She has become very fastidious and Jane Austen-ish again ... {Margaret Kennedy, Lucy Carmichael}

June 26, 2016

For today....

Childe Hassam, 'Twenty-Six Of June, Old Lyme' (1912)

June 25, 2016

Max Gate

      Meanwhile, at Max Gate, we are waiting, trying to live the normal day. But if everyone in a house gets up and yet there's still one who can't, then it's impossible. ...      
I don't remember where I first heard about Max Gate, the novel, but there were pictures of Max Gate, the house, in The Writer's Garden, and books with houses always draw me in. Or maybe I'm just convinced that fictionalized lives have a place in my my reading life. :) In any event, I was very happy to be offered an advance copy from Gallic Books, via NetGalley.  
     Look up on the doorstep before going in and what do we see? Red bricks, bushy creepers, tangled ivy. Windows chopped into small panes. It's a fine house, respectable, hard to clean, cold, damp, cold. Mr. Hardy doesn't believe in conveniences. He's old-fashioned. Or just old -- yet he was always this way. His father and brother made the house, he liked to say this often, touching the brick. Proud. But Mrs. Florence told me they argued so much that the father and brother vowed never to work for Tom again and never did. ...
     He named Max Gate after an ancient tollgate at the Fordington end of Dorchester. Even though the house was new, he wanted it old immediately. If he could have built a ruin, he would have done it and set us all up in it, as working models of servants from forgotten ages, bringing him his meals, winding his clocks, wind-ups ourselves, reminding him of some other figures moving through immemorial, crumbling landscapes.
It is January 1928, and Thomas Hardy, old now, is dying;  his literary executor Sydney Cockerell, his friend J.M. Barrie, his much younger second wife Florence, the family's servants, and their relatives and neighbors wait, and remember, and consider the responsibilities and opportunities that will come when that happens. This is all interspersed with things that happened long before, when Hardy lived at Max Gate with his first wife, Emma, and Florence came to work as his secretary. 
Someone is knocking at the door. That they should bother to knock, it's the strangest thing of all that's about to happen, is it? That they -- whoever is there -- having run in blind terror, should pause and knock And now be waiting on the other side. Waiting for what?  Excuse me, ma'am, but I was wondering if you'll be coming to Mr. Hardy's room in the next short while since there seems to be a development that concerns you? Is that the message? And knocking a second time. Who could that person be, this monster of composure.  How wonderful too, she suddenly thinks, that the knocking on her door remains in place when everything else is shattered. The kindness of it gives her a sudden boost. The power of movement is returned to her. Could it be Barrie? Hello James. Ah, James. Is it over?  She walks to the door.
The story is divided almost exactly in half, at this moment, and we're tantalized, in detail or in passing, with things that really happened, or might have happened.
      'Dr. Mann, though, is a curious fellow all told.'
      'Like many of us, Sydney, as if Hardy had invented us.'
      They walk on, the light growing stronger, the wind catching their trouser legs.
      'I make a confession now, Sir James, that may surprise -- this is the place after all. I've not read any of the novels.'
      'Hardy's? None?'
      'Not one.'
      Barrie is laughing softly. 'Not read a Hardy?'
      'Never quite got around to it. The man himself seemed sufficient.'
In my recent spate of reading biographical fiction, this felt different, because I've not read a Hardy either {though I've been wanting to.} But the writing is very appealing, the people and the story are fascinating, and Max Gate has done its work of leading me to wonder how the real life compares to this one. Claire Tomalin has written a biography, so that's very promising, and I'm remembering now that there's another new novel that draws on one of the stories that Florence tells.  I'm looking forward to both!

Max Gate, by Damien Wilkins
Gallic Books, 2016
Source:  a preview from the publisher, via NetGalley

June 23, 2016

The Half-Crown House

The Great Entrance to Fountain Court had been one of 'Sensibility' Hornbeam's notions. Returning fron the Grand Tour in 1780 and remembering Roman gardens, he had planted a ring of yews round a circle of gravel, cut embrasures in the hedge for twelve antique statues and called the place the Grove of the Muses, Apollo, himself was mounted upon a high pedestal in the centre of the gravel, striking his lyre. Colonel 'Waterloo' Hornbeam half a century later had respected these arrangements, which included a pair of wrought-iron gates and an imposing portico, approached by a double flight of steps. His Waterloo wing ran down the east side of the old house, fronting the rose-garden; but here on the north front there was no colour, only a sober effect of dark green and apricot-coloured stone, like an eighteenth-century print. The yew hedge in two centures had grown up to a height of thirty feet and was supposed to be the second finest in England, but it had so overshadowed the courtyard that Apollo never saw the sun.  His Twelve Muses were shabby and neglected old maids, with lichen-spotted tunics and broken noses. Clio had lost her book and Erato her Lydian flute, buskined Thalia had only had half an actor's mask. Terpsichore, dancing, held up stunps instead of arms, Urania brooded upon a shattered globe. The white gravel was weedy nowadays, the great hedge itself ragged and badly clipped, going brown in patches. ..
      People had been coming and going there for centuries, Coaches and carriages, black, scarlet and yellow, had swung around the circle, and drawn up at the steps, powdered footmen had banged the knocker, ladies had descended in their silken gowns to pay calls, drink tea, dine or dance; young gentlemen had ridden up on horseback; family brides had run down the steps through showers of rice and rose-petals, coffins had come out unsteadily on the shoulders of mutes, and been pushed into wagon or hearse. Visitors had come and gone, leaving a crop of family stories; how Mr. Pitt in a fit of gout, had stayed for three nights on his way to Bath, how the Duchess of Kent and little Princess Victoria had broken their journey to Anglesey; how Dr. Jenner has ridden over from Berkeley in his brass-buttoned blue coat to vaccinate the whole household, how Miss Jane Austen, slender and silent, had once been brought over to tea by her rich relations from Stoneleigh Abbey. The Iron Duke had ridden up once to inspect a volunteer parade in the park, Lord Beaconsdield has addressed a conservative fete, King Edward the Seventh had driven up in the first Daimler ever to crunch the gravel.  ...
... 'That was in 1903,' said Leaf, straightening his bent shoulders. 'I was just twenty then. The photograph's in the library still.' He smiled faintly, remembering the old days; then raised hs head and listened. Down the lane came the sound of wheels, a horn was blown, and big red motor-coach turned in at the gates. 'Here comes somebody,' said old Harry, looking pleased. 'That'll be the Women's Institute from Wilchester; they booked a party. We can get them done early.  You run off into the garden, m'lord; they haven't paid to see you.' So Victor went off to the glass-houses, where he spent an enjoyable afternoon with Jean the landgirl, fitting hyacinth bulbs into bowls, stuffing fibre around them, spilling the watercan over the floor, dirty and happy.
After Ali introduced us to Helen Ashton earlier this year, I was so happy to find that the library had many of her books on its shelves. There was something immediately appealing about a British novelist who had written about a country house, and about Jane Austen, and now that I've read my first of her books, it's always nice to have a first impression confirmed ;) (Thank you, Ali!)

I loved the way this novel was constructed. It takes place on one late October day in the 1950s, at Fountain Court, a (literally) crumbling English country house, the ancestral home of the almost also crumbling Hornbeam family and their elderly servants.  As senile Lady Hornbeam lies in bed, cared for by her loyal Swiss lady's maid, her granddaughter Henrietta (a woman just turned thirty) and Henrietta's cousin Charles, maimed in the Second World War, try to hold on by opening the house to visitors (for a half-crown fee, Queen Henrietta Marie's bedroom and the gardens extra} and growing and selling vegetables.

It's the last 'show-day' of the season, so we see the house as tourists see it, and as family members and servants describe it to them.  At the same time, it's a day with unexpected significance for the Hornbeams. An American businessman who is in love with Henrietta is coming to lunch with his British art dealer to consider purchasing a ugly but valuable family portrait; a family friend, Lady Linden, is bringing her houseguests (a bored niece and her school-aged daughter) to tour the house and have tea, and Henrietta's nephew, the nine-year-old Fifth Baron Hornbeam, is coming to live at Fountain Court, now that his mother has remarried.  All of this gives the author room for pages and pages of grumbling tourists, and wonderful, rambling descriptions of the crumbling house and the fortunes and misfortunes of the Hornbeam ancestors, often told through the objects they left behind -- all weaving together, and set against the great difficulties and uncertainties of whether the old house can be kept standing. With all of this, it's a house, and a family, and a novel, that I loved spending time with.

And the introduction to my American edition says that 'this is another of the Wilchester chronicles,' listing the four earlier books {all published in the 1940s, and all but one in the library's catalog). Wilchester is the neighboring village, so I can't tell if the Hornbeams or the house are prominent in them, but I'm looking forward to finding out.

The Half-Crown House, by Helen Ashton
Dodd, Mead & Company, 1956
Source:  Boston Athenaeum

June 22, 2016

'They found nobody in the library yet,...

... though there was a tea-table set beside the fire. It was a room not much used by the family, except on show-days, entirely lined with bookshelves, above with were displayed some of the bronzes brought back by 'Sensibility' Hornbeam from Italy. There was an oriel window filled with coats of arms in bright crude Victorian glass, now illuminated by the setting sun and a bust of the first baron, looking sulky and cold in nothing but a toga. There were also a great many arm-chairs and sofas, painstakingly covered with Berlin woolwork in the thirties by Colonel 'Waterloo' Hornbeam's second wife, an industrious needlewoman; these and the calf-bound histories and sermons all smelled somewhat musty. ...
      Her eyes travelled around the room. 'What a lot of books,' she sighed. 'Fancy having to read them!' and when he said hastily, 'They all look very dull,' demanded 'Can I go up the ladder?' Quite taken aback, he murmured, 'I expect so; what do you want? To get something down from the top shelves?' 'But she only replied, 'I like going up ladders; don't you?'
from The Half-Crown House, by Helen Ashton

Books and Berlin work. I've done pillows and framed some as pictures, and may even put together a small carpet, but stitching a chair (if unmusty) would be a dream. And if there were a library ladder, too, I would be in heaven.

{images from Decorative Victorian Needlework, by Elizabeth Bradley}

June 20, 2016

Lucy Carmichael, for Margaret Kennedy Day

      'What is she like? Is she pretty? Is she at all like you, I mean?'
      'Not a bit. She is tall and slender, while I am short and dumpy.'
      'You are not. You aren't dumpy.'
      'I would be, if I wasn't as light as a bird. She has short, light-brown, curly hair. Very attractive.'
      'So have you. I mean your hair is dark but it curls.'
      'I'm glad you think so. Lucy's nose is aquiline, not retrousse, and her eyes are grey. She has a very delicate skin, too pale, but that's easily remedied. I wouldn't  call her pretty. When she is well and happy she is extremely beautiful. When she is out of sorts or depressed she is all nose, and dashes about like an intelligent greyhound after an electric hare. She has a natural tendency to vehemence which is unbecoming to one so tall, but under my influence she occasionally restrains it. She believes me to be very sophisticated -- a perfect woman of the world. She admires my taste beyond anything and does her best to imitate me. She is incautious and intrepid. She will go on to several wrong places, and arrive at the right one, while I am still making up my mind to cross the road. ... Until I knew her I had always been convinced that I must be destined for misery. ... I don't expect I'd have had the courage to marry you, to marry anybody, if it hadn't been for Lucy.'
      'In that case,' said John, 'I shall have no difficulty in loving her.'
      'You will oblige me by trying to do so. She's not everybody's cup of tea.  My mother is very supercilious about her, simply because her father , who is dead, was only a chartered accountant, and her mother is a woman doctor in Surrey. ... And in some ways she is still rather childish. It is her ambition to be suave and mondaine, which she will never be. When she remembers this she undulates about with a remote smile. When she forgets, which is pretty nearly all the time, she prances along and roars with laughter.'
When you're only on a novel's twelfth page, and you've already been introduced to seven characters you're longing to spend more time with, you probably know you're in for a good thing.  Even if you're meeting most of them for the first time through someone who strikes you as a not-very-reliable narrator (not that you'd want her any another way).  And especially if you've been introduced to the author, and to this particular book, by our lovely friend Jane. {She sent me this book after Margaret Kennedy Day last year, and I'm embarrassed and sorry that it has taken me until Margaret Kennedy Day this year to read it. Thank you, Jane; I'm grateful for the book and the author. :) }

It's unusual (but perfect here} that we first meet the title character {surely, the heroine} only through her great friend, Melissa.  When we do see Lucy at first hand, it's the day before her wedding to an older man, a handsome explorer and writer.  I won't tell you what happens next {because I hope you'll have a chance to read this book yourself,  though you can probably guess} but it shifts our focus to Lucy, as she moves away from the life she expected to the village of Ravonsbridge, and 'that mausoleum of good intentions,' its faltering Institute.
John was sent to talk to her and he pumped her hand up and down a great many times and said that she must come and stay with them as soon as ever they were settled in Lincolnshire.  He was saying this to everybody, but he said it six times in succession to Lucy because he was so sorry for her. He, like everybody else, was determined to remember her trouble just when he had every excuse for forgetting it. There was to be no escape. Where she was known, she must take it about like a label which nobody would allow her to remove. She had thought that she would remember long after everyone else had forgotten, but it seemed as though things might turn out the other way. She herself could now go for days at a time without any painful recollection, while to all these people she was permanently an object of compassion.
Still, Lucy comes into her own there. There's a wonderful scene at the Institute's tradition-bound Christmas celebration, when Lucy, in a rose-colored dress, dances with Charles, the handsome, reserved son of Lady Frances and her late husband Matt Millwood, the auto tycoon who built the village and the Institute. As they dance, Lucy realizes that she is 'causing emotion' ,,,
... that anguished agitation which, by Melissa's creed, and her own, must never be deliberately excited unless it could be returned. ...
      ... She could not pretend to herself that she entirely disliked it. ... She reflected, as she had reflected before on like occasions, that it must be fun to be a bitch. But, since she was not, she must take steps to quench this ardour. She must not dance with him again, and it would be as well if she put him off a little by romping noisily with Robin.  Both Melissa and she were adept in the art of making themselves a trifle unattractive, if kindness and common sense made that necessary.
But Lucy feels better when Charles continues to address her as 'Miss Carmichael' {'From a man who emanated emotion like a power station.'}, enough to be his willing partner for a waltz, with everyone watching, including his aunt and his interesting mother.
      Lady Anne crossed the hall and sat down by her sister. With Ravonsclere bluntness she asked if Charles was in love with that 'gairl'.
      'Penelope thinks so,' said Lady Frances tranquilly. 'And I don't think it was her fault that they danced alone in that conspicuous way. The others were stupid and hung back. I think she was quite right to go on, it would have looked foolish to stop. I was a little annoyed ... but not with her.'
      'You like her?' hazarded Lady Anne.
      'I like her very much. Charles isn't happy or contented, you know. To fall in love and get married might be very good for him.'
      'I don't see why not, if they like each other.'
      'But, Fanny ... her background isn't at all the same as his.'
      'Not as different as Matt's and mine were. And anyway,' said Lady Frances, 'there is too much background about Charles, What he needs is more foreground.'
A remark that makes Lady Anne {and of course, me} wonder about 'those shocking rumours which the family had been so sedulous to keep from her ears.' {And ours, unfortunately. :)} And a waltz a deux that leaves Charles bewildered at what he has done wrong, and Lucy regretful, because she has 'forgotten the danger of being in tearing spirits.' {'So I've been through all that, she mourned, all that misery and loneliness, and learnt no sense at all.'}

Happily, Lucy realizes {a little later than we do} that her experiences have made a difference to her. And even more happily, for us, when she insists that she has 'learnt to master her emotions,' we know her better than she does.
      'I can see that we aren't suited, in a way. You are very talented, very gifted; you have a great career ahead of you. A conventional marriage would never be enough for you. You'd loathe having to live at Cyre Abbey, for instance.'
      'I don't know that I should,' said Lucy, surprised. 'If that were all, I should like to live at Cyre Abbey.'
      'Oh, no, you'd be stifled there,' Charles assured her.
      I should go into the glass-houses and eat the peaches, thought Lucy. And then she remembered that the Millwoods never ate the peaches, which were reserved for the Poor when they had shingles.
There's romance, and then there's not {and then there is, and then...} Soon we're with Melissa again, now married and holding court in Drumly, the dreary little town where her husband works as a research chemist, and the story lags a little. Back in Ravonsbridge again, there's a shattering tornado of  intrigue at the Institute, and after Lucy resigns, she finds herself in Drumly, too. {'Of course, the job isn't nearly good enough for her. But we hope she will marry. Drumly is well-stocked with unmarried chemists, all of whom are very brilliant and sure of a future of a future, and never was anybody like her seen here before, except myself, for looks, wit and chic.'} It's interesting, and perfect,  that now we start to see Melissa through Lucy's eyes, instead of the other way around; Lucy senses that 'She is not quite as happy as she was... she has become very fastidious and Jane Austen-ish again.'

Lucy Carmichael isn't perfect. There's a mishmash of points of view and writing techniques that would have probably driven me crazy in a different book. And I was so fond of this one that I'm just going to decide that the ending isn't what really happens.

No matter. There are spots of brilliance {the scene in Slade forest where Ianthe unknowingly invents a past for herself that really belongs to Lucy}, and, as you can probably tell from all the quotes, an irresistible bit on almost every page.
John was unfairly prejudiced against Charles and even snorted at the tea, though he had some every morning himself before he got up. Melissa made it from an electric kettle beside their bed. But to share a wife's tea, he felt, is one thing; it is quite another when a bachelor solemnly orders it the night before and causes a chambermaid to bring it up to him. He was so contemptuous over the tea that he was not very compassionate towards the anguish which accompanied it.
And is it my imagination, or is the whole book just a little Jane Austen-ish?  Once I had imagined some Emma-and-Harriet-Smith in the relationship between  Melissa and Lucy, I found a Willoughby, a Colonel Brandon, a Bingley, a little bit of Elizabeth ad Darcy, and all the references in passing. The connection might be wishful thinking, but it's lovely either way. Jane's list of books by MK includes a biography of Jane Austen, and I can't wait to read it, along with all the other novels that are being written about today.

{The painting is 'Paige Practices Poise,' by Janet Hill, found on Pinterest.}

June 19, 2016

Fondest of

      'You don't sound very ,,, ' John checked himself and put it another way, 'Which of your parents are you fondest of?'
      The answer to this question was of some importance to him. Melissa had just described herself as an emotional ascetic and he feared that this might be perfectly true. There had been moments during their courtship when, in spite of his attachment to her, he had found himself wondering if she was capable of any strong feeling. She had revealed very little of her heart to him, and though she had said that she loved him, she had made the avowal in so cool a manner that he doubted if she knew what she was saying. He put his question therefore a little anxiously, and was rewarded by a smile of approval.
      'I'm so glad,' she said, 'that you don't mind putting the preposition last. Jane Austen frequently did.'
      'Melissa! I asked a question. Of which are you fondest?'
      'Now don't alter it just when I've said I like it. Which am I fondest of?  Really, I don't know. For years I've been so perfectly exasperated with both of them that I might say I'm usually fondest of the one I'm not with.'
      This was not very reassuring.He watched her unhappily as she picked up a large straw hat which lay on the grass beside her. Her expression was pleasant but her voice had been chilly. :
      'I must go,' she said, getting up. 'Cressida is coming to supper.'
      'You're very fond of her, I expect,' he pleaded as he scrambled to his feet.
      She turned to him with an amused stare.
      'How anxious you are that I should be fond of people!'
      'I want to believe that you have a very sweet nature.'
      'Oh, but I have a very sweet nature. I like most people. I'd like everyone if I could. Dislike is so fatiguing.'
      'But do you really love anyone, Melissa?'
      'You should know.'
from Lucy Carmichael, by Margaret Kennedy

The party's not till tomorrow, but I just couldn't fit all my enjoyment into one day.  :)

{the painting — a Cornish one, for Jane — is 'Midge Bruford and Her Fiance
at Chywoone Hill, Newlyn,' by Harold Harvey, found on Pinterest}