Review: Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, by Ruby Ferguson

53 - Lady Rose & Mrs Memmary

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is a tribute to 19th-century Scotland.  First published in 1937, it was reissued in 2004 as Persephone Books #53, with the usual classic endpaper.  It’s a simple story, a comfort read, told by the elderly Mrs Memmary, caretaker of the once magnificent, now crumbling, Keepsfield estate owned by the Countess of Lochlule.  The setup involves a group of tourists who stumble upon Keepsfield, now available to let as a holiday home.  One of the women falls into conversation with Mrs Memmary, encouraging her to talk about the estate and the family that once lived there.  Mrs Memmary is somewhat reticent, but tells her about the day Rose, the current Countess, turned six.   The woman asks more questions, which leads Mrs Memmary to relate more chapters in Rose’s life.  The reader can imagine Mrs Memmary and the woman spending a couple of hours over a cup of tea, while the rest of the tourists explore the estate.

Lady Rose grew up in a very privileged environment, never wanting for material possessions but also, as was typical of wealthy society at the time, distant from her parents.  She sees Scotland as superior to England and, really, anyplace else, as does everyone around her:

“So I shall take your hand, child, and turn you to the sea — like this — and I shall say to you, read, and fill your mind with the wonderful history of Scotland; look, and fill your eyes with the glorious beauty of Scotland; dream, and fill your soul with the poetry and romance of Scotland; and let the love of your country be always in your heart, Lady Rose.”  (p. 51)

Rose attended an English boarding school and, at eighteen, made her debut and became engaged to a Scottish nobleman.  She fulfilled her duty as an heiress and wife, but here her story departs from the expected norm, and Rose turns out to be a surprisingly strong character.  She acts rather impulsively on her convictions, resulting in irrevocable change that, as these things do, has profound positive and negative consequences that make for interesting plot twists.  You will have to read to learn more.

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is aptly described by Persephone Books as “a fairy tale for grown-ups,” with the simple prose I would associate with other fairy tales.  Each of Mrs Memmary’s flashbacks are introduced in a way that reminded me of old movies.  Can’t you just imagine this bit on screen?

So old Time seized his book and began to turn back the pages, ten, twenty at a time — more than seventy pages of yellow leaves. Through them all the great white house gleamed whiter, and soon the Greek girl at the fountain was laughing as the waters of a bygone day gushed over her reaching fingers.  (p.21)

This book didn’t exactly bowl me over, but it was an interesting representative of a literary period and a pleasant diversion.

Review: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, by Julia Strachey

I assumed this novella would be “cheerful,” as its title implies, but I was wrong.  It’s actually a rather dark portrayal of Dolly Thatcham’s wedding day.  All of the “action” takes place in the bride’s house, even during the ceremony, because this book is not about the wedding, it’s about reactions to the wedding.  As Dolly gets dressed, and her extended family and friends sit down to a wedding luncheon, it becomes clear that no one is very happy about this wedding, not even the bride.

This state of affairs is revealed slowly, through a quirky cast of characters.  Mrs Thatcham books multiple guests in the same bedroom, confuses the staff with conflicting direction about meal service, and flaps about in a scatterbrained fashion.  Two boys fight over wearing appropriate socks. Dolly steels herself for the afternoon ceremony by slowly draining a bottle of rum.  And Joseph, a former suitor, mopes about downstairs waiting for Dolly to emerge so he can have the last word before she becomes a married woman.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is supposed to be funny, I think.  Yes, there were moments of wit, and characters like Mrs Thatcham who were so over the top that I had to laugh.  But I expected a continuous chuckle, and maybe a laugh-out-loud moment or two, and this was not that sort of book.  The cover blurb compared this book to Cold Comfort Farm, another “hilarious” book that failed to resonate with me.  Perhaps I just can’t appreciate this type of quirky humor.

Review: Someone at a Distance, by Dorothy Whipple

Avery and Ellen North have an ideal marriage and a model family.  Son Hugh is in military service;  daughter Anne attends boarding school and spends her holidays mostly obsessing over her mare, Roma.  Avery is a successful partner in a London publishing firm, and Ellen gardens, cares for family needs, and maintains their home in the country.  Their peaceful life is forever changed when Avery’s elderly mother employs Louise, a young French woman, for conversation and light domestic duties.

Louise comes from a small provincial town.  Now in her late 20s, she has no real marriage prospects and is recovering from an illicit romance with Paul, a wealthy young man recently married to someone more appropriate for his station.  At first she appears a suitable companion for old Mrs. North, but eventually she begins to shirk her domestic duties, encroach on family life, and generally walk around behaving as if she’s better than everyone else.  Gradually it becomes clear she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.  Having failed to snare Paul, she sets her sights on Avery.  It’s obvious from the word “go” that she will succeed, but Dorothy Whipple takes her time.  Little by little, Louise endears herself to the family, and Whipple allows the reader glimpses of Louise’s thoughts and feelings so we know, long before anyone else, just how manipulative and conniving she is.

I almost got bored with all the build-up.  But then came the most painful pages of the novel, when Ellen discovers what’s going on between Avery and Louise.  And a bit later, when a devastated Ellen comforts Anne:

‘Don’t let’s talk about it Mummy,’ she said.

‘No, darling,’ said Ellen.

With the other hand, she began to stroke Anne’s hair. Backwards and forwards went her gentle hand and by and by Anne’s head drooped against her knee and her mother saw she was asleep.

The day had been long and bitter, there was trouble behind and before, but for this brief space in the dining-room, there was nothing but peace and love.  (p. 238)

At that point, I was fully invested in Ellen’s welfare, and pulling for her every step of the way.  Whipple continued giving me glimpses of Avery and Louise, and Louise’s family in France, but I was always eager to return to Ellen’s story.  At first she withdrew into herself, and didn’t want to tell anyone what had happened.  But as the shock wore off and she summoned the courage to venture forth, Ellen was surprised to find others who had been through a similar experience.  Day by day, she grew stronger and more independent.  And along the way, so did Anne.

There’s much more complexity to this story; I don’t want to spoil it for you.  The Norths and Louise are surrounded by a rich set of characters, all brilliantly portrayed, even down to the family cat.  There are interesting subplots, like the story of Paul and his wife.  And the ending is satisfying, if inconclusive.  All I can say is, you have to read Someone at a Distance to appreciate it.

Someone at a Distance is the third book published by Persephone Books.  It sports the classic unassuming gray cover enclosing vibrant endpaper and a matching bookmark.  Lovely.

Review: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

What a delight!  Miss Pettigrew is a middle-aged governess, unmarried, and part Cinderella, part Mary Poppins.  One day, her employment agency sends her to Miss Delysia LaFosse, ostensibly to fill an open place.  On arrival, Miss Pettigrew finds Miss LaFosse, a night club singer, trying to deal with an unwanted male visitor.  Miss Pettigrew surprises everyone, including herself, by successfully getting rid of the gentleman.  And from that point on, she can do no wrong in Miss LaFosse’s eyes.

Miss Pettigrew is forty-ish, unmarried, and entirely dependent on employers for her room and board.  Miss LaFosse’s lifestyle is foreign and exciting, as are her relationships with men.  Despite her success ousting unwelcome suitors, Miss Pettigrew is completely inexperienced in the art of romance, and even the most basic beauty rituals:

Miss Pettigrew stared at her blankly. Her mind was whirling: her thoughts chaotic. A mental upheaval rendered her dizzy. Yes, why? All these years and she had never had the wicked thrill of powdering her nose. Others had experienced that joy. Never she. And all because she lacked courage.  All because she had never thought for herself. Powder, thundered her father the curate, the road to damnation.  Lipstick, whispered her mother, the first step on the downward path. Rouge, fulminated her father, the harlot’s enticement. Eyebrow pencil, breathed her mother, no lady … !  (p. 73)

She’s also very proper:

“I’ve never sworn in my life before,” wailed Miss Pettigrew.

… “But I didn’t hear you swear,” consoled Miss LaFosse.

“You must have been too upset.  I said ‘damned’ and ‘hell’ and meant them … that way.”

“Oh!” said Miss LaFosse with a reassuring beam.  ‘“They’re not swear words.  They’re only expressions.”  (p. 45)

Over the course of a single day, Miss Pettigrew comes to the aid of Miss LaFosse and her friends in countless ways.  And they teach her a thing or two as well, giving her a makeover and whisking her away on their evening adventures.  As the clock advanced into the evening, it appeared Cinderella’s coach might turn back into a pumpkin, and Miss Pettigrew would once again find herself destitute and alone.  But Winifred Watson takes the story in a different direction, one that is simultaneously predictable and enormously satisfying.

This book was  real treat.  And while it was my first Persephone Classic, I have a feeling it won’t be my last.