For the Brits — yes, *that* Bamber Gascoigne. This was his second novel, according to the “about the author”. It’s the story of a young woman’s heyday one Edwardian summer, as reconstructed many years later by her grandson from her diary and photographs. It’s a sweet, gentle and often very funny mystery, with a touch of bittersweet romance.
Sir Benjamin’s only family since the age of eleven has been his grandmother, and by extension her staff, in particular the butler Meredith. Even in her eighties Agnes is an incorrigible flirt, and often refers in cryptic fashion to her heyday, one Edwardian summer just before her marriage to Benjy’s grandfather. A summer she spent as an actress in a travelling repertory company. Benjy has always been fascinated by the hints she’s dropped, and after her death he pores through the diaries and photographs he finds in her wicker actor’s skip. He slowly constructs a picture of his grandmother’s life that summer of 1905; first thrown into general lodgings with a family within the company, then taking up her own lodgings (in separate bedrooms but joint sitting room) with another new company member, Jimmie Blin, and finally the pair of them inviting another new boy, Edward Jones, to join them. The picture that emerges from the diaries and photos is the development of a friendship laced with a very innocent and chaste sexuality, at the same time that Benjy’s grandfather first sees Agnes and starts to court her. Benjy will not be satisfied until he finds the end of the story, and the reason why Agnes chose his grandfather over Jimmie or Edward. And then there is the mystery of Edward, who appears in none of the photographs because it was his camera which took them. The only picture Benjy has of this man who caught his grandmother’s heart all those years ago is the one painted by her words describing him.
Benjy has some help in his task of discovering his grandmother’s world and preparing it for publication, for Meredith the butler was also once an actor, in the far-off days before a stray bullet in the Great War took his stage voice. There are all sorts of little details that Meredith can explain to him, details that bring back to life a long-lost world of Edwardian theatre. Not all the details can be shared, of course, for there are some things that one just doesn’t share with the staff. And so Benjy fumbles his way to an understanding that his grandmother might have been less shocked by some of his own adventures than he had always assumed.
The best one word summary of this book I can think of is “delightful”. It’s sweet, funny, and brings a lost world vividly to life. It’s long since out of print, which is a shame, but usually available cheaply second-hand.