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

Rebel without a cause: Lissa Evans, Old Baggage

Lissa Evans, Old Baggage. Black Swan paperback, 2018

Old Baggage is a prequel to Lissa Evans’ earlier novel Crooked Heart, posted about here in March. Mattie Simpkin is struggling to find purpose after the partial achievement of the goal of the radical suffragist movement, specifically the WSPU, to which she’d belonged earlier in her life. It’s 1928, not a random choice for the historical setting; it was the year of the Equal Franchise Act, which gave all women over the age of 21 the right to vote, whether they owned property or not.

Evans Old Baggage coverDesperate for a project into which to pour her indomitable energy and sense of outrage at the patriarchy (she’d been a vigorous exponent of direct action and civil disobedience, and still carries a wooden club in her handbag), she persuades young, largely working-class girls to join her eccentric ‘Amazons’ club on Saturday mornings in the park. Her bossy regime involves instilling in the girls the virtues of debating and recreation, such as healthy outdoor activities – including unladylike javelin-throwing. Asked about the point and propriety of this, she retorts with a typically cadenced and fiery aphorism worthy of her idol, the 17C author and priest Thomas Fuller:

“As a protest; as a means of defence; as an exercise in coordination. Weapons are not only for those who begin disputes, they are for those who wish to end them.”

She fails to realise that for most of these girls attendance probably means forgoing their one ‘lie-in’ of the week; on all the other days they rise early from bed to go to their menial, gruelling jobs, or to help out, like leading light Ida, with the never-ending ‘women’s work’ in the domestic sphere which is their destiny. The younger ones are missing out on less high-minded pursuits: boys, the cinema, fairgrounds.

The third aspect of this eccentric club’s aims, Mattie explains, is training. When a girl asks training for what, she replies, with similarly grandiose eloquence:

“For your lives as twentieth-century women, to enable you to take your places as equals in society, in Parliament and in the professions.”

Force-feeding poster WPSU 1910

Force-feeding poster for the WSPU by Alfred Pearce nom de plume “A Patriot” – http://www.historyextra.com/article/social-history/10-facts-about-suffragettes, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70437901

What’s interesting and unusual about this novel is that the author confronts the essential dilemma of her middle-class protagonist in ways that expose the problem for women like her in bringing her laudable social and political ideals – Mattie always makes her girls feel valued – into line with the reality of the privileges and ease of her class, in contrast with the deprivation and squalor endured by most working people at that time – Mattie’s struggle isn’t anything like as tough as theirs.

She’s what is sometimes disparagingly called here in the UK a champagne socialist. Evans is excellent at portraying Mattie’s genuine and resolute ambition to encourage young working-class women to fulfil their potential against all the odds stacked against them. But she’s an idealist who misguidedly believes that good intentions and (invoking her beloved literary-philosophical guru Thomas Fuller again) ‘invincible determination’ are all that’s needed to ‘accomplish almost anything,’ which in her case means equality for all. She lacks insight into herself, her protégées and her motives, and empathy with those closest to her.

It’s revealing that Mattie reveres Fuller, the biographer, historian and divine. Like him she adores linguistic elegance and exuberance: epigrams, words as weapons. She must also have been aware that he’s an unlikely hero for a left-leaning rebel like her; he supported the Royalist cause during and after the English Civil War, using his wit and literary brilliance to oppose the revolutionaries.

Evans is thus covertly signifying the basis of Mattie’s problem: she’s a single-issue campaigner who believed that women’s suffrage would eradicate every frustration they endured under the patriarchy.

The most cogent aspect of this highly entertaining novel is Mattie’s learning a painful lesson: that for equality for women to be achieved would involve a seismic change in society. It’s a critique of those middle-class suffragists and radicals like her who failed to recognise this. Former bourgeois suffragist icons like the Pankhursts are accurately portrayed in these pages as abandoning their cause to become ultra-nationalists during WWI – the kinds of flawed idealists that Mattie very nearly becomes.

But she does undergo an epiphany as a consequence of her pig-headed self-righteousness. Women she betrays or lets down teach her that any cause is bigger than her own ego, and that not all women have the leisure or wealth to support a pet project that will simply provide cosmetic improvement to the illness, humiliation and degradation endured by the working classes – and particularly women – in the early 20C. She learns a salutary lesson in humility, the importance of loyalty to her friends, and in not letting sentiment and impetuosity cloud her judgement.

One crucial aspect of the anti-climax felt by radical activists once the purpose of their cause has apparently been achieved is revealed in Old Baggage with the sad fates of some of Mattie’s former fellow-suffragists, now, like her, rebels without a cause. Ten years on they’ve mostly become middle-aged and lost. Some are sad alcoholics; several have become seduced by the rise of fascism – a sinister presence throughout the novel, seen especially in the macho militaristic struttings of a Mussolini-loving ‘Empire League’ that one of these former suffragists promotes with the support of her Mosley-esque politician husband to rival the proto-hippy free spirits of the Amazons; some will bow to the inevitable and marry – for middle-class women there was no other socially acceptable destiny.

In an echo of that ambivalently feminist 1893 novel by George Gissing, The Odd Women, Etta, one of these superannuated suffragists explains, aware that she’s potentially selling out the sisterhood, why she’s considering this matrimonial escape: she’d hate giving up her work as a health visitor helping working women and their families who lived in poverty and disease, but would like babies of her own. Besides, she adds, she was lucky to find a man at all; most women don’t. At a recent school reunion she attended, nineteen out of the thirty girls in her class were ‘spinsters’:

“…apparently, the newspapers are calling us ‘the surplus women’. “Like a drawer full of forks,” my friend Minnie said, “when all the knives have been stolen.”

This novel is full of sympathy for women’s fight for emancipation and equality at this period of history (a fight that’s still in progress) but it never descends into cosy nostalgia or rose-tinted sentimentality; there’s a tough edge to it, a strong sense of the harshness of the struggle, especially for women, and many of the female characters depicted suffer tragedy and terrible hardship. The betrayal the novel portrays of the suffragist cause by some of its erstwhile leaders and the parallel rise of fascism are timely warnings for our own era.

For further insight into this topic I recommend a set of materials at the British Library website under the heading ‘Votes for Women’, especially an article there written by historian Sarah Jackson: ‘”Women quite unknown”: working-class women in the suffrage movement.’ It provides a fascinating account of the Suffragist movement – especially women from the working classes, who were singled out for much more brutal treatment by the police and penal system, including vicious beatings, illegal incarceration and torture. The leaders of the various factions in the movement were largely upper class, treated with relative deference by the law, and suspicious of the broader egalitarian and libertarian aims of their less privileged sisters.

Lissa Evans has given stirring fictional voice to some of these unknown women – not ‘odd’ or ‘surplus’, but effective and heroic in ways that Mattie comes to recognise involved greater sacrifice and heroism than her own well-meaning but misguided, flamboyant posturing.

Noel, the little boy who becomes a key character in the sequel, Crooked Heart, set over a decade later during WWII, appears at the end of the novel as a means for Mattie to put right the mistakes she’s made and redeem herself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart (Black Swan paperback. First published 2014)

After a rather slow start this novel becomes a highly enjoyable, touching comedy-drama. Mrs TD, who normally finds my taste in fiction too depressing, also liked it.

I first heard about it on the Radio 4 book programme, A Good Read – I posted on this with a bit of background on the author here.

What’s so heartwarming about the novel, as the contributors to the programme said, was the developing relationship between the mismatched central characters: scrawny ten-year-old orphan Noel, a vulnerable and lonely evacuee from Blitz-torn London (this is early WWII), and Vera Sedge, 36, who takes him into her scruffy home in St Albans, some twenty miles north of the metropolis, only because of the allowances he’ll generate from the state. At first she has no interest in him as a person, and even less intention of passing on to him the rations she’ll claim on his behalf.

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart coverInstead she indulges and dotes on her no-good, overweight sponger son, Donald, who has scams of his own going on, while tolerating her dotty, aged mother-in-law – both of these housemates are a burden to her, contributing nothing financially. Much of her time is spent, when not devising hare-brained and illegal schemes to raise funds, evading the rent collector. She’s always broke and in debt – so Noel is for her an economic godsend.

He is a nerdy, reclusive child, made even more introspective by the recent death of his surrogate mother, the ex-suffragette Mattie, an eccentric, educated and seemingly quite wealthy middle-class woman who finally succumbed to the dementia from which she’d been increasingly suffering – a tragic Prologue shows the terrible disintegration of this formidably intelligent, independent woman. She’d raised Noel in her rambling Hampstead home as if he were another adult and radical free-thinker. As a result his naturally precocity has matured him well beyond his years – but it takes Vee a long time to recognise this.

When he first arrives she can’t make him out at all, but slowly starts to perceive his deeper qualities, as here when he’s unexpectedly revealed his extensive vocabulary (including some impressively adult slang) – Mattie used to pay him a penny a synonym for random words she selected from the thesaurus:

Vee shook her head. She was beginning to relish Noel’s oddness; it was like talking to someone who’d been raised on the moon.

Like Donald’s, her own illegal, ill-conceived money-making schemes fail – everyone around her, it seems, is a spiv, gangster or thief. The evocation of this seedy side of wartime Britain is entertainingly and colourfully done. Then Noel teams up with her and this odd couple, from such different worlds, starts to thrive – he tweaks Vee’s scams using his superior insight, intellect and research skills. Vee is shrewd enough to let him.

The plot moves along at a lively pace, with plenty of unexpected twists and developments that arise as much out of the characters and their relationships as from the wartime events and exigencies.

Lissa Evans’ background in TV drama serves her well in this respect: Noel and Vee in particular come across as warm-blooded, three-dimensional human beings, flawed but destined to find a kind of redemption and fulfilment in each other, but there are some vividly drawn secondary characters, too.

Unscrupulous Vee, for all her superficially worldly cunning, comes to realise she has far more to learn about humanity, morality and the social system with all its inequities (there’s some deeply moving and sympathetic stuff about the suffragette struggle) than the gifted, unprepossessing, ill-mannered and damaged little boy she’s ostensibly caring for. Their need for each other, meanwhile, deepens into something closer to love than either of them had known previously, and which neither could have foreseen.