From the smelly to the sublime
To find an old book
that does not stink of mould
is a joy. And I'll travel an hour to get to a yard sale advertised as including a box of books.
The 1927 novel "Miss Brown of XYO" was filed as a mystery in the old Town of Mount Royal
Library, but it's really a Harlequin thriller, with a lowly but proper (and very talented) British stenographer pulled into the battle between freedom and the Ruskies!
Our heroine acquits herself well. "Miss Edith Brown sat on the bottommost of a short flight of steps with her back to an invisible house, gazing into an invisible world," begins the adventure. "Everywhere around her was fog -- fog of the orange, yellow description, choking, enveloping. For over half an hour she had been wandering about, patient and unafraid as was her habitude, but in a state of complete geographical confusion."
Après nous le deluge!
"It was not for her to know that the quiet which she found so soothing was to be the prelude to storms such as she had never dreamed of, to days of breathless living, to vivid patches of romance, to journeyings in a new and terrifying world." But even if there'd been a hint, she would not have fled: "Miss Brown, notwithstanding her demure appearance, had suffered all her life from an unprobed spirit of romance."
Indeed, Miss Brown ends up besting the Reds, joining the secret service (the XYO) and falling madly for her boss, the country's top spook and chief dirty-bottle washer. "Miss Brown," reads the novel's last few lines, "we have known each other for quite some time, and I have never heard your Christian name."
"'Edith,' she murmured.
"'Mine is Geoffrey,' he said, taking her into his arms.
"Then for the first time, Miss Brown was kissed upon the lips."
Ha! Then her romance gets probed, awright! Snort snort!
There's a hint of lesbianism (for those who seek it). Miss Brown's occasional roommate, who lives in the country with another chickie, Mollie, and hopes to make a go of chicken farming, pops by periodically to escape the endless feather plucking. Miss Frances is 27, and on her way to being an Old Maid. Her honorific is, quite rudely, paired with her androgynous first name.
Miss Frances' fate as an unmarried lady leads her to consider giving up on the rules of propriety (with what's available, an already married male pinko pol). And, as Frances tells Miss Brown: "You're much nicer than I am, you, know, really, Edith -- sweet and soft and conscientious, -- and a dainty little thing, although you do dress like a frump on the streets. If I were a man I should be crazy about you."
Miss Frances is saved from herself (and sin) by a good-hearted but destitute Russian prince-in-exile, whose rich lady relative dies at just the right moment to allow for a marriage proposal.
The residents of the Brown-Frances building circa the 1920s seem to share a bathroom, and -- here's something I'm too young to have known -- it cost three pennies for a tub full of hot water. There's an actual slot for the coins.
The government and good-guy spies completely control the media, regularly dictating content. (I was reminded of the humiliating -- for professional journalists -- moment in 1943's "The Secret of the Unicorn"
when the jeune reporteur Tintin
announces that he's deliberately leaked fake information to the newspapers, in order to scam the baddies.) Though sometimes, the reporters in "Miss Brown of XYO" are on their own: "I suppose you realize that it is the first time in history that any direct appeal of a vital nature has been made to the country without the press having been let into the secret," sez one ruling politician.
(Excursus: Author E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) was a best seller in his time, and called himself the "prince of storytellers." Eddie penned more than 100 novels: "For most of his life, Oppenheim maintained a regular schedule of work and productivity of an almost monastic nature, despite his fondness for Monte Carlo and his love of good food and wine," writes this fan.
There's another delightfully obsessed Oppenheim nut here,
who also provides book appraisals, and you can find the complete texts of some of buddy's work here.
Oppenheim's best contribution to my personal zeitgeist is the swearing. The word "damn" appears at least twice in "Miss Brown of XYO," and each time there's a sheepishness -- an apology to the reader for its shameless use. "It is damned good luck for me," notes one character. "Don't be cross with me that I swear a little, Miss Brown. We Russians always do, and I am very happy."
The other swear word is much, much worse. It appears shockingly often by comparison, written thusly: "b . . . . y".
Lawdy, whatever could it mean?
That's gotta be it (and my dad confirms). Bloody's "use as an expletive dates from the 17th century," according to my "Dictionary of Word Origins."
In the 1920s, the comment was understood as referring to God's blood. My dad reminds me that even 40 years ago, references to His bits -- hair of God, nails of God -- were all equally blasphemous. B . . . . y hell.