Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin

Times past, times present, or times to come, were they not all one, if he had the power to make them so?

Part ghost story, part time-slip fantasy and part historical fiction, Margaret Irwin’s first novel from 1924, recently reissued with a pretty new cover, is a wonderful, dreamlike read.

Jan Challard is a young woman living in 1920s London and trying to find her place in the new society which has emerged from the aftermath of the First World War. Life seems to be going well, but Jan feels restless: she is bored with her office job, bored with the nice, suitable young man who wants to marry her, and haunted by a face in a portrait – a Gentleman Unknown, who seems to be following her everywhere she goes.

In 1779, we meet another bored young woman: seventeen-year-old Juliana Clare, the youngest daughter of an aristocratic family with an estate in Berkshire. Juliana spends her days walking in the gardens of Chidleigh House and writing in her journal, while waiting for something more exciting to happen and remembering a line from her favourite childhood fairytale: “…still she sat and still she span, and still she wished for company”. Company does eventually arrive, but perhaps not in the way Juliana had expected.

First, following the death of Lord Chidleigh, Juliana’s eldest brother Lucian returns after a long absence to take up his father’s title and his inheritance. Stories of the wild, debauched lifestyle Lucian has been leading have reached the family and he receives a frosty welcome at Chidleigh House. Juliana is the only one who is happy to see him and as the brother and sister grow closer, something strange begins to happen: the centuries separating Juliana’s life from Jan’s seem to dissolve and merge. Jan can see Juliana and Juliana can see Jan, but which of them is the ghost and which of them is real?

This is a very short novel, but just the right length for the story – or stories – being told, and it really doesn’t need to be any longer. Jan’s story frames Juliana’s and is confined to a short section at the beginning of the book and another at the end; Margaret Irwin appears to be more comfortable writing about the eighteenth century (a period she obviously knew well and knew how to bring to life) and most of the novel concentrates on Juliana. I couldn’t help comparing this to most of the dual time-period books being written today, where I usually find that far too much time is spent on a weaker present day narrative, leaving me impatient to get back to the more interesting historical one. The structure of Still She Wished for Company is much more effective, in my opinion, as I could become fully immersed in Juliana’s story without being pulled out of it after every few chapters.

The book is beautifully written, with the same elegant prose and powerful descriptive writing I’ve loved in the other Margaret Irwin novels I’ve read. There are no obvious anachronisms, no dialogue that feels jarringly wrong for the time period…it was just a pleasure to read! The eighteenth century storyline on its own could have been the basis for a compelling novel, but the addition of the ghost story/time travel elements make it something special, particularly as they are handled so well that they feel almost believable. It’s a lovely, magical read and just the sort of thing I was in the mood for at the moment!

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson – #1920Club

I wasn’t sure whether I would manage to read and review anything in time for this week’s 1920 Club (hosted by Karen and Simon) but when I picked up E.F. Benson’s 1920 novel Queen Lucia I found it so entertaining and easy to read that I finished most of it in one day! Although I can’t quite say that I loved it, it was just the sort of thing I was in the mood for at the moment – something that would take my mind off the current situation for a while and whisk me away to another time and place.

That place is Riseholme, a quiet English village described by a newcomer as a “delicious, hole-in-the-corner, lazy backwater sort of place, where nothing ever happens, and nobody ever does anything,” but which, to the people who live there, is the centre of the universe. Life in Riseholme consists mainly of arranging dinner parties and musical evenings, while gossiping about the neighbours – and presiding over all of this is Emmeline Lucas, better known as Lucia (pronounced the Italian way, of course). Along with her husband Philip (‘Peppino’) and her loyal ‘gentleman-in-waiting’ Georgie Pillson, Lucia has put herself at the heart of Riseholme society and is the self-proclaimed queen – so imagine her frustration when her rival, Daisy Quantock, begins to pose a threat to her crown. When Mrs Quantock produces an Indian Guru and offers his services as yoga teacher to the villagers, the jealous Lucia manages to ‘steal’ him for herself, so when Daisy moves on to a new fad she vows not to make the same mistake again…

Lucia is such an unpleasant character! From her irritating habit of speaking baby talk with Georgie and her insistence on dropping Italian phrases into conversation, despite only knowing a few words of the language, to the way she pushes others aside to make herself the centre of attention, there is really not much to like about her at all. And yet that didn’t really matter; as this is a satire and Lucia, and the others, are clearly supposed to be comedy characters, the more unlikeable the better!

This is the first in Benson’s six-novel Mapp and Lucia series and also the first one I’ve read. They had never really appealed to me before, although I know a lot of people love them, so I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would. I don’t feel an immediate compulsion to pick up the next one, but I’m sure I will at some point and am looking forward to meeting Miss Mapp.

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Usually I’m able to post a list of other books I’ve reviewed on my blog from the relevant club year, but for 1920 I can find only one:

The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim

It’s a great book and one I would highly recommend.

The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn

This would have been a good book to have read over the Christmas period, but when I picked it up at the beginning of March we were having a spell of particularly heavy snow, which was quite appropriate! This is the fourth book I’ve read by Judith Kinghorn, so I had an idea of what to expect from it: an early twentieth century setting, a big house, a family with servants, their way of life changing as a result of the First World War. The Snow Globe does have all of these things, although the war aspect is not as strong as in The Last Summer or The Echo of Twilight.

The novel opens in December 1926. At Eden Hall in Surrey, the Forbes family are preparing to celebrate Christmas and eighteen-year-old Daisy has brought out her snow globe, a treasured gift from her father, Howard. She and her father have always had a close relationship and this makes it particularly upsetting when she overhears the servants saying that he has been having an affair. To make matters worse, her mother has just invited Howard’s mistress to spend Christmas with them. This creates a dilemma for Daisy. Does her mother know what has been going on – and if not, should she be told?

The discovery that her father may not be the man she has always believed him to be shakes Daisy’s confidence and makes it difficult for her to trust the other men in her life. There are three of them and they have each declared their love for Daisy over that same Christmas period: Stephen Jessop, the housekeeper’s adopted son and Daisy’s childhood friend; Valentine Vincent, the son of her father’s mistress; and Ben Gifford, who works for the family business. To give herself some time to think, Daisy goes to stay in London with her glamorous older sister Iris but eventually she will need to make a decision…will it be the right one?

I enjoyed The Snow Globe, but I found it very light compared to Judith Kinghorn’s other books. Although the book is set in the 1920s, there’s not a lot of history in it. Apart from the opening chapter, which discusses the disappearance of Agatha Christie, there are very few mentions of any other historical events or people of the time. However, it does still capture the feel of the 1920s very well, touching on the lives of those both upstairs and downstairs, class differences within society, attitudes towards marriage, and the changing roles of women.

I liked Daisy – although some of her actions seem a bit silly, it’s worth remembering that she is young and innocent and has just had her world torn apart. Her precious snow globe, which shows a miniature world encased in glass, could be seen as symbolising this: when the globe is shaken the illusion is destroyed and then, when things fall back into place, they are in a slightly different position than they were before. I also liked spending time with the servants, listening to their gossip and seeing life at Eden Hall through their eyes. The character who interested me most, though, was probably Mabel, Daisy’s mother. I found her reaction to the traumas in her life dignified and mature; she didn’t fall apart as some people would, but searched for the strength within herself to carry on.

There was enough happening in The Snow Globe to hold my interest from beginning to end, but it didn’t have the level of depth that I prefer in a novel. I would recommend it to fans of Downton Abbey or other ‘big house’ stories, but I think The Echo of Twilight would be a better choice to start with.

Thanks to Canelo for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby

The Crowded Street is on my Classics Club list, so when I saw that Jessie of Dwell in Possibility was hosting a Persephone Readathon this week, my choice was obvious. This particular book has also been published as a Virago Modern Classic, but my edition is the Persephone one, with the endpapers pictured below. Having already enjoyed several of Holtby’s books – South Riding, The Land of Green Ginger and Poor Caroline – I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while and I’m pleased to say that I loved it even more than I hoped I would.

The novel was published in 1924, at a time when it was assumed that most young women wanted nothing more than to find a husband and then stay at home to raise their children. In The Crowded Street, Holtby looks at what it was like to be a woman who, for one reason or other, was unable to conform to these expectations. Through the stories of Muriel Hammond, her sister Connie and her friends Clare and Delia, she explores the very different routes through life taken by four very different women.

We first meet Muriel in December 1900 when she is eleven years old and attending her first ‘grown-up’ party. Her excitement soon turns to shame when she finds that none of the boys want to dance with her and her dance card remains almost blank. Muriel is confused: The unforgivable sin at a party is to have no partners. To sit quietly in the drawing-room at home was a virtue. The sense that she has somehow let her mother down is a feeling which will stay with her for the next two decades as she continues to go through life partnerless, waiting and hoping for something to happen. She does initially have ambitions – to study astronomy, to go to college – but she doesn’t pursue these as she receives no encouragement from her mother or from her school teacher, who says:

“Character, my dear, to be a fine womanly woman, that matters so much more than intellectual achievement. To serve first your parents, then, I hope, your husband and your children, to be pure, unselfish and devoted, that is my prayer for each one of my girls.”

As a single woman myself, there were times when Muriel’s story resonated with me, but thankfully not all the time! I may not be married, but nobody ever prevented me from going to university or getting a job. Muriel watches with envy as Delia, another unmarried girl from the same Yorkshire village, goes off to Cambridge University, then heads for London and throws herself into political activism.

“But then, she has her work. Women who have their work have an immense thing, even if they are unfortunate in the people whom they love. It is when you have nothing, neither work, nor love, nor even sorrow, that life becomes rather intolerable.”

Of course, some women today are happy to stay at home with their parents, there are some who find plenty of fulfilment in marrying and having children, while others want to move away to pursue their career. There is no right or wrong way to live, but the point is that we have a choice. What makes Muriel’s story so tragic is that she feels she has no choice. She believes that marriage is the only possible way to escape, but if that doesn’t happen, all she can do is continue to help her mother around the house, doing what she sees as her duty (even though her help isn’t particularly necessary). As a result, she becomes more and more depressed, feeling that life is passing her by but lacking the confidence to do anything about it and making excuses to justify why she can’t.

Her younger sister, Connie, tries to break away from the stifling confines of life in Marshington, but she is so desperate that she makes a bad decision which has disastrous consequences. It seems that the only one who is likely to be happy is Muriel’s old school friend, the cheerful and sophisticated Clare, who goes through life without a care in the world and catches the eye of Godfrey Neale, the one man Muriel dreams of as her own potential husband. Clare, though, has the opposite problem. Having had a very different upbringing from Muriel and Connie, will she be able to adapt to living in a small Yorkshire village?

At one point, Muriel thinks to herself:

“All books are the same – about beautiful girls who get married or married women who fall in love with their husbands. In books things always happen to people. Why doesn’t somebody write a book about someone to whom nothing ever happens – like me?”

Well, Winifred Holtby has written that book and I don’t think it’s quite true that nothing happens to Muriel. She does develop as a person as the novel progresses and, although it takes a long time, she slowly becomes aware that if she is to have any happiness she will have to take matters into her own hands. I loved the way her story ended: she has an important decision to make and in my opinion she does the right thing.

As well as following the characters I’ve mentioned above, we are also given some insights into the effects of the First World War on small communities like the fictional Marshington. I particularly enjoyed the vivid depiction of the bombardment of Scarborough in 1914, something Winifred Holtby could draw on personal experience to describe. The Crowded Street is a wonderful book in so many ways and a great choice for both the Classics Club and the Persephone Readathon!

This is Book 2/50 from my second Classics Club list

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

the-red-house-mysteryI don’t think I would have ever read The Red House Mystery if it hadn’t been for seeing other bloggers reading and reviewing it. I had always thought of A.A. Milne solely as the author of the Winnie the Pooh stories and it had never occurred to me to wonder what else he had written. It turns out that The Red House Mystery, originally published in 1922, was his first and only detective novel – which is a shame, because it’s excellent.

The novel opens on a beautiful summer’s day with Mark Ablett entertaining guests from London at his home, the Red House. Earlier that morning, Mark had announced to his friends that his brother, Robert, was on his way home from Australia, having been absent for fifteen years. The guests are surprised to hear this, as Mark had never mentioned a brother before, and unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, given the descriptions of Robert’s character – they don’t get a chance to meet him, because almost as soon as Robert arrives at the Red House he is shot dead.

Antony Gillingham, a latecomer to the party at the Red House, is one of the first on the scene, along with Mr Cayley, the Abletts’ cousin. Seeing Robert’s dead body on the office floor and no sign of Mark, who appears to have run away, it seems quite obvious what has happened…but Antony is not so sure. Joining forces with his friend and fellow house guest, Bill Beverley, he begins to search for clues in an attempt to solve the mystery.

I loved this book; being such an early example of a detective novel, it contains many of the elements of a classic ‘locked room mystery’ which would still have felt fresh and new in the 1920s: a country house, secret passages, ghostly figures, midnight adventures, red herrings etc. I also think Milne is very fair to the reader, providing enough hints for us to at least guess at the solution, while not making it too easy to work out.

Antony and Bill make a great detecting team, falling perfectly into the roles of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (they even refer to themselves as Holmes and Watson several times throughout the novel). They are both very likeable characters and I would have been happy to read a whole series of Gillingham/Beverley mysteries.

Most of all, though, I loved the writing style, which is light and lively, with plenty of humour and witty dialogue. Here, for example, is a conversation between two of the Red House servants:

“I was never the one to pretend to be what I wasn’t. If I’m fifty-five, I’m fifty-five – that’s what I say.”

“Fifty-eight, isn’t it, auntie?”

“I was just giving that as an example,” said Mrs. Stevens with great dignity.

And here we learn what Antony’s father thinks of his son:

Old Gillingham returned to his paper. Antony was a younger son, and, on the whole, not so interesting to his father as the cadets of certain other families; Champion Birket’s, for instance. But, then, Champion Birket was the best Hereford bull he had ever bred.

The Red House Mystery was great fun to read.  Having enjoyed it so much, I’m disappointed that there aren’t more mysteries to read by A.A. Milne, but if you think I might like any of his other books I would love to hear your recommendations.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests This is Sarah Waters’ sixth novel, published in 2014. I have read and enjoyed all of her previous five, but after seeing some very mixed reviews of The Paying Guests around the time of publication, I decided I wasn’t in any hurry to read this one. I knew I would read it eventually, but I wanted to wait until I was in the right mood for it.

This book is set in London in 1922 which I was pleased about as, surprisingly, I have preferred Sarah Waters’ 20th century novels (The Little Stranger and The Night Watch) to the Victorian ones (Fingersmith, Affinity and Tipping the Velvet). I always find the 1920s an interesting decade to read about; it was so soon after the end of the war and, for most people, life would never be the same again.

In The Paying Guests we meet twenty-six-year-old Frances Wray, a young woman whose life has certainly been affected by the war – her two brothers were killed in action and her father died not long after, leaving Frances and her mother alone and struggling financially. Frances is now doing the work that the servants used to do and, to avoid having to sell the house, she and her mother have decided to take in lodgers or ‘paying guests’.

The paying guests are a young married couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, and from the moment of their arrival the atmosphere in the house changes. The Barbers belong to what Frances calls the ‘clerk class’ and they have different views, different attitudes and different ways of living their lives. Sarah Waters captures perfectly what it feels like to suddenly have to share your home with strangers:

Water was run after that, and then another odd noise started, a sort of pulse or quick pant – the meter again, presumably, as the gas ran through it. Mrs Barber must be boiling a kettle. Now her husband had joined her. There was conversation, laughter… Frances caught herself thinking, as she might have done of guests, Well, they’re certainly making themselves at home. Then she took in the implication of the words, and her heart, very slightly, sank.

As Frances gets to know the new lodgers, she finds herself increasingly attracted to Lilian. Having ended an earlier romance with another girl, Christina, for the sake of her family, Frances is determined not to let another chance of happiness slip away. This time, though, she faces not only the disapproval of her mother, but also an even bigger obstacle in the form of Lilian’s husband, Leonard.

The relationship between Frances and Lilian develops slowly throughout the first half of the novel. Although it’s difficult to tell what Lilian is truly thinking or feeling, there’s no doubt about the intensity of Frances’s emotions. While I can’t say that I particularly liked Frances, I did feel worried for her: she had already been through so much in the past and I could sense that there would be more trouble coming her way in the future. And I was right. The tension builds and builds in the Wray household and there is the sense that something big and significant is going to happen. Eventually something does happen (something horrible, dramatic and shocking) and from that point the plot begins to go in a very different direction.

The second half of the book is still interesting and compelling in its own way, but it does feel like an entirely different story and I think I might have been happier if this had continued to be the quiet 1920s domestic novel it seemed to be at the beginning. I did enjoy The Paying Guests, though, and I’m intrigued by the list of books Sarah Waters mentions as her influences; I’m particularly interested now in reading A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse.

Beau Geste by P.C. Wren

Beau Geste When choosing what to read for Karen and Simon’s 1924 Club, I was pleased to find two unread books already on my shelf that were published in the required year: Precious Bane by Mary Webb and Beau Geste by Percival Christopher Wren. I do still want to read Precious Bane at some point (I’m curious to see what I think of it, having read some very mixed reviews), but I decided on Beau Geste instead as it sounded like a book I would be almost certain to enjoy.

Beau Geste is many things: an adventure novel set in North Africa; a tale of the French Foreign Legion; an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit. But if I was asked to describe it in one sentence, I would say that it’s a book for people who like puzzles.

It begins with a particularly fascinating and perplexing puzzle – the discovery by Major Henri de Beaujolais of a fort in the desert manned entirely by dead soldiers, their bodies strategically positioned around the walls and ramparts. Their commander is dead too, with a bayonet through his heart, a revolver in one hand and a letter in the other. Telling this story later to a friend, the Major is still trying to work out what could have happened at the fort and what the sequence of events could have been. His friend, however, is more interested in the contents of the letter in the dead officer’s hand: a letter which leads us to a second puzzle – the disappearance of a precious sapphire known as ‘the Blue Water’.

Before we can solve either of these two mysteries, we need to go back in time and meet the Geste brothers – Michael (nicknamed Beau because he is so good and honourable), his twin, Digby, and the youngest, John. The Gestes are orphans and live with their aunt, Lady Brandon, to whom the Blue Water belongs. All three brothers are present when the jewel disappears and all three decide to take the blame. One by one, they confess to the crime and run away to join the French Foreign Legion. Eventually they find themselves at the Fort of Zinderneuf in French North Africa, where Henri de Beaujolais stumbles upon the scenario described at the beginning of the book.

Most of the novel is narrated by John Geste and through his eyes we are given some fascinating insights into life in the Foreign Legion, where people from a mixture of backgrounds and nationalities live and work together. During their time in the Legion, John and his brothers form some lasting friendships but also witness treachery and betrayal as a group of their fellow soldiers begin to plan a mutiny. And this provides yet another puzzle, as John tries to decide who can and cannot be trusted, who knows about the mutiny and who does not.

This book was, obviously, published in 1924 and it does feel very dated now, particularly in its attitudes towards race and class (it’s definitely not what you could call politically correct). Many of the characters – for example, Hank and Buddy, two American cowboys who befriend the Geste brothers – feel like stereotypes or caricatures. It’s so much fun to read, though, that it’s easy enough to overlook any flaws; the only thing that did spoil the book slightly for me was a long section near the end which takes the story in a different direction – this didn’t really seem necessary and only delayed the resolution of the mystery.

1924-club I enjoyed Beau Geste as much as I expected to and was pleased to find that P.C. Wren wrote more books featuring some of the same characters. I’m looking forward to reading Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal!