Review 1604: The Stone of Chastity

The Stone of Chastity is a bit of comic froth, poking fun at small village life. It is a farrago of nonsense populated by eccentric characters.

Nicholas Pounce is a recent Oxford graduate who has yet to find a purpose in life and isn’t trying very hard to find one. So, his uncle, Professor Pounce, announces that Nicholas can be his unpaid research assistant in a special project.

Professor Pounce has found an intriguing reference to folklore in an old diary. It asserts that there is a stone in a brook in the village of Gillenham, the Stone of Chastity. If a chaste woman steps on it, she can get across the brook, but if an unchaste woman steps on it, she will fall into the water. Note that no one seems to be testing the men.

When Nicholas and his mother arrive at the Old Manor in Gillenham, the house the professor has taken, they find Professor Pounce already in residence along with a sultry beauty, Carmen Smith, whose presence is unexplained.

The first thing Professor Pounce does is make up a questionnaire and have Nicholas distribute it throughout the village. Although the professor asks if people have heard about the stone, he also asks about the recipients’ chastity and seems unable to understand that the villagers may be offended.

They are, and a lot of resentment begins to build, especially among the cohorts of Mrs. Pye, an angry and fanatical Nonconformist. Also offended is the vicar’s wife, who has the Boy Scouts collect all the surveys and destroy them. The professor only gets one back, but it contains electrifying information: not only has the recipient heard of the Stone of Chastity, she has it in her scullery!

I have to admit this novel is funny, although much of its humor is slightly politically incorrect these days. It is funny enough that even this recap is making me laugh. Aside from the silly subject matter, it pokes fun at the rustic villagers as well as the researchers, although it bases a lot of its humor on class.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1601: Chatterton Square

Two very different families live across the road from each other on Chatterton Square. Mr. Blackett is self-satisfied and judgmental. He thinks Mrs. Fraser across the way is no better than she should be and is trying to attract him. He doesn’t understand that Rosamund Fraser is teasing him because of his conceit.

Rosamund Fraser is separated from her husband and supporting a household that contains her three sons and two daughters as well as Miss Spanner, a single friend and boarder. She runs her household loosely, and their warm home contrasts starkly with the Blacketts’, where Mr. Blackett is always picking on someone, particularly his daughter, Rhoda.

This novel is about more than two families or even about the three statuses available to women at the time. For, it is set shortly before World War II, when the British government was for appeasement. Mr. Blackett, who somehow managed to avoid serving in the First World War, is all for appeasement. Across the road, Rosamund Fraser believes appeasement is shameful, that you don’t make deals with criminals. Despite her fears for her sons, she feels war is the only honorable way forward.

There is finally the state of Rosamund’s marriage as well as Bertha Blackett’s. Rosamund, having been deserted by Fergus and assented to divorce, feels free to fall in love again, with Piers Lindsay, Bertha Blackett’s cousin. But having asked for a divorce, Fergus fall silent. Bertha has for years been hiding her contempt for her husband by pretending complete subservience to him. But eventually her true self must emerge.

This is an absorbing and ultimately touching novel about a particular time and place. The characters are believable and the women and most of the children sympathetic.

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

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Review 1595: Mansfield Park

I was having difficulty reading another book, so I decided to take a break by rereading Mansfield Park, which is on my Classics Club list. In these days, Austen’s heroine, Fanny Price, is not admired, but she is a true and admirable product of her environment and circumstances.

At nine, Fanny is brought to live at Mansfield Park as an act of charity, for she is a poor relation. She is taught to be grateful for this charity and to have no expectations for herself. Sir Thomas Bertram is an upright, stern man whom she and her cousins fear. Lady Bertram is languid. Fanny’s Aunt Norris, who suggested they give her a home in the first place, actively dislikes her and favors her female cousins, particularly Maria.

Fanny is very shy and miserable at first, but the younger son of the house, Edmund, takes her under his wing, is her friend and educator.

As a young lady, Fanny is happy to be of service and not used to her needs or inclinations being attended to. Then two things happen at about the same time. Sir Thomas goes away on a lengthy business trip, and Mary and Henry Crawford arrive to stay with the Grants at the parsonage. Edmund, whom Fanny loves, is immediately attracted to Mary, but Fanny is dismayed by the sister and brother’s lack of principles. Maria Bertram is engaged by then to a rich but stupid young man, but Henry Crawford flirts with both Bertram sisters, playing one off the other. Mary’s behavior is more or less impeccable, but she expresses unprincipled ideas. Edmund seems blind to her faults.

Fanny is one of Austen’s more thoughtful heroines. Will she ever be appreciated for her qualities of affection, duty, and principle? Will Edmund marry Mary or recognize Fanny’s superior qualities? Well, we can all probably answer that, but the journey there is wonderful, as Austen’s novels tend to be.

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Review 1594: They Were Divided

They Were Divided is the third book in Míklos Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy about the fortunes of Hungary and its leaders coming up to the First World War. It again follows two young noblemen, Laszlo Gyeroffy and Balint Abady, but it is mostly about Balint.

I got a little bogged down in They Were Found Wanting, the second volume of this series. I think that was because I wasn’t particularly interested in Balint’s affair with the married Adrienne, which occupied much of that volume. In that book (small spoiler for the second book), Adrienne kept delaying her request for a divorce from her husband out of fear of a man who was becoming more and more unstable. Now, he has been consigned to a mental hospital, which means that Adrienne cannot legally divorce him. So, Balint and Adrienne are forced to discreetly continue their affair.

On the political front, the Budapest legislature continues its obstructive techniques, not allowing any legislation relating to modernization. But Balint is more and more concerned about the events in other countries that he fears are leading to war. The Hungarian politicians continue to behave as if nothing outside their country affects them.

As for Laszlo, having gambled away most of his inheritance and been cheated of the rest, he has settled down in a small cottage on his estate to drink himself to death.

This novel has some amusing moments and is full of eccentric characters, but it is essentially serious. It depicts a society that has ceased to take care of its property and obligations, including its obligations in government, and spends all its time in frivolous activities. It does have one conversation that made me wince, where Balint insists that historically, nobles did not abuse their serfs because it would be against their own interests. It’s hard to tell whether this is supposed to show Balint’s own naïveté or whether Bánffy really believed this, or perhaps the novel is trying to show what a particular type of Hungarian believes (although I am fairly sure that Balint is Bánffy’s alter ego). Obviously, Balint, anyway, doesn’t compare that thought with his own observations of the Hungarian nobles gambling away their inheritances and mismanaging their government.

Did I enjoy this series? It provided me with a window into a time and place I knew very little about. It was more interesting than not. It was evocative in describing scenery, settings, and characters. At times the series went slowly, but this book clipped along pretty well until the last few pages, when Bánffy was trying hard to get the moral in.

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Review 1589: My Husband Simon

According to Simon Thomas’s Afterword for My Husband Simon, the publicity for it posed the heroine’s dilemma as wife vs. mistress. And that’s just typical, isn’t it? When the real choice was marriage vs. not just a writing career but the ability to be a good writer.

Simon’s Afterword discusses the class element of the novel, which comes out in nuances an American reader wouldn’t necessarily pick up on, at least not all of them. (For example, I didn’t get the distinction between Pardon? and Why? until I read the Afterword, although I understood there was something wrong with Pardon?)

Nevertheless, it’s clear from the beginning that Nevis Falconer, a young writer with one very good book out, and the man she chooses to marry, Simon Quinn, are singularly poorly suited. Nevis enjoys sophisticated, witty people who know about books and culture. Simon is actually proud of his ignorance and prefers the country and physical activity. The attraction is physical, and the two consummate it almost the day they meet. Then they immediately get married.

Four years later, there’s trouble in paradise. The couple alternates arguments with love making for a highly volatile relationship. But the worst thing is, Nevis hasn’t written anything good the whole time. And Simon and his family make insulting remarks about her career. He speaks of her doing nothing all day and is continually on at her about the state of the house.

This novel, published in 1931, takes a very serious look at the dilemma of working women of the time, especially those in the arts, a dilemma that still exists in many ways. Although I couldn’t really understand Nevis’s attraction to Simon—to me, he belittled her too much—the ways of sexual attraction are enigmatic.

Panter-Downes is a lovely writer, and I enjoyed this novel very much.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1586: Literary Wives! The Age of Innocence

Cover for The Age of Innocence

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!

Cynthia of I Love Days
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

I reviewed this novel, one of my favorites, back in 2015, and I find I still agree with my original review. So, I will not re-review it, but instead am providing the link to the original review. Then I will go on to consider our usual question for this club.

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

“Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!” So thinks Newland Archer in contemplating May Welland, his fiancée. But of course, that’s the kind of innocence May has, as he is too slow to discover, just as he is too slow to discover he is actually in love with May’s cousin, the Countess Olenska. Newland has fastened on May’s shining purity, so that even as he hopes never to live a life of sameness, to teach May to appreciate the arts and travel, he hasn’t seemed to notice the sameness that the Wellands pursue as they cater to their hypochondriacal patriarch, spending the late winters in St. Augustine and the summers in Newport, carefully following the dictates of society.

In this novel, we don’t so much see what it’s like to be Newland’s wife as to be May’s husband. On their honeymoon, after May has dismissed the tutor Newland wishes to invite for dinner as “common,” with her limited, provincial thinking, Newland “perceived with a flash of chilling insight that in future many problems would be thus negatively solved for him, but . . . he took refuge in the comforting platitude that the first six months were always the most difficult in marriage. ‘After that I suppose we shall have pretty nearly finished rubbing off each other’s angles,’ he reflected; but the worst of it was that May’s pressure was already bearing on the very angles whose sharpness he most wanted to keep.”

Two years into the marriage, he makes plans to take flight with Ellen Olenska, thinking he can talk her into it when she is resolved not to betray her family. Wharton has just explained that Newland has given up reading poetry in the evenings because May “had begun to hazard her own [opinions], with results destructive to his enjoyment of the works commented upon.” In that scene, where he finds himself literally stifling, “As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion.”

The other important marriage in this novel is only hinted at, but it underlies all of the action. That is Ellen’s marriage to Count Olenski. We are told the man is a brute, that he is a womanizer. When the Count’s secretary comes to make Ellen an offer to return to her husband, he tells Newland he has seen a change in her—that she must not go back.

Literary Wives logo

Ellen herself is reticent about her marriage, and I am actually not sure what Olenski’s brutishness is supposed to consist of, but I think we are to understand that she has found, despite its faults, New York society possesses a fineness and honesty that is not present in her former milieu. She wants to become a better person, so she will not go back and she does not wish to betray May and the rest of the family despite her love for Newland. And May, despite her false assumption that the two are having an affair, finds the best way to thwart Newland’s plans.

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Review 1584: Milly Darrell

When Mary Crofton attends a charmless school to learn to be a governess, she is befriended by an heiress, Milly Darrell. Milly is a beautiful and good-natured girl whose life becomes complicated when her widowed father remarries.

Augusta Darrell doesn’t like Milly, but the situation changes for the worse with the reappearance in the area of a neighbor, Angus Egerton. Before he returns, the girls hear the story of his falling out with his mother after he fell in love with a girl of low birth. When his mother prevented the marriage, he swore never to return while his mother was alive and was said to have lived dissolutely. His mother dead, he returns to try to repair his dilapidated estate.

It is easy to guess that Mrs. Darrell has something to do with this story but not so easy to see how that will affect the plot. This thickens when Milly and Angus fall in love with each other.

This novella is a typical sensation work of its time. It is short and fun to read. For some reason, though, the publisher has chosen to add an alternate ending which, while not materially different from the original, is a travesty of purple prose—an indication of a lack of discrimination on their part.

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Review 1581: Somewhere in England

When I received a review copy of Somewhere in England from Furrowed Middlebrow, I realized that it was a sequel. So, I ordered the previous book, the delightful Nothing to Report, to read and review first.

To introduce the plot of Somewhere in England, I have to include a spoiler or two for the previous book. The novel begins with 18-year-old Pippa Johnson, who is about to take a position in a war hospital established in the family home of Mary Morrison, the main character of the previous book. In between novels, Mary Morrison married Kit Hungerford, who had purchased her family home. Now, Mary Hungerford is administering the hospital.

The first part of the novel has to do with Pippa meeting the hospital staff and villagers. It is more concerned with the social side of things than the war work as we meet familiar characters again. Elisabeth, who made her debut the summer of 1939 in the previous book, is a nurse whose fiancé has died, and she is rude to young Pippa. Lalage is friendly and will make a good nurse, but her sister Rosemary and mother Marcelle continue with their selfish ways. Most people, though, are occupied with some kind of war work.

The second part of the novel returns to the point of view of Mary, who is constantly dealing with difficult situations all the while worried for her husband overseas.

I enjoyed this novel, but it is hard to describe. It was fun to revisit the characters of Nothing to Report and see how they’re doing during the war. I think that as a sequel it stands well enough alone, but my enjoyment was enhanced by having read Nothing to Report first.

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Review 1580: Barometer Rising

I got interested in the 1917 Halifax Explosion through my friend Naomi of Consumed by Ink. She has a page of books she’s read about the event, from which I selected this novel, written in 1941.

Penny Wain believes that her fiancé, Neil Macrae, died in action in France. She is aware there is more to it than that, but no one will tell her what it is, even her father, Colonel Wain, who was Neil’s commanding officer. But then, her father hated Neil. Penny has been working as a ship designer and has just had a design accepted by the Admiralty.

Penny has an admirer, Angus Murray, a doctor who is home on leave because of an injury. Angus is a lot older than Penny and is considered washed up because of his drinking, but Penny sees more in him.

What Penny does not know is that Neil is in Halifax. He was due to be courtmartialed for disobeying orders when the shed he was in was hit by artillery. He awakened with amnesia, having been mistaken for another soldier. Now, he is searching for a man he hopes will prove him innocent of the original charges.

This novel begins a few days before the cataclysmic event and ends a few days after. The description of the event itself, which caused an earthquake, a tidal wave, and an enormous wind, is impressive. Although I personally think Penny chose the wrong guy, I found this novel very interesting and involving.

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Review 1575: Nothing to Report

Best of Ten!
The circumstances by which I came to read this novel were a bit different from usual. I received Somewhere in England by the same author as a review copy, but when I sat down to read it, I realized it was a sequel to Nothing to Report. So, I immediately sent off for this novel so that I could read them in order.

Mary Morrison, Button to her friends, is an unmarried middle-aged woman living in a village near London in 1939. She has been forced to sell the family home, which is now a school. From her cottage, she seems to be at the center of village life, often being called on for advice, running a woman’s society, and living a busy social life.

Her childhood friend, Catha, Lady Rollo, and her family have returned from years in India and want her to help them find a house. Catha’s youngest son, Tony, a surly university student and would-be revolutionary, is hanging around Mary Morrison’s house trying to avoid his family. Mary’s widowed sister-in-law, Marcelle, has just announced her plans to vacate London and move in with Mary, bringing her daughter Rosemary. Rosemary, in preparation for the move, has shipped her piano to Mary’s house. Mary herself has been trying to organize gas mask training. Finally, Catha’s daughter, Elizabeth, is preparing for her debut to society. In short, things are chaotic. Slowly, events work up to World War II, of course.

I was delighted to read this novel, which I found charming. It has some very funny scenes, such as Lady Rollo’s preparations for going to Ascot, and is at other times quite touching. I loved this book.

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