Reading Lately



I have decided what I want to do with my life.  Yes, I know I should have figured that out by now but I hadn't read Country Editor by Henry Beetle Hough before.  Now I know.  I want to be the editor of a small New England newspaper, preferably a weekly paper.  If it could be located on an island that would be even better.

Country Editor recounts Hough's experiences at the Vineyard Gazette on Martha's Vineyard.  I was lost as soon as I read the description of the newspaper office.

The whole shop was shabby with age and use, and dignified as few establishments are dignified.  Its sheafs of proofs, its worn and battered fixtures, its printing specimens pasted on the walls--all were part of a disorder which went to make up, if not some kind of orderly sum total, at least the visual evidence of a Purpose.  More pronounced than anything else was, I think, the smell of the place, a blend of ink and dust and time, not strong but unescapable, mysterious, elusive.  I found out later that the general fragrance depended upon the weather--dampness brought it out, winter chill hardened it, summer langour softened and blurred it.  

Hough does a wonderful job of describing the trials and tribulations of a small town journalist.  This is a calm and peaceful book, frequently as much about the town and the people as about the newspaper.  The trials and vicissitudes of newspaper life are written with humor and nostalgia.

I had never known before how hard it is to write an item.  A good serviceable item of ten lines is likely to represent a great deal of knowledge and skill.  One must be acquainted with the kindred of the Jones family, and know which cousins live in Watertown, and that Mrs. Jones always stops on the way to see her sister, but that Mr. Jones does not.  Perhaps it seems trivial, but I hardly think it is more trivial than most human concerns.  Even with all the information at hand, it takes more than a pedestrian journalist to put the facts together so that they will tell the story clearly, politely and without putting any member of the Jones family in a wrong light. 

I am probably never going to work for a weekly paper in a small New England town.  The blurb on the back of Provincial Daughter by R. M. Dashwood, however, sounds scarily like my real life.  She is described as "an intelligent woman juggling too little money and too many kids in rural obscurity."  Hmmm, if you are willing to believe the intelligent bit I will admit to the kids, rural obscurity, and lack of money.

I love the Provincial Lady books and reread them regularly.  They never fail to make me laugh.  I went into this book, written by her real-life daughter, with a large amount of trepidation.  Could it live up to her mother's books?  At the beginning I read this passage.

Conversation interrupted by enormous seething mass of children who now descend on us, hitting each other freely, and all are taken away by their respective parents.  Impossible not to reflect that there was something to be said for Nannies: have never, since attaining what is said to be Woman's Highest Sphere, succeeded in holding uninterrupted conversation with any other adult for more than five minutes, but try to console myself with reflection that at least it will be worse when they are older and can't be pushed off to bed; which I proceed to do.

Mine are older.  They can't easily be pushed off to bed.  This woman gets me.  I settled in happily and chuckled my way through the whole book.

Lastly, I read Across the Common* by Elizabeth Berridge.  This is the story of Louise who leaves her husband, for reasons that are not completely clear, and returns temporarily to the aunts who raised her.  Louise has some growing up to do and has to deal with some issues from her past.  When she returns she finds that her aunts have been concealing some secrets from that past.

While Louise could be annoying and immature I did like her in many ways.  I could relate to her.  This is what she said about her first evening home.

After supper the aunts' extreme tactfulness drove me to bed early.  Three people sitting in a large drawing-room drinking small cups of coffee in unaccustomed formality, tossing small talk from one to the other, each determined to avoid the unfortunate leading question, was a strain.  We had known each other too intimately for too long, and yet not at all.  All we had in common was the past.  I could meet them as a child, but not as a woman, and they were strange to me.  Surely the prodigal son had had doubts that first night at home?

 I liked this book in many ways.  I sympathized with Louise in her sorrow about her miscarriages and her insecurities in her relationship with her husband.  I found the aunts extremely entertaining.  Somehow though, I felt as if I was reading three different books.  There was the one about Louise and her issues, the funny one about the aunts, and the drama about the family secret.  In the process of putting all three of those into one book I didn't feel like there was a coherent whole.  All three of the story lines got glossed over a bit too much and some of the characters did not get developed as much as I would have liked.

The book is written in a reflective, almost stream-of-consciousness, style.  It pulls the reader in to an atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty that pervades the entire book.  Interspersed were moments were Louise clearly knew herself or others around her.  I enjoyed those moments of insight.

It was the shock of meeting someone who spoke their language, thought their thoughts and was willing to listen, then tossed back their ideas in more coherent form.

Isn't that what we all look for?  I felt this book had its flaws but I enjoyed it and find myself thinking about it even after I have finished it.  I will probably look for more books by this author.

I just looked Elizabeth Berridge up.  She won the 1964 Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year award for this book.



*I received a copy of this book from Netgalley for review consideration.  This in no way affected my opinion of the book or the way in which my review was written.  If I hate it I will tell you.

3 comments

  1. Coincidentally, I had a look through Provincial Daughter recently when it was in stock at work and it struck my how much the narrative style - slightly breathless, often lacking pronouns, etc so "We were interrupted by..." becomes "Interrupted by..." - must have influenced Helen Fielding when writing Bridget Jones.

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    1. I think it is interesting because that breathless style could be hugely irritating but somehow it just works. I vaguely remember reading Bridget Jones years ago but remember very little about the book. I'll have to take a look and compare the styles. I wonder if she was influenced by Delafield or if it was just a coincidence.

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