Homework at the End of the World: Lockdown, Classics, and Snakes and Ladders

Turn on, tune in, drop out.  But we’re doing this through literature, not drugs.

It’s time to read the classics. We’ve got a lot of homework at the end of the world!  My copy of Don Quixote is on the night table, but I am also finishing up Anthony Burgess’s Enderby books, which are comic classics in their own right. 

And then there’s the Latin literature.  Much of it is comic, too.  

Why, you may wonder, would anyone want to read Roman comedy during lockdown?  Well, it’s fun for me, and it’s funny.  But I do love classics in other languages too,  and am thrilled that so many people are turning to the great books. According to essays  in The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Washington Post, people are reading War and Peace, Middlemarch, and The Decameron.  And sales are up at Penguin, according to The Guardian.

In the fifth (or is it sixth?) week of lockdown, the number of coronavirus cases here has climbed from seven to 5,000.  All I can say is, it is terrifying, but thank God we live in a sparsely-populated state.  Every day we wake up and are glad we’re well, but at the same time,  What fresh hell is this?    

I have a bookish discovery.  LET ME RECOMMEND THE BEST BOOK YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF,  Doris Langley Moore’s A Game of Snakes and Ladders, first published in 1938 and recently reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow. This is one of the most charming novels I have read, and I will certainly read it again and again.  A great theater novel!

At the end of World War I, Lucy and Daisy, actresses in a theatrical company, have become casual friends:   Lucy, a  witty, charming vicar’s daughter,  got the job for Daisy, a lower-class woman stranded in Australia after a bad marriage.  When the company arrives in Egypt, the social gap between the two  widens: Daisy absorbs herself in an affair with the rich owner of the company, while Lucy desperately saves money to return to London.  Lucy loses her money, her looks, and job after a long illness, mainly because of a decision of Daisy’s.  You will love Lucy’s story–she never loses hope but is stranded for years in Egypt–and you will  admire Moore’s graceful, dazzling prose.  

This is the best of the three books I’ve read by Moore, who was a novelist, a Byron scholar, and founder of a fashion museum.

A Delightful Middlebrow Novel:  Doris Langley Moore’s “Not at Home”

Doris Langley Moore

Doris Langley Moore’s books have long been out-of-print.  One wonders why:  she was a fascinating writer and even founded a fashion museum.   She was a fashion historian, a collector of costumes, a Lord Byron scholar, and a translator of ancient Greek poetry.  

She also wrote very good novels.

Her charming 1948 novel, Not at Home, has recently been reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow.  It is brilliant, funny, and bingeable, with a likable spinster heroine and an utterly believable plot.  And you will be rooting for the polite heroine all the way, though her too good manners sometimes get in the way of life.

 The heroine, Miss MacFarren, a middle-aged botanical writer, must rent out part of her London house because of post-war money problems.  And, because she is so polite, she takes her bossy friend Harriet’s advice and rents to Mrs. Antonia Bankes, a manipulative American who will agree to anything–and then go her own way.

Miss MacFarren is a complicated, independent heroine who has never had to cope with a roommate, let alone a tenant.  Although  Bankes obsequiously admires Miss MacFarren’s rare botanical prints and valuable mint-condition collectibles,  she does not take care of them.  She has wild parties, breaks valuables, hides the broken pieces in the trash, burns a beautiful satinwood table with a hot iron–and poor Miss MacFarren can neither sleep nor concentrate because of the noise.  

Moore writes of Mrs. Bankes,

For instance, when she spilt a bottle of ink on the hall carpet, she first tried to conceal the accident by placing a rug over the stain, then when it was inevitably discovered, mentioned with perfect insouciance that she was sending a message to a ‘little man’, highly recommended by a friend, who specialized in removing inkstains from carpets. No such person having turned up, Miss MacFarren asked some days later whether he was to be expected; Mrs. Bankes looked blank for a moment, and, as unconvincingly as a child whose face is sticky with the jam it denies having touched, answered that her letter must have been lost in the post. After a further delay, Miss MacFarren enquired for the carpet-cleaner’s address, so that she might save trouble by getting in touch with him herself, and the reply was so palpably evasive as to leave no room for doubt that he had been a fiction.

Moore has the psychology just right:  Miss MacFarren has such good manners that she cannot evict the horrible Mrs. Bankes outright. And Mrs. Bankes acts charming and slightly befuddled, so she always gets her way (especially with her absent husband, when he occasionally pops into London for a week).  Miss MacFarren is reluctant to confront Mrs. Bankes in front of her friends, who are always there.  Mrs. MacFarren doesn’t care to be alone.  And Miss MacFarren has a hard time believing that anyone can be as shallow as Mrs. Bankes.

Her first impression of Mrs. Bankes’s friends was that they bore as close a resemblance to one another as the chorus of a musical comedy. They were all fashionably dressed, alternately flippant and gushing in manner, and ‘rushed off their feet’, ‘in a tearing hurry’, and ‘frantically busy’ doing nothing, apparently, but meeting one another for purposes of amusement.  

Fortunately, Miss MacFarren’s nephew, Mory, a movie director, and his friend, a young actress, appreciate her. She has heard Mrs. Bankes and her friends joke about her, and has cried over it.  Such a pleasure to get out of party house and hear who you are in the real world once again.

 It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan of classics and literary fiction, or a defiant reader of pop fiction.  This is definitely a treat, well-written, intelligent, and fun. 

%d bloggers like this: