Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane evolved a mission: to escape, for brief periods, his decidedly unwild Cambridge home, and to explore the wild places of Britain and Ireland.  Initially he defines 'wild' as remote, unlit, and "where the evidence of human presence was minimal or absent".   The effect of his travels, however, will be a new conception of 'wild' and a new appreciation of the qualities of wild places.  In particular, he comes to see the "evidence of human presence" pretty much everywhere, and indeed this can be what makes some of the wilder places tolerable, even if the evidence is historical or archeological.  And he comes to recognise the overlooked wildness of unexpected places: "The weed thrusting through a crack in a pavement, the tree root impudently cracking a carapace of tarmac: these were wild signs, as much as the storm wave and the snowflake".  I'm always fascinated by the wildness in the edgelands, forgotten or abandoned places where nature's vigour is overtaking the signs of human endeavour, so Macfarlane's inner journey was designed to appeal.

Macfarlane is an incredibly energetic and enthusiastic companion, with a taste for sleeping out in a bivouac bag, swimming in cold water, and exploring some deeply inhospitable places.  I quite often read books like this with a mounting envy of the journeys made and the things seen, but I read this book feeling quite sure that I don't want to spend a night on Ben Hope, or attempt to scale the well-named Inaccessible Pinnacle, and Macfarlane's account of swimming up a sea cave made my skin crawl:

I swam to the biggest of the caves.  Holding on to an edge of rock, and letting the swell lift me gently up and down, I looked inside.  Though I could not see the back of the cave, it seemed to run thirty or forty feet into the cliffs [...] As I crossed the shadow cast by the cave's roof, the water grew cold.  There was a big hollow sucking and slapping sound.  I shouted, and heard my call come back at me from all sides [...] Further back into the cave, the light was diffused and the air appeared powdery.  The temperature had dropped, and I sensed the whole gathered coldness of the unsunned rock around and above me, pushing out into the air and water.  I glanced back over my shoulder.  The big semicircular mouth of the cave had by now shrunk to a cuticle of light.  I could only just see out to the horizon of the see, and I felt a sudden involuntary lurch of fear.

You and me both, Robert.  The powerful sense of claustrophobia this evokes is a good example of the way Macfarlane conveys a textured, detailed impression of the places he visits; sound, smell, temperature, surface and colour all combine in his writing to take the reader with him to the wild places.  His language is also fresh and attractive; I love that "unsunned" and the "cuticle of light".  He is also frank about his other lurches of fear; as it turns out, he doesn't want to climb the Inaccessible Pinnacle either.  Alongside his evocations of place are lots of detours into the history of the places he visits and of the people who frequented them.  Some of these are famous - Coleridge, Ivor Gurney - others much less so, like W.H. Murray who wrote about the Scottish mountains, on blank loo paper, while a prisoner of war during World War II.  His historical and biographical writing is detailed and confident, and balanced elegantly against his evocation of place.

A key figure in this book is Roger Deakin, author of Wildwood and Waterlog, and a cherished friend of Macfarlane's.  They travel together to explore the Burren in Ireland and the holloways of Dorset.  But the book pivots around Deakin's sudden illness and untimely death; he is in many ways the inspiration for Macfarlane's journeys, and the second half of the book is in some ways an account of recovering from this loss and a celebration of Deakin himself.  I particlarly enjoyed the passing reference to the three different varieties of moss Roger Deakin proudly points out, growing in the footwells of his ancient car.  Robert Macfarlane has a book just out called The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot which sounds very enticing and has just slipped onto my Amazon wish-list.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

Harriet is the tragic story of a young woman's exploitation.  Based on a real case, the 'Penge Mystery' that gripped 1870s London, the novel explains how Harriet, a woman with what we would now call a learning disability and also a three thousand pound legacy, falls into the hands of Lewis Oman and his brother Patrick.  Patrick is an unsuccessful artist with a wife, the beautiful Elizabeth, and two small children; Lewis works as an auctioneer's clerk and is, at the start of the novel, romantically involved with Elizabeth's sister Alice Hoppner.  Harriet is living with her mother, Mrs Ogilvy, who genuinely loves her daughter and has cared for her as best she can; Harriet likes the theatre, nice clothes and shoes, is fastidious, and can hold simple conversations.  However, she is not easy company and her mother occasionally sends her away for a few weeks as a paying guest.  The Hoppners are cousins of some sort, and it is while staying with them that Lewis meets Harriet.  Discovering the extent of her fortune (Harriet's wealth would have the purchasing power of over a million pounds today) he determines to marry her.  Mrs Ogilvy's attempts to prevent the marriage by legal means fail, and Lewis and Harriet marry.  For a while, they live together in London; Mrs Ogilvy attempts a reconciliation with her daughter but is rebuffed.  When Harriet becomes pregnant, Lewis uses this as a pretext to bring Alice to live with them, but once the child is born he decides to take things even further.

Elizabeth Jenkins makes a compelling and horrifying novel out of this story.  As Rachel Cooke's  Afterword to the Persephone edition explains, she stuck very closely to the source material, barely changing the characters' names and keeping the suburban south London location for much of the action.  What the novel does so well is show how people slip by degrees into crime, how acquiescence turns to commission, and how much guilt can be ascribed to those who see what is happening, but choose not to understand it.  Much of this narrative focuses on Elizabeth, who agrees to house Harriet and her child and, slowly, is drawn into perpetuating her neglect.  Midway through the novel, she realises that Alice has taken one of Harriet's beautiful dresses and unpicked it to remake for herself, but she "looked away without saying anything".  This connivance is the foundation for Elizabeth's eventual conception of Harriet as inhuman: "It wasn't, after all, as if Harriet felt anything" and her collusion is fuelled by her overpowering love for her husband, Patrick.  The network of relationships between Lewis, Patrick, Elizabeth and Alice is deeply intense, the brothers in particular shown as enmeshed in a folie à deux that clearly cannot end well.  What is most troubling, however, is the four's calm acceptance of the luxuries provided by Harriet's money while she is imprisoned and neglected upstairs.  In this scene, Patrick has just announced that he has boarded up Harriet's window:

"They all stretched out their feet to the comforting glow; the afternoons were drawing in fast, and the firelight turned them in their afternoon drowsiness to Egyptian figures, ruddy and black."

Patrick and Elizabeth can hardly afford coal under normal circumstances; the news that Harriet can no longer see out of the window, or have her bare room ventilated, does not disrupt their comfortable afternoon drowsiness in any way.  But Jenkins, while she is convinced of the guilt of the Omans and Alice, also carefully notes those who could have done something, but did not; passing tradesmen who saw Harriet, the servant Clara, Mrs Hoppner, the police and other authorities to name a few.  However, she also shows their reasons for not acting on their suspicions, particularly in the case of naive and powerless Clara.  This reminded me a lot of the debate around various recent and ghastly child abuse scandals, and the debate around individual and collective guilt for crimes of this sort.   I also really enjoyed Jenkins's writing style, which is lucid, expressive and powerful.  Here, suburban Alice, rejected by Louis for Harriet,  has her first encounter with the delights of a Kentish spring:

"But when in one of her solitary walks she came across a thicket of whitehorn, standing in ethereal brillance against the dark wood-side, it gave her a pang of such sharpness that she almost felt her unhappiness had never really come upon her until this moment.  She retraced her steps in horror, and from that time she half unconsciously shunned anything beautiful in scent or sight or sound that the countryside offered [...] when the time of the full moon grew near, she would wake within the narrow space of four bare walls, the patches of radiance reflected on the wall as if through prison bars, and the great golden face gazing in upon her, forbidding her to sleep; forbidding her, in that strange silence and light, to cry."

Jenkins cleverly evokes the early signs of Spring, which most readers would find pleasurable, to explore Alice's psychology; her rejection and fear of natural beauty helps establish her as someone who might well reject prevalent moral standards.

This book is without a doubt disturbing, without being in any way gratuitous, but, as I said above, entirely compelling.  I've not read any of Jenkins's other work but will be seeking it out.  The Persephone edition is, as always, beautifully produced, and the Afterword is enlightening on the real case that inspired the novel.  Desperate Reader and Harriet Devine have both written interesting reviews of this book, and there is an Observer piece by Rachel Cooke about the real case behind the text.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Conference at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

I've been put off opening this, even though I read it before years ago, by my experience with Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, but really I needn't have worried.  This is a short novel-length return to Cold Comfort Farm, converted, in post-WW2 austerity, into a conference centre managed by a trust.  All the Starkadders except Reuben have disappeared, mostly to South Africa, and Reuben himself has been moved out of the farmhouse and into a rude hut on Ticklepenny's Field, the last bit of land remaining to him.  Flora, summoned by Mr Mybug to help run a conference at Cold Comfort, including modernists, advanced thinkers and high-ranking examples of the new managerial aristocracy, immediately sets about putting things right.

Like the original novel, the narrative is slightly speculative, with some sort of managerialist government in power and everyone conscripted into useful work. Flora is now the mother of five, so has a government-assigned spiv to act as au pair; Reuben has been soundly ripped off by a combination of the Ministry of Agriculture and a body analagous to the National Trust. Gibbons has lots of fun with the modernist artists and their output, the managers and their machinations, a set of dipsomaniac scientists, and the enduringly ridiculous Mr Mybug, still married to Rennett and with three sons, who have "fixations" on their parents which take the form of "liking to be with us, wanting to be kissed goodnight, and that sort of thing.  We've tried everything - it only gets worse".  Adam Lambsbreath reappears, apparently immortal and still longing for his little mop, and there is a moving reunion between Urk and the water-voles.

Flora has lost none of her capability or her charm but is perhaps slightly more assertive.  One of my favourite moments in Cold Comfort Farm is when Mr Mybug eats the little cake that Flora had wanted for herself, and it chokes him.  This time, he is firmly prevented from stealing her hot milk.  I cannot help thinking that Stella Gibbons' own experience informs Flora's thoughts on receiving confidences: "years and years of listening to people had taught her that if she just kept quiet and sipped or sewed and never looked shocked, there was literally no limit - no limit at all - to what people would tell her".  I suspect many of us can endorse that.

Conference at Cold Comfort Farm is short, sharp and funny, and highly recommended to cheer up a damp cold Bank Holiday or other dreary circumstances.  Also recommended is I Prefer Reading's review.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson

The title of this book is a question posed to the young Jeannette by her adoptive mother, and this memoir tracks the boundaries of happiness and normality, slipping over the border into misery and unreality.  The book is in two parts: the first part retraces, in memoir form, the story already told in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit; the second - after an intermission in which Winterson explains she will be leaving out 25 years of her life - tells the story of her search for her birth mother.  Anyone who has read Oranges will know that Jeannette Winterson's early life was strange, funny, and deeply troubling, and all of those adjectives apply to this book too.  Often, though, she insists on the normality of her life alongside its extraordinariness, drawing out the typical aspects of a Northern working-class upbringing within her own life.  For me, this just made the extraordinary aspects even more so.  Winterson is unflinching in explaining how her upbringing has affected her, especially in terms of the way she subsequently treated others; violence, lack of trust and lack of an ability to believe in the continuity of love have all marked her, and the people who were close to her.  She has also achieved what seemed to me a very generous understanding of both her mothers, particularly the monstrous Mrs Winterson, who she comes to see as "too big for her world, but she crouched gloomy and awkward under its low shelf, now and again exploding to her full three hundred feet and towering over us.  Then, because it was useless, redundant, only destructive, or so it seemed, she shrank back again, defeated".

Inevitably, the question of truth or fiction arises in this text.  Winterson tells us she is often asked what is "true" in Oranges and what was invented.  Part of this memoir shows us how books supported and constructed her idea of self, and it is to other, similar texts, that she turns to consider the "authentic" and the "fictional" selves:

Woolf and Stein were radical to use real people in their fictions and to muddle their facts - Orlando with its actual photos of Vita Sackville-West, and Alice Toklas, the supposed writer, who is Stein's lover but not the writer ...
For me, fascinated with identity, and how you define yourself, those books were crucial.  Reading yourself as a fiction as well as a fact is the only way to keep the narrative open - the only way to stop the story running away under its own momentum, often towards an ending no one wants.

It seems to me that reading yourself as a fiction is also a way to make the intolerable tolerable, through constructing alternative realities and futures.  I found all of this book, the hope and despair, terribly moving even while it was funny; the humour is, perhaps, another construction that keeps the narrative open.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Vicar's Daughter by E.H. Young

The Vicar's Daughter is an Edwardian (or possibly late Victorian) family drama set in the small community of a fishing village, Old Framling,  lately annexed by New Framling, a modern seaside resort.   Edward Stack is the vicar of the title, but his wife Margaret, a loving, energetic and manipulative woman, is the protagonist.  At the start of the novel they are away on holiday with their daughter Hilary, and Edward's cousin Maurice Roper is acting as a substitute vicar. While the family are away, he has done a little meddling of his own.  Caroline, a young woman from their childhood home. has come to see Edward; Maurice puts two and two together and decides she must be Edward's daughter from an earlier relationship.  Opposite the Stacks live John and James Blunt, local businessmen, and their housekeeper is ill; what could be more convenient than for Caroline to take over?  When the family return, Maurice lets slip to Margaret, whom he once loved, his suppositions about Caroline's origins.  The novel revolves around Margaret's efforts to manage this complicated situation and resolve it without damaging her much-loved daughter.

Margaret is, in many ways, rather like Young's Miss Mole, particularly in the clever way she works other people to her own ends; like Miss Mole, she can be secretive and devious, but also like Miss Mole, she is an attractive character, saved from outright cynicism by her love for others.  We see Edward mainly through Margaret and Maurice's eyes, and he remained a little two-dimensional to me.  Maurice is that difficult thing, a really well-achieved unsympathetic character, with depth and breadth.    Young makes interesting use of the topography of the town and the Vicarage, placing and moving her characters carefully through spaces to achieve intimacy or the reverse of it.  However, for me this lacked the punch of Miss Mole; as in William, the narrative pace is slow, and the drama protracted.

Even so, there is quite a lot of interest here.  I've been reading a lot of interwar novels about mothers and daughters lately for study purposes, and the genuinely warm and loving relationship between Margaret and Hilary is highly unusual in this context.  Margaret herself is a fascinating portrayal of a woman of immense capability who had no option in life other than marriage, but has devoted her energies to making that option a success: "Marriage and motherhood were the only arts she had been able to practise, and what creative impulse she possessed she had spent on Hilary and Edward".  Margaret embraces this position, but the narrative makes clear how much it costs her to do so. The contrast between authentic old fishing village and its brash new tourist resort neighbour is such a staple of middlebrow fiction that surely somebody is writing a book about it, but its effect is subtle in this text.

Like Young's other novels, this one is out of print, but secondhand copies of the Virago edition are cheap and abundant.