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‘Rhiannon’s Tomcats’: A free short story by Lucinda Elliot for Halloween

 

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I wrote the following short story  (approximately 2,500 words)  a long time ago, about ten years at least, for a short story writing course.  I believe it was the only one the tutor praised and told me was worthy of publication: he and I did not share the same sense of humour, that’s for sure;  but certainly, I had a lot to learn about writing marketable output in those days.

As I was meaning to write a story specially for Halloween for my blog, and left it too late. I hope this one will do instead give a few tingles down the spine.  I have left it just as it was written, and the changing patterns of migrating labour show that it was written over ten years ago, as young men coming to look for building work in Mid Wales these days would probably be from Eastern Europe rather than Southern Ireland.

 

Rhiannon’s Tomcats

By Lucinda Elliot

 

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“It might be here!” Liam darted past a row of lock up garages.

Connell, squelching after him in soaked trainers, didn’t answer.  There was nobody else out in the howling wind and driving rain to ask for directions, and he had almost given up hope of ever finding the right road on this dismal housing estate. When he came out by the sign, ‘ Heol Bryn’ the very name of the road for which they were searching, he was amazed.

Number Seven looked even more dismal than the rest of the featureless estate.  It was a mid terraced house with flaking paint, an overgrown garden and a sagging fence.

As they walked up the path, Connell was willing to bet that the man in the pub who had told them that old Mrs Rhys and her great granddaughter took in lodgers had just been talking drunken nonsense.  After all, as the man had staggered away from the bar, the only other customer apart from Connell and Liam, an old man, had looked up from his paper to laugh. “He’s not going to remember a thing tomorrow!”

They started as a black cat dashed out from the straggling bushes to the side with a wild shriek.  It stopped directly in front of them, meeting their eyes and hissing.  Back home, Connell’s grandmother had had a cat that had taken to attacking people.  Thinking of this, he held back, but Liam said, “Scat!” and the cat streaked away round the side of the house.

The doorbell was answered by a woman too young to be Connell’s idea of a landlady, but too old and haggard to be a girl.  She looked pale and unhealthy, with lustreless fair hair hanging in strings over her shoulders.  Her shapeless grey housecoat emphasized her colourless look.

“Yes?”

Her flat voice struck Connell as being surprisingly posh for someone living on such a bleak estate.  That made him nervous, but it didn’t worry Liam, who flashed a wide grin at her.  Everyone said that Liam was very good looking, with his curly black hair and bright blue eyes, and he agreed with them. “We heard you take in lodgers.”

To Connell’s surprise, the woman brightened. “Come in.”

The noises of the storm outside vanished as she shut the door.  In contrast to the neglected outside, the dimly lit hall was quite luxurious, with hardwood flooring, rugs and a heavy gilt framed mirror.

She suddenly became sympathetic. “Isn’t it dreadful weather?  You look drenched.  You didn’t come by car, then?”

“No such luck, by train.” Liam said, as he wiped his feet.  He liked talking about how he’d left a grand car back home, but for some reason he didn’t mention it now.

 

Connell saw that another cat, a big ginger one, had appeared.  This one wasn’t hostile, merely watching them with a superior air as it wound about the woman’s ankles.

“Come and dry out in front of the fire.”  She led them into the sitting room.  It had expensive looking striped wallpaper, and was furnished throughout in what Connell

vaguely recognised as Victorian furniture.  Sitting by a large fire in a rocking chair, a very old woman turned alert dark eyes on them.

Nain (Granny), people to see you about some rooms for the night.”

“Afternoon,” said Connell, gently.  “I hope we’re not disturbing you.”

“We need disturbing…Rhiannon, put the kettle on.  These poor boys are soaked.”  Unlike Rhiannon, Mrs Rhys had a Welsh accent.  Her voice was surprisingly strong for someone so old.

Rhiannon brought hot scones with butter and jam as well as tea.  The old woman and Connell worked out the business transaction as they ate and drank.  Connell knew that he should be glad that he didn’t have to go back out into the wind and rain, yet somehow – for no particular reason – he had an uneasy feeling.

He told Mrs Rhys that they would probably be working at the building site for a couple of weeks, but these things were never certain.  She suggested that they took dinner in too, at a rate so low that Connell felt guilty.  Perhaps she had lost touch with modern prices.

“We can pay a bit more than that!” He ignored Liam’s warning stare.

Liam, usually so fond of the sound of his own voice, took no part in the conversation as he stretched his legs in front of the fire, drank and ate.  He smiled now and then at Rhiannon, who in the light of the fire looked quite young and pretty; the glow gave a golden light to her hair and a rosy tint to her cheeks.

Mrs Rhys told them that Rhiannon was her great-granddaughter and asked Connell about himself and Liam.  “So you come from Southern Ireland?  I’ve always wanted to visit there, but I’ve never got round to it.  Bricklayers?  That’s a very useful skill.  So you’ve been staying in London.  Did you make many friends there?”

“We didn’t make any,” Connell felt ashamed as he admitted it. “I’d dreamed of working in London and making big money, but after three months of it, I’m glad to get away.  It was all too much for me, to be honest.  People rushing everywhere and the mad traffic, and everybody so unfriendly.  Well, Liam knew some of the lads down the pub, darts and that, but I doubt any of those will miss us.”

“Cities are lonely places.” Mrs Rhys agreed.  “But then, these housing estates can be no better.  Do you know, Rhiannon and I have been living here for years now, and we know hardly any of the neighbours? Well, I suppose you’re talking to your families on your mobile phones every day?  I know about you young people and your mobile phones!”

Her easy chat put Connell more at his ease. “Up to last week I was phoning them up all the time, but then I lost the thing.”

In fact, someone had stolen it.  He suspected one of the other men in the house where they had been staying in Acton.  Of course, Liam had a much better one, but after paying the train fare, he hadn’t got round to topping it up.

Connell went on, “I’ve just realised, our families don’t even know that we’ve left London. Hey, we couldn’t pay you to use your phone, could we?”  He’d had a glimpse of a fifties-style black bakelite telephone in the hall.  Judging by the rest of the contents of the house, it was probably an original.

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Mrs Rhys shook her head.  “I’m afraid that ours is out of order, and we haven’t had it repaired yet.  Oh, I know it’s foolish when we have guests.”

When Rhiannon went out to make up the beds, Connell thought that her walk had changed, becoming vigorous and upright.  He wondered vaguely if the company of a couple of males had worked on her as a sort of beauty treatment?  He’d heard of such things.

They followed Rhiannon’s sturdy legs up to the first floor, hoisting their bags up to their rooms.  The room they were to share was a fourth bedroom at the back of the house, which had been extended at some time.  It was done out with comfortable old-fashioned furniture, but it was chilly, with an unused air about it.  Connell shivered.  Something about the room increased his feeling of unease.  Perhaps it was the silence; he suddenly realised that he couldn’t hear the sounds of the wind or the rain.

Despite the fact that Mrs Rhys had been so friendly and helpful, he couldn’t stop himself asking Liam, “Don’t you think there’s something a bit weird going on?”

Liam laughed scornfully.  “What!  Are you scared of the old lady? The only weird thing is our luck in getting something decent so cheap.”

Connell jumped as something sharp sank into his leg.  A large tabby had clawed him from behind.  “Psst!  Go away!” he tried to scare it off, but it stood its ground, meowing at them.

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Liam couldn’t stop laughing.  “Are you a man or a mouse?”

Connell said, “These cats are surely a pest! Hey, Liam, I wish there was some way of letting them know at home where we are.  It only makes sense, you know.”

“You can always take a walk out in that, looking for a phone box.” Liam jerked his head in the direction of the rain-washed bedroom window.

“You noticed that there’s no sound coming from outside?”

“Special double glazing, I suppose.  Don’t be so daft.”

Connell felt too tired to appreciate the roast lamb that Rhiannon served for dinner.  The tight-fisted woman who owned the house where they’d stayed at Acton wouldn’t have thought of giving the lodgers a roast on a Sunday, never mind on a weekday.  He glanced at Liam; Liam seemed to take it all for granted as he pushed it into his face without much thought for table manners.

Connell felt a bit ashamed of him as he turned to Mrs Rhys, and caught her staring expressionlessly at Liam. “Lovely dinner.  We didn’t expect a meal like this!”

The old woman at once smiled at him warmly.  “I always say that Welsh lamb is the best.”

There was wine, too.  Connell preferred beer with his dinner, and he refused it at first, but Rhiannon smilingly encouraged him; “You must try this, I don’t usually like red either.”

Flattered that she thought his opinion on such a topic worth anything, he accepted a glass.  He realised then that she had hardly said anything since she had first chatted to them in the hall.

Liam asked Rhiannon a couple of questions about herself.  He even asked her Great-Grandmother some questions about herself, too, though you could tell that he wasn’t listening to her answers.  Then he told some funny stories about himself in turn.

Connell envied him his arrogance.  He envied him his flashing white teeth, too.   Perhaps they were the secret of Liam’s success with women; well, those teeth and his blue eyes and dark curly hair might be the reason for his success with them.

Connell himself was shy, unremarkable looking, with an equally unimpressive record of girls who had been interested in him.

Rhiannon was saying to Liam, “Work? Oh, I give piano lessons.  I studied music.  Of course, I help Nain with the house, too.”

Connell could tell that Liam was thinking, “That’s really sad.  No sort of life for a young woman.”

In the absence of any girls of his own age, Liam was obviously happy to flirt with Rhiannon.  She was glowing under the attention, so that she looked half a dozen years younger than she had.  Connell felt sorry for her.  Maybe she hadn’t had male admiration for years.  Perhaps she believed that Liam thought that she was special.

Liam was always chasing after girls.  In rural Southern Ireland, that was risky for a man who didn’t want to be tied down.  He’d had to leave the country because of trouble once too often over a girl.  Connell disapproved of Liam’s attitude towards women, but he enjoyed his company so much that he had offered to go with him.  Tonight, however, Connell almost disliked him for his greed and insensitivity.

Suddenly, Connell noticed how attractive Rhiannon was looking, with her long, lustrous lashes, her hair hanging in shining golden ringlets. Of course, women were always doing things to their appearance, things about which men had no idea.  He could only suppose that Rhiannon must have worked on her looks up in her room to change herself to that extent.

Meanwhile, Mrs Rhys under the electric light, looked just as old, but somehow indefinably more powerful, as if she had drawn strength from somewhere.

“You’re a nice boy,” she said suddenly to Connell. “You will be all right.”

Connell smiled politely, though of course, he didn’t want to be an old grabby’s idea of a nice boy; they never had any fun.

Rhiannon rose to collect the dinner plates, and Liam’s eyes widened as he got up to open the door for her.  Like Connell, he had noticed her amazing, hourglass figure that even the old-fashioned looking print dress that she had changed into couldn’t conceal.  Connell could have sworn that when they had come into the dining room she’d been  dumpy.

As she opened the door, a tabby cat tried to squeeze past her into the room, calling loudly.  Rhiannon laughed at it, pushing it away with one foot.  “Who’s a silly Mr Puss-Puss?  Who wants to talk to the humans?”

This drew Connell’s attention to Rhiannon’s legs.  They were now long and slim; Connell knew that they had been short and sturdy half an hour ago. He wondered if fatigue was making his eyes play tricks.  Perhaps had he been right in sensing that was something sinister about the place?  He glanced at Liam, who was- of course – staring at Rhiannon’s legs too, but with an expression of unthinking lust.

Connell resolved that however much Liam might laugh and however wet he got, after dinner he was going to go straight out, find a phone and let their families know exactly where they were staying.

By the time that Rhiannon came back with the pudding – baked apples – Connell could hardly keep his eyes open.  For his part, Liam couldn’t keep his flashing blue eyes off Rhiannon.  Her Great-Grandmother, far from disapproving, seemed positively to gloat at his interest.

Connell couldn’t remember being so tired since he was a child.  Everything was blurry, as if he had had too much to drink, and yet he hadn’t even finished his glass of wine.  The voices of the others were alternately unnaturally loud and then very faint in his ears.

He knew that he had to act or it would be too late.  It was probably too late already.  He stumbled to his feet, knocking his chair over. “Liam, let’s go!” his voice came out so slurred that it was unrecognisable to him.

The others stared at him. “What are you playing at -?” Liam demanded.

Slowly, as if he was walking through water against a current, Connell fought his way over the fallen chair and across the room.

“Are you ill?” asked Rhiannon. Her voice rang poisonously sweet in his ears.

He felt someone grab his shoulder and he jerked himself away to wrench at the door handle.  There was a rush of cold air as he fell amongst what seemed like twenty cats.

Then there was nothing but darkness.

Much later, he had a sensation of swinging, as if he was being carried, and he heard muffled voices.  He struggled in terror to wake up, but sank back into unconsciousness…

 

Connell became aware of cold and damp, and the persistent nuzzlings of a mewing cat.  He opened his eyes, remembering nothing, and long wet grass came into focus.  The cat, a handsome animal with thick black fur and wild blue eyes, now flung itself on his chest, meowing frantically.  He pushed it away and sat up, trying to clear his head by shaking it.  He was unable to make anything of the terraced house at the end of the garden.

He started blankly at the dumpy, faded looking woman in the grey housecoat who was bending over him.  She laughed as she picked up the struggling, hissing cat, holding it at arms length to avoid its claws.  “Silly boy!” she said to it.  Who’s my little pet, now?”

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Some Thoughts on a Forgotten Classic: ‘This is the Schoolroom’ by Nicholas Monsarrat.

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Speaker in an impoverished UK street in the 1930’s.

I have just finished reading Nicholas Monsarrat’s ‘This is the Schoolroom.’  It’s just under 450 pages long in the version I read – no short read.

No guesses for where I first saw it – back as a teenager,  on my parents’ bookshelves – though this was a book deliberately bought, not one come by as a job lot at an auction, like the Charles Garvice books and so much of the other stuff.

I didn’t read it then, though. I resolved to read it at some point in the future.

Well, it’s taken me long enough.

While ‘The Cruel Sea’ is still read along with, I believe, ‘The Tribe That Lost its Head’ – which I gather has been attacked as displaying typical colonial attitudes – I don’t think many people these days have even heard of, ‘This is the Schoolroom’. Trust me to be awkward and read it, then.

This is a book set in the UK of the thirties, and so as a matter of course is to some extent about the rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War, the role of British socialists on opposing the role of fascism, and all the rest of it.

‘“I was unusually drunk the night my father died”. So opens the story of Marcus Hendrycks, maturing in that turbulent decade – the 1930s. A man who had been playing with life for 21 years, while all around him were discordant voices, hunger and death. Discovering the poverty and filth of the slums, enduring the horrors of war-racked Spain, through politics and through love, his was a pilgrimage through a world teetering on the edge of disaster. .’

I was in two minds about it. There are parts of powerful writing, but I couldn’t take to the protagonist, though he was sincere, and changes soon enough from the spoilt rich kid at Cambridge we meet in the first chapter.

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Trinity College Cambridge in the 1930’s.

He does have inherent strength, with which he meets all disasters. He meets the family’s financial collapse and the inability or refusal of his wealthy, self indulgent uncle to do anything to help him in the way of getting a job with a ‘stiff upper lip’.

At first, he lives in a shabby genteel boarding house  – shades of The Rosamund Tea Rooms in Patrick Hamilton’s ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ .

During this time, what he regards as his love affair with a society girl whose rent he was paying comes to an end when he can no longer afford to spend £30 on weekends with her (a reasonable wage then was about £5 a week).

As his money runs out, and his career as a journalist fails to take off, he then moves in an unpleasant room infected at one point with some form of bug that lives behind the wallpaper. Here he helps a neighbourng woman giving birth until the arrival of the doctor  (I found the fact that none of the women rose to the occasion and helped her, leaving it to a man with no medical background, frankly incredible).

He hears another women being abused by a back street abortionist, and later discovers her dead body (the man has fled).

Later, a ‘show girl’ he knows , at first seemingly amused by his sordid surroundings, gets up to leave in disgust when the local pimp puts his head in at the door. The protagonist ‘Asks a question of extreme particularity without any preamble whatsoever. At all events, she said, “No, of course not,” with an air of finality which would have made Casanova blink.’

So far it is funny, but then – and this is one of the things that made me find the protagonist unsympathetic – he tries what seems to be borderline rape: –

‘An astonishingly crude wrangle ensued, on the lines of, “It’s a little late to back out now,” from me, and “It’s only your filthy mind,” from Helga, a wrangle followed by – well, lets call it ‘masterful persuasion’ and this in turn withered away before the cold and malignant fury with which she countered it, and degenerated into the blackest sulk I have ever wrapped myself in. The ‘starvation’ of the last few months probably had made me a little uncouth, but damn it, I thought, she had promised, she had been prophetically sweet all the evening, she had seemed as willing as I had been counting on…’

‘Finally, she raised one cool eyebrow. “Anything to say?”

‘Thus challenged, I evolved a priggish and not very effective sentence. “I leave you,” I said, “To derive what satisfaction you can from a lamentable exhibition. Good night.”’’

Hmmm. This so much follows the code of the times – that a woman did not go back to a man’s room unless she was willing for coitus and it was her fault if he got the wrong idea – that it is grimly laughable. I must remember that phrase, ‘masterful persuasion’ for future use in any stories of mine which might feature a would be rapist with a gift for euphemism.

What is disturbing for the modern reader, is that this is meant to be a sympathetic protagonist in a serious piece of literary writing, not some cardboard anti hero in escapist fiction. Obviously, if he failed with his ‘masterful persuasion’ it was because he was not violent enough to go through with it;  still the whole thing left me with a  distaste for Marcus Hendryks which his soul searing experiences as a volunteer  from the international corps in Spain couldn’t really eradicate.

Meanwhile, apart from suffering from malnutrition – which reduces his sexual frustration – he becomes politicised, and an uncritical socialist (why do these novels never portray a mature critical socialist rather than young, blinkered ones?  Not because there wen’t, or aren’t any: I suppose because there are less).

At first, in Spain, he drives a lorry of supplies – a dangerous enough job in an impossible vehicle – and gradually, he becomes drawn into the fighting and killing.

The author was, I gather, renowned as a pacifist, though also as a naval war hero during World War Two, commanding a frigate protecting supply ships in the Atlantic.  He was also mentioned in dispatches.

It seems he visited Spain just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and that this led to disillusion with his earlier rigid socialist ideas – which if they were anything like those of his protagonist, were fuelled too much by youthful idealism to be  able to survive the brutalities of war.

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Dead horses used as a barricade in the Spanish Civil War

Objectively, a war in support of democracy (the fascists had revolted to overthrow the democratically elected government) is not going to be any prettier than any other sort of war, although clearly it will never be as hideous as the sort of war of extermination that Hitler’s forces enacted on the Eastern front. Finally, though, it must be a brutalising experience.  Tragically, there are invariably atrocities in war and worst of all, innocents get maimed and killed; lives are ruined.

Injured and muddled, ‘”Half of me knows that we ought to take a crack at Fascism wherever the opportunity arises, and the other half has learnt, in Spain, that to join in that sort of struggle simply extends the chaos by one more man,”’ the protagonist returns to London with a wounded arm.

Then, dismally celebrating New Year in the London streets, he meets his future wife, a successful and comfortably off painter who doesn’t mind his shabby clothes, is willing to help him out financially and is eager to nurture him, wounded and traumatised as he is. She goes up to him – as the most melancholy person she has seen – and also, one suspects, as a man she finds attractive – and gives him a New Year’s kiss on the cheek, delighting him out of his melancholy.  I have to admit that I did find this scene sweet, for all my distaste over his earlier attempt on the showgirl Helga.

I did wonder what Anthea would have made of Hendryks’ ‘ behaviour with her, but perhaps she would think like a Nice Girl of the times, and say that Helga brought it on herself.  Certainly, there is no hint of ‘masterful persuasion’ with this woman, with whom he is besotted from the moment of the kiss, and who isn’t a showgirl in his room.

He makes it as a journalist with a little help from her, and the rest of the story is something of a damp squib after the strong chapters about poverty in the lodging house, the dark comedy of the horror of his former acquaintances over his metamorphases into a street orator, and  the terrible sights of the Spanish Civil War.

On the whole, this book is well worth reading and often strongly written, but the resolution after the climatic scene in the lorry in Spain – where Hendryks’ friend is killed and he in turn shoots dead the man who did it – goes on rather too long.  Well, that is always a temptation, and I suppose Monsarrat liked his hero rather more than I did and wanted to show him becoming a successful journalist, marrying and becoming a father.

The historical background is vivid (this was published in 1939).  It is not as informative on unemployment and poverty in the 1930’s UK as George Orwell’s journalism, of course, and not intended to be, but an interesting individual perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

Feminism and Romantic Novels: Lucinda Elliot’s Review of Maya Rodale’s ‘Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained’.

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Some years ago, when I started writing spoof historical gothics, I had an open mind about the role that romantic novels play with regard to feminism.
When young I had subscribed to the view that they generally endorse the values of patriarchy and sugar coat a confirmation of women’s role, so now I was interested in the dialectical notion that romance novels could change enough to subvert that reactionary function.  That was what the ‘romance community’ was now arguing, and if they sometimes seemed to be protesting too much, that was understandable, when their genre had been dismissed out of hand for decades.
I was open to being convinced.
Now, after reading several books putting forward those arguments, ie, Pamela Regis’ ‘The Natural History of the Romance Novel’ , Sarah Wendell’s ‘Beyond Heaving Bosoms’ and Maya Rodale’s ‘Dangerous Books for Girls’ among others…
…I have yet to be convinced, unfortunately.
If anything, I find many of the arguments in favour of ‘Reading Romantic Novels as a Form of Feminist Empowerment’ to be ring hollow.  In fact, often it seems to me that authors of romantic novels have a near impossible task in trying to co-opt feminism into a genre which is arguably compelled by its fantastical nature and rigid boundaries, finally to leave power relations between men and women unchallanged. Also, it seems to me that the form of feminism which endorses above all ‘choice’ and which is tolerant about rape fantasies and such terms as ‘feminine women’ is  too blandly tolerant and amorphous to be in any way challanging to the patriarchal status quo.
Unfortunaely, it fits into it comfortably. The fact that romance is ‘written by women, for women’ is no sort of threat to the establishment if the novels feature a woman whose happiness and identity depend upon, in fact, a man choosing her  (the fact that ‘she chooses him too’ is besides the point in unequal power relations: if she had equal power, her choices might be very different).
In fact, it is arguable that it is only when romance challanges and overcomes its own rigid boundaries, that insistence on the obligatory Happy Ever After and Avoiding Nasty Sordid Realism, that it will be able properly to take on a truly feminist stance.
I am frankly disappointed to have come to this way of thinking, but there we are.  That wasn’t the conclusion at which I wanted to arrive, but intellectual honesty compels me and all that sort of thing…
I do have to say, that I suspect that a certain amount of wishful thinking is going on amongst the ‘Romance Community ‘ who sympathize with feminism. I suspect they want to believe that romance can have a progressive role regarding woman’s position because they want to go on reading (and in some cases, writing) romances in their current form – or anyway in only a slightly modified verson of it – and therefore, they want their favourite genre to acquire literary and feminist respectability, without exploring too deeply how those tastes have been shaped by and possibly uphold, patriarchal sex roles.
The review of Maya Rodale’s ‘Dangerous Books for Girls’ which I put up on Goodreads a few months ago covers most of these points, so here it is.

‘This was an interesting book, and while it was openly partisan, it did – unlike Pamela Regis’ defence of romance as literature – utilize humour (you’ll see from my spelling of that from which part of the world I come). It was also well argued. It did make some points that hadn’t occurred to me.

Unlike so many of the blogs written in defence of romance, it did not adopt the defensive: ‘If you don’t adore romance you’ve probably only read one or two in your life and you define the whole genre by one category’ approach.

I did enjoy those dry statistically based quips about, for instance, the huge preponderance of Dukes in Regency Romances and of billionaires in modern day, US based romances. Thank you, Ms Rodale; I do love a laugh above everything.

I also enjoyed the new androgynous depiction of the Alpha, though I think to make that message clear, that Alpha should be more part of the heroine’s role.

It was also refreshing to see someone (apart from Sarah Wendell, that is) comment on the dreadful covers of so many romances, with those males with those bizarre, even unnatural six packs.

I have often thought myself, that some of them look as if they are decomposing or need to be fitted for a bra. ‘The Baron Who Wore A Bra’. How’s that for an anachronism?

I was also interested that the author admits that romances – as cheap, mass produced literature, are largely uniform in basic theme. I don’t think Regis dared to put her head above the parapet so far.

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Ms Rodale makes the very interesting point that romance writers, because they have not traditionally been taken seriously, have not in the past been expected to write to high literary standards. This is an interesting and highly relevant pointer to romance writing today. I note that some romance writers seem almost to take on the New Age argument that any criticism is negative criticism, and therefore, by definition, BAD…

‘By not having experts determine what is well executed and what is rubbish – after actually reading it –these woman had presumably no idea how to improve their writing’.

This undiscerning attitude continues to the present day, unfortunately. Romance writers and readers, traditionally derided, have adopted an attitude where they are totally uncritical of each other and of romance in general. Almost nobody will break ranks and admit that a great deal of poor quality stuff is churned out, preferring to comment on the exceptional almost as if it is typical. This is unfortunate, to say the least, for those writers who wish to improve standards and perhaps to challenge the rigid boundaries which have typified it.

The author’s comments about fantasy and the use of the ‘too real but not human robot’ theory was highly astute. I was impressed with that. I would say that is one of my own criticisms of the genre.

Parts of romances are entirely realistic and believable – but they combine with others parts that are pure escapism; for instance, along comes the lover who always satisfies sexually, who always looks wonderful, who is equine in never vomiting – at least in the heroine’s presence. In reality , we all make fools of ourselves – more often than we care to admit. Yet, these men never do. What, an alpha have his trousers – or breeches – fall down (unless he’s deliberately pulling them down)?

Meanwhile,the heroine never has hairy legs or underarms, and generally has no natural functions or menstrual cycle.

And then, the heroine so rarely puts that hero down verbally. Few man are as verbally adroit as a quick witted woman in a verbal sparring match in real life, but from the average romance, one would think it was the other way about.

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Here is something that is beyond the pale (terrible joke, I know) for an historical romance novel to mention.

All these are part of the fantasy aspect, of course. Sadly, I tend to be displeased by, instead of charmed by, this drift of the romance from realism to escapism, often moving from quite witty, strong writing to a sentimental, rose tinted approach.

When Ms Rodale comments that the HEA makes the reader feel ‘safe in caring about the characters’ and also speaks of the ‘happy glow’ you get at the end of reading a romantic novel, it doesn’t often seem to work for me. Too often, while having some sympathy for the heroine, I find the hero too arrogant and unsympathetic to wish for a happy ending for him at all.

While the feminist argument in support of romance is that the heroine is depicted as demonstrating power through her making a series of choices (which always result in her choosing the hero), I can’t help feeling quite often that the heroine’s choice of the hero (or anti hero) is a choice she shouldn’t be making.

This is one of the problems with the fantasy aspect of That Happy Ever Afterwards with which I believe it is difficult for a modern feminist reader or writer of romances to ignore. How do you reconcile feminism with what would in reality prove to be a bad choice of a man essentially repressive towards woman (even if he does make an idol out of the heroine). This ending is too selfishly competitive in an infantile way: ‘Ooh! He’s chosen me! I’m the favourite!’

That was my feeling particularly with the novel which is hailed by Pamela Regis as the original romance novel – the original Alpha Abuser, Mr B, he of at least one attempted rape and false imprisonment. Oh dear, yes, I’ve ploughed through that; and the incredibly boring sequel, ‘Pamela In Her Exalted Condition’ and all of the unabridged version of ‘Clarissa’. I’m a glutton for punishment, as I detest Richardson’s style.

On the romances I’ve read, I’ve also read all of Jane Austen ‘Jane Eyre’ and other classic novels claimed to be romantic, a weary number of books by Georgette Heyer, some by Barbara Cartland, some by Mary Stewart, Norah Lofts and Vicoria Holt, some by Jilly Cooper, various modern romances, numerous historicals, and a great deal of nineteenth century dross like Charles Garvice, Mrs Humphrey Ward and Helen Mathers, and others.

I must be a tough nut to crack, as while most romance readers give the impression that they were won over to uncritical acceptance of the genre after reading one or two, I retain strong criticisms.

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On Pamela and her supposed empowerment, even her worshipful creator Richardson noted in a letter of 1749 (as quoted by Terry Eagleton in ‘The Rape of Clarissa’ )‘It is apparent by the whole tenor of Mr B’s behaviour that nothing but such an implicit obedience, and slavish submission, as Pamela showed to all his injunctions and dictates, could have made her even tolerably happy with a reformed rake.’

Here, it seems that Richardson had changed his mind about the sort of reward that Pamela’s ‘virtue’ (for me, substitute self serving hypocrisy for virtue) could receive from such a man.

Accordingly, it seems to me that if the patriarch Richardson, who was no supporter of feminism, saw this clearly of Pamela, then a modern day feminist author is on tricky ground indeed in arguing that the rake’s surrender to true love and monogamy in the arms of the heroine, is convincing if s/he implies that facile, sudden reform is at all easy for one of Mr B’s descendants…

With a rake, a conditional happy ending is believable. But an unqualified Hearts and Rainbows one? This is where the robot’s inhumanity grates for me.

That brings me on to an aspect of HEA in many romances dealing with the ‘Wicked rake finds true love and reforms’ theme which I find downright unpleasant. So often, the wicked rake having been tamed by the heroine, all is therefore supposed to be well. How can this ending, where a man who has exploited so many women finds happiness with one of that despised breed – be experienced as a satisfactory solution even with suspension of belief about the durability of his conversion to monogamy?

In most of the romances which I have read, the rake expresses no remorse about his past treatment of women; his change is only effective with regard to the heroine; neither does the heroine expect him to. I find this lack of feeling for her predecessors dismal.

In this context, the quote by Maddie Caldwell that ‘The woman is happy and gets what she wants and hey, that is feminism’  which I find questionable at any time, seems particularly doubtful. The alpha may be disabled as a seducing and exploiting machine for the future, and perhaps that may arguably be an act of solidarity with this heroine’s fellow women.

And with regard to this quote, does that mean that if the heroine wanted to live humbly as the hero’s slave, getting a few beatings now and then, that would be feminism? Or would it be rather an indication that the heroine had been conditioned to think in a self destructive manner, and to enjoy abuse – even perhaps, defining it as a matter of empowerment and choice?

Yet does the exploitative hero even deserve to find a delirious happy ever after love himself, with such a history and such a lack of remorse over his dismal past? Is his love of the woman of his choice meant to be so great that he from now own respects all women as a matter of course? Perhaps this is meant to be part of this famous (or infamous) HEA, and I hadn’t realised. If so, it receives too little emphasis.

Of course, not all romances are about men with Don Juan complexes; but this stress on individual happiness does highlight in turn another aspect of the structure, ideological base and themes in romantic novels which has never been fully investigated (it has been briefly touched on by Regis, but not really explored).

This is that romantic novels, with their emphasis on the individual heroine and the working out of her individual fate, are historically inextricably linked with the development of capitalism and its ideology of individualism. Perhaps in this, they are a form of literature suited to a particular epoch, much in the same way that the Grail romances were appropriate to the ideology of feudalism.

After all, we won’t be able to make out the ideology of our own era very clearly. We perceive reality through its distorting lens. It will seem ‘natural’ to us, unless we have trained our minds to be highly critical of our own era.

All forms of social system are finite, and along with them fashion for the particular form of literature to which that structure gave rise.

I was disappointed that the author did not go more thoroughly into the issue of rape in romance, and the ugly history of successful romances in previous eras which feature a rapist – or would be rapist – hero, and the whole matter of how the term ‘Bodice Rippers’ has often been justified.

I was glad that Maya Rodale acknowledges that: ‘There are romance heroes too arrogant, too controlling, too in need of a restraining order’.

I do not find the excuse by Jane Little, quoted in this bit, that these stories ‘obviously appeal to some emotional interest of the reader’ an adequate excuse. They may indeed do that; but should mainstream literature appeal to submerged aspects of our basest nature?

Neither would I agree with Jane Little’s definition of feminism, as ‘the right to chose and be in control of your own body and desires without judgement’.

Few would say it was all right for romances with a paedophile theme to be published, so I cannot agree with Jane Little’s definition. She does seem to be bending over backwards to try and find regressive aspects of the romance novel ‘empowering’.

I was a little disappointed that Maya Rodale quoted the fashionable ‘There’ s nothing wrong with rape fantasies’ line in this chapter on the issue of rape in romance.

I know many feminists do currently take that line. I personally agree with the view I saw expressed on a discussion thread on the topic recently, that it is a kink that should be acknowledged as an unfortunate result of patriarchal values rather than being seen as in any way positive.

On this, I was dismayed to see that the ‘classic’ romantic novel, ‘The Sheik’ with its infamous rapist hero, received five star uncritical reviews on Amazon, though I was delighted to see that many readers expressed their disgust with that book on Goodreads.

I note that with a few honourable exceptions, there is a deafening silence upon the topic of Georgette Heyer’s foul would be rapist hero in ‘Devil’s Cub’. This does seem to me to connect with another unfortuante fantasy – the one about the Failed Rapist who is Frustrated (in all senses of the word) by the Heroine, who then Curbs his Badness.

This Nasty Would Be Rapist Gets Reformed trope seems to me nearly as regressive a fantasy about a sexual abuser as the Rape as Romance one. In either case, the heroine is marrying an abuser, and while romance readers may protest that they can tell the difference between real life and fantasy – that may be true of many, but is it true of all? What about young girls? Isn’t there a danger that they will confuse abusive partners and romantic situations?  And doesn’t the popularity of such plots serve to justify the rapist’s excuse ‘They want it really? Perhaps these books about would be rapist and abusers are truly dangerous, and not in the way that is meant by traditional patriarchs.

 

These are some of the areas of disagreement I had with the book. Anohther is that the author, out of scruples and fellow feeling perhaps towards her fellow romance writers, never explicitly acknowledges how many purely terrible romances are being churned out, both by traditional publishers and Indie authors.

I believe that Ms Rodale writes Regency Romances. I must admit I haven’t read any of her works, but very likely, they reflect her interest in research.

My particular area of interest with regard to this area – and no doubt this is partly because I am from the UK – are those dreadful historical romances, particularly Regencies, which show little or no historical research. I am sorry to say that a number of US writers are particular offenders, though a smaller proportion of UK writers are not exempt. I have come across traditionally published Regency Romances set in an England with a parliament with seemingly only one chamber, where lager is available, people walk on ‘sidewalks’ and beds are made up with duvets, and where people express scorn with ‘Oh, please!’

No doubt it is all part of the escapist aspect of romances that the ugly aspects of life in the late eighteen and early nineteenth century – that era so beloved by readers of historical romance – unwashed bodies, infant mortality, faeces and dead cats in the streets, public torture in the pillories, the corpses of robbers prominently displyaed on gibbets, religious bigotry, death in childbirth and all the rest, are ignored.

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There would have been more than enough of these gibbets with their grisly burden (this is a modern reproduction of the original) along the highways in the Georgian and Regency eras, and yet they have been carefully erased from view in most historical romances.

I don’t see why they have to be, any more than I can see why a conditional happy ending is out of the question.

I am always dismayed that the overwhelming majority Regency Romances follow the lead of Georgette Heyer in generally – there are honourable exceptions here, too – writing about the upper class and upper middle class. In fact, many historically naive readers seem to speak as though they assume that had they lived then, they would in fact have belonged to this privilged tiny minority.  It would be refreshing (to say the least) to see a move towards a trend featuring the ordinary working people who would almost certainly have been their ancestors.

Thorough researcher though she was, Georgette Heyer was savagely reactionary in her political and social convictions (witness her appalling comments on the Six Day War). This inevitably influenced just what she researched and her consequent depiction of the Regency era. This was after all, shortly before the time of the Peterloo Massacre of the Manchester cotton workers, though one would never think so, from Heyer’s consensus oriented depiction of society. I think it is a shame that Regency Romance has, almost unconsciously, it seems, continued to depict her alternative reality Regency UK, where an era of violent social upheaval is depicted as a consensus bound sort of High Tory paradise.

I have to say that I can’t agree, either, with Maya Rodale, that romance readers are open to innovation. Often, attempts at innovation in romance are greeted with incomprehension or downright hostility.

As the author has, I believe, an MA in English, I was a disappointed that she has gone in for an ungrammatical style in places, ie, the sub-heading, ‘Because women’. I know she wanted to write a book in a ‘populist’ style designed to appeal to those who see no need for conjunctions – but I don’t think in a book designed to ‘redeem the genre’s reputation’ as literature, this was a good idea, giving the impression that she is ignorant of the rules of grammar herself.

I have many other disagreements with the arguments the author puts forward, but if I went on, this review would turn into an essay. I will only mention one further one, that of romance as a form of escapism that is somehow argued by its feminist critics to be ’empowering’.

It seems that many romance readers read as many of these books as twenty a month. As the author admits that few women have much spare time after dealing with work and family responsibilities, this number of hours spent on reading what she admits is an ‘escapist literature’ which offers individual happy endings, is a lot of time taken away from doing something to improve the reality from which these women feel so strong a need to escape.

It is not as if I am against escapism -I enjoy a bit myself; but if a women feels such a strong need to get away from her reality, then it needs changing, and surely the way to do so is in company with other women – and men – rather than reading escapist literature by herself.

Overall, then, a stimulating read, though one with which I can’t, sadly, agree.

‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen – An Excellent Classic Ghost Story as Comedy

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In my last post, I mentioned how impressed I was when I re-read ‘The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories’ edited by Robert Aikman, first issued in 1964.

Having discovered the first on my parents’ bookshelves, I was happy to find some more, the first book forming part of a series, but I do have to say that after that first book, some the stories were a disappointment. For sheer spine tingling effect, that first anthology was the best. Well it might be, as the editor had gathered together some by classic authors as well as by the best of then modern authors.

I mentioned that a couple of the stories were humorous. Of these, I found ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen both the funniest, and intriguing for other reasons.

All the stories in this book are by British authors, and there is a traditionally British feel to this story.

Marjory Bowen seems to have been an intriguing author. I was astonished to find out on Wickipedia that she wrote under six names:

‘Her total output numbers over 150 volumes with the bulk of her work under the ‘Bowen’ pseudonym. She also wrote under the names Joseph Shearing, George R. Preedy, John Winch, Robert Paye and Margaret Campbell. After The Viper of Milan (1906), she produced a steady stream of writings until the day of her death.Bowen’s work under her own name was primarily historical novels.’

To say that she came from a ‘difficult’ background would be an understatement. Her alcoholic father deserted the family, and was later found dead of drink on a London street. Her mother was seemingly a far from fond parent, and so she (Marjorie Bowen) was obliged to support the whole family by her writing for many years.  She was married twice – her fist husband died early, and both their children died in infancy. Her two children by her second husband survived, anyway…

From this, I had to be the more struck by the light, playful tone of ‘The Crown Derby Plate’. Although this is available on project Gutenberg and on Amazon as a Christmas story, the original publication date is not stated.

220px-ImariCI would guess, from the feel to it – and the fact that the heroine for her drive to the isolated house across the marshes uses as a matter of course, a pony and trap – that it was written no later than the 1920’s, before the car became common enough to have such a disastrous effect on our landscape (couldn’t possibly be an environmentalist, could I?)

It is not written as great literature, but as an effective ghost story which, unlike some of the others, is not intended to arouse deep emotion or raise questions. It is set over the Christmas period, so was presumably written for some Christmas Annual or magazine for those days. Accordingly, the vocabulary is simple, and the tone is upbeat, even on such a topic as – for the women of the early twentieth century – the depiction of the Spinster Who Must Earn Her Keep, a nightmare image for many:

‘Martha managed an antique shop of the better sort and worked extremely hard. She was, however, still full of zest for work or pleasure, though sixty years old, and looked backwards and forwards to a selection of better days.’

She is a collector of valuable china. Staying with her cousins in Essex for Christmas, she remembers that years ago she bought a set of Crown Derby plate from an auction at a local house, which unfortunately had one plate missing.

Her cousins remark that that house has a reputation for being haunted, its former owner, old Sir James Sewell, a collector of antique china, having been buried in the garden.

Martha Pym drives over to see if she can find out if the current owner, who she met and forgot two years ago, has found that missing plate.

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The description of the wintry scene is evocative:

‘Under the wintry sky, which looked as grey and hard as metal, the marshes stretched bleakly to the horizon; the olive brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on the saffron-tinted bogs, where the sluggish waters that rose so high in winter were filmed over with the first stillness of a frost.  The air was cold but not keen; everything was damp; faintest of mists blurred the black outlines of trees that rose stark from the ridges above the stagnant dykes…’

I quote that at length because so fine a word picture seems incongruous in such a light piece of writing. Marjorie Bowen obviously had exceptional talent, but wrote for the market, which often does not give much opportunity to show it to advantage.

‘The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees, encompassed by an old brick wall…It was a square built, substantial house with “Nothing wrong with it but the situation,”  Miss Pym decided…She noticed at the far end of the garden, in the corner of the wall, a headstone showing above the colourless grass’.

The person who answers the door presents a startling appearance: ‘Her gross, flaccid figure was completely shapeless and she wore a badly cut, full dress of no colour at all, but stained with earth and damp from where Miss Pym supposed that she had been doing some futile gardening…another ridiculous touch about the poor old lady was her short hair.’(In that era, women were not expected to cut their hair at all).

An absurd conversation follows between Martha Pym and the owner:

‘“…I generally sit in the garden.”

“In the garden? But surely not in this weather?”

“You get used to the weather. You have no idea how used one gets to the weather.”

“I suppose so,” conceded Miss Pym doubtfully…’

Later on, the person whom Martha Pym assumes to be the last owner Miss Lefain informs her visitor that she frightens people away from the house:

‘”Frighten them away!” replied Martha Pym. “However do you do that?”

“It doesn’t seem difficult; people are so easily frightened, aren’t they?”

‘Miss Pym suddenly remembered that Hartleys had the reputation of being haunted – perhaps the queer old thing played on that. “I suppose you’ve never seen a ghost?” she asked pleasantly.  “I’d rather like to see one, you know –”.’

The reader doesn’t have a great talent for solving mysteries to begin to have suspicions about the house’s owner.

This is as excellent an example of the ghost story as light entertainment, as distinct from the ghost story which makes a profound impression and is written as literature, as in ‘The Wendigo’.  When Robert Aikman selected these eleven stories, he made astute choices.

I am astonished by the output of some of these late nineteenth and early twentieth century authors. Even given that they wrote for a living, however did they manage to get so much writing done – particularly when this was in an era when most of it was done in longhand.

 

‘The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories’ edited by Robert Aiman – Wonderful Classic Tales of Terror

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I recently re-read ‘The Fontana Book of  Great Ghost Stories’ Edited by Robert Aikman, dated 1964.  I would still say that this is one of the best collections of tales of terror – not all of them are truly ghost stories – that I have ever read.

To some extent, I would say that for sheer spine tingling thrills, I have never found this collection to be beatable.

Of course, arguably some of it might be ‘learned response’ if that is the term. I did read it first at an impressionable age, and I was living in a notoriously haunted house at the time, the infamous and then isolated ‘Plas Isaf’.

My father, mother and sister were all in the house at the time; but they were corridors away as I foolishly sat up late, fnishing reading ‘The Wendigo’ by a dying fire, with the wind howling outside.

And yes, it did come from  – wait for it – those inexhuastable bookshelves in my family houses, like ‘The Outcast of the Family’  ‘Eve and the Law’ and so many others…

All the short stories in the anthology are written by renowned authors –the one by D H Lawrence, which naturally is largely psychologically based, came as a surprise.

There is also a very peculiar, and horrifying, tale which is more of a horror story, ‘The Travelling Grave’ written by L P Hartley, who of course wrote that wonderfully evocative tale of the Edwardian schoolboy in ‘The Go Between’.

The anthology contains some funny ghost stories. I still find ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen grotesquely hilarious, and there is an amusing tale about a landed pirate ship.

There are also ones on conventional lines – ‘The Old Nurses’ Tale’ by Elizabeth Gaskell is a wonderful example of the haunted house and threatened innocent variety. ‘Squire Toby’s Will’ by Sheridan le Fanu is of course, another wonderful example of the traditional ghost story.

The tales of terror, include  some perturbing ones by comparatively recent authors, such as that sinister one about deserted waterways which has always puzzled me by Elizabeth Jane Howard  ‘Three Miles Up’. There is also one by the editor Robert Aikman, ‘The Trains’.

This is an extraordinary story; it is partly psychological, partly a tale of terror with horribly plausible elements, and it has many unexplained elements. It is set in the 1950’s, when trains were in fact, still the predominate form of transport for most people in the UK, before the sorry onset of car culture.

I can date the age I was when I read it, because that was the day I made my first apple crumble at school, and the scent of apple and cinnamon was in the air when we were re-heating it and I began reading, ‘The Wendigo’.  In fact, ‘The Wendigo’ will always make me think of apple crumble, and vice versa.

Wendigo

I still find ‘The Wendigo’  a truly terrifying story, for all the florid language of Défago when he is taken by it is so improbably poetic: ‘Oh, these fiery heights, my burning feet of fire’ etc.

My own prosaic memories about apple crumble aside, the depiction of those huge, Canadian forests, the Northern Woods, struck me with awe then and does to this day:

‘And now he was about to plunge even beyond the fringe of wilderness where they were camped into the virgin heart of uninhibited regions as vast as Europe itself…The bleak splendours of these remote and lonely forests rather overwhelmed him with a sense of his own littleness. The stern quality of the tangled backwoods which can only be described as merciless and terrible, rose out of those far blue woods swimming on the horizon…’

It is an alarming story. Défego’s fate also seems to be unfair, in so far as he is not some casual tourist, viewing these secret regions for a thrill. On the contrary, he dreads the Wendigo as an apparition personifying the awe these forests should inspire:

‘”All the same, I shouldn’t laugh about it, if I was you,” Défego added, looking over Simpson’s shoulder into the shadows. “There’s places in there that nobody won’t ever see into. – Nobody knows what lives in there, either.”’

I must confess my ignorance as to whether that is still true today as it undoubtedly was in 1910, when this story was written,  before so much of the forest was destroyed. I assume it is, but I may well be wrong.

Algernon Blackwood, who of course, wrote the story, does seem to have changed the Native American legend, although I gather that there are many versions of the legend.

The Wickipedia entry states:

‘In Algonquian folklore, the wendigo or windigo is a cannibal monster or evil spirit native to the northern forests of the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes Region of both the United States and Canada.[] The wendigo may appear as a monster with some characteristics of a human, or as a spirit who has possessed a human being and made them become monstrous. It is historically associated with cannibalism,, murder, insatiable greed, and the cultural taboos against such behaviours.’

In these regions of harsh winters and traditional food shortages, to me that makes sense as the behaviour of the predatory Wendigo in Blackwood’s tale does not. It does not take its victims for food, but is described as a ‘moss easter’ and when the terribly damaged Défego returns from his sojourn with it, he reveals that he too has become ‘a damned moss eater’.

Therefore, the Wendigo does not take its victims to eat, and the sheer illogic of its bothering to take victims at all makes it the more horrible. I have heard that some of our relatives, the great apes, like humans, keep small orphaned baby animals as pets. Perhaps this is the explanation for the Wendigo’s behaviour?  Perhaps it doesn’t like people intruding on its domain.  Or – worse – perhaps its actions are meaningless to the human mind?

I thought one of the few weaknesses of the tale was the fact that it seems the Wendigo initially tries to pull the sleeping Défago from his tent.

That so powerful a monster should be temporarily defeated in this merely by Simpson’s wakening seem slightly absurd, though still horrible. The guide might even have been saved.

Another weakness is, of course, the racist assumptions about Native Americans of the era.  Inevitable though they may be for 1910, they are dismal to come across.

Overall, though, it is a powerfully written and wonderfully evocative story, and like all the stories in this anthology, it sums up images that you will never forget.

Perhaps one of the reasons that these stories are so good is that they come from an age when ‘short stories’ could begin at 3,000 words – ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ is this length – and go up to near novella length at approximately 14,000 words, as in ‘The Wendigo’.  There was none of the modern pressure to write an extremely brief short story.

This post is too long for me to continue with accounts of the wonderfully comic, ‘The Crown Derby Plate’, or the puzzling and sinister story, ‘The Trains’. I will have to make that my next post.

 

 

Review of ‘Eve and the Law’ by Alice and Colin Askew (1905)

 

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I have often written of how many writers combine both strong and sentimental writing in one novel, and that this is particularly true of many classic Victorian novelists such as Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. While it is a notorious fault with Charles Dickens, even Thackeray often descended into the maudlin. While for these greater writers, the sentimentality is less predominate, with other writers of popular fiction the weaker form of writing is often the main style.

I have just finished reading the melodramatic tale, ‘Eve and the Law’ by Alice and Claude Askew, published in 1905 – which makes it Edwardian. I mentioned it in my last post. This was part of the many job lots of books my mother bought at auctions to fill she shelves in the rambling, isolated old houses which she and my father used to renovate. It is probably long out of print,though it might be obtainable on Project Gutunberg and Internet Archieve and such sites.

The edition is ‘Collins 7d (that is, the old seven pennies) Modern Fiction.’ Books were too expensive for ordinary working people to buy then, but there were circulating libraries, and also, works of fiction were regularly serialised in the magazines, which were sometimes brought out annually in hard backed form.  Interestingly, this tradition of serialising books in women’s magazines continued until comparatively modern times, and I haven’t noticed if it has been discontinued or not.  I first read ‘Cheri’ in serial form in ‘Cosmopolitan’.

This story is unusual, of course, in being written by a man and a woman, and it seems to me that the strong writing style of the one and the sentimental style of the other alternate in an extraordinary way. (of course, it is possible that they both wrote sometimes weakly and sometimes forcefully).  This is combined with the strong religious theme typical of the period.

It made me think how much styles change over the years, particularly in popular novels, where the writers are aiming for mass appeal rather than originality.  The accepted style and content of one decade can bear little resemblance to that of the later one.

The plot of this tale of female sin and redemption is ludicrously improbable.

A French aristocratic rake named Felix Deschamps (later the Count d’Anvers) persuades a ‘well born’ English girl named Eve Hastings, who is already engaged to the hearty Sir John Almyer,  to have a runaway marriage with him. He has her tell her family that she has gone to France to study music, while keeping the true state of affairs quiet.

We know he is a villain from the description of his weedy physique and prominent teeth. But his dark curling hair and flashing black eyes and red sensual lips give him a charm that draw women to him. He is ‘tireless in pursuit of pleasure; he had an unquenchable thirst for enjoyment’.

…That will never do for a hero of this period.

Eve, who has the requisite golden hair and white skin of a Victorian heroine, spends an idyllic month with him in a forest near Fontainbleau. During this time, an old clerical friend of John Almyer, Jereome Meredith,  just happens to run into the couple; this novel, like many of its sort, is full of co-incidences.He takes one look at the villain’s face and decides that he and the young woman are in an irregular liaison. Psychic powers, or what?

Of course, he is proved correct. Suddenly, Flexi callously reveals that their marriage is not valid in France. Having heard that his uncle is dying and that he is to inherit he title, and having abruptly tired of living in a cottage in the forest with Eve, he decides to get rid of her.

Eve and the Law cover
It is very disappointing that I can’t ind a way to magnify these covers, the details of which are fascinating.

 

Eve goes back to England, and decides that she is free to marry her discarded fiancé and to make a new start.

Meanwhile, Felix d’Anvers is dismayed to find out that his dying uncle will only make Felix his heir if he agrees to carry on his uncle’s fight against the unjust laws which make an English marriage invalid in France.  The opportunistic Felix agrees, and goes hot footed back to the forest to make it up with Eve, only to find that she has gone.

He pursues her to England, and turns up on the day of her wedding. Here he meets Eve’s new sister-in-law, the lively Dorothy. He decides to forget about Eve and sends her back her discarded wedding ring. He and Dorothy are at once attracted to each other, take up a flirtatious correspondence, and later fall genuinely in love.

Meanwhile, Jerome Meredith comes back to take up the post of rector. He recognizes Eve from their previous meeting, but has scruples about revealing her secret, and marries them anyway.

Eve’s new husband dotes on her and she feels some guilt at keeping the truth from him. She falls in love with him, which is lucky for him, as he is one of the dullest, shadowy male leads I have encountered since the cardboard Charles Darney in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and Angel Clare in ‘Tess of D’ubervilles’.

Jerome goes to Italy and runs into Dorothy, with whom he has been in love for years. She is staying with her sister, who married another cad who considerately left her a young widow by blowing his brains out. Just why this detail is added to the story is never explained, as it does nothing to further the plot, but it adds to the Gothic atmosphere. Perhaps there is a hint that Dorothy does not learn by example? Certainly, John Almyer’s sisters seem to make a point of marrying undependable villains, as if rebelling against his example.

The austere Jerome’s faith is tried by his jealousy of Dorothy and Felix. Finally, on being rejected by Dorothy and on hearing of her engagement to the wicked Count, he goes to Fountainbleau to find out what he can of Felix’s former liaison with Eve. Here he falls off his horse and is looked after by an artist who just happens to have the same housekeeper as the one who kept house for Felix and Eve (co-incidences abound in this novel). She tells him all about Felix’s ways and Eve. He and the artist have many discussions. I assume the point of this is that Jerome’s narrow mind is opened.

It is certainly a good thing that the authors saw that many clerics were exceptionally narrow in their interpretation of Christianity, anyway; this also adds an incongruous level of seriousness to the plot which is at odds with the frequently weak style of writing.

When he has recovered, Jerome returns to England and when Eve refuses to admit to the truth, tells John Almyer ‘All about Eve’.  He is disgusted, and leaves to shoot big game on the Congo rather than himself.

Eve – astonishingly – comes to like and to place her faith in Jerome Meredith, which, given that he betrayed her after not speaking out at her wedding, is a remarkable piece of magnaminity.  Jerome, presumably through the influence of the artist and by suffering over his loss of Dorothy, has become kinder and less aesthetic.

Eve and the Law Second Cover
Just in case anyone might miss the significance of the erring heroine being called ‘Eve’…

Then Dorothy and Felix come to visit, a ridiculous situation treated without a jot of humour by the authors. Then Jerome is killed in saving Felix when his horse bolts.

Eve resolves to tell Dorothy the truth, but learning that she is having a baby, she keeps silent. Then she hears that John Almyer has been killed by ‘a savage tribe’ (perhaps they might have resented the European invaders?). She mourns excessively and lives in miserable penitence with her Aunt Letitia (a comic character, the trivial details of whose day are wittily recounted).

Meanwhile, Felix has become a successful politician with his campaigning against the marriage laws and is happy with Dorothy at the Château d’Anvers. He comes under the influence of the local priest Pere Joseph. Soon the superficial Felix, who looks forward to having an heir and becoming a respected politician, willingly makes an apparent repentance for his past life as a rake.

But then, Dorothy, on hearing of her brother’s death, falls in a faint down the front steps, killing both herself and her unborn child. She also dies disillusioned at the last moment with Felix, who shows his lack of spirituality by pleading with her to stay alive because he needs her (an entirely human response to the death of a young bride, I would have thought, but one which the authors believe shows a low spirit). Presumably this turning of the knife was regarded by them as necessary for her spiritual redemption.

I was sad about this wildly improbable end, which is clearly intended to be The Hand of Fate striking her down for marrying a bad man. The lively Dorothy is one of the most appealing characters in the book, far more endearing than Eve, who, apart from her outrageous act in eloping with Felix and going ahead with her wedding plans to John Almyer, is not particularly interesting. Even in her descent into bitterness and a dark night of the soul she somehow seems unreal.

Somehow, like Charles Dickens’ Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette,she never comes to life in the readers imagination, so she is an ideal mate for the dull sportsman and Strong Englishman John Almyer, who goes about quoting platitudes.

Felix is overcome with grief at Dorothy’s death, and Pere Joseph tries to use this to make him truly religious. Pere Joseph suspects that he is insincere in his dramatic repentance for his former rakish ways, even when he confesses his betrayal of Eve.

Then, Felix makes the improbable decision to go to England and persuade Eve of her sin (presumably, her sin in having bigamously married John Almyer in England rather than in living accidentally outside wedlock with him). This is so clumsy a plot device to get him in England that I was startled. However, writers of this type of romantic melodrama did this sort of thing all the time, and seemingly got away with it with their readers, at least in that their books continued to sell.

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Perhaps the story was serialised in this.

Eve has, however, received news from John Almyer’s  companion on the expedition that John Almyer is not dead. John Almyer apparently wishes to surprise Eve, but the friend thinks the shock would be bad for her and writes to warn her of his return.

He has survived weeks of torture at the hands of the ‘Natives’. Presumably this was done just for the fun of it, for it is never explained why they didn’t just kill him off, and it is never hinted that he had some knowledge which they wanted. Now he returns to England – seemingly unscathed in body and mind, being an English hero.

Naturally, Felix d’Anvers arrives on the same night as his rival. Overcome once more by Eve’s attractions (though he had been so bored with them in Fontainbleau) he forgets his spiritual mission. John Almyer walks in on them and misunderstands the situation.

Eve assures him he is wrong.

The two men have a dramatic fight in the firelight (Eve was waiting for her husband with the lights off to flatter her complexion, as one does).

Then, having sent Eve up to her room, John Almyer leaves the room himself, providing the unconscious Felix with a gun with which to shoot himself or to shoot his rival when he returns. John Almyer tells Eve he foresees no happiness for them and doesn’t care if he lives or dies (it is not explained why in that case, he bothered surprising her by his return – a lover like gesture). Felix, however, he says, will be too cowardly to do either.

Eve runs down to prevent murder, and Felix runs off into the night, proving himself  ‘the cur’ which Jerome and John Almyer have always called him.  Eventually, pursued by spirits either real or imaginary, he runs into the quarry from which Jerome Meredith saved him before.

This end put me in mind of the end of another Villain of the Piece, Stannard Marshbank in Charles Garvice’s ‘The Outcast of the Family’. It really doesn’t do to go running about by quarries in the dark of the moon, but Villains of the Piece will do it.

Eve reminds John Almyer that ‘Adam forgave Eve’. (I think that Eve had to do some forgiving too, as he had told tales with his excuse, ‘The woman did tempt me and I did eat’ but that’s irrelevant here).  John  Almyer decides that they can be happy after all, as like Adam and Eve they can ‘go out into the world according to God’s holy ordinance’,  and the story ends with her realising that like the first woman: ‘She would become mother to life and that Christus had redeemed Adam’.

A fittingly devout end to a story about sin and temptation. I wholly dislike the notion of a Creator of wrath rather than of mercy. It is not only in the quality of the writing that I find this work wholly inferior in tone to say, Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ also about an unrepentant rake, but in the breadth of spiritual understanding.

However, as I say, there are oddly contrasting passages where strong writing takes over from the normal superficially melodramatic tone. Here is one:

‘Who is coming down the road, I wonder…Don’t you see the ‘rider on the white horse’ Felix? Now, where have I come across the line before…’ The girl spoke in bright, careless tones, wholly forgetful that the line she referred to so cheerfully came from the Book of Revelation: but Felix remembered, and he muttered uneasily, “‘I looked, and behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death.’”… “Who is morbid now?” she asked. “I don’t think the postboy would be pleased to hear us, for it is Francis riding up with the letter bag, Felix.”

Despite the humour of this wholly prosaic revelation (there is an odd combination of humour and deadly seriousness in this melodrama) the letter is the one about the death of her brother which will cause her to faint and fall to her death. There is an excellent piece of dramatic build up:

‘The warm, hazy afternoon was changing into a sinister evening; heavy rainclouds were drifting up, swarms of dark, noisome gnats and insects were whirring through the air, and steaks of yellow light, presaging storm, appeared in the sky. The runner came in sight. He was one of the footmen from the château, the same fair, florid young man who had been in Count Raoul’s death chamber, summoned there to witness the dying cousin’s will. Directly Felix caught sight of the young man, a terrible fear and dread came over him; his face turned livid, and he clutched at Pere Joseph for support.’

That is just the way to write Gothic! Over-the-top it will necessarily be: weak and sentimental it never should be, as in the scene on Eve’s wedding morning: ‘”I have brought your breakfast tray up,” laughed Dorothy, opening the door with one hand and supporting the dainty little tray with the other. “All the servants clamoured for the honour, Eve, but I said it was the privilege of the bridesmaid to serve the bride.”’

I would like to think that the strong writing came from both the male and female partners, but I do wonder. Many woman writers of romance have an unlucky tendency towards sentimentality to this day: whether this is done to appeal to the wider readership, or an innate fault in their style, is unclear.  Still, I have commented on Charles Dickens and Thackeray’s maudlin tendencies, so perhaps it was the man as well.

Claude_Askew_in_Serbian_uniform

Discovering More So Bad It’s Good Writing

Alice Askew
A wonderfully dramatic cover for a book. I love the way that the ghost is waving…

I never get much in the way of writing done in the summer and early autumn; family matters always take precedence. I feel guilty about not getting down to that editing of my latest, but there seems to be no time…

I have been doing some reading. I am Beta reading a fellow author’s fantasy book, which has a darkly comic twist that appeals, and still reading the background material on the Peterloo Massacre. But there are so many distractions, and coming across So Bad It’s Good writing from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is one of them.

I have written in posts before of how my mother filled the bookshelves in the rambling old houses in which my family used to live when I was growing up by buying job lots at auctions.

These included much late Regency and Victorian writing, including books on farming, the care of poultry, guide books of the North Wales coastline, collections of sermons, classic works and much else. There was,  for instance, a massive book with the ambitious title ‘Everything Within’ which could surely only have been written by a British Victorian. In it you could find advice on supposedly all the subjects under the sun – geography, mathematics, astronomy (written, of course, from that oddly static pre Einstein perspective) a solemn exposition of phrenology,  advice on how to write letters on delicate topics, such as breaking off an engagement, and a massive amount of other varied information.

There were also, besides much twentieth century popular fiction, many  Victorian and Edwardian novels of the sort lent out by circulating libraries and deplored by the serious minded as a bad influence on maidservants.

My older half brother still lives in the Clwyd Valley in the area where my family lived for six years (the area where I set ‘That Scoundrel Emile Dubois’ and my latest – which still needs editing). He still has some of that stock which I investigated on snowy and rainy days long ago.

I came on a book which seemed likely to rival Jefferey Farnol for melodrama. It is called ‘Eve and the Law’, written by ‘Alice and Claude Askew’, published in 1905. It is a cheap hardback of the sort mass produced before paperbacks were invented, and I recognised it at once as one of the romantic melodramas of the sort churned out by Charles Garvice.

I glanced at the frontispiece. This depicted a man obviously intended to be a villain, as he sported a moustache and a conniving, suave expression – standing by the side of the tall heroine, whose upright bearing is obviously intended to illustrate a noble soul – and knew I had to read it.

I have never heard of these writers, but Wickipedia says of them that they were a married couple of British authors who wrote over ninety novels together between 1904 and their deaths when their boat was  sunk by a torpedo attack by a German submarine in 1917.

That tragic end did make me stop laughing at the sheer melodramatic absurdity of the plot of ‘Eve and the Law’ and of the list of titles generally, which includes such gems as ‘Bess of Bentley’s: A True Shop-Girl Story’ and ‘Fate- And Drusilla’.  There is something particularly horrible about a couple who depicted life in terms of romance and happy ever afters coming to a violent end.

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Sadly, I don’t think this one is in print. I’ll have to go in for sour grapes and say maybe it wasn’t about a real vampire, but a suspected one…

Oh dear.  And oh dear, for purely selfish reasons. What with ‘Martin Coninsby’s Revenge’ and this, my background reading on the Peterloo Massacre for my planned novella will be slower than it ought to be…