Wednesday 2 May 2012

Blooming Wonderful Bloomsbury!

YAY! I now have my very own copy of Miss Hargreaves (which I reviewed here), because it is such a wonderful book, and how can I read it again unless I have it on a shelf, within easy reach whenever I want it... besides, it is my birthday next week, and I deserve a treat... and it was very cheap. I ordered it through Abebooks on Saturday night, and it arrived this morning, in mint condition – either the previous owner had never read it or else they were a very careful reader, unlike me. I regret to say that my books are always dog-eared, with broken spines. Even worse, I sometimes scribble notes on them and I have been known to turn down the corner of a page if I can’t find a suitable bookmark (by which I mean a bus ticket, receipt, letter, length of wool or something similar).

I really adore these books in The Bloomsbury Group. I’m not sure how many there are – ten I think – all ‘lost’ classics from the early 2oth century, and all suggested by readers. Whether Bloomsbury Publishing have plans to produce more I don’t know, but I think they should: it’s a collection that’s well worth expanding. The novels are all interesting (though I didn’t like Mrs Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico), and they are beautifully produced, with lovely understated period designs on the front (not a headless woman or view through a door in sight, thank goodness). Best of all, each has an Ex Libris page so I can inscribe name, in my very best handwriting, in my latest acquisition. It’s also quite refreshing that there are  brief notes on authors, but no introductions, prefaces, afterwords, notes etc (although a couple include forewords by the writer, explaining how they first came to be published).

Anyway, browsing through the library, I came across three other titles from The Bloomsbury Group, which I had't read, so here’s a little bit about them.

A Kid For Two Farthings, by Wolf Mankowitz, is a kind of fairy tale. Written in 1953, it’s set in London’s East End, in the heart of the Jewish community (where Mankowitz himself was brought up). Six-year-old Joe’s father is in Africa and his mother works trimming hats, so he spends his days with old Mr Kandinksy the trouser maker and his assistant Shmule. Entranced by the old man’s stories, Joe wants a unicorn, so he goes to the animal market and returns with a little, white unicorn, which he believes will bring good luck and make his dreams come true.

He builds Africana a ramshackle shelter in the yard, but despite his efforts the creature fails to thrive – hardly surprising since it is really a sickly, deformed, baby goat, with budding horns which grow so close together they look like one. But Joe’s belief in the magical powers of the ailing kid remains steady. In the end, his faith is justified because, amazingly, dreams do come true: Mr Kandinksy will get a steam press to improve his business and his health; Shmule wins his wrestling matches and will marry his girlfriend (without the engagement ring she yearns for), and Joe and his mother will be reunited with Joe’s father.

It’s a touching little story, simply told, and Mankowitz paints a wonderful picture of the East End, but it’s the people who bring the novel to life: warm, wise, loving, they all need a little magic in their lives as they struggle to make ends meet, but they’re never too busy to talk to a lonely boy trying to make sense of the world around him. And all of them, even the minor characters, like the shop girls and wrestlers, are drawn with care, so each emerges as an individual who could never mistaken for anyone else.

The world portrayed in EF Benson’s Mrs Ames couldn’t be more different. The town is packed with upper middle-class families, who may be keeping up appearances as they are less wealthy than previously, but they still have cooks, parlour maids, gardeners and chauffeurs. Social position is everything, and Benson has a wonderful time taking a pop at the snobbery, pretensions and hypocrisy which are rife in this insular society.

Gossip makes the day go round. Take Mrs Altham who ‘often professed superior distaste for gossip, but when she met her friends going in and out of shops, it was but civil and reasonable that she should have a few moments’ chat with them’. While the women shop and gossip, the men relax over drinks and papers at their club, but they are as avid for local news as their wives. Social gatherings are important, but times are hard, and leftovers from an evening repast are recycled into a new menu for lunch the following day – with different guests attending.

The eponymous Mrs Ames (Amy) is Queen Bee: she dictates style and taste, through her connections with the local landed gentry. She is not, however, a stylish woman, for she looks ‘something like a small, good-looking toad... she was small for a woman, but good-looking for a toad’. She keeps a tight grip on her position and has seen off all contenders. But that changes when she invites husbands to dine without their wives, and wives without their husbands, for among the guests is Millicent Evans, the pretty, blonde wife of the doctor. When Millie steals Mr Ames’ heart and organises a fancy dress ball, it seems Mrs Ames could lose her husband and her social crown...

It may sound petty and silly, but it is a beautifully written comedy of manners, and I was interested with the Suffragette storyline. Even if the issue is not taken seriously it was very topical when the book was written in 1912.

Mrs Tim of the Regiment, by DE Stevenson, was a joy from beginning to end. Mrs Tim is Hester Christie, wife of an Army officer, who keeps a diary recording the trials, tribulations and triumphs of  daily life. She’s another of those self-deprecating English women who cope so humorously with domestic disaster, family, friends, tradesmen and servants.  I knew I was going to enjoy this when I read the first entry: “Tim wakes up very peevish after last night’s celebrations in Mess (how strange the after effects of enjoyment on the human frame!).” His aunt Ethel is due to arrive, but he won’t help with preparations. “He can’t think of food in any form this morning, as his head is like a boiler room, and what on earth are the children doing – there might be half a dozen of them from the noise.”

It’s as good a description of a hangover as you are likely to find. The observations on family life have a ring of truth, probably because Stevenson, an Army wife, adapted her own diaries to give a friend’s daughter an idea of what lay ahead when she married an officer, and was urged to publish her work in 1932.

The book follows Hester’s struggles to move the family to a new home when Tim is posted to Scotland and her holiday in the Highlands. Along the way we meet her children, Betty and Bryan; her friend Mrs Loudon, and her husband’s colleagues, including Jack and his new we race, and Tony Morley, a wealthy senior officer who refuses to take life seriously and appears to develop a passion for Hester – but who turns out to be a good friend for the whole family. 


  1. I'm glad someone else scribbles notes on books and bends back the corners from time to time! I feel sorry for anyone trying to read my books after me! These Bloomsbury Books sound good so I'll add to my "What Next" List - which is in my desk and is every bit as dog-eared and as full of scribbled notes as some of my books are!

    1. Col, books are meant to be read and enjoyed - not treated as museum objects! Do try some of the books in The Bloomsbury Group series. I suppose the idea of forgotten classics is similar to Persephone, of the original Virago concept.