well, as a young girl of seventeen, is also essentially unable to take herself out of the sphere of protection of a male relative or a well-meaning female. Annis takes Lucilla in hand when she flees from an unwanted marriage to her childhood friend, Ninian. The book leaves Lucilla’s fate unresolved – Oliver Carleton, the hero, is also her guardian, and he finds a place to stash her, like a piece of luggage, once he convinces Annis to give up her independence in order to marry him. She is charming, pretty, ingenuous and a bit vapid. No doubt she will marry well.

Lady Wychwood is married, and as a married woman, has some freedom that is forbidden even to Annis. She is a lightweight woman, but there are hints in the book that there is more to her than meets the eye.

Annis is an interesting character. She has never met a man who engaged her interest, which may say more about the men she encountered than it does about her. Heyer has created a character who has carved out some independence for herself in a society that does not generally allow for independence. The decision to marry, in fact, is a difficult one for her – not because she is unattracted to Oliver Carleton, but because she is disinterested in submitting to a “domestic tyrant,” and she is concerned that a husband will be just that. She declines his initial proposal, saying:

‘You have paid me so many extravagant compliments, that I need not scruple to tell you that yours is not the first offer I have received.’

‘I imagine you must have received many.’

‘Not many, but several. I refused them all, because I preferred my – my independence to marriage. I think I still do. Indeed, I am almost sure of it.’

‘But not quite sure?’

‘No, not quite sure,’ she said, in a troubled tone. ‘And when I ask myself what you could give me in exchange for my liberty, which is very dear to me, I – oh, I don’t know, I don’t know!

It takes some convincing, and a bout of influenza, to convince her that marriage need not mean an abandoning of self, and that, indeed, Oliver Carleton is not looking for self-abnegation in a wife. But ultimately, as in all Heyer novels, the heroine agrees to marry the hero, after perhaps one or two kisses.

I think I might have liked the book better if she had said no.

We never do find out what happens to poor Miss Farlow, and must trust to the goodness of characters who treated her so poorly that they did not simply set her next to the curb to be hauled away on trash day.

I didn’t dislike this book, and Heyer’s writing, as always, is nearly perfect. But it is not her best, lacking much of the charm and all of the sparkle of the best of her earlier works.

#Throwback Thursday: Arabella by Georgette Heyer

For this throwback Thursday, I’m going to repost some old reviews of Georgette Heyer books that I wrote six years ago. They’ve been sitting in draft since I started moving things over to this blog and this seemed like a good time to get them published.

Originally published June 24, 2014

ArabellaArabella by Georgette Heyer
Publication Date: October 7, 1949
Pages: 280
Genre: historical fiction, romance

To Arabella Tallant, the eldest daughter of a penniless country clergyman, the invitation to stay with her London godmother was like the key to heaven, for in addition to living in the glamorous city, Arabella might even find a suitable husband there. Armed with beauty, virtue and a benevolent godmother, the impetuous but impoverished Arabella embarked on her first London season with her mother's wish in mind: snare a rich husband.

On her way to London Arabella's carriage breaks down outside the hunting lodge of the wealthy and socially prominent Robert Beaumaris, fate cast her in his path. Arabella's only fault is impetuosity, and her pride stung when she overhears a remark of her path of arrogant host, who accused her of being another petty female after his wealth, the proud, headstrong ingenue made a most startling claim -- she was an heiress! A pretense that deeply amuses the jaded Beau. To counter her white lie, Beaumaris launches her into high society and thereby subjects her to all kinds of amorous fortune hunters in London and other embarrassments.

Suddenly Arabella found herself the talk of the ton and pursued by some of the most eligible young men of the day. But only one caught Arabella's fancy: Beaumaris, the handsome and dedicated bachelor. She should know better than to allow herself to be provoked by nonpareil Beau. But would her deceitful charade destroy her one chance for true love...?

Beaumaris, however, although a most artful matrimonial dodger, badly underestimated his seemingly naive adversary... When compassionate Arabella rescues such unfortunate creatures as a mistreated chimney sweep and a mixed-breed mongrel, she foists them upon Beaumaris, who finds he rather enjoys the role of rescuer and is soon given the opportunity to prove his worth in the person of Bertram Tallant, the also impetuous young brother of Arabella....

Arabella was written in 1949, immediately after The Foundling, and right before The Grand Sophy. It is set in the spring of 1817 (per the Georgette Heyer chronology, which you can find here. The chronology was compiled by a number of individuals who used textual clues to determine the precise time period in which the book was set).

I thoroughly enjoyed Arabella, although I think that it does take a backseat to Sprig Muslin by just a little bit. I was frequently reminded in Arabella, more than any other Heyer that I’ve read, of the novels (and life) of Jane Austen. Jane was the daughter of a vicar and lived in genteel want for much of her life. Arabella, too, is the daughter of a vicar. There are too many siblings and not enough money, and it is made clear to Arabella that, as the eldest and prettiest, she must marry well in order to secure comfortable livings for her siblings, which, of course, is reminiscent of Jane Bennett, from Pride and Prejudice.

Arabella, though, resembles Lizzie Bennett much more than she resembles the quiescent Jane. She is a bit reckless, with a hot-temper, but has a deep well of integrity. She gets herself into trouble with that recklessness by claiming to have a fortune when she has no such thing, because she is angry at the hero, Robert Beaumaris, when she overhears him accusing her of being a fortune hunter. Once she has made the claim, she finds herself unable to extricate herself from her dilemma, and it becomes known throughout London that she is an heiress. This makes her wildly popular among the men, fortune-hunter and wealthy alike.

When her brother, Bertram, shows up and manages to get himself indebted to Beaumaris to the tune of hundreds of pounds by some inexperienced gambling, things go from bad to worse, and she finds herself turning down eligible proposals because she believes that they have been made under false pretenses, and giving all of her money to her brother to try to bail him out of his scrape.

Heyer’s solution to this dilemma is also remiscent of Pride and Prejudice – Arabella’s entire family is bailed out by Beaumaris, as the Bennett family, and most particularly Lydia, is bailed out by Darcy.

I am really ambivalent about Beaumaris as a hero, however. On the one hand, obviously, he must be a fine physical specimen, since the discussions of the fit of his coat and his lack of a need for buckram wadding to broaden his shoulders are ubiquitous. He is wealthy and well-educated. On the other hand, he is just too old for Arabella. The actual age difference between them is never articulated, but he must be in his late thirties, based on the way he is presented, and Arabella is in her first season. I really struggle with getting behind a romance with this enormous age difference – even if it was common during that time period.

The other issue I have with Beaumaris, though, is bigger even than the age difference. I’m just not that convinced that he’s a very nice guy. He is shallow and privileged and bored. I am clear on the fact that Arabella brings out the best in him. Arabella has a surprising sensitivity to social injustice, and this the only Heyer that I’ve read so far where Heyer even acknowledges the gulf between rich and poor in British society during this time period. Arabella repeatedly – three times total – tries to rescue some unfortunate who has crossed her path.

The first unfortunate, Jemmy, is also the most appealing. He is a climbing boy, apprenticed to a chimney sweep (although enslaved is a better verb, honestly), responsible for the really terrible job of cleaning chimneys, by climbing up them, in order to prevent chimney fires. This was horrifying and dangerous work, that was done by boys as young as four. When Jemmy mistakenly climbs down her chimney and into her room, Arabella takes custody of him, routs the sweep with threats of prosecution for abuse, and then hands Jemmy off to Beaumaris to be cared for, all in one fell swoop. This is a truly remarkable moment in the book, and shows Arabella as compassionate and headstrong. She is maybe 19, and is able to identify – and do something about – an injustice that Beaumaris has ignored for his entire life. And I didn’t get the impression that he took custody of Jemmy because he recognized a human obligation to a hungry, skinny, abused and orphaned child. He did it because he is diverted by how adorable he finds Arabella. It’s patronizing.

There are two other incidents of the same sort. Arabella rescues a mangy dog that is being beaten a bunch of thuggish young men, and asks for permission to help a prostitute named Leaky Peg who has been helping Bertram out when he runs out of money and is tossed out of his hotel. Beaumaris is willing to help with the dog, but draws the line at Leaky Peg.

He also manipulates Arabella rather badly. He knows from the beginning that Arabella doesn’t really have a fortune, but he plays her like a fish on a line – because her childlike innocence amuses him – for far too long. Arabella feels terrible about deceiving Beaumaris. Beaumaris doesn’t ever really seem to feel terrible about deceiving Arabella, even though she spends a number of really miserable, fraught days. And then, there is the matter of Bertram, who is also left dangling for far too long. The risk that Bertram might have committed suicide as a result of the dire financial situation he was in is certainly not insignificant. Beaumaris had no qualms about playing with emotional fire so long as he thought it might get him what he wants in the end. I can only hope that marriage to Arabella will improve him – make him less selfish, less prone to playing with other people’s lives and emotions for his own amusement, and less blind to his own privilege.

To continue with the Pride and Prejudice analogy, I hope that Beaumaris is a Mr. Darcy, but I am afraid he might be a Mr. Wickham.

Arabella has some of the most wonderful characteristics of Heyer’s writing – sparkling dialogue, humor, and an appealing heroine. If I had been more confident in Beaumaris, it might have been a five star read. As it is, Arabella gets 5 stars, the writing gets 4 stars, and Beaumaris gets 3 stars. That puts me at an overall rating of 4 stars.

Unnatural Causes by P.D. James

Unnatural CausesUnnatural Causes by P.D. James
Series: Adam Dalgleish #3
Publication Date: May 20, 1967
Pages: 218
Genre: mystery
Project: a century of women

Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh had been looking forward to a quiet holiday at his aunt's cottage on Monksmere Head, one of the furthest-flung spots on the remote Suffolk coast. With nothing to do other than enjoy long wind-swept walks, tea in front of the crackling wood fire and hot buttered toast, Dalgliesh was relishing the thought of a well-earned break.

However, all hope of peace is soon shattered by murder. The mutilated body of a local crime writer, Maurice Seaton, floats ashore in a drifting dinghy to drag Adam Dalgliesh into a new and macabre investigation.

This is the third Adam Dalgleish book, and was a library check out for me. I decided to revisit P.D. James this year as part of my “Century of Women” project. Unnatural Causes is the third in the series, and was published in 1967.

This is my favorite book so far because it was so cleverly plotted. The victim is a mystery writer, and is found in circumstances that feel like something out of his next planned book. Well after his death, an envelope containing the typed opening of his next book is received, and it echoes the circumstances in which his body was found, and was obviously typed on the victim’s own typewriter.

Adam Dalgleish is is involved because he has gone to Suffolk to visit his aunt, a respected amateur ornithologist, lifelong spinster, and extremely self-contained woman. The victim was one of her neighbors, and her small circle of neighbors all have a motive to murder. Dalgleish is also trying to decide what to do about his romantic relationship, which has reached a critical juncture and he must decide if he is going to ask the woman to marry him or end the relationship all together. Aunt Jane lives in an isolated cottage on the Suffolk coast, so there is a lot of discussion about remote coastal landscapes that look something like this:

suffolk

The way that the solution to the mystery is presented isn’t completely successful, in my opinion. The end of the book is basically a transcription of a long, somewhat rambling, recorded confession left behind by the murderer. This type of device has a tendency to drag on, and it does so here, but it’s a relatively small quibble. Otherwise, the book is extremely cleverly done, and the meta elements are a lot of fun.

The Lark by E. Nesbit

The LarkThe Lark by E. Nesbit
Publication Date: March 21, 1922
Pages: 269
Genre: fiction
Project: a century of women, furrowed middlebrow

“Everything that's happening to us—yes, everything—is to be regarded as a lark. See? This is my last word. This. Is. Going. To. Be. A. Lark.”

It’s 1919, and Jane Quested and her cousin Lucilla are pulled suddenly from school by their guardian, who sets them up in a cottage on the fringes of London and informs them (by letter, since he’s already fled) that he’s gambled away their inheritance but is leaving them the house and £500 to carry on with. Lucilla is disheartened, but Jane is certain it will be a lark.

With the help of a handsome man, a classic example of a “capable woman”, and a war veteran with a green thumb, the two unflappable young women set up a market garden, which develops into a guest house, which develops into—well, you’ll have to read and see. It’s true they have some difficulties as businesswomen, not to mention with housekeeping, but this is ultimately a tale fully living up to its title.

Apparently E. Nesbit, of the Psammead, the Bastables and the Railway Children, also wrote at least a few books for adults (although this felt more YA, or even, shudder, NA, than anything else). Who knew?

This book is adorable. It had a distinct Anne of the Island vibe, which is my favorite of all of the Anne Shirley books, with the two main characters, Lucilla and Jane (cousins) being pulled out of school by their guardian because he has done a bunk with basically all of their money. All they have left is a house left to them by an aunt, and 500 pounds in the bank. As it’s 1919, and immediately post-WWI, this is actually a significant sum, but it’s still not the fortune they believed they had inherited.

“Everything that’s happening to us—yes, everything—is to be regarded as a lark. See? This is my last word. This. Is. Going. To. Be. A. Lark.”

says Jane, & Lucilla falls in with Jane’s plans. The two young women move into the cottage, start a market garden, take in Pigs, or Paying Guests, meet a couple of young men, there are high jinks and failures and successes. It is unrealistic in the extreme – a riff on the “plucky orphan” fiction that is so popular with British authors, but it’s so charming that I just didn’t care. This is my last word. I. Just. Didn’t. Care.

There are hints of reality that intrude. Of the two young men, one, Mr. Dix, is a former POW who can’t find a job because England was doing a really terrible job of supporting it’s returning soldiers. Jane and Lucilla are confronted with the shocking reality of the prospects for these young men when they, on a whim, hire him as their gardener. And, there are references to the unconventionality of their behavior.

Interestingly, the book doesn’t actually end with Jane and Lucilla married, or even engaged. Jane is definitely coupled up, but isn’t ready to marry, and Lucilla’s prospects are even more obscure.

This is one of the Furrowed Middlebrow titles that has been dug up and republished by Dean Street Press, and it’s available in both print and on kindle. Their kindle prices, in particular, are extremely reasonable. I think I paid $2.99 for my ebook copy. I’ve liked everything I’ve read from this imprint, and have several others available on my kindle. If you enjoy early-twentieth century British women writers who wrote light fiction, in the vein of D.E. Stevenson or Angela Thirkell, you might enjoy this.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came From WoolworthsOur Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
Publication Date: November 10, 1950
Pages: 224
Genre: fiction
Project: a century of women

“I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.” So begins Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. But Barbara Comyns’s beguiling novel is far from tragic, despite the harrowing ordeals its heroine endures.

Sophia is twenty-one and naïve when she marries fellow artist Charles. She seems hardly fonder of her husband than she is of her pet newt; she can’t keep house (everything she cooks tastes of soap); and she mistakes morning sickness for the aftereffects of a bad batch of strawberries. England is in the middle of the Great Depression, and the money Sophia makes from the occasional modeling gig doesn’t make up for her husband’s indifference to paying the rent. Predictably, the marriage falters; not so predictably, Sophia’s artlessness will be the very thing that turns her life around.

Published in 1950, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is told in the first person by Sophia Fairclough, who meets and marries Charles in the beginning of the book. Her winsome, stream of consciousness narrative is misleading – the early part of the book beguiles the reader into thinking that this is a piece of cheery, lively fiction about a young married couple starting their lives. Charles is an artist, with firmly middle class roots; Sophia is parentless, with a couple of rather uncaring siblings. The book is set in the 1930’s, during the global depression between the two wars.

That sense of optimism rapidly devolves into something more akin to horror. Sophia conceives, and having never received even the tiniest bit of education about the reproduction process, is surprised. She believed that just wishing to NOT have a baby would work to counteract conception. No one is happy about this baby – they are too young and too poor and no one is willing to see Charles clearly for what he is.

Which is a dead loss as a human being. He, initially, lives off of Sophia, his father having stopped his allowance once he married. Sophia is working at a commercial studio, and is fired once she has to admit she is pregnant. Her sense of pride prevents her from admitting that this is a terrible hardship. Even after she is let go, Charles does nothing to try to contribute the family coffers.

His family is terrible, blaming Sophia both for the pregnancy, as though she managed that on her own, and for interfering with his ability to develop his great artistic talent. Everyone, including Sophia, seems to accept that it is Sophia’s responsibility to keep the young couple in food and housing. This is infuriating, because it literally never seems to occur to anyone that a man should not allow his wife and child to starve, especially during a time period which does not allow pregnant women/young mothers of Sophia’s class to work.

The chapters that address the birth of Sophia’s son, Sandro, are harrowing. Comyns describes the process of labor in a charity hospital in both explicit and horrifying detail. She is dragged from room to room, never told what to expect, and subjected to the most awful indignities, and once the birth is over, her son is removed to the infant room and she doesn’t see him for two days.

It actually gets worse from here. Her marriage is a disaster, her husband is a loser, and their extended family is completely blind to the poverty and hunger that she suffers. Through it all, Sophia’s voice remains mostly optimistic and always convincing.

This is, more or less, a book about poverty – about how it grinds and about the experience of being completely powerless due to structural inequalities, such as male supremacy and class-based oppression. Reading it pissed me off, I was so angry at everyone: Charles, for being such an irredeemable asshole; Charles’s family for being so monstrously uncaring, and, even, Sophia, for not seeming to find her situation as intolerable as I did. She was so captive to her own circumstances that it seemingly never occurred to her that she should’ve been able to expect more from her husband and family.

There is one briefly satisfying moment when she loses her temper. She has started a new job and has to walk to work because there is no money in the house. Charles promises to bring her some money in time for lunch, but he blows her off. When it comes time to leave

“I waited to see if he would come fetch me, but again he failed me, so I had to walk home, getting more and more hungry on the way, and angry too. When I arrived home, I saw Charles through the uncurtained window. He was sitting reading with a tray of tea-things beside him. He looked so comfortable, I became even more angry, and dashed in like a whirlwind and picked up a chair and hit him with it.”

Even then, though, Sophia is made to feel that she is in the wrong. “I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologize, so just went to bed and wished I was dead.”

It took me some significant contemplation yesterday to figure out why I had such an emotional response to this book, and it was only after I admitted to myself that I felt a strong sympathy for Sophia based upon a bit of my personal history that it made sense. When I was 21, I married my own Charles – a man who was just fine with living off of me while he attended (and ultimately failed to graduate from) law school, as I worked full-time and went to college to support us.

After I graduated from undergraduate, I applied to and was accepted to law school and left the city where I had done my undergrad. My husband was, originally, supposed to move with me, but he had mucked up his final year in law school badly and had to complete an additional term, so I went alone. Back then, first year law students had to sign a contract that they couldn’t work. Our agreement was that he would get a job and send me money for food. I needed that money to eat.

I had a scholarship to cover my tuition, and some of my rent, and I had some savings, but I was wary of running out of money. My entire financial house of cards was built on getting a little bit of money from my husband, a couple of hundred dollars a month, who hadn’t worked during our entire marriage, but who was able to work because he only had a couple of classes to finish that term.

He sent me one check. It bounced. I had never experienced hunger before, and like Sophia, I was far too proud to tell anyone how broke I was. In retrospect, that is such an act of callousness that I would have been more than justified in ending the marriage. I didn’t. I took a few things that I could scrape together and I pawned them for $50.00 so I could buy some food, and then I began secretly temping for about 10 hours a week to make a little bit of money. I ate nothing but macaroni and cheese for a couple of weeks until my first paycheck came through. No one at the school found out, so I was able to do enough of this to pay for my groceries.

As you can probably imagine at this point in the story, the marriage failed completely about six months later. But reading this book brought it all back – the rage, the helplessness, the sense of confusion, the reality no one knew that I was married to a child and I was suffering. And I was 24, and it was a completely different time. Women were able to work, and I didn’t have children (thank god I didn’t have children), but I was still tied to this worthless asshole who didn’t care that I was hungry. And I internalized all of this by concluding that, somehow, I was at fault for all of it, and my loyalty to this failure of a person prevented me from asking anyone for help.

I think probably all women have a story like this.

Even with the grim subject matter, though, there is something fresh and appealing about both Sophia and the book that I can’t really explain. It was very frustrating to read, and, although Sophia does get a happy ending, Charles did not get run over by an omnibus, nor did he artistically starve to death, which were the two proper endings for him.

So, I do recommend Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, even if it made me want to hit something.

A Puppet for a Corpse by Dorothy Simpson

Title: A Puppet for a Corpse
Author: Dorothy Simpson
Series: Inspector Luke Thanet #3
Published in 1983

Plot Summary from Goodreads: A doctor’s apparent suicide sets off alarm bells for Detective Inspector Thanet, “a shrewd yet compassionate observer of aberrant human behavior” (The New York Times).

The Hippocratic oath binds medical professionals to a lifetime of helping fellow human beings. For a doctor to kill himself is not just to renege on that pledge, but to betray all mankind. When Dr. Arnold Pettifer is found dead from an overdose of pills and alcohol, Det. Inspector Luke Thanet’s first reaction is disgust. His second is suspicion: This, he thinks, is murder.

Nothing in Pettifer’s life would point to suicide. He had a prospering practice, money in the bank, a beautiful new wife, and a baby on the way. But when Inspector Thanet learns that Pettifer’s wife had taken a lover, he begins to suspect her—only to find that nothing about the death of Dr. Pettifer is as obvious as it may seem.

I picked up one of these Luke Thanet books for a couple of bucks at the UBS before Christmas – I am always looking for new classic mystery series, and this looked like a promising option.

This is the third book in the series I’ve read at this point. I read the 6th book, Dead on Arrival, first, and then I bought the second and third books because they must have been on sale, as I got them both for under $3.00 each, and the price has now increased to $6.50, which is more than I’m willing to spend. I read the second book, Six Feet Under, at the end of December, and then read this one yesterday. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the series at this point.

I haven’t found any of the books to be particularly difficult to figure out. I cottoned on to the solution in Dead on Arrival really early in the book, once a certain piece of information is imparted to the reader. Six Feet Under gave me the most trouble – I only figured out part of it, and not the most important part. Simpson definitely likes to divide the reader’s attention, and works hard to misdirect, which is only partially successful.

The books are set in Kent, England, in the fictional town of Sturrenden (interestingly, Thanet is the name of a district in Kent). Inspector Thanet is a bit cerebral, and is more-or-less happily married to Joan, with two children. His marriage takes up quite a lot of screen time, as he is grappling with Joan going back to work now that the kids are a bit older, and he doesn’t like not having his meals served hot and ready at his beck and call when he gets home.

Puppet for a Corpse was originally published in 1983, although it has a bit more regressive of a feel than the eighties – when I looked up the publication date I was surprised that it wasn’t the early seventies, given the interactions between Luke and Joan. I graduated from high school in 1984, and there was never any expectation between myself and any man I have ever been involved in that I would be his domestic servant. On the other hand, I suppose Luke and Joan are closer to the ages of my parents than they are to my age, and Thanet’s attitude was pretty much the same as my dad’s attitude was when my mom went to work after my brother and I had graduated from high school.

In terms of the mystery, I’ve read enough of these older police procedurals to have had an inkling of what had likely happened, although I didn’t quite figure it out. There isn’t a lot to them- it takes me about 90 minutes to read one from beginning to end. I’ll keep my eye out for them at my library/UBS, and would consider buying more if they went back on sale, but overall, they are in the “take it or leave it” subcategory of mystery fiction.

This books fits well into my Century of Women Authors, though, fulfilling year 1983

The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons

The BachelorThe Bachelor by Stella Gibbons
Publication Date: August 1, 1944
Pages: 420
Genre: fiction
Project: a century of women

Brother and sister, Constance and Kenneth Fielding live in calm respectability, just out of reach of London and the Blitz. But when a series of uninvited guests converge upon them – from a Balkan exile to Ken’s old flame and the siblings’ own raffish father – the household struggles to preserve its precious peace. In this full house, in a quiet corner of suburbia, no one expects to find romance.

I had planned to read this one for a 1944 club on my blog but ran out of time. This is my second Gibbons, and I have not yet read her most celebrated work Cold Comfort Farm – the first one I read was called Nightingale Wood, which I read a couple of years ago.

I think I liked this one a tiny bit better than Nightingale Wood, although it has some of the same issues that I stumbled on in that one. It’s set during WWII, so the characters are on the homefront during the active fighting, but they scarcely seem to notice that there is a war on. There is some talk about the blackout, and a bit during a barrage, and a couple of the characters have war work that they are engaged in, but for the most part the three main character’s lives go on much as they do during peacetime. I’m not sure if this is an accurate depiction of the way that money can smooth all of the rough edges off the world, even during WWII, or if it is a bit of wishful thinking on the part of Gibbons. I tend to think the latter.

It is a bit of a romance, with the characters coupling off all over the place. My issue with The Bachelor is that I found only one of the pairings even remotely appealing or plausible. Gibbons writes flawed characters, which isn’t a problem for me, but also writes characters who need a swift kick in the ass. The only characters I particularly liked were Betty and Alicia, and I actively disliked Vartouhi and Constance and found them unconvincing. Richard and Kenneth (the titular bachelor, btw) were pleasant enough, if a bit wet.

The writing is a pleasure to read, however, and the descriptions of Sunglades, the home where most of the “action” takes place, are beautiful. I will definitely read more Gibbons, because no matter my issues with her novels, they are worth reading.

The Crime at the Noah’s Ark by Molly Thynne

Title: The Crime at the “Noah’s Ark”
Author: Molly Thynne
First published in 1931

Plot Summary from Goodreads: “There’ll be blue murder here before Christmas!”

A number of parties heading for a luxurious holiday spot, are forced by severe winter weather to put up at the ‘Noah’s Ark’, a hostelry they will share with Dr. Constantine, a shrewd chess master and keen observer of all around him. Other guests include bestselling novelist Angus Stuart, the aristocratic Romsey family, a pair of old spinster sisters, and a galloping major whose horseplay gets him into hot water – and then gets him murdered.

Who is the masked intruder who causes such a commotion on the first night? Who has stolen Mrs van Dolen’s emeralds, and who has slashed everyone’s (almost everyone’s) car tyres? And are the murderer and thief one and the same, or are the guests faced with two desperate criminals hiding in plain sight in the snowbound inn? Dr. Constantine, aided by two of the younger guests, is compelled to investigate this sparkling Christmas mystery before anyone else ends up singing in the heavenly choir …

I really enjoyed this one! If you’re looking for a seasonal read, choose The Crime at Noah’s Ark!

Basic plot involves a group of people all unknown to one another who are snowed in at a country wayside inn. Emeralds are stolen, drunk assaultive men are murdered (and no one feels very sorry about it), and there is lots of lurking about and sneaking through darkened corridors. The main character is a likeable author, and there is a tiny bit of romance to go along with the mystery. I guessed a couple of the twists, and pretty much figured out whodunnit, but it was still tons of fun.

This is a very inexpensive treat – it’s $2.99 on kindle, and worth every penny. Kudos to the Dean Street Press for finding and bringing these lesser known golden age authors back into “print,” even if that print is pixels not paper – they have five other mysteries by Molly Thynne on offer, and I plan to read them all eventually. This is one of the best things about the ebook revolution!

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Post previously published on August 29, 2015

North and SouthNorth and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Publication Date: January 1, 1854
Pages: 462
Genre: classic
Project: classics club round 1

'How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?'

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

In her introduction, Patricia Ingham examines geographical, economic and class differences, and male and female roles in North and South. This edition also includes a list for further reading, notes and a glossary.

I read this all the way back in January, and I loved it so much and I had so much to say that I never managed to say any of it. So, settle in. Because this is my favorite Victorian novel of all time. I adore Middlemarch, which comes close, but nothing by Dickens or Collins or Hardy or Trollope can approach the love that I feel for North and South. I can’t believe that I’d never read it.

If I must make full confession, I have to admit that this:

May have something to do with my love for John Thornton. Yes, I’m shallow.

But Richard Armitage isn’t the only reason that I fell in love with North and South. The reasons are numerous:

First, I love the fact that it is set in the industrial north of England, which is a change from much Victorian literature that is set in London. Added to that, the fact that some of the characters are “working class” was a tremendous treat. Nicholas Higgins was a complex character who was treated respectfully by Gaskell, which delighted me. Uneducated though he was, and a bit of a political firebrand, he was willing to humble himself in an effort to get his job back when he took on the obligation of supporting the children of a fellow mill worker who had died.

Second, Mrs. Thornton was a bad ass Victorian lady. After John Thornton’s father speculated badly and lost his money, committing suicide in despair, she was left to raise two children basically by her wits alone. Her son, hardworking and ambitious, is ultimately able to buy the mill and become the owner. He says about his mother:

“My mother managed so that I put by three out of these fifteen shillings regularly. This made the beginning; this taught me self-denial. Now that I am able to afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her own wish, requires, I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me.”

When I take a moment to reflect on how difficult it would have been for a woman like Mrs. Thornton to not merely survive, but to thrive and remain unbowed and unbroken, I am even more impressed by Mrs. Gaskell. Mrs. Thornton has a backbone of steel – talk about strong female characters. In addition, though, she is complex and flawed, which makes her even more compelling.

Finally, the romance between John Thornton and Margaret Hale brings out the best in both of them – eventually. Margaret begins the book haughty, upset at being moved to Milton, missing the sophisticated society of southern England. She is out of her element in the industrial north, and looks down on the working class mill workers. Over time, however, she begins to see the value in their lack of sophistication, plain speech and work ethic.

This same transition occurs with her opinion of Mr. Thornton who proves himself to be more than worthy of Margaret. It is a reversal of the Lizzie Bennett/Mr. Darcy conflict. As Darcy must come to recognize that Lizzie is his equal in spite of her lack of fortune and crazy family, so must Margaret come to the conclusion that Mr. Thornton is her equal, even if he is in trade. He proves again and again that a gentleman is not born, but is made – including when he initially proposes to her, and she rejects summarily rejects him, rather than responding with anger, he takes a different approach:

“Miss Hale might love another — was indifferent and contemptuous to him — but he would yet do her faithful acts of service of which she should never know. He might despise her, but the woman whom he had once loved should be kept from shame; and shame it would be to pledge herself to a lie in a public court, or otherwise to stand and acknowledge her reason for desiring darkness rather than light.”

It takes many months for her to realize that she has fallen in love with him, as he has fallen in love with her.

“At that third call she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. But they both kept silence.

At length she murmured in a broken voice: ‘Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!’ ‘Not good enough! Don’t mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.’”

And she’s right, really – society will think she is marrying down, but it is Thornton who has proven himself to be the more noble person. In the end, they both stand up to their families and declare their love for one another

‘How shall I ever tell Aunt Shaw?’ she whispered, after some time of delicious silence. ‘Let me speak to her.’ ‘Oh, no! I owe to her, — but what will she say?’

‘I can guess. Her first exclamation will be, “That man!”‘

‘Hush!’ said Margaret, ‘or I shall try and show you your mother’s indignant tones as she says, “That woman!”‘

Overall, I highly recommend this book to fans of Austen or Eliot. It is a novel of manners, but tackles significant themes as well: the struggle between modernity and tradition, the plight of the working class, appearance of virtue versus appearance of vice, and other things. I predict that it will turn out to be one of those books that I reread frequently.