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

 

Kate Atkinson and signs of summer

Kate Atkinson, Transcription. Black Swan paperback, Transworld Publishers/Penguin (2019)

This is a typically entertaining Kate Atkinson novel: not too demanding, well put together, and pretty forgettable.

Kate Atkinson Transcription coverThe structure is a little confusing at first, with contrapuntal sections set in completely different decades of the life of the protagonist, Juliet. In the first, set in 1981, she’s an old woman who’s injured in an accident – after years living in Italy and back in London on a visit, she’d looked the wrong way when crossing the road.

Next it’s the fifties, and she’s working in a dull job with uninspiring colleagues at the BBC. Then we go back a decade to the most substantial – and interesting – section: the years she spent as a clerk with the secret service. Her job is what gives the novel its title: she’s given the mundane job (considered all a young woman is good for in those unenlightened days) of transcribing on her typewriter the dialogue that’s been covertly recorded of a group of Nazi sympathisers. The flat next door has been set up by a British agent, who poses as another Nazi, as a supposed safe place in which to hold their meetings and plot against the British war effort.

Juliet is much brighter than her job allows her to be, and is soon recruited by her enigmatic bosses to do some real spying. What follows is a le Carré type espionage thriller, with a bit of unrequited love that’s more like a Barbara Pym plot element.

As I said at the start, it’s all good fun, and ideal for these fraught times when I find it difficult to focus on anything that requires close attention.

Bluebells are still flowering in this hedge next to a farmer’s field of rape

Now for other matters. I went for one of our regular local walks in the country with Mrs TD yesterday. It was yet another glorious sunny day, and nature is thriving. Early-developing trees like sycamore have already grown large leaves, but like their slightly tardier fellows they’re still a lovely shade of pale green, almost transparent when the sun shines through them.

A chestnut nearby has been if full bloom for a couple of weeks now, a wonderful shade of magenta. Blossom on most other flowering trees is just about over, but there’s still enough to keep the bees happy – and me.

Ploughed field 1

I posted pictures of this field last summer when it was full of ripe barley. Swallows and martins hunted for insects overhead then – but not yet this spring

Big news: as we passed a farm where late last summer I saw a group of swallows lining up on a telegraph wire, clearly preparing to migrate, I paused to scan the sky. I still hadn’t seen any first hirundine (what a great word) arrivers this spring – and sure enough, there they were! Two swallows, swooping across the valley, tracing aerial arcs at high speed. This is a sight that always lifts my spirits. I’ve been looking out for them for weeks, but this fine weather is blowing down from the north, and is therefore cold – maybe this has deterred them until now.

Ploughed field 2

The view across to the next field, also freshly ploughed. Not a swallow in sight – but what a view

Sybille Bedford, Jigsaw

Sybille Bedford, Jigsaw: an unsentimental education. Eland Publishing Ltd, London, 2005. First published 1989.

This is another of those books that doesn’t sit neatly in the category ‘novel’ or ‘(auto)biography’, or even ‘(auto)fiction’. Sybille Bedford’s account (the title page has it as ‘a biographical novel) of her early family life – she was born in Germany in 1911 – until early adulthood in the 1930s is described in her Afterword:

Truth here was an artistic, not a moral requirement – truth to be presented in the terms of the novelist, not the biographer, terms that meant timing, selection, avoiding repetition.

Sybille Bedford Jigsaw coverShe goes on to account for the ‘sisters’ story’ –  of the two women originally from Berlin whose lives form ‘a counterweight, a link between the English and the French action of my jigsaw.’

This novel is then an artefact, assembled fragments to represent a likeness as the author saw it in ‘writing about myself, my feelings, my actions.’ Much as she was tempted to leave out the substantial part played in her early life by her mother (‘Did one have to have a parent?’ she enquires wistfully, playfully in this Afterword), her story inevitably lingers in most of its pages on the significant impact on those feelings and actions by her glamorous, impetuous, intelligent, exasperating mother.

The short first section is poignant and funny, mostly about her early childhood in Germany with her eccentric, solitary father, barely subsisting in the grand but desolate, threadbare castle he’d been left by his wife when she’d had enough of him and took off to pursue love affairs, exotic travels and a more stimulating life:

[My father] could not stand clever women. (My mother had been too beautiful for him to notice that she was one and when he did notice it was too late.)

This German part of his family is called Merz in Bedford’s excellent novel (published 1956) about them, A Legacy (my posts about it HERE). She’s sensitive and perceptive in portraying his character and how she portrayed it to suit her novelist’s purpose there:

Jules in the novel is a man by no means originally devoid of feeling, whose contact with reality is snapped by events at one or two points in his life. He protects himself by limiting his grasp. A man who has lost his nerve…in the context of a particular time and the changes in that time.

Subsequent sections of the novel follow the protagonist after the early death of her father. Her mother marries a handsome Italian much younger than herself, and has little time for the precocious, bookish little girl she hardly knows, so she is tolerated for a sequence of summer breaks in various rented villas in Europe, usually by the sea. Her mother is restless, romantic, feckless. The daughter is educated fitfully, mostly at home or with dubious tutors.

Much of the time she is farmed off with equally bohemian friends in England, living hand-to-mouth, but still spending summers in Italy. The most substantial part of the novel is set in the place where her mother finally settles: Sanary, on the coast of the (then unfashionable) south of France. It’s a quiet place, favoured by itinerant foreign artists and intellectuals, like Aldous Huxley and his wife, and the exotically glamorous couple called here the Desmirails (not their real name). Young Billi (as Sybil was called by those close to her) develops an adolescent crush on Oriane, the glacially beautiful, art deco wife.

The final section is very different in tone. Sybil’s mother develops a drug addiction, and her daughter and young husband struggle to cope with the demands this places on the household.

The novel is uneven in quality; at times I became frustrated with the ingenuous depiction of the sybaritic ways of people one wouldn’t really want to meet: they’re usually broke, but always seem to manage to employ a ‘femme de ménage’, and to eat out and drink in café-bars. I suppose the author is adopting the viewpoint of the inexperienced young woman who didn’t know that the behaviour of her mother and her circle was selfish and neglectful, as well as exciting and unpredictable. It’s a wonder Billi survived.

I have quibbles with the prose style, too. Mostly it’s well written – rather patrician and slightly dated (the novel was longlisted for the Booker the year it was published, when Bedford was 78). But there are defects, especially a feature that Orwell hated, and I found irritating: Bedford’s habit of using unnecessary and intrusive double negatives – there must be a dozen of them, like this one chosen at random: a friend of young Sybil is having an affair with a judge who is said to have ‘a not insubstantial private income.’ That would be a substantial one, then.

Another character spends a part – ‘a not unlively part’ – of his time at a particular artists’ haunt; maybe I’m just fastidious, but what’s wrong with calling it ‘a lively part’?

 

 

 

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata. Vintage Books, 2017. First published 2016

Switzerland remained neutral through both world wars of the 20C. Precariously, given that it bordered the countries engaged in invasive, destructive warfare, and was sought as a haven by refugees fleeing the Nazis’ murderous persecution of the Jewish people in particular from the 1930s on.

Rose Tremain The Gustav Sonata coverRose Tremain excels in making the ‘historical’ part of her fiction come to life – the formidable research behind the narrative is never intrusive. Her protagonist in The Gustav Sonata is introduced in the first part of the novel, set in the years shortly after WWII, as a small, sensitive boy being brought up in a sleepy Swiss town by the mother he adores, but who treats him with cold and bitter disdain. Her husband, a policeman, had lost his job in disgrace after falsifying documents to allow a handful of Jewish refugees to find asylum in his country, soon after Switzerland had closed its borders to them. The official line was that it was full and couldn’t handle any more (an all too familiar claim in many places today); more pragmatically, the Swiss authorities were terrified of provoking the Nazis into punitive tactics, even invasion.

Soon after being sacked, a crisis occurs in his marriage and he becomes estranged from his wife and dies – before his son was old enough to remember his father.

The novel is set in a sort of prose form of a musical sonata in three sections. Part one shows how Gustav aged five befriends Anton at kindergarten – he’s instinctively drawn to another vulnerable child. Anton’s Jewish father had moved to the provinces from his city bank after a breakdown caused by another family crisis.

Anton is a gifted pianist – but suffers from terrible stage fright, and this stops his becoming a concert performer.

Tremain traces the development of these two young boys through to late middle age as they struggle to overcome the trauma they have experienced and the deficiencies in their ability to form lasting relationships.

It’s a beautifully told story, with central characters ill equipped to deal with the times they live through, but Tremain confidently shows, without lapsing into sentimentality, the power of love to prevail over all setbacks.

I enjoyed it a lot.

 

 

Edmund Gosse, Father and Son

Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), Father and Son. Penguin Modern Classics, 1970; first published 1907

The subtitle of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son is ‘A Study of Two Temperaments’. But it’s not really a study of anything, let alone the temperaments of these two characters. It’s a sort of spiritual autobiography, as it tells of the author’s experience to the age of seventeen of being brought up by parents who were members of the strict, extremely austere religious sect the Plymouth Brethren. Both his father and his mother were biblical literalists and evangelical puritans, who considered fictional books sinful.

Edmund Gosse Father and Son cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘Self Portrait as a Young Man’ by G.F. Watts

Edmund was subjected from his earliest childhood to the interminable sermons and services in which his father led the small group of brethren. Reading the bible and the more serious hymns were the main diversions of Edmund’s childhood – though he did manage to smuggle in a little Strumpelpeter. The book describes his struggle to liberate himself from this stultifying education, and the development of his imaginative sensibility against these fearsome odds.

F & S is also partly a biography of his father, Philip, but not really that, either. Edmund had published a more conventional biographical account of the father in 1890, in which it seems a less monstrous portrait was given than the one in this book.

It shares more of the characteristics of a novel; scholars have pointed out numerous details that are simply invented – like the back story of his much-loved mother. His claim in the Preface to be ‘scrupulously true’ is hedged by ‘as far as the punctilious attention of the writer has been able to keep it so’. This is an early indication of the leaden prose style that I’ll come back to later.

In this respect (ie deviations from ‘truth’) it’s a bit like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, serialised in 1914-15 by Ezra Pound in the modernist literary magazine The Egoist; it began life as the autobiographical novel Stephen Hero in 1904, but this was abandoned and refashioned by Joyce. Both books relate the growth of the protagonist’s artistic character – but F and S could hardly be more different in style and tone.

Edmund’s upbringing was much harsher and narrower than Stephen’s in Joyce’s novel, although they both have to summon the strength to reject the dominant religious regime of their environments.

His mother died when he was young, and he was sent to a boarding school where he never settled in. Although his father, an eminent biological scientist, was clearly a loving father in some ways, his ruthless, bigoted insistence on his religious rectitude was chilling and traumatic for the sensitive boy.

It should have been a gripping read – and at times it is. His abandonment in Ch. 12 of biblical hermeneutics for another, literary interpretative system, is dramatically portrayed. His father’s crazed attempts to explain away the growing proof of Darwinist evolutionary theory are a source of embarrassment to his son – and the scientific community to which Philip belonged; these sections are fascinating and chilling at the same time.

But the prose style is the turgid Victorian type, and it makes for a mostly plodding narrative. There are some welcome lighter moments – as when young Edmund decides to forgo trying to proselytize his schoolmates, concluding he’ll ‘let sleeping dogmas lie’. He also tries some delightfully naïve strategies to test the power of his father’s jealous god, which lead him to deduce that this god isn’t all he’s cracked out to be. This is a classic account of a Victorian crisis of faith – although it seems Gosse never entirely abandoned his Christian faith; he simply rejected his parents’ extremist version of it.

The narrative ends when Edmund’s father, with the help of the Christian writer Charles Kingsley, gets his son (aged seventeen) a lowly post as a clerk at the British Museum reading room. There he was under the supervision of William Ralston, who was, as Edmund was to become, an advocate and translator of Scandinavian literature – especially of Ibsen.

Ralston, who was also a champion of Russian literature, introduced Turgenev to the London aesthetic scene. Gosse met the Russian novelist in 1871 at Ford Madox Brown’s salon, which was frequented by the likes of Pre-Raphaelite artists, and writers including Swinburne and William Morris. I wonder if Gosse would have read Turgenev’s novel about a young man’s rebellion against a father whose values he can’t share; even the title – Fathers and Sons (in most English translations) – is similar. Constance Garnett’s version, titled Fathers and Children, was published in England in 1895, and it’s difficult to imagine Gosse wouldn’t have read it. The basic stories are very different, but the father-son dynamic is equally problematic.

Constance Garnett was married in 1889 to the son of Richard, the keeper of printed materials at the British Museum where Gosse initially worked – another link in this literary chain.

Henry James was a friend of Edmund Gosse’s during his time in London in the 1880s. At first just casual, the relationship became more intimate over time – James thought Gosse amiable, ‘an endlessly amusing companion’, but ‘second-rate’, as Leon Edel has it in his Life of HJ. Edel sees Gosse as a flatterer, and describes it as ‘one of the most literary-gossipy friendships in Victorian annals.’ James is said to have quipped that Gosse had ‘a genius for inaccuracy’ – presumably referring to his literary biographies and criticism, but the point could also apply to F & S.

It’s a pity Gosse chose not to add a second volume to his account of his youth; it would have been interesting to hear his redacted, rosy-tinted story about how he became a middle-ranking man of letters who loved to hobnob with writers with genuine literary talent.

 See the excellent, informative post on F & S by Bookish Beck at her blog HERE

 

Elizabeth Jane Howard, Mr Wrong

Elizabeth Jane Howard, Mr Wrong. Picador Books, 2015. Stories originally published in the 1950s and 1970s, I think

 I’ve read one Elizabeth Jane Howard novel, After Julius (link to my post HERE) – a rather melodramatic tale of tangled, thwarted love. I also know of her as the author of the four much-praised Cazalet novels, about the lives of middle-class characters, with the focus on the women (from what I’ve read about them). I was not expecting the hair-raising ghoulishness of two of the stories in this collection, therefore.

Elizabeth Jane Howard Mr Wrong coverThe title story, ‘Mr Wrong’ is about a car bought second-hand by a nervous, lonely young woman called Meg; it turns out to be haunted by a gruesome murderer and his victim – who starts to come after the callow, vulnerable new owner. The narrative and the story’s  title subvert with grim relish the trite social assumption that all a reserved young woman like Meg wants or needs from life is ‘Mr Right’.

‘Three Miles Up’ is like a nightmare version of those cosy tv programmes in which minor celebrities chug along picturesque canals in narrowboats. The two men in a boat invite a mysterious young woman to join them – they find her apparently asleep by a tree on the canal bank. Things then take a decidedly spooky and sinister turn as they decide to explore an overgrown branch canal that’s not on any of their maps.

After a bit of searching online I discovered that EJH had worked as a secretary for the Inland Waterways Association. This was a charity devoted to the conservation and promotion of Britain’s canals and waterways that was co-founded by Robert Aickman, the writer of supernatural ‘strange stories’, and with whom she had an affair. This liaison also led to her contributing these two stories and one other to the collection We Are for the Dark (1951), to which Aickman himself added another three. Interesting that she should create such vastly different genres of fiction.

Although none of the other seven stories in Mr Wrong have a supernatural element, several are quite acrid in their depiction of disastrous marriages and other relationships. Spouses have affairs and fight with their partners; parents neglect their children. ‘The Whip Hand’ has a monstrous controlling mother of a child performer who shows signs at the end of becoming nastier than her mother.

In ‘Child’s Play’ a spoilt 18-year-old newlywed returns home after a row with her husband to seek solace from her doting father, who turns out to be a serial philanderer. Father and daughter treat the mother, Kate, with contempt.

This story has a nice vignette of the family’s appropriately sociopathic cat bringing a mouse into the kitchen, and ‘forcing’ Kate ‘to meet her glassy, insolent gaze’. It then ‘began to crunch it up like a club sandwich’:

She liked Kate, in a limited way, to share in her triumphs. In ten seconds the mouse was gone, she had drunk a saucer of milk, and was polishing her spotless paws. She kept herself in a gleaming state of perpetual readiness – like a fire engine.

Even the cat has an agenda in this twisted family drama.

Only one story, ‘Summer Picnic’, has a gentler tone, and it provides a welcome respite from this sequence of stories about edgy, tainted lives and loves.

I found some of the perceptions of and assumptions about sexual relations in After Julius disturbing, and these misgivings recurred in reading some of the stories in Mr Wrong. In ‘Toutes Directions’, set in the south of France, there’s a sex scene in which the reader seems to be expected to find the young woman’s submission to a man she’s just met as a kind of epiphanic liberation. Maybe I’m misreading, but I thought it not far removed from rape.

Although the stories are technically quite good, I didn’t much care for the author’s attitudes to her characters and their world of tension. The amorality and caustic misanthropy are depressing and borderline morbid.

First magnolias of springI’ll lighten the mood with a picture taken the other day in a local park – the first magnolias there this spring. My tree is still in bud.

Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle – and recent walks

Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle. Vintage Books, 2004. First published in the USA, 1948

Not many novels make me laugh, but this one did, many times. Its narrative form is a sequence of entries in increasingly expensive notebook diaries written by its precocious 17-year-old protagonist, Cassandra Mortmain. They are quirky, intimate and ‘consciously naïve’ (as she’s piqued to overhear herself described as by one of the potential suitors who come on the scene).

Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle coverThe plot is a sort of mash-up of romantic-Gothic-silly aspects of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp – all of which are name-checked. The Mortmains are penniless, barely subsisting in their crumbling castle. The sisters’ negligent blocked novelist father spends his time shut in his room reading trashy detective stories; their stepmother is a flaky, impractical bohemian/It Girl (the novel seems to be set in the thirties).

Cassandra is shrewd and decent enough to despair of her pretty older sister Rose’s over-obvious flirting with the eligible rich American boys who take over the big house (and also become her family’s landlords – though they never pay rent). As gold-digging Rose admits early on, she’d ‘marry the Devil himself if he had some money’. But Cassandra is young, romantic and coquettish enough to fall for one of the young men herself.

These contrived entanglements are perhaps strung out too long, but it’s worth sticking with the novel for its constant stream of the ingenuous Cassandra’s humorous observations arising from bizarre situations in and around their crumbling castle. Some of these scenes try too hard (as when Rose is mistaken for a bear), but usually they work. Here are some tasters:

[Cassandra at the start of the novel is pondering what she and sister Rose are to do for money] Surely there is enough intelligence among us to earn some, or marry some – Rose, that is; for I would approach matrimony as cheerfully as I would the tomb and I cannot feel that I should give satisfaction.  

[The sisters have met the wealthy young Americans, and Rose has caught the eye of one them; her mercenary hopes are raised, and they decide to pray in earnest, as they go to bed one night, that Rose will genuinely fall in love with him so that she won’t be a miserable rich wife. Cassandra finishes her prayers, but Rose carries on longer] ‘That’ll do, Rose,’ I told her at last. ‘It’s enough just to mention things, you know. Long prayers are like nagging.’


Some good news for once: Mrs TD and I had our Pfizer vaccinations yesterday – no ill effects or discomfort so far, and all was well organised at our local doctors’ surgery. It’s the first thing the British government has managed well since the pandemic started – though the success of the rollout of vaccines is largely down to the energy and dedication and professionalism of the NHS staff and the volunteers who’ve assisted with the practicalities.

Mrs TD has applied to be one of those volunteers. She was very excited this morning when her high-viz tabard arrived in the mail. She intends to wear it everywhere, even though she hasn’t yet been called to help with the vaccination programme.

I’ll close with some remarks about recent walks. One cold day last week, while Mrs TD had her Zoom yoga class, I went out alone. On a remote lane, high on a hill where the wind was bitter, a well-wrapped-up man passed me: ‘Fresh this morning,’ he said.

This lingered with me for some time. One of those expressions that’s so context-bound. It could have been said by a fishmonger or greengrocer, extolling the qualities of their wares to a potential customer.

Indignant peacockAnother day, another walk, the two of us this time. We passed the smallholding where the group (flock?) of peacocks live; I’ve posted about them several times since our lockdown exercise walks became routine. Mrs TD took this picture of one of the birds perched on the sill of one of the house’s upstairs windows. It was peering in, indignant but also a bit desperate.

I often pass these stones. They lie in a field by the footpath – sheep are grazing there at the moment. They look a little forlorn, like a small, derelict Stonehenge. The sun that day cast shadows that made the scene even more desolate than usual.

Stones

The destruction of the human soul: Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time. Vintage Books, 2017. First published 2016

Julian Barnes Noise of Time cover Can artists work without compromising themselves when living under a brutal dictator with a highly prescriptive set of strictures about what constitutes “acceptable” or proletarian art? That’s the dilemma faced by the protagonist of Julian Barnes’ fictional account of Dmitri Shostakovich under Stalin-era Soviet rule.

Barnes conveys particularly well the absurdity behind this autocratic ‘Power’: Stalin and his successors employ fanatical apparatchiks to enforce their doctrine, and any perceived deviation from it is dealt with savagely. During the opening section of the novel, Shostakovich stands outside his Leningrad apartment by the lift, waiting for its doors to open and emit the men from the ‘Big House’ who will take him away to the fate he knows has befallen so many of his friends (and countless strangers) – interrogation, the camps, or more likely a bullet to the back of the head.

His crime: to write an opera that Stalin considered bourgeois, cacophonous, and suspiciously like the odious capitalist western jazz.

He stands there night after night, hour after hour, to spare his wife the sight of his being hauled from his bed by these agents of terror.

Most of the novel consists of a highly plausible account of his inner conflict during his decades of fluctuating favour with Power. He sees himself as a coward when he kowtows to it. He signs his name to articles he hasn’t written, admissions of ‘crimes’ he knows he’s innocent of.

Even worse is the apparently softer regime under Stalin’s successors, when he finds himself having to make even more humiliating concessions and public shows of feigned allegiance to a system that’s still repressive and narrow-minded:

And when faced with criticism of his own work, his response was: look, I have a multiplicity of styles, just tell me which you would prefer me to use. He was proud of his facility – but that was not what was being asked of him. They didn’t want you to fake adherence to their banal taste and meaningless critical slogans – they wanted you to actually believe in them. They wanted your complicity, your compliance, your corruption.

The novel is well written, full of intriguing insights into this conflicted man’s anguish and dilemma. His genius is marred by certain human frailties and flaws – this is no hagiography.

I just didn’t find it as compelling as I thought I would. Maybe it’s just the lacklustre mood of these constrained times – it hinders my capacity to enter into these fictional worlds. Another time I’d have probably enjoyed this novel much more – but this exploration of ‘the destruction of the human soul’ is not what I need at present. And as another autocratic, narcissistic leader heads for the Florida golf courses, maybe life will take a turn for the better in this turbulent world.

Snowdrop

The first snowdrop of the year appeared in our garden last week

Meanwhile Mrs TD and I continue our daily walks. The other day as we turned from our street into the main road we were confronted by two power company vans and a group of workmen in high vis vests, standing around a large hole they’d just dug in the road, peering into its depths. Is there a problem? Mrs TD asked. “No, just a gas leak,” one of the workmen cheerily replied…