Thursday, April 27, 2017

#1951 Club Meme - The Blessing and The Loved and Envied

This is a very late contribution to this reading meme hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy's from Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings.

As I get older, I seem to take longer and longer to read books.

The books I chose for this challenge were The Blessing by Nancy Mitford and Enid Bagnold's The Loved and Envied.

The picture shown above of the two books is not an entirely accurate representation of my reading as I heard, rather than read, The Blessing.  I listened to a recording narrated by Jenny Agutter and published in 2011.  It was nearly 9 hours long and as my commute takes about half an hour each way, it took about a week to listen to it from whoa to go.  The audio book was available the quickest from my library but I borrowed a large print copy this week so I could look up certain things I remembered from the recording.  

The Loved and Envied took me exactly a week to read at 280 pages.  It was a more difficult read than The Blessing being somewhat darker and, I found, a trickier structure.  But let's look at them individually.

The Blessing

Just so you know, Nancy Mitford was the eldest of six sisters and one brother.  Her sister Diana married Bryan Guinness and then Sir Oswald Mosley, a fascist.  Sister Unity was famous for idolizing Adolf Hitler and shooting herself, but missing.  Youngest sister Deborah married the Duke of Devonshire.  This novel was written at the height of Nancy Mitford's career when she was living in Paris.  She was an agent for Heywood Hill's bookshop, a regular columnist for the Sunday Times, an international best-selling author and playwright. 

Whenever I hear the word "Bless" it seems to me rather quaint and old-fashioned.  I do still say "Bless you!" when someone sneezes which apparently really annoys my son who is an avowed aethiest.  My step-sister-in-law (there's a mouthful) and another English friend often say "Bless" when they hear something that sounds sweet/cute to them.  In this instance, the blessing refers to a child, Sigi; the young and only son of Grace and Charles-Edouard, Grace refers to Sigi as "the blessing" several times throughout the book. Jonathan Guinness suggests that - whilst Charles-Edouard is an "idealized version of the Colonel", Nancy Mitford's French lover, Gaston Palewski - Grace and Sigi are probably drawn from her sister Diana and her sons Alexander and Max Mosley. 

Grace is depicted as a rather delightfully vague, inoffensive English woman who would quite happily spend the rest of her days in the country with her goats (an allusion to Mitford's mother), far from the demands of society. She is powerless against the bulwark of her, and subsequently Sigi's, Nanny and this relationship provides endless opportunities throughout the book for amusement. 

The novel opens with a visit from the hitherto unknown Charles-Edouard, a friend of Grace's fiance, Hughie.  Charles Edouard sweeps Grace off her feet, marrying her before dashing back to the war for the next seven years.  By the time Charles-Edouard returns, Sigi, their son, is a a typically precocious English boy who doesn't like "this daft kissing stuff" between his parents.

And so, the scene is set.  Will Grace, the gentle English flower manage to hang on to her dashing French husband with the roving eye and, perhaps more importantly, will Sigi and Nanny adjust to a new life in France and continue to rule the roost?  

To tell you more of the plot would spoil the story.  This is a fascinating insight into post-war Europe - in high society of course.  Bits that will stay with me are as follows:

1. Grace's entrance into Paris society:
"She was unprepared for the scene that met her eyes on entering the Fertés big salon. The door opened upon a kaleidoscope of glitter. The women, nearly all beauties, were in huge crinolines, from which rose naked shoulders and almost naked bosoms, sparkling with jewels."
Did you do a double-take at the word crinoline?  I did.  Great ignoramus that I am, I associated crinolines with the 1850s not the 1950s.  We are not talking about this kind of crinoline....

Vintage Victorian Fashion Plate No 2 - Ladies Magazine June 1866 from CharmaineZoe on Flickr

 We are talking about this kind of crinoline....

Elegant 1953 Fashion Ad, Satin Wedding Dress
Published in Woman's Day, March 1953, Vol 16 No. 6 from Classic Film on Flickr

Here's an extract from a letter Nancy Mitford wrote to her sister Diana in May 1950:
"Oh dear I've just had a morning with my dressmaker - an evening dress now can't be made even by her under a tout dernier prix de £50.  Isn't it dreadful, it seems such a lot of money.  And that includes using an old one as foundations. She says 30-40 yards is the minimum if it's not to look skimpy and I know she's right. The dresses have never been so vast and elaborate."

2. Nanny's dreams turned to ashes upon returning to Hyde Park.....

"The Park, she found, had lost its old character.   Not only had the railings disappeared, the beautiful fleur-de-lis railing which used to surround it, the stout stumps of Rotten Row, the elegant Regency railings of the flower beds, and the railings on which children loved to walk a tight-rope at the ends of the paths, but so, to a very great extent, had the nannies.  Increasing numbers of little boys, it seemed, while they had a multiplicity of mummies and daddies, had no nannies at all....Park society was not what it had been.  There was no wide range of choice, as in the past, and the few nannies who were left clung together, a sad little bunch, like the survivors in an autumnal poultry yard, most of whose fellows had already gone to the pot.  Nanny had few friends among them and pronounced them to be, on the whole, a very inferior type of person." 

Hyde Park

3. I was surprised and amused by the reasonably frequent reference to all sorts of sexual proclivities usually by aged French aunts e.g. Madame Rocher, who enquires of Charles-Edouard and Grace:
"Is it today you go to the English Lesbians?  The nephew of the old one is there, I believe - if he is her nephew.  They've just bought a refrigerator, what extravagance! The Italian ménage à trois? Have you explained to Grace that she only likes boys of sixteen and they get them for her ? An excellent cook, I hear, this year." 
Perhaps it was this sort of European raciness that amused my mother who was a staunch Anglophile in contrast to Mitford's known Francophilia.

4. Being set post-war, there are references to the Iron Curtain and the Bomb...but in a farcical way.  Grace's childhood friend Carolyn is married to Hector Dexter, the "important" (but deeply boring) American.  Here he is describing a pamphlet called The Bomb and You....

"(It is) designed to bring the bomb into every home and invest it with a certain degree of cosiness.  This should calm and reassure the population in case of attack.  There are plenty of guidance reunions, fork lunches, and so on where the subject is treated frankly, to familiarize it, as it were, and rob it of all unpleasantness.  At these gathering the speakers stress that the observation of certain rules of atomic hygiene ought to be a matter of everyday routine."

Crazy, I know.  Even though Mitford made light of it in The Blessing, an extract from a letter to her sister Diana in December of 1950 gives another view:
"The panicking here has reached such a pitch that even I have got a bit windy.  It's just like I remember London in 1940, everybody showing you their pills. (As you know I'm never as frightened as most, but feel in a bad position here being a foreigner.)"
Charlotte Mosley's very helpful notes remind us that President Truman had just declared a state of emergency because of the war in Korea. for thought given the current political times.

The Blessing was a light-hearted read and my first Mitford.  Reading it was a kind of homage to my mother who was slightly obsessed with the Mitford family.  

It was wonderful to have a bit of background reading thanks to two volumes: The House of Mitford by Jonathan Guinness with Catherine Guinness from my mother's library and The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley which I borrowed from the brand spanking new Chermside Library a fortnight ago.

The Blessing started out as a film treatment and was initially rejected, made into the novel, and then bought by MGM and made into Count Your Blessings starring Maurice Chevalier and Deborah Kerr.  I haven't seen the film but from the extracts I've seen on YouTube, I suspect the book is much much better.

The Loved and Envied

My fortnight of reading was about firsts.  The first time I'd read Mitford and the first time I'd read Enid Bagnold.  

This was an entirely different kettle of fish to Mitford and yet there were similarities in subject matter.  The book is set in France and it's about English people living in France.  

Here is an observation of Parisian society by one of Bagnold's more short-lived characters Tuxie which reminded me of similar description's in The Blessing.

"He realised then that Parisian society was the paradise of elderly women.  But they were no fools.  He had to watch his step.  One way and another he was asked about, invited here and there.  He was astonished with what an assumption of power women of sixty could enter a drawing-room, with what welcome, with what ludicrous kisses they were received if they had wit and confidence.  "The pansies' molls" - he called them.  But he had brains enough to realise that that wasn't fair and that it wasn't easy to reign: it must be done by personality, by achievement."

I didn't realise until after I'd read it that, in fact, these two books were an ideal pigeon pair to read because of their connections.  Mitford was born in 1904, the same year as my paternal grandmother.  Bagnold on the other hand was fifteen years older than Mitford being born in 1889.  The central character of The Loved and Envied Lady Ruby Maclean is based on Bagnold's friend Lady Diana Cooper. Guess who else moved in Diana Cooper's circles? Mitford. Bagnold also dealt with MGM in the adaptation of her book National Velvet which brought her fame and fortune.

Lady Diana Manners This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.50493. This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work
Cooper and Bagnold were closer in age than Mitford and by 1951 were well into their senior years. And this really is the subject matter of the book.  What is it like for a woman, famed for her beauty, to lose that beauty and face old age?

I found this book more difficult to read than Mitford.  At first it was the naming of the characters that vexed me.  There was a Rose and a Ruby and I was forever mixing them up.  I had to re-read the first couple of chapters to get the characters straight and really work at figuring out what was going on and who was who. Bagnold tends to leap from one character to the next and draw quite absorbing in-depth vignettes.  But then suddenly, you're off looking at another character and wondering if they are going to be the main focus.  

Here is an example of her writing, this time focussing on Rose, Edouard's (another coincidence !) mistress:
"She was haunted by the shop windows and by the mirror in the lift of the great house where she had tried (and failed) to buy the dress. The mirrors in the fitting-room itself had been different and by some quality in the silvering had given back to her for an instant a look of the Rose she had been.  But in the lift and in the shop windows in the street she had seen again the sad coquettish old woman junketing by.  "I'm in that army, that poor army at last -the army of ugly women!"  After a length of street she had sat down in despair on the terrace of a cafe and, giving a small order, she concentrated on the women in the street. Some of the ugly ones had pride, she noticed.  But then they had always been plain, had not fallen back to it as she had done.  Her eyes sought out aged women but there were none.  They stayed shaded and quiet at home..." 

Whilst reading this book, I fell into a kind of torpor bordering on depression. Bagnold was about ten years older than I am now when she wrote this .  It makes somewhat gloomy fare but there is some important philosophizing, I suppose, along the lines of "What is life about?" Here is Alberti's (Ruby's unrequited lover and old friend) thoughts on the meaning of life, the universe and everything....
"I think we're put here, my dearest, to lay this ghost of becoming individuals.  It's our temporary destruction.  It's why we hate, and fight, and among nations, why we die.  Oh, remember childhood. The misery, the pain of what grows within one, the ignorant ache to catch attention, the long for fame (which is the revolt from anonymity), the shivering ego that can't bear laughter or sneers, that fights when slighted, that denigrates its neighbour, that won't admire, that can only envy....It's only now when we're old that the armaments race within ourselves can slow up and we see how we're situated, and we have the permission to allow the individual to give up its fight."

The obsession with beauty and its passing forced me to reflect on whether or not woman's lot has changed since these books were written.  I'm not so sure that our obsession with beauty has changed that much - one could argue that it may have even worsened.  But at any rate, I think opportunities for women to define themselves other than by their appearance have vastly increased, no doubt due to the benefits of education, which I suspect Mitford and Bagnold may have been denied.  Mosley has this to say:
"Like most girls of their class and generation, the sisters were educated at home.....Jessica blamed their mother for this lack of formal education, even though Lord Redesdale was just as opposed to sending his daughters to school. 'Nothing would have induced him to waste money on anything so frivolous', wrote Deborah.  He also worried that they might develop thick calves from being made to play hockey."

c1905 Wick Ladies Hockey Team, South Gloucestershire
c1905 Wick Ladies Hockey Team, South Gloucestershire from Paul Townsend on Flickr

So that's where my thick calves came from! 

Many thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for making me step outside my normal reading and for getting another one of my beloved Viragos under my belt, so to speak.  

Bless ;)


Anonymous said...

Lovely reviews and so glad you could take part! Next time is 1968 - do join in! :)


Katrina said...

What in depth reviews, all very interesting. I haven't read anything by Enid Bagnold, I think her name puts me off - very shallow of me I know.

Alex Daw said...

Thank you Kaggsy! I'll do my best to join you in 1968. Katrina - that comment made me laugh. Yes - imagine being saddled with that name - poor Enid...there would have been lots of teasing at school these days.

Lory said...

I'd read The Blessing (I went through a Mitford phase) but never heard of the Bagnold. I've seen another Virago by her recommended elsewhere, called The Squire. Sounds worth checking out -- like most of those lovely Viragos.

I like that you included some photos and clarifications about the clothes. Those were so important for women of that era...we're so much more lax today, thankfully in my opinion, but it does mean some effort to understand what they're talking about.

Anonymous said...

How interesting that so many of the books for #1951 are about posh Anglo-Americans in Paris. (I've read a few myself). Considering that France was occupied during the war, I'm surprised it so quickly became the center of the fashinable (either rich or artist) so quickly, as it had been before the war.