Showing posts with label lesbian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label lesbian. Show all posts

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Island by Naomi Royde-Smith

It was possibly a mistake to pick this up after Henry Green since this 1930 novel is decidedly heavy on the exposition, avoiding subtle indicators of character or tone in favour of huge symbols and signs that direct the reader firmly towards full understanding of Naomi Royde-Smith's vision.   The novel is subtitled A Love Story, and its protagonist is the orphaned Myfanwy Hughes, known as Goosey.  Living with her aunt and uncle on a farm in North Wales, she falls in love with pretty, sophisticated and rather amoral Flossie Priestman, known to Goosey as Almond.  Flossie/Almond likes Goosey's attention more than she likes Goosey herself, and after she marries, Goosey is rather glad to see the back of her.  Goosey moves to the seaside town of Rockhead with another aunt, a milliner, who has taken her on as apprentice; marriage to the local draper becomes a possibility.  But Almond, a disruptive force, runs in and out of Goosey's life, leaving her husband and returning to him, but always keeping Goosey's devotion at a rolling boil. Goosey eventually, comes to see Almond as the person who has led her into a life of irredeemable sin, leading to a permanent breach between them and the decline of Goosey's rather tenuous hold on sanity.

This book was written at the end of 1929 and published in 1930, and it reads rather like a response to, and repudiation of,  Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness.  In its way, it is as frank as Hall's book;  if you are thinking that the Well is not particularly explicit you are probably right, but reading dozens of interwar books about lesbianism has warped my perspective. However, while The Island accepts notions of lesbian identity, and - interestingly - explores the way these are constructed by mainstream society, the conclusion of the book is the antithesis of the Well.  Stephen Gordon prays to her God for a right to live in her own way; Goosey sets herself against her God among the forces of the damned.  The only thing worse than being a lesbian in most interwar novels on this theme is being bisexual: Almond sits alongside Angela Crossby from the Well as a classic fictional bisexual stereotype, manipulative, duplicitous and self-interested.  She retreats into heterosexual respectability while poor Goosey retreats into madness. 

A lot of this book is really quite silly - apparently, you can become a lesbian through being snubbed by a man riding a horse across a marsh - and the narrative's attitude to its characters is often ambivalent.  Goosey is both pitied and blamed for her fate.  Like Radclyffe Hall's novel, it's also terribly earnest; although there are elements of the arch comedy that I enjoyed in The Tortoiseshell Cat, these sit awkwardly with the tragedy of Goosey's life. The writing is also quite variable in quality.  However, it is also interesting, mostly because it looks at Goosey and Almond's relationship in its context, showing the reactions of those around them,   Compared to other similar characters, Goosey and Almond are rooted in ordinary life, working, marrying, raising children; they are not rich, cultured or creative.  Royde-Smith also opens up the question of how much we should try to help the bewildered and lost when we meet them, of whether there is a wider responsibility for Goosey's despair.

The novel has been out of print for years, but second-hand copies are not that expensive.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Tortoiseshell Cat by Naomi Royde-Smith

This is the first novel of the prolific Naomi Royde-Smith, who published a large number of novels, plays, non-fiction and anthologies, as well as working as a reviewer,  but now appears to be pretty much forgotten; she doesn't even have a Wikipedia page.  Royde-Smith was part of interwar London literary society, intimately involved with Walter de la Mare and Rose Macaulay, making the obligatory appearance in Virginia Woolf's diary (Woolf didn't like her).  In her fifties she seems to have made a lavender marriage with a rather younger actor, which was by all accounts a success.  All in all, she sounds like a quirky character, and this certainly comes across in The Tortoiseshell Cat.

The novel concerns Gillian Armstrong, a young woman trying to make a career out of no particular skills or aptitudes, living with her sister Lilac at the Mordaunt Club, a Chelsea residence for unmarried or widowed women.  Gillian has travelled a great deal with her late father, but is thoroughly innocent; watching Lilac work to fascinate her young man, she is both faintly shocked and uncomprehending.  Her first job, at the rather shambolic Pelham House school for girls, comes to an abrupt but anticipated end when the headmistress finds she has been quoting Theopile Gautier to the girls; her next job, as private secretary to nouveau riche, eccentric Lady Bottomley, is more successful.  A Pelham House pupil, Jane Bird, has a crush on Gillian; after Jane has left school, she seeks Gillian's friendship and introduces her to Larry Browne, an artist and his flatmate, Heinrich.  The eponymous cat helps Gillian meet a fellow Mordaunt Club resident, Victoria Vanderleyden, and V.V. in turn to meet Peter and Heinrich.  After Lilac makes a successful marriage to Lady Bottomley's son Toby, a complicated web of relationships will be woven between Gillian, V.V., Jane, Larry and Heinrich that Gillian will find increasingly difficult to understand and to unravel.

Gillian feels strongly, and has a powerful sense of her need to make her own life, but has little comprehension of the origin or meaning of her feelings, or of the effect their expression will have on others.  She is powerfully drawn to V.V., but luxuriates in feelings of affection and V.V.'s tender attentions without examining them.  She is fascinated by the fey Heinrich, who tames sparrows and mice, but is unable to understand the seriousness that lies beneath his faun-like persona.  Only when tragedy marks her life will she begin to understand the implications of her actions and the decisions she has made.

Royde-Smith's novel is written for the most part in a sharply entertaining style which reminded me of Ronald Firbank; the humour is often constructed by Gillian's surreal environment and the odd, oblique ways in which the characters express themselves.  There are some very funny individual characters, particularly the incomprehensible headmistress of Pelham House, who cannot construct a full sentence, and the epitome of bad taste, Lady Bottomley, whose Knightsbridge house is full of the ugliest objects and who has filleted the saucy bits out of her son's copy of Swinburne with a sharp pair of scissors.  The twist into tragedy is a little awkward in this context.  The book's depiction of lesbian and gay characters is fairly explicit, especially to the modern reader - V.V.'s endless series of friends with men's names is a rare pre-Well of Loneliness reference to lesbian subculture - but like other novels of the period, the conclusion is essentially conservative.  However, it's still an enjoyable novel that would appeal to admirers of early Evelyn Waugh (another Firbank fan) and Stella Gibbons's satires of bohemian life.  There is a print-on-demand edition of this novel currently available but Royde-Smith seems ripe for wider rediscovery, and an obvious choice for a Persephone edition.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Miss Linsey and Pa by Stella Gibbons

This novel, the fourth that Stella Gibbons published, is a sort of reverse Cold Comfort Farm.  Miss Bertie Linsey and her Pa have been living in a village just outside London and running a greengrocer's shop for years.  But the shop has failed, due to competition from more modern retailers and the departure of Bertie's brother Sam - the business brain of the family - to South Africa.  They have to leave their little house and move to London.  Bertie appeals to her uncle, Mr Petley, and his son Len, who have a tobacconist's shop near the Caledonian Road, for help in finding lodgings.  Mr Petley - who has a generally low opinion of women - considers Bertie to be the interfering sort, and tells Len to take rooms for them with the Fells along the road.  Mr Fell is a half-mad giant who cares only for caged birds; Mrs Fell is no better than she ought to be.  Miss Linsey and Pa find themselves established in two dirty basement rooms which they must share with a variety of insects.  But Bertie Linsey is strong and energetic and determined to make the best of things.  At first, things go well; she finds a job as a cook-housekeeper for two Bloomsbury literary ladies, and Pa enjoys the urban delights of cinemas and museums and begins to make friends with the Fells.  Like Flora Poste, Bertie cannot keep from interfering, and when she begins to scheme to break up her employers' household by fostering the romance of pretty Miss Lassiter with her handsome doctor, much against the wishes of possessive Miss Hoad, things begin to go awry.  Bertie is resilient, however, and will go on to interfere with modern notions of child-rearing and in the affairs of cousin Len, who still nurses an affection for a French girl he met at the end of the first World War, who disappeared without trace.  Bertie's resilience is tested not only by her frequently unemployed status but also by Pa, who spends rather a lot of money cheering up Mrs Fell, and by the unexpected dangers of urban life.

Gibbons has her satirical eye on Bloomsbury this time, making fun of the household of Miss Hoad and Miss Lassiter and their sophisticated metropolitan friends.  Dorothy Hoad is a literary relative of Radclyffe Hall's Stephen Gordon, given a boy's upbringing, independently wealthy, and fond of collars and ties.  Her passion for Edna Lassiter is unrequited; Miss Lassiter, a novelist, has accepted her financial support, but is now chafing under the control exerted by Miss Hoad in return.  Miss Hoad's portrait is a decidedly hostile one and she is made to behave extraordinarily badly by her creator, although I'm bound to say that it is all highly entertaining.  Miss Linsey's second job, as a nurse to a child being brought up according to avant-garde principles, allows Gibbons to take a few well-aimed shots at modern parenting and modern marriage.  The chapter in which two couples, on the brink of reciprocal adultery, go away to a damp Essex cottage to "talk things out", is particularly amusing - although shamefully Gibbons allows the best row to happen off-stage, and tells us about it afterwards.    This is Mr Mybug's world, one of strenuous sexual freedom and cultural experimentation, and - as with Mr Mybug - Gibbons squeezes a great deal of humour from it, and from Bertie's efforts to restore simple, straightforward values to a modern urban world.

This novel is fairly unusual in its context, both putting working-class characters at its centre and making them fully-rounded and interesting.  One of the (many) faults of Miss Hoad is to consider Len and Bertie to be "automata", unreceptive to their environment and to the finer things in life.  However, both are well-developed characters with a full range of emotional responses - and not necessarily those stereotype might suggest - to their circumstances.  Bertie's bravery, her fear of "going down", of financial ruin, are very real and very affecting, as are her responses to loss and to tragedy.   Len's slow progress towards finding his lost love is engaging. Pa himself - although there are faint echoes of Adam Lambsbreath in his fey, vague qualities - is open-minded and capable of the unexpected.  Gibbons also includes a black character, another lodger at the Fells; the portrayal of Mr Robertson is fairly racist, and the characters react to him with (probably entirely realistic) hostility or, in Mrs Fell's case, by eroticising his exotic difference.  There are points, however, when the narrative empathises with his position and draws out the connections between him and Bertie, both strangers in an unwelcoming place.  Gibbons makes good use of her affinity with the fairy tale in this book, resolving the plot through miraculous reappearances and discoveries, and restoring Miss Linsey, like a ransomed princess, to her rightful place.

This book is still funny and entertaining, although it shares with other Stella Gibbons works the problem of making the modern reader wince at its casually expressed prejudices.  There is a lot in the text to interest enthusiasts for interwar writing.  Unfortunately, it's also very hard to get hold of.  It's not among the Gibbons titles recently re-issued by Vintage, and secondhand copies are few and expensive.  I believe Vintage bought the rights to her whole back catalogue, so perhaps it will appear in due course. 

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault

This novel, set in 1938 but published in 1944, takes place mostly in the Thames houseboat of the young ladies of the title.  Leo, a trouser-wearing character, works as a writer of Westerns, while her companion Helen, a former nurse, now works as a medical artist, drawing operations and dissections. The two women are popular with the other river-dwellers  - including Joe, an avant-garde writer who lives on a nearby island - and with Helen's medical colleagues, and both successful in their professions, if not rich.  Into this harmonious atmosphere comes Leo's sister Elsie, encouraged to escape from her quarrelling parents by Peter, a young doctor with whom she thinks herself in love.  Leo, who ran away herself ten years earlier and is never mentioned at home, has some sympathy for Elsie, and welcomes her warmly.  But Elsie invites Peter to visit the houseboat; Helen and Leo both admit to attraction to him, which they attempt to suppress, to save Elsie's feelings.  Peter is a committed flirt with no serious interest in Elsie, and pursues his opportunities with vigour.  But it is the relationship between Leo and Joe which will be most disrupted by the events of the novel.

Renault's friendly young ladies are fairly obviously lesbian, even allowing for 1940s coyness on the topic. Leo refers to "her way of life" and "people like me", considering lesbian relationships a natural consequence of the "surplus" of women in British society.  I'm not sure, however, if this is really a novel about lesbian identity; Leo's desires seem to me to place her somewhere towards a transgender position.  A tomboy in childhood, she still favours masculine dress - although she will transform herself in femme drag when the occasion suits - and is often mistaken for a man; she bonds with a schoolboy on Waterloo Station over a copy of Aeroplane magazine.  The "greatest happiness of her life" has been a week spent climbing in the Lake District with Joe, a week in which her gender and her clothing had been unremarkable, a week of masculine companionship.  What Leo wants from Joe is for them to be men together, to be allies; but what she will get will be very different indeed.

The book also has some interesting things to say about the status of the writer, and the quality of the written word.  Leo and Joe make no distinction between the quality of what they do, and Leo is scornful of writers who think they could do better work: "It's like losing a game and then saying you didn't try".  Joe takes Leo's writing seriously and advises her on technical aspects of ranch life, having grown up in Arizona.  Elsie, an exemplary middlebrow reader who likes books to be nice and pleasant and to make her happy, has a hilarious encounter with a novel of Joe's which contains a stark portrayal of a woman washing her dead child; Elsie puts the book back on the shelf.

The tone of the novel is very dry and understated, but there is often humour - Renault has a lot of fun at the expense of the bumptious Peter and the naive Elsie - as well as some genuinely moving passages.  I particularly liked the few phrases in which Helen realises that her relationship has shifted into crisis (edited to avoid spoilers):

"Helen's voice trailed to a standstill.  She stood with the butter-dish, which she happened to be holding, still in her hand, staring at Leo's back [...] Her face altered.  She put down the dish on the table, moved forward a step or two, and stayed where she was. 'Oh, Leo,' she said. 'My dear.'"

This sort of narrative reticence - we don't know how, exactly, Helen's face has altered, but we know her equilibrium is disturbed - is typical of the whole novel's subtlety of phrasing.  It reminds me quite a lot of Sarah Waters' The Night Watch -  I wonder if this was a source book for her?  In the Afterword in the Virago edition, Mary Renault describes how she has been asked if she would have made the book more explicit, had she been writing it later in her career - the answer is a firm no, which does not surprise me, because the reticence is in many ways part of the book's charm, and allows her to create layers of ambiguity.  If she were more frank, some of the dramatic possibilities would be lost to her, as would much of the humour.

The Virago edition of this novel is still in print, and secondhand copies are widely available.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Love's Shadow by Ada Leverson

This novel is a witty, episodic comedy of manners with a wafer-thin plot concerning the courtship and early married life of beautiful Hyacinth Verney and handsome, if conflicted, Cecil Reeve, set in Edwardian London society.  Surrounding these two protagonist are a host of other characters, who both support and hinder their relationship.  Principal among these are the "little Ottleys", both well above the average height: Edith, who is a little bored with married life, and her envious, hypochondriac husband Bruce.  We also meet Sir Charles and Lady Cannon, Hyacinth's guardians; Cecil's music-loving uncle, Lord Selsey; Anne Yeo, a spinster of independent means who is Hyacinth's companion before her marriage; and Eugenia Raymond, a fortyish widow with whom Cecil is in love when the novel opens.  Ada Leverson cleverly keeps all these characters in play, extracting the maximum comedy from their interactions.

The novel is episodic, with short chapters which might be utterly disconnected from each other in temporal terms, picking up the narrative only when something interesting happens, and stopping abruptly when the interest has passed.  The final chapter, in particular, seems to stop rather than end, although there has been some rather unconvincing resolution of the plot by that point.  The obvious comic triumph of the book is the characterisation of Bruce, a pompous bore part-way between Charles Pooter and The Pursuit of Love's Tony Kroesig.  Bruce, who is spendthrift, self-aggrandising and lavish in his criticisms, spends "a great deal of his time and energy in disapproving generally of things and people that were no concern of his".  As his wife, Edith has to practice a great deal of forbearance:

"'You're always smiling, Edith,' he complained. 'Particularly when I have something to annoy me.'
'Am I? I believe I read in the "Answers to Correspondents" in Home Chirps that a wife should always have a bright smile if her husband seemed depressed.'
'Good heavens!  How awful!  Why, it would be like living with a Cheshire cat!'"

Mainly, however, Edith appears to survive by being amused at her husband's little ways, rather than pushing him down the stairs as one might expect.  Bruce is an amusing character, but I felt a little of him went a long way.  More to my taste was the sharply witty tone of the narrative: Lady Cannon's dresses are "so tightly-fitting as to give her an appearance of being rather upholstered than clothed"; weddings are an emotional strain because the "frame of mind supposed to be appropriate to an afternoon wedding can only be genuinely experienced by an Englishman at two o'clock in the morning".  Leverson is compared to Saki and Jane Austen on the cover of my copy, but she reads to me like a waspish blend of Nancy Mitford and Stella Gibbons at her funniest.

My main interest in the book was the depiction of Anne Yeo, one of the few characters in Edwardian fiction who can be read as lesbian.  Anne has money, but chooses to live with Hyacinth because she loves her, although her expression of this is understood by Hyacinth to be a joke.  Even in the context of this novel Anne is an odd character, eccentrically dressed and economical to the point of stinginess, given to sudden disappearances without explanation.  Despite her oddness, she has qualities that make her attractive to other characters in the book - and to the reader.  It's not really surprising that Ada Leverson, a close friend of Oscar Wilde, would have a positive view of variant sexuality, but it is notable that she has woven this view so deftly into a light novel, when it could be a cold spoon in the soufflé.

Love's Shadow was republished as part of the Bloomsbury Group selection of early twentieth century novels, and is widely available.  There are two sequels, Tenterhooks and Love at Second Sight, and the three novels were published in one volume by Virago under the title The Little Ottleys.  This seems to be out of print now and secondhand copies are currently incredibly expensive in the UK, although cheaper copies are to be had in the US.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Dark Island by V. Sackville-West

A curious and at times ridiculous work, this 1934 novel careers through suburban domesticity, London high society, overwhelming passion for a place, and a fatal love triangle, with a substantial portion of sadomasochism on the side.  The heroine Shirin, sixteen when the novel opens, is the youngest daughter of a middle-class suburban family residing in Dulwich.  Shirin nurses a secret passion for the island of Storn, off the coast of Port Breton (not clearly located in the text, but presumably in Cornwall)  where the family habitually take their holidays.  That summer, she meets by chance Venn le Breton, the heir of Storn and agrees to go with him to the island.  Venn is strongly attracted to her but also fearful of her and expresses in words and deeds his desire to hurt and control her.  When she leaves Storn at the end of the day, Shirin agrees to return - but the death of her grandmother cuts short her holiday, and it will be another ten years before she and Venn meet again.  In their twenties, Shirin now divorced and the mother of four children, they make a precipitous marriage.  Shirin does not love Venn, but she loves Storn, and when he realises this is the reason she has agreed to the marriage, he cruelly asserts his ownership of the island, killing the chance of any real intimacy between them.  The marriage endures, but Shirin needs help, and summons her friend Cristina, a sculptor, on the pretext of needing her for secretarial work.  Cristina loves Shirin, and this love is eventually returned, leading to a complicated triangular relationship in which both women attempt to balance the increasingly unstable and violent Venn.  As Venn's health deteriorates, the position of all three becomes increasingly vulnerable.

Added to this already complex plot are Mrs Jolly, a reformed prostitute turned housekeeper who has more than a maternal affection for Shirin; Lady le Breton, Venn's charismatic but malicious grandmother; Shirin's father, blinded by the Persian dust; and, always off the page but nonetheless a dramatic factor, Shirin's eldest son Luke who suffers from a congenital mental disorder and is confined to an institution.  Sackville-West has a rich melodrama with the basic plot, but cannot resist adding to it, stretching the reader's credulity long past breaking point.  She also breaks out into some astonishingly awful prose: "Now that he had let go of her wrist he felt that he had no more contact with her; she was separate; cut off.  They were both separate; cut off.  Their lives were separate and could never join,  So he was sad; not angry; just sad."  I feel sure I can hear Stella Gibbons laughing somewhere in the ether.  Other readers of my library copy have shared my irritation with the style: next to the paragraph in which Venn and Shirin consummate their marriage to the sounds of Wagner's Liebestod being played on an organ in the next room, someone has written WHAT A LOAD OF RUBBISH.

Among the better things about this novel are the evocation of Storn itself, remote and enigmatic, and the understated way in which the reserved and secretive Shirin is identified with the island.  There is also a rather interesting spiritual strand: to cope with the intense difficulties of her life, Shirin develops a faintly Buddhist approach of non-attachment and loving-kindness.  The depiction of the affection between the two women is frank, accepting and without prurience.  Other sexual behaviours - including sadomasochistic ones - are dealt with in a similar way.  But the increasingly purple episodes, particularly those relating to Venn's sadism, and the slightly clunky way in which each plot development is heralded by the same thing nearly happening, always portentously, a few chapters earlier, combine to make this a rather tiresome read.  The couple of contemporary reviews I've found seem to generally agree;  Vita Sackville-West's cousin Edward included The Dark Island in a list of recommended books for the library list in the Saturday Review, which was generous to her if not to the potential readershipThe book now seems to be only in print in French, although there are fairly inexpensive second-hand copies around.  If you would like to try VSW, I'd suggest starting with All Passion Spent or The Edwardians, or, best of all, her writings on gardening.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Extraordinary Women by Compton Mackenzie

Mackenzie's comic novel takes for its theme the complicated pairings, separations and new alliances among a group of more or less lesbian women on Capri (renamed Sirene in the book) at the end of the First World War.  His protagonist is the young and beautiful Rosalba Donsante, whose pleasure it is to absorb admiration, capture hearts, and break up established couples.  Rosalba is adored by the English Rory (short for Aurora) Freemantle, who is rich and decidedly masculine in appearance, with a "hispid chin"; Rosalba will take a good deal of advantage of Rory during her stays on Sirene.  Even the most snobbish and prudish people eventually succumb to her charms, but can Rosalba make a conquest of the celebrated composer Olimpia Leigh when she visits the island?

Published in 1928, a month after The Well of Loneliness, Mackenzie's book was spared the attentions of Sunday Express leader writers and the Home Office, despite its remarkably candid depictions of lesbian characters.  This is probably partly due to its original publication in a limited edition, and partly due to the tone of the book. The narrative voice is highly satirical, there is no suggestion that any of these women are martyred by society or their sexuality, and no serious claim for an equal place in the world for the invert; both Rory and Olimpia Leigh express the view that homosexuals have reached a higher plane of existence, but this is plainly presented as satire.  Most of Mackenzie's characters are ridiculous and he treats them with a highly ironic and slightly contemptuous manner; many of them are poseuses, asserting sexual deviance for attention only.  Several of them are also drawn from life; Olimpia Leigh is based on the painter Romaine Brooks, who was part of the Capri circle when Mackenzie lived there; Rory draws strongly on Radclyffe Hall, who was not a Capri resident but was clearly irresistible as a character, and a plainly lesbian one at that; and Rosalba is based on Mimi Franchetti, a rich Venetian who, according to Who's who in gay and lesbian history, was "stupendously egocentric, unable to keep from interfering in any relationship between two other women [...] an untameable femme fatale" (59).  

So the book is very interesting in terms of lesbian representation in fiction, and in historical terms, and it provides access to some excellent gossip.  But is it any good?  The narrative is highly ironic and mocking, and it can be very funny.  There are some lyrical descriptions of the beauties of Capri/Sirene.  But the story and structure are repetitive; Rosalba's sequential romantic conquests are followed by quarrels and usually a farcical climax of some sort, ending with the final chaotic party at Rory's clifftop villa.  There are also a number of plot strands that start up, but go nowhere, such as the burglary at Olimpia's house; these feel like padding in a fairly long book.  Some of the humour, for me, borders on misogyny.  On the whole I found this more interesting than enjoyable - and occasionally hard work, which for a book designed as a frivolous confection is disappointing.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall

Most readers, and I am no exception, come to Radclyffe Hall's work via The Well of Loneliness, and that's where they probably stop - with a bookmark permanently lodged near the middle in a number of cases, no doubt.  I've just re-read The Well for DPhil purposes, after a gap of about twenty years. While I remain impressed with her bravery in writing the book, I still find the prose almost unbearable: Hall uses repetitive devices, borrowed from the literature of myths, legends, and the Bible, to leave us in no doubt of Stephen Gordon's heroic, martyred status.  I was therefore delighted  - not to say astonished - to open The Unlit Lamp and find a well-structured novel written in engaging prose with even the occasional joke.  In a subversive way, however, The Unlit Lamp is as radical a novel of lesbian life as its more famous successor.

Hall's heroine is Joan Ogden, twelve when the novel opens, the daughter of a retired Colonel who has served in India to the detriment of his health, and his snobbish wife who makes much of her distant, aristocratic relatives.  The family live in Seabourne, a rather dull coastal resort that is particularly rigid in its gentility.  It is around 1890; the scholarly Joan has the good fortune to acquire a Cambridge-educated governess, Elizabeth Rodney.  Elizabeth recognises Joan's talent, as does a local friend, Richard Benson.  Joan will hope to emulate Richard by becoming a doctor.  Her sister Milly is not academic but very musical, and determined to study the violin in London.  Their father's old-fashioned objections to these aims (he thinks it "indecent" for a woman to become a doctor) are challenged when an aunt leaves the girls a small amount of money, enough to keep them while they train for some profession.  Milly does manage to get to a music school, but Joan finds her efforts to leave are continually thwarted.  Money, family illness and social propriety all conspire against her; most of all, Mrs Ogden's calculated vulnerabilities constantly undermine Joan's determination to get away.  Elizabeth recognises the situation and offers Joan a home with her in London, and to support her while she trains, setting herself in plain opposition to Joan's mother.  The book's drama is contained within the battle between these two older women for Joan's love and attention.

The structure and pacing of the book are excellent; Hall builds to a series of climaxes in which it seems that Joan might be going to follow her dream, then drops into anticlimax when Joan returns to familial duty.  The book is divided into key episodes from Joan's life, often with long gaps between them, so the Bildungsroman element is not overly detailed.  Mrs Ogden is no cardboard ogre, and the reasons for her selfishness are worked into the narrative; Elizabeth, similarly, is imperfect and it is this realism that makes Joan's endless dithering over her future understandable and tolerable.  Hall decided to write this novel to expose the ways in which adult unmarried daughters were exploited and thwarted by their mothers, and some polemical argument emerges, both in the narrative tone and in the mouths of a couple of the characters.  While the novel endorses the notion that women should have the chance of a life of their own, the stories of Milly and Elizabeth show the hazards inherent in venturing out into the world, and draw some ambiguity into the political force of the text.  The love between Joan and Elizabeth allows Hall to contemplate the difficulty of establishing a relationship between women, both economically and socially.  Joan comes to realise that she is afraid of acknowledging her desire:  "... she had not the courage to say straight out that she intended leaving her mother's home for that of another woman ... it was unusual, and because it was unusual she had been embarrassed."  Hall's greater frankness about lesbian desire in The Well of Loneliness contributed to its prosecution for obscenity; this novel expresses the sexual desire between Joan and Elizabeth only in metaphor and allusion, but is candid about their commitment to each other, their desire to live together, and the relationship of this desire to traditional notions of marriage.  There are interesting connections between this novel and Winifred Holtby's The Crowded Street, published in the same year, particularly in the context of the panic about 'surplus women' of the early 1920s.

The Unlit Lamp seems to be out of print, but the Virago edition is to be had for a penny on Amazon; it's well worth the penny and the postage charge.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Development by Bryher

My last post was about an unpublished novel by H.D., Bryher's lifelong partner; Bryher's own novel was published in 1920, during the early years of their relationship.   Bryher was the chosen name of Winifred Ellerman (1894-1983), the daughter of an immensely wealthy shipowner; she was part of the Anglophone literary circle in Paris in the 1920s; living in Switzerland in the 1930s, her house was a staging post for Jewish refugees escaping Nazism; she saw out the war in London, editing a magazine, and until her death she continued to write historical fiction, non-fiction and memoirs.

Development is – as you might expect from the title – a Bildungsroman.  The protagonist Nancy, aged four at the opening of the novel, moves from indulged child to schoolgirl to young woman struggling to find her place in the world.  The child Nancy longs for adventure, preferably at sea: we first meet her sitting in a box, a make-believe boat, while The Swiss Family Robinson is read to her.  This nursery scene is disrupted by a real sea-story: Nancy is taken to see a ship wrecked by a storm and the daring rescue of the crew.  She will be lucky enough to have many more adventures; her family take her to Italy, Spain and North Africa, where she rides across the desert on a donkey, and Switzerland, where she tastes the freedom she longs for by running far ahead on a mountain walk.  Her imagination is stocked by tales from ancient history – she is not much of a reader of fiction – and she casts herself always in the part of an adventurous boy, regretting her sex and the constraints it imposes.  School, where she is sent at fourteen, is an appalling shock: the uniform mediocrity, the strangeness of a crowd of girls, the pointless activities all confound Nancy and her sense of self.  She survives through preserving an aloof attitude that reinforces her sense of separateness, although she does make a couple of friends: boyish Doreen, from Cornwall and fond of sailing, and kindhearted Eleanor.  More travel, being finished in Paris, even publishing her own book of verses cannot satisfy Nancy’s need for recognition and friendship; a week in the Scillies, sailing at night with the fishing fleet, only sharpens her resentment of her gender:

“Why was she born with a boy’s heart when she might not go to sea?”

One of the most interesting things about Nancy is her synasthaesia.   Words, letters and musical notes all have an ascribed colour, to the extent that music is difficult for her to listen to, being an overly complex muddle of colours.  She tries her youthful hand at art, but without the immediate success she craves; she then bends her sense of colour towards writing, exploring the literary world with a view of colour shaping her response to books.

Nancy embodies the solipsism of the child and adolescent.  As a child, disembodied voices read to her, speak to her; adults are barely named, there are occasional references to “the family”, but not to her parents as individuals.  Most of the girls at her school are a uniform mass; the teachers have names, but are just as uniform.  Out in society as a young woman, she is disappointed by the shallowness and conventionality.   Her inwardness is profound: every experience, every line read and place seen, is viewed through the prism of her own self.  This occasionally makes her irritating, although the writing of this inwardness is cleverly sustained and grows with Nancy, adjusting its focus according to her age.  The characterisation of Nancy – and she really is the only character – is consistent, with colour and depth.  However, to really enjoy this book you have to like Nancy, and I’m not really sure that I did: discontented and privileged, with no idea of her own privilege but every idea of the obstacles in her way, she is a convincing adolescent but not an attractive one. 

Development is often cited as an early lesbian work, but you have to look quite closely to detect any sense of this.  It helps to know that Bryher was influenced by Havelock Ellis's Sexual Inversion, and uses Ellis's definition of lesbian characteristics to inform her portrait of Nancy, such as her rejection of feminine norms, her sense of separateness, her highly developed intelligence and sensitivity to art and nature.   Development and its sequel Two Selves are available in a single-volume version, as is some of Bryher's later historical fiction.  Her memoirs - which given her long life, complicated relationships and network of friends ought to be decidedly juicy - seem unfortunately to be out of print.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Paint It Today by H.D.

A review of this slim volume will help make sure March doesn't go by without a single post.  H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961) is best known for her modernist poetry, but she also wrote a number of novels. Three of these, Asphodel, HER and Paint It Today are autobiographical works, not published in her lifetime, which function as romans à clef about her complicated emotional life.  H.D.'s  first love and her poetic muse was Frances Gregg; in her early twenties she was engaged to Ezra Pound; she was married for a few years to the writer Richard Aldington; and eventually settled into a long partnership with the writer Winifred Ellerman, known as Bryher. This relationship was not uneventful - Bryher herself was married twice, once to one of H.D.'s lovers - but they brought up H.D.'s daughter together.

Paint It Today is an unfinished work that examines H.D.'s relationship with Frances Gregg (Josepha in the text), a compelling and enthralling but ultimately harmful experience, and the beginnings of her relationship with Bryher (Althea).  As you might expect, it is written in a dense, poetic style, full of classical allusions and references.  The narrative shifts between the third person and the first person, with the protagonist, Midget, sometimes taking up the narrative voice, usually as if from a great temporal distance, to depict Midget's struggle to establish and comprehend her identity:

Myself who was an unformed sort of nebulous personality shall have no name.  You might have called me Midget if you were very stupid, but I was not Midget.  Midget was an intense star.  Midget was a reality.  Midget had broken from all humanity, had fought and won, was a flaming banner.

That quotation is fairly typical of the style, which is full of metaphor and lyrical reference and based on a careful, rhythmic construction which makes it very pleasurable to read.  Colours and flowers recur in the text, always freighted with symbolic meaning, and bringing a very visual quality to the prose.  Occasionally there are passages that would probably have been revised, and the narrative ends with a note that the next section is to start there.  Admirers of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein are likely to enjoy H.D.'s fiction; it is also of interest as an early representation of lesbianism, which is why I came to read it.

Monday, 28 February 2011

Not so quiet ... by Helen Zenna Smith

Helen Zenna Smith was a pseudonym of Evadne Price (1901-1983), a jobbing writer whose career encompassed this novel and its sequels, romantic fiction, stage plays, working as a war correspondent for the People during World War II, and acting as astrologer for She and Australian Vogue.  She was commissioned to write a parody of All Quiet on the Western Front, but proposed instead a serious war-story from the point of view of a woman war-worker.  She used as her source material the unpublished diaries of Winifred Constance Young, who had been an ambulance driver in France, and drew on Remarque's original novel for aspects of the form and language of her work.  Published in 1930, the novel can be grouped with other works that spoke frankly and critically about the Great War, often from a pacifist viewpoint, such as Testament of Youth and Goodbye to All That.

Written in diary form, the novel opens with an unflinching description of Helen Smith's life as an ambulance driver in northern France.  The accommodation is filthy and uncomfortable, the food disgusting, the work exhausting both physically and mentally. Their Unit is overseen by the Commandant, an older woman with a decidedly cruel streak, fond of autocratic whims and demeaning punishments. Helen (or Smithy or Nell; as a generic figure, her names are mutable and interchangeable) contrasts their war service bitterly with the campaigns run at home by women like her mother, and the self-satisfaction mothers take in their sacrifice of daughters to this work, with no idea of the sufferings they endure.  The idea that the older generation, and particularly older women, are responsible for the horrors of war is strongly expressed throughout the text.

War service brought together women of various classes and backgrounds, and the novel engages with this theme.  The ambulance drivers were recruited from among "refined women of decent education" but this still allows for a certain amount of variation, from lower-middle-class gentility through to members of the aristocracy familiar to their fellow workers from the pages of the Tatler.   This variation, and the cramped conditions in which the women live, cause inevitable conflict.  Helen bitterly resents the fact that the ambulance drivers also do all the cleaning work at the Unit; she frequently wishes that working-class girls could be recruited to do this.  Given the long and strenuous hours she spends driving the ambulance, she has something of a point, but doing work she sees as demeaning is as much of a trial as the additional physical labour.   Helen's attitude towards other women war-workers is highly variable: while she values the especial skill of women ambulance drivers, she is scornful of the "Seeing-Francers", the vast majority of volunteers who last only a few weeks in the service, suggests that women in positions of command invariably become megalomaniacs, and despises the amateurism of middle-class women undertaking war-work in England.  This is, however, consistent with her view that the majority of war-work exists only to perpetuate the war machine and to allow manifestations of self-sacrifice, rather than helping to alleviate suffering or bring about an end to the conflict. The novel also deals frankly with heterosexual desire and obliquely with lesbian desire.  While politically this is not a feminist text, nonetheless it has a great deal to tell us about the lives of women in wartime.

Helen's is an angry, bitter story; she sees the youth and joy crushed not only in herself, but also in her friends and lovers.  She exposes a hollowness at the centre of notions of the nobility of war and self-sacrifice, and the extreme cost of war service for both men and women.  Barbara Hardy's introduction to the novel tells us that Evadne Price wrote it in six weeks, and this sometimes shows in the text; this is not an elegant or poetical rendering of war experience, but raw and immediate, intended as a popular novel - which indeed it was, as a bestseller in its time. Not So Quiet ... is still in print, and there are also lots of secondhand copies of the Virago edition around.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Regiment of Women by Clemence Dane

Clemence Dane's 1917 novel attempts to persuade the reader that lesbianism is inferior to heterosexuality and that single-sex education should be avoided.  The former position is not particularly radical for 1917, and while Dane's representation of lesbian relationships might seem unusually frank to 21st century eyes, it is worth remembering that, for many of her readers, nothing sexual would have been imputed to the "friendships" her novel describes, however "unhealthy".  The latter position is, of course, informed by the former, and it is lesbianism that is the main target of Dane's critique.  Unfortunately for her, she chooses to do this by creating a monster: Clare Hartill, second-in-command to the ageing Headmistress at Utterbridge Girls' School, is manipulative, vain, egotistical and utterly ruthless.  She also joins that large group of monstrous characters who are far more interesting than their righteous opponents. 

The plot of the novel revolves around Clare's love for Alwynne, a young teacher at the school; Alwynne returns her love, but Alwynne's Aunt Elsbeth is determined that her niece will not dedicate her life to Clare.   The women's relationship is complicated by Louise, a young girl that Clare has singled out for attention, and turned into one of her most devoted worshippers as a result.  Louise's story and its repercussions will, eventually, bring about the end of Alwynne's regard for Clare.

The narrative wants to condemn Clare, but also needs her to be charismatic and attractive.  This sets up a permanent tension between the need to prove Clare to be bad but to also keep the reader's attention on her.  Clare is certainly bad and often terribly cruel, but when tragedy strikes, the narrative apportions the blame; Clare is certainly partly responsible, but not - as Alwynne's heterosexual rescuer suggests - wholly so.  Roger, who appears in the last third of the novel as Alwynne's suitor, is an inadequate foil for Clare, and in fact they never meet.  It is another woman - Elsbeth - who is eventually able to put Clare at a disadvantage, although, as Alison Hennegan's introduction to the Virago edition points out, the end of the novel is very ambiguous about Clare's future.

I found the writing very uneven.  There are some fantastic sections, such as Alwynne's vision of a calendar year as a path leading through "a wide country", from the snowy fields of January, through the glades of spring and the stony hill of autumn to the brightly-lit welcoming house of Christmas.  The narrative makes frequent excursions into interior monologue, but broken up with ellipsis which makes it jerky and fragmented.  Alwynne's scenes with Roger are marked by an arch, artificial style that contrasts unfavourably with the direct and open communication she shares with Clare.  The text is also littered with symbolism that reads like a Freudian primer - Roger shows Alwynne a hiding-place produced by splitting open a tussock of grass that is long, like women's hair; Alwynne breaks Clare's bell in a fit of temper; Roger's conquest of Alwynne is achieved in a railway train.  The introduction tells us that Dane was famous for her naivety regarding sex, and perhaps this is a symptom of that, but her unconscious mind was certainly working overtime when she selected her metaphors. 

While the book is not an easy read for many reasons, it's undoubtedly interesting, anticipating much of the sharpened anxiety of the interwar period about unmarried women and the renewed promotion of marriage as the proper career for girls.  The other interesting aspect is the way in which the narrative, and the characters, escape their author's agenda, complicating her meaning in surprising ways.  This is less surprising if Dane herself was lesbian, as a book I've just been reading suggests; if this was so, the novel begins to look more like a way to contain and interrogate her own fears and doubts about her sexuality. 

Sunday, 28 September 2008

What Am I Doing Here? by Bruce Chatwin

Another collection of travel writing, including "stories" whose possibly fictional status Chatwin signposts in his forward. Chatwin the traveller is open and receptive, smiling and chatting with nuns sweeping the convent yard; recognising the conversational value of a fairly unrepentant old Nazi; peering in peoples' windows and waving at them when spotted. This approach bring him many stories - and probably also "stories" - to weave into his tales of places, usually exotic, often dangerous. He's a bit of a name-dropper, although shrewd enough to keep anecdotes of famous friends in check, and a master of the art of telling the reader just enough to whet the appetite for more. A real loss; but at least I have the majority of his work ahead of me.