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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death – and sex – in Venice: Antal Szerb, Journey by Moonlight

Antal Szerb, Journey by Moonlight Pushkin Press 2002; 1937 first publication

Everyone seems to love this novel, from Nicholas Lezard, late of the Guardian, to Len Rix, its gifted translator, who points out in an afterword that every cultivated Hungarian reads and loves it; Journey by Moonlight is to Hungary what Catcher in the Rye is to America, it seems.

Szerb Moonlight coverWhat’s not to like about it? Journey by Moonlight was written by an erudite, sensitive, polyglot academic Hungarian, born to a Jewish family but assimilated into the Catholic faith, who died a brutal death in a Nazi labour camp in 1945. Offered an escape route by concerned friends, he opted instead to share the fate of his fellow Jews and intellectuals in such camps.

Its opening lines are compelling, riffing ironically perhaps on Thomas Mann (and anticipating du Maurier’s ‘Don’t Look Now’, without the genuine dread):

On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.

This is, the deadpan narrator informs us, protagonist Mihály’s first visit to Italy; he’s 36, and on his honeymoon. But ‘he secretly feared [Italy]’, associating it with ‘grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children’. It’s the same

Instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women.

Ok, so far I’m with the fans; this is wittily dry, ironic, funny. The style and tone are poised, laconic, observant and engaging; this voice isn’t fooled by Mihály’s emotional disarray and callow selfishness. There are some terrifically funny asides, like this one about Mihály’s wife, Erszi, as she lies alone in bed brooding anxiously as her husband goes on a drunken situationist dérive through those alluring back-alleys of Venice, like a Beckettian version of Mann’s von Aschenbach:

Women are usually better at lying awake and thinking…She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihály had secrets even from himself, and he did not understand her since it never occurred to him that people other than himself had an inner life in which he might take an interest. And yet they had married because he had decided that they understood each other perfectly, and that, for both, the marriage rested on purely rational foundations and not fleeting passion. For just how long could that fiction be sustained?

It’s often darkly funny like that, with that wry narrative voice dipping into postmodern self-reference and metafiction. What follows is a complex, meandering modernist take on this man-child’s self-conscious ‘journey’ into himself as he strives to reconcile the twin lures of eros and thanatos – death and sex in Venice – and various other points en route to Rome.

There’s a wildly funny sequence after he ‘loses’ Erszi on a train journey (‘not unintentionally’, as the narrator knowingly puts it) in search of himself and his adolescent fantasy friends, and hooks up with a ditzy, sexy American art student called, of all things, Millicent. She asks, for example, who was the Italian artist who painted trees like the ones they had walked past:

“Botticelli,” replied Mihály, and kissed her.

“Ooooh,” she said, with horror on her face. Then she kissed him back.

Just the right number of Os in that ‘Oooh’. As they make love the narrator caustically points out that Mihály’s passion is a pursuit of ‘fantasy and not physiological fact!’

Her healthy mouth was entirely American (oh, the prairies!), the little hairs on her neck were foreign…”Geography is my most potent aphrodisiac,” he thought to himself.

This is closer to Mel Brooks than Mann or Gide – and why not?

But Mihály isn’t a pseudo-cynical mixed-up, grieving teenager like Holden Caulfield, or tortured artist: he’s a grown man of limited talent, from a privileged family, tempted to reject the cosy bourgeois life Erszi represents in order to go off on his spiritual-erotic psychogeographical quest in search of himself and a rebellious, bohemian dream for which our narrator has made it clear he’s just not suited. I’m afraid I found him boring – despite that sophisticated, ironic narrative critique of him.

There’s far too much sub-Freudian stuff like this: ‘Those Etruscans were perfectly aware that dying is an erotic act’, a creepy academic tells Mihály in a particularly over-long section of the novel. This kind of nonsense gives him ‘a frisson’; this was the kind of immature talk he’d loved in his little ménage as a youth in Budapest. The brother and sister at its heart, Éva and Tamás Ulpius, and his fellow acolytes (they reminded me of the characters in Cocteau’s weirdly absurd Les enfants terribles), had got off on enacting gruesome little dramas involving death, murder and suicide. This is what Mihály is longing to rediscover or re-enact in Italy.

Portrait of Szerb in the Pushkin Press edition

Portrait of Szerb in the Pushkin Press edition

Despite the numerous occasions when the novel has some seriously and perceptively funny things to say about the existential angst at the heart of modern life’s darkness (oddly enough there’s little direct reference to the rising fascism in Italy that Mihály pays characteristically little attention to when it bursts through his self-absorption), it doesn’t all hang together.

For example, at one of the tragi-comic climaxes of the narrative, when Mihály’s intention to commit suicide like his revered late friend Tamás is thwarted by a pretty girl whisking him away to be the most badly-chosen godfather ever at a christening, his grumpily whining confusion is brilliantly evoked in looping, free indirect style:

They burst in on him with their precious stupid business, the way people always burst in on him with their precious stupid business when life was sublime and terrible. And sublime and terrible things always happened to him when life was stupid and precious. Life was not an art-form, or rather, it was an extremely mixed genre.

That’s very funny and good, but the novel’s general impact is a bit of a disappointment after its big build-up on the jacket blurb. Maybe I’m just not in the right place, reading it just after going back to work after a long summer break. Maybe reading about a pretentious 36-year-old’s ‘Inbetweeners’ crisis (with a shot of Gide’s immoralists about him, too) came at the wrong time for me. I can appreciate its dark ironies, that aloof, unreliable narrative voice – and the looming threat of fascism that’s always there, even when unstated…  I’d be interested to hear what others think of it.