Friday, 6 September 2013

Six Fools and a Fairy - Mary Essex

I forgot to take a photo...
This one is from here,
where you can buy a copy
You may remember that, back in November 2011, I wrote about Mary Essex's The Amorous Bicycle, which was very witty and fun and delightfully middlebrow - and I puzzled over the fact that Essex (in fact Ursula Bloom) had managed to write so many novels (over 500) and still put out quality.  Sometime before that, Jodie (known to us as Geranium Cat) kindly sent me her copy of Six Fools and a Fairy (1948), saying that she'd tried it a couple of times and couldn't get into it... fast forward a couple of years, and my Reading Presently project has propelled me into finally getting it down from my shelves.  How would I find it compared to The Amorous Bicycle and another Essex novel I'd loved, Tea Is So Intoxicating?

Well, I'm afraid it's not as good... That sounds like a very ungrateful way to start a Reading Presently review, so I shall also say that it was a fun read, and just what I wanted for relaxing in the evenings after working away ferociously on my thesis, but it's an idea which doesn't quite get off the ground.

And that idea is a school reunion where each of the six men recounts a story, relating to each course, about... well, I'll let Charles Delamere explain:
"I should enjoy it immensely if we each told our own story.  About the woman, the one woman who meant something out of the rut to us.  The one each of us remembers most forcefully."
The courses are Consomme Paysanne, Sole a la bonne femme, Vol-au-vent, Roast Lamb, Gooseberry fool, and Angels on horseback.  Give or take a few accents that I'm too lazy to find.  I'll confess, I was already unsure about how things would go when this premise was set up.  Surely it would lead to a great deal of disjointedness?

It's essentially a series of short stories, each of which relate all-too-appropriately to the course in question, and each of which recounts a lost love.  At one point a character makes a caustic reference to the stereotypical heroes and heroines of an Ethel M. Dell novel, but Essex isn't far behind - her heroes aren't swarthy silent types, but they do all fall into much the same mould as each other.  I usually hate the criticism that "He can't write women" or "She can't write men", because it is (usually) silly and reductive, suggesting there are only two types of people - but Essex does seem, in Six Fools and a Fairy, to be under the impression that all men fall in love instantly, are proud, and are quite keen to hop into bed as soon as poss.  And throw into that stereotype that they're all generally a bit hopeless.  She spends a while delineating her characters at the beginning, but it's pretty impossible to tell the difference between them when they start talking.

Each chapter tells a difference character's story, only occasionally returning to reunion dinner, and since they have only about thirty pages to do, we whip through fairly stereotypical tales of misadventure and the-ones-that-got-away without building the characters up enough for the reader to care.  And then the story is over, and we're onto the next.  The chapters aren't even structured as anecdotes, but instead are shown through an omniscient narrator.  It's all a little bit bewildering and unnecessary.

Mary Essex is certainly an engaging writer, though, and it's easy enough to whip through the chapters.  She has that ability to write a page-turner, even if (once turned) one has no particular wish to mull over what one has read.  For a novelist renowned chiefly now for romance literature, though, this book - the first of the three I've read which prioritises romance - is surprisingly less interesting than Tea Is So Intoxicating and The Amorous Bicycle, which are about gossipy villagers and amusing incidents.  For wit has absented itself from Six Fools and a Fairy, creeping only into the odd line, then slinking out again quickly.

So, diverting enough for a quick read, if one doesn't want to feel at all challenged or invested.  But while her other novels made me think she was approaching the middlebrow joys of Richmal Crompton or even E.M. Delafield, had I read Six Fools and a Fairy first, I'd never have bothered with another.  Thanks very much for giving me a copy, Jodie, but ultimately I'm not too far from your assessment of it - and I think I'll be passing it on again.

13 comments:

  1. Ah, Ursula Bloom. That caught my eye. I read one of her books this summer, The Quiet Village. I think you might call it a romantic thriller. It wasn't a *bad* book, but it missed the mark in some indefinable way. A keeper, for light reading purposes, but nothing more. I can't even really recall too many details, just that it was easy reading and engaging while it was happening, but not after.

    Interesting to have her crop up in this context.

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    1. I haven't ever been drawn to her - and I had indeed read a couple of Mary Essex novels before I realised they were one and the same, and it came as something of a surprise!

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  2. I keep trying to find a copy of Tea is So Intoxicating (because with a title like that, I simply have to read it!) but I can't seem to track one down. Very frustrating!

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    1. Good luck! It was a very lucky find on my part...

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  3. Well, I shan't allow my lack of success, and your lukewarmness, to put me off entirely - if I find either of the ones you liked I'll give them a go. I'm sure I must have read her in the past as Ursula Bloom...Hope you can find a new home for it, Simon!

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    1. I have somebody in mind, Jodie, who has enjoyed the other Mary Essexes I have. Thanks again for giving it to me :)

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  4. I'm still stuck back up there on that 500 novels bit! Gawd.

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    1. I know! It's a bit astonishing, isn't it?

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  5. Haven't read either Essex or Bloom, but the cover alone makes it tempting. Like Vicki, I'm thinking the woman was prodigious! I mean, I believe Barbara Cartland wrote over 700 and (sorry if this offends any one) most of them were probably junk. So if Bloom produced 500 that were not bad, that's quite an achievement!!

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    1. That's what surprised me, after really enjoying a couple Essex novels - because the snob in me didn't believe anybody could write that much and write them pretty well.

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  6. I'd read it for the cover alone! Amazing! Who's the artist, Simon?

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    1. Sadly my copy didn't actually have the dustjacket, so I don't know, but it's something, isn't it?

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  7. I have read quite a few Ursula Bloom novels and short stories. Although she wrote a good deal of romances many of her novels were just, well, novels, not overly romantic at all. It is a common misconception that she was predominantly a romantic novelist and this is something Barbara Carltnad (who was a fan) point out. Bloom was in the Guinness Book of Records as Britain's most prolific novelist, and it was Cartland who eventually overtook her record. Bloom also wrote biographies, several autobiographies, and historical novels. She was also a Fleet Street journalist for some years, working as a crime reporter and also wrote feature articles and edited a "Woman's" page for a major newspaper. I can personally recommend The Painted Lady, which is an excellent novel from the 1940s.

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