No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

#65-70: Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy series (rereads)

Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy series (rereads)
Children of Chance
Divine Comedy
Unholy Harmonies
Volcanic Airs
Brotherly Love
Unaccustomed Spirits

Rereading all six of Pewsey's Mountjoy novels -- in about five days, pre-Worldcon -- was exceedingly self-indulgent, but just what I needed.
At first glance the books look like chick-lit, or perhaps Aga sagas: pretty pastel covers, the occasional musical instrument or chunk of architecture, not too many pages. At best, they resemble upmarket romances. But appearances, in this case, deceive.

I was lying in bed the other day trying to work out why these are romantic, rather than romances. I think it's because most of them end with the first kiss, and often the first indication of a romance, between two characters who we're surprised to find ending up together. (By the next book, they'll often have blended into the supporting cast as a couple.) In at least one of the novels, the 'happy ending' is secondary to the heroine's ambitions: it's all very well running away to London with a dark, intriguing, intellectual music-lover, but she's really going for voice training.

The setting for most of the novels is the imaginary Northern city of Eyot (county town of Eyotshire) and its surrounding villages. Eyot hosts an internationally-famous annual music festival, which accounts for the number of musicians, artists and creative types who make their home in the area. It doesn't, however, count for the local aristocracy, the Mountjoys (Valdemar, the head of the family during the timeline of most of the books, is thoroughly 18th-century in his behaviour); nor for the inexplicable nature of Lily, housekeeper to a world-class cellist, and much given to gnomic pronouncements and sense that only looks common with hindsight; nor the ghostly protagonists in Unaccustomed Spirits and Brotherly Love; nor, in one novel, for a visit from a dancer who's apparently channeling a Greek god. There's a touch of magic to Eyot, but it's never explained: just the way things are.

Rereading all six novels with a rather more critical eye, I did notice one aspect of them which jars: the question of when they're set. All of them were published in the 1990s and seemed more or less contemporary: there's very little sense of current events, or the wider world (though in one novel the heroine travels to Prague, where there's political unrest and a very Cold War atmosphere). I'd always assumed they were set no earlier than 1980. But there are some indications that they're actually set in the 1970s: one character, aged 45, describes her first marriage 'at the age of 19, just after the war'. I'd be hard-put to identify anything that actually contradicts a date of, say, 1976 (and in fact the first novel takes place in an extraordinarily hot summer), and yet the feel of the books -- cheap and easy air travel, cashpoint cards etc -- seems later.

Ah well. They really are immensely enjoyable books, and Pewsey's depiction of bucolic bliss -- this is rural life where the real crimes are intolerance, narrow-mindedness, refusal to embrace change, and denying one's artistic leanings -- are truly delightful. And she makes me smile a lot, and sometimes even laugh. Lightweight but delicious.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

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