Review 1790: Mrs. Tim of the Regiment

I accidentally read Mrs. Tim Gets a Job first, but when I discovered it was third in a series, I decided to read the rest in order. Mrs. Tim of the Regiment is the first.

Hester Christie (Mrs. Tim—I didn’t discover her first name until I read this book) leads an active and happy life where her husband’s Scottish regiment is based in Southern England. However, her life is upended when her husband is temporarily transferred to Westburgh, Scotland. She must find a house, move, and then try to create a new social life. She feels especially close to her neighbor, Mrs. Loudon.

It isn’t long, though, before her husband gets his majority, which means they must move right back to where the regiment is stationed. Tim is sent back almost immediately, while Mrs. Tim prepares for the move. Before she leaves, though, she is invited to see the real Scotland by staying with Mrs. Loudon farther north.

At first, with its diary entry format, this novel was so full of little everyday events that, even though amusing, it began to seem too like the Provincial woman series. However, it eventually develops more of a plot, in particular, Hester’s attempts to help Mrs. Loudon, whose son Guthrie has fallen for an unsuitable young lady.

Although written in 1940, Mrs. Tim of the Regiment is set earlier. The exact year isn’t stated, but the soldiers all have relatively recent memories of World War I. This is a charming novel, although it does have some snobbery toward some wealthy acquaintances. However, Hester is a lively, likable heroine.

Mrs. Tim Gets a Job

Miss Buncle’s Book

Miss Buncle Married

Review 1788: Miss Plum and Miss Penny

At 40, Miss Penny leads a full life in the village. She has her village activities and her two close friends, Hubert, the vicar, a timid widower with a son, and Stanley, a self-pleasing fussy man. Miss Penny always receives a birthday letter from George, the suitor her parents disapproved of, but this year it doesn’t arrive. Miss Penny is hurt and begins to wonder what her life would be if she had left with George.

On her way to the movies, Miss Penny stops a woman from drowning herself in the duck pond. When she finds out the woman has no money and nowhere to go, she takes her home and is soon nursing her through an illness. Miss Plum turns out to be a whiny neurotic who bursts into tears and complains about her hard life. She also shows a tendency to hero-worship Miss Penny.

This darkish comedy shows an insight into human character, for you needn’t make the mistake of thinking Miss Penny’s efforts are rewarded with gratitude. In fact, she is soon consumed by only one thought—how to get Miss Plum out of her house.

This fun novel is filled with eccentric characters. I enjoyed it a lot and was happy to read it for my Classics Club list.

O, The Brave Music

The Stone of Chastity

All Done By Kindness

Review 1786: The Unforeseen

Although I haven’t yet read Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited, the movie based on it remains one of my favorites for Halloween. I didn’t realize that The Unforeseen is not a sequel to it but a follow-up and that a few of the characters make a reappearance. So, I’m reading and reviewing out of order.

Virgilia Wilde cannot afford to live in the city while she is sending her daughter Nan to art school in London, so she buys a cottage in the wilds of Wicklow. There she enjoys herself rambling the countryside and working on a children’s book about birds. However, she begins having strange experiences. First, she thinks she is seeing ghosts—a shadow in the doorway when no one is there, a telegram being delivered when one isn’t. She fears she is losing her mind so consults Dr. Franks, a psychiatrist. But he thinks there is nothing wrong with her. He consults his son Perry, who is a doctor with an interest in parapsychology, and eventually they realize that Virgilia is having visions of the future.

In the meantime, Nan has a frightening encounter with a sculptor and decides to come home for the summer while she works on illustrations for a book. Virgilia doesn’t want Nan to know about her visions, but soon she has some frightening ones.

This is a good little thriller with a supernatural angle to it. It has convincing characters and beautiful descriptions of the Irish countryside, reflecting the relative peace of Ireland during World War II.

Dark Enchantment

The Uninhabited House

The Victorian Chaise-Longue

Review 1785: The Half-Crown House

The Half-Crown House is Fountain Court, a once-stately home that has fallen into disrepair after years of money and estate mismanagement and crippling death taxes. Its heir is Victor Hornbeam, a little boy who is coming to live there for the first time, his widowed mother preparing to marry. The property has been supported for years by Victor’s young aunt, Henrietta, who opens the house for viewing, and her cousin Charles, wounded during the war, who runs a market garden. They are struggling to support the estate so that they can hand over something to Victor when he comes of age. The only other family member living in the house is their grandmother, now bedridden, whose ferocious spending and mismanagement has bankrupted the family.

As the novel opens, Victor is arriving on one of the visitor’s days. Henrietta has a wealthy American suitor who wants to buy one of the valuable paintings, and she is hoping to sell it. However, that morning her grandmother tells her that it, along with many of the other paintings and jewels in the house, is a worthless copy that she had made when she needed to sell the original to pay her debts.

The household is wondering if Henrietta will marry the American, but it was apparent to me early on that her heart lay elsewhere. That only increases the little bit of suspense around this decision.

This novel is a meandering one. At times, it is much more concerned with the past elegance of the house and the events of the long-dead Hornbeams than with the living, for it goes off into little vignettes either through the memories of its inhabitants or during the descriptions of its current state. Thus, it particularizes the postwar state of the country, when many large homes were being dismantled or sold.

It’s an odd little book that reminded me a bit of Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary and a couple of Rumer Godden novels that center around a house over the generations.

Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary

China Court

A Harp in Lowndes Square

Review 1781: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

A woman feels as if some evacuees have taken over her home. The Red Cross sewing party is enlivened by arguments between the good-natured Mrs. Peters and the bloodthirsty Mrs. Twistle. A woman bravely faces her husband’s deployment and then is devastated to find he hasn’t left yet and she has to face it all over again. A couple finally gets rid of their evacuees only to have an acquaintance ask for room in their house. A man who has been working in a ministry feels guilty about not joining up.

These are a few of the stories about ordinary people during World War II that Mollie Panter-Downes published in the New Yorker. They are slice-of-life stories, although most of them have an upper-class perspective, of changing social conditions, of changes in everyday life, of people keeping a stiff upper lip.

I was surprised to learn from the Afterword that Panter-Downes, a prolific British journalist, short story writer, and novelist, was much better known in the United States than in Britain because she published almost everything in the New Yorker. So, even though she wrote hundreds of short stories, her legacy was almost lost in her native country.

Ordered by when they were written, this collection provides an insightful look, beautifully written, at the lives of ordinary people during the war.

One Fine Day

My Husband Simon

To Bed with Grand Music

Review 1778: #ThirkellBar! The Brandons

Although I know the season is busy, I hope some others of you joined me in reading The Brandons for Reading Thirkell’s Barsetshire Series in Order.

Mrs. Brandon attributes her good temper and blooming if languid looks to having been many years a widow. She also likes to imply that she was unhappily married even though she had just started to be bored by her husband when he died. Whatever the reason, she is charming and captivating enough to make men fall devotedly in love with her, including the vicar, Mr. Miller, and his pupil, Mr. Grant, who is the same age as her son Francis.

Mrs. Brandon’s elderly aunt by marriage, Miss Brandon, has been holding the bequest of her money and hideous house over Francis’s head for years, hinting when she is displeased—which is almost always—that she will leave it to someone else. Francis doesn’t want it, but when she summons them all to her house, Mrs. Brandon feels that they must go. There she finds that Miss Brandon has been ill and is actively mistreating her companion, Miss Morris.

At her house they also find Mr. Grant, who it turns out is a cousin in the same situation as Francis, alternately promised and denied a legacy that he doesn’t want. Part of the novel deals with what happens when Miss Brandon dies.

Thirkell is brilliant at describing the silliness of infatuations, and here she does not spare Mrs. Brandon’s admirers. A delight of this book is its conversations, especially those involving such eccentric characters as Mrs. Grant, Mr. Grant’s mother, who patronizes others about her life in Italy and constantly embarrasses her son with her lack of manners and clanking jewelry. Some favorites reappear in this novel, including Mrs. Morland and Tony, Lydia Keith, and Noel Morton.

Thirkell continues to entertain us with her witty and charming novels.

Pomfret Towers

Summer Half

August Folly

Review 1767: Classics Club Spin! A Town Like Alice

I haven’t ever read anything by Nevil Shute, so I decided to put A Town Like Alice on my Classics Club list, and then it was chosen for the latest spin. I’m glad I chose it for my list, because it’s a really good book, hard to categorize—part war story, part love story, part adventure story, about brave and resourceful people and challenges faced. I loved it.

The novel is narrated by Noel Strachan, an elderly solicitor, who finds himself the trustee for a young woman named Jean Paget. After they befriend each other, Jean confides to him that during World War II she was in Malaya when she and a group of women and children were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Since the Japanese didn’t know what to do with them, they were marched hundreds of miles back and forth over the Malay peninsula. Half of them died until Jean made a deal with a village headman that he would allow them to stay there if they helped with the rice harvest. During the time they were wandering, an Australian POW who was driving trucks for the Japanese tried to steal food for them and was crucified by the Japanese. Jean decides to use part of her legacy to dig a well in the Malayan village to thank them for helping.

While in Malaya, Jean learns that the Australian man, Joe Harman, did not die as she thought. She decides to go to Australia to try to find him. As fate would have it, however, he comes to Strachan’s office in London looking for Jean, having learned that she was single after thinking all this time that she was married.

About half the novel is about the couple finding each other, but then Jean sees the nearby town to the remote station where Joe works. She learns that the girls won’t stay in town because there is nothing there for them, and Joe can’t keep men on the station because there are no girls. The resourceful Jean decides that if she can’t bear to live in the town, something must be done to improve it.

It’s easy to see why this novel is so beloved, although caution—there is incidental racism that reflects the times. That being said, I found this novel deeply satisfying—engrossing, touching, full of life and spirit.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

My Brilliant Career

Salt Creek

Review 1766: China Court

Old Mrs. Quin dies, leaving her beloved house, China Court, dilapidated from lack of money and her even more beloved garden tended only in a few places. Her descendants gather, assuming the house and contents will have to be sold to pay for the taxes and the leftover money divided. Among them is Tracy, her only grandchild, who loved the house as a child but was taken away by her mother to lead a wandering existence. Mrs. Quin’s children are indignant about the presence of Peter St. Omer, who abandoned an aimless life four years ago to work the estate farm at Mrs. Quin’s encouragement.

When the will is read, there is a surprise for all, as Mrs. Quin has left the house to Tracy and the farm to Peter with an unusual proviso. But can they find the money to save the properties?

China Court was the novel I chose to read for Rumer Godden Week, hosted by Brona at This Reading Life. With a great deal of fluidity, it tells the story of the lives of several generations of Quins in their home of China Court. It moves back and forth among generations, the shifts triggered by an object or a smell, as it tells what happened to the family—the smart girl denied an education because of her sex, the wife madly in love whose husband was unfaithful at the first opportunity, the girl in love with one brother who married another.

Godden does this skillfully, inserting the seeds of the stories into the first chapter so that readers want to find out about them. She structures the novel by dividing it up like a book of hours, beginning each chapter with a description of the page of that hour from a specific book. I was perplexed about the reason for this device, but all is eventually made clear.

Godden uses a similar technique in A Fugue in Time (written in 1945) but less successfully there, I think. In this novel I became very involved in the stories of some of the characters and the fate of the house. Godden has perfected this approach to fiction by the time she published this book in 1961.

A Fugue in Time

The Lady and the Unicorn

A Harp in Lowndes Square

Review 1761: #ThirkellBar! Pomfret Towers

Cover for Pomfret Towers

It’s time to talk about the sixth book in Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series, Pomfret Towers. Who read it and what did you think?

This novel is another one that I reviewed several years ago, so I will not repeat the plot synopsis and review but simply supply a link to the original review.

What struck me this time around was how sweet a story this is, with Thirkell creating characters we like tremendously but not forgetting a couple we can dislike. Yet, she’s subtle about all of this and shows a little sympathy for one of the most irritating characters.

Little Alice, so young and shy, is both a sympathetic character and one who provides some good-natured comedy. For example, her reaction to being invited to Pomfret Towers for the weekend—a terrifying prospect—is to hope the house burns down overnight before she has to go. She is silly and adolescent in her attachment to the odious Julian Rivers and very brave when she finally sees through him.

On the other side is Mrs. Rivers, so full of herself as a Writer of popular novels that sound dreadful, so managing in a house where she is not the hostess, and so irritating in her attempts to throw together her daughter Phoebe and the mild-mannered Gillie Foster, the heir to the earldom. But when she is humiliated by her son at the end of the novel, Thirkell deftly makes us feel sorry for her (but not for Julian).

I liked practically everyone in this novel, even Lord Pomfret, known for his rudeness. Another charming novel by Thirkell.

Summer Half

August Folly

The Demon in the House

Review 1757: To Bed with Grand Music

To Bed with Grand Music opens with Deborah Robertson in bed with her husband Graham swearing perfect fidelity before his deployment to Cairo during World War II. Graham more honestly doesn’t promise that but says he won’t sleep with anyone that matters. At first, Deborah contents herself at home, but when, in her boredom, she begins snapping at her little son, Timmy, her mother suggests she get a job.

Her mother is thinking about a job nearby in Winchester, but Deborah makes arrangements to visit a friend in London, Madeleine, and see about a job there. Intending to go home on the evening train, she ends up getting drunk and spending the night with a man.

Shocked at herself, Deborah is determined to stay home, but she has a talent for convincing herself that what she wants to do is right, so it’s not too long before she turns down a job in Winchester only to take a lower-paying one in London. From there, she begins a career of connecting with men of increasingly higher rank.

Deborah is definitely an antihero. She starts out selfish and nervous and becomes deceitful, amoral, and avaricious as she goes on. Her faint motherly instincts become almost nonexistent. This is an insightful, sardonic character study of a particular type of woman.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue

A Fugue in Time

Vanity Fair