REVIEW: Safe Passage (aka The Bravest Voices) by Ida Cook (Mary Burchell)
I’d been eyeing this book after it was promoted on the eharlequin website and this month, I decided “why not. Sounds interesting.” Interesting indeed. This book is “the truth is stranger than fiction.” Two young English women become enamored of opera, travel the world to see and meet their favorite opera singers and, through two of them, start to arrange safe passage for persecuted people out of an increasingly dangerous Europe in the years before the beginning of WWII. Now, who’d believe that?
It’s not fiction. It’s the life of Ida and Louise Cook, two daughters of an English civil servant who were, themselves, also initially civil servants. While both were working in low paying jobs in London ( £10 a month sound like enough to live on?), Louise first heard a phonograph and decided she must have one. Trips to nascent record stores followed where the sisters were first introduced to vocal music which lead them to fall immediately in love with opera.
Nothing would do but they must then go to live performances. Here they heard Lita Galli-Curci sing a recital and learned that she only sang in operas in New York City. So of course the sisters then had to travel to hear her. But how to do that while only earning £10 a month in 1924? Well, set a schedule, save every penny – literally – they could, sew all their own clothes and travel as cheaply as possible. Two years later, they arrived – via boat – in NYC and fell in love with it, with Americans and with Lita and her husband to whom they’d written of their plans two years earlier.
Ah, the more innocent days before paparazzi and fanatical stalker fans when the genuine enthusiasm for opera displayed by two young Englishwomen was enough to earn them the friendship of some of the major opera stars of the twentieth century. Ida’s breezy write-ups of their adventures were written as an attempt to earn more money so they could travel more and see more opera performances across Europe. Her articles also propelled her into a career in journalism which lead to her long term career as a romance novelist for Mills and Boon under the name Mary Burchell.
And it was then, just as she began to earn, what was for her, a lot of money, that the most important phase of their lives began. Two of their opera friends, conductor Clemens Krauss and his opera singer wife Viorica Ursuleac, introduced them to a Jewish woman looking to leave Germany and settle in England. Ida and Louise had no idea this would lead to them eventually managing to get numerous people safely out of Germany and Austria before the outbreak of war five years later.
I know the authors who read this blog probably see their books as children, a way to make a living, as stories that have to be written, … oh, lots of things. But how about viewing them as a way to save a person’s life? A way to make money to finance trips to Europe to work out how to help people escape from near certain death? A way to offer the guarantees needed to secure British visas for people no longer viewed as people by the Nazi regime? I’m telling you, this part of the book is enough to make you cry and make you cheer on alternate pages.
And then comes the war years. When Ida worked in a bomb shelter by night while Louise had been evacuated to Wales with her government department. I know the word “pluck” is considered to be old-fashioned but it’s quite what came to mind while reading about the inhabitants of Bermondsey where the shelter was located in which Ida worked. Night after night of quiet British resolve to weather the Blitz, to count ones blessings that you’d only lost everything you owned but you were still alive, unlike the poor sods who hadn’t sought refuge in the shelter. The warden who quietly tells his wife that “yes, it’s bad up there” and she knows they’ve lost everything.
During the years spent trying to get people out of Europe and all through the war, the sisters dreamt of a time when beauty and grace would return to the world. And – as much as was possible – for them it eventually did. The last section tells about how they returned to traveling the world to listen to their beloved opera, how they met the new and upcoming stars, such as Callas, as well as got more chances to hear long time favorites. They often journeyed to America – by plane this time – to see Ponselle, Farrar, and Gali-Curci as well as reuniting with many of the people they’d assisted to safety. They are among the few Britons named “Righteous among the Nations” for the work they did before and after the war when they worked with displaced refugees.
Non opera fans should note that the first fourth of the book is devoted to the sister’s love of the art as well as discussions about stars then known around the world but now mainly sadly forgotten. Yet, I agree that it’s important to include this as it was opera and the people they met through it who had such an influence on their lives and who started them on their crusade to save as many as they could from prewar Europe. It also served, at times, as a cover for their journeys to Germany and Austria when too many questions began to be asked.
All through the book, we see what can be accomplished by two unassuming people determined to make a difference. As Ida said, “You never know what you can do until you refuse to take no for an answer.” I’m so glad Mills and Boon dusted this off and republished it in their 100th Anniversary year. B+
I’ve had this book on my wish list since I first saw it mentioned. This is just the impetus I needed to finally buy it.
Mary, it’s a quiet, unassuming book I’d love to see get more attention. I hope you enjoy it.
Jayne, thanks so much for drawing attention to this book! It’s been on my Reader for a couple of months but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I knew that Cook/Burchell was an opera lover (she has a linked series of Harlequins with a conductor and his soprano wife as the recurring characters), but I only knew vaguely of her rescue work. She and her sister must really have been something. And to manage to be one of the most popular Harlequin authors on top of everything else!
I was looking for a good book club book and i think i have found it..thanks. :0)
Before I made a comment, I went and put this on my Books-A-Million wishlist.
I love opera and reading about these two sisters who travel the world to hear
live performances attracted me immediately.
The Cook sisters are so complicated – I had no idea this had been released. Worth reading more about them if you are inclined – neither angels nor devils but endlessly interesting.
I just took a look at a list of her M&B books. Such innocent titles. Not a “Brazillian Billionaire’s Bastard Baby” among them. Though I noted she seemed to have written her share of “Doctor/Nurse” titles in the 1950s.
Bev, while I was writing this review, I had to poke through the internet looking for recordings of some of the opera stars the Cooks mentioned as their favorites. I would love to know how these singers would have sounded with halfway decent recording equipment.
Here’s a story that appeared in the Daily Telegraph a while ago. It is an abridged version of an article that appeared in Granta magazine. It’s really interesting and hints at the complexity of the sisters’ relationship.
Jayne, Burchell wrote nurse romances, country-set romances, marriage of convenience romances, and a bunch of other types. She had a string of innocent heroines who agree to act as co-respondent in handsome tycoons’ divorce cases and then of course the tycoons fall for them. In some ways, though, the stories are a long way from sweet romances (even when the heroines are almost always sweet).
Well I suppose that *gasp* divorce stories would have been considered racy in the day.
My dad had some pretty decent recordings of Kirsten Flagstad. The sound was quite good considering they were monoral (not sure of the spelling). The old wax cylinders really didn’t do justice to anyones singing, but when they came out with records, it got infinitely better. The Cook sister’s got enough of an idea of their voices that made them want to see the performers in person.
In my own experience, I found that going to a concert was very different from listening to a record, cassette or cd. At a concert, mistakes can be made and of course they can’t stop and re-record or re-master them. Thus, recordings are more perfect than live performances.
Okay, I need to get this book– like NOW. My very first romance was a late 70s Presents reprint of Mary Burchell’s A Song Begins, the first book in the Warrender saga. And one of the things that shone through every word, through all of what today we’d see as the rampant sexism (that was so common for a novel written in 1962) was the pure love of Oscar Warrender for music. And despite the fact that he was a complete jerk in so many ways, his love of the music made that forgivable because I understood musicians and he was, if nothing else, a musician.
And I knew even though I was probably only ten or eleven years old, that only someone who loved music as passionately as Oscar did could have written that book.
To think where that love of music led her and her sister is just absolutely amazing and awe-inspiring to me.
Plus there are so many singers who record operas for which their voice truly isn’t suited. But in a studio, all mistakes and unsuitability can be smoothed away. It’s when you hear it in person, that you know this person is ruining their instrument. Ida mentions that and how singers in the 50s/60s were brought on too quickly, used up their voices and had shorter careers because of it.
Is the character of Oscar Warrender the composer Sunita mentioned? That’s so cool that Cook/Burchell was your first romance author. I can remember some of the first romance authors I ever read but not *the* first one. Sigh…memories.
And here’s another instance where ebooks can get you the book you want right now instead of having to wait for a store to open or UPS to deliver that package. I love ebooks. ;)
Yes — at one point Harlequin produced a set of these as “The Warrender Saga”. A Song Begins, which features Oscar Warrender as the hero, was a sort of prequel after he had appeared as a character in other romances.
One of Mary Burchell’s best earlier books is Call and I’ll Come. It doesn’t feature Oscar Warrender, but I adore the depiction of the conductor Conrad Schreiner and the soprano Manora Vanescu.
@xaipe: Oh, I love Call and I’ll Come. The Schreiner/Vanescu relationship is so beautifully done. It’s way more interesting than the primary h/h, which is not surprising. But the familial relations are also really well depicted.
I read somewhere that the Oscar Warrender character was based on Krauss. Ah, for the days of charismatic, dominating, all-powerful conductors and affordable opera tickets.
Pardon my cynicism, but given the most recent shenanigans regarding ‘memoirs’ I’d probably wait a bit before buying one. Though it does sound like an interesting story.
I can certainly understand your cynicism – Lord knows we’ve had enough “memoirs” turn out to be fake lately. But in this case I feel confident in recommending the book as it was first published in the early 1950s and republished in the mid 1980s. This is its third time in print.
This http://www1.yadvashem.org/righteous_new/index.html is the website for The Righteous Among the Nations. The second link is the Virtual Wall of Honor for Great Britain (there are walls of honor for the citizens of several countries).
You’ll find Ida and Louise Cook third down on the list.
Dittoing Jayne’s comments: This was first published in 1950 by Harlequin, for whom Cook had been writing since the early 1930s. And according to the wiki, she and her sister were given awards by Israel in 1965 for their work saving Jews. I think if it were largely or even partially faked (beyond the slants that memoirs often take), we’d know by now and Harlequin wouldn’t have republished it. She was a very popular author, a lot of the people in the book were still alive well after she wrote it, and the story has been pretty well known for a long time.
ITA that the memoir racket has become extremely dicey, but this book doesn’t deserve to be lumped with those.
ETA: tls beat me to it!
I read this book and was captivated by it. I bought it from Amazon when I heard about it and was amazed. Thanks for featuring this wonderful story.
But I thank you for bringing up the issue, Roslyn. I should have remembered to include something in the review showing that this wasn’t one of the “dicey” memoirs.
I did not know that! Since my introduction to the character was in A Song Begins with those “Warrender Saga” reprints from the late seventies, I assumed that his story had been the first.
Oh, and how I adored Oscar. I generally dislike alpha heroes, I’m not a big fan of blonds, but holy cats, did my little ten year-old heart go pitta-pat for him. Even now, after countless reads of this story, I get to this passage:
“Don’t you understand even now what it means to be a professional artist? The performance comes first, last, and all the time. Understand that now and for the whole of your future. Your entire family can be ill, your husband can have left you for another woman, your house can be on fire, but if you can get on the stage and do a great performance, YOU GO! Is that clear?”
I mean, seriously, I get a little weak in the knees whenever I read that.
That resonated with me so powerfully, because from a very young age, I’d been taught the same sort of discipline and single-mindedness and of course, possessed the same inherent passion when it came to music (and later on, all the arts, really). In retrospect, I suppose it really shouldn’t be any kind of surprise that my first published novel was about a dedicated musician. Funny how things are endlessly cyclical and influential, even when you don’t realize it.
And for giggles: the copy I currently own.. A 1973 Mills and Boon reprint, as opposed to my original Presents copy, which practically disintegrated. Why yes, I’m a tremendous geek.
I am another Mary Burchell fan from the 70’s. I still re-read her books about once a year or so. Someone else mentioned Call and I’ll Come . The edition that I first read was published about 1973, but when I checked just before Christmas, the copyright/original publication date is 1937. This explains the old-fashioned feel of the stories (which I love BTW).
I actually have many Harlequin books from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. I love them all, and read them almost like they are historicals instead of contemporaries.
I bought Safe Passage as a gift for the family friend who first introduced me to Mary Burchell’s books. After she and my mother have finished it, I get to read it.
I too loved Oscar Warrender, although I am not a fan of alpha heroes at all. My copy of A Song Begins is the American Harlequin version, and very nicely preserved, thank you. Of course that’s probably because I’d read it a dozen times before I tracked down a copy of my own.
Karla, thanks for pointing out that the original publication dates are much older. I have noticed that as well, which is why I don’t think of them as being as dated as they would feel to someone reading them today as contemporaries. They are definitely historicals!
Burchell had a way with alpha heroes; they could behave cruelly but the reader bought their motivation. She also has a very singular voice; her innocent, nice-girl heroines could be seriously tart in their tone sometimes!
Jayne, thanks for giving us Burchell fans a platform! We don’t get many and we tend to think we’re all alone. :-)
If you have a chance to read an original M&B hardcover edition of any of the earlier books, I highly recommend it. The modern paperback versions have often edited out a little bit of their charm, either odd names or descriptions that set the story too much in WWII. There’s even one place where in the original edition one character refers to another (who has caused the heroine a lot of grief) as a “bitch” where in the Harlequin she more tamely describes her as a “monster”.
One of the things that I love about Mary Burchell is that some of her books are very melodramatic but others have brilliant comedy. I tend to prefer the earlier books — some of the books from the 60s or later are unpleasantly judgemental in a way that the books from the 30s and 40s weren’t. However in some cases she does some interesting things where the romance is not the main thread of the book — there will be a young couple who will get engaged in the end, but the protagonist is a more mature woman who is only peripherally engaged in the romance plot. My favourite example of this is The Rosewood Box, which I think was never published by Harlequin.
Ida Cook also ghost-wrote the autobiography of the baritone Tito Gobbi.
Great review, Jayne.
To the commentors: If you could recommend only one of Cook/Burchell’s works of fiction, which one would it be?
Oh wow, that’s a tough one! She wrote a lot of books and used a number of different tropes.
(1) Call and I’ll Come: You have a marriage that goes wrong, with the heroine running away from the hero for his own good and then becoming a singer and finding a family. It all ends mostly happily (don’t worry, there’s an HEA for the h/h).
(2) A Song Begins: Warrender is a terrific alpha heroine and Anthea is sweet without being annoying. The mentor-protege story is really well done and the window into the opera world is fun. Alternatively, if you’d prefer Paris and the world of fashion, Under the Stars of Paris has a similar mentor-protege plot, but the hero is a famous fashion designer (think YSL but straight, if that’s possible).
(3) Yet Love Remains: A heroine-as-corespondent book, at least she helps out a friend by putting the husband in a compromising position so that the friend can divorce him. Then she falls in love with the husband, they get married, and she has to hide the Terrible Secret. He’s pretty boorish at times, she’s sweet and self-sacrificing and it has some hokey bits, but it’s really one of my favorites.
(4) Pay Me Tomorrow: One of Burchell’s country-set romances. The heroine makes a MOC with the hero. The hero is mildly tortured (by M&B standards) and the heroine sacrifices for her family but it’s not too saccharine, as I remember. The family is well portrayed and I remember the writing as being very good. Another self-sacrificing heroine who makes a MOC with a semi-tortured hero is in Except My Love, which has as a bonus a Secret Baby!
(5) Yours With Love OR Love Made the Choice. In both cases, young heroines with unhappy home situations agree to be corespondents in divorce suits for wealthy tycoons. Their sweet and innocent natures captivate the jaded tycoons and all ends happily (and of course, virtuously). These are my guilty pleasures, in case you couldn’t tell.
These aren’t necessarily the best, just the ones I could remember without digging through the box in the garage.
Picking one Burchell is difficult. I think maybe One Man’s Heart?
Seriously, SO HARD. I have more than fifty of her books, and I want to list about twenty of them instead of just the one.
Oooh, One Man’s Heart. Yes, that should definitely have been on my list. Fantastic fiction had the wrong synopsis and I couldn’t remember the right one. But it’s the one with the h/h who get engaged to rich people for mercenary reasons but then fall in love with each other, right?
At least you stuck to the rules. I offered 8 within 5 categories … my excuse is that they may be hard to find. :-)
yes, One Man’s Heart was a possible for me too. It is the one with the h/h who are fortune hunters about to make their respective marriages for money, when they meet each other and fall in love.
@sunita: When I first read Under the Stars of Paris, I was completely staggered when Florian (the dress designer) turned out to be the hero — I thought it was going to be nice supportive Roger, since Mary Burchell’s alphas are often nice decent men. Florian, like Oscar Warrender, appears as a kind of fairy godfather in a few other books.
Like Sunita, I find it impossible to limit myself to just one, but I think I can keep it down to three:
If you want something lighter and more humorous, I would recommend The Brave in Heart. The heroine is responsible for bringing up her orphaned brother and sister (twins of about 12 — I adore Mary Burchell’s 12-year-olds) and needs to ask their landlord for a break on the rent . . . one thing leads to another.
If you want something a little more angsty, Such Is Love is one of my favourites. The heroine has a shameful Past she is afraid to confess to her new husband, and she feels constantly perilously close to being exposed.
If you want something where the romance is subordinated to a fascinating portrait of an opera diva, go for Little Sister. The heroine has been brought up by her grandmother but after her grandmother’s death goes to live with her mother, a famous soprano, who refuses to acknowledge her as anything other than her sister.
I’m not great at following the rules, so sticking with just one was PAINFUL.
It’s been a long time since I first read it, but I know One Man’s Heart really struck me as being a bit off the beaten track for a Burchell, while still being totally Burchell-ish at the same time. I didn’t have high hopes for the book after reading the blurb and ended up loving it.
ETA: I seriously considered Under the Stars of Paris. I so loved the fashion house setting when I was a teen. And I thought Florian was yummy.
The Brave in Heart is one of my absolute favorites. I do adore many of the lighter Burchells.
I need to find some Burchells. Maybe Harlequin will digitize one for its Fabulous Firsts program or whatever it is called.
Yeah, well, my vote is pretty much always going to be for A Song Begins.
Not just for being a sentimental favorite, but… Oscar! *le sigh*
Okay, I’ll stop now.
I keep looking for digital versions but I haven’t seen any signs of them, and I think I’ve managed to figure out all the Firsts. I was bummed, because I really thought they’d do some of their old writers. I’ve always been a bit surprised that they reissued *all* of Betty Neels, but none of Burchell, Essie Summers, Sara Seale, Violet Winspear, etc. Maybe TPTB think that they’re too dated, but I think they’d be surprised at the interest. Sheesh, if Neels can still sell like hotcakes when she basically wrote about 3 books 50 times each, why not these? And I *like* Neels; well, at least until the last few years.
Not to harsh on Betty Neels but…what is with that? Used to be I’d see 5 new Neels books released every month for ages. And as you say, it seems like she had 3 themes/plots she used over and over and over…..
@Jayne: I don’t entirely get it either. And I *read* all the damn things. I still have them all, too, including a bunch of first editions. The short answer to why there were so many at once is that either before or just after she died, Harlequin began re-releasing some of her novels in Classic Editions, and then it gave Neels her own line, basically, in The Best of Betty Neels series. So either every month or every 2nd or 3rd month, HQN would issue 4 Neels books with new covers. And since the old ones were difficult to find, readers snapped them up. It helps that the older ones were generally better than the new ones.
Now, obviously HQN did this because her books sell and sell and sell. Which naturally leads to the question, why? Why, in the 21st century, would people be reading extremely predictable books about shy (or outgoing but very sweet), plain (or pretty but not at all prideful), poor (usually down on their luck) heroines and taciturn, unexpressive, giant Dutch (and then English Doctors (and then tycoons)? One website describes her as a comfort read, and she is clearly that. She also did an amazing job of conjuring up a Holland that used to exist and that has never experienced drugs, red light districts, or immigration. I’ve been to the Netherlands, and you really *can* use her books as a travel map. And she emphasized the differences among the regions, the old languages like Fries, and other cultural particularities. So readers felt like *they* were in Holland. There aren’t many other writers who were quite that good at the cultural background across so many books. Unlike all the exotic Sheikh books, or ones set in exotic locales with British characters, Neels’s characters were rooted in the Netherlands.
Some time in the early 1980s, Neels began writing about English heroes, but after a few books she would alternate them with the Dutch doctors, no doubt because her fans wanted them. The heroines got more and more plain and downtrodden, so that in some of the later books they were living like The Little Match Girl. They almost always had cats or dogs that the heroes rescued along with the pathetic heroines. Some of the books get pretty squicky, because the heroes were literally saving them and there was almost no development of a romantic relationship. After 150 pages of an essentially distant, paternalistic relationhip the hero would say I love you and everything would be fine. And the writing and plots got worse as well. But clearly these Match Girl heroines struck a chord, and to be fair, there were also pretty heroines with happy families (Neels did families and children quite well). But the cultural contexts got more and more removed from reality.
As I write this, I wonder if readers accepted the more recent books as fairy tales in a much more literal sense than the average HQN romance, with the poor but virtuous heroine and the unattainable hero who magically falls in love and they live wealthily and happily ever after in a make-believe world.
In addition to the Burchell’s cited above, I also have lots of Betty Neels, and the almost complete works of Essie Summers.
I like to re-read the Neels books, but I can’t read too many in a row. Because all those similarities start to become annoying. But I always read my favorite, Fate is Remarkable, at least once a year.
I really enjoy the Essie Summers. She did for New Zealand what Neels did for the Netherlands. Her books are rich with history and geography of her homeland. She also did children and families, especially elders, really well. All of them distinct people, with their own part of the story.
The contemporaries that don’t grab me today barely make the h/h as interesting as the supporting players that Burchell, Neels, and Summers created.
Thanks everyone for the Burchell recommendations. I decided to go with One Man’s Heart, since the idea of two fortune hunters falling in love intrigues me. It was a close call between that one and Under the Stars of Paris, since I love the idea of a Paris fashion world setting too. I think I’ll wait until I get One Man’s Heart, though, and see if I like it, before trying another Burchell.
Did you order it online or find any ebooks of hers? It would be nice if someone at Harlequin saw this thread and decided to rerelease Burchell’s books in e-format.
I ordered a used print copy online. I got the impression from the posts above that there aren’t any Burchell ebooks. The copy I got was a buck and with shipping and handling came to $4.50.
I am surprised, nobody mentioned “with all my worldly goods”., my all time favourite
I would kill for Burchell ebooks. Please, Harlequin?
Thanks so much for your review which got me to read it. Just finished it. FABULOUS book!! I’d give it an A.
Edith, I love to hear when my recs have worked for people. I’m so happy that you enjoyed it.
I was just sitting and wondering if I could ever possibly figure out the name of the books I read 25 years ago that featured a conductor and an opera singer – and Google brought me to this discussion! Thank you, thank you! I’m off to go stock up! :)
God bless Google and welcome Maria. We hope you stick around and enjoy our other reviews and discussions.
One of my most treasured posessions is the autographed first edition of “We followed our stars”, which is the original title of this book. And weighing in late on favorites – “Except My Love” has always been one of mine
I can’t thank you enough for this review..I went on a glom of Burchell over the summer, and I feel as if I went to a different world!! Oscar Warrender!! Florian!!! Oh…. I am still ordering from amazon.uk, as I simply can’t quit! How did I miss these?/ I read Sara Seale and Violet Winspear but totally missed these.
Could be they didnt sound racy enough to get my attention when I started in romance reading!!!
I am in the process of reading Safe Passage however noted in the front that “this is a book of fiction etc etc”. How can this be if it meant to be an autobiography??
@Shelley: Perhaps it’s some kind of standard thing – in this case mistakenly – added to books by Harlequin? I’m sorry I don’t have an answer to your question.
Thanks for responding Jayne. It is a mystery. And I am mystified as to how these simple young English girls were so enthralling to the Operatic celebrities of their time.