I began to wonder why Man had evolved at all

letters-from-menabillyLetters from Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship
by Daphne du Maurier and Oriel Malet

I bought this book while we were on holiday in Fowey back in July. It’s described on the cover as written by Daphne du Maurier, edited by Oriel Malet, but Malet’s contribution is far more than editing du Maurier’s letters.

Malet was in some ways du Maurier’s opposite: a fellow writer, she was critically lauded but never sold well; where du Maurier was such a homebody she even resisted trips to London to do research, Malet moved to Paris to live out the dream of being a true artist. They first met at a publishing party in the early 1950s, when du Maurier was in her 40s and Malet in her 20s. Du Maurier took the younger author under her wing, inviting her to stay at Menabilly when she became unwell and needed to get out of London.

The book opens with a glossary of Daphne du Maurier “codewords” and the letters are indeed riddled with them, from “Tell-Him” for a long boring story, to “Silly Values” for anything selfish, superficial or materialistic, and most notably “Peg” for a person in real life who inspires a fictional character. Malet provides a fairly lengthy introduction to their friendship, including a detailed description of her first visit to Menabilly, but that isn’t her only interjection.

Continue reading “I began to wonder why Man had evolved at all”

Summer was departing with reluctant feet

Letters of a Woman Homesteader

Letters of a Woman Homesteader
by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

This is something a bit unusual, and not a book I’d heard of a year ago, or one that there’s a whole lot of information about on the Internet, but it was recommended in the comments to one of my Little House reviews and it sounded like a very appropriate follow-up read, so I downloaded it to my Kindle. But then I spent a few months trying to catch up just a little bit on the teetering towers of unread (physical) books (not very successfully, I might add). It wasn’t until this month, with a few weekends away and a holiday, that I finally dusted off the Kindle and spotted this at the top of the list.

This book is essentially a memoir in the form of letters written, as the title suggests, by a woman homesteader in Wyoming in the early 20th century. Elinore, a widow, started writing to her friend and former employer, a Mrs Coney, in 1909 about the new life she was forging for herself and her daughter Jerrine in Burnt Fork. Coney started reading the letters out at social gatherings and, recognising their popular appeal, suggested she could get them a publisher. A publisher’s note at the start of the book states that little has been changed from the originals and I think this comes over in the tone.

“I am ashamed of my long letters to you, but I am such a murderer of language that I have to use it all to tell anything.”

Which makes this a perhaps not unique but certainly unusual and intriguing historical record, as well as a very well written account of an interesting life led by an intrepid woman who seems to define “can-do spirit”.

“Summer was departing with reluctant feet, unafraid of winter’s messengers, the chill winds.”

Because this is a collection of letters, details and events aren’t necessarily recounted in a logical start-to-finish way. For one thing, the relationship between the two women writing (though only Elinore’s half of the correspondence was published) clearly changes from a largely polite one to a much closer and trusting one, so a lot of the things that are more personal appear towards the end of the book, out of sequence. There also seem to be lots of questions in Coney’s letters that Elinore tries to address, and these sometimes hark back to earlier events.

(I should clarify that I am breaking my self-imposed rule of referring to authors by their surname because Elinore’s surname changes during the course of the book and also because she is a lead character as much as an author, which I think gives me some leeway.)

But what is the story? Well, Elinore says that she felt a yearning to get away from the city and live off the land and when she saw an advert about claiming land in Wyoming she knew that was for her. She initially worked as a cook and housekeeper out in Burnt Fork but filed her own claim for land and got working on it within days of her arrival, determined to prove herself. She quickly befriends the homesteading community and other “locals” and her letters are alive with social gatherings, visits and gossip. Which is no mean feat considering many of her new friends live more than a day’s ride away. There’s also some romance for Elinore (in the strictest matter-of-fact tone, unlike her accounts of others’ romances) but above all there’s adventure.

“I got sunburned, and my hands were hard, rough, and stained with machine oil, and I used to wonder how any Prince Charming could overlook all that in any girl he came to. For all I had ever read of the prince had to do with him ‘reverently kissing her lily-white hand,’ or doing some other fool trick with a hand as white as a snowflake.”

Just as I found with the Little House books, it’s sometimes hard to believe that the USA had large areas that were wild and dangerous as recently as the 20th century. Elinore, for all her common sense and practicality, is a bit of a thrill-seeker and loves to go along for the ride (or even lead the way) when there’s someone new to visit, or something new to do. She goes hunting, visits a Mormon bishop out of sheer nosiness (Burnt Fork is very near the state line with Utah) and even follows a police chase.

In some ways I feel I shouldn’t like Elinore. She’s so “just get on with it”, she’s gossipy and she shows no interest in art, books or music that I recall. She also replicates people’s accents in a slightly racist manner and I’m pretty sure she used the “n” word about a black man at one point. And yet I’d suggest it is impossible not to like her. She sees beauty in the world and in people, and proves herself a thoughtful, generous friend time and again.

“It seemed as if we were driving through a golden haze. The violet shadows were creeping up between the hills, while away back of us the snow-capped peaks were catching the sun’s last rays. On every side of us stretched the poor, hopeless desert, the sage, grim and determined to live in spite of starvation, and the great, bare, desolate buttes.”

She is also a great writer. Apparently she had supplemented her income before going out west by writing occasional newspaper articles and I wish more of her writing survived. I believe there is one further collection of letters to Mrs Coney that was published after this and I will certainly hunt that down, even though it was apparently far less successful than this first volume.

Published 1914 by Houghton Mifflin.

Source: Project Gutenberg.

Today x, y and z came to visit

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street:
Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952–73

edited by John Saumarez Smith

This is the first collection of Mitford letters that I have read, after a couple of years of build-up, and I must confess that I feel a little bit let down.

Nancy Mitford briefly worked at the London bookshop of the title, before her writing career took off and she moved to Paris. The bookshop was started by, and for many years run by, Heywood Hill. Their correspondence lasted from 1942, while Nancy was still working at the shop, through Heywood’s sale of the shop and subsequent retirement, right up to Nancy’s death. From friendly but businesslike beginnings, they became firm friends and confidantes.

Between Nancy Mitford’s reputation (and indeed my great enjoyment of her novel The Pursuit of Love) and the bookish basis for the book, I had high hopes. I imagined an 84 Charing Cross Road with added gossip and celebrity shoulder-rubbing, and to an extent that’s true, but this book almost entirely lacks the charm of Helene Hanff’s classic. While both Heywood and Nancy are clever, witty and bookish, their letters seem to be largely composed of lists of people who they have visited/who visited them, most of whom are famous or aristocratic or literati (or all three).

Now, this may be down to the editing, which I was not impressed by. Smith also worked at the shop, starting there just before Heywood’s retirement, and struck up a friendship with Heywood and his wife, so he is not an impartial outsider. He is even mentioned in some of the letters. He has heavily cut the letters – ellipses abound – and added lots of explanations in square brackets, but he has not changed anything. So there are varying styles for book titles or emphasis, and abbreviated names are left abbreviated. I am sure it would have been acceptable to readers to spell out all those ampersands and contractions (seriously, text messaging was not the first time people wrote in their own shorthand code to one another) and it would have been a sight easier to read.

What he has done is summarise the first nine years of letters and occasionally throughout he adds in italics his summary of a letter or exchange of letters rather than the originals. But he hasn’t explained some events that are obliquely referred to – a falling out between the Hills and Heywood’s successor at the bookshop, for instance, which comes up often but is never explained. There are also bookshop/publishing terms used often and only a couple of these are explained. (What on earth is a Rainbird?)

Between Smith’s interjections, footnotes and a bibliographical index, there are a lot of different ways of filling in the details of the large cast and it felt bitty. A lot of the letters have been cut down to half a page or less and I constantly got the feeling that the better half had been cut out. There was certainly very little that was personal left in. I understand that in places a letter had been lost and Smith was piecing together what had been said from other sources but he also chose not to include letters that had been published elsewhere, leaving odd gaps, especially early in the book.

Perhaps more time needs to pass between a person’s death and a publication like this (Heywood Hill died in 1986 and I imagine this book took many years to compile). And I would certainly have thought that an editor who did not count the book’s subject as a personal friend would be preferable. Or perhaps surviving family (Hill’s widow and Nancy’s youngest sister are both still alive) were responsible for the odd editorial decisions that appear to have been made.

Whatever the reason, though both letter writers come across as warm, intelligent, humorous people, this collection was only occasionally entertaining and often tedious.

First published 2004 by Frances Lincoln.

See also: review by Simon at Savidge Reads.

The simplicity of reality

84 Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff

I hadn’t heard of this book until The Girl mentioned it on her old blog, but it turns out to be a bit of a modern classic. It’s quite simply the publication of actual letters exchanged between New York writer Helene Hanff and London bookshop Marks & Co. The correspondence lasted 20 years, from 1949 until the bookshop closed.

It’s a beautiful correspondence. On both sides there’s a great love of books (of course), open and engaging friendliness and plenty of humour. Hanff is wry, witty and deeply sarcastic. She’s also generous to a fault, sending food parcels to her London friends while they are still knee-deep in post-war rationing, despite her own meagre and unpredictable income as a TV writer (the exchange rate helped affordability considerably).

Hanff’s main correspondent is the bookshop’s chief buyer, Frank Doel, whose sudden death in 1968 prompted the idea behind the book (which, fittingly, is dedicated to him). It seems an unusual thing to do, in my eyes, and I don’t think Hanff expected the vast readership that the book eventually achieved.

The letters begin when Hanff, unable to find good quality hardback editions of her favourite books in New York, responds to an advert placed by Marks & Co. With characteristic contrariness she always pays by cash, in dollars, using an English neighbour to perform currency conversions. Over the years she amasses quite a collection, from Greek and Roman texts to English diarists to Jane Austen (one of her few sojourns into fiction).

As a booklover one of the great attractions of this volume is the taste and knowledgeableness regarding the books discussed. Hanff is quick to spot a poor translation or an incomplete “abridged” work but she also raves unreservedly about the beauty of certain books – the material, the binding, the gilding, the illustrations. Her enthusiasm is a real delight and it’s easy to see why so many of the bookshop’s employees (and their relatives) muscled in on the letter-writing.

One thing I found a little jolting was that the edition that I read also included Hanff’s next book The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street as a sort of epilogue. This is Hanff’s diaries from her 1971 visit to London, when she finally got to see the bookshop (by then closed down and empty – in fact, Hanff takes the letters that had made up the shop sign home as a memento) and meet many of her correspondents and fans of the book. It’s certainly interesting and fills in some of the blanks that the letters don’t cover, but the delicate beauty of 84 Charing Cross Road just isn’t present and the magic of the first half of the volume is quickly lost.

The title stems from Hanff’s perception that she is being treated like a duchess, a status that she does not feel that she deserves. 84 Charing Cross Road was a slow-burner and did not top any bestseller charts; Hanff was only able to afford the trip thanks to advance money from Andre Deutsch for the UK publication and paid interviews conducted during the visit (that said, all her shopping appears to be conducted at Harrods and Selfridge’s, so she’s not that skint). The later stage, TV and film adaptations will no doubt have relieved Hanff’s situation somewhat.

My thanks again to The Girl for alerting me to the existence of this book. It absolutely deserves its status as a cult classic for bookworms.

First published 1971.

84 Charing Cross Road

Incidentally, for anyone who falls in love with this book and wants to go on a pilgrimage to the site of Marks & Co, be warned that its disappointingly non-bookish current tenant is Pizza Hut. But it’s still a beautiful building. Click on the photo above for a bigger view. Thanks to Liz of Eliza Does Very Little for posting about this so that I was forewarned.