Monday, 17 March 2014

My Friend Cousin Emmie by Jane Duncan

published 1964   set in 1951








....She was small, thin, dressed from head to foot in an indeterminate drab brown colour, and in this breezy sea-going atmosphere she had, somehow, the effect of a withered autumn leaf….

....Miss Morrison sat beside [the captain] in the brown tweed coat and skirt in which she had come on board, eating prodigiously and speaking no word unless asked a direct question, and even then, sometimes, she would make no reply other than a flat stare, which indicated that the question was too basically silly to merit an answer…

...She was dressed for the day in her brown tweed coat and skirt, and came into the saloon carrying the canvas bag in one hand and the brown cotton umbrella in the other, depositing these on the floor on either side of her chair. The captain, and indeed all of us, watched with interest while she ate half a grapefruit, a plate of cereal and a kipper, and some toast… then asked for bacon and eggs.



observations: These extracts (3 separate ones) are all in the first quarter of the book, during the sea voyage from the UK to the (fictional) West Indian island of St Jago, where the rest of the story will take place. This is Cousin Emmie herself, and we get the rather repetitive point. She dresses badly and has an enormous appetite and a sharp manner. Her wardrobe (and as we have mentioned before, a ‘coat and skirt’ in this context and at this era means what we would call a suit) will not improve much in the tropics.

But the book is rather an improvement on some of its predecessors: I am reading my way through this series of early 60s bestsellers (click on the Jane Duncan label below to see the whole range) and this is definitely one of the better entries. Early on, the narrator (and authorial stand-in) Janet says: ‘My life… seems to contain much more of what the authors of books seem to regard as unimportant trivia, and I seem to be much more at the mercy of such trivia than the people in books.’ This is really one of her ‘I’m so endearing with my self-deprecating honesty remarks’ but also: she has a nerve. She writes this long, long series of books entirely about the trivia in her life and wants us to be interested. In each book various emotional goings-on force themselves on her: she thinks about the lives of her friends neighbours and family, and her own marriage, considers some possibility, dismisses it, drones on, then eventually realizes that the obvious is true (affairs, pairings, attractions, partings) without any apparent feeling that she could have been a bit more sensitive and sympathetic.

Janet quite dislikes Cousin Emmie, the lady in brown, for most of the book, but for once a character is allowed to overcome the Janet-ian prejudice. Cousin Emmie is really a rather marvellous creation: she has no truck with politeness or tact, and she steals biscuits, but it turns out she is annoyingly perceptive, and sees very well what is going on, and steps in to solve a problem. Janet is forced to admit that she is generally quite a good thing. And there is a surprisingly sympathetic and non-judgmental look at Lesbianism, for the era anyway.

Cousin Emmie will get herself a dress in foulard: one of those fabrics which now appears only in books. The term appears often up until about 20 years ago, but now has disappeared. It was ‘a lightweight twill or plain-woven fabric of silk or silk and cotton.’

The picture is from the Helen Richey archive at the San Diego Air and Space Museum: Richey was an aviation pioneer who seems to have left all her photo albums to the Museum, and the collection has a lovely random quality about it.

12 comments:

  1. Moira - I always think it's interesting when a character creeps up on you like that, or when you end up liking the character more than the author may have intended. Certainly Emmie seems more appealing than Janet does, just from the bits you've shared. Interesting-sounding exotic setting, too!

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    1. All that you say is true - still, I'm not actually recommending it. I think I'm reading through this series so no-one else has to, tbh. They were so successful in their time, but I've looked online, and there's very little mention now, even from those bloggers who read a lot of older books.

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  2. Searching the memory banks, I feel confident I can claim to never have read a book authored by anyone called Jane in 50 years on the planet. Long may my run continue! Duncan yes.

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    1. I love this method of categorizing authors - we should do this more. I'm going to have to try to think of some author forenames I haven't sampled, and I'm sure your blog would be the place to look. Chip, for example. I bet I have never read a book by a Chip, and I bet you have?

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  3. Hmm, back-tracking slightly I think my Duncan encounter was a surname - Robert L.
    My Chip entry was Chip Kidd - The Cheese Monkeys, great cover, great title - but downhill after that.
    Charlie, Charles,Chuck - tick,tick,tick,
    Chaz and Cherry - no cigar!

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    1. Ok, in the next week or so I am going to find a book by someone with a first name not previously seen here, and read it and blog it. But probably not Chip. Or Chuck, or Butch or any other definitely noir name. I like the idea of the challenge.

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    2. I ought to reciprocate and read something in return.......Barbara, Emily, Victoria, Norbert or Tristran....wouldn't want to pigeon-hole anyone but you couldn't see them writing noir! Unless you have a better challenge?

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    3. Ok, the challenge is that each of us has to read and blog a book by an author a) whose first name hasn't featured before and b) that name has to at least *suggest* a genre or style quite different from the books most closely associated with our blogs. Are you on for that? I feel I get off more lightly, as I do dabble a toe into noir, but I think it'll do you good to read authors called Araminta and Amelia.

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    4. Ok, one or the other, but probably not both.
      As they don't currently reside on the shelves of CCL, I will need to find something (un)suitable and acquire it, then will need a week or so to read it...maybe longer if I have to repeatedly stop to stab myself with a sharp object. I'm going to break with tradition and read it without pre-announcing what it is.......my! won't you be surprised?
      Being stingy with the time-frame - should be posted by.....hmm - 6th April.


      (Gulp.....what have I just agreed to?)

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    5. I did only mean one book, fulfilling both categories, wouldn't want to raise the bar too high. Ok great, we're on. I'm off to search the tbr piles now.

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  4. Cousin Emmie sounds quite likable. I do try to be polite and tactful, but I like people who ignore those characteristics. Especially in books. However, I know you understand why I will not be reading these. You have recommended too many other good books for me to look into.

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    1. Do you know, I understand exactly what you mean, I am much the same: I like (and try to practise) good manners in real life, but enjoy crashing rudeness in books. And, yes, there are better books for you to enjoy.

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