In Praise of Free Ebooks: Two by Monica Dickens and One by Howard Spring

‘It was a real scroller. I couldn’t put down my screen.’

A headline caught my attention last month at The Guardian: ‘Ebooks are stupid’, says head of one of world’s biggest publishers.”  Arnaud Nourry, CEO of Hachette Livre,  told a publication in India:  “The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience.”

What a confusing description of the e-book!  If it’s “exactly the same as print,” why is it “stupid”?  The gist of the article is that e-books are unprofitable for publishers.

I love books, but I also love e-books.  Personally, I think the e-reader is a very “smart” product. We now enjoy access to out-of-print titles for free in e-book form at the Internet Archive.

Here are three stunning free e-books you can download at Internet Archive!  Monica Dickens and Howard Spring are two of my favorite middlebrow authors.

Two by Monica Dickens.

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens, a brilliant novelist and memoirist.

The heroine, Louise Bickford, a  57-year-old widow, is a superfluous woman.  She is unwanted, shunted from one daughter’s house to another’s. Her winters at  a friend’s hotel are equally stressful, because her friend moves her out of a nice room into an inconvenient  corner for the sake of a customer.  And then one day in London,  Louise is at a tea room and meets Gordon, a kind, obsese man who writes her  favorite pulp mysteries.  Their friendship inspires her to become more independent.  It takes time:   her daughters will not let her apply for a job at a department store.  The book is charming, realistic, and comical!

The Nightingales Are Singing by Monica Dickens.  Set in post-war London and Washington, D.C., this fascinating novel is part domestic comedy, part  analysis of a marriage.  The unmarried 34-year-old heroine, Christine, head saleswoman of the  book department at a department store, is known as “the estimable Miss Cope.” She “moved calmly about the alleys between the bright new paper jackets, knowing that book customers liked to take their time, unlike the thrusters who stampeded through the Notions with never a moment to spare.” She finally meets a man, an American naval commander who wants to marry her.  He gives her family much-appreciated food that Americans have access to.   Christine does not particularly like him but she does not want to end up like Aunt Jo, a spinster.  In Washington, D.C.  she must adjust to her  husband’s conservatism and a new culture.

Parts are screamingly funny.  When they move to a new house, Christine gets scammed by a charming vacuum cleaner salesman, but she insists  to her husband that the vacuum is first-rate.  She takes sewing lessons from a woman who cannot thread the machine. The marriage has ups and downs, sometimes comical, sometimes very sad.  Dickens has written an insightful domestic novel.

One by Howard Spring.

My Son, My Son by Howard Spring.  The Welsh writer Howard Spring wrote several spellbinding novels. In his brilliant, partly-autobiographial novel, My Son, My Son,  he explores the influence of a successful writer’s poverty-stricken childhood on his later relationships–especially the bond with his golden, tragically ruined son, Oliver.

In clear, simple prose, Spring relates this heart-rending story of filial love, success, and ruin.  The narrator, William Essex, is looking back at his life. His childhood was Dickensian:  his mother took in washing;  Bill was taunted and beaten up when he picked up the laundry bundles. When he is 12, a  minister, Mr. Oliver, teaches him to read and gives him a job. When Bill commences work as an office boy, he meets the most  faithful friends of his life: he rooms with the O’Riordans, who read Dickens aloud after dinner, and their son, Dermot, an Irish radical patriot who has never been to Ireland,  dreams of making handmade furniture as beautiful as that of William Morris.  Eventually, Bill marries for money and becomes a writer.  But when Dermot carves wooden toys for Bill’s son, Bill suggests they go into the toy business together.   And so both men make a fortune, and at the same time have time to perfect their arts, Bill in writing and Dermot in furniture-making.

Bill and Dermot want their sons to help them fulfill their fantasies, but Bill spoils Oliver, who becomes a liar, cheater, and general ne’er-do-well.  Dermot raises his son Roray as an Irish radial and perversely ships him to Ireland when he is in teens.

This well-written, well-crafted fast read creates a believable world–and, yes, it makes you cry, so be prepared to wallow!

Underrated: Monica Dickens’s Flowers on the Grass

Monica Dickens

One day, a decade or so ago,  I  discovered a scruffy paperback of Monica Dickens’s  The Heart of London at Half Price Books.  I was heartened by the discovery, because I’d had trouble finding a simpatico used bookstore, and this chain store stocked Mrs. Oliphant and other interesting middlebrow English novels (they disappeared when the store relocated).  The eccentric owner of the other used bookstore had whimsically refused to sell me Abdel Rahman Munif’s The Trench, the second book in the Cities of Salt trilogy.

“You won’t like it.”  “No, I will like it.”  “The first one is charming; this one isn’t.”  “No, it wasn’t charming, and I do want this book.” Was it because I was black?  (No, I’m white.)  Was it because I was a woman?  (Well, I am a woman.)  “Is he allowed not to sell you something in the store?”  a friend asked. He went out of business, which is a pity, because he had a good collection.

But my flight to the chain was indirectly responsible for my discovering Monica Dickens (1915-1992), so it was a good thing. Monica was Charles Dickens’s great-granddaughter and the author of many brilliant, entertaining, touching novels and memoirs, among them  Mariana (Persephone) and The Winds of Heaven (Persephone). Her memoir, One Pair of Hands, is a comic masterpiece about her experiences as a cook-general after she was kicked out of drama school.  Most of her books have been reissued as paperbacks and e-books by Bloomsbury Reader.

Recently I read her 1950 novel, Flowers on the Grass, in a battered red hardback, which says on the title page (and I’m not sure if it’s a stamp or printed):


I love this cover, though it is not the edition I have!

Does anyone know about this Book Club?

I absolutely love this novel. Dickens’s prose is witty, her characters vivid, the plot is deftly drawn, and I was moved by the events of the story. Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view but linked by the presence of Daniel, a charming, restless, capricious artist who never stays in one place long.  In eleven chapters we meet a landlady, a maid, a manipulative man with epilepsy, an unhappy student at a progressive school, nurses, and others. The bold Daniel, even when drunk, swearing, or obnoxious, has a good sense of humor.   And, yes, he has an interesting, if not always positive, effect on the other characters.

The first chapter, “Jane,” sets the tone and the chain of events in motion.  Jane, Daniel’s wife, pregnant with their first child, has persuaded  Daniel to settle down in a cottage in the country near London.  She has known Daniel since childhood–they are cousins–but he has had an itinerant, unstable life, expelled from Eton, exiled to the home of a great-aunt in Capri, and then going from one job to another in England.  During the war, he was a prisoner, and afterwards Jane soothes him and persuades him to marry her.  But they drift around London at first.

Dickens describes Daniel’s peripatetic tendencies  with compassion and perception.

In the self-contained university which grew up in the camp Daniel had discovered that he was a better teacher than he would ever be an artist.  Long ago in Naples he had suspected that he would never paint or design well enough to make a living, or even to please himself.  He admitted this now and found a job teaching architectural drawing and lecturing on Italian art at a technical college in Chelsea.  He and Jane lived up and down the King’s Road, hopping from room to horrid room, into a leaky flat and out again, like birds not knowing where to build their nest.

Jane unobtrusively stabilizes Daniel after she inherits enough money to buy the cottage. And he is very happy with the garden.  But a tragedy occurs: Jane is electrocuted by an electric kettle.  (A similar horrifying electrocution via a refrigerator happens to the character Stephanie in A. S. Byatt’s Still Life.  And, come to think of it, Stephanie’s husband is named Daniel, too.)  The loss of Jane sends Daniel drifting from place to place and job to job. He doesn’t fall apart on the surface, but he drinks and womanizes.

In the chapter called “Ossie,” a librarian named Ossie  is concerned about the effect of Jane’s death on Daniel. Daniel seems reckless, indifferent, and never talks about it; he  lives in a dirty boarding house.  Ossie, who was a buffoon both at school and Oxford and now collects bad jokes, suddenly organizes himself to move to the cottage to look after Daniel, but falls in loves with the countryside, finds a girlfriend,  and a new lease on life.  He learns he doesn’t have to play the buffoon.  But nothing lasts forever.  Daniel decides to move on, and Ossie, too, must start a new life.

In “Doris,”  the maid at a small hotel, Doris, finds Daniel charming, if eccentric, and helps him keep a dog illicitly in his room.  She also smuggles out his liquor bottles and undresses him when he passes out.   It’s only a matter of time till the hotel owner finds out.  Always a friend of the underdog, he helps Doris get her job back.

In “Valerie,” Daniel is working for an advertising firm. He enjoys the company of his sexy landlady, Valerie, a widow who humorously poses for his drawings for roles required by the products like laxatives and pep pills:  the sketches have titles like  the wife of The Man Who Lost His Job. But Daniel resents her domesticity,  especially her friendship with the repulsive, obsequious lodger, Mr. Piggott, because he wants all the attention himself..  There is a point where they talk of marriage, but somehow Valerie cannot.

I very much enjoyed this book.  Monica is such a skillful writer, somehow interspersing charm and humor with the real sorrow many of these characters experience.

And, just so you’ll know: Two  of Monica Dickens’ novels are  free at  the Internet Archive, The Winds of Heaven (which I wrote about at my blog in 2014) and The Nightingales Are Singing.

Why We Like Middle-Aged Heroines: Bridget Jones, Louise Bickford, and Julie de Carneilhan

Helen fielding bridget jones mad about the boyOne day a friend in her fifties, feeling confident and beautiful, walked along the beach wearing a bikini.  A young man came up behind her and then blanched when he saw her face.

“That’s when I knew I was middle-aged,” she said.

Many of us have moments like this, but we secretly remain confident, loving our crow’s feet, our gray hair, and our bodies.

And so a lot of us are laughing aloud at the moxie of Bridget in Helen Fielding’s new novel, Bridget Jones:  Mad About the Boy.

Bridget, 51, now a widow and a single mother, is attempting to get out of the house and meet men.  It is a jungle in clubs and on Twitter and she makes many faux pas.   She tells “Leatherjacketman,” a man she meets at a club, that she hasn’t had sex in four and a half years.  And when she is on a date with a younger man, he takes away her phone so she won’t tweet the whole date.

Reviewers hate this book, and why it should be reviewed in the first place–it’s light, it’s charming, it’s not literature–I do not know.  It is not a comedy in the class of, say, Cathleen Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Weissport, a retelling of Sense and Sensibility.  If reviewers expect Bridget to be a role model, they are not good readers.

Jen Chaney at The Washington Post says,

While parenthood and profound loss may have forced Bridget to grow up in some ways, she hasn’t grown up much. And that’s one of this novel’s key problems. Readers may expect a middle-aged woman who has dealt with such loss to have lowered her narcissism levels a tad. Not Bridget Jones . . . or, pardon me, ­@JonesyBJ.

Bridget is middle-aged, not dead.

Bridget is still in what I call the flirt zone, and that, too, is a problem for some reviewers.  One of Bridget’s suitors is 21 years younger, and of course we know it won’t last.  But, as Bridget points out, younger men like older women because they’re “refreshingly not looking to them to be bread-winners and not thinking about babies any more.”

And Bridget says of the fifties:

It used to be the age of Germaine Greer’s ‘Invisible Woman,’ branded as non-viable, post-menopausal sitcom fodder. But now with the Talitha school of branding combined with Kim Cattrall, Julianne and Demi Moore, etc., is all starting to change!

Well, Ashton left Demi…but I like Bridget’s viewpoint.

Reading about middle-aged women is empowering for those of us who are middle-aged.   Though women are believed not to age as well as men, that is probably a power thing:  we’re still doing everything we’ve always done, just as middle-aged men are.  And,  frankly, we  want to read about people our age now and then.  Young men and women can be…well…boring…if very sweet.

I have enjoyed other novels about aging women.

monica dickens 1 the winds of heavenIn Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven, Louise Bickford, a 57-year-old widow, spends part of each year living with each of her three daughters.  (Thank God I didn’t reproduce, though I’ll probably regret it in old age.)   She spends the winter at a hotel owned by a friend who doesn’t want her.

In London, which seems unbearably exciting and sophisticated to Louise, she waits in a tea room for her daughter, wishing she were more attractive.

“Louise was always much concerned with how people were thinking of her and summing her up; not knowing that a small, middle-aged woman with stubby features and hair no longer brown and not yet grey usually goes unnoticed.”

But she does attract Gordon, a fat mystery writer, whom she meets in a tea room.  She has read his books.  They become good friends.

And Louise gradually finds herself.  This is a charming comedy-drama, not great literature, but entertaining.

Of course Colette’s Julie de Carneilhan is great literature, not a pop novel.  Julie, the beautiful heroine, in her early forties, still regrets her divorce from her second husband, Herbert.  Her brother tells her that people will talk if she goes out partying with her younger boyfriend, Coco, while Herbert is very ill.

Julie asks, “Am I expected to put on mourning in advance for a man who was unfaithful to me for eight years and has been married again for another three?”

She is bitter but deeply cares for Herbert, and has a revelation when she visits him.  This is a graceful, lyrical novel about the consequences of divorce.

I’m always interested in “middle-aged” literature.  So what are your favorite books about middle age and old age?  (And I don’t mean that book about menopause that recommends we have an orgasm a day to stay healthy.  I’m still laughing about that.)