Monogram by Gladys Bronwen Stern

I hadn’t meant to take Monogram out of the library. At least I hadn’t meant to take it out just yet.

I’d read one book by G B Stern – The Ten Days of Christmas – and I meant to read the three others in my collection before I tackled an autobiography. Her novels seem so diverse, and so I thought that it would be right to meet the author through her books, and then to bring things together with an autobiography.

I only pulled out Monogram for a look, for inspiration. But when I opened the front cover I saw that the book hadn’t left the library since the 1950s.


I bought the book home – I just had too after I saw that.

I found that what I had was not a coventional autobiography. That, given a free hand by her publishers, the author had decided to do something a little different.

She explains, with both erudition and charm, that, while a conventional biography that plots a straight line through a line can be a wonderful thing, it is sometimes more interesting to do something else. To set down three stakes, to run a rope around then to make a triangle, and then to see what is to be found inside that triangle.

And that’s just what she does.

So this is a book that told me little about the facts of the author’s life, but it does tell me a great deal about the woman she was and the things she loved.

I was a little confused at first. Miss Stern jumps from subject to subject – an incident on a European holiday makes her think of Nell Gwynn, a fellow traveller brings to mind Jo March’s Professor Bhaer – and for a while I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit-hole and unable to see exactly what was on the shelves.

But I soon found my feet.

I began to feel that I was at a wonderful literary party, listening to a wonderful raconteur a little way away. I couldn’t quite reach her through the crowd, but I was still enthralled.

And so I must tell you a little of what I heard.

This is a very telling passage, that I so understood:

“Sentimentality and that childish tendency to say, “nobody loves me and I don’t care” on the slightest provocation, made one invariably cast oneself for the lame child excluded from the good time that others were having. My yearning always to belong to a fabulous band known as “The Rectory Children” was associated with the idea that the rectory children were always having just this sort of good time, and that if you mingled with them hard, you would be yourself identified with their good time, and so escape the dire fate of being excluded from whatever was going on. These mythical rectory children, later on, were to develop into a more sophisticated group; but they would always be the group that looked to me as though they were having the best time of all …”

That did recurred, as did the idea of what she called ‘Peter Pannery.’ With such wonderful wit:

“The Englishman has a curious innate reluctance to become adult. “He’s such a boy at heart, “ is a term of praise in this country. Perhaps also in other countries? I am not quite sure: “Ce n’est qu’un grand garçon” may be said indulgently in France as often as in England. Except that garçon also means bachelor, or waiter. Either puts the sense wrong …”

Miss Stern was a wonderful observer of other women:

“The first modern girl, the first record that the difficult modern daughter was not at all a modern invention was, of course, Persephone; and Persephone could have given an interviewer a pretty good idea of her views on the old-fashioned mother; Demeter was a darling, of course; a mummy-my-sweet; but terribly unreasonable; “Mummy doesn’t realise that one’s allowance goes simply nowhere nowadays; and she fusses over me and talks poppy-cock about sitting at home after dark and it’s dangerous to talk to strangers, till I sometimes think I’ll go batty” …”

That has me so intrigued with her novel ‘Debonair’, and its heroine, named Persephone …

She was thrilled with so much that women had achieved in the early years of the twentieth century and hopeful – maybe too hopeful – that the future would offer wonderful possibilities.

“Now, when I meet scholastic ladies I like them, respect them, yet feel as though I were skating precariously on thin ice all the time; or rather, that my brittle ice is their solid terra firma. Will they find me out, I wonder? Find out those frightful gaps in my education?”

Notice that little hint of insecurity again …

I haven’t mentioned books yet. It’s difficult to pull out quotes because when she writes about books the words just flow and flow and flow.

I knew that she loved Jane Austen and that she had written about Jane Austen, and her knowledge and her passion were wonderful. She wrote, intruingly, about the parallels between the Austen family and Jane’s fictional families. And here’s something I hadn’t noticed before: Jane happily shares her own name with more than one of her characters but she does not share Cassandra, the name of her mother and her sister …

I discovered that she loved Dickens too, and had done ever since she read ‘A tale of Two Cities’ and met Sidney Carlton at the age of ten.

And then there was the theatre. She loved the theatre.

“Mental collections can be as dearly prized as those we keep behind glass, like snuff-boxes, fans or china cats; or the collection of a man who assembled everything that happened to be the size of a fist. I have a mental collection of moments on the stage, moments of horror, irony, beauty or tension …”

She understood the power of music, and of lyrics:

“’A Telephone Call’ by Dorothy Parker, though not in song form, is probably the most agonised, most agonising torch-song ever written. I would give you the Hundred Most Massive Highbrow Living Writers, the kind who creak and heave as they thrust their shoulders at the wheel, like figures in a frieze of Modern Labour, for what Dorothy Parker can do by not using quite half the strength in her little-finger …”

There are one or two more things that made me love her that I really much share. She loved, and understood, dogs.

“I am fond of dogs; deeply and unreasonably fond of them; though I have never subscribed to the platitude that the dog is “the intelligent friend of man.” For consider a spaniel, for instance; how with ears flapping, forepaws scuttering in all directions, he will chase a rabbit year after year, sometimes the same and sometimes a different rabbit but with no hope of ever catching up with it; how he will lie down heavily on a bed of your recently planted bulbs just beginning to show tender and fragile above the earth, and when you furiously holloa at him to come off, will wag his tail, will gaze up at you with love and devotion unalterable in his sherry-coloured eyes, and then roll over heavily  on to his back the better to destroy the little green shoots …”

And she lived in Cornwall for a time – and learned about the Cornish.

“A eucalyptus tree once grew in our garden in Cornwall. We had signed a lease in the autumn. For seven, fourteen, or twenty-one years, of that little house and garden; and returned to take possession in the spring.

During the winter, in London, we talked of that solitary eucalyptus tree; a rare prize to find in an English garden. And while we talked it grew taller, more strange and silvery and beautiful. Not many people in England, we told ourselves, have eucalyptus trees in their front garden.

When we returned we found it lying prone across the lawn. Our Cornish landlord had cut it down to make “a gentleman’s avenue.” “Ee must have a gentleman’s avenue,” he said repeatedly. I wonder why he thought so.”

Just one more, that I love for knowing the importance of the small things, and of the big things.

“My new watch kept beautiful time. A watch, a clock, they are the only things that can keep time. The rest of us squander it, lose it, clutch at it, are burdened with it, let it escape, cannot catch up with it, chase it, plead with it, sigh for it, die for it …”

When I turned the final page I knew that I had found a wonderful new literary friend.

And that I really must read her other novels …

Bookish Thoughts as the Year Ends

Try as I might I can’t distill a year of wonderful reading into lists.

But I can answer a few questions from The Perpetual Page Turner

Best Book of 2011

I have read some wonderful books this year, but if I have to single out just one, the book closest to my heart is The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.

Worst Book of 2011

Oh dear. It has to be What They do in the Dark by Amanda Coe. It started beautifully, it had so much potential, but good ideas were ruined as things were taken much, much too far.

Most Disappointing Book of 2011

I have loved Susan Hill‘s crime novels in the past but I was disappointed in her most recent, The Betrayal of Trust. The plot and the characters came a very poor second to themes that the author clearly had strong feelings about but pushed much too hard for me.

Most Surprising (in a good way) Book of 2011

The idea of a novel in verse scared me, but Lettice Delmer by Susan Miles was a Persephone Book, it had appeared in a library sale, and so I gave it the benefit of the doubt. And I found a troubling story quite brilliantly told.

Book Recommended Most in 2011

I found Ten Days of Christmas by Gladys Bronwyn Stern in a bargain bin. It had no dust jacket, no synopsis, and so I did a few searches to try to find out more, but I couldn’t find anyone who had written about it. So I read, I wrote , and I’ve noticed a good few people have ordered copies and a couple more reviews have appeared. I really am thrilled.

Best Series You Discovered in 2011

I read and loved The Return of Captain John Emmett last year, and so I was eager to read Elizabeth Speller‘s second novel, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. I was surprised, and delighted to meet Lawrence Bartram again, to see his story progress, and to notice some very interesting hints about where his story might go next.

Favourite New Author in 2011

I’ve found a few new authors I want to keep tabs on, but if I’m going to pick out one I think it must be Rachel Hore. I read The Gathering Storm, I fell in love with her writing, and now I have an intriguing backlist to explore.

Most Hilarious Read in 2011

I am not a great lover of comic writing, but there’s something about Molly Keane, Time After Time was dark, sad, grotesque, and yet very, very funny.

Most Thrilling, Unputdownable Book of 2011

I was intrigued and confounded by True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies. I just couldn’t work out who this woman was, why she did the things she did.

Book Most Anticipated in 2011

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple was surely the most eagerly waited reissue of 2011. And it more than lived up to some very high expectations.

Favourite Cover of a Book in 2011

Most Memorable Character in 2011

Oh, Miss Ranskill! I shall never forget you, and I shall never forget The Carpenter. Barbara Euphan Todd told your story so well in Miss Ranskill Comes Home.

Most Beautifully Written Book in 2011

That would be a book I’m still reading. Vanessa Gebbie’s novel, The Coward’s Tale, uses words – their meanings, their sounds, their rhythms – quite brilliantly. I even find myself reading with a Welsh accent …

Book That Had the Greatest Impact on You in 2011

I was intrigued from the first moment I saw No Surrender by Constance Maud. A suffragette novel! I realised how little I really knew, and this book has inspired me to find out more – The Virago Book of Suffragettes is now sitting on the bedside table.

Book You Can’t Believe You Waited until 2011 to Read

I can remember seeing Mary Stewart‘s books on the library shelves years ago, when I moved up from the junior to the adult library, but it wasn’t until this year that I read one. It was Thunder on the Right, and I loved it …

… a wonderful year of reading … and now it’s time to start another …


Ten Days of Christmas by Gladys Bronwyn Stern

It was a plain red hardback sitting on a shelf in a secondhand bookshop. There was no dust jacket, no adornment at all, just the title and the author’s name on the spine.

I knew the author’s name. Two of her books were reissued as Virago Modern Classics, and she wrote two books about Jane Austen with Sheila Kaye-Smith, another Virago author.

And I wondered, why ten days of Christmas instead of the more usual twelve?

It was, I found, because this is a house-party novel, set over ten eventful days at 1948.

On the first page I met fifteen year-old Claire, who had arrived from America to spend Christmas with friends and family she hadn’t seen since before the war. Her American-born mother had whisked her family across the Atlantic as soon as war broke out. Younger siblings were born in America, but Claire remembered her English roots, and so her parents were persuaded to allow her to visit.

I was drawn in by lovely prose and storytelling, and I noticed that Claire was an exact contemporary of my mother.

Claire barely remembered her hosts, Anthony and Dorothy, but it didn’t matter. She was quickly caught up in a big gathering of adults and children, extended family and friends.

Upstairs the children planned to put on a play, to honour Claire’s Uncle Ted. He was Lal’s uncle too and he was acting in a highly successful West End revue, which would delay his arrival until after Christmas.

It was lovely to watch the preparations. Which play to choose? Who should do what? Where should the performance take place?

And downstairs the adults enjoyed each others company, caught up on news, and made preparations.

The writing was lovely, the characters were beautifully drawn and that post-war era was captured beautifully. The war was over, the past was done, but the future was uncertain.

The joy was in the details… Nineteen year-old Rosalind leaving the children to join the adults… William, Anthony’s elderly father, complaining about people who gave him one present for Christmas and his boxing day birthday… Sixteen year-old Terry, arriving a little later than the others, commissioned to bring copies of the chosen play and arriving with stars in her eyes… Nick and Tan, from different sides of the family, neither settled into post-war lives, good friends who maybe could be something more …

I thought I was just going to float along, watching a happy house-party and seeing a play, but then something changed.

It was such a small thing that started it. A duplicated gift. The recipient, Rosalind, didn’t deal with the situation as well as she might. Terry, who idolised Rosalind, was upset when her gift was given back to her. Sorrel, the abandoned wife of Dorothy’s errant brother, was upset for her daughter.

There were cross words between children and adults. Old recriminations were spoken aloud. Secrets were revealed. Words that should be left unsaid were spoken aloud.

It was horribly believable.

The play was cancelled. And it seemed that the house-party would come to an end sooner than had been planned.

Then Ted arrived, happy and quite unaware of the disharmony in the house. His warmth and enthusiasm changed things again. he helped to build bridges, and adults and children built new relationships, on better understanding.

That sounds a little contrived. And maybe it was, but it felt right.

Because the author so clearly understood how families work.

And because in what seemed to be a simple story she said so much about two generations and the times they lived in.

An afterword, two years later, made me catch my breath.

I am only sorry that Ten Days of Christmas is out of print.

It would suit a dove grey dust jacket very well …