Over on Vulpes Libris I wrote about a book pyramid scheme, though which I received James Baldwin’s classic, landmark novel of homosexual desire, Giovanni’s Room. Reader, I had mixed views.
If you like E M Delafield’s comic classic Diary of a Provincial Lady, you’ll like Provincial Daughter, because it’s written by her daughter, R M Dashwood, and she’s even funnier. This week in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, I’ve been reading her story of a doctor’s wife in the late 1950s in Berkshire, one of the Home Counties near London.
This book was Dashwood’s only novel, and was deliberately written in the style her mother made famous with the three Provincial Lady books: in a diary format, with shortened sentences, and many terse and funny observations about her family and domestic nightmares. It was written in the late 1950s, when details of a modern housewife’s life are all about hands-on cooking, cleaning, washing and childcare, whereas the Provincial Lady had servants to do all that. The Daughter suffers just as much from the water tank that needs replacing, the washing-machine that explodes grubby water all over her new lino, and from the German au pair who needs almost as much care as do the three very lively and adorable boys whom she is supposed to look after.
The Daughter, who is nameless, is a doctor’s wife, but he (his name is Lee) works in the local hospital rather than in the village surgery, so this gives her a certain status in the village. However, there is also an expectation that as a doctor’s wife she will know all the cures for ailments that her friends have, particularly the more obscure obstetric ones. She is university-educated, apparently in English literature, which produces an arch expectation that she is terribly learned. Unlike Barbara Pym’s educated women, the Daughter is simply cheerful about her love of literature, and not at all interested in showing off. She is a secret writer, has had a few articles published, has a book on the boil, and at the beginning of the novel she has just been commissioned by a newspaper to write an article.
Earning some extra money is quite important, more so than getting into print, because their class expectation that all three of their boys must go to prep school, and then a public school of some kind, school fees are a looming problem. There is also the pressing need for house improvements and car repairs that seem to dominate the family’s lives. So the 15 guinea commission from the Daily Tabard, and the request from the BBC that she come to London to do a voice test for a broadcast, are wildly exciting for the family. These are the most sophisticated highlights of a life that otherwise submerges this Provincial Daughter in cooking, cleaning, making beds, doing laundry, chasing after children, and a vast amount of physical work. I was amazed at the effort she puts into the two elder boys’ lunches for school. Sandwiches didn’t seem to be an option: a hot lunch was expected, and there were no plastic tubs or Tupperware, obviously. So she makes, BEFORE SCHOOL, a cottage pie in a small dish for each boy, for the teachers in the village school to heat up beforehand, and added a jar of blancmange each. Cottage pie means chopping, cooking, mashing, creaming, so I hope the blancmange came out of a packet. It probably didn’t.
This perfectly normal and educated housewife works unbelievably hard at the daily servicing of her family’s life. It seems inconceivable now that anyone could have had any life at all beyond housewifery with all this daily work and no help, so the moments when the Daughter gets the family out of the house and has an evening or a few hours to herself are a relief. And what does she do with them? She has good intentions to Get On with Writing her Book, but she daydreams, fritters away time looking at old letters, distracts herself with odd jobs that don’t need doing. None of this seems wasted because, if a hard-driven worker can’t break away from the iron routine of running a home, into aimless, purposeless pottering as simple mental relief, she’ll be miserable. And this Daughter is not at all miserable; this is a gloriously happy book about her life with her charming, adorable children, even if they are also occasionally demonic, and a very attractive husband who knows his value socially.
How does she fit into village society? She is patronised by the local county aristocrat, who clearly has a thing about her husband, but the county lady is a lot less selfish than Lady Boxe who terrorised the Provincial Lady, 20 years earlier. The Daughter lives a scrambling, chaotic life compared to her friends in the village, whom she repeatedly describes, grumblingly, as looking as if they’ve been dressed by Dior. Her own clothes are less smart and don’t fit, her hair and skin are reproached, she is constantly accused (by her friends) of letting herself go, and endures a visit by what must be a very early literary description of an Avon Lady. The Americans who live locally are even more beautiful and well-turned out, but do not make themselves popular: the English village ladies are totally taken advantage of by the American Maybelle, who gets them to do all the work at her children’s party. Another visiting American, invited for drinks, spent the entire evening complaining about the terrible English shops and the awful way of life in this backward land, so this does not make her popular. Ruth the Divorcée, a new woman who moves into the village, has dramatic and glamorous things expected of her (presumably this was a time when divorce was rare and thrillingly wicked?), but she turns out to be nice and normal, becomes a friend, and is of great practical help.
The village shop is still central: the Provincial Daughter keeps having to dash there in the car or with Ben in the pushchair to buy things that have been forgotten, with not very much money. The school is also a hub, as is the church, and she spends a lot of time waiting in the hospital for various child health appointments. One of these was for a Ben-related emergency, when he cut his hand and needed stitches, and she had to run out of the front door to grab the first passer-by to hold him while she got the car out to get him to hospital. The passing stranger, a nice but unknown woman, came along to the hospital, stayed for the stitching, and was dropped off back in the village, all without exchanging names in the stress of the moment. The Provincial Daughter only found out who she was months later, when she went to a newsagent to buy chocolates, spotted the helpful stranger behind the counter, and presented the chocolates to her instead. This human contact, the easy communication and expectation that since we live in the same place we will all muck in together, is what makes this book a great village story. It is also so different from village society twenty years earlier, which was far more divided by class and servants and psychological distance.
I particularly enjoy the truculent attitude that the Provincial Daughter brings out to protect and stand up for her village. The tyrant town librarian accuses all ‘your village’ of routinely handing their books back late, to the Daughter’s fury: so interesting how stories of public shaming keep coming up in small-town and village life. The hospital staff in the local town are uninterested in her wait of an hour and half for a missed appointment. To her annoyance she finds herself pulling rank, because she knows the Professor concerned socially, through her husband, and she magically gets a new appointment. She is persuaded to attend a lecture on English literature by a friend who insists that it will be good for their minds. So they sit in a hall of earnest women taking notes from the lecture by an arrogant young man, who seems to epitomise everything to be loathed about professional academics, and he is patronising about this village audience. She goes to London to have her hair cut, and is delighted to feel able to face down the glittering ranks of glamour queens who preside over the reception desk of the hairdresser’s, simply because she knows that the new cut suits her. The new cut is also impossible to maintain at home, without a full hairdresser’s staff, so she ends up, a week later, recutting it herself at home with the kitchen scissors.
Mostly though, this book is about a housewife at home with her family in the village in the late 1950s, and it is sheer delight. I happen to find it laugh-out-loud hilarious, so I hope you will too. It is beautifully written, charming, heart-warming, entertaining, instructive, and delightful.
I’ve been waiting for a biography of Josephine Tey for years, and was so pleased when I saw that Sandstone Press were to publish this one. Henderson’s book gives a vast amount of new information (new to the casual but devoted Tey re-reader, but possibly not new to a proper detective fiction scholar), and depicts Elizabeth MacKintosh’s life admirably. Henderson should be praised for her assiduous research which must have taken years. I have a sense from the style of some of the chapters that, during her research, Henderson may have been giving talks to local Inverness audiences about her project. The biography’s narrative voice, so to speak, explains a lot about otherwise well-known English places and people, as if expecting her readers not to know who or what these were. Henderson also explains Highland geography, Gaelic culture, and Inverness history and traditions, possibly in more detail than the non-Inverness reader might expect, but it’s all excellent background material. Overall, I did like this biography, and am grateful that it’s been written. But I was annoyed, throughout the book, by Henderson’s preoccupation with her subject’s sexuality.
Henderson has done some speculative detective work which ‘reveals’, she suggests, that Elizabeth MacKintosh had had a brief romance with an officer who died in the First World War: so brief that there is absolutely no evidence for it. I found it annoying that Henderson kept returning to this speculation, turning it later into an assertion, and then into assumed fact. She does the same with the episode of apparent friendship and non-love affair between MacKintosh and a local poet. Rudimentary connections between them (they published their poetry and stories at the same time, they wrote some letters to each other) are embroidered into a fantasy of mutual emotional dependence and literary influence on no evidence, just ‘what if’ guesses as to the possible existence of evidence. It is so exasperating that Henderson spends so much of the biography dwelling on these two ‘relationships’ which had no discernible effect on MacKintosh’s life or writing.
However, once we reach the letter written by ‘Mack’ to her actress friend Marda Vanne, explaining that Vanne’s advances to her had been a complete surprise and that MacKintosh, unlike Vanne, was not in fact lesbian, I did wonder if this was the reason for Henderson’s insistence on ‘proving’ that MacKintosh had been in love with men earlier in her life. Fishing through the footnotes and scattered references in the biography (it is well footnoted) I see that a series of modern detective novels starring a fictionalised MacKintosh depicts her as gay, and that this has exasperated and/or annoyed some of the Tey readership. I’ve never heard of these novels so have no opinion on them, but I enjoyed speculating on Henderson’s motivations for her own speculations. Honestly, does it matter if MacKintosh was or was not gay? There are many reasons for choosing not to marry. Henderson goes on to discuss a female Tey character (sorry, spoiler) who dresses as a man in order to pursue a masculine career, as if cross-dressing is a guarantee of lesbianism. The character displays no homosexual tendencies in the novel at all, and is in fact a rather unmasculine girl in trousers and short hair (fashionable for the period). Again, relying on evidence rather than on fallacies about sexual orientation, would have been preferable.
As you’ll see above, it is hard to keep to one name for Elizabeth MacKintosh. Henderson made a maddening stylistic decision to use the name most suitable for the context of MacKintosh’s life at that point. So she is rarely ‘Elizabeth’, but is called her childhood family name, her school name, her college name, and the names of her literary pseudonyms Daviot and Tey, with several different names being used on the same page, depending on the context. I can see the logic behind this decision, but it interrupts the narrative no end, and feels like a theory applied to the project, rather than a practice that emerged naturally as Henderson’s writing developed. This hopping about between names and personae is exacerbated by Henderson’s continual reportage of MacKintosh’s feelings, motivations, and other internal thoughts that she could not know herself. She is speculating, again.
Yet it is a good biography, and contains a really magnificent research finding from MacKintosh’s literary career that I will not divulge here, but which made me excuse all the biography’s stylistic irritations. Henderson has done Elizabeth MacKintosh proud, even if she takes far too many liberties to make a good story in the face of factual evidence.
Over on Vulpes Libris I’ve spent time wondering why Barbara Pym’s novel Jane and Prudence (1953) is so unsatisfactory, despite its many magnificent moments. I love Pym’s novels so much, yet this one is the slightly bruised apple, the rather unpleasant chocolate from the second layer in the box, the pair of tights with the hole in the toe, or even the leaden pastry. Her technique is the problem; her editor let her down.
Over on Vulpes Libris I’ve posted a review of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. I really liked it, but I wasn’t quite convinced by how he covered the intimately feminine aspects of Éilis’s experiences. Tóibín is very good on sea-bathing sex and shaving for bathing-suits, but he says nothing about menstrual blood or the fretting about white skirts that was an inescapable part of 1950s young womanhood, but really not mentioned in polite company. Éilis’s love life, her desires for her future, her sense of identity – all this is magnificently described, and I’m totally happy with the novel as a novel. But there are missing bits, that could have been covered, since other, equally messy and unmentionable aspects of her life, are. But that’s just a quibble. His fashion history is superb, and his descriptions of American department store life should be read in parallel with Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s The Home-Maker.
I used to own Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado in my twenties, but I don’t think I ever read it properly, and it disappeared from sight in a house move. Oh how foolish I was, because – now that I’ve paid it proper attention – this stunning classic is superbly written and fizzing with good-natured life. I re-bought it last week, started to read it one evening and barely got a decent night’s sleep (much like the heroine), because I was enraptured by the charm, the vim, the verve, the splendid chaotic mess of Sally Jay Gorce’s life as a very young thing in Paris in the 1950s, an American girl on a regular allowance and definitely fancy-free.
This young madam conducts her affairs in an alcoholic haze in bars and restaurants on the Left Bank among Americans and the French. She’s not exactly promiscuous, but has a rather startling way of using her freedom to sleep with whoever she wants that is, so not like the lifestyle of, say, a Barbara Pym character from the same period. She dyes her hair, loses her pearls, gets so behind with her laundry that she has to wear an evening dress during the day, waiting for daywear to return to her closet. She’s like Lorelei Lee of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: delicious, wide-eyed, naïve and an enchanting survivor. She’s like Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, with an unequalled appetite for drink, joyous flirtation and dancing. Her year in Paris is packed with incident and exuberance, and my goodness, are we all the better for it.
This novel is so much more enjoyable to read than a Muriel Spark, or a Doris Lessing (my obstinate bêtes noires). It’s not remotely worthy, or learned, or drearily interior, or literarily written, and has no political credibility whatsoever. It’s sheer pleasure, a 1950s Paris fairytale. Naturally all this fun can’t last forever. There are dark elements around every corner, behind every insouciant invitation. The men simply can’t understand Sally Jay’s total refusal to get domestic. Her former lover lays plots to make her miserable. Her dear friend Larry tries to pimp her to a rich Canadian. She thinks she’s been hired as an actress, but is actually just an English coach for a teenage bull-fighter (yet more echoes of Lady Ashley and Hemingway). She loses her passport, which the American Embassy seems unaccountably angry about. At least her allowance from dear eccentric Uncle Roger keeps coming, because without that she’d starve and lose all her possessions.
Sally Jay’s total unconcern with cooking or cleaning is powerfully endearing. When she tries to tackle catering for the first time (‘Which one is the oven and how do you light it?’), because her poor artist lover looks so miserable at not being able to have friends round for dinner, they all have to help Sally Jay with the cooking, and even then the bread is forgotten in the shopping bag (I am sure that Katharine Whitehorn pinched this episode for her 1960s classic Cooking in a Bedsitter). I really liked this refusal to go domestic, because it feels completely revolutionary for a 1950s novel about a woman. But nothing good lasts forever. In the end, Sally Jay may have found the love of her life, because she actually entertains the idea of marriage. Cooking is not mentioned as part of this deal, of course. The unspoken drudgery of housekeeping never is at the pre-betrothal stage, but at least she’s had a brave shot at living without it, before having to grow up.
Note on the author: Elaine Dundy wrote this novel after marrying Kenneth Tynan, the famously sclerotic British theatre critic and opinionated knowitall. He’s name-checked in the novel, and I wonder how much else is borrowed from their life together?
I’ve reviewed their daughter Tracy’s memoir, Wear and Tear, as well.