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chuckling over tea.
middlebrow novels, british countrysides, barbara pym, and mourning.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about loving and mourning people you don’t know. It’s a private and almost embarrassing grief to mourn someone whose art you admired, but never met.
There’s a moment in Mad Men when the women in the office are crying about Marilyn Monroe’s death and Roger finds Joan crying privately in his office. He’s frustrated and says Monroe had everything, but she threw it away. Joan counters, "this world destroyed her." She adds that one day Roger will lose someone he cares about and then he will understand her grief.
I’ve grieved privately for artists and writers, and I know I’m not alone in doing so. I recently wore an Anthony Bourdain shirt to the airport, a black shirt with a printed image of him in sunglasses brandishing a middle finger to the viewer, and I swear some people almost hugged me. They felt complicit in sharing their love of a man none of us had met.
A publisher I admire passed away recently — there’s a lovely tribute to him on the Furrowed Middlebrow Press blog — and I was left with this bereft feeling. You see, he was sourcing out-of-print female authors from the early to mid 1900s and republishing them. He had helped to publish over 90 of these books and I’ve read only a handful. Of course, I still have eighty more to read, but now there is a finite line. Just like with Eve Babitz, there won’t be any more once I read the last one.
I recently read Landscape in Sunlight written by Elizabeth Fair and published by the Furrowed Middlebrow arm of Dean Street Press.
The novel takes place in Little Malin post-WWII and, while the ravages of war are occasionally mentioned, primarily this little hamlet is taken up with its own small concerns. Fair begins by delineating her chapters with one or two character voices, but, as the story progresses, everyone begins to merge together, their stories becoming ever more intertwined. The reader is carried away by the distinct personalities of Little Malin and the charming domesticity and petty aggressions of the inhabitant’s daily lives.
Much of the novel is building up to ‘the Day,’ a village fete scheduled for the end of summer, organized by the vicar’s wife, and subject to a great many concerns — chiefly if the summer’s fair weather will indeed hold and whether the fete should include a fortune teller.
Landscape in Sunlight is filled with lush descriptions of countryside life: eccentric painters, summer picnics, those both lucky and unlucky in love, afternoon tea and a fair amount of gardening. Elizabeth Fair evokes a sense of overgrown ivy pushing off the encroachments of modernity — a place where cars are temperamental, almost unwelcome, and the lawn mowers don’t work. It’s a place that no longer exists, but thankfully readers can still visit.
Directly after Landscape in Sunlight, I decided to continue on with one of Barbara Pym’s novels, A Glass of Blessings. Comparatively modern, Pym’s protagonist, Wilmet Forsyth, served in the Wrens during the war and married a handsome Army major she spent time with in Italy. Now, childless and settled in her domestic life in London, her apparent comfort is tinged with boredom and a feeling of pointlessness.
Her social life is overwhelmed by a sense of duty to the Anglican church — there is much of the church in this novel, and I am always fascinated by the line in the sand drawn between High and Low church services in England. One vicar, much to the shock and horror of his Anglican brethren, joins the Roman Catholic order, while another character sends herself to a nunnery in an attempt to focus only on good works. Wilmet knows her good works can never compare to anyone who would enter a convent and feels again the flush of unworthiness. Still, the church is treated as a social component rather than a truly religious one, as is often the case.
Wilmet herself is naïve and self-centered, but not in a dull or unsympathetic way — the reader is reminded a bit of Jane Austen’s Emma. Her boredom propels her into an imagined romance with one uninterested party under the guise of helping him divest himself of bachelorhood (despite the fact that he’s very obviously gay and happily partnered) and into dinner with a friend’s husband who has his own unrequited crush on Wilmet, so much so that it’s become a joke with his wife. These small moments seem to awaken her heart after years of dusty genteel congenialities and bring her unexpectedly closer to her own husband in the end.
Both novels end happily, something I feel I should add, the stakes are low and the observational witticisms many. Both Pym and Fair write books that often have me chuckling softly to myself over my own cup of tea, and I cannot express enough how much that exact experience is needed sometimes.
I saw today that Amazon is killing Book Depository, which is tragic as it’s where I often find my Virago Modern Editions. Although, A Glass of Blessings I did pick up at Luytens and Rubinstein in Notting Hill. Barring another trip to England, I suppose I will be seeking out my future British editions primarily secondhand.