Sunday, November 18, 2018

Molly Make-Believe

Molly Make-Believe / Eleanor Hallowell Abbott   
New York: Century Co., c1910.
211 p.
read via Open Library

This charming novel from 1910 is also slightly epistolary - while the story itself is told in regular narrative, letters are included, and letter-writing makes up the plot. 

Carl Stanton is a youngish Boston businessman who has recently become engaged to the beautiful, cold Cornelia. She is going to Florida with her mother for the winter season, but Carl can not go along - he is suffering from a lengthy attack of rheumatism and is currently invalided. His is a sentimental nature; he begs Cornelia for long, intimate letters while she is away. She, however, promises only to write on Sundays, more than that would be excessive. 

And she keeps that promise. She writes short, impersonal notes and even postcards, while Carl suffers pain, boredom and loneliness in his rooms all alone. She does enclose something in her first letter which she thinks might interest him: a circular from the Serial Letter Co, a company promising to write letters to you from imaginary people, for a fee. Carl signs up for the love letter program, hoping both for some entertainment and to have a model to show Cornelia when she returns. 

But, predictably, the charming, fun-loving, flirtatious love letters (and gifts) begin to  beguile Carl, and he becomes desperate to know who "Mollie Make-Believe" really is. Without realizing it, he is falling in love with the spirit of these letters. The false note in this novel comes as he is discussing his situation with a doctor friend, and they realize that for all they know, the letter writer could be an old spinster making some money, a man, or even - gasp - a black woman! How terrible that would be. If it were indeed one of these the story could have been much more current and sharper than it is. 

But of course, it is really a young and pretty unmarried white girl who has seen Carl at social functions before, and is equally smitten with him. She hides her identity from him even as her feelings grow to match his, though she's unaware of his side of things. 

In the end, Carl recovers enough to break things off with Cornelia and go in search of his own Mollie. Unfortunately, the scanned copy at Open Library, which I read, and which is the only one I can find anywhere, is missing the final two page spread. 

There is enough at the end to know what happens, but oh my, to lose the conclusion! I'll be searching out a paper copy just to read the last page. It's a period piece, for sure, but a mostly light and entertaining one. The letters from Mollie are charming, there is some humour and pathos involved, and we all know that the right love match is going to win out.  

I enjoyed the letter writing concept quite a lot; it sounds like a fine idea to me! Here is a page of Mollie Make Believe's brochure, outlining the kinds of letters on offer - I think it is delightful. If you also enjoy letters and the charm of early 20th century romantic fiction, this is one that's not drowned in purple prose, rather, is readable and amusing. 

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Visits of Elizabeth

The Visits of Elizabeth / Elinor Glyn (1900)
read via Open Library

Elinor Glyn, known for her racy erotic (for the early 1900s) novels, and for her coining of the term "It" for sex appeal, wrote many novels and spent time working in Hollywood. But, I am more interested in the fact that she was the sister of Lady Duff Gordon, Lucile of London, a fashion designer -- and that they had a Canadian mother and spent some of their formative years in Guelph, Ontario. 

In any case, I thought it was high time to read one of her novels so have started with her first, The Visits of Elizabeth, published in 1900. This has extra appeal for me as it is an epistolary novel, a favourite style of mine -- it's told in one-sided letters from the young, disingenous Elizabeth to her mother, as she travels from relative to relative to visit great homes and meet important people (the reader can see that her mother is trying to marry her off to someone rich, even if Elizabeth seems too naive to understand this immediately).

Elizabeth makes unintended double entendres that scandalize some people and entertain others, and never sees the significance of her remarks or of many that others make to or around her. And when she is kissed early on by a handsome Earl who mistakes her candour for knowledge of the world, he receives a slap and a frosty reception for much of the rest of the book.

This naivet√© in the face of the upper class circles she's moving in is at first quite funny. The joke does carry on rather, though, and a reader begins to think that Elizabeth really might be starting to clue in by the end of the book. However, the upbringing of an innocent girl at the turn of the century might explain a lot -- and add in Elinor Glyn's racy humour and it makes sense. 

Elizabeth goes first to friends and family in England, then makes a jaunt to France - this part isn't quite as sparkling, but it was intriguing to see how French rich families interacted in their great homes as opposed to the English ones that I know much better from all my reading of Victorian, Edwardian and mid-century writing! 

She does meet a number of eligible men, though it's clear which one is likely to be successful pretty early on. And her innocent reportage allows for many foibles of both young and old to be exposed in a way that isn't too cruelly satiric or tiresome for the reader, rather it's almost always amusing (and sometimes poignant). 
Elinor Glyn

If you'd like to encounter Elinor Glyn in a story that isn't yet as overheated as some of her later, most popular reads are said to be, this is a light, frothy, satisfyingly predictable story that I found amusing and charming. Long live letters! 

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Women Talking

Women Talking / Miriam Toews
Toronto: Knopf, c2018.
216 p.

And now for a book published in this century -- even just this year. I picked this one up as soon as it was published, as I found the topic intriguing. Toews was inspired by a real-life situation in a Mennonite community in South America where the women and girls had been drugged and raped by members in their community. She imagines the conversation that might have occurred amongst the women once they'd figured out what was happening.

Despite the horrible concept, Toews doesn't go too heavily into descriptions of the events, though what she does include is bad enough. One can imagine that not only the actual acts but the betrayal behind them made this insupportable for the women in this story. 

In this book, the men of the community have gone to town to speak for and retrieve those other men who've been arrested and held in prison. Taking advantage of this absence, a group of women of all ages meet in a barn to discuss what has happened and what their reaction to this should be: Do Nothing, Stay & Fight, or Leave. Since the women aren't able to read or write, they conscript August Epp, a returnee to their community, to record the minutes for them. 

Each woman is a distinct personality with a distinct perspective; they do not all agree. Some of them are gentle and kind, some young and giggly, some brusque and prickly. They argue, they debate, and they plan. And after their 48 hours of debate, they come to an agreement, but you'll have to read this to find out what they might have decided to do. 

The voices of the varied women are different enough that this reads a little bit like a play, with characters presenting their opinions to be considered and debated. It breaks down an outsider's assumptions that Mennonite women are all the same, or that their lives are experienced in only one way. I found this illumination of individual women the most fascinating part of the story for me. Their strength is the core of the book, as they learn to trust their own instincts and square them with their beliefs. 

I haven't really enjoyed Toews' very popular earlier books, so was surprised by how much I loved this one. It's thoughtful, powerful, with a unique and intriguing format, and has stuck with me. 

A favourite moment that sums up a lot:
Salome is laughing. We may feel lost, she says, but we will know we are not losers.
Speak for yourself, says Mejal.
I always do, says Salome. You should try it too.

Monday, November 05, 2018

An Avenue of Stone

An Avenue of Stone / Pamela Hansford Johnson
London: Penguin, 1953, c1947
288 p.

I plucked this book off my shelves where it has been for years, in order to read something published in 1947 for my Century of Books project. Really, that was my criteria. And this time, such a random choice proved a good one, as I greatly enjoyed this read. 

Another wartime read, this one is much more grim and serious than the last novel set during wartime that I just finished. But this is also a novel that, unlike many others I've read, treats the war contemporaneously, and reflects mostly on the psychology of post-war life as experienced by the two younger main characters. During the action of the book, VE Day and the bomb in Hiroshima both occur, and both times, the reactions are not what we might expect from our current-day perspective. It was fascinating. 

This is the second novel in Johnson's "Helena" trilogy, although I didn't know that when I began. The books do stand alone, even with frequent references in this one to the past shared between Helena and her children: stepson Claud and daughter Charmian. 

Claud feels responsible for Helena now, despite their rocky beginnings, and he is especially close to Charmian, fourteen years younger but essentially his best friend. These two struggle together to understand and support Helena, a loud, brash, overpowering personality who is now facing the reality of growing old -- she's in her 60s and is realizing that she is no longer sexually appealing to men, and so that particular power which she's always relied on has deserted her. It's very difficult for her to accept. As a performer and singer and powerful presence for many years, she has been accustomed to being the key figure everywhere she goes. But as Johnson says in this title drop: 

Those who live their lives quietly, unmoved by either great sorrows or great joy, are often, in their final years, granted the dispensation of Discovery. Now, for the first time, they find out the secondary roads of the imagination, the side-streets, the alley-ways, the low doors each with a key in the lock.
...But those who have lived richly, exhaustively, staring into every face, attentive to every voice, are only too often pursued by the spinster Furies, and are driven at the end down avenues of stone where the walls reach to the sky, and the doors are sealed, and the pavements are rubbered against all sound but the beat of the hurrying heart.

It's an intimate character study, of Claud, of secretive Charmian, and of course of Helena. Johnson skewers pretension and doesn't let any of the characters escape self-knowledge in the end. The London life they lead tires them all, and yet seems inescapable; Claud wonders if he will go on taking care of Helena in her emotional ups and downs forever -- eventually understanding that he must leave her in order to carry on his own life. Charmian struggles with her wartime marriage, which many people, including Claud and Helena, think was a terrible mistake. And Helena, at centre stage, focuses on herself most of all and on the strangely intimate and unwieldy relationship she's formed with a former army friend of Claud's, John Field (or as she styles him, Johnny). 

It's a foreign, uncomfortable read in some ways, but an illuminating one in many others. The characters' foibles are clearly drawn, the small aggressions of society are revealed, and the impulses behind actions that are clear to others are cloudy to those acting them out. It's very realistic in that way, and it creates such a visceral sense of the period. One of the characters even mentions that she's done over her dress in a "Make Do & Mend" class -- one of the first times I've seen that mentioned in fiction. It's all so of-the-moment. And the vast, overwhelming exhaustion, physical and emotional, resulting from the war and its eventual cessation clearly permeates the whole story. 

This is absolutely worth searching out, even if you haven't read the first book in this set - I haven't and yet really connected with this one. Recommended. 

Sunday, November 04, 2018

The Innocents

The Innocents / Margery Sharp
Boston: Little Brown, c1972
192 p. 
Read via Open Library

As my introduction to the books of Margery Sharp, I've read the poignant tale of an "elderly" woman (at least in her 60s!) and her charge, a friend's daughter left under her care during wartime, and one described in the old way as an "innocent".

Cecelia, a former beauty living in this  small English village, married a rich American; on her first visit back after 6 years, she leaves her 3 year old daughter with the sweet vicar's daughter, the elderly spinster who narrates the tale - whose name we never learn.

But war intervenes -- while Cecelia and Rab are in Europe, war breaks out and they're called back to the US. When, eventually, Cecelia returns to the village to retrieve her child, about 6 years later, there is discord between this flashy American and the Englishwoman who has understood little Antoinette perfectly and only wants to keep her safe and secure. 

To what lengths will she go to keep Antoinette in the quiet and comforting surroundings she is now accustomed to? Especially as Cecelia thinks that with a little therapy and training, Antoinette (or Tony) will suddenly rally and become a regular young woman she can show off in society...

But Antoinette, no matter how developmentally challenged, understands the struggle that is being waged over her. And she knows that's she powerless to affect what is going to happen to her. As the narrator notes: 
Resignation belongs properly to the middle years. I myself was I suppose forty before I resigned myself to my humdrum lot. In one's thirties, one still hopes. But to be resigned to one's lot as a child is terrible. 
Set in the 40s, the story shows many shadings in the understanding of a mentally challenged child in this era. Her foster mother finds that she will do anything for Toni, even though like a good Englishwoman she doesn't give in to sentimentality often. It reveals a fascinating choice made in the final chapters, one which would provide great fodder for book club discussion. 

And it's full of wry and clever observations of people, of village societies, of expectations and desires in life. Our narrator comments that "a village is almost as good as cruise ship for throwing people together" and recognizes that social habits have their uses: "It was once a curtsy dowagers recommended, to give a female time to think; in the present day and age I myself would recommend pouring tea."

For a gentle, clever, intelligently told story of a battle waged over the future of an innocent child, pick up this book. There is a lot to ponder here. 

Friday, November 02, 2018

House of Windows

The House of Windows / Isabel Ecclestone Mackay
London: Cassell, c1912.
338 p.
(read in ebook format)

I was first introduced to this Canadian author via The Dusty Bookcase, when varied titles by this author were reviewed there. I first picked up, or in actuality, downloaded, this one: it is set in a department store and opens with the chaos following a huge semi-annual ribbon sale. That was enough enticement for me! 

It's quite a delightful read: melodramatic, full of improbable coincidence, angelic women, strong businessmen and so forth. But with an edge of social awareness, as well. It reminds me of the way a recent read, Mrs. Westerby Changes Course, straddled two eras in its narrative, but in this case, Mackay straddles Victorian melodrama and the social conscience of a New Woman novel. 

The shop girls at this large department store (reminiscent of Eaton's perhaps) in this large fictional Canadian city (very reminiscent of Toronto) are worked off their feet. 10 hour days, 6 days a week, and very stringent guidelines for their behaviour. Management has conceded far enough to provide stools behind every counter, although all of the shop girls know that you are not to actually sit down, ever. And they work for a wage that isn't close to a living wage. Mackay delves into labour practices throughout this novel, interwoven intimately with the story. Adam Torrance, owner of this empire has firmly told his manager that only girls with an outside income to supplement their own starvation wages should be hired, so as not to have their girls turning to....other sources of income....  Eventually his older sister points out the illogical nature of this decision, but overall, he thinks he's doing pretty well by his employees, even if they don't.

But as to the other elements in this story: at the end of the opening chapter, in the chaos ensuing from the big sale, the shop girls find a baby in a carriage abandoned behind a counter. While they all dither, a new girl decides to just take the baby home and care for it herself alongside her angelically beautiful but blind sister. To her credit, they do all believe that this is just a poor child cast off by an uncaring mother, and has nothing to do with the gossip headlining the papers just now -- that the infant daughter of the shop owner himself, Adam Torrance, has been kidnapped. 

So many of these obvious coincidences occur as the child, now Christine Brown, grows up in the company of her two "older sisters". When she is nearly 17, all the characters are drawn together inevitably and the relationships begin to develop. But wait! Christine is now the victim of another kidnapping plot! Mark, Adam's adopted heir and lover of Christine, is in an auto accident and has amnesia! 

As Brian Busby's post notes, the action is reflective of a silent film in many parts, particularly the last section. While the book starts out focused on working conditions for young women in retail (tldr: dreadful) the melodrama takes over in the end. Still, there are some wonderful characters, and lots of entertaining plot to keep you reading. I really enjoyed the various strands to this story, and thought it concluded effectively. 

But the focus on the working lives of young women in these common jobs at the beginning of the 20th century lifts this from just light fluff. Mackay is clearly pointing out the fallacies that management used to justify their sexist treatment of these many, often very young, girls. It's shocking how many lines I could have picked out and quoted, and we wouldn't be able to tell if they came from this 1912 novel or a current newspaper. 

I hope that her intent to educate while entertaining was effective in 1912 and that some of her readers were inspired to improve their situations. I was suitably impressed and entertained while reading it myself. 

Thursday, November 01, 2018

The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth / Edith Wharton
New York: Library of America, 1985, c1905.
347 p.

You know how it is when you finally read a classic, being dragged to it with the expectation that it will be a dry, "good for you" read, and you end up loving it, not being able to put it down, and being overcome with sobs at the end? No? Well, that was me and The House of Mirth. It really wasn't at all mirthful.

I expected to despise Lily Bart and her rich New York world. And while I did find Lily herself a bit annoying, and many of the side characters, especially the men, really irritating chumps, I was won over by the texture and the depth of the storytelling.

Not much summarizing needed for this classic: Lily Bart is a New York socialite who is closing in on 30. Her  beauty and charm is fading, and she needs to make an advantageous marriage soon, before it's too late. She has her sights on Percy Gryce, and is likely to hook him, too -- but her indecision once again arises and he slips through her fingers.

Part of this may be attributed to the fact that Lily is pulled between her high society lifestyle and her secret, deeper self which is more introspective and more interested in a non-wealthy acquaintance, journalist Laurence Selden. He doesn't step up, though, and Lily begins to spiral down the ladder of social significance, slowly, step by step. From being sought after and a queen of society, her dependence on men and need for income leads her to being a companion, then a secretary to the demi-monde, then a milliner and then to no work at all. From the heights to the depths. In Lily's journey to the bottom she comes to a realization:
Lily had an odd sense of being behind the social tapestry, on the side where the threads were knotted and the loose ends hung. 

But all along Wharton skewers the expectations placed specifically on women in this setting. As Lily says to Selden: 
Your coat's a little shabby, but who cares? It doesn't keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don't make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop -- and if we  can't keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership. 

Lily notes the small niceties of society that make it next to impossible for a woman to be herself, or to truly befriend another woman unless, like Selden's socially conscious cousin Gerty, that woman has given up on 'society' completely. It's quite shocking to realize that this book, written in 1905, is still relevant in many ways to our world today. It's beautifully written and even though I knew what was coming, the final pages still brought me to tears. The frustration of a woman's life is unbearable to me even in fiction.

This is a strong and fresh read that still feels relevant, and which is written beautifully. Full of thoughtful characters caught up in tangled social situations that they can't seem to see their way clear of, it is compelling and frustrating and irritating and powerful. I'm glad I finally read it, for pleasure and not as a classroom assignment; it was worth the wait.