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review 2017-01-31 21:35
Books of 1916: Part Four
The Freaks of Mayfair - George Plank,E.F. Benson
David Blaize - E.F. Benson
Miss Mapp and Lucia - Lucia's Progress - E.F. Benson
Pilgrimage 2: The Tunnel and Interim - Dorothy M. Richardson
The Life of E. F. Benson - Brian Masters The Life of E. F. Benson - Brian Masters
Final Edition (Lives & Letters) - E.F. B... Final Edition (Lives & Letters) - E.F. Benson

Books of 1916: E.F. Benson Edition


Freaks of Mayfair by E.F. Benson


E.F. Benson is one of the most reliable writers. He always serves up something tasty. Freaks of Mayfair is not a novel but a series of comic sketches of the kinds of “freaks” who lived in Mayfair, an area of London that I know mainly as one of the properties on the Monopoly board; I believe it is dark blue.


This book made me kind of cross with E.F. Benson but then I love E.F. Benson so I felt bad about that. In the end I wound up feeling sympathetic to him as well as sorry for him.


I thought the highlight of this book would be his sketch of Aunt Georgie, who will reappear later as Georgie Pillson in the wonderful Lucia books. In the Lucia books, Georgie lives in the fictional town of Tilling, doing his needlepoint and playing cards with Lucia and Miss Mapp and all the other colorful town characters. Eventually Georgie and the title character Lucia make their platonic relationship official by embarking on a marriage in name only.


Unfortunately, the “Aunt Georgie” sketch was the lowlight. While I don’t think E.F. Benson would have self-identified as gay (anyway, how could he, having died in 1940?), he is famous for his romantic friendships with other men, etc, so I felt let down to see his portrayal of Georgie was on the vicious side. The last thing anyone needs to read is a humorous skewering of someone who was born “an infant of the male sex according to physical equipment, but it became perfectly obvious even when he was quite a little boy that he was quite a little girl.” In a way it gives a little frisson of “I am seen, I exist” to see an Edwardian character who “formed a violent attachment to another young lady, on whom Nature had bestowed the frame of a male, and they gave each other pieces of their hair... and they probably would have kissed each other if they had dared.” But I hate that Georgie has to be a figure of fun.


“Public-school life checked the outward manifestation of girlhood, but Georgie’s essential nature continued to develop in secret. Publicly he became more or less a male boy, but this was not because he was really growing into a male boy, but because through ridicule, contempt, and example he found it more convenient to behave like one.” Depressing. But I think I’m starting to understand the enduring nature of the confusion between gender identity and sexual orientation (for example, when people get transgender people and gay people mixed up.) The original reason for this confusion is purposeful: sexual orientation could not be named at this time but it was okay to say Georgie was a woman. The “problem” is not really who you like, it’s who you are, hence all this tedious focus there still is on “same sex relationships” which throws everything back on yourself when you thought it was about how you felt about other people. Alternately, perhaps E.F. Benson really did conceive of Aunt Georgie as a (transgender) woman: because of the customs of the age, it’s impossible to tell.


“[Although] he did not care for girls in any proper manly way, he liked, when he was sleepy in the morning to hear the rustle of skirts.” “[H]is guests were chiefly young men with rather waggly walks and little jerky movements of their hands and old ladies with whom he was always a great success, for he understood them so well.” “Occasionally, for no reason, he roused violent antagonism in the breasts of rude brainless men, and after he had left the smoking-room in the evening, one would sometimes say to another, ‘Good God! What is it?’”


On the plus side, Georgie leads a happy life, drawing pictures and being arty and visiting with his friends. We should all be so lucky. At the end of the sketch, Benson points out that Georgie has never hurt anyone and that it would cruel to send him to hell, but it would be “very odd” for him to be an angel in heaven. The whole book has a light satirical tone, but it was meaner in the Georgie sketch than all the others. But clearly, as with all hating people, E.F. Benson hates himself (again, back to self, who you are is the problem.) Before reading this book I always thought that Georgie was Benson. Fred is trying to draw some kind of line in the sand between himself and Georgie. Oh, Fred is not like Georgie because Fred is quite butch! That’s where I started feeling so sad for Fred Benson and why did he have such terrible misfortune to be born in Victorian England to pious parents instead of (for example) in New York in the 1970s to atheists? And wouldn’t E.F. Benson be fun to have around if he were alive today?


Moving on to the more entertaining parts of the book, it was much more amusing to see Benson hating on his brother, who is skewered in “The Spiritual Pastor.” I mean, I don’t even know that much about the Benson family but even I could see it has to be his brother. All the other freaks of Mayfair have something unusual and undesirable about them, except for this vicar, whose undesirable quality is that he’s too good looking, too good at sports, too well-liked, too upbeat, too humble. What really makes writer Benson gnash his teeth is how successful the vicar is with his writing career, publishing commonplace religious essays. The examples of the kinds of things the vicar writes were fun, because they were exactly the same as some uplifting self-help type stuff you might read today (eg don’t be so upset about being late for the train, pay attention to the fluffy clouds in the sky!) But honestly not even bad enough to make fun of. Pure sibling rivalry!


There were other examples of things the freaks did that Benson thought were totally ridiculous which today are commonly accepted, such as practicing yoga and having a vegetarian diet. But yoga practitioners are not members of a persecuted minority, so it didn’t make me get all up on my high horse to read the “Quack quack” sketch. The chapter where I actually felt personally most skewered, and found most hilarious, was “The Eternally Uncompromised” about a person with too much imagination, just like me. Winifred Ames’ particular problem was always imagining that men were looking at her with eyes of silent longing. (She read too much sentimental trashy literature from the circulating library, same as Miriam in Backwater.) But Winny-Pinny’s greatest dream, of being talked about as being in a compromising situation with a man who’s not her husband, recedes from her as fast as she chases it. “Indeed, it is receding faster than she pursues now, for her hair is getting to be a dimmer gold, and the skin at the outer corner of those poor eyes, ever looking out for unreal lovers, is beginning to faintly suggest the aspect of a muddy lane, when a flock of sheep have walked over it, leaving it trodden and dinted.”


Other quite funny sketches are about snobs, social climbers, and older people who cling to their lost youth (“grizzly kittens.”) Just once Benson alludes to the war, saying “the myriad graves in France and Flanders bear a testimony [to the manliness of the British, maybe the war is why he has this topic on the brain] that is the more eloquent for it being unspoken.”


I noticed how often in my book reviews I start out by saying, “I expected x, y, and z to happen, but...” or “I thought it would be the same as n, but...” (In this case, expecting the sketch of Aunt Georgie to be the best part.) Or occasionally I say, “Just like I expected, such-and-such happened!” If this habit is tedious for me, it must be tedious for you. Is there any way I could stop having expectations about novels, and stop making up a projected plot the instant I lay eyes on it? I would really like it if that could happen.


David Blaize by E.F. Benson


Naturally, E.F. Benson published three books in 1916. Most of his books took him three weeks to write. He described himself as “uncontrollably prolific.” His biographer suggests that the whole Benson family’s prodigious output is due to mania. I say, a preferred kind of mania if you could pick and choose.


I didn’t read Mike but I read David Blaize many years ago. This is today one of Benson’s most popular novels. It is a boarding school story. I enjoy those, and it has everything you want in one, including terrifying but secretly kind headmasters, beatings, cricket, and lots of pranks. The heart of the story is the friendship that the title character develops with an older boy named Maddox. The most memorable part is when Maddox is ogling David in the shower, David doesn’t like it and leaves, and Maddox comes to apologize to him. Then later another character is expelled for bringing disgrace onto himself for writing love letters to another boy. Maddox says that it could have been himself and that David has made him “uncorrupt” himself, and David thanks Maddox for shielding him from filth. Because they have chosen the path of purity, they then basically get to have a love scene, lying next to each other on the grass, wriggling shyly closer, feeling intense happiness, and then playing sports. Forever after they are the greatest of friends. David and Maddox get to hold hands at the end because David almost dies (of injuries from heroically stopping a runaway horse on the high street.) A brush with death is the only situation where males are permitted to hold hands, and one of them has to be delirious or unconscious. I think you could read every book on the planet and never find a more striking example of an author desperately trying to repudiate sexual feelings and at the same time elevate the purity of love between two boys. When I read David Blaize as a young person it just made me roll my eyes, but as a withered-up middle-aged person I find it very touching and a bit sad.


According to Benson’s biographer Brian Masters, David Blaize was the first positive treatment of a romantic friendship at a boy’s school and while it was a critical success it was “dangerously new.” E.F. Benson’s brother Arthur wanted him to leave all that stuff out but Fred didn’t listen. So Fred received lots of fan mail about the book, including one from the Front saying “the lads in the trenches are sharing it and passing it around.” Masters says Fred would “not have been pleased to learn that the novel is still on the list of homosexual book clubs” and that “it does not belong there.” (This biography was written in 1991.) So Masters and I have opposite ideas about how Fred would feel if he were re-animated, and that is because no one knows. (Who is this guy Brian Masters anyway? He also wrote biographies of a serial killer and necrophiliac, a wicked zoo owner, British dukes, and Marie Corelli.)


Years later Fred said, “I have had more correspondence about [David Blaize] than any other book I ever wrote. That I think has been because there was no ‘book-making’ about it, but it was a genuine piece of self-expression.” And now we have a pleasing moment where I actually agree with both Brian Masters and the guy who wrote the introduction to Freaks of Mayfair, Christopher Hawtree. They both say that 1916 was a turning point in Benson’s development as an artist, as he stopped writing those unconvincing sentimental romances centering on a man and a woman, and began writing the comedies he is now known for. I think it is the fact that Benson is writing about things he actually cares about (in his peculiar way) that makes both David Blaize and Freaks of Mayfair so appealing and yet painful. (I don't mean peculiar in a bad way. He is one of a kind. He sort of has no heart, but usually in a kindly way, and how can someone be kindly with no heart? So it must be there but he is very coy, plus clearly he is not motivated by the same things as most other people. You go read some E.F. Benson and you'll see.)


Two years earlier Benson’s brother Hugh (the Catholic one) died of pneumonia, and in 1916 his sister Maggie died of heart troubles. Based on Final Edition, one of E.F. Benson’s memoirs that he completed just days before his own death, it looks like during 1916 all the extant members of his family were suffering from mental illness or just about to die themselves. So it’s really remarkable that Benson could be so funny and was only about to get funnier.


I’m going to read Final Edition and the slightly annoying biography more carefully instead of just skimming for the good bits. And I should probably read at least one of his other memoirs too. Then I’ll be fully ready for his two novels of 1917. I’m glad I have many more years with E.F. Benson before he dies of throat cancer in 1940. His best books are yet to come!


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review 2017-01-09 21:36
Books of 1916: Part Three
Light and Darkness - Soseki Natsume
Kusamakura and Kokoro by Soseki NATSUME (Japanese Edition) - kisaragishogo
Grass on the Wayside (Michikusa) - Soseki Natsume,Translated and with an Introduction by Edwin McClellan
The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann,John E. Woods
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - Seamus Deane,James Joyce
Stephen Hero - James Joyce
Ulysses - James Joyce
Exiles - James Joyce

Books of 1916: Part Three: Natsume Soseki and James Joyce


Light and Darkness by Natsume Soseki


This unfinished novel, which was serialized in a newspaper, was Natsume Soseki’s last work, as he died of an ulcer in 1916. As the story begins, the main character Tsuda is going to have an operation on his intestines that sounds incredibly unsound and unclean. Think of the horrible and bizarre medical care we get today and then imagine it 100 times worse! So I was really worried about what was going to happen to Tsuda and felt that he was putting his head in the sand by worrying about his money troubles and his relationship with his wife, etc. But it turned out that the book really was about those things. Tsuda’s illness and operation ended up seeming more metaphorical than an important plot point.


I’m sorry to say that I really struggled to get from one end of this book to the other. I adored Natsume Soseki’s other books Kokoro and Grass on the Wayside. They were so lovely and brilliant. But he didn’t get a chance to edit this book and get it into shape, plus it sounds like he was sick and worried the whole time he was writing it. The afterword said that some critics consider this novel a “postmodern masterpiece” precisely because it is unfinished. But it wasn’t the lack of ending that did me in, it was the whole middle of the book, which dragged and was hard for me to focus on. I liked hearing from the point of view of Tsuda’s wife, O-Nobu, except that it went on and on without resolution. I also liked seeing all the period details of Japanese life, especially now that I’ve actually been to Japan.


Tsuda was a little bit like the main character in Grass on the Wayside in that he didn’t have very good social skills and tended to say things that made people feel bad without meaning to. The story really picked up at the end, when we finally learn Tsuda’s secret, that he has never gotten over the woman he used to love, and he goes to see her in a sanatorium, sort of like the one in The Magic Mountain except Japanese of course. His pretext is that he’s recovering from the surgery and he wants to take the waters, but naturally I was wondering if his pretext would turn out to be the truth and he would never leave. This was the section that I enjoyed the most but of course it came to an abrupt end.


Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce


When I think of James Joyce, I always think of three people in my life who felt very strongly about him. First was my mother, who was a big James Joyce fan and talked to me a lot about him. Second, a boyfriend I had who was also a big Joyce fan, and we used to read bits of Stephen Hero and Ulysses out loud to each other. Third, my wife Aine, who had been forced to read some Joyce in secondary school in County Clare and absolutely hated him, and all other Irish writers she read in school (except Oscar Wilde.) She said they were all pretentious wankers. Early on, I had to work hard to convince her that James Joyce was not a Protestant, as she had lumped him together in her mind with Synge, Yeats, Shaw etc. In fact, just now when I read her this paragraph to see if she endorsed my characterization of her views, I had to persuade her once again that Joyce was not Anglo-Irish.


I read Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man in 2002, sure that I was going to love it as much as I loved everything else I’d read by Joyce. And indeed I was hooked by the opening page (“When you wet the bed, first it is warm and then it gets cold.”) I loved reading about the childhood of this sensitive boy Stephen Dedalus, and how his family argued at the dinner table about Parnell, and all about the scary priests who ran everything. But then I got to the part where Stephen starts going to prostitutes at around the age of fifteen, and I was completely bewildered and grossed out. Then he catches religion and becomes devout. Then he starts rabbiting on about art and aestheticism.


I had utterly lost sympathy with the protagonist and the author. Not only that, this Stephen Dedalus character began to remind me incredibly strongly of the Joyce-worshipping boyfriend, whom I had just broken up with weeks earlier. They were both totally pretentious and couldn’t keep it in their pants! (This is the same boyfriend who would get me so angry, the one I mentioned earlier in my review of These Twain. He’s certainly getting a harsh edit in these book reviews. Who knew he was so inextricably linked to 1916? He did have many good qualities, which were not at the forefront of my mind when read Portrait of the Artist.)


I ended up despising this novel. I bet if I re-read it now having had more life experience, I would have a more gentle and forgiving eye, but I probably never will. (Also, what kind of person likes Stephen Hero but not this one, when Stephen Hero is just an earlier draft of the same book? I think it’s pretty clear that the problem was mainly me, or mainly the ex-boyfriend.) I do get another chance to give James Joyce a fair shake in 1918 with his play Exiles.


I inherited my mom’s copy of this novel. It’s all marked up with notes, including D.H. Lawrence’s assessment of Joyce—“too terribly would-be and done-on-purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life”—to which I say, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Much more magically, this copy contains photographs of me and my mom and Aine. Look at how happy we all were back then! These were from my birthday, in 2010 or even earlier.



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review 2017-01-08 23:23
Books of 1916: Part Two
The Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka
Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher,Eden Ross Lipson,Kimberly Bulcken Root
Illustrated Adventures in Oz Vol IV: Rinkitink in Oz, the Lost Princess of Oz, and the Tin Woodman of Oz - L. Frank Baum,John R. Neill
Pilgrimage 2: The Tunnel and Interim - Dorothy M. Richardson
Pointed Roofs - Dorothy M. Richardson
Collected Works of Ouida - Maria Louise Ramé
Leatherface - Emmuska Orczy
The Scarlet Pimpernel - Emmuska Orczy
The Convenient Marriage - Georgette Heyer

Books of 1916: Part Two


The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka


Since childhood I’ve been familiar with the plot of this short novel; people talk about it all the time because it’s so compelling. I even had the first sentence memorized thanks to my older brother. Reciting it was a warm-up exercise in some sort of theater class he was in, except for some reason they added an extra word, making it: “When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from unpleasant dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin sofa.” And yet I had never even read one word of The Metamorphosis before now! It was so much more awesome than I was even expecting. So dark and weird and sad but a little bit funny.


Gregor realizes straightaway that he has become a monstrous vermin, but he’s mainly worried about how he will get to work on time and what would happen to his family if he lost his job. I was thinking, oh Gregor, you’re worried about the wrong thing, you just can’t face what your real problem is. But you know what? He absolutely was worried about the correct things. It’s becoming more and more clear that I’m the one who’s always worried about the wrong thing.


My wife wanted to know what does this story mean, on a metaphorical level. I never think about stuff like that. But I think it is a metaphor for being a lowly creature trapped living at home with your parents. Gregor is the ultimate back bedroom casualty. He literally can't leave his room after he transforms into a bug. Also it's about humanity, and the way we treat the Other, including non-human animals. Gregor is the one who is no longer a human, but his family are the ones who treat him so cruelly without sympathy or understanding, even his sister who started out being the caring one.


Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield


I can’t even remember when I first read this; presumably as a child. I think it deserves a much greater reputation as a children’s classic than it has. It’s about a little orphan girl, Elizabeth Ann, who is being raised by her two overprotective, uptight, city-dwelling aunts. Poor Elizabeth Ann is frail and vaguely sickly and afraid of everything, just like her aunties who “understand” her and smother her with love. When a family illness means she must be sent away to stay with another branch of the family who live way out in the country, she is terrified. But she blossoms as she encounters nature, animals, having responsibilities, doing things for herself, and especially her brusque but kind, plain-spoken new family. Elizabeth Ann (now Betsy) begins attending a one-room school house that amazingly seems exactly like a Montessori school, and she makes friends for the first time. The part where Betsy is left behind at the Fair, and the ending where Betsy must choose where she is going to live, elevate this book into a masterpiece.


Rinkitink in Oz by Frank L. Baum


I love the Oz books. Rinkitink is a jolly king with a talking goat who has to go on a dangerous journey with young Prince Inga. As a matter of fact, they’re not in Oz but in a nearby fantastical land. Prince Inga has three magical pearls that guide him, and he tries to hide two of them in the pointy toes of his shoes. But the shoes get thrown away and then they’re really in trouble. You think you won’t see Dorothy but at the last minute she and the Wizard and Ozma show up to save the day.


Usually you can count on the Oz books to leave out the racist garbage that is so prevalent in the books of this time period, but there was a horrible bit at the end of this one that I had forgotten which involves transforming the talking goat back into Prince Bobo of Boboland, and there’s even an illustration. If I were reading this book out loud to a young child I would skip over that part.


Unfortunately there aren’t that many Oz books left as L. Frank Baum is due to die in 1919. Do you think I should keep on reading the sequels by Ruth Plumly Thompson, who took over the series after Baum’s death? I have a couple years to make up my mind.


Backwater by Dorothy Richardson


The second in Richardson’s modernist, stream-of-consciousness novels about an English girl who has to become a teacher because her family has fallen on hard times. There are thirteen of these books and the series is called Pilgrimage. Last time she was working at a German boarding school, and this time she is at an English school. I love the way the main character Miriam’s mind works. Her romantic mooniness is so real and relatable. The most touching part was when she discovers a lending library where she can read the complete works of Ouida, which have always been forbidden to her because they’re too smutty. This novel really shows how when you have a rich inner life you will find splendor and meaning somewhere, even in the most depressing or banal surroundings. Unfortunately there’s a section when she’s on holiday at the seaside and there are some musicians who are described with the n-word repeatedly.


Leatherface by Emma Orczy


Just like last year, the Baroness is the only one who takes the horrors of war head on. Again it is historical fiction, set in Belgium (who wouldn’t feel for brave little Belgium in 1916?) during the Spanish Inquisition. A dashing hero known only as Leatherface because of the mask he wears has been protecting the Prince of Orange and doing other brave deeds for the cause. Fans of Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel series won’t be surprised to learn that it is the lazy, good-natured, tavern-loving man about town character who is actually Leatherface, or that the female protagonist is torn between her family duty to unmask Leatherface and her love for him.


A bit of altar diplomacy has brought Leatherface and this beautiful Spanish lady together into a marriage in name only, but it turns out to be one of those things where they fall in love after they are married. (I asked my brother if there was a name for this trope, and he suggested A Convenient Marriage since Georgette Heyer wrote at least four novels on this theme and one of them was called A Convenient Marriage.) I ate all this intrigue up with a spoon. But the bulk of the novel is about the horrors of war and people getting killed, killed, killed.


In the end, the town of Ghent escapes complete annihilation but the people allow Spanish supervillain the Duke of Alva to go free. “Perhaps they had suffered too much to thirst for active revenge,” is the book’s closing line, which I found unexpectedly pacifistic and moving. Also hats off to Emma Orczy for FINALLY laying off the anti-Semitism for one entire book except for a single one-liner.


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review 2017-01-08 22:56
Books of 1916: Part One
Uneasy Money - P.G. Wodehouse
These Twain - Arnold Bennett
The Roll-Call - Arnold Bennett
Bird of Paradise (Dodo Press) - Ada Leverson
Tenterhooks - Ada Leverson
Love at Second Sight - Ada Leverson Love at Second Sight - Ada Leverson
Inclinations - Ronald Firbank
List of the Lost - Morrissey
Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen
The Swimming-Pool Library - Diana Klein,Alan Hollinghurst

Books of 1916: Part One


2016 was a tough year in many ways, so may I introduce you to 1916? I think you’re going to love 1916.


I was struck by something I read in a (very nice) review of one of the books of 1916: —“because anything first published in 1916 that does not contain a word or thought about the First World War has got to be interesting.” Yes, you’d think so. But actually most of these novels make no mention of the war whatsoever. They tend to be historical, or escapist, or completely surreal.


You may notice that I’ve only reviewed about half as many books as I did last year for 1915. But last year I wasn’t done until March! So what you are losing in volume you are gaining in punctuality. Basically I began to feel this project was affecting my brain perhaps a little too much. My brother pointed out that I said in casual conversation, “I read that book in 1911.” I needed to dial it down just a bit.


Uneasy Money by PG Wodehouse


PG Wodehouse is always a delightful treat. I’m so happy there are more than fifty books still to come! I went by the US publication date in order to include this book, which some may consider cheating.


Lord Dawlish has a title but no money, so he is delighted when an eccentric millionaire leaves him all his money just because Lord Dawlish (aka Bill) gave him a few golf pointers once. But when Bill discovers that the eccentric millionaire has stiffed poor but deserving relatives, he sets out for Long Island to try to set things right. There is beekeeping, romance, people pretending to be other people, and lots of hilarity. The only sad part is something that happens to a monkey. In the end, everyone ends up engaged to the right person. On the final page we are at the train station in Islip, Long Island, which today is a gross and unappealing town, but apparently 100 years ago was a bucolic spot where the rich built mansions. If this book doesn’t make you smile, your soul is in mortal danger.

These Twain by Arnold Bennett


This is the third book in the Clayhanger series, and my favorite. In These Twain, the somewhat-starcrossed lovers from the first two books, Edwin and Hilda Clayhanger, embark on married life. They fight a lot. I read this book in the 1990s and haven’t re-read it, but what I remember most vividly are the descriptions of how angry they get at each other. Edwin Clayhanger thinks how he’d like to strangle Hilda, but then he goes for a walk and after a while he calms down, and when he comes home, he loves her again. At that time I was dating someone who made me really angry fairly often, and I thought These Twain was incredibly realistic. Bennett’s World-War-I-themed book (The Roll-Call) will come up in 1918, and is the last in the Clayhanger series.


Love at Second Sight by Ada Leverson


My hardcore fans (yes, both of you!) may remember that two years ago I was unable to review Birds of Paradise because I mislaid it and therefore couldn’t read it. (It turned up in the end, in a knapsack I never use.) I was eager to rectify my mistake by reading Ada Leverson’s 1916 offering, especially as this was her last novel.


Love at Second Sight is the last book in the Little Ottleys trilogy. Although I didn’t read the first two, it was easy to see what must have happened in them—in book one, the main character Edith must have married her husband, and then in the second one both Edith and her husband fall in love with other people but remain together thanks to Edith’s bloody-minded loyalty.


As this novel opens, Edith’s family has a guest in the house, and it’s unclear who she is, why she’s come to stay, and how long she plans to be there. But Madame Frabelle exercises a strange fascination over all of them. This book is terribly amusing and I’m not even going to tell you what happens, other than it’s a scream. The protagonist is thinking funny things about other people all the time but since she’s kind and fairly quiet, people don’t realize that she’s amusing and smart. The husband seems like the most annoying person on earth, and he must be drawn from life because how could you invent a person that annoying?


This is one of the rare books that has a contemporary setting during World War I. The husband was not called up because of a “neurotic heart,” which seems to be like PTSD. Edith’s love interest from the previous book returns home from the war, wounded. This novel’s realism allowed me to see all kinds of period details. For example, when the characters need to look up train timetables, they use things called the ABC and Bradshaw, which must be the apps they had on their phones at that time. Edith also had an Italian composer best friend who I thought might be based on Puccini since (according to Wikipedia) he and Ada Leverson were great pals.


I really was on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen, and guess what? Everyone gets a happy ending!


Ada Leverson’s Wikipedia page says cattily that after this novel, she worked on ever-smaller projects. Just like me!


Inclinations by Ronald Firbank


Firbank is a riot! This book reminds me a bit of Morrissey’s List of the Lost. Of course, that should be no surprise really, since both of them are directly related to Oscar Wilde on the literary family tree. What sets them apart is Inclinations is unalloyed comedy and nearly all dialogue.


What kind of inclinations does this novel concern itself with, you may ask? Well, it’s about a middle-aged writer Miss Geraldine O’Brookmore, known as Gerald, who brings a fourteen year old girl (Miss Mabel Collins) on a trip to the Mediterranean. There’s basically no description of anything or explanation of what’s happening or who is speaking, so you have to be okay with feeling unsure about what’s going on. One of the characters is shot and killed and it was chapters later that I finally understood which one. Plot is not what this book is about. This book is about lines so funny and with such a nice ring to them that I will just give you a small sampling for your enjoyment:


Miss Collins clasped her hands. “I’d give almost anything to be blasé.”


“I don’t see Mrs Cowsend, do you?”

“Breakfast was laid for four covers in her room.”

“For four!”

“Or perhaps it was only three.”


“She writes curiously in the style of one of my unknown correspondents.”


[Talking about a costume ball]:

“Oh, Gerald, you could be a silver-tasselled Portia almost with what you have, and I a Maid of Orleans.”


“Don’t be tiresome, darling. It’s not as if we were going in boys’ clothes!”


“Once she bought a little calf for some special binding, but let it grow up...and now it’s a cow!”


“Gerald has a gold revolver. ‘Honour” she calls it.”


“Is your father tall?”

“As we drive I shall give you all his measurements.”


“I had a good time in Smyrna,” she drowsily declared.

“Only there?”

“Oh, my dears, I’m weary of streets; so weary!”


“I’m told she [Gerald] is a noted Vampire.”

“Who ever said so?”

“Some friend of hers—in Chelsea.”

“What do Vampires do?”

“What don’t they!”


If you find this sort of off-putting, these lines really do make more sense, somewhat more sense, in context. In a chapter that is eight words long (“Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!”), Miss Mabel Collins throws off the protectoress-ship of Gerald and elopes with a count. The final section of the book is different, slightly more conventional and somewhat Jane Austen-esque (“I’ve such news!” “What is it?” “The Chase is let at last.”) In this part, the Countess (Miss Collins-that-was) returns home to England with her toddler and there’s question in some minds about whether she is properly, legally married. I’m looking forward to Firbank’s next novel in 1917.


I’m only just now realizing that Firbank is the author that the main character keeps reading in The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst. I guess I thought Alan Hollinghurst just made him up. The thing is that his name sounds so made up, just “Fairbanks” with some of the letters taken out. Ugh, I learn everything backward.


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