E. Nesbit, The Lark (1922)
Elizabeth Fair, A Winter Away (1957)
Ursula Orange, Tom Tiddler’s Ground (1941)
As I’ve mentioned before, Furrowed Middlebrow Books represents what must surely be every blogger’s dream: a publishing imprint devoted to bringing back one reader’s list of forgotten favorites (mainly mid-century British fiction by women in this case). The second set of FM books is being released this month, and I was pleased to have a chance to preview the first three titles.
I was most excited to read The Lark, the final novel by one of my favorite authors, E. Nesbit, who wrote many different kinds of books but is most famous for her magical stories for children. Though ostensibly The Lark is a realistic story for adults, the introduction by Charlotte Moore describes it aptly as “a novel for grown-up children” and identifies many of the elements it has in common with Nesbit’s children’s books. This is not to say that it is childish or unworthy of an adult audience, but its ebullient and playful spirit recalls the best of what childhood has to offer: the energy, the sense of possibility, the feeling that something magic might just happen at any moment.
“I thought we weren’t going to talk?” Lucilla put in.
“No more we are. I’ll shut up like a knife in a minute. I want to say one thing, though.”
“So do I,” said Lucilla. “I want to say I think it’s a beastly shame.”
“No, no!” said Jane eagerly. “Don’t start your thinking with that, or you’ll never get anywhere. It isn’t a shame and it isn’t beastly. I’ll tell you what it is, Lucy. And that’s where we must start our thinking from. Everything that’s happening to us—yes, everything—is to be regarded as a lark. See? This is my last word. This. Is. Going. To. Be. A. Lark.”
There’s the plot in a nutshell: something beastly happens to cousins Lucilla and Jane just as they’re emerging from school — their guardian absconds with all their funds and leaves them with only a house to live in and no income — but while Lucilla takes the more conventional view of the situation, Jane decides that they are going to wrestle it to the ground and actually enjoy it. This might not work in the real world, but in Nesbit-land coincidences and happenstance abound, helping the two along with some entertaining bumbles along the way. There’s a wonderful old house (based on Nesbit’s own), a handsome prince (well, almost), a kindly curmudgeon, several burglars and burglaries, dressing up, magical ceremonies, gardens full of flowers, and lines of dialogue that only the hardest of hearts could resist.
It’s not perfect, and the ending in particular felt rushed and perfunctory, but in general the reading left me with a smile on my face and a lighter heart than I began with. I was reminded a good deal of some of Elizabeth von Arnim’s books — the cheerful ones, like Christopher and Columbus and Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight. Along with those The Lark belongs on my shelf of Books to Brighten a Sad and Dull Day, Without Much Regard for Plausibility But With a Good Deal of Courage and Charm. I hope you’ll put it on yours as well.
Next I was pleased to sample two new-to-me authors whose works are being republished by FM. Elizabeth Fair’s A Winter Away featured another young woman making her way in the world, spending a season away from home as a secretary to “Old M.” As she becomes accustomed to her employer’s eccentricities — at first startling but then rather endearing — and grows to love his ruinous old estate as well, she gains in experience and confidence. It’s a leisurely-paced, character-rich English village novel that should be enjoyed by those who like Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, among others.
I like this country. I’ve only lived in imitation country, till now. Green-belt country, you know, with electric trains at a convenient distance and self-conscious village inns and everyone rushing madly about saying it must be preserved. And that’s what it is—like tinned fruit compared with real fruit. — from A Winter Away
In Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange we have another English village comedy, this time slanted more toward melodrama. It takes place during the early days of World War II, when evacuation to the country had just begun. When two very different sets of mothers and children are billetted on heart-of-gold Constance and her no-good husband Alfred, it shakes up some old relationships and leads to new revelations. With divorce, adultery, and bigamy playing a role the plot was a bit spicy and controversial for 1945, and though not so shocking for us today is still an entertaining and page-turning read.
In short, if this genre is your cup of tea, you can spend many pleasant hours making your way through the Furrowed Middlebrow list. I hope you will sample some of their rediscovered books and authors, and find your own favorites.