Ann Clements is 35 years old, single & middle-aged before her time. She works as a typist in an office on Henrietta Street in London, lives in a depressing bedsitter ruled by her unpredictable landlady Mrs Puddock. Ann's routine is rigid & unforgiving. She washes her hair one evening, mends the next, surreptitiously does her ironing the next evening (cooling the forbidden iron by waving it out the window). If money is short, she's reduced to poached eggs & tea for lunch by Friday. On Sundays, Ann goes to Balham to have lunch with her pompous, hypocritical parson brother, Cuthbert, & his family. Her annual holiday is a boring two weeks at Worthing with Cuthbert, his wife, Eleanor, & their daughter, Gloria.
One day, Ann wins a prize in a sweepstake. She didn't even realise she had a ticket as a colleague had bought it for her instead of the raffle ticket that she usually indulged in. Encouraged by her sympathetic boss, Mr Robert, & urged on by the disapproval or indifference of her colleagues, Ann decides to book a cabin for a Mediterranean cruise. Each step seems to take on an inevitability. Mr Robert encourages her to go, even lending her the money for the deposit, Miss Thomas (who bought the ticket & feels entitled to have an opinion on how Ann spends the money) gets her back up so that she finds herself insisting on the holiday & on going alone, which is even more reprehensible. Ann is whirled into the travel agent's office by a group of people as she's gazing into the window & before she knows it, she has a cabin, a passport, instructions about luggage & she finds herself committed.
Ann felt that a new spirit had settled down upon her, the new gay spirit of adventure. She had reserved a cabin for herself on a wonder cruise. For the second time that day she found herself outside Charing Cross, and she knew that she had had no lunch.
The cruise begins badly. Ann is frightened by the thought of the lifeboat drill, scared of the chief steward, realises all her clothes are wrong & gets seasick. Her fellow passengers are unattractive people & she's surprised to meet Oliver Banks, a man she's met before, sitting on a park bench on a sunny day in London. Soon though, the atmosphere & the wonder of the places she visits begins to change Ann. She becomes aware of the special atmosphere of the cruise & recognizes its effect on her fellow passengers,
It was sea-fever. The beginning of a romance at sea; it was the strangely subtle atmosphere of a great liner urging forward, bent on pleasure.
Every day leads to a new departure for Ann. In Gibraltar she has her hair shingled; in Marseilles, she spends far too much money on clothes; in Malta, she bathes in the sea, practically alone, with a man. Ann's conversations with Oliver turn all her ideas about life upside down & she realises how restricted her life has been. He pushes her into new experiences, from dancing to walking through the ruins of Pompeii to bathing in a secluded cove in a bathing costume that Cuthbert would have thought indecent.
Instantly she knew that she had never dared to think for herself, but had allowed her father and Cuthbert to mould her views and set their own opinions in her mind, like little flags pinned to a map to denote the route. She had never formed a single opinion of her own, and it dismayed her.
After being left behind in Venice by the ship, Ann travels to the Dolomites with a new friend, Eva Temple, & the farcical situation that develops there is only resolved by the arrival of her luggage. The ending is very satisfying with almost everyone getting their just desserts.
She had started the cruise as a woman, a woman nearing middle age, who had had nothing out of life, and less out of love, and who expected nothing. She had been awakened vividly in the Alameda by an old hag who had warned her to take what she could. She had taken what she could. And now she had become a pretty girl who tempted strange young men to kiss her. Whatever you might say, the change was a gratifying one to your vanity.
Wonder Cruise is a delightful Cinderella story but there's more depth to the characterization & the social commentary than might be expected from a romantic novel. Ursula Bloom has some very sharp & satirical things to say about Ann's fellow passengers, from Mr & Mrs Spinks, who have made their fortune in trade & can't resist telling everyone how much money they have, to Mrs Duncan who's frankly man-hunting for her daughter, Ethel, determined to snap up an Italian Count at least, to the Frenchman who only came on the cruise for the food. Then there's the kind but disappointed ship's doctor, the Assistant Purser who is determined to make a conquest among the passengers & odd little Miss Bright whose idea of a good day out is a tour of crypts & church vaults with a monk. Bloom also makes some spiky, clear eyed observations of the predatory motives of the passengers & crew on board; this is not a fluffy romantic novel by any means.
Ann's delight in the European cities she visits, the gradual relaxation of her inhibitions & blossoming into an attractive woman is subtly done. As each layer of her old habits, old thoughts & the old restrictions that her upbringing & her own timid nature had imposed on her begin to disappear, Ann becomes more confident in her own feelings & decisions. Even when her judgement is wrong about a person or a place, she comes to realise that she has to take responsibility for herself & her life & break away from the old ways that had imprisoned her in deadly routine & the expectations of unpleasant, unworthy people like Cuthbert.
Corazon Books are planning to reprint more of Ursula Bloom's novels & they kindly sent me a review copy of Wonder Cruise.
Tomorrow is Anzac Day & I've been reading this new anthology of First World War poetry edited by Tim Kendall so I wanted to feature a war poet in Sunday Poetry today.
Last week I watched this excellent TV program about Ivor Gurney, one of the soldier poets of the Great War (George Simmers's blog is a wonderful resource about the Great War, by the way). Gurney survived the war but spent the last 15 years of his life in an asylum. He was a wonderful poet & musician. He studied at the Royal College of Music & wrote some beautiful songs. Here's a link to Bryn Terfel singing Sleep, one of Gurney's five Elizabethan songs.
One of the poems featured in the program was this one, The Silent One. It was written long after the war, when Gurney was in the asylum. His war experience was central to his life & he revisited it in his poetry during the first years in the asylum. His failure to get his poetry published depressed him further & he seems to have stopped writing after the mid 1920s. He died in 1937.
Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two - Who for his hours of life had chattered through Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent: Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went A noble fool, faithful to his stripes - and ended. But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance Of line- to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken, Till the politest voice - a finicking accent, said: ‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there's a hole.' Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied – ‘I'm afraid not, Sir.' There was no hole, no way to be seen Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes. Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing – And thought of music - and swore deep heart's oaths (Polite to God) and retreated and came on again, Again retreated a second time, faced the screen.
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë's birth, here is one of her poems. Charlotte is one of my favourite writers & Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books, I've read it at least a dozen times & I always find something new in it.. I've written about her other novels - Shirley, Villette & The Professor - & every time I read a new biography or see a new adaptation of Jane Eyre (why has no one ever adapted Villette?) I go back to the books again.
This poem, which is probably from the Angrian stories Charlotte wrote from childhood, is full of the Romanticism & barely suppressed passion of her best work. I also love the evocation of the natural world, the "soft and golden light", "the last bird's belated flight" & the melancholy of the speaker's sound sleep "Beneath the churchyard tree". If thou be in a lonely place, If one hour's calm be thine, As Evening bends her placid face O'er this sweet day's decline; If all the earth and all the heaven Now look serene to thee, As o'er them shuts the summer even, One moment think of me !
Pause, in the lane, returning home; 'Tis dusk, it will be still: Pause near the elm, a sacred gloom Its breezeless boughs will fill. Look at that soft and golden light, High in the unclouded sky; Watch the last bird's belated flight, As it flits silent by.
Hark ! for a sound upon the wind, A step, a voice, a sigh; If all be still, then yield thy mind, Unchecked, to memory. If thy love were like mine, how blest That twilight hour would seem, When, back from the regretted Past, Returned our early dream !
If thy love were like mine, how wild Thy longings, even to pain, For sunset soft, and moonlight mild, To bring that hour again ! But oft, when in thine arms I lay, I've seen thy dark eyes shine, And deeply felt, their changeful ray Spoke other love than mine.
My love is almost anguish now, It beats so strong and true; 'Twere rapture, could I deem that thou Such anguish ever knew. I have been but thy transient flower, Thou wert my god divine; Till, checked by death's congealing power, This heart must throb for thine.
And well my dying hour were blest, If life's expiring breath Should pass, as thy lips gently prest My forehead, cold in death; And sound my sleep would be, and sweet, Beneath the churchyard tree, If sometimes in thy heart should beat One pulse, still true to me.
Ethel Livesey was born in Manchester in 1897 as Florence Elizabeth Edith Swindells (an ironic name given her future career). She led a life of criminal deception & fraud. Married eight times, mostly bigamously, divorced five times, she had over forty aliases. Ethel (I'll call her Ethel as that was her most famous alias) was a sociopath who "couldn't lie straight in bed" as one of her victims said of her in court. She lived in a fantasy world where she was a famous film star or opera singer & often took her aliases from the names of famous people. She felt she was entitled to an easy life & she had no compunction about the means she used to achieve it. Freda Marnie Nicholls has written the book as faction, which is my one real problem with the telling of Ethel's story, but I'll come back to that.
Ethel's life of deception began when she married a young soldier, Alec Carter, in 1914. He was a few years older, a stationer who worked with his father. Alec enlisted in 1916 & went to the Front, leaving Ethel with his family in Manchester. Ethel was pregnant & soon became bored, especially as she disliked her in-laws. She was able to access Alec's pay by using a ring paper, which was given to the dependents of soldiers serving overseas. Instead of helping out with expenses at home, Ethel spent the money on clothes & partying. When Alec was reported missing in November 1916, Ethel took to her bed. She gave birth to a son, Frank, a few weeks later but refused to care for the baby. One night, she slipped out of the house & disappeared. She never saw her son again. Soon, Ethel was living with another soldier & was in court for the first time when a boarding house keeper reported them to the police for fraud. Ethel convinced the magistrate that she had been taken advantage of when ill & plied with drink. He believed her & the charge against her was dismissed.
Ethel married Ray Ward just a few months later, another soldier (bigamously as it turned out because Alec wasn't dead). She soon had two ring papers to draw on after meeting yet another soldier while Ray was on active service. She successfully juggled her two identities for a while but slipped up & ended up on a good behaviour bond. Ethel also made a practice of deceiving shopkeepers into giving her credit. She was attractive, well-spoken & confident. She had no compunction about obtaining clothes & jewellery on false pretences. I won't go through her whole career but at one time or another, Ethel stowed away on a cruise ship, attached herself to a vice-regal party by claiming to be an opera singer, pretended that she had entertained the Duke & Duchess of Windsor on the French Riviera, claimed to have nursed survivors of the Blitz during WWII, was connected to the famous Coats cotton family & married one man after another, usually without obtaining a divorce from the previous husband.
She spent time on the Isle of Man with Thomas Livesey & she changed her name by deed poll as his wife wouldn't divorce him. She convinced him to put all his assets in her name so that his wife couldn't access them & then walked out, taking everything with her. She even claimed to be the wife of an Australian Test cricketer. She had a few stints in prison for fraud & obtaining goods by deception but, when released, she just moved to a new town, adopted a new name & started all over again. The worst thing Ethel did was abandon her children. She had two children, Frank & Basil, when she was married to a man called Anderson. She would leave the boys, aged only six & five, for days at a time, leaving a shilling on the table for every day that she planned to be absent. One day, she just didn't come back. It was during the Depression & neighbours looked after the boys until Social Services took over.
Ethel's biggest crash came after her planned wedding to a Sydney civil servant, Rex Beach, was called off in spectacular circumstances. It was December 1945 & Ethel was spending the money she'd stolen from Thomas Livesey. The wedding was to be one of the social events of the season with extravagant amounts of money spent on food, flowers & the wedding dress. There was maximum publicity in the newspapers leading up to the event but, on the day of the wedding, Rex called it off after a friend alerted him to Ethel's past.Ethel was still being pursued for unpaid bills relating to the wedding years later. She eventually served more time in jail for fraud (there were outstanding warrants for her in most states of Australia) & then disappeared again after briefly reconnecting with her sons.
I read The Amazing Mrs Livesey in a day. I know it's a cliche but it's a real page-turner. However, I was disappointed at the author's decision to fictionalise parts of the narrative, making it faction instead of either fact or fiction. The Author's Note at the end of the book made it all even murkier.
Written as narrative or factional history, real people and actual events have been woven together with fictitious character names, and imagined conversations to bridge occasional gaps in the storyline or account for unnamed people.
I was expecting a non-fictional narrative & was surprised by the fictional scenes. I wish the Author's Note had been at the beginning of the book rather than the end. It was easy to see which chapters had been sourced in court documents & newspaper research & this was the part of the book I really enjoyed. Marnie Nicholls also writes that there were several stories where Ethel might have been the culprit but these couldn't be proved so she left them out. However, the story of the stowaway opera singer, also unverified, was too good a story to leave out! I suppose I was expecting a bit more intellectual honesty from a book marketed by the publishers as biography. I can understand why Marnie Nicholls didn't write a novel as the facts are just too unbelievable. I was reminded of Jane Austen's advice to her novel-writing niece, Anna,
"I have scratched out Sir Thos. from walking with the other men to the stables, &c. the very day after his breaking his arm - for, though I find your papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book." (Letter. August 10th 1814)
No one would believe Ethel Livesey's story if it was written as fiction & I'm impressed by the amount of research that has gone into the book. Marnie Nicholls heard of the story from Ethel's granddaughter, who had done a little digging while searching for her father, Frank's, birth certificate. Frank had talked about his mother but was very bitter about her abandonment of him as a child. The most amazing find was a Cinesound newsreel that Ethel paid for in the aftermath of the abandoned wedding. The newsreel was shown in cinemas around Australia & featured Ethel proclaiming her innocence & pleading for understanding in her troubles. She also takes a swipe at "Sydney society" who have abandoned her. Ethel seems to have been a completely heartless, amoral woman who had no compunction about the shopkeepers she defrauded, the friends she stole from, the men she deceived or the children she abandoned. The most amazing thing about the amazing Mrs Livesey was that she managed to elude detection & keep deceiving people for as long as she did.
I just had to end the week of the 1938 Club with a poem. I had trouble finding a poem so I've chosen a song instead, written by a poet so I've decided it counts! I'm a Stranger Here Myself by Ogden Nash. It was set to music by Kurt Weill for the musical One Touch of Venus. Here is the lovely Ute Lemper singing it.
Tell me is love still a popular suggestion Or merely an obsolete art? Forgive me for asking, this simple question I'm unfamiliar with this part I am a stranger here myself
Why is wrong to murmur, "I adore him" When it's shamefully obvious I do? Does love embarrass him, or does it bore him? I'm only waiting for my clue I'm a stranger here myself
I dream of a day of a gay warm day With my face between his hands Have I missed the path? Have I gone astray? I ask and no one understands
Love me or leave me That seems to be the question I don't know which tactics to use But if he should offer
A personal suggestion How could I possibly refuse When I'm a stranger here myself?
Please tell me, tell a stranger My curiosity goaded Is there really any danger That love is now out-moded?
I'm interested especially In knowing why you waste it True romance is so freshly With what have you replaced it?
What is your latest foible? Is Gin Rummy more exquisite? Is skiing more enjoyable? For heaven's sake what is it?
I can't believe That love has lost its glamor That passion is really passe If gender is just a term in grammar How can I ever find my way? Since I'm a stranger here myself
How can he ignore my Available condition? Why these Victorian views? You see here before you
A woman with a mission I must discover the key to his ignition And then if he should make A diplomatic proposition
How could I possibly refuse? How could I possibly refuse When I'm a stranger here myself?
Presteignton Hydro is not a fashionable, top class resort. The twenty or so permanent residents are retired people of the professional middle classes - widows, spinsters, military men. Run by Dr Williams & his staff, the Hydro caters for those with small private incomes & an infectious love of gossip & scandal. Like any closed community in a Golden Age murder mystery, the residents encompass many different but familiar types. Miss Astill, the sheltered spinster with religious leanings; Miss Brendon, the elderly invalid losing her sight but kept informed by her devoted companion, Miss Rogers; Mrs Napier, who pretends that she has lost the use of her legs although no one really believes this; snobbish Lady Warme, a widow who flaunts her love of opera on the strength of one visit to La Scala but whose husband made his money in groceries; Mrs Marston, who is at the Hydro with her irritable invalid husband & two young daughters & my favourite character, would-be detective novelist Mrs Dawson, who is trying to become a writer to make enough money for her son, Bobby's education.
The male residents are less inclined to gossip but are just as eccentric. Admiral Unwin, who loves crosswords & Colonel Simcox, always needing help with his knitting. The Admiral is being pursued, if you believe the gossip, by Nurse Hawkins & the colonel is besotted with a newcomer, a beautiful young woman, Antonia Blake. Another new resident, Sir Humphrey Chervil, is also interested in Miss Blake & the gossips are enthralled by the potentialities of this love triangle. After a concert, organised by Lady Warme, where Miss Blake obligingly steps in at the last moment as accompanist, she & Sir Humphrey are observed lingering in the lounge. Next morning, Miss Blake is discovered in the lounge by the housemaid. She's dead, with a steel knitting needle plunged into the back of her head.
Inspector Palk & Sergeant Jago take up the investigation & soon arrest Sir Humphrey when Miss Blake's jewel box is found on the top of his wardrobe. However, when a second murder occurs, with the same modus operandi, the Inspector has to consider the possibility of a second murderer imitating the first or could he have arrested the wrong man? The investigation is very entertaining as almost every person he interviews accuses someone of the crime. The atmosphere of gossip & suspicion is very well observed & the claustrophobia that the Hydro induces, especially as the residents are forbidden to leave, creates tension. A new resident, Mr Winkley, who fancies himself as an amateur detective, upsets the residents with his blundering questions but the police seem to be no nearer a satisfactory solution. There are so many unanswered questions - why was Miss Blake at the Hydro at all when she never took any treatment? What connection could Miss Blake's murder have with the second murder? If they were committed by the same person, then Sir Humphrey must be innocent & the murderer must still be at the Hydro but Inspector Palk believes the evidence against Sir Humphrey to be strong.
Mrs Dawson unfortunately seems to have plotted out Miss Blake's murder in her notebook before it happened but she is more concerned about plotting the second & third murder for her novel because, of course, there must be more than one murder in a detective novel, the public expect it. Mrs Napier may just be a nutty old lady looking for sympathy or she may be cleverer than we think. Nurse Hawkins was left alone with the victim of the second murderer & seems to have something to hide. Inspector Palk approves of the doctor's attractive secretary, Miss Lewis, but is she just a bit too clever? It proves difficult to discover the murder weapon when nearly all the women & the Colonel knit & there are knitting needles in every room in the place. The murder method demanded a certain amount of medical knowledge but as Dr Williams' medical books lie scattered in every room, it would be easy enough for anyone to discover the vital information. Harriet Rutland manages to keep all her characters distinct in the reader's mind which isn't easy to do with a cast as big as this. Inspector Palk is a dogged detective who nevertheless needs a little help in coming to a solution but it's all very satisfyingly wrapped up in the end.
This is an excellent mystery with a lot of humour & a satisfyingly
convoluted plot. I also enjoyed the acute social commentary, that the
retired middle classes tend to take people on trust & believe that
they are who they say they are as they're too polite to make enquiries. I was reminded of Agatha Christie's
similar point in her 1950 novel, A Murder is Announced, that no one
produces letters of introduction anymore so how do you know who they
really are? This is very convenient, of course, for a writer of
mysteries & I was interested that, far from being a post-war
phenomenon, it could be just as true in the late 1930s.
I was sent a review copy of Knock, Murderer, Knock! by Dean Street Press. As well as Knock, Murderer, Knock!, which was published in 1938 & therefore perfect reading for the 1938 Club, they've also published Rutland's two other novels, Bleeding Hooks & Blue Murder.
Henry Warren is an unhappy man. In his early 40s, he's a merchant banker, running his family firm. He travels constantly, his marriage is miserable & he feels disconnected from life. When he discovers that his wife is having an affair with an Arab prince, he gives her an ultimatum. Leave the prince, leave London & the meaningless social life she enjoys so much, & move to the country to give their marriage one more chance. She refuses & Warren decides to start divorce proceedings. He makes plans to close up his London house &, on an impulse, sets off for the north of England for a walking holiday. His health is suffering, he has insomnia & feels that vigorous exercise will cure him. He sends his chauffeur home when they reach the North & plans to walk in the Borders for a week or so. However, he's taken ill on the road & a lorry driver takes him to a hospital in the town of Sharples.
Sharples was once a thriving industrial town. Five years before, the ship building company closed down, the factories closed & most of the adult population has been out of work ever since. As Warren recovers in hospital from a twisted gut, he learns about the long term effects that the Depression has had on the people & the town. When he is admitted to hospital, unshaven after several days on the road & with no money after his wallet is stolen, he's assumed to be a tramp looking for work. He allows this deception, telling the nurses that he's been in America & been sent back to Glasgow after losing his job. It's a common story & easily believed. He is horrified to realise that many of the other patients in the ward are unable to survive relatively routine operations because of malnutrition after years of just surviving on the dole. He begins to investigate the town as he recovers & an idea to rejuvenate Sharples begins to take shape.
He becomes friends with the Almoner of the hospital, Alice McMahon. A young woman of about 30, she has lived in Sharples all her life. She studied law at Durham but returned to Sharples when the Depression hit, unwilling to get on with her own life & career while her home town was suffering. The hospital barely survives on charitable donations as the patients can't afford to pay for their care. Alice is angry that her community is suffering & falling into despair because of economic conditions they can do nothing about. She worries about the future of towns like Sharples & the families she knows there if ship building never revives & nothing else takes its place.
Warren buys the shipyard & uses his contacts with a Balkan government (which includes some spectacular bribery in the form of a jewelled green silk umbrella) to get a contract to build oil tankers. His plans don't run smoothly though, with the workers malnourished & not able to work at full capacity for some time. He also has to engage in some questionable behaviour to get the company up & running, a decision that comes back to haunt him later. What I found interesting was that Warren, who has been a banker all his life, working in the family firm, has no qualms about his actions, even when the consequences are personally devastating. It's an interesting moral question. How far is it permissible to go to achieve a greater good? The change in Sharples once the shipyard is operational again is overwhelmingly positive but a little dodgy dealing is needed to make it happen.
The story takes place from 1934-37. The Depression is at its height
& there's no sign of WWII on the horizon as yet although there
is talk of totalitarian regimes & Chamberlain is Chancellor of
the Exchequer. Warren is 43 at the start of the book & he served
in the Great War so I imagine he was born in around 1892.
Ruined City was published in 1938 & I'm so glad I had a chance to read another Nevil Shute for the 1938 Club. He's one of my favourite authors, I find his writing quite plodding & pedestrian at times but compelling for all that. I think it's the accumulation of detail which some might find boring but I enjoy. Warren meticulously works out his plans for the ship building business, calculating percentages & interest rates. He goes to Latavia in the Balkans & spends his time losing money at cards to corrupt politicians & dancing with a Corsican girl called Pepita whose connections are integral to the success of the deal Warren needs to get an order for the oil tankers. His moral compass is thoroughly shaken up but the interest in his project turns his life around & gets him through the depression he'd fallen into after his illness & the divorce from his wife. Warren's relationship with Alice McMahon is also very delicately done. It's her passion for Sharples that inspires Warren's plans & the relationship that began as that of hospital almoner & indigent patient becomes one of friendship & partnership in the plan to reopen the shipyard.
Warren reminded me of another Shute hero, Donald Ross, in An Old Captivity, & his work as a seaplane pilot. Actually, I think all Shute's heroes have this trait of meticulousness in their work. Tom Cutter in Round the Bend was just the same. I've decided that Shute's men obsessing about business or their planes is the equivalent of women in novels being careful housekeepers. The image that often comes into my mind when I read Shute is of Jane Eyre refurbishing the Rivers' home when she comes into her inheritance. It's the domesticity & detail that I love, whether it's at home or at work.
I listened to Ruined City on audio, read by Gareth Armstrong. I enjoy his reading style very much. His reading of A N Wilson's Victoria was one of my highlights of last year.
I'm an avid reader who loves middlebrow fiction, 19th century novels, WWI & WWII literature, Golden Age mysteries & history. Other interests include listening to classical music, drinking tea, baking cakes, planning my rose garden & enjoying the antics of my cats, Lucky & Phoebe. Contact me at lynabby16AThotmailDOTcom