Showing posts with label (auto)biography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label (auto)biography. Show all posts

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

A Diary without Dates by Enid Bagnold

This little book is an episodic, fragmentary account of Enid Bagnold's work as a VAD nurse during the First World War.  Based at a hospital somewhere on the outskirts of London, she tries to soothe and cheer the patients, sees her talents for bandaging and splinting improve, chafes under the authority of the professional nurses, and listens to the stories of the men under her care.

Her hospital is a separate, calm, quiet place, with dimly lit corridors and wards, a place of retreat for healing, recovery and sometimes death. She describes her patients, their often hideous injuries, without flinching but with compassion; she is sharply critical of the lack of pain relief that is given to them, especially to those who will soon die.  The men under her care sometimes talk about the war, but more often talk of their lives away from the war: jobs, sweethearts, families.  The men appear briefly, tell their names and a little bit of their story, and then fade away, but Enid seeks out their brief variety:

Watchmakers, jewellers, station-masters, dress-designers, actors, travellers in underwear, bank clerks ... they come here in uniforms and we put them into pyjamas and nurse them; and they lie in bed or hobble about the ward, watching us as we move, accepting each other with the unquestioning faith of children.
Enid, of course, has also been plucked out of her natural sphere, covered up by a uniform and set down in a hospital, managed by women not of her own class.  There are elements of comedy in Enid's account of her relations with a managing Sister who does not much care for her, and in Enid's frequently-expressed sense of her self as rather ridiculous:

I lay in my own bath last night and thought very deep thoughts, but often when we think our thoughts are deep they are only vague.  Bath thoughts are wonderful, but there's nothing 'to' them.

The narrative, such as it is, deals with Enid's own attitude to the war and its effects, and her views are complicated.  She has great compassion and sympathy for her patients, and likes to talk to them, but she has no time for those who would bring the war to a premature end and by the end of the book she asserts that "every sort of price must be paid" so that the war may be won.  But at the same time she recognises that the army is training more men "to fill just such another hospital as ours".  Her book makes no attempt to reconcile her understanding of the futility of war with her belief that this war must be fought and won.  These contradictions are part of the "divine astonishment" that she can now only feel occasionally; otherwise there is no astonishment, only acceptance of the contradictory emotions and thoughts of wartime.

This book is almost the opposite of Testament of Youth, not only in terms of Enid's thoughts on the war but in terms of length - my copy is 125 pages long - and style, which is fragmented and impressionistic rather than detailed and realistic.  Lovers of Testament of Youth will, however, find much of interest here, as will anyone interested in women's experience of the Great War.  This seems to be out of print, although there are print-on-demand copies available and the Virago edition (which has a sympathetic introduction by Monica Dickens) is available second-hand; you can also read it online at Project Gutenberg.  

Book Snob's review tells us a bit more about Bagnold and the consequences of her writing this book; reviews have also been written by Fleur Fisher, Geranium Cat, and Just One More Page who shares my astonishment that patients were allowed to smoke as much as they wanted - a full ashtray is a sort of achievement.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Corduroy by Adrian Bell

Corduroy - the title comes from the habitual dress of the Suffolk farmer, as opposed to the finer fabrics worn in London - is a memoir of Adrian Bell's first year in farming.  Bell's father was a journalist, and the young Adrian tries newspaper life briefly, but succumbs to the lure of the rural, and goes to live with Mr Colville, part of a large Suffolk farming family; his own family hope this will get the agricultural itch out of his system.  Mr Colville helps him to learn how to farm: Adrian starts from the bottom up, helping with the routine farm chores, but Mr Colville also shows him how to manage a farm, the disposition of labour, machines and money to get the best results.  By the end of the year he has learned enough to consider starting to farm on his own, but will his stubbornly urban family accept this choice?

The book, written about 8 years after the experiences it describes, is like somebody's memoir of the early days of a love affair.  Everything about the farm and country life is fascinating and exciting to Adrian. The language used to describe the Suffolk countryside is lyrical and poetical but also rich in agricultural detail:

"Things had now reached their climax of growth. The corn stood high in the fields, green yet, but with emerging ears, and the grass was deep in the meadows left for hay, and shimmered in the breeze.  Every corner by wall or barn had its growth of grass and nettles.  Nothing was yet cut down, but blades were being prepared.  Scythes were brought from dusty corners and weighed in the hands."


It is, perhaps, Adrian's poet's attention that helps him to prosper in this environment.  In the early chapters, he is a stranger in a new land; the narrative is almost a travelogue as Adrian learns the local language - verbal and not - and begins to find his way about.  He admires the skill of the people around him; he identifies with the ingrained love of the land that means that any local man - the blacksmith, the postman - will have a field somewhere in which he grows a crop of wheat or raises a few pigs.  I grew up in the country in the 1970s and there were still a few people like this, fitting in odd bits of farming around a day job in the local town.   Most of this world, though, was probably disappearing when the book was published.

At first, his class status causes some awkwardness with the other farm labourers, although not with the Colvilles, who are secure in their social position as a successful farming family.  Adrian is particularly annoyed when his boots, which looked so rugged in a London shop, are dismissed as "gentleman's boots".  But his good humour and willingness to learn see him through.  The book is very funny throughout, and most of the jokes come from Adrian's clumsiness and naivety, or the sudden impact of hubris when he thinks he is doing well.  Here he is, a less than expert rider, out hunting on the mare Cantilever:

"I was congratulating myself, saying 'You've been a first-rate horseman all these years and not known it'.  I began to enjoy the hazards. A hedge ahead [...] Cantilever sprang at it.  Next moment her head seemed miles below me and I was flying through the air. I found myself turning a somersault, and as I did so I remember thinking, 'You are coming the deuce of a cropper'.  I hit the ground with my shoulder, then stood on my head.  I seemed poised thus for ages.  It felt undignified; I kept wishing my legs would come down."

The tone is a slightly peculiar mixture of the modern and the conservative.  Socially, the farming world is conservative; gender roles are rigid, hierarchies are fixed.  But Mr Colville is a believer in modern farming methods, and interested in improving his skills and equipment to increase his yield.  Adrian often emphasises, however, the enduring traditions of the farming calendar, and contrasts this authenticity with the Chelsea drawing-rooms he is still obliged to visit; his affinity is entirely with the rural. Slightly drunk at an agricultural show, he feels that he is fitting in at last:

"I lost all sense of strangeness in my surroundings.  It seemed I had become a real agriculturalist at last, for I felt pleased and familiar with everything about me.  I admired the old County gentlemen with their neat check ties, their yellow gloves turned back at the wrists.  I would grow old like that. "

Not all of farming life has such a golden glow over it, and Adrian is willing to admit that some of it is dull, cold, wet or just plain unpleasant.  His strength of feeling has something of the overpowering notstalgia for the old ways that is often experienced by newcomer, and he is not so naive that he cannot recognise this.  Bell keeps the balance between mockery of his early naivety and celebration of his affection for the countryside exactly right, so that neither is overwhelming. Similarly, the equation of the rural with the traditional, and the urban with the modern, recognises that the world cannot be so easily divided up.

Modern readers will find the occasional antisemitism tiresome, although it is not untypical of works of this period.  However, the lyrical descriptions of the Suffolk countryside and Bell's humorous approach make the book well worth reading.  There are two further memoirs, The Cherry Tree and The Silver Ley, which follow Adrian Bell's farming career.  This book is currently available from Slightly Foxed. with a beautiful woodcut cover - the cover of my OUP copy is less elegant, featuring pigs, swill, and mud in large but probably accurate quantities.


Sunday, 19 August 2012

Now All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis

A short holiday on the border between the Somme and the Pas-de-Calais seemed a good place to read this; Edward Thomas spent the last months of his life near Arras and was killed and is buried there.  I first came across Thomas's poetry during my A level English exam; his poem "Lights Out" appeared in the exam paper for the practical criticism element.  The alternative practical criticism test was an undigestible chunk of Walter Pater, so I wrote about the poem.  Its formal elegance and its graceful ambiguity made me want to find out who wrote it, and to read more of his work.

Matthew Hollis's book describes Thomas's life during its last four years, from 1913 to 1917, but inevitably brings in a great deal of his earlier years, showing how he got to where he was.  It is structured into four sections, one for each year, and each section has four chapters, one for each season of that year.  This gives a great sense of time passing, the precious few years that Thomas has left slipping away.  Thomas the man can be difficult to like.  Depressive, often despairing, and feeling trapped by family life, disappointed with the literary 'hack-work' by which he earns a living, he is rather like a Gissing character made flesh; there are strong echoes of New Grub Street throughout.  His long-suffering and devoted wife Helen yearns to make him happy, but Thomas believes his best chance of happiness - and that of his family - lies in their separation.  Hollis carefully describes the friendships and incidents that  - if they do not transform Thomas into a happy, contented man - open up the possibilities of his life and lead to the remarkable poems he wrote between November 1914 and his death.

A key friendship is that with Robert Frost, making a long stay in England with his family.  The two men met through the Poetry Bookshop, Thomas having been a critic of poetry before he began to write it, and a warm friendship ensued, with the Thomases and the Frosts eventually living near each other (and a number of other poets) in Dymock.  Hollis writes very well about this friendship, which can be a difficult thing to describe; the text gives a real sense of the bedrock of affection that underlies the ups and downs of any such relationship.  He also shows the exchange of influence between the two writers, and explains how Thomas is the likely inspiration for "The Road Not Taken". 

Hollis is a poet himself and this book is not only beautifully written but fascinating, as it shows, from a poet's perspective, how Thomas wrote his poetry.  Using Thomas's notes and drafts, he demonstrates how a brief experience or idea is worked and reworked from the basic account into poetic form, how extraneous words are pared away to increase the intensity of meaning, and how hard Thomas worked to perfect his writing.  There is a vast amount to enjoy in this book from whatever angle you approach it; whether you like biography, poetry, books about World War I, or all three, there will be something to interest you. 

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.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

An expansive, exhilarating history of walking, Rebecca Solnit's book encompasses walking as transport, as pastime, as pilgrimage and as protest.  She moves between her own experience of walking, theories of the evolution of walking and philosophies of walking, stopping off to look at the key thinkers and writers who have shaped our understanding of this everyday activity.  Inevitably, a history of walking also becomes a history of the places we walk, and the people who did (and didn't) walk there.

The breadth and depth of her research is remarkable and she pays close, critical attention to the theories she reviews, drawing out some of the ironies of trying to think about walking as well as presenting her own theories of the symbolism of walking.  She describes artists who have used walking to form their works, as well as writers who have relied upon walking to drive their literary endeavours, with a whole chapter devoted to The Legs of William Wordsworth.  Walking in streets, parks, gardens and the wider countryside are all considered.  Walking can seem elemental and free, but has of course been as much constrained as any type of activity; Solnit tells the story of the struggle for access to the countryside and the struggle to preserve urban environments that can be walked.  She also links the act of walking very strongly to the notion of narrative, and to the narrative of human history in particular: "Part of what makes roads, trails and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once by a sedentary onlooker.  They unfold in time as one travels along them, just as a story does as one listens and reads, and a hairpin turn is like a plot twist [...] Roads are  a record of those who have gone before, and to follow them is to follow people who are no longer there."

This notion connects walking intimately to the idea of creativity, and the book reiterates its insistence on the psychological value of walking as a means of producing contentment, understanding, creative energy and new ideas.  "Musing" she writes, "takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination, a part of the imagination that has not yet been ploughed, developed or put to any immediately practical use.  Environmentalists are always arguing that those butterflies, those grasslands, those watershed woodlands, have an utterly necessary function in the grand scheme of things, even if they don't produce a market crop.  The same is true of the meadowlands of the imagination; time spent there is not work time, yet without that time the mind becomes sterile, dull, domesticated.  The fight for free space - for wilderness and for public space - must be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend wandering in that space." Solnit does not over-stress her argument, but her passing references to unwalkable places - towns that have no pavements or no road crossings, or places that have lost their walkers and are perceived as dangerous as a result - show us the consequences of marginalising such a fundamental activity.

Solnit's prose is elegant and her arguments compelling.  I enjoyed this book hugely, and found I was quite envious of her for having written it, for being able to combine a pleasurable activity with a fascinating research process.  Any admirers of Roger Deakin or Robert MacFarlane's books on similar themes will get a lot out of this book.  Solnit has written several other books which I look forward to exploring.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

In My Father's House by Miranda Seymour

Subtitled Elegy for an Obsessive Love, this memoir tells the story of Miranda's father George and his lifelong, demented, all-consuming passion for a Nottinghamshire manor house, Thrumpton Hall - and of Miranda's childhood and upbringing in the context of that passion.  George was parked with a childless aunt and uncle, Charles and Anna Byron, at Thrumpton when he was a small child; his father, a diplomat, had been posted to South America.  George was felt to be too fragile to endure La Paz, so Thrumpton it had to be.  He drank in his Uncle Charlie's old-fashioned manners and attitudes, and his love for Thrumpton; the snobberies of his mother and grandmother - a distant, wrong-side-of-the-blanket descendent of Charles II - produced a sense of entitlement that led to school essays detailing how he would be a marvellous squire of Thrumpton when he grew up.  Uncle Charlie liked to tease, and sometimes leaned towards leaving the house to George, sometimes towards his Byron nephews.  When they both died in the Second World War, the path seemed to be clear for George - but things went awry, and George and his wife Rosemary eventually had to raise an enormous loan in order to buy Thrumpton.

Having installed himself, George began to realise his grandiloquent childhood dreams, but was, of course, permanently thwarted by the tendency of people not to conform to plan.  His children disappointed him; the villagers were unimpressed by his lordly ways; a power station was built just down the road that could turn a summer day to winter, belching out black smoke.  The House (it's always capitalised in the text) consumed vast amounts of money, energy and time.  George martyred himself to the House, and he wanted his martyrdom recognised and admired.  When his family - particularly his wife and daughter - failed to come up to the mark in this respect, he undermined them in turn, criticising their appearance, their clothes, their hair.  Miranda wore a wig for much of her teenage years since her own hair didn't meet George's standards.  And when his children were grown up and better able to resist his control, he sought admiration from younger, working-class men.

Miranda Seymour has used her father's diaries and letters - he was a prodigious letter-writer and would complain of being neglected if he didn't get a letter by return of post - her mother's memories, and her biographer's skills to construct this memoir, an effort to "make my peace by trying to understand the kind of man he was".  She is unflinching in her scrutiny of her father and of herself, often to the distress of her mother, whose voice punctuates the book as a kind of chorus, complaining when Miranda goes too far or is too indiscreet, defending her husband and her marriage.  She is often very funny, and there is a lot of humour here, usually caused by George's outrageous behaviour or by Miranda's outraged reactions.  One argument culminated in the (adult) Miranda pelting her father with boiled potatoes and then biting the table-leg.  But I found this book profoundly sad; George's lonely childhood leads inevitably to his overvaluing of heredity and property, his adult failures, and his tempestuous relationship with his children.  In some ways he is a less likeable Mortmain, and perhaps Miranda's story is Rose's version of I Capture the Castle rather than Cassandra's.  He also has much in common with Alison Bechdel's father in Fun Home, another house-beautiful obsessive with a taste for younger men.

This is a remarkably skilful book, compelling and complex, written with great frankness but also delicacy and insight.  The paperback has an awful pastel-tinted cover and looks like misery lit.  Don't be deceived - there is a real treat inside.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith

Emma Smith, author of The Far Cry and Maiden's Trip, has written a memoir of the first twelve years of her life, which were spent in Newquay in Cornwall in the 1920s and 1930s.  Emma Smith was born Elspeth Hallsmith, a terrible name for a small child with a lisp.  Her parents were middle-class but impoverished; her father's grandfather lost the family wealth in a speculation just before the Great War which put paid to her father's hopes of becoming a famous artist, and he now works as a cashier in the bank.  Her mother had been engaged three times before her marriage, and in each case her fianc√© had died before they could marry; the Hallsmith marriage seems to have been agreed rather precipitously and was as successful as you might imagine as a result.  

Guthrie Hallsmith has a craving for fame and social success that is not matched by his talents as an artist or more generally as a human being; his wife, friendly and pretty, achieves social standing more easily than he does, but reaps only his resentment.  Elspeth's older siblings, the twins Pam and Jim, draw their father's fire away from their little sister.  Pam is straightforwardly rebellious, while poor Jim, with his flat feet and double hernia, comes nowhere near his father's ideal of boyhood and suffers angry beatings as a result.  Elspeth is considered to have more of an affinity with her father, but she perceptively realises that this has no foundation, and torments herself with her hypocrisy in performing a relationship which has no basis in love.  Elspeth - and the adult Emma - remain perplexed by the paradox of Hallsmith life: "we are presented to local society as a remarkable family, quite out of the ordinary, and a cut above all other Newquay families, yet when at home, inside, and the door firmly shut on the world, then the theatrical glue that sticks us together dissolves.  Behind the scenes [...] we children are shown that each of us, as an individual, is in no way remarkable, but wretchedly inadequate, with nothing of which to be proud; the reverse, in face: much of which to be ashamed."  Elspeth's ambition is merely to survive the difficulties of family life, evading her father's anger and disappointment as much as she can.

While this aspect of the book is profoundly sad, Emma Smith draws out the joys of her childhood as well.  There is the dependable Lucy, their maid, who cooks and cares for the children, who knows where to find anything that is lost.  There is their beautiful and sociable mother, who charms their neighbours.  And there are lots of friends, to be met on the beach, at dancing classes, at the tennis club.  The memoir is well-titled, for the beach is the centre of society for the children; picnics, games, parties all take place there, they learn to swim and to surf, they know the business of the beach - deck chair hire, bathing huts, ice-cream from the kiosk.  A stormy winter sea is an entertainment for the family.  The book is also very good - and very funny - about the infinitely subtle gradations of class in interwar provincial society; Elspeth frequently offends through her inability to keep to these rules, making friends with a Barnardo's boy she meets on the beach, and unable to limit her conversation to topics suitable for nice little girls.  As she grows older, her views of these distinctions become decidedly critical, but remain unspoken in order to keep the family peace.  An afterword reflects on how these structures and limitations constrained her parents, with a sympathy not much evident in the text.

This is as well-written as The Far Cry, and as in the novel, the sense of place is very clearly evoked: little Elspeth is astonishingly attuned to the texture of the Cornish coast, the caves and inlets that only low tide reveals, the rockpools and the dunes, the strange quirks of the local landscape.  While the sadness of this story could make it drift towards misery lit, underlying the narrative is the growth of Elspeth's strength and independence of mind,  which makes the story a positive one,  however grim Guthrie's moods might become.  Smith is also very clever in combining Elspeth's child's view of the world with an elegaic tone for the loss of that world, and in maintaining a balance of adult and child in the narrative voice.  Finishing the book, I longed to know what happened next, and Smith gives a few things away in this interview with The Guardian.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

People Who Say Goodbye by P.Y. Betts

This little memoir, republished by Slightly Foxed Editions, describes an early twentieth century childhood with great verve and humour.  P.Y. Betts was born in Wandsworth in 1909 and grew up there, in a house on the road between a military hospital and a cemetery and opposite the undertakers; during the First World War her days are punctuated by military funerals.  Feeling a  need to formally acknowledge these, the young Phyllis takes to standing on a street corner and raising her blue woolly hat to the passing corteges.

Betts's memoir is a blend of ironic reflection on her childhood from a considerable perspective - the book was first published in 1989 - and the authentic representation of a child's experience and understanding of her world.  Smells are terribly important; the noxious smell of boiling cats' meat - once experienced, never forgotten - the fusty and unpleasant smell of wool clothing from the days before dry-cleaning; the clean, soapy smell of a successful washing day, her mother's particular passion.  Food is another significant matter; Phyllis is permanently hungry and her mother's insistence on vast quantities of animal fat in her diet does nothing much to assuage this, particularly during the lean years of the War. Her first sustained experience of sugar - shared with her friend Marion and eaten out of a blue bag - makes them "drunk, plain intoxicated with the unaccustomed charge of sugar into the blood.  Phyllis's childish logic helps her puncture the hypocrisy of the adults around her, particularly her maternal grandfather and aunts, who live in upper-middle-class splendour not far away.  Politically Liberal, they are intensely socially conservative, and when Phyllis, lost in Wandsworth with her friend Percy, finds her way to their house, they are only briefly admitted before being sent home.  Phyllis detects this is "something to do" with working-class Percy,

Phyllis's father is affectionately portrayed, with his fondness for his felt bootees at the end of the working day, and his agonies when his wife rises at four to get the copper going.  But it is Phyllis's mother, her "brutal parent" with the "radiant smile" who dominates the narrative.  Unimpressed by formal education, a traitor to her class background, and determined to keep all the knives in the house sharp as razors, her child-rearing approach is summarised by Phyllis as "learn-while-you-burn". The world is a hazardous place, and her children need to cope with its dangers from an early age, rather than being sheltered from them.  She brings a lot of the humour to the story, pressing lettuce on Phyllis's tutors to help cure their scurfy eyelids, declaring that "there were no millimetres when I was young", sportingly agreeing to wear a frilly boudoir cap while scrubbing the doorstep in a sacking apron.  But she can be ruthless, too; when Phyllis's brother gets diphtheria, then a notifiable contagious disease, she somehow manages to nurse him at home, despatching Phyllis to her paternal grandparents in Kent where, if she develops the disease, she will be sent to a fever hospital.  Phyllis realises she has been "thrown to the wolves" by her mother.

But her grandparents' cottage is Phyllis's idyll, her place of love and security.  She celebrates her grandfather, a former chef, who always makes sure there is a glow-worm in the posies of flowers he brings his wife, and her cribbage-loving grandmother, who bakes delicious pies to give to a toothless and incomprehensible neighbour, down on his luck.  Her exile from Wandsworth is a golden time: "The lamplight spread a pool of tranquility over the supper table, over the white cloth, the yellow butter, the food illumined as if by some unsought blessing.  I saw the two old worn faces in that blessed light and wanted never to leave them, never to say goodbye."  The title of the book comes from the young Phyllis's realisation that people who say goodbye seldom return, but her memoir preserves all those who disappeared from view in her life.

This is a beautiful book within and without; P.Y. Betts's other book, a novel called French Polish, seems to be very hard to get hold of, unfortunately.  For another perspective on this book, try Simon's review at Stuck-in-a-Book.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Elizabeth Bowen by Victoria Glendinning

Most people who have read any of Elizabeth Bowen's remarkable work will concur with Victoria Glendinning's assertion, in her Foreword, that Bowen is a "major writer; her name should appear in any responsible list of the ten most important fiction writers in English on this side of the Atlantic in this century.  She is to be spoken of in the same breath as Virginia Woolf".  Glendinning sets out to trace the origins of this literary greatness and to explore the woman behind the text.  Bowen's childhood was intermittently idyllic, but blighted by her father's mental illness and the early death of her mother.  An only child but well-supplied with cousins, she grew up to be gregarious and sociable; a short spell at a very serious-sounding girls' school seems to have drawn out a sense of duty from Elizabeth's roots in Anglo-Irish gentry.   Elizabeth grew up to be hard-working, good fun, generous and - for the most part - well-behaved.  She was married for thirty years to Alan Cameron, a career administrator, who supported her writing and tolerated her various indiscretions.  It probably helped that Elizabeth was reserved; she could create intimacy very quickly with strangers, but generally without revealing much of her own interior life.  Her writing, which arose when she realised she had no talent for fine art, drew on her own life and relationships, but transformed them, taking possibilities further, exploring tracks passed by in the real world. 

 This was Glendinning's second book, and her first biography of a celebrated writer; published in 1977, only four years after Bowen died, it necessarily glides carefully over some of the details of her personal life, presumably to avoid offence to people still living.  I've heard Victoria Glendinning tell of how she tends to fall in love with her subjects, and Bowen certainly receives a great deal of generous sympathy and admiration.  Other biographers might perhaps have made more of her failings, but Glendinning is prepared to understand and accept them, particularly those failings that contributed to her work.  This generous understanding is also extensive in her later biographies of Vita Sackville-West and Leonard Woolf.  In this book, however, I got the feeling that, like her subject, Glendinning was holding back.  This might be due to her evident enthusiasm for Bowen's work, to the date of publication, or because the archival Elizabeth was as charming and delightful as her real-life counterpart.

Glendinning is very good on Elizabeth's relationship to Ireland, to her Anglo-Irish background, and also on her position and relation to English literary society.  There is a thorough consideration of all her major works, and of the themes that underpin them; given her other, ancillary work such as teaching and lecturing, Bowen's output was fairly prodigious, especially in view of the quality of her writing.  The chapter on literary wartime London is also fascinating, and I enjoyed the post-war chapters in which Bowen's literary position is secured, and she can encourage the young, travel, contribute to political work, and find time to persuade her American publisher to offer Muriel Spark's books in the US, which gives us all an additional reason to be grateful to her.  This book made me like and admire Elizabeth Bowen the person, an admiration to set alongside the one I already have for her writing.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Who Was Sophie? by Celia Robertson

Celia Robertson has written a memoir of her maternal grandmother, known in her final years as Sophie Curly, but who started life as Joan Adeney Easdale in 1913. Joan published three volumes of poetry when she was a young woman; her work was published by the Hogarth Press and received positive critical attention. By the time Celia was growing up, her grandmother was a drunken, mad bogeywoman kept at bay through legal process; a solicitor dealt with correspondence between Sophie and Celia's mother Jane. When Celia was seventeen, Jane decided to take her to meet her grandmother for the first time; the squalor of her flat, and its bizarre arrangements for catching burglars, were frightening, but the physical reality of Sophie, a tiny and frail old woman, counteracted the images of Sophie as an insane and monstrous creature. Celia continued to visit Sophie regularly after that; following Sophie's death, she was inspired to write the book, to piece together the journey that took Joan/Sophie from young poet to a bag lady haunting the rougher pubs of 1980s Nottingham.

"Poignant" is the word from the TLS review chosen for the front cover, and the poignancy of this book is undisputed and powerful. Joan's descent into madness, her treatment at Holloway Sanatorium, the loss of her children (and their loss of her), and the poverty, violence and squalor of her final years are terribly sad. Celia Robertson's obvious affection for her grandmother, and kindly, loving attention to the story of her life, mitigates this sadness and exposes the value of Sophie's story even at the points where she is, apparently, at rock bottom. Joan is told repeatedly by psychiatrists that she should give up her writing and devote herself to domestic duties. She does, but Joan is a hopeless housekeeper, clumsy, forgetful and unable to budget at all; domestic work for her is no cure. Virginia Woolf appears several times in the narrative, and the story of Woolf's illness is an obvious parallel with Joan's, pointing up an underlying theme of the book: choices for women artists, in the first half of the twentieth century, were limited and often dangerous.

Celia Robertson is overt and frank about the gaps in Sophie's story, the things that can be known and learned about her, and the things that must be guessed at or assumed. This book seems to me to be a brave undertaking, to try to understand the truth of a chaotic life of such a close relative. Who knows what she might have found? What she did find can be disturbing enough. She is also clear that this is her story of Sophie, that other Sophies exist, and could be narrated, by those that knew and loved her. It is Robertson's approach to the narrative, as well as the twists of Sophie's story, that contribute to a richly enjoyable and consuming book.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution by June Rose

Over fifty years after her death, Marie Stopes's name remains synonymous with contraception.  There is a chain of private sexual health clinics in the UK that is still called after her.  Most people will also be aware of her pioneering work in sexual guidance, which first articulated for a mass audience idea that good sexual relations were at the heart of happy marriages, and indicated frankly how these were to be achieved.  This book contextualises her work on sexuality and fertility control among her other achievements and her complex personal life.

Marie's mother, Charlotte Carmichael, was a suffragette and a scholar in her own right, although unable, during her own youth, to undertake formal study at a university.  Charlotte was in some ways a detached mother, with exacting standards that Marie found impossible to satisfy, but committed to the education of her daughters. Affection came more from Marie's father Henry, but her parents' marriage was not harmonious and Henry died when Marie was in her early twenties.  Marie was something of an academic prodigy; she completed her undergraduate degree in Botany and Geology at the University of London in two years, moved to Munich to undertake a PhD, and followed this up with a Doctor of Science again in London; at the time she was the youngest person in Britain to gain this award. Her specialism was paleobotany, in particular the fossils to be found in coal, and this specialism took her down many coal mines and on a research trip to Japan where she undertook long and arduous journeys in search of specimens.

Working in Manchester as a lecturer, with several complex romantic entanglements involving both sexes behind her, Marie began to write poetry and prose with a strongly autobiographical tone.  June Rose quotes enough of her poetry to give the reader a sense that, despite her facility with rhyme and metre, poetry was not really her metier, but at this time she was already working on a text that would eventually become Married Love.  Invited to Canada to study the carboniferous flora of New Brunswick, she met, and within a few days had agreed to marry, Reginald Ruggles Gates, a fellow scientist specialising in genetics.  Their marriage was unsuccessful, both emotionally and successfully, and was eventually annulled, but in its aftermath, and drawing on both her scientific knowledge and her own personal experience of unsuccessful marriage, Marie published Married Love to instant acclaim. Shortly afterwards she married the wealthy Humphrey Roe, who was to support her writing career and her crusading zeal for contraceptive advice with money, time and unconditional affection.

Rose is very good at evoking Marie's immense self-possession and overweening self-confidence.  She had no respect for the boundaries that kept women out of politics and science, and crossed many of them herself, but this was achieved only by maintaining a self-belief that can seem unbearable or ridiculous.  She can also be self-serving, making use of people and organisations while it is of advantage to her, and passing on from them when her need or interest has faded.  This tendency is perhaps at its most acute in her relationship with her son Harry.  Marie had longed for a child for years and, after giving birth to a stillborn baby, was overjoyed at Harry's birth when she was 44.  She was an attentive, if sometimes eccentric, mother. Until he went to boarding school, Harry wore only knitted trousers or kilts, because Marie believed ordinary trousers would damage the development of his genitals.  But when Harry proposed to marry a girl Marie disapproved of, for an entirely petty reason, she cut him out of her life.

The biography is very fair, however, in identifying Marie's achievements and recognising that her less attractive characteristics enabled her to break new ground and contribute hugely to the conditions of women's lives.  Her unbearable self-confidence was necessary to allow her to write, as a woman in the early 20th century, about contraception and women's entitlement to sexual pleasure.  It also allowed her to withstand and to counter criticism from such establishment forces as the Church of England, the Catholic Church and the British Medical Association.  Even if she had been self-deprecating and kind, her enthusiasm for eugenics and the improvement of "the Race" would make today's readers uncomfortable.  However, her books changed many people's lives greatly for the better, helping women take control of their fertility, and heterosexual couples achieve happier sex lives; June Rose includes many letters of thanks from enlightened readers.  Marie's sexual radicalism ended there.  Despite some emotionally charged relationships with women, she characterised homosexuality as a disease, and was at endless pains to demonstrate that her advice and guidance was for married people.

Rose's book is well-crafted and gives a balanced, nuanced reading of Marie's life, her successes and her failures. It presents her as a flawed but determined individual, sometimes using her grandiose ideas to propel her to greater achievements, sometimes going too far and doing damage to her own reputation.  Rose is particularly good at understanding and explaining the rather mystical nature of Marie's attitudes to sex, which led her to announce herself as a prophet and to publish A New Gospel, which she claimed had been dictated to her by God.  If I have one criticism it is that the latter part of Marie's life is given less attention than her early years; but to be fair, her early years are so packed with incident that it would be difficult to summarise.  The book is also very entertaining, particularly when Marie's self-assurance leads to unusually egregious acts of self-promotion.  It also gives a very good introduction to the context for Marie's work, particularly in terms of political, religious and social attitudes to sex and contraception.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Diaries and Letters of Marie Belloc Lowndes, 1911-1947

Marie Belloc Lowndes was a novelist, playwright and (auto)biographer and the sister of Hilaire Belloc; both children spent their early years in France and Marie retained a slight French accent throughout her life.  Their mother, Bessie Parkes Belloc, was also a writer and friend of such literary figures as George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.   She married F S A Lowndes, a journalist on the staff of The Times, and was acquainted with a great many of the artistic, literary and political figures of her time.  This is evidenced by a photograph in the book of her autograph fan, signed by dozens of celebrated people including Oscar Wilde, Edmond de Goncourt, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill.

This book, edited by her daughter Susan Lowndes Marques, comprises a selection of letters and autobiographical pieces.  The diary sections are often, in fact, extended reminiscences of experiences some time in the past, rather than a record of events as they occur, although these also form part of the text, as do letters to Marie Belloc Lowndes from her correspondents.  The autograph fan does not overstate her network of connections: she seems to have known, and usually lunched with, pretty much everybody of significance in early 20th century French and English history.  A prolonged reading of the book, I found, led to a great desire not to see any more names dropped.  But for any student of this period, her reflections and commentary on the politicians and writers of the time are illuminating; there is also a good deal about the characters of the 19th century that she had known personally or through her mother.

A devout Catholic, Marie had a rather sweet if naive tendency to believe that people were usually good at heart. The long section on the Abdication, in which she gives her view of Mrs Simpson as a virtuous woman in love with Mr Simpson, is idiosyncratic to say the least.  This hopeful approach to human nature does not, however, leave her as frequently disappointed with her fellow beings as you might expect, and her letters and diary writings are good-humoured and amusing; even the privations of the Second World War fail to daunt her spirit.  Marie Belloc Lowndes is probably best known now as the author of The Lodger, a crime novel which inspired the silent Hitchcock film of the same name.  Both are worth a look.

Monday, 12 April 2010

The Bolter by Frances Osborne

I picked this up second-hand recently and, being a bit of a Mitford completist, thought I'd like to read the story of the model for the Bolter of The Pursuit of Love.  Idina Sackville's life story is certainly fascinating; married five times and separated from her two elder children by the terms of her first divorce, she sought greater freedom as a colonial farmer in Kenya, where she was a key member of the Happy Valley set and married, at least for a while, to Lord Errol.  The story of his sexual peccadilloes and consequent murder have been retold in the book and film White Mischief.  Elegant, alluring and sexually voracious, Idina also made a surprisingly effective farmer and created what sounds like a truly beautiful house and garden - Clouds, high up in the Kenyan mountains with colubus monkeys in the garden and a view across the Great Rift Valley.

Overall, though, I found Osborne's retelling of her life rather limited.  Osborne is Idina's great-granddaughter, and from the age of 13 had absorbed her family's mythology about Idina: that she was a scandalous woman and a wicked mother who abandoned her two little boys for entirely selfish reasons.  In telling the story of Idina's divorce from her first husband, Euan Wallace, Osborne is pretty fair-handed: both had been unfaithful and their marriage, like many others, was irreparably damaged by the First World War.  Both were in their early twenties and prone to seeing life in black and white terms; an older couple might have come to some accommodation, and Idina certainly negotiated open marriages with subsequent husbands that were, at least for a while, successful.  The insistence that Idina should not see her boys came from Euan and Idina accepted this as the best thing for her children.  Osborne has found out how many divorces there were in the immediate post-war years, but doesn't tell us whether this sort of custody arrangement was typical.  Under the prevailing divorce legislation, children were viewed as the property of their father, once over the age of seven, and custody arrangements routinely excluded the divorced mother; even if Idina had been able to take her young sons with her, they would most likely have been returned to their father's care once they were seven.  In its historical context, Idina's behaviour becomes less selfish, less "bad" and more usual.  Euan's decision to spend the year after his divorce working in America, leaving the boys in the care of their governess in Eastbourne, does not attract any authorial criticism.

Idina made contact with both her sons (who were, tragically, killed in World War 2 within a year of each other) as young adults, and appears to have had a reasonable relationship with her daughter Diana, the child of her marriage to Lord Errol; Osborne is careful to explain that it was normal to send children back to England for their schooling and considered unhealthy for them to grow up in the African climate.  Osborne, however, cannot leave Idina-the-bad-mother alone, and closes the book with the following:

 "Sitting here at my desk in my hillside farmhouse overlooking the vast stretch of the Cheshire Plain, I can hear my two small children scampering back indoors.  It is time I stopped writing and went to them."

The parallels with Clouds are obvious, but Idina's circumstances allow Osborne to assert herself as the better mother, achieving the hillside house with the glorious view and keeping her two children.  Possibly she is reassuring herself that she is not just as bad as Idina for spending years of their precious childhood shut away writing this book.  Osborne's monovalent reading of her subject, with no obvious awareness of how this reading has been informed by the biographer's own situation, wastes opportunities to explore other aspects of Idina's life (how did she learn to run a successful dairy farm, for example?) or indeed to celebrate Idina as a woman who found a way, in a deeply conservative section of a conservative society, to live life as she wanted.

To Osborne's credit, the paperback version includes a coda describing Idina's relationship with her stepchildren, the children of her fifth husband Lynx Soltau, who made their home with her at Clouds for eight years and with whom she kept in touch until her death in 1955. Idina's stepdaughter Ann McKay wrote to Frances Osborne after the first edition of the book was published, with warm memories of her time with Idina who, clearly, mothered her and her brother very effectively until well after her marriage to Lynx ended.  This testimony disrupts the reading of Idina as a bad mother that the main narrative articulates, although Osborne attempts to mitigate the bad Idina model by suggesting  that Idina's need for sexual love arises from her frustrated mothering instincts.  Heaven forfend that she should just have liked sex! and presumably it is possible to like sex and also be a good mother, as Idina was to her stepchildren.  It is interesting, however, that nobody had mentioned these children to Osborne during her research; clearly the stereotype of Idina was thoroughly embedded in many memories.

While I've got my hatchet out, I will mention that Osborne is occasionally repetitive.  Do you know that children in the colonies were made to wear a pad to protect their delicate spines from the fierce heat?  I do, because Frances Osborne told me so twice in this book.  She's also over-fond of the device of telling the reader, in the last sentence of a chapter, what is going to happen next: "Having herself bolted twice, Idina would now find out what it felt like to be bolted from" (175).  I'll leave the inelegant phrasing alone, but Joss Errol's bolt is more of a drift,  and anticlimactic.  Idina Sackville deserves not only a more rounded portrayal, but also one that is better written.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

A Boy at the Hogarth Press and A Parcel of Time by Richard Kennedy

This is an utterly charming little book, published by Slightly Foxed, who, alongside their Quarterly, offer a small range of little hardbacks in numbered limited editions. The first half of the book contains Richard Kennedy's recollections of joining the Hogarth Press as a school-leaver whose education had left him with no discernable talents or abilities. Based on diaries and letters as well as memoir, the book tells of Kennedy's successes and failures at the Press in naive and humorous tones, and includes highly entertaining depictions of Leonard and Virginia Woolf as well as any number of minor Bloomsbury characters.

The second half is Kennedy's childhood memoir, tracing his early years until he is sent to Marlborough School. Kennedy's father was killed in the First World War, and his widowed mother and paternal grandmother struggled over Kennedy 's upbringing as they did over money and various possessions that his grandmother sought to repatriate to the family home. The memoir is funny and poignant, and the descriptions of his epiphanies in drawing and finally learning to read from a book called When the Somme Ran Red are particularly touching. Richard Kennedy made his career as an illustrator, and the book is full of his own drawings. My favourite is on page 31, in which Virginia Woolf peers through a small window at the Press employees packing parcels.

Like Persephone, Slightly Foxed seem to have the knack of producing books that are delightful to read and to look at, and I am sorely tempted by others on their list.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Vera Brittain: a life by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge

This excellent biography expands on the best-known aspects of Vera Brittain's life, taking us beyond the more familiar stories Brittain told us in Testament of Youth and Testament of Friendship on to her later life as a writer, pacifist, campaigner, mother and wife. Paul Berry was a friend of Vera Brittain from their first meeting in 1942 until the end of her life, and the affectionate tone of friendship illuminates this book but does not detract from the rigour and thoroughness of Mark Bostridge's research. Despite having two authors, the writing of the book is smooth and its style and tone consistent; I'd love to know how they achieved that.

It would be easy to make Vera Brittain into an icon of victimhood or of bereavement. Berry and Bostridge avoid this by ensuring the tragedies of World War 1, and the loss of her closest friend Winifred Holtby, do not take up more than the reasonable amount of space in the narrative of Brittain's life. It would also be easy to make her sound very unattractive. Rather conventional in early youth, repeatedly martyred during the war, self-righteously disapproving of her fellow students when she returned to Oxford; utterly determined to put her work ahead of all personal connections except her friendship with Holtby, littering her life with abandoned friendships, unable to sustain a good relationship with her son; clinging obstinately to unpopular views, causing discord even among groups of like-minded people.

But this is a simplistic reading of Brittain's personality, and the authors skilfully avoid it without evading the difficulties that Brittain's dogmatism brought to herself as well as to others. Her generous care for her parents and for Holtby, her struggle to establish a new kind of marriage which would not require traditional wifely self-abnegation, her hard work to support her family, her great drive and determination to document her experiences of the Great War, and her unswerving commitment to pacifism all seem to me worthy of admiration, and this biography evokes all aspects of her complex character.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Body Parts: essays on life-writing by Hermione Lee

This is a collection of essays, mainly on the nature of biographical writing but also including some short biographical sketches. Lee discusses the biographer's approach, the relationship of the biography to history and to fiction, and emphasises the need for the biographer to
convey the physical presence of the subject, hence the title. Her essay on Shelley analyses the different descriptions of his cremation, the varying ways in which those present are said to have participated, and the adventures of his heart (or perhaps his liver), removed from his burning corpse by Trelawney. This relic symbolises the need for those who write, or attempt to control, biographies to relate their work to sensual experience, in order to establish a physical connection for the writer and reader with a subject who may be long dead. Her piece on The Hours, both book and film, their relation with the life of Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway, is amusing and trenchant, showing how the film's portrayal can distort the biographical image of Woolf, and questioning whether it matters. There are enlightening essays on Rosamund Lehmann, Penelope Fitzgerald and Jane Austen, although even Lee's entertaining piece on Angela Thirkell hasn't made me want to read Thirkell's work.

The book ends with a fascinating survey on how biographers deal with death. Do you record your subject's death as a simple fact, unrelated to his or her life? Or do you make the death symbolic of the life? Do you make use of the convention of a summary of the life in the closing paragraphs, allowing the subject's life to flash before the reader's eyes? Most biographers cannot simply allow death to happen without further interpretation, without connecting it somehow to the subject; Lee has rarely found it treated as a simple inevitability, although I can think of one or two examples from my reading (Claire Harman's biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner, for example). I think this question relates back to biography's relationship to either fiction or history. In both forms (if indeed they are separate forms) it is hard for events to be random and without significance. Everything, including death, must have meaning that relates to the whole subject.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

I'm a longstanding fan of Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For, and a regular reader of her blog. I'd been meaning to read this for ages, and finally treated myself to a copy from Amazon Marketplace. Needless to say, when it arrived I gulped it down in a matter of hours.

Fun Home (the title is derived from the family abbreviation for Funeral Home, Bechdel's father being a part-time funeral director as well as an English teacher) is a memoir, examining Bechdel's childhood and adolescence and in particular her relationship with her father, who died when Bechdel was 19. Bechdel presents his death first as a suicide, then as an accident, and the evidence for either is inconclusive. His death follows swiftly after Alison comes out to her parents as lesbian; before he dies, she learns from her mother that her father has had affairs from men. The memoir, then, deals lucidly with issues of sexuality, of what might be viewed as her father's expression of a gay persona through gardening and obsessive interior design, and with her father's (and her own) relationships with literature, especially the works of Proust, Joyce and F Scott Fitzgerald.

In a fairly short book, Bechdel achieves an astonishing compression of detail, complex ideas, doubt and family history. This is supported by the wonderful drawings, which fill in the backstory and the period detail, but cannot be separated from the narrative itself. This is a rich, satisfying first read and I can see it's going to be an addictive re-read, as the detail will yield new rewards each time. I think I'm about to spend an Amazon voucher on Essential Dykes to Watch Out For.

Edith Craig (1869-1947): Dramatic Lives by Katharine Cockin

Edith Craig was one of the two children of the actress Ellen Terry and the architect William Godwin. Terry never married Godwin, and decided on the surname Craig for her children. Edith was known by her middle name, Ailsa, in her childhood and it was her stage name for her brief career as an actress. Looking at the real Ailsa Craig, you have to wonder what Terry was about in naming her daughter.

Both Edith and her brother Edward Gordon Craig went on to work in the theatre, both mainly offstage in the role of director or producer. Edward Gordon Craig became immensely celebrated, his innovations in staging and lighting making him a familiar figure in the history of modernist theatre. Terry, of course, was one of the most famous actresses and the most famous women of her generation. Edith, although probably equally talented and innovative, has been rather eclipsed by her mother and brother, and this book seeks to reclaim her life and restore her reputation.

Craig's story is interesting: she was an eminent director of pageants, that forgotten art form; she campaigned for women's suffrage and lent her skills to this campaign; she developed private theatre societies that were able to evade the censor; and she worked for many years to develop amateur theatre to a high standard. She lived for many years in a lesbian menage à trois with Tony (or Clare) Atwood and Christopher St John; the success of this relationship is not much explored by Cockin, who focuses more on Craig's career and its limitations. There is some effort to consider whether Edith's career was limited because she was a woman, or a lesbian, or a lesbian in a complex three-way relationship; personally I wondered if her (admittedly limited) private income meant that she did not have to press for professional, paid work. There's considerable food for thought in Craig's choice of artistic medium, her work in middlebrow genres such as amateur theatre, pageants and nativity plays.

Cockin has, however, set herself a hard task. Original archival material is limited, having been selectively destroyed. Consequently, the history and impact of Edith's career have to be reconstructed from other contemporary sources and press archives. This leads to a slight surfeit of biographer's tricks, the "must haves" and "may haves" that allow a narrative to be constructed out of a small amount of evidence, and gives the book a strenuous quality that doesn't make for easy reading. There's a also quite a significant amount of repetition; we're told twice in the space of ten pages, for example, that Craig's arthritis in later life meant that she sometimes used a wheelchair. This gave the impression that the book wasn't really meant to be read, but used as a reference tool, and that Cockin has tried to make sure the facts are available to the casual browser of the index. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this book is the result of commendable scholarship and its efforts to retrieve Craig from historical oblivion, existing only as a footnote in biographies of her mother and brother, are laudable.

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.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

E.M. Delafield by Maurice L McCullen

This appears to be the only critical work ever published about E.M. Delafield, and has been out of print for some time. My copy came (via Amazon) from the withdrawn stock of the South Dakota State Library; it doesn't look like anyone in South Dakota ever borrowed it.

McCullen's work begins with a short biography, then goes on to review EMD's books and some of her journalism. His analysis is strongly biographical in tone; this is reasonable, up to a point, given the autobiographical nature of much of EMD's work, and he does consider the difference between the narrative voice of the Provincial Lady, and her creator. He also offers a psychological interpretation of some of the major works, and considers EMD's approaches to form. EMD's output was large, and he argues persuasively that the standard of her achievement might have been generally higher if she had restricted this; however, he also appears convinced that her best books are very good indeed.

This is a fairly short work, which works well as an overview of EMD's work and a critical introduction to her methods and themes. McCullen notes the need for a feminist evaluation of her work, to support his claim that she deserves "a place, however small, in the Great Tradition".