Hester: Ship’s Officer by Valerie Baxter

After yesterday’s debacle of a book, I decided to treat myself to a known favourite by an author who has managed to include a plot in his job description. His? Well, yes. Valerie Baxter is actually Laurence Meynell. Clearly Bodley Head felt it would be inappropriate to have a male writer of their career novels for girls – although he did write under his own name for Chatto & Windus. Kay Whalley, who, as Kay Clifford, wrote Career Novels for Girls, commented on another post that Hester: Ship’s Officer feels like bits of two books mashed together. And she might have a point as there’s a good bit of story before Hester realises what it is she’d like to do.

Like me, Hester’s first voyage was made when she was very young. In 1938, at the age of two, she and her parents set sail for Australia where her engineer father is to supervise work on a dam. As war intervenes, he is transferred to more pressing duties and the family settles in to life in Sydney where they remain for ten years. I would make the journey the other way, from Melbourne back to Edinburgh, just less than thirty years later. I was even younger than Hester, being yet unborn!

My first departure from Sydney

It is Hester’s return voyage to Britain in 1948 that makes the impression on her. Back in Blighty she is sent to boarding school where she excels at tennis and swimming and generally enjoys life. Having no idea what she wants to do with her life when she leaves school, she accepts her father’s suggestion that she goes to a commercial college for six months. Unenthusiastically, she agrees and does well. On the strength of this she gets a job as secretary to Julian Manners, the owner of The Wine House. (Somehow it is also relevant that his father is ‘Sir Wraybury Manners, the big surgeon’…)

Hester enjoys her somewhat unconventional secretarial position but she’s always beset by a nagging desire for more freedom. In the end, though, Hester feels forced to leave the Wine House by the behaviour of another of Julian’s employees, a widow with designs on the boss. With no good reason she is jealous of Hester and the two cannot work together. So Hester goes and, after a few months, gains a typing post at the offices of the M&E Steamship Navigation Company. She’s put on the sea-going list and settles down to wait until a post at sea becomes available.

Hester: finally a ship’s officer

We meet Hester’s flatmates: the steady Zoe and the racy and flamboyant Pat. Then there’s Hester’s new friend, Felicity, at M&E and her parents in the background. So Valerie Baxter gives us a proper setting and a bit of a storyline along with career advice. Pat is particularly unexpected in a book for teenage girls published in 1957. We see what we think is the last of her having an affair with a married film director. Her other flatmate follows a more accepted line and gets married the day before Hester finally makes it to sea.

She is given a job in the Deputy Purser’s Office on board the Mendip and will sail the round trip to Australia, leaving Tilbury in early September. It is pointed out forcibly to the reader that Hester is a stenographer and not an assistant purser. Women cannot aspire to such dizzy heights. But she is classed as an officer. And so, almost two thirds of the way through the book, Hester finally becomes a ship’s officer. If I thought I could, like Hester, have a single outside cabin, I’d definitely be looking for a job on board a ship. That I wouldn’t have such a thing is what puts me off.

MS Midnatsol: my ship

Hester quickly adapts to life at sea and gets on well with her fellow workers. She falls into the rhythm of life on board ship easily and can imagine no place she’d rather be. ‘Hester tried to imagine what she would do with the first leave that she had to spend in England and found…that the whole fabric and framework of her shore life now seemed so remote and unreal that she could scarcely work up any enthusiasm on the subject’. That’s exactly how I feel on board a ship, which is why this is one of my favourite books.

“The more the ship rolled the better she liked it; and the harder it blew the more exhilarating she found it.”

We hear about Hester’s routine, the funny ways of passengers and the ports of call, not that she sees any of them on the outward voyage. And then the ship arrives in Freemantle (yes, with a double e) and life once more becomes hectic. Few of the passengers disembark there but Hester has time for a quick sightseeing tour of Perth before heading on to Melbourne and finally Sydney. There she visits her old school and is promptly press-ganged by the headmistress into talking to the sixth form about her job.

Perth

The return leg of the journey proceeds much as expected and Hester begins to feel that she can take anything in her stride. However, she is stunned when the female part of the luxury suite, a self-obsessed, unreasonably demanding diva, turns out to be her former flatmate, Pat. A more pleasant diversion comes at Gibraltar with the embarkation of Julian Manners. Hester realises how pleased she is to see him and by the end of the voyage has agreed to marry him three years hence. In the meantime, however, she is immediately to take the place of a sick colleague on a Scandinavian cruise. Trondheim, Bergen, Oslo, Copenhagen and so on…

I didn’t mean to but I’ve reread the book as I wrote this and I’ve remembered all over again how much I enjoy it and how much I envy Hester her life at sea. There’s a lot of useful information crammed in but there’s a story and proper characters as well as a believable setting. I commend it to you!

Bergen

Jane: Young Author by Valerie Baxter

This is my second go at collecting career novels. As a teenager I had virtually all the Bodley Career Novels but I got rid of them. It’s my biggest book collecting regret. Will I ever get my hands on Molly Qualifies as a Librarian ever again? Possibly not. It was one of my favourites and today’s choice was another. I used to daydream that my namesake could be me one day…

Although I enjoyed the book, it’s always seemed to me an odd concept. Being an author never felt like a career one could train for and that makes it quite different from most of the other novels. As well as hard work, excelling in the arts needs talent and, almost certainly, a lucky break. However, I’m putting all that aside and taking the book at face value.

Jane Fanshawe is at a loss. We meet her on her twenty first birthday and are given a potted history. She has been an orphan since the age of sixteen when her parents were killed whilst she was on holiday. Jane, who is at boarding school, falls under the guardianship of distant relatives and goes to live in their lifeless, loveless house. On leaving school she has no idea what she wants to do and eventually agrees to study medicine. (As we know from an earlier book, there’s nothing easier to get into!) But Jane knows she’ll never be any use in the medical world and so, now that she’s of age and has access to a little family money, she throws it up, moves into a flat with her friend Hester and gets a ridiculously underpaid job as maid-of-all-work at a publishing house.

And that’s when we discover that Jane thinks she’d like to write a novel. She is at least sensible enough to know that this isn’t a viable career at this stage of her life but she thinks that working in the book world might be a good starting point. In amongst the trivia of her working day at Hyde, Hessinger & Strong, Jane picks up bits and pieces about the technicalities of writing. Sadly, she also makes a terrible mistake over the editing of a short story and is sacked without notice.

However, as is the way in novels, on the same day she is contacted by Lucian Fenn, another publisher, who has read and enjoyed a short story Jane entered in a competition. He offers her a job in the editorial team and we all learn a bit more about writing from the publisher’s point of view. But the luckless Jane gets caught in the middle of romantic complications and Lucian, never a man to make his working life difficult, is delighted when the opportunity arrives to pass Jane on, professionally speaking, to author Stephen Traill.

Jane settles in well as his secretary, enjoying a good working relationship with him and becoming more like a member of the family as far as his wife is concerned. He teaches Jane (and us) more about the craft of writing and is encouraging when she tells him she’s writing a novel. To be honest, it all gets a bit tedious at this point and I may have skimmed through it… The book ends with a rejection letter for Jane’s novel which as the merit of being realistic. Stephen consoles her and encourages her to try again, this time writing about what she knows.

13th December

Back in the fifties and sixties career novels were all the rage, particularly those aimed at girls. I read them in the eighties and was first of all puzzled, and then fascinated, by them.  There was Jane, Young Author (!), Juliet in Publishing and Molly Qualifies as a Librarian (not by going to university, though, as I was planning).  Of course, these careers were only there to fill in the time before marriage inevitably ensued!  Hester: Ship’s Officer is one of The Bodley Head’s career novels.  It was published in 1957 and from a modern standpoint it’s absolutely hilarious.  But in spite of everything it’s a remarkably good story.  Many of these career novels (which I love and collect) are little more than tracts for different jobs but this has plot and character and everything!  The author is Valerie Baxter, actually Laurence Meynell, who wrote a lot of the better career novels.  Obviously I like this because it’s set on a ship.  Or, at least, that’s what you’d think.  Actually it takes Hester about half the book to get on board…

Between Two Seas is by Marie-Louise Jensen.  The author is half English/half Danish and the book is set in the two countries at the end of the nineteenth century.  The heroine is Marianne, the illegitimate daughter of Esther.  At the start of the novel they are living in Grimsby but the action really begins after Esther’s death when Marianne sets sail for Denmark in search of her unknown father. In my opinion, the book’s major strength is its description.  I’m predisposed to envisage the sea but Marie-Louise Jensen certainly created a clear setting for me in the north Danish fishing village of Skagen.  Having been there since reading the book (because of reading the book if the truth were to be told) I can see how well it was described.  My only slight problem with the book is that everything falls into place quite easily.  Marianne leaves Grimsby with limited money, speaking no Danish and not knowing where Skagen is but somehow she arrives with little difficulty.  I am also very envious of the ease with which she seems to master Danish.  I spent two years learning Norwegian, a very similar language, and I still find it pretty hard going in spite of a number of visits to Norway.  But my quibbles are professional; on a personal basis I really enjoyed reading it.