Until this actual moment she had not realised that she was sick of diggings, and of doing the same thing day after day. She had not realised that Mrs Puddock's rooms were awful, and that Monday washing, Tuesday ironing, Wednesday mending, and Thursday hair-wash were much like a pair of handcuffs set like shackles on her wrists.
A couple of years ago, in my never-ending search for pictures of women with books, I ran across a most lovely painting, which turned out to show the novelist Ursula Bloom. I'd never even heard of her, and was immediately curious, but it turned out her books were all out of print, and I forgot all about her. So imagine my surprise when a couple of weeks ago I got an email telling me that Corazon Books has just started reissuing her titles as e-books, and offering me the first one for review. How could I refuse?
If you look Ursula up on Wikipedia, or on her new website, you'll see that she was in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's most prolific novelist, having written over 500 books. Apparently she had no trouble in writing well over 5000 words a day, and could finish a novel in three weeks. Now I know what you're thinking, and I was thinking it too -- could they possibly be any good? Well, if Wonder Cruise is anything to go by, the answer is yes.
A delightful, funny, sometimes surprising novel, Wonder Cruise was published in 1932. It's the story of Ann Clements, a woman of 35, daughter of one clergyman and sister of another. She works as a secretary in a London firm, lives in simple, cheerless rooms (diggings) in Kensington, has lunch every weekend with her repressive, prudish brother Cuthbert, his wife Eleanor and their daughter Gloria, 'whose birth could only be looked on as a miracle, seeing Cuthbert was for ever declaring that marriage had no physical side'. Once a year she goes with them on holiday to Worthing, and her life is one of deadly monotony. She feels old, and she looks old.
The only relief in this endless boredom is the fact that one of Ann's colleagues has roped her into the office raffle, much to Cuthbert's disgust. She's won a few small prizes, but imagine her surprise when she discovers that she's won £300 in a sweepstake. Cuthbert, needless to say, insists she must invest the money and leave it to Gloria, but Ann, encouraged by her boss, takes a bold step and books herself a place on a Mediterranean cruise. Very excited but full of misgivings, she buys herself some new clothes, though having no idea what she'll need these include a tweed suit and sensible shoes. And, though Cuthbert does his best to persuade her to change her mind, she's soon off for Gibraltar, Malta, Venice and points east.
I hardly need to tell that huge changes are in store for Ann in the coming weeks. The tweed suit goes into the trunk and pretty clothes are bought to replace it, her dowdy long hair is cropped into a fashionable style, and Ann starts to look and feel young and attractive. Of course none of this happens overnight, and she is full of misgivings, but the great pleasure she gets from her new look and the attention it gets for her cannot help but win her over. Yes, that attention -- for men start taking a great interest in Ann. There's the attractive older (and, shockingly for Ann, divorced) Oliver Banks, there's the ship's doctor, and various members of the crew. Later, there's a totally gorgeous Italian who Ann finds irresistible despite knowing he is hopelessly unreliable. I have to say I was quite surprised at how open the novel is about the sexual shenanigans on board ship and elsewhere -- people are constantly jumping into bed with each other without a second thought. Ann doesn't, of course, but feelings and desires she never suspected she had are violently awakened and nearly lead her to make a very foolish decision. Just as you may start thinking all this is getting bit predictable, Ann suffers a disaster which causes her to miss the ship's departure and she's stranded in Venice with no money and no clothes. But this only leads to a whole new series of ups and downs, both comic and painful, before everything turns out better than any of us could have imagined.
I enjoyed every minute of this delightful novel. Bloom writes with great wit and I often found myself chuckling at some throwaway remark. But there's compassion, too, and Ann's transformation, her doubts and misgivings, and her dread at the thought that she'll have to return to her life of crashing boredom, are wholly believable. So I'm really pleased to have had a chance to read this and will be looking out for more reprints in the future.
And in case you're interested, here's a painting of Ursula, done the same year that this novel was published (maybe it's even the book she's got in her hand). Yes, on top of everything else, she was a stunning beauty.