My Lockdown Books: Forty Six

As many of you will know, Jean Estoril was one of Mabel Esther Allan’s pseudonyms.  I, however, did not know that when I came across Drina Dances in Italy in this edition in Lossiemouth Library.  It’s the fourth book in the Drina series so I had a bit of catching up to do but I loved the book and quickly set about finding the others.  Only the first six were published in this Collins Ballet Library series and for a long time I was unaware that there were in fact another four books (at that time; an eleventh was published much later).

Drina is half Italian, half English orphan who lives with her maternal (English) grandparents.  It turns out that she is in fact the daughter of a world-famous ballerina, although she only discovers this at the end of the first book.  Her two sets of grandparents fought over the right to bring her up and this book sees her first meeting with her Italian grandmother.

In small ways the Drina books cross with some of the books published under Mabel Esther Allan’s own name.  I remember being puzzled when the Lingeraux Ballet School and Company appeared in Black Forest Summer and later (in terms of my reading history) in Amanda  Goes to Italy.  I had first come across it in Drina.  I have a theory that the books Amanda starts writing in Italy are a variation on the Drina books – which, I admit, is maybe far-fetched.  An author putting her pseudonymous creation as fiction into another of her books, published in her own name,  maybe says more about the convoluted way my mind works!

My Lockdown Books: Twenty Four

I’ve been reading Mabel Esther Allan’s books for about forty years.  I’ve collected them more seriously recently but have limited myself to her teenage novels as her output was prolific.  Originally I was only interested in the travel romances but now I’ve branched out into the mysteries as well.

I have visited more places than I’d realised because of her books or to see specific things she mentions in them: Kandersteg, Lugano, Montmartre, Lindau…  The list goes on.  Mabel loved to travel but hated to be a tourist and I can relate to that.  I love travelling and trying to blend in.

A Summer at Sea is almost my perfect travel novel.  As you do if you’re a middle class girl who’s not interested in a career and has been unwell, Gillian gets herself a temporary job in the shop on board a small cruise ship.  (Actually her aunt, who works for the company and is well in with the Captain, gets it for her.)  I read this one as an adult and I was so jealous!  Not only does she spend a summer at sea, but she visits Bergen multiple times.

Bergen is one of my favourite places in the world and I have only ever been there when embarking or disembarking a ship.  But that’s not as a result of this book.  I first visited Bergen on its own merits and because it is the departure point of the Hurtigruten ships.  The Bergen in this book, set in the 1960s, is very different to the Bergen I know in terms of economy and tourism but the geography of the city is perfectly recognisable.

Oh, to be able to spend a summer at sea in Norway.  I’m saving up to do two Hurtigruten coastal sailings back to back.  That might have to do!

21st December

Mabel Esther Allan has already appeared in this month’s posts in the guise of Jean Estoril, one of her many pseudonyms. In her own name I first met her in one of two books.  At this distance I can’t remember which came first!  The title I’ve selected for this month is The Vine-Clad Hill, one of her travel romances – as I describe them in my head.  In this one eighteen-year-old Philippa goes to Bellinzona for the summer to help look after three younger cousins.  In trademark MEA style the adventure begins with a beautifully described journey from London to Switzerland.  I still wish I could travel by train in the fifties when it seems to have been so much more glamorous than it is now!  It’s for her descriptions of places that Mabel Esther Allan is most appreciated and she certainly made Bellinzona come to life for me.  One day, perhaps, I’ll get to see it in reality.

Rosamunde Pilcher’s books came into my life through The Shell Seekers, a must-read book of its time.  Much as I enjoyed it, it is another of her long family stories that I tend to return to. September is set in rural Scotland and revolves around a few wealthy and/or titled families who gather for a ball.  Although the immediate action takes place in the month of September, there are many back stories intertwined with it and with each other.  There’s wonderful characterisation and engrossing storytelling and evocative description.  All in all it’s a book that welcomes me in and keeps a hold of me from start to finish.

15th December

I discovered the Drina books by Jean Estoril serendipitously in Lossiemouth Library as a child. I read them in a random order as and when they were available. And only the first six, which had been recently re-issued, were available at all. The last of these chronologically is Drina Dances in New York, set partly in that city and partly on board a transatlantic liner. I may have said before that I grew up with my Mum’s stories of sailing to Australia and back, and ship-board life had always fascinated me. And I was a great reader of ballet stories so this was a combination guaranteed to appeal. I still re-read the Drina books and I now have all of them, including Drina Ballerina, published MUCH later than the others when the series was issued in paperback. I have them in a variety of editions as I find their publishing history fascinating. They’ve been updated over the years but haven’t suffered too badly. Honestly, I could have selected any of the books for inclusion in this list but the description of life at sea probably brought Drina Dances in New York into my mind first!

A few years ago Greyladies, a small independent publisher, re-issued some of the books of Susan Pleydell, a mid-twentieth century Scottish writer. I enjoyed them (Summer Term and A Young Man’s Fancy) so much that I checked the library catalogue to see if we had any of the rest of her ten novels. And thus I found Brighouse Hotel, her final offering. It’s set in the fictional Glen Torran somewhere unspecified – between Inverness and Fort William is my best guess – in the Highlands. Clunie Ritchie, a regular visitor to the area as a teenager, suddenly finds herself homesick for the mountains. So when the receptionist at Brighouse Hotel is rushed into hospital, Clunie is delighted to deputise. The hotel, as well as being frequented by walkers and fishers, is the local Mountain Rescue base and much of the plot revolves around this. But really this is a story about people and relationships and how both change and develop. It’s a charming novel without being at all cloying and enough of the real world of the 1970s intrudes to make it believable.

Revising and Updating Books: some thoughts occasioned by re-reading Jean Estoril

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been re-reading the Drina books by Jean Estoril (Mabel Esther Allan).  I really liked these books as a child; I discovered them for myself in the library in Lossiemouth.  The first one I read was Drina Dances in Italy, the fourth title in the series, which was a bit confusing but I struggled through!

I read the first six titles eventually and thought for a long time that that was them all.  I was reading them as published by Collins as part of the Collins Ballet Library and, to the best of my knowledge, only these six were ever published in that edition.  The next one I read was Drina Goes on Tour, at that time the last in the series.  I discovered that in a charity shop or a secondhand bookshop and from it I found out that there were another three titles (numbers 7-9 in the series).  I got hold of those eventually and that’s when I realised that there had been some updating going on.

Later on (I think in the 1990s) the books were published in paperback by Simon & Schuster.  They had beautiful covers and I couldn’t resist buying them.  Naturally that meant I read them again and saw that they had been updated further.  Exctingly for me, another title was also published at this time.  As far as I know, Drina Ballerina was newly-written and it clearly went with the updated updated books!

I don’t know who decided that the books needed revised or why it was thought necessary.  In this case, it only works to an extent, partly because of the travel element of the books.  It made me wonder how other people feel about revisions and if there are any other good or bad examples…

Christmas Reading


An Adventurous Christmas Voyage with Hurtigruten MS Midnatsol: Bodo: 23. December 2008: 2pm

For many years I had books that I almost always re-read at Christmas.  They formed a mixed bag but, inevitably, they all had a strong sense of community.  The only children’s book regularly in my Christmas collection was Nancy Calls the Tune by Dorita Fairlie Bruce, one of my all-time favourites.  I’ve written about it elsewhere so suffice it to say that, despite its wartime setting, it is a warm and welcoming story, inviting the reader to become a part of life in Easterbraes.  It ends just before Christmas but it’s easy to imagine what a wonderful time the characters will have then.  My other regular Christmas reads do have descriptions of Christmas, very different Christmases.  One is Taken by the Hand by O Douglas and the other is Charlotte Fairlie by DE Stevenson.  They both have solitary heroines surrounded by crowds.  Beatrice Dobie in Taken by the Hand finds herself part of  a small community for Christmas, though, while Charlotte Fairlie remains alone until afterwards.  I’m not sure why I always read these books but something about them fitted my mood.

This is all in the past tense, however.  Last year I was in Norway for Christmas (where it was mostly warmer than it is here in lowland Scotland just now.  In Tromso, well inside the Arctic Circle, it was 10C on Christmas Day; in Stirling on Christmas Eve it’s around -5C) and I didn’t want to take books with me that I’d have to bring home again.  So I read a completely random selection, including The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder which was excellent (see last year’s blog).

Having broken myself of reading the same books last year, I haven’t gone back to them.  Instead I’ve spent this week reading books on my to-be-read pile: books that I’ve taken home from work, books that I’ve been given as presents and a couple of old children’s books that I bought myself (Maddy Alone and Maddy Again by Pamela Brown).  Still awaiting me is Murder at the Flood by Mabel Esther Allan.  This is a reprint by Greyladies of her only published adult novel.  Also on the pile is British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War by Owen Dudley Edwards.  I bought it at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and haven’t started it yet!

However the book that will keep me from re-reading my usual Christmas books is much more exciting than any other.  I bought it in November and started it immediately.  However, I got halfway through and then stopped.  This is  not because I wasn’t enjoying it but, rather, because I couldn’t bear to finish it.  Enough suspense?  Okay.  The book is a previously unpublished title by LM Montgomery called The Blythes are Quoted

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know how much I like her books and so you can guess how excited I was when I read that Penguin Canada was publishing this title.  It is a collection of short stories, poems and conversations between various members of the Blythe household.  Most of the stories and one of the poems were published in a collection called The Road to Yesterday (which, of course, I have) in the 1970s but the stories were edited, most of the poems and all of the conversations were missed out.  For me, reading The Blythes are Quoted is like meeting friends I thought I’d never see again and I am determined to make the meeting last as long as possible.