Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Books to Read Again: the "Julia books" by Ann Bridge

I'm not sure why I enjoy the Julia books so much.

Julia Probyn, our heroine, is bossy and opinionated to a degree, the books are set very firmly in the 1950s and 60s so attitudes to foreigners (anyone not British!) are extremely dated and frequently patronising (foreigners are stigmatised for stupidly owning the wrong sort of shoes or wearing hats while traveling), and the politics often discussed at wearying length are of course the stuff of history. However, I continue to read them.


The Lighthearted Quest (1956) introduces Julia as a rather foolish-looking young woman with tawny blonde hair, always beautifully dressed, with plenty of money and a part time job (when she feels like it) writing for weekly magazines. Julia's elderly friend Mrs Hathaway and cousin Edina Monro enlist her help in finding Edina's brother Colin who has been travelling for some time and is thought to be somewhere in North Africa. Colin is needed at home; he is needed to manage his inheritance, a large property in Argyll (in Scotland) called Glentoran. Julia undertakes this quest with enthusiasm, takes a cargo boat to Morocco, finds a job with an elderly Belgian archaeologist (in those days British travellers were restricted to £100 a year in foreign currency), travels to a number of Moroccan cities, gets slightly blown up in a terrorist bombing and of course finds Colin in the end.

Along the way we learn about docks and dockers, radar, Moroccan politics and the French administration, olive oil mills (modern and Roman), the iniquities of the British tax system, mining with special reference to rare minerals, and much else. Most of it collected by Julia as potential subjects for her magazine articles. Indeed, she travels with a typewriter; no wonder she always needs a porter at the railway stations. And in fact, much of this information helps her find Colin who has, naturally, been working under cover for an unnamed branch of the secret service.

By the end of the book Julia has cast off two suitors and is getting to know a third (Colin's boss - of course - Hugh Torrens); Edina has met and become engaged to the mate of Julia's cargo boat who was brought up on a large property in Northumberland and has luckily inherited a large fortune so he and Edina can manage Glentoran between them; and Colin has decided to stay with the secret service.


The Lighthearted Quest was followed by The Portuguese Escape (1958), The Numbered Account (1960) set mostly in Switzerland, The Dangerous Islands (1963) where Julia visits a selection of Islands off the West Coast of Scotland and Ireland, and then the Isles of Scilly, Emergency in the Pyrenees (1965), The Episode at Toledo (1966), The Malady in Madeira (1970) and Julia in Ireland (1973).



For some reason the author has recurring characters like the Monro family and Mrs Hathaway, take rather a hard attitude towards Julia's many admirers and accuse her of leading them on. Since she is always described as very attractive with an engaging manner, and as she has ample opportunity to meet men while "helping out" the secret service as she so often does, I find this a very odd attitude. And when she in her turn falls for a Mr Antrobus (also of the secret service) who subsequently gives her the brush off, her friends are not very sympathetic.

Perhaps this is because Ann Bridge was born in 1889 and had very old-fashioned ideas. Perhaps because she had a difficult relationship with her husband. Who knows? But luckily for romance Julia swiftly falls for Philip (Colonel Jamieson), who she first meets off the coast of Scotland, and they marry. Unfortunately Philip turns out to be an unmitigated idiot. Yes he works for the secret service, of course he does, but who other than a moron installs his heavily pregnant, and not very well, wife in a house in a tiny village in the Pyrenees with no access to telephone or a car? Poor Julia is entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers and this very nearly leads to disaster.



Sadly for Julia the author kills off her husband on a super secret mission in Madeira. Luckily Julia has what used to be known as private means, and the idiotic Philip seems to have been pretty rich himself, but even for a fictional character being left alone with a very small child can be no barrel of laughs. Naturally Julia visits Madeira and solves the sinister mystery. She always manages better than the real agents. I'm never really quite sure if Julia is actually employed by the secret service but she should have been. A combination of feminine intuition and looking rather stupid while in fact having a considerable deductive brain makes her a very good detective.

Ann Bridge wrote nearly 20 other books but although I have read one or two I like the Julia books best. I like the recurring characters. It's always nice to see Colin again (although his super wealthy wife is so dim one can hardly credit it), it's always nice to meet Hugh Torrens and Mrs Hathaway, and even the rather spiky Edina.

There is a mass of period detail to be enjoyed in all these books. Lots of fascinating stuff about managing large estates in Portugal, ambassadorial entertaining in Madrid, railways in Switzerland and the countryside in Madeira. And particularly loads of detail about how expensive telephoning used to be.


The final book, Julia in Ireland, I think is a sad mistake. Julia falls for an Irishman who sounds ghastly. Not because he's Irish, not because he's a Roman Catholic, but because all his character traits irritate me like mad. Who bursts into song all the time? At least, he is introduced in a letter as someone who does this, and isn't it wonderful? But somehow, when we meet him, he doesn't do it again. But then he is such a wonderful person (say all the characters) and yet he employs a housekeeper who allows his house to go to rack and ruin: she doesn't appear to do any housekeeping.

And then I don't think the book is very well written. Somehow Julia spends ages getting on and off buses and instead of her travelling being incidental to the plot it is in danger of becoming the plot. And in the end I wasn't very sure what the plot really was. Something to do with a property developer but a bit of a come down for a woman who has been battling communist spies for the last 15 years.

I can't help feeling that Ann Bridge was bullocked into writing one final book about Julia because her fans wanted to know what happened to her. But I'm not sure that most Julia fans wanted to read about her struggling with Irish bus timetables (she is supposed to be rich: why doesn't she just buy/rent a car?) and converting to Catholicism; a sort of after thought that seems to spring out of nowhere.  I almost wish I had never read this book because I really don't find it a good addition to the series.

However, at the end of the day I have read and enjoyed The Lighthearted Quest so often, and the next couple of books too, that I really can genuinely recommend this series of books.

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