25 January 2022

On the High Heels of Pleasure


Repent at Leisure
Joan Walker
Toronto: Ryerson, 1957
284 pages
Thus grief still treads upon the heels of pleasure:
Married in haste, we may repent at leisure.
— William Congreve, The Old Batchelour (1693)
The title is a spoiler.

Repent at Leisure tells the story of a young war bride Veronica Latour, sole child of London physician Charles Phelps and wife Amanda. It begins at Heathrow, where Veronica is about to board a repurposed Liberator for a flight to the New World:
She wore a wheat-coloured Irish linen suit, with an ascot of tan silk stabbed by a delicate diamond brooch. A very new, rather small mink cape was slung over her arm. Beside her brown crocodile pumps there was matched rawhide luggage tagged with BOAC labels, "Montreal".
Whether handsome husband Louis Latour is aware of his bride's imminent arrival is unknown. Veronica's departure is unexpected. Doctor Phelps chanced to get his daughter a seat through one of his patients, an executive at BOAC. Veronica sent Louis a telegram, but has received no response. Not that that means anything; it's not been forty-eight hours and this is 1946. 

As with David Montrose's Murder Over Dorval, I was fascinated by the author's descriptions of post-war air travel. During one leg of the flight, an "unembarrassed steward" directs Veronica to the toilet facilities. She pulls aside curtains and finds herself almost entirely surrounded by glass. Where once been a tail-gunners perch now sits a chemical toilet. The most magnificent view of the Atlantic Ocean by moonlight is afforded those in need of relief.

After stops to refuel in Shannon (at which passengers depart the plane for dinner at the airport hotel) and Gander (breakfast), the pretty young newlywed's plane lands at Dorval.

But where is her groom?

What do we know about Louis Latour, anyway?

On the evening they met, Veronica had plans for a library book and small box of rationed chocolates, but these were dashed by her best friend. "Sarah had nagged and nagged, and reluctantly she had changed into a blue and white silk print with red velvet cummerbund and red high-heeled red sandals, and met Sarah and John at Grosvenor House."

Grosvenor House, c.1940
Grosvenor House, c. 1940

It was in the hotel ballroom that Veronica met Lieutenant Louis Latour, a "devastatingly handsome young man with very black hair and vividly blue eyes and a small curved flash on the shoulders of his service khaki which said, in red letters, CANADA."

Who could resist?

Veronica's parents never much cared for Louis. There was no real reason for this, rather a feeling. The worst Dr Phelps could say of the young French Canadian was that he "murdered the King's English," all the while allowing that Louis did so in an "attractively continental way." A discrete enquiry to lieutenant's commanding officer revealed an exemplary military record.

Veronica and Louis married within weeks of meeting. The couple were together a few weeks more in the Phelps' large London home before Louis was shipped back to Canada.

And now, Veronica was joining him.

At Dorval, Veronica finds herself stranded with monogrammed luggage, hat box, and Elizabeth Arden make-up case next to her brown crocodile pumps. She's rescued by friendly fellow traveller Alan Nash, who offers her a lift to town. Any hesitation Veronica might feel in accepting the offer from a man is settled by the sight of Alan's sister: 
Jane Nash was quite lovely. Brown shining hair and laughing hazel eyes like her brother's, only his weren't laughing now but strangely thoughtful. She like the way Jane looked as crisp as a lettuce in a green and white print with china bracelets heavy on one wrist and tricky white suède sandals strapped over incredibly fine nylons. 
Joan Walker once worked as a fashion illustrator in London, and it shows. The Liberator flies through dark clouds "like scarves of black chiffon" while Veronica, with "hair back like satin from her temples," gazes out at a Milky Way "stretched like a bride's veil across the sky."


Walker was also a war bride. Her first book, Pardon My Parka (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1954), provides one account of her early married life in Val d'Or, Quebec. She appears to have a better time of it than Veronica Latour; Pardon My Parka won the 1954 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.

Louis has created a fiction. When war was declared, he'd enlisted in order to escape a large, unloving, incompatible, impoverished family. During his six years overseas, Louis worked at improving his English, his table manners, and had fabricated a backstory which had him as an orphan raised by a kindly maiden aunt (recently deceased). After the war, after marriage to Veronica, he'd returned to Montreal a different man. Louis bought tasteful suits, fresh shirts, and applied for positions for which he was wholly unqualified.

As I myself have learned, good looks and exemplary table manners only get you so far.

Louis didn't meet Veronica's plane because he was didn't know what to do. He worked that day stocking shelves at a grocery store (his detested brother-in-law, the manager, gave him the job), and then got drunk. It isn't until the wee hours that he goes to see his wife, pounding on her hotel room door. Ridicule, vomit, and violence follow:
He swayed to where Veronica was sitting on on the edge of the bed, her eyes bright with tears of helpless laughter, He slapped her face. He said something in French which was neither civilised nor cultured.
     Veronica's face went very white, except for the red marks of his hand. She stared at him silently, incredulously.
As a surgeon's daughter she knew had been on the verge of hysteria [sic]. She knew, too, that Louis had done the best thing possible by slapping her. But she also knew, with a cold certainty, that the reason for his blow had other causes and that he had no idea whatsoever of its therapeutic worth.
    It was like waking up and seeing a stranger. She had loved Louis deeply in England, but now he was unknown. An interloper in a loud, impossible blue suit, a belligerent, drunken, unattractive creature. She didn't love him at all.
No other scene is nearly so dark as this; in fact, the better part of the novel is bright and "gay" (a word as ubiquitous as "cigarette"), as reflected in the chosen decor of the couple's first Montreal apartment. Veronica displays great interest in her adopted country, navigating with good cheer, though she does have a tendency to look down her nose. Today's reader will find these depictions of the past fascinating, and may share in her snobbery.

Was there really a time when the most sophisticated Montrealers drank "Instant Coffee" with Pream?

What is Pream, anyway?


Veronica's love for Louis never returns, but she's happy; he really knows how to please her in bed. The young English expat sets out to mould her husband into her ideal, and it is to her credit that she succeeds.

But is that enough to save her marriage?

Cosgrove might have anticipated the ending.

Object: A compact hardcover, there's something of the British in its dimensions and design. Sure enough, closer inspection reveals that it was printed by Merritt and Hatcher Ltd, London and High Wycombe. I'm assuming the printing was a spit-run with Redman, which in 1957 issued the novel in the UK.

The dust jacket illustration is unusual for Ryerson in that it features the artist's signature. My thanks to Jesse Marinoff Reyes, who identified it as the work of British artist Henry Fox. I expect I'm not alone in seeing something of a 'fifties Harlequins in the illustration and design. In fact, there was a Harlequin edition, but with a very different illustration: 


The Ryerson is all wrong in that Veronica wears a wheat-coloured suit, and not cerise. The Harlequin is wrong in that it features an impossible view (though Veronica does own a green corduroy dress).

Access: First published (abridged) on 7 October 1957 in the Star Weekly with illustrations by Vibeke Mencke. Despite winning the All-Canada Fiction Award, Repent at Leisure enjoyed one lone printing. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the prize. The used copies listed for sale online aren't plentiful, but they are cheap. As of this writing, there are four Ryersons, ranging in price from $11.18 to $17.25. Curiously, those with dust jackets are the cheapest.

The Redman is nowhere in sight.

Related posts:

17 January 2022

The Dustiest Bookcase: U is for Underwood


Short pieces on books I've always meant to review (but haven't).

The English Governess
Miles Underwood [John Glassco]
Paris: Ophelia Press, 1960 [sic]
290 pages (in two volumes)

Is The English Governess Canada's biggest selling work of erotica? If not, then the honour goes to Harriet Marwood, Governess, its non-identical twin. I don't suppose we'll ever know; they've both appeared under different titles and disguises, most often clothed and sold by pirates. The above was printed by Taiwanese freebooters. Glassco spent much of the 'sixties and 'seventies going after Collector's Publications of Covina, California for this unauthorised edition:


Publisher Marvin Miller may not have paid the author, but he at least gave credit; most pirated editions of The English Governess are attributed to Anonymous.

Miles Underwood was just one of Glassco's many noms de plume. The novel's original publisher, Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, claimed the pseudonym to be of his own making, when in fact it was Glassco’s creation alone. In a 1967 letter to his friend Milton Kastello (aka Milton Douglas) wrote that it was “dreamed up on an hour’s notice to meet a printer’s deadline in Paris in 1959 [sic]. It signifies a man who would be under by miles and miles."

It's entirely possible that the Underwood name inspired Under the Birch, the title Girodias slapped on the novel after French authorities seized and destroyed copies of The English Governess


The English Governess was the subject of the seventh Dusty Bookcase postnearly thirteen years ago! I covered the novel exhaustively in A Gentleman of Pleasure, my biography of Glassco, but have never written what might be termed a "review."

One day.

For now, I'll encourage you to hunt down the novel. There's a reason for the sales.

A bonus: An edition of The English Governess I'd not seen before today.



03 January 2022

Spoiled by a Publisher



Philistia
Grant Allen
London: Chatto & Windus, 1901
317 pages

Roughly one-third of the way though Philistia, Herbert Le Breton prepares to ascend the Piz Margatsch

I was hoping he'd be killed in the attempt.

The death would be hard on his mother, of course, but then Lady Le Breton is accustomed to loss. Some years before, her husband, Sir Owen, perished in the Indian Mutiny, leaving her with three young boys and an unexceptional military pension. The widow soldiered on, raising her sons in a modest townhouse in an exclusive neighbourhood. Its address had everything to do with keeping up appearances.

Herbert, the eldest son, holds a fellowship at Oxford; younger brother Ernest has set his sights on same. The third Le Breton boy, sickly sensitive Rupert, still lives at home. He has dedicated his life to Christ's teachings, helping the less fortunate in a manner that offends his mother's High Church Anglicanism. And yet it is Ernest, a dedicated socialist, who is the true black sheep of the family. Herbert is the most pragmatic of the three. Content to be blown about by prevailing winds, he's looking to land in whichever area of the political spectrum might bring the greatest advantage.

Oxford men, together Herbert and Ernest form one half of a clique that includes mathematician Henry Oswald, a Fellow and Lecturer at Oriel College. The last in their group, the Reverend Arthur Berkley, curate of St Fredegond's, has first-floor rooms in the front quad of Magdalen. 

All four men are close, but not nearly so that they know much about one another. No one is aware that Arthur is the son a poor shoemaker. Lady Le Breton's sons have some idea that Henry Oswald's parents are grocers in "the decayed and disfranchised borough of Calcombe Pomeroy."

It goes without saying that class distinction and geography mean nothing to Ernest, whose heart is won by Edith Oswald, Henry's lone sibling.

Can you blame him? Edie is as intelligent and personable as she is pretty. And, though low on the social scale she's dedicated to the betterment of the less fortunate.

The socialist proposes. The grocers' daughter accepts.

Ernest and Edith are a great match, but Herbert looks down on the couple. That he does has everything to do with my wish for his death on Piz Margatsch. You see, Henry too shares a relationship with a grocers' daughter: Selah Briggs. She knows him as "Herbert Walters." He's promised marriage, but has no intention of watching her walk down the aisle. In short, he's stringing her along.

Grant Allen's first novel, Philistia followed seven volumes of non-fiction, the earliest being Physiological Æsthetics (London: Henry S. King, 1877). In My First Book (London: Chatto & Windus, 1897),  Allen writes:
I wasn't born a novelist, I was only made one. Philosophy and science were the first loves of my youth. I dropped into romance as many men drop into drink, or opium-eating, or other bad practices, not of native perversity, but by pure force of circumstances. And this is how fate (or an enterprising publisher) turned me from an innocent and impecunious naturalist into a devotee of the muse of shilling shockers.
The author is being far too hard on himself. Philistia is no shilling shocker; it contains neither crime nor violence. One life is lost, but this is the result of an unfortunate accident. It's clear that Allen had no interest in writing an entertainment, rather he saw Philistia as an opportunity to employ fiction as a means of sharing his thoughts on science, evolution, religion, politics, and the distribution of wealth. If this sounds in any way dry, I assure you that it is not. Allen comes up with a clever story about hypocrisy, injustice, and privilege in Victorian society. Its characters are very much alive. 

I really did want Herbert Le Breton to die.

As a first time novelist, Allen's greatest fault lies in his reliance on introspection... needless introspection... pages of needless introspection.

Pages.

The novel's greatest fault belongs to publisher Andrew Chatto, the same man who encouraged Allen to try his hand at writing fiction. This 1883 letter gives some indication of the pressure Allen experienced (I've blacked out a few bits so as not to spoil):
Dear Mr. Chatto,
Many thanks for your letter of hints about my unfinished novel. "Philistia" is certainly a very taking title, and I shall be very glad to adopt it. If you want to announce the novel in your programme for the "Gentleman's" (as I suppose you will), I think it had better be under that name.
As to not killing Ernest le Breton, I hardly see how one is to get out of it. To me, it seems almost the only possible end. If you feel very strongly that readers won't allow him to be killed, I will try to find some other alternative, but it will be difficult to manage. If one made him recover or get on well in the world, then there would be no dénouement, and, as a matter of character, I doubt whether such a person ever "would" get on well. However, I shall be guided by you in the matter; and if you think it indispensable that Ernest should live, I will try to work out another conclusion. I intended from the first that Ronald should marry Selah; and if Ernest doesn't die, there is no reason why Lady Hilda shouldn't marry Berkely.
Yours very faithfully,
Grant Allen.
Not since reading Ronald Cocking's Die With Me, Lady have I seen a novel of such promise fall apart so completely. A great shift begins in 'A Gleam of Sunshine,' the thirty-third of the novel's thirty-eight chapters. Here the realistic turns fantastic. The dying character referred to in Allen's letter to Chatto is made healthy, and achieves great fame and wealth; his wife is saved from widowhood. The final chapter brings news of two impending marriages.

As a result, I came away from Philistia feeling so very, very sad. 

Trivia I: Righty or wrongly, Allen has been credited or blamed for having come up with "he looked deeply into her eyes." Unsurprisingly, the line occurs in the novel's final chapters:
Bending over towards where Hilda sat, he took her hand in his dreamily: and Hilda let him take it without a movement. Then he looked deeply into her eyes, and felt a curious speechlessness coming over him, deep down in the ball of his throat. 
Trivia II: The novel's working title was 'Born out of Due Time.' It was Andrew Chatto who suggested Philistia.

I think we can all agree that it is the better title.

Object: "A NEW EDITION" published two years after the author's death, my copy was once part of Boots Booklovers Library. I'm not sure how to read this label, pasted to the rear endpaper.

Someone may be able to enlighten.

I purchased the book in 2018 from a British Columbia bookseller. Price: US$35.00.

Access: Philistia first appeared in 1884 numbers of The Gentleman's Magazine under the pseudonym "Cecil Power." Later that same year, it was published by Chatto & Windus in a three-volume edition.

The 1888 Chatto & Windus "cheap edition" can be read online here thanks to the Internet Archive and Emory University. The cover illustration is interesting in that it depicts a scene featuring Rupert and Selah, two minor characters:


As I write this, no copies of Philistia, in any edition, are being offered online.

Remarkably, Allen's 1883 letter to Andrew Chatto may be purchased as part of a small collection that also includes a copy of The Woman Who Did inscribed by the author to Andrew Lang.

My birthday is in August.

Related post:

01 January 2022

Unpleasant Verse for New Year's Day

THE SCATTERED FAMILY ON NEW YEAR'S DAY

Though mountains and forests and waters divide us,
Where fate and ill-fortune have led us to stray;
Though infidel strangers are living beside us,
Our hearts will together be dwelling to-day.

Aglow with affection, with vivid love burning,
In fancy, dear parents, to you we will flee;
From North, from the West, from above, where no mourning
Embitters the joys of the blest and free.

We hasten, dear parents, our homage to render,
Our hearts as our treasure lay at your feet,
And proofs to convince of our reverence tender,
To beg for your blessings at home's sweet retreat;

To think of the scenes of our innocent childhood,
Where, happy, contented, not dreamed to care,
We roamed through the valleys, the meadows and wildwood,
To view the fair blossoms then flourished there.

'Tis true that our hearts often linger around you,
From morn until evening when bound by sleep' schain,
Then dream of the cords of love to us that bound you,
And sigh to return when it frees them again.

To-day shall they linger more constant than ever,
Around our loved parents, around our loved home;
No thoughts of the world for a moment shall sever
Our hearts from that spot, or from there make them roam.

What prospect to children, to parents more pleasing,
Than that we this union might share!
In filial love be united unceasing,
No matter what fate or our foes may prepare.

'Tis true not on earth, for we'll soon be dismembered:
Shall death in the good love of others destroy
Can bliss then be reining and home unremembered?
Away with such motions of heavenly joy.
from Poems and Essays
John J. MacDonald
Ottawa: Ru-Mi-Lou, 1928

26 December 2021

The Very Best Reads of the Second Plague Year


This annus horribilis draws to a close – thank God – meaning the time has come to recap the last twelve months of reading old books. I tackled a bunch, twenty-one of which were reviewed here and in the pages of Canadian Notes & Queries. I'm counting Arthur Stringer's 1936 novel The Wife Traders and its British reworking, Tooloona, as two.

Fight me.

They're two different books... and having slogged my way through both, I've earned it.

Stringer proved to be this year's most read author, though I'm at a loss to explain why. I read four books by this son of Chatham, which is more than the previous seven years combined. The majority were pretty awful, but one made it onto my annual list of the three out-of-print reads most deserving a return to print:

Ted Allan
Toronto: McClelland &
   Stewart, 1977

Forget The Scalpel, the Sword,  this is the Ted Allan book you want to read. And yes, I'll again point out the wonderful Quentin Blake illustrations.

Get it while you can, then share it with the children in your life.

The Shadow
Arthur Stringer
New York: Century, 1913


Better known under the later (superior) title Never-Fail Blake, this story of one man's relentless drive to bring another to justice was one of Stringer's most reprinted thrillers. Today, it is all but forgotten. It doesn't deserve that fate.


Poldrate Street
Garnett Weston
New York: Messner, 1944


This was the second Weston novel read this past summer. Where the first, The Legacy of Fear, disappointed, Poldrate Street entertained as the year's most unpleasant, stomach-turning read. Voyeurism, adultery, greed, murder, and something approaching necrophilia figure. No disappointment here!


Three of the books I reviewed this year are currently in print:

Dear Departed stands out as a relatively new book. The first true collection of Brian Moore short stories, it features writing that originally appeared between 1956 and 1961. Dear Departed was published just last year by Belfast's Turnpike Books, but went almost unnoticed in the author's adopted land. The only review I've seen or heard is Randy Boyagoda's on The Next Chapter

Having been elevated in 2012, Grant Allen's An African Millionaire (1897) holds certain distinction as a Penguin Classic. Much as I like the novel, I wonder why. The Woman Who Did is a much better, more interesting, more enduring, and more culturally significant work.

Never mind.

Give An African Millionaire a read, but if you want Allen at his best I recommend The Woman Who DidThe Devil's DieFor Mamie's Sake, Michael's Crag, Under Sealed Orders, Hilda Wade, What's Bred in the Bone or The British Barbarians.

Brash Books is in the process of returning every Tom Ardies novel to print. The author's second, This Suitcase is Going to Explode (1972) has the defeated hero of the first, Charlie Sparrow, pick himself up to save us all. The third and final Sparrow novel is titled Pandemic (1973), in which he saves us from same.

 At least, I think he does.

Praise this year goes again to Stark House (first recognized in 2012) for its continued dedication to the work of Douglas Sanderson (aka Martin Brett, aka Malcolm Douglas). This year, the publisher put one foot outside its usual crime territory in publishing Dark Passions Subdue, which I reviewed here ten years ago. Sanderson's debut novel, it concerns a male McGill student's attraction to another man.

Dark Passions Subdue was first published in 1952 by Dodd, Mead. The next year, Avon brought it out as a mass market paperback. The McGill University Library does not have a copy of either edition. Now's its chance.

I was involved in the reissue of only one novel this year. Due to production matters, it's been pushed into next. Here's something to look forward to in the New Year:

Resolutions? I have a few:
  • I will focus more on francophone writers;
  • I will review more non-fiction;
  • I will keep kicking against the pricks.
Here's to a better New Year!

Bonne année!

Related posts:

The Very Best Reads of a Plague Year (2020)
The Very Best Reads of a Very Strange Year (2019)
Best Books of 2018 (none of which are from 2018)
The Year's Best Books in Review - A.D. 2017
The Year's Best Books in Review - A.D. 2016
The Year's Best Books in Review - A.D. 2015
The Christmas Offering of Books - 1914 and 2014
A Last Minute Gift Slogan, "Give Books" (2013)
Grumbles About Gumble & Praise for Stark House (2012)
The Highest Compliments of the Season (2011)
A 75-Year-Old Virgin and Others I Acquired (2010)
Books are Best (2009)

Arthur Stringer Unshackled (then bowdlerized)
Little Willie, Willie Won't Go Home
A Shadow Moves Through a Showy Underworld
The Dead of a Dead End Street
Fumbling Towards Legacy
Shorter Moore
Starting on on Grant Allen: A Top Ten
Getting to Know The Woman Who Did
A Nineteenth Century What's Bred in the Bone
Grant Allen Tells Us Like It Is
Criminal Notes & Queries
Have Bomb – Will Travel
The Jacket, the Dressing Gown and the Closet