Women’s Books We’d Like to See in Print

There are wonderful women’s presses out there:  Virago, Persephone, British Library Women Writers,  The Feminist Press, and Furrowed Middlebrow. But some books are perennially forgotten, and here are some of my favorites that are worthy of revival.

1. Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy. These complex, witty novels, Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide,  delineate the the changing relationship between the narrator, art historian Claud Pickering, and his histrionic stepmother, Helena, a former chorus girl, amidst the disintegrating class boundaries of postwar society. His beloved half-sister, who must deal not only with Helena but a deadbeat husband, is perhaps his favorite person. These books are as good as Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time!

2. Library of America has rediscovered Nancy Hale in recent years, publishing her novel The Prodigal Women and a collection of her brilliant short stories. I strongly recommend Nancy Hale’s two charming out-of-print memoirs, A New England Girlhood, which delineates her unique childhood as the daughter of two artists, and Life in the Studio, a memoir of her parents inspired by the relics she found while clearing out their studios after their deaths. 

Life in the Studio is my favorite: Hale and her mother comically disagree about many subjects, including fashion. In 1928 Lilian wore a new black cape to Nancy’s wedding to protect her wedding outfit, and Nancy despised it.  Nancy felt that “if one was not wearing Chanel, pearls, a felt helmet and a knee-length coat clutched together at the hip, one might as well be dead.”  But Lilian saved garments forever, sometimes arranging them for her paintings, or making patchwork quilts – but she mostly wore them.   Nancy despaired: she had learned from an editor at Vogue “that no woman should have more than three outfits in a wardrobe at a time–one on her back, one in the closet, and one at the cleaners.”

Hale was the first woman reporter for The New York Times and a frequent contributor of short stories and autobiographical pieces to The New Yorker.  She was the daughter of two painters, Philip L. Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale; the granddaughter of Edward Everett Hale, author of The Man Without a Country; the great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Lucretia Peabody Hale (The Peterkin Papers); and a descendant of Nathan Hale.

3. Another book I’d  dearly love to see back in print is Gladys Taber’s autobiographical novel,  Mrs. DaffodilThe kind, witty heroine, Mrs. Daffodil,  is almost Taber’s twin:  she lives in the country with her widowed friend, Kay,  and they  raise children, dogs, cats, a pheasant, and a baby blue jay.  Mrs. Daffodil, a writer, happily churns out a syndicated column called “Butternut Wisdom” and romantic short stories about young love, because readers are not interested in what she knows about, i.e.,  middle-aged widows. Mrs. Daffodil has a weight problem because she loves to try out magazine recipes that call for a pint of sour cream.  When we first meet her she is having trouble zipping up a dress, and about to go on a diet. Fans of Taber’s Stillmeadow books will love this novel.

Mrs Daffodil by Gladys Taber | Goodreads

4. I am a great fan of Emily Kimbrough’s Forty Plus and Fancy-FreeKimbrough is best known for Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, a hilarious travel memoir co-written with actress Cornelia Otis Skinner.  But Kimbrough also had a solo writing career.  In Forty Plus and Fancy-Free,  Kimbrough, a fashion editor for The Ladies’ Home Journal , is trying to decide whether to travel to Italy with her friend, Sophy. Her employer agrees  to give her a vacation if she covers the Coronation in England.  I laughed hysterically over their Italian lessons at the Berlitz school, because who hasn’t had linguistic goof-ups?  When a young man follows Sophy through the streets in Italy, she cows him by telling him she is a grandmother. And there are breathtaking descriptions of views and art, though usually with humorous comments.

5. How on earth can Alice Thomas Ellis’s classic humor books, Home Life, More Home Life, & Home Life Three, & Home Life Four be out-of-print? Ellis, a novelist, mother, editor,and a conservative Catholic, wrote these brilliant domestic columns originally for the SpectatorHome Life is vaguely like E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady, only urban, circa the 1980s. A white Persian cat is in the sink, so Ellis has difficulty brushing her teeth; a man mistakes her for a prostitute when she is in a bar with Beryl Bainbridge; she gets snowed in in the country; and the pipes burst and inundate a set of Thackeray.

What are your favorite out-of-print books?  Informed minds want to know!

It’s Dark Outside! Reveries on November Reading

November isn’t the coziest of months.  Jo in Little Women says, “That’s the reason I was born in it.”  

The best way to survive the tenebrous days of November is to sit in a very clean house with a reasonably good book. After you vacuum and dust, you can admire the spotless carpet and the scratched but now polished tables.  And then you can draw the drapes for ultra-coziness, though if they are green velvet or scarlet moreen, you may feel like a tense Scarlett O’Hara  (she must make a dress out of velvet curtains) or Jane Eyre concealed behind the curtains in the windowseat, hiding from her intimidating cousin.

Jane Eyre (Folio Society edition)

Whenever I think of Scarlett O’Hara, I remember my mother, whom I still miss, though I no longer talk to her ghost.  Gone with the Wind was her favorite book, though my once favorite Jane Eyre made little impression on herI don’t much like Gone with the Wind,  which I find poorly-written; she preferred Scarlett to Jane as a character. Of course, my friends and I wanted to marry Mr. Rochester!   (These days, I think Monsieur Paul in Villette might make a better husband.)

The three books above make ideal November reading, but I recently finished another Novemberish novel, Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Trojan Brothers, published in 1944.  The neglected Pamela Hansford Johnson, a popular, well-respected novelist of the 20th century, wrote 27 novels, most realistic and psychological, though some of them are brilliant satires.  She also wrote criticism and autobiography.

The Trojan Brothers is a difficult novel to enjoy. I have seldom felt more edgy while reading a bone-chilling book. Set in the 1920s, it is a fictional study of aberrant psychology.  The hero, Sid Nichols, lives at such a pitch of hysteria that we can feel it tingling on our skin.  

 Sid and his friend Benny are successful comedians:  they play two halves of a talking horse in a popular stage act (Johnson actually makes this act sound enchanting ). Sid, the hind end, is known for making hilarious remarks to the audience.  When he spots Betty Todd, the upper-class cousin who snubbed him in childhood, he confronts her from the stage by subtly insulting her.  (No one else would understand the insults.) Afterwards, she comes backstage with her husband to rebuke and insult Sid.  And yet he masochistically wants to see her again.

How this leads to a love affair is mysterious.  Sid is plain and has ginger hair and freckles, while  beautiful Betty is “like a pierrot doll, very handsome, haughtily amused.” Betty is a social climber, disliked by most people:  she invites famous people to parties, and Sid is her connection to the theater.   As Sid smashes his successful career, and also that of his partner, Benny, in his pursuit of Betty, we realize he is losing his mind.  And it gets worse…  

This well-written novel is interesting, but far from her best.  She has analyzed unrequited love in other novels, and, though painful to read, The Last Resort and The Philistines do a better job.  The Trojan Brothers is so extreme.

How does one cope with November?  By reading cheerful or gloomy books?  

I hope to move on to a cheerful book after The Trojan Brothers.