Nosy Neighbors: “Ten Pollitt Place,” by C. H. B. Kitchin

The work of the English writer C. H. B. Kitchin (1895-1967) has faded into oblivion. You will see blank faces if you mention his books. Best known for his 1929 mystery, The Death of My Aunt, he never won the acclaim he craved for his literary fiction. Although the  critics and his friend L. P. Hartley praised his novels, the books simply did not sell. Fortunately, several of them have been reissued as e-books.

Kitchin deserves a revival:  his style is graceful and he is also very witty.  I especially recommend Ten Pollitt Place, a neglected comic masterpiece.  This wickedly funny novel follows the lives of the inhabitants of Ten Pollitt Street, a three-story house divided into flats in a charming cul-de-sac in London. 

The owner, Miss Tredennick, is an ancient spinster who lives on the top floor and  spends much of her time peeping out the window and spying on the comings-and-goings of an attractive neighbor, Miss Varioli. One night this sexy young woman arrives home at midnight in her boyfriend’s car, with the radio blaring.  The noise annoys Miss Tredennick, as does the fact that Miss Varioli dances in the street with her boyfriend.  And the latter, rather to the bewilderment of the reader,  convinces Miss Tredennick that Miss Varioli is a prostitute.

Needless to say, Miss Tredennick has no knowledge of modern mores.  But she is so obsessed with Miss Varioli that she keeps a detailed, very funny journal which would have no significance to anyone but her.

Wednesday, 12th October, 9.30 a.m. Y.V. left the house wearing . . . (Full details followed.) Carried a small grey plastic bag. Turned to the left when she came to the Crescent.
 5.35 p.m. Turned in from the Crescent, carrying a large parcel done up in mauve paper.
6.47 p.m. A small green Morris car parked outside Number 11,—no room opposite Number 7—and a youngish-man not the man—got out and went to No. 7. Admitted by Mrs O’Blahoney.

Ten Pollitt Place is a dark, comic version of Upstairs, Downstairs.  Miss Tredennick’s much younger counterpart lives in the basement flat. Hugo, the housekeeper’s gay son, is a prim, meddlesome 15-year-old crippled boy who shares Miss Tredenick’s low opinion of Miss Varioli and paints vicious graffiti on her front door.  Hugo is also light-fingered and a bit of a spy: he flits in and out of the neighbors’ apartments and helps himself to whatever he wants: Hugo steals cigarettes from Mr. Bray because he is in love with a garbage man who smokes.

My favorite character is Justin Bray, a once popular novelist who may well be based on Kitchin himself.  Mr. Bray has written 24 books,  but his latest, Seven Silent Sinners, is a flop.  His titled women friends are not entirely sympathetic. One of them says blithely, “Oh, but you should have a silver jubilee.  You must write one more, to make up the twenty-five.”

This kind of barb will not surprise any writer, but you can imagine how it affects the already deeply depressed Mr. Bray.  And a male friend of his is much more brutal.  He says Mr. Bray is finished because he is too old.

“Your trouble—our trouble—is that we’re hopelessly out of touch with the present age. However painstakingly we try to adapt ourselves to it—however carefully we vulgarise our style and purge it. of its youthful classicism,—doing our best to forget we’ve ever read Caesar, Cicero, Dr Johnson or. Gibbon—whatever slick phrases we borrow from the other side of the Atlantic, we can’t really keep up.”

These multi-character novels are always intriguing. There is one married couple, the seemingly normal Fawleys, who are, alas, miserable and ill-matched. Dorothy Fawley likes to read and is annoyed that her husband Robert devotes his leisure to tinkering with machines in his workshop.  Unbeknownst to Dorothy, Robert is having an affair with Magda, the housekeeper’s daughter, who,  like her brother Hugo, enjoys spying and tattling.  And annoying as the Fawleys are, we empathize with Dorothy, who still loves Robert – a surprise to both of them.

If you like this kind of novel,  I also recommend Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me and Monica Dickens’s The Heart of London. There is something so satisfying about the story of a house or a neighborhood. I loved Kitchin’s book!

Tangential Nugae: The Women’s Prize Longlist, Rediscovering C. B. H. Kitchin, & Nancy Hale’s “The Prodigal Women”

Spring marks the opening of  Book Awards season. The literati’s glam melees began this week with the announcement of the Women’s Prize longlist. 

I have long been a fan of the Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize).  In 1996 I read the first Orange Prize winner, Helen Dunmore’s haunting novel, A Spell of Winter. She became one of my favorite writers, and I followed her eclectic career till her death in 2017. My favorite of Dunmore’s books is Counting the Stars,  a novel about the relationship between the Roman poet Catullus and his lover, Clodia – based on his poems.

 Many literary prize fans read only the prize winners, but I generally prefer the less-celebrated books on the the longlist.  And this  year I am excited by what seems to be an encouraging  inclusion and a new trend: Natalie Haynes’s Stone Blind, a retelling of the Medusa myth, has made the longlist. 

Aside from Haynes’s background in classics and all-round intelligence,  why is Stone Blind significant?   Well, the retold myth has become an increasingly important women’s fiction genre. Walk into a bookstore and you are likely to find a table devoted to retold myths with titles like Clytemnestra, Cassandra, and Circe.  These feminist reinterpretations mine the lives of goddesses and heroines of Greek myths – and myths from other countries – and spin ancient culture from a woman’s point-of-view.

I am reading and enjoying Stone Blind.

And you will find the Women’s Prize longlist at the end of this post.

HAVE YOU READ C. H.B. KITCHIN?  For years I had tattered paperback copies of The Death of My Aunt and The Death of an Uncle on my bedside table.  And then I discovered that  Kitchin, a neglected novelist who is remembered mainly for his mysteries, also wrote literary fiction.  
I was lucky to find a copy of his beautifully-written novel, A Short Walk in Williams Park. Kitchin is not much read anymore; he was not very popular in the 20th century, either.  In the preface to this slight, graceful novel,  L. P. Hartley writes, “Fiction writing was his great love and his disappointment.  Somehow he lacked ‘the common touch,’ and the reviewers’ constant encomiums did not console him for it.”

A Short Walk in Williams Park is a decidedly odd little book:  think Barbara Pym, diabolically mingled with Henry Green and Anita Brookner. The protagonist, Francis Norton, an  elderly bachelor who has retired from business, enjoys long walks in London parks. He is a keen observer of people, but one day, without meaning to eavesdrop,  he overhears a  desperate conversation between  two lovers, Mirrie and Edward.  Edward is married and cheating on his wife; he and Mirrie have little time together, but often meet in Williams Park.  Through an odd series of circumstances, including finding three pages of Mirrie’s diary in the park, Francis becomes an advisor to the two lovers.

Much of this novel is cleverly narrated in letters and other documents.  There is also a mystery. Edward’s wife has a rich cousin who dies of an overdose of “Traversinal, a dangerous drug of the barbiturate family.” Where did she get it? Was she murdered, or was it an accidental overdose?  

Fascinating and a bit weird:  I am now a Kitchin fan.

A NEW EDITION OF NANCY HALE’S THE PRODIGAL WOMEN.  Did I inspire the revival of Nancy Hale?  It is just possible.  In 2010, I wrote at a defunct blog:  “The  book I am really keen on at the moment is Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women, and you’ll be hearing much more about it.  Think of the first time you read The Group, Valley of the Dolls, Daughters of the New World, or The Women’s Room, only 10 times better.  This is a perfect Spring Break book.”

The Library of America is publishing a new edition of The Prodigal Women in May. My 1980s Plume paperback version is tattered and held together with scotch-tape, so I do deserve a new copy. Thank you, Library of America, for reviving Nancy Hale!  LOA has also published a selection of Hale’s short stories.

AND HERE IS The Women’s Prize Longlist 2023

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

Demon Copperfield by Barbara Kingsolver

The Dog of the North by Elizabeth McKenzie

Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova

Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh

Pod by Laline Paul

The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff

Homesick by Jennifer Croft

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes

Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks

Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin

Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris

Glory by NoViolet Bulawalyo

Confusingly Similar Titles: “Death of My Aunt” and “The Murder of My Aunt”

I was browsing at a foundering used bookstore when I came across two mysteries by C. H. B. Kitchin, Death of My Aunt and Death of His Uncle, in scruffy 1980s Perennial paperbacks.  The bookstore owner, who favored a hard sell and attached the word “classic” to every book I scrutinized,  claimed they were crime “classics.”  Whether true or not,  I was intrigued by the clever titles, and once home stacked them in the place of honor on the bedside table.  That night I perused a few (slightly foxed) pages of  Death of My Aunt and put it aside.  Ditto with Death of His Uncle

 Could books with such whimsical titles actually be dull?

Perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood, I thought cheerily the next morning.  I was sure I would read them someday.  And indeed, I thought someday had come when I snapped up a  British Library edition of The Murder of My Aunt.

The Murder of My Aunt is a a mildly entertaining mystery – but a third of the way through I realized that it was not Kitchin’s aunt  mystery at all – it was by Richard Hull! Kitchin’s book is called Death of My Aunt.

I felt cross. “How dare they screw around with titles, and wasn’t this some kind of plagiarism?” (though perhaps that doesn’t apply to titles).  Kitchin’s aunt book was published in 1929, and Hull’s followed in 1934.

Feeling cheated, I consoled myself with the prospect of reading  Kitchin’s aunt book and comparing it to Hull’s.

But Death of My Aunt has vanished.  Perhaps I donated it to the library.

So here I am, with my cup of tea, ready to read Kitchin’s Death of His Uncle instead.   Book open, pages ready…  and the first sentence is brilliant.  “Had it not been for my inability to mash potatoes on Thursday, June 10th, I think it quite possible that I might never have embarked on this third case of mine.”

Bur there is further exasperation.  This aged paperback of  Death of His Uncle is too tightly bound: I can barely read the words near the center of the book.  I’ve tried pummeling it, folding back the cover, but nothing works.

I’m ready to read C.H.B. Kitchin – and now this! 

Which is better? His aunt book or his uncle book?

I hope Kitchin is worth reading. He also wrote literary fiction: he was a close friend of L. P. Hartley.

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