[Extracts from book]
Stephanie was suddenly conscious that her brilliant hair and fine skin and the skilfully draped dress which had been the work of two week-ends before the pictures had stolen all her leisure made an agreeable impact on a man whose visual sense must be highly developed, and she resolved if need be to exploit the advantage. She resolved it all the more readily because Arnold Bayley was, to her way of thinking, an attractive young man. She could have wished that she had come to him with some less thorny problem, some story more assured of acceptance.
[Beatrix is trying to sell some paintings]
‘We’ve got Lorenzo the Magnificent,’ said Beatrix quickly.
‘It’s no use asking me to sell Borgias. They been done to death.’
‘But he’s a Medici.’
‘It’s the same thing. Unless,’ he added on a more hopeful note, ‘he’s in his cardinal’s robes.’
‘I’m afraid not. He’s in a sort of black blouse affair.’
‘Doesn’t sound very magnificent to me.’
‘We’ve got a pope,’ she remembered brightening. ‘Pius the something-or-other.’
‘Popes are religious. You can’t get away from it.’
‘But so are cardinals, aren’t they?’
‘In a different way,’ he remarked coldly,
comments: I really should get one of those template keys on my computer, such that when I press F6, say, up come the words ‘how marvellous that the Dean St Press has brought this book back into print.’ Save me typing them yet again.
The kindly Dean St-ers could virtually be working for me: catering to my enjoyment of Golden Age crime, and popular fiction of the mid 20th Century, particularly the kind that could be described as ‘women’s fiction’ – a dismissive phrase from some, but certainly not from me. They have an amazing talent for finding wrongly-forgotten gems in both those areas.
And this is a perfect example: All Done by Kindness is a neat, happy book, a tremendous joy to read. It takes place a few years after the second world war, and in a small town in the north of England (I was thinking Harrogate) we discover a respectable doctor who once helped out one of his patients by ‘buying’ some worthless junk. His family were of course annoyed with him at the time.
Now, a few years later, a question arises over some of the items. A friend of the family, the young widow Mrs De Plessis (Stephanie above), thinks the artworks in that dratted trunk cluttering up the attic might have some value and interest. And so begins the long thread, beautifully plotted. The pictures must be shown to an expert. Decisions must be made about value. There are some dubious forces at work...
Moore keeps up tremendous tension and interest at all times – the book is wonderfully well done, and very clever. Because, you know pretty much at all times what the various parties are thinking and doing, there is no doubt. And (no spoiler) it seems likely that the forces of good will prevail. But somehow she keeps the tension up, and tells the story in a very amusing way. There are times when you want to strangle some of the characters, it must be said, as they act in such annoying ways. But Moore still totally makes it work. The book is a delight.
Moore has some excellent comments on human nature, I loved some of her character insights – the kind of thing you recognize instantly, but feel have rarely been described.
She turned and shook her head, summoning all her courage; for in the sensitive nothing needs more courage than to take a course that opposes the one socially required of them.
The more she could give this enterprise the colour of a manoeuvre on her part to bring her into contact with a man who appealed to her, the nearer she would be to bringing it to Linda’s own plane, a plane on which the affairs of the heart were the most important business in life and it was friendship’s paramount duty to smooth the path towards a new attachment. Conspiring to preserve Old Masters was an activity in which she could never feel completely in her element, even though the family fortunes should depend on it; but doing a good turn to a friend who was angling for a particular young man was a cause not open to dispute. For that she was prepared to throw her bonnet over the highest windmill.
There are sideswipes at matters that you think might be more modern – people with complex conspiracy theories about Leonardo da Vinci and the Holy Grail, and artworks that ‘a child of five could have painted’. Nothing much changes.
My only great disappointment is this: Moore (who had a most interesting career, well worth a look on Wikipedia) was an expert in several areas , including art, Byron and fashion – she is responsible for what has now become the Museum of Fashion in Bath. But she very much fails to tell us what her characters are wearing. Many tragically missed opportunities. I had to do the best I could with what she did say.
Sylvia Townsend Warner (see label below) wrote beautifully about provincial art galleries at a similar era – this post is about another of her stories, but mentions the gallery ones.
A recent book with a similar premise of lost masterpieces – The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild – wasn’t half as good as this one. But The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith , similar basis, is very enjoyable, and I liked it not only because I was able to write about Beatnik parties in the blogpost.
Top picture, from Kristine’s photostream, is from 1951 so spot on. Stephanie’s home-made dress probably didn’t look like that, and the picture is not a mediaeval panel. But obviously I had to use it!
The second picture is Lorenzo the Magnificent.