Ardour and shyness: Virginia Woolf’s essays on women in The Common Reader vol. 2

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader vol. 2: cover

My Vintage Books paperback edition of 2003

When she turns her attention to female writers in The Common Reader vol. 2, Virginia Woolf’s tone become more fervent than in those essays that discuss male figures. More indignant, too. Not surprising, really, as this collection was published just three years after A Room of One’s Own.

Here she is, in her essay on the Letters of Dorothy Osborne, (1627-95), most of them written in the years of clandestine courtship to the man she married in 1654, Sir William Temple. ‘Material conditions’ that made it difficult for non-aristocratic men to become writers at that time were worse for women:

the woman was impeded also by her belief that writing was an act unbefitting her sex.

The odd ‘great lady’ might write and print her writings and be grudgingly tolerated, protected by her rank: ‘But the act was offensive to a woman of lower rank.’ Dorothy wrote as much herself when the Duchess of Newcastle published one of her books, exclaiming that she could never stoop to such unbecoming lack of decorum.

Yet she was a woman with a ‘great literary gift’, Woolf adds. Had she born 200 years later she’d have been a fine novelist. As it was, the only form of expression open to her was letters – and these allow us a rare example of the voice of men and women ‘talking together over the fire.’ Despite the stylistic (and social-domestic) constraints of the time for women of her station, Lady Temple took pains over her compositions, and produced a literature of her own,

a record of life, gravely yet playfully, formally and yet with intimacy, to a public of one, but to a fastidious public, as the novelist can never give it, or the historian either.

Jonathan Swift secured a position in the late 1680s as secretary to Sir William. ‘Mild Dorothea, peaceful, wise and great,’ is his description of her in her final years. He failed to perceive the passionate, spirited woman who is glimpsed in those letters to her forbidden lover, and whose voice has otherwise been muted or ignored, along with most of the other women who lived in those days, and for many years afterwards.

The sketch of Mary Wollstonecraft also glows with suppressed empathetic anger. Mary’s violent father’s profligacy forced her into that hated role of so many women of her class, governess: ‘she had never known what happiness was.’ All she knew was ‘the sordid misery of real human life’ – and yet she forged an identity and a philosophy all her own:

The staple of her doctrine was that nothing mattered save independence…not grace or charm, but energy and courage and the power to put her will into effect, were the necessary qualities.

Revolution was in her blood:

She had been in revolt all her life – against tyranny, against law, against convention. The reformer’s love of humanity, which has so much of hatred in it as well as love, fermented within her.

Only rarely does this fiery tone emerge in Woolf’s essays on male writers.

She’s more sober in the piece on the quiet, unassuming devotion of Dorothy Wordsworth to her brother, as revealed in her journals and letters. But even she is allowed some force and fervour, as here in an account of her writing about a waterfall:

She searched out all its character, she noted its resemblances, she defined its differences, with all the ardour of a discoverer, with all the exactness of a naturalist, with all the rapture of a lover.

Woolf notes how Dorothy effectively created the conditions in which her ‘beloved’ William could become a poet, not just domestically, but emotionally, artistically, even linguistically:

It was a strange love, profound, almost dumb, as if brother and sister had grown together and shared not the speech but the mood, so that they hardly knew which felt, which spoke, which saw the daffodils or the sleeping city; only Dorothy stored the mood in prose, and later William came and bathed in it and made it into poetry. But one could not act without the other.

A more sober account, then, but the language, imagery and style of that passage show the emotion tempered by intellect of the Metaphysicals, the graceful expressive symmetry of the Augustans. The brother ‘bathes’ in the life-giving spring waters of his sister’s self-effacing generosity and art.

Dorothy may have lacked the fiercely passionate nature and agency of Mary Wollstonecraft, but Woolf convinces us that Dorothy’s role in English literary history is just as significant – not just in acting as midwife to much of her illustrious brother’s work, but in her own surviving written work. There was a different type of passionate blood flowing in her veins, a different order of self-expression, and Virginia Woolf has the clear-eyed sympathy to perceive them, as she sums up a typical journal entry by Dorothy:

Her pen sometimes stammers with the intensity of the emotion that she controlled, as De Quincey said that her tongue stammered with the conflict between her ardour and her shyness as she spoke.

Yet ‘still she must control’ her impulsive nature, ‘still she must repress, or she would fail in her task – she would cease to see.’

As Nora says in A Doll’s House when her controlling, patronising husband talks about a man’s pride: millions of women have to swallow theirs, every day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 2

The second volume of Virginia Woolf’s collection of her own essays, The Common Reader, was published by the Hogarth Press in 1932, some seven years after vol. 1 – about which I wrote here, here and here

Again the range is wide; there are essays on Donne, novels of Hardy, Gissing and Meredith, prose writings from the ‘strange Elizabethans’ to Swift, Lord Chesterfield, De Quincey, Hazlitt and more. These include such forms as letters, diaries, autobiography and biography. There are less prestigious literary subjects too, from obscure 18C diarist parsons to rumbustious sporting gents. And Beau Brummell – his sad decline from lionised society dandy to shabby, smelly, neglected, lonely old exile in Calais.

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader vol. 2: cover

My Vintage Classics paperback edition of 2003

Woolf’s reading was eclectic and formidable; the notes appended show that for each essay she’d consult a daunting set of sources. For the piece on Donne, for example, her reading included, apart from the two-volume edition of poems of 1896 by Chambers and another in two volumes by Grierson (1912), Sir Edmund Gosse’s two-volume Life and LettersLady Anne Clifford…Her life, Letters and Work by GC Williamson, and The Diary of Lady Anne Clifford.

In another post I hope to consider the essays on some of the women writers Woolf discusses. For now I’ll just note a few high points.

In ‘The Strange Elizabethans’ she notes:

Elizabethan prose, for all its beauty and bounty, was a very imperfect medium. It was almost incapable of fulfilling one of the offices of prose which is to make people talk, simply and naturally, about ordinary things.

But when it descends to down-to-earth matters, it’s filled with ‘awkwardness’ – as when Lady Sidney (d. 1586) finds herself cold at night when staying at court, and writes a letter soliciting the Lord Chamberlain for a better room that could have been put ‘more simply and with greater force’ by a housemaid of the same age.

She traces three main phases in the writing career of John Donne. The ‘imperious lover’ is followed by the ‘servile and obsequious’ figure writing eulogies for wealthy patrons, and all the ‘psychological intensity and complexity’ that characterised the satires and love poems changes. From feeling an affinity with the ‘contrasts’ in those earlier works, ‘he leaves us in the lurch’, and becomes ‘more remote, inaccessible, and obsolete than any of the Elizabethans.’

Here is the quality that shines through most of these essays. Woolf has the capacity to get to the essence of a writer’s or a period’s defining qualities and express her insights in often colloquial, unadorned language, to achieve what that first quotation demonstrates the Elizabethans found impossible. There’s a strong sense of a powerful reading intelligence conversing undogmatically with her reader (she’s particularly good on Hardy) – a critical approach that she delineates at length in the final essay in the collection, ‘How Should One Read a Book?’

There she begins:

The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

It’s an approach I tend towards in this blog. I can then, as she does, ‘put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence’ which is the essential quality of a reader. Outside of of the ‘heavily furred and gowned’ authorities in the academy, there are no clear laws or rules for readers.

Readers experience ‘a thousand conflicting impressions’ when reading, which we try to order. Then we turn to Defoe, Austen or Hardy ‘better able to appreciate their mastery.’ All this miscellaneous, eclectic, voracious reading served Woolf – and, by extension, all readers – ‘not to throw light on literature, not to become familiar with famous people [biographies, autobiographies, etc.], but to refresh and exercise our own creative powers.’

It’s sometimes asserted that literary critical writing – even in the form of a humble blog, provided it’s done thoughtfully – is a kind of creative writing. In my experience in writing this blog there’s a truth in that final remark of Woolf’s. When we talk about literature we ‘remain readers’. But even readers, as distinguished from ‘critics’, have ‘responsibilities’:

The standards we raise and the judgements we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere [blogosphere?] which writers breathe as they work.

What we readers aver about our reading must be ‘well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere’ if it is to have any value. We must judge ‘with great sympathy and yet with great severity’: this she hopes will enrich the world in some way.

These are exacting standards to read and write by. Being a Woolfian ‘common reader’ requires uncommon commitment, but ultimately one has to be able to say, in Woolf’s resounding words that close this entertaining collection:

They have loved reading.

Vita Sackville-West, No Signposts in the Sea

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), No Signposts in the Sea. VMC 1992; first published 1961

Vita Sackville-West gathered much of the material for this novella on some of the sea-cruises she took annually with her husband Harold Nicholson (they married in 1913) for the last six years of her life. The narrative consists of the journal entries of eminent political journalist Edmund Carr as he embarks on the first ocean cruise – and love – of his life.

He observes and records the foibles and relationships of his fellow travellers, from the bridge parties and factions and friendships that spring up on board, to his ventures onshore when the ship docks at exotic locations. In that sense it can be read partly as a travelogue, with vivid descriptions of the ports and islands they visit and pass by, the migrants, crew and social butterflies on board ship, and the ‘natives’ who are sometimes referred to (as are some other ethnic and social groups) in the offensive terms that were still sadly prevalent in people of the author’s class at the time.

VSW Signposts cover

The painting on the cover of my VMC edition is by my namesake, Sir John Lavery – don’t think we’re related, but both our families come originally from Ireland, so who knows?!

It’s clear from early on that Edmund has a terminal illness, and has left his newspaper to follow Laura, the woman with whom he’s falling deeply in love. The narrative relates the toxic effects of jealousy to which he’s subject, building with increasing tension to a foreseeable but still powerful conclusion. Along the way there are philosophical and poetical reflections on life (and mutability), death and love.

By allowing himself for the first time in his life to go with the flow of existence – he’s all at sea in every sense – because he knows his days are numbered, he discovers in himself depths of romantic sensitivity and an ambivalent attitude towards his often abrasive contacts with the mundane that represent the first stage of self-realisation and fulfilment.

The main cause of his jealousy concerning Laura is the handsome and suave Colonel Dalrymple. As the narrative is conveyed from the partial viewpoint of Edmund himself, we initially see this rival as charming and attractive, but as time goes on the Colonel’s attentiveness to Laura causes him great pain. Considering Edmund is fifty and Laura forty, the novella gives a reassuring indication for those of us who are no longer youthful that passion and the pangs of love and jealousy are not the sole province of the young.

Victoria Glendinning, who wrote the Introduction to this edition, finds Edmund’s working-class origins unconvincingly done. But I found this an important aspect of his self-delusion. He’s painfully aware that he isn’t one of the ‘well-bred’ cruising class like the Colonel, the quintessential English gentleman – or Laura. He can’t help but feel inadequate in their company, and by comparing himself unfavourably with them, heightens his sense of worthlessness. Otherwise his bitter jealousy would seem less plausible.

For example, Edmund records in his journal with a self-directed sneer that he’s ‘a man of the people’, a ‘rough terrier beside a greyhound’. Yet Laura often reveals to us that she admires his poetic nature and enjoys his company far beyond the level of a sympathetic fleeting on-board friendship. It’s the fate of the class-conscious jealous man to misinterpret the very narrative he’s in the process of writing.

Laura expresses some interestingly racy views on relationships and marriage that appear to reflect some of Vita’s and Harold’s complicated arrangements. She insists that in a marriage she would treasure her independence, sleeping in a separate bedroom and living an unsubmissive life.

Because of the fragmentary journal structure the narrative flows rapidly and rarely flags. There are some memorable and luminous scenes, like the electric storm at sea or the green flash that Edmund and Laura look out for most evenings as the sun dips beyond the ocean’s horizon (this feature reminded me of Eric Rohmer’s 1986 film ‘The Green Ray’ – ‘Le Rayon vert’). I found the depiction of the almost adolescent but scorching angst and torment of Edmund compensated for the slightly clunky plotting. At only 156 pages it’s a pleasant and entertaining way to pass a grey day of hail and rain in a Cornish November.

Other Vita Sackville-West novels discussed at Tredynas Days are:

All Passion Spent (1931)

The Edwardians (1930)

There’s a good review of Signposts at HeavenAli’s blog

 

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black. Harper Perennial paperback, 2005.

Travelling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin’s scrub-grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o’clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling in Potter’s Bar.

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black coverThe opening paragraph of this curious novel sounds like Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographical descriptions of the grubby margins of urban life. Not just because of the subject matter – the orbital motorway with its seedy squalor alongside – but the hallucinatory style and tone. The bizarre imagery resembles his, too – or maybe it strays into Angela Carter territory, especially in the sections of seedy occult showmanship.

Neither of these tendencies is a bad thing. But I found that 451 pages of grand guignol was a bit hard to stomach. The team at the Backlisted podcast on their Halloween show called this the longest ghost story in English literature . Maybe it is – but it’s too long.

The plot, however, is minimal. Alison is an obese medium whose spirit ‘guide’ Morris is a hideous, malevolent ex-circus dwarf. He’s often accompanied by a sickening group of lascivious, vicious thugs who seem to have haunted Alison since her childhood. They slip between the world ‘beyond black’, referred to as ‘spirit world’ by the ‘sensitives’ like Alison, and squat like cut-price demons in the back yards and under the carpets of the living.

Much of the narrative consists of nauseous flashbacks to the squalid house she lived in as a child with her mother. Emmie was a prostitute who had tried to abort Alison, and neglected her when her crude attempts failed and the girl starts to grow up. She makes no attempt to care for the child, and sells her on to these vile, vicious creatures without compunction.

Alison has constant nightmarish flashbacks to the violence and degradation she was subjected to by this troupe of horrors. These are heightened by being contrasted with the humdrum suburban tedium she inhabits in the ‘real’ world.

She acquires a manager/live-in companion. Colette is skinny and spiritually sparse – the reverse of Alison in every way. Their relationship deteriorates as Colette finally has enough of Alison’s bizarrely horrible conversations with people she can’t see.

There are flashes of dark humour, and Mantel has great fun sending up the boringly conventional suburbanites who are the two women’s neighbours.

In the PS section of material at the end of the book Hilary Mantel says that she researched the world of stagey mediums and found their ‘demonstrations’ ‘threatening, unlikely, and slightly repulsive’ – and it shows in this novel.

I think what prevented me from giving up on this rather nasty story was the conviction with which the author portrays Alison’s haunted world. Alison never seriously tries to convince the sceptical Colette that she really does see dead people, and is no charlatan. Her stage act could easily be a mix of shrewd psychology and suggestion – the punters are mostly credulous and naïve. But the narrative suggests that the nightmare Alison appears to live in is real to her, and her attempts to find out who she is, who her father was, what her true history is (not contaminated memories) is strangely gripping.

VS Pritchett: The Complete Essays

V.S. Pritchett, The Complete Essays, Chatto and Windus, London was published in 1991 when the English author was 91 (he died in 1997), and is now out of print.

It was brought to my attention by an appreciation of it last month in The Paris Review by Morten Høi Jensen, to whom it had been recommended by James Wood. Jensen expresses well the strength of this collection:

In a single paragraph, without analyzing or interpreting or even commenting on the novels, Pritchett had somehow managed to capture their essence. And he did it not with the skeptical distance of a scholar but with the messy proximity of the fellow practitioner.

Pritchett Essays coverIt has 1300 pages and is, as he suggests, ‘heavy as a cast iron skillet’. The 203 essays, originally mostly book reviews, cover hundreds of writers from Europe, Asia and the Americas– an idiosyncratic, eclectic but loving and perceptive history of western literature. They were highly esteemed by the likes of Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick, Anthony Burgess and Susan Sontag.

Pritchett discusses earlier writers such as Cervantes, Sterne, Smollett (who I’ve still to read) and Fielding; a large body from 19 and 20C – most of the canonical English novelists, and the less canonical like Gissing, the Grossmiths, Samuel Butler and Jerome K. Jerome; then Conrad, Woolf and co. to Orwell and Rushdie; as Jensen says, VSP was ‘generously receptive to younger talent’.

He assesses Americans from Benjamin Franklin, Whitman and Crane to Updike. Poe and Twain are delineated with characteristically controversial broad but telling strokes within the distinctive Puritan tradition of their country.

There’s an affectionate essay on the ‘sayings’ of his close friend, the hispanophile Gerald Brenan. It ends with typical acuity:

Be careful: if he is drawing his portrait he may be drawing yours.

Pritchett admires Brenan’s dislike of ‘critics of poetry who insist on “explicating”’. Maybe because he’s the same; Jensen quotes his biographer describing Pritchett’s quality of ‘undoctrinaire discrimination’ – that fine and sadly now underused term so dear to the great Leavisite tradition of critics (well, maybe not the ‘undoctrinaire’ part) -and the ‘sympathetic and respectful curiosity’ with which he approached characters in literature and in life.

He has the ability to get to the essence of a writer’s nature and work and portray it with elegance, wit and intelligence. I’m not sure I always agree with some of his larger generalisations, but I enjoy the stimulating, cheerful conviction with which he makes them and the polished, convivial style in which he expresses them.

Mostly he deals with prose fiction (and some non-fiction and figures from other artistic disciplines, like Cruikshank and Ruskin). Here’s a typically pleasing and pithy conclusion to the essay on the historian of the fall of the Roman empire:

Gibbon has a taste for the truth that is melancholy, for seeing life as a series of epitaphs.

This isn’t just thrown in as a witty epigram: it’s a logical conclusion arising from the intricate argument that preceded it.

The piece on the eccentric Thomas Day – its title ‘The Crank’ is apt – is brilliant. Day was the shabby enlightenment rationalist – ‘the modest and entrancing crank of the century’ – who was so convinced of the ‘sufficiency’ of men and the ‘insufficiency of women’ as Pritchett puts it, that he set about to ‘construct his own wife from blue prints in advance’. I’ve written here before about this deluded disciple of Rousseau and his notorious experiment to mould a suitable wife for himself from a child plucked from an orphanage, but this essay says to much more and so much better than I was able to in my post on the ‘Lives of the Obscure’ in Virginia Woolf’s first volume of The Common Reader.

There’s a particularly strong representation of major (and lesser) French writers — he almost convinces me to give Anatole France another try.

I’ve borrowed this massive book from the library, and must return it soon. I’ll have to buy a copy to read on, one I can annotate. I’ve only had time to read a few of the essays that appealed most, so I’d commend this review by Jensen to get a fuller picture of Pritchett’s tastes and achievements in these essays and in his short stories – which I intend to read now I’ve sampled this collection.

I found I had to dip in and read in small bursts, slowly. Every sentence and paragraph is so carefully constructed, the arguments and perceptions so cadenced and measured in expression, that every essay needs careful appraisal and rereading. They are to be sipped and savoured, not gulped.

Jensen sums up what I’ve noticed in the essays I’ve read so far:

they sparkle with impression, metaphor, and aphorism.

He goes on to suggest that maybe Pritchett has made less critical impact than Virginia Woolf, another who excelled in fiction and critical essay-writing, because he lacked her ‘fierceness’, her ‘polemical strain’. He was disdainful of what might be called the approach of the professional (ie academic) critics. I suppose he’s what’s usually dismissively categorised as a passionate amateur and aesthete. Nothing wrong with that.

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Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls: not a love story

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls. Hamish Hamilton 2018

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles…How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of these things; we called him the ‘butcher’.

The title of Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls, alludes to the psychological horrors of a different kind in The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps, but mostly to the lack of agency or voice of the women and girls in the novel. These opening words of the novel prepare us for the other story not related by Homer in The Iliad – Euripides gets closer in The Trojan Women: the terrible fate of the defeated side in the Trojan War – especially the women and girls.

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls: front coverBarker imagines for us in painful detail the ordeal endured as a captive by Briseis, wife of King Mynes, after the sacking by Achilles and his fearsome Myrmidons and other Greek warriors, of her city, Lyrnessus (near Troy). It’s a fate shared by all the captured women.

The Silence of the Girls was a painful experience to read because of its brutal depiction of the violence perpetrated by these blood-crazed fighters, and more particularly because of the calculated, brutal subjection, humiliation and dehumanising cruelty perpetrated by them on the captive women.

As in The Iliad, the story relates how Achilles, already notorious for his volatile temper, acquires the epithet ‘rage-filled’. King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, with a reputation for avoiding the dangers of the battlefield, relinquishes his own trophy sex slave when a plague that decimates the Greek camp is attributed to divine assistance on her behalf, at the behest of her priestly father. To replace her, he decides he’ll take Achilles’ prize, Briseis, as the next most beautiful and prestigious (being royal) trophy.

Achilles, insulted and furious at his king’s selfishness and weakness, takes to his tent and sulks, refusing to fight any more. This swings the balance of the war in the Trojans’ favour, so talismanic, murderously efficient and furious is he when fighting at the head of the Greek army. His close friend Patroclus (there are suggestions that the two warriors are lovers) gets him to agree to let him wear Achilles’ distinctive armour and helmet so that the Trojans will believe he’s returned to the battle. He rallies the Greek forces when he enters the fray in this disguise, the Trojans duly lose heart, but Patroclus is killed by the Trojan hero, Hector.

Now Achilles’ rage is unprecedented, augmented by guilt and grief. Supplied with magnificent new armour by his sea-goddess mother, he resumes leadership of the Greeks, and the Trojans are routed. The city is ruthlessly sacked, the citizens slaughtered. As usual, the Greeks murder everyone not to be taken as slaves. Even pregnant women are stabbed through the abdomen, in case the child being carried should turn out to be a boy and become an enemy fighter when grown up.

The highest-born and prettiest girls and women become a new set of sex slaves, subjected to the usual humiliations, treated as chattels – as Briseis is. ‘Don’t think about your previous life,’ Greek Nestor had advised her when she was first enslave. ‘Forget! This is your life now.’ But she refuses to forget: she is determined not to lose her identity, and resolves to remember, retain her voice. Even though this makes the daily indignities and cruelty more difficult to bear, at least then she won’t lose her sense of self. And she’s only nineteen…

The indignities begin when she’s paraded with the other women captives in front of the victorious Greeks after the fall of her city, and they’re inspected as potential prizes by the leaders. Briseis feels like ‘a cow, tethered and waiting to be sacrificed.’ She tries to picture her past life, her eyes closed, but she hears a roar and threatening jokes from the drunken soldiery. Achilles grips her chin and tilts her head to examine her looks. When he walks away she opens her eyes:

”Cheers, lads,” he said. “She’ll do.” And everyone, every single man in that vast arena, laughed.

A chilling echo of the heartbreaking, equally dismissed testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. Barker’s jauntily demotic “laddish” style (that also runs through much of the narrative) makes the horror all the more despicable. It’s simply normal for the men to speak and act like this.

For much of the rest of the novel we are privy to every personal indignity and sexual assault she has to endure, first under Achilles. His brusque couplings are compared at first with a soldier’s crude eagerness to try on new armour, – only this novelty is the living woman, who’s made to feel no more than a coveted commodity. His nightly sexual acts soon turn to something more personal and frenzied when she comes to bed smelling of the salt sea in which she likes to bathe and symbolically cleanse herself each evening. But Barker won’t let us find solace in this: she thus reminds him of the scent of his Nereid mother, and his passion is portrayed as disturbingly Oedipal and hence even more humiliating and degrading for Briseis. But he barely speaks to her once he’s sated; she doesn’t exist for him as a sentient human being. It’s this kind of constant misogyny in the narrative that makes it so hard to keep reading.

Briseis’ other daily ordeal involves being forced to wait on Achilles and his entourage (one of whom wears her murdered father’s tunic as a trophy that’s particularly gruesome for her to have to witness), smiling and enduring their leers and lascivious advances as she pours their wine – though none would dare go further with their general’s ‘prize of honour’. She realises she’s not being treated ‘as a thing. A slave is a thing.’

Her dread is that he’ll tire of her and she’ll be handed over to the common soldiery, without even a roof over her head – a common fate for sex slaves like her.

I struggled to the end of this harrowing, fierce novel, but can’t say I enjoyed it. The bestial cruelty meted out by the men on these reified, terrified women was almost unbearable. The vicious battle scenes were almost as hard to take – more difficult in many ways than the senseless slaughter and psychological trauma Barker depicted in her 1990s WWI Regeneration trilogy, which I read when it first came out.

I suppose I persisted to the end because of the power and contemporary resonance of her central message about gender inequalities and social injustice arising from them, and the importance of Briseis articulating her story in her own voice, against all odds. As in the earlier trilogy, soldiers are portrayed as showing their moral defects more plainly in the hurly-burly of war. It’s generally other men who tell their stories and elide their worst defects.

On the final page, when she considers what the unborn people of the future will ‘make of us’ – the silent girls – she’s certain of only one thing:

…they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told of the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.

His story. His, not mine. It ends at the grave.

 

The Trojan War imagined by Homer (or whoever produced the epic Iliad) is here reimagined, retold by one of the voices silenced by history men, and the traditional narrative takes on a decidedly different, gynocentric nature. Less soft. Not a love story.

 

 

Angela Thirkell: High Rising

Angela Thirkell, High Rising. VMC 2013; first published 1933

Thirkell H Rising cover

The VMC cover demonstrates the retro charm of this frothy confection of a novel

Angela Thirkell was quite someone: a granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones and goddaughter of JM Barrie, her father was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and she was related to Kipling and British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Like her enterprising protagonist Laura in her second novel High Rising, she took to writing potboiler-middlebrow ‘rather good bad books’ about which she has ‘no illusions’ as to their literary merit, to make a living when left alone in the world:

She had considered the question carefully, and decided that, next to racing and murder, and sport, the great reading public of England (female section) likes to read about clothes.

There’s a character in this novel who reluctantly shows Laura’s publisher her novel; Laura is relieved to find she’s one of those ‘rotten’ writers who knew they couldn’t write’ – a typically self-deprecating reference that surely applies to Thirkell herself.

So Laura churns out, as often as Thirkell did, frothy romances set in the world of fashion, ‘opium’ as a friend and fan of Laura’s describes the experience of reading them. Laura is slightly embarrassed to add to the pile of what would now be derisively known as chick-lit, but happy to cash the royalties cheques. She’s level-headed, a realist who’s learned to exploit her own limited talent and the even more limited tastes of her target market. (Elizabeth Taylor does a much more witty, interesting and sophisticated job on this in Angel.)

Unlike Laura, whose husband had died (though she says he was an expensive nuisance when alive), Thirkell left her second husband; her first she divorced on the grounds of adultery. Men tend refreshingly to be portrayed as the weaker sex in this novel, and it’s the spirited, sensible women like Laura who win through – ‘excellent’ women, to borrow Barbara Pym’s phrase – a writer to whom Thirkell is often compared, but who is a far sharper, more accomplished artist.

I won’t summarise the rather predictable but amusing plot – links to other bloggers’ posts at the end supply outlines. I’ll just single out the few points that amused me in this undemanding, often saccharine entertainment. It’s ideal for a rainy day or sickbed – a guilty escapist pleasure that was a bit too much for Karen of BookerTalk, who likened it to an indigestible ‘meringue’. She craved something edgier and saltier. I know what she means, but I (mostly) enjoyed this novel. I didn’t care for the casual anti-Semitism; it’s not sufficient to put it down to the opinions of the period. Look what was going on in Germany in 1933.

Thirkell set these comedies in Trollope’s Barsetshire – a feature that appealed to me, as my recent Barsetshire posts indicate. She’s not in his league, of course, but wouldn’t claim to be.

Laura’s young son Tony divides critical opinion: to some he’s a charming, precocious chatterbox; I’m with those who found him irritating, with his obsession with trains and the patrician manners his private school encourages. But he reminded me of my grandson when he was that age. Now he’s scared of trains. Existential pre-teen angst has replaced innocent pleasure. Tony will probably become Transport Minister in a Tory government and close unprofitable country lines like the one passing through High Rising.

I preferred Laura’s cheerful maternal doting on him mixed with prevalent hatred. On several occasions she could happily kill him, our narrator tells us. She contemplates writing a book: ‘Why I Hate My Children’. Reminds me of the recent bestseller ‘Why Mummy Drinks’.

There’s a weird section in Ch. 9 just like passages in Cold Comfort Farm (published the year before, in 1932): Laura sees a handsome, swarthy rider in Hyde Park:

Rather DH Lawrence-ish, thought Laura vaguely. The sort of person who would turn into a half-caste Indian, full of black, primal secret something-or-other, and subjugate his mate.

Her reverie is ended when this hunky vision speaks in an accent so ‘healthily Cockney that the lure of the he-man vanished.’ The pastiche is almost as good as Stella Gibbons’.

There’s a well done car crash (no one is hurt) when Laura’s publisher gets drunk at a New Year party (as publishers do) and drives her home. The aftermath is a good example of Thirkell making an entertaining meal of unlikely material. The car ends on its roof, with Adrian jammed under the steering wheel, and Laura on top of him. She’s livid.

‘[The door]’s stuck, of course,’ she said coldly. ‘Do we spend the night here? It may be respectable, in view of the limited opportunities, but it’s not my idea of comfort.

Adrian manages to get out:

‘Come on, Laura,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a hand.’

‘How can I get out of a small window above my head, you soft gobbin,’ said Laura angrily. ‘I’ll never take you to a party again.’

The dressing-down she gives him when they get to her house is classic.

Farcical-theatrical set pieces like this just about redeem a lively but uneven, limited comic novel. They could easily feature in those screwball-women films of the period starring actors like Claudette Colbert.

See Jacqui’s post

Ali’s at HeavenAli

Jane’s blogging as FleurInHerWorld (now Beyond Eden Rock)

Karen’s at Booker Talk

Anthony Trollope: The Last Chronicle of Barset

Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset. First published by George Smith (of Smith, Elder & co.) in 32 monthly parts, each one with an illustration by George H. Thomas, 1866-67; 2-vol. edition 1867 (there’s a feature on these images at the Trollope Jupiter blog HERE; the Jimandellen blog has a detailed account with reproductions HERE)

For a more general feature on Trollope and his illustrators there’s a useful guide by Simon Cooke at the Victorian Web site HERE

The cover of my Oxford World's Classics paperback edition depicts 'The Bromley Family', 1844, by Ford Maddox Brown

The cover of my 900-page Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition depicts ‘The Bromley Family’, 1844, by Ford Maddox Brown

In this sixth and final Barsetshire novel (I’ve posted on the previous five earlier this year) Trollope reworks some familiar themes from the previous volumes, especially the central feature – the threat to rural-pastoral peace from metropolitan and other destabilising agents. This is achieved when in the final chapters the troubled and penniless Rev. Crawley replaces Harding in the role of vicar of St Ewold’s, which the former warden of Hiram’s Hospital took on when he resigned that post as a matter of honour and morality in the first novel in the chronicles: The Warden. He is thereby accepted fully for the first time as a ‘gentleman’ into the contemporary Barsetshire clerical circle, while symbolically inheriting from the saintly Harding the role of guardian of its traditional moral values. He’ll fulfil that role with less charm and self-effacing grace than his predecessor, but with the stern asceticism of St Simeon Stylites – with whom he’s overtly compared in Ch. 41, when he pushes himself to physical and mental breaking point in his parochial duties as a way of atoning for his failings (he’d been charged with the theft of a £20 cheque):

He would spare himself in nothing, though he might suffer even to fainting…But he would persevere…No personal suffering should deter him. He told himself that there had been men in the world whose sufferings were sharper even than his own. Of what sort had been the life of the man who had stood for years on the top of a pillar? But then the man on the pillar had been honoured by all around him. And thus, though he had thought of the man on the pillar to encourage himself by remembering how lamentable had been that man’s sufferings, he came to reflect that after all his own sufferings were perhaps keener than those of the man on the pillar. [ellipses mine]

Trollope has become a skilled and often subtle narrator of these otherwise rather creaky and glacially-paced plots – the mystery of the provenance of Crawley’s cheque isn’t resolved until p. 757 of this 900-page novel, largely because the person who could have cleared his name is conveniently out of the country and incommunicado. Those looping verbal repetitions (in the quotation above) demonstrate Crawley’s tendency symbolically to flagellate himself in order to show how he can outdo the world in inflicting pain and suffering on himself, while railing at the world’s failure to esteem him. This tendency has been largely responsible for the frequently-expressed view in his community that he’s prickly, proud and obsessive to the point of insanity (young Lord Lufton, a key character from earlier volumes in the series, calls him a ‘poor, cracked, crazy creature’). His bizarre forgetting where he obtained that cheque is typical of his manic, half-mad eccentricity and morose self-absorption. His self-pity at the ‘trials’ of poverty he suffers as a member of the ‘poor gentry’ verges on the monstrous, especially in his overbearing, patriarchal treatment of his children and his indulgent wife, whose love and devotion to him never falters, even when he’s at his most high-handed and bitter. Indeed, Mrs Crawley, who ‘saw clearly the workings of his mind’, perceives that he was

good and yet weak, that he was afflicted by false pride and supported by true pride, that his intellect was still very bright, yet so dismally obscured on many sides as almost to justify people in saying that he was mad. She knew that he was almost a saint, and yet almost a castaway through vanity and hatred of those above him.

This astute insight into her husband’s grotesquely conflicted, flawed character from one of Trollope’s typically wise, sympathetic mature women is again highlighted by that telling use of repetition and the symmetrical balancing of synonyms with their antonyms, enhanced by the spot-on rhythm, imagery and cadence of the sentences.

This narrative skill changes up a gear in the next sentence:

But she did not know that he knew all this of himself also.

She does not comprehend that he castigates himself constantly with the knowledge that people ‘were calling him mad and were so calling him with truth’, and neither does she ‘dream’ that ‘he was always inquiring of himself whether he was not mad’, and should therefore resign his pastoral office.

Even as shrewd an observer of this difficult man’s complex nature as his wife is surpassed by our narrator in psychological perspicacity – and all of this conveyed with a subtlety and sympathy that in other Victorian novelists would be praised as genius.

GH Thomas illustration of the Crawleys

Image above of the Crawleys at the Victorian Web Here:

This bleak and imposing design is Thomas’s first illustration and establishes the anguished tone of the Crawleys’ narrative. Though modelled on Millais’s earlier design for Framley Parsonage, it shows the reverend and his wife in later years; both have aged and their economic circumstances have declined from poverty into penury. The glum ambience is powerfully conveyed by the worried gestures and glances and the emptiness of the room suggests both material poverty and the emptiness of anxiety. [Simon Cooke, cited above]

This is a superb ending to the Barsetshire novels. The three sub-plots are less satisfying than that of the public humiliation and redemption of Crawley: Trollope’s lack of sustained interest in romantic plots is apparent in his recycling of the doomed Lily Dale-Johnny Eames affair from the previous novel – he even gives Eames another foolish and dangerous romantic London dalliance to take his mind of his humiliating, dogged pursuit of annoying country belle Lily. Trollope also returns to his staple plot of a spirited son’s defiance of parental disapproval of his choice of wife whose lowly social-financial status is their main concern (Henry Grantly and Crawley’s daughter Grace). The other London plot involving a society artist’s flirtation with a woman married to a dodgy city ‘financier’ (usurer/loan-shark) is more lively and exciting, but skirts close to farce towards its end – as the Johnny Eames flirtation plot does.

What lingers in the memory after finishing this fine, uneven novel is the portrayal of noble, heroic, infuriating Crawley, wallowing in self-pity and rancour, spurning the kind offers of aid from his loving friends and family, but capable of facing down the bullying of Mrs Proudie, and of providing genuine support and comfort to the oppressed brickmakers and their families who live in his impoverished parish.

Good to see the indomitable Miss Dunstable, now Mrs Thorne, reappear and provide moral sustenance for faltering lovers – though even she’s incapable of enlightening the ‘morbid’ tenacity of Lily’s infatuation with the scoundrel Crosbie.

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze. Vintage paperback, 2010. First published 2009

I’d thought this was a novel about John Clare and his 90-mile walk home to Northamptonshire in 1841 from what was then known as a lunatic asylum in Epping Forest, on the fringes of London. The main characters in Adam Foulds’s novel, however, are Matthew Allen, the enlightened (for those times) proprietor of High Beach, and his sporadically precocious, often awkward 17-year-old daughter Hannah. The so-called peasant poet’s absconding and trek only feature in the closing pages, and he flits like a troubled phantom as just one (ok, the most prominent) of several distressed and deluded inmates of the asylum who feature throughout the narrative.

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze coverHannah develops a crush on new neighbour the poet Alfred Tennyson, whose brother suffers from depression, ‘the English malady’ Allen calls it (I’d always thought that was another thing) and becomes another of Allen’s patients. Tennyson inclines that way a little himself after the death of his dear friend Hallam – he was starting to compose the poem about him that would help establish his reputation later. Poor callow Hannah is too inexperienced to recognise she can’t compete with Hallam.

Feeling outshone by her prettier friend Annabella,  Hannah suffers indignities and humiliation in her attempts to make the future poet laureate notice her. These sections are done with remarkable sensitivity, warmth and poignant humour, and demonstrate with insight the tortures and raptures of adolescent love at a time when the quest for a suitable marriage partner was what society deemed the sole and fitting preoccupation of such young women. As Annabella tells her with depressingly worldly shrewdness on hearing of the arrival of the eligible aristocratic brothers from Lincolnshire in their area, “We have to be thinking of these things.”

The insights into Allen’s psychological methods are fascinating. Here he explains his ‘therapy for the insane’ to Tennyson:

“Brightness of company, exercise, a familial atmosphere, an unbosoming of anxieties…”

“Unbosoming?”

“Yes, the disclosure of personal fears and unhappinesses. Often I find encouraging patients through a conversational, what shall we call it, memoir is terribly useful.”

The asylum and the experiences of the inmates are portrayed at times with wit and sympathy, but at others there are scenes that are chilling, often stomach-churning (depending on the severity of the patient’s condition). There are two main sites at the asylum: benign Fairmead House, for those well enough to receive the gentler therapy mentioned above, ‘full of gentle disorder, idiocy and convalescence’. Some aren’t even mad at all; they’ve been incarcerated, as so many were in the Victorian era, for reasons of family expediency.

But Leopard Hill Lodge for the more seriously ill, presided over by a brutal and sadistic warder called Stockdale, is described here from the viewpoint of Allen’s young son:

[The Lodge] was full of real madness, of agony, people lost to themselves. They were fierce and unpredictable. They smelled rank. They were obscene. They made sudden noises. Their suffering was bottomless. It was an abyss of contorted humanity, a circle of hell.

Here we see the strengths of Foulds’s prose. Not surprisingly for a writer who’d previously published mostly poetry, it’s highly poetic. There are striking images and lilting cadences. At its best this prose soars.

Unfortunately the ornateness can become cloying. Here’s an example of maybe both qualities simultaneously; Hannah is visiting her friend Annabella, who’s sitting in her garden under a tree:

The tree looked ardent, single-minded, standing there and declaring its flowers straight out of the wet, gnarled wood.

The description is partly to be understood as Hannah’s perspective, with maybe a touch of the sentimental-romantic friend’s, too, while the closing words are surely those of the poet-novelist. ‘Gnarled’ is such a good, twisty word. I’m not sure what ‘declaring its flowers’ is about, though.

The narrative structure is fragmentary, almost collage, which works quite well as a means of depicting the fractured, hallucinatory nature of the minds of the inmates (and the sensibilities of the supposedly sane, including Allen, with his crackpot schemes and tendency to bankrupt himself on them, and the earnest, hopeful Hannah, painfully self-conscious about her unfinished poise, blushes and, well, sweating unbecomingly and at the most embarrassing moments).

Clare’s delusions are particularly poignantly portrayed. At times believing he’s a prize-fighter, he also believes at others that he’s Lord Byron or even Shakespeare. There are some interesting scenes where he consorts with gypsies (he’d spent some of his earlier years with travelling folk, and felt a deep sympathy with their unbridled culture).

It’s an interesting novel, but that poetic style is sometimes intrusive, and so is the rather too evident thorough period research. The ways the plot’s various elements are resolved, however, are startlingly effective, and make some powerful statements about the hypocrisies and delusions of the supposedly sane Victorian ‘maze of life’.

 

Anthony Trollope’s Small House at Allington again

I hadn’t intended returning to Anthony Trollope’s fifth Barsetshire novel, The Small House at Allington, after my post about it last time. But I felt I needed to indicate some of its strengths I didn’t have space for there.

Trollope is after all a writer of romantic comedies (though his interest in power struggles is more to his liking), and he can be pretty funny. In this scene the ghastly Lady de Courcy, whose snobbish cynicism has been portrayed in several of the earlier novels in the series, is visited by her daughter Lady Alexandrina, who’s come to complain about her ‘sufferings’ with her new husband. This is Crosbie, who’d jilted ‘dear Lily’ in favour of what he thought to be a more desirably glittering member of an aristocratic family, better suited to his ambitions as a ‘swell’ in fashionable London society – then quickly regrets his decision when his bride’s brittle coldness becomes apparent. (Their mutual contempt is shown with delightful dryness by Trollope even as they leave for their honeymoon and they each take out reading matter in the train to avoid having to converse.)

“Oh, mamma! you would not believe it; but he hardly ever speaks to me.”

“My dear, there are worse faults in a man than that.”

 

Lady de Courcy tells Alexandrina that she is to go to Baden-Baden indefinitely in order to escape from her increasingly boorish, goutish, abusive husband, the earl. She announces melodramatically to her unsympathetic daughter:

“Another year of it [life with the earl] will kill me. His language has become worse and worse, and I fear every day that he is going to strike me with his crutch.”

She hadn’t intended taking the daughter with her, and clearly resents the implicit request to join her in her escape:

She had endured for years, and now Alexandrina was unable to endure for six months. Her chief grievance, moreover, was this, – that her husband was silent. The mother felt that no woman had a right to complain of any such sorrow as that. If her earl had sinned only in that way, she would have been content to have remained by him till the last!

Great stuff.

In an earlier scene Johnny Eames, the annoyingly earnest, ingenuous young man who’d loved Lily since they were children together, has to do some enduring of his own. Lily’s engagement to Crosbie had been announced, and the dashing intruder ‘swell’ from London, his hated and now more successful rival, is on a visit to his mother’s humble home from the grander surroundings of the ‘big house’ at Allington where he was staying.

Crosbie reveals an early sign of his capacity for unpleasantness beneath the Apollonian surface: he haughtily refuses all of the flustered, awe-struck Mrs Eames’s offered refreshments, partly from snobbishness at the humble simplicity of this country cottage and hostess, and also because he knows of the son’s hopeless love for his fiancée, and ‘despises’ him for it.

Mrs Eames implores him with her eyes to accept a piece of cake ‘to do her so much honour.’ Understanding that the poor woman would be ‘broken-hearted’ if they all behaved so high-handedly, Lily and her sister Bell take some of the ‘delicacies’. And here Trollope shows his hand:

The little sacrifices of society are all made by women, as are all the great sacrifices of life. A man who is good for anything is always ready for his duty, and so is a good woman always ready for a sacrifice.

True, it’s hardly a great sacrifice, and there’s some irony here; but it’s a telling act of kindness by the Dale sisters, showing compassion for an honest, anxious woman who is suffering at the treatment of a callous cad who is supposed to be a gentleman – one who knows his ‘duty’, and is displaying here and about to show in his treatment of Lily his contempt for all that being a gentleman entails.

I hadn’t thought of Trollope as a humourist before starting these Barsetshire novels, even less as a proto-feminist. Although he does rather disappointingly often portray women characters as stereotypical ‘angels’, in these later novels he’s showing his ability to create complex, interesting ones, too (Amelia Roper is one of several in this novel), and narrative sympathy for their not always happy lot in Victorian society. And he can be very funny.

We get to meet Plantagenet Palliser here, too, who is to feature in the next series of novels, to which I hope to turn fairly soon. Kindly old Septimus Harding pops up unexpectedly, too (along with several others from the earlier novels), tellingly in the company of the treacherous Crosbie. The handsome young cad doesn’t show up well in this saintly company either.