Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth (1976)

Cover of first edition of 'Personal Geography'For a writer who became associated with Maine and the Northeast and life on a small farm, Elizabeth Coatsworth managed to cover more of the rest of the world’s terrain in her first 25 years than many of her more cosmopolitan peers. And her last book, Personal Geography is aptly named, covering both great travels and years spent in the space of just a few square miles.

The book’s subtitle, “Almost an Autobiography,” is also apt. While Coatsworth manages to tell us most of the essential facts of her life, she does it by weaving together passages from her diaries and journals, going as far back as the early 1900s and running up to the time she was writing — an amalgam of things, she calls it, “Each piece a moment in my life, caught in passing.” And she recommends it be read the same way she wrote it: “in snatches — picked up and put down, and I hope picked up again.”

Coatsworth was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1893. She refers to Buffalo as “my Middle East”: “There is a Middle East in this country as surely as there is a Middle West, but it is not called by that name. It is an emotion rather than a nomenclature.” Her father owned Buffalo’s largest grain exchange and the family lived in one of the best houses in town, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. They wintered in California, traveled to Europe and Egypt, and sent Elizabeth and her sister to Buffalo’s best girl’s school and, in Elizabeth’s case, on to college at Vassar.

When her father died in 1912, her mother sold the mansion. After Elizabeth graduated from college in May 1914, they set off, with her younger sister Margaret, for Europe. They visited England, France and Holland before war broke out, but carried on regardless, moving on to Spain, Italy, Egypt and Palestine. Then they sailed to Japan and China, down to Southeast Asia, and finally back to California. Of all the countries they visited, she loved China the best: “I think my whole preference for China could be epitomized by a flaking wall near a temple, on which someone had sketched a narcissus and a line of Chinese characters. In Japan that would have been tidied up. But not in China, the lovely decrepit China of those days.”

Elizabeth’s idle itinerant life ended in 1929 when she married the writer Henry Beston. Beston had just written his best-known book, The Outermost House, which related the story of a year living in an isolated house on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. A year later, they bought Chimney Farm, near Nobleboro, Maine, which remained their home for the rest of their lives, and Coatsworth published her second book, The Cat Who Went to Heaven, which went on to win the Newberry Medal as the best children’s book of the 1930.

Though they together wrote nearly two dozen books at Chimney Farm, Beston and Coatsworth had fundamentally different approaches to writing. Beston would spend months planning, researching, organizing, thinking — and lining up his publishing contract. Coatsworth tended to write in a flash. “Writing was for me an addiction like drink, which I kept as much as possible out of sight.” A dedicated naturalist, Beston helped her learn to observe the life of the plants and animals in and around Damariscotta Pond, the lake alongside Chimney Farm. And she came to find outside her window sights as amazing as anything she’d seen on her world travels:

Now and then a heavy shower passes over our road eastward beyond the lake and its dark shores. The clouds will mass in a black wall there on the other side, while the sunshine strikes in the fields on this side, and every grass-blade, weed, and flower in them, to a wet and burning green. A tremulous rainbow hangs against the clouds. Looking out through your skull’s two windows you know you are seeing a beauty rare and certain to be gone in a moment. It is one of the miracles of daily life that you should see it at all. It is, surely, an enchantment more fit for the eyes of magicians than for everyday human beings ourselves.

Still, she never thought she could match Beston’s gift for observation: “I think sometimes that when Henry and I die, Henry will go knowing that he has given an exact impression of the world and life as he has seen it, but that I shall know that I have left behind me only glimpses, random remarks, things seen at a tangent.” Henry, who was five years older, died in 1968. When Coatsworth wrote Personal Geography, she had lived alone on the farm for eight years. “After so many travels, I am home, and my happiness here is no less than it was in foreign lands and my sense of wonder has not dulled with all these years. I am as happy as an old dog stretched out in the sunlight.”

Yet she is in no hurry. “I don’t want to die because even in this narrower radius there are so many people and things still to enjoy.” And even as she acknowledges having to give up driving, her mind is still wandering far afield. She imagines the lost cities in the oases of the deserts between China, India and Russia, the icebergs off Greenland, and the hundreds of small volcanic cones in Anatolia. “None of these places have I ever seen and certainly never will see. But I do not wish to see them. They swim in my fancy, often nameless. They are a living part of my thought.”

Personal Geography belongs on many a nightstand, to be picked up and put down and picked up again.


Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Brattleboro, Vermont: The Stephen Greene, 1976

Snake, by Kate Jennings (1997)

Cover of US edition of "Snake"Snake is a tight short novel about two people who come at their marriage from very different directions.

Everybody likes you. A good man. Decent. But disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? That wife. Those children.

Your wife. You love and cherish her. You like to watch her unobserved, through a window, across a road or a paddock, as if you were a stranger and knew nothing about her. You admire her springy hair, slow smile, muscled legs, confident bearing. If this woman were your wife, your chest would swell with pride.

She is your wife, she despises you. The coldness, the forbearing looks, the sarcastic asides, they are constant. She emasculates you with the sure blade of her contempt. The whirring of the whetstone wheel, the strident whine of steel being held to it, that is the background noise to the nightmare of your days.

Just 157 pages long with 77 chapters, some no more than a paragraph long, Snake is a novel distilled to a series of moments across a twenty-year relationship, and goes down as strong and biting as a good whiskey. Setting her story in a dry land of farms where drought and dust sometimes leech the life out of all living things, Jennings also reduces her words to lean, sinewy lines: “She chewed on the injustice of it like a dog with a piece of hide”; “Irene always said nobody could read thoughts; they were the only things that were truly your own”; “These were people so certain of their own superiority they need not remark on it; in their complacency, they resembled well-stuffed sofas.”

Snake is one of just two novels written by Kate Jennings. Moral Hazard (2002) is equally brief, with a similar structure of pithy chapters. It draws upon Jennings’ experiences of working as a corporate speechwriter to help pay for care for her husband, graphic designer Bob Cato, who developed Alzheimer’s, and now seems prescient in its depiction of the risk-heedless appetites of Wall Street that led to the crash of 2008.

Both Snake and Moral Hazard are available via OpenLibrary.org.


Snake, by Kate Jennings
Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1997

All the Books of My Life: A Bibliobiography, by Sheila Kaye-Smith (1956)

all-the-books-of-my-lifeAll the Books of My Life came about fifty years too early for the wave of what some refer to a “bibliomemoirs” — books such as Reading Lolita in Tehran, Howards End is on the Landing, How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much, The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life, and about a gajillion others (see Jenny Bhatt’s multi-part disquisition on the topic, which is already about a couple dozen titles out of date). Unlike these, however, it’s available free, via Project Gutenberg Canada, provided you’re willing to swear you’re not accessing the site from the U.S..

All the Books of My Life was the last of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s over fifty books, most of them novels with settings in rural England — the sort of books that Stella Gibbons parodied in Cold Comfort Farm. In scope, it puts the bibliomemoirs of the 21st century to shame: this is truly a lifetime’s account of reading, starting with the books she came to know at the foot of her nanny and ending with the religious works that came to command a larger part of her reading list as her interest in Catholicism and mysticism grew over the years. And in the titles covered, it provides a remarkable contrast with the kinds of titles one finds in recent bibliomemoirs.

I doubt, for example, that many of today’s girls would be willing to put up with the earnest Victorian morality and innocence found in the many tales by L. T. Meade that she devoured. They will not find the works of Rosa Nouchette Carey, Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey and Mrs. Philip Champion de Crespigny filling up the tables of their local lending library — particularly since lending libraries were already a thing of the past when Kaye-Smith was writing. Nor are young readers likely to come across a copy of Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, let alone spend the next months reading it. Kaye-Smith’s mother encouraged her daughter to follow her interests wherever they might lead, as long as they remained within the confines of the school library: “If you find anything that’s improper you can always skip it. It seems a pity not to read the book when you’re enjoying it so much.”

sheila-kaye-smithShe acknowledges that her youthful hunger for reading often led her past the point of her own understanding. “Read Thackeray later,” one of her mother’s friends advised. “You wouldn’t understand him now. You’d miss a lot.” “This was perfectly true,” she admits, “and I only wish her advice had been applied more widely, for I spoilt a number of books and authors for myself by reading them too early.” Among these was Middlemarch: “I read it painstakingly, without skipping a word, but most of its virtues — and they are pre-eminent — were thrown away on me.” I have to say that I thought the same thing many times when I saw the college-prep reading lists our kids received: “King Lear? For a sixteen year-old? Are you kidding me?”

She admits to have struggled unsuccessfully with certain authors who were regularly recommended to her. While Austen became a lifelong love, each time she picked up something by Trollope, “I waded —- yes, that is my word —- through Trollope’s prosy style, in which his characters struggle for life like sheep in a swamp.” She also argues that a fair number of the authors whose works were considered classics in her youth have failed the test of time: “Any novelist in the second or third rank today could make rings round Maria Edgeworth; and compare Bulwer Lytton’s method of writing history with that of Oliver Onions or H. V. Prescott —- it is not only changing fashion that has blurred the colours of the earlier writers. They were always dingy and no closer to what they represented than a Victorian stained-glass window.” Ironically, one could say the same thing now if comparing a book by Oliver Onions or H. V. Prescott to Wolf Hall or The Seige of Krishnapur. Of the two writers whose work she stored up to tide her through the dark years of World War Two, P. G. Wodehouse’s readership stays comic and carries on; I’m not sure the same could be said for the Catholic theologian Friedrich von Hügel or his relatively light Letter to a Niece.

“In spite of all the books I have read there are so many more that I want to read and there is so much more that I want to know,” Kaye-Smith writes at the end of All the Books of My Life. Sadly, however, she did not even live to see this last of her own books in print.


All the Books of My Life: A Bibliobiography, by Sheila Kaye-Smith
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956

Dear Rat, by Julia Cunningham (1961)

Cover of paperback edition of "Dear Rat"I’m a great believer in the miracle of serendipity. For me, it usually takes the form of the thing that appears in my path while I’m looking for something else. In this case, it was a children’s book that fate had arranged to have misplaced in a shelf of literary fiction in a bookstore in Ellensburg, Washington. I was rapid losing interest in browsing any further, since it was obvious that the store’s stock was almost entirely made up of recent trade paperbacks, when I pulled out a rare hardback, a thin volume titled Dear Rat. I quickly twigged that it was a children’s book from the illustrations, but there was something so likable about the book’s opening lines that I had to buy it: “I am a rat. I’m tough and I’m tender. I know my way around, thanks to having been bounced off the hard surfaces of the world.”

Dear Rat is narrated by Andrew, a rat from Humpton, Wyoming who finds himself in Chartres, France, having smuggled his way onto a freighter and then hopped a train from Le Havre. He quickly runs into the worst and the best that France has to offer. The worst is a thug named Gorge, a local rat gangster whose henchmen dust up Andrew before he manages to get away.

The best is a great building that confronts him when he scurries out of the cellar where he’s gone in search of food: “My brain searches around in my head like a squirrel for a name for this great, wonderful thing. It comes up with ‘cathedral’ and then quiets down again into blank astonishment.” He’s stumbled onto the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres . Wandering inside, he is struck speechless by a statue of a lady on a pillar wearing a crown of gold studded with jewels.

The worst and the best becoming intertwined in a caper that leads Andrew to the court of King Depuis Longtemps the IV, ruler of the Paris sewers and into a romance with the King’s daughter, Angelique Rocqueville de Chenonceau de Tournevallance de Mistraille de Chauminceparcyne de Lot (which is just a big mouthful of French nonsense), or Angie for short. Andrew discovers there’s a rat (sorry) in the court in the form of the Prime Minister, who subjects him to a battle of wits–or, as Andrew puts it, “plays checkers” with him. An upstanding character and a little American ingenuity, however, and, as you might expect, the hero gets the girl.

Dear Rat was Julia Cunningham’s second book, and shared many elements with her first, The Vision of François the Fox (1960), which was also set in France and told the story of a scavenging critter who tries to become a saint after being moved by something he sees in a cathedral. Cunningham had spent a year living in France, and French themes would make their way into a number of her books.

Cunningham’s best-known book, Dorp Dead (1965), about a boy who finds himself trapped as the ward of an abusive grandfather, was one of the first modern works for children to treat a dark subject openly and deliberately, and is now considered a fore-runner of the Young Adult genre. It was reissued back in 2002 but is out of print once again.

Cunningham knew something about grim childhoods. Her father abandoned his family when Julia was six and never returned. Her mother struggled to raise two children on her own, which became even harder when the Depression hit and what was left of the family’s money was wiped out. She made her way through a series of low-paid jobs for nearly twenty years before she saved up enough for her trip to France. In the late 1950s, she moved to Santa Barbara, California, where she worked in a bookstore and continued to send manuscripts to publishers until she sold The Vision of François the Fox Houghton Mifflin.

Cunningham had considerable success as a children’s author. Burnish Me Bright (1970) was selected as a New York Times Outstanding Book for the year, The Treasure Is the Rose (1973) was a National Book Award Finalist, Come to the Edge (1977) won a Christopher Award, and Flight of the Sparrow (1980) won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor. But then, in 1986, her publisher, Pantheon, dropped its children’s book line and her contract along with it. She kept writing and submitting manuscripts, but it was not until 2001, when Susan Hirschmann of Greenwillow Books brought her back in print with The Stable Rat and Other Christmas Poems. Cunningham never married, but was close friends with a fellow children’s author in Santa Barbara, Clyde Bulla, and mentored other writers in her community. Her brother John Cunningham was also a writer, mostly working in Westerns. His story, “Tin Star,” was the basis of the movie High Noon. I highly recommend reading her obituary in the Santa Barbara Independent website.

Dear Rat is available through OpenLibrary.org (link), as is Dorp Dead (link), Macaroon, Onion Journey, a lovely little Christmas fable (link), Macaroon (link), The Treasure Is the Rose (link), and several others. Although the site has a link for The Vision of François the Fox as well, it’s an error and leads to a Spanish encyclopedia from the 1800s.


Dear Rat, by Julia Cunningham
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1961

Modern Chivalry; or A New Orlando Furioso, by Mrs. Catherine Gore (1843)

An illustration by George Cruikshank from "Modern Chivalry" by Mrs. Catherine Gore
An illustration by George Cruikshank from “Modern Chivalry” by Mrs. Catherine Gore

In Modern Chivalry, Silver Fork novelist skewers an easy target, the idle man of sufficient status in Victorian society to live “the life of those the business of whose day is digestion.” In this case, the man is Frederick Howardson, sometimes known as Howardson of Greystoke (his family estate) or Howardson of Sentinel (a race horse he briefly owned). Gore tells us in her introduction that she set out to sketch a stereotype of a “Man of No Feelings,” a consumate egoist, and she succeeds superbly.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Gore tries to characterize Howardson’s efforts to remain exactly in the mean, comfortably set with an income sufficient to keep a house in town, a reputation sufficient to earn him a place in the right clubs, and no talent exceptional enough to arouse anyone’s jealousy as a constant and courageous struggle. She compares it to the struggle of Waterton, the naturalist, who “asserts that whenever he encountered an alligator tete-a-tete in the wilderness, he used to leap on its back and ride the beast to death.” “Just so are we situated with regard to the world,” she argues:

Either we must leap upon its back, strike our spur into its panting sides, and in spite of its scaly defences compel it to obey our glowing will, or the animal will mangle us with its ferocious jaws, and pursue its way towards its refuge in the cool waters, leaving us expiring in the dust. Either the world or the individual must obtain the upper hand.

At the start of the story, Howardson has mastered the alligator. “Everybody was glad when he came, — everybody was sorry when he went.” He had not “that inconvenient appendage, a confidential friend — otherwise, an intimate enemy, who becomes the depositary of your secrets for the good of the public.” Instead, he had so many friends that none of them had any claims upon his confidence and rarely did any of them entrust him with theirs. He enjoyed, as Gore puts it, that “smooth, level, unmeaning mediocrity [that] affords a wider and sublimer view of the distant horizon.”

He even has the good fortune to have a beautiful and gracious woman of good reputation, Lady Rachel Lawrence, whose company he can enjoy as he needs of an evening, located just next door. Indeed, “her chief attraction in his eyes consisted in being a next door neighbour, who relieved him from the trouble of getting rid of his leisure hours, and ordering out his cab in rainy weather.” Being married to a Lord well-rooted to his own estate, Lady Rachel has the further advantage of presenting no risk of matrimonial entanglements.

Because Howardson’s chief quandary is that of making the absolutely perfect match. Which means a woman of substantial fortune unencumbered by a meddlesome family; a woman of admirable beauty and sophistication but not so much as to compete with him in social circles; a woman who will dote upon him whenever he needs tea and sympathy yet leave him alone for the many hours he would prefer to spend by himself or at the club; a woman of purest virtue yet sufficiently refined to ride with the changing waves of social mores. Each woman he considers has something not quite perfect about her, and so he moves on to another. In other words, he’s caught in the same dilemma as the man in Seinfeld’s “Gas — Food — Lodging” joke:

I think that for some reason when a man is driving down that freeway of love, the woman he’s with is like an exit, but he doesn’t want to get off there. He wants to keep driving. And the woman is like, “Look, gas, food, lodging, that’s our exit, that’s everything we need to be happy… Get off here, now!” But the man is focusing on sign underneath that says, “Next exit 27 miles,” and he thinks, “I can make it.”

In Howardson’s case, he ends up driving past all the exits and winds up in a sad old hotel in Paris, with “grey hair and crowsfeet within, as without; and his soul was bald with a baldness that set Macassar oil at defiance.”

Modern Chivalry is as insubstantial and irresistable as a potato chip. Howardson is one of the great egoists, a precursor of George Meredith’s The Egoist and a whole lot more fun. By the way, Modern Chivalry is attributed in American editions to William Harrison Ainsworth, but the “CFG” credited in the original English edition is most definitely Catherine F. Gore.

Modern Chivalry; or A New Orlando Furioso, by Mrs. Catherine Gore
London: John Mortimer, 1843

Mercury Presides, by Daphne Fielding (1954)

Cover of first US edition of "Mercury Presides"When Evelyn Waugh read Daphne Fielding’s memoir, Mercury Presides, he quipped that the book was “marred by discretion and good taste.” Considering that the author was one of the more sparkling of the Bright Young Things whose exploits and indulgences Waugh satirized in Vile Bodies and other early novels, one can understand his assessment.

There is an awful lot of material about her travels with her first husband, Henry, Viscount Weymouth (later 6th Marquess of Bath) and their efforts to prop up Longleat, the family estate that Henry’s father dumped upon him in the early 1930s. Though considered one of the stateliest of the stately homes of England, Longleat was a money pit and Henry and Daphne had to resort to ingenious measures (read, selling tickets for tours and opening up parts of the grounds for public use) to keep it up. Even then, they got the occasional complaints from their guests, such as Lord Beaverbrook’s sharply-worded letter about the dust on the windowsills and the dried-out inkwell in his room.

What there isn’t is much about Daphne’s carryings-on, which led the 5th Marquess of Bath and his Marchioness to disapprove of her marrying their son (not “steady wife” material). Before the marriage (which was first made in secret to avoid the wrath of the parents), Daphne was known as the kind of girl who liked to par-tay — which in those days usually involved lots of French champagne, driving too fast on narrow country roads (which was pretty much all the British road system in those days), and making absurd impositions on servants and other members of the working class. Ah — good times, good times. No wonder Waugh remarked that “the adult part [of the book] is rather as though Lord Montgomery were to write his life and omit to mention that he ever served in the army.”

We do, however, learn why Daphne might have been inclined to be a bit out of control. Her mother ran off with another man when Daphne was four (or, as she was told, her mother had “gone away to the sea-side”), and her father appears to have struggled to understand that Daphne and her brother Tony were not to be treated as just a couple more of his hunting dogs (his usual admonishment to his children was “Heel!”). And her mother’s father was a right charming old Victorian who used to bring prostitutes home and order them at gun-point to undress and climb in bed with his wife. No wonder that Granny McCalmont, as Daphne knew her, “was a great hater.”

In fact, Daphne had more than her share of odd pieces of fruit in her family tree. Take, for example, her uncle Shugie — Sir Hugo de Bathe, Granny McCalmont’s brother:

He was a tall, thin, sunburnt man with lean hollow cheek-bones, side-whiskers and a brushed-up moustache which particularly enthralled me. His arms were tattooed, and one of them was disfigured by a long burn scar. He accounted for this by explaining that he had once loved a princess of the South Sea islands, whose name had been tatooed in the place of honour in the middle of his forearm, but since she had been untrue to him he had held his arm in the flame of a candle and burnt her out of his flesh.

Once married to the Viscount, much of Daphne’s time and energy, up to the start of World War Two, went into having children — four sons and one daughter. She reprints a long extract from her diary about the birth of her fourth son, Valentine:

They started giving me chloroform. Nanny B. did not give it well; it was either too much or too little, and the cotton wool seemed to smother me and burn my nose, nevertheless it was balm. Roy Saunders arrived to give me the anaesthetic. I vaguely took him in; he had helped with Christopher’s birth. Whenever they let me come round the pains seemed to be crushing me and all my strength pressed down to fight them out. Roy Saunders is really a gynaecologist but gave the chloroform beautifully. How I love it — the buzzing, swimming feelings, the dreams which solve everything. I become a Jimmy-Know-All in the ether.

I came to in my own big bed, crying, and wanting to see Henry. “Lady Weymouth, you have got a beautiful little boy … a beautiful little boy … beautiful little boy ….” Another boy? I wished it was triplets, or black … or a furry little animal, different in some way … just not a boy. But the baby was there, a new person … I opened my eyes, sat up quickly and asked for the child. Unutterably sweet was the new little son shown to his mother.

When the war did come, Longleat was soon commandeered as a military camp, first by the British and then by the Americans. Daphne helped out in various ways, including running the camp switchboard at one point. The Viscount spent most of the war as a prisoner of the Germans. Aside from further mentions of trips taken and problems with Longleat, she offers little about their relationship — until, three paragraphs before the end of the book, she simply states that, “During and since the war we both developed along different lines, so divorce became inevitable.”

Of course, the fact that she had spent six months gallivanting about Crete with Alexander (Xan) Fielding, best known for his SOE exploits on the island during the war alongside Patrick Leigh Fermor, might also have had something to do with it.

But you’ll have to read the sequel, The Nearest Way Home (1970), to find out what happened after that. I suspect that a lot of Lord Montgomery’s army career is missing from it, too.


Mercury Presides, by Daphne Fielding
London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1954

A Martini on the Other Table, by Joyce Elbert (1963)

Covers of first US and UK editions
Covers of first US and UK editions

“Joyce Elbert had just turned thirty and divorced her second husband when she wrote this astonishing first novel … a daring story of a single woman’s frantic search for love in a loose living, free-wheeling world,” blares the cover of the Bantam paperback original of A Martini on the Other Table. I think I’ve seen about three hundred copies of this and other Elbert novels (Crazy Ladies, Drunk in Madrid) in used bookstores and thrift shops over the years and never paid the slightest attention to it, but when I spotted it in a discard box a few months ago, I thought, “Well, I’m focusing on women writers this year — why not?”

Looking for something quick, light, and a little newer after devoting a month to Dorothy Richardson’s weighty (in both length and substance) Pilgrimage, I fished A Martini on the Other Table out on the stack of cheap paperbacks perched precariously in front of a double row of other cheap paperbacks crammed into one of the bookcases in the basement.

I am something of an eternal optimist when it comes to cheap paperbacks. Experience has shown me that there is always a possibility that some remarkable and hitherto neglected gem lies behind a cover cleverly disguised to look like all the other junk that sat in a revolving wire book rack in front of the cigarette stand or the drugstore check-out. A slim possibility, but then you don’t maintain a site like this unless you’re willing to trust in outliers.

A Martini on the Other Table proved to be neither gem nor junk. A lost classic it ain’t, but it was something of a satisfying nostalgia trip for a kid who remembers spying on cocktail parties as I crouched in the hallway in my Dr. Dentons. Set in New York City, it’s narrated by Judy, just separated from her husband, a novelist enjoying his first wave of critical acclaim, and making her way writing superficial pieces for women’s magazines. No longer starry-eyed about love or fame, she makes the rounds of parties and gallery openings, having decided to post her picture next to the definition of blasé in the dictionary. She drinks too much and finds herself in bed with strange men on a regular basis. I half expected one of them to be Don Draper.

Most of the book is taken up with a intricately woven tangle of relationships, as a struggling artist and his socialite girlfriend befriend, and then bed (in turn) Judy, as a wealthy gallery owner watches her husband fall for a good-looking would-be actor, as Judy herself falls for a director of “industrial films” who turns out to be married (but not any more — or is he? — or isn’t he?). It’s all very complicated and utterly uninteresting, since none of these characters is anything but a name, hair color, facial expression, and personality quirk.

Joyce Elbert
Joyce Elbert

How much of Judy’s story is based on Joyce Elbert’s is anyone’s guess. Elbert is quoted on the back cover as saying, “The greatest thing that happened to me was when I turned thirty and divorced my second husband…. Fitzgerald was all wet. Freshness and youth don’t stand a chance alongside anxiety and dissipation.”

If you squint hard enough, that line almost looks like something from Dorothy Parker. There are more than a few echoes of it in A Martini on the Other Table. When Judy and the film director take in a play, she says she’s “glad that Ed and I had not driven in from the suburbs after a rushed supper and anxiety over the new baby sitter…. If a man is going to cut out on his wife I would much rather be the girl friend than the wife, who usually gets him back in the long run. Uncertainty beats the A&P-on-Saturday syndrome any time.”

But Elbert’s rebel act rings a little hollow. A lot of people go to a lot of parties in this book, and none of them seems to have any fun. Judy spends far more time brooding about men and relationships than about independence and sexual freedom. “The only person I ever really cheated was myself,” she confesses just after the director proposes to her. It’s hard not to believe there’s an A&P lurking on a Saturday not too far in her future.

Well, I was looking for something quite unlike Pilgrimage — and on that one count, I can say A Martini on the Other Table succeeded.


A Martini on the Other Table, by Joyce Elbert
New York: Bantam Books, 1963

Backwater, 2nd Chapter of Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson (1916)

First UK edition of Backwater
First UK edition of Backwater

In Backwater (Internet Archive, Amazon), Miriam once again goes to work as a teacher in a girl’s school, but closer to home this time, on opposite Banbury Park in North London. (Dorothy Richardson’s real life equivalent was on Seven Sister’s Road, opposite Finsbury Park.) The book’s title reflects Miriam/Dorothy’s opinion of North London: “shabby, ugly and shabby.” She despises the same-ness of the houses, the little neat houses with little neat fences, all aspiring to a common denominator of conventionality. Although Miriam is still in an early stage of her journey of self-discovery, she already recognizes a great divide between herself and the people she meets in North London: “The people passing along them were unlike any she knew. There were no ladies, no gentlemen, no girls or young men such as she knew. They were all alike. They were . . . She could find no word for the strange impression they made.” Indeed, for her, there is almost an alien quality to them:

Off every tram-haunted main road, there must be a neighbourhood like this where lived the common-mouthed harsh-speaking people who filled the pavements and shops and walked in the parks. To enter one of the little houses and speak there to its inmates would be to be finally claimed and infected by the life these people lived, the thing that made them what they were.

Seven_Sisters_Road_Finsbury_Park_1907

Miriam joins the staff of Wordsworth House, which is run by the Pernes, three spinster sisters — Miss Deborah, Miss Jenny, and Miss Haddie, all “dressed in thin fine black material” and with “tiny hands and little softly moving feet.” Miriam quickly develops mixed feelings for the sisters. On the one hand, she finds a genuine spirit of Christian charity in them, and she appreciates the freedom they allow her in shaping the curriculum she teaches the younger girls in the school. But she also finds the sisters stereotypical in their conventional attitudes toward education, culture, religion … and women.

Likewise, the sisters find Miriam a bit of an odd fish. One Sunday, after she rejects the value of the Anglican service they have attended with the girls, she and Miss Haddie find themselves on opposite sides on the basic question of the role of clergy. Miss Haddie is ready to put all her trust in their vicar’s ability to see to their spiritual needs. Miriam disagrees: “Oh, but I think that’s positively dangerous,” said Miriam gravely. “It simply means leaving your mind open for whatever they choose to say.”

“Did ye discuss any of your difficulties with yer vicar?” Miss Haddie asks with concern.

“He wasn’t capable of answering them,” replies Miriam.

“Ye’re an independent young woman,” concludes Miss Haddie.

As usual, George H. Thomson helps explain the links between the fictional world of Backwater and its counterparts in Richardson’s own life. In an article for the Proceedings of the Dorothy Richardson Society, he writes,

Who were the Pernes of Backwater? They were a trio of maiden sisters named Ayre who conducted a private school in North London called Edgeworth House at 28 Alexandra Villas, which was also 28 Seven Sisters Road opposite Finsbury Park. In the Autumn of 1892 Dorothy Richardson began to teach in their school, her job was to look after the younger students. Her employers were Anna Mary Ayre, the Principal, and her sisters Emma Ainsley and Isabella Reed Ayre. A fourth sister, Fanny Ellen Ayre, had died in March 1892, six months before Dorothy Richardson arrived. And a fifth sister Annie Oxley Ayre, in 1884 at the age of 40, had married.

Miriam’s personal revolution against the conventions of her day is marked by several small victories in Backwater. She realizes, for the first time, that a young man is interested in marrying her — and quickly dismisses the idea as ridiculous. She discovers a source of cheap popular novels, including some by Ouida, and sits up into the wee hours reading in her room. Inspired by Ouida’s passionate — and politically liberal — romances, she thinks, “I don’t care what people think or say. I am older than anyone here in this house. I am myself.” And she smokes her first cigarette:

Her nostrils breathed in smoke, and as she tasted the burnt flavour the sweetness of the unpolluted air all around her was a new thing. The acrid tang in her nostrils intoxicated her. She drew more boldly. There was smoke in her mouth. She opened it quickly, sharply exhaling a yellow cloud oddly different from the grey spirals wreathing their way from the end of the cigarette. She went on drawing in mouthful after mouthful of smoke, expelling each quickly with widely-opened lips, turning to look at the well-known room through the yellow haze and again at the sky, which drew nearer as she puffed at it. The sight of the tree-tops scrolled with her little clouds brought her a sense of power. She had chosen to smoke and she was smoking, and the morning world gleamed back at her….

And she begins to experience a sense of herself that, at times, strikes her with near-ecstatic intensity: “She became aware of a curious buoyancy rising within her. It was so strange that she stood still for a moment on the stair…. It was as if something had struck her, struck right through her impalpable body, sweeping it away, leaving her there shouting silently without it. I’m alive…. I’m alive…. ‘It’s me, me; this is me being alive.'”

Miriam stays at the school for nearly a year and a half, but finds the gulf between she sensibility and that of the Pernes sisters too great to be endured, and once again, she moves on. As the sisters present her with an expensive umbrella in a farewell ceremony, though, she is surprised, to witness the effect she has had on the sisters and the students: “… the amazement of hearing from various quarters of the room violent and repeated nose-blowings, and away near the door in the voice of a girl she had hardly spoken to a deep heavy contralto sobbing.”


Backwater, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1916

A Prison, A Paradise, by Loran Hurnscot (Gay Taylor) (1958)

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'A Prison, A Paradise'Depending on one’s perspective, A Prison, A Paradise is one remarkable book or two remarkable books in one cover. The first half, “The Summer Birdcage,” is the diary of a woman caught up in a mad, bad love triangle that nearly destroyed two of the three principals; the second, “The Tilted Spiral,” the diary of a woman consumed in a quest for a spiritual love that could overcome her earthly concerns. The first book competes with Alison Waley’s A Half of Two Lives, discussed here last year, as an account of a passion pursued about twenty exits past all reason; the second has been compared with Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. And together, they tell the story of a woman who, as Kathleen Raine put it in her introduction, “followed the unfashionable vocation of living her thoughts.”

In A Prison, A Paradise, the names have been changed to protect the guilty. “Loran Hurnscot,” an anagram of “Sloth and Rancour” — which she saw as her principal sins — was Ethelwynne (Gay) Stewart McDowall, who was known Gay Taylor after she married Harold Midgeley Taylor (referred to as Hubert Tindal in the book), an idealistic and tubercular aesthete whose failed enterprises included the Golden Cockerel Press, which became one of the premier British art presses after it was bought by Robert Gibbings in 1924. In Taylor’s largely untrained hands, however, it was strictly an amateur affair. A. E. Coppard later wrote of the Golden Cockerel edition of his first collection of stories, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me that, “the type was poor, the paper bad, the leaves fell out, the cover collapsed….”

Coppard (referred to as Barney) was also, as it happened, the third corner of the triangle. Barely capable of taking care of themselves, Gay and Harold convinced themselves that they shared enough interests to justify getting married. As Loran/Gay put it in her Afterword to “The Summer Birdcage,” “I married n the eighth proposition of Euclid.” Unable to perform as a sexual partner, Harold encouraged Gay to take Coppard as a lover. Then, when she did, he became insanely jealous … while also becoming increasingly dependent upon her as his illness grew worse. Gay fell madly in love with Coppard, running off to sleep with him in the fields, to dance naked in the rain, and to generally rub salt into Hubert/Harold’s wounds. To compound problems, Coppard (already married) was a philanderer.

Within a year of starting the affair, Loran/Gay was writing, “I live with him [Coppard] in superficial happiness, but with a grief of heart, a loss of self-respect, that doesn’t end.” She began to see that the only way to keep Coppard’s interest was to constantly keep him wondering: “He loves me best when he is loved least.” “There’s something sub-human about Barny … that will eventually destroy our relation.” At the same time, she was “deeply convinced” that Hu/Harold “only wants me near him so as to have something weaker than himself to bully.” Still, all three remained entwined in their own miserable, self-destructive web until finally Loran/Gay found herself abandoned by both men. Harold died, leaving her just £50, and Coppard carried on with other women. Looking back on the affair, Loran/Gay would conclude that “the central sin was that no one loved anyone.”

Volume Two, “The Tilted Spiral,” picks up over a decade later. Loran/Gay is barely surviving, living in cheap flats in London and taking whatever work came to hand. Having given up on romantic love, she is desperately seeking salvation if unclear on how to find it. She went to endless lectures by P. D. Ouspensky. She studied Buddhism. She studied Swedenbourg. She read Thomas Merton. She scoured astrological charts, and developed an intricate system by which to record her moods:

Towards the end of the war I started to keep a mood chart, just to see whether I was turning into a melancholy gloomy character: I classified the mental states by colours, of which there were ten divisions, based on the spectrum but ending in dark blue and black. It was kept in a book of squared paper, and I put down my “temperature” as T. B. cases do, twice a day. Perhaps, as I have often held, the observed thing changes. But to my surprise the general level was far higher than I’d supposed; there were weeks and even months that could be called happy and equable; the descents were rare and rapidly recovered from. I kept it for two or three years and then laid it aside.

Much of this part the book is a record of Loran/Gay’s encounters with different belief systems, in each of which she initially finds something attractive and satisfying, only to grow disenchanted — often more with the personalities involved (Ouspensky) or the dogmatic constraints (“even the cloister is now like the Civil Service,” she writes of one Christian retreat). Yet she also managed to find joy. While living in a particularly dingy rooming house, at one point, she wrote that, “Almost immediately, heavenly bliss flooded me, and even in my wretched room, the Beloved was there. The flow of divine love was almost overwhelming, and tears of adoration and sorrow stood in my eyes.”

In the end, Loran/Gay came to believe that the only spiritual guide she could truly trust was herself. “There has always been a fastidiousness in Loran Hurnscot that rejects all that rings false in human behavior, or in religious cant,” Raine remarks in her introduction, and the days recorded in “The Tilted Spiral” had as many moments of disgust and disillusionment as they did of serenity.

“You must understand,” Loran/Gay once said to Raine, “all I have is my life.” And A Prison, A Paradise ranks with Alice Koller’s An Unknown Woman as an account of a woman following Polonius’ injunction, “To thine own self be true,” to such an extent that friendships, creature comforts, and the conventions of society could all be sacrificed in the interest of self-discovery. And yet, it’s also sensual, acerbic, and even, on occasion, funny, as in this encounter with a census-taker:

“Let me see — are you a housewife?” “No, I am not a housewife.”

“Well, are you employed?” “No, I am not employed.”

“Self-employed, perhaps?” “No, at present I am not self-employed.”

“Well, then, you must be unemployed.” “No, I’m not unemployed either.”

He began to look sweaty and anxious. “I’ve got to put you down as something,” he said.

“Haven’t you any other categories,” I suggested.

“Only incapacitated.”

“Then put me down as incapacitated,” I said firmly. “I’ve been looking for that word for years.”

Elizabeth Russell Taylor tells more of the story of Loran Hurnscot/Gay Taylor in this London Magazine piece from May 2014. A Prison, A Paradise was also #319 in the lot of books from Marilyn Monroe’s library that was auctioned off by Christies in 1999. Gay Taylor died of pancreatic cancer in 1970.


A Prison, A Paradise, by Loran Hurnscot (Ethelwynne (Gay) Stewart McDowall Taylor)
London: Victor Gollancz, 1958
New York: The Viking Press, 1958

My Life as a List: 207 Things About My (Bronx) Childhood, by Linda Rosenkrantz (1999)

mylifeasalist

Ten Things I Like About My Life as a List

  1. It’s short, funny, and not overly sentimental.
  2.  

  3. The memories of her mother’s bad cooking.
  4.  

  5. Her pen-pal Abbie Raymundo, who wrote letters “in black ink, green ink, and white ink on blue paper, in mirror writing and on handcrafted jigsaw puzzle pieces” and who once sent “a selfauthored, handwritten booklet ‘How to Burp,’ giving numerous multicultural (e.g., the Chinese After Tea Burp) variations on the theme.”
  6.  

  7. Her mother’s clothes shopping technique: “Buy half a dozen, … try them on at home after school, return five of them the next day, bring home some more and start the cycle again.”
  8.  

  9. All the aunts and uncles. Aunt Pearl, whose peculiar way of venting her anger at Linda’s mother was to whisper over the girl’s crib, “You have a bad mother, you have a good aunt, you have a bad mother, you have a good aunt.” Uncle Harry, “dapper as Adolphe Menjou” but petrified at being left alone by himself at night.
  10.  

  11. The family myths. Offered the choice of marrying one of two sisters, her grandfather answered, “I’ll take the fat one.”
  12.  

  13. Aunt Beck’s way of swearing: “Canary!”
  14.  

  15. The Wise Old Aardvark: “My favorite picture book was The Wise Old Aardvark, the story of a wiseman-turned-anteater who got a job giving diabolically clever solutions over the radio to the perplexing problems of people all over the world—such as a Chinese family whose grandmother had been carried up into the sky by a huge balloon, some Eskimos who saw two scary eyes glaring out of their igloo, and two Egyptians whose camels hated each other. The wise old aardvark finally earned enough money to retire and employ an esteemed Italian singer named Signor Pompinelli Ragusa to sing to him exclusively for the rest of his life.” Published in 1936 and written and illustrated by Dorothy Kunhardt, best known for Pat the Bunny, this children’s book is scarcer than hen’s teeth now: I found one copy for sale, at over $300. I want this book!
  16.  

  17. The structure, which stems from a list Rosenkrantz began making on a flight from New York to Los Angeles: “I opened my notebook and found myself writing the words ‘500 Things About My Childhood: My Life is [sic] a List,’ followed by a few sentences: All my elementary school teachers had the same handwriting. All my aunts floated but none of them swam. There were only two girls in my class who weren’t Jewish.

     

    It’s not one that would sustain a long book, but neither could it make for a book worth reading without (a) the individual entries being striking or interesting enough to stand on their own and (b) there being a sufficient shape and flow to the whole collection. Rosenkrantz remarks that “the thought struck me several times that in a sense this was an exercise that would be interesting and revealing for other people to try doing, in their own way.” Yet, if this was only a therapeutic exercise, it wouldn’t have deserved publication.

     

    Rosenkrantz’s first experiment with form, her 1969 novel, Talk, was reissued last year as a New York Review Classic. Talk is entirely composed of dialogue among three characters and was based on tapes she recorded as she lay on the beach in New York talking with her friends. Given that most of the rest of her published output consists of a bunch of books about naming a baby, the downside to her creative approach is that it apparently hasn’t produced too many finished works.

  18.  

  19. It’s available for free on Open Library: Link

My Life as a List: 207 Things about My (Bronx) Childhood, by Linda Rosenkrantz
New York: Clarkson Potter, 1999

Me & My Mom, by Marianne Hauser (1993)

meandmymom-hauserThe late Marianne Hauser (who still lacks a Wikipedia article of her own nearly a decade after her death) was something of a chameleon in her art and attitude toward things. In her one novel still in print, The Talking Room, written when Hauser was 65, she assumed the voice of a 13 year-old girl. In The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley (1986), she wrote in the voice of a bisexual art collector who was writing from beyond the grave. Born in Alsace, which changed from France to Germany and back to France before she graduated from the gymnasium, and having spent her young adult years in India and China before settling in the U. S., she developed a rather fluid sense of nationality.

So it’s not surprising that in this slender novel, Hauser managed to convey with convincing accuracy the voice and outlook of a young mother while also providing a depressingly vivid characterization of the woman’s mother, whose slide into alcoholism and dementia have led the daughter to admit her into a nursing home. The Bide-a-Wee (“A+ rating”) home is neither heaven nor hell-hole. It’s just an institution — which, a doctor explains to the daughter, is effectively a form of tranquilizer: “Here one learns how to avoid punishment, though hardly humiliation.”

Hauser wrote Me & My Mom at an age (82) when she could easily have been in just such an institution. Clearly, she was no stranger to their tendency to drag their residents down to a lowest common denominator. The narrator, like anyone in her situation, is torn over what she has had to reduce her mother to, but also able to recognize that there are no apparent alternatives. Her mom’s suffering from short-term memory problems, easily disoriented, unstable on her feet and prone to falls.

There is a certain bitter satire in Hauser’s recounting the tale through the daughter’s voice. Though struggling with dementia, the mother has been an intelligent and passionate woman, one who worked as a proof-reader and has little patience for fools. She remembers fondly moments from her earlier life, such as the perfect Eggs Benedict served at the Hotel Majestic. The daughter sees the Majestic as nothing but a dump, a derelict building that collapses, killing a few of the junkies and homeless people crashed in its rooms. Just as the finer things in her life fade due to the mother’s loss of memory, so do they fade due to the daughter’s youth and cluelessness.

The daughter’s distress only grows when she has to move to rural Ohio, a thousand miles from the Bide-a-Wee and New York City. She can’t have mom stay with her, there are no homes to which she could be moved, and she’s reduced to calling and hoping that she can have a few minutes’ coherent conversation. And an occasional postcard:

dear mom
miss you
want to
see you
love
me
p.s. I’m pregnant mommy

As one whose own mother has been in a home for several years and who also hopes for a few minutes of coherent conversation as her memory limitations cause more and more of our lives together to fade away, I can only say that Me & My Mom hits close to home. Like life, our memories and connections with those we love are evanescent things we can’t hold onto forever. And yet we have to try.


Me & My Mom, by Marianne Hauser
Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1993

Two Under the Indian Sun, by Jon and Rumer Godden (1966)

Two_Under_the_Indian_Sun“This is not an autobiography as much as an evocation of a time that is gone,” write Jon and Rumer Godden at the start of this magical book. At the time the book was published, both women were experienced writers of novels and short stories. Rumer was the more prolific and successful, best known for her 1939 novel, Black Narcissus, and her 1963 best-seller, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita. Jon did not begin publishing until she was over forty, but like Rumer, she set a number of her books in India, including her 1956 novel, The Seven Islands.

Two Under the Indian Sun is a lyrical, funny, and charming recollection of the seven years the sisters spent with their family in Narayanganj, a city on the Shitalakshya River in then-East Bengal (and now Bangladesh). The girls had been sent to live with relatives in England and receive proper English educations in 1913, but a year later, with war about to break out in Europe, they were brought back to the relative safety of India.

And safe India was, particularly from their child’s eyes: “We never felt we were foreigners, not India’s own; we felt at home, safely held in her large warm embrace, content as we were never to be content in our own country.” Their father, referred to as Fa, ran a steamship company based in Narayanganj, and the girls enjoyed the run of a large house with a courtyard and a retinue of cooks, amahs, maids, babus, and other servants. Like many of the better-off Anglo-Indians, the family travelled into the lower reaches of the Himalayas and summered in one of the hill stations like Simla.

They also had the chance to travel up some of the wide, slow rivers on their father’s steamships and were able to experience a considerable part of East Bengal. “We never thought,” they write, “as many people do, that the Bengal landscape was monotonous and dull; each little village, with its thatched roofs among the tall slim coconut palms and dark mango trees against the jewel-bright background of the rice or mustard fields, was beautiful in its own calm way and full of interest.” These trips were among their favorite times. “It was bliss to wake early and lie watching the reflected sunlight dancing on the ceiling, to feel the comfortable beat of the engines beneath us, to listen to the tinkle of the carafe on the washstand, and to know that another whole river day was before us.”

Rumer and Jon Godden, 1966
Rumer and Jon Godden, 1966
Taught at home by their Aunt Mary, the girls quickly discovered a talent for writing. They competed in devising stories and offered rudimentary criticism to each other as — usually — the sole readers of each other’s work. Only rarely did any of the adults take notice, as in the case of Jon’s carrot saga:

Jon could illustrate her books; she seemed set fair to be that luckiest of combinations, an author who could illustrate her own writing, an artist who could write her own text, and this double talent meant that her books were more exciting that Rumer’s, but most even of Jon’s efforts stayed unnoticed. Occasionally, though, one would soar into attention, as unpredictably and, to us, as inexplicably as any best seller in the real literary world. It happened, for instance, when Jon wrote a novel about a family of carrots, four male carrots called No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4. In spite of their prosaic names they were surprisingly alive characters and, in its miniature way, the book was a complete novel; very often we did not finish ours. There were two villains, a cross cabbage and an apple tree that spitefully rained apples on the carrots’ heads. Then, “Ho, horror!” as the book said, a human boy dug up No. 1 and carried him away, but it was only to scoop him out and hang him up in the window to grow again — as we had done in our London day school. Finally the cabbage was dug up and eaten, the apple tree had its apples picked; No. 1, having grown, was replanted and four more carrots came up in the carrot bed, luckily all females, so that “there were four little carrots more.” It was vividly illustrated and Mam and Fa showed it to their friends. Jon was congratulated, which she half liked and half detested.

Reading Two Under the Indian Sun, one is challenged to tell one author’s voice from the other. The two blend together into an almost seamless narrative, and the only clue to a change is when one of the sisters is named: if it’s Jon, then Rumer is writing, and vice versa. And the book was also something of a unique creation from the publishing standpoint, as it was released under the dual imprints of Knopf, Rumer’s publisher, and Jon’s publisher, Viking. Distributed by Viking and picked up by the Book of the Month Club, it was probably Jon’s best-selling book. It was reissued in the late 1980s by Beech Tree Books, but is now out of print.


from Two Under the Indian Sun, by Jon and Rumer Godden
New York: Alfred A. Knopf and The Viking Press, 1966

Pen to Paper: A Novelist’s Notebook, by Pamela Frankau (1962)

Pamela_Frankau

Should somebody penetrate the barbed-wire entanglement of my handwriting and read my Rough [draft], it would make little sense to him. He would find bewildering changes of time and place. The people would confound him with sudden new characteristics. Some would change their looks. Some would be whisked away without explanation. Som would put in a late appearance, yet be greeted by the rest as though they had been there from the beginning. He would find, this reader, traces of style followed by no style at all; pedestrian phrases, clichés, straight flat-footed reprting. Here a whole sequence of scenes complete and next some mingy skeleton stuff with a burst of apparently contemptuous hieroglyphs on the blank left-hand page beside it. Nor is the left-hand page reserved for “Exp” (meaning Expand, “X” (meaning Wrong), “//” (meaning much the same as “X” only more so) and “?” (meaning what it says). The left-hand page is likely to be a shambles, taking afterthought insertions for the right-hand page; paragraphs whose position may not be indicated at all. No; a reader would have no more fun with the Rough than the writer is having.

Pen to Paper “should be be firmly forced into the self-confident hands of any enthusiastic amateur who imagines that writing novels is easy,” Noël Coward once wrote. His implication, of course, was that writing a novel is bloody hard and the world might be the better if a few would-be novelists were scared off by an injunction from someone with far more experience at the business.

Pen_to_PaperAnd experienced she was. At the time Pen to Paper was published, Pamela Frankau had nearly thirty novels to her name, along with an autobiography and a short story collection or two. She was one of that generation of industrious British women writers, now referred to — admiringly or dismissively — as “middlebrows,” who managed to produce at least a novel or two a year for decades on end, until they had as many titles to their credit as a polygamist has grandchildren.

She came by it naturally. Her father, Gilbert Frankau, and his mother, Julia Frankau were themselves prolific novelists, and Pamela got her own start, with Marriage of Harlequin, at the age of 19. As with her father, money needs led her to writing and the comfort of somewhat steady income kept her writing books we can safely call works of craft, not art.

Still, she had her standards, and three of her books — A Wreath for the Enemy, The Winged Horse, and her most popular novel, The Willow Cabin — were reissued as Virago Modern Classics about eight years ago. And she’d had successes in both England and the U.S., earning in the latter the Bronze Star of commercial achievement, selection of one of her novels as a Readers’ Digest condensed book. Which is why she could write with authority on how to write for the two different audiences. (She demonstrates some prescience in writing of America as “the place where umbrage grew wild”: “Never, surely, were so many offended so easily by so little.” And this was back in 1962!)

I long ago realized that I probably didn’t have the stuff of a novelist in me, but it was still a useful learning experience to read Pen to Paper. Frankau doesn’t stint in stressing how much energy and time is involved in writing a novel. In her case, she wrote all her novels out by hand at least twice: the first draft the haphazard hodgepodge she refers to above as the “Rough”; and the second a more painstakingly assembled second draft she called the “Smooth.” She insisted in carving out hours to write almost every day, whether at home or staying as a guest, while on a train or a cross-Atlantic steamship, and with or without inspiration. Although she relates how some of her best ideas came to her, she also admits that a few evaporated before her eyes when she tried to describe them to a friend or transformed over the course of creating the Rough into something completely different. And no matter how well or badly a book finally turned out, she was never truly satisfied: “I believe that in the difference between a writer and a hack, the discontent is all.”

But she does have some encouragement for those who would take on the challenge she’d faced at least thirty times before. In particular, she dismisses the notion that, for a writer, there is no substitute for first-hand experience:

“I never robbed an old-age pensioner: I couldn’t: I don’t know how it feels. It’s too revolting.”

You have, in your time, stolen a piece of toffee; cheated the Customs; conveniently forgotten a debt; pocketed the money you found on a taxi-floor; helped to destroy a reputation; denied a vulnerable person a kindness and seen the look in that person’s eyes….

By the time I am engaged on this kind of experience, I’m well on the way to writing the scene.

In an obituary, Rebecca West — who’d had a fairly erratic friendship with Frankau — judged her a second-rate writer: “None of her novels, though they are better than most, was as good as she was.” So it might be easy to dismiss Pen to Paper as even less worthy of rediscovery than these novels, but I suspect the reverse is true. Although it might not inspire many would-be writers, it certainly provides a candid and self-deprecating inside look at the craft from one who’d spent over thirty years working at it.


Pen to Paper: A Novelist’s Notebook, by Pamela Frankau
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962

The Department Store, by Margarete Böhme (1912)

Interior of Warenhaus Wertheim, Berlin 1910
Interior of Warenhaus Wertheim, Berlin 1910
The Department Store: A Novel of Today was German novelist Margarete Böhme’s magnum opus, five hundred pages long and stocked with nearly as many characters as flowed through the doors of the great Berlin store, Müllenmeister’s Emporium, around which the story centers. Böhme is remembered today for her novel, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (The Diary of a Lost Girl) (1905), which purported to be the authentic journal of a young woman forced by circumstances into prostitution. A huge best-seller in its time, it was twice filmed, the second version (1929) directed by G. W. Pabst and starring the iconic American silent film actress, Louise Brooks.

Reviewing the novel in The Bookman, Frederick Taber Cooper found it hard to believe that, “with such a thoroughly virile grasp of the theme, and strong, bold, unflinching portrayal of its dramatic elements,” the book could have been written by a woman:

It contains the life history of a dozen families, in all the various social strata of the Prussian capital, a sweeping and comprehensive bird’s-eye view of German manners and customs, in the social world and half-world alike….

You are not merely made to see the surge and rush of bargain day, the disciplined army of clerks working, like the separate cogs and wheels in some monster machine, driven at full pressure, the eager crowds, pushing, jostling, laughing, frowning, catching the contagion of the hour, yielding to the shopping craze — you not only see all this, but you become actually part of it; you feel yourself caught and drawn along, gasping and breathless, in the very thick of the press, you almost start to take out your own pocket-book and buy recklessly of things that you in no wise want!

The Department Store, an electronic copy of which can be found on the Internet Archive (link), is something of the flip side of Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) (1883), in which the great Paris department store, modeled on Le Bon Marché, is portrayed as a symbol of the abundance and extravagance of the Industrial Age at its height, and in which the owner/entrepeneur is won over by the beauty and virtue of one of his shopgirls.

While Böhme’s emporium overflows with just as many goods as Zola’s, its celebration of capitalism is undermined by a sense of corruption and shoddiness. The store’s furniture shines as brilliantly as those in the most exclusive shops, but its manufacture and materials are cheap and unreliable. The underpaid salesgirls spend ten or twelve hours a day standing behind their counters, while shop chiefs keep the stock boys and warehousemen scurrying back and forth without relief. And the shopgirl with whom the young heir to the store falls in love proves craven and unfaithful. While not quite a radical novel, it’s not too many steps from the kind of stories of worker exploitation and organized labor that were just beginning to appear.

The Department Store was one of the very first books reviewed by the young Cicely Fairfield under her new pen name of Rebecca West, in The Freewoman. West made her opinion of department stores plain from the start: “A great department store is an offensive thing, because it pretends that trade is carried on in a dignified manner. The strong towers and wide façades of these immense shops make believe that Commerce has become a god, for whom it is meet to build a temple: whereas, in its present-day development, it is a vampire, to be buried at the cross-roads, with a stake through its heart.”

Margarete Böhme
Margarete Böhme
Unlike The Ladies’ Paradise, which she called “a miracle of sensuous perception,” Böhme’s won West’s respect as “the brooding of a masterful intellect over a social phenomenon.” Where Zola’s heroine is near saintliness in her virtue, Böhme’s leading female character, Agnes Matrei, is “the woman who is the kind of flower that grows in that hot-house: hardly a woman, rather some phantom formed from the unwholesome mist that rises from the marsh by moonlight.” In West’s estimation, the novel was “an absorbingly interesting book.”

Not everyone had such a high opinion of The Department Store, though. Borrowing his metaphor from the book’s subject, The New York Times’ reviewer dismissed it by writing that “In a shop one can get pretty nearly everything under the same roof and carry on a successful business; but the same tactics do not good in writing a novel.”

Having taken up writing as a way to make a living after she divorced her husband in 1900, Margarete Böhme went on to publish a total of forty novels over the space of the next twenty-some years. By the time of her death, however, none of her books were in print, her most famous novel, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, having been banned from republication by the Nazi Party for its disreputable portrait of German womanhood. It was resurrected a few years ago in both German and English editions featuring stills from Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl.


The Department Store, by Margarete Böhme, translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne
New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1912

Two Sets of Three-Volume Memoirs

In the course of this year of devoting my time to reading and writing about neglected books by women, one genre that has particularly captivated me is the autobiography. Like many men, I find women a subject of endless fascination and every piece of autobiographical writing by a woman seems to be an opportunity to understand just a little better these extraordinary creatures who share my habitat. In my search for lost books, I’ve come across a rich trove of autobiographies and memoirs written by women over the last 150 years, assembling a list of titles that could easily keep me going for another couple of years.

A few women have found autobiography an especially fruitful form and carried on from a first volume for three, four, or even more. I’ve discussed Ethel Mannin’s six volumes of memoirs here earlier this year, and will have to find time soon to mention G. B. Stern’s equal number of … well, let’s call them logo-psycho-philosophic-autobiographical rambles for the lack of a precise label. Marie Belloc Lowndes, best remembered for the novel that was the basis of Hitchcock first great silent film, The Lodger, wrote four volumes of autobiography in the last years of her life, while Anthony Powell’s wife, Lady Violet Powell, wrote her four volumes over the span of more than fifty years. But here I want to mention two trilogies of memoirs, both out of print, and both well worth rediscovering.

 

janetframeautobiographies

• Janet Frame

It’s a little astonishing to see that New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s autobiographies are out of print. Frame’s life is a testament to the challenges and rewards of not fitting in. Her behavior as an adolescent was considered eccentric at the time, but in hindsight seems more understandable given what was going on around her (two sisters died of drowning, two brothers regularly suffered epileptic seizures). After a difficult time while attending college, she attempted suicide, and, not long after that, was committed to the psychiatric ward of her local hospital for observation. She spent much of the next eight years in mental hospitals, receiving 200 electroshock treatments. But she also began writing and publishing, starting with short stories, and was saved from a schedule lobotomy when it was announced that her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories (1951), had been selected for the Hubert Church Memorial Award.

Frame left New Zealand in 1956 and lived in England and Europe before returning home in 1963. She published numerous novels and short story collections and her reputation as one of the leading figures in contemporary fiction grew, particularly as she was able to grapple with issues about madness, loneliness, and the destruction of language and meaning. In the late 1970s, she began writing her autobiography, which was published in three volumes between 1982 and 1985: To the Is-Land (1982), Angel at My Table (1984), and Envoy from Mirror City (1985). Australian Nobel Prize winner Patrick White said the books ranked “amongst the wonders of the world.” When the trilogy was published in a single volumen in 1990, English biographer Michael Holroyd called them “One of the greatest autobiographies written this century.” In his Sunday Times review, Holroyd described the books as, “A journey from luminous childhood, through the dark experiences of supposed madness, to the renewal of her life through writing fiction. It is a heroic story, and told with such engaging tone, humorous perspective and imaginative power.” In the same year, Jane Campion directed a wonderful film, An Angel at My Table, and the two events brought Frame worldwide acclaim.

 

katesimonmemoirs

• Kate Simon

Simon was born Kaila Grobsmith in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw ghetto, came to the U. S. with her family in steerage at the age of 4, and grew up in the Tremont section of the Bronx. After graduating from Hunter College, she went to work as a journalist, and, beginning in the 1950s, as a travel writer. Her first memoir, which recalls in a vivid but utterly unnostalgic manner her experiences growing up, was titled Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood. It was selected as one of the twelve best books of 1982 by The New York Times Book Review and one of the five best of the year by Time. A Wider World: Portraits in an Adolescence, was published in 1986, and dealt frankly with her early sexual experiences, which included brushes with lesbian faculty members and living with a man outside of marriage–both of which were generally considered shocking and rarely discussed at the time. The last volume, Etchings in an Hourglass (1990), was written as she was suffering from the cancer that took her life, and described her travels and adventures–cultural and sexual–in places such as Mexico, India, Italy, and France. It also dealt with death of her first husband, her sister, her daughter (at the age of 19)–all of brain tumors–and her own, which she referred to as “The Bone Man.” Throughout all three books, Simon is candid, open-minded, self-deprecating, cosmopolitan, and a thoroughly engaging narrator.

Running Away From Myself, by Barbara Deming (1969)

runningawayfrommyselfWhen Barbara Deming published this study of the American dream as portrayed in American films of the 1940s, she had spent over a decade speaking, writing, organizing, marching, and being imprisoned for the causes of racial and sexual equality and non-violent resistance. The same “strange split in consciousness” she saw in some of the movies she had watched and written about twenty years before was now on display at the national and global level: the United States applying all its economic and military power to fight the North Vietnamese at the same time it proclaimed support for the average Joe. “Believe in me or I will have to destroy you!” is how she summed up the philosophy of the Hollywood stereotype she labelled “Success Boy” in the late 1940s. By 1969, she was watching Success Boy becoming a political predilection she felt compelled to resist.

Deming had written by book — subtitled “A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the 40’s” — in the late 1940s, after working as a film analyst for the Library of Congress from 1942 to 1948, during which she estimates she watched a quarter of all Hollywood film features released. While viewing each film, she took extensive notes in shorthand, sometimes directly transcribing onscreen action and dialogue. As a result, her discussion of most films covered is deep and detailed. Unlike a lot of books devoted to films, particularly film noir, this is not a grazer’s guide. After reading her analysis of now well-worn classics such as Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, you will not only want to see them again, but you will see them through Deming’s eyes–even if not always accepting her interpretation.

“All the characters whom I trace in Running Away From Myself can be seen to be products of a deep crisis of faith.” The 1940s are often seen as the golden age of Hollywood, when many of the mythic figures that came to epitomize American culture–Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Bugs Bunny, Gary Cooper–had their heyday. Deming’s view is considerably less rosy: “Virgil describes Hell to Dante as that blind world in which the good of the intellect has been surrendered. His words could also be used to describe the darkened world of the movie theater.” The act of sitting in a darkened theater–“playing a more passive role than he does in relation to any other art”–makes the viewer more suggestible, more open to manipulation. In these chapters, Deming often reaches over to her fellow moviegoers and challenges them: “What’s really going on here?” she demands.

On the other hand, for someone who so immersed herself in film, Deming is quite removed from the actual business and process of film-making. The fact that there was a whole studio system, with armies of writers, stars often locked into pretty narrow boundaries of roles and images, the need to generate a constant stream of new material to keep people going to theaters two or three times a week, and a strong drive to make movies that set American life and values in contrast to those of Fascism and Communism, is rarely acknowledged. And I have to wonder, after reading Running Away From Myself, whether Deming actually knew anyone directly involved with film-making when she wrote this book. She’s also quite selective in what she does and doesn’t cover. It’s striking that neither of the huge classics from 1946–The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life–are mentioned.

Still, if you love films–and especially if you love to dig into films, to treat them as more than just escapism–Running Away From Myself is a satisfying read. Whether you always agree with Deming’s analysis or not, you cannot argue that she doesn’t consistently reveal how much more is going on than the simple story playing out onscreen.


Running Away From Myself: A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the Forties, by Barbara Deming
New York City: Grossman Publishers, 1969

All That Seemed Final, by Joan Colebrook (1941)

all_that_seemed_finalReading All That Seemed Final, I was often reminded of another multi-player London novel I’ve listened to as audiobooks in the last year–John Lanchester’s Capital. Both books interweave the stories of a cast of characters over the space of roughly one year, switching from one to another from chapter to chapter, and drawing many links between the “Big H” history going around them and the immediate facts and issues of their own lives. And, as with Capital, throughout All That Seemed Final, I kept asking myself: “This is wonderfully entertaining, but is it more than that?”

I was perhaps jaded from having read several reviews that criticized Lanchester’s book for being somewhat superficial, for playing tried-and-true cards like death and bankruptcy for easy emotions. After listening to the book, however, I have to disagree, if only on by the simple litmus test of how much I still recall so much of its story and mood nearly a year later. And–with the exception of a few lightweight characters–I think I will be able to say the same of All That Seemed Final a year from now.

The story opens in the Spring of 1939, just as the flowers in St. James’ Park are beginning to bud and Hitler is invading Czechoslovakia. Colebrook introduces her cast in midstream–hosting a party for charity, heading home on a crowded bus, wondering whether to end an affair or a marriage. Quite a few are on the margins of society–a minor art critic, a shell-shocked veteran clerking in a tobacco firm. If they take note of the headlines about the possibility of war, it is, of course, only to wonder what inconveniences it might bring. “Will they intern my wonderful cook for being Austrian?” frets an aging femme fatale. Those most have memories of the last war, they are (the former soldier aside) as something fought “over there,” leading them to assume the next will also be somewhat distant from their own lives.

Colebrook takes her title from Proust: “Thus the face of things in life changes, the center of empires, the register of fortunes, the chart of positions, all that seemed final, are perpetually remoulded, and during his lifetime a man can witness the completest changes just where those seemed to him the least possible.” And, to the credit of her originality, not all of the changes that come to Colebrook’s characters result simply from the outbreak of war. While the slick and successful painter finds substance and moral fiber within when he joins the Army, the adulterous wife is forced to a decision for reasons quite apart from the events around her. Although all feel themselves to be in a sort of limbo, for some the uncertainty contains more promise than dread. But Colebrook also shows, with great skill, the crushing fear of pain and destruction felt by a few for whom the waiting is the worst ordeal of all.

All That Seemed Final received positive reviews went it came out in the fall of 1941. Writing in The New York Times, Marianne Hauser called it “a fine, clever book, well written and thoroughly convincing.” But timing was against its success: English readers were already caught up in the war and American readers soon had problems of their own to worry about. The book has never been reissued.

Colebrook, who was born and raised in Australia, emigrated to England in the mid-1930s, and felt moved to write the book in frustration with “this callous and rather hopeless disregard of the obvious fact that Europe was again drifting toward open conflict.” It was not until she moved to America in late 1940, however, that she was able to finish the novel. She wrote just one other work of fiction, The Northerner (1948), which was set in rural Australia. She worked as a journalist and, on occasion, as a social worker, in New York City. She published three works of nonfiction, including The Cross of Lassitude (1967), a study of juvenile delinquency. She died in 1991 at the age of 80.


All That Seemed Final, by Joan Colebrook
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company

Sibyl Sue Blue, by Rosel George Brown (1966)

nb_0499Sibyl Sue Blue is an undercover cop who wears chartreuse mini-skirts, rouges her knees, smokes cigars, and knows how to take the wind out of an obstreperous Centaurian with a quick sledge-hammer swing of her handbag. Nearing forty, she’s passing as the girlfriend of a high schooler, thanks to a wig, cheek pieces and an occasional dab of skin-tightening cream. Though she carries a torch for her husband Kenneth, who was lost on a failed expedition to the planet Radix some years ago, she’s ready to go after the right man, if she finds him attractive. She reads Thucydides in original Greek while grabbing a quick sandwich for lunch. And she’s a single mother trying to raise a high schooler herself while keeping the streets clear of benzale dealers.

Sibyl Sue Blue can be sold as a long-forgotten cross between Barbarella and Modesty Blaise. It’s fast, violent, sexy, and adventurous, the sort of thing that could easily be translated into a camp but savvy film. There are fights and plenty of them–Sibyl is a walking poster girl for proactive self-defense. There’s a wild ride through a spooky night, with Sibyl and a cohort clinging onto the roof rack of a speeding car. There’s a space ship trip to Radix, during which Sibyl falls in and out of love with its billionaire playboy captain.

And there is a relatively effective attempt to depict a planet-encircling organic intelligence, something Stanislaw Lem had already done in his as-yet (in 1966) untranslated masterpiece, Solaris. But the promise of the novel is undermined by too much scope stuffed into what is basically a whodunnit with exotic trappings. Brown rushes to bring her story to an end in under 200 pages and left out more story construction material than might be safe. Imagine watching Barbarella on fast forward and you might get the idea. A narrative shouldn’t go so fast that the reader is left somewhere between disoriented and disinterested.

Rosel George Brown, 1965
Rosel George Brown, 1965
Sibyl Sue Blue was Rosel George Brown’s first novel and was originally published as part of Doubleday’s science fiction series. At the time, Brown was living in New Orleans with her husband, Tulane history professor W. Burlie Brown, and their two boys. The couple had met while Rosel was studying Greek as an undergraduate at Sophie Newcomb College, which was associated with Tulane.

Brown began writing short stories in the late 1950s, publishing her first, “From an Unseen Censor,” in Galaxy magazine in 1958, and went on to publish nearly two dozen in similar SF magazines over the next six years. A selection of these were collected in A Handful of Time in 1963. She collaborated with Keith Laumer on Earthblood (1966), and followed soon after with her own Sibyl Sue Blue. Unfortunately, she died less than a year later of lymphoma. Her husband assembled material for a second Sibyl Sue Blue she had been working on prior to her death and sold it to Doubleday, which published it as The Waters Of Centaurus in 1970. One of Brown’s early short stories, “Step IV,” is available online at Project Gutenberg (link).


Sibyl Sue Blue (later reissued as Galatic Sibyl Sue Blue), by Rosel George Brown
Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966

The Passions of Uxport, by Maxine Kumin (1968)

passionsofuxport
 

You’ve gotta love ’60s paperbacks.

This Dell edition of Maxine Kumin’s The Passions of Uxport, a “probing novel of marriages and matings,” features a man and woman moments before doing something unsuitable for supermarket shelf display. The back blurb compares it to Updike’s novel of group sex, Couples, and John Cheever’s novel of suburban obsessions and murder, Bullet Park. You can bet that lust, adultery, and who knows what other steamy, sweaty things will be found inside.

I knew Maxine Kumin as a poet and vaguely knew she had written some novels, and would never have picked up this book if not for her name on it.

But as Bo Diddley sang, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. Here is the opening sentence of The Passions of Uxport: “At the time of his arrest, Ernie Makkinen had just come upon a well-developed Irish setter, two or three days dead, lying on its side, eyes fixed on what must have been the last object it had seen–a beer can suspended in a clump of frost-blackened goldenrod.”

“Crows had cleaned the spilled guts up to the limits of the matted hair of the dog’s flanks,” Kumin goes on, and “A crew of beetles was busily at work under its tail.” Ernie, we quickly learn, is a holy fool convinced that God has assigned him the task of collecting all the roadkill from the highways of New England and giving it a proper burial.

We are a long way from a casual hop in the sack here.

Now, sex and its consequences is certainly an element in this novel. Although we start with poor, mad Ernie and his truck full of rotting carcasses, adultery does eventually wander in, as does an unwanted pregnancy and even an old man’s sexual fantasy. But Kumin might better have titled this The Frustrations of Uxport, because this is mostly a book about people struggling with some of the crappy things that come their way: the anger of teens trying to break away from parents, the arrest of someone they know and trust, the death of a child.

At the center of the book are two couples living in Uxport, a suburb somewhere on the northwest side of Boston. Hallie and Mellon got married in college when she got pregnant, and their twins are about to head off to college. Sukey and Martin met and fell in love while experiencing Europe on $5 a day and, despite their very different interests and personalities, have a cozy little family with their young daughter, Binky. By the time the book is ended, they will all have been raked over the coals in one way or another and have managed, for the most part, to survive.

But what’s most memorable about The Passions of Uxport is not so much the story as the detours. The book is of moderate length–about 350 pages–but it reads like something twice the length. Kumin is comfortable with wandering away from center stage to spend time exploring the odd corners of the set, discovering the lives of the bit players, as in this aside, which appears in the midst of the most dramatic scene in the book:

(Later, Joan Mixter, whose maiden name had been Shadwell–it was a Shadwell who had founded the Et Ux Club and died at the age of eighty-three, choking on a fishbone at the annual Dry Fly banquet–confessed to the same confusion of sounds that had confounded Hallie. She had been standing in the next aisle over between the Pepperidge Farm cookies and the sesame cocktail crunchies when Ernie erupted, and although she had always known Harriet Peake was of Jewish extraction, hence rendering the otherwise impeccable Mellon ineligible for club membership, she was rooted to the floor in horror. A can of Strongheart live had thereupon grazed her shin, raising an ugly lump, but she was not one of those who rushed forward to subdue the poor mad soul. Yet the Shadwells were not unaccustomed to such outbursts, for Joan had had a twin whose youthful hallucinations involving the Virgin Mary had been held responsible for her early decline. When she pined away and died at the age of nineteen, her name, which had been Agatha, died with her until this day, when it flew back into Joan Mixter’s head. Poor Agatha! she thought with charity–the Agatha she had killed in hundreds of adolescent dreams until death had kindly come and done its own murdering.)

I am just in awe of this paragraph, which wanders all over the place, is funny and bizarre and touching, has nothing whatsoever to do with the main scene, yet manages to be more striking than it.

And also illustrates the problem with The Passion of Uxport: what is best about the book–most interesting, most unexpected, most moving–is not the story but the things that happen in the margins. Ernie and his roadkill epiphanies. Iris, the aging secretary Mellon has a one-night stand with. John Ventury, the construction site supervisor whose prescription glasses constantly remind him of all he yearned for when he was a poor and hungry kid. Aram Ramabedian, the dry cleaner whose heart is breaking over his dead wife and his mentally handicapped son. Even Hallie and Mellon’s dreams and fantasies are more interesting than their lives.

In other words, while The Passion of Uxport is not a particularly good novel, it is full of particularly good reading. In the end, that’s what matters more, anyway, but that’s also what guarantees a book will be dismissed by reviewers and quickly forgotten.

Which is why we shouldn’t let the reviewers make our decisions for us. You can miss the heart-broken dry cleaner and the saintly collector of run-over Irish setters.


The Passions of Uxport, by Maxine Kumin
New York: Harper and Row, 1968

Small World, by Carol Deschere (1951)

Cover of first edition of 'Small World' by Carol DeschereA long time ago (by the Internet clock), I mentioned the efforts of Karen DeCrow, one-time president of the National Organization for Women, to get a publisher interested in reissuing Small World, a 1951 novel written by Carol Deschere. DeCrow sent a letter to dozens of publishers, urging them to take another look at Deschere’s book. As DeCrow wrote,

Twelve years before publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963), Carol Deschere wrote a novel which could have spurred the feminist revolution, had enough women read it. In Small World, a simply written and simply plotted novel, Deschere tells us the story of a bright, educated, and cultured woman who leads the life of a middle-class housewife. Her husband is kind and generous, her children are intelligent and obedient, her home is stylish and comfortable.

Her world, however, is so small that it revolves totally around food, clothing, furniture, and an occasional outreach of interest to music, art, and literature. The novel takes place during one of the critical periods in American history: World War II had just ended, the alliances of nations in the world were dramatically shifting, capitalism as an economic system was being seriously questioned for the first time in a century, and the seeds of the Cold War period were being developed in the United States. Yet Kay Hiller, the hero of the novel, does not deal with these issues, despite the fact that she is both bright and intellectual.

Given my decision to focus on books by women this year, I didn’t hesitate when I spotted a copy of Small World for a little less than the starting price of $48 that I found back in 2008.

I have to confess that I felt a bit mislead by DeCrow’s take on the book. Yes, it’s true that this is a book about the life of a housewife–her home, family, and neighbors–with little sense of the big world beyond, but DeCrow seems to have found the book more interesting as an example of the limitations experienced by women like Deschere than as a piece of writing. In reality, if there is any tone that prevails in Small World, it’s one of joy, not frustration.

Small World is a thinly-fictionalized account of about ten years in the life of Deschere and her husband, Ralph Berendt. It follows the couple from their decision to move from New York City to Ithaca (more centrally located for Ralph’s work as a salesman for his family’s shoe company) and then to Syracuse, through their starting a family and encountering all the typical mishaps and misadventures of 1950s suburban life. The Saturday Review summed up the plot, such as it is, nicely: “We moved from New York City to Ithaca, where we kept house for a year with my husband’s brother and his wife, Lois, then we moved to Syracuse and Lois and I each had a baby, and then in a couple of years I had another, and we lived in several apartments and then we bought a house and the children went to school.”

If anything, it’s far more in the spirit of The Egg and I–or Lesley Conger’s Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, another domestic comedy by a woman of intellectual aspirations mentioned here a few months. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine a decent 50s comedy film being based on the book. What distinguishes this book isn’t the story or the post-historical context but simply the delightful voice of its narrator. I love the way the Saturday Review reviewer put it: “I read somewhere that it is a test of a lively imagination and a glib tongue to be able to expatiate for fifteen minutes on the characteristics of a billiard ball without pause and without repetition and to hold one’s listeners spellbound in the process. This, in effect, is what Carol Deschere does with her Small World.”

Deschere’s approach to telling a story is never straightforward and, occasionally, wanders so far afield as to never arrive at its intended conclusion. But with the right story-teller, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters. Here, for example, is how she introduces an episode about the family dog bringing home its first piece of roadkill:

I was in the cellar sorting a load of wash and putting it through the machine, a process which occupied only the hands, leaving the brain free to drowse a little. The pulsing rotation of the machine, like the rocking of a cradle, added its soothing in?uence. Doing the laundry was one of the pleasantest of household chores, with a robot assistant which could be summoned, like a genie out of a bottle, at my command. Paul had tried to explain to me how the Bendix worked, but, losing itself somewhere among the thermostats and timing elements, my mind had wandered off to the old Victrola we had had when I was a child. A man lived inside of it; his name was Caruso; he sang music with words you couldn’t understand, and that made it all right, somehow, for him to stay in that cabinet all the time. My thinking still ran along those lines; it was so simple to pretend there was a human activator concealed within the washing machine, a perfect laundress, who turned the faucets with strong, bony ?ngers, and tested the temperature with a sharp, swift elbow. She had a personality too, but it was so unvaryingly eficient I didn’t care to contemplate it. . . .

The machine began to drain itself of suds. Next door, a child’s wagon clattered down the porch steps, and I heard my neighbor call out, “Micky, on your way home from the park, stop at the store and get me the things on this list, of, and a pack of Camels, too.” Micky grumbled and the clatter dwindled down the street. My mind still dozed. These sounds were part of my habitat; they barely touched the surface of my consciousness.

By the time the dog shows up, we’ve long forgotten it was a story about him. In fact, the mutt kind of gets in the way of an otherwise respectable meander.

Yet, in deference to Karen DeCrow, one must acknowledge that there is a consistently feminist note that now and again rises to make itself heard:

Evelyn felt that she always had to appear at her super-best for the simple reason that, plain and unvarnished, she mightn’t be able to compete with her husband’s other interests, while we felt no such compulsion. Keeping herself and her house well-groomed was part of Evelyn’s job, and Harold praised her for it to pay off his own conscience. It wasn’t vanity at all; it was insecurity . . . and maybe it wasn’t exactly insecurity but a kind of guilt-edged security! Oh, we had really hit on something this time. The women’s magazines, always harping on the idea that a girl must look fresh as a daisy even if she was feeling like a piece of stinkweed, had put this thing on a national basis. Then there was insufficiency to consider, too. You made a full-time job out of housekeeping because that was easier than looking for something else to do; it was an out that society handed you, and the busier you kept yourself with furniture polish — and nail polish — the less time you had to fret over the fact that you weren’t doing anything else.

Carol Deschere’s most profound influence as a writer was not on other women, however, but on her son, John Berendt. Forty-some years later, he saw a book he had worked on for years, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, achieve spectacular success, earning a Pulitzer Prize nomination and spending over four years on The New York Times bestseller list. As he told an interviewer, “The book sold about 2,000 copies and, although my mother never wrote another book, Small World was a life-changing experience for me, because in addition to making me enormously proud of her, it showed me for the first time how real life could be transformed into words and stories and published in a book for all to read. It also planted the first seed in my mind that I might become a writer one day.”

Carol Deschere
Carol Deschere
The following appears on the back cover of Small World:

A Letter from the Author of Small World

I was born in New York city, and although I see no reason why the date should appear on the jacket of my book, I’m perfectly willing to confide to your files that it was April 13, 1915. When I was six, my parents reluctantly acted on their belief (now shared by me) that the city was not the best place in which to bring up children, so we moved to the nearest available “country,” which happened to be Westchester. I went to school in New Rochelle, and the ink on my high-school diploma was hardly dry when, my childhood being officially over, we moved back to New York.

I went to Hunter College–which I loved–and was graduated in 1933, having been married the year before. I can highly recommend the combination of going to school while learning to keep house, as it give the bride the properly casual attitude toward housewifery. (Another effect, however, may not be quite so wholesome. After sixteen years, I find myself still taking courses.)

We left New York in 1936, and have been living in Syracuse for years. The children, aged thirteen and eleven, have always had an enormous amount of civic pride, and we have finally caught a mild form of it from them. At least, we now regard Syracuse as home.

From the Syracuse Post-Standard, 20 May 1951:

syracusepoststandard21may1951


Finally, I must reproduce this early example of a publisher’s attempt to collect feedback, which was still securely nestled midway inside the immaculate copy of Small World that I received from thebooksend:

smallworldcard


Small World, by Carol Deschere
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951