Review 1567: Beneath the Visiting Moon

It is the summer of 1939. The Fontaynes are dreaming along in their stately but crumbling home, left without much money since the death of Mr. Fontayne, who had been a noted thinker and politician. Unusually for them, they attend a local dance, where 17-year-old Sarah meets and falls immediately in love with Sir Giles Merrick, a middle-aged diplomat. Sarah begins a series of attempts to develop more of a life for herself so that she can meet more people and perhaps see more of Sir Giles, her hazy mother Elisabeth seeing no attraction in anything but staying home.

The Fontaynes have been trying to sell their house. When they learn that an “artsy” family is leasing a house of no distinction, the children urge their mother to call on them in hopes the family will buy Fontayne. This meeting has unexpected consequences, for soon Elisabeth has agreed to marry Mr. Jones, an orchestra conductor on rest cure.

The Jones children, Peter and Bronwen, are more sophisticated than the Fontaynes and take delight in mocking things the Fontaynes like. The Fontaynes particularly find 13-year-old Bronwen, who has written a book that is being published and constantly quotes poetry, to be ghastly. Shortly after the marriage, Sarah decides it’s time to get a job.

I found this novel delightful and was disappointed to learn it was Cavan’s last, for she became a playwright later on, encouraged by Noel Coward. It’s a vivid picture of life in an eccentric household right before everything is about to change.

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

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Review 1565: A Struggle for Fame

After reading The Uninhabited House, I looked for more books by Charlotte Riddell and came across the Recovered Voices series published by Tramp Press and this book, A Struggle for Fame. A Struggle for Fame is Riddell’s semi-autobiographical novel about the publishing industry.

Although Glen Westley is the main character in the novel, it follows the progress of two Irish young people who meet on the ship from Ireland and both end up in London’s literary milieu. Through poor investments, Glen’s father has lost the family home and all his money. She determines that they will travel to London so she can try to make a living as a writer.

On the ship, they meet Barney Kelly, a young chancer who is looking for a way to make money.

Glen works hard at good literary fiction and is repeatedly rebuffed by editors even while being told she has promise. Barney, on the other hand, falls into an opportunity to write articles for a journal. The novel makes clear that Glen has much more ability than Barney, but he is able to make a living at writing much earlier than Glen. It is clear from the beginning that the novel is about Glen’s rise and fall, but we are drawn in to see what happens.

A lot of characters are vividly drawn and quite Dickensian in their idiosyncrasies. It is fairly obvious that Riddell is depicting, sometimes satirically, publishers and authors she knew. Although written in 1883, the novel has observations about gender and ability that still apply today.

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Review 1564: Dangerous Ages

Thanks to Simon Thomas’s posts (Stuck in a Book) on the new British Library Women Writers series, I was able to request some review copies. I received Dangerous Ages, which, according to the novel, are all of them. This novel examines the lives of women in the early 1920’s.

Neville is 43, a woman who gave up her medical studies as a young woman to marry and raise a family. That job done, she finds herself feeling adrift, with no purpose, and views her mother, Mrs. Hilary, as an object lesson. She must find work and decides to return to studying medicine.

Mrs. Hilary is a silly woman who always pretends she has read important books and is knowledgeable on all subjects. At 63, she has nothing to do, because she defines herself as a wife and mother. Now she is a widow whose children are grown. She is jealous of anyone being intimate with Neville if her son Jim isn’t around and is jealous of Neville’s intimacy with Jim. She thinks psychoanalysis, which is being talked about, is horrid until she realizes it means someone will listen to her stories.

Nan, Neville’s younger sister, has been courted by Barry for ages. She finally decides she loves him, but instead of telling him so, she goes off to Cornwall to finish writing her latest book, never thinking that Barry might give up on her.

Gerda, Neville’s daughter, is ardently engaged in left-wing activities. The question is, when she falls in love with a man of a different background, whether she will compromise her principles, which reject all the values of her parents’ generation.

Macaulay’s novel is rooted in the early 1920’s, as characters examine hot topics of the time. I had to laugh at the scenes where Mrs. Hilary’s psychoanalysts inundate her with Freudian jargon that she has very little understanding of. That most of these women are frustrated in their aims should not be surprising, for this is a satirical look at the position of women in society. Only Neville’s sister Pamela, who refuses to be bothered, and Neville’s grandmother, who says she is past all that, seem happy.

Simon Thomas’s Afterword provides some insight into views of psychoanalysis in the early 1920’s, which is interesting.

I enjoyed this novel very much. It feels like light, lively reading while dealing with experiences that are universal, no matter the generation.

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Review 1563: #1956 Club! Palace Walk

I experienced quite a bit of culture shock reading Palace Walk, which made me realize that although I have read books set in Egypt about Egyptians, all but one were written by Western writers, and that one, Map of Love, was much more modern. Palace Walk is about Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family, and I believe it’s Mahfouz’s own family thinly disguised.

The novel is the first of three in Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. It begins with al-Jawad’s wife, Amira, getting up at midnight to help her husband get ready for bed after his usual night of carousing and womanizing. Although her husband is a good friend and convivial participant in nightly drinking bouts, at home he is an angry tyrant to his wife and children. I found it interesting that although he has the reputation of a righteous and observant man, no one seems to think his drinking and womanizing make him a hypocrite.

Mahfouz was a writer in the Realism school and as such explores both the good and bad facets of his characters’ personalities (although it sometimes seems like Realists concentrate on the gritty). The novel develops slowly, introducing us to al-Jawad, Amina, and his five children—Yasin, a government clerk who immerses himself in sensuality like his father but with less control; Fahmy, a university student who is serious and ardent; Khadiya, the older, sharp-tongued daughter; Aisha, the younger, beautiful daughter; and Kamal, a schoolboy who may be Mahfouz’s alter ego.

Beginning in 1917 near the end of World War I, the novel at first focuses on purely family concerns such as Fahmy’s desire to be affianced to Maryam, the neighbor girl; Aisha’s receipt of an offer of marriage before Khadiya’s, when their father has decreed that the younger girl will not be married before the older; and Yasin’s mother getting married again, which Yasin thinks is obscene, since she has been married several times. In these domestic incidents, the family constantly faces their father’s anger and intransigence. Mahfouz frequently tells us of his good points although they are not often demonstrated. In fact, there is a lot of explanation going on about the thinking and characters of the family members, some of it quite repetitive.

As the novel develops, external events become more important, especially the Arab Revolution of 1919 against the protectorate of the British. This more outward view makes the second half of the novel move along more quickly.

Certainly, al-Jawad’s actions toward his wife and children are shocking, and Mahfouz makes clear that he is stricter than most others by the comments of al-Jawad’s friends. Yet, it is also clear that no one would interfere in his treatment of his family, since it is his right to behave as he wishes. As an example of some of the things he does, Amina, who has only left the house a few times in 23 years of marriage, takes the opportunity of her husband’s absence on a business trip to visit a nearby mosque. Because Kamal guides her out of her route so that he can visit a pastry shop, she becomes disoriented and faint and is hit by a car. After she recovers, her husband banishes her from the house for leaving it without asking him (and believe me, he would have said no).

His son Yasin, the leaf not falling far from the tree, thinks later in the book when his wife is not happy with his nights out that it is the husband’s right to do anything he wants and the wife’s to obey. Nice.

The trilogy is supposed to be about the effect the father’s tyranny has on his family. I read it for the 1956 Club, and I suppose I will go ahead and read the other two novels. It certainly provides an intimate look into family life and customs in early 20th century Egypt.

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Review 1562: #1956 Club! The Fall

I’ve never read any Camus before, so I decided to read The Fall for the 1956 Club. This I can say: after reading The Kreutzer Sonata, The Prague Cemetery, The King Without a Kingdom, and The Fall, I’ve decided I hate novels that are monologues.

An unnamed person meets Clamence, an ex-Parisian lawyer, in an Amsterdam bar. Clamence begins his monologue explaining how his life changed. He began as a successful lawyer for the defense—handsome, genial, charitable, always doing good—and a womanizer. As he talks, we see that his charitable impulses are rooted in self-regard. His discourse becomes more and more cynical until . . . .

Well, I don’t know, because 50 pages before the end, I realized I was struggling to pay attention, and I stopped reading. His “witty” discourse may have been ground-breaking in 1956, but in 2020, it just seems banal.

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Review 1560: #1956 Club! The Towers of Trebizond

The Towers of Trebizond, which I read for the 1956 Club, is said to be Rose Macaulay’s masterpiece. When I first began reading it, I was surprised at this, for it seemed to be a light comedy about eccentric people traveling in Turkey. To be sure, the narrator, Laurie, is erudite but relates the story in gushes of information, whimsy, and wit. But oh, when Laurie describes the wonders of past civilizations or her love of the rituals of the Anglican (high) church (I’m picking “her,” to discuss later), you see that there is more to this novel than humor.

Laurie and her Aunt Dot are on a trip to Turkey, accompanied by Father Chantry-Pigg. Laurie and Aunt Dot are writing a book about Turkey, Aunt Dot hopes to enlighten Moslem women by converting them to the Anglican church, and Father Chantry-Pigg, whose inappropriate last name becomes a running joke, wants converts. On the way, they pick up Aunt Dot’s friend Dr. Halide, who is also interesting in the liberation of women. Oh, and Aunt Dot brings her camel.

This may not sound funny, but all of the characters except Laurie are so obsessed with their hobby horses that the conversations are delightful. Later, we meet David, who has taken advantage of his ex-lover Charles’s death to steal the material Charles has written about Turkey and publish it under his own name—only Laurie has found Charles’s notebook in his old hotel room.

The central conflict for Laurie is that she is a believer in her church, but she has left it because of a long-lasting affair with Vere, a married man. Her heart yearns for the church, but she feels unable to break with Vere, whom she loves deeply.

This novel is beautifully written, witty, and finally bittersweet. I was unable to follow some of the detail about the church, and being American, I don’t have the classical background to understand all the references Laurie throws in about ancient civilizations. However, I greatly enjoyed this novel, which goes much deeper than it initially seems it will.

I wasn’t aware of this at first, but apparently there is an issue about Laurie’s sex—is she male or female? Perhaps this didn’t occur to me because my illustrated Folio Society edition makes the decision that she’s female. But what does occur to me is this: doesn’t the question imply sexism? That is, I can only imagine this question was raised because Laurie thinks nothing of, say, riding a camel across Syria by herself. But then, neither does Aunt Dot have any problem with walking across the Iron Curtain just to see what it’s like on the other side. I got no sense at all of a masculine personality in Laurie. Finally, Laurie’s bar to returning to the church is adultery, not adultery and homosexuality, and although Macaulay teases us for a while by not revealing Vere’s sex until the end, she finally does so. I think this whole sex issue is just caused by some people’s assumptions that a woman couldn’t be this adventurous in 1956.

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Review 1556: Dark Enchantment

I was delighted to receive a review copy of Dark Enchantment from Tramp Press from their Recovered Voices series and decided to time my review for the season. This is especially felicitous because the movie from another Dorothy Macardle book, The Uninvited, has been my family’s go-to Halloween movie for years. This is another entry for RIPXV.

After three years of teaching, an occupation that Juliet Frith likens to drudgery, she is exhausted and unwell. Her employers, eager for her to leave because of newspaper stories about her mother, have summoned her father to take her away. Frith is an actor who can’t afford to support Juliet and doesn’t know what to do with her, but for now they are vacationing on the Côte d’Azur.

On a day trip to visit villages in the Alps Maritimes, Juliet is taken ill at an inn, so Frith makes arrangements for them to stay the entire week. Juliet improves rapidly and befriends the pregnant wife of the innkeeper, Martine, so Frith arranges for Juliet to stay there when he has to leave for a job. Juliet will be working half-time at the inn for the length of Martine’s pregnancy. It helps that Juliet has met Michael, studying trees in the nearby forest.

The lives of all the villagers are soon wrapped up in drama because of Terka, a beautiful Romany woman who is missing an eye. She has a reputation as a sorceress, and the villagers are terrified of her. Although Juliet thinks Terka is being treated unfairly, Martine’s husband René is foremost at trying to drive her out of the area, so she has turned her attentions to poor Martine as well as others. Things begin to get ugly.

This novel develops slowly at first, but it has appealing characters and kept my interest. Although the threat foretold for Juliet doesn’t really pan out, she becomes deeply involved in the fortunes of Martine and René. I enjoyed this light read very much.

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Review 1545: They Were Found Wanting

They Were Found Wanting is the second book of Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy. It again follows the fortunes of cousins Balint Abady and Laszlo Gyeroffy, Hungarian/Transylvanian noblemen, although it spends much more time with Balint.

In the first book, Balint began an affair with Adrienne Uzdy, married to a cruel and unstable neighbor of Balint’s Transylvanian estate. They resolved to part in that book but come together early in the second book. Balint wants Adrienne to divorce Uzdy, but Adrienne fears Uzdy will become violent. Moreover, she will likely lose custody of her daughter.

Laszlo started on the path of destruction in the first book after his cousin Klara rejected him because of his gambling. He has been cheated out of most of the profits from his estate by Azbej, a crooked lawyer, and he is drinking what little money he has. Early in the book, Dodo Gyalakuthy, who is so wealthy that no one will propose to her, asks him to marry her. Laszlo is stung by this and refuses, not realizing that Dodo loves him.

Balint is a member of the Hungarian Parliament, and much of this book is devoted to the machinations of the political parties, who manage to accomplish nothing because of their efforts to prevent the work of the other party. All the while, Balint is conscious of disquieting events in the outer world as it heads to World War I.

I struggled with this book a bit and actually read three other books while I was trying to finish it, something I seldom do. For one thing, there was a much stronger emphasis on Hungarian politics, but I didn’t understand all the ins and outs or sometimes who was whom. The first book came with about 100 pages of explanatory material, but I seldom read things like that and would hope a novel would be understandable without it.

For another thing, the major emphasis was on the affair between Balint and Adrienne, and I wasn’t much interested in it. Although Bánffy certainly can depict vivid characters, Adrienne isn’t one of them. She is almost there only to be the object of Balint’s yearning. You never get much of a sense of what she is like.

Finally, in some ways, Balint began this affair in a reprehensible way, and when he decides they should marry, he is merciless with the emotional blackmail. Otherwise likeable, he is not a nice lover in this book.

Throughout, the most interesting thing to me are Bánffy’s descriptions of customs and life in Transylvania. I am interested in how the third book will come out. Thank goodness it’s not nearly as long as either of the others.

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Review 1543: The Bookshop

I decided to read The Bookshop after seeing the movie of the same name. The two are very similar, but the movie doesn’t convey the subtlety of the book, which is a little more remorseless.

Post World War I, the widow Florence Green decides to open a bookshop in her East Sussex village of Hardborough, which does not have one. For the premises, she purchases the Old House, which has been vacant for seven years and is in need of a lot of work. It is also rumored to be haunted.

Her aims seem worthy and harmless, but no sooner does she purchase the Old House than a local worthy, Mrs. Gamart, invites her to a party only to inform her that she, Mrs. Gamart, intended the Old House for an arts center. Florence has no idea who she’s dealing with when she asks Mrs. Gamart why then she didn’t buy the house any time in the past seven years and refuses to let it go.

This novel seems to be light fare, but it has some cynical observations about small-town gentry and betrayal. It is short, fully engaging, sparely and beautifully written, and sad.

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Review 1540: The Uninhabited House

Miss Blake is an eccentric figure whose arrival is looked forward to by the clerks in Mr. Craven’s office, including Harry Patterson, the narrator. She only arrives when the tenants have unexpectedly left her niece’s house, which is all too often. For the house has a reputation.

Miss Blake and her ward Helena have been a charge on poor, kind-hearted Mr. Craven since the death of Robert Elmsdale, Helena’s father. Thought to be wealthy, he was found to be in considerable debt when he died. Now, the house in which he died is supposedly haunted. Mr. Craven doesn’t believe in ghosts and supposes someone is trying to keep the house from being occupied.

After a disastrous lawsuit resulting from the early vacancy of the house by a tenant, Miss Blake declares she will pay £50 to anyone who can solve the mystery of the house. Although Miss Blake has never paid any of Mr. Craven’s bills, Mr. Craven is so desperate to relinquish Miss Blake’s account that he vows to pay the money to anyone who can solve the mystery.

Patterson finds himself in need of money, because he has fallen in love with Helena Elmsdale. So, he volunteers to stay in the house and try to discover its secrets.

This is a joyful little novel despite its theme. Patterson tells the story with plenty of gentle, good-natured humor, and his affection for Mr. Craven is very clear. The mystery is perhaps not too confounding, but the book itself is a pleasure to read, with eccentric characters and lots of atmosphere. Is it a ghost story as well as a mystery? I’ll never tell.

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