Tag Archives: Middlebrow

A Middlebrow Month

Square HauntingSquare Haunting by Francesca Wade
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 14, 2020
Genre: non-fiction
Pages: 432

An engrossing group portrait of five women writers, including Virginia Woolf, who moved to London's Mecklenburgh Square in search of new freedom in their life and work.

"I like this London life . . . the street-sauntering and square-haunting."--Virginia Woolf, diary, 1925

In the early twentieth century, Mecklenburgh Square--a hidden architectural gem in London's Bloomsbury--was a radical address, home to students, struggling artists, and revolutionaries. And in the pivotal era between the two world wars, the lives of five remarkable women intertwined around this one address: the modernist poet H. D., detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power, and author and publisher Virginia Woolf. In an era when women's freedoms were fast expanding, they each sought a space where they could live, love, and--above all--work independently.

With sparkling insight and a novelistic style, Francesca Wade sheds new light on a group of artists and thinkers whose pioneering work would enrich the possibilities of women's lives for generations to come.

Officially, Halloween bingo is over, and has been a rousing success, as always. I blacked out my bingo card, and then some. You can find my In Memoriam page here.

With that introduction, I’m moving into a different part of my reading year. I can’t say that I won’t be reading mysteries, because by far the most consistent genre I read is mystery, and especially vintage mystery. In addition, with the holidays rapidly approaching, I will be pulling out winter/Christmas themed mysteries and stories. But, as well, I am trying something new this year – November is Middlebrow Month for me, and I will be directing my attention, and my content, to books that were written by British women between 1910 and 1960.

Which brings me to Square Haunting – a book that I actually finished in August. This review has been sitting in my “scheduled” reviews since before September 1, waiting to drop. This is a fairly rare occurrence for me – I typically only write up reviews one or two days before they post. This is also a non-fiction book, which is also fairly rare for me.

The title of the book is presumably taken from a Virgina Woolf essay called Street Haunting, a London Adventure, which a friend and fellow blogger, BrokenTune, linked to in a thread on Goodreads. I haven’t read very much Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse as a young(er) reader, but none of her essays or other books. I found Street Haunting to be a delightful essay about the glories of “Town” living:

As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: “Really I must buy a pencil,” as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter–rambling the streets of London.

BrokenTune had also been reading Square Haunting, which looked intriguing, so I added it to my library hold list and started reading as soon as it came up. It took me a week or so to finish it – I often struggle with nonfiction – and I loved it. So much that I have since bought a copy of the book for my own shelves.

The premise of the book is unique – miniature biographies of five British women, all of whom ended up living in the same Bloomsbury square (Mecklenburg square) between 1919 and 1940. The women are: Hilda Doolitle (who went by H.D.), Dorothy Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power and, of course, Virginia Woolf. Of the five, I had only previously read (or even heard of, to be frank)  Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf. H.D. was a poet, Jane Harrison was a classical scholar and Eileen Power was a medievalist. All five women were members of the “Bloomsbury group” in some capacity or another; all but Woolf were serious scholars who attended either Oxford or Cambridge, but who were unable to receive degrees at the time of their “graduation.”

Ultimately, the women who graduated from an Oxford womens college were awarded degrees – the University passed a retroactive statute in October, 1920. It took until 1948 for Cambridge University to do the right thing and grant degrees to women, a full quarter century later.

But, I digress into an area that will simply enrage me, so back to Square Haunting. I so thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in any of the five women profiled, the Bloomsbury Group, or feminist history. Their lives were fascinating. They were privileged, sure – a group of intellectually brilliant women from backgrounds that were sufficient to grant them entrance in one of the Oxbridge Universities in the late 19th or early 20th century when places for women were scant indeed. 

Nonetheless, each of them, in her own way, chose a life that was completely different from what she had been brought up to expect. And each woman supported herself in a world where women didn’t really do that. They were expected to use their intelligence and their resourcefulness to help the men who chose them in their careers, not have a career of their own.

As Dorothy Sayers writes, in Strong Poison, her first Harriet Vane/Peter Wimsey mystery:

Genius must be served, not argued with,” sniffs an associate of Boyes’s, insisting that Harriet poisoned her lover out of jealousy at his superior intellect. A friend of Harriet’s puts it differently, summing up the attitude a successful woman writer had to contend with: “She ought to have been ministering to his work, not making money for them both with her own independent trash.” 

Nonetheless, as Wade says “Harriet knows her own worth, and refuses to spare Boyes’s ego by diminishing her own achievements.

With respect to the fourth woman profiled, Eileen Power, she “was very conscious that, as Jane Harrison put it in 1914, “the virtues supposed to be womanly are in the main the virtues generated by subordinate social position.” Like Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote in her caustic 1938 essay “Are Women Human?” that it was “repugnant…to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person,” Power railed against the social system which “is so anxious for people to be correct that it effectually prevents them from being true.

Virginia Woolf lived in Mecklenburgh Square quite a bit later than the preceding four, and her residence occurred at least partially during the Blitz. Her connection is the most tenuous – she lived there a very short time, and spent much of the time she lived at her home in the country. When she left Mecklenburgh Square, she left London for good. Many of the homes in the square were leveled in the Blitz.

The most engaging thing about the book was the overview of the intellectual life of the five women and their social group – it was a veritable who’s who of interwar British literary and scholarly society, and just tracking the other women authors who were mentioned as a delight – Rose Macauley, Elizabeth Bowen, Agatha Christie (of course – although she wasn’t a part of this very Bohemian group of individuals), Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain are just some of the names mentioned. 

After finishing, I picked up Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession, which covers many of these same novelists. And  it inspired, at least in part, the next few months of my reading plans. I don’t think that there could be a higher recommendation than that?

Return to Pym-land: Less Than Angels

Less Than AngelsLess Than Angels by Barbara Pym
Publication Date: January 1, 1955
Genre: fiction
Pages: 262

This classic novel holds the mirror up to human nature and the battle between the sexes as it explores the love lives of a group of anthropologists

Catherine Oliphant writes for women’s magazines and lives comfortably with anthropologist Tom Mallow—although she’s starting to wonder if they’ll ever get married. Then Tom drops his bombshell: He’s leaving her for nineteen-year-old student Deirdre Swan. Though stunned by Tom’s betrayal, Catherine quickly becomes fascinated by another anthropologist, Alaric Lydgate, a reclusive eccentric recently returned from Africa. As Catherine starts to weigh her options she gradually realizes who she is and what she really wants.

With its lively cast of characters, Less Than Angels is an incisive social satire that opens a window onto the insular world of academia. It’s also a poignant and playful riff on the messy mating habits of humans and the traits that separate us from our anthropological forebears—far fewer than we may imagine.

Project: a century of women

It’s been a few months since I read this – I never got around to writing the post about it and now I’ve forgotten most of what I had to say! This is the third Pym that I’ve read – my first was Excellent Women, which I loved, and then second was A Quartet in Autumn, which was much darker in tone. I would put Less Than Angels in the middle, between them. I read it as a buddy read with some friends on Goodreads, and it generated some lively discussion.

The thing that I like about Pym, that this book does really well, is her somewhat rueful examination of a very specific type of British woman. Less Than Angels focuses on Catherine Oliphant, a young woman who is a writer, and who is in a relationship with an anthropologist named Tom, who has been away in the field. He is very scholarly and dismissive and of her accomplishments, and she accepts this attitude as well-warranted. She is waiting for him to propose. Instead of proposing, he takes up with a nineteen year old named Deirdre.

I’d like to say that Tom’s ridiculousness and Catherine’s acceptance of it are things of the past, but I was young in the 1980’s and many of these same attitudes of male entitlement prevailed at that time, as well. I can’t speak to what’s happening today, because I’ve been married to a wonderfully supportive man for two and a half decades, and I’ve raised a son who I believe I have imbued with a sense that his maleness doesn’t entitle him to anything. But, I digress a bit.

Pym’s books are wonderfully character driven, and she holds a microscope up to their behaviors.

It is surely appropriate that anthropologists, who spend their time studying life and behavior in various societies, should be studied in their turn,” says Barbara Pym.

There is a gentle sort of mockery in Pym’s attitudes towards her characters. I get the sense that she both likes them, but also that she sees their foibles and occasionally inexplicable behaviors. It reminds me of the attitude that many families have towards their own parents/siblings – proprietary, but still clear-eyed about their failings.

I have a few more Pyms in my possession – Jane and Prudence and Some Tame Gazelle, that I plan to read next year.

The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons

The BachelorThe Bachelor by Stella Gibbons
Publication Date: August 1, 1944
Genre: fiction
Pages: 420

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.

Project: a century of women

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.

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Nightingale WoodNightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons
Publication Date: April 1, 1938
Genre: fiction
Pages: 387

A sly and satirical fairytale by the author of Cold Comfort Farm

Unavailable for decades, Stella Gibbons's Nightingale Wood is a delightfully modern romance ripe for rediscovery by the many fans of Cold Comfort Farm.

Poor, lovely Viola has been left penniless and alone after her late husband's demise, and is forced to live with his family in their joy­less home. Its occupants are nearly insufferable: Mr. Withers is a tyrannical old miser; Mrs. Withers dismisses her as a common shop girl; and Viola's sisters-in-law, Madge and Tina, are too preoccupied with their own troubles to give her much thought. Only the prospect of the upcoming charity ball can lift her spirits-especially as Victor Spring, the local prince charming, will be there. But Victor's intentions towards the young widow are, in short, not quite honorable.

I have not read Gibbons’s most famous novel, Cold Comfort Farm. One of my goodreads groups focuses on dead authors, and we are doing a genre challenge, so this novel won the poll for our February romance genre group read. I fell in love with the cover, and being completely shallow, I was excited to read.

Nightingale Wood was published in 1938, prior to the beginning of WWII, and is set near the end of the interwar period. It is marketed as a Cinderella-style tale. There are three main female leads: Viola (the Cinderella of this tale), Tina, and Hetty. Viola is the widow of Teddy Wither, who is brother to Tina and the rather awful Madge, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Marge Dursley, from her over-sized, inelegant tweed-clad frame, to her obsession with dogs.

My favorite character is the bookish Hetty, cousin of the charming Victor, who lives at Grasmere. Viola, Tina and Madge all live at the neighboring manse, The Eagles. I really love books set during this time period – it was period of immense social and cultural change, and these changes make for great fiction. The roles of girls and women are in constant flux.

Of the three female leads, Tina has, for me, the most satisfying romance. Lady Chatterly style, she takes up with the chauffeur, Saxon. Saxon is an interesting character – he is ambitions, talented, and quite the up-and-comer. She is a full dozen years older than Saxon, and is both wily and unconventional. The resolution of their story is convincingly lovely, in spite of the obstacles they overcome to find happiness.

Viola is a bit of a wet hen – conventionally dissolving into tears at the drop of the hat. But, she rallies nicely to help out an old friend, and her happy ending is both deserved and pleasing, if not very romantic.

Hetty was my favorite character, but her romance was the least satisfying – volatile and capricious. I would have loved a full length book with Hetty as the main character, and I was not pleased with the way that her story ended.

I enjoyed this one enough to seek out more books by Gibbons.

Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson

Katherine WentworthKatherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson
Series: Katherine Wentworth #1
Publication Date: January 1, 1964
Genre: fiction
Pages: 279

A pretty, courageous young widow, faced with the task of bringing up three children and making her way alone in the world is the appealing heroine of this touching love story executed with D.E. Stevenson’s characteristic freshness and charm.

The thirty-ninth novel from the beloved author of The Blue Sapphire, Bel Lamington, and Fletcher’s Eng — this new work centers around Katherine Wentworth, married at the age of nineteen to a man with whom she was very much in love. Widowed after only four years of happiness with Gerald, Katherine is left to bring up her stepson, Simon, as well as her own twins, Daisy and Denis.

Katherine’s struggle to raise her children wisely is one which will move every reader deeply. Told in first person, the story sensitively evokes the personality of Katherine’s husband, whose many outstanding qualities are now perpetuated in his children. When Simon, growing to manhood, suddenly becomes heir to the family fortunes, he faces the difficult decision of either moving to the estate of his domineering grandfather or giving up the inheritance to remain free, as his father did before him.

While Simon wrestles with his problem, Katherine finds romance entering her life in the person of Alec Maclaren, the brother of an old friend. Thrown together on a vacation in the Scottish Highlands, the two realize in each other’s company a new zest for living, and soon Katherine is faced with a future that promises she will no longer be alone.

As in her many other works, D.E. Stevenson has again created a realistic world of warm, believable people whose company brings delight to the reader.

Project: a century of women

I’ve had Dorothy Emily Stevenson on my list of authors to try for at least five years. I already own two of her books: Miss Buncles Book on kindle, and Mrs. Tim of the Regiment in paperback. I can’t really say what made me finally read this Kindle Unlimited offering – probably just because I will be cancelling the service in November, and I figured I might as well get as much out of it as it can before it goes. At this point, I have identified four D.E. Stevenson books that are available in the KU library: this one, the sequel called Katherine’s Marriage, Amberwell, and Anna and her Daughters. I have already downloaded Katherine’s Marriage, because I must know what happens next for Katherine, Simon, Den and Daisy, and Alec.

Katherine Wentworth, both the book and the character, are simply charming. This is a book where little happens, but it is still such a satisfying read. Katherine is a young widow, raising her stepson, Simon, who is 16 during most of the book, and her 7 year old twins, Denis and Marguerite (Den and Daisy). At the beginning of the book, she runs into an old school friend, Zilla, while having a day on her own, which really starts the book in it’s romantic trajectory.

Katherine is neither perfect nor smug – she is a simply wonderful character. She’s sensible, loving, kind, and cheerfully makes do with what must be quite a small income. Her husband, Gerald, died very unexpectedly, leaving her both grief-stricken and impoverished in a genteel fashion. During the course of the book, they discover that Simon has become the heir to the large estate, that Gerald fled from as a youth. Simon is enticed there, where the family attempts to buy his acquiescence with offers of affluence.

One of the things I liked about this book is that the main characters are just genuinely nice. Simon is a nice kid – flawed, of course, as boys of 16 are, taken with the trappings of wealth, but his step-mother, Katherine, who is probably only 10 years his elder, is just such a generous and sensible person, and she has done such a fine job caring for him after his father died, that his ethics and integrity are well-grounded enough to withstand the pressure. The love interest, Alec (spoiler alert) is also a lovely man, a wealthy Scottish lawyer, not bothering to be jealous over Katherine’s past and the fact that she loved her husband. His proposal to her is simply touching.

‘Oh dear, I’d forgotten you were so rich! Everyone will say I’m marrying you for your money. All your friends will be sorry for you—have you thought of that, Alec?—they’ll say you’ve been caught by a designing widow with three——’

‘Let them say! I don’t care a tinker’s curse what anybody says—besides we’ll be married before “they” know anything at all about it. You don’t mind what people say, do you?’

‘I think I do—a little.’

‘Silly,’ said Alec, giving me a gentle squeeze.

‘Not silly,’ I told him. ‘I wish I had a little more money of my own. You’re marrying a beggar-woman, Alec.’

‘When we’re married I shall endow you “with all my worldly goods,” so you’ll be reasonably well off.’

‘I wish I had money of my own—now. For one thing I should like to be able to give you a really nice wedding present.’

‘You can,’ said Alec. ‘I want a half share in the children.’

There were tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. I couldn’t speak.

‘I hope they’ll be pleased,’ continued Alec in doubtful tones. ‘It’s bound to be a bit of a shock to them—we must be prepared for that. You’ll have to watch them carefully; don’t let them brood about it and get all sorts of wrong ideas into their heads. Daisy and Denis will get used to it, if we give them plenty of time, but I’m worried about Simon.’

I’m pretty sure that this isn’t one of Stevenson’s better known offerings. It’s a small book, full of small moments, but it was a lovely thing to read on a quiet Saturday in October.