Monday, March 24, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Stone of Chastity, by Margery Sharp

The Stone of Chastity, by Margery Sharp

Margery Sharp (1905-1991) was in fact a quite well-known writer ... for children. She wrote a series of nine books, beginning with The Rescuers (1959), about a beautiful mouse called Miss Bianca who (along with the loyal Bernard) becomes involved in the efforts of the Prisoner's Aid Society in rescuing unjustly held prisoners around the world. I read a few of these with enjoyment when I was young, and revisited them later when my children were young. There were also a couple of (lesser) Disney movies, The Rescuers (1977) and The Rescuers Down Under (1990).

Margery Sharp was also a mildly well-known writer for adults. I encountered Cluny Brown (1944) and The Nutmeg Tree (1937) when I was in my 20s. I don't think I ever made the connection (obvious enough) between the writer of The Rescuers et. seq., which I had read age 12 or so, and the writer of Cluny Brown and many other novels. Cluny Brown is likely her most famous adult novel -- it was made into a 1946 film by Ernst Lubitsch (starring Jennifer Jones, recommendation enough in my mind). (It should be noted that other Sharp novels were also filmed, such as The Nutmeg Tree (with Greer Garson) and Britannia Mews (with Maureen O'Hara).)

Sharp's first adult novel (Rhododendron Pie) appeared in 1930, and The Rescuers didn't come out until 1959 (when I was born). So it seem as if her career was perhaps bifurcated -- a few decades of reasonable success as an adult novelist, followed by another couple of decades writing for children. But that's not quite correct -- while she did publish 15 books before The Rescuers came out, she kept writing for adults until the end of her career. (She appears to have retired in the late '70s.) And while the Miss Bianca books were certainly popular, so too, at least in their time, were her adult books.

And now? As far as I can tell, none of her books -- not even the Miss Bianca books -- are in print. Some may be available in electronic editions. But I suspect she hasn't really been available widely since not too long after The Rescuers Down Under came out. Which is to say, pretty much since her death. My copies of Cluny Brown and The Nutmeg Tree are Perennial Library paperbacks, from 1982. Nowadays I look for her stuff in antique stores and used book sales and the like, and even there they're hard to find. Perhaps she is just a bit too new?

All this is a shame. Margery Sharp was an outstanding writer. Her metier was comedy -- very light comedy, I suppose. And comedy does have a tendency to be underappreciated -- especially when its satiric bite is not all that intense. Sharp was also popular in her day -- which may have meant that nobody felt she needed revival, or special appreciation. Compare Barbara Pym, who wrote novels of similar quietude, but never achieved the commercial success early in her career that Sharp did. Late in her life Pym became the subject of a significant rediscovery, and as a result she is now placed, it seems to me, on a shelf with the likes of Elizabeth Bowen and the great Elizabeth Taylor. Sharp has never got such attention. Quite possibly her fame as a writer of children's books was also to her reputation's detriment.

Well, or maybe not. But I like her books a lot, and while I wouldn't rate her with Taylor (one of the real quiet giants of 20th Century British fiction), I have no problem matching her with, say, Pym (whose work I quite enjoy, I should say). Definitely, I would say, she is a writer worthy of a latter day reexamination.

So, to the book at hand. The Stone of Chastity is the one book I did manage to find in the wild -- at a charity used book sale, I think. Or maybe an antique store. My edition seems to be the second, printed the same year as the first, 1940 (by Little, Brown -- in the US, anyway). The back of the dust jacket promotes The Nutmeg Tree, comparing it to Robert Nathan (appropriately -- they even both had novels adapted for films starring Jennifer Jones!) and Victoria Lincoln (who she?), along with praise from Nathan himself.  One flap praises another novel, Harlequin House. The dust jacket cover (by Robert Ball) is reproduced on the cloth covers.

The story is set in the sleepy village of Gillenham. Professor Isaac Pounce is summering there, and planning to study the local legend of the Stone of Chastity: a rock which will invariably reveal a wife's unfaithfulness, or a maiden's unmaidenly behavior, if stumbled upon. Accompanying him are his feckless nephew Nicholas, his sister-in-law, Nicholas's mother, and a statuesque young woman named Carmen.

Besides the Pounces, the novel considers a range of village inhabitants ... the Vicar, his wife, the Pyes, various   habitues of the local pub, and an intriguingly independent woman named Bridget. The plot, of course, concerns the shocked reactions of the inhabitants to the dissemination of the Professor's quiestionnaire about the Stone; as well as Nicholas' attraction to Carmen and to Bridget, and the degree of reciprocity, or not, that occurs; and of course the reception of the out-of-towners by the village. It's not exactly a sharp-edged plot, nor need it be; but while the first reaction to the whole thing may be "light, gentle, humor", that's not quite right -- there is a bit of a knowing edge to Sharp's view of everyone -- though not ever a vicious edge. And it's not a romcom -- Sharp didn't really write romances, another reason it might have been hard to get a grip on her. It's -- well, I enjoyed it. I will say that it didn't get nearly the reception that books like The Nutmeg Tree and Cluny Brown got, and while that may be fair I still thought it good stuff.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Adventurer, by Mika Waltari

The Adventurer (Mikael Karvajalka), by Mika Waltari

I may be cheating a bit with this entry: I'm not sure the author, or even the book, really qualifies as "forgotten". But by now not all that widely remembered, anyway! Mika Waltari (1908-1979) was a fairly significant, and fairly prolific, Finnish writer. He wrote contemporary novels that gained some praise, but he gained at least a mild international reputation for his historical fiction.  His best known books are probably The Egyptian (1945) and The Adventurer (1948), to give them their US titles. The Egyptian in particular was a huge success: it was made into a movie in 1954, and according to Wikipedia it was the bestselling "foreign novel" (I assume they mean "foreign language novel") in the US prior to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

But it was The Adventurer that I stumbled across. I found a 1965 Pyramid paperback edition of it. The cover copy is worth mentioning, mainly for its inaccuracies. The front cover says "A bold, romantic novel about one man's quest for love and riches in an age of terror". It is certainly not romantic, nor is the "hero"'s quest really for love -- perhaps for riches. It is an age of terror, though. On the back we learn, for example, that the hero's wife is a "passionate red-headed girl who draws from him a fiery love he never dreamed he could give" which might be technically true but which grossly misrepresents the spirit of that section of the book.  It states "Michael takes a bloody vow to fight the forces of tyranny wherever they may be ... He becomes known as The Adventurer."  He took no such vow, and if he fought the forces of tyranny that was because there was so much tyranny to go around that whichever side of a fight you were on your opponent was likely a tyrant.  And he was never called The Adventurer, and would have been the last person anyone called that -- the book's title is purely ironic.  Oh well, that's blurbs for you -- inaccurate, and also spoiler-filled!

The book is about a Finnish bastard named Michael Furfoot (which is apparently what the Finnish title means in English), born in 1502 or so.  It follows his life from an invasion of the Danes (or Jutes) in about 1510 to about 1525.  The central subject of the book is the Reformation.  It's an extraordinarily cynical book.  Almost every character is basically evil, the narrator definitely included, Martin Luther included, certainly the entire Catholic hierarchy included in spades.  As such, it's a hard book to like, because you can't root for anyone.  It is quite funny in spots, and pretty involving, and rather depressing as man's thoroughgoing inhumanity to man is described at extended length.

The storyline is somewhat episodic, following young Michael as he is raised by the town witch, becomes something of a scholar, gets involved traitorously (though mostly by accident) with the invading Danes, is forced to flee Sweden and Finland as a result, ending up at the University of Paris with his longtime friend Andy.  He becomes involved with a whore who betrays everyone in sight at every chance. Back in the North, he gets in more trouble, and he and Andy head for the Holy Land, but Michael ends up left for dead in Germany.  Brought back to health by another "witch", he ends up marrying her despite her ugliness and age, only to see her arrested by the Inquisition.  Michael vows revenge against the Pope, and after some time involved with the futile Peasants' revolt, sparked by the Reformation, he and Andy end up in a mercenary army which ends up sacking Rome, only to be betrayed once again by a faithless woman.  At the end, he is off again to the Holy Land, but this time we know he will end up in the service of the Ottomans. There was a sequel, called The Wanderer in the US, which showed Michael's career in the Ottoman Empire.

In the end I'd have to say this is a pretty good novel, if as I suggest kind of depressing, ultimately, and incredibly cynical.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Captain Dieppe, by Anthony Hope

Captain Dieppe, by Anthony Hope

Many of the writers I will cover in this series of reviews are by now all but forgotten, along with all their books. But there are exceptions ... I suspect it will be some time before Anthony Hope, and at least one of his books, is forgotten. The book of course is The Prisoner of Zenda (1894). It has been filmed something like 10 times (at least), and has been made into plays, and even an opera. A sequel, Rupert of Hentzau (1898) is also well-remembered. But aside from those two books, it doesn't seem to me that any of Hope's work is much read today, though he had other successes in his lifetime, such as an early collection of sketches, The Dolly Dialogues (1894).

Anthony Hope's full name was Anthony Hope Hawkins, born 1863, died 1933. He was a barrister, and stood for Parliament (losing), but gave up his legal career after the success of Zenda. He was knighted in 1918, apparently for his services (as a writer) to the war effort.

Captain Dieppe is a very short book, really a novella, about 32,000 words long. It was serialized in six parts in the Ladies' Home Journal in 1899. My edition was published in 1902 by Doubleday, Page, & Co. It appears to have been first published in book form in 1900, by Doubleday & McClure, the original name of the famous house (which was cofounded by magazine publisher Samuel McClure). The change in name of the publisher happened in 1900.

The pictures I've taken above include one of a page from the book, highlighting the odd layout, which contributes to such a short book taking up a respectable seeming 223 pages.

The novel is pretty good fun, if very slight indeed. The title character is a Frenchman, nearly 40 years old, and apparently some sort of spy (for money). He is in possession of some valuable information, and he is on the run from officials of some sort (apparently French officials?) in Italy. He ends up at a slightly odd house, and is welcomed by the owner, the Count of Fieramondi. Dieppe soon learns that the Count is estranged from his wife, who still lives in the house, which is divided in half. The Count offers Dieppe his room, because it is attached to his wife's room, and the Count does not wish to risk an encounter. Naturally enough, Dieppe finds himself yielding to the temptation of opening the door between the rooms, and catches a glimpse of a thoroughly delightful young woman.

Soon the Count has enlisted Dieppe's help in interceding with his wife, which pricks Dieppe's conscience because he finds himself rather falling for the lady. Things are complicated by a couple of sinister characters in the nearby village, one of whom, it turns out, wants to blackmail the Countess; and the other wants to relieve Dieppe of the important information he has. The pair join forces, and Dieppe is lured to a rendezvous or two, with the object of resolving the Countess' difficulties with her blackmailer. Shots are exchanged, betrayals happen, another woman appears on the scene, a river floods ... and after a twist or two (none too surprising) things are neatly resolved.

As I said, it's good fun. Hope's writing is featherlight and witty. Dieppe is an engaging character, and the other characters are thinly but effectively portrayed. This isn't the sort of book that demands revival, but if you run across a copy it will likely entertain you for the short time it takes to read.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Old Bestsellers: Guyfford of Weare, by Jeffery Farnol

Guyfford of Weare (and The Money Moon), by Jeffery Farnol

One of my favorite writers of "old bestsellers" is Jeffery Farnol. Farnol (1878-1952) was a writer of historical adventures and romances, in the first half of the 20th Century. He was born in England, and spent most of his life there, though he spent some time in the U.S. His first novel appeared in 1907. His most famous books are probably The Amateur Gentleman (1913) and The Broad Highway (1910). He often set his novels in or near the Regency period, and indeed he is regarded as a significant influence on Georgette Heyer, who began her career a dozen or so years after Farnol. I've previously read the two novels mentioned above, with a fair amount of enjoyment, and one other novel, The Money Moon (1911) with rather less enjoyment -- The Money Moon is set contemporaneously to its writing, which may be why it doesn't work as well..

Guyfford of Weare is from later in Farnol's career -- it was published in 1928. I read an A. L. Burt edition of this book, as with many of the books in this series of reviews. It's set in the 18th Century, in England. It opens with a young woman, Helen D'Arcy, trying to retrieve a certain letter from the roguish Sir Richard Guyfford, rumored to be both a murderer and a debaucher of young women -- including Helen's friend Angela. Quickly we gather that Sir Richard has long been falsely accused of various crimes, and the real villain is his cousin Julian, who hopes to gain his estate by assuring Sir Richard's death.

Thus begins a slightly tangled story, involving several rivals for the beautiful Helen's hand, and involving Sir Richard being once again accused of murder, and involving lots of mistaken identity, and gypsies, and highwaymen -- good highwaymen, mostly. The end is never in doubt -- of course Sir Richard will eventually be redeemed, and he and Helen will fall in love. But the plot isn't really the point of the book -- it's rather twisty, as I said, and certainly very busy, but it's not really all that well constructed. But for all that the book is fun to read, and mostly because of Farnol's writing. His prose, particularly his dialogue, is very artificial (the which I don't think he ever doubted). But it works for me. The touch is mostly quite light. It's pleasant to read, often quite funny is a feather light manner. Farnol essays country dialect, and Romany dialect, and exaggerated upper class posturing -- I couldn't say if any of this is much in the way of accurate, but it's effective. The characters are not particularly deep, but they're well enough done. Helen is perhaps a cliche version of the "spitfire", but she does have her own mind, and courage, and "agency". I also liked her older guardian, Madame La Duchesse. This isn't even close to a great novel, but it's a fun read.

I might as well add what I wrote long ago about The Money Moon. As noted above, I preferred The Amateur Gentleman and The Broad Highway, both Regencies (yet quite different from each other), but I didn't write about them! So:

The Money Moon is an early Jeffery Farnol novel, published in 1911. I decided to try Farnol because he is apparently an important influence on Georgette Heyer (also, perhaps, Wodehouse and Vance). This novel is contemporary to 1911, and is breezily readable but not terribly special.  A very rich American follows his fiancee to England, is dumped for a Duke, and wanders in the countryside, there encountering a young boy looking for his fortune, and the boy's beautiful, financially beleaguered Aunt.  They fall in love, but the obvious solution to everyone's problems (the hero pays off the beautiful Aunt's mortgage, then they get married and live happily ever after) won't do because of the lady's pride.  The hero tries a couple of transparent ruses to get around this problem, is caught, and eventually prevails by brute force.  (Nothing abusive, I rush to say.) The plot wasn't subtle enough for me, and the characters were early 20th century sexist and classist cliches.  In this latter way it was indeed reminiscent of Heyer, but her early "contemporary" novels (i.e. Barren Corn), which are horrible (actually Farnol was less sexist, I thought, than Heyer).  I'm making this sound worse than it is: it was still a fun, fast, read, and the characters were likeable if not believable.  I was hoping for more twists to the plot though.