Category Archives: 1930s

‘Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead’ by Paula Byrne

I really enjoyed Mad World by Paula Byrne, which is an engrossing account of the people who inspired Evelyn Waugh’s novels – specifically, the troubled Lygon family of Madresfield Court, so similar to the Flyte family in Brideshead Revisited.

'Mad World' by Paula ByrneThe true story of the Lygons turns out to be even more dramatic and tragic than that of their fictional counterparts. Lord Beauchamp, a very grand earl, didn’t merely choose to live away from England with his lover because he disliked his pious wife – he was forced into permanent exile in 1931 to evade arrest for “committing acts of gross homosexual indecency” with his servants. While aristocratic men of the time often got away with flouting this law, Lord Beauchamp had been flagrant in his disregard for social and legal conventions. This became a problem when it appeared one of his daughters, Lady Mary, might marry Prince George. The King took action and recruited Beauchamp’s brother-in-law, Bendor, the Duke of Westminster, who’d long resented Beauchamp:

“It seemed grotesquely unfair that his brother-in-law should have three sons, a loyal wife, a string of homosexual lovers, a glittering career and great standing in politics, while he himself had got through three wives without producing a single male heir … Bendor set about his task with great relish and ruthless dispatch.”

The Lygon family was torn apart, with most of the children taking their father’s side and refusing to forgive their mother for divorcing him. The girls, previously the most eligible debutantes of their time, were unable to make ‘good’ marriages, due to the scandal. Lady Mary, the most beautiful, eventually married a philandering Russian aristocrat, who left her penniless and battling mental illness, alcoholism and loneliness. The heir, Lord Elmley, married a much older woman and had no children; Hugh, the model for Sebastian Flyte, quickly lost his good looks and his money and spent the remainder of his short life in a drunken stupor, trying to block out the guilt and shame of his own homosexuality; only Lady Dorothy, portrayed as Cordelia Flyte, seemed to live a relatively happy and productive life, although she had her own brief and disastrous marriage.

The author says that she wrote this book because she believed “that Evelyn Waugh had been persistently misrepresented as a snob and a curmudgeonly misanthropist.” However, I finished this book disliking Waugh, as a person, even more than I already did, which I didn’t think was possible. He was a snob. He spent his life attaching himself to a series of rich, aristocratic families, happy to be their court jester if he got to stay in grand country houses for extended periods at their expense, especially if it also provided him with good writing fodder. From his earliest years, he was spiteful and nasty, bullying anyone he regarded as his inferior in either social status or intelligence. He may have possessed wit and humour, but it always had a sharp edge. There is a lot of description of his idiotic drunken escapades with friends, which we are meant to admire:

“…to an outsider, the banter and play that characterised Mad World [that is, life at Madresfield Court with the Lygon siblings] appear frivolous and jejune, but in reality the comedy was a means of survival and a manifestation of love.”

'Brideshead Revisited' by Evelyn WaughHmm. Waugh at least had some self-awareness and admitted, when proposing to the woman who would become his second wife, “I am restless and moody and misanthropic and lazy and have no money…” (It reminded me of Mr Mybug in Cold Comfort Farm trying to appear more interesting to Flora by hinting at his dark depths.) Perhaps the poor woman thought he was joking, but she agreed to marry him and then spent years living in the country, perpetually pregnant, looking after their huge brood of children while he caroused around London. Despite his fervent Roman Catholicism, he had no moral qualms about buying the services of prostitutes, including “little Arab girls of fifteen and sixteen, for ten francs each” in Morocco. Even his brief military service during the war was marked by impropriety, when he falsified the official record of his battalion’s withdrawal from Crete in 1941. He told his friend Nancy Mitford that his behaviour would have been even worse if he hadn’t been under the moral influence of the Church. The mind boggles.

Paula Byrne provides an interesting analysis of most of Waugh’s books, including Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust and the Sword of Honour trilogy, but I found her detailed chapter on Brideshead Revisited the most fascinating. She examines his descriptions of Oxford, homosexuality, Roman Catholicism and aristocratic life, linking the major characters in the novel to their real-life counterparts. I think readers who love Waugh’s writing will find this book rewarding – but don’t expect to feel very fond of Waugh by the end of it.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

– There’s a great interview with E.B. White in this 1969 edition of The Paris Review, which includes his thoughts on writing for children:

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In ‘Charlotte’s Web’, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.”

– I was also interested in this article at The Guardian about a new exhibition of Soviet-era children’s books. “The idea was to abolish fantasy literature and illustration because they were seen as bourgeois and unhelpful to the revolution,” says Olivia Ahmad, the curator of the exhibition:

“In one cautionary tale called ‘Ice Cream’, by writer Samuil Marshak and illustrator Vladimir Lebvedev, a bourgeois capitalist eats too much ice cream and freezes to death. In ‘Red Neck’, a poem by Nicolia Aseev, a faithful Young Pioneer (the Soviet youth group) refuses to take off his red neckerchief even when attacked by a raging bull, thus demonstrating doughty revolutionary commitment even in the face of an unpleasant goring.”

The Guardian is also running a series about recipes for fictional food, including strawberry and peanut butter ice cream from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and raspberry cordial from Anne of Green Gables. I also liked this blog post at Pop Goes The Page about a DIY Harry Potter party, complete with Hogwarts letters, house banners, snowy owl balloons, floating candles and of course, pumpkin pasties, chocolate frogs and butterbeer.

– From the world of publishing, here’s a depressingly accurate article about how authors who are “hard to look at” (that is, not conventionally attractive) are less likely to find a publisher for their work. This only applies to women writers, of course (as one commenter notes, “Only one name is needed to mention here: George R. R. Martin”). And here’s an essay by a New Zealand editor, Stephen Stratford, entitled “The book didn’t sell and yes, I was mean-spirited enough to rejoice”: An essay on the dark arts of book editing.

Copyright protection for creators has been in my thoughts lately, so I was interested to read this discussion of the “Monkey Selfie” case, in which a US judge eventually ruled that “a non-human was not capable of owning copyright under current US law”. (It is a great photo, though.)

– Finally, for those students feeling stressed about school and exams, “one Canberra school has invited a local kitten rescue to bring cats into the classroom in a unique bid to mitigate pre-exam anxiety”.

'The Globe kittens' by Ernest J Rowley (1902)

What I’ve Been Reading: Muriel Spark

I enjoyed A Far Cry From Kensington so much that I wanted to know more about the author, so my next read was Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard. This was a very long and thorough overview of Spark’s life and work, written with her cooperation, although the biographer claims his book is not ‘authorised’ or ‘official’ in any way. Nevertheless, I suspect he went out of his way to be tactful and discreet, given Spark’s tendency to lambaste journalists or reviewers who dared to voice the tiniest criticism of her. She even disowned her only child when he claimed (admittedly, without much evidence) that his maternal grandmother had been Jewish, with Spark telling journalists, “He can’t sell his lousy paintings and I have had a lot of success … He’s never done anything for me, except for being one big bore.”

'Muriel Spark: The Biography' by Martin StannardSpark did not seem to be very good at personal relationships. She married a violent, mentally unstable man when she was nineteen, then divorced him a few years later. She pretty much abandoned her young son, leaving him to be raised by his father and grandparents, while she worked in publishing in London and eventually began to enjoy critical and commercial success with her novels. There were a few boyfriends over the years, all of them insecure, controlling and disloyal. Her biographer thinks “she had a kind of death wish on all close relationships, a fear of exposure that led her to preserve distance and prevent intimacy. Boundlessly forgiving of human nature in general, she was boundlessly unforgiving of it when she saw it as obstructing her vocation.”

Her writing was more important than anyone or anything, and she took her publishers firmly to task whenever they weren’t giving her the respect and money she felt she deserved. However, I was surprised to read about how well she was treated by her publishers, especially her American publishers, even at a relatively early stage of her writing career. She earned enough, as a ‘literary’ author, to buy houses and apartments, race horses, designer clothes, jewellery and sports cars and to travel the world in luxury. She expected to be treated as royalty at all times and became increasingly peevish, obsessional and unpleasant in her final decades.

'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'  by Muriel SparkI’m always interested to learn how writers, especially women writers, balance the responsibilities of life with their work. In Spark’s case, she behaved as many male writers of the time did, by being completely focused on her writing, dumping partners and friends whenever they failed to give her unconditional support, and ignoring her family, including her offspring. She was fortunate enough to acquire a ‘wife’, Penelope Jardine, her secretary and then close friend, who gave up her own career as an artist to live with Spark and manage her business and personal affairs for thirty years. It should be noted that Spark was not born into wealth and social privilege. She had innate talent, but she worked extremely hard for her success. She refused to identify as a feminist, but claimed to be an “independent woman” and said, “I’m in favour of women’s liberation from the economic viewpoint, but I wouldn’t want men’s and women’s roles reversed.” If that seems a little contradictory, it’s typical of her perspective on life. For example, she converted to Roman Catholicism but ignored any doctrine that was inconvenient to her personal life, rarely attended Mass and wasn’t much interested in anything the Pope had to say.

This biography also provides an interesting analysis of Spark’s poetry, short stories and each of her books, which made me take The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie down from my shelf and re-read it with a new perspective. Miss Brodie was based on a real-life teacher of Spark’s, but she also comes across as a version of Spark herself. Miss Brodie is supremely confident, convinced that her opinions are fact. She either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that she believes in contradictory ideas, such as despising the conformity of the Girl Guides while idolising Mussolini and his fascisti. She encourages her girls to challenge their headmistress, but is shocked when one of them rebels against Miss Brodie’s own authority. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. It’s very funny and clever and full of gorgeous descriptions of pre-war Edinburgh life.

'Loitering with Intent' by Muriel SparkI then read Loitering with Intent, which was also highly entertaining and apparently very autobiographical. Set in post-war London, it’s about a young woman writing her first novel while working for an odd organisation called the Autobiographical Association. Life appears to be imitating art, thinks Fleur, but it turns out her deranged boss has stolen her manuscript and is incorporating its events into his own life and work. I enjoyed Fleur’s musings about the publishing industry (“the traditional paranoia of authors is as nothing compared to the inalienable schizophrenia of publishers”) and about making personal sacrifices to be a writer (“I preferred to be interested as I was than happy as I might be. I wasn’t sure that I so much wanted to be happy, but I knew I had to follow my nature.”) As entertaining and clever as the story was, I also kept stopping to admire Spark’s language. For example, rather than write, “Beryl Tims escorted the old lady out of the room”, as most authors would, Spark comes up with:

“Beryl Tims turned up just then and grimly promoted the old lady’s withdrawal; Beryl glared at me as she left.”

Grimly promoted! Especially juxtaposed with that casual, “turned up just then”. It’s exactly right for that character, that scene and that narrator. As is a later description of Sir Eric Findlay, who “lived long enough to earn the reputation of an eccentric rather than a nut”. Fleur herself is also beautifully portrayed throughout – whenever her confidence and ambition start to slide into arrogance and ruthlessness, we’re shown her genuine affection for Edwina, the incontinent “old lady”, and Fleur’s relationship with her friend Solly, and we’re reminded why she’s the heroine of this story.

I think my favourite Muriel Spark novel, though, is still A Far Cry From Kensington. If anyone has any further Muriel Spark recommendations, I’d be glad to hear them (keeping in mind my current interest in books set in post-war England).

This Looks Strangely Familiar …

'The Scent of Secrets' by Jane Thynne

‘The Scent of Secrets’ by Jane Thynne (Published in September 2015 by Ballantine Books)

The Scent of Secrets, by Jane Thynne, is historical fiction set in 1938 and published last month in the US and Canada by Ballantine Books and Doubleday Canada. “The novel richly fuses fact and fiction with a cast of real Nazis and their British admirers, such as the Mitford sisters and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor,” according to its Goodreads page. It “puts a new spin on an ever-fascinating era, fraught with glamor, political tension, tragedy, and romance.” What an interesting idea!

To make things more confusing, it was published under the title A War of Flowers in the UK and is the third in a series (although The Scent of Secrets is the first of the series to be published in North America, according to this Q & A by the author). The second book in the series, The Winter Garden, looks like this:

'The Winter Garden' by Jane Thynne

‘The Winter Garden’ by Jane Thynne (Paperback published in 2014 by Simon & Schuster)

I guess Jane Thynne’s publishers really, really like that 1949 photograph by Frances McLaughlin-Gill.

By the way, if you’re new to this blog and you’re wondering what I’m going on about, five years ago I wrote a novel about political tension, glamour, tragedy and romance, set in 1938 and featuring real-life Nazis and their British supporters, including the Mitford sisters and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It looked like this:

'The FitzOsbornes in Exile' - North American hardcover

‘The FitzOsbornes in Exile’, North American hardcover, released on April 5th, 2011

‘The Meaning of Treason’ by Rebecca West

The Meaning of Treason is a fascinating, if somewhat biased, discussion about what ‘treason’ means in the modern world and although it was first published in 1949, I found it highly relevant to current political events. The author, Dame Rebecca West, reported on the post-war trials of the British traitors William Joyce (‘Lord Haw Haw’) and John Amery for The New Yorker, then decided the topic was interesting enough to explore at greater length. She revised the book in the 1960s to include a number of Cold War spy scandals, and the edition that I read included a new introduction, written by her in 1982.

'The Meaning of Treason' by Rebecca West

Revised edition of ‘The Meaning of Treason’, with a cover image of creepy Oswald Mosley and some of his fellow Fascists, including William Joyce (pictured, ironically, to the far left of Mosley)

In Britain, the “root of the law against treason” dated back to 1351, when Edward III declared that “if a man do levy war against our Lord the King in his realm or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere”, that man was guilty of treason. So, how did that apply to the strange case of William Joyce? He’d been a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, then he moved to Nazi Germany as soon as war was declared, became a German citizen and spent the war years broadcasting Nazi propaganda to the British public – for instance, he’d gloat over the radio about the damage that German bombs were inflicting on English cities and encourage the British to surrender to Hitler. Obviously, British people weren’t very impressed with Joyce at the time, although most came to regard the broadcasts, and Joyce, as a big joke. At the end of the war, Joyce was captured by the Allies and then put on trial in London, charged with ‘high treason’. Still, he’d been a German citizen at the time of the broadcasts, working loyally for his own country, not even engaged in anything that might be termed a ‘war crime’, so how could he be put on trial for being a British traitor? Well, it turns out “a British subject is forbidden by law to become the naturalized subject of an enemy country in wartime”, so he’d broken the law by moving to Germany and becoming a German. Except it turned out Joyce was actually an American citizen, born in the United States, with an Irish father who’d become a naturalized American years earlier. Joyce’s family moved to England when the boy was two, and he’d never applied for British citizenship, although as an adult, he fraudulently applied for (and received) a British passport to travel to Germany. The prosecution argued he’d been under the protection of the British Crown due to his passport, so he owed the Crown his allegiance, and after several trials and appeals, Joyce was found guilty and hanged. There were other British men tried for treason after the war, including John Amery (the son of Conservative Minister Leo Amery), who pleaded guilty and was also hanged, as well as a number of men who’d been taken prisoner by the Germans and were enticed to join the ‘British Free Corps’ and fight with the Nazis against the Soviets. West has some sympathy for these men, who were often young, uneducated and in terrifying situations (or, in the case of Amery, were mentally unstable).

She has far less sympathy for the next set of traitors, the nuclear scientists who’d signed agreements to keep information secret, then gave away these scientific secrets to the Soviet Union. In fact, she is deeply suspicious of scientists in general. Scientists, she says, are arrogant and clannish, placing scientific comradeship above national loyalty and believing themselves to be always rational, always right and incapable of doing harm. She uses as evidence the cases of Alan Nunn May, Klaus Emil Fuchs and Bruno Pontecorvo. Dr Fuchs is particularly interesting. He was born in Germany to a Quaker family who courageously opposed the Nazis when they came to power. His father, a church leader, was imprisoned in a concentration camp, but young Klaus, by then a member of the Communist Party, escaped to Britain, where he completed his doctorate studies in physics. When war broke out, the British imprisoned him because he was a German, then exiled him (along with many other scientists, including Max Perutz) to the wastelands of Canada. Eventually, the British worked out that all those imprisoned anti-Nazi German scientists could be helping the Allies win the war, so they brought them back, made Dr Fuchs a British subject, sent him to America to work on the Atomic Project for three years, then, after the war, employed him as head of the physics department at the Atomic Energy Establishment – until 1950, when they discovered he’d been sharing scientific information with the Soviet Union for eight years. He was charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act and pleaded guilty, but explained that most of the offences had been carried out while the Soviet Union was a wartime ally of Britain, so he hadn’t been ‘aiding the enemy’. He was sentenced to fourteen years in prison and his British citizenship was revoked, although he protested against the latter, pointing out that he’d pleaded guilty, cooperated fully with the authorities and anyway, “the British Nationality Act of 1948 excluded punishment as reason for revoking a certificate of naturalization”. Isn’t that interesting, that Britain couldn’t take away citizenship as punishment for a crime, even a ‘traitorous’ crime? In fact, West explains that if a traitor’s citizenship was revoked, he would become “a stateless person and could not have been deported” – that is, taking away someone’s citizenship meant he’d be forced to remain in the country.1 In the end, Fuchs was released from prison and moved to East Germany, where he became an East German citizen and resumed his career in nuclear physics.

West goes on to discuss the cases of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean (British diplomatic staff who turned out to be Soviet agents) and their friend Kim Philby (MI6 operative, also a Soviet agent), as well as William Marshall, George Blake, William Vassall and the Portland Five. She acknowledges that many of these spies could have been detected far earlier if British security services had been more competent, but she also seems to share the paranoid belief of Peter Wright that the Soviet Union was far more powerful and efficient than it actually was. Whenever a Soviet spy is caught, she’s convinced that the USSR deliberately allowed the spy to be discovered, in order to further its fiendish Communist plans (that is, to make British security services look foolish, encourage the British public to lose confidence in their government, and cause the Americans to regard the British with distrust). She insists, for instance, that William Vassall was a professional Communist spy, rather than a bumbling amateur who was blackmailed into handing over information to the Soviets after they took compromising photos of him during a drunken homosexual orgy (she says the party may have taken place but it was “probably engineered so that Vassall might refer to it, should his treachery ever be discovered”). And when Burgess and Maclean defected and the British government initially denied the men were Communist spies, this wasn’t a government trying to cover up its own incompetence but a sign of secret Communist conspiracies in the highest echelons of power. And so on.

I kept noticing the parallels with modern politics. West describes the experiences of Westerners imprisoned during the Korean War and subjected to Communist “brainwashing” before being sent home, then worries that future British fighters in “peripheral wars” could return home and spread false ideas “that their countries’ enemies were in the right”. Then there’s Harold Macmillan, responding to demands that security legislation be tightened in the wake of the Burgess and Maclean scandal: “It would be a tragedy if we destroyed freedom in the effort to preserve it.” But apart from having lots of interesting things to say about current events, this book was also beautifully written, full of thoughtful observations and a lot of droll humour and motivated by a genuine interest in the well-being of society. The Meaning of Treason is highly recommended for anyone wanting to learn more about the topic of treason, but particularly those interested in the Cold War.

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  1. For the benefit of non-Australians, I should explain that the current Australian government is trying to pass legislation that would revoke the citizenship of Australians accused of terrorism, regardless of whether or not these people had been convicted of terrorist offences, or indeed, if there was any firm evidence they’d committed any crime at all. Among the options being discussed were that such people could have their Australian citizenship revoked: if they had dual citizenship, even if their other country of citizenship refused to allow the person to enter that country; or if they were citizens only of Australia but had parents or grandparents who’d been citizens of other countries – that is, the legislation would potentially leave people stateless. Also, this would be decided by the Minister for Immigration, not by a court of law or an independent commission. Not surprisingly, when the draft of this legislation was shown to legal experts, they said (and I paraphrase), “This is illegal, unconstitutional and makes no sense whatsoever.”

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.

The Mapp and Lucia Novels by E. F. Benson

'Lucia Rising' by E. F. BensonThese books provided a delightful distraction during my recent lengthy convalescence, so I feel obliged to gush about them here, even though you’re probably already familiar with them. Actually, why hadn’t I read them before? They are exactly my cup of tea – comedies of manners, set in England during the 1920s and 1930s, mercilessly poking fun at the trivial pursuits and snobbery of the idle rich. Few of the characters are likeable, but that just makes their frantic attempts to clamber to the top of the social pile all the more entertaining. The queen of their society is Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas, whom even her loyal friend Georgie describes as

“a hypocrite . . . a poseuse, a sham and a snob, but there was something about her that stirred you into violent though protesting activity, and though she might infuriate you, she prevented your being dull.”

At first, Lucia has to be content with bossing around the inhabitants of the village of Riseholme – forcing them into participating in an Elizabethan pageant, ‘educating’ them about etiquette and poetry and Beethoven – but then her husband inherits a house in Brompton Square and she sets off to try to insert herself into fashionable London Society, with mixed success. However, the books really come to life when Lucia and Georgie move to the village of Tilling, reigned over by the formidable Miss Elizabeth Mapp. Lucia usually wins their battles, but Miss Mapp puts up a strong fight. The secondary characters are equally entertaining. There’s sweet, slightly dim Georgie, clutching his “toupet” to his head as he gallops along in Lucia’s wake; Major Benjy with his tall tales of tiger hunting and his fondness for whisky; the Padre who inexplicably speaks “Scotch”, even though he’s never been further north than Birmingham; and Mrs Wyse, who communes on a higher plane with her dead budgerigar, Blue Birdie. My favourite is Irene, roaring up and down the main street on her motor-bicycle, painting scandalous frescoes on the front of her house, and coming up with mad schemes to assist her beloved Lucia, which always go disastrously wrong.

'Lucia Victrix' by E. F. BensonI was intrigued to see how few of the characters fitted into the traditional married-with-children mould, and the most endearing characters were all coded as gay or lesbian. Irene, for instance, has an Eton crop, wears men’s clothes and lives with her not-very-servant-like maid, Lucy. Meanwhile, Georgie is obsessed with his appearance and his favourite hobbies are embroidery and watercolour painting (and Major Benjy sneeringly refers to him as “Miss Milliner Michael-Angelo”). There’s no indication that Georgie is attracted to men – in fact, he spends all his time in the company of women and is devoted to Lucia – but he has a panic attack whenever it seems that a woman might be attracted to him and he eventually settles into a happy, celibate marriage with Lucia. The novels have also been described as abounding in “camp humour”, so it did not surprise me to learn that E. F. Benson was “likely to have been homosexual“. Bonus fact about E. F. Benson – ‘Mallards’, the fictional residence of Miss Mapp and then Lucia, is based on Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, which was inhabited by not just E. F. Benson, but also Henry James and Rumer Godden (not all at the same time, obviously) and was the subject of Joan Aiken’s book, The Haunting of Lamb House.

There are six novels in the Mapp and Lucia series:

Queen Lucia (1920)
Miss Mapp (1922)
Lucia in London (1927)
Mapp and Lucia (1931)
Lucia’s Progress (1935)
Trouble for Lucia (1939)

Apparently there are also a couple of short stories about the characters, including The Male Impersonator. E. F. Benson was a prolific writer, producing over a hundred books. David Blaize sounds especially interesting, but Benson also wrote some memoirs and a biography of Charlotte Bronte (as well as a novel called The Princess Sophia!). The Mapp and Lucia books were made into a television series in the 1980s, starring Geraldine McEwan as Lucia, Prunella Scales as Mapp and Nigel Hawthorne as Georgie, and the BBC has just announced a new series will be filmed this year, using Lamb House as ‘Mallards’.

An Interview With Anne Blankman, Historical Novelist

I was impressed by Anne Blankman’s debut historical YA novel, Prisoner of Night and Fog, and wondered about the research she’d done for it. She kindly agreed to answer some questions about this.

'Prisoner of Night and Fog' by Anne BlankmanCongratulations on your debut novel, Anne. I found Prisoner of Night and Fog to be a thrilling read, but also a fascinating look at one particular period of German history. Why did you choose to set your novel in Munich in 1931?

Thanks so much for having me, Michelle! I’m a huge fan of your Montmaray books, and so pleased to be invited to visit your blog today.

My reasons for setting Prisoner of Night and Fog in Munich were rooted in Hitler’s history. Throughout the 1920s and early ’30s, Hitler lived in Munich. As my main character, Gretchen, initially has a close friendship with Hitler and has adored him for years, it was necessary that they reside near each other.

As for the year 1931, it was a pivotal time for the Nazis–in the previous year’s elections, they had increased their presence in the Reichstag from 12 to 107 deputies and they were poised to become the most powerful political party in Germany. Hitler was campaigning for the presidency; support for the Nazis was finally spreading throughout the country, instead of remaining localized in Bavaria. Everything hovered on the edge of an abyss–including Gretchen. Like most teenagers, she’s caught between childhood and adulthood, trying to discover who she is and what she believes.

There’s also a certain real-life event that occurs near the book’s end, which necessitated the story’s timeline, but it’s too spoilerish to reveal here to people who haven’t read Prisoner of Night and Fog yet.

Can you tell us a bit about your research process? Do you read or speak German? Have you visited Munich or Berlin? Did this help/hinder the process of writing the book?

The research for this book was intense. I felt a responsibility to portray Hitler accurately, not just because he was a real person, but out of respect for his millions of victims. I read everything I could find: biographies, memoirs, psychological profiles, essays, social histories, you name it. I studied Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, and his early speeches. Understanding his ideas, and his method of presenting them, was vital. Primary sources, such as maps and photographs, helped me envision the setting. I watched lots of old videos, too, including the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. There are many videos of Hitler on YouTube, as well, and I watched them over and over, studying the way he walked, how he used his hands when he talked, the cadence of his voice. Those are the little details that can make a story come alive.

I taught myself basic German phrases, but not enough to read any of my sources in a language other than English. My editor, Kristin Rens, is not only incredibly talented, but happens to be fluent in German and used to live in Munich. (When I learned this during the submission process, I was very grateful I’d done so much research because Kristin would have easily spotted inaccuracies!) Kristin helped me make sure that my characters sound like native German speakers. For example, in an early draft Gretchen bumps into a man and says, “I’m sorry.” It seemed fine to me, but Kristin explained that Germans would say, “Excuse me,” instead.

One of my favorite research tricks when I’m dealing with a subject I know nothing about, is to read a children’s non-fiction book on the topic. They tend to be written clearly and simply and hit the high points that you need to know. Then you can dig deeper.

When I started researching the history of psychology as background for Prisoner of Night and Fog, I was clueless – I hadn’t even taken the ever-popular Psych 101 course at university. I started by reading Kathleen Krull’s biography of Sigmund Freud. It provided an excellent starting point.

One of the most fascinating aspects of your book is the psychological study of Adolf Hitler and other members of his political organisation, the NSDAP. At one point, a (fictional) British psychoanalyst claims that “the NSDAP leadership seems to contain an extraordinarily high number of mentally diseased men. Narcissists, psychopaths, lovers of violence and death – something about National Socialism appeals to them on an elemental level.” Did you reach any conclusion about Hitler’s personality? Was he evil or mentally ill? Did he genuinely believe in his own ideas or was he simply very good at telling the German people what they wanted to hear, in order to gain power for himself?

Michelle, you’ve hit on one of the most controversial and hotly debated questions surrounding Adolf Hitler! Not even the major Hitler biographers, such as Ian Kershaw, Hugh Trevor-Roper, John Toland, Alan Bullock, and Joachim Fest, can agree about Hitler’s personality and his motivations.

When I started my research, though, I knew I’d have to come to my own conclusions about Hitler or I wouldn’t be able to portray him at all. The more I investigated, the more I became convinced that Hitler was deliberately evil. I say “deliberately” because I believe that Hitler understood the consequences of his actions.

For the first twenty-odd years of his life, Hitler was casually anti-Semitic, as many people were during that time. After World War One, he even marched in the funeral procession of Kurt Eisner, a Jewish politician. Then, almost overnight, he started spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric. I suspect that his motives were political and he consciously latched onto the Jews as a convenient scapegoat. By focusing on a common opponent, he could band together his followers and catapult himself into power. In fact, Hitler says as much in Mein Kampf when he writes that a great leader can focus his people’s attention on a common adversary.

Whether the Nazi leadership was mentally ill or not, Hitler and his violent, hate-filled ideology had enormous popular support throughout Germany in the 1930s. Other countries – Britain and Australia, for instance – had their own charismatic Fascist leaders, but these men never gained enough popular support to achieve any significant political power. What was different about the situation in Germany, do you think?

In my opinion, to understand why Nazism was so successful in Germany, you need to go back to World War One. Not only had Germany surrendered, but her leaders had signed the Versailles Treaty, which acknowledged their country’s moral responsibility for the war. The treaty’s conditions were onerous: Germany owed millions in war reparations, lost some of her most fertile land, and had her military capped at a measly 100,000 troops. While the rest of Europe was enjoying the hedonistic, freewheeling 1920s, Germany was trapped in a cycle of dizzying inflation, sky-high unemployment, and skyrocketing crime rates. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the Nazi Party surged forward in the polls. People were desperate for change, and Hitler promised to provide it.

The Nazi Party easily could have fallen by the wayside, though, as countless other political organizations did in Germany at this time. The reason why Hitler became so successful is, I think, because he figured out how to reach on people on their most basic level–their faith. He’s known to have that he wanted to appeal to his followers’ emotions, not their intellect.

If you ever watch old Party rallies, you’ll see how eerily they mimic portions of some religious services. The uniforms and pageantry, the flickering torchlight, the shouted liturgical-like responses seem religious. I suspect that Hitler knowingly perverted familiar and beloved elements of the Catholic Mass and Lutheran eucharist. As he wanted people’s unwavering support, he needed them to love him with a deep devotion–as though he were a modern-day savior. It’s incredibly calculated and cruel. And it worked, at least at first.

Prisoner of Night and Fog has a satisfying conclusion, but the story isn’t quite finished yet. Can you tell us anything about the sequel you’re writing?

Ooo, I have to be careful what I say here so I don’t give anything away to people who haven’t read Prisoner of Night and Fog yet! Gretchen and Daniel are still the main characters, and there’s plenty of romance, murder, and danger. This time most of the action takes place in Berlin right after Hitler’s appointment to the chancellorship. Every move Gretchen and Daniel make could be their last, with both the Nazis and the police hot on their trail.

I’ll give you one more hint: Pay attention to everything Hitler says to Gretchen in the first book. His advice becomes crucial for her survival in the sequel.

Many thanks for having me, Michelle! Best wishes for your continued success!

‘Prisoner of Night and Fog’ by Anne Blankman

Complicated Disclaimer: I read this book when it was in copyedited manuscript form. I didn’t know the author, but the book’s editor knows the agent who sold the Montmaray books to Knopf (who is not really ‘my’ American agent, but my Australian publisher’s agent – I did say that this would be a complicated disclaimer). I was asked to read the manuscript so that if I liked it, a quote from me could go on the book jacket. I’ve been asked to do this before, and as always, I made it very clear to the editor that I could only provide a complimentary quote if I loved the manuscript. And this is the first time I’ve actually provided a quote for a book jacket, so there you go.

'Prisoner of Night and Fog' by Anne BlankmanPrisoner of Night and Fog is set in Munich in 1931, as Adolf Hitler begins his rise to power. Gretchen is the perfect Aryan girl, having grown up absorbing Nazi ideology. Her father fought alongside Hitler in the trenches of the First World War and then gave up his life to protect Hitler during the failed Nazi Putsch of 1923, so Gretchen has always been a special favourite of Hitler’s. She’s also close to Hitler’s beloved niece Geli, although her best friend is a sweet young woman named Eva Braun who works in the camera shop frequented by Hitler and his associates. It’s true that Gretchen has some difficulties – money has been tight, her mother wants Gretchen to give up her dreams of attending university, her brother Reinhard can behave very strangely sometimes – but she knows everything will be wonderful once the Nazis are in control of the country, especially as Reinhard seems to have found a sense of purpose among the SA Brownshirts. Then a young journalist called Daniel Cohen turns her life upside-down by a) revealing a terrible secret involving her father, and b) being incredibly handsome and clever and kind, even though he’s a Socialist, a sworn enemy of Hitler and, worst of all, a Jew.

Anne Blankman does an excellent job of weaving real historical events and people into a thrilling fictional murder mystery. She’d clearly done a tonne of research, but it didn’t come across as information-dumping to me. There are also detailed author notes at the end of the book, providing background information about the real-life people in the book and including a long bibliography for those who’d like to read more. I found the setting fascinating, but this is also a really engrossing story. Gretchen and Daniel are brave and believable protagonists, and even the minor characters had depth. Gretchen’s mother, for example, is weak-willed and easy to despise, but she’s also shown to be someone forced by circumstances to make some impossible, heartbreaking choices. I can’t truthfully say I ‘enjoyed’ the book, because the events were so horrifying (if it’d been a film, I’d have watched the second half with my fingers over my eyes, shouting things like, “Don’t go into that cellar, Gretchen!” and “Run, Gretchen, RUN!”). This is not a book full of warmth and humour. It’s dark and grim and occasionally shocking in its violence (although this shouldn’t really be surprising, given that most of the characters are Nazis). There is a bit of romance, but mostly the lovers are too busy fleeing murderous thugs to enjoy their developing relationship. It’s difficult to discuss the plot in much detail without providing spoilers, but I will say I found the conclusion satisfying – even though it’s clear the story isn’t quite over, and in fact, the author is working on a sequel. Recommended to readers who enjoy historical fiction, particularly those craving mystery and excitement, and those with an interest in twentieth-century European history.

Read More: An interview with Anne Blankman about the historical background to Prisoner of Night and Fog.

You might also be interested in reading:

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley

What I’ve Been Reading

'The Death of Lucy Kyte' by Nicola Upson I liked The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson, a murder mystery set in the 1930s, featuring a fictional version of the real-life mystery writer, Josephine Tey, as well as several other famous people (for instance, Dodie Smith and Wallis Simpson both make brief appearances). In this book, the fifth in a series, Josephine has to unravel the mystery of her godmother’s death and strange bequest. Could this possibly be linked to the famous, real-life murder of Maria Marten, a local servant girl who’d died a hundred years before? Well, yes, of course it is, but it also ends up being far more complicated and terrifying than I’d expected (admittedly, I am easily spooked). The story reminded me quite a lot of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, although I think The Death of Lucy Kyte was more successful at handling the ‘supernatural’ elements of the plot (which may or may not be truly supernatural). I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries, because they so often use violent death as a mere plot device, without much acknowledgement of the terrible suffering it causes to the people who knew the victim. However, in this book, each of the characters was a plausibly complicated person, each violent incident had tragic repercussions, and there was nothing neat or painless about the conclusion. I hadn’t read the previous books in the series and this one worked well as a stand-alone novel, although I did become curious about the background of Josephine’s lover (who presumably is the subject of one of the earlier books). I believe the first book is called An Expert in Murder and it’s now on my To Read list.

Dogsbody by Dianna Wynne Jones was a clever and charming children’s book about Sirius the Dog Star, who is wrongfully accused of murder and sentenced to live in the body of a dog on Earth. I am not very interested in mythology or astronomy (or fantasy), but I loved the descriptions of Sirius’s doggy life and particularly his interactions with the other animals he encountered. Sirius is taken in by Kathleen, a young Irish girl with her own problems, and I liked the way the author didn’t hold back from showing that truly awful things can happen to children – but also that children can be brave and resilient and that hope can be found in unexpected places.

'Goodbye to Berlin' by Christopher IsherwoodGoodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was a fascinating look at Germany in the early 1930s. The author insists in his introduction that it’s not “purely autobiographical”, but given the narrator is a young Englishman called ‘Christopher Isherwood’ who is living and working in Berlin at the same time that the author did, I think it’s fair to say it’s a reasonably accurate portrayal of his real experiences. Christopher drifts about Berlin, giving English lessons, hanging out in coffee shops and seedy bars and meeting a lot of interesting people. These include Sally Bowles, only nineteen and hopelessly naïve and romantic, even if she does refer to herself as an “old whore”; Peter, an Englishman besotted with a working-class boy called Otto; Otto’s impoverished family, living in a decrepit attic; and the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family who own a department store. At first Christopher seems quite detached (“I am a camera with its shutter open, recording, not thinking . . .”), but he becomes closer to the people he’s observing, even when he disapproves of them and despairs for their future (“these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything”). He shows clearly how poverty and despair created by high unemployment and the collapse of the banking system after the First World War made it easy for Hitler to rise to power. The film Cabaret is based on the Sally Bowles section of Goodbye to Berlin, but the film doesn’t have a lot in common with the book. Both are interesting, though, in their different ways.

Old Filth wasn’t as immediately warm and engaging as most of Jane Gardam’s novels, perhaps because it was about a snobby, emotionally-repressed old Englishman. However, the story of how Edward came to be that way was engrossing and involved a variety of interesting settings. Edward spends his early years in a remote Malayan village before being sent to an abusive foster home in Wales, then on to several English boarding schools, whereupon war breaks out and he finds himself on an evacuee ship . . . and he hasn’t even made it to adulthood yet. The plot is very clever, moving back and forth in time to reveal information at exactly the right pace, with characters reappearing at strategic points (although occasionally in a way that strains credibility). It was fascinating to watch the decline of the British Empire through the eyes of a ‘Raj orphan’ who ended up a judge in Hong Kong before retiring to an England that was no longer Home. I believe there are several books about the same set of characters, and I’d be especially interested to read more about Edward’s wife Betty, who seemed to have led a very busy life (even if Edward was unaware of most of it).

'Bad Science' by Ben GoldacreFinally, some non-fiction. Bad Science by Ben Goldacre takes aim at the pharmaceutical companies, vitamin pill manufacturers, homeopaths, nutritionists, politicians and journalists who ignore scientific evidence in their quest to make money or become famous. Some of his examples will probably make more sense to UK readers (for example, he devotes a chapter each to Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford, apparently famous in the UK although I’d never heard of them), but there are also good general discussions about statistics, the placebo effect and how to analyse a scientific research paper. If you’re familiar with Dr Goldacre’s website or you read a lot of sceptic-based blogs, there won’t be a lot here that’s new to you, but I still found this to be an entertaining and interesting summary of some major issues in modern medical science (or at least, how medical science is reported in newspapers, magazines and on television).