Wednesday, 30 November 2011

A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee by Bea Howe

Most of you, my lovely readers, chose the obscure novel yesterday - which goes to show how lucky I am to have you lot reading my blog!  I'll probably end up writing about both - perhaps the well-known author will even pop up tomorrow in my absence, whilst I'm gallivanting in London.  Dark Puss suggested I wrote about the one I enjoyed more... well, I enjoyed this one more, but the other one was probably better.  (Other people used to that feeling?)

As you might have spotted from the post title, this is an obscure book, but I have mentioned it before.  A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee (1927) by Bloomsbury Group hanger-on Bea Howe lent its paper to my new blog background - I thought it was time I told you what was on the pages (other than David Garnett's signature!)  (Some of you may even have spotted a very brief section of this review in your blog readers yesterday... oops!)

The outline of the novel is pretty simple - William and Evelina have fallen in love, and deal with the difficulties of not being able entirely to understand one another.  Much of the narrative flicks back and forth between their minds, as they grapple with starting a new stage of their life together - melding two rather different personalities into one prospective marriage.  Oh, and along the way a fairy turns up.

Evelina is not unlike a fairy herself - she is fanciful, thoughtful - bright, light, and sparkling:

She was dressed in a silver frock with a deep jewelled belt that gripped her waist.  Her light brown hair was cut quite short like a boy's and brushed softly over her ears; it was shot with gold at its curling tips.  But it was her eyes, of an odd green colour, that William first noticed.  They regarded him so intently; like a child's.  They were also very bright.  Eyebrows thin, dark, arched, gave a flying look to her face.  Her face which was painted and pale.
William, on the other hand, is a little more staid and grounded.  Where Evelina is concerned with her 'secret self', and often wanders off into realms of imagination (although not in an annoying way, for the reader at least) William is an etymologist - the fluttering world of moths is his chief concern, and he approaches it with the eyes of a scientist.  (Scientists will doubtless tell us - indeed, my brother does tell me - that there is a greater beauty in the structure and order of numbers/nature etc. than in its aesthetics.  Well, horses for courses.)  William's captivation by lepidoptera is all-consuming, and colours even his attempted romantic overtures:
"One day I will tell you all about my moths.  In some odd way you remind me of them."  His voice was low and gentle.  Evelina did not know that this was the first compliment he had paid a woman.
Yet it is he, the scientist, rather than she, the wistful romantic, who stumbles upon the fairy.  I once attended a nighttime moth hunt, and sadly no fairies turned up.  The one William finds has not quite the daintiness of Tinkerbell et al:

A pale, extremely ugly, wizened-looking little face, about the size of a hazel-nut, stared up at him.  And this face did not belong to a giant moth or beetle!  The filmy stuff, the cobwebby matter which had first stuck between his fingers and given such a peculiar sensation to his skin, was evidently part of this creature’s clothing.  Underneath its thin protection, William could see the vague outline of a tiny body.  It was a woman’s body, shaped quite perfectly, like a minikin statuette.  With a vague feeling of embarrassment he knelt down and rolled his prisoner gently off his palm on to the ground.  The fairy did not move.  She only remained looking in a dazed way at him.  William gazed back.  He still felt completely bewildered.  
A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee is a strange little book, not least because the fairy doesn't do very much, except sit listlessly in William's house.  She emphasises, however, the disparity between William and Evelina.  He has no personal curiosity in the fairy, except as a scientific specimen - 'It had not even occurred to him to think of her as another living being.'  Evelina, on the other hand, is jealous that she did not make the discovery - and the existence of the fairy propels her even further into realms of the fanciful and fey.

A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee is a simple story which I found charming and enchanting - but which really could have done with a better structure.  It feels a little as though Howe started writing on page one, and put down anything that crossed her mind - which does give the novel a feeling of freedom and flow, but it ultimately lacks the impression of unity and progression which a properly planned novel has.  Evelina and William fall out and make up and fall out and make up - often without even seeing each other in between - which is possibly more life-like, but a little dizzying to read.

This was Bea Howe's only novel (although she wrote a few biographies) so it's impossible to tell how her style might have progressed.  For a first novel, A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee is rather delightful, and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone with a taste for a touch of whimsy - as an only novel, it does lead one to speculate what Bea Howe could possibly have followed it with, and gives me an altogether bemused impression of Howe as an authoress.  That creative inspiration should hit only once in this manner, and in such a manner, is curious and amusing.  Perhaps, just once, a fairy leapt upon her knee?

Tomorrow... another strange book, but one from almost eighty years earlier and a different language altogether.  Ten points to anybody who can guess...


  1. This sounds delightfully odd and entirely charming. I have a weakness for novels with scientific heroes and heroines, especially biologists, so William sounds very appealing. And I think I can guarantee that without your review I would never, ever have heard of it, which probably also means I shall never, ever be able to find it!

  2. I dont know whether I will be able to find it either but I like to hear about these books which will otherwise not get an airing.

  3. This sounds right up my street Simon - thank you. BTW love the new look blog.


  4. This sounds intriguing - and I love the new look.

  5. Nice post, Simon. Blog is lookin' good!

  6. The excerpts do leave me with lots of questions about the author. It is a shame it was her one and only.

  7. Hmmmm I cant decide whether I really, really want to read this or if I really really don't. I know that sounds daft but it is true. It could be just my sort or read or it coulod utterly mystify me. Great review either way.

    I do love how you find these titles, I am really lost as to where I am at as a reader at the mo, its very strange.

  8. Claire - It does sound like this would definitely be up your street! More copies available in US than UK (I assume postage from US to Canada is cheaper than UK to Canada??) Of all the readers I know, I probably would put this in your camp more than others.

    Mystica - I like thinking that now there is some kind of e-presence for the obscure books I write about :)

    Hannah - hope you manage to track it down! And thank you very much :)

    Nicola - thank you v much!

    Susan - I have done a little more research, and some of her non-fiction titles sound interesting - A Galaxy of Governesses, anyone?

    Simon - haha! An amusing situation to be in. I think you might just be charmed by this one. I love that I heard about this novel in the letters of David Garnett and Sylvia Townsend Warner, and then my copy must have been the very one they were writing about! One book does lead to another like this, in my reading of obscure early 20th century books...

  9. Hi,interestingly I have just acquired'The Olive Fairy Book'by Andrew Lang 1907.It has Bea Howes previous owner inscription to an end paper.Several of the Black and White illustrations have been tipped in with water colours in a very proficient way.....was this Howe seeking inspiration for her book!
    Clive Myhill


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