Thursday, May 30, 2019

Classics Spin #20: The Misses Mallet by E. H. Young

I love participating in the Classics Club Spins -- it's always fun to have someone else pick a book for you. I really want to read everything on my Classics Club list (and on all the TBR shelves, really!) and the periodic Spin challenges usually behoove me to read something that's been languishing on the shelves. I've had really good luck with all my Spin picks and I'm nearly always glad I read them.

This Spin pick was no different -- The Misses Mallett (originally published as The Bridge Dividing), published in 1922. I'd read Young's award-winning novel Miss Mole last year, so I was happy to finally tackle The Misses Mallett. Like Miss Mole, the novel is largely set in Radstowe (a fictionalized version of Bristol), probably around the Edwardian era.

In the first section of the book, the Misses Mallett are three sisters living in Nelson Lodge: Caroline, Sophie, and their much younger half-sister Rose. Caroline and Sophie are probably in their forties when the book starts -- they're more than twenty years older than Rose, the child of their father's second marriage. When her mother died in childbirth, Caroline and Sophie cared for Rose as though she were their own child. The Misses Mallett are from an old family and are financially independent. Neither had any desire to marry, though they spend a lot of time reminiscing about their old beaus and romantic conquests. Caroline, the dominant older sister, seems quite proud to have been a bit of a flirt in her day, and Sophie, who is shyer and dreamier, secretly pines for a long-lost lover her sister never knew about.

Rose is in her early twenties, and Caroline and Sophie think she is fit for a king. However, they really expect her to marry a local landowner, Francis Sales, who's known Rose since they were children. Rose seems indifferent to Francis, who goes off in a huff to Canada and shocks everyone when he returns with a bride, Christabel, and there's a big plot twist.

E. H. Young, 1932. From the National Portrait Gallery, UK

Later, the fourth Miss Mallett arrives: Henrietta, their niece, whom they have never met. Her father Reginald (the younger brother of the oldest Miss Malletts) is a bit of a ne'er-do-well and was disinherited by his father, though he shows up periodically looking for money. Eventually his only child is orphaned and has grown up in straightened circumstances, but her aunts welcome her with open arms.

Henrietta was her father's daughter, willful and lovable, but she was also the daughter of that mother who had been good and loving. Henrietta had her father's passion for excitement, but being a woman, she had the greater need of being loved. 

Eventually, there is a love triangle which becomes a love quadrangle, and then (I suppose) a quintangle. (Is that even a real word? Or would it be a pentangle?) Nevertheless, it all becomes very muddled, and there is another family involved, and more plot twists. The ending was a little predictable, but satisfying, though I wouldn't have minded if it had gone a different way. I really enjoyed this novel -- the female characters were all very distinctive and well-drawn, though Francis Sales was a bit flat. And the writing was excellent, with lovely descriptions. A great Spin pick!

E. H. Young was a very popular writer in the first half of the century, and published eleven novels and two children's books before her death in 1949. I'm pretty sure all of her novels are out of print, though several were reprinted by Virago Modern Classics and most of them are easily available as reasonably priced used paperbacks. I still have three more of her novels on the TBR shelves, all VMC editions: Jenny Wren; William; and Chatterton Square, which I've been wanting to read ever since Simon and Rachel discussed it on Episode 40 of Tea or Books?, my favorite bookish podcast.

Bloggers, did you participate in the Classics Club Spin? How did you like your pick? And should I just poll my readers to choose my next book?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Daphne Du Maurier Reading Week: The Glass-Blowers

I've been a big fan of Daphne du Maurier since I was thirteen and my mother let me stay up late with her to watch an adaptation of Rebecca on Masterpiece. I was instantly hooked, but it wasn't until many years later that I realized how many other books du Maurier had written. When I read that Ali from Heavenali was hosting a Daphne du Maurier reading week I knew I'd be participating -- but which book? 

As it happened, I had planned a long weekend in Paris that coincided, so The Glass-Blowers seemed like the perfect choice. Loosely based on du Maurier's own ancestors, it's a historical novel about the French revolution as experienced by a the Bussons, a family of glassblowers.

Published in 1963, the story begins with a prologue, as an elderly woman recounts meeting a long-lost relative who knows nothing about his family of French glassblowers. (I read this as an e-book and accidentally skipped the prologue, but I think I prefer it that way as there were some minor spoilers). She then writes the family history, beginning  in 1741 with the marriage of her mother, Magdaleine, to Matharin Busson, a master glassblower from Chenu a village south of Le Mans. After their marriage, Madame Busson quickly steps in to help with the business, from keeping accounts to managing domestic affairs of the workers and their families, in addition to raising five children of her own. The story is told in the first person by Sophie, the fourth child and eldest daughter, but most of novel is the history of the three eldest:  sons Robert, Pierre, and Michel, who all train to be glassblowers but end up taking very different paths: Robert is a speculator, gambler and royalist; Pierre is enlightened and and a follower of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; the youngest, Michel, is a republican.

The Glass-Blowers is fairly short for a historical novel, less than 400 pages, but du Maurier essentially tries to pack in most of the entire French Revolution -- the storming of the Bastille; the departure of the royalist sympathizers; and the bloody terror. I'm not nearly as familiar with the history of France as I'd like to be, so parts of this felt like a crash-course to me -- I appreciate what du Maurier was trying to do, but politics in books tend to bore me, so I wished there was more about the family than about the history. I liked the novel but I would have liked more character development; also, sometimes it felt like du Maurier was doing a lot of telling and not showing. I was more interested in the family's story than about the actual politics that were going on. It's not as creepy or suspenseful as Rebecca or The House on the Strand, though there are definitely some tense moments during some scenes set riots and when counter-revolutionaries are terrorizing a town.

However, I did really enjoy it. I was struck in particular by how much of the upheaval was stirred by gossip and rumors -- people were terrified with stories of marauding brigands and thieves; stories of foreign armies retaliating after the arrest and execution of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette, and so on. It's even worse than the misinformation people are getting today on social media.

I would love to know how much of this is based on facts about her family, and how much is fiction. Du Maurier also published several nonfiction books, including a memoir of her early years and, a family history called The Du Mauriers. And last week I also finished Letters From Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship by Oriel Malet, who documents their friendship from the 1950s until du Maurier's death in the late 1980s.

I did really enjoy reading this book while I was on my trip to France -- it's not often that my reading and my travels coincide, but I actually ended up reading this on a bus trip to Versailles! It really brought the story to life, after seeing the excess of the palace and driving through the countryside, passing through a couple of villages which still had Medieval buildings and historic churches. If I have time I'll put up another post with photos of my trip. And many thanks to Ali for organizing this blogging event!

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Artificial Silk Girl: A 1930s German Train Wreck

Back-to-back train wrecks! I can't remember who blogged about it, but just a couple of weeks ago I saw that Penguin was re-issuing a new edition of The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun. I'd never heard of it, but the description said it was a bestseller in 1931 and subsequently banned by the Nazis, so, naturally I was intrigued and ordered a copy from And for once, I actually didn't wait around several years before I read it! (The fact that it is only 144 pages may have contributed somewhat.)

So here's the setup: young Doris is a young German woman living in the Rhineland, but longing for excitement. She's working as a typist and living with her mother and stepfather, but dreams of a career on the stage -- preferably in a big city. She manages to finagle her way onstage as an extra in a local play, and even gets a single spoken line. It looks like she actually might achieve her dream but then a bad decision catches up with her; she then steals a fur coat left on one of the theater seats by a neighbor (for whom she has a longstanding hatred) and leaves town on an overnight train to Berlin in a panic.  

Doris manages to crash at an old friend's apartment temporarily, but she can't get work papers because the police might be looking for her due to the theft. She's living hand to mouth, depending on sympathetic men she picks up in bars to buy her food and drinks. Basically, she's looking for a rich man to support her, she doesn't care if it's as a wife or a mistress. Things naturally don't work out as planned and she sinks lower and lower. Yep, another train wreck.

The blurb on the book jacket describes this book as "very funny and intensely moving," but I didn't find it a bit funny -- I just thought it was tragic and sad. I didn't care much for Doris but I did find her plight horrifying -- I remember what it was like when I was first on my own, struggling to pay the bills (though I never went hungry and was threatened by homelessness like Doris). I know there were a lot of desperate people in Germany after the war, and the cold and the Depression meant so many people were in dire straits. 

Though The Artificial Silk Girl wasn't exactly what I expected, it was an interesting perspective to read about, especially since Keun lived through it first-hand. She was born in 1905, so she was about the same age as Doris when she wrote this, and probably knew people very much like her. 

Some of the descriptions of The Artificial Silk Girl also mention that Keun was inspired by Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to write her own story about a young woman trying to make it on her own, which inspired me to track down a copy of Loos' novella. The two books couldn't be more different and I'll be posting on that one shortly. I've also heard it's more like Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, one of which was adapted for the stage as I Am a Camera -- which I read just a few months ago. Doris is definitely closer to Sally Bowles than Lorelei Lee. 

If you're interested in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s I highly recommend the Babylon Berlin TV miniseries which was a huge success. It's more of a historical crime series but one of the characters reminds me a bit of Doris, and there are several scenes set in Berlin nightclubs, plus you definitely get the sense of desperation and the dark underbelly of Berlin society. The first two seasons are available in the U. S. on Netflix, and apparently there's a third in the works. (You can watch it either with the original German and English subtitles, or dubbed into English -- I much prefer the subtitles). It's based on a series of German books by Volker Kutscher, some which have been translated into English. I read the first volume last year but this is one of the few instances in which I actually preferred the TV adaptation to the book. 

I'm counting this as my Classic From A Place You've Lived for the Back to the Classics Challenge

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann: A Family of German Trainwrecks

Having spent nearly three years in Germany, I thought it was time I really buckled down and tried to read some actual German literary classics. Published in 1901, Buddenbrooks is one of Thomas Mann's masterpieces and is inspired by the history of his own family.

The story begins in 1835, in a northern German city modeled after Mann's hometown of Lubeck. The Buddenbrook family is hosting a dinner party shortly after moving into their latest home, a large historic home sold by another merchant family whose fortunes have declined. We are introduced to the Buddenbrooks: Johann, a successful grain wholesaler (also known by his title, Consul), the older son of his father's second marriage. He and his wife Elisabeth have three children, Thomas, Christian, and Antonie, known as Tony. A second daughter will soon join the family, and there is a young ward, Klothilde, the child of a poor relation. Buddenbrooks traces the family over about 40 years, focusing on the three older children, tracing their successes and more often their failures throughout the 19th century.

It's quite a long book, divided into eleven parts (more than 700 pages in my edition). The first hundred pages or so were a bit slow, mostly just setting up the characters -- the entire first part is just the dinner party (told in great detail, including descriptions of the food). The three principals are fairly young and their story is mostly just about their education and misadventures. Things started to pick up for me in Part III when young Tony attracts an unwanted suitor called Herr Grunlich, a commercial agent from Hamburg. Tony only eighteen, but the family seems unfazed when this 32-year-old man starts hanging around their house. He doesn't seem discouraged even when Tony is openly rude to him, and to her dismay, offers her a proposal of marriage. Naturally, the family assumes Tony is too young to "know her own mind" and pressure her to accept, which made me want to throw something across the room.

What eventually follows is the first in a series of Bad Decisions by this family. It seems like they're doing the right thing at the time, but basically, all three of the elder children are on a slow, downward spiral, repeating mistakes over and over, both financially and in their personal lives. Essentially, they are a bunch of slow-moving trainwrecks. The plot of the storyline shifts back and forth, mainly concerned with Tony and her oldest brother Thomas, who has been groomed to take over the family business. (Younger brother Christian is a charming ne'er-do-well who makes occasional appearances to drag the family down even farther.)

I wouldn't have thought the story of a German merchant family would be so fascinating, but it absolutely was. After those first 100 pages I was completely hooked and could not stop reading it, and finished most of it in about three days. It's very much a long Victorian saga, as it's set up in multiple sections with mostly very short chapters. It absolutely felt as though it could have been serialized, though I believe it was published in a single volume. It also reminded me a bit of The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy.

I particularly enjoyed Mann's descriptions, especially of domestic life. Mann goes into surprising detail about the homes, decor, and fashions of the time, and there are a lot of descriptions of meals in this book. Here's a quote regarding a Sunday dinner attended by the suitor Herr Grunlich:

He ate mussel ragout, julienne soup, baked sole, roast veal with mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts, maraschino pudding, and pumpernickel with Roquefort cheese -- and at each course he offered a new tribute appropriate to the delicacy. For example, raising his dessert spoon, he gazed at a statue woven into the wallpaper and said aloud to himself, "God forgive me, I can do no other; I've eaten a large serving, but this pudding is just too splendid. I simply must implore my hostess for a second helping. 

I suppose this is Mann's way of showing how bourgeois the family is, but I love food writing so that's one reason why I was hooked -- it's making me hungry just thinking about it. I did get really invested in the characters and would stop reading and yell at them when they made bad decisions. It will definitely be one of my top reads this year and now I can't wait to read Mann's other long saga, The Magic Mountain. Also, if you're looking for a copy, I highly recommend the 1993 edition translated by John E. Woods. I actually own a Vintage International copy that was translated back in 1924, but I didn't like it as much as the e-book version so ended up not reading my print copy at all.

I've also discovered that Buddenbrooks was adapted into a TV miniseries in 1979. Used copies are available on Amazon but they're really expensive, so hopefully I can get it from a library. It's available from for a mere 20 euros but I'm pretty sure that version doesn't have English subtitles.

I'm counting this as my Very Long Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.