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Review: The Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

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Thank you to NetGalley for giving me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

#NetGalley

My Interest

Although it had flaws, I LOVED author’s previous book, The Jane Austen Society. Natalie Jenner can tell a wonderful story! I’ve always been a book store fan and a London bookshop–I read Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road in high school and have been in love ever since.

The Story

“But the war had a way of slipping back through even the thinnest of cracks in a fractured world. Women such as Vivien and Grace had hope for a fresh beginning for everyone’ but five years on, new opportunities for women were still being rationed along with food.”

“Instead, Evie Stone was back to cataloguing books. But she did not look dismayed as she sat there….For all her aspirations. Evie was most comfortable alone, surrounded by these simple physical objects that held far more exploration, and explanation of the world outside than she had ever acquired from people.”

Evelyn “Evie” Stone is back from the previous book, The Jane Austen Society. She’s had a meteoric rise from maid, to friend of a movie star and on to being one of the first female graduates of Cambridge due to her academic discovery that let to saving the last home of Jane Austen. Now thanks to a jealous fellow student, she is out of academia and cataloging rare books at Bloomsbury Books, owned by the very lovely Earl of Baskin (who reminds me more than a little of an Earl of my own creation in a work in progress of my own).

“Ambition is all well and good, but there are some parts of everyday life that one should never miss.” (Lord Baskin)

“Vivien wrote to keep pace with a talent that had been fostered in private and unsupported by the external world….talent was something no one could take away…..the gift was also her enemy. Its ease of appearance masked the diligence and self-control required to master it.”

The  other “Bloomsbury girls” (as women were still called circa 1950) include Grace, the wife of a man destroyed by the war and forced to “go out to work” to support her husband and sons. Grace lives up to her name. She is lovely and hard working. Then there is Vivien who rose a bit above herself in getting engaged to the Earl of St. Vincent who was killed in the war. Like Princess Diana she wears a Cartier tank watch–a gift from her late fiance. She is also secretly a writer–doing so in a steno pad she hides under the cash register.

“Rule No. 7. The reputation of the shop must never be called into question in any forum, public or otherwise.”

“…hard work and diligence were not always enough. The girls of Bloomsbury Books made sufficient wages to survive and nothing more.”

Meanwhile, Bloomsbury Books is run on the overbearing rules of it’s manager, Mr. Herbert Dutton, and one of his rules starts each chapter. Mr. Dutton is suffering ill health. The other men in the shop include Frank, who is always away on buying trips (interesting–same name as in 84 Charing Cross Road) and the “Golden Boy” of the shop Alec who oversees fiction and is fully a man of his time. There is a retired “sea captain” -type who looks after history and recent immigrant from India, Ash, who is in charge of science. Lord Baskin appears when he wants. He has used the store to get over his bad marriage. The Bloomsbury “girls” do not head departments. They make tea, encourage customers, and ring up sales. The store carries a pitiful few books by women.

“…was a reminder not to leave everything behind–to not become so focused on the future that what made you special in the first place had to be forged all over again.”

“But what if it all goes right?”

The “girls” are fed up. An unusual incident brings Daphne Du Mauier and Sonia Blair (aka Mrs George Orwell) and a few other real people into their fictional lives. Change is about to rock Bloomsbury Books. And, once again it is a “find” of Evie’s that will make it happen. Gentlemen of Bloomsbury Books, hold onto those bowler hats!

My Thoughts

Unlike in the Jane Austen Society, where the author got carried away with modern Woke-Speak a time or two too many, my only “oh, brother” moment was when it was mentioned that Vivien referred to Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller as “The misogynists.” I truly did laugh. The word was never mentioned when I studied both in a class in college as long ago as the ’82” so I’m thinking it a bit much for ’49 or ’50.

Never mind that blip–I thoroughly enjoyed this book! I especially enjoyed letting light in on the dastardly doings of academics which are largely unknown to those outside that realm. Time they were revealed! This story uses a sort of intellectual #metoo moment to show the skullduggery and dirty dealings that eggheads (as academics were commonly called back then) used to get ahead and get full professorships or endowed chairs at universities–even universities far, far, down the food chain from Cambridge.

I liked the quiet dignity with which Grace coped with her situation and found her one friendship in the book (not that with the other “girls”) to be completely believable (no spoilers). Grace, Evie, and Vivien all grew in very believable ways. I liked the women the “grew into” over the course of the story. I especially liked the moment that comes to nearly everyone with experience in which the fight for it to be “what” you know (or the talent you have) to matter more than “who” you know ceases to rankle so much and you allow people to step and in and make calls or whatever on your behalf. That’s a valuable one, no matter if it does still grate on the nerves.

I thought the great secret in manager’s office to be totally believable, too. I’ve been in libraries, and around rare book collections, rare book dealers, and auctions of the same (and similar professions) all of my working life. The secret worked–it was not at all a modern p.c. element. I also thought Evie’s personal life was completely believable. I felt for Ash–I helped an engineer from Congo enroll in a welding program this week. It’s still there today, so I thought Ash’s situation and responses good, too. The whole book just “worked” well to me. It is still a light read and meant to be. I like that in many books. All of those statements, no matter how they may sound, are high praise from me.

I can’t wait to see what happens to Evie’s career next! Surely, book three is in the works?

My Verdict

4.0

The Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

Additional Comments

“He lived in a state of constant anticipation–of the next weekend shoot, the next charity ball, the next commemorative ceremony.” [I doubt it!]

Obligatory aristocratic title mistake: An Earl’s younger son is “the hon.” not “Lord.” Think Prince William’s cousin, “The Hon. Edmund Spencer” of today. And, Lord St. Vincent would never be referred to as “Lord Albert St. Vincent.”  If the Earl’s name is “Albert” he would commonly be referred to as “Albert St. Vincent.” Think “Hugh Westminster” of today.

“Poor [Noel] Coward can only play in three keys,” Lady Browning [said to Vivien] “and poor Clarissa can’t sing in any of them….”

Clarissa Spencer-Churchill was absolutely entitled to call herself that–it was her name. But like the other descendants of Lord and Lady Randolph [Spencer-] Churchill, she (and her Uncle Winston), only used “Churchill.”

“She chewed thoughtfully on the end of her pencil….”

There is an epidemic of pencil chewing in fiction at the moment. I’ve never seen anyone above the fourth grade do this!

Note: One confusing point. According To Richard Mead’s book, General Boy: The Life of General Sir Frederick Browning, “Boy” Browning was known as “Tommy” in the family. “Lady Browning” as Daphne Du Maurier was referred to in the book (it was her title and her due, of course) refers to her husband by this name once. I think this was possibly a bit too obscure for most readers. I at first thought they’d made a mistake and confused “Boy” Browning with his Palace co-worker Alan “Tommy” Lascelles. I was wrong. I do not think many would know this name though. I still feel “Boy” would have made more sense or better yet, simply “my husband.

I also read this book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Historical Fiction

7 thoughts on “Review: The Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

  1. I wonder how difficult it is to write historical fiction without slipping up when it comes to using words or expressions, which weren’t common back then. After all the language of today is how we express ourselves. Sounds like a great book, glad you enjoyed it!

    Liked by 2 people

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