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 1767: Classics Club Spin! A Town Like Alice

Best of Ten!

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 1678: The World My Wilderness

Seventeen-year-old Barbary Deniston has grown up running wild in occupied France and was a member of the enfante maquis of the French Resistance. Now that the war is over, she doesn’t seem to know the difference and is still involved with the maquis, which is hunting down collaborators. Her mother, Helen, was neglectful while happy with her stepfather, but now that he has died, they’ve had a falling out. Helen decides to send her to London to live with her father, Gulliver. Also going is her stepbrother Raoul, who is to study and learn his uncle’s business.

Barbary is a fish out of water in her father’s upper-middle-class home. He is too busy with work to pay attention to her, and his wife, Pamela, dislikes her. In many ways immature, Barbary believes her parents would reunite if it weren’t for Pamela and her baby son, so she is determined to dislike them. Her father enrolls her at the Sloane and just assumes she goes there, but she and Raoul roam the streets and find a ruined section of London that reminds them of home. Soon, they are associating with deserters and thieves.

Macaulay treats all of her flawed characters with empathy, but it was hard for me to relate to Barbary. However, this novel made me realize how chaotic post-war France and London must have been. I haven’t read any other books that deal with that subject.

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Review 1631: Mrs. Tim Gets a Job

It turns out that Mrs. Tim Gets a Job is part of a series. Unfortunately, because I’d rather read series books in order, I never find this out until I mark that I’m reading it in Goodreads. Luckily, the novel seems to stand perfectly well on its own.

The Second World War is over, but Mrs. Tim’s husband is still stationed in Cairo and won’t be getting home anytime soon. Mrs. Tim’s two children are off at school, and she finds herself at loose ends. So, without really consulting her, a friend arranges a job for her at a hotel in Scotland. At first, Mrs. Tim is inclined to turn down the job, but then she gets a letter from her landlord giving her notice to move out.

With trepidation, she sets out to work for Miss Clutterbuck, who she understands is a difficult person. Miss Clutterbuck has been forced to open her family home to the public, and she has a rude manner. Mrs. Tim finds that part of her duties is to talk to the guests, because Miss Clutterbuck can’t bear them.

This novel is written in a light style as a diary, reminding me very much of the Provincial Lady series except gentler and with less overt humor. We follow Mrs. Tim’s progress as she grows to appreciate Miss Clutterbuck, learns how to deal with a housemaid who hates her, and straightens out a guest’s love life. I enjoyed this book very much.

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Review 1462: Not at Home

Miss Elinor MacFarren is dismayed to realize that something must be done about her finances. With World War II just past, there has not been much recent demand for her beautifully illustrated books on botany. She decides, with the London housing shortage going on, that she must find someone to share her lovely family home, filled with treasures.

When she interviews Mrs. Bankes, whose husband is an American journalist, she has some misgivings, but Mrs. Bankes agrees to all her conditions, and she relies upon the warm recommendation of her friend, Harriet Greenway. It’s not too long after Mrs. Bankes moves in, though, that the house is noisy and disorganized. Miss MacFarren’s precious objects are being mistreated, and Mrs. Bankes is using up all the time of the shared housekeeper. She is even taking Miss MacFarren’s food from the kitchen.

Mrs. Bankes proves to be a manipulator and a liar, willing to do or say anything to get her way. The situation is complicated when Mr. Bankes arrives, because he is so nice and appreciative of the house. Miss MacFarren can’t bring herself to give them notice while he is there.

This domestic comedy is thoroughly enjoyable as Miss MacFarren gets out of her rut, meeting new people and re-evaluating old acquaintances. With their help, she tries to figure out how to eject her unwelcome lodger.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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Review 1426: The Wardrobe Mistress

In post-World War II London during a cold winter, the famous actor Charlie Grice, called Gricey, has died. His widow, Joan, a wardrobe mistress, is bereft. When a young actor, Daniel Francis, takes over Gricey’s role as Malvolio and plays it exactly the same, Joan comes to believe that he has become Gricey.

As Joan is beginning to befriend Daniel Francis, or Frank Stone, his real name, she makes a horrible discovery about Gricey. Behind the lapel of one of his coats she finds a badge, the emblem of Britain’s fascist party. This is doubly horrible because Joan is Jewish. Asking around discreetly, she finds what everyone else knows—Gricey was indeed a fascist.

The stress on Joan becomes even worse as her friend Frank begins working with her daughter Vera on The Duchess of Malfi. Vera’s husband and his friend Gustl ask her to help them fight the fascists by infiltrating them.

This novel is written from an omniscient viewpoint with a first person plural accompaniment by the ladies of the chorus. This technique lends it a certain ironic tone. It’s a creepy and atmospheric novel that chills to the bone.

I read this novel for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Day 1275: The Women in the Castle

Cover for The Women in the CastleIn 1938, a group of Germans meet at Burg Lingenfels, a castle in Bavaria, during a party. They are resistors against the Nazis, and they are planning to kill Hitler. After the meeting, Connie Fledermann, a childhood friend of Marianne von Lingenfels, asks her, if the plot fails, to take care of his wife, Benita, and the other wives of the men involved in the plot.

In 1945, the European war is over. Marianne’s husband was executed during the war for his part in the conspiracy. She has returned to the castle and begun looking looking for the wives she promised to help. So far, she has only found Benita, who spent time in a camp, and Anie, the wife of a man she can’t really remember. But both women have secrets, and post-war Germany is a dangerous place. This novel tells the women’s stories through flashbacks as it moves forward in time to the 1990’s.

Although I don’t understand quite why, I didn’t really get that involved with this novel. It may have been because Benita and Anie have some secrets that aren’t revealed until the end, which leaves them relatively unknowable. Marianne is the only character who seems to have much depth.

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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 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 1111: The Gustav Sonata

Cover for The Gustav SonataUntil the very end of The Gustav Sonata I wondered what its point was. It is a novel detached from its characters even as it puts them through events that should make us sympathetic. Further, although it is set in a specific time and place, there is little feel for what it was like then and there. This effect is in strong contrast to Tremain’s two novels about Merivel, set in Restoration England.

The novel begins in 1947, when its main character, Gustav Perle, is five years old. Although Gustav is Rose Tremain’s exact contemporary, parts of the novel are set earlier, before Gustav was born.

Gustav’s father died when he was a baby. He was a member of the police force for their small town in Switzerland, but he lost his job before Gustav was born, under circumstances that Gustav’s mother does not fully understand. All she knows is that Erich died “helping the Jews.”

Gustav’s mother Emilie has raised him without a shred of affection but only with criticism. The lack of affection is tempered somewhat by his lifelong friendship with Anton, whom he meets the first day of Kindergarten. Emilie does not like Gustav’s friendship with Anton, because Anton is Jewish. But Anton and Anton’s family are all Gustav has, really.

Anton is always a self-absorbed person. He is nervous and highly strung, a musical prodigy. Anton’s mother thinks he will become a famous musician, but he is terrified in competition and performs badly.

An important theme in this novel is Swiss neutrality and its correspondence with personal neutrality. Gustav, although faithful to his friends, is always concerned with self-mastery and holds back from his own life events. But so does this novel hold back from its characters, as if observing them through a glass.

I found this novel interesting but not involving. I think it took too long to get to its point. It is another novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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