The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Benefactress front cover showing gilded title & decorationI have been searching around on The Landing to find ideas for a new series of blog posts. Obviously, at this stage my projected spring Renaissance has turned into a pre-Christmas Renaissance. So here goes…

As I was scouring the shelves, I once again realised that we have a nice selection of older books, quirky titles and interesting finds. Some of these are books for dipping into merely, others for a straightforward read. In the latter category I have picked out a book that I acquired many years ago and I am ashamed to say, that I have not got around to reading before now. This is a lovely 1911 pocket-sized edition of The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim.

For the sake of the honour of The Landing I decided that it was about time to remedy the omission and read The Benefactress. The snag with reading something so old (and to me rather precious) is that I felt that I dare not just shove it in my bag to read at lunchtime. And as for my fondness for reading in the bath…well some things are just not very wise. Not that I have actually yet dropped a book in the bath (maybe dipped the odd corner here and there) but there’s always a first time. Reading an older book does give a different quality of experience, due to the touch and feel of the book. I’ll just say a few words about this edition before telling a little about The Benefactress for those of you who don’t know the story.

This little book goes back to my Birmingham days, so I’ve had it for well over twenty years, but sadly I can’t remember what book fair or shop this volume came from. Its cover is very similar to that of a poetry chapbook that I have mentioned in a previous post, a sort of suede like texture but I don’t think it is actually leather. Maybe someday I will take it to an expert who will be able to tell me something about the material and how best to care for it (I may have mentioned before that dusting is not my strong suit). I love the elegant gilt swirl of the cover design, which is echoed on the end papers. Unfortunately, the ribbon marker has seen better days, but I still keep it out of a sense of completeness. The page edges have browned with age and there is gilt on the top edges but not the others. I don’t think it’s rubbed off; rather it looks as if they were never gilded in the first place. Judging from the publishing details this edition was published by MacMillan as part of its 7d series (1911), with the first edition being 1901.

But now to the story: The lovely and charming Anna Lestcourt is twenty-five when the story opens and should be full of all of the optimism of youth. However, Anna is financially dependent upon her rich sister-in-law (wife to her brother Sir Peter), a former Miss Susie Dobbs of Birmingham. As was not unusual at the time, there was a trading of new money for an ancient name and family home. All of this leaves Anna on Susie’s hands to marry off successfully, but so far to no avail. Anna remains resolutely unmarried, but not for the want of trying on Susie’s part. Anna’s fortunes take a turn for the better when her late mother’s brother comes on a visit from Germany and takes a liking to his niece. Subsequently he bequeaths her one of his estates, along with its income, which he hopes will secure her a good German husband.  Anna, however has other ideas, not being much sold on the good German husband idea. She forms the plan of opening up her new abode to several distressed gentlewomen, (who would live at her expense) much to Susie’s bafflement. Once in Germany, Anna makes the acquaintance of her new overseer, the local pastor and her nearest neighbour, Axel Lohm, with mixed results. Perhaps not surprisingly, the plan to fulfil the role of a benefactress does not go entirely according to plan, but I won’t plot spoil. Suffice to say that human nature will out. I will leave you to discover whether or not the marriage to a GGH comes to pass.

As I was reading the first part of the book, I found myself developing a certain sympathy for Anna’s sister-in-law Susie. Now this may have been a case of Brummie lasses sticking together, but I felt aggrieved on her behalf as Von Arnim portrayed her in a definitely unflattering light:

And the Dobbses were one and all singularly unattractive—a race of eager, restless, wiry little men and women, anxious to get as much as they could, and keep it as long as they could, a family succeeding in gathering a good deal of money together in one place, and failing entirely in the art of making friends.

Clearly, one could not come from the mercantile classes in Birmingham and be in any way cultured, socially adept or indeed philosophical (her husband was a philosopher). At the same time of course, her money came in very useful to save the aristocratic Lestcourt family from penury and to restore the family pile. Naturally too, Anna deplored Susie’s vulgar taste in furnishings. Thankfully Von Arnim did give Susie the occasional good line, “Really,” added Susie, twitching her shoulder, “you might remember that it isn’t all roses for me either, trying to get someone else’s daughter married.”

And she has a point; who would want to be trying to marry off a sister-in-law who doesn’t even want to be co-operative. It must have been particularly galling for Susie, since it was Anna who had all of the social cachet that she lacked.

Anna Lestcourt is however a far from heartless girl, who does come to understand that Susie’s position is not a happy one, seeing as she does that, ‘No one cared for her in the very least. She had hundreds of acquaintances, who would eat her dinners and go away and poke fun at her, but not a single friend.’ Yet at the same time, Anna resents been required to do the one thing that that might bring some cheer into Susie’s lonely life. Poor Susie would have loved a wedding to plan for and access to all of those elite hostesses who have so far snubbed her efforts.Front cover & spine showing gilded title & decoration

In The Benefactress, Von Arnim has given us a fascinating mix of characters with decidedly mixed moral standards, from whom Anna learns much in the course of her social experiment. It’s a long time since I read any von Arnim books, the most recent being The Solitary Summer, read a couple of years ago and this is a very different read. I did enjoy the story, possibly enhanced by the delights of finally reading my delightful little edition (despite my misgivings about Von Armin’s rather cruel characterisation of Brummie Susie) and I will no doubt read it again in about twenty years.

I’m not going to promise another blog post soon, though I will try to get back on track. But in the meantime, happy reading!

Picture credits: Chris Mills

 

 

 

 

A Landing New Beginning…

Section of non-fiction bookshelf

A few more to read…

As I am sure I don’t need to point out, it’s been a while since I visited the Landing Bookshelves, so things are a little dusty around here at the moment. The spiders and their cobwebs have certainly taken over here. I have recently found myself at home with time on my hands during the last couple of months so it seemed a good idea to spend some of this time rummaging around in the Landing domain. However I am forced to admit that I have so far avoided doing any cleaning while I browsed. In so doing, I have re-discovered a few treasures tucked away (needless to say, rather dusty ones) and a many still un-read tomes. Plenty of food for thought.

During my enforced stay within the confines of the Landing, I have become convinced that if somebody confiscated my library card (OK, both of them) and my debit card then I would still have plenty to read for a very long time to come. Now, this profound realisation takes me back several years and to the very raison d’être of the Landing blog in the first place. I set myself the task of reading around the bookshelves situated on our landing in 2012 and clearly I haven’t finished yet. Hmm, I wonder why that could be. I must stop buying and borrowing books if I’m EVER to finish this project… Part of the fiction bookshelf

You’ve probably guessed by now however, that although there are indeed (three) bookshelves on the landing itself, the strict definition of the ‘Landing Bookshelves’ has become somewhat of an elastic concept. I have dipped into bookshelves all over the house and most recently have been ferreting in the Bookworm’s shelves while she is away. I also occasionally trawl through books belonging to He Who Put The Shelves Up (Am I the only person who buys gifts of books that I would like to read myself? Surely not).

As I have mentioned above, I have strayed somewhat from my original reading plan and I have incorporated library finds, purchases, review copies etc into my Landing blog, which while it dilutes the TBR content, doesn’t (I hope) detract from the range of literary topics covered. I have also really enjoyed having a few writers along to the blog to give a guest post or to answer a few questions on their latest book. The first of these was Andres Neuman, all the way back in 2012. Perhaps an author post is an idea to revisit in the future.

What I am trying to get around to saying here, is that I have really enjoyed writing this blog, despite the fact that my original bookish intentions have gone off the rails at times. Now, after a gap of a year I would like to get this blog back on the road. I hope to get back into a reasonably regular pattern of blogging before the year is too much older. I’m not promising to avoid library reads but I will delve a little more deeply into the extended Landing Bookshelves. I plan to work out a theme for a mini-series of monthly posts and get the old fingers tripping over the keyboard more regularly this year. I have decided that having kept the Landing Bookshelves going since 2012, it was a shame to give up on it without giving it another go.

More soon, but meanwhile if anyone would like to drop me a line to let me know if you have a favourite blog item, please feel free to do so!

 

 

This is Not Your Final Form: Emma Press

Cover of This is Not Your Final Form For this post I am having a change of direction and featuring a poetry book as I have not done so for a quite a while (sadly remiss of me). The collection This is Not Your Final Form (edited by Richard O’Brien and Emma Wright) is comprised of entrants and winners from the Birmingham based 2017 Verve Festival Poetry Competition. This book isn’t a long term TBR item as it only took up residence on my bedside table a few months ago and I did start reading it straightaway. I was browsing on the Emma Press website and as a Brummagem lass now based in Dublin, this collection was too tempting to pass up, so dear reader, I bought a copy. The back-cover blurb says this is ‘a tough, unsentimental love letter to the Midlands metropolis, which finds beauty in concrete and unity in contradiction’. And there is certainly a lot of concrete in Birmingham to inspire conflicting emotions, especially as Birmingham never seems to achieve its ‘final form’. I suspect it never will.

Canals and stories

There are so many poems that I like in this anthology, that it is difficult to know what to feature in a short article such as this. I am simply going to pull out a few themes from the collection that particularly resonated with me, starting with that old saying about Birmingham having more canals than Venice. I think that one cropped up in three poems altogether. Here’s an extract from ‘Birmingham – some advice’ by Rob Walton which amused me, as it suggested that we should change the saying to better attract tourists to Birmingham:

Seems you have ‘more canals than Venice’,
but surely ‘more canals than roads’ would be more impressive.
And wetter. Which could lead to more souvenir towel sales.
I got soaked in Birmingham! How about you?

I like the sound of the idea, but would it work I wonder? Let’s have your tea towel designs on a postcard please! Kibriya Mehrban’s poem takes as its title ‘More Canals than Venice’ and links the man-made waterways of Birmingham with rivers, tears and the currents that brought her family to Birmingham from Kashmir:

We were washed into this world,
soaking it with our colour.
Some stood, splattered, scandalised,
while others called us sisters and brothers,
offered us cloud cover.

When my grandfather first saw a girl in a hijab
working at the local post office,
he cried this city a river.

Mehrban’s poem tells us her family’s story though different generations and experiences. How they found a home in Birmingham despite the hostility of some people. This collection serves to remind us that Birmingham has been the scene of many family stories, some sad, some happy, during its long history. Birmingham also played a crucial role in the story of the modern nation. Rishi Dastidar’s lines say it all:

The middle is where the future started –
our modern world was invented here.
Minds, steam, capital met in manner uncharted –
the middle is where the future started.

 

An unsolved mystery

Continuing with the theme of story, what place would be complete without at least one unsolved mystery? The one featured in this collection was somewhat macabre and has proved endlessly fascinating to later generations as this poem proves. ‘Who put Bella in the Wych Elm Tree?’ by Helen Rehman is about a 1940s murder that remains unsolved to this day. In 1943, four boys were poaching in Hagley Wood when they discovered a skeleton, later found to be that of a female, hidden within a tree trunk. To cut a long story short, there have been many theories and stories around the discovery. These were partly fuelled by the appearance of graffiti that gave a possible name to the dead woman. The poem title references one version of the provocative question, which appeared on locations around the Midlands after the remains were found.

As the last verse tells it, time has moved on, the remains can no longer be located and the mystery endures:

The skeleton’s mislaid, the experts can’t agree,
the boys are grown and gone and lost to history;
she haunts the city’s dreams and grows a mystery.
I wonder who put Bella in the wych elm tree.

Brummie-isms

I move onto what is possibly my favourite poem in the book as it references some of the Brummie expressions that I grew up with and still fondly remember. The strange thing about local quirks of language is that you accept them while young and it never occurs to you to ask where/why/how these expressions came about. Here’s a snippet from ‘Never in a rain of pig’s pudding’ by Jill Munro:

You can take the girl out of Brummagem,
let her leave behind old Winson Street.
dress her in some bostin Southern glad rags,
marry her to a yampy Cockney with some ackers

But don’t throw this babby out with the bathwater,
for so long as it’s a bit black over Bill’s mother’s
you’ll never take the Brummagem out of the girl –
even way down south, she’ll always be Our Kid.

I like the last line, it reminds me of my uncle calling my dad ‘Our Kid’ even though dad was the eldest brother. If anyone wants an explanation of some of the terms in the verses quoted, there is a handy guide on the Birmingham Live website, giving you fifty Brummie and Black Country words and phrases to chew over. Not all the phrases given necessarily originated in or are exclusive to Brum as language travels as people move around the country.

I’m going to finish with my own contribution to the topic of language with one of my Paragraph Planet pieces from 2016, with some of my Brummagem memories.

 

Hepserus: a 75 word piece from Paragraph Planet

I’ll just note that whereas Jill Munro’s poem has ‘faces as long as Livery Street’, I grew up with ‘arms as long as…’. Which just goes to show the adaptability of the local lingo.

That’s it for now and I hope it won’t be too long before I dig another poetry book out of the Landing Book Shelves!  

 

 

Month of Letters Round-Up: Final Stages

Month of Letters yellow logoI did say on an earlier post that I would give you an update on my Month of Letters progress and so here it is. The short version is that I am still keeping going and I think I can safely say I am on track to complete the month. If you want a bit more detail than that, do read on And if you want to look at one of my previous Month of Letters post try here or here. You might want to give it a try yourself next year!

As I have done before I jotted down a list of possible recipients before starting, beginning with family and friends back in the UK. I have begun to see Month of Letters as a wakeup call where I have become slack in keeping in touch with old friends. I then add all of my Ireland based friends, most of whom are in Dublin. I suppose really I end up re-writing my Christmas card list in February (maybe next Christmas I should simply file it away for February instead of putting it in the recycling bin).

Birth of Venus

From Teri

My intention to do something really imaginative in the mail line this year has not actually transpired. In fact, I am being a very thrifty correspondent and operating a ‘using up’ system, which I am aware may sound rather heartless. However, it is all in an environmentally aware kind of a way really. I have collected up so many postcards over the years that to either dump them or buy yet more would be foolish. And anyway, I do have some nice cards to bestow. This year I have been using up my Penguin book jackets, Spike Milligan cartoons and some Chagall cards from The Tate Gallery. I have also indulged my passion for free stuff, acquiring book marks, postcards and tourist information cards to enclose with a note for my international recipients.

Excavation: Iraq 1933-34

From Barbara

The one big difference for me in doing Month of Letters this year is that I no longer have my dad’s birthday to mark, as he died in June 2016. I also used to squeeze in my parent’s anniversary card at the end of the month since it fell at the beginning of March, so that has now gone. I gave the challenge a break last year for these reasons, but decided to return afresh this year and try to include as many people as possible who mattered to me. It’s never too late to make an effort somewhat greater than clicking on a Facebook ‘like’ button for a change. I will say no more for fear of sounding mawkish but you see what I mean.

So now I am on the home straight with only a few more posting

Winnie the Pooh, Piglet & Heffalumps

From Karina

days to go so I might have to double up a bit more to fit in the waifs and strays. I have been writing to my mum more often these days and also sending mail to our daughter who is studying away so I already have been doubling most days. This year I have included some new faces, as I have despatched postcards to new correspondents gained from the Month of Letters membership. This has broadened my range to Canada, Scotland and Northumberland (and I haven’t quite finished). I have added in here pictures of some cards that I have received in return, but the nice thing is that I usually find that replies trickle through into March, which makes February into a nice long month really.

And now I am off to pen my last few postcards of the month!

 

Daphne du Maurier’s letters to Oriel Malet

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been following the Month of Letters February challenge for the past few years, I think since its first year. I missed last year, but I am back on course for 2018. In honour of Month of Letters, I usually try to write a letter themed post at this time, and so here is this February’s offering. I also hope to give an update on my letter writing progress too as the month goes on.

Letters from MenabillyMy letter themed post this time features one of my all-time favourite writers, Daphne du Maurier in correspondence with a fellow writer, Oriel Malet. The collection, edited by Oriel Malet is entitled Letters from Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1993). I have had this collection for some while and I don’t think I have ever got around to reading it properly. It was published in the same years as Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier, whom Oriel Malet credits in her acknowledgments. I bought the biography the same year it came out, but I think Letters from Menabilly came to me some years later as a second-hand bargain. The letters interspersed with Malet’s commentary chart the course of a thirty-year friendship between the women and their families beginning with their chance meeting in the mid-1950s.

Oriel Malet begins the book by talking about how, when and where she and Daphne du Maurier first met and how their relationship developed. She was still a young writer at this point whereas du Maurier was very successful and well-known. Malet at this point had heard of du Maurier but not read any of her books. They shared an American publisher, Doubleday, and first met at a London party hosted by the publisher’s wife Ellen Doubleday. They had shared a mutual dislike of social gatherings and being forced to meet new people, but when they found themselves waiting outside the Doubleday hotel suite for the hostess to arrive, they struck up an unforced conversation. Neither woman introduced herself and it wasn’t until the party began that Oriel Malet realised to whom she had been speaking. She described Daphne rather poetically thus, ‘she reminded me of a figurehead at the prow of a ship; alert, poised, looking into the distance yet perhaps laughing inwardly and no more at ease in so worldly as setting than I was myself’. If you look at this photo from the book you can see what she meant. They sneaked away from the party together and talked while Daphne packed for her return to trip to Cornwall. And the rest as they say, was history. The letters cover many topics and events in the women’s lives, but I just want to focus on one of the conversational threads for this blog post.Portrait of Daphne du Maurier

Literary advice

I was particularly interested in Daphne du Maurier’s generosity in giving advice to the younger writer. Over the course of the years the two women discussed writers (both of them were Katherine Mansfield fans) and writing in both general and specific terms. In one of the early letters in the collection, du Maurier gives Malet advice on a book that she is working on, saying ‘You don’t have to have a ‘plot’; it sounds like Guy Fawkes in his old cloak, creeping with a lantern’. The imagery is amusing but she goes on to explain her point, elaborating thus, ‘You don’t even have to have action  (think of Proust). But you must have a real reason for it all, a reason for the things you want to say’. Eminently sensible advice from a seasoned professional. In a later letter after reading a draft of a short story, du Maurier urges Malet to consider its potential as a novel,

I read your story going up in the train, and was absorbed by it. I love the way you write, and the things you write about, but my criticism would be that this atmosphere and story are wasted on a short story – you should develop it into a novel … I think you have the potential material here for a lovely long and interesting book.

The letters and Oriel Malet’s memories of her visits to Menabilly also weave in the progress of du Maurier’s own work. On one such visit, Malet recalls crossing a field and being afraid of a resident bull. Du Maurier was however more concerned with a flock of seagulls, remarking how frightening it would be ‘if all the birds in the world were to gang up together and attack us…..They could you know’. She was proved right in the disturbing short story ‘The Birds’ (from The Appletree, Gollancz, 1952) which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963.

I was also intrigued by the importance of the Brontës’ early writing about the fictional world of Angria and Gondal. In du Maurier-speak, ‘to Gondal’ meant to pretend or to make-believe and the expression crops up several times during the course of the correspondence. In August 1963, Daphne wrote to Oriel,

If I pass a place I once lived (like at Hampstead), I often do a Gondal, whereby I go into it just as if it were still mine, and take my coat off, and somehow settle down, and then try to imagine the amaze surprise of the new owner coming in, and how one would behave in the Gondal just as if they were not there, and one was still in possession.  …

Another thing I Gondal about, is supposing one suddenly went and rang at a person’s house, who was a Fan- …

Du Maurier was fascinated by Branwell Brontë and the book she wrote about him, the Infernal World of Branwell Brontë appears to have been simmering in the background for many years. She was very knowledgeable about the Brontë family and visited Haworth with Oriel after being asked to write a preface for a new edition of Wuthering Heights in 1954.  Oriel later received a letter in which Daphne says the Macdonald Classics editor claimed that ‘he had never read anything before that gave him such a vivid and convincing impression of her [Emily’s] work and personality’. I was amused to note that the literary tone of this letter finished on a prosaic note however, mentioning a friend’s assertion that the Channel boats would go on strike as they were owned by British Railways. Daphne anxiously enquires of Oriel, ‘Do you think this is true?’ Clearly even best-selling writers have to be practical.

A note on the ‘in’ language in the letters

The first thing a reader notices in reading any collection of letters such as this, is that a private world is laid open for perusal. I would recommend not neglecting to read Oriel Malet’s helpful glossary of the du Maurier family’s expressions and nicknames before you start the letters, or you will be forever dodging back and forth to clarify the meaning of sentences, especially Malet took on some of these expressions and uses them in her reminisces. I found it strange to be grappling with family language because it did at times make me feel that I was an unwanted intruder into a private world. There is also the disconcerting feeling that it is all a bit childish for adults to be using what sometimes seemed like nursery language. For instance, Du Maurier refers to having a period as having a ‘Robert’ and ‘to wax’ meaning sex. On the other hand, her term ‘brewing’ for working on a story or plot makes perfect sense and conjures up a sense of the author intently and productively mulling over her characters and their actions.

Having said all of that, I found much to enjoy in the letters and the accompanying contextual passages. In fact, I am struggling to suppress an urge to re-read all of the Daphne du Maurier books I have ever read and to catch up on those I have mysteriously missed out reading to date. Another blog series methinks. Now on my mental TBR pile are books by Oriel Malet, as I must confess that I have never read any of her books.

I have also come across a post about Daphne and Oriel on a blog called Something Rhymed, which looks at female literary friendships.

Do drop me a line if you are a Du Maurier fan too!

 

Fanny Burney: Novelist and Diarist

Cover of Fanny Burney: a BiographyFor today’s post, I want to return to one of the books I mentioned in my summer 2017 round-up, a biography of Fanny Burney (1752-1840) to talk about her in a little more detail. I have had a long acquaintance the novelist and diarist. As I mentioned previously, a novel called A Coach for Fanny Burney by Florence Bone (1938) captured my interest as a teenager. At the time, I had no idea who she was, it was the title that caught my attention (I can’t say it was the cover as the hardback book had long since lost its dust jacket). That book was still tucked away on a shelf in my mum’s spare room, so it came to mind instantly when I spotted Claire Harman’s Fanny Burney: A Biography (Harper Collins, 2000) at last year’s Trinity Book Sale. We could digress at this point and discuss the inevitability of another of my TBS finds finding its way into a blog post, and how this is not actually tackling the TBR Pile proper, but we won’t.

As Fanny Burney came to know everyone who was anyone in eighteenth century literary society (see pictures of Hester Thrale and Samuel Johnson below), she has tended to pop up in other people’s biographies, but this is the first detailed account of her life that I have read. It is a veritable tome indeed but a very readable one at that, covering Burney’s eventful life and times. She could have been a heroine in a novel herself; she married an emigre French aristocrat and soldier Alexandre d’Arblay with whom she lived on a shoestring until d’Arblay had the opportunity to return home to attempt to serve the new regime and reclaim a portion of his property. This resulted in the couple being unable to leave post-revolutionary France for ten years. One story that most impressed me when I first heard it was that in her later years, Fanny heroically underwent a mastectomy without anaesthetic. It almost doesn’t bear thinking about, but the redoubtable Fanny lived to tell the tale and left an account of it for posterity into the bargain.Portraits of the Burney family

Fanny Burney wrote four novels, Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796) and The Wanderer (1814), several plays and also edited her musician father’s memoirs (1832). Her letters and diaries were not published until after her death, the earliest edition edited by her niece Charlotte Barrett and running to six volumes (1842-6). A more recent and comprehensive edition comprises twelve volumes (edited by Joyce Hemlow et al, 1972-1984) in a project yet unfinished. Claire Harman discusses the reliability of Burney’s diaries, her editorship of her father’s papers and the vast quantity of the Burney family’s archives which include letters from her siblings. Harman talks about Fanny’s phenomenal recall for events and conversations, but also acknowledges that she carefully presented a certain image of herself and her family. The family came from relatively humble origins, as expressed in Hester Thrale’s damming comment, ‘The Burneys are I believe a very low Race of Mortals’, furthermore, Fanny was ‘not a Woman of Fashion’. At this point Dr Burney taught music to Mrs Thrale’s daughter, but in later years Fanny attempted to gloss over parts of her family history.

Claire Harman’s biography is so comprehensive that I thought I would take a quick look at one episode of Fanny Burney’s life for this blog post. As both the British and Irish press have been talking about British royal weddings lately, I decided to cast an eye over Burney’s brush with royalty. She was appointed Second Keep of the Robes to Queen Charlotte, a post that naturally was supposed to be seen as an honour to her and her family. Fanny was not initially keen and only agreed to the appointment for her family’s sake. The appointment came about after Fanny made the King and Queen’s acquaintance through Mrs Mary Delaney, a highly cultured woman who was well-regarded by the royal couple. The first time she met George III, he had called unannounced to visit Mrs Delaney and Fanny later described what happened in a letter, likening the incident to a scene in a drama,

It seemed to me we were acting in a play. There is something so little like common and real life, in everybody’s standing, while talking, in a room full of chairs, and standing, too, so aloof from each other, that I almost thought myself upon a stage, assisting in the representations of a tragedy, …

Fanny went on to describe the various roles in this drama, adding her own part as that of ‘a very solemn, sober, and decent mute’.

Even before Fanny was offered her court position, she was having fun with the niceties of court etiquette. This is a snippet from ‘Directions for coughing, sneezing, or moving, before the King and Queen’ which she wrote and sent to her sister Hetty in December 1785.

In the first place, you must not cough. If you find a cough tickling in your throat, you must arrest it from making any sound; if you find yourself choking with the forbearance, you must choke – but not cough.

In the second place, you must not sneeze. If you have vehement cold, you must take no notice of it; if you nose-membranes feel a great irritation, you must hold your breath; if a sneeze still insists upon making its way, you must oppose it, by keeping your teeth grinding together; if the violence of the repulse breaks some blood-vessel, you must break the blood-vessel – but not sneeze…

Fanny goes on to explain that you must not ‘stir either hand or foot’ even if by terrible bad luck ‘a black pin runs into your head, you must not take it out…’

Mrs Thrale & Dr Johnson

I suppose we can only assume that things have changed for the better in court circles since Fanny’s time. When her court appointment was offered, considered and reluctantly accepted, Fanny’s new position paid her £200 a year, she had apartments in Windsor Castle and a footman. Fanny was allowed to have family and close friends to visit but her own freedom to travel was curtailed. Fanny was to be at court for five years, before begging her father to arrange her release from duties. Fanny likened her new commitment to marriage in a letter to her sister Susan saying,

I was averse to forming the union, and I endeavoured to escape it, but my friends interfered – they prevailed – and the knot is tied. What then now remains but to make the best wife in my power? I am bound to it in duty, and I will strain every nerve to succeed.

Fanny’s tenure coincided with the period of George III’s ‘madness’, though that is too large a topic to cover in this post. Suffice to say that Fanny was a first-hand witness of signs of his imminent recovery, when she accidentally encountered him walking with Dr Willis and his attendants one morning. Fanny was apprehensive as the King had been violent at the height of his illness, but he greeted her and questioned her about recent news saying, ‘I have lived so long out of the world, I know nothing!’ as Fanny recorded it. He also kissed her on the cheek, a great lapse of protocol. The whole experience was the ‘severest personal terror’ to Fanny Burney who did not know what to expect. However, she was able to pass to the queen this encouraging report (though as Harman remarks, Fanny no doubt kept the royal embrace to herself).

I will leave Fanny Burney’s court life there, but I hope I have said enough to pique your interest in her life and work. I have to confess that despite reading about Fanny Burney and her literary circle over the years, I have not yet read one of her novels. Another item on my virtual TBR Pile, to go with the actual TBR Pile groaning upstairs!

I hope your 2018 reading is proving fruitful so far. Do let me know what you are reading!

 

 

Diary of a Provincial Lady

For this, my first post of the year I want to introduce the The Diary of a Provincial Lady (E.M. Delafield) to anyone who hasn’t come across her before. I have been meaning to read the book for ages (hence the need for this challenge and this blog in the first place) and I did finally get around to it last year. Although it isn’t a 2018 read, I wanted to talk a little about it before I put it back on the shelf. My edition is a Virago paperback (1984) which comprises four diaries of the Provincial Lady. It also contains an excellent introduction by Nicola Beauman. I have discovered that Persephone Books offer a lovely reprint, using the original illustrations by Arthur Watts and with an afterward by Nicola Beauman. This edition sorely tempts me (see illustration below).

Cover of The Diary of a Provincial Lady

The Provincial Lady began life as a series of articles for a weekly feminist magazine, Time and Tide when Delafield was well established as an author, already having eighteen books under her belt. The first Diary of a Provincial Lady was published in 1930, followed in 1932 by The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America (1934) and The Provincial Lady in Wartime (1940). My internet searches have also yielded the information that our PL also went to Russia (published 1937), this book slotting in between America and Wartime. That must be next on my wants list! I have read though all four books in my volume, but in this post, I will confine myself to the first volume to give you a flavour of the Provincial Lady and her world.

Before talking about our lady diarist, I will just sketch in a few details about the author. E.M. Delafield is the pen name of Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture (1890-1943) whose mother was a well-known author. This explains the transition from ‘de la Pasture’ to ‘Delafield’ when she came to publish her own work. Her father was a Count, descended from a family fleeing the French revolution; Delafield went on to marry Arthur Dashwood third son of a baronet and they eventually settled in Devon. Delafield’s Provincial Lady draws on her own provincial life and experiences in this part of the world, however the husband and children in the books were apparently only very loosely based on her own husband and offspring. Her first novel, Zella Sees Herself (1917) was published after Delafield had spent most of the First World War as a V.A.D. She went on to become a very successful author before her untimely death at only fifty-three.

The diaries humorously detail the ordinary life experiences of the un-named Provincial Lady, dealing with servants, school, children, balancing the household budget and those all important social duties. The characters include the snobbish and wealthy Lady Boxe, Our Vicar’s Wife, a couple of old school friends, various neighbours and visitors. The immediate household consists of husband Robert, daughter Vicky (her son Robin is away at school but makes his presence felt in  occasional unsatisfying letters), French governess Mademoiselle, Cook and Ethel the parlour maid. A common theme in the book is the Lady’s endless efforts to balance the financial books. Receipts go missing, the contents of the cash box is never what it should be and polite letters arrive from suppliers and bank managers requesting settlement. Great aunt’s diamond ring is regularly pawned (though at a suitable distance from the village).Illustrated Provincial Lady

I was surprised how many little incidents struck a chord, despite the 1930s setting and the fact that the social background of the character is somewhat removed from my own. Here is she espousing modern parenting by discussing the question of the existence of Hell with her daughter Vicky:

Am determined to be a modern parent, and assure her that there is not, never has been, and never could be, such a place. Vicky maintains that there is, and refers me to the Bible. I become more modern than ever, and tell her that theories of eternal punishment were invented to frighten people … (Query: Are modern children going to revolt against being modern, and if so, what form will reaction of modern parents take?)

While reading the diary entries on the vexed question of Christmas shopping, I was amused to note that her caustic reactions to the cost of gift ideas given in magazines in 1930 are eerily similar to my own (most recently given voice to in reading gift guides in 2017 Christmas supplements). Her gift guide makes suggestions ‘individual and yet appropriate-beautiful, and yet enduring’. It goes on to say, ‘Then why not Enamel dressing-table set, at £94 16s 4d or Set of crystal-ware, exact replica of early English cut-glass, at moderate price pf £34 17s 9d?’ The Provincial Lady’s response is a tart ‘Why not, indeed?’ After briefly surveying the section for ‘Giver with Restricted Means’ (5 guineas) she settles for a ‘one-and-sixpenny calendar with picture of sunset on Scaw Fell, as usual’. During an exhausting shopping trip to London she agonises over a ‘really handsome’ card for her old school friend Cissie Crabbe against an ‘almost invisibly small diary’. She eventually settles on the diary as it will fit into an ordinary sized envelope. The glamour of Christmas shopping on a limited budget!

Finally, I note that our diarist has the eternal discussion with her offspring whether hand washing before meals ‘is, or is not necessary’. She notes in an aside:

(Mem: Have sometimes considered -though idly- writing letter to the Times to find out if any recorded instances exist of parents and children whose views on this subject coincide. Topic of far wider appeal than many of those so exhaustively dealt with).

This reminds me of a John Drinkwater poem that I knew as a child called ‘Washing’ , which begins ‘What is all this washing about, Every day, week in, week out?’ It’s nice to know that some thing never change! All that washing business baffled me too.

I did actually read all four books straight through, which was probably not the best idea. As Beauman points out in her introduction, the diaries were not meant to be read straight through, so repetition of phrases and events is noticeable as you go on. However, I don’t think that detracts from the humour of the books, or the sharp observation that Delafield applies to the mundane round of life. I have since found myself dipping back to read entries here and there which is a better way to read the diaries I think. These are books you could return to over and over again for escapist humour with a dash of vim.

Now all I need to do is to track down the remaining volume for my collection.

Best wishes for a Happy Reading Year to one and all! Drop me a line below if you have any New Year reading goals.

Picture Credits: Additional image from Persephone Books online shop.