Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Greenery Street

I won a pretty little paperback book a few weeks ago at Books and Chocolate, a copy of Greenery Street by Denis Mackail. One of the purposes of the giveaway was to introduce new readers to Persephone Books and their reprints of "neglected classics" from the early twentieth century. This one is fun to read; it's about a newly-married couple, and will make any married person reminisce fondly about the first year of marriage. It made me remember the young matrons I worked with (as a file clerk in a medical office) when I was a newlywed, and some of the quelling things they'd say to me about what would change as I became an "oldywed."

One of the things I read about this book before it arrived is that the narrator has reminded at least one reader of the sometimes-intrusive narrator in the tv show Arrested Development. So in the time between finding out I'd won the book and receiving it, I watched some episodes of the tv show, but have so far failed to be charmed by it.

The narration of Greenery Street, however, is quite charming, often in a slightly self-deprecating manner:
"This is how Greenery Street thinks and acts. This is how Felicity and Ian thought and acted now. They wouldn't deny that they'd had a shock; but, as Felicity pointed out, so long as they'd still got each other, what did anything else matter? One expects these little jolts occasionally, so they told one another, but in Greenery Street there is an ancient phrase which will fetch its inhabitants through worse troubles than these. You find it in those multi-coloured fairy books on Felicity's hanging bookshelf. 'So they were married,' it runs, 'and lived happily ever afterwards.'
For 'and,' say the inhabitants, please read 'and therefore.'"

Felicity and Ian go through all the conventional stages of courtship and marriage. When Ian first meets her father, there is some awkwardness which reminds me irresistably of the time my father, stuck for conversation, genially asked one of my teenage boyfriends whether the large car he was driving was difficult to park, and the boyfriend, head full of the phrase "parking," which meant "making out" in teenager parlance of that day, was left almost completely at a loss for words.

This is what Ian and Felicity's father Humphrey say and do upon first meeting:
"'How do you do, sir?' said Ian, courageously. As before, he extended the right hand of salutation.
But old Humphrey, who was at least ten times more embarrassed than anyone else in the room, found himself incapable of making the necessary contact. Instead, he nodded at Ian with an odd kind of familiarity--rather as though they had secretly spent the whole day together in not very respectable surroundings--and began rubbing the tips of his fingers against each other.
'Infernally cold,' he observed."

Some modern readers find Felicity a little sillier than the spirit of the novel requires, because of things like her inexperience with keeping financial records. I find her experience true to life, as an increasingly rare modern woman who went directly from her mother's house to setting up a household with a husband. As newlyweds, we once went two months thinking we didn't have much money in our account because I'd forgotten to record our paychecks in the "deposit" section.

Felicity is as sheltered as a nice turn-of the-century upper-class British woman should be, and so her husband's process of learning about her is laced with something that is close to--but not quite--condescension:
"Ian pigeon-holed this information--delivered with such careless certainty--in the section of his mind which was invisibly labelled 'Felicity's philosophy.' He was always turning over the contents of this compartment, smiling at them, piecing them together and separating them again. Sometimes they made him feel that he was really learning a lot about life; at other times that he was learning a lot about Felicity; oftener still that the whole collection represented just so much childishness and general inaccuracy. But when he had finished, he was always careful to put everything back. He had no intention of losing any of it."
Wouldn't it be nice if that tolerant attitude could last for thirty years or more? And yet it rarely does; it's a bit fragile for long duration, like some of the wedding gifts.

One of my favorite parts of the novel is when Felicity wants to go to a dance, and Ian is initially reluctant. They are so in love that, by the end of their disagreement, Felicity isn't sure she wants to go, and Ian is positively enthusiastic, lest he disappoint her. It reminds me of a discussion Ron and I once had about where to go for a romantic Valentine's day lunch. I suggested one place, and he suggested another, and on Valentine's day we each went to the place the other had suggested and waited, wondering where the other was.

Almost as good is their attempt to meet each other halfway about settling into a hotel:
"She was unpacking... conscientiously, and Ian--who preferred to take things from his suitcase as the occasion arose--showed a little impatience....And then, because she was a good wife, she controlled her desire to rearrange all her things in different cupboards and drawers..." Since I'm the one who prefers to take things from my suitcase as the occasion arises, I appreciate Felicity's efforts to get on with the holiday.

There are a few situations a modern reader will have absolutely no experience with--the difficulty of firing a servant, for instance-- but since the strength of this novel is in the evoking of experience through details that are as often timeless as dated, many readers will find plenty to sympathize with and remember as fondly as Ian and Felicity end up looking back on Greenery Street, the first place they live together as a couple.

If you've ever been married, you know how the most absurd things about the first place you lived together can become fond memories. Our "honeymoon cottage," as my father still calls our first apartment, had roly-polies (sow bugs) that would sometimes crawl up the wall and partway across the ceiling before dropping, and I was afraid one would eventually drop onto my face while I was sleeping. Ron used to gallantly promise to stay awake and guard my face; that's a fond memory now.


FreshHell said...

Wait, you are not charmed by Arrested Development? One of my all-time favorite shows? Sigh.

PAJ said...

The book sounds charming. And those of us who are "oldyweds" need to remember those heady first days sometimes.
We were in our "first place" only a few months, and most of that time my dear new husband was away on business trips, so there weren't a lot of together moments. But I do remember how we rushed out and bought our first Christmas tree together. It was enormous. Really, really enormous. (It looked much smaller on the lot.) We ferried it home, somehow managed to fit it into a tree stand, and then began decorating, which took only about 10 minutes because we were, after all, newlyweds and had little in the way of ornaments. Most of what we did have had been purchased at K-mart (by a budget-conscious new bride). We still have a few of those increasingly forlorn decorations and hang at least one every year.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, so far I've watched about five episodes of the first season, and the people are so over-the-top stupid and cruel to each other that I'm not really getting into it.

PAJ, did you recapitulate what you learned about how trees look smaller on the lot when your child was younger? We did!

FreshHell said...

I think that's the joke. But, I especially liked it for my other secret boyfriend Justin Bateman.

Jeanne said...

Justin is pretty to look at!

Anonymous said...

Okay, your Valentine date cracked me up.

Karenlibrarian said...

Jeanne, I'm so glad you liked it! But I'm sorry that Arrested Development didn't amuse you. I agree with FreshHell, it's so over the top it's funny. The mother is so terrible, she's unbelievable. Sort of like Sue Sylvester in Glee.

Trapunto said...

Roly-polies will try to get inside? Ew. What were they after? Was it a basement apartment?

I also liked the Valentin's lunch story!

I guess the chomping, scraping bedroom wall full of carpenter ants are not far enough in Der Mann's and my past to produce fond memories. Or the drystone cellar apartment with the silverfish.

PAJ said...

Of course we passed along the "trees look smaller outside" bit of wisdom. But I'm betting my daughter ignores it, just as I did my father's warnings!

Jenny said...

It took me a little while to get into Arrested Development, for the same reason as you, the meanness of the characters. But it grew on me a lot. Especially Gob. I now can't even hear Will Arnett's voice without giggling helplessly. Have you seen him do his chicken imitation yet?

Marie said...

So true. There are lots of things about our first years together that my husband and I laugh about now!

Ron Griggs said...

And I am the one who wants to unpack into the drawers at the hotel room...

Re Valentine's Day, I think every couple should have a "Gift of the Magi" story.

And I think Arrested Development can be appreciated like a snarky comment, it requires a little schadenfreude. So "charmed" is not the word, though "amused" is.

Jeanne said...

Readersguide, it was only funny in retrospect. Now, as Ron notes, we think of it as our "Gifts of the Magi" story.

Karenlibrarian, I find Sue funnier than the Arrested Development mother. But we watched another one last night!

Trapunto, it was an odd kind of pest problem--not a basement apartment, but a ground floor one very near the Mississippi river, and cheaply constructed. It's still standing, though!

PAJ, some things you just have to try for yourself, I guess!

Jenny, we have not gotten to the chicken imitation. I will keep going for a while hoping for it.

Marie, I think it's the intensity of those first few years.

Ron, I'll watch the next episode with a "bless their hearts" attitude, then.

Aarti said...

What a lovely review of what sounds to be a charming book. I liked having glimpses into your life in relation to scenes from the book :-)

Jeanne said...

Aarti, the chief charm of the book is its universality.

Care said...

i am a sucker for lovey dovey love stories, especially about marriage! this sounds so sweet. lovely post. Loved the Valentines Day mix up story! How long did it take before it was all straightened out? In an age of cellphones...
No one young will 'get' it.

I do think you would enjoy the fun and didster of Someone at a distance by Dorothy Whipple for anothwr Persephone experience.

And, thx for more joyce ... Stuff? More Joyce humor and encouragement.

Jeanne said...

Care, you're right--it's a pre-cell-phone story! It took us until that evening, in fact.

I'm thinking that Whipple may be the author to request that my local public library buy.

I do think reading Ulysses can be fun--at least more fun than some people expect...