Ready for Romance

If one or two of my more recent forays into the realm of detective fiction have left me a little tired then this is perhaps due to the fact that my attention has been somewhat diverted by Other Things. Notable amongst these have been visitations (and at times re-visitations) to the enormously rich body of work left by Ronald Blythe who passed at the start of 2023 aged one hundred years. What a life. I find Blythe’s writing to be deceptively soothing. Deceptive because there is, in his soft tone, something of the excitable school child flitting hither and thither. There is always a treasure trove of reference points to be chased when reading Blythe.

Yet despite his texts so often being tightly packed with jumping off points for exploration, Blythe also understands that Less Is More. There is little of the extraneous in his writing. Tangents veer off quite naturally and the lines loop exquisitely back into the design of the whole, like some magnificent illuminated manuscript carved as an Edward Bawden print block.

All of which means that my head has variously been turned by dips into John Clare, Francis Kilvert, James Woodforde and of course looking back at John Nash again. Paul too, naturally, and Ravillious and Bawden, all of whom seem to be quite fashionable (again). I’ve also been reading and looking at Thomas Hennell, who I have not noticed Blythe mention yet surely fits into the same universe, being a friend of Bawden and that circle. Hennell was also a lay preacher, which is a nice Blythe connection I suppose. Then there are Kurt Hutton’s photographs and James Hamilton-Paterson’s writing about Ships, Planes, Cars and Trains and the great dismantling of Britain (“the British disease in microcosm: laissez-faire government that, in its ideological obsession with shareholder profitability, puts off planning the nation’s infrastructure in the hope that private enterprise will take care of the future: something that has yet to happen anywhere on earth.”). All diverting and/or peerlessly riveting in turn.

Mostly though I have been distracted from detective fiction by more of those Furrowed Middlebrow books that the Dean Street Press have put out these past years. Foolishly I had turned my nose up at them for some time, assuming that they must surely be trashy romances. And whilst, yes, there is a lot of romance in their pages there is nothing trashy about them. Best leave that to the racey pulps, for which there is most certainly a place, just not perhaps in the drawing rooms of the millions of middle class readers who enjoyed the likes of Susan Scarlett and D.E. Stevenson in their prime.

I wrote about my discovery of Scarlett (or Noel Streatfeild if you prefer) a couple of months ago and really everything said there stands. There is still a place for froth and flimsy just as there is for fun’n’frenzy, and more of Streatfeild’s Scarlett novels remain on my to-be-read shelves as reliable backups for when the world gets just too dark and dreary to bear looking at. She’s been joined there by D.E. Stevenson, whose first Miss Buncle book I so enjoyed last year in a classy Persephone reissue. I admit I am looking forward to the remaining Buncle’s but there is so much else to discover and I rather think they might be lovely Spring and Summer reads, when the garden beckons and the warmth of the sun might heal so many wounds, physical and spiritual. Meanwhile it has been Stevenson’s ‘trilogy’ of novels from 1949 to 1951 that have most recently lit up the darkest depths of Winter.

In many ways 1949’s ‘Vittoria Cottage’ is the odd one out of the trilogy as it alone is set in the balmy Southern climes of England as opposed to the isolated rural farming landscapes of the Scottish Borders that root ‘Music In The Hills’ and ‘Winter and Rough Weather’ (aka ‘Shoulder The Sky’). ‘Vittoria Cottage’ is also the book in the trilogy that is most easily read as a standalone novel since the threads and characters that feed into the next two are fairly minimal. It’s a lovely book in its own right and is fired through with the kind of post-war detail and musing that I am increasingly a sucker for. There is uncertainty and confusion. There are characters struggling to cope with the aftermath of trauma. There are truckloads of insecurity and impulses for self-sacrifice. It might all be rather overwhelming were it not for Stevenson’s deftness of touch and core of warmth and humanity. One rather gets the feeling that Stevenson would ascribe to the notion that neither being an optimist or a pessimist make a difference to the outcome of anything, but that the optimist has a rather happier time waiting.

‘Vittoria Cottage’ then is an optimistic novel, as are ‘Rough Weather’ and ‘Music In The Hills’, in which there may be cads and blighters but you know that in the end Those Kinds Of People will be inevitably sad and empty (they do “nothing but chase pleasure from morning to night without ever catching up with it.”) and will get their comeuppance. Everything in the books is calculated to be largely free from risk and it is hardly a spoiler to say that in the isolating snow storm that inevitably descends in ‘Winter and Rough Weather’ there are no tragedies to speak of and all adventures end happily ever after. This is the kind of book that Stevenson wrote: unapologetically chirpy and none the worse for that. One can imagine them bringing solace to the hardship of a post-war world of rationing, just as they might do in our 21st Century when “the difficulty of existing [might make] existence hardly worth while…”

If ‘Vittoria Cottage’ does a vague job of introducing characters that will be at the heart of the remaining two books, and ‘Winter and Rough Weather’ plays on the resilience of love in the face of adversity (with a side of the unbelievable for good measure) then ‘Music In The Hills’ is the one which feels most wholeheartedly complete in itself. Here Stevenson indulges us with some tremendous invocations of landscape, where the imaginary Drumburly and Mureth are amalgams of aspects of the Scottish Border country that Stevenson, whose father was a first cousin to Robert Louis Stevenson, knew and loved. Whilst many of the place names are fictitious, Dumfries and Lockerbie are both mentioned as is Gretna Green. Indeed Gretna is mentioned in one of the most uncomfortable portions of the book in which closeted 14 year old Eleanor falls in love with a man twice her age and talks about running away to Gretna to get married. Perhaps she had been reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’. To be fair to Stevenson (and her key character of James Derring) the inappropriateness of that crush is well handled and Stevenson uses it to make a nice point about the ‘invisible’ nature of women’s desire. James, confused by the feelings engendered by unexpected devotion, rambles on about how “Girls never talk about men. It isn’t the right thing. It isn’t done. Girls talk about—about hockey and—and things like that.”” Eleanor replies doubtfully with ““I don’t think you’re right… At school the girls talked a lot about their boy-friends…””

‘Music In The Hills’ deals at its heart with notions of a woman’s place within a man’s world and if the views expressed are essentially conservative and traditionalist then at least they are contextualised within the period and none of the women characters are portrayed as anything but accomplished and stoic. Central to the book is Rhoda, an artist who exited ‘Vittoria Cottage’ with head held high and a heartbroken James Dering in her wake. In ‘Music In The Hills’ Rhoda again makes the point that “If I married I could go on painting as a hobby but not as a career. It’s different for a man. A man can do the thing he’s good at and be married too. A woman can’t.” Or can she? The fact that I have already noted that Stevenson is at core an optimist and that nothing particularly unexpected happens in the books might give you the answer to that particular question, but again this is hardly a spoiler. These books are essentially fairy tales for grown ups (one hesitates to say ‘adult’ for there are no Adult Themes in evidence, really) and there is not much wrong with that.

This realm of the Furrowed Middlebrow, then, is one that I find myself being pulled into more and more and there are so many things to discover. I find it intriguing that one can go through life almost ignorant of whole trenches of culture and that the discoveries one makes that feel excitingly unique are in fact quite obvious. It’s rather like ‘discovering’ The Beatles when one is 55 and feeling as though they may be a secret treasure. The ‘reality’ rather bumps one on the head. And of course I say ‘one’ when really all I mean is me. I’m sure that others are vastly different and know immeasurably more about all sorts of things. There was a time when that might have made me feel inferior and rather dim, but whilst I suspect there will always be a trace of that in my response to the world (it may be, as people are fond of saying, “in my DNA”, even though I suspect this is actually all but impossible scientifically speaking) I’m now quite happy to simply enjoy the discoveries and live the moments. James Hamilton-Paterson suggests that one “trick for avoiding the threat of the future [is] to live in the past”. If that is true then roll up Barbara Pym and Stella Gibbons. Let’s be having some more of Margaret Kennedy and E.M. Delafield. Let’s delve into more of the 40 books that D.E. Stevenson wrote in the space of 40 years. Line ‘em up. I’m ready for romance.

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