In Another's Words

"The vision that you glorify in your mind, the ideal that you enthrone in your heart - this you will build your life by, this you will become." James Allen

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Merry Hall Trilogy

The Merry Hall Trilogy
Merry Hall
By Beverley Nichols
With a Foreword by Ann Lovejoy
319 pp Oregon
Timber Press $24.95

Laughter On The Stairs
By Beverley Nichols
With a Foreword by Roy C. Dicks
257 pp Oregon
Timber Press $24.95

Sunlight On The Lawn
By Beverley Nichols
With a Foreword by Bryan Connon
264 pp Oregon
Timber Press $24.95

Reviewed by Burndett Andres

Lest we use our entire allotment of space for book titles, let us commence at once to employ a literary device used to great effect by our author, Beverley Nichols. When faced with the necessity for oft-repeated phrases, he would, with the reader’s permission of course, adopt the practice of substituting initials for names or phrases. Hence “nice balustrade” became N.B. and N.Q.S.N.B. would stand in for “not quite so nice balustrade.” You see at once the merit of this procedure. In our situation, Beverley Nichols will become BN, The Merry Hall Trilogy will be simply TMHT and MH, LOTS and SOTL should be obvious. I will endeavor to ease you into it.

The Merry Hall Trilogy, TMHT, is comprised of MH (1951), LOTS (1953) and SOTL (1956). Together they give some insight into life in Merry Hall, BN’s Georgian manor house in Surry, England, from the time the property was purchased in 1945 and throughout its reclamation. The animals of MH, human and feline, and the inhabitants of the village of Meadowstream all play important parts, but the flora has been given the starring role. The gardens are thoroughly introduced; in fact, each individual tree, shrub and plant is thoroughly introduced. Early on BN warns, “When I begin to write about flowers, I lose all sense of restraint, and it is far, far too late to do anything about it.” It’s not so much what he says, but how he says it that makes his writing so delightful. But before we get into matters of style, let me first tell you a little bit about BN.
I met Beverley Nichols (1898-1983) leaning out of a window on the cover of his biography Beverley Nichols – A Life by Bryan Connon. It was pictured in the Timber Press catalog and was being advertised as an adjunct to TMHT and others of BN’s gardening and cat books. He looked so fetching that I stopped to get acquainted. The promoter assured me that BN enjoys a secure seat in the pantheon of gardening gods. Generations of literate gardeners, I was told, have turned to him for wit and wisdom, for relief from prickling thorns and nasty nettles; for pure entertainment of the home and garden variety, he has few peers and his books are classics. After reading eleven of BN’s many books, I cannot dispute it.

In addition, I have found that just as a soberly health-conscious person can benefit spiritually from the occasional French pastry, so the joy of reading can be restored by taking up something light and refreshing, something amusing, a piece of literary candy from time to time. BN is a bonbonniere extraordinaire and TMHT is one of his finest confections. He is a master story teller and can transform trifling events into high drama. He takes impish delight in tattling on everyone, most especially himself. Fine sketches capture the essence of his characters, warts and all. Most are drawn sympathetically, even empathically. Although all the major characters reprise in all three volumes, they are presented most completely in MH, which was written first and should be read first for best effect.

But I was telling you about BN. The book jackets of the latest editions of TMHT describes his work thusly: “Beverley Nichols was a prolific writer on subjects ranging from religion to politics and travel in addition to authoring six novels, five detective mysteries, four children’s stories, six autobiographies and six plays. He is perhaps best remembered today for his gardening books,” etc. etc. etc. Obviously he was very erudite, but he wears it so gracefully in TMHT that it enhances the story rather than intrudes upon it. The gardening knowledge and plant lore he shares can likewise be enjoyed by gardener (G) and non-gardener (NG) alike.

One is even willing to take a scolding about one’s attitude, or be chastised for one’s general ignorance, or endure a dressing down because of one’s lack of appreciation for cats, just for the pleasure of hearing BN put the words together to accomplish it. Both his renowned felicity of speech and his famous charm spill over into his writing. Who could resist meek and mild Miss Mint? Miss Emily – the quintessential English countrywoman in her tweeds – and Our Rose – a neighbor and famous floral designer – provide most of the intrigue. Marius, a wise friend and neighbor is often called upon to help sort them all out and Gaskin, BN’s “omniscient and beatific factotum” acts as the safety net for the entire cast. And always there is Oldfield, the gardener, making us smile and making the gardens flourish. The author’s cats, One, Four, Five and Seven, romp freely through all the pages. The books read like novels.

Even at its most neglected, Merry Hall is made to seem so appealing and the characters are presented with such charm and grace, cocooned in gentle humor and energized with such wit, well…one simply wants to leap into the story oneself and make their acquaintance.

That is just what BN’s conversational style, clearly drawn character portraits and finely chiseled place descriptions make possible. One actually gets into the act. One can feel the rich, soft loam, smell the fragrant lilies, taste the fresh garden produce and hear the soothing purr of the kittens. They all come to life in The Merry Hall Trilogy. It is a harmony of sweetness and sentimentality in perfect measure, which produces a light, simply delicious result. This fictional non-fiction could be just the mood-elevator the literary doctor ordered. Think of it as chocolate for the mind.

Published - July/August 2004 issue of Wolf Moon Press Journal – A Maine Magazine of Art and Opinion 
 Ref. Maine, At Last – Settling In  Vol. II, page 264

Go to Maine, At Last - Settling In 

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