Sometimes when I’m looking for a good book, I want something big and meaty, well written, and all engrossing. Like The Goldfinch or A Gentleman in Moscow. Sometimes I want a gripping murder mystery, with characters I love or hate, and an evocative setting, all delivered with impeccable style. Like something by Elizabeth George or Reginald Hill. And sometimes I want something utterly charming. No heavy themes. No murders. Just really well written and lovely.
Like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. I stumbled upon this book at the book store years ago and couldn’t believe my luck. Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day is published by Persephone Books which reprints worthy, but underrated, “mid-twentieth century books”, which have fallen out of print. Most of them are written by women. You can read the story of Persephone Books here. Their website says that they only publish books that they “completely and utterly love.” Now, how charming is that?
Winifred Watson’s characters are a lot like Barbara Pym’s, but a bit more jolly. I love the reviews of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day on Good Reads. Especially the young woman who says she struggled whether to give the book five stars even though she loved it. Shouldn’t a five star book be serious, not “fluff?” she asks. And then she recalls how “Pride and Prejudice is about a houseful of daughters trying to get married.” You can read her full review here. My copy of the novel has all the same quirky illustrations as the original, and I’m told the Kindle version does as well.
When I was at Mum’s in New Brunswick a couple of years ago, and greatly in need of a gentle, charming book, I discovered that Persephone Books were available on Amazon as e-books. What a treasure trove. I’d been looking in vain for their books in stores and libraries for years. And during that trying two weeks, I found that retreating daily into my room with a cup of tea and my book was indeed restorative. Because I’d embarked on a Dorothy Whipple read-a-thon.
Dorothy Whipple books are charming, gentle, and well written. No murders, just domestic complications, and strong women. Whipple’s “prose is clean and elegant, filled with rich detail, crisp images, and small moments.” It’s the small moments I particularly love. “A solitary tea, the comfort of a cat curling up on a bed, can convey a character’s state of mind so much more evocatively than the big ones.” That quote is from an earlier post of mine about my two favourite Dorothy Whipple books, Someone at a Distance and The Priory. You can read the whole post here if you’re interested.
Recently during our seemingly never-ending winter, and the spring that never came, I sought some comfort from gentle, charming books again. And discovered English writer Ursula Orange. I’d never heard of her. No surprise, I guess. Her books were all published between 1936 and 1947. She died in 1955, when she was only forty-six.
Begin Again is the story of four bright young women in 1930’s England making their first forays into adult life. As the introduction to the book says: “Orange offers hilarious and thoughtful perspectives on the quandaries of educated, ambitious women in a world not yet ready for them.” I enjoyed Orange’s take on what Stacy Marking calls the “young women’s yearning for independence, their need to express themselves and to escape the limitations of domesticity.”
In Begin Again, Sophie, who lives at home in Berkshire with a doting mother, yearns for the London life of her friends. She romantically dreams of living (and painting) in a garret, with a “frying pan and an alarm clock of her own”, “cooking sausages and kippers over a gas-ring.” But her London friends know that independent life is fraught with poor paying jobs despite their Oxford degrees. Not to mention dirty crowded buses, and a tiny, rather unkempt flat in which there is no refrigerator to keep the milk for tea from going sour. “Alarm clocks and frying pans and divan beds were not, to Jane and Florence, romantic symbols of escape and independence.” Ha. I love that bit.
The other two Ursula Orange novels I read depict life in England during World War II. In Company in the Evening, Vicky a divorced, working mother “finds herself coping single handedly in a household of disparate and incompatible characters thrown together by war.” I adore Vicky. Even if she is a bit shirty, and according to one reviewer: “less engaging than Orange’s earlier heroines.”
Tom Tiddler’s Ground was the most charming of the three books, although I liked them all. The story focuses on kindly, self-effacing Constance and her friend Caroline who has “evacuated” to Constance’s village from London with her small daughter. Constance is all that is good and well-meaning, but likable nonetheless. Caroline is hell on wheels, and immensely entertaining. Acerbic and admittedly spoiled and selfish, she blithely reports her keen-eyed observations of village life to her friend, and soon to be lover, while her steady, faithful husband remains behind in London. Caroline is a delight. As are all the characters in Orange’s most popular novel. I was sad to say good-bye to them when the book ended.
For the past few days I’ve been reading, and reading about, another “lost” mid-century writer. Like some of the characters in Ursula Orange’s novels, Angela Thirkell, born in 1890, lead an adventuresome life for the time. She divorced her first husband “in a blaze of publicity”, according to Wikipedia. And she abandoned her second with whom she had emigrated to his native Australia, to return to England. Afterwards she famously claimed that her life was “very peaceful” without a man in it. Her novels are social satire, of a very gentle kind. And she has been compared to PG Wodehouse and EM Delafield.
Angela’s Thirkell’s Northbridge Rectory is the story of one village, its odd community of locals, and the growing number of World War II evacuees they shelter. I must admit that I agree with Anne Cuningham in the Irish Independent who says that Thirkell’s Northbridge Rectory can be a bit of a struggle to read at first. But it’s worthwhile to persist. The apparently interchangeable “cast of thousands” is initially confusing. I found myself unable to tell the difference between our heroine Mrs. Villars, the rector’s wife, and Mrs. Turner a widow who lives with her two nieces. Or between the indomitable and intimidating Miss Pemberton, and the community spirited, Mrs. Paxon who has a finger in every pie that war could offer.
To steal a phrase from Mrs. Turner’s niece Betty “it’s ackcherly” the literary equivalent of entering a room full of thirty-plus teenagers on the first day of school. All the boys wearing baseball caps, and the girls seemingly all with long blond hair parted in the middle. As a young teacher I always thought, “How would I ever get them straight?” But eventually they morphed into individuals. The girls didn’t all have long blonde hair, and although most of the boys did in fact wear their baseball caps, they had other distinguishing features. Mostly. Ha.
So, I’m enjoying Northbridge Rectory more and more as I read. It really is very funny and sweet. And charming. And it does remind me of EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady which I read at the suggestion of a reader of this blog.
You know, we shouldn’t underestimate or turn our noses up at books that are a bit lighter. Because sometimes we don’t want angst and turmoil, sometimes we just want charming. And charming books can be wonderful. Especially if they are well written. I mean, there’s good fluff, and there’s saccharine, clichéd fluff. I’d put all the books I’ve written about here in the former category. Not exactly on a level with Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women or Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, but darned close.
And speaking of charming. Don’t you just love that old movie Brief Encounter? Sigh. Oh… I think I have something in MY eye now.
By the way, I’m playing around with monetising my blog. A bit. I don’t plan to write sponsored posts, but I may include affiliate links on posts where it is appropriate to do so. I won’t make a million; that’s not why I started this endeavour anyway. But I do hope to make back some of the money I’ve started spending on the blog. I will always say when there is an affiliate relationship, and if I benefit from your clicking a link.
And I promise that like Persephone Books… I’ll only recommend books (or whatever) that I “completely and utterly love.” No changes there.
You can find all the books I’ve written about in this post at Amazon. I now have an affiliate relationship with Amazon. So if you buy the book by clicking one of the links below I will earn a small commission. NO worries if you don’t want to do that. None at all.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (here) by Winifred Watson.
Someone at a Distance (here) and The Priory (here) by Dorothy Whipple.
Begin Again (here), Company in the Evening (here), and Tom Tiddler’s Ground (here) by Ursula Orange.
Northbridge Rectory (here) by Angela Thirkell.
Linking up with #ShareAllLinkUp at Not Dressed as Lamb, and Thursday Favourite Things at Marilyn’s Treats.
53 thoughts on “Sometimes I Just Want Charming”
I’m a new reader of your blog, and I’m loving it! These book suggestions are just what I need in those inbetween days. Thanks so much.
Well, welcome to my blog, Drew. Hope you enjoy some of these books. They’re a bit dated… but some days that’s exactly what I need:)
One of my new things is paying attention when the Universe shows its hand. Your post is so timely it is ridiculous. I am busily messaging my Chap Pal in Australia about the difficulties of finding books you want to read, talking about the need for charming and interesting over worthy etc. And now you have given me titles to look for! I shall proceed in an elegant inter-war style to my local town where there is The World’s Best Bookshop and peruse. Hint: it is small, independent, in an entirely delightful old shop with mosaic in the doorway, there is music of a chamber nature coming from the music department downstairs and nobody hassles you. If you want coffee, buy the book and leave because one of the great tea-rooms of England is only a few steps away. This is a serious but playful place for readers. I’m off. Thanks.
Happy to oblige… or just to follow the orders of the universe. That bookstore sounds just the ticket. Next to a tea room… must be the icing on the cake.
I’m so glad I discovered Persephone books, I’m reading my way through Angela Thirkell and Dorothy Whipple, but Ursula Orange is new to me, so thanks ! I love these writers, and find them the perfect antidote to the angst of everyday life. Generally, I love this period. So far the most enjoyed are “The Priory” and “Someone at a distance “.
I discovered Ursula Orange on Amazon… one of those notices…”if you like this book, you might like these.” A ploy to sell, of course, but sometimes useful.
Haven’t heard of these, so thanks! Yes! Sometimes I just need to read something to escape and relax. 🙂
Relax and escape but as someone else said…but not with drivel. Well written escapism is out there.
Oh my …I watched the video clip… I guess I know what I’ll be watching this evening.
Isn’t it lovely? I went around talking in soft clipped phrases with a faux English accent all evening to the annoyance of my husband. Ha.
Hooray for charming and gentle novels! I love to punctuate more challenging or murder-and-mayhem reading with these. I’ve read some Dorothy Whipple and Winifred Watson thanks to recommendations you previously made and enjoyed them very much.
There is nary a title from Ursula Orange or Angela Thirkell at my local library, but I just checked the Kobo website and there are many books by these authors available. Just wanted to mention that in case other followers of your blog own a Kobo eReader rather than a Kindle.
Can hardly wait to start downloading! It’s been a busy and sometimes stressful spring, and “charming” will be very welcome.
Me too, charming sandwiched in between murder and books with heavy themes works for me.
(I should have added that if you were an affiliate of Chapters/Kobo, I’d be happy to make my purchases via any link that you provided. It would be lovely to have the opportunity to support, in a small way, a blog that has brought me so much pleasure.)
Thanks Denise. I’m waiting to hear back from Indigo. I think they must be having technical difficulties.
I read many of Dorothy Whipple’s books on your recommendation and loved them, so I’m excited and grateful to you for providing further inspiration. As always, your posts provide intelligent and interesting ideas. Thank you.
Thanks for saying that, Jules. Happy to oblige.
Every time I go to London I promise myself I will make it to Persephone Books, but so far that hasn’t happened. Your post is always timely…I just picked up three books by Dorothy Whipple, just finished re-reading Barbara Pym’s Excellent Woman and now have Winifred Watson’s book on hold at the library. A Gentleman in Moscow sits on my nightstand. Will have to check out your links to the others. Thanks for the recommendations.
Me too. I was so sure I would visit their shop when I was in London and we ended up not having time.
I’ve read & enjoyed a few of these books & will explore the others . I often feel the need of a gentle read .
Regarding your monetising – good idea . You did tell me when we met of the work involved in writing your blog & you do right to at least cover you costs . I can’t think you will be anything but totally honest with us & ‘ tell it like it is ‘
Thanks, Wendy, for saying that. I will endeavour to make the links non-intrusive. I hate it when I get a sales pitch between paragraphs. 🙂
I love Dorothy Whipple and have read most of her books. Thanks for the other recommendations here. I do miss Anita Brookner and have toyed with rereading them ~ so excellent.
Love Brookner. Plus she was a seriously singular person.
And speaking of charming, you probably have absolutely no idea how charming you are.
I’m sure you’re not charming ALL the time. But gee, I sure wish we lived closer to each other. I’d love to be in your book club and go shopping and out to lunch with you. 🙂
Ah, thanks. Ann. If you are ever up my way, or I down your way, we should try to cross paths for a day of doing just that.
There is so much angst and turmoil on the news and in films and television that relief from these is most welcome. Thanks for recommending some gentler books, most of which are new to me.
I know. There is so much arguing and shouting in the world. I think we can retreat to a gentle book without burying our head in the sand about the world. Just taking a breather.
Sometimes charming is exactly what’s needed in this crazy world. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand perfectly fits that description.
Ah…. I read that book and loved it. You are right it definitely qualifies.
This is why you’re my favorite blogger. No one else mentions these authors and some are new to me, so thank you. You hit the nail on the head for calling these charming novels. Sometimes they’re just what you want to read without reading drivel. When my 3 children were growing up and I was working the Angela Thirkell books were an oasis for me. Well done.
I’m so interested that you read Angela Thirkell books. An oasis is a great word for them.
Have you seen the movie of the book? I can’t (yet) attest to how closely it follows the original story, but it is extremely charming in its own right!
Yes, I saw it a while ago. It’s lovely.
I recommend Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk. It’s a little more substantive than charming, it’s about a woman in advertising who started earlier than everyone, based on a true history, but the tone is exceedingly charming.
That sounds interesting, Lisa. Thanks:)
Thank you for this. I’ve clicked through, and have some (new author to me!) Ursula Orange novels on their way. Making an effort to read more this year, I have been underwhelmed by even well-reviewed current fiction. Not everything, but enough to be disappointing. A well written charming book or two will be just the ticket!
I hope you enjoy the Ursula Orange books. I’ve been disappointed in a number of books lately too, especially with plots that are fast-paced for the sake of, and then begin to make no sense.
Yes,a comfort,charming books are something I like to read,too. As you’ve introduced Persephone books and authors,a hidden gem, to me,I’m looking forward to explore further the authors
I think that kind of monetizing your blog is wellcomed-sometimes it is easier to follow some of your ideas (not having Liz at walking or driving distance ?) this way
Yes,a comfort-charming books……
Ha ha. Maybe I’m the Liz of books. Your personal shopper. Except that works both ways. I’ve received as many welcomed suggestions from you and other readers as I’ve passed on to you.:)
I love your blog and feel that you shouldn’t be out of pocket for my enjoyment. Monetise by all means, but I hope there won’t be those ghastly advertisements popping up all the time. I find that they make the blog difficult to open and interrupt the whole flow of reading.
One thing that has been happening since your overhaul has been that sometimes the photographs cover the text and nothing I do stops this.
I’m just reading the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I’m on book 3 of 5 and really enjoying them.
Can you tell me a bit about that? And I’ll look into it. I have a tech person making sure that I don’t get glitches like that now.
Does this happen only when the photos are side by side? And what format do you read the blog on? Desktop, tablet, phone? It would help for me to know. Brandon can have a look once we know.
Thanks so much!
If you haven’t already discovered them I recommend the Mapp and Lucia books by EF Benson. Written in the 1920’s and 30’s they’re even wittier than the Provincial Lady. Definitely best read in order. I make myself wait for a few years before rereading so I can still laugh out loud.
I have heard of those books. And I think my experience was similar to my search for Persephone Books… couldn’t find them and gave up. I will definitely look again. Thanks.
I second the recommendation of the Mapp and Lucia books – but you have to read them reclining on a chaise longue, whilst brandishing a long cigarette holder, soft piano music in the background……:)
I’m about 1/3 the way through “So much life left over” by Louis de Bernieres and enjoying its gentle nature.
I am fortunate to live near Hay-on-Wye – town of books – on the Welsh borders.
Oh… I’ve heard of Hay-on-Wye. Lucky you!
First-time commenter, long-time reader. Your blog is one of the best.
Another vote for Angela Thirkell and E.F.Benson’s Lucia books (which I’ve read at least three times).
Are you familiar with this site? http://www.stuckinabook.com/
It’s delightful and informative; I guarantee you’ll find it a treasure trove.
Thanks very much, Kate. I checked out that site… it is a treasure trove. I’ve book marked it to go back and explore further. Thanks.
I am also a long time reader and am commenting here for the first time. I always enjoy your Blog and find that we have a very similar taste in books. As much as I would like to help with a commission by buying the books you recommend, I first check The Internet Archive for very old out of print books. I used to suggest this to library patrons before I retired a few years ago. I have found several books this way and so I found The Priory and enjoyed it very much as a change from my latest crime related fiction. In order to read books by Ursula Orange I will go to Amazon. Some of the Mapp and Lucia books are available on the Internet Archive. Thanks very much.
I have heard about the internet archive, but have never explored this. I must look into it for some of the older books I love. Thanks for this, Jacalyn. Libraries (and librarians) are founts of wisdom! Sometimes I can’t believe that we have so many wonderful services from our Ottawa Public library. Sad that our current political administration here in Ontario doesn’t seem to appreciate libraries.
Thank you for the recommendations. My mother-in-law’s sight has deteriorated so much that I have bought her a kindle as she cannot read large version books but says she has not the patience to listen to audio books. She prefers to increase the kindle font to a size that suits her. Some of your choices in this blog will definitely suit her. The beauty of a family kindle subscription is that I can share books I like with my step daughter and my mum-in-law. The books I buy to hold in my hands are usually about artists, cookery, crafts, travel,and photography. I did feel guilty about sharing my kindle purchases but I have always lent books I like to friends and family so don’t feel I am cheating the author of their royalties any more than I used to. Also, I am glad to have found your blog as I wasn’t automatically forwarded to the new site in February ! I’m not sure how to join wordpress – it seems to throw me out. But I have now set a calendar reminder to check your website every Monday in case you have blogged. I look forward to reading the blogs I have missed. Also I am happy to purchase the books via your link as I do this for other products on Amazon recommended by travel bloggers that I follow. It’s the least I can do for the pleasure of reading your and their blogs.
Sorry about that, Heather. I placed a link on my last post on the old site, but there was no automatic forwarding. If you’d been signed up for e-mail posts the new ones would have come your way, though. Hope you enjoy reading the posts you missed:)
In the vein of charming, I highly recommend “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough. “An Unforgettable Comic Chronicle of Innocents Abroad in the 1920s” It may be difficult to find; I have to do a linked-libraries search to find it. There are a couple copies/versions on Amazon; the dark red or brown cover has one of the delightful original illustrations on the cover. I was recently telling a friend about it, and then went back and re-read it, but won’t lend the book (a falling-apart, tape-mended, paperback). (Which was fortunate, as she soon moved, abruptly, out-of-state.) It really is lovely and funny, in a way you don’t see anymore.
That sounds like it’s right up my street, Rebecca. Thank-you. I will look for it.
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