Review 1891: Keeping Up Appearances

I’m not sure if it was because I was on vacation while reading Keeping Up Appearances, but it took me much longer to read it than usual for a novel its size. I did notice I occasionally had a hard time paying attention to it while at other times felt I was reading a script for I Love Lucy.

Daphne and Daisy are opposites in personality, but they’re constantly together. Daphne is confident, witty, and brave, perhaps a higher class than Daisy, while Daisy is shy, unsure, and not always swift on the uptake. Daisy is ashamed of her class origins and the circumstances of her birth, even though she has been raised by higher class family members. Daphne could care less about all that.

At the opening of the novel, both young women are vacationing with the Folyot family on an island in the Mediterranean. Mrs. Folyot works against tyranny and reminds me of Mrs. Jellyby. She is obsessed by her causes and so later has a hilarious scene of talking at cross-purposes with Daisy’s mother.

Both girls care for Raymond, the Folyot’s oldest son, a biologist. Although Daisy doesn’t like to look at the little animals Raymond shows her as much as Daphne does, Daisy fears she cares for Raymond more than Daphne does, but he likes Daphne more than her. Unfortunately, an incident with a wild boar makes Daisy too embarrassed to stay, and Daphne goes, too.

Daisy doesn’t think the Folyots would approve of her profession. Not only is she a successful author of middlebrow novels, but she takes assignments from a newspaper to write silly articles about women that the paper assigns her. Daisy is a snob, and she is proud of neither activity even though we suspect she is a better novelist than she thinks.

Macaulay obviously had fun skewering the newspapers, because the ideas for articles are ridiculous and sexist, as is clearly the attitude toward Daisy’s novels.

Although this novel satirizes the publishing industry, it is really about identity and self-image. Most of the characters are not quite likable except Daisy’s mother, who is a hoot.

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

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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 1564: Dangerous Ages

Thanks to Simon Thomas’s posts (Stuck in a Book) on the new British Library Women Writers series, I was able to request some review copies. I received Dangerous Ages, which, according to the novel, are all of them. This novel examines the lives of women in the early 1920’s.

Neville is 43, a woman who gave up her medical studies as a young woman to marry and raise a family. That job done, she finds herself feeling adrift, with no purpose, and views her mother, Mrs. Hilary, as an object lesson. She must find work and decides to return to studying medicine.

Mrs. Hilary is a silly woman who always pretends she has read important books and is knowledgeable on all subjects. At 63, she has nothing to do, because she defines herself as a wife and mother. Now she is a widow whose children are grown. She is jealous of anyone being intimate with Neville if her son Jim isn’t around and is jealous of Neville’s intimacy with Jim. She thinks psychoanalysis, which is being talked about, is horrid until she realizes it means someone will listen to her stories.

Nan, Neville’s younger sister, has been courted by Barry for ages. She finally decides she loves him, but instead of telling him so, she goes off to Cornwall to finish writing her latest book, never thinking that Barry might give up on her.

Gerda, Neville’s daughter, is ardently engaged in left-wing activities. The question is, when she falls in love with a man of a different background, whether she will compromise her principles, which reject all the values of her parents’ generation.

Macaulay’s novel is rooted in the early 1920’s, as characters examine hot topics of the time. I had to laugh at the scenes where Mrs. Hilary’s psychoanalysts inundate her with Freudian jargon that she has very little understanding of. That most of these women are frustrated in their aims should not be surprising, for this is a satirical look at the position of women in society. Only Neville’s sister Pamela, who refuses to be bothered, and Neville’s grandmother, who says she is past all that, seem happy.

Simon Thomas’s Afterword provides some insight into views of psychoanalysis in the early 1920’s, which is interesting.

I enjoyed this novel very much. It feels like light, lively reading while dealing with experiences that are universal, no matter the generation.

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Review 1560: #1956 Club! The Towers of Trebizond

Best of Ten!
The Towers of Trebizond, which I read for the 1956 Club, is said to be Rose Macaulay’s masterpiece. When I first began reading it, I was surprised at this, for it seemed to be a light comedy about eccentric people traveling in Turkey. To be sure, the narrator, Laurie, is erudite but relates the story in gushes of information, whimsy, and wit. But oh, when Laurie describes the wonders of past civilizations or her love of the rituals of the Anglican (high) church (I’m picking “her,” to discuss later), you see that there is more to this novel than humor.

Laurie and her Aunt Dot are on a trip to Turkey, accompanied by Father Chantry-Pigg. Laurie and Aunt Dot are writing a book about Turkey, Aunt Dot hopes to enlighten Moslem women by converting them to the Anglican church, and Father Chantry-Pigg, whose inappropriate last name becomes a running joke, wants converts. On the way, they pick up Aunt Dot’s friend Dr. Halide, who is also interesting in the liberation of women. Oh, and Aunt Dot brings her camel.

This may not sound funny, but all of the characters except Laurie are so obsessed with their hobby horses that the conversations are delightful. Later, we meet David, who has taken advantage of his ex-lover Charles’s death to steal the material Charles has written about Turkey and publish it under his own name—only Laurie has found Charles’s notebook in his old hotel room.

The central conflict for Laurie is that she is a believer in her church, but she has left it because of a long-lasting affair with Vere, a married man. Her heart yearns for the church, but she feels unable to break with Vere, whom she loves deeply.

This novel is beautifully written, witty, and finally bittersweet. I was unable to follow some of the detail about the church, and being American, I don’t have the classical background to understand all the references Laurie throws in about ancient civilizations. However, I greatly enjoyed this novel, which goes much deeper than it initially seems it will.

I wasn’t aware of this at first, but apparently there is an issue about Laurie’s sex—is she male or female? Perhaps this didn’t occur to me because my illustrated Folio Society edition makes the decision that she’s female. But what does occur to me is this: doesn’t the question imply sexism? That is, I can only imagine this question was raised because Laurie thinks nothing of, say, riding a camel across Syria by herself. But then, neither does Aunt Dot have any problem with walking across the Iron Curtain just to see what it’s like on the other side. I got no sense at all of a masculine personality in Laurie. Finally, Laurie’s bar to returning to the church is adultery, not adultery and homosexuality, and although Macaulay teases us for a while by not revealing Vere’s sex until the end, she finally does so. I think this whole sex issue is just caused by some people’s assumptions that a woman couldn’t be this adventurous in 1956.

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