29 August 2022

The Dustiest Bookcase: X is for X X X

The Dustiest Bookcase:
Short pieces on books I've always meant to review (but haven't).
This one's a cheat.
I reviewed The Whip Angels in this blog's earliest days, but have no other 'X' authors.

CanLit professors hold many, many secrets. Sitting through their lectures, I heard no mention of Grant Allen, Robert Barr, Margaret Millar, Ross Macdonald, Mavis Gallant, John Buell or Phyllis Brett Young. It wasn't until a course titled "American Writers of the Twenties," taught by an American, that I was introduced to John Glassco. Louis Dudek considered  Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse "the best book of prose written by a Canadian," but it wasn't on syllabi of we 'eighties CanLit students. Those looking to read the book today will find it available only through an American publisher. 

Why isn't Memoirs of Montparnasse taught in CanLit courses? Why isn't The English Governess?

Glassco's English Governess stands with his Squire Hardman as the greatest pastiches in Canadian literature. So great was his talent that academics have erred in describing the former as a work of Victorian erotica.

Edward VII was on the throne when Glassco was born. Elizabeth II had begun her long reign when Glassco wrote The English Governess. Victoria was more than a half-century dead.

Published under its Ophelia imprint, The English Governess was an Olympia Press bestseller. When seized by French authorities, publisher Maurice Girodias released a new edition with the title Under the Birch. It is the bestselling Olympia Press book by a Canadian author. The Whip Angels comes second.

The novel was first published in 1955 as by "X X X." Diane Bataille, the woman behind the novel, was born Princess Diane Kotchoubey de Beauharnais on 4 June 1918 in Victoria, British Columbia, She was the second wife of philosopher, librarian, pornographer Georges Bataille. He was her second husband. The Whip Angels may have been written in response to his claim that she'd never be able to write erotica that could stand up to his. Was "X X X" inspired by husband Georges' "Louis Trente" pseudonym? So little is known about Diane Bataille.

The Whip Angels is Diane Bataille's only known novel. It has been suggested that she wrote policiers for money, but evidence is lacking.

Like The English Governess, The Whip Angels is forever being ravaged by pirates. Separating the legitimate from the illegitimate is a challenge.

Diane Bataille is one of our bestselling authors. She is one of the very few Canadian Olympians.

Is it not time we recognize and celebrate Diane Bataille?

A Bonus: What my wife refers to as "Brian Busby music."

17 August 2022

Dope. Danger. One Doll.

Lost House
Frances Shelley Wees
Winnipeg: Harlequin, 1949
192 pages

Frances Shelley Wees runs hot and cold with me. I liked The Keys of My Prison so much that I selected it for reissue as a Ricochet Book. I did the same with M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty, but disliked No Pattern for LifeThis Necessary Murder, and Where Is Jenny Now?*

So, Lost House? Hot or cold?

The prologue 
is frozen solid. This takes the form of a brief conversation between the head of  Scotland Yard's Criminal Investigations Department and one of his detectives. Apparently, a man known as "the Angel" is up to something in a place known as "Lost House." The detective is dispatched to see what's what:
He rose. "Very well, sir, I'll have a go at it."
Action shifts to British Columbia, where newly-minted physician David Ayelsworth is exploring "the forest primeval" astride his horse Delilah. What David finds is a half-submerged body by the shore of a lake. The doctor's attention is then drawn to the sound of a young woman chasing a dog. She falls, twists her ankle, and he comes to her aid. The injured young woman is Pamela Leighton, who lives at nearby Lost House.

Harlequin's cover reminds me of nothing so much as Garnett Weston's Legacy of Fear (New York: W S Mill/William Morrow, 1950), which also features a grand house in a remote corner British Columbia.

Interesting to note, I think, that both pre-date 

The mysterious D. Rickard is credited with Harlequin's cover art. I make a thing of his rendition because Rickard's Lost House isn't at all as described in the novel. Wees's Lost House rests on a walled island linked to the mainland by causeway and drawbridge. An immense structure, an exact replica of an English country manor, it was built by an eccentric Englishman who sought to further his wealth through a local silver mine. The mine proved a dud, the Englishman died, and all was inherited by Pamela Leighton's mother. Improbably, Mrs Leighton manages to maintain the estate by taking in paying guests during the summer months. This year, they include:
  • James Herrod Payne, novelist;
  • Shane Meredith, tenor;
  • Archdeacon Branscombe, archdeacon;
  • Lord Geoffrey Revel, lord.
There's a fifth male guest, an unknown who is being cared for by Mayhew, the resident doctor. The patient was brought in one night after having taken ill on a train stopped at Dark Forest, the closest community.

(That Lost House has an infirmary speaks to its immensity. That Lost House staff and guests are close in number speaks to Mrs Leighton's financial difficulties.)

There are also four female guests, Lord 
Geoffrey's mother being one, but it's the males that command our scrutiny; after all, we know the Angel to be a man.

Which is the Angel? Which is the Scotland Yard detective? It's impossible to tell. The focus is so much on David and Pamela, and to a lesser extent Mrs Leighton and Dr Mayhew, that the guests are little more than ghosts. The reader encounters them from time to time, but as characters they barely exist. Lost House fails as a mystery for the simple reason that Wees provides no clues. The Angel could be any one of the male guests. Indeed – and here I spoil things  much of the drama in the climax comes when he passes himself off as the Scotland Yard detective. And why not? There's nothing that might lead the reader or the other characters to suspect otherwise.

As the novel approaches mid-point, Pamela apologies to David. "I've dragged you into a dreadful mess," she says. "I've spoiled your holiday..."

This isn't true; David's
 involvement has nothing to do with her. He's at Lost House because the body he found by the lake turns out to be that of a missing Lost House staff member.

Lost House is a dreadful mess. The novel's disorder may have something to do with the fact that it first appeared serialized in Argosy (Aug 27 - Oct 1, 1938). Its fabric is woven with several threads that are subsequently dropped, the most intriguing involving Verve. A new brand of cigarette. Verve is a frequent topic of conversation, as in this early exchange between Pamela and David:  
"You've been smoking a tremendous lot." Her eyes were on the big ash tray before her.
   "I like Verves," she decided, looking at the tray. "Not as much as you do, apparently... I don't smoke very much though. But when one is a bit tired, a Verve seems to give one exhilaration. Doesn't it?"
   "Yes," David said after a moment, "I... think it does."
   "You say that very strangely."
   "Do I ?" He shifted in his chair. "perhaps I'm a little lightheaded. I've sat here and smoked twenty of them in a row, and they do give one exhilaration. That's... the way they're advertised, of course. But other cigarettes, other things, have been advertised that way, too. Only... this time... and the whole world is smoking Verves. They've caught on extremely well. The whole world."
   She said, troubled, "You are queer."
   "Sorry." He crushed out the cigarette carefully and locked his hands together.
More follows, including a suggestion that the cigarettes have some sort of additive, but the subject is dropped in the first half of the novel. In the latter half, it's revealed that the Angel is using Lost House to store marijuana bound for the United States and United Kingdom. It seems a very lucrative trade. Might the drug have something to with Verve? The question is asked, but never answered.

Lost House was the second ever Harlequin, but the publishers pushed it like old pros.

Dope? Sure.

Danger? Ditto.

Dolls? Well, Pamela is described as attractive in the way prospective a mother-in-law might approve. Wees makes something of her playing around with "the soft pink ruffles of her skirt" when speaking to David in the final chapter. That's sexy, I guess. But Pamela's just one doll. The female guests at Lost House include a sad middle-aged widow who has yet to throw off her weeds, elderly Lady Riley, and two older spinster sister twins who live for knitting. 

Pamela's mother often appears in a lacy negligee, though only before her daughter. Is Mrs Leighton the the other doll?

Back cover copy continues the hard sell:

Pamela does not "land at David's feet, showing more in the process than a nice girl would normally show to a strange male." She wears a heavy skirt that approaches the length of a nun's habit. I add that she has sensible walking shoes.

Lost House is not "a fashionable British Columbia retreat for wealthy guests from all over the world;" it is nowhere so exotic, attracting only the dullest the English have to offer.

At end of it all, I found Lost House neither hot nor cold. It's lukewarm at best, despite Mrs Leighton's negligees.

*In fairness, as a romance novel, No Pattern for Life doesn't fit the Ricochet series. I recommend it as a strange romance.

Trivia I: In the preface to the anthology Investigating Women: Female Detectives by Canadian Writers (Toronto: Dundurn, 1995), David Skene-Melvin writes that the novel's royalties helped finance "Lost House," Wees's home in Stouffville, Ontario.

Trivia II: Like Wees, David is a graduate of the University of Alberta. He and his father practice medicine at the University Hospital, Edmonton. 

University Hospital, Edmonton, Alberta, c. 1938

Object: A very early Harlequin, my copy is a fragile thing. The publisher used the same cover in 1954 when reissuing Lost House as book #245, marking the last time the novel saw print. 

Access: Lost House was first published as a book in 1938 by Philadelphia's Macrae-Smith. The following year, Hurst & Blackett published the only UK edition. In 1940, the novel appeared as a Philadelphia Record supplement.

As of this writing, one jacketless copy of the Macrae-Smith edition is being offered online. Price: US$50.00. I'm not sure it's worth it, but do note that the image provided by the bookseller features boards with yellow writing. I believe orange/red (above) to be more common.

The Whitchurch-Stouffville Public Library doesn't hold a single edition of Frances Shelley Wees's twenty-four books.

11 August 2022

Mavis Gallant: 100 Years

Mavis Leslie de Trafford Gallant (née Young) was born one hundred years ago today. Her image doesn't feature on the cover of Montreal Stories (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004), but it's easy to imagine that it's her standing before the mirror. Mavis Gallant was extremely photogenic. In later life, her image graced many covers, my favourite being Los cuentos (Barcelona: Lumen, 2009), Sergio Lledó's Spanish translation of The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant.

The artist as a young woman.

Mavis Gallant is the greatest writer to emerge from Anglo-Montreal. She is our greatest short story writer.

In recognition of this day:

The Pegnitz Junction
Minneapolis: Graywolf, 1984

Home Truths
Toronto: Macmillan, 1985

In Transit
Toronto: Penguin Canada, 1989

Rencontres fortuites [A Fairly Good Time]
Montreal: Les Allusifs, 2009

Going Ashore
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009

The Collected Stories
New York: Everyman's Library, 2016

08 August 2022

An Egotist of Yesterday

A Daughter of To-day
Mrs Everard Cotes (Sara Jeannette Duncan)
New York: Appleton, 1894
392 pages

Of all the novels I've read this year, A Daughter of To-day has the very best opening scene. Miss Kimpsey, a spinster teacher in small town Sparta, Illinois, calls on local society matron Mrs Leslie Bell. Because her visit is unexpected, Miss Kimpsey must wait in the drawing room. The educator casts an eye about noting volumes on loan from the circulating library, the Revue des Deux Mondes, the Doré print, the arrangement of Japanese dolls, and the absence of bows and draperies:
Miss Kimpsey's own parlour was excrescent with bows and draperies. "She is above them," thought Miss Kimpsey, with a little pang.
Miss Kimpsey is concerned for Elfrida, Mrs Bell's fifteen-year-old daughter. In a recent essay, the girl quoted Rousseau, whom Miss Kimpsey believes "atheistical" and "improper in every way."

When told of this, Mrs Bell hides disappointment in learning that the Rousseau quotation wasn't in the original French.

Elfrida Bell, daughter of to-day, doesn't feature in the first chapter; she is only as others see her... No, that's not right. During their meeting, Mrs Bell presents Miss Kimpsey with a cabinet photograph for which Elfrida "posed herself." The girl is seen as she wants to be seen.

Fairly beautiful and somewhat talented, Elfrida is easily the most graceful and artistic fish in Sparta's small pond. An aspiring painter, she's enrolled in a Philadelphia art school. When results don't meet Mr and Mrs Bell's expectations, Elfrida is sent to study under Monsieur Lucien in Paris. Sadly, her Hungarian cloak draws more notice than her work.

Elfrida desires to be seen by others "as an artist and a Bohemian." That she achieves the latter with no effort – it is in her nature – makes it all the more difficult to acknowledge her limitations in the visual arts:
Elfrida was certain that if she might only talk to Lucien she could persuade him of a great deal about her talent that escaped him – she was sure it escaped him – in the mere examination of her work. It chafed her always that her personality could not touch the master; that she must day-after day be only the dumb, submissive pupil. She felt sometimes that there were things she might say to Lucien which would be interesting and valuable for him to hear. 
Misfortune strikes when Mr Bell's midwestern investments go south. Slim funds are sent overseas so as to enable their daughter's return to Illinois. Elfrida instead makes for London, where she looks to reinvent herself as a writer.

It is both trite and apt to describe Elfrida as complex. A young woman who lives for art and the life of an artiste, her behaviour can be infuriating. "'I know I must be difficult,'" she says when sitting for English portraitist John Kendal:
"Phases of character have an attraction for me – I wear one to-day and another to-morrow. It is very flippant, but you see I am honest about it. And it must make me difficult to paint, for it can be only by accident that I am the same person twice."
Nothing comes quite as one might expect. The author takes a great risk in centring the climax on our heroine's reaction to Kendal's portrait.  

A Daughter of To-Day was read in one go on July 22nd, the hundredth anniversary of Sara Jeannette Duncan's death. It was hard to put down. Writing to-day, I realize it was read too quickly. The more I consider, the more I see – much like Elfrida as she casts a critical eye on her portrait.

Trivia (or not): Sara Jeannette Duncan's mother was born Jane Bell. Elfrida's closest friend is named Janet.

Object: My copy, the first American edition, was purchased earlier this year from a Kentucky bookseller. Price: US$24.95. A thing of beauty, the image above doesn't come close to doing it justice. The novel proper is followed by four pages of adverts for Appleton editions of Rudyard Kipling, Wolcott Balestier, Beatrice Whitby, Egerton Castle, Edward Eggleston, and Maarten Maartens.

Access: First published in 1894 by the Toronto News Company (Canada), Appleton (United States). and in two volumes by Chatto & Windus (Great Britain).

Both the Toronto News Company, and Appleton editions can be read online through the Internet Archive.  

The novel was reissued in 1988 by Tecumseh. Print on demand vultures offer this edition.

That ain't Elfrida Bell.

04 August 2022

Remembering Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the first writer I got to know and love. Together we witnessed Alexis Nihon's burning ashes, survived Hurricane Bob, questioned Martin Luther and Brian Mulroney, and wondered over Henry Kissinger's soul. I mention none of this in today's Globe & Mail.

Sean died last month.

The greatest Canadian humorist of his generation, he would've enjoyed the typo.

01 August 2022

Agnes Maule Machar's Perfect August Day

Ah, August, month of my birth. I've always found it too hot and too humid – rarely more so than this year. In "The Passing of Père La Brosse," Agnes Maule Machar notes: 
...August nights are cool
In these north regions. Summer goes so soon!
I shouldn't complain.

"The Passing of Père La Brosse" is one of the longer poems in Miss Machar's Lays of the 'True North' and Other Canadian Poems (Toronto: Copp, Clark, 1899). "An August Morning," more typical in length, was read Saturday morning during a visit to Agnes Maule Machar Park in Gananoque, Ontario.

      In gleam of pale translucent amber woke
          The perfect August day;
      Through rose-flushed bars of pearl and amber broke
          The sunset's golden way. 
      The river seemed transfigured in its flow
          To tide of amethyst,
      Save where it rippled o'er the sands below,
          And granite boulders kissed. 
      The clouds of billowy woodland hung unstirred
          In languorous slumber deep,
      While, from its green recesses, one small bird
          Piped to its brood asleep. 
      The clustering lichens wore a tenderer tint,
          The rocks a warmer glow;
      The emerald dewdrops, in the sunbeam's glint,
          Gemmed the rich moss below. 
      Our birchen shallop idly stranded lay
          Half mirrored in the stream,
      Wild roses drooped, glassed in the tiny bay,
          Ethereal as a dream! 
      You sat upon your rock, enthroned a queen,
          As on a granite throne,
      And all that world of loveliness serene
         Held but us twain alone. 
      Nay! but we felt another presence there,
          Around, below, above;
      It breathed a poem through the fragrant air
          Its name was LOVE!

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