Monday, 29 November 2010

Slightly Foxed Quarterly

I was delighted and astonished to win a subscription to the Slightly Foxed Quarterly in a competition at The Dabbler.  My first copy (Number 27, Autumn 2010) arrived a few days after I found out I'd won, and has been an enlightening and entertaining read.  This issue has several articles on forgotten writers - H.A. Manhood and Rupert Croft-Cook were new names to me - as well as evaluations of better-known writers including Thoreau, Graham Green and Madame de SevignĂ©, so a catholic (and slightly Catholic) selection.  The essays are short and pithy, designed to entice the reader to explore the subject further, giving little hints of the qualities and characteristics of the subject; many of the essayists foreground the personal pleasure and resonance that their subject has for them, in particular the sensual pleasures of reading the work concerned.  The last piece, on the earliest origins of painting and paper, connects to this slight emphasis on the materiality of books, as well as letting us in on some academic gossip - historians of paper are a combative lot, and the leading Chinese paper historian, Pan Jixing, turned to the study of gunpowder for a while as it was much more peaceful.

The magazine is the size of a small book, eminently portable, and with the high production values of the Slightly Foxed Editions.  I can see that the Quarterly will be a pleasure for the year to come, and no doubt bookish friends will be getting birthday subscriptions.  Many thanks to Slightly Foxed and to the Dabbler for the chance to enjoy it.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I'd meant to get around to reading Marilynne Robinson for some time, since her prizewinning work has been so much praised; I'm also drawn to writers who don't write that many novels, as it's usually an indication of quality.   Housekeeping is her first novel and deals with the orphans Ruth and Lucille and the adults who try to raise them in the isolated town of Fingerbone, by a lake and among the mountains of north-west America, notable for its dampness and its proximity to a long railway bridge across the lake.  Ruth narrates the story; the elder daughter, she can remember life with her mother Helen before the girls came to Fingerbone and the care of her grandmother.  In dense, poetic language, Ruth describes the town, the people, their life with their respected and respectable grandmother and, after her death, their increasingly erratic aunt Sylvie, and the choices the two girls will make as they grow up. 

Robinson makes the landscape of her novel vivid to the reader, the power and magnetism of the lake developed so that it is almost a character in its own right; the growth and decay of the family home becomes a depiction of the lifespan of a living being.  The language of the novel is rich and detailed, humorous as well as sad, achieving a great subtlety.  The book brings great empathy to its characters, opening the reader's mind to the possibilities of those moments when choices direct future paths entirely, and whether those choices are in fact choices at all.  Ruth's narrative voice is used with expertise; what Ruth does not mention, or mentions only in passing and without apparent comprehension, contribute as much to the meaning of the book as her more detailed retellings of her life.  This is a book to be read and re-read, and I have the pleasure of her three other novels ahead of me.

Three Marriages by E M Delafield

This book comprises three long short stories with a common theme.  Each story, set in a different period, considers the consequences of meeting the love of your life after your affections are promised elsewhere.  Firstly, we have The Wedding of Rose Barlow, set in the 1850s.  Rose is a young girl of sixteen, and her mother Rosabel contrives to have her marry one of her own old flames, their cousin Gilbert Harrington.  Rose is compliant and happy enough to marry Gilbert, who is wealthy and likely to be away in India with his regiment much of the time, but her placid content is disrupted when she falls in love with Pierre, a young music tutor descended from exiled French aristocrats.  The young lovers renounce each other and Rose goes to join her husband in India.  There, she will be caught up in an uprising, involved in a siege, and make a dramatic escape attempt by river.  The second story, Girl-Of-The-Period, is set in 1897 and deals with the rather priggish Violet Cumberledge, a modern young woman who is determined to embark on a rational marriage; it is her fiancĂ© Harvey who will first lose his heart to another.  However, Violet, having judged Harvey soundly, will soon find that physical attraction gets the better of her, too.  In the final story, We Meant to be Happy, Cathleen Christmas is living in a small town and married to a bank manager some years her senior; their marriage is happy, if lacking in passion, until Cathleen meets the newly arrived Irish doctor, Maurice Kavanagh.  The rest of this post contains spoilers, so please don't read on unless you want to hear what happens.

Each of Delafield's protagonists is caught out by their inexperience of love and passion; Rose because she is young and naive, Violet because she considers herself above emotionality, and Cathleen because she considers falling in love an unlikely possibility.  The consequences of this allow Delafield, in two of the stories at least, to explore some uncharacteristically sombre subjects, particularly in her handling of Rosabel Barlow's enduring love for the man she encourages to become her son-in-law, and Cathleen's shameful realisation that it would be a relief if her husband were to die.  Rose, who is characterised as brave, dutiful and virtuous, gets her due reward.  Violet's story is the most humorous, contrasting Violet's affected modernity with the genuine liberation of Peggy, the art student that Harvey eventually marries; the farcical end to the story, in which Violet literally wrestles with a rival for the attentions of a cad, sees her hoist so thoroughly by her own petard, and made so ridiculous, that a comical reading is the only possible one.  Cathleen, the narrative suggests, should have known better, and she is punished by being trapped in her marriage with her sickly husband and her disapproving sister-in-law as a permanent house guest.  Delafield's characterisation of the sarcastic, hypochondriac Blanche is a particularly egregious example of the demonised spinster in interwar fiction, and made me wince.

The setting of part of The Marriage of Rose Barlow in India is interesting, and very unusual in Delafield's fiction, which is usually confined to England.  For the modern reader, fiction set in the Victorian colonies can be difficult reading, and while there are some characters whose views of the Indians are unreconstructed, the narrative itself is fairly even-handed, with Indians cast as both persecutors and rescuers.  This representation seems to be historically accurate; the Siege of Cawnpore described in the novel is a real event. According to Wikipedia, some men did escape by swimming down the Ganges, as Calcott, Lefanu and Marshall do in Delafield's story.  There was a rumour that two young Englishwomen had also survived, which may have inspired Delafield. Rose's endurance of the Siege, the subsequent attack on the banks of the Ganges, and the journey downriver, is extraordinary, and can be read as a test of her love for Pierre; against all odds, she returns to England and the possibility of marriage to a man she genuinely loves.  It can also be read as an unremitting punishment for her foolishness in marrying a man she does not love, however, and that reading gives it more in common with the final story, which hands out a life sentence to its hapless protagonist.  "Girl-of-the-Period" borrows its title from Eliza Lynn Linton's series of essays of the same name. Linton published these essays in the 1860s as part of an antifeminist campaign against the New Woman and her challenge to notions of womanliness.  Violet, thoroughly satisfied with her own modernity, has some aspects in common with Linton's New Woman, but her failure to recognise that she is, in fact, rather old-fashioned is given a satirical twist by Delafield's reference to a work that predates Violet's story by thirty years.  Delafield, like many other writers, seems to have used the short story as an opportunity to go further than she often did in her novels, as her excursions into the exotic, the farcical, and the relentlessly punitive in this book indicate.

Three Marriages is a worthwhile, absorbing read, and there are secondhand copies out there, albeit at a price.  The first two stories are available in a US version published as When Women Love. I'm not sure why the third story is omitted; perhaps it was too English in tone and setting to appeal to the American publisher.