Review 1462: Not at Home

Miss Elinor MacFarren is dismayed to realize that something must be done about her finances. With World War II just past, there has not been much recent demand for her beautifully illustrated books on botany. She decides, with the London housing shortage going on, that she must find someone to share her lovely family home, filled with treasures.

When she interviews Mrs. Bankes, whose husband is an American journalist, she has some misgivings, but Mrs. Bankes agrees to all her conditions, and she relies upon the warm recommendation of her friend, Harriet Greenway. It’s not too long after Mrs. Bankes moves in, though, that the house is noisy and disorganized. Miss MacFarren’s precious objects are being mistreated, and Mrs. Bankes is using up all the time of the shared housekeeper. She is even taking Miss MacFarren’s food from the kitchen.

Mrs. Bankes proves to be a manipulator and a liar, willing to do or say anything to get her way. The situation is complicated when Mr. Bankes arrives, because he is so nice and appreciative of the house. Miss MacFarren can’t bring herself to give them notice while he is there.

This domestic comedy is thoroughly enjoyable as Miss MacFarren gets out of her rut, meeting new people and re-evaluating old acquaintances. With their help, she tries to figure out how to eject her unwelcome lodger.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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Review 1461: Expiation

Milly Bott, a plump little woman like a dove, is suddenly a widow after her husband Ernest’s accident. The respectable Botts gather around her to commiserate, but she appears to be stunned. Then comes the fateful news. Her husband has left her only £1000 of his huge fortune, giving the rest to a home for fallen women and ending his will with “she will know why.”

Of course, the family assumes that Milly has had an affair. They decide that the only way to avoid scandal is to rally around her. But Milly has other ideas. She decides to run off to London to get her legacy and then travel to Switzerland to stay with her sister, Agatha. For, the only other scandal in the Bott family was created when Agatha eloped with a Swiss. Milly decides she will confess her sins to Agatha and go on to live a life of expiation, for she has indeed had an affair.

But naïve and sweet-natured Milly is in for many disillusions, beginning with her first meeting with her sister in 25 years, for Ernest forbade the association. Milly has been writing to her sister secretly and encounters her in London.

Expiation is a social satire that is sometimes hilarious and sometimes touching. As the virtuous characters jump from one conclusion to another and behave with less Christian forgiveness the more religious they are, poor silly but penitent and unfailingly kind Milly unwittingly turns their lives topsy-turvy.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1459: The Charterhouse of Parma

I found a nice hardcopy edition of The Charterhouse of Parma a while back and finally decided to read it. I have to conclude that I am not a fan of Stendahl. I read The Red and the Black a few years ago and deeply disliked its hero, who is essentially a sociopath.

The Charterhouse of Parma is about the life of a young Italian nobleman, Fabrizio, the second son of the Marchese and Marchesa del Dongo. When Fabrizio is a boy, the region where he lives, near Lake Como, goes back and forth between occupation by the French and rule by Austria. Although Fabrizio’s father is a conservative devoted to the Austrian king, Fabrizio grows up with romantic stories about Napoleon’s exploits. When he is a young man, extremely naïve and stupid, he runs off to fight for Napoleon just in time for Waterloo. He doesn’t even know how to join the army so ends up being mistaken for a spy and having so many ridiculous exploits that I thought I was reading a comedy. I wasn’t. In any case, this adventure results in his being accused by his elder brother of being a spy for the French so that he can no longer reside in Austria, which includes portions of Italy.

Meanwhile, his beloved aunt, the Countess Pietranara, is widowed. She eventually meets Count Mosca, a powerful person in the government of Parma, who falls in love with her. He offers to quit his position and move to Milan to be her impoverished lover (he is married) or to have her marry Duke Sanseverina in name only so that she can respectably move to Parma and be at court—and also be his mistress. She chooses the latter plan.

After Fabrizio’s return from the front, Duchess Sanseverina and Count Mosca try to help Fabrizio gain some position worthy of his birth. They choose the church and advise him how to behave. But Fabrizio is struggling between his instincts and his conscience and consistently falls into one mishap after another.

When I tell you that Tolstoy modelled his description of Waterloo—the least interesting part of War and Peace, which I consistently skipped over—after Stendahl’s, and when I say further that Waterloo, to me, was one of the most interesting parts of this book, you will guess how much I enjoyed it. Actually, I should say the first half of the book, because I finally stopped reading. I did not find Fabrizio interesting and didn’t really care what happened to him.

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Review 1429: The Old Man’s Birthday

I’ve only read two books by Richmal Crompton, but she seems to be interested in studying the individual members of large families. In The Old Man’s Birthday, she focuses this interest around Matthew Rowston’s 95th birthday.

Matthew has led an exciting and sometimes disreputable life, but he married an extremely conventional woman and now lives in a village stifled by class consciousness and respectability concerns. To this birthday party, he has insisted on inviting his grandson Stephen, who is living with a married woman and has been cast off by most of the rest of the family. Part of Matthew’s motivation is a perverse desire to shock these family members, but when he meets Stephen’s partner, Beatrice, he is also reminded of a girl he loved when he was young.

This novel is about how the introduction of a single person into a group can change dynamics that seem fairly set. You may feel that a multitude of difficult situations are resolved too easily, but still, this is an enjoyable and touching novel. I read it for Classics Club and was glad I did.

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Review 1425: High Wages

Jane Carter is a young girl hoping to get a job in Tidsley so she can move out of her stepmother’s house. While her father was alive, she was educated and cherished, but since the age of 15, she’s only been tolerated in her home. In front of Chadwick’s shop, she sees a sign posted for a shop girl. This would be a good opportunity for her, because Chadwick’s is the best draper in Tidsley. And, as she is of genteel appearance, she is hired.

She is excited to get the job, although she slowly realizes its problems. The room above the shop where she must live is not very nice, but it seems fine to her, and her roommate, Maggie, is friendly. However, Mrs. Chadwick skimps on the girls’ food, and Mr. Chadwick sometimes cheats her out of her commission, taking it for himself. Worse, though, is his caution at change in the shop. Jane finds she is good at her job and has ideas that will make money, but Chadwick often won’t let her try them.

A difficulty she isn’t aware of, as Maggie and her young man, Wilfred, invite her out with them every Sunday, is that Wilfred is falling in love with her. She, herself, is attracted by a young man named Noel Yarde, but he is above her in class. Then, lives change as World War I begins.

This novel has an appealing heroine, naïve yet practical, and not to be beaten down. Its realistic portrait of the times, particularly as they change over a period of about eight years, is interesting. The flavor of the northern town, with its grimness and social barriers, is interesting, too. As usual with Whipple,, I enjoyed this novel very much.

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Review 1423: Literary Wives! The Home-Maker

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

The Home-Maker is a reread for me, so let me just provide a link to my original review and then discuss our regular question.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Evangeline Knapp is a perfect example of a woman, like my mother, who was not suited to be a housewife, a kind of person not recognized in her time. Unlike my mother, who at home was the female equivalent of Lester Knapp at work, Evangeline compensates by becoming overzealous and overparticular in her housekeeping, making the immaculate home a miserable place for everyone, including herself.

In this ground-breaking work of 1924, the couple are forced to switch places, and Evangeline finds her place in life. At work in a department store, her efficiency and energy are appreciated, and because she enjoys the work, she loses her resentment. The Knapps change from a dysfunctional family to one that is much happier, because everyone is happy in his or her role. In  fact, to keep this happy solution in this chauvinist time, they have to come up with a rather shocking solution. The Knapps develop a true partnership in their marriage.

Literary Wives logoI like this novel because instead of depicting a family in stasis, it presents a problem that probably wasn’t much recognized in its time and shows how the family relationships improve as a result of its solution. The marriage evolves from a somewhat unhappy one to a happy one, and everyone is fulfilled. Lester understands Evangeline’s need for meaningful work, and he enjoys taking her position in the household, albeit not providing an immaculate household but a loving, slightly messy one. Evangeline’s sharp temper subsides.

In her way, Evangeline is a little more exaggerated version of Brenda in Happenstance, who began to have periods of anger before she took up quilting.

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Review 1412: Classics Club Spin Review! The Wise Virgins

The novel selected for me by the latest Classics Club Spin is The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf. This semi-autobiographical novel is partially about the courtship of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, in the characters of Harry Davis and Camilla Lawrence.

Harry and his family have just moved to the London suburb of Richstead and are shortly befriended by the Garland family, which has four unmarried daughters. Harry is disdainful of life in Richstead and of the fates of the spinster daughters, given up to good works or golf and tennis. The youngest daughter, Gwen, is naïve and gives undue weight to his discontented utterances. He amuses himself by giving her books and plays to read of Dostoevsky and Shaw.

In his art class, Harry is drawn to Camilla Lawrence, a cool beauty. When she invites him home, he finds it one of ideas and stimulating conversation. Camilla has suitors, but she is less interested in marriage than in a quest for self-fulfillment. She is repeatedly alleged to be passionless.

This novel was considered somewhat shocking in its time but was notable for examining the fates of conventional young women in Edwardian England. Harry is not a likable hero nor is Camilla very knowable. I personally did not like their glib and superior dismissal of whole classes of people. I always imagine the Bloomsbury circle snidely sniping at everyone else (and behind each other’s backs), and this novel didn’t make me rethink that idea.

This is probably taking the novel out of its time, but simply the continual reference to unmarried women by Harry as virgins irritated me to no end. He is so superior and supercilious. The introduction to the book says that “virgin” was synonymous with unmarried woman to Edwardians, but clearly for Harry there’s a sneer involved. One article I read calls Harry a truth-teller, but some of the things he says seem only designed to stir people up and make him seem more like eighteen than twenty-eight. Also uncomfortable for modern readers is the antisemitism that is accepted unquestioned by Harry and his family, who are Jewish.

Finally, there are lots of references to talking in this book, and for people who are looking for a purpose in life besides marriage and other predictable fates, they aren’t doing much actual acting. I think Woolf is pointing that out, though, by the chapter headings.

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