rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Read August 5th. Via [personal profile] nineweaving, who heard about it at Readercon.

This 1920 novel is an odd and beautiful thing. It reads as fantasy from some kind of parallel dimension. If I had to give it a subgenre, I would call it 'urban fantasy', but that term is too loaded nowadays in a lot of directions I don't want. It is fantasy about the city of London, set during a Great War that has gone on a bit longer, so that it's a book that happens both when it was written and during the time that just ended. It is a book in which women are so central that it's hard to remember how central they usually aren't in fantasy from that time period, and its slantwise epigrammatic good-humor hides a remorseless subversion-- hitched oddly with an unironic love for the numinous.

Here the protagonist has been handed the prospectus of a roominghouse run by a witch:

The name of this house is Living Alone.

It is meant to provide for the needs of those who dislike hotels, clubs, settlements, hostels, boarding-houses, and lodgings only less than their own homes; who detest landladies, waiters, husbands and wives, charwomen, and all forms of lookers after. This house is a monastery and a convent for monks and nuns dedicated to unknown gods. Men and women who are tired of being laboriously kind to their bodies, who like to be a little uncomfortable and quite uncared for, who love to live from week to week without speaking, except to confide their destinations to 'bus-conductors, who are weary of woolly decorations, aspidistras, and the eternal two generations of roses which riot among blue ribbons on hireling wall-papers, who are ignorant of the science of tipping and thanking, who do not know how to cook yet hate to be cooked for, will here find the thing they have desired, and something else as well.

There are six cells in this house, and no common sitting-room. Guests wishing to address each other must do so on the stairs, or in the shop. Each cell has whitewashed walls, and contains a small deal table, one wooden chair, a hard bed, a tin bath, and a little inconvenient fireplace. No guest may bring into the house more than can be carried out again in one large suit-case. Carpets, rugs, mirrors, and any single garment costing more than three guineas, are prohibited. Any guest proved to have made use of a taxi, or to have travelled anywhere first class, or to have bought cigarettes or sweets costing more than three shillings a hundred or eighteenpence a pound respectively, or to have paid more than three and sixpence (war-tax included) for a seat in any place of entertainment, will be instantly expelled. Dogs, cats, goldfish, and other superhuman companions are encouraged.

Working guests are preferred, but if not at work, guests must spend at least eighteen hours out of the twenty-four entirely alone. No guest may entertain or be entertained except under special license obtainable from the Superintendent.

There is a pump in the back yard. There is no telephone, no electric light, no hot water system, no attendance, and no modern comfort whatever. Tradesmen are forbidden to call. There is no charge for residence in this house.

"It certainly sounds an unusual place," admitted Sarah Brown. "Is the house always full?"

"Never," said the witch. "A lot of people can swallow everything but the last clause."

There have been times in my life when this would have been a desperate blessing. That is, of course, the point. Sarah Brown is over-committeed, over-committed, put-upon, and unaware of her own imposed-on condition. The witch keeps that house, and cannot imagine why anyone would live any way else.

The book is walking a thin line, of course, between irony and twee, between parody and cutesiness. I do not think it errs much, though I could understand finding it occasionally oversweet on a sentence-by-sentence level. But on a plot level, it has fairies doing Land Work like anybody else, and enchanted ham sandwiches, and True Love in its finest form for the protagonist (one-sided, in her head, and never mentioned to anyone, exactly as she always wanted). And the witches of the war duel over London, though the English witch can't figure out what the point is; and the noise of the bombs is loud enough to wake the dead.

I mean, this is the sort of book in which one of the characters has an accent so posh that she refers to her son, at all times, as Rrchud. For the first half, until someone else addressed him, I could not figure out whether that was actually his name. (Thankfully, it is Richard.) It reminds me equally of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Cold Comfort Farm.

This is the sort of novel that has fallen through the cracks of the histories of fantasy, because it is so little related to the things that got into the histories. It deserves to be read more, now that it has all unknowing produced sideways children-- as I said, I'd call this urban fantasy, except that those words don't mean what I want anymore.

And hey, it's at Gutenberg, so you can go read it whenever you like.


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