My First Georgette Heyer: False Colours

Georgette Heyer, False Colours (1963)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

FalseColoursAs with Terry Pratchett, I saw Georgette Heyer’s books on the shelf for years before I picked one up. I had her pegged as a “romance novelist,” and romance was not a genre I was particularly interested in. Wasn’t she one of those formulaic, swoony writers like Barbara Cartland? So I passed her by, until who knows what whim prompted me to take home one of her books from the library and start reading.

Well, that book, False Colours, had me hooked from page one, with its witty banter, well-realized period setting, intelligent, likeable central couple, and screwball-comedy-style plot. It starts when Kit Fancot, returning home from the Napoleonic wars to his mother’s London townhouse, learns that his twin brother Evelyn is missing on the eve of an important appointment … for which the twins’ mother begs Kit to stand in for Evelyn for just one day … which stretches into weeks, during which the masquerade becomes more and more difficult, particularly as he finds himself falling for Cressy, his brother’s potential bride …

Yes, this is a Regency romance; Heyer basically invented the genre, and she practiced it in a way that many have tried to imitate, but few have bettered. Her Regency is not the lived one of Jane Austen, but a constructed universe that is slightly unreal, a bit too technicolor. Her period slang is genuine, but nobody would really run it all together in one speech the way her characters do. Her female characters, while behaving with a thorough understanding of the proprieties of the time, have a slyly modern side that allows them much more knowledge of certain “unmentionables” than was probably the case. And no writer of Austen’s era would spend so much time on descriptions of clothing, especially masculine fashions.

Fashions
Heyer had an exhaustive knowledge of Regency styles for both men and women, some of which are represented in this period fashion plate.

But such alterations are clearly not the result of sloppy research and careless writing (which sometimes drive me mad when I try to read other Regencies). It was Heyer’s choice to consciously craft this fictional world, full of details from a time she clearly loved and knew much about, but with an internal coherence and logic all its own. She did it brilliantly, and most importantly she used it to tell wonderful stories about people who come to life on the page, so that we care about them and want them to find happiness with each other.

I was enchanted by this world, and by Kit and Cressy and all their friends and relatives. Most notable in this particular book are the twins’ flighty mother, who seems to be modeled on the Duchess of Devonshire, and her portly suitor Bonamy Ripple. Heyer uses them to poke fun at some of the excesses of the era, but her humor is more light-hearted than coldly satirical. We want this unlikely couple to find happiness too, even as we laugh at them.

After my first Heyer, I went on to read as many others as I could get my hands on. Not a one-note writer, she wrote with astonishing flair and facility in a variety of genres and historical settings. Quite a few of her other novels are better than False Colours, which has too much talk and too little action, and suffers from Cressy not being given enough to do (aside from a memorable scene in which she puts paid to the blackmailing mother of one of Evelyn’s paramours). It’s when Heyer’s heroines really get to shine, as in The Talisman Ring or Friday’s Child or Cotillion, that her books are at their best, I think. But every one has pleasures of its own, and if you haven’t yet discovered them for yourself, I hope you will soon.

Thanks to First Impressions Reviews for inspiring me to write this post for her Georgette Heyer blog hop! Please visit the other posts for more about this author and her marvelous books.

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The Vagabond Vicar: Author interview with Charlotte Brentwood

I don’t often read or review self-published books, but Charlotte Brentwood’s debut novel, The Vagabond Vicar, lured me with its charming cover. Inside, you’ll find a sweet and light romance that is unusual in its focus on a young clergyman who has no time for romance; he’s landed a coveted living in England but really wishes to be serving the poor and needy overseas. How he is won over by an unconventional young lady of the neighborhood makes pleasant escape reading for Regency fans.

I was curious to know more about how these characters came to be and about Charlotte’s path to self-publishing, so she was kind enough to answer some questions from me. Welcome, Charlotte!

ECBR: Everyone who sees your book is wowed by the cover. How did you find that painting? Do you know anything about the artist?

CB: I can’t remember exactly what I was looking for when I found the painting online – it was some sort of research/procrastination. I stumbled across it (Planning the Grand Tour by Emil Brack) and instantly fell in love with it. The characters are exactly as I imagined them, and my vagabond is enthusiastically showing his potential lady where his travels may take him. It also gives the reader a sense of this being a traditional, sweet regency. I hope you like it as much as I do!

Emil Brack was a German artist who worked in the late nineteenth century. He is a “genre painter” in that he focuses on capturing domestic details of life — in this case, from the regency period. I’m very glad to have found him!

Within a short space of time I also found art for the covers for book two and three — coming soon!

Getting into what’s between the covers, how did you start writing this story? What was your inspiration?

I created a vicar character for another book, but he wasn’t very interesting and I soon gave up on that book. While writing something else, the character of William began forming in my mind. He kept telling me tales of his mercy missions in the seedy parts of London. He told me about how he was given a living in a small village, but that he would much rather be sailing the seas to adventures in exotic lands. I was moved by his compassion, his earnestness, and his heart. I knew I had to give him his own story.

I love your main characters, William, the earnest young vicar, and Cecelia, the impetuous painter. What was the process of developing these characters like? Did they spring into your mind fully formed, or did it take you a while to find out who they were?

William’s character was already well-established in my mind when I began to seriously write the book, but it took me a while to find out about his past and figure out what his motivations were. I set out to create a vicar who was not only true to his convictions and compassionate, but also heroic, bold and downright swoon-worthy. I think this quote from a reader sums it up nicely: “I’ve never been one to ‘fall’ for a religious man, but William Brook is likely to get fans fluttering and cheeks flushing. Dare I say he’s a strong contender against the famous (and my literary love) Mr. Rochester?”

Cecilia came to me almost fully formed as well. I knew she had to be the bright, shining foil to William’s serious, intense existence. They both dwell in other realities – his focus is on helping the undercurrent of society, while she lives in an imagined world of colour and light. It seemed obvious she would be an artist. She is pulled back down to earth by the need to marry, and her mother’s determination to see her settled within a titled family.

After reading a number of different Regencies, I have the feeling that they exist in a sort of parallel universe rather than trying to exactly reproduce the social conditions of the era, which are admittedly very limiting for an author. What are some of the ways that you perhaps stretched the bounds of historical accuracy, in the interest of a good story?

I haven’t changed any major historical facts (as far as I know!) but I did invent the setting of Amberley and all of the surrounding area, based on other villages in that corner of Shropshire. In regards to every day activities and social interactions, I have again tried to be faithful but I haven’t dwelled on some of the nastier aspects of life two hundred years ago — things like the lack of sanitation. I’d like to think that the hero and heroine smell good but chances are that might not have been the case! Where, after exhaustive research, I couldn’t find a particular detail about society or domestic life I have had to fill in the gaps.

On the other hand, part of the fun of a historical romance is that it does give the feeling of being in a different time and place. What historical details did you most enjoy incorporating in your story?

The restrictions which society placed on the respectable classes make for great romantic subject matter. Then there are entertaining events to incorporate such as balls and card parties, and I had great fun creating a harvest festival (fete), during which pivotal events play out. Of course, I love imagining all the clothes and hairstyles — I love the thought of a heart in turmoil beneath an elegant cravat and waistcoat.

You had a hard time getting an agent to take on the book to sell to a traditional publisher, although you received a lot of praise for your writing. What do you think was really going on there?

The common thread with the agents was that they were unable to pigeon-hole my book clearly into a genre. Apparently it’s not straight historical romance, nor is it a literary historical. They said they wouldn’t be able to tell editors what shelf it would sit on in a bookstore. The funny thing is that there other books like mine sitting on the shelves — most often in general fiction. An agent even said to me that she agreed there is an audience for the book (herself included) but editors are being so picky that she just couldn’t take a chance.

It seems that if something doesn’t fit nicely into the wider commercial genres, it doesn’t get a look in. I would say my book is a traditional regency romance, but as that’s apparently not “fashionable” right now, they pretend the genre doesn’t exist.

Once you decided to self-publish, what were some of the challenges you faced? How did you meet them?

Obviously there is the challenge of doing all the work a publisher would have done for you — getting people to edit your work, designing a cover, formatting for the various different platforms and figuring out taxes and payment (which is a challenge for someone outside the US). And then the biggest challenge, which is not unique to indies: marketing.

You also have to take the huge leap of faith required in order to launch your product into the world without the sanction of the literary powers-that-be, hoping it will be well-received. It’s scary!

I’ve just done the best I can, with the help of my friends and the writing community. I hope the book is just as good as something which would come from the big five, but readers will be the judge of that.

Are you writing another book? Based on your experience so far, what have you learned? What might you try to do differently next time?

I am working on the two follow-up books to The Vagabond Vicar in tandem, as the stories of Amy Miller and John Barrington are related (though separate). I already have a lot of scenes drafted for each and I’m about to knuckle down to plot out all the details. I hope to get these stories out in the coming year.

Now that I know the processes involved, I hope to be more organised in terms of planning all the elements required before and after release. I hope that I am also a better writer than I was three years ago when I began the Vicar, so hopefully the process of writing these next books will be quicker and the stories just as good if not better.

What are some of your favorite books, inside or outside the Regency genre? What authors do you admire, and why?

Unsurprisingly, I like books which are similar to mine — set in history with strong romantic elements but with a focus on character development and overcoming personal obstacles, rather than artificial conflict and lust. I have been an Austen fan since I was a teenager (that’s where this all started really) and I also love Elizabeth Gaskell, Georgette Heyer, Louisa May Alcott, Carla Kelly, Catherine Marshall, George Eliot, and LM Montgomery.

Authors I admire who have lived more recently (or producing today) include Patricia Veryan, Sarah M Eden, Candice Hern, Jennifer Moore Donna Hatch, Julie Klassen, and some Austen-related literature such as Abigail Reynolds.

Thank you for hosting me Lory!

And thank you, Charlotte, for stopping by. It was very interesting to learn more about how this book came to be.

 

New Zealand author Charlotte Brentwood developed serious crushes on a series of men from age fifteen: Darcy, Knightley, Wentworth and Brandon. A bookworm and scribbler for as long as she can remember, Charlotte always dreamed of sharing her stories with the world. Upon earning a degree in communication studies, she was seduced by the emerging digital world and has since worked with the web and in marketing. When she’s not toiling at her day job, writing or procrastinating on the Internet, Charlotte can be found snuggling with her cat Sophie, warbling at the piano, sipping a hot chocolate, or enjoying the great outdoors. To learn more, visit her website: http://www.charlottebrentwood.com.

Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week: A Visit to Torminster (with Giveaway!)

One of my favorite fictional places to visit is Torminster, Elizabeth Goudge’s version of her birthplace, Wells in Somerset. It’s like Barchester without the cynicism, or Cranford with a poetic and mystical touch. Centered around the Close that surrounds its beautiful cathedral, populated by an enchanting set of characters young and old, saintly and not-so, and most importantly possessing a really good bookshop, it’s a place I’m almost afraid to visit in real life lest it lose some of its charm.

Though she wrote them just before and during the Second World War, Goudge set these books in the early years of the twentieth century, the time of her own childhood. It was a placid, sleepy town at the time, removed from the worst ravages of industrialization. As such it offered her contemporary readers a welcome respite from the devastation of war, and for us provides a nostalgic trip back into a vanished world.

That’s not to say that there is no struggle or conflict to be found in Torminster, only that it’s more of an inner rather than an outer nature. In the first book, A City of Bells, young Henrietta has been taken in by Canon Fordyce and his wife as a companion to their irrepressible grandson Hugh Anthony. She loves her new home, but she is haunted by the memory of a mysterious poet who briefly lived nearby. As she and her adopted family search for answers to his disappearance and possible death, their lives are transformed in unexpected ways.

Seemingly responding to requests for more about Henrietta, Goudge wrote two more lovely books about Torminster for a younger audience: Henrietta’s House and Sister of the Angels. Both have been out of print and hard to find for years, but now the wonderful folks at Girls Gone By have reprinted them for us to enjoy. And I’m delighted to announce that they are offering a giveaway for EGRW readers: a copy of each book will go to one lucky winner. Please be sure to enter using the Rafflecopter widget below.

In Henrietta’s House, our Torminster friends set out on a picnic in honor of Hugh Anthony’s birthday, and each finds an adventure suitable to his or her nature. (Diana Wynne Jones fans may recall that this is one of the books Polly read and loved in Fire and Hemlock, which alone should recommend it to you.) It’s a charming modern-day fairy tale with something for everyone: humor, beauty, romance, danger, and even the appearance (and disappearance) of an early motor car.



Sister of the Angels, written first but concerning a slightly older Henrietta, is a shorter tale in which we get to spend more time in the Cathedral and its environs. Subtitled “A Christmas Story,” it gives us a glimpse into Henrietta’s future as an artist, and explores again the intersection of art, faith, and love that is so characteristic of Goudge’s writing.

The paperbacks from Girls Gone By are a quality production, printed in the UK and incorporating the original illustrations. Each book includes a different introduction by publisher Clarissa Cridland, which provide photos of some of the relevant sites in Wells, along with an excellent bibliography, a biography of Elizabeth Goudge, and (in Henrietta’s House) a synopsis of A City of Bells. All these extras make them even more tempting, and the care that has gone into their production speaks of how cherished they are by Goudge fans.

I’m so glad that the way to Torminster is open once more, and hope that you will want to make a journey there soon.

Congratulations to the winner, Cleo of Classical Carousel!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review and giveaway copy source: Personal collection (A City of Bells); Paperbacks from publisher (Henrietta’s House and Sister of the Angels). No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

A Party for Margery: Two by Margery Sharp

Margery Sharp, The Nutmeg Tree (1937)
Margery Sharp, Cluny Brown (1944)

When Fleur in Her World alerted me to the existence of a charming and witty but largely forgotten mid-20th-century novelist, I was glad to join in with the fun of celebrating Margery Sharp’s 110th birthday by reading and reviewing a book or two. And what fun it was! I completely agree that these books deserve to be brought back into print, and hope that someone with publishing clout will sit up and take notice.

The two books I chose to start with, The Nutmeg Tree and Cluny Brown, are perhaps more widely available than some others because they were both made into films (Julia Misbehaves with Greer Garson and Cluny Brown with Jennifer Jones). At any rate, I had no trouble finding decent used copies online for a very reasonable price. Each beguiled me for a day, putting a smile on my face with a series of absurd situations encountered by some engaging characters. As with all the best comedy, this is not completely mindless entertainment; Sharp’s unconventional women shake up the world around them, and may make us question some of our cherished assumptions as well.

The first memorable heroine I encountered was the title character of Cluny Brown, a London plumber’s niece whose fatal flaw is “not knowing her place” — she took herself to tea at the Ritz because she wanted to see what it was like, imagine! When her uncle ships her off to a country house to be trained as a parlormaid, he thinks his troubles are over, but naturally Cluny has other ideas.

Sharp does an excellent job at the tricky task of capturing the accents and sensibilities of both the masters and servants of the house, as well as of Cluny, a true original who blithely ignores the strictures that should bind her to her social class and its expectations. This leads to some delightful bits of dialogue:

“Come up, you black cat,” said Adam Belinski.

Cluny shook her head.

“Why not? Are you afraid of me?”

“Ought I to be?” said Cluny interestedly.

“That depends on what you consider the object of existence. What is your object of existence?”

Cluny considered; for this was a subject on which every one else seemed to have so much more definite opinions than she did herself. Mrs Maile and Aunt Addie Trumper and Mr Porritt, for instance, were all unanimous: in their view the object of her existence was to become a well-trained parlourmaid. Mr Ames thought she ought to go to parties. A gentleman in a ‘bus had once advised her to become a model. But Cluny herself was still uncertain.

“I want something to happen,” she said vaguely. “I want things happening all the time. . .”

“Then make them happen. Why not?”

“You don’t know my Uncle Arn,” said Cluny sombrely. “The minute anything happens, he stops it. I dare say it’s on account of being a plumber. The way he goes on, I might be a burst pipe.”

Though published in 1944, Cluny Brown is set six years earlier, in an England on the brink of war and of the destruction of many of its ancient ways of life, and the coming change is foreshadowed in Cluny’s subtly disruptive nature. This serious strain anchors the comedy, and gives it a slightly darker touch that keeps it from being too silly and bright.

At the end of Cluny’s adventures, an abrupt denouement with a swift change of heart might seem clumsy or inopportune in the hands of a less confident writer. Here, it perfectly suits the character of Cluny, and the glimpse given into her future assures us that she will continue to spread her insouciant spirit wherever she goes.

In my next Margery Sharp novel, The Nutmeg Tree, our heroine is Julia Packett, a very different but equally idiosyncratic character. Summoned to the south of France by an impulsive message from the daughter she hasn’t seen since infancy, who is seeking approval of her intended marriage, Julia immediately identifies the young man in question as a “wrong one,” but how can she convince her besotted daughter? And how can a former showgirl pull off the role of a respectable member of a very proper family, when in fact she is nothing of the sort?

Greer Garson as Julia in the 1948 film

Julia’s “misbehavior” (leaving her daughter to be raised by the father’s family,  taking up with a series of male companions, and ending up having to sell off furniture to pay the rent) might not seem utterly damning today, but on the novel’s publication in 1937 this lifestyle would have raised some eyebrows. Julia is portrayed with so much sympathy and humor, though, that we embrace her follies as part of her inimitable verve and zest for life. In her outer and inner battles, we root for her and forgive her many lapses, which if we are honest may remind us of our own efforts to “be good.”

But can Julia forgive herself? In contrast to Cluny, whose youthful imperviousness to criticism is part of her charm, the more world-worn Julia is struggling toward a new level of self-knowledge. Because this is a comedy, this is symbolized by the possibility of union with a man who can complement and appreciate her. And because this is Margery Sharp, their story is told in a way that is both larger-than-life funny, and relevant to deeper human concerns. How can Julia “marry” the experience that has given her insight and compassion for other people (but left her a bit worse for wear), with what remains unspoiled in her, still worthy of love and honor? It’s a question we all have to resolve in our own way — though we may not all do it through dealings with acrobats met on trains.

For more about Margery Sharp and her books, be sure to check out this lovely blog created by a devoted fan. And if you enjoy humorous romances with a twist, do seek out these and more of her sadly out-of-print novels. Be warned, I’ll be giving you some competition for them.

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Darkness in Delphi: My Brother Michael

Mary Stewart, My Brother Michael (1960)

 

http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/partner?partner_id=37349&html=ppbs/37349_3768.html?p_bkslv

Mary Stewart is rightly acclaimed for creating wonderfully robust settings in her books, which serve as much more than mere stage backdrops to the action. So strong is the sense of place, sometimes, that the setting almost becomes a character or a plot device in its own right.

Such is the case with My Brother Michael, which I picked up in honor of Mary Stewart Reading Week. The place is Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus in Greece, once considered the navel of the world and still one of the most numinous sites of the Western world. While telling one of her thrilling tales of mystery and danger, Stewart also manages to evoke the spirit of Greece, both ancient and modern, in a strikingly vivid way. From a memorable scene of the difficulties of passing a bus on a mountain road, to explorations of the god-haunted landscape of Parnassus, to stories of some of the tragedies incurred during and after the Second World War, she makes us feel that we have encountered this brilliant, desolate land, and experienced some of its treasures — and its burdens.

I said, “It’s this confounded country. It does things to one — mentally and physically and, I suppose, morally. The past is so living and the present so intense and the future so blooming imminent. The light seems to burn life into you twice as intensely as anywhere else I’ve known. I suppose that’s why the Greeks did what they did so miraculously, and why they could stay themselves through twenty generations of slavery that would have crushed any other race on earth.”

To summarize the plot of a Mary Stewart novel is to spoil many of its surprises, so I’ll just say that our heroine, Camilla, traveling alone in Greece after the breakup of a bad relationship, gets into more than she’d bargained for when she takes an unusual opportunity to transport herself from Athens to Delphi. After she meets up with our hero, an Englishman hunting for some clues to still-unanswered questions around the death of his brother during the war, she definitely loses her right to complain that “Nothing ever happens to me.” One is reminded to be careful what one wishes for — the gods may be listening.

One quibble I had with the narrative was that Camilla is supposed not to understand Greek, yet she reports in great detail conversations that were held in that language, with every nuance of emotion and expression included. This is supposed to be because they were translated for her afterwards, but that explanation is not terribly convincing; indeed, she often is more engaged with what is going on than she should be, were she really as ignorant as she is supposed to be. There is one major plot point that turns on her lack of understanding of the language, but perhaps that could have been dealt with in another way. I know that highly detailed first-person narratives generally require some suspension of disbelief, but this extra bit of implausibility bothered me just slightly.

As in another Stewart novel with a Greek setting, The Moon-Spinners, the romance in My Brother Michael was more implied than explicit. I tend to like them that way, since instant attraction seems more plausible to me than instant falling-into-arms and declaring undying love. (There is never much time in these novels for anything other than instantaneous romance, since the action moves at a pretty fast clip, and most of the time our hero and heroine are busy with pursuing bad guys and other distractions.) Here, aside from a charming teaser at the end, much is left to our imaginations. Sometimes it’s better that way.

Overall, this was one of my favorite Mary Stewart books so far, with its seamless integration of plot, setting and character, and one that I would definitely pick up again. If you’re looking for an intelligent, entertaining and suspenseful read, this is a good place to start.

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Suspense with Style: Four by Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting (Morrow, 1959)

Mary Stewart, The Ivy Tree (Morrow, 1962)

Mary Stewart, The Moon-Spinners (Morrow, 1963)

Mary Stewart, This Rough Magic (Morrow, 1964) 

 

Mary Stewart romantic suspense

It’s always a great pleasure to discover an author whose books have somehow passed you by, especially if there are plenty of them. Such is the case with Mary Stewart, whose romantic suspense novels just never swam into my ken until now.

Fortunately, good books never go out of date. This summer I read four Stewarts in quick succession and found them effortlessly readable yet refreshingly literate. With exotic settings, independent heroines, and tricky plots, they make perfect vacation reading. And in honor of Mary Stewart Reading Week, hosted by Gudrun’s Tights, here are some thoughts that I hope will interest those who haven’t yet discovered this wonderful author, as well as those who know and love her.

Each of these four books starts with a young woman, usually alone, making a journey to some beautiful, rather remote spot (Corfu, Northumberland, Alpine France, Crete) where she expects to settle into a holiday or a new job. She then finds that there is something unsavory going on (smuggling, treason, identity theft, attempted murder, kidnapping) and becomes involved in trying to defeat the villain(s). Serious dangers to life and limb ensue, as she tries to rescue the victim/find the treasure/puzzle out the crime, but naturally she comes through in the end, with a new love interest with whom she has made a connection in the midst of all the mayhem.

While the novels do follow a certain pattern, they are not formulaic. Each one is written in a distinctive voice and with precise attention to detail, which makes you feel as though you have really been to the places she describes. They also are pleasantly literary: This Rough Magic centers around an old house inhabited by a Shakespearean actor obsessed with The Tempest; Nine Coaches Waiting takes its title and organization from a quotation from The Revengers’ Tragedy; The Ivy Tree is named after an old song and has a strain of ancient folklore running through it. And while they are certainly suspenseful, they are not gratuitously violent or exploitative. Sympathetic characters and intelligently constructed plots appeal to our hearts and minds, as well as our wish to be thrilled and excited. These books create miniature worlds that live in our imaginations after the entertainment has finished, and leave us satisfied rather than empty.

The main quibble I have with Stewart is that I wish she would develop her romances more gradually. There tends to be a “boom” moment of falling in love without much apparent reason behind it, based on an acquaintance of mere days or even hours. I found this element required more suspension of disbelief than did some of the improbable and extreme situations.

Still, I enjoyed so much about her books that this was a minor issue for me. Now, for Mary Stewart Reading Week, I need to pick which novel to read next. I’m thinking of Touch Not the Cat (telepathic romance on an English estate), My Brother Michael (“a mysterious car journey to Delphi in the company of a charming but quietly determined Englishman”), or Airs Above the Ground (Vienna and Lipizzaner horses). Any recommendations?

Review copy source: Print books from library

White Magic: Thornyhold and The White Witch

Mary Stewart, Thornyhold (Morrow, 1988)

Elizabeth Goudge, The White Witch (Coward-McCann, 1952)

I was inspired by many recommendations to pick up one of Mary Stewart’s romantic novels at the library this week, and chose Thornyhold, the story of a young woman who unexpectedly inherits her cousin’s house in Wiltshire and finds that said cousin seems to have been the local white witch … or was she? And is Gilly really expected to step into her shoes, or is the magic she’s being offered of another kind?

Thornyhold is pure wish fulfillment: an 18th century house, full of benign magical influences, and complete with amenities including a modern bathroom, a fabulous garden, a handsome and available neighbor, and convenient proximity to Stonehenge? Yes, please! The mild suspense provided by the plot, which mostly involves a nosy cleaning lady who may or may not have occult leanings, seemed only an excuse to spend time in this lovely setting, and if it also sounds attractive to you, you probably will also enjoy Thornyhold as a pleasant, light read.

Coincidentally, just as I was starting this book, Mary Stewart’s death on May 9 prompted an outpouring of appreciation from many quarters. I’ll definitely be looking into more of her writing. The romance in this one was somewhat boring, and I wonder if any of her other novels are more developed in this regard.

The “white magic” theme reminded me of another book I read a few weeks ago, Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch. It has similar warm-hearted, comforting undertones, with lush descriptions of English homes and countryside, while being much more ambitious and wide-ranging in scope: a historical romance set during the English Civil War. The White Witch of the title is Fronica, a half-gypsy herbalist with ties both to the family of the local Puritan squire and to Royalist/Catholic sympathizers. Several different intertwined stories of these individuals, representing many different points of view, combine to give a rich and rewarding picture of a turbulent time in history.

Without knowing much about the era, I thought that Goudge excelled at sympathetically presenting characters on both sides of the conflict, bringing out the human struggles behind the “Puritan” and “Royalist” labels. The glimpses of Gypsy life and lore were fascinating, and seemed less sentimentalized or idealized than is often the case. As in Thornyhold there’s a “black” witch as counterpart to the “white,” and this story thread is also explored with depth and complexity, giving a multi-layered look into the workings of evil and the mysterious powers of good.

As is usual in Goudge’s writing, Christianity is explicitly invoked, which might irritate some non-believers, but which seems to me to be necessary in portraying an age of faith, and is generally sensitively done. Though Goudge is clearly a believer, even her most saintly characters (in this case, the wonderful old Parson Hawthyn) are portrayed as rounded human beings, rather than proselytizing tools to hit readers over the head with; and she also does an outstanding job of getting into the head of a religious fanatic in a way that causes us to pity rather than loathe him. While the story might seem slow to those used to the current trend toward sexy whiz-bang historicals, the varied cast of characters is the strength of The White Witch, and if you’re like me, will live on in your mind long after you put the book down.

 

Life During Wartime: The Two Mrs. Abbotts

D.E. Stevenson, The Two Mrs. Abbotts (1943)

Between Miss Buncle Married and The Two Mrs. Abbotts, seven years elapsed, and the world changed utterly. England was now in the midst of the Second World War, and the screwball antics of the first two volumes perhaps seemed out of place to their creator. Whatever the reason, her third outing with Miss Buncle and Co. is distinctly different in tone and structure. Highly episodic, with quick jumps between multiple plot strands that seldom tie into one another, it lacks the narrative tension of the first two books, and also the satirical take on certain characters that provided much of the comedy.

You would never guess that Archie Cobbe, for example, now a rather dull and respectable farmer, was the troublesome disinherited sibling of Miss Buncle Married. The marvelously eccentric Marvell family of that book is almost completely absent, with the exception of Lancreste—once the most devilish of the lot, here he is merely shown dolefully pursuing an unattractive female while waiting for his RAF assignment. And alas, Miss Buncle (now Mrs. Abbott #1) has renounced her authorship for good, it seems, and is given very little to do in general. Stevenson seems to have lost interest in her, and has turned instead to another literary dilemma: that of popular author Janetta Walters, who wants to escape from rapid production of “high-powered tushery” but is hampered by her domineering sister. Although this is one of the more fully developed elements in the book, it is interrupted by many others that are no more than briefly touched on, and often left unresolved. This gives a strange sense of impermanence and distraction—which, come to think of it, is also perhaps a reflection of the wartime setting.

This setting indeed provides much of the interest in this book, which no longer hovers in a timeless English-country-village-land but is very much set in a specific era. Evacuees, German spies, rationing, and billetted soldiers all have a role to play—not out of the self-conscious research of a historical novelist, or with the deeper political agenda of a more “serious” writer, but simply because this is the way life is right now. It’s an interesting example of how the eternal sphere of the domestic comedy is shaped by the pressure of external events.

In short, lovers of Miss Buncle’s Book shouldn’t expect more of the same, but this amply readable story has pleasures of its own.

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The Miss Buncle Books

D.E. Stevenson, Miss Buncle’s Book (1934)

D.E. Stevenson, Miss Buncle Married (1936)

‘I’m an author,’ she said to herself. ‘How very odd!’ —from Miss Buncle’s Book

In the early 20th century, Scottish novelist D.E. Stevenson produced a steady flow of popular light fiction. Several of these novels are now back in print, including the trio about “Miss Buncle,” thanks to Persephone Books in the UK and Sourcebooks in the US. When I read the premise of Miss Buncle’s Book, it sounded irresistible: what happens when a dowdy spinster in a small English village writes a pseudonymous novel about her neighbors?

Well, Miss Buncle’s Book did not disappoint. After a bit of a slow start spent maundering about the village bakery, we meet Barbara Buncle and learn about her book. This “Chronicle of an English Village” has been written in all naive simplicity in the hopes of earning a few pounds, and is devastatingly accurate in its observations because Miss Buncle “has no imagination at all.” The publisher she submits her manuscript to recognizes that it will sell like mad, and although he is surprised when the author “John Smith” turns out to be a rather unassuming lady, and that “his” witty satire is the product of a supremely innocent mind, he signs her up on the spot.

Of course, the very thinly disguised residents of the village begin to recognize themselves when the book becomes a bestseller, and work their way into various ridiculous complications according to their natures. They even start to fulfill some of the destinies that Miss Buncle (belying her own self-declared lack of imagination) has created for them.

I believe this is why Miss Buncle’s Book has lasting appeal: it gives form to the truth that without imagination, without the stories we tell ourselves, there would be no movement and no development; life would come to a standstill. The imagination comes as an unwelcome disruption for those who prefer to live life as an endlessly recurring sameness, but if we follow its song it may lead us around the corner into an unexpected future.

Such is certainly the fate of Miss Buncle, who, after writing a second book that makes the village entirely too hot to hold her, escapes her confirmed spinsterhood into matrimony—and so we have the sequel, Miss Buncle Married. The happy couple leave the dull round of London bridge parties and settle down in a (different) English village. Naturally, they can’t escape being caught up in some absurd situations, notably when Barbara hears the reading of a will that is meant for someone else entirely. Seized with the novel-writing bug again, she produces a scenario that makes everything turn out perfectly—and then endures agonies as she realizes that to publish it would mean having to jump town again. How can life go on without the assistance of art?

Miss Buncle Married explores another dimension of the imagination (here, the dangers of meddling and the happy consequences of sometimes NOT being able to follow our desires). Like its predecessor, it will never be mistaken for great literature, but is an amusing and not entirely thoughtless way to spend a few evenings. But the great question for me at the end was: how can Barbara not be allowed to publish her book? It felt like a betrayal of her creative impulse, and I’m hoping that in The Two Mrs. Abbotts, just re-released by Sourcebooks, I might find some satisfaction. Look for a review in a few days to find out what I thought.

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