Imagining Tiverton Square and Three Reviewlets

Isn’t this original dust jacket glorious?
I wish I owned it.

The Square Circle by Denis Mackail

Finding a copy of a Denis Mackail novel was one of the highlights of my big book hunt in Maine this summer. I love the Persephone reissue of his novel Greenery Street and was delighted to find another book by him. The title refers to the social circle of the London residents who live on Tiverton Square. The novel The Square Circle follows a year in the life of the square circle. Get it?

I found the way that Mackail introduces us to residents of Tiverton Square and to the square itself to be quite charming. As the action unfolds and the residents interact in, and with, the square a wonderful little world unfolds. Mackail describes the square, the houses surrounding it, and the residents who live on the square. He even assigns a house number to each resident so you begin to understand who lives where. I was quickly enthralled as I began to build a mental image, and thanks to knowing the house numbers and how they were arrayed around the square, I could easily imagine the route a resident would take as they went to and fro. I became so enamored of the details that I felt I had to write down the details and eventually this turned into the rather crude drawing you see here.

The houses were all built between 1781 and 1831 and are generally cream colored stucco on the first floor with brownish brick above, iron railings and fan lights over the front doors. The houses on the “quietly superior” North Side had an extra storey and seem more remote from the street. The streets fronting the East and West sides are distinctly narrower and closer to the square. The East Side has a cobbled alley in the back with converted mainly converted mews houses. The South Side has the most tenuous relationship to the square with a wide street where traffic “roars and rumbles”.

My version of Tiverton Square.
I know there are problems with it. Like the London streets would not follow such a rigid grid like they would in most American cities, but my drawing skills are quite limited. Also, the streets fronting the square are probably not called the street names that I have listed. Those streets are the ones in the book that lead into the square, but probably do not front the square or those houses. If they did then the house numbers wouldn’t be No. 1 Tiverton Square, etc.) But the streets were the hardest to figure out from the text so, no doubt mistakes were made.

And just in case there are any fans of The Square Circle who stop by My Porch, I thought I would give little Dramatis personae cheat sheet.

North Side (Nos 1-10)

No. 3 – Sir Herbert Livewright
No. 7 – Mrs Gillingham
No. 4 – Miss Leggatt
No. 6 – Peter Gore Blundell
No. 10 – Mr Justice Melhuish

East Side (Nos 11-24)

No. 13 – Colonel Parkinthorpe
No. 14 – The Norton Family
No. 16 – Lady Poley
No. 17 – Miss McGregor
No. 18 – Wiseman
No. 20 – The Bristow Family and Angus the dog
No. 20 Mews – Peter and Poppy Davidson
No. 22 – The Ashton Family
No. 23 – Cresswell

South Side (Nos 25-30)

No. 26 – Joe Aronson, Esq.
No. 30 – Mrs Mumsey

West Side (Nos 31-44 or so)

No. 32 – Miss Kitty Buzzard
No. 34 – Mrs and Miss Carpenter
No. 35 – Master Elphinstone
No. 37 – The Allinson Family
No. 39 – Mr Waveney
No. 41 – Tenterden
No. 42 – Eastwood
No. 43 – Mrs Iremonger
No. 44 – The Schofield Twins

I mostly enjoyed following the characters through a year of their lives, but some more than others. And I did find a place or two where I thought the narrative dragged a bit. But I also found something about the way Mackail describes it all that made me think of Greenery Street. I tried to come up with a way to describe why the two books felt similar and why both of them seem are so evocative of something that I can’t quite put my finger on. It has something to do with appealing to the urbanist in me.

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym

A wonderful novel by Pym. I know that is a redundant phrase, but it is so true. Leonora goes after antique dealer Humphrey or is it really his nephew she is after. It’s wryly funny and sometimes a bit uncomfortable. Had a kind of Sparkian dark undercurrent to it.

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

And speaking of a dark undercurrent…Angel is a precocious young girl who literally writes her way out of (near) poverty. She writes fantastical novels that come right out of her imagination and are completely ignorant of the world. Lots of over the top nobility doing things that a poor little girl imagines rich people doing, or book on Greek antiquity that mixes up and interchanges Greek and Roman details willy nilly. Her books are panned by the press and wildly popular with the masses. She ends up creating a really oppressive world for her mother and anyone else who comes near her, yet she seems to think everything is normal.  Even thought this didn’t turn into “young girl makes good and lives happily ever after” as I had at first hoped, I quite enjoyed it and found it hard to put down. The one thing that didn’t ring true to me was that Taylor makes it clear that Angel doesn’t read at all. And she doesn’t have TV or radio, or the cinema, or plays, or church, or anything else  yet she still manages to dream up all these worlds. But how does she do that with no cultural points of reference? She doesn’t write science fiction so it isn’t like her books are total fantasy, so where does Taylor think she gets her fodder?

The Far Country by Nevil Shute

This book is so Shute-ian it would probably take a fan to like it. And I did. Every page of Shute’s simplistic, workman-like prose is dripping with can-do attitude and hatred for socialism and the then newly instituted National Health System.  Shute posits Australia as the antidote to everything that ails the UK. Not surprising since Shute himself emigrated to Australia because of the post-war political situation in Britain. I am know I am making it sound more serious and less fun than it is. But if you have every read a Shute you might get into the groove of this one. If you haven’t, skip it in favor of The Pied Piper, On the Beach, or A Town Like Alice.

8 thoughts on “Imagining Tiverton Square and Three Reviewlets

  1. Audrey September 30, 2012 / 4:16 pm

    Thank goodness for the internet, that lets us find book bloggers who let us know about another book by D.M.! And thank goodness for the internet, that lets us go right to our library's online catalog, and find it, and reserve it!! I love your map.


  2. StuckInABook October 1, 2012 / 5:46 am

    The Square Circle sounds so very much up my street – although that many characters would drive me mad…

    Someone at the conference I recently attended was (or has?) writing/written a thesis on London Squares – someone in the audience mentioned this one, and I bustled up with E.F. Benson's Secret Lives.


  3. Darlene October 1, 2012 / 9:44 am

    I'm off to London in a few weeks and thanks to one of your posts about John Sandoe Books it's on my itinerary. The Square Circle sounds wonderful and I love your mock-up of the neighbourhood, Thomas.


  4. Amanda October 2, 2012 / 11:16 am

    I'm adding this to my mountainous “Thomas inspired TBR pile.”

    I loved The Sweet Dove Died. Come to think of it, I don't think I've meet a Pym I haven't loved.

    I haven't read Angel yet, but I saw that there is a film and I can't decide if it looks intriguing or awful. Or awfully intriguing. You know, intriguingly awful would probably work for me as well. I'll have to look it up on The Netflix.


  5. A Super Dilettante October 5, 2012 / 8:48 am

    My dear Thomas,

    Thank you so much for introducing Denis Mackail's novels. Pardon me for my ignorance but I've never read any books by him. I just read a biography about this writer and he sounds most fascinating.

    He was one of those writers (another one I could think of is called Henry Green – Rebecca West was one of his literary fans who wrote “He was a truly original writer, his prose was fresh minted, he drove his bloodless scalpel inches deeper into the brain and heart, none of it had been said before.”)who we've forgotten. Thank god for we have Thomas' Porch and Persephone Books for resurrecting forgotten writers! BRAVO to you!

    Both Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor have been among my most favourite writers. I always travel with their books because I know that I will be in good hands (I know that I will get a laughter from Miss Pym's novels and I will be absorbed in the most well-crafted tales with full of sweeping impressionistic prose and the impending doom behind the facade of upper class ladies having a cup of tea in a posh hotels by Elizabeth Taylor).

    I'm going to be buying Denis Mackail's novels from now on.

    Thank you, Thomas for your recommendation. We learn something new everyday!!

    Best wishes, ASD


  6. Geranium Cat November 2, 2012 / 9:41 am

    I've got to read The Square Circle! I said I wasn't going to buy any more books this year, but I can't resist Tiverton Square. When I find a copy I shall print out your sketch to help me keep track of everyone.

    I do recommend Love Among the Ruins to everyone here who is interested in Mackail's writing – when I started to write a review of it I realised how very much I had liked it.


  7. Thomas at My Porch November 4, 2012 / 10:22 am

    Audrey: And I love that your avatar is a detail from one of my favorite Grant Wood paintings. And being an urban planner by training I love the banner on your Reading Boston blog.

    Simon: I don't know about that Benson, I must investigate. My battered copy of TSC might be on its way to Jodie. Maybe she will let you borrow it.

    Darlene: Are you back from London? Did you enjoy John Sandoe?

    Amanda: The character Angel is intiguingly awful so that might work out well.

    ASD: You should start with Greenery Street which is available in print from Persephone.

    Jodie: Love amng the ruins. check.


  8. Don Reed June 3, 2013 / 11:37 am

    The big book hunt in Maine – wondering where you stopped off. I'm an old Maine fan.

    Mackal got some attention in an atrocious biography of PG Wodehouse, which I had the misfortune to read last year (author, McCrum, 2004).

    Be well,

    Don Reed


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