Reading 1959: Starving artists and haunted boarding schools

Mademoiselle B... and The Unspeakable Skipton

In search of obscurities from 1959, I decided to look through book review columns from that year in the newspaper archives.

It was The Times that threw up The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson and Mademoiselle B… by Nancy Pearson.

The former has gone into my top ten discoveries from this year. Pitched as a satire, it’s actually dreadfully sad, telling the story of a lonely, poverty-stricken English writer living in Bruges, pushing away anyone who might care for him.

A pompous, pretentious snob, Daniel Skipton regards himself as a Great Writer, having had limited success with a literary novel a decade or so earlier. He writes around 240 words a day of his new novel, filling the rest of his time with scrounging, petty con artistry and a little pimping.

The atmosphere is close to Highsmith’s Ripley novels or perhaps Simenon – oily canals, brown cafes, drab brothels and decaying aristocratic houses.

Though not a crime novel, it might be considered a story of suspense.

The book covers a few weeks during which a party of English tourists is in town. They’re drawn together because he hopes to exploit them, taking them to live sex shows and restaurants, while they find him amusing. Meanwhile, a wild card is in play – an Italian count who might or might not be what he seems.

I spent the last 50 pages fretting over whether Skipton’s rather pathetic Big Score would come together – as his guts growl and health fails, will he be able to afford to eat, or be sent back to scavenging in bins?

He’s not likeable, that’s the point, except that, as the book wears on, a grudging respect forms: he really is committed to being an artist and his constant hustling is in service of that ideal.

And the stream of spite is preemptive and defensive – he hates himself more than anyone else could possibly hate him.

And it turns out it’s still in print, so not obscure at all – I’m just ignorant.

What does it tell us about 1959? In some ways, it feels as if it could have been written in the 1930s, except that objects, attitudes and acts which might have been kept off stage two decades earlier are proudly out on display.

* * *

Mademoiselle B… is less brilliant but still deserves to be better known. Or at least know at all – Goodreads doesn’t even list it, as far as I can see.

It’s a short book, barely a novel, that seems to have been sold as a titillating tale of forbidden lesbian love.

In fact, it’s a gentle, melancholy story of a schoolgirl’s fascination with a young teacher who is either mad, or haunted, or a little of both.

The setting, a boarding school in France, is depicted in perfect detail, from the rotten stink of the canteen to the sinister presence of ever watchful, elderly surveillants. There is always discordant, hesitant piano music somewhere in the far distance.

Boredom and seclusion breed tension and send everyone slightly insane, turning petty disagreements into soap opera and crushes into great passions. When the narrator leaves the school to convalesce on the coast, and has the company of other young people in less Gothic surroundings, she all but forgets Mademoiselle B.

What I didn’t expect, but enjoyed enormously, was the supernatural element which gave a flavour of the Tanzschule from Argento’s Suspiria or one of those ‘women running away from a mansion at night’ paperbacks.

The girls all believe the school is haunted by its past residents, whose portraits hang on the walls, and Mademoiselle B seems especially sensitive to this idea. She feels their hands holding hers in the dark, they whisper her name, and one particular attentive ghost comes to her room at night.

At the great end-of-term ball with which the book climaxes, it’s strongly hinted that she might be right, as mysterious, uncanny masked figures mingle with pupils in fancy dress

Its relevance to 1959? The faint Hammer Horror vibe, perhaps? It’s certainly an interesting book to read alongside A Separate Peaceanother tale of gay love (no it isn’t, or is it?) in a boarding school environment published in the same year.

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