I mean this does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin – although I hadn’t quite realised that that was what I had created until I started looking at it for this post. The Angela Thirkells I have already written about – and I’m still annoyed that the spines don’t all match, even if the covers do – and the Nancy Spains have had more than one mention too as Death Goes on Skis was a Book of the Week, Cinderella goes to the morgue was in last week’s recommendsday and Poison for Teacher was in the boarding schools post. There’s a little collection of plays at the far end, and then it’s what you could loosely term my A Level reading favourites. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was on my A Level summer reading list in the summer of sixth form and I thought it was so brilliant that I went out and brought all the other volumes – and carried on buying Maya Angelou’s new stuff as it came out. And then I also studied First World War Literature and read the whole extended reading list of novels – and these are the bits I kept because they spoke to me the most. Except that I’ve lost my copy of Goodbye to All That in one of my moves and I’m refusing to replace it until I find the edition I used to have or a prettier one. I can’t help myself like that. The only other things on there are Diary of a Provincial Lady and Frost in May, both of which are going to get bumped if many more Thirkells or Nancy Spains appear! It’s a classy shelf of excellent books that I don’t feel like I have to justify if people spot them. And yes, I know, I shouldn’t feel that I have to justify my reading but sometimes people make you feel like you do.
It’s the last day of April, and as I mentioned yesterday it’s (early) May bank holiday weekend here which always makes me think that summer is on the way so I have a bonus book review for you today.
Enchanted April tells the story of four women who respond to an advert offering an Italian castle to rent for a month in April. They are very different and clash to start with but over the course of the holiday bond together. This was published in the 1920s – which as you all know is the absolute sweet spot for me in terms of twentieth century fiction. And it doesn’t hurt that my copy of it is one of those gorgeous Virago designer classic ones! It’s a slightly distressed rich people type story – the women would undoubtedly consider themselves ladies albeit it some of them ladies in reduced circumstances*
There’s a film of it from 1991, which I really need to try and watch – it’s got an interesting looking cast which includes Alfred Molina and Miranda Richardson and it got a trio of Oscar nominations too. A couple of years back there was The Enchanted August which took the premise of Enchanted April and moved it to modern day Maine which I enjoyed when I read it in 2016 – my notes from the time say “It’s not quite a rich people problems story – but it’s an escape from the daily struggles to an island and rediscover yourself and your relationships novel.” And we all know that another thing I love are rich people problems book – or things that are nearly rich people problem novels. So start with the original, but if you like Enchanted April there are options for you.
And because I can’t resist an opportunity to quote from Peter Wimsey:
I said, ‘Really, Peter!’ but he said, Why shouldn’t he arrange continental trip for deserving couple? and posted off reservations to Miss Climpson, for benefit of tubercular accountant and wife in reduced circumstances. (Query: How does one reduce a circumstance?)Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers
Yes I finished this on Monday. So yes it’s cheating. But it is a book set in a ski resort and I spent the part of my weekend that I didn’t spend in London watching the Winter Olympics so I am going with it!
Death Goes on Skis is one of a series featuring Miriam Birdseye, written in the years following the Second World War. Miriam is a revue artist and has a champagne lifestyle and a coterie of hangers on. This is the first in the series that I have come across (and isn’t it gorgeous!) but Good reads tells me it is the fourth in the series. It sees Miriam on holiday in a ski resort popular with Brits. Her fellow travelers include a ballerina and her night club owner husband, a playboy, his wife and their children and their governess and a wealthy couple whose family make their money from perfume. Most of these people are awful, but when they start dying in mysterious circumstances, Miriam and her friends investigate. But, crucially, they’re investigating because they are bored and not because they have a burning passion for justice or to see the criminal behind bars.
And that is the difference to other Murder mysteries of the era that I have written about – this is a farce and a (black) comedy and doesn’t quite follow the genres connections that you might expect. Think Evelyn Waugh does murder mysteries. And it works very well. You’re not going to like any of the suspects, and the children are truly awful, but it’s really quite entertaining. It also comes neatly broken up into nice small chunks, which makes it perfect for bedtime reading – which is mostly what I’ve been doing with it, although I did read some of it on the sofa on Monday night because I wanted to finish it!
If the name Nancy Spain sounds familiar, well that may be because she’s one of the women featured in Her Brilliant Career, but in brief she was a great niece of Mrs Beaton (of household management game) she went to Roedean and then became a journalist after being asked to write about women’s sport. She served in the WRNS in the war and afterwards started writing detective fiction. This got her a newspaper column and also turned her into a personality who appeared regularly on TV and radio. Her partner was editor of She Magazine, Joan Werner Laurie and they lived openly together in what sounds like a somewhat complicated household with the rally driver Sheila Van Damme. They were friends with Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich and she was the inspiration for a song. Spain and Laurie died in a plane crash at Aintree in 1964 – they had been travelling there to cover the grand national.
I bought my copy of Death Goes on Skis as a birthday present for myself, and I’ve already ordered another one of them, as Virago have helpfully reissued several of them now, all with delightful covers in this style. They’re also on Kindle and Kobo and in a matching audiobook to this from all the usual vendors.
So this is a post I’ve been thinking about writing for ages – but thought I probably ought to read some Anthony Trollope before I did so that I can sound knowledgeable about the origin of the setting. But I’m finally admitting that that’s probably not going to happen any time soon – because, you know, huge to-read pile, pandemic and my general (and ever more pronounced) reluctance to read anything “classic”. And the other issue is that I’ve only read fifteen of them. But if I wait for Virago to publish all of them I could be waiting a long time. So, I’m going for it now. Sorry, not sorry.
This is a series of loosely connected books all set in the same (fictional) county and featuring some of the same characters. The first book was published in 1933, and as in book 15 I’ve just reached the end of the Second World War the section of the series that I’ve read fits nicely into the interwar period that I read about so much. Not a lot happens in them – or at least nothing dramatic – they are just amusing and witty portraits of life in a certain part of British society. In High Rising – the first in the series – we met Laura Moreland, a widow who started writing books to help pay the school fees for her irrepressible son Tony. The books are wildly successful, but not highbrow, so Laura is somewhat embarrassed by them. There are squabbles in the community, misunderstandings, misbehaving children, there are issues of class and there are gentle romances. The pattern for the series is set.
They do turn darker through the Second World War, and there are bits that haven’t aged as well as others. I see from notes on the later books in the series that they turn more romantic and less social comedy, but as far as the ones I have read go, they are comedies of manners and society with some romantic interludes. Think the Golden Age murder mysteries in style and tone but with more humour and no dead bodies. If you read school stories as a child (or still do as an adult like me) then Summer Half is a behind the scenes look at what might have been going on in the staff rooms of some of the schools that you read about (albeit at a boys school). There are books set at Big Houses or at weekend parties. There are fetes and village events. And there is a lot of gentle fun to be had.
And as we all know that’s the sort of mood I’m in (almost permanently) at the moment. Gentle fun, low peril, it will all turn out alright in the end type books. In fact the only thing that hasn’t turned out right in the end here is that Virago changed the editions so that the cover illustration doesn’t wrap around the spine on the later books that they’re republished so my shelf doesn’t match as nicely as I want it to. Truly a first world problem.
You should be able to get hold of these fairly easily – I’ve bought mine in various bookshops as well as on Amazon (there are a couple that were kindle only at first). In fact I think I originally started reading them because I spotted one on a table in Old Foyles. I saw the cover and read the back and off we went. And it’s been delighful.
Happy weekend everyone! Here for a weekend treat is a nice picture of some of my prettiest books. The angle is a bit weird because they live on the top shelf of the fancy cabinet with the glass doors and I was having to work around the doors and a post in the middle. I probably should have looked for a step stool as well. But hey, perfectly imperfect, that’s me! I love the Virago Modern Classic hardbacks, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I bought some of them just because they looked pretty and I wanted them on my shelf and then read them later! My rule is that a book can’t go on any shelf except the to-read bookshelf until I’ve read it, and I stick with that. I do have to admit that these ones are much less likely to be the victims of a book cull than some of the others on the shelves might be though! Here you can also see a war at play in how I shelve them. This is a compromise arrangement between putting books by the same author together and arranging books by colour. It is deeply tempting to put them into rainbow order (so to speak) but that would mean the Du Mauriers being split up and my brain sort of revolts at that as well! It’s so much easier with matching sets and series by the same author.
Anyway, on these shelves you’ll see Excellent Women, as mentioned in my post about The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, which was actually the first of these that I bought, but most of these were acquired in the pre-blog era, so I haven’t really written about them. Pretty much the only exception is The Birds, although as I’ve gone back through the blog to check on that, I’ve seen VMC collection in various forms across the last five plus years increasing in size. So far I’ve managed to resist buying the VMC edition of Diary of a Provincial Housewife – but only because I have the omnibus edition on another shelf. I’ve got a Patricia Highsmith from the collection waiting to be read – although I’m worried it’s going to be too scary for me, which is probably why it’s still waiting. Although of course the risk is that it’s not, and then I end up going and buying more of her books…
You may be relieved to hear that this weeks BotW is neither Fahrenheit Press book or a Christmas book – even though the title might suggest that it could be the latter. It is however the perfect book for curling up with on a sofa on a wintry afternoon.
The titular Angel is the spoilt darling of a grocery shop proprietress, who spins fantasies to her school mates about a glamorous house where her aunt is a maid. When she is found out she takes to her bed, refuses to return to school and starts to write novels. These turn out to be bestsellers – at least at first – even if they’re wildly inaccurate, far-fetched and slated by the critics. But Angel doesn’t care – she believes she is one of the world’s greatest writers and nothing and nobody is going to stand in her way.
Elizabeth Taylor (not that one) has created a monster. Angel is dreadful in every way – delusional, deceitful, ungrateful, selfish, vain and more. But you can’t stop reading about her in a sort of fascinated horror. She is oblivious to her faults and to the way that others view her and is able to sail through life in the comfortable delusion that she is clever, witty, brilliant and under-appreciated. You would never want to spend any time with any one like her in real life, but I could happily have spend hours more reading about her antics.
There are a fair few women in books who become writers as a response to straightened circumstances – often with a trusty maid in attendance. But they are almost always portrayed as gentlewomen brought low by financial troubles not of their own making. Angel is not one of these – she starts writing as a way of getting her own way – initially she’s more interested in showing her neighbours that she’s better than them. Then the money enables her to exert power over her mother, who in her attempts to allow her daughter to go further in life by scrimping and saving for a better education for her has created a stubborn tyrant who will brook no opposition. As we follow Angel through 40 plus years we see the changes in British society as it moves from the Victorian era, through two World Wars – and we see Angel rewrite her past and invent new fictions for herself – which she believes even if those around her know other wise.
Although Angel is the centre of this book we also get to see the people she uses up and spits out – her mother, her aunt, a wannabe poetess, her husband, her servants – and the people who manage to survive her onslaught – only really her publisher and his wife. It’s a portrait of a tyrant and it’s very, very good.
My copy of Angel is a lovely Virago Designer Hardback which I got second hand and seem to be quite hard to come by, but it’s also available in paperback from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones and on Kindle and Kobo. And as it was first published in 1957, you have a fighting chance of being able to find yourself a second hand copy in a charity or second hand bookshop.
As you may have seen, I didn’t read much last week. It was a busy, stressful week at work and my brain was fried. And then there wasn’t a lot to chose from for BotW. And I know I’ve done an Angela Thirkell BotW before (not that long ago) but although this has its problems, it was still my favourite of the books I read last week.
Cheerfulness Breaks In sees the start of the Second World War and all the changes that brings. It starts with Rose Birkett finally getting married (after having been engaged goodness knows how many times) and is very funny as that flighty damsel wonders if she can squeeze in a trip to the cinema on the morning of her wedding. Then she’s off abroad with her serviceman husband and everything starts to change. Some men are conscripted and go away, some are left at home fretting about how they’ll be treated because they haven’t been conscripted. All the jolly hockey sticks girls throw themselves into nursing and the war effort and waves of evacuees arrive. There are some very funny and poignant sections in here.
But – and there is a but – it does feel a bit dated because of some of the scenes with the evacuees and the Mixo-Lydians. Thirkell’s view of the upper class/lower class divide is not as simplistic as some, because there are good people among the evacuated people – and some real idiots among the posh ones, but it is quite broad strokes, and strokes that favour the country people over the urban people. But then Thirkell was writing this at the time these things were actually happening, so I’m chalking it up as having attitudes “of its time” and giving it a slight pass. I suspect this is the reason why this one is an ebook only re-release from Virago rather than a pretty paperback like a lot of the others have had.
It’s available on Kindle or Kobo or you can pick up a secondhand paperback copy – but it’s not the best of Thirkell so don’t start here – go with Summer Half for some of the characters from this or Northbridge Rectory (actually the book after this in the series) or start at the beginning with High Rising.