First, a word of hope for all those who, like me, are forever moaning about how hard it is to find old books these days. I picked up this very nice copy of The Dangerous Islands at the weekend for 50p. This is my reward for always being on the lookout. I now find it’s rather a scarce title, which makes it an even more pleasing find.
There’s a bibliography of Ann Bridge’s books on the invaluable Fantastic Fiction site. Although she wrote an autobiography, there’s still no biography of her that I know of and not even a Wikipedia entry. Her papers are held in Austin, Texas.
Mary O’Malley was married to a diplomat, which gave her the background for her first and still her most famous book, Peking Picnic. It’s a story about diplomats in China and chronicles a way of life which has pretty much vanished for both the Chinese and those in the Diplomatic. Laura Leroy, the book’s heroine, is beautiful and charming and readers seem to have fallen in love with her and with the atmospheric descriptions of the country. The book was a wild success; it was even compared with A Passage to India. I find I have three copies in different editions and it’s still in print, in a new Capuchin edition. I hope someone there is sacked for letting the book go to print with the author's name wrongly spelled on the cover!
Ann Bridge’s husband had a successful career (with one major crisis which she got him out of) but he seems to have been an ineffectual sort of person compared with his wife and she became the main bread-winner, writing more than twenty books. In all of them she made good use of her travels, writing about places which were exotic to her readers.
The Dangerous Islands is one of the Julia Probyn series, cold war thrillers with a brave, beautiful and rich heroine. The islands of this book are first the Hebrides, then islands off County Mayo and finally the Isles of Scilly. Julia and her new acquaintance, Colonel Jamieson of the secret service, investigate mysterious installations on all the islands, which seem to have been planted by the Russians. There’s a lot of sailing in the Scottish section of the book and the whole atmosphere, upper class, feudal, reminded me strongly of Olivia FitzRoy. Julia, of course, ‘has the Gaelic’, which is useful when pumping the locals. When we get to Ireland, surprise, the peasants all know and adore her and easily spill the beans again. Only the Scillies are new territory. Each of these locations is beautifully described but always as part of the story, not in travelogue style. I also have Emergency in the Pyrenees but none of the other Julia books; they seem harder to find than the earlier novels. I think they have a lot in common with Helen MacInnes’ thrillers but while there are plenty of MacInnes paperbacks about I've never seen any of the Julia Probyn ones.
If you like period books about the upper classes (everyone drinking and smoking like mad, servants taken for granted) and foreign locations, Ann Bridge is well worth a try.