Monday 14 November 2011

The Only Way Is (Mary) Essex

Sue, Ann, and Erika were all intrigued by the opening to Tea Is So Intoxicating by Mary Essex, which I posted the other day, and asked if I would say a bit more about her.  Here are those lines again:
It is highly probable that the tea shop would never have started at all if Commander David Tompkins hadn't fancied himself at being something of a dab-hand at cooking.
Well, never let it be said that I ignore the cries of my people.  I do misinterpret them a bit - because I don't remember all that much about Tea Is So Intoxicating, I decided to read one of the other Mary Essex novels I have on my shelf - the equally wonderfully titled The Amorous Bicycle.

You see, I read Tea Is So Intoxicating almost a decade ago, and I read it immediately after finished Moby DickAnything would have been refreshing right then - and, while I knew I loved the novel, which is about the struggles of setting up a provincial tea-room, I didn't know how much this depended on comparison.  Whom could I ask?  Nobody else knew anything about her.  I'm the only person to own any Mary Essex novels on LibraryThing (since Geranium Cat very kindly gave me her copy of Six Fools and a Fairy.)  And I bought Tea Is So Intoxicating on a whim, because it had a brilliant title and only cost 10p. 

Turns out, I knew more about Mary Essex than I realised.  But I'd nearly finished the novel before I discovered that, so I'm going to make you wait until the end of the review to unveil the surprise...

The Amorous Bicycle (1944) takes place in Queen Catharine's Court, an 'ultra-modern, ultra-select block of flats situated in South London, not too south of course, because that would not have had a desirable district number for notepaper, but fairly south.'  There is a huge cast of characters (which isn't the only thing which reminded me of Richmal Crompton's novels) and not really any principals - although the first we meet is Mr. Vyle, the resident manager of the building.  He's a bit of a coward, and unduly proud of his position, but basically a good egg.

I was going to go through the lot, but it might get a bit bewildering.  Suffice to say, they do all become fully-formed - it just takes quite a few pages.  Some are closer to stereotype than others - the retired Colonel and his ex-comrade cook are in the 'closer' category, not to mention the temperamental French chef for the building's restaurant.  There's also the James family - a long-suffering mother who is more than willing to share her sufferings, her actressy daughter and casual son, and her estranged husband (preposterously called Henry James) who is ditched by the mistress he absconded with, and tries to go back to the family he hasn't seen for a decade.  There's a coquettish young woman; a coquettish older woman; a browbeaten decorator determined to paint every flat 'pile blew'; a lascivious doctor; a self-important, plagiarising novelist... the list goes ever delightfully on.

It all sounds a bit like a soap opera, doesn't it?  Well, it's closer, as I said, to Richmal Cromptons novels - a useful comparison only, of course, if you've read any of them.  Gossip and intrigue sustain the residents of the building, all of whom seem to be contemplating romantic alliances to greater or lesser extents.

I am no great fan of romantic novelists.  If that is all they bring to the table, I must confess myself bored - but you probably know how greatly I prize good writing and Essex's is certainly not bad.  It would, admittedly, be infinitely better if she had never discovered the use of the exclamation mark.  I think it can be used to great aplomb in dialogue (c.f. The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, still my forerunner for Read of 2011) but is nigh-on unforgivable in narrative.  It always looks amateurish.

BUT - Essex's writing is funny.  Of course humour is subjective, but I think a lot of you might enjoy her humour too - it reminded me of E.M. Delafield, in that wry, observational style which occasionally does a little twist in the middle of a sentence.  Her unexpected turns made me smile - she is especially good, I thought, at introducing characters with quick, witty sketches.  Which is a mercy, given how many of them there are.  Here are three examples:
He was under forty, and good-looking in a rugged, rather ugly way.
The next one hit a bit close to home...
Professor Tyrrell, unmarried, and completely self-contained, lived in Number Ninety-one.  He was pedantic, he was finicky, he spoke repulsively correct English, in fact it was so correct that it was wrong.
And, self-deprecatingly, this was my favourite:
He was a vegetarian, and looked it.
Only the other day, when reviewing Edith Olivier's Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady, I lamented that she hadn't availed herself of the many opportunities to laugh at the absurdities of wartime.  Well, Essex barely comments on the more serious aspects of war (all but one person seem miraculously unaffected by any actual fighting) but is rather wonderful on the deprivations suffered by economising housewives and frustrated customers.
She proffered the menu.  It read Lunch 3s.6d. (and on the back Dinner 6s.).  Bread, one penny, Napkin, one penny, Coffee, sixpence.  Minerals and soda water.  On reading the menu, which on the face of it looked to be lengthy and extremely good, one's mood changed, because most of it had a tendency to boil down to Spam.
Indeed, it is the rumour of a far-off fishmonger selling 'dabs' (whatever they might be) which compels Miss Hungerford-Hawkes to belie the dignity of her years and procure a bicycle.  This is the first, but by no means the last, mention of bicycles in The Amorous Bicycle.  Essex's title derives from the well-known rhyme 'Daisy, Daisy' (read it here, if you don't know it.)  For somehow, often quite tenuously, the advent of bicycles to Queen Catharine's Court leads to all sorts of happenings, romantic and otherwise (and it is rather nice that Essex focuses on romances between those not in the first flush of youth - this is by no means a youthful romance-by-numbers novel.)

I did have to laugh at the following line - I know enough evangelical cyclists to understand.  (Guys, it's just a mode of transport.  I don't tell you at length how great walking down the street is.  Just saying.  Oh, and when I'm driving, please don't cycle down the middle of the road, or jump red lights.  Ta.)
Really, Mrs. Plaistow decided, people with bicycles were very much like people with babies, they just couldn't stop talking about them.
And not everybody has a fondness for this wartime economy:
Mr. Vyle didn't think so much of a nice bike.  He found that biking made his ears cold, and he was fed to the teeth that he would probably have to give up his car because he couldn't get the petrol for it and he knew that Mrs. Vyle would point out that other people had "ways."  Mr. Vyle hadn't any ways.  He was rather alarmed at the prospect of what might happen to him if he tried any tricks.  All the same he'd see this blasted war somewhere else before he bought himself a nice bike, as Tutton suggested.
Incidentally, when I worked in Rare Books in the Bodleian, I dealt with a lot of boys' comics from the early twentieth-century.  Throughout the early 1940s the back cover held advertisements for a bike manufacturer (showing boys on bikes capturing Nazis; using their bike bells to win the war, etc.) but each said essentially "Sorry, bicycles not available during wartime, but keep an eye out once the fighting's all over."  The residents of Queen Catharine's Court do, admittedly, have some trouble procuring their vehicles - but a fair few manage it in the end.

While I was reading, I wasn't trying to decide whether or not Mary Essex was a great novelist.  She obviously isn't.  My quandary was whether or not she was good - and, exclamation marks aside, I decided that she was.  I'd certainly read more by her, and have one more waiting on my bookshelf.  Her characters and plots don't reinvent the wheel, but are diverting enough, and her style is pleasantly amusing.

So, that twist I promised you.  While hunting around on the internet, I discovered what I had already suspected - that Mary Essex was a pseudonym.  What I had not expected was that I had already heard of Mary Essex under her actual name - which is (drum roll)... Ursula Bloom.

I expect a lot of you have heard of her.  Perhaps you've seen her mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records.  Because Ursula Bloom wrote over 500 books, under various names.  In terms of quantity, she could look Barbara Cartland in the eye.

This discovery did leave me a bit shocked... how could someone so prolific actually write good books?  I know a lot of you will think "All that matters is that you enjoyed it."  That's partly true, but I've always been a believer that literary merit exists, and that books can't be judged entirely subjectively, or on how pleasing they are to the reader.  Was my judgement wildly off?  There are so many books I have disparaged or discarded because of poor writing, yet I thought the writing in The Amorous Bicycle above average.

So... I am left puzzled.  Did Ursula Bloom put extra effort into her Mary Essex titles, or am I so enamoured by the 1940s that I'll forgive a wartime novelist that which I'd condemn from a 21st century writer?  I don't know... but I'd love any of you who've read any Mary Essex to comment, or if you've got one languishing on your shelves - grab it, read it, and get back to me.


  1. I was also one of those who wanted more information on Mary Essex's book - even if I didn't comment about it. So I'm glad you made this post.

    What you've written about quantity and quality is interesting. It seems to me that it's easy to assume that one who is prolific isn't very good; I'm guilty of it, for sure, and I'm actually in much the same dilemma that you're in. Joyce Carol Oates has Essex's problem. She publishes at least two or three works every year, and many people dislike her very, very much. She is often accused of being some kind of insane and verbally incontinent machine, churning out a hefty novel as fast as you can blink. Nevertheless, I read one of her books earlier this year - and I actually thought it was pretty good! So I'm in much the same position as you are - is this a generally good novel (is she a genuinely good novelist?), or do I like it so much because my grandmother gave it to me, and because the protagonist in fact reminds me of her (my grandmother)?

  2. Mary Essex is among of the authors who had made wonderful books. She have managed to make great books like "Dare-Devil Doctor",
    "Assistant Matron” and "Romantic Theatre Sister." Since you have made a short review for this particular book of her, I would love to read that one.

  3. "Dabs" are a marine flatfish, Limanda limanda, which are quite common in the N Sea. Fairly small (up to about 1 kg) and although fairly abundant usually only landed as a by-catch of other intended species.

  4. Oh, many thanks for this, Simon! Now I feel that I can't wait to read 'The Amorous Bicycle'! It sounds like the kind of book my much-cherished Stella Gibbons wrote around the same period, giving such brilliant social detail and sly commentary. Or maybe there are touches of Norman Collins (London Belongs to Me?) V. intrugued to learn that she was Ursula Bloom.

  5. Nothing intelligent to add on Mary/Ursula but may I offer a 'Daisy, Daisy' sequel from my childhood?

    Michael, Michael, here is my answer true,
    I can't cycle, it makes me go black and blue.
    If you can't afford a carriage,
    You can forget about the marriage,
    For I wouldn't be seen, if I were the Queen, on a bicycle made for two.

    No idea of its provenance, but it seemed to be fairly generally known.

  6. Fascinating post - thank you. How interesting that she was Ursula Bloom. It sounds as though it was the name she used for her romantic novels - rather like Noel Streatfeild and her Susan Scarlett novels which she never talked about. The Tea one seems to be very expensive but I've managed to find a copy of Amorous Bicycle.

  7. I've managed to find U Bloom but not Mary essex in the library. By the by would you like 'Faculty towers' Let me know and I'll send.really enjoyed this blog . war time food was ghastly. I was amazed when i found eggs weren't yellow powder. Daphne

  8. I've never heard of Mary Essex before, or Ursula Bloom for that matter, but I am mightily intrigued. I am a cheerful consumer of adequately written light romances and always happy to find promising leads for new, well, new to me, authors. Also, anyone who has written a book about setting up a tea room clearly must be investigated. I think the only other book I know of where that happens is Christopher and Columbus, which, obviously, seems like a good omen!

  9. I learned "Daisy, Daisy" as a song called "A Bicycle Built for Two" with a different second verse that went something like this:

    Michael, Michael this is my answer true
    I'm not crazy over the likes of you
    If you can't afford a carriage
    then there won't be any marriage
    Cause I'll get switched
    if I get hitched
    on a bicycle built for two.

    Perhaps this is the American version (me being American)? Of course, I only reason I even remember this is because I ran around singing this song at my younger brother Michael to tease him...


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