Angela Thirkell, Wild Strawberries

Angela Thirkell, Wild Strawberries. Virago Modern Classics, 2012. 19341

Europe was at a turning point in 1934, when this light romantic comedy was published. This was the year Hitler became Führer of Germany, having been made Chancellor the previous year. Mussolini had been increasing his grip as Il Duce in Italy from the 1920s. Britain was still bruised from the effects of WWI, and wary of political engagement with the rest of the continent – a condition it has recently found attractive again, when ‘foreigner’ means ‘not one of us’. We don’t seem to learn from the lessons of history.

Thirkell Wild Strawberries coverWild Strawberries is the second of Thirkell’s almost thirty ‘Barsetshire’ novels, set in a fictional province of England that’s loosely based on Trollope’s world. I read and posted about the first, High Rising, last October. She wrote for money, hence her prolific output. As I said about her novelist protagonist Laura in High Rising, she was unabashed in her role as running a production line of middle-brow, undemanding romantic comedies of dubious and, according to some accounts, uneven literary quality; they were very successful.

I read this one because I was due to undergo tests in hospital and anticipated long waits and delays. I needed something light and diverting. Thirkell is perfect for such situations.

I enjoyed the comedy. There are some very funny situations and jokes (the butler’s name is Gudgeon, which I find implausibly funny). Some of these involve charming, feral small children and their excessively doting mother – though her monomania became tiresome after a while.

Some of the characters produce some engaging humour, too. Lady Emily Leslie, daughter of an earl, is the eccentric matriarch of Rushwater House, the large country seat of her family. She is capable of producing chaos in the most orderly of households; her constant mislaying of her spectacles and other personal items resonated with me – I have a pair of reading glasses in every room to overcome this forgetful tendency.

Her husband is more problematic; he reminds me of the boorish xenophobe Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Love and its sequels. We’re supposed, I think, to find his implacable antipathy to foreigners amusing. It isn’t.

Thirkell tends to produce characters with just one defining characteristic, like Lady Leslie’s meddlesome vagueness. This works for Dickens, who also produces more fully rounded characters to offset these caricatures. In Thirkell’s novel of 275 pages the effect is wearing. None of the characters has sufficient gravitas or depth to carry a plot.

And the plot is gossamer light. Will penniless Mary, a cousin by marriage (not a blood relative) of the eligible bachelor Leslies, succumb to the gigolo charms of handsome but feckless, selfish David, or for the more stolid decency of boring widower brother John? I thought it was pretty obvious from the outset what would happen, and didn’t really care either way.

I did find the depiction of ingenuous, inexperienced Mary’s infatuation with debonaire charmer David well done; the narrator makes no bones about his egotism and cruel flirtatiousness. Yet the more caddish and careless his treatment of her, the more she longs for him. Who hasn’t fallen for the wrong person at some point?

The novel works fairly well, as a whole, as an entertaining diversion (but see my conclusions below). I can’t agree with Alexander McCall Smith’s claim in the introduction that this is a different world from Wodehouse’s: these people have jobs, he says, and ‘they do not spend their time in an endless whirl of silliness.’ Really?

Take David, who’s so rich he doesn’t have to work. He goes for an audition with the BBC, and ruins his chances by having an attack of giggles. He doesn’t need the job, and is disdainful of this outcome – instead he launches a campaign in pursuit of the bluestocking young woman who’d have been his boss in that job. One of the high points of the narrative, for me, was when she told him, as his advances became tiresome, to get lost.

There’s a slight element of seriousness that adds a bit of substance to this frothy tale: the death of one of the Leslie sons as an officer in WWI still casts a shadow over the family, and the pain of his loss in the carnage of that war is still with them. ‘The War broke up the happy life of county England,’ the narrator tells us at one point. But this refers to the social whirl, the complacent luxury of the upper classes; Thirkell has no interest in wider issues – unless we count the dabbling among the younger generation of characters with French Royalism. And this could easily tip over into some further politically dodgy attitudes. Fortunately Thirkell loses interest in this plot line – as she does with all the others, and the novel fizzles out into a disappointing, predictable ending.

Ultimately the novel is marred for me, and I find I can’t recommend it, because of the casual xenophobia and racism. Smith, in that introduction, concedes some of the language ‘offends the modern ear’, but it ‘merely reflects the attitudes of the time.’ I see this excuse so often, and I find that I don’t agree that this condones these attitudes.

It did take my mind off the hospital appointments, so it served its purpose.

PS update/afterthought. I meant to mention, in relation to the rise of fascism at the time of this novel’s publication, that Thirkell includes a chilling moment in the narrative. Some of our main characters are at the railway station when a train from the city arrives and disgorges hordes of young people dressed in hiking clothes, out for a ramble in the country. As they pass our young toffs they give a fascist salute. Thirkell simply relates this and passes on, unperturbed – no comment, nothing. I found this very disturbing: the salute, and the lack of authorial comment.

Tears and immolation: Elizabeth Taylor, Blaming

Elizabeth Taylor, Blaming. Virago Modern Classics, 2007. 19761

Middle-aged Englishwoman Amy Henderson meets Martha, an American writer who seems to be about thirty, on a cruise. Disaster strikes when their ship is docked at Istanbul, and this eccentric, impulsive American whom she’d not really liked looks after her and takes her home.

Amy’s lack of affect, her inability to connect with others – instead she shows a catlike indifference, even spitefulness – or to reciprocate the kindness Martha had shown her when she needs it, brings about the situation where Amy’s self-recrimination sets in, too late to stave off further disaster. Hence the blame in the title. With blame come guilt and pain.

Elizabeth Taylor’s final novel, published posthumously, was completed while she knew she was dying of cancer. It’s not surprising that death, mortality and bereavement are central features in the narrative.

Taylor is as usual interested mostly in the behaviour of middle-class women like Amy, refined but emotionally stunted, finding herself in situations where emotional intelligence is required of her, and she is unable to summon it up. Instead she’s judgemental, aloof, indifferent and solitary. She looks up one of Martha’s novels in the library – a rare sign of curiosity in another person. She ‘skipped through it’:

And thought what a stifling little world it was, of a love affair gone wrong, of sleeping pills and contraceptives, tears, immolation.

This tells us a great deal about free-spirited, prodigal Martha, with her rather hippy-ish dress sense, brusque manners and frank American inquisitiveness about other people – qualities the exact opposite of this buttoned-up English ‘Memsahib’, as Martha’s lover Simon, her implausibly ‘quiet American’, sees Amy when he finally meets her.

It’s more revealing about Amy. Her dismissal of Martha’s fictional themes suggests she’s wary and scornful of such messy living, with its exposures, pain and evasions, and of such effusive openness, with which comes a vulnerability she deplores. The narrator’s astuteness consists in her withholding judgement or analysis: we’re simply shown the scene, and trusted to savour the ironies and implications.

Martha’s relationship with the rather bland, needy Simon is interesting, and reveals some of the contradictions in her. She says she’s drawn to quiet men like him, yet has a brash manner herself; she likens him to a cat. She appears to pity him rather than love him – she’s drawn to lonely people like him and Amy. “Like you, he can’t make friends,” she tells Amy. That’s Martha’s mission, it seems: to try to help people connect when they’re struggling to do so. It’s her way of making her own human connections in a world full of misconstrued motives and misinterpretations of the words and actions of others.

Taylor is sharp-eyed about these complexities and contradictions in character, these occlusions in social intercourse. Beneath the unaffected, confident manner, Martha is in her own way troubled and lonely. And that, as I’ve said before about other works of fiction by Elizabeth Taylor (novels and short stories: links at the end of this post), is one of her central themes: the loneliness of the middle-class, middle-aged woman.

In Amy’s case it’s largely self-induced. Martha takes her to task about it: ‘” You’re simply not interested in other people”’. Amy is so typically English, she thinks, when she observes Amy saying things like “Terribly good, don’t you think?”: the manner of talking with ‘all syllables articulate, the disposition quite detached.’ Taylor the observant novelist, observing this observer.

Secondary characters are also well drawn. Ernie, Martha’s camp ‘housekeeper’ (in earlier times he’d have been called a butler, a down-market, hypochondriac Jeeves), obsessed with his new false teeth and women wrestlers, making mysterious visits on his evenings off to a jazz club, of all places. He’s both too servile and too familiar, Simon thinks.

Amy’s son and daughter-in-law, Maggie, are brilliantly done: their selfishness and irritation with Amy are palpable in a scene which Jonathan Keates in his Introduction to this edition compares with a similar one in Sense and Sensibility. Maggie delivers the most devastatingly chilling line in the novel – but I won’t quote it here because it’s a bit of a spoiler. It reveals how Amy doesn’t do intimacy, inspiring little affection in those around her as a consequence. Martha’s attentiveness to Amy in extremity and afterwards is thus rendered more touching (though she too has her own not entirely selfless motives for having ‘intruded’, as Amy sees it, into her life).

Another of Taylor’s areas of genius is her depiction of children; Amy’s two granddaughters are one of the highlights of a novel that at times needed a little more brightness. The four-year-old is a monster, her elder sister, a prissy goody-two-shoes.

As with Jane Austen, much of the reading pleasure in an Elizabeth Taylor novel comes from the dialogue. Amy’s repressed Englishness is shown both in sentences we hear her utter, as Martha notes – but also in the narrative comments. Early on, during the cruise, for example, she has an exchange with Martha that’s represented as almost painfully clipped, evasive and elided. ‘Very taut this conversation’, our narrator deftly summarises at its end.

Given the circumstances in which this novel was written, it’s a remarkable achievement. Not Taylor’s finest, but still superior to much else being done at the time. The novel left me feeling a little bleak and bereft, despite the moments of light humour.

My previous Elizabeth Taylor posts:

The Complete Short Stories

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Angel

The Soul of Kindness

In a Summer Season

 

Truth v. falsehood: Sir Thomas Browne and fake news

Sir Thomas Browne, Christian Morals

 First published posthumously in 1716: it purported to be advice to his children, but ‘may be considered as advice on obtaining individuation and self-realization as much as Christian virtue’, with sections on appearance and perspective (Wikipedia). The following passage strikes me as particularly pertinent in these sad times when prominent leaders take ‘post-truth’ positions, where all commentary with which they disagree is ‘fake news’, while all of their utterances (including tweets) are presented as if unequivocally, unanswerably true. Britain’s implausible new Prime Minister, for example, asserted in his characteristically pompous, bombastic first parliamentary speech in his new role yesterday (heaven help us) that Britain under his premiership is about to enter a ‘new golden age’. Right.

An extract from this passage by Browne is an epigraph to Jocelyn Brooke’s wonderfully strange ‘Military Orchid’ trilogy (highly recommended), according to an entry in an old notebook of mine, as it obviously appealed to me when I copied it out in 2012. I seem to have mislaid or disposed of my copy of the book, so can’t verify this.

I’d like to think Browne’s argument supports a sceptical or suspicious attitude to all such groundless statements (or tweets), rather than advocacy for ‘anything goes’, ‘quodlibet’ or fake news. I offer it here as a hopeful spot of light in an increasingly dark world.

The notes at the end are what I had to check up online for clarification (I’ve emboldened these terms in his text; otherwise the orthography is as it appears in the first edition). I thought they might help readers follow Browne’s typically labyrinthine style and arcane references (see yesterday’s post on his contributions to the English lexicon. I also recommend the website dedicated to him and his work).

Pt II, section 3 (from the online edition at the Univ. Chicago website, taken from the first edition)

LET well weighed Considerations, not stiff and peremptory Assumptions, guide thy discourses, Pen, and Actions. To begin or continue our works like Trismegistus of old, verum certè verum atque verissimum est, would sound arrogantly unto present Ears in this strict enquiring Age, wherein, for the most part, Probably, and Perhaps, will hardly serve to mollify the Spirit of captious Contradictors. If Cardan saith that a Parrot is a beautiful Bird, Scaliger will set his Wits o’ work to prove it a deformed Animal. The Compage of all Physical Truths is not so closely jointed, but opposition may find intrusion, nor always so closely maintained, as not to suffer attrition. Many Positions seem quodlibetically constituted, and like a Delphian Blade will cut on both sides. Some Truths seem almost Falshoods, and some Falshoods almost Truths; wherein Falshood and Truth seem almost æquilibriously stated, and but a few grains of distinction to bear down the ballance. Some have digged deep, yet glanced by the Royal Vein; and a Man may come unto the Pericardium, but not the Heart of Truth. Besides, many things are known, as some are seen, that is by Parallaxis, or at some distance from their true and proper beings, the superficial regard of things having a different aspect from their true and central Natures. And this moves sober Pens unto suspensory and timorous assertions, nor presently to obtrude them as Sibyls leaves, which after considerations may find to be but folious apparences, and not the central and vital interiours of Truth.

Notes preceded by J: from Dr Johnson’s commentary to his 1756 edition of Browne’s text, from an online edition in Google Books. Others are adapted from the likes of Wikipedia

The Emerald Tablet, also known as the Smaragdine Tablet, or Tabula Smaragdina, is a compact and cryptic piece of the Hermetica reputed to contain the secret of the prima materia and its transmutation. It was highly regarded by European alchemists as the foundation of their art and its Hermetic tradition…Although Hermes Trismegistus is the author named in the text, its first known appearance is in a book written in Arabic between the sixth and eighth centuries.

The layers of meaning in the text have been associated with the creation of the philosopher’s stone, as well as with other esoteric ideas – which would have appealed greatly to polymath Thomas Browne.

Extract from Newton’s translation (from his alchemical papers, now in the library of King’s College, Cambridge) of the text’s beginning:

Tis true without lying, certain and most true.
That which is below is like that which is above
and that which is above is like that is below 
to do the miracles of one only thing.

Cardan: Gerolamo Cardano (1501 – 1576): Italian mathematician, physician, scientist, astrologer, astronomer philosopher, writer.

Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540 – 1609): French Protestant religious leader, historian and scholar. While travelling as a young man in England, he formed an unfavourable opinion of the English (surely not?). Their inhuman disposition and inhospitable treatment of foreigners especially made a negative impression on him (little has changed: see Brexit). He was also disappointed in finding only a few Greek manuscripts and few learned men.

Compage: consistency, solid structure; contraction of separate parts into a whole.

Quodlibetically: in academic contexts, ‘in the manner of a subtle or elaborate argument or point of debate, usually on a theological or scholastic subject.’ Here Browne seems to be using the adverb in the sense of its Latin root, ‘quodlibet’, literally ‘whatever you please’, hence its usage in music for a pot pourri or medley; so he seems to mean here something like ‘ambiguously’ or ‘in a randomly mixed way’. J: ‘determinable on either side’.

Delphian Blade: J – The Delphian Sword became proverbial, not because it cut on both sides, but because it was used to different purposes (i.e. ‘positions’ in discourse can be multivalent).

Royal Vein: J – I suppose the main vein of a mine

Pericardium: J – The main integument of the heart. Lovely word, ‘integument’.

Parallaxis: J – The parallax of a star is the difference between its real and apparent place

Sybil of Delphi, by John Collier, 1891.

Sybil of Delphi, by John Collier, 1891. Art Gallery of South Australia Website Webpage PictureOld source [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1077695

Sibyls leaves: oak leaves on which their notoriously riddling answers (‘singing the fates’) were written by the famous women oracles, like those at Delphi, or Cumae (who was consulted by Vergil’s Aeneas before his descent into the underworld – of which she acted as guide). The epigraph to Eliot’s The Waste Land is a quotation from Petronius about her longing to die. Browne appears to be invoking epistemological distinctions (as stated in Aristotelian logic) between assertoric propositions – assertions that are unreliable, speculative, possibly untrue or unverifiable, as opposed to apodictic ones, which are a priori (deduced from pure reason), clearly provable and logically certain.

 

 

 

Penelope Fitzgerald, Gate of Angels

Penelope Fitzgerald, Gate of Angels. First published 1990. Everyman’s Library 3-vol. edition including The Bookshop and The Blue Flower, 2003

In my previous post about the first novel in this collection I suggested that Fitzgerald’s skill in evoking sense of place and time in her novels is extraordinary.

In Gate of Angels she presents the cloistered, all-male world of a Cambridge college in 1912. The action is therefore overshadowed by the reader’s knowledge that most of the young men who appear in these pages will be doomed to the slaughter of the trenches, so that the light romantic comedy that’s enacted in the narrative is clouded by this awareness.

Fitzgerald 3 novels coverTiny St Angelicus is a celibate, quasi-monastic college full of Fitzgerald’s usual collection of eccentrics. The plot is a slight affair of the romance that develops between Fred Fairly, a young Fellow, a rational scientist, and the street-wise, penniless orphaned London girl Daisy.

There are some witty glimpses of the exciting and momentous work being conducted by the likes of (future Nobel prizewinner) Rutherford on nuclear fission at the famous Cavendish lab (he became its professor in 1919). There are heady exchanges among the academics about nascent theories in atomic physics and psychology, and the competing attractions of theology and ontology. Fitzgerald has great fun satirising the antiquated beliefs of the more conservative academic scientists as ‘pernicious notions of mass’, ‘substance’, ‘the elementary particle’ and quantum physics develop around them. They refuse to believe in ‘unobservables’. ‘Scientists should not indulge themselves on quite this scale,’ declares Fred’s distressed Professor Flowerdew.

Fred is the son of a rural rector, and in one of the best scenes he returns home to try to break the difficult news to his father that he’s lost his Christian faith (as an uncle of Fitzgerald’s had done with his bishop father; he went on to be a code-breaker who worked on deciphering Enigma at Bletchley Park. Fitzgerald had a colourful family, and their unconventional talents infuse her fiction).

As always with Fitzgerald, things don’t turn out as one might expect. When Fred introduces his family to his Cockney sparrow girlfriend the clash of cultures and backgrounds unfolds with the wit and delicacy of touch characteristic of this clever and sensitive novelist. The scenes in which Daisy struggles with authority figures to become a nurse and raise herself out of grim poverty in London’s slums are vividly and sympathetically done. She’s one of Fitzgerald’s most spirited, unconventional heroines. Her refusal to conform and obey rules tends to get her into trouble – but she wouldn’t be a Fitzgerald heroine if she behaved otherwise.

There’s always a sense that the author is working at a level superior to the light comedy being played out on the pages. The plot is a vehicle for something more serious, elevated and elusive.

I’m not quite sure what it is. Apart from the science/art/philosophy debate noted above, it might be something to do with that Flanders slaughter, that puts into perspective the main characters’ struggles for fulfilment, and the petty squabbles and claret-soaked donnish banter of the college scenes. A seedy journalist gloomily predicts to Daisy that in ten years’ time he’ll be dead – a casualty of the inevitable war that will ensue from the ‘quarrel’ between the King and his ‘German cousin’. Daisy’s skills as a nurse would no doubt soon come in useful. The crazed consultant at her training hospital also runs a hospital near Cambridge for patients with mental illnesses; it’s possible to imagine the place becoming another Craiglockhart soon after the war started.

Several of the older women characters are engaged in another struggle: they’re suffragists. One of them – the intelligent wife of a crusty, unreconstructed don, who’d been a Cambridge student and prominent in the WSPU (like Matty in Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage), but is now a housewife – confronts the bleakness of a life of domestic tedium – all a woman of her class and education could aspire to at the time. Big changes were coming.

Fitzgerald writes novels that fulfil the requirements of the well-wrought plot, peopled by characters with semblances of flawed humanity. Some of the minor players are Waugh-like caricatures, but Gate of Angels is better than The Bookshop. It’s one of her lesser achievements – which means it’s superior to much supposedly popular fiction.

There’s a very good pastiche of an MR James ghost story, narrated by a crusty medievalist don who’s clearly modelled on him. That same uncle of Fitzgerald’s whose father was a bishop was a student at King’s College, Cambridge when James was provost there.

Some supernatural elements in the narrative remind me that Fitzgerald likes a bit of spookiness in her novels (like the antisocial poltergeist in The Bookshop).

Thankfully there’s no film version (as far as I know) of this engaging romantic comedy to spoil the immediacy of Fitzgerald’s narrative deftness.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), The Bookshop. Everyman’s Library 3-vol. edition (with Gate of Angels and The Blue Flower). First published 1978

I usually find that seeing the film version of a novel before reading the book is a mistake. This was definitely the case with Penelope Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Bookshop.

The novels I’ve read by her so far all have an astonishing immediacy in terms of period detail, setting and dialogue; from The Blue Flower (1995), read some time ago pre-blog, set at the time of Romantic poet Novalis (d. 1801) in a Germany that’s palpably realised, to pre-Revolution Moscow in The Beginning of Spring (1988).

In Offshore (winner of the 1979 Booker Prize) the hazardous life of an impoverished mother on a Thames houseboat in the early 1960s is evoked with the sharpness of a monochrome photograph. Human Voices just as vividly represents the people working on propaganda radio programmes during the London Blitz of 1940.

Fitzgerald 3 novels cover Florence Green, the slightly adrift middle-aged widow who’s the protagonist of The Bookshop, is another typical Fitzgerald heroine: a bit eccentric, idealistic to the point of naiveté, gifted at connecting with other people (but with a tendency to be too open and honest, which costs her dearly with unscrupulous or treacherous types – of whom there are several lushly drawn examples in this novel), tenacious but with a tendency to be wrong-headed.

It’s set in an East Anglian town called appropriately Hardborough. Florence opens a bookshop in a narrow-minded place that’s more philistine than present-day Southwold – where in real life the author worked in such a shop. The plot concerns Florence’s struggles to make a go of the business against the odds, and the oddball characters who populate this marginal town.

This is the only Fitzgerald novel I’ve read so far where I didn’t feel she conveyed a sense of the place very effectively. I know East Anglia quite well, and have been to coastal towns there like Southwold quite often, and I didn’t find the scenery described in this novel particularly convincing, or sufficiently present to contribute much to the texture of the narrative.

It’s a neatly plotted novel, with some crisply drawn characters and the gentle, perceptive humour, laced with a harder element, found in her other lighter novels. But it was spoilt for me by the vision that kept intruding of twinkly-eyed Emily Mortimer as the over-pretty, slightly vacuous,  and much younger heroine of the 2017 film version by Catalan director Isabel Coixet.

Mrs Gamart, the Cruella da Ville villain of the piece, was played well by Patricia Clarkson, cast presumably to please the American audience, but I couldn’t help associating her with other things I’d seen her in, from Sally Potter’s excellent chamber comedy The Party to the melodramatic Netflix drama House of Cards.

Perhaps the most intrusive actor, though, was Bill Nighy, turning in one of his usual turns as himself. He plays the reclusive but sympathetic old widower Edmund Brundish who in the novel champions Florence’s enterprise out of fellow feeling and antagonism towards mean-spirited provincial snobs like Mrs Gamart. To make the film more popcorn-friendly there’s an unlikely and rather silly suggestion of a romantic attraction between him and the widow.

The film’s ending is also made to conform more to the demands of a cinema audience, whereas Fitzgerald sensibly keeps things low key and unsentimental.

The best characters in the novel are the children – as they were in Offshore – especially the near-feral Christine, a ten-year-old with more street awareness than Florence could ever dream of.

I must stick to my rule of ensuring I’ve read the book before seeing the film. I’m afraid that it made this slightly twee but charming novel something rather more saccharine as a reading experience than it would have otherwise been – despite its having much darker elements than the film.

 

Rebel without a cause: Lissa Evans, Old Baggage

Lissa Evans, Old Baggage. Black Swan paperback, 2018

Old Baggage is a prequel to Lissa Evans’ earlier novel Crooked Heart, posted about here in March. Mattie Simpkin is struggling to find purpose after the partial achievement of the goal of the radical suffragist movement, specifically the WSPU, to which she’d belonged earlier in her life. It’s 1928, not a random choice for the historical setting; it was the year of the Equal Franchise Act, which gave all women over the age of 21 the right to vote, whether they owned property or not.

Evans Old Baggage coverDesperate for a project into which to pour her indomitable energy and sense of outrage at the patriarchy (she’d been a vigorous exponent of direct action and civil disobedience, and still carries a wooden club in her handbag), she persuades young, largely working-class girls to join her eccentric ‘Amazons’ club on Saturday mornings in the park. Her bossy regime involves instilling in the girls the virtues of debating and recreation, such as healthy outdoor activities – including unladylike javelin-throwing. Asked about the point and propriety of this, she retorts with a typically cadenced and fiery aphorism worthy of her idol, the 17C author and priest Thomas Fuller:

“As a protest; as a means of defence; as an exercise in coordination. Weapons are not only for those who begin disputes, they are for those who wish to end them.”

She fails to realise that for most of these girls attendance probably means forgoing their one ‘lie-in’ of the week; on all the other days they rise early from bed to go to their menial, gruelling jobs, or to help out, like leading light Ida, with the never-ending ‘women’s work’ in the domestic sphere which is their destiny. The younger ones are missing out on less high-minded pursuits: boys, the cinema, fairgrounds.

The third aspect of this eccentric club’s aims, Mattie explains, is training. When a girl asks training for what, she replies, with similarly grandiose eloquence:

“For your lives as twentieth-century women, to enable you to take your places as equals in society, in Parliament and in the professions.”

Force-feeding poster WPSU 1910

Force-feeding poster for the WSPU by Alfred Pearce nom de plume “A Patriot” – http://www.historyextra.com/article/social-history/10-facts-about-suffragettes, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70437901

What’s interesting and unusual about this novel is that the author confronts the essential dilemma of her middle-class protagonist in ways that expose the problem for women like her in bringing her laudable social and political ideals – Mattie always makes her girls feel valued – into line with the reality of the privileges and ease of her class, in contrast with the deprivation and squalor endured by most working people at that time – Mattie’s struggle isn’t anything like as tough as theirs.

She’s what is sometimes disparagingly called here in the UK a champagne socialist. Evans is excellent at portraying Mattie’s genuine and resolute ambition to encourage young working-class women to fulfil their potential against all the odds stacked against them. But she’s an idealist who misguidedly believes that good intentions and (invoking her beloved literary-philosophical guru Thomas Fuller again) ‘invincible determination’ are all that’s needed to ‘accomplish almost anything,’ which in her case means equality for all. She lacks insight into herself, her protégées and her motives, and empathy with those closest to her.

It’s revealing that Mattie reveres Fuller, the biographer, historian and divine. Like him she adores linguistic elegance and exuberance: epigrams, words as weapons. She must also have been aware that he’s an unlikely hero for a left-leaning rebel like her; he supported the Royalist cause during and after the English Civil War, using his wit and literary brilliance to oppose the revolutionaries.

Evans is thus covertly signifying the basis of Mattie’s problem: she’s a single-issue campaigner who believed that women’s suffrage would eradicate every frustration they endured under the patriarchy.

The most cogent aspect of this highly entertaining novel is Mattie’s learning a painful lesson: that for equality for women to be achieved would involve a seismic change in society. It’s a critique of those middle-class suffragists and radicals like her who failed to recognise this. Former bourgeois suffragist icons like the Pankhursts are accurately portrayed in these pages as abandoning their cause to become ultra-nationalists during WWI – the kinds of flawed idealists that Mattie very nearly becomes.

But she does undergo an epiphany as a consequence of her pig-headed self-righteousness. Women she betrays or lets down teach her that any cause is bigger than her own ego, and that not all women have the leisure or wealth to support a pet project that will simply provide cosmetic improvement to the illness, humiliation and degradation endured by the working classes – and particularly women – in the early 20C. She learns a salutary lesson in humility, the importance of loyalty to her friends, and in not letting sentiment and impetuosity cloud her judgement.

One crucial aspect of the anti-climax felt by radical activists once the purpose of their cause has apparently been achieved is revealed in Old Baggage with the sad fates of some of Mattie’s former fellow-suffragists, now, like her, rebels without a cause. Ten years on they’ve mostly become middle-aged and lost. Some are sad alcoholics; several have become seduced by the rise of fascism – a sinister presence throughout the novel, seen especially in the macho militaristic struttings of a Mussolini-loving ‘Empire League’ that one of these former suffragists promotes with the support of her Mosley-esque politician husband to rival the proto-hippy free spirits of the Amazons; some will bow to the inevitable and marry – for middle-class women there was no other socially acceptable destiny.

In an echo of that ambivalently feminist 1893 novel by George Gissing, The Odd Women, Etta, one of these superannuated suffragists explains, aware that she’s potentially selling out the sisterhood, why she’s considering this matrimonial escape: she’d hate giving up her work as a health visitor helping working women and their families who lived in poverty and disease, but would like babies of her own. Besides, she adds, she was lucky to find a man at all; most women don’t. At a recent school reunion she attended, nineteen out of the thirty girls in her class were ‘spinsters’:

“…apparently, the newspapers are calling us ‘the surplus women’. “Like a drawer full of forks,” my friend Minnie said, “when all the knives have been stolen.”

This novel is full of sympathy for women’s fight for emancipation and equality at this period of history (a fight that’s still in progress) but it never descends into cosy nostalgia or rose-tinted sentimentality; there’s a tough edge to it, a strong sense of the harshness of the struggle, especially for women, and many of the female characters depicted suffer tragedy and terrible hardship. The betrayal the novel portrays of the suffragist cause by some of its erstwhile leaders and the parallel rise of fascism are timely warnings for our own era.

For further insight into this topic I recommend a set of materials at the British Library website under the heading ‘Votes for Women’, especially an article there written by historian Sarah Jackson: ‘”Women quite unknown”: working-class women in the suffrage movement.’ It provides a fascinating account of the Suffragist movement – especially women from the working classes, who were singled out for much more brutal treatment by the police and penal system, including vicious beatings, illegal incarceration and torture. The leaders of the various factions in the movement were largely upper class, treated with relative deference by the law, and suspicious of the broader egalitarian and libertarian aims of their less privileged sisters.

Lissa Evans has given stirring fictional voice to some of these unknown women – not ‘odd’ or ‘surplus’, but effective and heroic in ways that Mattie comes to recognise involved greater sacrifice and heroism than her own well-meaning but misguided, flamboyant posturing.

Noel, the little boy who becomes a key character in the sequel, Crooked Heart, set over a decade later during WWII, appears at the end of the novel as a means for Mattie to put right the mistakes she’s made and redeem herself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Balzac, William Maxwell and Jane Austen

Balzac, Domestic Peace cover

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Domestic Peace and Other Stories. Penguin, 1958. Translated from the French by Marion Ayton Crawford. Don’t you just love those old Penguin Classics covers?

Most of these early stories were originally published 1830-32. The title story is the best, a nasty tale of aristocratic sexual predation in the pre-Revolutionary world of aristocratic ‘easy manners and moral laxness’. The Revolution and the Terror features in most of the other stories, too, with plots involving summary executions, cruelty, treachery and retribution.

‘Colonel Chabert’ also stands out. A Napoleonic officer reported dead at the battle of Eylau returns to life in Paris during the post-Revolutionary restoration to reclaim his old identity – and wife. She has remarried, and with callous cynicism refuses to acknowledge him. This well crafted story, much redacted and revised by Balzac, was filmed several times.

‘The Abbé Birotteau’ is more of a Trollopeian clerical comedy with a dark edge. Unlike Warden Harding, our Abbé’s innocence is no protection from the harshness of his world, or from the landlady he unwittingly upsets.

Mostly, though, the stories are rather dour and stodgy fare. The world Balzac depicts is dyspeptic.

Maxwell Chateau coverWilliam Maxwell (1908-2000) The Château (1961). Is this a travel book or a novel? At times I felt it was the former, as accounts of life in bomb-scarred France just after the war (1948) became just a little too detailed. A few too many new French acquaintances are introduced.

The young American Rhodes couple, touring Europe for four months, are charmingly flawed: desperate to be liked and accepted, to savour the culture and language of France, with which they’d ‘fallen in love’ – but never quite able to lose their essentially alien Americanness: “you don’t really understand one another,” reflects Harold on how difficult it is to be friends with somebody, “no matter how much you like them.” Is it ever really possible to know another person really well? (the narrator ponders near the end).

In ration-hit, austere postwar France Americans are seen as annoyingly rich.

Maxwell writes polished sentences – sometimes overpolished (why ‘it had commenced to sprinkle’, rather than ‘it had started to rain/drizzle’?) But here are some good aphorisms:

The poppy-infested fields through which they were now passing were by Renoir, and the distant blue hills by Cézanne. That the landscape of France had produced its painters seemed less likely than that the painters were somehow responsible for the landscape.

Hang on, though; is that as good as it seems at first sight? Or is it just superficially clever, ostentatious?

There’s a strange, not entirely congruent postmodern, reflexive element throughout (spectral narratorial questions, answered just as mysteriously), as here at p. 63, on the Rhodes as tourists; why go to Europe, asks this inquisitor, in italics:

it’s too soon after the war. Traveling will be much pleasanter and easier five years from now. The soldiers have not all gone home yet. People are poor and discouraged. Europe isn’t ready for tourists. Couldn’t they wait?

No, they couldn’t…they are unworldly, and inexperienced.

This feature is more pronounced in the ‘Explanations’ section at the end where that intrusive, teasing narrator enters into dialogue with an imagined reader who’s keen to fill the gaps in the narrative, which the narrator coyly sidesteps, or fills in as if completing a questionnaire. Very odd.

There’s a nasty racist exchange with an unreconstructed Frenchman about white America’s treatment of its African-Americans, topped with spectacular casualness by Barbara Rhodes (pp. 201-02).

So Long, See You Tomorrow is a much more successful Maxwell novel (1979-80).

Austen N Abbey cover

I dipped in to my old OWC edition from time to time to check the details

Jane Austen (1775-1817), Northanger AbbeyAfter eye surgery I wasn’t able to read much, so I listened to this as a LibriVox audio book. I hadn’t read it in years. It’s as delightful as I remembered.

There’s the usual Austen wit (and terrific, character-revealing dialogue) and crystalline perception. Yet this was first written probably as early as 1798-99; it wasn’t published until 1818 (along with Persuasion), after Jane Austen’s death.

Here’s Catherine Morland growing up into adolescence and womanhood after a rollicking tomboy childhood: her eyes ‘gained more animation, and her figure more consequence’:

To look almost pretty, is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life, than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.

Now that is how to do aphoristic prose while establishing character and narrative poise. The author also directly or indirectly refers, in metafictional touches that make Maxwell’s look rather awkward and mannered, to her task of presenting her heroine in a novel of sensibility, with the constraints of contemporary novelistic convention subtly subverted. Thus when the boorish Mr Thorpe claims never to read novels (Catherine had just asked him if he’d read her favourite, the hugely popular but ‘horrid’ Gothic Mystery of Udolpho), sniffing that they’re ‘so full of nonsense and stuff’, the reader is alerted to his duplicity (he’s too stupid to read anything), pomposity, shallow nature and lack of empathy with our enthusiastic ingénue heroine. Her innocence and unworldliness is quietly conveyed in such passages, along with her charm and lack of coquetry – she’s far more suitable heroine material, our narrator shows, than the superficially more glamorous but essentially monstrous Isabella (more on her coming up).

The first half of the novel gives a deceptively muted satirical critique of the society that gathers at the fashionable spa town of Bath (including the gloriously flirtatious, devious and selfishly catty ‘friend’ Isabella, who Catherine has to learn loves only herself despite her protestations of affection for her new bff – as I believe young people say).

Girls like Catherine, attending her first ball, are desperate to be danced and flirted with, vulnerable to odious frauds like Isabella, but clearly destined to find happiness with the upstanding chap she dotes on.

The Gothic satire section at his medieval abbey was less interesting than I recalled, and rather laboured.

Reading Jane Austen is an experience that’s perfect for a convalescent. Pity the range of readers on my free LibriVox version was so uneven.

 

Conrad, Krasznahorkai, Joso

My eye seems no worse after the recent laser surgery , so I’m able to post some brief updates again.

Conrad Heart of Darkness coverJoseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. Norton Critical Edition, ed. Robert Kimbaugh. 3rd edition, 1988. First published 1899. Each time I reread this novella I’m more puzzled by it. It’s been interpreted in such varying, often conflicting ways, as the essays at the end of the Norton edition show. From Achebe’s scorching criticism of Conrad’s possibly unconscious racism and endorsement of white European supremacy, to the Marxist, Freudian, symbolic and other approaches, it defies a single, unitary approach. As the introduction by CB Cox to my old Dent’s Collected edition has it, ‘there is no key which will unlock the secret meaning’ [of HofD].

The narrative-within-a-narrative by Marlow famously describes his storytelling method – he eschews the ‘direct simplicity’ of the usual ‘yarns of seamen’:

…to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze…

Is Kurtz a monster and a devil, a madman who believes himself a deity who has succumbed to ‘the fascination of the abomination’?  Or the ‘universal genius’ that his acolytes worship (like the bizarre Russian ‘harlequin’ – therein lies perhaps another line of political interpretation)? Kurtz’s notorious postscript to his report to the sinister “International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs” highlights the generally held view that there is a distressing element of racism in the story: ‘Exterminate all the brutes’ is pretty unequivocal. Or is Kurtz, as some claim, referring there to the brutal European ‘pilgrim’ colonisers, greedily extracting the ivory and other precious treasures the ‘dark continent’ provides them? The imagery of darkness, fog, haze, etc., constantly elides and obscures the narrator’s perspective, and the reader’s.

It was after reading this disturbing novella that I turned to the Multatuli, mentioned in my previous post, for its very different, very clear attack on colonial exploitation by the rapacious Europeans.

Krasznahorkai Satantango coverLászló Krasznahorkai, Sátántangó. Tuskar Rock, 2012. Translated (brilliantly) by George Szirtes. First published in Hungarian 1985. Another slippery, elusive narrative. The epigraph from Kafka sets the tone of this surreal, nightmarish fable-fantasy. It also has the dark, sardonic (gallows) humour of Beckett – and a couple of enigmatic, sinister-clown central characters who wouldn’t seem out of place in Waiting for Godot.

In ‘mercilessly long autumn rains’, lashed by winds, a desolate rural community that resembles the corporate, pointless bleakness of a communist-era Hungary collective farm languishes and rots, neglected, despairing. The ‘stinking yellow sea of mud’ deepens, the roads turn to rivers. The scheming, avaricious inhabitants gather in the dingy bar. There they drown their sorrows and sins, flirt and bicker. Until that strange pair arrives: Irimiás and Petrina, thought to have died but now restored to life: resurrection men. The villagers’ hopes rise: they will provide salvation from their ‘years of “wretched misery”, break the damp silence’. They will lead them in an escape to a better, more fulfilling life. Except, unsurprisingly in this topsy-turvy world, nothing works out as expected. Maybe this returning pair are treacherous spies, tricksters or devilish emissaries. Definitely not the Messiah.

Written in long, loping sentences, each chapter is one unbroken paragraph. Part One is numbered I-VI, Part Two, VI-I. The effect is mesmerising, constantly surprising, subverting the superficial familiarity of the drab scene. That mirror structure, like tango moves, provides a hypnotic, dance-like feel.

Is the novel an allegory about storytelling, fabulising ‘reality’? The drunken village doctor spies on his neighbours, making notes that become this narrative. And it’s a dystopian account of an absurd world that outdoes reality in its weirdness, temporal fluidity and defiance of rational thought, with the illusion of ‘Resurrection’ and perhaps redemption as tantalisingly elusive as a phantom tango dance partner.

It’s a fascinating, absorbing work. It was filmed in 1994 by Béla Tarr (seven hours long and, appropriately, in black and white).

Joso From 7 to Sea coverJayne Joso, From Seven to the Sea. Seren Books (an imprint of Poetry Wales Press), 2019. Some while ago I posted on this writer’s Soothing Music for Stray Cats. This one is very different, and better.

On her seventh birthday Esther is taken by her not particularly attentive mother to live in a seaside town (somewhere in Wales, it seems) with her new father – a grumpy control freak who clearly hates kids. The classic ogre stepfather. The imaginative child can’t settle in her new school, where it’s debatable who’s nastier: the pupils or the teacher. Sensibly she takes to skipping classes to visit her new friend Pete, a kind, grizzled old seadog she encounters in the harbour. She loves going out to sea with him in his boat. He’s the father she craves.

Various mishaps (some dogs have a hard time) darken spirited little Esther’s world, but it’s a touching fairytale where it’s evident that things will work out ok for her. The sea will always be there to cradle her.

 

 

 

 

B.Moore, HH Richardson, E. Bowen, G. Gazdanov. Update pt 1

After an illness (still persisting) and short break visiting family near Barcelona, there’s been something of a hiatus on TD. Here’s a quick update (part 1) on reading since last time:

Brian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn coverBrian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn, Harper Perennial, 2007; first published 1955. This was Moore’s first novel published under his own name. Set in his birthplace, Belfast, it deals with what were to become some of his key topics: (loss of) RC faith, sex, solitude and the difficulties of connecting. It tells the sad story of a 40-ish spinster’s decline into serious problems as she struggles to deal with her isolation and inability to forge relationships. She’s lost and desperate. Moore shows impressive ability to inhabit the  troubled consciousness of this lonely woman. I was inspired to read the novel by JacquiWine’s post last year; she has an excellent, detailed post about it here

HH Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom coverHenry Handel Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom. VMC 1981; first published 1910. Born in Australia under the name Ethel Florence Lindesey Richardson, the author moved to Europe as a young woman and studied music in Leipzig. This semi-autobiographical novel relates the development of spirited, mercurial Laura Tweedle Rambotham from her move to boarding school in Melbourne at the age of twelve to her final days there aged sixteen. Unlike the other girls she comes from a poor background. Richardson subverts the usual girls’ school kind of narrative – this is no Chalet School. The teachers are bored, incompetent or vindictive, or all three. The other girls are much the same. Too impetuous to curb her spontaneity, Laura tries desperately to conform and be liked; she fails. She even stoops to aping the peevish snobbery and factional squabbling and bullying of her privileged peers, but acceptance and friendship elude her. As her sexuality awakens, she develops a passion for an attractive older girl – but as usual her judgement is faulty and she is destined for painful experiences. It’s a fascinating, lively account, partly marred by too much detail about Laura’s attempt to find some kind of solace in religious faith.

E. Bowen, Friends and Relations coverElizabeth Bowen, Friends and Relations. Penguin Modern Classics, 1984; first published 1931. I disliked this. Maybe it was the illness I was in the throes of. The basic premise is promising: two sisters marry, but one is in love with her sister’s husband. I simply had no interest in what would happen to these otiose, bloodless upper-class characters – they live in huge houses and have little to do but lust after each other. Elfrida is interestingly done: non-conformist, passionate. The prose is over-ornate, mannered and look-at-me ‘fine writing’. Disappointing; I’d read other Bowen novels long ago and enjoyed them.

 

Gazdanov Spectre A Wolf coverGaito Gazdanov, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. Translated by Bryan Karetnyk. Pushkin Press, 2013. First published in Russian 1947-48. Another novel with semi-autobiographical tendencies. A sixteen year old lad fighting for the White Russians in the civil war following the Bolshevik Revolution thinks he’s murdered a man. Later he reads a story which seems to tell that story. Further coincidences and fusions of what he considers his reality and some other order of experience take place. It’s an intriguing blend of war narrative, bildungsroman, down and out in Paris account with murders, lowlifes and gangsters (there’s even a reference to ‘apaches’ in the slang French sense), blended with a Proustian memory theme and existential duplications. Reminded me (in a good way) of Blaise Cendrars’ Dan Yack novels – not just the content I just summarised, but the mix of gritty urban noir with surreal narrative shifts.

Extracted by torment: Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera

Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941), Vera. Hesperus Press, 2015; first published 1921

John Middleton Murry, husband of Elizabeth von Arnim’s cousin Katherine Mansfield, consoled the author after Vera had attracted some bad reviews, by saying the reviewers had failed to understand a tragi-comedy that read like Wuthering Heights as written by Jane Austen. This dark, disturbing novel also presages a later novel about a woman who’d died in mysterious circumstances before the events in the novel take place: Rebecca.

My Hesperus Press paperback edition of Elizabeth von Arnim, VeraVera is about a naïve young woman who ‘was engulfed’ by the apparent grief-stricken affection of a man named Everard Wemyss. His wife Vera had recently died – in a way that increasingly suggests his pathological egotism and what we now call coercive control had led to her suicide. He comes upon young Lucy, grieving for her father who’d just died at their Cornwall holiday cottage, and she is smitten by what seems his tender empathy and sensitive soul. He takes advantage of her damaged emotional state and vulnerability.

She rapidly discovers that she’s made a terrible mistake. His domineering control of her and his household once they’re married is so obsessive as to become a nightmare for poor Lucy. Despite the best efforts of her caring Aunt Dot, Wemyss is able to dismiss all who try to mitigate his insistence on complete servitude in his young wife.

Like Torvald in A Doll’s House, he’s created a gilded cage for his little bird; like Nora’s patronising husband he repeatedly infantilises Lucy, calling her his ‘little girl’, his ‘baby’, while scolding her and criticising her for showing the least sign of spirit or rebellion. It becomes increasingly difficult to read such stuff – but it holds the attention like a slowly unfolding car-crash.

It’s not just his gaslighting, chauvinistic narcissism and cruel oppression that’s so disturbing. He seems to derive pleasure from her immature appearance and demeanour:

He adored her bobbed hair that gave her the appearance of a child or a very young boy…all he asked in a woman was devotion.

This is the spine-chilling moment, narrated from his sickening point of view, when he looks at Lucy entering the registry office where they are to be married and she is to become his latest trophy:

If only she would take off her hat, thought Wemyss, bursting with pride, so that the registrar could see how young she looked with her short hair – why perhaps the old boy might think she was too young to be married and start asking searching questions! What fun that would be.

There are moments of humour, as when Aunt Dot contemplates Wemyss’s tepid style of courting Lucy at her aunt’s house in London, and the only word she can find to describe his mode of ‘love-making’ (in the old fashioned sense) is ‘vegetarian’. He’s dismissive of Lucy’s family’s bohemian, spontaneous, cultivated and artistic ways: he’s a cold-blooded philistine and a prig. He’s a veritable Casaubon to Lucy’s Dorothea – but far more sinister.

It seems von Arnim wrote Vera in response to her own disastrous second marriage to Frank, second Earl Russell (brother of philosopher Bertrand). Her first husband was a domineering, typically Prussian Junker aristocrat, Graf von Arnim-Schlagentin. Among the tutors they employed for their children were EM Forster and Hugh Walpole: she moved in exalted circles, but showed less discernment in her choice of lovers – including, perhaps, the three years (1910-13) she spent as a mistress of HG Wells.

Rebecca West was understandably impressed by this novel; there’s a deeply felt awkwardness and growing sense of menacing claustrophobia, being stifled and threatened by this monstrous husband that Lucy experiences. Elizabeth von Arnim wrote to her daughter about Vera:

I’ll never write anything so good again. I daresay more popular…but not so really good. It was extracted from me by torment, so that I do not want to write so well again – not at such a price.