Three novels by women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Moss, The Fell Picador, 2022; 20211

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

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

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

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

 

The Mrs Jellyby of Manchester: Sarah Moss, ‘Bodies of Light’

I don’t often write here about new or recently published books; mostly I read from the teetering TBR pile of older works – as regular readers will no doubt have noticed. Modern English fiction I find uneven in quality (Americans like Denis Johnson seem to me superior to what the UK can offer at present). All the fuss in the media and blogosphere about what’s on or should have been on the Man Booker long list published yesterday doesn’t pique my interest too much.

Sarah Moss

Image of Sarah Moss taken from Granta books website

Earlier this month, however, I read a review on Susan Osborne’s site A Life in Books of Sarah Moss’s new novel, Signs for Lost Children, a sequel to Bodies of Light, which was published by Granta last year; Susan put this sequel on her own list of Booker predictions. She mentioned that the central character of the first book, Ally, becomes a doctor in an asylum in Truro, Cornwall. As that’s where I live, and I find literature to do with mental health fascinating – one of my earliest posts was about Oliver Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye, and I’ve long admired the seminal work on women, mental health and literature The Madwoman in the Attic, and Lisa Appignanesi’s Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors From 1800 to the Present (the link is to Viv Groskop’s 2008 Guardian review) is excellent – I decided to give Ally’s story a try.

Susan did a fine job reviewing Bodies of Light, so I won’t summarise the plot in detail. It’s an account of a family’s ordeal at the hands of a fiercely idealistic and evangelical Victorian mother who, like Mrs Jellyby, the ‘telescopic philanthropist’ in Bleak House, who also neglects her own children while obsessing about an obscure African tribe’s plight, devotes all her attention to the care and welfare of the poor and ‘fallen women’ while neglecting and abusing (physically and emotionally) her own two daughters – as her own mother had with her and her sister. Her husband, Alfred, an artist of the Pre-Raphaelite type who builds a successful career as painter and interior designer, is also excluded by his wife, and he finds solace elsewhere.

The epigraph from RD Laing and A. Esterson’s Sanity, Madness and the Family is salutary and apt: ‘We have clinical terms for disturbed, but not disturbing persons’.

The novel is mostly very well written. The theme of parental neglect and cruelty passing on through the generations is Dickensian in its seriousness and emotional clout. I found the novel a little slow, however. Despite the often beautiful prose (Susan gives some fine examples) the relentless narration of the mother’s cruel, deluded treatment of her girls is just too long and repetitive.

There is interesting use of catalogue-type descriptions of artworks by Alfred and his friend Aubrey West at the head of each of the ten chapters, which poetically and symbolically foreshadow the sexually ambiguous, hypocritical treatment of the growing sisters by parents and by West – but these are brief points of light in a gloomy plot.

I also found the latter part of the novel, in which Ally struggles against social prejudice and general misogyny to become one of the first women doctors, rather contrived and predictable. The author’s research (the 1864 Contagious Diseases Act and its disastrous consequences for Victorian women is a central feature, for example) is a little too evident and becomes intrusive. The (justifiably) angry message dominates the narrative. Ally is ultimately a credibly damaged but insubstantially realised character.

S Moss Bodies coverI feel Sarah Moss missed the opportunity to introduce a little contrast into the depiction of this deeply unhappy family’s life. The father, Alfred, doesn’t share his wife’s tormented, demented obsessions; why couldn’t he have stood up to her more, defended his suffering children – and himself? His acquiescence seemed to me unlikely, and his character fades quietly into the background as the novel proceeds, and his wife’s tyrannical domestic regime is unchallenged.

At the end, though, Ally has developed an interest in mental illness, and has moved at last to Truro. I hope to find the sequel (I shall certainly read it) less predictable and a bit more varied in tone. Sarah Moss can write, but she needs to preach a little less and let her characters breathe.

Postscript: in her Acknowledgements at the end of the book Sarah Moss points out that she wrote much of it in cafes in Penryn and Falmouth; is this JK Rowling type activity coming into vogue? She also states that she wrote and read a lot on the Cornish Riviera trains from Paddington to Truro, and expresses gratitude for their provision of Quiet Coaches. I would have thought that tapping away on her laptop would not have endeared Ms Moss to her fellow quiet-seeking passengers…