Thank goodness for libraries and their willingness to lend rare books. Perhaps the library who loaned me (rather loaned my library, and then me indirectly) Joyce Dennys' Economy Must Be Our Watchword doesn't realize there are not many copies of this floating around. But I've taken good care of it and have just today brought it back to my library so they can send it back to its proper home. When Simon mentioned this humorous Joyce Dennys novel I knew I had to try and track it down. I had little hope that I would find a copy, but it's amazing how often books can be found via interlibrary loan. If your library offers the service, I highly recommend it--as you then literally have at your fingertips almost any book that is available somewhere. Often a hard to find book is sitting on some library's shelves just waiting to be checked out and read.
I always take note of the books other readers recommend in my lost in the stacks posts (and I hope to have another one lined up soon). If another reader (especially one whose tastes tend to be similar to mine--and sometimes not, too, as there are so many good books out there to discover) tells me a book is a hidden gem, I trust them to steer me in the right direction. About Economy Must Be Our Watchword Simon said:
"So, which book do I love which *hasn't* caused much of a stir in the blogosphere... I think it might be Economy Must Be Our Watchword by Joyce Dennys. I never blogged about it properly, since it's impossible to find copies of it, but it's a hilarious take on a rich woman who has bizarre ideas about economising (and zero self-awareness) during the Second World War. I treasure my copy, which I was lucky to find on Charing Cross Road."
Published in 1932, it is an immensely amusing send up of the monied classes, though in this case the Macassars are nouveau riche, having come to their wealth and titles much more recently than their peers. I suppose this is a true satire, though the humor is almost so exaggerated it seems to fall into the comic realm à la P.G. Wodehouse maybe. Lady Macassar, or Petal as she is known by her husband Hilary, is a larger-than-life character. She's a snob with a capital S and so uninformed (though I'm sure she'd argue with me on that point) as to be outrageous in her thinking. If the story was a film I can picture one of those old B&W 1940s movies of madcap hilarity and almost farcical in the action.
"As I said to Hilary only this morning, 'Economy must be our watchword for the future'."
"I mean to say, it's all very well to talk, and some people would call us quite well-to-do, but what I want to know is, How can one live on fifteen thousand a year when one is accustomed to live on twenty-thousand?"
It's perfectly simple my dear girl, we must shut up this house and sell the villa at Antibes, and let the shooting in Scotland, and go live at Westlands'." (Westlands being their country home in Wessex).
Petal has a knack for rubbing nearly everyone the wrong way. Peeving off the servants who she feels must, too, do their part, and whyever must they "whine" about their situations when they can easily go on the dole and live the easy life (paid for by hers truly, of course). She's surprised and shocked when they complain and worse when they quit. When the chef decides to leave after Petal lets the kitchen maids go she tells her that "everybody has got to make sacrifices" now that they're in the throes of a National Crisis. Somehow, though, Petal's sacrifices never seem to be quite as painful as those around her (though I'm sure she'd argue with me on that point, too).
"This is no time for fiddling while Rome is burning, like Brutus did, and I for one intend to set an example to all those disgraceful out-of-work people who line up every week for the dole, which you and I, Hilary, have to pay for. I wonder they aren't ashamed, but I suppose as long as they can live on comfort without working they will continue to do so, and it only remains for our class to show them that we anyway are not afraid to shoulder the burden."
So, along with sacking the kitchen maids in order to economize, Petal closes the London house and follows Hilary to Westlands, though sadly she is not a countrywoman at heart. She manages to offend most of her neighbors, and after an afternoon tea party discovers she'll need to reciprocate visits for which she's loathe to do. When Hilary sets to creating a sustaining garden with the help of other villagers, she decides she must, too, do her part and sets off back to London to look for a job.
It doesn't follow that being a good customer/shopper makes you a good a good saleswoman, but it's impossible to tell that to Petal. She elbows her way into a position at her favorite hat shop to humorous effect though she steamrolls over everyone in her way. I'd like to think that deep down, despite her brashness, she's ultimately good hearted but she really doesn't seem to have a clue to the reality of the lives of those outside her class. Economize she may try to do, in her own way that is, but sadly her grasp of economics is on the shaky side.
This is the sort of story that elicits a fair few snorts and guffaws. Between Petal's mis-understandings and mis-information and her methods of economizing, it's a story you shake your head at in consternation and amusement. I wonder what readers thought of it in 1932? The story is accompanied by set of wonderful illustrations like the one above. I think I need to share a few more with you.
Petal and her friend Babs, with whom she stays with in London (one must economize you know and the London house is shut up . . .). You might call Petal high maintenance in terms of being an houseguest.
Petal with her O (a bit of a misunderstanding with the gardener and his thick West country burr). Or hoe as you might know it. She did spend a little time working in Hilary's garden (what better opportunity to buy herself a "delightful new smock and breeches"). Did you know that even in 1932 it wasn't unheard of for one to have a publicist? What better opportunity for a photo op than the honorable Lady Macassar working in her garden (all in the name of economizing!).
And the same Mr. Boom manages to wrangle an invitation out of Petal to attend a Society wedding at which there is to be no photography, though hidden in Mr. Boom's hat is his trusty little camera. The bride's family called out not only the local constabulary to watch for offenders, but also the Girl Guides and Boy Scouts with very funny results. Here's Petal and Mr. Broom trying to hide his camera, though you can't pull the wool over a Scout's eyes too easily.
Bloomsbury has reissued a couple of Joyce Dennys' books, both of which I have somewhere on my bookshelves, so will look forward to reading them when I am in need of something light and amusing. If you can get your hands on Economy Must Be Our Watchword, it's well worth the effort. It's also the sort of book that can easily be read in a sitting or two--perfect reading for a rainy afternoon I think.