Review 1871: Four Gardens

Furrowed Middlebrow calls Four Gardens one of Margery Sharp’s most beloved books. At first, I thought the novel was just okay, but gradually it won me over. It’s essentially a character study of Caroline, a woman born into the Victorian era who has to learn to adapt to more modern times.

The novel begins with Caroline as a teenage girl, still in the 19th century. She comes from an ordinary middle-class family and recognizes a big divide between herself and the people she knows and the others from the Common, the area where the wealthier people live. She and her family, for example, work on the annual festival, but they are not invited to it.

In the neighborhood is a deserted house with extensive gardens. Although it is trespassing, Caroline sneaks in there and meets Vincent, an upper-class boy. During the summer, she runs off to meet him in the garden. But once he sees her with her family, he stops coming.

Beginning with this disappointing first romance, Four Gardens follows Caroline as she marries, has children, meets with a change of fortune, gets through World War I, and continues into middle age and older. She is an endearing heroine, realistically experiencing the changes of the times. It’s an affectionate and lovely novel.

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Review 1870: Absent in the Spring

For some reason, I always thought that the novels Agatha Christie wrote as Mary Westmacott were romance novels. Absent in the Spring, however, is a character study with an edge, reminding me more of some of the novels of Elizabeth Taylor.

Middle-aged Joan Scudamore gets stranded for several days at a guest house on her way from Baghdad to London. Before this happens, there is a revealing encounter between her and an old school friend, Blanche Haggard. Joan is judgmental toward Blanche, thinks she looks old and untidy and blames her appearance on the unfortunate choices she has made in life. Blanche cheerfully admits her bad choices but says she has enjoyed her life. She also hints at something about Joan’s daughter Barbara. We realize we like Blanche more than Joan.

During the five days Joan is stranded, she begins reconsidering her self-satisfied attitude, realizing some truths about herself and her family that she has hidden from herself. It is clear to the reader that she has bullied her husband and children, but she sees her behavior as doing her best for them. She thinks she has helped them to happy lives, but she has tried to make them all do what she thinks is right.

The big question is whether Joan can change her attitude. Let’s just say the novel is much more in the Realism school than Christie’s mysteries.

And by the way, let me just state my objection to this book being relabeled under Christie’s name. On the cover of my edition, the Christie name is more noticeable than Westmacott. Although I see no harm in acknowledging somewhere that they’re the same person, this is a marketing ploy that I don’t agree with. She wrote the book under the name Westmacott, so that should be the predominant name.

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Review 1868: The Swiss Summer

When Lucy Cottrell’s friend takes her to visit an elderly friend, Lady Dagleish, she has no idea how her immediate plans will be affected. Lady Dagleish is sending her companion, Freda Blandish, to spend the summer at her chalet in Switzerland to inventory its contents, and Lady Dagleish tells Lucy she must go along and spend the summer in the chalet, inviting any friends she wishes.

All during her marriage, Lucy has fallen in with her husband’s ideas for a holiday, he preferring to stay in England or Scotland and near convivial friends. But Lucy has yearned for the alpine meadows of her honeymoon, for quiet and beautiful scenery, so she is surprised but delighted by Lady Dagleish’s invitation.

Lucy is thrilled to arrive at a beautiful, large chalet high up in the mountains. Although she was not impressed by Mrs. Blandish when she met her, Lucy herself is an amenable person, and at first things go well. Then Mrs. Blandish’s teenage daughter Astra arrives and makes it clear that Lady Dagleish doesn’t like her and wouldn’t want her there. Mrs. Blandish asks Lucy not to tell her, and Lucy reluctantly agrees.

Lucy finds she likes Astra but is dismayed to learn that Mrs. Blandish expects more guests—paying guests—her friend Mrs. Price-Wharton and her family, and she expects Lucy to keep quiet about it. Utta, the Swiss housekeeper, is certain these people should not be there, but she doesn’t know what to do about it.

Finally, Lucy’s own guests arrive, her godson and a friend who are mountain-climbing in the area. The two young men begin to make friends with Astra and snobbish friend Kay Price-Wharton. Lucy does not quite have the quiet holiday she desired.

This novel has some likable characters and some not so likable. It is full of the beauties of Switzerland in the 50s, and like another novel, The Enchanted April, made me want to go to its setting immediately. I had to laugh at all the references to the characters’ healthy red (or tanned) faces, though. This novel is charming, with just a hint of the sardonic.

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Review 1864: #ThirkellBar! Growing Up

Growing Up takes us to Beliera Priory, the home of Sir Harry and Lady Waring. The Warings have moved to the servants’ quarters, because the Priory has been taken over as a convalescent hospital. Nearby is a secret base, and the Warings receive a request to house an officer who is stationed there along with his wife. Although they are expecting their niece Leslie on a convalescent leave, they agree to billet the couple in their larger extra room.

To our delight, the couple turns out to be Noel and Lydia Merton, and in their exchanges of news with the Warings, we get to hear about almost everyone from the previous books. The Warings have been busy during the war, but the Mertons bring a little extra interest to their lives.

Leslie’s arrival is marked by a stranger carrying her case from the station. In the dark, she can barely see him, but he turns out to be Philip White, now a Colonel, whose disastrous romance with Rose Birkett was a feature of Summer Half. Leslie finds herself immediately interested in Philip.

In this novel, we are treated to the courtship of Selina, the Warings’ maid, by three men (a private young enough to be her son, a sergeant with eye trouble who is a greengrocer by trade, and Jasper, the Warings’s mysterious half-gypsy gamekeeper); the return of Tommy Needham, the fiancĂ© of Lydia’s best friend Octavia Birkett, missing an arm; the goings-on at the Winter Overcotes (which you will be delighted to know is near Summer Underclose) railway station; as well as, of course, the progress of Leslie’s romance. Tony and Mrs. Morland make a brief appearance as do other old friends. Another delightful novel by Thirkell.

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Review 1862: Strange Journey

Polly Wilkinson, a middle-class suburban housewife and mother, is leaning on her garden gate, tired from housework. She sees a woman in a Rolls Royce stopped in traffic and wishes she was that woman. For a moment, she is, but it doesn’t last long and she thinks the experience is a daydream.

After that, Polly is periodically removed from her life and takes the place of aristocratic Lady Elizabeth Forrester. After some initial confusion about what is happening, she believes Elizabeth is causing this exchange, and she is put in some awkward positions, such as finding herself in the middle of a fox hunt when she can’t ride. She purposefully makes Elizabeth do things she doesn’t usually do, such as play bridge brilliantly, in a sort of revenge. She also returns home to find the furniture moved and her children demanding stories she’s not familiar with. What could be causing these body exchanges?

I wasn’t sure I was going to like this novel, which reminded me of The Victorian Chaise-Longue, but it grew on me. It wasn’t as dismal as the other novel, and I liked how Polly’s more open and positive personality had an effect on Elizabeth’s life while Elizabeth’s confidence helped Polly and her husband’s career.

Of course, the novel comments on class issues, but Cairnes’s representation of Polly’s suburban life is so realistic that I was surprised to find Cairnes came from a background closer to Elizabeth’s. She doesn’t skewer or patronize the suburban characters. If anything, Polly’s frank kindness opens Elizabeth’s eyes to some truths. Sadly, (small spoiler) the class divide is still strong enough in 1930’s England that the women can’t remain friends in the future.

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

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Review 1859: Music in the Hills

Music in the Hills is the second book in Stevenson’s Dering family series. The first book, Vittoria Cottage, is about Caroline Dering. This book has as its main characters Caroline’s sister, Mamie Johnstone, and Caroline’s son, James. The last book, which I read second, is Winter and Rough Weather.

James has returned from service in Malaysia and wants to become a farmer, so Mamie and her husband Jock have invited him to their farm in the borderlands of Scotland, Mureth, to learn farming. Although James settles in well and loves Mureth, he is unhappy, because he is in love with an art student named Rhoda. He proposed to her, but she has been clear that she’s picking her career over marriage.

This novel is mostly about the everyday events and people on the farm and in the nearby village, nearby in terms of straight distance but a bit remote along a hilly, twisty road. In the novel, as in the next, the landscape is an important character. There are two major subplots, however. One is about sheep being stolen from Mureth. The other is about Holly, the niece of Lady Shaw. She’s making a dead set at James, but there’s something about her that Mamie distrusts.

Another lovely book from Stevenson. I haven’t read Vittoria Cottage for a long time, but it makes me want to revisit it.

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Review 1854: The Weather at Tregulla

Una Beaumont (again, the publishers got the name wrong on the cover) is 19 and very much still a sulky teenager. She finds her home in a small Cornish village to be absolutely boring. Her father, Captain Beaumont, had promised her that she could live in London and study to be an actress. However, her mother has unexpectedly died and her money was entailed, so the Captain can no longer afford to send Una. Even her distraught father notices that she is more upset by this than by her mother’s death.

The weather in Tregulla is tumultuous, at least in regard to several love affairs. Una meets Terrence Willows, an artist leasing a cottage in the neighborhood, and his sister Emmeline. Terrence is a bit of a bounder, but Una immediately falls in love with him. Emmeline has the kind of looks admired by Una’s friend Barnabas, and she has in fact moved to the area in hopes of getting him to marry her, even though she hadn’t met him before. She is tired of the chaotic existence of her brother and his friends, but when she thinks of Barnabas, she always thinks of his parents’ estate first. Barnabas, although believing he is cautious, is smitten. Finally, his brother Hugo is in love with Una.

At first, I didn’t think I was going to like this novel as well as I did others by Gibbons. I didn’t like Una, and the novel has several more unlikable characters. However, Gibbons is a great storyteller and satirist, and her characters are believably written. Further, some of them improve, particularly Una.

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Review 1849: Much Dithering

Jocelyn Renshawe is a young widow who has always done what is expected of her, that expectation arising from two older ladies, Mrs. Pallfrey, her aunt, and the Honourable August Renshawe, her mother-in-law. She leads a quiet life, mostly doing good works. At the beginning of the novel, she is about to suffer a visit from her mother, Ermyntrude.

Ermyntrude is the most selfish being in this novel, which is full of them. She finds her daughter a bore, and her only reason for visiting her is because she is what Lambert calls a “baby-stealer” and what we would call a cougar. She is interested in cementing her affair with Adrian Murchison-Bellaby, whose parents have just taken a house near the village of Much Dithering, where Jocelyn lives. Ermyntrude wants to show Adrian’s parents how suitable she would be as a wife. However, when Adrian meets Jocelyn, Ermytrude is unable to see that he falls in love with her daughter.

In a thunderstorm on the way back from one of her good deeds, Jocelyn accepts a ride from a stranger who is having trouble finding Much Dithering. He is Gervase Blyth, who has unexplained business in the area.

Soon, Jocelyn unaccountably has three men in love with her. But the one she prefers is most likely to force her out of her protective shell.

It’s not very hard to guess the outcomes of this entertaining light novel, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to read. Its characters’ foibles are all too human, but still funny. This was a perfect light read for me from my Classics Club list.

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Review 1847: #ThirkellBar! Marling Hall

Lettice Watson, the Marling’s older daughter, has moved back home with her two little daughters after the death of her husband at Dunkirk more than a year ago. The younger Miss Marling, Lucy, is one of those bouncing, hearty girls that Thirkell depicts so well. Brother Oliver, whose poor eyes don’t allow him to serve, has a job in the regional government offices. Mr. Marling is aggressively deaf and likes to play what his children call “the olde squire.” Mrs. Marling is a bit silly.

From the beginning of Marling Hall, we realize we’re going to encounter some familiar characters. The Marlings, along with Miss Bunting, their former governess (who gets her own book later in the series), go to call on the Leslies at Rushwater. It was David and John Leslie who made up two thirds of a love triangle in Wild Strawberries, and David very soon is trying his charm on Lettice. Soon after, Lucy brings home Captain Tom Barclay, a much steadier young man, who is also attracted to Lettice.

Because of this visit, we meet again the charming but disorganized Lady Emily as well as her daughter Agnes, so besotted with her own children that she can talk of nothing else. And we continue not to meet Agnes’s husband Robert. The efficient Miss Merriman also reappears on the scene. We hear about characters from Pomfret Towers and other books in the series.

Some newcomers to the area are the Harveys, who both work in Oliver’s office. Geoffrey Harvey is one of the artistic types that Thirkell likes to make fun of. His sister Frances is Oliver’s very organized assistant. The Harveys have been living with the Nortons and wish to find a house for themselves, but housing, along with everything else, is difficult to find during these days of war. They find the Red House, a repulsively decorated place owned by Mrs. Smith. A lot of the comedy of this novel comes from their encounters with Mrs. Smith, who, after she leases them the house, continues to return to it to remove one object after another, including the beans from the garden and the eggs from the chickens the Harveys purchased, and eventually the chickens themselves.

Unfortunately for me, more humor is derived from the visits of Harvey’s old French teacher and later her nephew. Although Thirkell has poked fun at the French before, she hasn’t actually included so much dialogue in French, which I don’t really know. Last time, it was little enough for me to type into my iPad and get a translation or simple enough for me to muddle out myself, but this time there was a lot more, also, I think, including some mocking of the quality of one character’s French. The part with the nephew was funnier because of being told the gist of what he was saying rather than the exact words.

In this novel, the difficulties of life during the war become more apparent, especially in regard to food and clothing shortages. However, it continues on in the Thirkell vein—funny, with its little side comments directed at the reader, insightful, touching, and certainly snobbish, but more as if she is laughing at her own and her characters’ snobbery. Another good one.

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Review 1846: Classics Club Spin Book! The Dead Secret

The latest Classics Club Spin ended up with The Dead Secret as the book I should read. It is Wilkie Collins’ first full-length novel but unfortunately not his best.

Mrs. Treverton is on her deathbed at Porthgenna Tower, but she has a secret. She wants to disclose it to her husband but can’t bring herself to do it. So, she forces her maid, Sarah Leeson, to write it down. She makes Sarah promise not to destroy the confession or remove it from the house, but she dies before she can make her promise to give it to her husband. So, Sarah hides it in a ruined wing of the house and then flees.

Fifteen or sixteen years later, Mrs. Treverton’s daughter Rosamond is a young wife. She and her blind husband, Leonard Frankland, are on their way to Cornwall to take up residence at Porthgenna Tower, where Rosamond has not lived since she was five. They intend to renovate the house, including the ruined north wing, but they have had to stop their journey because Rosamond has gone into premature labor.

The local doctor, in seeking a nurse for the new mother and son, consults a householder only to have her housekeeper, Mrs. Jazeph, unexpectedly volunteer to do it herself. However, Mrs. Jazeph’s odd behavior that evening causes her to be dismissed. Before leaving, she tells Rosamond to stay out of the Myrtle Room.

With a ruined old mansion on the coast of Cornwall that is possibly haunted and a secret too awful to tell, this novel promises to be all that a sensation novel should be. However, Collins is clearly learning here, for this novel is dripping with sentimentality and soppiness. Moreover, the behavior of the maid (it’s not hard to guess who she is) is so exaggerated that I could hardly stand to read about her at times. Collins took Dickens for his model, and Rosamond is a typical type for Dickens—sweet, a little foolish at times, loving, needing the guidance of her morally correct husband. Without having spent enough time with Sarah for us to care much for her—in fact, at times her behavior is extremely irritating—he spends too long a time with a supposedly heart-rending scene.

The secret isn’t very hard to guess, nor are the events of the plot difficult to predict. This isn’t a terrible novel, but Collins has written better ones.

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