Roast Beef, Medium: The Business Adventures of Emma McChesney – Edna Ferber (1913)

This was a short story (well, more of a novella really) about a traveling sales woman who travels the mid-West selling petticoats. It is set during the early years of the twentieth century, and so to have a single (actually divorced! Shocker!) woman traveling by herself across the Plains of America was quite a big deal to read about. Additionally, as a commentator pointed out, this was written before women even had the vote, so it was cutting edge at the time.

Having researched a little about Ferber, it seems that she had a penchant for writing about strong female characters who had to come up against a challenge or discrimination somehow, and this certainly fits the bill for Emma McChesney, the feisty heroine in this tale. McChesney has been married and is now divorced with one 17-year old son. She has been working in sales for some years, and is very good at it, although the many male counterparts feel threatened by her and see her as either someone to be seduced or to beat, sales-wise.

She, on the other hand, is very capable of standing up for herself in the male-dominated world of traveling sales. She takes hotel clerks to task for giving her the crappy rooms (as she is a female), and she rebuffs the various attempts to either seduce her or remove her from her colleagues. She is not some Sweet Young Thing – she is mid-thirties and can definitely defend herself.

She is defiantly independent among the men in her field, and knows with confidence that she is one of the best salespeople out there. This is recognized a few years later, when she is given a leading role in the home office of her company (in tandem with the son of the founder), and although the son is the director on paper, Emma is the de facto leader when it comes to action. In fact, she is the leading force of pushing the firm to develop new product lines when fashions change and sales of petticoats fall.

Emma does not suffer fools gladly, as the saying goes, and I think this was a really edgy novel when this was published. To me, Emma is a bit rough around the edges and too honest at times (even rude and a bit of a blowhard), but considering her line of work and the time she was living, perhaps it was the only way to succeed then. Ferber (the author) was quite young when this was published (in her twenties), and I think she must have been quite a firecracker to have dreamt up Emma in the first place.

The odd title, by the way, refers to Emma’s recommendation for traveling salespeople to always stick to the tried-and-true with regard to menu when traveling. Just order “Roast beef, medium” and you wouldn’t have the digestive problems common to new salespeople (in her experience).

Ferber went on to write a lot more novels, and had some of her books turned into plays and musicals, even winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1925 for her book, “So Big”. So, it seems she was quite a bigwig, but I had not ever heard of her before I started digging around on the net. Shame really, as I think she was an important writer and early feminist.

There are another two volumes out there that focus on Emma’s continuing life – just FYI. I might look at these at some point in the future, but for right now, I have had enough of Ms. McChesney.

Good book and easily found at girlebooks, librivox and Project Gutenberg.

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My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You – Louisa Young (2011)

I thought this was a well written and involving novel about the trials and tribulations of WWI of both the people on the home front and the soldiers on the front line. I think what helped me really enjoy this book was that I had oodles of time to give it, and thus could get completely wrapped up in the story line. I am not sure that this would have worked so well if I had been forced to put it down and then pick it up in small doses, but reading it in long swathes of time meant that I could jump in the story completely and become immersed in the lives and drama of the characters. It was a great reading experience.

It seems that I have been digging deeper in WWI lately, what with Downton Abbey on PBS and Enid Bagnold’s diary the other day. It seems to me that WWI (or the Great War, as it is sometimes called) was particularly brutal and that England was completely unprepared as to how to train its soldiers to fight effectively, and then how to treat them upon their return to safe shores. (Admittedly, all war is horrible, but this particular war seems to be so full of cold and wet, mud, moronic fighting techniques, and then inadequate medical care for those who were hurt.) And then all followed up with unassailable attack of the frequently fatal “Spanish Flu” epidemic of 1918. As someone else noted on the web, it’s no wonder that people reacted in such a hedonistic way during the 1920’s – who wouldn’t in such a similar situation?

However, this is me looking back with twenty-first century eyes. Then, there was no penicillin or antibiotics, so infections were bad news. This was the first time that tanks were used – previously, it was all horses – and I can only imagine how scary it must have been for some of these young rural boys to hear this enormous engine come bearing over the edge of the trench. And then, the mortality rate was so so high…

The characters were really well developed, and it was interesting to see how Riley coped with his physical injuries compared with Peter and his emotional injuries.

The female characters were also good – humanly error-prone, but learning to be independent in their new roles as VADs etc. Even if her role was much smaller than that of a VAD, Julia still kept the home fires burning in the way that she knew best, whilst dealing with her own self-doubt and the unknown fate of Peter (who was her Everything). Her choices at the end of the novel were shocking, but understandable.

I thought Julia was very well done, really. Brought up to only be beautiful, she is ill prepared for what changes the war brings, and, like the other characters, she grows and evolves into a different stronger Julia. I would think that any war would affect those closely involved in some way, whether at home or on the front. However, this one seems to have had an enormous effect on the world. It changed (or set change into motion) the very fabric of society: gender roles in society, the role of class, the roles of domestic servants, etc… All changes which would lead to ripple effects to even further changes: the emancipation of women, the admitting of a mental condition called shell shock… and all these changes are reflected throughout the novel in a very natural manner.

I really enjoyed this novel, and recommend it.

Diary without Dates – Enid Bagnold (1917)

A loose and unstructured diary that tells the story of a life as a VAD in a military hospital during WWI. The name of the hospital and its location are kept vague, probably due to security concerns, but Bagnold still got widely criticized for this screed against the hospital administration. (It was later confirmed that she was working at the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich.)

This is a day-to-day account which seems to flow from one day to the next, from one week to the next with no clear delineation of days or other traditional calendar markers. Seasons are acknowledged, and night and day, but apart from that, few clues are given about time which seems to give a dreamy quality to the document. It’s rather stream-of-consciousness which was rather cutting edge back then.

Bagnold was a Voluntary Auxiliary Detachment person and worked for the British Red Cross. VADs were trained to do first aid and very basic nursing care in the numerous military and convalescent hospitals that sprung up during the Great War (a la Downton Abbey). Bagnold came from a very privileged background, growing up in Jamaica with titled parents and coming to London to go to art school, and thus, she is very aware of the important role that social class distinctions made at this time.

Being a VAD, she feels rather peripheral to the whole hospital situation: she is very limited in what she can provide skill-wise and also resource-wise, and so she views the daily life from a step removed which enables her to look with a certain level of dispassion at things. She finds the Sisters callous: one Sister is aware of a soldier’s moldering arm pain – “I know, but I can’t do anything about it. He must stick it out.” She is frustrated at how little she can help her patients, but finds repetitive tasks (such as laying cutlery on the trays) meditative and helpful to sort out her thoughts.

Being in the Officers’ ward at first, Bagnold wonders how life will turn out for some of these men whose injuries have been life-changing: The soldiers “living so near the edge of death, they are more aware of life than we are…Will they keep this vision, letting it play on life? Or will it fade?”

Having been raised in a wealthy environment, she is bemused by the sisters she has to work with and is not in awe of any ranking system there was. Speaking of how the Sisters viewed the world, she is damning and cutting.

“Their conception of a white female mind is the silliest, most mulish, incurious, unresponsive, condemning kind of an idea that a human creature could set before it.”

She sees the Sisters pandering to the important and wealthy visitors to the detriment of the patients and can’t understand it. However, she is fully aware of this attitude of hers and knows that it will get her into trouble at some point. But still – she persists. Why? Is it because of her removed point of view that she feels that she doesn’t have to play the game? Is it because she is wealthy and thus has no impetus to not make waves with the risk of losing her job?…

Some other interesting points that came up whilst reading this:

  • Patients and nurses/docs could smoke all day and night in the wards (in their beds if required)
  • The ward’s windows were perpetually open even on cold snowy or foggy nights so people inside the building could see their breath whenever it was cold (inside or outside)
  • Limited medicine meant that patients would honestly never know whether they would get better or not and how to comfort someone in that situation

Overall, a good read about a very hard experience. Bagnold writes in an ethereal, dreamy way, floating from one thought to another with no dates or times or days to anchor the story. This creates a foggy experience for the reader (which is echoed in the foggy weather they have during the winter) and an experience which is not clear but more felt than anything.

Must give credit to Booksnob for steering me to this book. Thanks!

Remember, Remember: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know about British History with all the Boring bits taken out – Judy Parkinson (2009)

An intriguing book that my sister gave to me last Christmas, this was, quite honestly, the perfect re-introduction to British history from way back to the Vikings through to the close of World War II. Obviously not an in-depth look at these historical events, but it does do exactly what it says on the tin: “a comprehensive overview that gives you all the key facts without any flab.”

As any British schoolchild will know, there is just so much history to cover when you learn British history, that it all ends up as a jumble of dates, kings and queens, and various wars. The editors developed this book as an answer to all the gaps we have in our heads from school day history lessons. There are 150 entries, each about 250 words long, and with just enough information for you to get the facts. Obviously, there is a lot more detail to the history, but to give you a taste of things, this was great.

For example, at my old school, we covered Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Romans, some Vikings, the history of Native Americans (why?) and women’s emancipation (obviously a biggie for a large private girls’ school from Victorian times). So, I don’t know if teachers were “teaching to the test” as they do here in Texas or just how the time periods were selected but it seemed very random and unconnected to me.

“Remember, Remember” is divided into several different time periods: Roman Britain, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Tudor Britain, Stuart Britain, Georgian Britain, Victorian Britain, Edwardian Britain, WWI, the Interwar Years, and WWII. There is an easy to access list of Monarchs (lots of Edwards, Henrys and Georges for some reason), and a time line of the larger events. What worked so well, actually, was the logical chronological order of one event leading to another so you could see the flow and continuity of history, as different monarchs had different areas of interest.

I also found it interesting to see how long the battle between the Roman Catholic church and the Church of England (CofE), and how it all played out over time, Additionally, it cleared up my confusion over the Northern Ireland/Ireland division and who the IRA were and how it all fit in. I was a school girl during the 1970’s, and we grew up with regular bomb threats, bomb drills, avoiding left luggage etc, but not completely understanding what was really going on. Now it’s a little clearer.

I might be gushing a bit, but this was one of the most fascinating (and helpful) books that I have read in a long time. Now, I wonder if there is one for post-WWII to the turn of the century. I have some gaps there as well….

Added later: I found one in the series that covers US history, so will delve into that when it arrives in my post box. 🙂

The Great Western Beach: A Memoir of a Cornish Childhood Between the Wars – Emma Smith

A memoir from the PoV of a young girl growing up on the Cornish coast, this is nicely written and has the tone balanced between the wide-eyed optimism of Elspeth’s youth along with the more realistic view of an adult. It’s written in present tense (which some find irritating, but is well done here), and when I was reading this in large chunks, it was easy to get sucked in and really experience what the protagonist experiences: the smell of the sea, the sound of the waves, the emotional impact of her parents…

Elspeth Smith (later called Emma Smith) is the youngest of three kids in a genteelly poor family at the seaside town of Newquay. Her father went off to WWI and came back a hero, but since then has done nothing worthy to maintain that adoration. Instead, he married Elspeth’s mother within a year of his return from the PoW camp, and has pretty much been miserable since then. Elspeth’s mother is eight years old than her father, had been engaged three times prior to her marriage to Mr. Grumpy, each of her fiancés having been killed due to the war. She also married out of desperation and running out of time, so there is little love lost between these two. It’s a shame because their offspring have to suffer from their continual bickering and arguing and tears which is a constant undercurrent of the children’s childhood.

Speaking of parents, this is not really a Misery Memoir, but it’s not all midnight feasts and ginger beer. Her father is a grumpy SOB, frustrated at his career as a lowly bank clerk when he just *knows* that his real talent is painting (or perhaps poetry) and if only someone would notice so he would be famous… He rails against life frequently, taking his unhappiness out on Elspeth’s older twin siblings while she stays immune for reasons unknown. Her mother is powerless to change, and unable to stand up to him, and in the unpleasant environment, the kids are unable to predict how their
father will react and walking around on egg shells the whole time. The only person who is remotely reliable is Lucy, their nanny type person who is helping to raise the kids. She is the one steady influence for them throughout these early years.

Every now, the father will be happy and like other people’s fathers, but it never lasts long and then the whole “happy Family” image collapses. Elspeth feels especially guilty as her father sees her as his obvious favorite of the children, gives her special treatment which puts her into a very difficult situation for a child: she knows she doesn’t love her father (as unpredictable and mean as he is to her brother and sister), and yet she feels she has to pretend that she does to keep the peace and ongoing fragile stability in the house.

The father is really a mean person, believing (and telling his older kids) that he thinks they are useless, Jim being “slow-witted and clumsy” and Pam very outspoken (to protect her brother). Father was an athlete when he was younger and compares Jim to his younger self which, of course, does not bode well for him as he is not athletic at all. He is quiet, academic, bookish – none of which the Father notices or appreciates. One of the happiest occasions in the story is when their grandma sends them their first books for their birthdays; up until that point, there had been few books in the house and neither parent was a reader. Elspeth’s description of the excitement of reading, and being able to recognize the difference between fact and fiction was wonderful. It was a great reminder of the novelty of the reading experience and you could just feel her excitement at this new stage of life.

The title of the book refers to the Great Western Beach which is almost a character in and of itself. It has an overarching influence on the family and is enmeshed in all they do; in fact, it could be argued that the coming and going of the tides echoes the ups and downs of this little family and its changing fortunes. And change they do.

Originally living a life of genteel poverty, the family’s circumstances change when the mother inherits some money from her uncle. Before then, Elspeth and her siblings had had to pretend to be more well off than they really were in public. But when the family was home, and the spotlight was off, that was when she felt they were a completely different family. (But even then…) All this must have been very confusing for the children as no one told them anything – they could only observe.

However, despite the shitty parents, Elspeth gives wonderful descriptions of her life at the seaside town throughout the years, the summers being described in most detail (as they play the most important role in her life) and the winters merely mentioned in passing (as they may well appear to a young child at that point). It’s a difficult childhood for all of them, and throughout the book, there is an undercurrent of unpredictability that is reflected in how the children see life and other people, but there are some
happy times.

The picnics on “their” beach, their little beach hut, meeting new friends (even though this is fraught with social difficulty due to their father’s unknown and ever-changing rules). The author does a good job of describing the children’s confusion in trying to understand their complicated father and how easily he could “break”. It must have been exhausting for them to try to work out what would keep him happy and what would make him snap as it wasn’t always the same things.

Overall, a good read packed with details of an English childhood in a seaside town. Many memories of our holidays on the Isle of Wight and at Anglesey were triggered by this (all of which were lovely). It’s a shame that Elspeth and her Twin siblings couldn’t say the same thing.

Book bought second hand.

The Return of the Soldier – Rebecca West (1916)

A short novel, almost a novella, The Return of the Soldier was Rebecca West’s first novel and it’s packs a wallop as well. As reviewers mention, every word, every scene is balanced perfectly, with hardly a word out of place.

Set in the post-WWI world of England, the novel features four main characters, all intertwined in various ways into a tapestry of Captain Chris Baldry: his wife, Kitty, his cousin and childhood friend, Jenny, and a woman from the nearby village, Mrs. William Gray.  Chris has returned home from the trenches of the war with amnesia, but only reaches home because Mrs. Gray has been receiving letters from him during his time in hospital. Chris and Mrs. Gray had had a passionate romance fifteen years ago, but it had long ended over some jealousy on his part. Each had moved on to marry other people and have very different lives, in different classes, in different ways.

The amnesia that Chris sustains works to bring Mrs. Gray together with the two Ladies of the Manor (both related to Chris), each of whom are remarkably snobby in horrible ways. The narrator, cousin Jenny, has a twisted love for Chris, much more than a cousin would have nowadays (but perhaps it was ok back then – it seems a bit creepy to me.) This unrequited love leads Jenny to think really awful thoughts about Jenny, seeing her as a threat to her and Kitty’s relationship with Chris. The novel is packed with her judgmental thoughts towards Mrs. Gray, and as West writes, “her little pink mouth went on manufacturing malice…” Really, I found the woman insufferable at times.

However, as the story progresses, and the three women work together (more so Jenny and Mrs. Gray than Kitty who is a lot more reserved), they devise a plan to help Chris retrieve his memory, even though by doing so, it will mean awfulness for almost everyone involved: for Chris, for Mrs. Gray, for Kitty, for Jenny.

However, truth is what matters and so the truth is told. I can’t really say any more as it will give the conclusion to the plot away, but suffice to say, it’s a powerful novel about love, truth, war, and choosing the right thing to do (or do they?)

Despite the truly horrible Jenny’s constant harping on about the lower class Mrs. Gray, I enjoyed this novel and am happy to have read it. I will be going to read more of West’s work, particularly the trilogy she wrote later in life and called the Aubrey trilogy.

This was an ebook from Girlebooks.

The War Workers – E. M. Delafield (1918)

A fast-reading story which describes the life and times of working under a rather despotic leader at a local supply depot in early twentieth century England.  Miss Vivian (Char to her family) lives and breathes her work as Director of the Midland Supply Depot, and tends to rule her staff with an iron stick until out of the blue, Miss Grace Jones, arrives and Miss Vivian meets her match.

It’s during WWI, and England is busy dealing with munitions factories, women working outside the home, and changes in perception for all. Miss Vivian’s staff all adore her, and would do anything for her, and she knows this, setting high standards for herself and for them in the office. Her office is in charge of numerous organizations, and of meeting incoming troop trains, feeding the soldiers, and helping the local hospital get its necessary supplies. This is a big job, but Miss Vivian seems to do it well and with thoroughness. However, she works very long hours, refuses to take breaks for meals, and goes to bed late, all because she views her war work as more important than anything personal, family or otherwise. She expects this attitude from her staff, and for the most part, they fulfill their duties with pride. However, there is an element of martyrism for Miss Vivian.

Her staff, mostly single young women from middle class families, all live in a hostel close to the office, and due to lack of space, end up sharing bedrooms and their supplies in a communal and mutually supportive approach. There are not many situations where the women do not get on with each other, but occasional spats come up every now and then. Everyone is all Jolly Hockey Sticks and Crikey and Rather, which is rather amusing at times.

However, when the Welsh Miss Jones arrives, the fine balance between staff and boss is upset when the incoming worker is not as impressed by Miss Vivian as the others were. Instead, Miss Jones see Miss Vivian as just a normal human with faults, and the boss picks up on this. Delafield does an excellent job of describing each character’s foibles so that they are clear in the reader’s mind. Miss Delmage is Miss Vivian’s personal secretary and she sees her boss as on a pedestal and who can do no wrong. The others have a similar perspective, but theirs is more motivated by fear than anything. Miss Jones’s arrival upsets the balance and creates cracks in the tableau as the book progresses.

At the same time, we are introduced to Miss Vivian’s family who live nearby and who are determined to not really acknowledge the war (or Miss Vivian’s work related to that) as her father is deemed fragile and ends up getting very ill. Even before he was ill, he disapproved of his daughter’s working, and so his younger more resilient wife (and Miss Vivian’s mother) ends up playing referee between them.

Since this was my first Delafield book to read, I knew that she was rumoured to have a good sense of humor from reading various reviews of “Diary of a Provincial Lady” et al, and this humor was displayed in the remarks said by Miss Vivian’s mother and others. Very dry and subtle, but actually quite funny in places.

Another character in the book, it could be argued, was the ongoing war in France. It affects everything: the roles of the women (who would not be working otherwise), the shortages of petrol/gas, food, medical supplies, the incoming troop trains… It’s a common thread throughout the whole novel, and it would not have been the same story without it.

Funnily enough, when E. M. Delafield first started writing professionally, her sister suggested her using a nom de plume (Delafield) instead of her actual last name of “de la Pasture” which just makes me smile.

A good read from girlebooks website, and now very much looking forward to reading other Delafield work.