Triple Book Rec: Sweet Polly Oliver

If you know and like one of these books, you might very well enjoy the other two. And if you know none of these, but like the idea of a feisty heroine dressed as a boy, and enjoy witty and humorous historical romances, these might be just for you!

On Robin and Benjamin

All of the changes made in the Moonacre movie are bad, for a great variety of reasons, most of them of a philosophical or theological, and literary kind.

But here’s another bad thing: changing the Moon Princesses’ love interests from a) complimenting them in nature/vibe and b) seriously unusual for male love interests in fiction to a) too similar to them and b) too generic for (sort of) romantic fiction.

Because Robin and Benjamin are so different. They both have such specific vibes to them that are all too rarely seen in romantic fiction. (Yes, of course, The Little White Horse is not in any way a romance novel, but the romantic sub-plots are there, and they are what I am referring to.)

I don’t mean that in the sense that male love interests should be more like them, and less of the more typical romantic (and often rather serious, sad, brooding, with a darker aesthetic) heroes. The types they were turned into are fine alright—for a good many stories, for other stories. But (and I have this problem with several book adaptations and the characterisation of some of my favourite characters!) changing a rather unusual character type, that works perfectly in that specific context, into a more normal type, that doesn’t belong in that particular story, is so boring. So overdone.

And yes, it would be fun to see more Robins and Benjamins in literature. What matters in the story is that both are great matches for their women with their equally hot tempers. Maria and Robin, Loveday and Benjamin—they are all so very hot-headed. And it’s fun to see so much passion and energy, in its good and its bad sides.

But that aside, it’s interesting that the “dark and gloomy” aesthetic is reserved for the women, whereas the men are sunny, warm, and golden. The distinction of sun and moon Merryweathers is an important part of the story, and it doesn’t do to make them all moon types.

But what is even more interesting, is that they are not all sweet and gentle. Sunnier, warmer, (and physically larger) male characters, love interests in particular, are usually the sweet, harmless darling parts. But Robin and Benjamin are both in their way intimidating, sharp, almost dangerous, in a way that would be found in a different sort of darker, sleeker, slimmer, quieter romantic hero or love interest.

And once again, I don’t mean this in a way of better or worse, but that, in as far as diversity of personality types in their specific role in their story and their relationships to their partners goes, it is so interesting to see something so entirely different, and I think they should not be smoothed out to something overdone and generic.

Robin is on one hand mythical and distant, dream-like, but in an energetic and wild, not at all ethereal, rather Puck-like manner. But he is also very physical, very earthly and hearty, and intense and vigorous. Benjamin is a fat and jolly country gentleman, with a love of horse and hound, and food and drink. He is kind, but also in his way ruthless, with a disposition for long grudges and hidden sadness. Both are hot-headed and energetic, outwardly cheerful; if sad or gloomy—then in secret, or in sudden fits of rage. They are also, well, sensual, openly and deliberately so.

They are very so very unusual types, and characters like them are such a rarity to begin with, and when they appear and usually not in these positions in the story, but maybe as background characters, chaotic spirits, or comic relief. As villains, maybe. But not as leading men.

And it’s a pity to change that.

Book recommendations for autumn: Elizabeth Goudge

The Eliots of Damerosehay

A beautiful trilogy about a family in Hampshire in the 30s-70s, with very beautiful autumn sequences, and the first book starting in autumn. The second, The Herb of Grace (in the US called Pilgrim’s Inn), is my personal favourite out of all her books, and can be read as a stand-alone.

A City of Bells

Set in Torminster, which is very much Wells, in the early 20th century, the place of Goudge’s own childhood, this book portrays all the seasons beautifully, but with the beautiful book shop and the microcosm of the Cathedral Close, its focus on literature and the artistic temperament, and the warmth of the (found) family, it’s very much an autumn read. (You might also like to revisit Torminster in Henrietta’s House and Sister of the Angels, both sequels being children’s books and focusing on the delightful Henrietta!)

The Dean’s Watch

Set in an unnamed city in the fens that very much resembles Ely, in the 1870s, with its grand Cathedral, quaint merchant streets and dirty slums, this is a story of hope, kindness, and a very unlikely friendship. The misty atmosphere of autumn and winter is nearly tangible and very, very beautiful.

Towers in the Mist

After Wells and Ely, the Goudge family moved to Oxford, another city with another Cathedral. In many ways less happy there, she could still not help musing about the way it must have been a long time ago. Set during the reign of Elizabeth I. this tale of love of family and learning beautifully captures the spirit of this old and well-beloved city.

The White Witch

Oxfordshire in the 17th century, a wise woman torn between her loyalty to the different sides of her family and her dearest friends, and an interesting set of different characters on various sides of the English Civil War. This is a very atmospheric book, full of mists and herbs and smells.

The Little White Horse

I wasn’t sure whether to include this book, as it is very much a spring book, her most famous work, and in some ways untypical for her style. But it is also in many ways a Gothic romance, in some ways its opposite, and so cosy, and so rich in descriptions of places and foods and comforts, with a dark forest and lovely manor house, that it just suits autumn so well.

As a Matter of Fact

Georgette Heyer’s romances are particularly good, because:

  1. she did meticulous research and applied it very elegantly, making her books historically very accurate without info dumping,
  2. her prose is very witty and funny, and it reminds one of writings from the early 19th century without imitating it,
  3. her heroines all have agency and strong characters, but in a realistic way for their time,
  4. all books have plots/stories beyond the romance and could carry themselves equally well as comedies, mysteries, swashbucklers, etc.,
  5. both romantic leads always have independent characters, relationships and interests beyond their romances,
  6. there is no sex but more sexual tension than in most novels with sex,
  7. very good side characters who lead their own lives and could very well work as “heroes of another story” rather than just extras,
  8. good balance of trademark style and variety,
  9. bold use of various relationship dynamics for her main couples and outside of that, rather than the usual will-they-won’t-they,
  10. pets, kids, funny relatives, etc. to give a very complete, fun feeling to the whole story and as common ground for heroine and hero.

The Lizzys and the Darcys

I think it’s rather funny, how in the discussion about the adaptations of Pride and Prejudice from 1995 and 2005, it is so very frequently claimed that those who prefer the 1995 version do so because of Colin Firth, whereas those whose main concern is Lizzy prefer Keira Knightley and the 2005 film…

whereas I just absolutely adore Jennifer Ehle, while I don’t care very much for Knightley’s Lizzy (though I don’t dislike her—she’s Lizzy all right, just without the brilliance of Ehle’s performance) and I actually find Colin Firth’s performance as Darcy—though certainly very good! as he is an expert actor—to be one of the weaker aspects of my otherwise favoured adaptation. In fact, I nearly prefer Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy… simply because I prefer his vibe.

On the other hand, his performance, though I generally like him a lot, is comparably bland, just like Keira’s. But my critique of his performance is the opposite of Firth’s: Darcy needs a balance of actual mean snobbery and well-meaning awkwardness, and Firth is mostly the former, Macfadyen the latter. That is, I think, also the reason why both appear to specific, different groups of fans. Both are good Darcys, but with distinctly different appeal.

I actually think the 2020 version of Emma is in many ways like 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice—though not as good—and equally popular on the internet, because the characterization of the leads is so very adjusted to the taste common, modern taste. (I suppose I am an exception!)

As for Mr Darcy, I would even go so far and say that Laurence Olivier’s version had quite a good snob-awkward-nice balance, maybe better than any other Darcy I’ve seen. And Greer Garson is a very lovely Lizzy, even outshining him, though only almost as perfect for the role as Jennifer Ehle.

Anyhow—I really like both the 1995 and 2005 versions in different ways, and all four leads, too. It’s just that my preferences and reasons for them don’t really align the way that people usually claim they always would.

The trade and the ton

I am partial to historical romance novels, and particularly fond of the traditional Regency romance. They are not a so-called “guilty pleasure” for me, as I hold them in high esteem, and delight in them openly. But I do admit that I am rather picky about the books of this genre I read—or of any genre, for I am a picky reader—and always pleased to find a particularly good specimen. Some of those are famous, classics of the genre, others are hardly known.

One of those hidden gems is The Weaver Takes a Wife by Sheri Cobb South.

I found it browsing a goodreads list, and added it spontaneously to the little collection of used paperbacks I bought with a valentine’s gift code from my favourite online book store. It arrived soon afterwards, and I immediately, actually rather randomly, picked it up and read it. And I loved every line on every page!

I expected it to be a pleasant read, nice and just generally good fun. It turned out to be brilliant. The little black volume itself looks good enough, though unassuming, if not a bit off, perhaps, as the type-setting is pretty but at times looks unfinished. As I found out, it was independently published in 1999, when indie and self-publishing was not quite as common as it is now, and the style in Regency romances differed from the older classics and the current revival of the genre.

The story itself is gorgeous. It is written in a far more traditional style, reminiscent of Heyer, yet not at all imitating her. Only a tad old-fashioned, fit to the period and without being stuffy, very funny and full of sparkling dialogue. The supporting cast is great, featuring everything a traditional Regency romance needs, such as a no-good but darling younger brother; a set of caring friends; loyal servants, prone to gossip; and a quite despicable villain. Unlike other books of its type, it also features a delightful group of cotton mill workers.

The hero, Mr Ethan Brundy, is simply amazing, and very unusual for the genre: an illegitimate workhouse brat turned super-rich cotton mill owner, who drops his aitches and dresses expensively, with little taste. He is genuinely kind and caring, responsible and confident. His accent and his earnesty, not to mention his appearance, cause people of the ton to underestimate his intelligence and quick grasp. Nor do they understand that he cares not in the least about their opinion of him—he stands by his background, his class, and his convictions, and he does so with a disarming friendliness. His unwavering strength of character, combined with his exceptional candour, and his controversial opinions, expressed so kindly, are a joy to behold. And so is his love for his reluctant bride.

Lady Helen, or ‘elen, as her husband calls her, is very much unlike him: cold, haughty, and supercilious. She hasn’t a kind word for anyone, except perhaps her brother, and she delights in shoving her numerous suitors away by mere force of rudeness. Though very beautiful, she makes her way through more seasons than her father could afford, because she is still waiting for a man who might not exist. Mr Brundy is, for her, a mere laughing-stock, hardly a real person.

“Mr. Brundy,” she said with a nod, making the most perfunctory of curtsies to her father’s guest.

He made no move to take her hand, but merely bowed and responded in kind. “Lady ‘elen.”

“My name is Helen, Mr. Brundy,” she said coldly.

“Very well– ‘elen,” said Mr. Brundy, surprised and gratified at being given permission, and on such short acquaintance, to dispense with the use of her courtesy title.

Now why does she marry him? Because Mr Brundy, as I have said before, is more than confident, and certain he to reach every goal he sets himself. The moment he sets eye on his ‘elen, he decides to marry her, and her father, a dept-ridden duke, pressures her to accept his offer of her hand. She gives in:

“Mr. Brundy, you are no doubt as well acquainted with my circumstances as I am with yours, so let us not beat about the bush. I have a fondness for the finer things in life, and I suppose I always will. As a result, I am frightfully expensive to maintain. I have already bankrupted my father, and have no doubt I should do the same to you, should you be so foolhardy as to persist in the desire for such a union. Furthermore, I have a shrewish disposition and a sharp tongue. My father, having despaired of seeing me wed to a gentleman of my own class, has ordered me to either accept your suit or seek employment. If I married you, it would be only for your wealth, and only because I find the prospect of marriage to you preferable –but only slightly!- to the life of a governess or a paid companion. If, knowing this, you still wish to marry me, why, you have only to name the day.”

Having delivered herself of this speech, Lady Helen waited expectantly for Mr. Brundy’s stammering retraction. Her suitor pondered her words for a long moment, then made his response.

“’ow about Thursday?”

And now, the (supposed) marriage of convenience slowly evolves into a love-match of misunderstandings. Only Mr Brundy’s friends are truly aware of his sincere feelings for his wife, and only one of them of her feelings for him. Because Lady Helen enters marriage not only thinking her groom a cit, but certain that he’s only after her social standing. He, in turn, takes all her insults to heart and believes that she only married him for money even as her feelings for him grow to fondness, and love.

All this is tricky to write, for has it been done with less grace and skill, both characters and their romance would have been insufferable. But Mr Brundy’s love for his wife and his way with her are wonderful, as lovely as could be, and her growth as a person, and the development of her feelings are plausible and well-written, gradually, yet with sudden, clear reason.

There are sudden, tender moments of a shy, reluctant couple; adorable scenes of the Pygmalion kind; dinners and balls and dress fittings and the refreshing contrast of trade and ton—and a significant trip to the industrial North.

And in the end, there’s a great, rather Heyer-esque adventure, which causes first more secrets and misunderstandings, and brings our couple to defeat the villain, and finally admit their mutual love to each other.

It is truly a gem, I promise. It is a Regency romance in the most traditional sense, and yet thoroughly original. It’s funny, but never silly. Sensual, but restrained. Romantic and sweet, but never saccharine. All in all, a true delight.

Mary O’Hara Appreciation

I just thought of how much I love Mary O’Hara from The Rosemary Tree. Down below are some excerpts showing her red-hot brilliance! ☘️

Mary O’Hara had a face like an advertisement for toothpowder and a name like a glamorous film star […]

Winkle adored honey and she adored the owner of that voice. She literally fell off the housemaid’s box in her haste, picked herself up and bundled across to the door where she was picked up in two plump arms and held against the softness of the angora jumper that clothed the warm breast of a very angry girl. But the anger was not directed against Winkle, of which fact Winkle was well aware as she burrowed in. Miss O’Hara was so soft and warm that she might have been the dove, had it not been for the agitation of her very un-dovelike fury.

“No, I won’t, Miss Giles,” stormed Mary O’Hara, her cheeks like poppies, for she had a shocking temper. “Winkle is in my form, and if she has been naughty it is my business to punish her, not yours.”

Mary was a born fighter, and it was because there was a battle raging here that she stayed, glorying in the fight, every red curl on end with the zest of it, her vitality tingling even to her finger tips whenever she was aware of an inch gained here or there, a slackening of the onslaught of evil. […] Mary adored children, and when a battle was for them there was more zest in it than ever.

“Though what do I think I am?” she would ask herself during these same wakeful nights. “A rallying point for the hosts of heaven, or what? Mary O’Hara, you are clean crazy.” But discouragement was not for long and she remained where she was, clean and fresh in her clean fresh room, teaching the children to speak the truth, keeping her temper with difficulty, passionate in sympathy with the truly afflicted, intolerant of malingerers, loyal to superiors she hated and only twenty years old.

Mary liked men only a little less than she liked children and took an entirely healthy delight in the reciprocity of the liking.

Mary, like all good schoolmistresses – and she was a good schoolmistress in spite of many derelictions of duty – had formed a poor opinion of all parents, and this was for her high praise.

“How do you do?” she said severely, for she was always severe with parents. “I am Mary O’Hara, Winkle’s form mistress.”

Then her severity abruptly vanished and she chuckled. “There are only two forms,” she said. “Miss Giles has the other, and Margary and Pat.”

“I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting either of you,” said John, standing hat in hand before her and speaking with a humble courtesy that delighted Mary. She was a red-hot radical, and gloried in plebeian birth, but she handed it to these aristocrats. They had something.

[…] You and Miss Giles are friends?”

Mary fancied sarcasm in his tone and flushed scarlet. Did he think she was one of those detestable women who delight in running down other women in the presence of a man? Well, it didn’t matter what he thought, but sudden anger made her take her eyes from the elms and face him squarely. “Yes. Until ten minutes ago I thought I hated her, but ten minutes ago we became friends.” Looking at him she saw he was not sarcastic. She had been a fool to think he could be, for sarcasm doesn’t grow on the same stalk as humility. He had really wanted to know. “That sounds odd, I expect, but you know how it happens. Someone you have known perhaps for years, perhaps for minutes, steps forward from the background and is suddenly inside with you.”

“Inside what?” demanded John.

“Inside your own little world that you carry with you,” said Mary, and looked at him with an almost despairing pleading. Didn’t he know he also had stepped inside? “Surely you know what I mean?”

“Very extraordinary. She gave me the job, though I had no reference, and when I told her I’d been in prison she never asked why.”

It seemed to Mary that the room was tipping over. The table in front of her seemed to be on a slant and she braced her shoulders. But the earthquake was in her own mind, where recent thoughts and phrases were falling headlong one over the other… . Human nature is fundamentally odd. Ruined, but so lovely. One is 10th to pass on. I always wanted to marry a hero, but I would give my life for one of the children […]

“They heard you. They’re moving away,” said Mary. To her there was no sharpness in the bright beauty, though it woke almost unbearable longing in her. All about her she was conscious only of a pure distillation of goodwill, but she could not reach it. It was odd, she thought. With her aunt this morning, that regular churchgoer and indefatigable knitter for charities, she had been conscious of such evil. With this man, of whom she knew nothing except that he had lately been in prison, of such good, his good a part of the goodwill that she could not reach. She thought of her own longing for goodness, her deep intent of love, and of her abysmal failure today.

She looked up at him, laughing. There was no change in her easy, happy manner. She might have received no letter. Perhaps she hadn’t. Perhaps it had gone astray. His face looked drawn and grey as he looked down at her, and she realised that he was not only a great deal older than she was, but also weaker both in character and body. Also that he loved her far more than she had realised. Also that he had been in doubt as to her answer, and she had kept him waiting two days, not knowing that he doubted her response; clear to her on the day she had first met him, unwavering even after the blow he had dealt her then. Also, and this last with a flash of vision, that she had it in her power through the kindness of love to make of this weakling a very fine man.

Mary defended with spirit her choice of a pink frock. To say that pink was not to be worn with red hair was merely superstition, like saying you mustn’t be married in green. Didn’t she look nice in her pink frock? And she would be married in green just to flout superstition again. Irish green, with shamrock in her button-hole. Michael could have a leek. They thanked heaven they were not English. They were Celts.

On Sally and Mary and Love

A discussion (actually, just my rambling addition to someone else’s very wise words) about Lord Peter Wimsey’s love for Harriet Vane and Wodehouse romances, made me think of Elizabeth Goudge and of Sally Adair’s and Mary O’Hara’s approaches to falling in love, and now I have to make a post with two scenes about which I have often wanted to write something, yet somehow never did.

Here’s Sally, seeing David for the first time, or rather, for the first time in person:

Sally stood very straight and still, looking at the face that she had felt she had always known when she had seen it in her father’s drawing. Only this face was not quite like the face of the drawing. That had been an unmasked face. This was the same face, but masked. She didn’t feel anything very particular; only rather odd and tired. She wondered vaguely if this was falling in love. They said in books that one felt so wonderful when one fell in love. She wasn’t feeling wonderful at all; just odd and a bit sick. Books were very misleading.

And also, immediately afterwards:

They went back to the smoke-filled room, and there was such a noise that they could say good-bye only wordlessly. David’s gesture of farewell, in the brief moment before the crowd absorbed him, was memorable for its grace, but so mechanical that Sally felt he had pushed her straight out of his mind and slammed the door. She went at once, and all the way home, though the sun was shining, she hugged herself in her fur coat because she still felt cold. She made no plans for seeing David Eliot again, though with such a famous father that would have been easy. She did not even mean to question her father about him, or about the portrait in the studio. Sally had too much pride to batter against a door that had been shut.

And here’s Mary, when she first meets Michael:

“Is she so extraordinary?” asked Mary.

“Very extraordinary. She gave me the job, though I had no reference, and when I told her I’d been in prison she never asked why.”

It seemed to Mary that the room was tipping over. The table in front of her seemed to be on a slant and she braced her shoulders. But the earthquake was in her own mind, where recent thoughts and phrases were falling headlong one over the other… . Human nature is fundamentally odd. Ruined, but so lovely. One is 10th to pass on. I always wanted to marry a hero, but I would give my life for one of the children… . The room steadied about her again and she found that he was helping her on with her coat. She had not looked at him. Why all this melodrama in her mind? No one was asking her to give her life. Nothing was required of her at present but common politeness and not to pass on. She turned round and smiled at him. “Are you in a hurry to get back to Josephine, or shall we walk as far as Farthing Reach, where the swans are? It’s up-river a little way. Not far.”

“Yes, I’d like that,” he said. 

And… these scenes mean so much to me. They are the subversion, and yet true essence of “love at first sight” and so pure, in the sense of… of clearness, so real and even raw.

Sally falls in love with David the moment she sees him, and she accepts it. Not happy, not sad, but also not doubting or analysing or hoping for anything in particular. She realises who he is, and that she loves him, and, assuming that nothing could happen of their love (which is, of course, not right, but that’s a matter for later in the story…) she accepts it. And this… this is so much different from the usual love at first sight. It is even rather unromantic, in the usual sense. It is so quiet, and yet also so blunt, so clear and accepting. Sally loves him, and though she doesn’t really like it, or want it, or build any hopes on it, she takes it as it is. David, of course, will later on work on loving her, and even more so on allowing himself her love, on being worthy of it.

And Mary? Mary is even more clear and blunt about it. Mary always wanted to marry a hero, she always expected a rather simple and pleasant romantic life. And when she met Michael, also falling in love quite immediately, and had her first shock at learning that he was in prison, her reaction was not “Oh no, this man I fell in love with was in prison, so now I will back away” but “Oh no, I wanted to marry a hero, but now I fell in love with a man who went to prison, so I will have to marry him”. And then, of course, she got back to the ground a little, wondering why she felt such a pressure, and she, like Sally, accepted that there was probably nothing even expected of her. But she loved him. And he, like David, made up his mind to be worthy of her love.

Triple Book Rec: Literary Lovers

“I you liked this, you’ll love that!” is not usually a concept of book recommendation that I agree with. I might be very picky, or I just have a different idea of which books are similar to each other, but very often I find that these recommended books simply share some superficial traits, yet otherwise don’t real suit each other, nor appeal to the same readers.

But there are some cases that I personally find to just fit. Incredibly well, in fact. Those books often have a similar air about them, evoke a similar feeling, or simply and plainly suit the same taste.

As for these three books, I recommend them individually, but I also have to say that, if you liked one or two of these, you’re very likely to also enjoy the others. Or the other, respectively. These three certainly have a similar appeal, they are cosy and gentle, and very funny and witty. But they also have very similar themes: gentle, intelligent romance and a beautiful blend of fiction-within-fiction.

There’s Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Though one of her less famous novels, it is certainly a classic, and in my opinion frightfully underrated. It is a splendid satire, but it also stands well on its own as a story, and while different from her later novels, it already has the wit and spark that makes Jane Austen so well-beloved. Catherine is a reader, rather than a writer, but her imagination is very active and independent, and sometimes takes a bit too far. Unlike the heroines of the other two novels, it’s not her own writing that gets her into trouble. Her ideas are more than sufficient. The romance is as splendid as any other Austen romance, in fact it’s particularly good. And it’s very, very funny.

And Sylvester, or the wicked uncle by Georgette Heyer. Unlike most enemies-to-lovers stories it is far more about Phoebe and Sylvester’s determination to dislike and misunderstand each other, and also about the way they sometimes understand the other better than themselves. Phoebe is a novelist and based the characters in her book on people she met, and Sylvester’s air of arrogance and the shape of his eyebrows make him an excellent villain. But it’s the things she made up herself that cause the actual consequences of her writing—including a kidnapping to France, a great many misunderstandings, and some improvement of character.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson is about Miss Buncle who wrote a book. Miss Buncle had no money, which is why she decided to write a book, and she insisted on having no imagination, so she based her characters on real people she knew, and most of them didn’t like it at all. The odd thing is just that all of a sudden people began to behave differently, and things she wrote in her book—made up entirely, without any imagination!—turned out to be real. But while Miss Buncle herself changed and grew and learned, hers was the only story without a proper outcome, even in her book’s sequel. The romance is not as obvious in this book, but it’s lovely and gentle, and it does feature one of the sweetest marriage proposals I have ever read.

So, if you like books, and books about books, and romance, and women writing about women who write, and sweetness, and romance novels with actually good stories, or rather novels that do have actually good romance—these might be for you! And they are all very good autumn reads. 🍂