August 24th, 2015

“The Incendiary,” by Nina Frances Layard, from Poems (1890)

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beerdrinker

The Incendiary

Pull down the stars;
Here let us have a game
Of patent pattern;
You bowl with Mars,
And I will take an aim
With belted Saturn.

Come, lend a hand;
The bright thing there is wasting,
Not serving Hodges;
Well make a stand,
And give the star a basting:
Till it dislodges.

Well sink the scale
And light the rich man’s winders:
I’ve tar and matches.
When we turn tail,
And all the house in cinders,
Hindmost he catches.

How now, you dolts?
Why tremble in your boots.
My sucking Platos,
At thunder-bolts,
Or little star that shoots,
Or — hot potatoes?

We have no fear;
And if you talk of reverence,
And all that twaddle.
We love our beer,
And hope to see no severance
‘Twixt screw and paddle.

Who cares for caste
In these new days of level?
We didn’t make it.
As for the past.
It may go to the devil
An’ he will take it.

Hold!— there is God?
I almost had forgotten
The Book–His letter–
But paths are trod,
And the old ways get rotten
And we want better;

And, as I say,
The old road is too straight,
We’d have it wider.
There’s room to pray,
But to be mad and hate.
Or drunk on cider.

There’s hardly space.
Or so our mother taught us
When she lay dying.
I see her face,
And how her look besought us
For some replying.

My mother! — yes!
All right, my lads. I’11 come;
You needn’t doubt it;
But I confess
Just now I’m flummoxed some;
I’ll—think about it.

from Poems, by Nina Frances Layard
London and New York: Longmans, Green and Company, 1890

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.



 

August 21st, 2015

The Debates Continues, by Margaret Campbell (Marjorie Bowen) (1939)

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marjoriebowenAnyone with romantic fantasies about the life of a popular writer need only read Margaret Campbell’s autobiography The Debate Continues to get over them. Under such pseudonyms as Marjorie Bowen, Robert Paye, George R. Preedy, Joseph Shearing, and John Winch, she published over 150 books, many of them best-sellers in both the U.K. and U.S.. She tended to specialize in highly authentic but melodramatic historical novels such as The Viper of Milan (1906), which she wrote at the age of 16. Indeed, the popularity of The Viper of Milan, which was a best-seller of its time, was such that her publishers put relentless pressure on Campbell to write more like it. And the extravagant demands of her family–first her mother and then her ailing first husband–on her income, as she was typically the only bread-winner, kept her writing book after book in a genre and style she considered beneath her true abilities.

Margaret’s parents separated a few years after she was born, and she spent most of her early years moving from one cheap apartment to another as her mother, Mrs. Vere Campbell, an aspiring but utterly unsuccessful playwright, outran collection agents and leaned upon the charity of her friends. Her mother made it clear that Margaret, whom she considered thin, unattractive, and stupid, was by far the least favored of her three daughters. It made for a pretty grim childhood: “The great object of my days,” she wrote, “was to escape blame or punishment, for active pleasure or amusement was beyond hope.” Her grandmother, who was part of this wandering band, was little better: “Nana, too, would always remain as she was—slovenly, slack, with a sly, malicious tongue, untrained in everything save the shifts of poverty and the intrigues of cheap lodging-houses and tenth-rate flats.”

As what little money her mother could spend on schooling she reserved for her other daughters, Margaret largely taught herself, painstakingly working out the meaning of words in the rare book that might be lying around one of their apartments. by her early teens, however, she was spending many of her days at the British Museum, reading about history, art, and culture. She picked up a few small jobs as a fact-checker and ghost-writer, and was soon the one reliable source of income for the family. Not that this did anything to improve her standing in her mother’s eyes. Her mother was, variously, dismissive, discouraging, or bitterly envious.

Margaret’s first attempt at writing a novel was, by her own account, highly amateurish and relied heavily on guidebooks for its settings. Passed around from publisher to publisher for several years–most of them simply refusing to accept that a young girl could have written it–it was finally accepted in 1906 by Gilbert and Sullivan’s publisher, Alston Rivers. A moderate success in the U.K., The Viper of Milan became a best-seller when published by McClure in the U.S.. Quickly, the demands of both her publishers and her family turned Margaret into a full-time production machine. Although she held no great opinion of her work, Margaret did scruple to stick with subjects that required at least some knowledge and craftsmanship on her part:

… I liked historical work. It never could be as slap-dash and careless as light, modern stuff. A good deal of effort, research and painstaking, and a severe self-discipline were necessary for the writing of these books in which history was to be transformed into fiction and men and women of the past given some kind of life. The harder the work involved in the preparation of a book the better I liked it. I seemed to be giving something solid in return for the money I earned; too much money for what I gave, I always privately thought. And at least there was a certain dignity about this kind of fiction that there would not have been about ephemeral love or adventure stories of the life about me.

She also found, ironically, some relief in her tendency to favor stories of revenge, murder, and Gothic horror: “I found that, by writing of dark and gloomy subjects, I, in a way, rid my mind of them.”

“Margaret Campbell thus ended her account of her childhood and youth.” With this odd statement, Campbell opens the second half of her book and abruptly shifts from first person to third person. The transition also marks the start of her life as a married woman. In 1912, she met a Sicilian man at a party hosted by one of her mother’s friends, and more as an escape than out of love, married him soon after. Within a few weeks, they were on their way to Italy, and soon after that, Margaret found she was pregnant with their first child. Her account of the child’s delivery at the hands of a local Sicilian mid-wife, “who had every appearance of being a witch and whose knowledge of superstitions, of incantations, of good and bad omens was only equalled by her complete ignorance of medicine and hygiene” is as terrifying as anything she wrote as fiction.

Her husband then had the inspiration to rent the palace of some German prince along the Ligurian coast between La Spezia and Pisa in the off-season. There was truly nothing to be recommended in this plan: the place was gloomy, impossible to heat, sitting near stagnant water, and with little in the way of food. Margaret’s husband, who was never very healthy, quickly fell ill and began to waste away. He hung on for over a year, with Margaret all the while struggling to care for him, search for food, haggle with the local pharmacist over patent medicines, find wood for the stoves … and, in her spare time, keep writing. “There were times,” she wrote, “when she wished she could have been treated as they treated stray dogs, given some warmth, food, and quietly exterminated.”

Margaret’s husband hung on for over a year. In his last few months, she finally found a reliable doctor to care for him. Long anticipated by her maid, who spoke of the man’s legendary care-giving abilities, “The Professor” came over to the house early one summer evening. She was utterly unprepared for what happened next:

She supposed that she had read or heard of such an experience as was now hers, but she had scarcely believed in it. What had happened was that the focus of her existence had altered; she had been absorbed, to the point of obsession, with her husband, with his illness, with his approaching death. For months she had thought of nothing else, save intermittently of the child in England. Only a few stray unbidden dreams and visions had interrupted the intense concentration on this one subject.

Now, in one moment of time, the moment in which she had met this stranger on the threshold of her alien home, everything had altered. It was no longer her husband who was her chief concern, but the man who was now shut up with him, the man who had been so incongruously and absurdly termed “the Professor.”

Margaret’s feelings were fully reciprocated by the Professor, an elegant Venetian in his late sixties. As he left their villa a few days later, he spoke to her: “Before he left her he said he would come again in the morning early. Then he added, in a voice that was suddenly changed by emotion, that he loved her and would do so for the rest of his life.”

Their romance was one of the most proper to be found in literature. What few minutes they could share away from the dying man allowed time for nothing more than a short walk around the villa. And when, after the funeral, they were able to spend a few days together, concern for appearances kept things from going beyond an occasional holding of hands. Yet so convinced were they of their love that Margaret promised to marry the Professor when she returned from England with her son, who had been living with Nana.

But it was not to be. While in England, Margaret received a letter from him saying that his health was too poor to ever allow them to marry. In the space of three or four pages, she sweeps past her second marriage and two more children to arrive at the present. And switches back again to the first person: “It seems to me that it would have been simple for me to make a harmony of my own life, but it has always been cut across by the discords of other people’s lives.”

One has to respect Margaret Campbell’s dedication to her work as an income-earning writer, and in retrospect, she is certainly considered among the better genre novelists of her time. However, one is also tempted to play amateur psychoanalyst in reading her autobiography: why the shift from “I” to “Margaret” and back to “I”? And is it selflessness or resentment that lies behind this statement: “I think I should have known how to live simply, pleasantly, and gaily myself, but no life can be entirely self-contained and my designs have been overborne by those of other people”? Even without the analysis, though, The Debate Continues is an absorbing and fast-moving story that will leave you in awe of this woman’s energy.

The Debate Continues is long out of print, and, according to AddAll.com, there are no copies available for sale. However, you can find the complete text online courtesy of Project Gutenberg Australia at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1300751h.html.


The Debate Continues: Being the Autobiography of Marjorie Bowen, by Margaret Campbell
London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1939


 

August 19th, 2015

This Was a Man: Some Memories of Robert Mannin, by Ethel Mannin (1952)

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Another feature of Hastings was a shop at the edge of the old town and the fishing quarters, with glass cases outside, full of every kind of shell, and boxes covered with shells, and shell necklaces, and shells painted with views; and dried starfish there were, and the hedgehog-like shells of sea-urchins, and shells like great horns–cornucopia such as one saw in paintings of goddesses of plenty, shells with rosy interiors, shells like great silver snails, shells that were flat plates of mother-of-pearl, and long narrow razor-like shells, and black ‘devil’s purses’-—a most wonderful and exciting shop. And just as you could listen forever to the blind men playing the violin and the piano together, so you could gaze at this wonderland of sea-treasures forever. What is good should never end, the moment be extended into eternity.

Only a few years ago I went back to Hastings, and to my great joy the shell shop was still there, and I could have sworn the same shells were in the glass cases, and I gazed as raptly in my forties as the child with not a decade of years to its name had gazed, in summers that seemed always hot and sunny. We do not, fundamentally, change; of that I am convinced. Life knocks us about, pushes us around, this and that happens to us as our bodies increase in size and our minds expand in receptivity and power, but the core of the individual remains the same-—delighted with
cornucopia shells, frightened of dogs, shy of strangers, the anxieties and the eagernesses better under control, but induced by very much the same experiences. And, given a chance, we are still capable of that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ which makes it possible to hear-—quite plainly—the sea’s murmur in a shell.

This Was a Man: Some Memories of Robert Mannin is a slender tribute to her father that Ethel Mannin wrote several years after his death. She later wrote that she considered it her best work. The book certainly displays a tenderness, a wistfulness, that is rarely found in her own memoirs.

Robert Mannin led an unexceptional life. Born in Westminster when that area of London still had its share of slums, he took advantage of what little education he had to earn a low-paying position as a mail sorter in the Post Office, where he worked for over thirty years. When he retired, he and his wife took a small house in the countryside near London, and he spent many of his last days living with Ethel. He died on Christmas Eve, 1949, in the public ward of a London hospital. At his funeral, “No one wept, and no one felt constrained to utter any of the conventional falsities.”

This Was a Man: Some Memories of Robert Mannin is a tribute more to his character than his accomplishments. by his daughter’s account, he was a pleasant man who held no great credos aside from an almost-Buddhist sense of peace with his fate. He refused, for example, to leave his bed and evacuate to a shelter during the bombing raids on London. “If a bomb’s got Bob Mannin written on it,” he told Ethel, “then I’m for it whatever I do, and if it hasn’t there’s nothing to worry about!” Although he loved to tell stories about the music hall performers, such as Little Tich and Marie Lloyd, that he saw in his youth, he was could also spend hours sitting in Ethel’s garden doing nothing more than watching the clouds in the sky. His relaxed approach to life hardly rubbed off on his daughter, though, who wrote that, “My own inclination is always against procrastination or postponement, just because ‘tomorrow’ so soon becomes ‘today.'”


 

August 16th, 2015

The Visitors, by Mary McMinnies (1958)

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The odd, alien green tint of the cover of the U.S. edition of Mary McMinnie’s second novel, The Visitors is somehow appropriate for this long out-of-print book, for it manages to be, at the same time, both highly realistic–indeed, drearily, tediously, relentlessly realistic at times, the kind of realism that’s so convincing that it can feel like the writer is holding your head under water and you want to struggle to break free–and utterly artificial.

The artificiality comes from the situation in which McMinnies places her main character, Milly Purdoe. A beautiful, lively but superficial woman, she find herself stuck in a grim provincial Polish city–a fictional equivalent of Krakow–in its bleakest, most repressive post-Stalinist days, the trailing spouse of a minor British Foreign Service officer. (The German title of the book was Seltsame Gäste–“Strange Guests.”) Quartered in a cold apartment in the town’s once-grand hotel, she has little to do but avoid tangles with her children’s stone-faced nanny, look for antiques in the pathetic stores and flea markets, and read Madame Bovary. Although the nanny is a novelty, a sign of her husband’s rise in the civil service, everything else is a little too familiar to Milly:

Already it was October. That was how time passed. Between departure from the last place, arrival at the next, and for a week or two either side, miraculously it stood still–if you could always be doing that, coming and going, going and coming. But no sooner had you arrived than you began, because it had to be and you were experienced at it, to settle in. No sooner were you settled in and starting to find your feet, yet still making discoveries like where to buy the best sausage and the bread and each day holding the promise of some novel experience before it close, than, before you knew where you were, the days would begin to assume a pattern, to merge into each other, yesterday like to-day, to-day like to-morrow; and in front of your eyes, little by little, the excitement would be fading, the novelty becoming stale, until in no time at all you knew you would be passing through the intermediate stage, the seemingly endless one you care for least, between coming and going. It would be like living in a dream; not uncomfortable, because only reality is that–your pulse-beat steady, you would be eating well, sleeping well; but certain times of day, the performing of certain actions, sherry at twelve, gin at six, brushing your teeth, pouring tea, seeming to come round with deadly regularity until you would feel something simply had to happen to joly you out of it, the dream routine; even if it were to be no more than a gale, like the gale with had raged the night before and had swept not only a great many leaves off the trees but a leaf off the calendar, too, and now it was October.

And so, like Flaubert’s romantic trapped in a dull French provincial town, Milly soon finds ways to keep busy that are undoubtedly amusing to her but also clearly dangerous and self-destructive when carried out under the eyes of a paranoid police state.

The Visitors is a big, ambitious book, rich is characterization and description, ruthless in its social satire, mesmerizing in its powerful narrative vortex. Some reviewers found that McMinnie’s ambitions outstretched her artistic reach, comparing her work with that of the period’s biggest over-the-topper, James Jones. It was picked up by the Book of the Month Club, which boosted its U.S. sales, and was twice released as a paperback, the second time in 1967 as a Penguin paperback. It’s been out of print ever since, though, and McMinnies appears to have published nothing since. A couple of readers remember it with enthusiasm on Goodreads and Amazon, but their reviews and this one are the book’s sole mentions on the Web.


The Visitors, by Mary McMinnies
New York City: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1958


 

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