Thursday 21 September 2023

Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim

Meet Sally Pinner - the most beautiful young woman you're likely to meet. All her life Sally's looks have stopped people in their tracks, and attracted attention. Throughout her childhood she was kept quietly hidden away in the backrooms of her parents' shop, but now, as she's growing up, her widowed father doesn't know what to do to keep Sally safe from the men who flock around whenever she appears. At first he tries moving from London to a sleepy village near Cambridge, but even there the threat of her being 'discovered' by undergraduates gives him cause for alarm. 

Then one day, one of those very undergraduates, Jocelyn Luke, calls in at the shop, falls head over heels in love, and proposes. To Mr Pinner this is an ideal way to solve the issue of Sally's safety - get someone else to look after her. She and Jocelyn will marry and all will be well - but having fallen for Sally's looks Jocelyn discovers that there were perhaps other things he should have considered. Sally's conversation, education, and manner of speech are all an embarrassment to him - plus he now realises the stir that Sally creates everywhere, and that he is the one to keep such unwanted attention at bay.
Meanwhile, back in her refined but tiny home, Jocelyn's widowed mother has a not-quite romantic entanglement of her own. Her distress at hearing of her only son's marriage and the possible throwing away of his bright academic future led to her accepting a marriage proposal from her undoubtedly rich, but not quite of her class, neighbour. Can she really tolerate his free and easy manners and turns of speech?

Introduction to Sally was first published in 1926, and, although we probably think we're above such matters these days, I feel we all love a comedy which laughs at our perceptions of, and about, class - think of Henry Higgins trying to teach Eliza Doolittle to speak 'proper English', or, more recently, wannabe social-climber Hyacinth Bucket.  There's certainly more than a touch of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady in this comedy of manners as Jocelyn and his mother attempt to improve Sally's speech, but she is no Eliza Doolittle, and refuses to hear the difference between her words and theirs. Sally has her own ideas about how to behave well (a husband doesn't dump his new bride with his mother and go and live elsewhere, and he certainly shouldn't swear) and won't tolerate anyone contradicting her. 
Von Arnim is probably best known for The Enchanted April which, although it has its humorous moments and ironic observations, isn't as thoroughly funny in the way of Introduction to Sally;  from the crowds who flock to gaze adoringly at Sally, the loss of luggage from the back of the car and its subsequent retrieval, to Mr Pinner's obsession with keeping Sally 'safe' the humour ranges from sly wit to farce. As with the best comedy scriptwriters, von Arnim has the knack of highlighting the short-comings of her characters while still leading the reader to become fond of them. I think it's rather a pity that there were no follow-ups to this Introduction, for a I suspect Sally would have triumphed over prejudice every time 


Wednesday 13 September 2023

What it was like to be an Ancient Roman by David Long

Following on from What it was like to be a Viking, Blue Peter Award winner David Long takes us to Ancient Rome to discover what life was like there.

Illustrated by Stefano Tambellini, this is a short but all-encompassing introduction to life in Ancient Rome aimed at readers of 9 and over (KS2). It introduces children to the history of Rome, from a group of huts to a sprawling empire, and its many accomplishments of roads and buildings, legal systems and calendars, echoes of which can still be seen today.  They can learn about amphitheatres and bath houses, about life in town or country, what Romans ate, what jobs they would have had, the gods and goddesses they worshiped, and what ultimately led to the Empire's downfall.

An excellent introduction to the Roman world whether to spark an interest in history or back up school lessons.

Friday 8 September 2023

Normal Rules Don't Apply by Kate Atkinson


This latest offering from Kate Atkinson is a collection of eleven slightly off-beat short stories. They range from an oddly quiet end of the world apocalypse to a fairy tale in which a queen bargains for her daughter's life, and are interconnected as locations and similar, if not identical, characters pop up in more than one story - they might make their fortune by listening to a talking horse, they might find themselves framed for murder. 

A whimsical collection like this ought to have right up my street, and normally I love Kate Atkinson's work, but somehow I quickly found it failing to engage me. I almost didn't finish.

An odd thought, but one which might prove helpful, is that I felt I disliked it in the way I dislike Pratchett/Gaiman's Good Omens. Maybe they share something in style or substance