Lemon in the sugar: Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine

Bradbury 1This was a surprise. I picked up a paperback copy of this novel because I’ve been thinking for some time that I ought to be rereading Bradbury and bought the first one I found. I paid very little for it, because clumps of pages were already falling out: it was clearly a much loved copy. I was expecting 1950s science fiction: I read a novel about 1920s small-town mid-West life from a schoolboy’s perspective, completely soused in what we’d now call a Spielbergian wash of sentiment and cosiness. It would have been sickeningly sweet had it not been for the murders, the unknown stalker after dark, and the very curious beginning in which Douglas Spaulding sets the summer going by turning off all the town lights before dawn by puffing into the air.

These moments of horror and fantasy do most of the work to prevent Dandelion Wine turning into a mush of all-American family gloop like The Waltons, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio. I enjoyed and read Dandelion Wine right through to the end, whereas I have tried twice to read Winesburg Ohio because it is a modern American classic and has been reprinted oodles of times by respectable literary publishers, to force down the gullets of America’s schoolchildren, but it was dreary, pretentious toil. Dandelion Wine needs the touches of darkness to ground its fantastical, lush prose and the spectacular inner life experienced by Douglas Spaulding, aged 12, and his younger brother Tom.

Bradbury 2Like Winesburg Ohio, Dandelion Wine is a series of linked vignettes and moments in the summer of 1928 in Greenville, Illinois. When Doug has an existential awakening and realises that he is actually, really and truly alive, the summer kicks off and wonders begin to happen. Some are small-scale and merely friendly: when the trolley bus is about to be retired, before the buses come in, the driver takes the town’s children on a picnic to use all the lines for the last time, right through into the woods and countryside.

Several are sympathetic but tough about getting old, and its failures. Journalist Bill Forrester falls in love with Helen Loomis from her photo in the local paper where he has come to work, but he hasn’t realised that the paper has been using this photo for nigh-on seventy years. They keep company every afternoon for a fortnight, talking about everything, and she takes him travelling with her in her memories. An old lady who has hoarded and kept everything she once owned is shocked when the little girls who play in her back yard refuse to believe that she was ever as young as they. They take her gifts and come back for more, but they won’t believe she is anything except the shrivelled old woman on the doorstop, calling plaintively for someone to remember her.

Bradbury 3Two maiden ladies decide impulsively to buy an electric car, and drive it joyously through the streets until somehow one of their neighbours falls under its wheels. They hide in their house, terrified and ashamed, and only believe they haven’t committed murder when there isn’t anything about it in the paper. A colonel of the Civil War lives in a house with no furniture, only a bed and telephone, which he uses to ring his friend Jorge in Mexico City, and listen to the sounds of the street life that he will never see again.

And then there is horror, a shocking, sensational event in the summer idyll. Lavinia Nubbs defies the murders committed by the nameless and faceless Lonely One, and walks home right through the ravine at night on her way back from the movies. She and Francine have discovered Rosmary’s body there earlier on their way to the movie theatre, but once the police were called, Lavinia refused to give in to fear and dragged her friends out to laugh and be happy like they’d planned. Even when The Lonely One does confront her, she will not be intimidated.

Bradbury 6All these stories affect Doug’s awareness of passing time, now that he can see himself in a stream of time rather than always in the one place at the same age. The fact that someday people won’t be here any longer, that death happens, even to his grandmother, is the central theme. It’s a marvellous and enriching novel, with plenty of oddness to sharpen the taste.



Fast cars and the open road: Reading speed in Dornford Yates

Dornford Yates by Bassano, 18 February 1935 copyright The National Portrait Gallery
Dornford Yates by Bassano, 18 February 1935 copyright The National Portrait Gallery

Brief toot on my academic trumpet here: I had another article published, on how the intensely middlebrow and thriller / comedy novelist Dornford Yates used techniques and ideas from avant garde thinking when writing about fast cars, car chases, driving at speed, and the thrill of speed on the open road (clue: it’s all from Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto). You can read it as an open access pdf on Advanced Access for a little while here.

I started talking about these ideas in a paper to the Modernist Studies Association back in 2013, had written the article by June 2014, and then spent a long time trying to get an academic journal to pay it any attention. One US journal, which shall be nameless but it specialises in modern fiction, had me rewrite the thing three times before they finally rejected it. I’m not sure what I feel about that now. At the time, I just had my head down, rewriting and rewriting, and was happy to have their feedback. Now, while I’m still grateful for the process that made a better article, and made me tackle what I mean by ‘modernist’ properly, I’m bemused as to why they strung me along for so long, if they didn’t want the article in the first place. Perhaps the thought of publishing work on an author not considered modernist was too much for them. In the meantime my book on Yates, Buchan and Thirkell came out, which might have given my ideas more respectability.

The Review of English Studies, a much more open-minded journal, also put me through three revisions, but these were straightforward, and led to the article they wanted to publish, so I’m very happy with that. Perhaps they were more open to the subject because they’re published by a British publisher, and Yates is a British author. Whatever: it’s finally out and I can file that research under ‘published’. I’ve posted reviews of a couple of Yates novels elsewhere in this site: find them via the Search box at the top right.

The Golden Age of Murder

golden-ageMartin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder is a fat and heavy hardback (the paperback is due out in 2016) endorsed by Len Deighton, as a study of the British writers who created the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s an absolute treasure chest of writers’ names and novels that have disappeared into oblivion, and a useful though patchy outline of the evolution of the detective story market between the wars. It is also a ramshackle mess, and shockingly badly written.

Martin Edwards is a former solicitor and an award-winning (so says his personal website) author of many detective novels. His lifetime of reading detective fiction has certainly formed the basis for this book, since only a true fan and a devoted reader could amass so much information. There are many nuggets: my favourite two are that A G Macdonell wrote as Neil Gordon! Edward VIII played erotic jigsaw puzzles! Unfortunately, this book also needed an editor. Edwards has skimmed the work of many biographers and critics by presenting their views with his own in an unattributed mass of statements, supported, some of the time, with a vague endnote saying that he has benefited from the work of X and Y. I am appalled that Harper Collins allowed him to get away with such sloppy non-attributions.

Monsignor Ronald Knox
Monsignor Ronald Knox

He was also in need of a fact-checker. Monsignor Ronald Knox’s sister was Lady Peck, not Lady Winifred Peck (their father was not noble), and she was the author of 25 books, not ‘several’. Naomi Mitchison and her husband Dick did not have ‘an oysters and champagne lifestyle’, nor a ‘Scottish baronial castle’ (it was just a big house). There were many ‘lady detectives’ predating Lady Molly of the Yard, in Victorian fiction magazines. St Giles in Oxford is not usually described as a ‘boulevard’. As Prince of Wales, Edward VIII was called David before his accession, not Edward, but the correct way to refer to him would be ‘the Prince’.

ScreenThe structure of the book is bizarre, as noted by Simon in his Vulpes Libris review. Book titles float in and out of time, unconnected to their date of publication, so although we can sense that the book begins sometime in the 1920s, it wanders towards the 1950s in and out of chronology, with episodes and authors’ biographies beginning in the middle of their lives, jerking back and forth without any sense that history matters when you are discussing real lives or publications. The second half of the story behind The Detection Club’s Behind The Screen is given on pp.89-90, yet the first half is finally told on pp.162-3. Perhaps Edwards was playing with an alternate theory of time in which ‘the Three Cups Hotel – a favourite of Jane Austen, Tennyson and Tolkien’ (p.217) relocates itself outside time so that all three authors could chat together.  Edwards certainly doesn’t bother to refresh his understanding of history by reading any: he cites two detective novelists’ memoirs as his only sources for the history of the 1930s.

Anthony Berkeley
Anthony Berkeley

There is a colossal imbalance between the amount of attention given to Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie, compared to that given to all the other authors. The life and odd habits of Anthony Berkeley in particular, clearly Edwards’ special subject, are pressed upon the reader throughout the book, like an irritating chorus. It is certainly very useful to learn so much about this author whose works have not remained in the public’s affection so much as those by Sayers and Christie. However, I was not persuaded by Edwards’ culminating theory (mostly imaginary, as he admits) that Berkeley and his great friend the novelist E M Delafield conducted a chaste but passionate affair by ‘planting clues to their mutual devotion in plain sight’ in their novels: ‘She inspired and obsessed him. Without her, he was finished as a crime writer’ (p.425). Edwards’ exposition of this theory smacks of Mr Mybug insisting that Branwell Bronte wrote his sisters’ novels because they were all drunk (see Cold Comfort Farm). Edwards then goes on to criticise a Gaylord Larsen novel about the Detection Club as ‘a masterclass in howlers so extraordinary that the reader’s initial astonishment turns to hilarity’ (p. 431). Pot: meet kettle.

Dorothy L Sayers
Dorothy L Sayers

Nor am I persuaded by Edwards’ suggestions that random lines used by Berkeley in his novels (or his initials) inspired much more famous works by Christie and Sayers. If he bothered to give evidence, or publication dates, his case might be strengthened, but without them I am not. With so much noise being made about Berkeley, Sayers and Christie, we hear very little about the works of other Detection Club authors, from the still famous such as Ngaio Marsh, or the totally forgotten, such as Newton Gale. This is a disappointment. It is definitely useful to learn so much about Helen Simpson and Clemence Dane, for example, but in The Golden Age of Murder they and their works exist in isolation. There is no integration, and no sense of assessing a body of work across authors or time, or of trying to present a coherent and balanced picture of the writers who drove the detective novel industry.

Instead, the book presses scandal and personal drama upon us. Edwards insists, over and over, that Sayers had felt perpetual shame and guilt about the existence of her illegitimate son. All the Sayers biographies have already dealt with this in a far more balanced fashion, so what is Edwards’ point? His interest in the bodies of his subjects and what they do with them is repetitive and prurient. Sayers’ and Christie’s appearance, weight and shape are brought to our attention, repeatedly, as if their waist size or choice of hairstyle influenced their writing. If any author exhibits non-standard sexual interests in their lives or fiction (particularly whippings), we are sure to be told about it. Authors who did not marry have their sexuality speculated upon as a matter of course. These are wearying preoccupations to put up with if all we want to know is how they wrote their books and what inspired them.

Throughout The Golden Age of Murder there are many, sometimes lengthy, retellings of true crimes from the past, because they apparently influenced certain novels from the period. Given that Edwards has, rightly, sought to avoid plot spoilers in his discussion, it makes no sense at all to give the true crime origins of these plots as well. But most of the time he doesn’t bother connecting the history with the novel, he just enjoys indulging this sideline of antiquarian true crime for its own sake.

My final grumble is that Edwards’ passion for using all his research produces crass, or ludicrous, non sequiturs. On P G Wodehouse’s step-daughter Leonora: Her sudden death in 1944 was a crushing blow. “I really feel that nothing matters much now.” Her widowed husband, Peter Cazalet, went on to train Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s racehorse that mysteriously collapsed fifty yards short of winning the 1956 Grand National while being ridden by Dick Francis (later, like his son Felix, as a member of the Detection Club) (pp.129-30). Why connect horse-racing with her death, except to show off about your research?

On the ‘Hay-on-Wye Poisoner’ Major Armstrong: Armstrong was found guilty. He remains the only English solicitor to have died on the scaffold. True to type, he was wearing his best tweed suit (p.136). We have to ask: did murderers, or solicitors, routinely wear tweed?

On the novelist J R Ackerley: Joe Ackerley was the illegitimate half-brother of the future Duchess of Westminster, and his fondness for sailors and guardsmen caused E M Forster to warn him to give up looking for ‘gold in coal mines’ (pp.167-8). It’s nice to know that having a lively illegitimate half-brother did not prevent a ducal marriage.

On Agatha Christie: Christie was Ackerley’s favourite detective novelist. He regarded her persistent lateness in delivering her contributions as tiresome, but found her “surprisingly good-looking”. Yet he did not rate her highly as a broadcaster (171). They were broadcasting on radio, so I can see that lateness might be tricky, but why would Christie’s looks even be relevant?

On Helen Simpson: Helen de Guerry Simpson was an astonishingly high achiever, who seemed to dedicate her life to proving that women could have it all. Convent-educated, she was a keen snuff-taker with a love of fencing and witchcraft (p.214). We need to know how the convent led her to epées and broomsticks.

It’s not a bad book, just ridiculously distracting, with all these monstrous elephants flirting in the room in front of the interesting stuff. I wish Edwards had followed his obvious urge to write Anthony Berkeley’s biography instead.

Hilda Vaughan’s The Soldier and the Gentlewoman

Vaughan 2

The Soldier and the Gentlewoman, originally published in 1932, puts a pitchfork in the romantic notion that soldiers returning from war would find a willing wife and a grateful village waiting for them. Hilda Vaughan writes a disturbing defence of the woman’s right to inherit the family estate, and disrupts the social niceties by showing what could happen when such a woman – in this case the vengeful, obsessive, angry and ignored daughter of the house – organises her own fate, like a man-eating spider. Nothing and no-one will take from her the estate and the valley for which she has laboured all her youth.

Gwenllian Einon-Thomas is nearing forty when the war ends and the death of her brother hands the Plâs Einon estate – her home, her heritage –  to an unknown cousin who doesn’t even live in Wales. Captain Dick Einon-Thomas has survived the war, and is a decent sort of chap, but he is not the hero we might expect. He comes from Streatham (not a very nice suburb of south London), because his father married down, to the Einon-Thomas family’s fury. Class is a problem for Dick, since he knows he ought to belong where his father came from, but his mother’s background makes him all too vulnerable to bullying, even if he does appreciate fine china (aesthetic tendencies are a code for innate upper-classness). His first appearance shows him resentful and ruffled by the knowing attitudes of the village men in the Green Dragon pub, the night before he visits his inheritance. He’s desperate to not feel in the wrong place, which has been his experience as a young officer from not quite the top drawer throughout the war. He is not local, doesn’t know the names or the pronunciations they bandy about when they bother to speak English, and he is angrily aware that he is being flattered for somebody else’s benefit. The hero of a novel should never feel unsure or uncertain, so that’s the first rule in romantic fiction broken.

Hilda Vaughan
Hilda Vaughan

What about the women? Captain Einon-Thomas meets the three Einon-Thomas ladies for luncheon at the big house. The widow of the dead Squire is uninterested though pleasant, clearly already living her new life on the Riviera. The married sister has the friendliest smile and the warmest handshake, but she doesn’t live there, she follows her husband who’s about to stand as a Labour candidate in the 1919 elections. The third sister, Gwenllian, offers her hand: ‘it was cold and glossy, and narrow, like a serpent’. Brrr.

But Gwenllian warms up when Dick blusters in protest at the very idea of a Labour candidate, and actually invites him back for lunch so she can give him a private tour of his property before the lawyer arrives. He’s pleased but surprised, though doesn’t fool himself that she’s suddenly fallen in love with him. It’s probably their shared Unionist politics: ‘She was, after all, so much older than himself’. Dick is the fly, and Gwenllian is the spider, and the estate and its people are the web. He does not escape, because she will do anything to keep her hold on her land. She was once in love with a man who waited for her for a year, but he sailed for India when she would not leave the estate while her uncaring father was dying, and then all she had was her younger brother’s charity.

the original cover
the original cover

Vaughan’s skill in allowing us to feel sympathy and horror for both Gwenllian and for her doomed husband Dick – yes, her age somehow did not matter – makes this novel uneasy and compelling. Gwenllian is not an out-and-out monster, since we can empathise so much with her thwarted yearnings, but can we condone everything she does? This is a beautifully written novel, truly a Welsh Women’s Classic, and uncomfortably clear-eyed about people’s motivations. We never lose our first impression of Gwenllian as a snake.

Hilda Vaughan, The Soldier and the Gentlewoman (1932) (Honno Press, 2014), ISBN 978 1 909983 11 3