Thursday, 16 June 2016
A wet seaside weekend - no internet access to fritter my time ... and how much reading I managed, three novels in one weekend, even a few chapters on the beach in between showers. Guard Your Daughters was a lucky find, sadly without the pretty jacket - but I've been keeping an eye out for this since all the 1p copies vanished from Amazon after a slew of good reviews from bloggers. (I firmly believe that, if you wait patiently, there is always a long-neglected copy out there with your name on it! )
My first thought was, 'Why hasn't this been republished by Persephone!' And my second thought was, 'This SO reminds me of I Capture the Castle ...' In fact, I think I preferred it to I Capture the Castle, which I loved on first reading but found too self-consciously whimsical when I read it again many years later. That charming, eccentric Mortmain family ... really, what a snobbish, entitled bunch of scroungers they were.
But Guard Your Daughters - published a few years later, in 1953 - has a darker undercurrent that kept me intrigued as Diana Tutton drops hints that this family is more than just charmingly dysfunctional.
Like the Mortmains, the father is a writer - not a highbrow novelist with writer's block but a highly-successful writer of detective stories. Given how successful he is, money seems tight - but not so tight that the older sisters' allowances won't stretch to elegant dresses, even if they do get caught drying stockings in front of the fire and ironing 'a dreadful torn pair of cami-knickers.'
Pandora, the eldest has inexplicably succeeded in escaping from cloistered family life into marriage.
But why must her sisters resign themselves to leading such sheltered lives ... no school, no young men, no parties or outings? And why is it so important that Mother is never upset?
And why isn't this book better known? There seems to be hardly information about Diana Tutton. except for the titles of a couple of other books that are now on my one-day list. Coincidentally, Guard Your Daughters is one of Stuck in a Book's Fifty Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About - and he's generously offering a copy today in a prize draw.
Book no 2 for my weekend away was Robert and Helen (published in 1944) by Elizabeth Jenkins, ordered from the library when I realised that they had it in the reserve stock. (Tea-stained and rather smelly, but at least they had it!) Now this isn't anywhere near as good as The Tortoise and the Hare or even Harriet ... but it was still a very enjoyable read in that domestic genre. Robert and Helen, it turned out, were brother and sister, not husband and wife as I'd expected. Robert (blithely selfish) is happily married (and why wouldn't he be!) to beautiful Racey who struggles (wo)manfully to provide him with an old-fashioned, gracious standard of living that is bloody hard work to achieve without servants.
Robert never thought of himself as being exacting, but he had a standard in his own mind of how his house should be run ... But still more would Robert have disapproved of a wife who was not elegant and amusing, and not ready to give him her enchanting society in odd half-hours, in the evenings and week-end afternoons, unspoilt by preoccupations and cares.
Even so, Racey firmly believes that no woman can be truly happy unless she is married. Helen, unfortunately known to all as Kitten, is Robert's much younger, orphaned sister. Kitten is rather vaguely engaged to a young man who is 'not quite' ... a bit too sexy, a bit too brash, a bit too travelling-rep. Kitten is 22 and she had better get married because it doesn't seem to cross anybody's mind that she should get a job. Anyway, the next young man is a Communist with a sense of entitlement and a woodpile of chips on his shoulder. If you can imagine a Socialist Uriah Heep, you're on the right lines - but he's so appallingly awful, and Racey/Robert/Helen are so self-deprecatingly feeble about letting him worm into their lives that it all gets a bit unconvincing and not up to Elizabeth Jenkins at her best. Also, what a strange, macabre ending ... I had to read it twice before I quite understood it.
But Jenkins is always so wonderfully scathing about men, and how even the best of them are so selfish. (She never married, having fallen irredeemably in love with a married doctor who sounds like a Grade A Alpha-male bastard.) And by the end of the novel, the message is clear - that yes, marriage is happiness and security for women but only if they can subjugate themselves to the men who know best.
As for book no 3, that was a Maigret ... they are perfect going-away books because you can read one in an evening. The crime doesn't matter - it's the ambience of zinc bars, and canals, and the lovely food. I'm hooked. There's a kind of exponential pleasure in reading them, as you immerse yourself in Maigret's world - plus the joy of knowing that as there's 70-odd novels, let alone the short stories, it's going to be quite a while before you run out.
And then just as I felt a bit panicky as I finished ... and no other book that I had on hand seemed quite what I wanted ... I discovered a damp parcel that must have been on the doorstep all day. A long-awaited Amazon bundle from a seller in America: another Elizabeth Jenkins and Toasted English by Marghanita Laski. Just what I wanted to start reading in bed last night.