A ghostly love story

Since the academic blogosphere, at least my corner of it, has become both more sparsely populated and quieter than in its heyday, I’ve been branching out to gardening blogs and book blogs, such as Clothes In Books (who has almost exactly my taste in reading material) and Leaves and Pages. Thanks to the latter, I found a delightfully comic ghost story, Tryst, by Elswyth Thane, who IRL was Helen Ricker from Iowa. Other reviews here and here. Thane mostly wrote historical fiction set in the US, so I’m a little surprised I didn’t run across her books when I was a child, as they sound like the sort of thing my school and public libraries would have had a lot of. Maybe I did read them and I just don’t remember. Fairly early on I decided that I preferred British history and fiction; American lit seemed so full of back-breaking farm labor, immigrant families and families impoverished by the Great Depression, wars interrupting young lives (Revolution and Civil as well as WW I and II, which obviously do interrupt British lives), not enough time travel or larking about in boats.

Well, anyway, Tryst. The ghost heads straight for his club when he finds himself in London. As you do, I guess, if you’re an Englishman-ghost. I ought not to be snarky; I know the problems of where to be in a city, if you have no office to go to, and you don’t feel like sight-seeing, and it’s the wrong hour to eat. Which of us wouldn’t like to have a club to which to repair at odd hours? And then the kitten, back at the country house Nuns Farthing (seriously? Chaucer is hooting somewhere in the background): “On the hearth-rug, his small tail carried high, Muffin was purring loudly and rubbing himself against friendly legs, about the reality of which he himself had obviously no doubts at all.” I believe absolutely in the kitten. Felines certainly see, hear, and smell many things of which the big dumb hoo-mans are unaware.

The writing is sprightly, and I happily added more hot water to the bathtub several times so I could finish the book in comfort. On careful examination, this fluff dissolves like the bubble-bath. The story takes place in 1938, the book appeared in 1939, and the chap who snuffed it would likely not have survived the war in any case, so we needn’t feel sorry for him. The heroine, Sabrina, is charming, but I can’t see her as nurse, Land Girl, code-breaker, or office worker taking the place of a man at the front. She does take ghosts in stride, so she can rise to occasions, but she doesn’t seem to have many practical skills. Honestly, she’s probably better off out of this world, too. I’m not sure how much the lovers really have in common. He’s 15 years older than she is (okay, Sense and Sensibility, I know), they like the same books, they like cats, I suppose relationships have been built on less, but I’m not wild about the older man/younger woman pairing. I also do not care for brother George’s attempts at Being Masterful with the society girl that the ghost had an “understanding” with, though she’s not so sure, but George’s advances are certainly Of The Period, not unwelcome to the recipient, and don’t go further than a few kisses (George’s mother is in the house and they are all going to have lunch in a minute).

I thought that in some ways Tryst responds to Rebecca (published 1938), with a mysterious country house and a naive young newcomer of a slightly lower class, but Tryst lightens the suspense and substitutes an inscrutable but kindly housekeeper for the formidable Mrs Danvers. (I hated Rebecca, btw, in case that affects your judgment; I dislike all the characters in it about equally, whereas in Tryst they all seem fairly harmless even when misguided.) Given my obsession with houses, devotion to cats, and disdain for annoying yappy dogs, it would have been hard for me not to like this book, even though in the cold light of day I’m poking holes here and there. My verdict: an excellent bathtub read.

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Josephine in the British Library

She’d been able to find out about Ferdinand [the bull]’s political history from the internet. It was all there, accessible in seconds. Some of the fun has gone out of scholarship, it’s become too easy. She’s had to work hard to find an excuse to come to the British Library for the day, where she will be happy and at peace for a few hours in the silent company of scholars. But she has found herself a pretext. Maybe in the boxes of uncatalogued and unpublished letters of Hubert Studdert Meade, and in the papers of his old college, and in the manuscript drafts of his translations, she will find something new, something unremarked—about his wife Alice, the forgotten novelist with her uncut pages. . . . The library welcomes her. Her items are waiting for her. She installs herself at her desk, plugs in her lightweight mini-laptop, and begins to browse through the contents of the slim old-fashioned dark-red string-tied cardboard folder and the larger and smarter pale green canvas box.

 

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate Books, 2017), pp. 250-251.

Josephine makes a serendipitous discovery

She is too tired to embark on reading . . . but she leafs through the illustrations . . . . Amongst them is an arresting and accomplished pencil drawing of an unfamiliar and handsome young man, in an open-necked shirt, wearing an unassuming air of nonchalant gallantry. She glances at the caption, and finds that his name is Valentine Studdert Meade, an unusual name which in itself has no resonance but which nevertheless strikes her with a jolt of recognition. There can’t be all that many Studdert Meades, so he must be connected with her Deceased Wife’s Sister novelist. . . . Here must be a clue to Alice Studdert Meade, in this fairly unlikely place, discovered more or less randomly. This, she says to herself, sadly but with some satisfaction, is Scholarship, in all its triviality. She turns to the index, to discover more about Valentine . . . . Here, so unexpectedly, are clues.

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate Books, 2017), pp. 102-103.

More about Josephine

The libraries mean as much to Josephine as explorations of England mean to her restless friend Fran. They confirm status, confer identity. When Josephine Drummond goes into the libraries that she uses most frequently, she is received with some degree of recognition. Sometimes her books are handed over without her having to request them by name. This doesn’t happen in the British Library in London, though even there she occasionally gets a friendly nod, but in Cambridge she is a familiar. Unlike some old women, she is easily recognisable, even memorable. Tall and pronounced of features, she will never dwindle into a little old lady, with all the conveniences and inconveniences which that status brings. Josephine may think she looks low-key, but she cannot help but look noticeable. She doesn’t look eccentric (or this is her friend Fran’s considered view) but she doesn’t look negligible. Her career hasn’t been distinguished, but has been a career, of a sort, and it’s not quite over yet.

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate Books, 2017),pp. 100-101.

Not dead yet

[Josephine and Owen, both retired, meet each Thursday evening for a drink and conversation]

Owen had also been in the English Literature industry, though on a higher and better paid plane than she, and they like to talk about what they are reading, or about the books they had taught in the past. Josephine also likes to talk about her self-appointed research project, and Owen tolerates her discourse about her very small but (to her) intriguing discoveries. There is an element of forgivable because too-transparent condescension in his attention: he has published several volumes; she, so far over her whole career, only a couple of papers. He once pointed out to her, kindly and not unjustly, that many women have later-flowering careers and pursuits, so it’s all right for her to indulge herself comfortably with Victorian and Edwardian literature now, in her old age. He views her research as a hobby, not unlike tapestry.

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate Books, 2017), p. 88.

Emma Beddington on blogging:

It turns out I love writing. It is such a pleasure, so much so that it seems bizarre to me that I haven’t ever tried it before. . . . it has always seemed like a distant dream or an idea for retirement. Being a writer is just a fantasy, impossibly difficult and inaccessible, something you daydream about. How do people do that? . . . . But of course, the Internet has changed everything, cracking open a closed shop: online writing is exploding. The blogs I read are almost exclusively by people who have no professional writing experience and they are fresh and unguarded and funny. . . . I feel caught up in that excitement and I write all the time, in notebooks and in my head, late at night and on my lunch break. I am full of words.

We’ll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to be French (Macmillan, 2016), pp. 264-5.

Sadly, this book is not (yet?) available in the US. I got it this summer in the UK. Highly recommend! You can order it via Amazon.co.uk.

Margaret Forster:

For years I’d been trained the way mothers of small children are, not to waste a moment of child-free time, and so I’d always got straight down to it, and the habit had carried on even after there was no real need to be so concentrated. But now, I was tired. I couldn’t do it, couldn’t produce the ten A4 pages in a morning which I’d been used to. I tried to persuade myself that, through being so slow now, every word would mean more, be more tellingly crafted. Not true. My old, rapid, if careless, style of writing was better by far than the halting, lame stuff I was turning out, crawling hesitantly over one mere page in three hours. Why bother doing it? Why expend precious energy, of which there was so little, on writing, when it would be better conserved for other things? Yet each morning the lure of the desk and the pen drew me up to that room, and I gave into it. Sometimes, sitting was painful, which made sticking to the writing ridiculous. It wasn’t even as though I thought I was turning out anything special enough to justify this regime—it was simply that for some strange reason I wanted to be there, doing it.

My Life in Houses, pp. 254-5.

A week on

Somehow I didn’t do one of these posts last weekend, because . . . Life Stuff . . . or just general feebleness. And now the quotation I want to quote about writing seems silly and trivial, but let us imagine it being offered in a stiff-upper-lip, there-will-always-be-an-England sort of spirit, so I can register world events yet carry on with my trivial semi-academic posts.

This is from Robert Liddell’s book Elizabeth and Ivy, about his friendships with the novelists Elizabeth Taylor and Ivy Compton-Burnett; he is quoting a letter written by art historian Roger Hinks “about a meeting with Ivy at Madge Ashton’s when there was some talk about Angus Wilson.”

“Madge said: ‘I hear he wrote it [Anglo-Saxon Attitudes] in four months, between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.’ ‘Really?’ observed Ivy; ‘one cannot imagine anyone doing anything in the afternoon between 2 and 4, except hoping that tea would be at 4 rather than at 5.’ There was talk about how many words people wrote an hour. ‘How many do you write, Miss Compton-Burnett?’ said someone. ‘Ten,’ said Ivy, in the tone of an editor saying that this correspondence was now closed.”

Robert Liddell, Elizabeth and Ivy (London: Peter Owen, 1986), 54-55.

This does rather illustrate my life lately, except that I feel more despairing than editorial.

Clothes in books!

I recently discovered this awesome blog, from which I am getting many ideas for fun reading: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/

It also inspired me to post the following passage from a 1930s novel that I read recently when I was supposed to be working. (I was minding my own business, looking for books about something else entirely, when this one leapt from the library shelves into my arms . . . what could I do?) It recounts a day in the life of an MP, his family and his servants, and a nearby poor family, one of whose members applies for a job in the MP’s household. It has a lot of fascinating quotidian details, including clothing for the lady of the house:

“Mary went to the cupboard and fetched the two-piece grey stockinet dress with the white net frills sewn in round the V-neck, and put out the grey stockings and the black patent shoes with steel buckles, and got out a clean handkerchief and put it ready on the dressing table. When Mary had gone Blanche got out of bed and put on her slippers and went to the washstand behind the screen. . . . [She] took off her nightdress and put on a pair of thin pink woolen combinations, and then a white batiste chemise edged with Valenciennes, and stays and stockings, and white batiste drawers, and over them a pair of black satin knickers which buttoned at the knees. She never wore crepe de Chine underclothes because you couldn’t boil them when they were washed, and linen or batiste was really much daintier, and she wore a clean set every day. She put on a grey silk petticoat over the knickers and then slipped on a muslin dressing jacket and sat down at the dressing table and began to brush her hair.”

Sylvia Thompson, Breakfast in Bed (Boston: Little, Brown, 1934), pp. 128-9.

Happy things

I feel well, the sun is shining, flowers are flowering, birds are twittering, I’ve done a whole lot of stuff today including some things I really didn’t want to and also some things I enjoyed, I found that I forgot to record a substantial deposit some time ago and that’s why the bank thinks we have more money than I thought we should (so no more waiting for something to clear or worrying about mistakes), and there’s still time in the day to get some more useful and enjoyable things done. I’m reading a delightful book, a memoir by L. M. Boston called Perverse and Foolish, which is broken into little chunks that can be enjoyed either in a few minutes between other things or at longer stretches.

It looks as if the summer teaching abroad program has enough students to run, and though I have batches of grading to get through they are smaller batches than at the beginning of the term because I “forgot” to point out to students until after spring break that whereas there are five (say) assignments of Type X on the syllabus they only have to do four of them, so now lots of them are breathing sighs of relief and ceasing to turn in work, except for those who want extra credit, and those are usually the better students anyway.

We finally got around to watching the Paris-Roubaix bike race and I think it was the most boring Paris-Roubaix I have ever watched but at least it wasn’t heart-breaking; no one was seriously injured. Paris-Roubaix is called “the Hell of the North” and runs over 25-29 cobblestoned sectors that are brutal; when it’s raining or has rained recently it’s incredibly muddy, slippery, and awful, and when it’s dry it’s incredibly dusty, slippery, and awful. When it’s windy the winds can blow the race apart even without the cobblestones. I still remember vividly watching Frank Schleck crash and break his collarbone in three places. Anyway, this year it wasn’t muddy or windy and was only a little dusty and it seemed like everything went very well, and I’m glad no one got badly hurt.

Reina is snoozing on a chair and Glendower is dozing in a cat carrier with his head poking out just a little so I can see his tufty ears. It’s nice to have their company. Research . . . well, I should do some. I gave a talk this week that went well but it has just dawned on me that I’m supposed to contribute to my writing group this week so I can’t rest on my laurels. It’s a good thing there’s still some time today!