Day 1093: Pomfret Towers

Cover for Pomfret TowersSomeone once remarked to me that the Angela Thirkell novels set before or during World War II are the best, and so it seems to me, reading this one. Pomfret Towers is set before the war.

Timid young Alice Barton is terrified when she learns she must accept an invitation for a weekend at Pomfret Towers along with her brother, Guy. Lady Pomfret is home on one of her infrequent visits from Italy, and Lord Pomfret wants some young people around to entertain her.

But she needn’t have worried: almost everyone is kind to Alice. Phoebe Rivers, a cousin of the family, has made sure Alice’s room is next to hers and helps her pick out her outfits for dinner. Alice’s good friends, Roddy and Sally Wicklow, are there, Roddy being the junior estate manager. Gillie Foster, Lord Pomfret’s heir, is extremely kind and fetches her shoes for her from the servants. Even Lord Pomfret, who is known for his rudeness, is kind.

One figure who continues to be terrifying is Mrs. Rivers, a best-selling author. Although Alice’s mother is also an author (a better one, we suspect), she is modest about it, unlike Mrs. Rivers, who constantly talks about herself and tries to arrange things for everyone, as if she were the hostess.

Another egoist is Julian Rivers, but Alice only sees how handsome he is and how wonderful he seems to be. His behavior is sometimes unusual, but he is an artist.

One of the things Mrs. Rivers is trying to manage is a marriage between her daughter Phoebe and Gillie Foster, but Gillie seems to prefer talking to Alice or working in the office with Sally. And Phoebe keeps running off with Guy to look at buildings he and his father are restoring.

Pomfret Towers is another romance by Angela Thirkell, full of delightful characters and slightly winking at society. This novel is one I particularly enjoyed. Alice is a little silly, but she is young and lovable, and we are sure everything will come out all right.

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Day 1077: Four Letters of Love

Cover for Four Letters of LoveBest Book of the Week!
I was so enchanted by History of the Rain that after finishing it, I soon looked for other novels by Niall Williams. Four Letters of Love is his first.

Nicholas Coughlin is a boy when his father abandons his career as a civil servant to paint, saying that God wants him to. For two summers, he leaves Nicholas and his mother home alone while he goes out to paint. The rest of the year, he obsessively reworks the paintings he did in the summer.

Then Nicholas’s mother dies, but stays to haunt the house. His father intends to go out as usual and leave Nicholas home alone for a few weeks, but Nicholas follows him. His efforts all along are to try to capture some of the attention of this obsessed, abstracted man.

Isabel Gore is the daughter of a schoolmaster on an island off the coast of Galway. Her brother Sean is a gifted musician, but one day after playing for hours while she dances, he has a fit and after that is mute and wheelchair bound. Isabel blames herself for Sean’s condition.

The Master sets all his ambitions on Isabel’s academic career and sends her to Galway to a convent school. But Isabel has a streak of wildness in her and sometimes walks off from school. On one such expedition as a teenage girl, she meets Peader O’Luing. He is a poor excuse for a man, but she doesn’t see that and falls in love.

The novel makes no secret that it is moving toward the meeting of Nicholas and Isabel. To get there, it tells their stories with some whimsy, some pathos, and a touch of magical realism. Although the writing style and voice are not as distinctive as that of History of the Rain, the novel is still beautifully written. I enjoyed it very much.

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Day 1076: Money to Burn

Cover for Money to BurnIt may be difficult to find a book by Elizabeth Cadell these days (it was when I wrote this, but I find now that someone is republishing them), but if you want something that is totally light and fluffy, a gentle, amusing romance with funny characters and a hint of a mystery, you can do no better than this author, whose heyday was in the 1950’s-70’s. Money to Burn features the vague young lord Raymond Trysting and his sister Auriol, their Canadian cousin Leigh Anderson, and three eccentric aunts.

When Leigh comes to the village of Cammertree to visit, he finds all of his relatives impoverished and Raymond and Auriol living in primitive circumstances. The odd old aunts are obsessed by their own interests and Auriol is disorganized and incompetent in the housekeeping department. She only knows how to cook eggs. Raymond is mild-mannered and seemingly lazy, but he has a shadow hanging over him. Trysting Mansion, the family seat, has just burnt down, and no one knows what happened to the £13,000 of insurance money the family received. Raymond and Auriol’s father has recently died and with him the secret of the money. And whatever happened to the historic family silver, which has also disappeared?

Leigh finds himself attracted to the beautiful Auriol, but the family problems are almost too difficult to contemplate. And Auriol has already rejected three suitors, so there’s no telling if she will accept Leigh.

With lots of fun, amusing dialog, and eccentric characters, Cadell’s books offer a refreshing change of pace.

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Day 1061: The Baker’s Daughter

Cover for The Baker's DaughterIn the Scottish town of Beilford, the Bullochs are worried about their granddaughter, Sue Pringle. Since her father remarried, Sue has led a tough life with her stepmother. Had she known her grandfather planned to offer her a job in his store, she would not have taken a job as cook for the Darnays to get away from home.

The first morning at work, Sue finds that Mrs. Darnay and her maid have left the house, leaving her alone with Mr. Darnay, an artist. Although for propriety’s sake she should leave him to find an older housekeeper, Sue decides to stay.

Darnay is so wrapped up in his painting that the practicalities of the situation don’t occur to him. He has previously been well paid for his paintings, but since changing his style, he is not making any money. He has a shock when he realizes he owes money in the village and hasn’t paid Sue. To make things worse, his wife has sued for divorce, naming Sue as corespondent, even though she herself created the situation that makes her husband and Sue look bad.

Sue is in love with Darnay but views him as unattainable and above her in class. Once he sends himself off in disgrace, she returns to work for her grandfather. But will she see him again?

It’s interesting to me that the class angle is still such a strong one in 1938, when this novel was written. Stevenson works around it, but this plot point seems even more important than the divorce. In any case, this is a slight but entertaining novel with likable characters.

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Day 1044: The Lark

Cover for The LarkBest Book of the Week!
The Lark was E. Nesbit’s last novel for adults, and it is a delightful romp with lovable characters. I had been reading her books in order, but because of the recommendation of a friend, I skipped to this one. Written in 1922, it is set in post-WW I England.

The novel begins with a few scenes set several years before the main action. Exuberant 15-year-old Jane Quested finds an old book with a spell for seeing her true love, and she is determined to try it in the garden at night. John Rochester has just been advised by his mother to marry the wealthy Hilda Antrobus. (Jane and Rochester. Can this be a coincidence?) John is walking in the woods after missing his train and happens to come upon the scene just after Jane finishes her spell. She thinks she’s seen a vision of her future.

The war intercedes, and Jane and her cousin Lucilla are still in school at the end of it, both of them orphaned. They are surprised to get a sudden summons from their guardian, Arthur Panton. They are delivered to their new home, a small house called Hope Cottage, where they learn that Panton has lost all their money in investments and is leaving the country. He has left them with the house and 500 pounds.

Instead of being discouraged, Jane declares that they will live life as a lark, and the first thing to do is find a way to make money. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to do anything.

One morning Jane hands out flowers to the workmen on their way to work. One of them suggests she sell the flowers. So, she and Lucilla begin selling flowers out of their garden but soon find the garden isn’t big enough. The next thing to do is to find a place that is.

Of course, John Rochester appears on the scene, as the nephew of the man whose house they want to lease. But Jane is determined not to be side-tracked by a vision from making her own way in life.

This novel is lively and full of enjoyable characters, as Jane and Lucilla attempt to earn their living and so meet all kinds of interesting people. It is a light-hearted novel that I enjoyed immensely.

At the suggestion of my friend Deb, I’m attaching a link for The Lark online, since it is difficult to find: http://dbooks.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/books/PDFs/N10292048.pdf. I myself bought E. Nesbit’s complete works from Delphi Classics, also in the form of an ebook (the only disadvantage, in my opinion). If you live in the U. K., it looks like there are some newly printed paperback copies available.

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Day 1042: Troy Chimneys

troy-chimneysTroy Chimneys is a curious novel. Written in the 1950’s by a contemporary of the modernist Elizabeth Taylor, Troy Chimneys is set in the early 19th century and feels more like a Victorian novel except for the complexity of the morality. As such, I preferred it over the spare works of Taylor.

Miles Lufton is an ambitious man, but he has no fortune or title, so he must make his own way. He becomes a member of parliament and so must please people and curry favor.

Mr. Lufton sees himself as two different people. The ambitious, political Lufton who is always diplomatic and conciliating and has sometimes had to associate with the wrong people he calls Pronto, after a character in a play. The more retiring, thoughtful Lufton, who has no particular ambition and tends to the naive he calls Miles. Lufton dreams of the day when he has earned enough money that he can retire to his home, Troy Chimneys, and become wholly Miles.

After only one adventure in romance when he was young, Pronto has been content with flirtation (well, almost). But he finally realizes he is in love with a serious, intelligent spinster named Caroline. Caroline has had the perception to notice the two Luftons, but she has a different opinion of them than Lufton does.

The introduction of my Virago edition states that, like Taylor, Kennedy was examining virtue in this novel. That seems rather stuffy sounding, but the novel is quite enjoyable, full of ironies.

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Day 1025: Dolly: A Love Story

Cover for DollyDolly lives a Bohemian life in what she calls Vagabondia with her sisters and artist brother Phil, his wife, and baby Tod. They are poor, so Dolly works as a governess for her disapproving Aunt Augusta. Dolly is not pretty, but she is witty and vivacious, and at a party she attracts the attention of the wealthy Mr. Gowan.

Only Dolly’s inner circle knows that Dolly has been engaged for seven years to Griffith Donne. The couple has not married, because they can’t afford to, although they dream of the day they can. Grif is a volatile young man who gets discouraged at the lack of progress in his career and becomes jealous of Dolly’s flirtatious behavior. He has a wealthy aunt, Miss Berenice MacDowlas, but she disapproves of him.

Dolly’s troubles begin when Aunt Augusta dismisses her, declaring that her children are too old for a governess. She must find work, and she finally gets a position as companion to Miss MacDowlas. Unfortunately, she must live in, which limits her meetings with Grif. He becomes more and more upset until an unfortunately convergence of circumstances and a true emergency lead him to believe Dolly is toying with him. He breaks from her without allowing her to explain.

Burnett creates a warm family life for Dolly, and we get to know and appreciate her family. She is also good at appealing to our sympathies for her heroine.

This novel was marred for me, however, by my dislike of Grif. The core problem between him and Dolly is that Grif does not trust her, but Dolly takes the blame because of her flirtatiousness, a Victorian conclusion, for sure (and worse, the novel accepts the problem as her fault). Even in their ultimate misunderstanding, when Grif refuses to listen to her very good reason for missing their date, Dolly blames herself. Well, obviously attitudes have changed, but these days his behavior would raise all sorts of red flags. I very much preferred the behavior of Mr. Gowan, who proves to be a true friend. So, I guess in this case I am guilty of judging a book by today’s standards.

And, to give away a plot point, Dolly goes into a decline. I thought that she was an unlikely character to do so. So, a mixed reaction to this one, one of Burnett’s first novels.

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