The Christmas season brings out the “middlebrow” in me.
The red pants. The artificial Christmas tree.
The cocoa. Well, Swiss Miss.
You would think I lived in a middlebrow novel.
I am thinking of Winifred Peck’s House-Bound. Like the heroine, I have a servant problem.
Tsk, tsk. I’m doing the housework myself. Such a bore. I mopped the kitchen floor three times (and it still looks grubby), baked gingerbread cookies (from a mix), and even polished the coffee table.
Now can I help it if I don’t know how to wax or polish?
How can I have a maid in if the house isn’t clean?
The cookies made me sick. I ate too many.
I hate Christmas carols. I’m listening to rock music.
And I plan to spend Christmas reading middlebrow novels.
I love middlebrow novels. I use the word ironically and affectionately. I think of well-written, astute novels by Pamela Frankau, which are not quite classics, but vivid and deftly-balanced; and Rumer Godden’s whimsically-stylized novels, with their many flashbacks. And I love the charming Frank Capra movie, It Happened One Night, based on a short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams, who is not a very good writer, but is very funny.
First up: Pamela Frankau’s Ask Me No More. This English writer’s novels are out-of print in the U.S. Easiest to find are the three Viragos: The Willow Cabin, A Wreath for the Enemy, and The Winged Horse. I have slowly been collecting Frankau’s work, and recently acquired a copy of Ask Me No More, a riveting theater novel with a Catholic theme. (Frankau was a Catholic convert.)
In this fascinating novel, Frankau portrays a group of characters involved with the theater. The most sympathetic is Alex Wharton, the wry, brilliant, super-competent secretary of Geoffrey Bliss, a playwright who is a pathological liar. He and Alex have been romantically involved for years, but he has other women friends.
And she doesn’t have a key to his house, though she works there.
Alex pressed the bell and waited. For nearly five years, she reflected, her employer had been saying, ‘You ought to have a latchkey,’ and then sighing as though fate were against it.
In the first chapter, we learn that she is his equal, really an advisor. When he reveals that his play in verse, Ludovic, which he’s tried to shop to theaters for six years, has finally found a producer and a theater, Alex and Geoffrey’s agent, Peter, are not thrilled: they know the play will flop. Gradually we learn that it is being produced by the rich husband of Geoffrey’s current lover, Perdita, so she can act the lead.
Perdita is a very spoiled wife who failed as an actress when she was young. She has no clue that Alex is Geoffrey’s lover. Alex figures out Perdita’s relationship to Geoffrey during one of Perdita’s phone calls.
The novel is divided into three parts, the Thirties, the Forties, and The Fifties. The Forties and Fifties are much better than the first part of the book, so hang on. Once into the Forties, I found Don’t Ask Me More impossible to put it down.
Although I am particularly fond of Alex, I like Perdita’s hissy fits. In Washington, D.C., in the ’40s, she receives a letter about Alex’s marriage. She is funny, but insightful.
Perdita, who had up till now been wrinkling her nose, felt better. The determinedly middle-class, British humorous note in Alex’s voice broke there. Perdita wasn’t sure what the last sentence implied; its hint seemed to be that Alex doubted the wisdom of the marriage. But it was at least more sympathetic than the clipped sentences of the rest. Alex’s letters, she thought, became more and more like the wartime pieces published by Englishwomen, describing desperate hours with a sunny meiosis.
In the last part of the novel, Ludo, Perdita’s son, plays a major role. He lies, steals, snoops: you name it. When he finally does a good deed…
Some of the characters are asked too much.
Well, I’ll let you read it.
Rumer Godden’s The Dark Horse is not a very good book: it is, however, very sweet. It would be a perfect gift for the horse lover in your life, along with National Velvet and Black Beauty.
In the 1930s, a millionaire buys the Dark Invader, a beautiful horse that has failed as a racehorse in England; the horse and his groom are shipped to India to be given a second chance. The groom, Ted, a jockey whose career was wrecked by alcoholism, reveals how the horse was ruined by a sadistic jockey. Ted is hired to stay in Calcutta with the horse; the Mother Superior of a nearby convent proves to be very horse-smart; and everybody finds redemption.
And then there’s Samuel Hopkins Adams ‘ Wanted: A Husband. (I found out about this courtesy of the blog Redeeming Qualities.)
This is a very charming, funny novel. Why wasn’t it made into a movie? Darcy’s roommates are having a double wedding. Darcy isn’t attractive, her roommates despise her, and she lies that she, too, is getting married–to an English lord! Her friend, Gloria, an actress, thinks it’s so hilarious that she takes Darcy in hand to turn her into beauty.
Gloria’s personal trainer soon has Darcy lifting weights and running through Central park; she becomes tough, strong, and confident. And when she takes off on a train to a hideaway for her “honeymoon,” Jacob Remsen, a handsome friend of Gloria’s, is on the same train. When Darcy’s roommates and their husbands show up , Darcy and Jacob pretends to be married.
Fun to read!
Free at Project Gutenberg.