The Years of Grace : Your Home

In my previous discussion of the opening section of The Years of Grace, I neglected the fabulous illustrations, so I’ll make sure to include some here. Each section of this book has an introduction by Noel Streatfeild, and in this second section, ‘Your Home’, she admits that she was a “menace” as a teenager, “scowling round the house, saying ‘Why should I?’ about everything I was asked to do” and bringing home an unsuitably un-English friend called Consuelo (“Girls from Latin countries grow up faster than girls from cold countries. Consuelo probably held the record for fast growing-up even in a Latin country.”).

The first chapter, by Margaret Kennedy, discusses the difficulties of sharing a house with parents and siblings:

John Verney illustration from 'The Years of Grace'“The mother must manage to make room for her daughter’s wider life without letting the others feel that the whole house now belongs to an ENORMOUS GIRL who seems to be everywhere at once – locked in the bathroom when her brother wants to shave, telephoning in the hall at the top of her voice, pressing a dress on the kitchen table and dancing to the radio in the sitting-room.”

(By the way, I thought that illustration’s dense cross-hatched style seemed familiar and it turned out to be the work of John Verney, author of Friday’s Tunnel.)

Margaret Kennedy provides some sensible advice about reaching compromises with parents, including the need to be nice to your parents’ dull old friends (“It is highly mortifying for a mother if the refreshments at her bridge party are brought in by a daughter who looks as though she were dispensing alms to a colony of lepers”) and having to explain your own friends to them (“Parents do not always understand their daughters’ friendships or see where the attraction lies”). This is further explored in an article by Richmal Crompton, who gives useful tips for being a good friend (you need tact, generosity, lack of possessiveness, common but not identical interests, and a shared sense of humour).

Next comes Magdalen King-Hall with a chapter about community service and social justice, even if she doesn’t call it that. Although the examples she provides are a little dated (Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale), the message is still relevant today:

“We are linked together, not only with the other people in our own country, but with all the other people in the world. It is like a stone dropped into a pond, the ripples spread out in widening circles – you, your family, your school, your community, your country, your world. This feeling of world citizenship is only in its infancy, but it has been born, and two devastating world wars have not destroyed it.”

She even mentions The League of Nations. Veronica FitzOsborne would approve. But Veronica probably wouldn’t think much of Mary Dunn’s article, ‘The Queen Was in the Kitchen’. Mrs Dunn explains that men reserve their greatest admiration for a girl who can cook:

Anna Zinkeisen illustration from 'The Years of Grace'“Pretty, helpless women are very nice in the fiancée stage, to take to the pictures and to dance with, but after marriage, unless a girl is feminine in the right way, not just to look at but a homemaker, there is going to be trouble. Of course, after he has married her a man still wants a girl to look pretty and to have time to do things with him, but he wants as well to be quite certain that she looks after him better than the wives of all the other chaps in the street, and that he can brag that he is the best-fed man he knows.”

Mrs Dunn despairs because British housewives are letting down the side, compared to their glamorous counterparts in France, Scandinavia and especially the United States. You might think those Hollywood films depicting pretty housewives creating beautiful meals in dazzling kitchens are just Hollywood fantasies. But you would be wrong:

“Most American kitchens are like that and nearly all American girls really are splendid cooks, and really do whisk up superb meals and appear five minutes later in their living rooms looking too glamorous to be true. This business of looking smart when doing housework or cooking is something that we in this country really ought to turn our attention to … I feel sorry for tradesmen; how depressing when they call, to be greeted by a bedraggled object …”

Fortunately, the next article, by Janet Farwell, involved a vet talking to a family about the advantages and disadvantages of various pets (dogs, cats, rabbits, tortoises, fish, hamsters, budgies, silkworms) and included some adorable puppy illustrations, so my blood pressure returned to normal.

Finally, Elizabeth Cadell gave a lot of practical advice on hosting teenage parties, including hints on venues (turn your bedroom into “a very attractive bed-sitting room” by scattering cushions on the floor and covering the dressing table with a tablecloth), refreshments (sausage rolls, trifle, ice-cream, cider cup and “in cold weather, provide Bovril”) and games (cards, Tiddlywinks, charades). Which leads nicely to the next section of The Years of Grace: Leisure.

Adventures in Research: Schoolgirls in the 1950s and 1960s, Part Two

My copy of Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the Fifties was finally delivered and proved to be interesting, although not terribly useful for my research purposes and possibly not worth the three-month wait. I am far more excited by the arrival of this book:

'The Years of Grace', edited by Noel Streatfeild

The Years of Grace: A Book for Girls, edited by Noel Streatfeild, was recommended to me by Penni and is a marvellous guide to 1950s Girl Life. As the jacket proclaims,

The Years of Grace is a book for growing-up girls who are too old for children’s books and are just beginning to read adult literature. It is a difficult age – difficult for parents and friends, but more difficult for the girls themselves. What are they going to do when they leave school? How should they dress? What is a good hobby? How can they make the right sort of friends? The problems are endless, and here in The Years of Grace is to be found the wisdom of many of our greatest writers and most distinguished people of our time.”

There are sections on ‘You’, ‘Your Home’, ‘Leisure’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Careers’, all beautifully illustrated. I’ve only read the first section, but can already tell I’m going to find this book highly entertaining. The first chapter of ‘You’, for instance, is written by “a Woman Doctor” who has chosen the interesting pseudonym of ‘Cannula’. She begins by stating,

“When I become Prime Minister, I shall introduce a law: the study of glamour will become a compulsory subject for all girls at school. Science and algebra are all very well, but they will not be much use to you in life unless you also know all about glamour … I declare firmly that you will do much better if you have glamour without learning than if you have learning without glamour.”

The rest of her chapter consists of stern advice on posture (“no girl who holds herself badly can look really smart”) and grooming (make sure you change your knickers “two or three times a week at least” and use deodorant once a week).

This is followed by an amusing chapter by Marguerite Steen, mostly about the history of undergarments, although she does have some advice on modern-day underwear:

“Nothing on earth looks more sluttish than mended nylons (unless they are invisibly mended) with darns down the ladders. The ‘next worst’ is moth-eaten suspenders, a single glimpse of which is quite enough to ruin the effect of your handsomest hand-knitted sports stockings.”

Also, make sure you’re wearing nice underwear, in case you get run over by a bus:

“I remember being told by a friend of mine, who was in an accident, that the fact of having on her best pin-spot chiffon step-ins went quite a long way to offsetting the pain of her fractured thigh when they were taking her away in the ambulance!”

Then comes James Laver on the history of women’s hairstyles and Elizabeth Arden on ‘The Care of the Skin and Hair’ (strangely enough, this requires a lot of cleansing creams, skin tonics, foundation creams, face powders and outfit-coordinated lipsticks, all no doubt available at the nearest Elizabeth Arden counter). Digby Morton’s contribution is ‘Pretty Girls All in a Row’, full of words of wisdom on fashion (for instance, “school is a place where your reputation is built, a place to look trim and well-groomed always” and “the wisest thing a girl can do is to take a dress-making and millinery course”). He also wishes to be Prime Minister, so he could “make it compulsory for every girl to have a grey flannel suit”. (These writers seem to have a peculiar view of the role of the British Prime Minister.) But as much as I want to make fun of Digby Morton, I have to admit he provides some very good advice on colours, fabrics and styles, and a fifties girl who followed his advice on building a wardrobe would look quite fabulous. And Alison Settle’s ‘Making the Best of Yourself’ is a terrific, timeless article on teenage anxieties regarding emotions, making and keeping friends, falling in love, dealing with annoying siblings and managing parents. I am very much looking forward to the remaining sections of this book – if anyone’s interested, I’ll post my thoughts about them here.

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve mostly been reading British fiction written during or about the 1960s, but as I tend to blog only about books I like, I won’t be writing about them.1 However, I did enjoy the third volume of Noel Streatfeild‘s autobiography, Beyond the Vicarage, first published in 1971. She wrote the books from the perspective of a character called ‘Victoria Strangeway’, explaining, “I made, and make, no pretence that I am not the Victoria in the three books, but the thin shield of anonymity has helped me to feel unselfconscious when writing the story of my life.” 'Beyond the Vicarage' by Noel StreatfeildFair enough, but it does lead to phrases like “Victoria seemed to think that …” and “Victoria must have forgotten that …”, which is a bit odd when she’s writing about herself. Anyway, this book is about how Victoria/Noel decides to stop being a successful actress touring the world and become a writer. She sails back from Australia via Siam (as it was then called), where her brother works, and eventually arrives in England to look after her recently-widowed mother. Although Victoria’s father had been a bishop from a well-off family, the family is now in ‘reduced circumstances’ and Victoria’s mother is the sort of helpless genteel lady who has never had to look after herself, so living in lodgings does not go well. After employing a series of disastrous companions, her mother is finally settled in her own new home with appropriate help and Victoria, breathing a huge sigh of relief, moves back to London to write her first novel. Despite the distractions of her busy social life (she eventually resorts to writing in bed in her pyjamas so she won’t be tempted to go out), she quickly writes the manuscript, immediately finds a publisher and is instantly making a comfortable living as a novelist. Her publisher even pays her a weekly wage when she complains the system of advances and royalties is too complex for her to deal with. The only complaint her publisher has is that “you make everyone too loveable. I doubt you could write about a bitch if you tried.” (Victoria then vows to write “the bitchiest bitch you ever read about” and writes It Pays To Be Good.) Then another publisher, aware of Victoria’s theatrical background, asks her to write a children’s book about child actors, so Victoria, “cross at herself for agreeing to something she was convinced she could not write”, produces Ballet Shoes, which is an instant bestseller, and the rest is history. Although she ended up writing a few more novels for adults, she gave up on them in the early 1960s, telling herself,

“If, for some reason, the public are either off novels or like such peculiar ones you couldn’t and wouldn’t write them, why go on trying? Let’s face it, you never had more than what Noel Coward’s song called ‘a talent to amuse’. You never belonged to the great. So give up writing [adult] novels here and now.”

She took great care with the research for her books – for example, she travelled with a circus when writing about child circus performers, visited Hollywood when writing about a child star, and spent “a lot of time in [Buckingham] Palace hanging about for news from the Lady-in-Waiting” when writing about Princess Margaret for The Years of Grace. But the most interesting part of the book involves her experiences during the Second World War, when she joined the Women’s Voluntary Service. She ran mobile canteens in Blitz-battered London, arranged housing for bombed-out Londoners, put out fires set off by incendiary bombs and then, after the war, organised entertainment for newly-returned residents of the Channel Islands, gave lectures in Holland and spent her own money turning a London bombsite into a flower garden. (What a contrast with Dodie Smith, who spent the entire war living in luxury in America.) The war stories are a mixture of humour and heartbreak – a monkey rescued from the rubble of a bombed pub gratefully accepts a cup of hot milk, then turns around and bites his rescuer; a woman dying of cancer survives two bombing raids that kill the rest of her family. There is also personal anguish for Victoria, with her brother and his young family interned as prisoners of the Japanese, her own flat and most of her belongings destroyed in the Blitz, and her publisher’s warehouse, containing all unsold copies of her books, all the plates to reprint them and the entire first printing of her new book, getting “bombed to pieces”. While she skims over a lot of potentially interesting events and the book is essentially a series of unrelated anecdotes, Victoria/Noel comes across as a lovely person – energetic, funny, honest, devoted to helping others and endlessly curious about life.

'Quiet' by Susan CainTaking a break from post-war England, I then read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by US writer, Susan Cain. It came out a couple of years ago but there was a long queue for it at my library (I know, library patrons being deeply interested in a book about introverts, WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT IT). This was an easy-to-read, well-researched account of the difficulties introverts face in the extroverted culture of modern-day America. There was a clear overview of the strengths of both introverts and extroverts, as well as a good discussion of the overlap between ‘high sensitivity’ or reactivity (or neuroticism) and introversion. The author also explains that many introverts are very successful at faking extroversion when highly motivated to do so (for example, because their job requires it or they’re promoting a cause they’re passionate about), although they need ‘restorative niches’ of solitude to recharge their energy. Most of this information was familiar to me, although I was interested to read about research into introversion/extroversion in various animal species. For example, some species have about 20% ‘shy’ individuals and 80% ‘bold’ individuals, with the bold ones doing better in hard times because they’re willing to take the risk of being eaten in order to find food (the shy ones starve to death in harsh conditions, but thrive in good conditions as they’re better at evading predators). My only criticism of this book would be the very narrow focus – while the author (a Harvard-educated lawyer) claims the book is about American society in general, it’s really about rich white Americans and rich Asian-Americans (and all ‘Asians’, from Indians to the Japanese, are treated as having similar cultures and lifestyles, which is just not true). Still, it’s a good read and its bestseller status indicates there are a lot of Americans who agree that introverts are under-appreciated in their society. Also, I was interested to read the author’s note that “You wouldn’t be reading this book if I hadn’t convinced my publisher that I was enough of a pseudo-extrovert to promote it.” Sad, but true. Ah, for the good old days when authors were able to sit at home writing their books in introverted bliss, without having to worry about promoting themselves …

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  1. Although if you’re interested in finding out just how sexist, racist and homophobic 1960s England was, hey, have I got some book recommendations for you!

Nancy Pearl Discusses ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’

A Brief History of MontmarayNancy Pearl talked about A Brief History of Montmaray this week in her regular book spot on KUOW-FM, a Seattle radio station. I am very chuffed about this – not only to hear someone on the other side of the world recommending my book, but also because this was NANCY PEARL. The most famous librarian in the world! Probably the only librarian to have her own action figure1 and trading cards and to have a tribute bluegrass band named in her honour!

The interview with Marcie Sillman includes some discussion about what distinguishes Young Adult fiction from adult fiction (“Marketing,” Nancy Pearl astutely observes) and the role of history in historical fiction. You can listen to more book recommendations at the KUOW website. Thank you, Nancy Pearl. Thank you, KUOW. And thank you, book people of Seattle.

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  1. The company responsible for the Nancy Pearl librarian action figure (with push-button finger-to-lips shushing action) also sells Edgar Allan Poe lunchboxes, Jane Austen tattoos and “Shakespearean Insult Bandages”. Just in case you’re interested.

‘T. H. White: A Biography’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner

It took me a while to read this excellent biography of the author of The Once and Future King – not because it was lengthy or written in ‘difficult’ prose (quite the contrary), but because it often made me sad and I kept needing to put it down to have a bit of a think about what I’d read. Terence Hanbury White had an awful childhood – born in India in 1906 to feuding parents who frequently threatened to shoot one another, and him, and who then bitterly separated in an era when divorce was a great scandal. His father abandoned the family, and his mother alternately smothered and maltreated her only child. White was sent to a sadistic English boarding school, then worked as a private tutor until he had enough money to put himself through Cambridge, with his studies interrupted by a life-threatening bout of tuberculosis. After achieving a First Class with Distinction, he worked as a schoolmaster for a few years, then spent the rest of his life writing, interspersed with various short-lived enthusiasms – for hunting, fishing, falconry, gardening, flying aeroplanes, sailing yachts, making documentary films about puffins, learning everything there was to know about Irish Catholicism or Arthurian mythology or the Emperor Hadrian …

'T.H. White: A Biography' by Sylvia Townsend WarnerBut as passionate as he was about facts and technical skills, he was not very interested in most people (“How restful it would be if there were no human beings in the world at all”) and he lived a hermit-like existence in various remote cottages for many years. His friend John Verney (author of Friday’s Tunnel), who wrote the introduction to this biography, noted that, “With strangers he could be quite odious; rude and suspicious if he thought they were lionizing him, still more so if he thought they weren’t; shouting down anyone who disagreed with his more preposterous assertions or even ventured to interrupt.” White himself admitted he was “a sort of Boswell, boasting, indiscreet, ranting, rather pathetic” and admitted to “trying to shock people” (to repel them?), although he also had very old-fashioned ideas about modesty, women and sex. Another writer friend, David Garnett, accused White of having a “medieval monkish attitude” and White didn’t disagree. He wrote to Garnett, “I want to get married … and escape from all this piddling homosexuality and fear and unreality.” He tried to fall in love with a barmaid who had a “boyish figure” but this was unsuccessful, as was a later engagement to another young woman. She (sensibly) called it off; he wrote her anguished letters, but his biographer says “his torment in so desperately wanting something he had no inclination for is unmistakable”. He tried psychoanalysis and “hormone therapy” as a cure for homosexuality, which also didn’t work; then he tried to blot everything out with alcohol (“I used to drink because of my troubles, until the drink became an added trouble”). Unfortunately, he wasn’t attracted to men (which would have been bad enough at a time when homosexuality was illegal) but to boys, and he spent years obsessing over a boy called Zed:

“I am in a sort of whirlpool which goes round and round, thinking all day and half the night about a small boy … The whole of my brain tells me the situation is impossible, while the whole of my heart nags on … What do I want of Zed? – Not his body, merely the whole of him all the time.”

He never told Zed of his true feelings, or acted on them (“I love him for being happy and innocent, so it would be destroying what I loved”), but Zed’s parents grew wary and eventually the boy himself broke off contact. To further complicate matters, White told Garnett that he (White) had managed to destroy every relationship he started because he was a sadist and “the sadist longs to prove the love which he has inspired, by acts of cruelty – which naturally enough are misinterpreted by normal people … if he behaved with sincerity, and instinctively, he alienated his lover and horrified and disgusted himself.” Whether White actually acted on his “sadistic fantasies” is unknown (he had a great talent for self-dramatising and might have been trying to shock Garnett), but he blamed it all on his mother and his boarding school experiences.

The greatest love of his life, though, was Brownie, his red setter. She slept in his bed, was fed elaborate meals, wore a custom-made coat and accompanied him everywhere. (There’s a photo here of Brownie with White, the two of them looking as though they’re posing for a formal engagement portrait.) Brownie eventually became as eccentric as her human:

“She used to kidnap chickens and small animals and keep them as pets, and insisted on taking her pet rabbit to bed with her – in White’s bed. The rabbit bit him freely, but he submitted. She had geological interests, too, and collected stones which she kept under the kitchen table.”

When she died, he sat with her corpse for two days, then at her grave for a week, wrote her an anguished love poem, and forever after kept a lock of her hair in his diary, next to her photo.

White seems to have been a mass of unhappy contradictions. He railed against the British Labour government because he hated paying tax, and he moved to Ireland, then the Channel Islands, to avoid taxes, but he could be very generous with his money and time when it came to charitable causes. He claimed to hate people, but hosted week-long parties at his house in Alderney each summer and his friends all seemed to love him, despite his many faults. He was often miserable, but was “always capable of being surprised by joy” and his writing is full of humour. He announced in his forties that he was done with “forcing myself to be normal” and he gave up drinking – but not for very long, and he died at the relatively young age of fifty-seven of coronary heart disease, probably exacerbated by his drinking and chain-smoking.

This biography includes a discussion of each of White’s books, but I don’t think you need to be familiar with his work to find this book fascinating. I’d only read The Sword in the Stone (which I liked because it was full of animals), but I’m now curious about The Elephant and the Kangaroo, a satire set in Ireland. White, according to his Cambridge tutor, was “far more remarkable than anything he wrote” and his biographer seems to have agreed.

What I’ve Been Reading

Australia Under Surveillance by Frank Moorhouse was an interesting collection of essays about ASIO (Australia’s version of MI5 and the FBI) and the conflict between national security and individual privacy within a democracy. Moorhouse himself was targeted by ASIO when he was a young man because he was briefly a member of his university’s Labour Club, which was believed to have “Communist influences”, and he eventually acquired a thirteen-volume ASIO file. In this book, he provides evidence that Prime Minister Robert Menzies used ASIO against political adversaries – for example, Menzies ordered ASIO to investigate Australian writers, to prevent Communist-sympathising writers from receiving any Commonwealth funding. (This was after Menzies’ legislation to ban the Communist Party was overturned by the High Court, and after the 1951 referendum showed a majority of Australian voters agreed with the High Court’s decision. It’s never been illegal for Australians to belong to the Communist Party.) But all of this happened during the Cold War, when paranoia about “Reds under the bed” was rampant. Surely things are different now?
'Australia Under Surveillance' by Frank MoorhouseWell, certainly ASIO’s target has changed. Instead of Communists, it’s Muslims suspected of being terrorists, or of supporting terrorists, or of attending a mosque or community centre at which someone discussed something that might suggest support of terrorist activities, and Moorhouse outlines a number of cases where ASIO and the police have interrogated and detained innocent people without charges ever being laid, often due to inaccurate information or mistakes on the part of the authorities. He then interviews ASIO’s Director-General, David Irvine, who downplays ASIO’s historical abuses of power and emphasises ASIO’s current need for more legal powers and resources due to the “terrorist threat” (even though “less than 1000″ Australians have been killed in wars and terrorist attacks during the last fifty years, including the Vietnam, Korea, Gulf, Afghan and Iraq wars, compared to 134,548 people killed on Australian roads in the same period). I was also horrified to read about ASIO’s interference in the National Archives, with ASIO blocking access to or destroying decades-old historical records on the grounds of ‘national security’.
Moorhouse goes on to discuss privacy and censorship in Australia. He notes that the people fighting against censorship (Communists during the Cold War, Muslim fundamentalists now) are “often hostile to free speech in their own organisations, but need it to achieve other ends. Similarly, fundamentalist Christians are likely to advocate censorship of sexual and blasphemous material” but want free speech powers so they can attack Muslims. Moorhouse’s opinion is that even the most offensive anti-Western jihadist material should be freely available in Australia, because the public need to understand how terrorists think and exposing offensive material to criticism decreases its power. He has similar views on hate-speech laws (he agrees with Attorney-General George Brandis that people should have “the right to be bigots”) and privacy laws (he believes that keeping ‘private’ behaviour secret simply makes the behaviour seem more shameful and increases the stigma attached to it). He doesn’t seem aware that his perspective is that of a very privileged person in society – he’s not, for example, a domestic violence victim trying to hide from a violent ex-husband, or an employee who wants to keep his personal hobbies private from his employer, and Moorhouse is unlikely ever to be the victim of racist or sexist hate campaigns. Some readers may also be frustrated by the rambling, personal nature of the book – it’s certainly not for those who want a methodical, analytical approach (or an index) – but I found it a very interesting read.

The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith set me to wondering about how useful genre labels are. Is this book crime or literary fiction? Is it a thriller, or a psychological study, or a classical tragedy? I sat up far too late one night finishing it because I just had to see how the plot would play out, even though I was fairly sure how it would end (and was right about that), so it was certainly a success as a thriller, in my opinion. It is fairly typical of Highsmith’s novels, in that it features an American man, bold and shrewd but without much of a conscience, who has fallen into a life of petty crime, becomes involved in a murder, then spends the rest of the novel desperately trying to cover this up (and somehow the reader sympathises with him and urges him on, despite his lack of morals). This novel, set mostly in Greece, features two such characters, one older and out of his depth in a country where he doesn’t speak the language; the other younger, easier to like, but with murkier motives, which turn out to be related to his hated dead father. There is also a young, beautiful woman who doesn’t have a very large part to play in the book (also typical of Highsmith’s novels), some vivid descriptions of the European settings and a number of exciting chase scenes. Recommended for those who enjoyed the Ripley books (or the Ripley films, or Strangers on a Train, or any Hitchcock films, really).

'Haphazard House' by Mary WesleyHaphazard House by Mary Wesley was a strange, often beautiful, children’s novel about a family who move to a haunted house in a remote village where time proves to be “a bit askew”. The eleven-year-old narrator, Lisa, observes her mother and grandfather becoming younger; the family dog Bogus is recognised by a villager as Rags, the dog who’d lived in the house more than forty years earlier; someone is observed waving to them from the windows of a room that doesn’t exist; an invisible gardener supplies them with fresh vegetables, and an invisible maid rearranges the furniture, and the fire in the hearth never goes out. There is a lot of rich description of setting and character and some genuinely spooky moments, but the eventual ‘explanation’ is crammed into the last chapter and left a lot of my questions unanswered. The first few pages were also some of the most confusing I’ve ever seen in a children’s book, which I think was due to poor editing, rather than design. I suspect this would, unfortunately, put off some child readers who’d ultimately enjoy the book. I’d recommend it for fans of Diana Wynne Jones or those who’ve enjoyed time-slip novels such as Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes and Kate Constable’s Cicada Summer.

I picked up A Candle for St Jude by Rumer Godden mistaking it for The Kitchen Madonna, which I’d wanted to re-read, and then thinking it would be one of her lives-of-nuns books like In This House of Brede. It actually turned out to be the story of a small ballet school in London, celebrating the founder’s jubilee by putting on a grand performance. It was first published in 1948 and it depicts the shabby, war-battered reality behind the gilt facade very well. There are some lovely character studies, including those of the tempestuous ageing Madame, nostalgic about her once glittering career, now bitterly jealous of her talented pupil Hilda. Not being a ballet fan, I felt the passions and tumult leading up to the performance were somewhat misplaced, but I still found this an enjoyable read. I especially admired Godden’s technical skills as I read this – the way she managed to slip between Madame’s memories and the present day so smoothly, the adroit handling of multiple points of view, and how she ended the story at exactly the right place.

'The Girl Who Brought Mischief' by Katrina NannestadFinally, an adorable children’s book called The Girl Who Brought Mischief, by Katrina Nannestad. Set in Denmark in 1911, it’s the story of a ten-year-old orphan sent to live with her grandmother on the remote island of Bornholm, where nearly everyone is old and nobody is allowed to play or dance or have any fun. Inge Maria arrives with lopsided hair (a goat on the ferry ate one of her plaits) and a talent for attracting trouble, and she proceeds to knock out her grandmother’s turkey with a stray clog, pull a line of freshly-washed clothes into the mud, antagonise her stern teacher and scandalise the village churchgoers. I preferred the first half of the book, in which Inge Maria causes general mayhem. The second half, in which Inge Maria warms the hearts of all the grumpy old people, was far too saccharine for my tastes – but keep in mind, I’m a cynical grown-up! Children who enjoyed the film versions of Anne of Green Gables or Heidi but were daunted by the length and old-fashioned language of those books would probably adore The Girl Who Brought Mischief. And I did love all the descriptions of life on a Danish island a hundred years ago.

Adventures in Research: Schoolgirls in the 1950s and 1960s

Generally my Adventures in Research are not all that adventurous, given that they tend to involve nothing more arduous than a fifteen-minute stroll to my local library or second-hand book store and then some concentrated reading. This time, though, there is an actual story to go with the research. Well, not really a story, because it doesn’t have a conclusion. More of a series of events.

So – Sydney City Council has about a dozen branch libraries scattered around the centre of the city, each with a special collection relevant to the particular neighbourhood it services. For example, the Haymarket Library, in the middle of Chinatown, has lots of Mandarin books and DVDs; Customs House, near the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge and other places frequented by tourists, has a large collection of international newspapers and magazines; my own branch has lots of LGBT fiction and non-fiction, handily marked with little rainbow stickers on the spines. Generally, these items can be transported between branches, arriving at your local branch within a day or two of your request – it’s really convenient and easy for library members. Anyway, a while back, I was browsing the library computer catalogue and came upon some potentially useful books about women’s lives in post-war Britain. There were histories, biographies and memoirs, including an intriguing book called Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the Fifties. All of the books were marked as “Non-Circulating Reference Books”, located at Ultimo Library, which did seem slightly odd – why would Ultimo, of all places, have a collection of non-fiction about women, and why would such books, mostly paperbacks, be regarded as so precious that they couldn’t leave the library? Never mind, I would visit Ultimo myself!

So one fine autumn morning, I gathered up my notebook, pen, Gregory’s Street Directory, bus timetable, multicoloured Post-It notes, packed lunch, compass, water bottle, pith helmet and spare pen, and set off on my quest. Due to my excellent map-reading skills, I got off at the wrong bus stop and had to ascend Ultimo’s steepest hill (who even knew they had hills in Ultimo?) before arriving, puffing slightly, at Ultimo Library – the reference section of which turned out to contain a small shelf of books about local council history, but not much else. I searched the general collection, then asked the librarian at the front desk, who frowned.

“Are you sure these books are here?” she asked.

“Yes, they’re in the Sydney City Libraries catalogue,” I said. “Listed as being held in Ultimo Library in the Non-Circulating Reference section.”

She summoned her colleague and I showed them the list of call numbers.

“Ah!” said the colleague. “Those books! No, they aren’t here. They’re in the National Women’s Library. I wish they’d take those books out of our catalogue, because we often have people coming in here looking for them.”

“Then…why are they listed in Sydney City Libraries catalogue?” I asked, quite reasonably. ‘And why does it say they’re here?”

Who knows? Although it turned out the National Women’s Library wasn’t far away – in the very same block, actually. The helpful librarians gave me a set of directions that sounded almost exactly like Arthur Dent in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy looking for the plans to demolish his house, which are on display at the council planning department:

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a torch.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

Except my situation didn’t involve a leopard. (Pity, it would have made this story far more exciting.) So I went down the stairs, turned right, went past the table-tennis tables and the courtyard and the kitchen and down more stairs and found the locked doors of the National Women’s Library. This was during its listed ‘opening hours’, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around. I spied another door at the back, so I went back outside and around the building and tried that door and it was locked too1. So I gave up.

As it was such a beautiful day, I decided to walk all the way home, which would give me a chance to do some sightseeing. Ultimo used to be mostly old warehouses and factories, but now there’s the Powerhouse Museum, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation headquarters and the rapidly expanding University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). It was the latest UTS building that I was most interested in, because it was designed by Frank Gehry and the photos made it look so spectacular – a bit too spectacular, really, a bit show-offy and grandstanding, all wrong for a battered, industrial area like Ultimo, I’d thought. But that building was lovely. It nestled into its space, not overwhelming any of the surrounding buildings, and the famous ‘bulges’ in the brickwork made it look as though it was breathing. The bricks were golden-brown and glowed in the sunlight, and there were a lot of square, nicely-proportioned windows that reflected the blue sky, so the whole thing looked like a squat, friendly creature with a lot of big blue eyes. I didn’t go inside, so I don’t know how functional it is, but apparently it uses a lot of natural light and has loads of environmentally-friendly features. Officially, it’s named the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, because he gave the university twenty million dollars to build it, although I’m pretty sure all the students just call it the ‘crumpled paper-bag building’. Anyway, it’s a vast improvement on the main UTS building on Broadway, which looks like a Weetbix box covered in brown pebble-dash. Then I wandered up towards Broadway, noticing that a lot of the old warehouses along the way had been turned into trendy coffee shops and advertising agencies and such, and I had a look at One Central Park, which was recently named Best Tall Building in the World by someone or other. All of the outside walls are covered in vertical gardens, which I didn’t think would work out very well, given the vehicle fumes and the often harsh weather, but the huge variety of plants seemed to be thriving. It probably helps that it’s done nothing but rain in Sydney for the past six months.

When I arrived home an hour later, I went online and discovered that there were multiple copies of Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the Fifties on sale for less than ten dollars from various British second-hand bookshops. This seemed a lot easier than trying to gain access to the National Women’s Library, so I placed an order. And waited. And waited some more. Then I gave the bookseller an extra couple of days, due to Easter. Then I emailed them, more than a month after I’d ordered the book. The bookseller was very polite and apologetic. The book must have been lost by the postal service. They would send me another copy. So I waited. And waited. Then I emailed them again. They were very, very sorry. The replacement book must have been lost in the post, too. They didn’t have any more copies of the book, so they would give me a refund.

I can understand that one book might get lost in the post, but TWO? I had a vision of their new office boy, keen but not very bright, being sent off with an armful of parcels and diligently posting each one in a rubbish bin instead of a post box. I waited another week for the refund to arrive, then used the money to order a copy of the book from a different bookseller. I’m still waiting. You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? This one will get lost, too. Or all three copies will arrive simultaneously in my mail box.

'My Secret Diary' by Jacqueline WilsonAnyway, in the meantime, I bought a copy of Jacqueline Wilson‘s My Secret Diary: Dating, Dancing, Dreams and Dilemmas. This is an account, aimed at teenage readers, of the author’s life in 1960, when she was a boy-crazy fourteen-year-old schoolgirl in suburban Surrey. It included lots of great black-and-white snapshots, as well as some excerpts from her real diary, which are as hilariously earnest and angst-ridden as you’d expect. I took notes on the clothes and records and films she liked, and the food, and the ridiculous school regulations and horrible uniforms, although I’m not sure how similar her life would have been to an upper-class London schoolgirl. In fact, I couldn’t quite figure out just where her family fitted into England’s rigid class system. Jacqueline’s family lived in a small council flat, but in a ‘genteel’ new block, rather than the rough council estate up the hill. They had a car, a TV, a telephone and a brand-new record player, but no washing machine or fridge. Jacqueline walked several miles to and from school (she was in the grammar stream at the local girls’ comprehensive) to save on bus fares, but there always seemed to be enough money for new clothes, cinema tickets, hairdressing appointments, pocket money and Christmas presents, and the family went on holidays (although not abroad) once a year. I couldn’t figure out what her father did for a living – he worked “at the Treasury” in Westminster, but doing what? Her mother worked locally, as a book-keeper. So, maybe lower-middle class – but could you live in a council flat in the 1960s and be regarded as middle-class? Maybe aspiring, ambitious working class, about to move into the middle class?

I was also interested to read about her favourite books – The Diary of Anne Frank, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Rumer Godden’s The River and The Greengage Summer. She secretly borrowed Peyton Place from a friend and thought it was “sheer trash”, but was impressed with Lolita (“I wasn’t particularly shocked, just enormously interested”), although the author adds that “nowadays I find the whole story so troubling, so distressingly offensive, that I can’t bear to read it. I strongly recommend that you don’t read it either.” She was also determined to be a writer, so she bought a book called How To Be A Writer by Kathleen Betterton. This advised that “the writer for children must not attempt subtlety of character in which good and bad are blended”, so Jacqueline vowed, “If I ever write, I won’t write for children.” Fortunately for her many fans, she changed her mind, ignored that advice and went on to sell twenty-five million copies of her children’s books. (Teenage Jacqueline was also unimpressed with the writing advice doled out by Enid Blyton in her autobiography – “surely her books are not all that great”). I found this to be an entertaining, informative read – and if my other book about schoolgirls ever arrives, I’ll be able to figure out how typical Jacqueline’s experiences were.

You might also be interested in reading:

Adventures in Research: Schoolgirls in the 1950s and 1960s, Part Two

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  1. Later I discovered the National Women’s Library is run by volunteers, so it’s understandable that the opening hours would be limited and unpredictable. And I guess the books aren’t allowed out because they’re all donated and many are out of print and not easily replaced.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover: The Obscenity Trial

I’ve just been reading about D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was banned in Britain for more than thirty years. In 1960, Penguin attempted to publish a mass-paperback, uncensored edition of the novel, but the British government charged them with publishing obscene material. The Crown prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, opened the trial with words that quickly became famous:

“Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

'Lady Chatterley's Lover' by D. H. LawrenceGirls can read as well as boys! I should add that he was addressing a jury that included three women (all of whom were required to read the book). He was also horrified that the novel seemed to treat sensuality “almost as a virtue”. In reply, Penguin argued that the book had genuine literary merit and was neither obscene nor depraved. Penguin asked more than three hundred literary figures to appear as expert witnesses, and among those who agreed to defend the book’s literary merits were Rebecca West, E. M. Forster, Cecil Day Lewis and T. S. Eliot, with Sylvia Plath watching excitedly from the press gallery. A few, though, declined to help, including Evelyn Waugh, Robert Graves, Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch, as well as one particular bestselling female author. Guess who said the following:

“I’d love to help Penguins but I don’t see how I can. My husband says ‘No’ at once. The thought of me standing up in court advocating a book like that … I’m awfully sorry but I don’t see that I can go against my husband’s most definitive wishes in this.1

It was ENID BLYTON! Oh, Enid.

Penguin, of course, won the case. Their initial print run of 200,000 sold out immediately and more than two million copies were snapped up in the first year. I feel I ought to have a go at reading this book, given its historical significance, but Kangaroo was so dreadful that I don’t think I can face any more D. H. Lawrence.

You may also be interested in reading:

Book Banned, Author Bemused

Lois Lowry on Book Banning

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  1. All quotes are from Modernity Britain, Book Two: A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62 by David Kynaston.

What I’ve Been Reading: The Elizabeth Edition

Well, I’ve mostly been reading 1960s non-fiction (currently David Kynaston’s Modernity Britain, which is excellent), but I’ve also read some other interesting books, all Elizabeth-related. The first of them was The Virgin in the Garden by A. S. Byatt, recommended to me by Sarah during my search for 1950s schoolgirl literature. The review quotes on the back of the paperback edition I acquired were fairly ominous and included the following from the Financial Times:'The Virgin in the Garden' by A. S. Byatt

“One to be reckoned with. It cannot be glibly praised or readily dismissed; it is, massively, there …”

Which I can’t disagree with – it is certainly both “massive” and “there”, “there” being a small town in Yorkshire in the early 1950s, as the community gathers to perform an elaborate verse drama about Queen Elizabeth the First, in order to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. Frederica Potter is the seventeen-year-old schoolgirl chosen to play young Elizabeth, and she’s an apt choice. Frederica is clever, fierce, self-obsessed and hilariously obnoxious, convinced that she is superior to her peers in every way yet secretly hurt that they don’t appreciate her specialness. The other Potters – her bullying father, beaten-down mother, odd and fragile little brother, and a sweet older sister who throws away her Cambridge degree to marry an unintellectual clergyman – are also fascinatingly portrayed. The problem I had with this novel was that I had to wade through a lot of tedious, overwritten prose to get to the good bits. At one stage, a character says, “If we were in a novel, they’d cut this dialogue because of artifice” and I found myself wishing they HAD cut that dialogue, as well as most of the adjectives and all of the page-length sentences. The long sections in which Frederica’s brother and his creepy teacher discuss their peculiar pseudo-scientific theories about the universe were particularly difficult to get through. I wondered if even the author had lost track of where she was going with her story, because the final sentence was: “That was not an end, but since it went on for a considerable time, it is as good a place to stop as any.” And yet, I kept turning the pages, because the author had so many thoughtful observations to make about family relationships, class conflict, women’s roles in society, religion, education, Elizabethan history, art and literature. This is the first in a quartet of novels about Frederica and I’m not sure yet if I’ll continue with it (I saw a very spoilery review of the next book, which indicated that the sole sympathetic character dies in a very stupid manner, which was not an encouraging sign).

My second Elizabethan read was The Little Princesses by Marion Crawford, a sentimental account of the childhood of Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth and her little sister, Princess Margaret, as told by their former governess, Marion Crawford. Apparently it caused a sensation when it was first published in 1950, because it was the first ‘insider’ account of a family treated as minor deities 'The Little Princesses' by Marion Crawfordby most of their subjects and all of the press. Nowadays, of course, we’re used to the British royals exposing themselves (in various unflattering ways) in newspapers and on television, but at the time, the Queen Mother was furious at ‘Crawfie’, as the governess was known, for breaking the code of silence that surrounded the royals and as a result, poor old Crawfie was ostracised1. But actually, Crawfie seems to have gone out of her way to flatter the family in this book. She appears very fond of Elizabeth, a serious, anxious child with a “very high IQ” (not that anyone actually administered an IQ test), while Margaret is described as bright, fun-loving and charming. Mind you, even Crawfie admits Margaret could be “wilful and headstrong” (which seems to be code for “a spoilt and uncontrollable brat” – for one thing, Margaret enjoyed tormenting the servants with unpleasant practical jokes, knowing they could never complain about her behaviour). I was interested (and horrified) to see how limited the education of the princesses actually was. Even though it was known that Elizabeth would eventually become ruler of the entire British Commonwealth, she never attended school and the lessons she had with Crawfie were limited to English literature and (family) history. Teenage Elizabeth did attend some individual history tutoring sessions at Eton, but mathematics, science and economics were deemed unnecessary. It was more important that she learn to sing, dance, make polite conversation in French, and ride a horse. This book covers Elizabeth’s life from the age of six, when Crawfie first arrived, to Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip and the subsequent birth of their first child, Charles. The anniversary edition I read had an introduction by Jennie Bond and contained some great photographs, including one of a young Princess Elizabeth in Girl Guide uniform, learning how to tie knots (with Henry FitzOsborne just out of shot, peering over Elizabeth’s shoulder and shouting, “You’re doing it ALL WRONG! Here, let ME do it!”).

'Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont' by Elizabeth TaylorAnd finally, a novel written by an Elizabeth – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (the English novelist, not the Hollywood star, although the novelist frequently had to deal with people who’d confused her with the actress). This is a brilliant, but bleak, look at ageing and death in genteel English society in late 1960s London. Elderly Mrs Palfrey is not rich enough to stay in her own home with servants to look after her, not poor enough to move into a state-assisted home for the elderly, and not ill enough for a private hospital or nursing home, but is too polite and independent to impose herself on her middle-aged daughter in Scotland, so she decides to set herself up in a respectable London hotel to wait out her final years. There she meets the other permanent residents, including bitter, arthritic Mrs Arthbuthnot; dim, timid Mrs Post; Mr Osmond, who keeps himself busy writing outraged letters to the newspapers and telling disgusting jokes to the waiters; and mauve-haired, drunken Mrs Burton (named, according to one review I read, after the actress). When she has a fall in the street, Mrs Palfrey is rescued by a young, impoverished writer called Ludo, which leads to a strange sort of friendship between them. Each is using the other – Mrs Palfrey now has a handsome, charming ‘grandson’ to show off to the hotel residents and someone to make her feel needed, while Ludo gains a more satisfactory ‘mother’ than his real mother, and also accumulates a lot of useful material for the novel he’s writing (about old people living at a hotel, entitled They Weren’t Allowed To Die There). Elizabeth Taylor’s observations of character are astute and very funny but also very sad. The residents are all bored, lonely and frightened, but feel unable to admit to this, let alone try to help themselves, so they spend their days obsessing over the hotel menus, spreading spiteful gossip, and complaining about modern life. The author has been called a twentieth-century Jane Austen and for once, that’s not an exaggeration. Mrs Post, for example, is described as “too vague, too bird-brained to achieve real kindness. She had always meant well – and it was the thing people most often said about her – but had managed very seldom to help anyone”, while snobby Lady Swayne manages to irritate even mild-mannered Mrs Palfrey, with “all of [Lady Swayne’s] most bigoted or self-congratulatory statements prefaced with ‘I’m afraid’. I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common-or-garden Church of England. (Someone had just mentioned Brompton Oratory.) I’m afraid I’d like to see the Prime Minister hanged, drawn and quartered. I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny.” I won’t provide any plot spoilers, but I will say that if you’re hoping for a sweet, sentimental look at old age, this is not the book for you. I loved it, but it was rather depressing. And now I’m off to find some more Elizabeth Taylor novels to read.

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  1. Although this article suggests that the initial idea of writing magazine articles about the little princesses came from the Queen Mother herself.

Dated Books, Part Nine: Friday’s Tunnel

A note for the benefit of those new to this series: ‘dated’ means ‘of its time, not ours’. ‘Dated’ books can be horribly offensive to modern sensibilities, or they can be charmingly nostalgic, or they can simply be a bit . . . odd. Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney falls mostly into the charmingly nostalgic category, with the dated bits generally being amusing, rather than annoying. It was recommended to me by Debbie during my search for 1950s schoolgirl books, so thank you, Debbie – I thoroughly enjoyed this book (and took careful notes on the schoolgirl slang, hobbies, clothes and other useful information contained therein). But first I ought to show you the lovely old hardcover I purchased from Rainy Day Books:

'Friday's Tunnel' by John Verney

This was once a library book at the ‘City of Collingwood Junior Library’ and the following letter to ‘Junior Borrowers’ is pasted in the front:

'Junior Borrower' letter

I wish all the adults who borrow books from my local library would follow that advice.

I should also point out that my 1959 (first?) edition includes lots of great illustrations by the author, as well as a detailed map (which certainly came in handy, given the complicated plot).

Friday’s Tunnel is narrated by February Callendar, who we learn is “stuck in bed for ages with a broken nose, a broken pelvis and a broken several other things” and is therefore at leisure to write down the extraordinary story of how she managed to save the world during her summer holidays, when she’d actually planned to spend all her time practising show jumping for the district gymkhana and improving her overarm tennis serve (both of which turn out to be very useful skills when dealing with the villains). She also explains that she intends to write “the sort of book I like to read, which means one with a map and drawings, and talk on every page and not one with long descriptions about the sun’s early rays touching the feathery beech-tips with gold and gossamer quivering in the dew, because I think dew is soppy and anyway I’m usually still asleep when all that sort of thing is going on”.

February’s adventure reminded me quite a lot of the Tintin books, even though she herself never actually leaves England. It involves, among other things, a world crisis triggered by a (possibly fake) coup d’état in a small island kingdom called Capria, a mysterious mineral that might be capable of blowing up the world, a millionaire businessman and his vulgar wife, a mysterious plane crash, a missing journalist, a dead body in a canal, a celebrity racing car driver, secret tunnels, a sinister sweet shop owner and a newspaper cartoon strip that may (or may not) contain vital coded messages.

And as with Tintin, the attitudes are from the 1950s. The villains are all swarthy and “foreign-looking”, even if they’re British. The Caprian President, Umbarak, however, was educated at Harrow, so he is “a Christian and a highly civilised man with Western ideas who had enabled the Caprians to live free of fear for the only time in history”, whereas his half-brother Zayid, the coup leader, is “just a bandit like his Moslem forefathers . . . mixed up in every racket in the Mediterranean and the Middle East”. Umbarak has “a gentle, beautiful face like a prince in a fairy tale” and is described as a “saint”, while Zayid looks “splendidly fierce”. I don’t think Zayid is actually Muslim, though, because he drinks alcohol, gambles, sells dope and smuggles “Jewish emigrants into Palestine”. It must also be noted that February and her brother Friday are much more sympathetic towards Zayid (February thinks he sounds “more fun” and she “rather sympathised with him for shutting Umbarak up in the Jenin Palace”, while Friday thinks Umbarak sounds “wet” and that one of Zayid’s more ingenious dope-smuggling rackets is “a wizard idea”). A friend of February’s father, a Very Important Man in the War Office, later gives a pompous speech about how Britain ought to take charge of all the stock of the mineral caprium because “England is the only Great Power who could use caprium as it must be used if the world is to survive”, although his view is countered by the newspaper editor who says, “We happen to believe that if the world is to survive, Great Powers simply must stop grabbing everything they think they can get away with and try behaving openly for a change.” (Sadly, the current leaders of the Great Powers do not appear to agree with this last viewpoint. And I think the characters in this book are being overly optimistic to describe Britain in 1959 as a “Great Power”.)

But it was all the science-y bits that had me either groaning or laughing at their dated-ness. I’ve noticed during my recent 1950s reading that fiction writers of the time seemed obsessed with the notion that science was about to annihilate humanity (which I guess is understandable after nuclear bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945) and that all scientists, but especially physicists, were believed to be secretive, incomprehensible and slightly deranged. So I was not surprised to see that science plays a large role in this book. A schoolboy friend of February’s is “mad on chemistry” and is constantly doing dangerous experiments (which, by the way, cause no concern to his parents, even when he burns off his sister’s hair with acid). He buys a lot of different cigarette brands (one of which is supposed to be “non-cancer”) to test, and wonders why one is wrapped in paper that won’t burn. His father, the village doctor, thinks the paper is probably made of asbestos:

“No reason why it shouldn’t be used instead of tin-foil,” he said. “Perhaps it preserves the cigarettes better in some way.”

Then he wanders off (probably smoking his pipe). Mind you, this is the same doctor who cheerfully discusses his patients’ details with February, explaining that the old woman he’s about to see only has a fever because she “gets herself so excited with all the things she thinks are wrong with her” so he’s going to give her “the nastiest tasting medicine I can think of, which is asafoetida and bromide”. Which is probably an accurate description of the behaviour of doctors, in the days before anyone paid much attention to ideas like “patient confidentiality” and “evidence-based medicine”.

But the funniest part was when the War Office bigwig gave a solemn lecture on physics, explaining that uranium is “the heaviest” element1 and that Britain’s “top nuclear physicist has had a nervous breakdown” because the mysterious mineral caprium has “upset his confidence in himself” and he’s been forced to accept that “all his knowledge is no less ludicrous than was the flat earth theory in its day”. I’m pretty sure “top nuclear physicists” don’t usually go “round the bend” when they come across a new, interesting element (isn’t that what they hope for?) and in any case, the reported properties of caprium don’t actually seem to prove that the atomic theory is wrong. (Also, despite no one understanding what caprium does, the War Office bigwig straps a bag of (possibly radioactive) caprium to his abdomen to cure his duodenal ulcer, which, of course, has been caused by the stress of dealing with the caprium crisis.)

Overall, though, I enjoyed February’s story very much. Her voice is lively and often very funny, her eccentric family and friends are entertaining, and the dated bits are quite amusing. Recommended for fans of Tintin or for those who wish the Famous Five books had had more plausible characters and more complex plots.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

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  1. I was pretty sure that heavier elements had been synthesised during or just after the war, so I looked up the history of the periodic table, and yes, by 1959, there were at least five discovered elements heavier than uranium, with even heavier elements that had been theorised and were later observed. But then again, the author couldn’t Google this information in thirty seconds, as I just did.