Day 1156: Bramton Wick

Cover for Bramton WickI so enjoyed A Winter Away that I looked for more novels by Elizabeth Fair immediately. I found that they are being reprinted in a nice edition by Furrowed Middlebrow. Bramton Wick is Fair’s first novel, set in a village in post-World War II England. It is a gentle domestic novel with a bit of an edge.

Although the novel features several eccentric denizens of the village, it centers around Laura and Gillian Cole. Mrs. Cole and her family used to be the owners of Endbury, one of the large homes in the area, until Mr. Cole died and they had to sell. Mrs. Cole, although she dislikes the current owner of Endbury, Lady Masters, has begun to notice that Lady Masters’ son Toby has a liking for Laura.

Neighbors Miss Selbourne and her friend “Tiger” Garrett raise dogs in a cheerfully disordered household. Miss Selbourne has noticed, though, that whenever there is something unpleasant to be done, Tiger gets ill.

The neighborhood isn’t short of elderly women, for the Miss Cleeves are also nearby. The Miss Cleeves are penniless and dependent upon their landlord, Miles Corton, for help. Miss Cleeve is profoundly deaf, one sister is a religious fanatic, and the other sister sprinkles her malicious gossip with untruths.

Gillian, Mrs. Cole’s other daughter who is a war widow, has decided to take under her wing the wealthy new resident of the village. Mr. Greenley is from new money. He dresses like a parody of an English country gentleman and has not been welcomed to the village. Gillian thinks he just needs a little help fitting in.

This novel is gently comic, reminding me of Angela Thirkell without quite so much sharpness and snobbery. As Laura tries to figure out what she wants from life, we are greatly entertained by the antics of her neighbors.

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Day 1135: Death Among Friends

Cover for Death Among FriendsDeath Among Friends is a much more typical Elizabeth Cadell novel than the last one I read, Consider the Lilies. Here is her trademark humor, a likable heroine, and a couple of eccentrics, in this case Madame, the heroine’s employer, and James, her nephew. Also, a mystery rounds off the plot.

Eighteen months ago, Alison was jilted nearly at the altar. She left her home in Edinburgh and got a job in London, working for Madame as her companion/secretary. Now, her past is coming after her. James Maitland, Madame’s nephew, is preparing a play written by Madame’s brother for production in Edinburgh. The well-known producer, Neil Paterson, wants to produce it, and he wants Eden Croft to take the lead.

The problem is that Eden is Alison’s ex-fiancé and is now married to Alison’s godmother’s daughter, Margaret, whom she grew up with. Because Madame has delegated Alison to help James, she is forced to interact almost daily with the cast of the play, and with Margaret and Neil.

Although she has always disliked Neil and blames him for the break-up of her engagement, Alison is surprised to find him asking her out. When Eden tries to get her back, she is relieved to find she has no difficulty in brushing him off.

But as the group prepares for and begins their trip to Edinburgh, accidents start to happen to Alison. When she leans over a banister to call the cook, it collapses, and she is only saved because the cook moved a sofa to a position under the stairs. When she is driving down a steep hill at a B&B, her brakes give way, and only because she gave a young man a lift is she saved from going over a cliff. Later, when the travelers stop for lunch, an old man is killed because a rock knocks him off a cliff, where Alison was standing moments before.

Alison slowly realizes that someone is trying to kill her. But why? And who?

This was an enjoyable light read, as I usually expect from Cadell. It is another book for R.I.P.

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Day 1131: A Winter Away

Cover for A Winter AwayA review of A Winter Away tantalized me enough to make me order the book, a reprint from Furrowed Middlebrow. Much to my delight, the novel resembled, in different ways, those of two of my favorite authors for light, amusing reading.

Maud feels she has been too long at home, where she has always been regarded as delicate. Learning of an opportunity where she can live with Cousin Alice and her friend Miss Conway, thus satisfying her family’s demand about not moving to London, Maud has taken a job as a secretary to Marius Feniston of Glaine. Maud is at first terrified of making a mistake, for she knows her boss, called Old M. by Miss Conway, fired his last secretary. But she comes to like the old man and enjoy working in the crumbling but romantic mansion.

Marius Feniston is feuding with this nephew, Charles, who keeps a garden within Glaine’s grounds and operates greenhouses. At first, Maud is inclined to romanticize Charles and think that Oliver, Marius’s son, is demanding and boring. But sometimes Maud is prone to jump to conclusions.

A Winter Away is full of amusing situations and insights about people. Maud helps her neighbor Ensie in her romance with the curate. Miss Conway is jealous of Maud and tries to drive her away by sabotaging objects around the house, while Cousin Alice observes passively and Maud doesn’t even notice she’s doing it. Maud tries to discover the roots of the feud with Charles and prevent Oliver from arguing with his father every time he visits.

Fair’s observations about people are amusing and insightful, reminding me of Angela Thirkell but without its occasional class snobbery. Fair’s novels are a little more recent, and her situations and characters remind me of the best of Elizabeth Cadell. I enjoy both writers, so this novel was a pleasant discovery for me.

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Day 1129: Consider the Lilies

Cover for Consider the LiliesWhile I was looking for a cover image for Money to Burn, I noticed that someone has been republishing Elizabeth Cadell’s novels (with horrible covers) and that there were several I’d never heard of. I went ahead and ordered three. This is the first one.

I have long read Cadell’s novels when I wanted something very light and funny. In general, they are mild romances with good dialogue, a touch of mystery, and a plethora of eccentric characters. Often they take place in a family setting.

A writer who produced more than 50 books from the 1940’s through the 1980’s, Cadell did not always produce work that was uniformly good. Unfortunately, Consider the Lilies, which she published as Harriet Ainsworth, is not one of her best. This novel is a murder mystery, which is unusual for Cadell.

Caroline is visiting her sister Kathryn and family for Easter when the vicar’s sister, Miss Burnley, asks Kathryn to do her a favor by asking Mrs. Lauder to donate some lilies for the Easter service. Mrs. Lauder has loads of lilies, but she has never been known to donate any or to give anything else, for that matter. Kathryn, however, is the only person from the village that Mrs. Lauder will receive, so Kathryn goes, taking Caroline with her. Mrs. Lauder, a wheelchair-bound invalid who is nasty to all, refuses.

Guy and Kathryn Heywood receive a surprising visit from Miss Parry, Mrs. Lauder’s companion. She asks Guy to read a letter that she believes threatens Mrs. Lauder and wants advice for what to do about it. Guy suggests she do nothing, since the letter was not addressed to her, but to Mrs. Lauder, and is ambiguous.

Later, Miss Parry reports that the letter was stolen from her purse, and not too long after that, Mrs. Lauder is found dead. Her wheelchair appears to have slipped off the veranda and she fell out of it. But Inspector Avery Freeland seems to think the death is suspicious.

This novel is not a murder mystery in the sense that we follow the investigation very closely. Rather, it is about how the murder affects the Heywoods, who live next door. They are on hand to witness a few strange incidents, and they are shocked to find that two people in their household may know something. The novel is also not a proper mystery, because there is no way anyone could guess the culprit, who appears so slightly in the novel as to be almost unnoticeable.

Further, Cadell’s trademark character development is lacking. We have very little sense of any of the characters, even the main ones. so, this book was a disappointment. This is the third book I read for the R.I.P. challenge.

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Day 1127: Merry Hall

Cover for Merry HallMerry Hall is a delightful book that I never would have heard of had I not participated in the 1951 Club. The organizers are going to pick a year in the 1960’s for the next club, so if you’re interested, keep an eye on their blogs.

Shortly after World War II, journalist Beverley Nichols decided he must have a garden. Merry Hall is the story of his search for a property and his decision to buy a somewhat decrepit Georgian manor house. But it is more particularly about everything related to the garden.

Nichols’s descriptions of flowers and trees are lyrical and his stories charming and funny. After viewing the disarray of the ornamental gardens at the manor, he is stunned by the order and beauty of the kitchen garden but has difficulty interesting the gardener, Mr. Oldfield, in the creation of a new ornamental garden. He has to fight the ghost of Mr. Stebbing, the previous owner, who has execrable taste, every time he wants to change something. His neighbor, Miss Emily, thinks Mr. Stebbing had wonderful taste and flinches every time she notices something Nichols has changed. She also makes frequent demands for Nichols’s vegetables, even requesting him, on no acquaintance at all, to drive them to her house as if he were a grocer.

Where taste is concerned, Nichols also has his battles with Our Rose, famous for her “creative” floral displays, which Nichols abhors. Other amusing characters dot the pages of the memoir, in particular, his friend Marius, who is so erudite that Nichols rarely knows what he’s talking about.

In between Nichols’s amusing stories of his friends and his cats, “One” and “Four,” is the heart of the book—Nichols’s love for growing things, color, and beauty, eloquently expressed. Here he is after a section about his water garden:

There had been times when one wondered if it was really worthwhile. All this was forgotten now; I had my reward in that silver thread of water, sparkling in the moonlight.

For you see, it really is a magic water. How otherwise could you describe it? Is it not the essence of all gardens’ sweetness? There is the dew of white violets in it, and the raindrops from their dark green leaves. There is the juice of apples in it and the savour of all the pears and plums that fell into the long grass in September, and were forgotten and grew as brown as the earth with which they mingled. There is the scent of snow in it—for snow, as you should be aware, has a distinct scent, and so for that matter, has the North wind. And there is the tang of ice . . . the ice that laid out its little mirrors of glass all through the orchard in the clear days of January, so that the sky might lean close and see its face.

I am not at all a gardener, although I hope to become a sort of one now that I live in the country, but Nichols’s descriptions had me googling flower names like mad. This is a lovely, lovely book, and I am so happy to have read it.

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Day 1120: They Found Him Dead

Cover for They Found Him DeadThe wealthy Silas Kane is celebrating his sixtieth birthday, but the party is anything but jolly. His business partner, Joe Mansell, is trying to talk him into a deal with an American company for Australia, but he thinks it’s too big a risk. His cousin Clement’s self-obsessed wife, Rosemary, is considering leaving Clement for Trevor Dermott. Betty Pemble, Joe’s daughter, can only talk about her obnoxious children.

That night Silas goes for his customary walk along the cliff top. The next morning it is clear that his bed was never slept in. He has apparently fallen off the edge of the cliff.

Clement Kane is now the heir to the estate and company, but he doesn’t seem to be any more inclined to the business deal than Silas. His wife, however, decides to stay with him because she needs money. Emily Kane, Silas’s mother, is angry that the property is going to Clement rather than to her grandson, Jim Kane.

As the businessman from America, Oscar Roberts, appears on the scene, Joe Mansell and his son Paul pressure Clement to agree to their deal. But soon Clement is also dead, shot in his office just as Patricia Allison, Emily’s companion, was about to show in Oscar Roberts for an appointment. To Jim’s surprise, he is the next heir, not his female cousin in Australia, as the estate is entailed to the male heir.

No one knows whether Silas was murdered or not, but Clement certainly was. And soon someone appears to be trying to murder Jim.

Detective Inspector Hannasyde has a plethora of suspects and doesn’t even know how many deaths to look into. Could the Mansells have committed murder for a business deal? Is someone really trying to kill Jim, or is it a blind?

I guessed the murderer and the motive almost immediately, but the puzzle isn’t the point of an Heyer mystery. Instead, it’s the characters and the amusing dialogue. This mystery isn’t very mysterious, but it’s a pleasure to read.

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Day 1114: Literary Wives! On Beauty

Cover for On BeautyToday 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!

Ariel of One Little Library
Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Howard’s End, so I didn’t catch that the opening of On Beauty indicates an homage to that novel. But it becomes more apparent toward the middle of the book. That is when Mrs. Kipps leaves Kiki Belsey a valuable painting, an informal bequest that the Kipps family chooses not to honor.

On Beauty is set in the fictional college town of Wellington, Massachusetts, where Howard Belsey is a professor of art history. Belsey is an expert in Rembrandt who dislikes Rembrandt and practically everything else. Smith does quite a bit of skewering of academia in this novel, particularly with Howard and his archenemy, Monty Kipps. Kipps is a political academic, a conservative who is giving a series of lectures entitled “Taking the Liberal out of Liberal Arts.” Howard despises everything he stands for.

Howard, one of the few white major characters in this novel, is an Englishman married to Kiki, an African-American hospital administrator. She has recently discovered that Howard was unfaithful, but she doesn’t know the whole story. The two are struggling to keep their marriage together.

Despite Howard’s difficulties with Monty Kipps, when Kipps moves his family from England to be a visiting lecturer at Howard’s college, Kiki invites them to their anniversary party. Going to the Kipps’s house to deliver the invitation, Kiki meets Mrs. Kipps and immediately feels a rapport.

The situation with the Kipps has not been helped because Jeremy Belsey, the oldest Belsey child, fell in love with Victoria Kipps when he was Monty’s summer intern and announced to his family that they were engaged. Although Kiki tried to keep Howard from panicking, he immediately ran off to London to stop it and managed to offend everyone. The engagement, of course, was already off when he arrived.

Identity is an important theme in the novel, class identity, as with Howard’s End, political, racial, and sexual. Zora Belsey, a student at the college, is a forceful young woman who is so worried about her college resume that she blackmails her way into a class using her knowledge of Howard’s affair. Yet she suffers from body hatred and later confuses a social cause with a personal crush.

Sixteen-year-old Levi fakes a Brooklyn accent and is ashamed of his middle-class background. He wants to be a bro from the hood and later takes up the cause of some Haitian refugees.

Smith’s skewering of academia is dead on, particularly in a scene where a student goes to Howard’s class determined to express her solid-sounding opinions about the painting they were assigned to study, only to be bowled over by the incomprehensible deconstructionist jargon employed by Howard and two of his pets. Smith’s American narrative voices aren’t quite as strong. Although the narrative seems to be omniscient, she actually moves among the points of view of one character after another.  From the points of view of the American characters, Kiki, or say, Zora, who has spent most of her life in the States, she occasionally uses the wrong words. No American has called a bathing suit a bathing costume since the early 19th century, for example. It’s a styrofoam cup, not a polystyrene cup, as more accurate chemically as that term may be, and she uses a term for a P. A. system that I never heard before. Still, this is a minor quibble.

More importantly, I didn’t like any of the characters except maybe Kiki, although she was busy crying much of the time. Still, I think they were realistically portrayed. This novel just didn’t do that much for me. Smith has a kind of gritty sensibility that I’m not fond of.

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

Although two marriages are touched on in the novel, the one that is central is that of Kiki and Howard. It felt like one of the more realistic portrayals of marriage in the books we have read so far for this club, because everything is not black and white. Kiki is heartbroken at Howard’s infidelity and is about to be more so. Howard loves Kiki but is dismayed and unattracted by her huge weight gain.

Both of them are in a sort of limbo at first. Howard wants to be forgiven, but for Kiki it’s not so easy. So, for a while there is sort of an indeterminate give and take, during which the situation is sometimes better, sometimes worse.

Kiki is a strong woman who wants to be loved for herself. At the same time, we don’t see very much of Kiki except in her interactions with her family and Mrs. Kipps.

Howard, whom we see more of in other situations, is a man who thinks only of himself—particularly of his own eccentric tastes and dislikes. Although he has a good sense of humor, he doesn’t really like anything, he has no passions for anything. And Howard turns out to be on a fairly self-destructive path, while Kiki, although she is unhappy, seems as if she could survive anything.

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