Tag Archives: Furrowed Middlebrow

Mrs Tim Carries On

A review of Mrs Tim Carries On by D E Stevenson

Scottish-born novelist Dorothy Stevenson is a bit of a find for me, because every now and again I like to retreat into a cosy, almost twee, slightly undemanding novel and she seems to fit the bill perfectly. She wrote forty novels and was successful in her day, but they fell out of favour. Dean Street Press, through its imprint, Furrowed Middlebrow, is doing a sterling job in bringing Stevenson back to the notice of the modern reader.

Although Stevenson published her first book in 1923, it was not until the publication of Mrs Tim of the Regiment in 1932 that she started writing in earnest. Mrs Tim Carries on, originally published in 1941, is the sequel – there were later to be a further two in the series – but I found that it stood on its own two feet.

Mrs Tim is Hester Christie, wife of Major Tim Christie, who is left in the Scottish town of Donford, where the regiment is based, with her son, Bryan, and daughter, Betty, while her husband is away on active service. The book takes the form of a diary which Hester keeps for the period between February and December 1940, and in some ways is semi-autobiographical as Stevenson kept a diary of her wartime experiences and was a military wife.

In some ways this book can be read as a piece of propaganda, aimed at putting a bit of backbone into the womenfolk while their men are fighting for King and country. The title echoes that famous slogan that adorns many a mug, coaster, and poster these days – Keep calm and carry on – although, despite being commissioned by the Ministry of Information in 1939 and 2.45million posters were printed, it was never issued, and the posters were pulped and recycled the following year to help with the paper shortage. Still, keeping calm and carrying on is what Hester does, immersing herself in the minutiae of her day-to-day life, involving herself in supplying “Comforts” to the troops, dealing with guests and their emotional turmoils, and rising above the petty squabbles and grievances of the other army women.

The war does obtrude into the narrative – Major Tim makes a remarkable escape from France post Dunkirk, an enemy plane comes down near Donford and Hester is there as two Germans are captured, and there are reports of the occasional bomb falling – but it is a distant rumble, an irritating form of static to the largely untroubled lives of the womenfolk. The dangers of the war become starker when Hester visits London to spend a couple of days with her brother, Richard, before he goes off to fight. The worries about being caught in a bombing raid are real and beautifully portrayed.

Death makes a somewhat inconvenient entry into the journal. Hester volunteers to break the news of the death of one of the regiment members to his wife, but, oddly, that appointment and its aftermath are not commented on. Death is just part of life, something one must live with. Morale must be maintained, and it is the womenfolk’s duty to ensure it is.

Stevenson’s style is warm, amusing, comforting, with an almost narcotic feel about it. It is a perfect antidote to what must have been the very real stresses and strains of eking out an existence under the shadow of war. There is a sense that it is all a tiresome inconvenience which, thanks to the British spirit, will soon pass and life will return to normal again. Of course, the reality was harsher than that, but it is nice to find a delightful haven to retreat to for a few hours. Although our troubles are very different, perhaps this is why Stevenson’s time may have come again.

The Fledgeling

A review of The Fledgeling by Frances Faviell

One of the undoubted highlights of my 2021 is finding Frances Faviell, an author whom I would probably not have read in ordinary circumstances, even if her books had been readily available. She, sadly, went out of print but thanks to the heroic efforts of Dean Street Press under its Furrowed Middlebrow imprint, her works are now available for the curious modern reader to discover.

Although not a patch on her standout A Chelsea Concerto, The Fledgling, her last of her three novels, originally published in 1958, a year before her death and while she had been diagnosed with cancer, certainly has its moments. Perhaps one can detect Faviell’s sense that her time was drawing to an end in the book, as there is very much a sense of wanting to put things right and creating order of chaos in her developing portrayal of Mrs Collins, the bedridden and terminally ill grandmother.  

The story is compressed into a long day and most of the action takes place in Mrs Collins’ pokey flat and, in particular, her bedroom which she rarely leaves and then with great difficulty and supreme physical effort. Her life is tedious, lying in bed, looking out of the window trying to catch a glimpse of a sparrow or a cat, brightened only by the appearance of a young girl, Linda, who has taken to visiting her and playing games. Mrs Collins is looked after by Nonie, her granddaughter, who is married to Charlie, and receives a weekly visit from a sort of social worker, Miss Rhodes, a well-meaning but unwelcome intrusion into her routine.

This rather uneventful existence is about to change in a dramatic, if not melodramatic, way.

From January 1949 the UK had a system of National Service when all physically fit young men aged between 17 and 21 were called up for service. By 1957 the scheme was restricted to those born on or after October 1, 1939, were exempted and the last call ups were made in November 1960 and the last conscripts discharged in May 1963. For many national service was character forming, like Mrs Collins’ eldest grandson, Len, who was killed in action in Cyprus and was awarded a Military Medal, but for some, like Nona’s twin brother, Neil, it was a nightmare. He had already deserted twice before the story starts.

Having been systematically bullied by Mike Andersen, Neil is persuaded to desert for a third time, this time to enable Mike to abscond as well. Neil’s arrival at his grandmother’s flat triggers a day where Mrs Collins’ routine is disrupted by a procession of visitors, mostly unwelcome, and the moral dilemma as to whether to assist Neil in his plans. The arrival of Mike adds a darker dimension to the tale, especially when he attacks Miss Rhodes and threatens the bedridden old lady. In a dramatic finale, which is out of character with the rest of the book, Mrs Collins’ intervention allows Neil to free himself from his tormentor, to find his self-esteem and resolve his future.

However, the reader is left with the sense that the way events turn out are as much a means for Mrs Collins to find peace and to settle her family’s affairs as best she can as they are for freeing Neil from his tormentor.       

Faviell’s last novel was entertaining enough, beautifully written, with sharp characterisations and a profound sense of place, but for me it failed to hit the heights of her earlier works.

Rhododendron Pie

A review of Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp

I am fortunate enough to live close by an area of woods just a five-minute walk from my house. Exploring the pathways through the tangle of gorse, pines, oaks, and sweet chestnuts has preserved my sanity over the last year or so. One of the highlights occurs in May and early June when the extensive rows of rhododendron are in full bloom, making for a thrilling and colourful backdrop to my walks. It has never crossed my mind to eat the petals.

One of the other things that has kept me going is exploring the catalogue of Dean Street Press and expanding my reading repertoire by sampling authors and genres that I might otherwise not have done.  Margery Sharp is just such an author and her debut novel, originally published in 1930 and long out of print, only to be rescued by Dean Street Press under their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint, marries these two joys in my life.

The book takes its title from the curious tradition of the Laventies who celebrate the birthdays of their children by baking floral pies. Ann, the youngest of the Laventie brood of three, is given a pie with rhododendron petals in it. Like most people she would much prefer her pastry to be stuffed with apples. And there we have the nub of the book. Ann sees herself as, and is, out of step with the other members of her family, who taking their lead from their father, adopt a rather pretentious, intellectual, rather snobbish attitude and look down upon and belittle their neighbours.

By contrast, Ann has her feet firmly on the ground, is caring and considerate of the feelings of others. She is the only one of the family to have a close friendship with others in the village, particularly the Gayfords. It is clear that John Gayford holds a candle for her. Her mother, who is an invalid, is a rather undeveloped character for most of the book, but when she makes her decisive intervention at the end and shows her true colours, the reader can see that Ann is cut from the same cloth.    

In a well-written, remarkably mature book for a debut novel that was impressively dashed off in around a month, we follow Ann as she struggles with her inner conflicts; should she opt for the easy life and plunge herself into the kind of life her father has designated for the family, or should she follow her heart and her own predilections, no matter how her decisions may alienate her family. She makes the choice which most readers would hope that she would.  

However, the other theme of the book is disappointment. The contents of her birthday are a disappointment to Ann. The book ends on a rather poignant and wistful note as Ann’s chosen path appears not to be as fulfilling as she might have hoped it to be.

The story is at times witty, and at times offers penetrative insights into Ann’s struggles and sometimes just focuses on the minutiae of life that reveals a well-grounded and highly observant writer. It is a delight to read.

Miss Plum And Miss Penny

A review of Miss Plum and Miss Penny by Dorothy E Smith

This lovely and beguiling book, originally published in 1959 but reissued as part of the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint by Dean Street Press, was a pleasure from start to finish. Do not be deceived by its cosy, rather twee style as there is something darker, deeper, and more thought-provoking lurking inside the covers.   

Alison Penny is a spinster who seems quite content with her rather humdrum life, throwing herself into the activities of the Yorkshire village in which she lives and enjoying the company of her life-long maid, Ada. The book starts on her fortieth birthday. Even her birthdays have a certain rhythm and routine to them but this year her eagerly anticipated letter from George, her erstwhile boyfriend whom her parents forced her to reject, has not arrived, the first time that has happened for twenty years. To hide her disappointment, she goes for a walk which takes her to the local park.

Seeing a woman steadfastly walk into a duck pond with the intention of ending her life shakes Alison out of her reverie and she persuades the woman to come out and takes her under her wing. Miss Plum, for it is she, has entered her life and things will not ever be the same again.

Going through life with the moniker of Victoria Plum is a tad unfortunate and the current bearer of this name is a fragile flower, seemingly rootless, lachrymose, but with an extraordinary hold and influence over those she meets. Ada, the live-in maid, takes against her immediately but Alison is more sympathetic initially, until she discovers a darker side to a woman who is not as hapless as she may seem.

Miss Penny’s life is further disrupted by the unexpected arrival of George whose rough and uncouth ways cause a stir in the locality. He even proposes to her, suggesting that they get married on the following Thursday, only to receive one of the greatest put downs in literature – “but Thursday is the women’s institute”. There is no coming back from that.

During the course of the book, we meet the rather ineffectual vicar who struggles to maintain a relationship with his teenage son, Ronnie, and the rather prissy former bank manager, Stanley, who likes everything just so, is a hypochondriac and wears a corset. Each, in their own way, fall under Miss Plum’s spell. The latter part of the story recounts how Alison and Ada plot to relieve themselves of responsibility for Victoria, how her going missing causes panic before all the strands of the tale are neatly resolved.

Cosy as the tale may seem, each of the main characters we meet is forced to take stock of their lives and consider how much they value relationships and how they see their futures panning out. Miss Plum’s arrival is the catalyst for all that. There is no magic formula, and they all have to wrestle with the problems and resolve their futures, some deciding to make concerted efforts to change and others realizing that the grass is never greener on the other side of the road. It also has a bit of a feminist agenda, highlighting the struggles and difficulties women had then, the 1950s, and still do today to enjoy a modicum of independence, financial and mental.

Smith writes with an undemanding style, but that too can be deceiving. Each of her characters are well-drawn, warts and all, and the reader can easily relate to them and even empathise with their predicaments. There is also a gentle humour pervading through Smith’s narrative with some delicious turns of phrase and acute observations and her love of the Yorkshire countryside, its dialect and its ways shines through loud and clear.

This is a wonderful book and is thoroughly recommended.

Much Dithering

A review of Much Dithering by Dorothy Lambert

This is a lovely book, set in an archetypal quaint English village called Much Dithering. It is quiet, so quiet that it is off the bus route, a comment that would evoke no surprise these days when the range of public transport is so lamentably poor, but at the time the book was published, 1938 and now reissued by Dean Street Press under their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint, it was the epitome of isolation. Nothing much happens in the village and its residents live out their lives following a cycle of humdrum, albeit worthy, activities.

The heroine of the story is Jocelyn Renshawe, a young widow whose husband died a year before his father, thus robbing her of the opportunity of inheriting the family pile, which, when Lady Augusta topples of her mortal coil, will pass to a nephew no one knows and who is living abroad. Jocelyn’s marriage was a loveless affair and she has never known romance and is never likely to. Her aunt and mother-in-law are anxious to settle her long-term future in a way which will trap her in Much Dithering and crush what remains of her spirit.

Much to the disgust of the older residents, some newcomers have discovered Much Dithering including the dull, retired army man, Colonel Tidmarsh, whom the old ladies consider suitable marriage material for Jocelyn, and the nouveau-riche Murchison-Bellabys. Jocelyn’s estranged mother, Ermyntrude, descends on the village for an impromptu stay, less to see her daughter whom she treats with contempt, but rather to continue her dalliance with Adrian Murchison-Bellaby. He, though, not only has eyes for Jocelyn, but is entangled with a young beauty, Lucia, who turns out to be the daughter of the local publican. Adrian’s sister, Joyce, has the hots for Lucia’s brother, the dance band leader, Victor.

For such a seemingly dull woman, Jocelyn finds herself with three suitors, the third being the dashing Gervase Blythe, who seems to be a commercial traveller, an army acquaintance of Colonel Tidmarsh, and gallantly rescues her from a soaking. He is a man of some mystery, although the perceptive reader will have little difficulty in working out who he might be.

The villagers, though, are less perceptive and suspect that he may be a thief as there have been some jewellery thefts in the village, something unheard of in such a backwater, around the time of his precipitate departure. After a trip to the Hunt Ball Jocelyn realizes she is in love with Gervase, but his departure and the odium surrounding his name places her in some difficulty, and she feels she cannot give him the alibi that would clear his name.

Inevitably, this complex web of romantic liaisons resolves itself with each of the main protagonists fated to a relationship which even the most churlish of readers would hope would be their lot.

Lambert has an easy style and writes with some wit and warmth, enjoying the opportunity to poke fun at the insularity of country life and the wariness and positive dislike exhibited towards newcomers and their modern ways by the established village folk. It is also a commentary of the lot of a woman who has to struggle to win her freedom and to live the life that she wants to live rather than the one that her elders allot to her. After much dithering, Jocelyn breaks free.

More than that it is a gentle, slightly whimsical tale which is ideal for a holiday read or if you just want to get away from it all.