Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet-Major

Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet-Major. Penguin Classics, 1997. First published in serial form, then, slightly revised, as a three-volume book, 1880.

My attempt to end a run of disappointing reading experiences wasn’t entirely successful with Hardy’s sixth (I think) published novel, The Trumpet-Major. This Penguin edition’s introduction (by Linda M. Shires) discusses the incongruities in its three generic strands: comedy, romance and history – it’s set in 1805, when Britain feared imminent invasion by Napoleon’s army, massing on the north coast of France.

Thomas Hardy, Trumpet-Major cover

The striking photo on the cover is ‘A Newhaven pilot, 1844’ by D.O. Hill and Robert Adamson, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Her argument in defence of Hardy’s artistic achievement in this novel is ingenious, but didn’t convince me. My response was to find the comedy too broad (stereotypical rural characters) and laboured – but there’s a very funny scene in which the hopelessly inept local rustics attempt a drilling exercise in which their inability to distinguish left from right is exacerbated by their impatience to leave in order to fulfil their duties in the church service about to start nearby. British readers will recognise the humour here as in a similar vein as that found in the old sitcom ‘Dad’s Army’, about the Home Guard in southern England early in WWII, preparing to combat the expected Nazi invasion.

The romance will disappoint any reader, including me, who likes to see a satisfyingly happy ending (spoiler alert). The good, steady, decent guy is the one who should marry the beautiful protagonist, and his feckless, selfish rival should not. The beautiful young woman should not be inconstant in her affections – a central image of a weathervane sums her up here. Admittedly this is a pretty shallow expectation of novelistic artifice.

The historical aspect is the most interesting element. The Trumpet-Major is set near Weymouth in Dorset, on the south coast of England, and therefore likely to be a landing-point for the feared French invasion. The locals are understandably nervous and frightened, and fake news is rife. A system of hilltop beacons will be lit as an early warning. One section of the novel describes a false alarm, which sets all the inhabitants off on a terrified evacuation. Meanwhile large groups of soldiers set up tented camps just outside the village at the centre of the narrative. The uniforms set all the local female hearts aflutter.

I found these incongruous strands simply didn’t combine effectively, despite the editor’s claim that aesthetic disjunction was Hardy’s intention.

Just took a look at my posts in January last year. Snowdrops and daffodils began to appear by the second week (none yet in my garden, but they’re coming), and we’d just entered another lockdown. This year the Covid infection rates are soaring again, but there are few restrictions. Let’s hope the government policy (perhaps that’s too flattering a term for their reluctance to act decisively) works: so far the signs aren’t great.

 

 

 

Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife

Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife, Phoenix paperback, 2014; first published 2013

I first came across this bizarre twist on the Frankenstein story when I was teaching a Romantics module on a degree course a few years ago (link to my series of posts on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel HERE).

Moore, Perfect Wife cover Wealthy, eccentric and uncouth Thomas Day had been upset several times when his fiancées had a change of heart about marriage and rejected him. The latest of these was Margaret, sister of his friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth (Anglo-Irish inventor and father of the novelist Maria). Day was hardly a compelling romantic prospect: his face was badly scarred from childhood smallpox; he was dirty, unkempt, morose, moody, misogynistic and opinionated, given to holding forth at tedious length on his pet subjects.

A devotee of Rousseau’s radical theories about education and social equality, he nevertheless (like his hero) held paradoxically misogynistic and repressive views on women: their role, he believed, was to submit to and obey men. Libertarians at that time firmly held that women were an inferior species and were therefore exempt from androcentric strictures about equality, liberty and human rights. (Today’s so-called libertarians here in the UK at the moment think, equally irrationally, that it’s an infringement on their civil liberties to have to wear a mask to stop them infecting and potentially killing people around them.)

The marital rejections he’d been humiliated by, he believed, were the consequence of young women’s being exposed to and deformed by the corrupting influence of foppish Georgian society. They were susceptible to what he saw as the vacuous distractions of fashion, dancing, gossip, and so on, and lacked rational capacity (that is, they failed to discern his genius). His plan was for his wife to live with him in simple, idyllic rural seclusion, dressed peasant style and following a frugal regime. She would defer to him and his every whim, and yet entertain him intellectually – she’d therefore need a modicum of rational education.

His monstrous plan, formed at the age of just 21 in 1769, in imitation of Rousseau’s scheme in Emile, or on Education (1761-2), was to find a pre-pubescent girl, as yet unspoilt by social influences, her mind a blank slate on which he could inscribe his own program, and to train her to become his ideal wife. He hedged his bets by selecting two orphans from foundling hospitals in Shrewsbury and London, whose names he changed to Sabrina (Latin for Severn, the river in Shrewsbury where her hospital was located), and Lucretia. If one fell short of his exacting standards, the other would, he hoped, meet them.

His scheme, fortunately, failed. Both girls failed to fulfil his selfish, impossible ambitions. His despotic methods included interminable sessions of tedious instruction – the pedagogy of the oppressor. He would cruelly expose them to physical, emotional and psychological traumas, privations and constraints, and try to condition their behaviour through punishment, coercion and bullying. One example of this, which Moore doesn’t mention explicitly, was his practice of firing a gun behind them unexpectedly to startle them; if they screamed or made a fuss they’d be admonished. It was their task to show stoical indifference to all hardships or knocks, and to obey blindly any male orders, however ridiculous or demeaning to them.

Day’s arrogance is depicted with graphic clarity in this lively, depressing account, and the monstrous presumptuousness of his experiment is expounded in all its cruelty. Moore also points out that it was Day’s social rank, wealth and gender that enabled him to get away with his devious schemes; nowadays one would hope he’d be exposed and prosecuted as a paedophile and predator.

He was a strangely paradoxical character: he gave away much of his wealth to the poor, and was an abolitionist, and yet he made a virtual slave of Sabrina, and abandoned her to a life of penury when she failed to satisfy his requirements.

Moore goes on to show what happened in Sabrina’s life after she was callously cast aside by Day (just as Victor Frankenstein abandoned his Creature, who had also come to appal him). After many hardships she found a kind of peace and perhaps love. Day, for his part, continued to be as boorish and overbearing for the rest of his life. Astonishingly, he managed to find a young woman who went along with his tyrannical regime for a wife, and even seemed to dote on him. There really is no accounting for taste.

I’d have liked to see more of the author’s discussion of influences on Day’s thinking other than Rousseau’s; the scientists/’natural philosophers’ whose thinking radically influenced the nascent Romantic movement, such as those in what became, from 1775, the Lunar Society (which met on the nights of a full moon, hence the name). These late Enlightenment intellectuals – ‘men of observation’ – promulgated the ‘experimental optimism’ mentioned by Jenny Uglow in her book about them, The Lunar Men: The friends who made the future, 1730-1810 (2002; reviewed in the Guardian HERE).

I’d also have liked more on the influence of Day’s callous experiment with Sabrina on later writers, touched on only briefly in Moore’s account, from Henry James’s Watch and Ward to Shaw’s version of the Pygmalion story. Trollope has a tale about a young man who moulds an orphan to become his wife as a central thread in his 1862 novel Orley Farm (I haven’t read it, so can’t confirm this claim). Maria Edgeworth’s fictional treatments of Day’s story are covered by Moore rather more thoroughly, from an early short story to the ‘society’ novel Belinda (1801).

Moore’s style is gratingly journalistic at times, and there’s a dusty air to the whole thing, perhaps a consequence of the obviously very thorough research she conducted – there are 35 pages of notes, and an extensive bibliography. Sometimes I felt that the copious narrative detail obscured or diminished the shocking impact of the central theme.

 

 

 

 

 

Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love

Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love, Picador 1996; first published 1995. This is another novel I heard good things about recently, in this case on the BBC Radio 4 book podcast, A Good Read (link HERE: the item comes after about nine minutes). I was attracted by the main setting: a hall of residence for women at the LSE (part of the University of London) in the early 70s – the very time when friends of mine were there.

Hilary Mantel An Experiment in Love cover

This is the edition I borrowed from the library; it was published in America.

I found these university/London scenes compelling and realistic – I felt I was reliving my own youth. The class differences are particularly well brought out: the privileged ‘Sophies’ and their boyfriends, the ‘Rogers’, are well off, privately educated, with a veneer of sophistication and casual generosity blended with condescension. Then there are the poor, working-class (northern) girls like Carmel, whose unfulfilled and angry mother is a cleaner, and who struggles to make her meagre grant stretch to keep her alive. At least students got a grant in those days (I was one of these lucky ones); now they’re left with huge debts when they graduate.

The women at the heart of the narrative are also well done: Carmel is a self-confessed mouse, timid and nerdy, but also sensitive and perceptive. Oddly enough she has a (doomed) sex life with a dull man who fails to see her true self and dumps her when she reveals her inner truth.

In fact it’s the sexual element of these young women’s lives that’s a key feature in the novel. In 1970 the liberation of women was beginning to take shape – but within patriarchal limits. Abortion was available, after a fashion, but the women who went through the procedure were viewed with a mix of pity, scorn and awe by the likes of Carmel. She believes, perversely, that it’s the nice girls who are foolish enough to get pregnant. I remember well this weirdly perverse and ambiguous attitude at the time.

Despite the early stirrings of feminism and the continuing quest for equality for women, girls from Carmel’s background could only hope to gain a good education as a way out of their otherwise inevitable fate: the drudgery of unequal marriage, motherhood and housework. Even this hope turns out not to be all it seems. She starts out well, winning a scholarship to a smart but repressive Catholic convent school, and then a place at London University. The price of being a swot is high: social life is limited by her poverty already, and she’s no competition for the glamour-pusses like the Sophies.

There was something amiss with this novel too, though. There was something a little too contrived about the plot, and the ending (which I didn’t see coming) was a dramatic shock. As the podcast participants point out, however, there are clues strung through the narrative, and it’s probably a good idea to re-read, to see how skilfully Mantel builds the tension and the inevitable outcome that shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me after all.

The depiction of anorexia – I suppose these were days when it wasn’t much understood or acknowledged – is interesting. The descriptions of the institutional meals are stomach-turning – but I realised eventually that of course they are seen from Carmel’s food-averse point of view. My own recollection of hall of residence food was that it wasn’t great, but not as disgusting as Carmel makes out.

Karina, who has a love-hate relationship with Carmel from their early childhood, is another complex character. Her family were east European immigrants, seemingly having escaped persecution decades earlier, although this is never made explicit. Carmel dislikes her mostly because her mother, taking pity on Karina’s family’s poverty (they’re even poorer than hers) and history, insists that Carmel walk to primary school with her every morning. This reaction quietly points to the kind of initially unperceived, insidious bigotry that caused Karina’s family to be persecuted in the first place. It also explains why Karina becomes so bitter and angry.

At the novel’s end, though I was less irritated than I was with the Nymph (see my previous post), I wasn’t enthused. I’m not sure about the novel’s uninspiring title, either. There was little I could see in the way of experimentation, in love or anything else.

 

A Constant Nymph

I’ve been busy with work again lately, so the next few posts, if I get time to post what I plan to, will be quick recaps of some recent reading.

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph, VMC 2000; first published 1924

This is another of those novels that most reviewers have raved about; I struggled with it, and nearly gave up after thirty or so pages. I simply didn’t relish reading about ‘Sanger’s circus’, the chaotic-bohemian ménage in the Austrian Tyrol of English avant-garde composer Albert Sanger. This neglected, wayward genius and his tribe of shabby, barefooted feral children (by three different mothers; certain British prime ministers come to mind) are supposed I think to be charmingly alternative, spontaneous and precocious – a sort of antidote to the saccharine von Trapps. Instead I thought their spiteful anti-Semitism and careless selfishness repellent.

One of the male characters, a Jewish suitor of the oldest Sanger girl, is portrayed in unpleasantly negative stereotypical ways, and is treated by many of the others, including his lover, with undisguised contempt.

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph cover

It wasn’t me who made the image blurred: it’s that way on the cover. It’s by the Swedish photographer Irmelie Krekin.

A budding composer called Lewis, one of the central characters, is a friend and disciple of Sanger, and another less than charming figure. He’s anti-social to the point of misanthropy, another supposedly eccentric genius – in fact he’s just another selfish boor.

When his new wife tries to tame him, make him presentable in chic London society as a means of promoting his stalled career, he rewards her by becoming romantically attached to one of the younger Sanger girls, Tessa (the nymph of the title) – just 14 when the novel opens. She’s been hopelessly in love with him since she was a little girl. She’s an unlikely mixture of shrewd precocity and naiveté, and Kennedy just about succeeds in making her an attractive, increasingly confident and rounded character.

Tessa’s is easily the most successfully drawn character in the novel. She’s described as plain and skinny, but also vivacious, witty and charmingly ingenuous, the only one who can handle the irritable, moody Lewis. But this Lolita-like relationship is worryingly one-sided: she’s far too young for such a committed affair with an older man whose interest in her isn’t surely as pure or innocent as hers in him. Kennedy doesn’t shy away from the sexual element, either, and this too is troubling. All the older Sanger children show unabashed awareness of their sexuality. It’s probably this frankness that contributed to the novel’s being a huge best-seller in its day.

I enjoyed the scenes by the Thames at Chiswick; I’d been walking there with friends the week before reading them. It’s a lovely part of outer London.

The ending is predictable and disappointing, and shows perhaps a loss of nerve by the author in her daring plot and unconventional protagonists.

No, I’m afraid this novel left me feeling rather irritated with most of the characters, particularly the odious Lewis.

 

 

Recent fiction reading

After two posts on recent non-fiction, here’s a quick summary of recent fiction reading.

Alan Hollinghurst, The Sparsholt Affair Picador pb. (2018; first published 2017) I read The Line of Beauty years ago and enjoyed it, but this one I struggled with. David Sparsholt is first seen as a 17-year-old ‘new man’ at an Oxford college in 1939, lusted after by a group of Evelyn Waugh types. Years later he’s involved in a homosexual scandal which haunts his son, whose life is the subject of the rest of the novel. Louche socialites and some explicit sex should add up to a more engaging narrative, but it didn’t gel for me. I found them to be a self-indulgent bunch of shallow narcissists.

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire Bloomsbury pb. (2018, first published 2017) This was far better. A timely plot involves Muslim ‘fighters’, jihadi brides, and the families they’ve left behind in Britain; there’s also a Muslim home secretary whose role is compromised in this plot. In a nail-biting finale the family ties of the characters we’ve been introduced to with such compelling narrative skill are tested to the limit. It’s a retelling of the Antigone story.

Eley Williams, The Liar’s Dictionary Windmill pb. (2020) I’d read and heard good things about this, but was disappointed. Alternating narratives thread together two linked narratives: in the present day, Mallory is engaged in work on digitising the (unfinished) Swansby New Encyclopaedic Dictionary – a pale rival of the OED, and culling the ‘mountweazels’ or ghost/invented words included as a sort of linguistic-existential act of guerrilla lexicography by one of its original (deadly bored) clerical contributors. This is the subject of the second narrative thread: in 1899 Peter Winceworth is one of a huge staff working on the original version of the dictionary in the same building in which Mallory now toils half-heartedly as a low-paid intern. There’s a complicated, rather silly plot that’s entertainingly put together, and it’s all quite good fun – but insubstantial. The narrative voice is the best thing: Williams playfully savours the intricacies and textures of the English language.

William Trevor, The Children of Dynmouth Penguin pb. (2014; first published 1976) This also came highly recommended – JacquiWine’s blog in particular praised it. I’m afraid this one disappointed me as well. As always with William Trevor, it’s superbly well crafted, but I found the plot rather tacky and nasty. There’s a creepy central character, an obviously disturbed teenage boy who blackmails inhabitants of his small seaside town into helping him fulfil a bizarre plan to stage a macabre act he thinks of as comedy for the forthcoming church fête’s talent competition. That his routine is about a serial murderer of women indicates the depths of this lad’s depravity. As a portrayal of the murky depths beneath the bland surface of an apparently sleepy town it’s quite effective, but, oh dear, it’s not uplifting. I need a bit of a lift these days.

Benjamin Myers, The Offing cover Benjamin Myers, The Offing Bloomsbury pb. (2020, first published 2019) A coming of age novel that also failed to intrigue me. There’s some fine (sometimes over-written) nature writing, but the plot is clunky and the characterisation unconvincing. Another teenage lad undergoes a sort of extended epiphany when he meets a bohemian, artistic woman called Dulcie, who lives a kind of hermit’s life with her fine German shepherd dog in a cottage overlooking a bay on the coast of N. Yorkshire. It’s 1946, and the country is trying to heal itself after the war – and the boy is trying to find a direction in life that’s preferable to toiling down ‘the pit’ like his coal-mining forebears. Unfortunately I didn’t really care if things worked out for him, and Dulcie’s story, gradually revealed, invites us to believe she was in a circle that included every major artist and writer of the pre-war decades. The name-dropping becomes slightly ludicrous, and the dialogue Myers attributes to her is implausibly literary and polished.

 

 

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – and in Cornwall

Clare Chambers, Small Pleasures. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, paperback, 2021. First published 2020

I bought this for Mrs TD, who so enjoyed it she urged me to read it when she’d finished. I was less enthusiastic.

Clare Chambers Small Pleasures cover I did enjoy the depiction of the central character, Jean, a middle-aged small-town newspaper journalist whose existence has shrunk to that of a Barbara Pym routine of longing for love and kindness while caring for an ungrateful, spiteful and embarrassingly rude old mother. When she does find a caring, sensitive man who returns her love, there’s a strong sense of fulfilment but also of foreboding.

This is the best element in the novel: a heartwarming and moving portrayal of the kind of woman not often given such scrupulous and sympathetic authorial attention.

The virgin birth plot is less satisfactory. Jean is investigating the extraordinary story of a woman who claimed she’d given birth to her daughter, now aged ten, without the intervention of a man. Chambers strings out this mystery for over 300 pages, and I felt she sort of lost interest in its outcome about a third of the way through.

There’s an early spoiler, too, which partly caused my lukewarm reaction to the central plot.

I’d recommend Small Pleasures, however, as a not too demanding and often very touching portrait of a woman who thought her chances of experiencing love and passion again had vanished. There’s always hope, even though life has ways of thwarting those chances.

Cove nr FalmouthI’ve been pretty busy with a work project lately, hence the silence of the blog. So I’ll finish with a few images of some recent small (summer) pleasures in Cornwall. Between work sessions I’ve been enjoying coastal walks with Mrs TD. This cove is near Pendennis Castle (built in Henry VIII’s reign) in Falmouth, where we went early this month. The footpath takes the walker past some smaller, less venerable and imposing military installations that would also have guarded the entrance to the Carrick Roads and Falmouth docks and harbour. Just before I took this picture of the pleasant cove a seal popped its head up and scrutinised us with what looked like a mix of interest and disappointment. He’d gone by the time I got my phone out, unfortunately.

Trevone The following week we went up the north coast beyond Padstow, now brimming with posh London tourists, to the less frequented and beautiful beach at Trevone. This picture shows the rocky foreshore nearby; the sandy beach is just to the right of it. We’d read about a rockpool a short walk along the coast. It turned out to be an ideal little natural swimming pool, without the currents and waves of the open sea. Three generations of families were enjoying it at the same time as us – there was a lovely sense of shared (small) pleasure.

Carbis Bay gull A few days later, during Britain’s week-long hot spell (aka summer), we returned to Carbis Bay with Mrs TD’s sister and brother-in-law. When I reported about this beach last month, just as the G7 conference was ending, it was closed to visitors; now it’s much busier – but still didn’t feel crowded. Here’s my usual picture of a truculent seagull, glaring at me for having the effrontery to take its picture without some sort of recompense. Godrevy lighthouse is just  visible in the background. This is the one that (partially) inspired Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse; as is well known, she and her family used to holiday regularly at St Ives, just round the headland from Carbis Bay.

Now we’re back to cooler weather and showers. But there are occasional swooping, screeching groups of swifts over our house to brighten the days.

 

Antonia White, The Lost Traveller

Antonia White, The Lost Traveller. VMC paperback, 1993 (first edition 1979). First published by Eyre & Spottiswode, 1950

Antonia White The Lost Traveller coverThe cover image is a detail from ‘Elinor’ by Dod Procter (who was associated with the Newlyn school of artists in Cornwall. She and others in the Lamorna sub-group, including her husband Ernest, did some of the decorative paintings in St Hilary Church near Penzance, where Bernard Walke had been parish priest: see my post on his memoir HERE).

There was very little plot in Antonia White’s account of Nanda Grey’s four years in a catholic convent school (from the ages of nine to thirteen/fourteen) in Frost in May, about which I posted last time. This sequel is very different. There’s plenty of incident, and the narrative adopts a more traditional, adult omniscient voice, rather than focalising on the young protagonist. The style is more sophisticated, too, in keeping with the more mature Nanda: in The Lost Traveller her story continues from her leaving the convent to the age of seventeen.

This first of three sequels to FiM took seventeen years to appear. Antonia White apparently had a tough time during them: she had writer’s block, mental health problems, and was busy with work as a journalist, among other things during the war.

Although there’s much more incident in this sequel, I found it less engaging. Nanda has had a name change: she is now Clara Batchelor, and the names of the schools have also changed. Maybe this was to indicate that the novel is less autobiographical than FiM. This also might account for its less satisfactory impact.

Part of the problem is the depiction of Clara’s parents, which dominates much of the novel. Her father is decidedly unpleasant: a doctrinaire pedagogue with some unsavoury sexual inclinations. He teaches classics at the school to which Clara, very much a ‘daddy’s girl’, is moved after the convent school became too expensive.

Isabel, the languid mother, is a drama queen, always expressing how ‘sensitive’, romantic and artistic she is. This manifests itself in particular with serial flirting – an indulgence that leads her into dangerous territory.

Clara’s friendships made up the basis of FiM, and the same is the case in this novel. Here too they represent the most interesting and original aspect of the narrative. WWI takes its toll on the young and their families, and there are hints of the terrible fate of European Jewish people a few years in the future.

It’s inevitable as Clara grows up that she’ll become more engaged with the world, become interested in developing adult interests and relationships, including romantic or sexual ones, and this means the narrative takes on a rather more conventional bildungsroman quality.

There are some delightful portraits of her family in rural Sussex, where she and her parents spend their summer holidays. Her eccentric, warm-hearted maiden aunts love having the visitors, and Clara enjoys their affectionate hospitality, and walking in the picturesque downs.

Why this title? Well, Clara/Nanda is still a bit lost, desperate to find where she belongs. Her catholic faith is the foundation on which she believes she can build her life, but it’s a conviction that wavers under the stress of circumstances.

This sequel benefits from having less discussion of dogma and description of ritual, and the dilemma Clara experiences in the final section of the novel is well handled, and includes a truly shocking event that I hadn’t seen coming.

It might sound like I’m lukewarm about this novel, but I’m not. Maybe it’s just that it’s so different from FiM. It lacks some of the charm and innocence of that novel, but still satisfies as a portrait of a young woman’s painful growth out of her ‘awkward age’ into adulthood.

But those parents…It’s amazing Clara survived more or less intact.

 

 

 

 

Broken in by nuns: Antonia White, Frost in May

Antonia White, Frost In May. Virago Modern Classics no. 1, 1978 (my edition was from 1993). First published 1933.

Antonia White (1899-1980) began writing this autobiographical novel when she was just sixteen, but it wasn’t finished or published until almost two decades later. Frost In May famously kicked off the groundbreaking Virago imprint of modern classics, bringing back into the mainstream literature by women that had largely become neglected or overlooked.

Antonia White Frost In May cover The protagonist of Frost in May is Nanda (Fernanda) Grey, nine years old when she’s sent to the ‘rare, intense element’ of the convent school of the Five Wounds, at Lippington, near London. There she spends four of the most formative years of her life. Her experience is bitter-sweet.

She doesn’t entirely fit in – as is often the case with school novels. For a start, she wasn’t born a Catholic; she was only admitted a year earlier, when her father converted from being an agnostic/Protestant. He’s a teacher, so she’s one of the few middle-class girls at the school – most come from ancient, prestigious Catholic European families, and the friends she becomes closest to are a few years older than her.

There’s raffish Léonie, of French-German lineage, beautiful Rosario from Spain. Their relatives are found ‘in every embassy in Europe’, and during school holidays the girls attend ‘diplomatic dinners in Vienna and St Petersburg’.

Once or twice a term, they would go out together to a well-chaperoned tea at the Ritz, or a polo match at Ranelagh.

Clare is English, and also of Protestant stock, but she is less of an outsider than Nanda, because like most of the other pupils she comes from an upper-class family. These girls holiday in Paris, Biarritz and other swanky European locations, have governesses and dance with royalty. They and their older sisters are expected to make dazzling, dynastic marriage matches.

There’s a disturbing hint of the carnage of war to come – but this would have been WWI; in 1933 when the novel was published the same could have been said for what was building in Nazi Germany: the origins of WWII. Léonie points out that when she was in Berlin and Vienna during the school holidays (this would have been probably around 1911-12) there’d been ‘a lot of talk about [war]’. With her usual sharpness of tongue she suggests that the Prussian young man with whom Clare had said she’d had a flirtation that summer in a Leipzig art school ‘will get conscripted and one of your hearty brothers will probably put a bullet through his cropped head.’

It’s partly this dark humour and strange, intoxicating mix of intense, erotic attraction and fierce rivalries and jealousies between these lively, spirited, emotionally vulnerable schoolgirls that makes Frost In May such an engaging novel. It’s also the weirdly contradictory attitudes of these older girls to Catholic doctrine and the rigid discipline the nuns instil in them; while they all rail against both from time to time, they ultimately  accept placidly that they will become good, conformist Catholic mothers and homemakers.

The nuns are aware of these (as they see them) dangerous, intimate liaisons. When Nanda writes a letter home, gushing about the beauty and glamour of these older girls, it is as usual intercepted for censorship by the ever-watchful nuns. Mother Radcliffe, the scarily severe Mother of Discipline, upbraids the culprit:

The school rule does not approve of particular friendships. They are against charity, to begin with, and they lead moreover to dangerous and unhealthy indulgence of feeling. I do not think your father and mother will share your rather morbid interest in Clare Rockingham’s appearance.

She goes on to accuse Nanda of being wilful. When Nanda agrees, the nun lays out the school’s purpose uncompromisingly –

…no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely. Broken and re-set in God’s own way. I don’t think your will has been quite broken, my dear child, do you?

Elsewhere Radcliffe tells the whole school that the school’s severity ‘which to the world seems harshness is bound up in the school rule…We work today to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.’

Near the end, when Nanda’s career at the school is threatened because her unfinished, derivative bodice-ripper novel MS has been found during one of the nun’s usual searches of the girls’ desks, Radcliffe is merciless as she orders its destruction:

“God asks very hard things from us,” she said, “the sacrifice of what we love best and the sacrifice of our own wills. That is what it means to be a Christian…I had to break your will before your whole nature was deformed.”

It’s a ruthless system, designed to instil total obedience and submission, that reminds me of the depiction of the despotic drill sergeant’s breaking in of the young male marine recruits in the first half of Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket.

But this is more than just a story of a girl’s faltering attraction to and acceptance of this stern, austere Catholic dogma of self-denial, humility and self-mortification; it’s also a kunstlerroman: Nanda spends much of her time drafting that doomed novel and honing her writing and other aesthetic sensibilities – despite the school’s vigilant, often cruel efforts to crush them.

It’s not an entirely anti-school or -Catholic portrayal; when, at thirteen, Nanda’s father suggests taking her out of Lippington, she feels ‘overwhelmed’ by the revelation of her ‘dependance’ on the school and its ethos, and horrified at the prospect of moving to a more educationally sound, non-Catholic high school to prepare her for life at a Cambridge college and a career (for she will have to make a living when she grows up). She prefers the ‘cold, clear atmosphere’ and ‘sharper outline’ of things at Lippington to the ‘comfortable, shapeless, scrambling life outside’.

She rebels intermittently against the frigid, anti-romantic, authoritarian regime of the school, especially when her artistic impulses are crushed, but she always retains a romantic desire to belong in this harsh but alluring world. The discipline of Lippington does at times show a fanatical opposition to what its doctrine proscribes.

The bad news for Nanda is that this includes the spark of spirit with which she was born, an acute sense of individualism and aesthetic sensitivity. These are seen as incipient sins of pride by the nuns.

White’s prose has the lucidity and unadorned directness of her heroine’s character.

I’ve started reading the sequel.

 

 

 

I don’t want to marry a lighthouse keeper

Emma Stonex, The Lamplighters. Picador hardback, 2021, 355 pp.

This was another of the books I bought for Mrs TD for her recent birthday. After she’d read it she passed it on to her sister. They both had reservations about it, and asked me to read it so we could compare responses. I wasn’t impressed either.

Emma Stonex The Lamplighters cover The ‘lamp’ in the title is a fictitious tower lighthouse off SW Cornwall. Such lighthouses are more challenging for the keepers, as there’s no space around the tower as there is on an island lighthouse. This means the three men who tend the lamp are confined together in a claustrophobic atmosphere that becomes very charged.

The story is set in 1972, when the three keepers go missing. The relief boat’s occupants find the lighthouse empty. The door is locked and barred from the inside, and there’s a meal set on the kitchen table – it’s like the Marie Celeste. The two clocks have both stopped at 8:45.

The lighthouse on Eilean Mor

The lighthouse on Eilean Mor (Flannan Isles): attribution –
Marc Calhoun, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a classic ‘locked room (murder?) mystery’, then. With a hint of the supernatural: strange white birds seem to haunt the place. There’s an epigraph at the start from the 1912 poem by WW Gibson, ‘Flannan Isle’, about a similarly strange disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a Victorian lighthouse off the Outer Hebrides. I remember reading it at school: it left a deep impression on me. The three black seabirds – too large to be shags, says the poem, hinting at something sinister – seem to be the vanished keepers transformed. They were never seen again.

Trident House, the organisation that administers the Cornish lighthouse, is intent on covering up what happened to the three men, and pays the widows hush money, admonishing them not to speak to outside investigators (like a local author, who has reasons of his own for investigating what happened). All kinds of outlandish theories about what happened to the men are aired, some of them as far-fetched as those that followed the Flannan Isle disappearance. Spectral figures and supernatural emanations are described – but these could also be a consequence of the keepers’ enforced solitude and increasingly fragile sanity.

There’s probably a good short story or novella in here somewhere. I found the novel much too long, however. It’s structured in alternating time periods: 1972, in which the events leading up to the disappearance are narrated, from the viewpoint of the three keepers, and 1992, when the local writer interviews the widows of the two older men, and the woman who’d been the youngest’s girlfriend at the time.

All three men have secrets and clandestine motives for either doing away with the others, or for feeling threatened by criminal or other menacing outside forces. A visit from a man purporting to be a repair engineer becomes a sort of demonic intrusion – he seems to know all their secrets. The women have tensions of their own between them too. Infidelity and jealousy are rife.

It should be a riveting thriller – but it’s often slack and unengaging. The narrative is flat and often tone deaf, despite some vivid descriptions of the seascapes. Dialogue is strangely listless. The boredom of the men’s routine seeps into the narrative in ways that renders it tedious.

If Emma Stonex had trimmed the length considerably this could have worked as a Stephen King kind of mystery with spooky overtones. It’s become a top ten bestseller. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’d rather read Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner.

PS The novel reminded me (incongruously, given the darkness of its plot) of that jaunty, cheesy song ‘I want to marry a lighthouse keeper’. I couldn’t remember who sang it; an online search brought up someone called Erika Eigen. Funny, I’d remembered it by someone more famous, but can’t recall who I had in mind. Apparently the song featured in Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange – but it’s so long ago that I saw that, I have no recollection of it there. Wikipedia suggests it’s used to show the shallow, trivial taste of Alex’s parents when he’s brought home after the horrific shock treatment to rid him of his violent tendencies. No more Beethoven for him.

Dangerous charmers: Anita Brookner, Look At Me

Anita Brookner, Look At Me. Penguin paperback, 2016. First published 1983

Friendship is the antidote to loneliness. Reciprocated love is an even more effective one. Frances is lonely, and craves the friendship and love she feels she deserves. After a humiliating, debasing affair with a married man – she’s naïve in some ways, but not ‘innocent’ – she ‘wanted contentment…the chance to be simple again.’ She thinks she’s found the stimulating acceptance she longs for when she’s taken up by the superficially charming, glamorous Fraser couple.

Anita Brookner Look At Me coverNick Fraser is a doctor, ‘distinguished by that grace and confidence of manner that assures success’. He’s a specialist in depression, who frequents the medical reference library where Frances works. Oddly, this library specialises in the cataloguing of images and texts about the ‘problems of human behaviour’. Frances ponders the disturbing visual representations (Dürer’s seems to be one of them) of melancholy (a condition with which Frances is acquainted) and madness.

There’s a good account of the novel in Jacqui’s review and the Backlisted podcast (links at the end). Frances is another of Brookner’s quietly spirited but diffident, lonely spinsters (‘well behaved and rather observant – a bad combination’ she remarks about herself, with characteristically shrewd deprecation), whose hopes for fulfilment are raised by the opportunities life seems to offer, only to have them dashed.

Frances is a writer, and Look At Me is as much a novel about ‘the business of writing’ as it is about the frustrations and bitterness of the lonely. She confides that she writes stories based on the eccentric characters she observes fastidiously at her library in ‘an attempt to reach others and to make them love you’. Only when she writes does she feel she has a voice.

But does she write also as a consequence of all the solitary days and hours she has to fill somehow? Or does the occupation of a writer require solitude?

It’s a dilemma that reminds me of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott. This poem can be interpreted as a representation of the writer’s dilemma. The Lady is cursed to live alone and remote in a tower, doomed never to be able even to look directly at the living world outside her window, which she longs to participate in. Instead she has to resort to gazing at the reflection of life in her mirror. When she defies the curse and looks lovingly on the dazzling knight Lancelot, she inevitably dies, unloved.

The writer, then, is condemned (cursed) to live in a solitary panopticon, observing and anatomising the teeming life outside, but doomed never to participate fully in it. She can’t have it both ways. ‘Claustration’ is a key word in Frances’ vocabulary about her life.

If Look At Me were a Barbara Pym novel – for it shares many of the features of Pym’s fictional world, including the beautifully written prose and the wit and humour – there wouldn’t be such dire consequences of the protagonist’s misreadings and misunderstandings of her experiences with other people.

Alix, Nick’s ‘equally dazzling’ wife, is the crueller and more selfish of the manipulative, parasitic Fraser couple. They use people to create an audience that envies and thus validates their ersatz lives. Alix engineers a relationship between Frances and another of the doctors from the library, mostly it seems to amuse herself in watching two eager to please people she’s pushed into a budding romance in ways they barely comprehend or have the emotional equipment to cope with. She then destroys what she created, like a wanton boy with a fly.

In a scene late in the novel, when Frances realises that this possibility of love has been ruined for her by Alix’s cruel intervention, she’s torn between despair at the bleak, lonely prospect of her future life, now made worse by the sense of what might have been, and the self-destructive, childish desire to get herself back into Alix’s favour. Her walk home from the climactic disaster across a menacing London at night is described with terrifying force.

It’s the narrative voice that’s the most compelling aspect of this fine novel. Frances is a perceptive, critical observer of other people’s foibles, and gifted in turning them into the kind of witty, diverting fiction that ‘donnish’ types would enjoy. She acknowledges more than once that she has a ‘sharp tongue’ and a ‘moral stuffiness’, and seems proud of being considered ‘famous for my control’ – hinting at passion beneath this prim, austere surface. ‘I am thought to be unfeeling,’ she admits at one point, indicating those depths of feeling she conceals so well. But she’s hopeless at analysing or acknowledging her own feelings, or those of people who have most influence over her.I found this novel disturbing. This is because I think it dramatizes something we’ve surely all experienced: the desire to be liked, to be taken seriously, noticed (that touch of arrogance often found in undemonstrative people), to be looked at. Attention must be paid to your father, says Willy Loman’s wife at the end of Death of a Salesman to his sons, who despise what they see as his futile, thwarted life). Ironically, we all feel we deserve such attention, but are acutely aware of our deficiencies or inadequacies when it comes to inspiring it in other people. Frances doesn’t like being invisible.

Frances is a cleverer, more arrogant version of Prufrock, full of romantic impulses and desires, but lacking the self-confidence and self-esteem to bring them to life – to make friends, find love and hold on to it.

To read her half-aware, half-denying examination of how the events in the novel develop, and of their impact on her, is an emotionally bruising experience. It’s brilliantly done by Anita Brookner.

I’ll finish with a final quotation that reminded me chillingly of Britain’s current PM and his strange influence on the electorate. This is Frances early in the novel on her first impressions of doctor Nick, one of those shallow, shameless, dangerous charmers who attracts self-effacing, observant types like her:

…one’s instinctive reaction is one of admiration, indulgence, and, no doubt, if one is not very careful indeed, of supplication.

Jacquiwine’s post – she’s the one who recommended this for me to buy for Mrs TD – HERE

Backlisted podcast of Sept. 2017 HERE