Three novels by women

Here’s my latest round-up of recent reading.

Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day Persephone Books, 2008; 19381

 I’d read some glowing reports of this novel, and admire Persephone’s initiative in publishing works by women that have often been neglected. Unfortunately, I didn’t get on with this confection at all. I gave up halfway through. Its tone and content were similar to those frothy romantic comedy films of the 30s starring people like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn – but lacking, I thought, their charm and wit. I didn’t warm to dowdy Miss P, whose transformation from impoverished and timid duckling (she’s an unsuccessful children’s governess) to confident swan (I presume that’s where it was going; she was just beginning to develop as I gave up) just didn’t ring true.

I know it’s not intended to be taken too seriously, but I also struggled to raise interest in Miss P’s unlikely new friend and employer, the supposedly glamorous nightclub singer and socialite Delysia La Fosse, whose name is as implausible as her characterisation. I found her susceptibility to caddish men irritating – and in fact, even allowing for changing social attitudes, the portrayal of sexual relations at the time was strangely disturbing, and not as funny as I think it was meant to be. But I know that most other readers had a much more positive response.

Rosamond Lehmann, The Ballad and the Source VMC, 1982; 19441

This was more to my taste. Sibyl Jardine, one of the central characters, is an elderly woman when the novel opens, but she has had an eventful past. She’s described by Janet Watts in the introduction to this edition as ‘one of the strangest and strongest heroines in English fiction, and her story is not for the squeamish’. It tells of ‘love corrupted into viperous hatred; of friendship betrayed; of treachery begetting treacheries’. What’s not to like? Puts mousy Miss Pettigrew into perspective…

The structure is unusual. Much of the novel is narrated from the viewpoint of precocious 10-year-old Rebecca, who quizzes this enigmatic, imposing Mrs Jardine (a neighbour whom her mother knows about and clearly mistrusts), whom she adores for her flamboyance, erudition and mystique, to find out that back story. (These long sequences were also a feature of her earlier novels.) It involves two generations of spirited women leaving failing marriages for more attractive prospects, then finding that leaving children behind as well as unwanted husbands brought unbearable consequences.

As the years pass and WWI breaks out, the web of relationships around the three generations of linked families becomes ever more tangled. Revelations cause Rebecca to reconsider her initial worshipping attitude to the formidable Mrs Jardine. The author’s handling of this complex plot, and of the differing accounts of the past (told by not entirely impartial or reliable adults to fascinated youngsters eager for intrigue and romance) is admirable. The young women’s eyes are gradually opened to the not-so-glamorous reality of the tainted loves they witness and are told about, and the poisonous fallout of failed relationships that damages the children as much as their parents. This causes the young women to confront and question their own burgeoning sexuality.

It’s a slow-burning novel, but fiercely intense. Mrs Jardine is an enchantress: alluring and deadly, vengeful and heartbroken. She’s an amazing creation.

There’s a link HERE to my posts on other RL novels, all of which deal in some way with sexual relations and the inevitable pain that goes with the bliss (usually more for the women than the feckless men): Invitation to the Waltz; The Weather in the Streets; The Echoing Grove.

Sarah Moss, The Fell Picador, 2022; 20211

 This novella is the first Covid lockdown fiction I’ve read. That soul-numbing solitude and sense of foreboding we all endured as a consequence – when we were told not to leave our houses and forbidden from mixing with anyone outside of them – is a key feature in The Fell.

It’s difficult to summarise the plot without spoilers. Let’s just say that when free-spirited, rather hippy-ish single mother Kate decides she’s had enough of going stir crazy in domestic confinement with her teenage son, and impulsively goes out for an early evening hike on the hills referred to in the title, all does not go well.

I enjoyed it, but not the structure and style. It consists of interlocking internal monologues from the points of view of several characters involved in Kate’s life. Through these various perspectives we slowly build up a composite picture of Kate’s character, and those of the individuals whose lives overlap with hers. But I found the colloquial, demotic prose failed to bring them entirely to life (except the wilful Kate). I’m not quite sure why she had the foresight to pack a rucksack with basic provisions when she set out for the fell on a whim, but didn’t take her phone. The hallucinatory sequences with a talkative corvid were pretty weird, too.

Sarah Moss’s novel Bodies of Light is stronger, I felt; my post about it is HERE.

 

Williams, Mantel, Bulgakov: buffalo, sad cases and chimeras

More recent reading.

John Williams, Butcher’s Crossing (Vintage, 2014; 19601) A very different, more brutal and elemental novel from the author of Stoner. Young Will Andrews travels west to Kansas, to the prairie buffalo-hunters’ town (aptly) named in the title, after three years at Harvard, to escape the urbane conformity of eastern civilisation in search of his ‘unalterable self’ in the wilderness. His Ahab-like quest also becomes a sort of Heart of Darkness trip: Miller, a seasoned, gritty hunter-trapper who knows this wild territory better than anyone, takes him and two other troubled men deep into the unmapped country in search of a legendary secret valley in the Colorado Rockies where, ten years earlier, he’d stumbled upon a huge herd of buffalo.

These animals had been hunted almost to extinction everywhere else. The railroad is rumoured to be coming to Butcher’s Crossing, and the old ways of life are doomed. What follows is a harrowing account of hardship and bloodshed. The group of hunters is pushed to the limits of endurance by the land and the elements. Will’s life, he realises, has been changed irrevocably. As in reading Moby-Dick, it’s apparent something allegorical is going on. I’m not quite sure what, but it’s perhaps something to do with our species pretensions, humanity’s obsession with cynical, destructive domination of the eco-system, and the thinness of our veneer of sophistication compared with the wild things we exterminate. We are, after all, poor, bare, forked animals ourselves.

It’s a beautifully written novel, but the hunting scenes are not for the squeamish.

Hilary Mantel, A Change of Climate (Penguin, 1995; 19941) The settings in placid, rural Norfolk and violent apartheid-era South Africa and Bechuanaland underpin this moving family drama. Ralph Eldred runs a charitable homeless refuge in London, and his family take social outcasts (‘sad cases’ or ‘good souls’) into their own home. But an oppressive paternal back story and a tragic event when he and his wife when first married were missionaries in Africa haunts him and, indirectly, his growing family back in East Anglia in 1980. Beneath the benign surface of this loving, caring ménage there is hopelessness, betrayal, passion and suffering. The novel is a bit short on events in the English-set sections, but it’s a gripping, sensitively constructed portrait of a damaged family who try to do good, to find fulfilment, perhaps love, but the dark secrets keep obtruding.

I’ve posted on two other Mantel novels here at the Days: Beyond Black and An Experiment in Love, both with modern settings (link HERE) – very different from her now more famous historical trilogy. Her range and artistry are impressive. She’ll be much missed.

Mikhail Bulgakov, A Dog’s Heart (Alma Classics) I’m slowly working my way through this bargain set from Alma books of the Ukrainian doctor and author (1891-1940). This novella was first published in 1925, but was confiscated by the Soviet government and banned for its anti-revolutionary satire (like most of his other writings). A cultured scientist-surgeon coaxes a stray street mutt, Sharik (= Fido) back to his home, an apartment larger than most of his fellow Muscovites’, using tasty sausage as the bait. His motives are not entirely charitable. What follows is a kind of spin on the Frankenstein story. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that he’s experimenting with human-animal chimera surgery. Poor, streetwise Sharik becomes a wisecracking, boorish man-monster. Although he displays some of the traits of a civilised person, his dog nature can’t be suppressed, and he behaves very badly. Local cats and the professor’s maid are particularly vulnerable. When he starts spouting anti-bourgeois clichés it’s easy to see why the regime banned this novella. (This was the turbulent period of the ‘new economic policy’, instigated by Lenin and continued in 1924 by Stalin to try to revive the failing post-revolution economy by relaxing laws forbidding private enterprise, and promoting a kind of diluted state-sanctioned capitalism. Maybe our recent and not lamented disaster of a Prime Minister, Liz Truss, was inspired by this book…)

My brief summary perhaps indicates that it’s not the most subtle of satires – but it still has some bite.

I posted on Bulgakov’s best-known novel, The Master and Margarita, HERE, and The White Guard HERE.

In another of these recent reading roundups I posted briefly on A Young Doctor’s Notebook (link HERE).

Snakes, T. Hardy, flâneuses and disobedience – recent reading

Work and other commitments have kept me from posting much lately. Time to start catching up on recent reading – and some other things that have interested me lately.

First, before the books, a word that popped up in my OED word of the day email a while back:

OPHIOLATRY: the worship or reverence of snakes. From the Greek ophios – serpent, plus the usual suffix meaning, well, worship. I consulted the OED online (as always, thanks to them for allowing free access via library card number): the first citation is from Cotton Mather in 1723.

Other dictionary sites provide related words, including ophiolite – serpentine, but sadly that’s obsolete. I don’t suppose we use ‘serpentine’ too often, either – apart from the name of the lake in a London park. Also ophidian – having the nature or character of snakes. Ophidiophobia dates from 1914, and seems a much more sensible word: why would anyone want to worship snakes? Much more likely, surely, to fear them.

There are so many examples in the English language of two different words denoting the same thing, often deriving from Latin (considered the elegant variant) and Old English (less prestigious). Isn’t it great that we can refer to snakes or serpents? Both have that wonderful hissing sibilant, appropriately. Serpent was originally used for any ‘creeping thing’; OED says it’s from the Latin, and had that meaning (examples include ‘louse’). Snake comes from earthier Old English, and therefore has a longer history. OED’s first citations are from the 11C. But the two seem to have been used interchangeably. Then there’s this 15C quotation from Lydgate: Whos vertu is al venym to distroye,..Of dragoun, serpent, adder & of snake. He seems to consider these as different kinds of dangerous crawling reptiles (or ‘limbless vertebrates’ as the OED calls them) – or it’s just the typical ‘elegant variation’ that was popular with contemporary authors.

Now for the books.

Elizabeth Lowry: The Chosen. Riverrun, 296 pp. Published 2022. A competent fictional account of Thomas Hardy’s explosion of grief when his wife of over thirty years, Emma (Gifford), died in 1912. They were both in their seventies. They’d been estranged for twenty years, living mostly in different parts of the ugly house that Hardy designed himself (Max Gate, Dorchester – that was Emma’s view, anyway; I’ve seen it, and it’s not handsome), and hardly talking to each other.

Lowry evokes well the chilly atmosphere of this forbidding house, and the marriage that atrophied inside it. When TH discovers Emma’s diaries and reads what she’d been going through, married to a man totally preoccupied with his writing, he’s horrified and stricken with guilt at how cruel and cold he’d been. Remorse overwhelms him. This prepares the scene for the outpouring of the great elegiac poems he then wrote about her. In them he restored her to life, reimagined as the young girl she was when they met at St Juliot in north Cornwall.

I can’t say I was deeply moved by this novel, despite the interesting story. It was overwritten, the style too mannered. Colm Toibin does a much better job with his novels about the writers Henry James (I read The Master pre-blog) and Thomas Mann (link to my recent post on this HERE). Paula McLain’s boisterous novel about Hemingway’s life with his first wife Hadley in Paris in the 1920s is undemanding but good fun. I wrote one of my earliest posts about it (link HERE). This reminds me: that was in 2013, so my tenth blogging anniversary will be in April this year!

Lauren Elkin: Flâneuse: Women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (Vintage, 2017; 20161). The title says it all: this is a scholarly, lucidly written study and history of the literature of women who haunted the streets of those cities and wrote about their experience of them. Of course, it’s a deliberate challenge to the well-known 19C literary figure, the flâneur (usual examples include Baudelaire, Poe and Dickens) – almost always male and middle-class. The sections on Paris and London are the best: Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys figure largely here.

But this book is partly an irritatingly self-regarding autobiography. There’s too much intrusive gush about the author’s love life. This is a shame, because there’s some really interesting, well-researched stuff in here, good literary analysis and author profiles. I could have done without all the navel-gazing, though.

There’s a link HERE to some of my previous posts on the subject (Walter Benjamin, Iain Sinclair, etc.)

Naomi Alderman, Disobedience (Penguin, 2018; 20161). This was an early example of what has become something of a literary (and filmed) genre: the woman who flees an ultra-orthodox Jewish community and struggles to find herself in the outside, secular world. It raises interesting and tricky questions about female rebellion against a male-dominated culture, and what it really takes to be…disobedient.

Still got a few more titles. More on them next time.