Review: Miss Mapp, by E.F. Benson

Miss Mapp is the second in E. F. Benson‘s Mapp & Lucia series, satirizing early 20th century provincial English village life.  In this volume we meet Elizabeth Mapp, a notable busybody in the town of Tilling, who spends an inordinate amount of time spying on and gossiping about her neighbors, and using the information she acquires to get the better of her fellow villagers and manipulate events to her advantage.  Miss Mapp’s house is ideally situated for this purpose; from her windows she can see nearly all comings and goings.  She enjoys her reputation as one who knows all, and skillfully covers up when she does not.

As in Queen Lucia, the first book in the series, Miss Mapp does not have an over-arching plot or conflict.  Rather, the novel is a collection of amusing, character-driven vignettes taking place over a period of months.  Miss Mapp is keenly interested in the activities of two mature single men in the town: Major Flint and Captain Puffin.  She has observed they both keep late hours.  The men claim to be hard at work on personal projects, but the reader knows better.  There’s also a running gag about two women wearing the same dress to a party, and their attempts to rectify the situation.  Sometimes Miss Mapp gets the upper hand, but she often makes mistakes — from poorly played bridge hands to more egregious errors in judgement — and must suffer the consequences.

I picked up this book because I was in the mood for something light and fun, and it did not disappoint.  E. F. Benson has a way with words that keeps me smiling from beginning to end.  I’m looking forward to future volumes in this series, and the inevitable meeting of Miss Mapp and Queen Lucia.

Review: Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope

It is no doubt very wrong to long after a naughty thing. But nevertheless we all do so. One may say that hankering after naughty things is the very essence of the evil into which we have been precipitated by Adam’s fall.

Mark Robarts is the recently appointed vicar of Framley, and happily married to Fanny.  His future appears secure, but Mark longs after “naughty things” like fox-hunting, horses, and parties.  His troubles begin when he co-signs a loan for a so-called friend, Nathaniel Sowerby.  Unbeknownst to Robarts, Sowerby is deeply in debt and on the run from creditors and bill collectors.  Robarts naively believes everything will work out, and fails to tell his wife about the debt he’s incurred.

In Framley Parsonage we are also reunited with several other notable characters from the three earlier books:  Archdeacon Grantly and his family,  Dean Arabin and his wife Eleanor, Mrs Proudie the bishop’s domineering wife, Doctor Thorne, Frank and Mary Gresham, and the outspoken and very funny heiress Miss Dunstable.  I loved seeing these old friends in new settings.  I also enjoyed Trollope’s wit, as he poked fun at the clergy:

Let those who know clergymen, and like them, and have lived with them, only fancy it! Clergymen to be paid, not according to the temporalities of any living which they may have acquired, either by merit or favour, but in accordance with the work to be done! O Doddington! and O Stanhope, think of this, if an idea so sacrilegious can find entrance into your warm ecclesiastical bosoms! Ecclesiastical work to be bought and paid for according to its quantity and quality!

And at men in general:

 “My dear!” said her husband, “it is typhus, and you must first think of the children. I will go.”     “What on earth could you do, Mark?” said his wife. “Men on such occasions are almost worse than useless; and then they are so much more liable to infection.”

But back to Mark Robarts.  It wasn’t long before his future looked bleak, but this is Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire, where things invariably turn out well in the end.  In fact, the last chapter of Framley Parsonage is entitled, “How They Were All Married, Had Two Children, and Lived Happy Ever After”.  The journey from near ruin to happily ever after is a long, meandering one with several related threads.  As Mark is facing financial ruin, his sister Lucy comes to stay, and meets young, unmarried Lord Lufton.  They are instantly attracted to one another, but Lady Lufton has strong feelings about her son marrying the vicar’s sister.  And so begins another long, meandering journey in which Lady Lufton discovers why Lucy is the ideal choice for her son, and learns a few things about herself in the process.  Trust me — that’s not a spoiler!  Trollope’s outcomes are always predictable, but it doesn’t matter because getting there is so much fun.

Review: Queen Lucia, by E.F. Benson

Queen Lucia is the first in a series of six novels satirizing a slice of 1920s English society (which Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book recently christened, “Bright Middle-Aged Things”).  Mrs Lucas is the self-appointed “queen” of Riseholme, a sleepy village somewhere near London.  Her speech is littered with Italian phrases, inspiring the nickname Lucia.  She prides herself on staying au courant with all the local gossip, cementing her dominant social position in Riseholme.  Lucia is an amusing character in her own right, and Benson populates Riseholme with an extensive supporting cast.  Mrs Quantock gets caught up in every cultural fad (first yoga, and later spiritualism).  Olga Bracely, an opera singer, takes up residence in Riseholme and threatens to disturb the social order.  Lucia’s dear friend Georgie simultaneously worships Lucia and works to subvert her power.  And there are many more …

In lieu of a complete story arc, the novel meanders through a series of vignettes intended to both define the social order and amuse the reader.  Each one is a comedy of manners where situations and people are not as they seem, misunderstandings abound, and someone gets their comeuppance. Benson’s Riseholme came to life, and  Reading Queen Lucia I was transported to a time when people communicated by letter several times each day, servants were largely invisible until they decided to (shock!) marry one another, and formal dinner parties with music and tableaux were routine entertainment.  It was all quite cozy and fun.

Some readers criticize these books, and the characters, for being shallow and mean-spirited.  But it’s satire — it’s meant to be biting, and the humor makes you stop and think about how ridiculous and self-important people can be.  If you’re looking for light amusement, this is just the ticket.

Review: Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope

In this third volume of the Chronicles of Barsetshire, Anthony Trollope leaves behind familiar characters from the first two novels, and introduces his readers to an entirely new cast.  The eponymous Doctor Thorne serves an area of Barsetshire that includes Greshamsbury and the Gresham family, which includes Frank, who has recently come of age.  Thorne lives with his niece Mary, who is about Frank’s age.  Can you see where this is going?  Of course, but that’s not the point.  It’s the journey to the inevitable ending that makes reading Trollope so much fun.

In Doctor Thorne, Frank’s father has fallen into debt, and the family’s only hope is for Frank to marry money.  Mary is of humble birth, or so everyone believes.  But Doctor Thorne has a long-held a secret about her origins, and he is far too ethical to spill the beans.  Besides, if he did there would be no novel!  Frank loves Mary and cares nothing about her class, but Frank’s mother, the haughty Lady Arabella, is constantly scheming to keep Frank and Mary apart and introduce Frank to wealthy women.  Doctor Thorne stays out of it, trusting everyone to do the right thing but defending Mary when her honor is challenged:

“Why should I object? It is for you, Lady Arabella, to look after your lambs; for me to see that, if possible, no harm shall come to mine. If you think that Mary is an improper acquaintance for your children, it is for you to guide them; for you and their father. Say what you think fit to your own daughter; but pray understand, once for all, that I will allow no one to interfere with my niece.”

Trollope infuses this novel with his trademark wit.  For example, he lets us know early on just what sort of woman is Lady Arabella:

Of course Lady Arabella could not suckle the young heir herself. Ladies Arabella never can. They are gifted with the powers of being mothers, but not nursing-mothers. Nature gives them bosoms for show, but not for use. So Lady Arabella had a wet-nurse.

Trollope guides us through several twists and turns, over more than 500 pages sprinkled with quips like this, before Frank and Mary are finally united. It’s all good fun making for a very pleasurable, satisfying read.

Review: Some Tame Gazelle, by Barbara Pym

2013 marks the centenary of Barbara Pym, a British novelist with a unique gift for capturing the foibles and idiosyncrasies of post-WW II England.  Her characters are usually middle-aged women, clergy, and academics; her debut novel, Some Tame Gazelle, includes all three.

Harriet and Belinda Bede are sisters, unmarried and of a certain age.  Belinda is devoted to Henry Hoccleve, a love interest from her youth, now married to Agatha and serving as archdeacon in the village.  Harriet is routinely pursued by an Italian count who inexplicably also lives in the village.  Every few months he proposes marriage, and Harriet routinely declines.  Instead, Harriet focuses her attentions on each new curate arriving in the parish, knowing full well her attentions will not be seen as anything other than maternal.  Both women are perfectly comfortable sharing a house and caring for each other as old age approaches.

The entire village is quite comfortable, actually.  Everyone goes to church on Sunday, and social life revolves around community activities like the annual garden party.  People tend their gardens, women knit, and everyone seems to have at least a cook/housekeeper to prepare Sunday lunch while they are away at worship.  This routine is disrupted when Agatha goes away on holiday alone, and both academics and a bishop visit the close-knit community.

Pym is delightfully witty, capturing perfectly the village’s rich cast of characters.  Henry has an inflated view of his abilities; his sermons are known for their length and liberal use of quotations from obscure sources.  His idea of a perfect party activity is to read aloud to his guests. Really, Henry just likes hearing the sound of his own voice:

There was of course nothing she would have liked better than to hear dear Henry reciting Milton, but somehow with Agatha outside and so much to be done it didn’t seem quite the thing.  Also, it was the morning and it seemed a little odd to be thinking about poetry before luncheon.  (p. 21)

But his talents are largely lost on his flock:

The congregation suddenly relaxed. It was just going to be one of the Archdeacon’s usual sermons after all. There had been no need for those uncomfortable fears. They settled down again, now completely reassured, and prepared themselves for a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations from the Archdeacon. (p. 107)

The minor characters are just as amusing.  There’s a brilliant scene when the local seamstress refuses to eat food Belinda provided after discovering a caterpillar in the vegetables.  Sock-knitting and the perils of the Kitchener stitch are covered in more detail than I would expect to find in a novel.  Pym’s writing had me chuckling all the way.

The plot was also satisfying, with just the right amount of conflict and uncertainty even as I knew everything would turn out all right in the end. Some Tame Gazelle is an ideal comfort read.

Check out Heaven-Ali’s post for an equally complimentary view of Some Tame Gazelle.

Review: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

This was my second attempt at reading this book (read about my first, failed attempt here).  I learned a valuable lesson:  always read a series in order.  Barchester Towers is the second in Trollope’s “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series. In The Warden, Trollope introduced Septimus Harding and Archdeacon Grantly, and established important plot points that continue developing in Barchester Towers.

When we last saw Mr. Harding, he was recently ousted from his position as Warden of a charitable hospital due to controversy over compensation and duties, and assumed a lesser role in a nearby church.  Now, a few years later, he is comfortably ensconced in his role and, it seems, semi-retired.  The appointment of a new bishop resurrects questions of the hospital warden, since the role was left vacant.  Bishop Proudie brings a different style to Barchester, being more “Low Church” than “High Church.”  But perhaps more importantly, he is ruled by his wife:

This lady is habitually authoritative to all, but to her poor husband she is despotic. Successful as has been his career in the eyes of the world, it would seem that in the eyes of his wife he is never right. All hope of defending himself has long passed from him; indeed he rarely even attempts self-justification, and is aware that submission produces the nearest approach to peace which his own house can ever attain.

Proudie is also heavily influenced by his chaplain, the creepy and slimy Obadiah Slope.  Both Slope and Mrs Proudie have strong views on who should be appointed Warden, and Slope is also angling to be appointed to the more senior position of Dean.  Slope and Mrs Proudie engage in a very amusing  battle for control of the diocese as the hapless bishop looks on.

But Barchester Towers is about much more than church politics.  In this second novel, Trollope further develops the Barsetshire area, introducing characters from all layers of society and skewering them with his excellent wit.  There’s also a romantic storyline, in which Harding’s widowed daughter Eleanor is courted by three different gentlemen, with everyone else conspiring to influence the outcome.  Trollope shows his hand early on, allowing the reader to enjoy these antics without worrying about Eleanor doing something stupid.  All’s well that ends well, for both Harding and his daughter, and Trollope’s summing up in the last chapter left me feeling very satisfied indeed.

Trollope’s writing is filled with detail, devoting an entire chapter to introducing a single character and going on at length about issues in the church which may need some research to fully appreciate.  Reading his work requires some investment of time and effort, but I’m now a complete convert and am looking forward to working my way through this delightful series.

Review: The Warden, by Anthony Trollope

This review could be subtitled, “In which I develop a fondness for Anthony Trollope.”  A couple of years ago I gave up on Barchester Towers, and while I had my reasons I never felt good about it.  This time I decided to start at the beginning of Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire, and I’m glad I did.

Septimus Harding is warden and precentor of Barchester Cathedral.  The Warden’s duties also include the care of twelve elderly gentlemen living in an almshouse associated with the cathedral.  Harding is getting on in years, and enjoys the stability and limited demands of his position.  He has a good relationship with the bishop:

The bishop and Mr. Harding loved each other warmly. They had grown old together, and had together spent many, many years in clerical pursuits and clerical conversation. When one of them was a bishop and the other only a minor canon they were even then much together; but since their children had married, and Mr. Harding had become warden and precentor, they were all in all to each other. I will not say that they managed the diocese between them, but they spent much time in discussing the man who did, and in forming little plans to mitigate his wrath against church delinquents, and soften his aspirations for church dominion.

But Harding is on more tenuous terms with the second in command, archdeacon Dr. Grantly who, incidentally, is also Harding’s son-in-law.  Dr. Grantly is rather full of himself, in an amusing way:

In the diocese of Barchester the Archdeacon of Barchester does the work. In that capacity he is diligent, authoritative, and, as his friends particularly boast, judicious. His great fault is an overbearing assurance of the virtues and claims of his order, and his great foible is an equally strong confidence in the dignity of his own manner and the eloquence of his own words.

There’s trouble afoot in Barchester, and it comes not so much from Grantly as from John Bold, a young attorney interested both in Harding’s younger daughter Elinor, and in making a name for himself.  His approach to the latter is to stir up controversy about management of church funds.  Specifically, he questions whether the original terms concerning the almshouse are still being adhered to.  Perhaps the church is keeping an unfair part of money that should rightfully go to the almshouse residents?

Harding is shattered by this accusation.  Not so much because it comes from a potential future son-in-law, but because of his care and concern for the men in the almshouse.  He cannot bear the thought of cheating them out of income.  Grantly, of course, takes an opposing view and does all in his power to keep funds for the church.  The matter becomes a public scandal, and then things get really interesting, as Harding and Grantly deal with the situation, and each try to outmaneuver the other.

Along the way Trollope relentlessly satirizes the church, with its endless bureaucracy and politics, as well as the newspapers which fan the flames of scandal.  I’m sure some of this was lost on me, but I got enough to enjoy it.  Mostly, however, I just loved Septimus Harding, an example if there ever was one of the meek inheriting the earth.  Yes, he had a cushy job and no real desire to work harder, but at the same time he was a man of principles and willing to stand up for them in a time of crisis.

Now I’m looking forward to having another go at Barchester Towers!

Review: Poor Caroline, by Winifred Holtby

They had little use for truth, even though they paid lip service to it. Those facts which failed to support their own particular vision of the perfect world, they tacitly ignored They spoke of scientific research, meaning the exploration of phenomena advantageous to their cause. They inquired if  men or women were ‘sound,’ with the intention of discovering not their habitual rectitude or sanity, but the degree of their devotion to a particular point of view. … They sought to mould society according to some well-designed pattern of good, to impose their wills upon the shifting wills of men, their ideals upon the mobile framework of the universe.  (p. 126)

In her fourth novel, Winifred Holtby pokes fun at earnest souls who labor tirelessly for a cause.  In this case, the “cause” is the Christian Cinema Company, founded by Caroline Denton-Smyth to advocate for better morals in cinema, and produce “pure” films made in Britain.  Caroline is in her 70s, rather dotty, prone to wearing feathers and beads and viewing the world through her lorgnette.  She’s convinced the company’s success is just around the corner.  But the truth is, they are sorely lacking in funds, and without a single film to their name.  One of the board members is a scientist with a breakthrough film-making process, but he demands capital and Caroline is determined to raise it.  Her days are spent in the fruitless pursuit of funds, writing letters and speaking at women’s institute meetings.

The plot is rather sparse; its characters make this book a delight.  Holtby tells Caroline’s story, and that of the Christian Cinema Company, through the eyes of each board member in turn.  Holtby manages to draw each character as both an authentic person and a caricature. Basil Reginald Anthony St Denis is persuaded by his partner to give up his leisurely lifestyle to become the company’s chairman.  Joseph Isenbaum joins the board in hopes of making connections that will benefit his son.  Eleanor de la Roux is Caroline’s cousin. Recently arrived in London, she joins the board out of sympathy and because she needs something to do.  Hugh McAfee invented the “Tona Perfecta Film,” which threatened to revolutionize the industry until color techniques came along.  Roger Mortimer is a minister, and the object of Caroline’s affections.  And Clifton Johnson is a swindler and sole proprietor of the Anglo-American School of Scenario Writing.  Chapters devoted to each character provide context, fill in background details, and advance the storyline. They also portray other characters through new lenses, showing traits and motivation that had not emerged in their personal chapter.

Holtby’s earlier novels were more strident, beating the drum of social activism and causes she was personally committed to.  In Poor Caroline, her tongue is firmly in cheek.  She mines familiar philanthropic territory, satirizing the causes themselves while poking fun at human nature and our motivations for doing charitable work.  Anyone who has ever been involved in charitable fund-raising will enjoy her rich wit.

* FTC Disclosure: This e-book was sent to me by the US distributor, Independent Publishers Group, for review on my blog.

Review: An Unsuitable Attachment, by Barbara Pym

This was a most satisfying read, full of what Barbara Pym does best:  satirizing the public and private lives of England’s “excellent women.”  Sophia Ainger is a vicar’s wife in a parish in a somewhat dodgy part of London.  When she’s not supporting her husband’s work, she’s arranging suitors for her younger sister Penelope.  There’s a comforting predictability to church work:

Ianthe Broom, Daisy Pettigrew, Sister Dew, and one or two others whose names she could never remember, now sat down round the table and began to discuss the final arrangements for the bazaar, which had always been exactly the same and always would be, except that from one year to another a pint more or less of milk might be ordered for the teas. (p. 53)

Sophia is also slightly obsessed with her cat, Faustina, who is always in the background engaging in typical feline behavior:

Her tone was a little agitated for she had also just seen Faustina mount the refreshment table and pick her way delicately among the dishes of cakes and savouries, sniffing the air, ready to pause and pounce when she came upon something that took her fancy. (p. 60)

Sophia finds sympathetic company in Daisy Pettigrew and her brother Edwin, who run a cattery.  But when conversation lags or gets awkward, Sophia fills the gap by comparing Faustina to various humans, or wondering aloud what Faustina is doing at that moment.  This never seems to help matters, but it made for amusing reading.

Then there’s Ianthe Broom, a 30-something unmarried daughter of a curate.  She works in a library and recently moved into the parish.  Most consider her past her prime, but Sophia is concerned about her competing with Penelope for male attention.  Ianthe is oblivious to all of this; she’s not looking for a mate, and values her independence.  She is both surprised and flattered when a male colleague begins paying attention to her.  But is he suitable?  Or will others judge her?

A church-sponsored trip to Rome puts everyone out of their element.  This heightens anxieties, but new experiences also offer opportunities for self-discovery.  Ianthe and Penelope both return to England with a better understanding of what they want from life and their relationships.

Pym’s world is familiar to anyone who has ever been involved in church committees, and she simultaneously respects and pokes fun at this slice of society.  Sophia’s “crazy cat lady” personality made me laugh out loud on several occasions.  And so, for that matter, did Faustina (especially since I had a cat in my lap most of the time when I was reading this book)!

I’ve read most of Barbara Pym’s books, and enjoyed them all.  An Unsuitable Attachment is now one of my favorites.

Review: The Hills at Home, by Nancy Clark

Lily Hill is an elderly woman living alone in a big rambling New England house, the sort of house regarded as a “home away from home” by all members of the extended Hill family.  And during the summer of 1989, several Hill family members decided to take respite at the Hill family home.  Lily’s thrice-widowed brother Harvey arrived first, halfheartedly offering to help with various home improvements which had proven too much for Lily to handle on her own.  Later Lily’s niece Ginger and grand-niece Betsy arrived, Ginger having recently left an unhappy marriage.  On their heels were Lily’s nephew Alden (recently let go from his job), his wife Becky, and their four children.  And finally, Harvey’s grandson Arthur and his partner Phoebe paid a surprise visit.

As it turned out, no one was just visiting.  Everyone was there for the duration, working through personal issues large and small, nurtured by a house that is almost a character itself.  While each family member is fiercely independent, their continuous close contact fosters a certain interdependence as well.  Becky takes on most of the meal planning and cooking.  Letters are written and left on a table, taken to the post office by whoever happens to be heading that way.  Somehow the laundry gets done, the house is kept clean (sort of), and everyone manages to both get along and avoid each other in equal measure.  Over the course of a year, the family assimilates into the community and their stories develop along several interconnected threads.

I thoroughly enjoyed Nancy Clark’s writing.  She describes family and small-town drama with a delightful wit:

For, just a few nights ago at supper, Ginger had been talking about her firewalking seminar, one of those exercises she put herself through when she was still trying to save that marriage of hers — or had it, in the end, given her the impetus to leave Louis?  Lily, listening carefully for once because it all sounded so unlikely, hadn’t caught her point as Ginger seemed to claim that her personal firewalk across a glowing pit dug behind a Ramada Inn on the outskirts of Wichita had led her both toward and yet away from poor Louis. He had become poor Louis in Lily’s mind, although not for having lost Ginger — rather, frankly, for having won her in the first place.  (p. 73)

Every single paragraph is packed with detail just like that passage.  Clark’s style is wordy, and requires careful reading; small details buried in lengthy descriptions often become significant later on.  As the year progresses family members are involved in romance, crime, small-town corruption, and no small measure of personal growth.  As I read this book, several passages brought tears to my eyes — tears more sentimental than sad.  And there were many times I sat back and smiled as I watched a series of events come together in a satisfying way.  The ending included a bit of both.  This is a rich, rewarding, thoroughly enjoyable read.