Some of you might recall my review of Lillian on Life, a faux memoir written by Alison Jean Lester which has become one of my favourite books. I revisit Lillian every summer, and own the hardback and paperback versions (both covers are a work of art and ought to be gazed at!). When Alison suggested her publisher send me a copy of Yuki Means Happiness I naturally jumped at the chance to read an advance proof. She told me that her latest book, a work of fiction (and not a memoir, as she warned) was a ‘different animal’ from Lillian, and she was right. It is the story of Diana, a young nurse from Boston who answers an advertisement to work for a Japanese couple, Naoki and Emi, who have travelled to America to await the birth of their first child, Yuki. However, under the close scrutiny of Naoki (often from afar), Diana senses something is not right, but she ignores her instincts and assumes her uneasy feelings are the result of a learning curve. Then, a few years later, she is offered the job of nanny to Yuki, who is now three, and she moves to Tokyo. The household is, again, controlled by Naoki and Emi is gone, her disappearance is not explained, and the silence surrounding her abandoning Yuki evokes Diana’s old feelings. She finds herself trapped in a world that is filled with secrets, and discovers the truth about why Emi left. With Alison Jean Lester’s beautiful prose, the simplicity of the narrative, and the uneasy complexities of her characters bubbling to the surface, the plot is much more than what the nanny saw. It is a character study of a young woman adapting to a new life and culture while trying to come to terms with her own past and struggling to step into a future that has not been tainted by familial issues, unresolved feelings about love, and it is those factors which drive her instinct to protect Yuki. In that sense the character study of Diana did remind me of Lillian, as the narrative, written in Diana’s voice, draws the reader into her experiences of Japan (the author lived in Japan), and her descriptions of its pop culture, the underground, the food, and daily rituals offered a glimpse of a young woman’s life, albeit fictional. Like Lillian, she exposes the intricate detail of a woman’s life and, as before, she has the Midas touch.
In recent years there has been a real sway towards biographies that are not ‘cradle to grave’ studies of a person’s life. Granted, a little chronology is often needed when a subject is larger than life. Joanna Moorhead’s study of British artist and writer Leonora Carrington fits into the former category and, despite the title, the narrative is formed from her experiences and impressions of Carrington, her distant cousin known as ‘Prim’. Her famous relative’s name was often mentioned in hushed tones of disgrace while she was growing up, but Moorhead’s knowledge was scant and often wrong, thanks to family legends and second-hand tales. A chance meeting, at a party, put everything into perspective and she managed to track down an elderly Carrington, in Mexico, and what developed was an unusual friendship, sparking Moorhead’s quest to learn more about her.
This biography has the makings of everything I enjoy: an upper-crust family, a restless debutante, scandal. Leonora Carrington was never going to be conventional, despite her father’s self-made millions and a country manor – she was a freak among the girls from landed families, and always an outsider. After her deb season she ran away to Paris with an older lover, Max Ernst, and her father never spoke to her again. The lovers moved at the heart of the surrealist movement of 1930s Paris, but the Second World War divided their loyalties, and Carrington was briefly incarcerated in a Spanish asylum. Afterwards, she ran away to Lisbon and married a Mexican diplomat (to secure a Visa – some might call it self-sufficiency) and settled in Mexico, where she remained until her death.
Moorhead’s introduction to Carrington’s life has inspired me to seek out this anomaly, who threw caution to the wind to live by her own rules. This biography, although not at all in-depth in the sense that we know all of Carrington’s skeletons, keeps the reader at arm’s length, intensifying their longing to know more, but maintaining the mystery of her life. It is how Carrington would have wanted it, I think.
‘There is nothing so dangerous as a headstrong girl who knows her own mind,’ said Mary Yellan, the fearless heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. The same can be applied to Della Dobbs, the protagonist of The Wild Air, the latest novel by Rebecca Mascull. Female pilots from the early days of flying are experiencing a renaissance (in the literary world), and having read a few books based on real life pilots and works of fiction it takes a book to stand out. Although Mascull has drawn on the inspiration of aviatrixes such as Lillian Bland and Beryl Markham, the creation of Della Dobbs is entirely her own.
Set during the Edwardian era, Della Dobbs does not fit the mould of femininity, she likes to ride her bicycle and fix it herself. She’s also a loner, and she channels her love of machinery and engineering (as in the cycle) into the latest craze: aeroplanes. When her widowed great-aunt returns from America, Della is intrigued by this outspoken woman of whom her father disapproves. She realises that a life, quite unlike her mother’s burden of housework and childbirth, awaits her. Against the odds, and with her great-aunt’s encouragement, she learns to fly and falls in with a group of male pilots, much to the fury of her father. But Della fights against his, and society’s, prejudice to fulfil her dream. World War One interrupts Della’s fledgling career and her husband goes to France, but when he is reporting missing she takes to the skies to rescue him. This subplot of the novel, in the adventures of Della from shy girl to brave aviatrix, is an example of Mascull’s writing and the marriage of her characters and their vocations – she did a similar thing with Song of the Sea Maid but I won’t spoil it for you by revealing the plot. The character development of Della is almost biopic, as though she were a real historical figure. It is a brave novel which piques the curiosity of the reader, but it is also a reminder of how far women have come.
How much did Lillian Bland and other female aviators inspire your character?
The real lives of these early aviatrixes inspired me – and Della Dobbs – hugely. Their exploits were quite astounding. They fought against prejudice and expectations and forged a path for themselves in a male-dominated, dangerous pursuit. In the pre-WW1 days they were engaged in all the same challenges as their male counterparts, such as aerobatic flying and cross-channel flights. Some, like Hilda Hewlett, had their own aeroplane manufacturing companies. Melli Beese, a German aviatrix who appears in the novel, was an aircraft designer, as well as a great pilot. Katherine Stinson toured the Far East with her plane. They were fearless and determined. I admire them enormously!
You mentioned, last year, that you flew in a small aeroplane to get a sense of your character. How important is primary research to you?
It’s become more important the more I write, actually. I used to think you could imagine it all (and I think to a certain extent you still can) but I realised that if you can do primary research, you certainly should. I found the brilliant pilot Rob Millinship through the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire and he was incredibly helpful with my research. When we first met, he said very soon into our conversation that he would take me flying in a light aircraft, at which I immediately baulked and said, Oh well, maybe, having no intention of really doing it! I was too afraid! He said that really I had no business writing about flying if I wasn’t going to do it. I thought, I can use research and my imagination – it’ll be ok. He asked me several times and I kept putting him off. Then one day I suddenly thought, Oh blimey, stuff it. I’m gonna do it! And I did. I can honestly say it changed my life. And it made for a much, better, truer book. He was absolutely right, too. I had no business writing about such an extraordinary thing as light aircraft flight if I hadn’t experienced it myself.
How do you choose your subjects and what inspires you?
It’s all delightfully random. I’ll see something that grabs my interest, just catches my attention, a chance encounter, something on Radio 4 or on TV. It’ll present me with a situation, often a What if? kind of thing. With my first novel, it was the idea of how on earth it would feel inside your mind if you were both deaf and blind and you had no way to communicate. With my second, it was what would happen if you had a brilliant scientific idea but nobody was interested in listening to you? And with this one, it was the obsession with flight in those incredibly dangerous early days – what would make anyone want to go up in a kite with an engine, with no seatbelt, no parachute, no safety whatsoever – why would anyone want to risk it, let alone an Edwardian woman? It just grabbed me! Then, once I start doing a bit of research, I’m hooked and I won’t rest till the story is told.
Can you tell The Mitford Society about your writing process?
I start with a notebook and fill that with thoughts about the story. Once that’s finished, I know I’m ready to start the research. I read a heck of a lot, watch documentaries and movies, visit key locations (whenever possible) and engage in other primary research, such as flying! Or visiting a hop field and running my fingers along the bines so I know what they feel like, for example. Then I write a detailed synopsis (yes, I’m one of those curious creatures who actually enjoys writing synopses!) and a chapter plan. I then work from this as I’m writing the chapters. The story always evolves beyond the planning as I’m going along, but I like to have it there as a foundation. This is my process for an historical novel, anyhow. I’m thinking of maybe writing something totally different next and I might alter my method for that. I might just write and see what happens! I fancy a change.
The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull is published by Hodder and Stoughton.
Jill Dawson has a knack for writing about factual people but in a fictional way, she takes fragments from people’s lives and works them into a novel. The Great Lover is a brilliant example of this, and she manages to capture her protagonist’s unique tone in the narrative while maintaining a seamless writing style.
I was intrigued by Dawson’s latest book, The Crime Writer, mostly because I fell in love with the cover. Based on an episode of Patricia Highsmith’s life, during which time she lived in Sussex and was having an affair with a married woman, Sam. It is the mid-1960s and period of excitement and progression, but Highsmith’s life seems stuck in a rut, an empty place filled with promises from her married lover, being let down, clandestine meetings, and angst filled phone-calls. A nosy journalist comes to interview her, and Highsmith’s reluctance only fuels her curiosity. But then one night changes everything between Highsmith, Sam, and the lover’s husband, and her life begins to imitate her crime novels.
I wish I knew Dawson’s writing technique, for she has layered the story with a light touch and the complexities of a Hitchcock plot. The words creep like shadows across the page, and the reader is kept in suspense despite being let in on the crime. You will hold your breath until the last page, it is that good!
My review of this wonderful book will appear in The Lady in due course but owing to word-count restrictions I am posting my extended review on here. It really is a super book and worthy of the attention it appears to be generating. You can read an extract by clicking here: https://foxedquarterly.com/shop/the-secret-orchard-of-roger-ackerley-no-33/
Diana Petre was a natural writer and confidante to many, however the urge to create was often supressed by her vulnerability when it came to the written word. She killed books before they had a chance. Aged nineteen she married a writer who was in his fifties, and although the marriage was brief he encouraged her talents. Molly Keane’s biographer described Diana as ‘gifted’ and ‘wounded’ as a result of her upbringing. Despite her reservations when it came to the eleventh hour of publishing a book, and her personality flaws (more on that later), we can all rejoice that she wrote her memoirs, The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley.
This memoir, although peppered with barmy anecdotes relating to Diana’s life, is centred around her bewitching mother, Miss Muriel Perry. Who was Muriel? Nobody knows. Muriel herself deemed certain things to be ‘common’ and she is a classic example of someone who did not let the truth get in the way of a good story. The truth was ugly and it anchored her to a life she’d rather forget. And so she destroyed evidence throughout the years; passports were cut up, letters were censored, not even her birth was registered. She also had three children fathered by Roger Ackerley, a rich banana merchant also known as ‘the banana king’. The story goes that she kept the books for a respectable pub, and that was how they met. She had been standing in the doorway of his room, and he invited her to come inside to get warmed up. Muriel was soon pregnant, but the baby was stillborn. Twin girls, Sally and Elizabeth, followed (Sally married a future Duke of Westminster, but their true names are censored in the book), and Diana arrived two years later. All three were illegitimate, a damning sentence in those days, and so ashamed by this Muriel would only leave her flat at night-time. They moved a lot in those days, until Roger settled a house for his small family. He had told Muriel he had a wife and children, but this turned out to be a lie: the wife was long dead, and the mother of his other children was his mistress. He had two families, and Diana only discovered this after his death. Sitting on her mother’s bed, at an hotel in Vienna, Muriel revealed that ‘Uncle’ was her father. It seemed at the age of eighteen Diana’s life began, or at least she felt the urge to go on a quest to assemble her parentage. The problem was that both of her parents were mere ghosts, and Muriel gave nothing away.
When the children were young, Muriel vanished and left them in the care of an elderly housekeeper. Aside from her spells of ill health and work during WWI, she moved in with Doris Delevingne. This was at the very beginning of Doris’s pursuits as a courtesan, and Diana herself doubted that Doris knew of Muriel’s predicament. She appeared one day, aghast that her twins were twelve and Diana ten, and none of the children knew what to make of their pale faced, dark haired mother, with long limbs, and a trousseau of exotic clothes. She drank gin in the evenings, when she thought her children were asleep. Diana recalled her roaming the landing like Lady Macbeth, weeping, and going into her bedroom, pressing her face close to hers while she slept. Sometimes it frightened her, and the twins on closer inspection discovered the empty gin bottles stashed at the back of the wardrobe. The twins ran away aged eighteen, and their illegitimacy came to light when the law was powerless in ordering them to return home, as illegitimate children came of age at eighteen and not twenty-one.
Before Diana learned the truth about Uncle, she felt something was a miss. It was a childhood filled with secrets, and she asked Muriel if she was a divorcee. Muriel was furious, and declared divorce to be common. Then she wondered if her mother had been raised in an orphanage, which Diana believed to be on par with a mental asylum. Muriel said Uncle had made her feel safe, but he was often absent, and certainly not involved with the babies until they were older. He, of course, paid for everything: the house, the bills, the children’s school, Muriel’s allowance. When he died Muriel was heartbroken, and on the eve of WWII she remarried a dull widower but living with a man was foreign to her and she escaped by joining the war effort. During WWI she joined the Red Cross and was a nurse, and had an affair with a duke. She did the same during the second war, minus the duke, and was interned in a camp, and was eventually given an OBE. When she was released she came home to London, but her health was bad and her nerves were frayed. Her husband died, but it was not the same as Uncle’s death. The following years were bitter.
After the war Muriel became estranged from her children, with the exception of one of her twins. This twin, named Stella in the book, was Sally, Duchess of Westminster. She was kind to Muriel, gave her money, and paid her hospital bills. Muriel, by then, had invited a widow to live with her in exchange for housekeeping and cooking. The widow-cum-servant was sinister, and Diana did not trust her. But Diana herself was seldom around, only appearing when Muriel was dying of cancer. She appealed to her mother to answer questions about herself, Uncle, and the parts in between but Muriel refused. And so many things went unsaid, and were unresolved. Diana did not go to her funeral but went along with Sally to scatter Muriel’s ashes into the sea.
In many ways the memoir retains an air of sadness but it is not a misery memoir. The prose is witty and often quite light, and written in a conversational way. The foreword explains that Diana presented her memoir as a detective piece, with clues intertwined throughout the text, inviting the reader to help her discover Muriel. I enjoyed the anecdotes, often told out of sync. Many stories were hilarious, and bizarre. In the end I loved Muriel and sympathised with her. She reminded me of the Bolter in Nancy Mitford’s fabled novels, but in the end she came back. I think that says it all.
The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley was first published in 1975 and has been reissued by Slightly Foxed: https://foxedquarterly.com/shop/the-secret-orchard-of-roger-ackerley-no-33/
I freely admit that I love a good ghost story, or a plot which verges on the supernatural. It veers away from my usual reading list of women’s biography, historical fiction, and anything inter-war related. Some of you might be familiar with Osbert Sitwell’s A Place of One’s Own, in which a young woman becomes possessed by a girl who was murdered, and she is using her body to not only communicate with the living, but to seek retribution for the crime committed. In The Possessions, a clever debut novel by Sara Flannery Murphy, Eurydice (Edie) works for the Elysian Society, an organisation which allows the dead to inhabit the body of its living workers to communicate with their loved ones. Edie, cold and without much joy, is committed to her role at Elysian – and is a shell, so to speak. But when a new client, Patrick, a young widower who lost his wife in strange circumstances, begins to use Edie, she comes to life, so to speak. And the premise for the plot, and the character development, begins there. Although the genre could fit into horror, the book is written in an almost light-hearted style, allowing Edie to bring the reader into her confidence before taking them on a warped journey. A lot like her role at Elysian. The author’s prose is confident and engaging, and not a sentence or word is out of place or used in vain. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which arrived the day after I finished the equally brilliant The Roanoke Girls. It is a spellbinding and, perhaps, hypnotic read.
I must admit, having been born in Ireland (N. Ireland, but still . . . ) and harbouring a love for all things Anglo-Irish, pagan, druid, old world et al, I had never heard of Molly Keane. Perhaps I had, in passing, since my heroine Mariga Guinness warrants a mention in the book, somewhere in the 1950s, before the 18th-century had taken hold of her and she’s a shy princess in an Aran jumper and jeans, with her first baby sleeping on the sofa. This easy reference to Mariga should tell you that the book, written by Molly’s daughter Sally Phipps, is a trove of names. But not name-dropping, that’s not the Anglo-Irish way.
The book itself is more anecdotal than biography, however for the first seventy pages or so it does explore Molly’s childhood, her mother’s background in Antrim, and various other things. I did not read this in one go, and left gaps between delving in and out, so, to me, it did seem a bit longwinded. I really felt the book took off after this and I lapped it up in two sittings. The contrast of the two worlds in Ireland intrigued me, and I appreciated the author’s views on both, even Molly herself felt conflicted by a lifetime spent in country houses with servants and the threat of Sinn Fein. But with Molly, who had been accused of being a snob (‘the Irish Nancy Mitford’), she appeared to sidestep those tensions and people loved her, and she loved people.
I particularly enjoyed the asides about the people surrounding her in those days just before and during WW2 (a war she felt emotionally involved in, but was isolated from due to southern Ireland’s neutrality). A servant prays in the kitchen with a plate of dirty rosary beads; the local undertaker uses his hunting horses to pull coffins and often worried about meeting the hounds on the way to the graveyard. She befriended builders, seamstresses, even her house staff, and everything operates on a level that might have been impossible had Molly been more Anglo than Irish. But it is not all stiff tweeds, horse shows, and visits with the gentry (Adele Astaire (Lady Cavendish of Lismore Castle) pops in and out). There is a sting between the pages of Molly’s wit and generosity, and her daughter does not shirk from writing about her mother’s cruel put-downs, her slamming the door in her face, her telling her that she ‘talks a lot of nonsense’. Emotionally scarring, perhaps, but she rises above her grudges to portray a woman who, although brittle on the outside and was prone to flattery, had incredible inner strength.
As I am yet to read anything by Molly Keane – Good Behaviour will be devoured this spring – I felt a bit lost in the literary criticism her daughter deploys in the book. I wanted to learn more about Molly’s traits, but perhaps I am greedy. All in all, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good read.
Molly Keane: A Life by Sally Phipps is available from Amazon as well as all good book stores.
Bubble Carew-Pole said to me, “Do let’s run away. I’ve got a hired Daimler coming. With a chauffeur.”
Far from the literary world of Angela Brazil, where jolly hockey sticks and midnight feasts were the hallmark of a girls’ boarding school, this book tells the true story by those who have lived it. Spanning from 1939-1979, Ysenda Maxtone Graham undertook the mammoth task of interviewing the girls who attended these British establishments and who are still marked by the experience. Naturally, during the war years many of the schools were evacuated and the girls’ received their educations in stately homes, one being Chatsworth. In those days, although many of the girls came from rich families who could afford a good education, some were from impoverished backgrounds and relied on generous benefactors to pay for their schooling. The novelist Judith Kerr relates her experience of this, and she recalled the snobbishness that prevailed. However, many girls from the upper echelons of high society were not given the opportunity to attend school and were confined to the school room with a governess. Lady Emma Tennant (then Cavendish), Debo Mitford’s daughter, offers a brief snippet of information in the book and speaks of attending a boarding school as a day pupil, whisked to and from Chatsworth in a chauffeur driven car. In the text pupils ranged from aristocrats and royals (Princess Anne attended boarding school), girls whose fathers were in (whisper it) trade, daughters of the Raj, and a princess from Siam.
After the war, many foreign pupils were sent from Greece, Spain and Africa in search of a good English education, and the overall view of boarding schools changed from that of basically housing children who otherwise got in their parents way, to really climbing the academic ladder and having to compete with the boys’ schools, where a first class education was the norm. Although Spartan conditions prevailed, with inedible food, freezing bedrooms where hot water bottles would be transformed into blocks of ice, some schools allowed homely touches and girls brought their ponies, another hid her rabbit in various cages and increased the bunny population. There was a chain-smoking, drunken headmistress who instructed the girls’ to dance with her father, who’d often forget to attach his prosthetic arms. The same headmistress added rugby to the PE curriculum and demanded, ‘Jump on me, girls! Jump on me.’ Such odd conditions were the norm, and in this particular school the teachers were leaving by the droves, often exasperated by the head, and she roped a 15-year-old pupil into teaching science, and disguising her with make-up to pass a school inspection. Eventually the pupil cracked under pressure and left, and the headmistress was fired for punching a girl during assembly for looking at her the wrong way. In other schools, the teachers were wicked and by today’s standards would be accused of child abuse. The former pupils, now women advancing in old age, agree they were sexually frustrated and took this out on the girls. A clandestine bond definitely existed between the teachers, though in those days such things were not spoken about. A pupil speaks of avoiding certain teachers, who often invited selected girls into the private rooms, to sit in front of the fire and chat. One was afraid the headmistress would ask her of her woes and stroke her hand. Another teacher was praised for her tough approach, but she ‘had a smile like Doris Day’ and taught them husbandry and to not be afraid. During the war, the schools whose grounds were transformed by livestock, expected the pupils to help with the animals.
Lessons were spent wrapped in rugs in the draughty classrooms, and during PE the with girls with ’rounded’ or ‘squint’ shoulders dangled from climbing frames, and having one’s front teeth knocked out during lacrosse was the norm. Academia was shunned in favour of domesticity, such as sewing, setting a table, and making a bed with ‘hospital corners’. The reason for this was that no girl, when grown up and in charge of her own home, would ask a maid to do what she could not. Today the women speak of their fixation with hospital corners. Running away was the norm, with a girl hiring a chauffeur driven Daimler for the occasion and escaping with her friend to a cinema. Another caught a train and escaped to her godfather who lived at the Savoy Hotel.
Today, the women remain the products of their education: some cannot sleep unless their bedroom is freezing, and one spoke of a friend, a former boarder, who asked for her cabin window to be opened – she would rather risk being sprayed by sea salt than sleep in an airless room. They still associate Fridays with fish. And the author herself has a sixth sense when it comes to recognising ‘Old Girls’: their voices, their practical natures, an inner toughness, and the shape of their calves (because of PE). The stories are endless and too many to list. This is by far the most exciting book I have read all year, or in a decade. A perfect companion to those books on English eccentricity, it is a wonderful journey to a lost world.
Terms and Conditions: Life in a Girls’ Boarding School, 1939-1979 is published by Slightly Foxed.
Is there anything more honnish than an autumnal read? Although I receive many books ahead of their publication date, I prefer to squirrel some away until the right moment. Here are some books which fall into this category.
Drawing on six society hostesses who manoeuvred the minefield of social niceties between the world wars, and revered for their wit, beauty, and often scandalous behaviour, they were far from boring. But it was not all glitz and glamour – Nancy Astor was the first female politician to take her seat in Parliament; Sybil Colefax paved a career as a celebrated interior designer; Edith Londonderry founded the Women’s Legion; Emerald Cunard was a pioneer of the arts scene; Laura Corrigan sold her jewellery to help the French Resistance during WWII; and Margaret Greville remained defiant in her hotel suite as the Luftwaffe dropped bombs around her.
As a social historian, Sian Evans explores the class system, which was ultimately weakened in the aftermath of WWI and, as a result, it became easier to enter those exclusive circles. She eschews singular chapters for each lady, their individual stories are mingled together, and so it is interesting to compare their rise every step of the way, while competing with one another for prestige. Often waspish, and sometimes ruthless, it is easy to forgive the Queen Bees of their weaknesses. An exciting read, Evans has painted a compelling portrait of six inspiring women.
When I first received this book I did not know what to expect (mine had a different, more feminine cover) and I wrongly dismissed it as chick lit. But delving into the opening chapter, I was pleasantly surprised. Stephanie Bishop’s novel, based on the true story of her grandparents, presented the other side of immigration. In the 1960s Britons were leaving for Australia in their droves and they were tempted by the promotional messages of year-round sunshine, outdoor living, and spacious homes and grounds. However, Bishop’s protagonist Charlotte, a new mother and expecting another baby, is reluctant to leave her cramped cottage by the sea, to begin a new life. Her husband, Henry, an Anglo-Indian, is restless for an adventure and a new life, and he persuades her to go. There, they struggle to adapt to their new surroundings, and to each other. Although Bishop portrays the life of an émigré searching for a home (or Hiraeth, as the Welsh call it), the underlying element of Charlotte’s post natal depression comes into play. There are things beyond their control tearing them apart, and neither Charlotte or Henry know how to fix it. At 256 pages it is a quick and compulsive read, but the message it leaves behind is far more enduring. I still catch myself thinking about this book. I will definitely read it again.
I am not quite sure what to make of this book. Told by the point of view of three characters, Netty (the mother), Jack (the father), and Annette (the daughter), it evokes an unsettling atmosphere as family secrets come to light. Jack and Netty are dead, but they remain in their home, observing their (now) grown-up daughter, Annette, as she begins, or rather assembles the pieces of her life in her childhood home. But during quiet moments, their own lives are recalled and we learn of Netty’s mysterious illness and of Jack’s infatuation with their male lodger, who is a faith healer. This is an evocative read. I wonder if Ashworth named her character of Annette as a tribute to Osbert Sitwell’s character of the same name in his ghost story, A Place of One’s Own? The two novels could certainly be companions.
This hefty biography is a multi-layered story centring on various characters, each with their own tale to tell and secrets to hide. On the eve of WW2, the foreign-controlled port of Shanghai was a playground for outlandish socialites, all under the watchful eye of the hotelier, Sir Victor Sassoon. The legendary New York reporter, Emily ‘Mickey’ Hahn arrives at the height of the Depression, nursing a broken heart after a turbulent affair with an alcoholic screenwriter and checks into Sassoon’s Cathay Hotel. Convinced she will never love again, Mickey throws herself into the Shanghai social scene. Amidst the hedonism, she meets the Chinese poet, Zau Sinmay, and the two begin a forbidden love affair. Zau Sinmay introduces Mickey to the real Shanghai: a city of rich colonials, triple agents, opium-smokers, displaced Chinese peasants, and desperate White Russian and Jewish refugees. Through Taras Grescoe’s clever juxtaposition, the reader is faced with the excitement of Mickey’s antics and the dangerous undercurrent of political unrest. An intriguing account of a fascinating time and period, which exposes the old world of Shanghai, before poverty and unrest gripped a nation.
Published in 1962, this memoir detailed Olivia de Havilland’s transition from Hollywood film star to Parisian resident. Leaving America in 1953, she followed a Frenchman to Paris, where she became Mrs Pierre Galante and set up home on the Left Bank of the River Seine, but has since moved to the Right Bank, where she resides in a house as tall as it is wide. Re-issued by Crown Archetype to mark her 100th birthday, of which was celebrated on 1 July of this year, Every Frenchman Has One is as relevant and funny today, as it was over fifty years ago.
Far from an in-depth memoir of a Hollywood star, de Havilland offers us candid snippets of her life on the domestic front as well as the exciting world that befitted a star of her calibre. We are presented with the trials and tribulations of moving across the world with a young son, to a trip to Alexander, the famous coiffeur, for a haircut, and fittings at Christian Dior. Divided into twenty chapters, she discusses her daily struggles with French customs, French maids, and French salesladies to French holidays, French law, French doctors, and, above all else, the French language. Most puzzling of all, she asks:
How does a girl look sexy without looking sexy?
What must you tell a French doctor?
Do you eat a crepe of wear it?
Where do you keep your bathtub?
What does every Frenchman have one of?
The juxtaposition of such a life is what gives the book its panache, and humour. You can revisit two posts on the book by clicking here and here. Included in this new edition is an interview with de Havilland that reflects on her 60 plus years of living in Paris.
Written with wit and style, above all else Every Frenchman Has One is an elegant tale of an American living (and loving) in Paris.