Stella Gibbons’s Westwood

gibbons Westwood2-279x430It is easy to lose yourself in almost-classics.  You can become so absorbed in the engaging novels of Dodie Smith and Rumer Godden that you absent-mindedly forget to take a cake out of the oven, or. break a date to see Cake (an underrated movie with a very good performance by Jennifer Aniston).

Stella Gibbons is an equally compelling writer.

Best known for her satire Cold Comfort Farm, she wrote several other books that were reissued by Vintage Classics in 2011.  I recently read Gibbons’s The Rich House, a  warm, witty novel in which she describes the loves and losses of an ensemble cast of characters in a seaside town:  a pretty young bank clerk who is overshadowed by her actress sister, a fish shop clerk with a zest for geography, a library clerk who loses her job, a retired famous actor, a vain hotelier, and more.


Stella Gibbons

I have just finished Gibbons’s 1946 novel Westwood., and can scarcely express how much fun it was!  The narrative flows smoothly, there are some surprisingly poetic descriptions of London, and the characters are so odd and charming that one can’t wait to see what they will do next.

Set during World War II in a London beset by bombs and air raids, this engaging novel follows the fortunes of Margaret Steggles, a plain, earnest, talented if uninspired teacher who has found a new job in a school in London.  Teaching is not her vocation, though she is an expert at conveying knowledge to the young. She is thrilled to be moving from Lukeborough, but longs to do something more glamorous, perhaps get involved in the art scene.

Her adventures begin when she finds a ration book on Hampstead Heath that belongs to Hebe Niland.  Margaret wonders if Helbe is related to the famous artist, Alexander Niland, and when she returns the ration book, she learns that  Hebe is indeed his wife. Hebe immediately takes advantage of the awed Margaret by asking her to babysit for her two children until Grantey, Hebe’s old nurse, shows up.

Good-bye, Margaret Steggles, and don’t murder my children.  Good-bye, honeybunch,” said Mrs. Niland, addressing the baby.  Margaret smiled and tried to sound gay as she said, “Good-bye!” A second later she heard the door slam.  At the same instant the baby burst into tears.

Throughout the novel, Hebe takes advantage of Margaret by coercing her to do free child care.

Margaret is willing to be Hebe’s slave, because it turns out that she is the daughter of Gerard Challis, a famous playwright.  And the Challises live in a big house called Westwood, very near the house where Margaret lives (she can see it from her bedroom). She  meets the Challises, and befriends Zita, an excitable Jewish refugee maid who teaches Margaret about classical music.  The two young women spend many evenings in a sewing room listening to music on the radio.

Much of the attraction of Westwood has to do with glimpsing the handsome Mr. Challis from a distance or having brief encounters with him.  His wife is much more charming than he is.

And unbeknownst to Margaret Mr. Challis has “spiritual affairs” with beautiful young women, and is currently flirting with her best friend Hilda, who thinks it’s a scream that a man in his fifties has a crush on her and pays him very little attention.  Mr. Challis darkly wishes to run off to South America with her, but she is more interested in her soldier boyfriends.

Gibbons has a good time satirizing Mr. Challis’s new play, Kätte, a tragedy based on his conception that warm, affectionate Hilda is a man-eating monster:  Hilda doesn’t know Mr. Challis’s real name, but she declines to go to the play with him, telling him it sounds awful

And awful it is.  Gibbons writes:

For another two hours the tragedy of Kätte unfolded, marching towards its inevitable end over the souls and bodies of her friends and relations.  Her father shot her mother, for having borne him such a daughter, then jumped into the Danube.  Her crippled brother’s character was corrupted by the young officers who bribed him to carry notes to his sister for them and plead their cause, and he became a pimp.  Her younger sister went insane with jealousy when she believed that her own lover had deserted her for Kätte and the final blow was struck when the old nurse, with whom Kätte had lived since the break-up of her own home, was forced to sell her pet goldfinch to buy a little goulash for their supper…

Margaret is good with children but is getting a little tired of child care:  It seems to be her fate.   Coincidentally, there is a shadow house  of Westwood:    her father’s friend keeps his mentally handicapped daughter, Linda, in a sugary-looking Hans and Gretyl house called Westwood.  When the housekeeper is hurt in an air raid, he begs Margaret to take care of Linda. Margaret becomes fond of her, because she is an absolutely dear child.  (N.B.  I wondered if Margaret Drabble might have read this.  In The Pure Gold Child, she writes of a child like Linda.)  At one point Margaret thinks Linda’s father wants to marry her, but it is a false alarm:  he only wants to kiss her

Margaret hopes for romance, but she only gets kisses. At a wild party at the Challises, she ends up on the roof kissing two men.  And after learning about manners and dress at Westwood, she has become not only prettier but easier in her manner and a better teacher.

This is not the kind of comedy that ends in marriage.  Of course she would like to marry, but she has friends, kisses, and a career.

This is a very satisfying, entertaining novel.  I can’t wait to read more Gibbons.

Why We Can’t Talk Like a Nancy Mitford Novel

Megan Dodds and Rosamund Pike in the 2001 BBC adaptation of Love In A Cold Climate

Megan Dodds and Rosamund Pike in the 2001 BBC adaptation of Love In A Cold Climate

Be a love and take them to see a Roman ruin or something…”–Linda Radlett in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate

Do  Amecian Angophiles wonder why they cannot converse in the flippant style of the charming characters of Nancy Mitford, Angela Thirkell, Stella Gibbons, and Evelyn Waugh?

We Americans of the 21st century simply could not keep up the level of discourse.

Perhaps the British couldn’t keep up these days, either.

I have been reading a lot of what my cousin calls Brideshead Revisited.  And she doesn’t necessarily mean Waugh.

gibbons Westwood2-279x430Take  Stella Gibbons’s charming novels.  Her books are  very readable and witty, if not quite classics, and  I have been admiring the dialogue.

In Westwood,  Serena, the vague and charming wife of a pompous playwright, rebukes her husband for calling their beloved nanny, Grantey, a slave.  She says he should be nicer, and that before their marriage, he was “such a pet, always wanting to improve my mind.”

“Well, you must remember all those alarming books you unloaded on me…I did try… only somehow there was never any time for anything, there never has been, has there?–ever since we got married.  It’s years since we really let our back hair down and had a good long talk like this, isn’t it?  Look here…I’m supposed to be dining with the Massinghams tonight, and it’s after six now…”

I love the way she goes on her merry way to dinner, after trying gently to mitigate his callousness.

Nancy Mitford love.cold.climateIn Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, the heroine, Linda Radlett, is hilarious when she marries a Communist. She works in the Red bookshop on weekends so Comrade Boris, the manager, can get drunk, and she substitutes favorite books like The Making of a Marchioness for Karl Marx:  The Formative Years.  But it is not the most comfortable life, she admits

You know, being a Conservative is much more restful,” Linda said to me  once in a moment  of confidence, when she was being unusually frank about her life, “though one must remember that it is bad, not good.  But it does take place within certain hours, and then finish, whereas Communism seems to take up all one’s life.”

If only  Linda had been with us in our left-wing days in the ’70s, she would  have voiced witty insights on the discomfort of consciousness-raising groups and  bulgur-and-spinach takeout from the food co-op.

cheerfulness breaks in angela thirkell H10620_f0a45a96979920fc54bb6af21cb18a1dAngela Thirkell, whose charming novels are back in print, is ceaselessly funny.  Her long passages of absurd indirect statement are more comical than her dialogue, but she does banter very well.

In Cheerfulness Breaks In, Lydia is exasperated at her ditzy sister Rose’s wedding and hands her  her bag at the reception.

You can stick on some more powder and lipstick if you like, but I think you’ve quite enough, don’t you, John?”

“Don’t be so dispiriting,” said Rose, “and this lipstick doesn’t come off anyway.”

“I should think not,” said her husband.  “I wouldn’t let you put it on if it did.  That’s enough, Lydia.  Take it away.”

Brideshead revisited waugh 9780241951613Evelyn Waugh’s satires are hilarious, but we know him best for Brideshead Revisited.  It started, of course, with the BBC series starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, and Diana Quick in 1981.   I have read the book several times.

In Waugh’s great Catholic novel, the narrator, Charles Ryder, becomes friends with the Catholic aristocrat Sebastian Flyte at Oxford; later he falls in love with Sebastian’s sister, Julia. At Oxford, the charming Sebastian carries his teddy bear, Aloysius, everywhere.  Aristocrats are always so eccentric, aren’t they?

At first Charles thinks Catholicism is very silly.  He asks if Sebastian believes in prayer, and Sebastian assures him that he does.

Don’t you remember last term when took Aloysius and left him behind I didn’t know where?  I prayed like mad to St. Anthony of Padua that morning, and immediately after lunch there was Mr. Nichols at Canterbury Gate with Aloysius in his arms, saying I’d left him in his cab.”

It’s no wonder that we Americans can’t talk like a character in an English novel.  Nancy Mitford was one of the Bright Young People, Angela Thirkell was the granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, Evelyn Waugh was a Bright Young Person and a very good friend of Nancy Mitford’s, Aldous Huxley was the grandson of the zoologist Thomas Huxley, and only Stella Gibbons, the daughter of a London doctor, seems to have had an ordinary family.

I regret to say that i never knew anyone with a teddy bear at my lovely Big Ten Schools.

What are your favorite witty English novels?

The Crush in Literature: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines & Charlotte Bronte’s Villette

woman yawning at typewriter 1551_2

What would we have done without our crushes when we were young women? (And may those days never come again.)

In our thirties when we were freelance writers, we worked in our pajamas at home and did phone interviews between loads of laundry.  Charming editors persuaded us to write  stories that involved long bus rides, multiple interviews, and long days of writing. The fee probably worked out to $3 an hour:  less with typewriter ribbons.  Crush away: it motivated us, though it would not be profitable.

The crush is also significant in literature.

the philistines pamela hansford johnson 51Nrm0P8kwLIn Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines, a crush lifts the heroine, Gwen, an unhappy housewife, above the tedium of life in Branley (a kind of anti-Cranford) with her boyish banker husband, Clifford, his gloomy invalid mother, and irritable unmarried sister, Evelyn. Clifford  is a beefy, jovial conformist, proud of his “intellectual” wife.   During World War II when Clifford is away,  Gwen works at a hospital and flirts with Paul, a doctor. Her crush is so intense that she sends her son to boarding school so she will have time to have an affair.  The affair, of course, never happens.

But Gwen needs her crush.

One of their first conversations is about reading. The smug, domineering Paul

…interrogated her swiftly, searching, probing, and unsmiling.  “Villette?  Better than Jane Eyre?  But why?”

“She knew more, then.”

Gwen is right:   Charlotte Bronte did know more then. In Jane Eyre, she gives Jane the husband she wants, albeit he is crippled first.   In Villette, Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece, the heroine, Lucy Snowe, does not get the man she wants:  she falls in love with Doctor Graham, who doesn’t really notice her and loves someone else. Paul, an unattractive,  misogynistic Belgian teacher falls in love with Lucy.

In The Philistines, Paul is a blend of Graham and Paul: like Bronte’s Graham,  he likes Gwen but doesn’t love her; and, like Bronte’s Paul, he interrogates her.

Branley is a cruel, gossipy town. Branley disapproves of Gwen’s best friend fortysomething Pamela’s engagement to a younger man, Gerry.  At the club, Clifford plays a prank that ruins Pamela’s life.   In a game of Blind Man’s Bluff, he leads a nubile 22-year-oldwoman, Phoebe, to the blindfolded Gerry Fenner, Pamela’s fiance, whose hands are all over Phoebe.  When the blindfold is removed, Gerry is stunned by her beauty. Shortly thereafter he breaks off his engagement to Pamela and marries Phoebe.  Pamela commits suicide.

Here is what you do not want to hear when you tell someone you’re in love with him.  Paul’s response to Gwen is:

My dear,” he said at last, in a tentative, kindly voice, “you and I are different people.  You;re a romantic:  I’m not. I can’t help feeling that all this, to you, hasn’t been much more than a peg on which to hang the idea of love.”

Gwen creates a new life for herself and her son with courage, intelligence, and grace.  Love has not been kind, but it might come again.

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines & The Book-Buying Habits of Bloggers

Bernadette (Kathy Baker) reading "Emma" in "The Jane Austen Book Club"

Bernadette (Kathy Baker) reading “Emma” in “The Jane Austen Book Club”

Book bloggers are an intense bunch.  Think of all that writing with no reward except to share our avidity for reading.

I was thinking about the act of book-blogging because it is  National Readathon Day, a pro-literacy event sponsored by The National Book Foundation, Penguin Random House, Goodreads, and Mashable

I was busy during official readathon hours, but  I made up for it later.  I finished Pamela Hansford Johnson’s remarkable novel, The Philistines, an exploration of the psychology of an unhappy woman who marries a suburban banker after she realizes she has no talent for writing.  Her mother, an artistic widow, is appalled.

What else should I do?  I have no future.”

“There’ll be something…something.”

“Oh, something!” Gwen cried, with a bitterness that made her instantly ashamed.

the philistines pamela hansford johnson 51Nrm0P8kwLFrom the beginning, we understand that unconventional Gwen is headed for disaster.  She and Clifford live with his  mother and sister, and never move into their own place.. Motherhood does not fulfill her, and the social life at the club is monotonous.  She develops a crush on a doctor, and it is not returned. She fantasizes about him for years.. I was struck by the intensity of the crush, an emoition so common among women in their thirties, yet largely unwritten about in novels. Perhaps romance is more exciting, but how many women actually sustain themselves by fantasies ? More on this next week.

Johnson always breaks taboos by delving into forbidden psychological territory.


There is a new trend among book bloggers:  we say at the beginning of every year we are going to read only from our shelves.

We are going to be like Susan Hill in Howards End Is on the Landing, a wonderful book about her reading  from her home bookshelves for a year.

That’s what I say I’ll do, and I do read from my shelves, but book-buying is where my materialism comes in.  And I recently made a very interesting discovery :   I can get very cheap used books if I settle for “good” instead of “very good” or “like new” condition.

At our house it is very like a ’60s sitcom when books arrive in the mail on weekends.  I wish I were like Samantha in “Bewitched” and could twitch my nose and make the books disappear.   Today my husband intercepted four packages.  “Is it your birthday?”

I have very good reasons for buying these books, as he  shortly learned.  I had to replace my copy of A Dance to the Music of Time, Second Movement, because it fell apart while I was addictively rereading  Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant.

I swore I couldn’t get it at the library.

And so now I am done buying books.  For the year.

We’ll see!

Nancy Drew & the Mystery of the LRB

I recently received a copy of the London Review of Books.

London Review of Books cov3701It must be a sample copy, I thought.  Only there were no subscription cards inside.

I scanned the Table of Contents and turned to Jenni Diski’s “Doris and Me,” an engrossing essay about her life as a teenager at Doris Lessing’s house.

And then I forgot all about it.

Yesterday a second issue  arrived.

The label on the plastic wrapper says I have a three-year subscription.

Very mysterious.

Oddly, it is addressed to me under my nickname, not my formal “subscription” name.

“Does it have anything to do with your blog?”  my husband teased me.

I burst out laughing.

The situation reminds me of the plot of the Nancy Drew book, Nancy’s Mysterious Letter, which I read when I was nine.

Nancy's Mysterious Letter old drew8blue4On the opening page the postman brings a letter.

Hello, Nancy,” he said. “…Lots of letters today. There’s one in the bottom of my bag for you. It was sent air mail from London, England.”

The  letter says Nancy is an heiress, only it turns out another Nancy Drew is the heiress.  So maybe I’m getting an LRB that is supposed to go to another me?

Since it first arrived a few weeks ago, I have been bombarded with offers of subscriptions to book review publications.

The TLS wants me to subscribe. I already do.

Poets & Writers offered me a deal and enclosed a gift of the tinest notepad in existence.

The New York Review of Books would like to pile up unread on our porch.

What would Nancy Drew do?

I’m sure there would be phone calls, letters, interviews, instagrams (whatever instagrams are).

I’ll just read the LRB instead.

Karen E. Bender’s Refund

Karen E. Bender Refund book-refund-storiesThe theme of money unifies Karen E. Bender’s extraordinary new collection of short stories, Refund.

In her brilliant 2013 novel, A Town of Empty Rooms, a Jewish family must relocate to the South after the grief-stricken heroine, Serena, shattered by her father’s death, charges $8,000 of jewelry on the company charge card. Like Serena, the impecunious characters in Refund are too confused, exhausted, and overworked to find security in poorly-paid jobs. In these wrenchingly realistic short stories, people barely get by as they miserably struggle to provide for their families.

Bender’s style is forceful but simple as she shares her ironic, compassionate insights into money, security, and family life.

In “The Third Child,” Bender describes the numbness of family life after the Goldmans move to a small city in South Carolina where they can afford a house and car.  When Jane Goldman, a freelance editor for technical manuals, gets pregnant with a third child, she decides to have an abortion.  The financial responsiblity and love and boredom of raising the two children they already have is enough. And in a way she has a third child:  their eight-year-old neighbor, Mary Grace, the daughter of Baptists, is the only person who ever knocks on their door.

Jane’s view of the neighborhood and family from the front porch is humorous and compassionate.

The screaming was the sound of children protesting everything:  eating, bathing, sharing toys, going to sleep….  This was her life now, at forty.  She had married a man whom she admired and loved, and after the initial confusion of early marriage–the fact that they betrayed the other simply by being themselves–they fell into the exhausting momentum that was their lives.

Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender

Bender’s characters have to be flexible in their work and their expectations..  In the title story, “Refund,” one of the best 9-11 stories I have read, two artists realize that their art is an extravagance. Clarissa and Josh are almost 40, they are soon to lose their rent-controlled apartment, and they realize they need full-time jobs. Clarissa suddenly wants to send their son to an elite pre-school, Rainbows ($10,000 a year). How can they afford it? How can they pay their bills? They find teaching jobs for three weeks at a university in Virginia and sublet their apartment in Tribeca near the World Trade Center to a Canadian woman, Kim. But they are away on 9-11, and when they return,  Kim sends them crazy letters saying she wants a full refund. While ash and dust coat their neighborhood, Josh finds a full-time job, Clarissa discovers the shallowness of the  mothers at the pre-school, and learns that Kim’s plight is not as simple as it seems. All of them could use a refund, whether of the monetary or emotional kind.

Many of Bender’s characters are similarly beleaguered by violence. In “The Sea Turtle Hospital,” the narrator, a teaching assistant in a kindergarten class, describes the experience of being in lockdown when a shooter invades the school.  Most of the teachers are poorly-paid and work a second job to survive; but now survival seems unlikely as they listen to the unidentified noises in the school. The police tell the children to close their eyes and walk  with their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them down the hall, but most of them see the tracks in blood and their dead principal .. The narrator comforts herself by taking a student to see wounded sea turtles at a “sea turtle hospital.”  When they return to Keisha’s neighborhood, the police are there because they feared more violence.

In “Reunion,” the narrator, Anna Green, attends her 20-year high school reunion to distribute business cards for her failing home appliance repair business.  One of her classmates takes out a gun and starts shooting, and Anna’s now obese ex-boyfriend, Warren, a realtor, leads her out.  She doesn’t immediately tell her husband, a social worker who is having a small breakdown and lending money to his clients.  Unable to pay the bills and concerned that their daughter refuses to sleep, Anna escapes her life by visiting Warren in his shoddy office, and is so confused she buys a property from him.

One of the stories, “Anything for Money,” is about ostentatious wealth. Lenny Weiss is the host of the game show “Anything for Money.”  His guests must  humiliate themselves for money: singing in a phone booth filled with bugs, etc..  Lenny  came up with the concept for the show when his daughter had an ear infection and he had no money to take her to the doctor.  Years later, there is a parallel situation when his grandchild comes to visit while her mother is in rehab.  She steals meaningless personal objects so she feels she is in control and can reconstruct people’s stories.  When she becomes ill, Lenny’s money cannot help her.

The arrangement of the stories in a collection is important, and I have one criticism.    Two of the showier stories, “Anything for Money” and “Theft”  are anomalous, yet appear near the beginning of the book. Perhaps one of the more effective stories about lower middle-class people struggling. would have worked better there.  Overall these stories are almost as connected as chapters of a novel.

I loved reading Refund .  It made me question how  people end  up living in houses in developments with thin walls “slapped together with drywall and paste” and “the bullish SUVs parked in the driveways, testament of dreams of safety and endless oil.”  Well, it’s because they have nowhere better to go, and they’re afraid, yes?  Bender doesn’t despise these people, but she doesn’t want to be where they are.  Nor do her characters.

Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Stella Gibbons’s The Rich House & Mary Webb’s The House in Dormer Forest

The Rich House by Stella Gibbons 11100036

I like nothing better than to spend an afternoon reading a solid, well-crafted middlebrow novel.

Stella Gibbons won the Prix Femina Étranger for her masterpiece, Cold Comfort Farm, an extremely funny portrait of rural life that satirizes the “loam-and-lovechild” books of Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Mary Webb, and Sheila Kaye-Smith. Her 1941 novel, The Rich House, takes a different tack: this delightful comedy centers on the love and work of an ensemble cast of characters in a seaside town in England. I especially like the brief sketches of their jobs in the theater, shops, a bank, a library, and a hotel.  

This hugely enjoyable, character-driven novel begins with Mrs. Pask, a 70-year-old woman, looking out her window on a winter night into the lighted shops across the street.

She knows that Reenie Voles, the fat cashier at the fish shop, is impatient to leave work because she must shop every night for food. Reenie lives with her mother, and food is the main object of their lives.  The descriptions of their eating, eating, eating every evening, all evening, is  grotesque and comical, but Reenie proves to be one of the kindest and most adventurous characters.

Stella Gibbons

Stella Gibbons

Mrs. Pask is also interested in Pauline Williams, who lives with her mother and rather chilly actress sister, Marjorie.  That night Pauline is on her way to change her mother’s library book.

Here is a sample of Gibbons’s humor, a priceless description of Pauline’s mother’s  divergence from the standard taste in library books.

Pauline’s mother always said that she liked a nice story with plenty of descriptions and nothing disgusting and a happy ending, only not too ridiculous; nevertheless, Pauline had almost insensitively observed that  her mother seemed to read a good many books that were described by The North Essex Advertiser (if it ever got around to reviewing them) as Outspoken.

Gibbons in The Rich House portrays characters of all classes.  Working at the library desk is Mavis, the Pretty Fair Girl, as Pauline thinks of her, a quiet working-class woman who rents a room from Reenie Voles’ mother.  She sings in the church choir and daydreams about a fellow singer, and perhaps the daydreams are sparked by the fact that she has so little money she can barely afford to eat.  When she loses her job, her panic and terror are harrowing. In fact, I have never read such a nightmarish description of unemployment.   (Even if we’re not working-class, we women in liberal arts know what it is to totter on the brink of poverty.)

There are also men in the novel.  Ted has been raised by his grandfather, the famous actor Archibald Early, and lives in what Pauline and her sister used to call “the Rich House,” a big, cozy nest of clutter, fading furniture,  and visiting eccentric retired actors and their dogs.   Ted naively wants to be a professional cricketer, but after studying acting in Paris returns a changed, charming man.

Dutiful Eric lives with his parents, works in a bank, and sings in the church choir with Mavis.  But he has a secret life:  he is recovering from a  miserable five-year affair with a sadistic woman, and soon falls in love with the actress Marjorie, Pauline’s cold sister, who intends to use him and then drop him.  It never occurs to him that Mavis in love with him.

The novel is rather theatrical, as befits a novel with several characters in the theater..  It reminds me very slightly of my favorite Dodie Smith novel,  The New Moon with the Old.  (Indeed, Dodie Smith’s play, Dear Octopus, is mentioned in The Rich House.) 

The Rich House is a fast, very good read, one of my favorites of the year so far (not that the year has progressed very far).

The House in Dormer Forest mary webb 1983768Mary Webb’s witty, moving novel, Precious Bane, narrated by a smart young woman who believes herself incapable of winning love because she is disfigured by a harelip,  is a classic. But  I may be going too far when I  contend that Webb’s third novel,The House in Dormer Forest, is well-worth reading.  It is intriguing, if desperately uneven.

It may be just for Webb’s fans.

Precious Bane is beautifully written. In The House in Dormer Forest, there are many overwritten poetic descriptions.  On page 3 we have:

The upper wood had never known the shuddering horror of the axe, the bitter and incurable destruction of the day when gnomes of ugly aspect are let loose with flashing wepons.  among the haughty sons and daughters of the gods, hacking and tearing at the steadfast forms of beauty, until beautiy itself seemed to have crashed earthwards.


Michelle Barale, In the introduction to the Virago edition, declares that  Webb is not only a rural writer but also a writer who focuses on women’s lives.

Mary Webb is, I would suggest, a most bleak feminist for she seems to find no possible solution for the process of victimization, by society or self, within social institutions.  A relationship of love and equality is possible only beyond social boundaries:  within there is either worship or rape, use or abuse

MaryWebbPosterSmallRGBI don’t see this as a feminist novel, but I do care  deeply about the fortunes of young, sprightly Amber Darke..

Webb relates the story of three generations of the Darke Family.  (Yes, that truly is their name.)  The older generations at Dormer Old House are decidedly gloomy and demoic: the witchy, religious hag, Grandmother, her  insensitive son, Solomon Darke and his silent, disapproving wife, Rachel. But Solomon and Rachel’s grown children are genial:  Peter is a womanizer but not a seducer; Jasper, the idealistic atheist, returned from school because he refused to study to be a minister: Ruby, a pretty girl, is luckily engaged so has distractions from the bleakness of the society at Dormer Old House; and Amber, the only one with a sense of humor, has no qualms about going after love when she finally meets a man she likes.

At  the center is a gorgeous, if rather stick-figure-ish villainess, Cousin Catherine, who is determined to win the desire of men just to make as much mischief as she can.  Ruining lives is her hobby.

I love Webb’s witty dialogue.   Before Amber’s simple wedding,  Mrs. Gosling, the cook, has this to say:

Ah Sarah!…a wedding, when it is a wedding, takes the eye!  With the half-dozen bridesmaids giggling, the mothers fighting each the other like wild cats, the bridegroom champing to be off (ours champed terrible when I was wed.  A meek manner had ours, but a great sperrit).  There’s bridegroom hollering for a coachman; and coachman lashing up, very fresh; and even parson a bit fresh–leastways in the old days.  But this!  No champing, no maids and men, no coachman, and nobody fresh!  Give me a funeral!

If I lived in England, I undoubtedly would walk on Lyth Hill in Shropshire.

One of these days I plan to bask in a big Mary Webb reread.

Wild in the Streets and My Mother and the Kennedys

Wild_in_the_streets_dvd_coverI was 11 in the summer of 1968. My friend and I hanged Barbie and Skipper from the proscenium arch in my Barbie Little Theater, read Tiger Beat, and saw the movie Wild in the Streets.

Was it my imagination, or were we more confused than usual?

It was a year of social unrest.  On January 5, Dr. Benjamin Spock and three other men were indicted on charges of conspiracy to counsel evasion of draft.  On January 31, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive.   On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Then Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated on June 5.

This last was most shocking to my Catholic family, who had regarded JFK’s presidency as a triumph over prejudice against Catholics and had deeply admired Robert and believed he would be president.  For days and days we watched the bleak TV coverage of the assassination.

Robert Kennedy for president test257_1The Kennedys were the most glamorous figures of my childhood.  My mother, a political science major, adored them.  When I was six, she gave me Jackie and Caroline paper dolls.  We watched the special on CBS where Jackie Kennedy gave a tour of the White House.  I grew up with Caroline and John-John.  There were pictures of the Kennedys playing football in Life and Look.

A few days after the assassination, my family gathered at the building site of my aunt and uncle’s new house.  Mill and throng, drink Kool-Aid out of a thermos, walk around looking at the boards, and talk about the CIA conspiracy theories.

There was some tension between my aunt and my mother, though both were  mourning Robert Kennedy. It may have been my aunt’s complaint that she was “mad at” my uncle (my mother’s brother) for getting her pregnant again.  More likely it was about fashion.  My very pregnant aunt wore short shorts.

Women shouldn’t wear shorts, my mother told me later.  Women’s knees look terrible after 30, she added disapprovingly.  I never looked at anyone’s knees.  Later, in my thirties, I wore miniskirts from the Gap.  Perhaps my knees were not the best.  I still wear shorts on my bike.  I do wear slacks or capris to the mall, though.  My mother would be proud.

Throughout her life my mother stuck to her “women-shouldn’t-wear-shorts” rule and collected  books and magazines by and about the Kennedys.

After her death, I didn’t know what to do with the books and magazines.  Some of them are good; some of them are not. There is a whole People magazine devoted to the death of John Kennedy, Jr.  I do not think we needed a magazine about that tragedy.

Galsworthy’s The Man of Property (The Forsyte Saga, Volume 1)

Forsyte Saga Penguin NewKaren at Kaggsysbookishramblings has embarked on a year-long reading of Nobel Prize winner John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga with Heavenali and some other bloggers.

I very much approve, because I am a Galsworthy fanatic.  And so I am “reposting” my thoughts about The Man of Property from my old blog in 2012.

John Galsworthy’s work has pretty much died out except for The Forsyte Saga, a series of three trilogies, The Forsyte Saga, A Modern Comedy, and The End of the Chapter.  There was a wonderful BBC series of The Forsyte Saga in the late ’60s, and another very good Granada series in 2002.

John-Galsworthy-The-Man-of-Property-The-Forsyte-Chronicles-1_1Each time I read The Man of Property, I consider it from different points of view.

Galsworthy’s Forsytes are an upper-middle-class family who are smug about their success as lawyers, real estate agents, and merchants.  They do what is expected of them–they eat mutton for dinner, chat about their money, and don’t get divorced.

Galsworthy writes,

Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight–an upper middle-class family in full plumage.  But whosoever of these favoured persons has possessed the gift of psychological analysis (a talent without monetary value and properly ignored by the Forsytes), has witnessed a spectacle, not only delightful in itself, but illustrative of an obscure human problem.  In plainer words, he has gleaned from a gathering of this family–no branch of which had a liking for the other, between no three members of whom existed anything worthy of the name of sympathy–evidence of that mysterious concrete tenacity which renders a family so formidable a unit of society, so clear a reproduction of society in miniature.

At the center of The Man of Property is the triangle of Soames Forsyte, his wife Irene, and the architect Bosinney.  Soames is the quintessential Forsyte, a lawyer with a strong sense of property who collects art, and that includes his wife Irene.  She does not love him; she asked when they get married that he free her if it didn’t work out.  He pretends not to remember this. He believes she will eventually love him.  And after he hires Bosinney, the fiance of his cousin June, to design a house for him in the country, he pretends not to notice the growing friendship between Irene and Bosinney.
The scandal burgeons.  The other Forsytes notice.  But they keep the scandal in the family.  They will not admit that a marriage can fail.

Another Forsyte marriage has failed.  Young Jolyon, an artist, the son of Old Jolyon Forsyte, a tea merchant, left his wife and daughter June 15 years ago to live with the governess, and eventually married her.  The Forsytes have ostracized him for 15 years.  Old Jolyon has raised June.

After June’s engaggement to Bosinney, Old Jolyon makes peace with Young Jolyon.  And he rages against the Forsytes for keeping him and his son apart for 15 years.

I love Old Jolyon.

The first time I read this, I was completely bowled over by the relationship of Irene and Bosinney.  They deserved to be together, and the obstacles are tragic.

June Forsyte

June (June Barry) & Bosinney (John Bennett) in the Granads “Forsyte Saga.”

But as time goes on I think more of June, the young woman who helps “lame ducks,” and is drawn to Bosinney because of his talent and poverty.  June is so much in love with him that she tries to help him by suggesting at a dinner that the Forsytes hire him to build country houses. It backfires.

Then the engagement breaks off, without anyone’s saying anything definite, and much suffering on June’s part, after Bosinney falls in love with Irene. June is devastated, because Irene was her best friend.

One of the saddest things in the novel is when she sees Bosinney in the street and he doffs his hat without saying anything to her.

June flourishes in later Forsyte novels, but her life was partly wrecked by the wrecked romance.

She is a more interesting character than the beautiful, mysterious Irene, but perhaps only to women…  Galsworthy has his own point of view, and had an affair with his cousin’s wife, Ada; after her divorce, she and Galsworthy married and stayed together till his death.

eric porter as soames-in-overcoat

Eric Porter as Soames.

It is impossible to like Soames, but one feels sympathy for him.  He loves art and literature, but if it’s not worth money, he doesn’t know what to do with it. There is a missing link in him.

This is a very, very sad novel in many ways.

Love is hard, often heart-rending, and Galsworthy knows it.

Blame It on the Editor: A Latin Nerd Finds Errors



I constantly find Latin errors in English books.

I am not the kind of person who pounces on typos and sends in corrections to The New Yorker. I do not particularly care to show up a writer or editor.  As a woman in classics in the ’70s and ’80s, I learned to underplay my hand with  insecure colleagues who were upset by my talent for classical languages, furious about their own failures, or just misogynists. Whether or not publishing is as male-dominated as classics used to be, it is a jittery business.  But I am such a nerd: Latin errors leap off the page at me. I am a reincarnated Roman or something. And, I must confess, I read a lot of Latin poetry.

For eleven years I was a hipster nerd Latin teacher.

This prepared me for a life of finding Latin errors.

I prepared my students for the life, too.

  • They had to diagram sentences and identify every grammatical construction in a sentence
  • They had to translate.
  • They had to sight-read and scan dactylic hexameter at sight.
  • They had to identify figures of speech.
  • They had to identify famous quotations from Virgil, Catullus, and Ovid.
  • They had to memorize poetry.

My first experience in finding a  Latin error in a book was in 1983 when I read Paul Fussell’s very amusing book, Class: A Guide through the American Class System. I gave my students  extra credit on a quiz for identifying the error. (They were delighted.)  And I wrote a letter to Fussell in the belief that he would want to correct the error in the paperback edition.

He wrote back saying he doubted the error would be corrected.

Latin errors do not seem to occur in books published, say, before 1960.  After that the errors proliferate.  One of my favorite books In 2009 was A. S. Byatt’s brilliant novel, The Children’s Book, (Vintage, the UK edition).  You guessed it, I found an error.

Gratias tibi agimus, omnipotens Deus, pro his et omnis donis tuis.  (“We thank you, all-powerful God, for these and all your gifts.”)

See the word omnis (third from the end)?  That ending should be -ibus, not –is, The word is omnibus. Yes, it’s the ablative plural of a 3rd-declension adjective.  I didn’t write to Byatt, but I did mention it on my  old blog.  Perhaps the ending was  corrected for the American edition? Probably not.

I have found many errors over the years.  I note them neatly in the back of the books.  I just found a Latin error tonight in the Dalkey Archives edition of Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay.

There is a typo in the quote  from Catullus’s famous poem 5:

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amenus

It means:  “Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love.”

In the word amenus, the “n” should be “m”:  amemus (“let us love”).  The ending -mus means “we” (it is a first person plural ending).

I’m sure that some of you find errors in modern books, too.  What are they?