This third installment of the Emmy Lake Chronicles is a delightful choice for the long evenings and short, cloudy days of winter.
It’s 1943 London, and Emmy’s new husband is away fighting fascists offstage. The Blitz, fore-fronted in Dear Mrs. Bird, is now in the background. But enough bombings are still taking place to precipitate a tragedy among Emmy’s closest comrades. In its aftermath, Emmy, her neighbors, and we as readers wrestle with the fallout of war.
But as usual, Woman’s Friend has other causes to rally round as well. This time the staff must save save their beloved publication from the devastating “improvements” designed by its new owner, Mrs. Porter.
My husband and I have been reading out loud to one another since shortly after we got married more than twenty years ago. It all started on Cyprus with A Thousand and One Nights. Sometimes we dip into several books before landing on one we both enjoy. A year ago my husband agreed to sample Pilgrim’s Inn with me. A cousin had given it to me for Christmas, along with its prequel, The Bird in the Tree.
We were both surprised when Pilgrim’s Inn, which many would consider women’s lit, captured my husband’s interest as well as mine. What we didn’t know when we started was that it would turn out to be the perfect read not only for late winter, but for other tough and uncertain times (see note below).
Thrones, Dominations and A Presumption of Death, by Jill Paton Walsh (and Dorothy Sayers)
Though I’m not a Sayers expert, it seems to me Jill Paton Walsh carries off these post-Sayers Wimsey-Vane mysteries admirably. Sayers, it seems, lost interest in Thrones, Dominations after penning a partial manuscript and some notes. In 1986 the publisher approached Walsh with the manuscript, and she agreed to complete it. (Who wouldn’t?) The result is the first full-length work to pick up with Peter and Harriett’s married life in London. It follows Busman’s Honeymoon, set in Harriett’s hometown of Hertfordshire.
During WWII Sayers published some letters by members of the Wimsey family that provided the public with a glimpse of the Wimseys’ wartime life. These letters provided the inspiration as well as the opening chapters of A Presumption of Death. Harriett, her two children, her nephews, and a niece are back in Hertfordshire. Peter is on the continent doing (what else?) top-secret intelligence work. When a murder takes place during a village air raid, Harriett, of course, agrees to help with the investigation.
Several years ago my daughter and I read Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse (1946), said to be a childhood favorite of Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Goudge’s mix of whimsy, fantasy, and light-handed moralism intrigued me, as did her blend of Catholic and pagan imagery (not unlike C.S. Lewis’s employment of Greek mythology in The Chronicles of Narnia). Seeking more, I discovered Goudge (1900-1984) had written almost twenty adult novels, in addition to short stories and children’s books.
I decided on The Rosemary Tree (1954), a novel set in post-WWII England. As with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the protagonist is a mild-mannered minister–a kindhearted soul who doesn’t quite have a handle on family life. When a native son, back from the war, wanders onto the scene, John befriends him. Before long we learn this lost soul was once engaged to John’s wife.
About ten years ago a good friend, a Baylor honors professor, spoke of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) as “the most nearly perfect novel ever written.” Intriguing. I was compelled, of course, to read it.
My initial response? “Huh.” I was not so much disappointed as mystified. In what, precisely, lay the perfection? And what was it really about? I concluded my education had not properly prepared me to appreciate it.
Many people, I have since learned, respond similarly to a first reading of Brideshead. When another friend told me, three or four years ago, that she was reading it alongside a Close Reads discussion podcast, I decided to give it another go. This time, whether thanks to the Close Reads commentary or my own heightened awareness of where the book was heading, I got it.