Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Convent Girls edited by Jackie Bennett and Rosemary Forgan

This is a collection of interviews and essays with former convent girls, some extremely famous (Germaine Greer, Anne Robinson, Annie Nightingale) and some not, who share the collective experience of having been educated "by a gang of mad women in flapping black habits" (thanks to Germaine for that description). We even get one male convent girl, who ended up spending a year in a girls' convent due to the date of his birthday. There's an excellent historical survey of nuns and convent educations, and a wide range of experiences: Carmen Callil was miserable, a few years earlier, at the school that Germaine recalls with acerbic fondness. Irish convent girls seem generally less positive, but that may be because of the pervasive influence of the Church in Irish society; they tend to see their nuns as repressed, out of touch with the world, and without value. Others remember inspiring teachers and eccentric role models, especially those women who are not Catholic. My mother was a secular Protestant girl at a Catholic convent, and has fond memories of most of the nuns who taught her, perhaps because religion couldn't follow her home. Marina Warner contributes a typically thoughtful essay, which will cause Alone of All Her Sex to be added to my Amazon wish list.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Somewhere towards the end by Diana Athill

Partly a memoir, partly Athill's essays on her shifting view of life as she enters her nineties, this is an elegantly written treat. Athill's awareness of her own advantages and prejudices give a clarity to her writings that make them seem like fundamental truths. Her reflections on the changes brought by old age, and her ability to accept them, are instructive, comforting and inspiring. Because she recognises the advantages of her life - a happy childhood, a secure family life, interesting and stimulating work, late literary success - she avoids the self-satisfied air that could so easily permeate this type of work. Nor is the tone self-pitying when she describes her regrets or mistakes. Athill is very interesting about the benefits of the writing process, the effect of writing on the writer, her ideas and her approaches. This is a very satisfying read; buy a copy now while Athill is still around to spend the royalties.

This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M.Homes

I finished this a couple of weeks ago, and have warmed to it during that period, having been a little underwhelmed during the actual reading of the book. Something of a bildungsroman for the middle aged, we see Richard Novak's life transformed utterly by apparently random occurences and contingent encounters. Homes is skilful in her management of the plot, allowing some circumstances to have later significance, others to simply drift away, part of the eccentric Los Angeles setting for the novel. The relationships Richard develops with Anhil, the doughnut seller, Cynthia, who he meets, happenstance, weeping in a supermarket, and Nic, his writer neighbour in Malibu, are genuine and touching, and frame the reinvention of his relationship with his teenage son Ben. Richard's transition from moneyed hermit, his only human contacts with his housekeeper Cecilia and his nutritionist, to the utterly displaced man adrift in the Pacific on a kitchen table with an acquired dog for company, but with a renewed connection to others, is a familiar narrative. However, the characterisation, the use of detail and the ironies of the novel make it a worthwhile and enjoyable one.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

The Literary Note Meme

Thanks to Catherine for this.

1) What author do you own the most books by?

Sylvia Townsend Warner, with Nancy Mitford, E M Delafield, Patrick Gale and Evelyn Waugh close behind. I also have lots of Gerald Durrell who I loved as a teenager, but who will have to be pruned as EMD continues to expand.

2) What book do you own the most copies of?

I think I no longer have any duplicates, although I did have two or three copies of The Pursuit of Love for a while.

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

Not really.

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?

Claudia from Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger.

5) What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children)?

Cold Comfort Farm, The Pursuit of Love, The Diary of a Provincial Lady, I Capture the Castle, and Nancy Mitford's letters.

6) What was your favourite book when you were ten years old?

Probably Little Women, although In the Fifth at Malory Towers was a persistent favourite for many years.

7) What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?

Arlington Park.

8 ) What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?

Waterlog for sheer pleasure, The Rest is Noise for awe-inspiring scholarship and insight.

9) If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?

The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?

I read a lot of books by dead people, so I'm not best placed to judge.

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?

I've just finished This Book will Save Your Life, which would make an amusing film. Films of books are never as good as the pictures in my head.

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?

The Diary of a Provincial Lady.

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.

I can't remember having one.

14) What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult?

Probably Ann Bannon's pulp lesbian novels, which are highly entertaining.

15) What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?


16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you’ve seen?

I've only seen those more frequently performed. I did once see a production of Antony and Cleopatra in which Cleopatra was played by a man in a green silk dressing-gown and a goatee beard. Fairly obscure for Oxford in 1983.

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?

No preference.

18 ) Roth or Updike?

They both sound equally vile. I love Florence King's anecdote about having her dinner catch fire, and realising she was trying to burn down the house to avoid reading John Updike for a commissioned article.

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?

Never read either.

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?


21) Austen or Eliot?

TS or George? Austen.

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?

Anna Karenina.

23) What is your favorite novel?

I can't pick favourites, but I come back to Cold Comfort Farm, Pride and Prejudice, The Pursuit of Love, I Capture the Castle, Mrs Dalloway, Hardy, EMD and STW over and over again.

24) Play?

Life of Galileo by Brecht, Not I or Happy Days by Beckett

25) Poem?

The Art of Losing by Elizabeth Bishop, Snow and Entirely by Louis Macneice, The River by STW, Hardy's poem that starts "Woman much missed ..." and When I set out for Lyonnesse.

26) Essay?

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.

27) Short story?

Sylvia Townsend Warner's A Love Match

28) Work of nonfiction?

I'm not sure if Nancy Mitford's letters count as non-fiction. Clare Harman's biography of STW, or Virginia Woolf's Moments of Being.

29) Who is your favourite writer?

Too many to have one. STW, EMD, Nancy Mitford, Virginia Woolf, Sarah Waters, Salley Vickers.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?

Probably Ian McEwan, who always starts so well and ends so disappointingly.

31) What is your desert island book?

STW's Collected Poems, which should provide plenty of food for thought during the long hours of lonely contemplation.

32) And… what are you reading right now?

A book called Our Hidden Lives, compiled from Mass Observation diaries and covering the austerity years.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Bright Young People by D J Taylor

Taylor's history attempts to chart "the rise and fall of a generation", the generation who were mostly too young to have fought in World War I, but old enough to have understood its implications. Often opposed to traditional thinking, with greater independence, more opportunities to earn money, and more indulgent parents than previous generations, this particular fragment of interwar Britain rebelled against their parents through jokes, parties, and pursuing the cult of celebrity. Taylor considers the meaning of class in a frivolous society, the contribution (and sometimes the lack of it) to arts and letters made by its members, and issues of sexuality and criminality. Rather oddly, he suggests that "the real casualties of gay young Bohemia ... were women" (205), not appearing to grasp that any casualties at that time were probably caused by the illegality of homosexual behaviour rather than the behaviour itself. I can't quite believe in Nancy Mitford as a pathetic victim of her gay first love, since she seemed to have a pattern of falling for unavailable men.

Taylor has an excellent resource at his disposal: the letters and diaries of the Ponsonbys, comprising father Arthur, Labour politician and eventual leader of the House of Lords; his wife Dorothea; their conformist son Matthew; and their rebel daughter Elizabeth, who seems to have attended every party held during the 1920s, made a thoroughly unsuccessful marriage, drained her parents of money and died young from the effects of alcoholism. Taylor's sympathies are with the elder Ponsonbys, and it is fairly hard not to agree, but a little more consideration of Elizabeth's reasons for choosing a rackety way of life would have been welcome. Perhaps there simply isn't any evidence of her motivation. Elizabeth's story is a sad and touching one; this, and other similar narratives, prevent the book from being overly infected with the frivolity it depicts; it is a rich source of highly amusing stories. I particularly enjoyed Eddie Gathorne-Hardy teasing his celibate gay butler.

This book reminded me most of a book I read years ago about the Baader-Meinhof group. In both books, the author's distaste for most of his subjects, for their pointless lives, for their limitations, comes strongly off the page. For the Bright Young People, such distaste seems a little harsh. They may have led futile lives, they were certainly silly, but not really so very bad. The final chapter details the successes as well as the failures among this group, but I can't shake the feeling of Taylor's disapproval even for the successes of Robert Byron or Evelyn Waugh.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Waterlog by Roger Deakin

I have just finished the last pages of this book; the last twenty-four hours have been filled with annoying interruptions, when all I wanted was to read and savour the last few chapters in one sitting. This is an utterly marvellous book, a unique blend of memoir, travel writing, natural history, social history, written in an entrancing, poetic voice that transports the reader straight to the heart of Deakin's knowledge and experience. The book has a great deal to say about the social, physical and psychological importance of swimming, about our need for contact with the water, but is always good-humoured and never didactic; any polemic is gentle, but still has real impact. The stories and voices of the people Deakin meets on his journey, the swimmers, rowers and fishermen, ring out authentically and build a rounded portrait of the British relationship with water, and of the country itself. This book has made me want to do two things: read it again, and then go for a swim in an oxbow lake in the Windrush, as Deakins does and as I often did as a child. Brighton beach just isn't the same.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920s to 1950s by Nicola Humble

Nicola Humble's fascinating work considers the establishment of the feminine middlebrow novel as a genre, and the growth and social spread of middlebrow readers, before examining the treatment and use of the themes of class, domesticity, the family and gender roles within a wide range of middlebrow fictions from the period. Humble's contention is that middlebrow fiction's response to modernity is not only to resist change and development, but also to promote new roles and social structures. Middlebrow novels are usually set in an upper-middle-class milieu, but are read by lower-middle class readers; these novels undermine class distinction by allowing the reader from a lower social class to infiltrate this closed world, understanding its secret codes and learning its distinctive ways of life. Sometimes this subversion led to the extension of snobberies; Humble identifies the effects of Nancy Mitford's Noblesse Oblige, which extended the knowledge of upper-class language usage to all who happened to read it, exporting its strictures on terms such as notepaper to a wider social group. These novels often act almost as self-help guides for the modern middle-class woman, identifying appropriate ways of living, of arranging a house and dealing with servants, of managing social life; this exemplary tone makes their ambiguities and subversions about the rules of life more significant, as readers might learn a variety of lessons, each amply supported by the instructive mood of the text. Humble manages a wide range of texts here, including some writers such as Rose Macaulay and Elizabeth Bowen now frequently claimed as highbrow, but undoubtedly enjoyed by a contemporary middlebrow audience. Humble came to these texts as reading for pleasure during her English degree; her taste for "girly books" as they called them was shared by her friends, who swapped second-hand bookshop finds and were an ideal market for the output of Virago in the early 1980s. Her pleasure in these books does not limit her ability to engage with the text as a clear-eyed critic, and to identify their demerits along with their achievements, and this results in a satisfying, balanced evaluation of these works, and a stimulus for my own further thought and future research in this area.