Look At This Cover!

The people who design my book covers have consistently come up with thoughtful, attractive designs, but I think this one is the most gorgeous yet:

'The FitzOsbornes in Exile' - North American hardcover
'The FitzOsbornes in Exile', North American hardcover, released on April 5th, 2011

It’s so glamorous! It’s such a great depiction of the mood of the book! And isn’t that model the perfect Sophie? She’s doing the Queen Matilda chin tilt! And her facial expression! Is she sad, or bored, or calm, or curious, or defiant, or all of those things at once? She’s even wearing the pearl drop earrings Aunt Charlotte gives her for her seventeenth birthday. At first, I thought the dress looked more 1950s than 1930s, but it’s an actual photo from a 1930s edition of Vogue. (The dress is probably more daring and fashionable than Sophie would wear, though – and she must have just had her hair done by Monsieur Raymond, the hair artiste.)

Sitting next to Sophie is Toby. It can’t be Simon, because the figure has fair hair, and it can’t be Rupert, because he seems to be smoking a cigarette. In the background is Veronica, dressed in mourning and dancing with . . . someone. He’s probably not Daniel, not at a Society ball. I guess it could be Simon – in which case, they’re stomping on each other’s feet, out of range of the camera.

I love the colours of this cover, too. I don’t know if the designer planned it, but it brings to my mind the red, white and black of the Nazi flag – a chilling hint of what’s in store for these characters.

Then there’s the beautiful title, written in a lovely 1930s Art Deco font.

Oh, it’s all so very pretty . . . and if you live in the United States or Canada, you can buy your very own copy in two months time! (Actually, I guess you could buy a copy wherever you live in the world, as long as you don’t mind paying a large postage bill.)

I should also mention that the paperback edition of A Brief History of Montmaray is out next month in North America. The cover looks like this:

'A Brief History of Montmaray' - North American paperback
'A Brief History of Montmaray', North American paperback, released on March 8th, 2011

It’s quite different from the North American hardcover, which featured a photo of a castle perched on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. That hardcover design seemed to polarise readers – some thought it was really striking and interesting, others felt it made the book look boring. Which just goes to show you can’t please everyone. This paperback cover does look a bit more ‘fairy-tale princess’, which could be a good or bad thing. I mean, FitzOsborne princesses don’t tend to hang around on tower balconies waiting for a prince to rescue them, but on the other hand, it is a very nice photo of a castle on a moonlit night. (And is that a full moon, hidden by clouds? Watch out for werechickens!)

North American readers can buy this paperback next month – or they can buy the lovely hardcover edition right now. Or they can buy both!

‘Dated’ Books, Part Three: The Friendly Young Ladies

Here is a true story about this book. (You know how people say this, then the story turns out to be not very extraordinary at all? This is one of those stories.)

When I was fifteen, my family moved house right at the start of the summer holidays, to yet another country town. I didn’t have any school friends, because I’d just arrived, and there didn’t seem to be anyone of my age left in the surrounding streets – they’d all gone somewhere more interesting for the holidays, and besides, I would have been too shy to approach them if they had been around. As a result, I spent the entire summer in the town library. One day, I came across a dark green paperback with an old-fashioned painting on the front cover and ‘Virago’ written on the spine. I had no idea what ‘Virago’ meant, but I thought I’d give this one a go.

The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary RenaultWell. It was a revelation. The girls in this book weren’t like the girls in any other books I’d read, or even like girls I knew in real life. All the girls I knew thought that the point of life was to make yourself as attractive as possible, so that lots of boys would fall in love with you, whereupon you would choose the most popular boy, fall in love with him, marry him, buy a nice house, fill it with nice objects and have a couple of nice children. I’d never had the slightest interest in doing any of those things, but I’d assumed I would when I finally ‘grew up’. This book dangled in front of me the tantalising possibility that I might grow up and still not want those things. The girls in this book wore whatever they felt like, and sometimes wore nothing at all; had fascinating jobs but no husbands or children; had lots of intriguing, oblique conversations with one another; and lived with their best female friends on houseboats. The word ‘lesbian’ was never mentioned, but I probably wouldn’t have understood it, anyway (it was the eighties, and I was a very unworldly teenager). As it was, quite a lot of the book went over my head, but I didn’t mind. I was absolutely loving swimming around in all that deep, opaque water.

I had to return the book eventually, but when I went to look for it a few weeks later, it was gone. Stupidly, I hadn’t written down the author’s name, and I couldn’t even recall the title – something about ladies? I wasn’t quite stupid enough to ask the librarian if she could locate ‘the green book about ladies’, but I made attempts to find it over the next few years, at that library, at other libraries, at various bookshops. Then I gave up and almost (but not quite) forgot about it.

Twenty-five years later, my friend H was on holiday in the UK and browsing through second-hand bookshops.

“Hey,” she e-mailed me. “I found this great book I think you’ll like. It’s really clever and funny, and it’s set in 1930s England, and it says on the back that it’s the antidote to The Well of Loneliness, so I thought of you straight away! Not that you’re anything like The Well of Loneliness.”

“I haven’t ever been able to bring myself to read The Well of Loneliness,” I e-mailed back. “Sounds too depressing.” Then something swam up from the depths of my memory. “Hang on. This book isn’t about two girls living a bohemian existence on a houseboat, is it?”

“Yes, and the little sister of one of them runs away from home and comes to live with them, and there’s this hilariously awful doctor who fancies himself as God’s gift to women and tries to seduce all three of them – for their own good, of course.”

“This book isn’t green, is it?”

“Yes, and it’s got a lovely painting of two girls in 1930s clothes on the cover.”

“And is there a scene where the little sister gets badly sunburnt, so they use green face powder to disguise it?” (For some reason, this was the scene that had stuck with me. Green face powder. Would that really work?)

“Maybe,” she said. “Haven’t got up to that bit yet. I’ll send it to you when I’ve finished.”

And it was the very same book – well, the cover was different, but it was still green. It was Mary Renault’s 1944 novel, The Friendly Young Ladies, and it was just as good as I’d remembered. Lots of sharp social satire, and some wonderful insights into the convoluted thoughts and emotions of the characters. For example, here’s the self-satisfied doctor, who sees himself as a saviour of lonely female patients:

“His dislike of hurting anyone was entirely genuine, as traits which people use for effect often are; and from this it followed that if anyone insisted on being hurt by him, he found the injury hard to forgive.”

There are also some funny, irreverent comments about writing and publishing. One character, who writes cowboy books, describes herself cheerfully as a “competent hack” and says,

“Personally I always think people are rather sickening who make out they could write better than they do. It’s like losing a game and then saying you didn’t try.”

And here she is, complaining about an editor who says he wants to see more romance in her manuscript:

“I did put a girl in. I’m sure I did. Her name was Susie, or Sadie, or something. And I mentioned her again at the end . . . I always think it would save such a lot of trouble if you could just indicate it with a row of crosses, or BERT LOVES MABEL, or something quick, and get on with the story.”

So, lots to enjoy – except for the conclusion, which I’d forgotten entirely. And this brings me to why this book is ‘dated’.

As with The Charioteer, there are no descriptions of any form of sex. In an afterword, written forty years after the book was first published, Renault says,

“I have sometimes been asked whether I would have written this book more explicitly in a more permissive decade. No; I have always been as explicit as I wanted to be, and have not been much more so in recent books. If characters have come to life, one should know how they will make love; if not it doesn’t matter.”

That’s interesting, although I don’t agree with her. By her argument, if the characters have come to life in the first half of the book, then the reader ought to know how they’ll interact in the second half, so why bother writing the rest?

Renault also criticises the “silliness of the ending” of this book. She’s quite right, it is extremely silly, although so are some other aspects of the plot. As a discussion of this involves plot spoilers, I’ve hidden the next three paragraphs. Use your mouse to highlight the blank space (or use your browser to ‘select all’ text) if you’d like to read on.

It turns out Leonora, the tomboyish elder sister of runaway Elsie, had an unsatisfying sexual experience with her friend Tom when they were both teenagers. As a result, Leo has turned to women, and eventually ends up in a happy, satisfying, long-term partnership with the beautiful, talented Helen, who loves Leo devotedly but not possessively. It seems an ideal relationship, supportive without being suffocating. Leo is also close friends with Joe, who lives up the river from them. He’s handsome, clever, sensitive, a brilliant writer, from a wealthy family but not at all snobbish, able to fish, paddle a canoe, climb mountains, rescue drowning women and build houses with his bare hands. And, in the final chapters, he ‘cures’ Leo of her lesbianism by having (dubiously consensual) sex with her. Then Leo abandons Helen and goes off with him to America.

I mean, what?!

Renault thinks the conclusion is silly because Leo and Joe would have a chaotic domestic life, and this would prevent Joe from writing. I think it’s silly because Leo’s previous unsatisfactory heterosexual experiences are due to her being a lesbian, not the other way around, and that Leo abandoning Helen makes absolutely no sense.

Despite the conclusion, I think this is a terrific read. If you’re interested, Charles Taylor has written a very thoughtful review of the book.

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

The King’s Speech

As this blog is supposedly devoted to books, writing and language, I should, first of all, note that this film is based on a book by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi about Lionel Logue.

The King's SpeechRight. Well, from what I’d heard of this film – Australian speech therapist plus 1930s British politics plus dysfunctional royal family – it sounded just my cup of tea. Then it started attracting rave reviews from critics, and reports of standing ovations in cinemas. Then just about everyone I knew said, “Michelle! Haven’t you seen it yet? You’ll love it!” The problem with this sort of hype is that it creates enormous expectations that can rarely be met. It makes me put off seeing the film for weeks, then slouch into the cinema, cross my arms and raise a very sceptical eyebrow at the screen.

I am happy to say that, in this case, my friends were quite right. I did enjoy this film very, very much. Colin Firth does a superb job of turning Bertie into an endearing and poignant character. All the British kings of the twentieth century were completely useless, but King George the Sixth (as Bertie becomes during the film) was even more useless than most of his forebears. The best that can be said about him is that at least he wasn’t his elder brother, David, whose Fascist sympathies and appalling choice of wife would have been a disaster during the war. The film demonstrates how ridiculous the idea of a monarchy is in the modern world, and how sad and suffocating it must be for those born into reigning families. I like that even Bertie asks whether there’s any point to being a king. He has no real political power. All he can do is wear flashy uniforms and give speeches, and poor Bertie finds speech almost impossible. But at least he has a supportive wife. (And I thought Helena Bonham Carter was excellent as Queen Elizabeth – it’s so nice to see her playing someone other than a homicidal maniac once in a while.)

The best part of the film for me, though, was Lionel. I’m not a huge fan of Geoffrey Rush (his performances so often scream, “Look at me, here I am winning an Oscar!”), but he was perfect for this role. I absolutely adored the Logue family and would have loved to have seen more of them, especially the bookish younger son. They were so warm, funny and Australian – such a contrast to the stuffy British royals. The speech therapy sessions were fascinating, although I must admit I cringed at some of the ‘facts’ Lionel presented. Actually, stuttering (or stammering, as it’s called in the film) ISN’T caused by cruel parents and siblings. It usually manifests itself long before “four or five years of age” – in fact, it usually appears when a child first starts to put words together. It’s a motor speech disorder with clear evidence of a genetic basis, although, yes, many people who stutter find their speech becomes less fluent in situations where they feel anxious. And I’m proud to say that Australian speech pathologists are still leading the world in stuttering research and that the renowned Lidcombe programme for the treatment of early stuttering was named after the Lidcombe campus of the University of Sydney, where I trained as a speech pathologist (and no, the Lidcombe programme does not involve teaching children to swear).

Er, sorry – will take off my speech pathologist hat now and replace it with my historical novelist hat. Generally, I try not to have very high expectations of historical accuracy in films. If the story is engaging, the acting is good and the costumes and sets are pretty (which is certainly true for this film), I’ll go along with minor issues of historical revisionism. So, I wasn’t too concerned that everyone in the film seemed to be treating Hitler as a serious threat long before the war began. But – King George the Fifth warning Bertie about Hitler’s plans to conquer Europe? Very, very unlikely. The real Bertie actually sent cheery birthday greetings to Hitler in April, 1939, only five months before war was declared. I was also surprised to see Winston Churchill castigating David during the abdication crisis scene. In fact, Churchill very publicly supported David at the time, and said, with characteristic hyperbole, that if the King was forced to abdicate, “the outrage so committed would cast its shadow across many chapters of the history of the British Empire”. (I must admit, though, that I was a bit distracted during that part of the film because I kept thinking, ‘What’s Peter Pettigrew doing there?’ and expecting him to transform into a rat. That’s the problem with British films, all those wonderful but very familiar actors. Look, there’s Dumbledore pretending to be King George the Fifth! And Bellatrix has had a perm and put on some pearls!) The film also ignored the fact that Bertie toured the United States and Canada – and gave a number of successful speeches – in early 1939, months before the ‘King’s Speech’ of September, 1939.

But never mind all that historical nitpicking – this is a charming, beautifully-produced film with lots of sparkling dialogue and moments of real emotion. Haven’t you seen it yet? You’ll love it!

‘Dated’ Books, Part One: Wigs on the Green

Some time ago, a fellow Australian writer described one of my books as ‘dated’ (in fact, she stated in her blog that she was going to re-read that particular book so she could learn how NOT to write a novel). ‘Dated’ was an interesting word to use, and I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant by it. If a book was deliberately set in the past, wasn’t it a good thing that the story was ‘of its time’ (assuming that’s what the writer meant by ‘dated’)? Shouldn’t a book set in a particular time show what those people thought and read and did? How could it be a bad thing for a book about the past to reflect the attitudes of the period?

Wigs on the Green by Nancy MitfordWell, I’m still not sure about the writer’s comments and that particular book of mine. However, I’ve recently read a couple of books that even the authors felt had ‘dated’ badly – and I think I agree with the authors. The first book is Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford, written in 1935. She wasn’t famous then, and the book attracted lukewarm reviews and modest sales. It wasn’t until the enormous success of The Pursuit of Love in 1945 that anyone became interested in re-releasing Wigs on the Green. But Nancy Mitford refused to allow re-publication. The world had changed and the book was now in “the worst of taste”, she wrote to her friend Evelyn Waugh. Nearly forty years after her death, a new edition of the book, with an introduction by Charlotte Mosley, has just been published, and it’s fascinating – in an awful sort of way.

Wigs on the Green is a satire about Fascism, written back in the days when Hitler was still a funny little man with a silly moustache, and Mussolini was much admired for making Italian trains run on time. The novel is set in a peaceful English village, and the main character, Eugenia Malmains, bears a close resemblance to Nancy Mitford’s sister, Unity. Eugenia makes impassioned speeches on an overturned wash-tub on the village green, forces the villagers to join her beloved ‘Union Jackshirt’ movement, and eventually organises a ‘Social Unionist’ pageant that turns violent after her supporters are viciously attacked by local ‘Pacifists’. The other characters seem to have escaped from a P G Wodehouse novel. There’s a weak-willed young man whose aunt has left him a small fortune, his caddish friend, a snobby (and stupid) girl fleeing her engagement to a duke, an ambitious (and stupid) society hostess, and a couple of dotty old aristocrats. Compared to these people, Eugenia is, at least, sincere and hard-working. Perhaps it was this ambivalence, this refusal to condemn Eugenia outright, that Nancy Mitford was worried about? On the other hand, Mitford gives Eugenia plenty of mad speeches, outlining the ridiculous policies of the Fascists. Here’s Eugenia, for example, giving some relationship advice to her cousin:

“She turned to Poppy and said, ‘If your husband is an Aryan you should be able to persuade him that it is right to live together and breed; if he is a filthy non-Aryan it may be your duty to leave him and marry Jackshirt Aspect. I am not sure about this, we want no immorality in the Movement …'”

This is after Eugenia has explained to Poppy and her potential husband, Jasper, that:

“‘A non-Aryan is the missing link between man and beast. That can be proved by the fact that no animals, except the Baltic goose, have blue eyes.’
‘How about Siamese cats?’ said Jasper.
‘That’s true. But Siamese cats possess, to a notable degree, the Nordic virtue of faithfulness.'”

Clearly, the author is making fun of Fascist ideology, but what was funny in 1935 is not so funny now, after the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

There were also personal reasons why the author might have wanted to pretend the book had never existed. Its initial publication led to a rift between Nancy and her sister Diana, who married Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. Diana spent much of the war in prison (Nancy’s own testimony helped put Diana there), and Unity shot herself in the head when war was declared. Fascism tore the Mitford family apart, so it’s not surprising that Nancy Mitford might have become reluctant to laugh at her own jokes about it.

Well, whatever the author’s motivation for not wanting the book re-published, Penguin has now released it (as well as four other Mitford novels) with a very nice illustrated cover. Yes, it’s ‘dated’. Apart from the Fascist jokes, there’s racism (people from Uruguay being called ‘fuzzy wuzzies’, et cetera), as well as blatant misogyny. The plot is predictable, and most of the characters are boring and unlikeable. If you haven’t read any of Nancy Mitford’s writing and want to try some, please don’t start with this book (I recommend Love in a Cold Climate). However, if you’re a Mitford fan, you might find this one really interesting – because, rather than in spite of, its ‘datedness’.

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

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This series is one of my favourite comfort reads, and has the added benefit of being set before and during the Second World War (this means that I can pretend I’m re-reading it for ‘research purposes’).

It won’t be to the taste of those who expect novels to be tightly plotted, with a single protagonist whose goal is clearly stated on the first page and achieved by the last. However, for those of us who love rambling, realistic family sagas set in a fascinating period of history, these books are just about perfect.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane HowardThe first book, The Light Years, introduces the Cazalets, a middle-class English family who are rich enough to own houses in both London and Sussex; to send their sons to expensive ‘public’ schools and hire a governess for their daughters; and to have a large number of maids, kitchen staff, gardeners, chauffeurs and secretaries. The story is told from the point of view of all three generations of Cazalets, as well as various servants, friends and mistresses, which does make things confusing at first. Who is the eldest out of the Cazalet brothers? Is Christopher the cousin of Teddy or Simon? On my first (and even my second) reading, I often found myself having to refer to the family tree and the list of characters at the front of the book. However, once all that was sorted out, I was drawn to the teenage Cazalet girls: melodramatic Louise, who longs to be an actress; kind-hearted Polly, who dreads the idea of another war; and plain, clumsy Clary, who hates her stepmother, brother, cousins and practically everyone else in the world, but has a vivid imagination and a wonderfully honest outlook on life (as you can tell, she’s my favourite). The girls’ worries, resentments, dreams, tragedies and triumphs are beautifully portrayed. Their parents are equally realistic, but less easy to like. They vote Tory, believe the British Empire will last forever, think of women as weak, intellectually-inferior beings, have a vague dislike of Jews . . . all typical attitudes of their class and time, but it doesn’t make them very endearing to most modern readers. However, this attention to historical accuracy is one of the strengths of the series. The author describes everything, from what people ate for breakfast, to how they reacted to the Munich Crisis of 1938, so clearly yet so unobtrusively. (This may be because a lot of the story is autobiographical.)

The second book, Marking Time, begins when war is declared. The women and children move into the family’s country house and most of the men join the forces. By the third book, Confusion, tragedy has hit the family hard and the girls are embarking on adult life with various degrees of success and happiness. Both books examine war from the perspective of women and girls, and are absolutely fascinating. I also like some of the new characters who appear – for example, Stella Rose and her family, who moved to England from Austria before the war.

The final book, Casting Off, is set in the immediate post-war years, and wraps up the story for each of the characters, not always realistically. I devoured this book, just as I did the others, but it does consist mostly of ‘then X married Y’ – unless X had been unhappily married, in which case it’s ‘then X divorced Y’. Polly’s story is particularly silly, but even Clary’s happy ending doesn’t seem all that believable to me. Still, the male characters who’d been getting away with horrible behaviour for years (specifically, Edward and his nasty son Teddy) do get their comeuppance in this book, which made me very happy – however unrealistic it might have been.

The Cazalet novels were made into a BBC television series, which I haven’t seen, and I’m also curious about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s memoir, Slipstream.

EDITED TO ADD: BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a series based on the Cazalet books in 2013 (thanks to Jed for the link). This interview with Elizabeth Jane Howard also says, “It looks as if 2013 will be the year of Howard’s maturation: while the nation tunes into the story of the Cazalets, Howard will be finishing the fifth volume of the Chronicle.”

See here for my thoughts on All Change, the fifth volume of the Cazalet Chronicles and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s final novel.