Thursday, 31 December 2009

Annual Reading Meme 2009

Thanks to Catherine for this annual round-up meme.

How many books read in 2009?
About 65, I think - there are 56 books reviewed here, I've re-read a couple, and there have been a number of critical works read for my DPhil that I've not blogged about.

Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?
I've reviewed 18 non-fiction works and probably read 25 this year, so still getting on for 2:1 in favour of fiction.  I'm never sure where to count poetry on that particular divide.

Male/Female authors?
16 male authors and 33 female authors.

Favourite book read?
Probably the most enjoyable was Waterlog, but honourable mentions to The War-Workers, Miss Buncle's Book and The Rest is Noise

Least favourite?
I was probably most disappointed by The Whole Day Through and the very silly Nightingale Wood.

Oldest book read?
New Grub Street was the only pre-twentieth-century book I read last year.

I've read a few 2009 publications this year but The Little Stranger was probably read nearest its date of issue.

Longest book title?
The excellently named Ladies, Please Don't Smash These Windows, assuming subtitles are to be ignored.

Shortest title?
I think it must be Waterlog.

How many re-reads?
Not so many this year, although certainly Diary of a Provincial Lady, Cold Comfort Farm and I Capture the Castle. I've made frequent reference to Andi Clevely's The Allotment Book and Denis Cotter's Wild Garlic, Gooseberries and Me.

Most books read by one author this year?
E M Delafield is unsurprisingly this year's winner - I've read seven of her novels plus assorted short pieces of writing.

Any in translation?
Tove Jansson's A Winter Book.

And how many of this year’s books were from the library?
About five of the titles I've blogged about, and probably about 10 unreviewed books. I'm now a member of four libraries, and I have no more room on my bookshelves, so that figure ought to go up next year.

A Tale Told by Moonlight by Leonard Woolf

A delightful little volume from the Hesperus Press, this book contains three of Leonard Woolf's short stories, all set in colonial Ceylon, and two extracts from his autobiography which describe his voyage out to Columbo and his experiences at the Pearl Fishery in Ceylon, experiences which find their way into "Pearls and Swine", the second story here.  First published by the Hogarth Press in 1921, the stories are a frank appraisal of colonial life, its limitations and its opportunities.  The title story deals with a young colonial administrator in thrall to a Sinhalese prostitute; the second, which has strong echoes of Heart of Darkness, describes what happens when the narrator is sent to manage the Pearl Fishery with a young, ambitious civil servant, Robson, and an old alcoholic, White; it exposes the costs of imperialism, both to the coloniser and the colonised.  The final story, "The Two Brahmans", explores the effects of stepping outside the behaviour prescribed for one's caste, an ironic parable applicable to any class system. 

The first two stories use a framing device for the narrative: a first-person narrator opens each story, but the actual tale will be told by another character, in both cases something of an outsider.  These outsiders narrate their tales of the unfamiliar in a very English setting: in the English countryside at night with nightingales singing, for "A Tale Told by Moonlight", and in a Torquay hotel for "Pearls and Swine".  Victoria Glendinning's Foreword notes the affinity with framing techniques used by Conrad, a writer Woolf admired; the admiration seems to have been mutual, since "Pearls and Swine" may well have informed a later Conrad work, Allmeyer's Folly.  As with The Wise Virgins, the prose throughout this little book is crystalline, precise and elegant, equally at home with beauty, violence and degradation, and densely packed with meaning. 

This is a beautifully produced book, but, annoyingly, there seems to be a particularly egregious typographical error on page 3; "recruiting" is used instead of "recuperating" twice in the same paragraph.  At ten pence a page, correct typesetting doesn't seem too much to ask for.  Perhaps it was a Hogarth Press original error, and Virginia was having an off day?

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

William, an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton

Another Persephone reprint, William is the story of the sudden impact of war on two people who thought it could never possibly come.  William is a suburban clerk, suddenly precipitated into freedom by the death of his overbearing mother, who leaves not only their home, but a significant some of money.  William uses his freedom to devote himself to political life as a left-wing Internationalist in the years before World War I.  Through his political work he meets Griselda, who shares William's causes and has long been an active and commited suffragette, even to the extent of a spell in Holloway.  The opening chapters, with their descriptions of William and Griselda's limited intellects and understanding of the ideals they espouse, could come out of H G Wells:  we are in familiar territory, mocking the suburban clerk, his undeveloped body and mind.  But the rest of the novel will take us far away indeed from the Diary of a Nobody landscape.

William and Griselda marry in July 1914 and choose an isolated location for their honeymoon: the Ardennes forest in Belgium.  For a while, all is appropriately blissful.  Then one day they visit the farmer's wife who is cooking their meals, and find it deserted.  Faintly alarmed by this, and rather hungry, they eventually decide to walk back to the nearest town, and find that it is occupied by the German army.  From an English-speaking officer, they learn of the war, and that they are now prisoners.  This is only the beginning of a nightmare which will see William renounce his previous ideals of pacifism and internationalism.

This was Cicely Hamilton's only novel - she is better known as a playwright and non-fiction writer and journalist, as well as a prominent suffragette - but shows a skilful handling of her narrative and plot.  You would expect a playwright to rely more on dialogue, but Hamilton's descriptive passages are lucid and powerful.  I found the meaning of the book, which you might expect to be clearly political given Hamilton's suffragette background, rather ambiguous.  Willam and Griselda's political campaigning and militancy are mildly mocked, and their self-satisfied radicalism swiftly punctured; William has no experience to back up his political convictions, and it is suggested that Griselda's attraction to suffragism is more to do with the opportunities it brings for attention and notoriety, rather than because of a deep commitment to a feminist cause.  William's political transformation into patriotic Englishman after the atrocities he experiences is reactive and emotional and therefore unsustainable; faced with the reality of war service behind the lines in a clerical role, the passion that inspired him melts away.  Their social positioning within the novel could allow an ironic reading of their suffering, but the narrative tone is straightforwardly sympathetic and the descriptions of their plight harrowing.  William seems to me to attempt to come to terms with the experience shared by thousands of Englishmen in the immediate and raw aftermath of the Great War, hinting at the critique of that war as futile which would be articulated more explicitly by later writers.

Monday, 28 December 2009

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

I've been meaning for a while to buy this book as a midwinter treat and read it by the fire, and having finally done so, I'm very glad I did. A Winter Book is a collection of Tove Jansson's stories and memoirs, telling of her early childhood with her artist parents, later life as a successful writer and as an old woman. Her childhood stories are luminous and bright, sometimes dealing with matters of great significance to the narrator, at other times quotidian in focus. This division is picked up again elsewhere in the collection: the story "Messages" comprises scraps of notes presumably addressed to the author, sometimes loving, sometimes ordinary, sometimes mad and threatening; the narrator of "Travelling Light" seeks adventure and escape but reaps only domestic confidences from a fellow traveller.

Jansson's adult and child narrators share the quality of clear-sightedness and are swift in their judgements, although even in the world of childhood ambiguity creeps in, as when attitudes to the sacred world of art are challenged in "The Spinster who had an Idea". The longest story here, and for me the most enjoyable, is "The Squirrel", in which an old woman is joined on her island home by a squirrel in November and finds that her visitor is occupying all her time and thoughts and knocking her off balance. This story is not only densely packed with ideas about solitude, the relationship between the wild and the domestic, and writing and art, but will also delight readers of Beatrix Potter by confirming that squirrels really do cross water on little rafts, unless Jansson could possibly be pulling our legs. The book is illustrated with photographs of Jansson, her family and her partner Tuulikki Pietilä; it is bound in the usual beautiful way by Sort Of Books, who have published another Jansson novel, The True Deceiver, which will probably be my next little treat to myself.

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.

Ordinary Families by E. Arnot Robertson

Ordinary Families is a rather odd book. It is narrated by Lalage, usually known as Lallie, aged eleven at the start of the story, and part of the entirely unordinary Rush family, which comprises four children: Ronald, Drusilla, Lalage and finally beautiful Margaret, whose family position and physical attractiveness mean she is indulged with more of everything, but especially love and attention, than her siblings. Their father is a sailor, scratching a living out of trading in yachts, and with a back-story that packs in more adventures than might seem possible for someone of his years. Their mother has married out of her class; she is mainly, at least in Lalage's eyes, interested in ensuring that her children keep no secrets from her and are fed to bursting at all times. Their neighbours in the Suffolk seaside village are the Cottrells, a left-leaning intellectual family with a hint of Bloomsbury, and the Quests, rich and rather frightening to the young Lallie.

The story focuses, essentially, on Lallie's efforts to preserve the things that are important to her from her family's attention and teasing, which invariably spoils them for her, and it is usually Margaret who reads Lallie's mind and betrays her secrets. As a child, it is Lallie's love of birds that is revealed by Margaret, to Lallie's shame and dismay; as a young woman, she will compete with Margaret for the attention of Gordon, the man she loves, while struggling to prevent her family recognising her attachment and teasing her out of it.

The structure of the novel is episodic, often with large gaps of years between chapters - the First World War takes place in one of these - but Lallie's narrative voice is always adult and poetic. The narrative is strongly retrospective, evoking an adult's distant memory of childhood and adolescent experiences, and the first page makes it clear that the narrative may be unreliable, influenced by details added afterwards, distorted by re-tellings to third parties. This retrospective voice comes to a juddering end in the final paragraphs, in which Lallie, Gordon and Margaret are trapped in a moment in time, waiting for time to begin to move again.

Polly Devlin's introduction tells us that E. Arnot Robertson was no feminist, and Lallie's attitudes to the women around her bear this out: she despises her mother's domestic concerns, a neighbour who goes to Oxford is wasting her time, Stella Quest is disliked because she treats men as if they were big babies. At the same time, Lallie values the men in her life; her father is her early hero and she transfers this worship to Gordon, which makes her father seem a little ridiculous. She relies, for help, advice and generous hotel lunches, on the misogynous Mr Quest. The doubtful figures in Lallie's binary model of gender values are Gordon's former lover Esther, and Margaret herself, who have a power Lallie recognises as greater than her own.

The irony of Lallie, seeking something other than her mother's life for herself, but throwing away the opportunity of interesting work to pursue Gordon, who is likely to lead her straight back into the world of unfulfilled domesticity, is not explored by the novel. We could read from that an endorsement of the wifely role, were it not for the great sadness with which the last chapters are imbued; this is a very unhappy happy ending.

There is an interesting little mention of how the Rush family come by their reading material; most of it is chosen for them by the bus conductor's daughter, who lives next to the Ipswich Boots' library, and brought back by the bus conductor to isolated Pin Mill. Her taste is apparently "jollier" than that of the educated Cottrells. I can't think of any other novels of this period in which the reading of upper-middle-class characters is controlled by a member of the working classes in this way. Q D Leavis would have been horrified.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Faster! Faster! by E M Delafield

Taking its title from Alice's experience through the looking-glass, running ever faster only to stay in the same place, Faster! Faster! looks, like The War-Workers, at women who work outside the home, albeit with a less caustic and more considered approach. The novel centres around Claudia Winsloe, who runs a Universal Aunts type of business, coupled with a literary agency and transcription service, and her family: Copper, her husband, who has been unemployed for some years; Sylvia, her eldest daughter at 19, intended for a job in publishing but secretly longing to stay at home and arrange the flowers; Taffy, 17, who longs to escape to Bryn Mawr; and Maurice, about 12, who admires his mother greatly. [Please note that the next paragraph contains plot spoilers].

Claudia assumes the role of family breadwinner and perfect modern mother, allowing her children to make their own choices in life and being totally frank and open about herself. The novel opens with a long section taking place over a bank holiday weekend in August. While her family and guests enjoy themselves, Claudia remains a martyr to her work; when they begin to assert themselves against her, and her self-conception as Atlas holding up the family world is challenged, she is shaken but resolute in her self-control. In the second section of the novel, set in October of the same year, Copper is offered a job. Claudia is sufficiently disturbed to attempt to thwart his chance of employment, causing her sister Anna to condemn her perpetual martyrdom and lack of self-knowledge: Claudia enjoys the role, the pose, and all her efforts go to support that, not her family. In the final section, after Claudia is killed in a car accident, we see her family getting on, pursuing their own interests and dreams, and surviving very well without her.

The novel is one of EMD's romans psychologiques, and by the time this novel was written she was probably at the height of her powers in this mode. Her ironic tone, which wavers through the similar Gay Life, is firmly in place here, and she plays off characters and generations against each other to generate humour. The characterisation is detailed and less reliant on stereotyping than in earlier novels; Claudia is a much more rounded character than the similarly autocratic, self-sacrificing Char Vivian in The War-Workers, although quite as deluded as to her own motives. Copper is, to a certain extent, a typical Delafield grumpy husband, but he shows depth of character when he catches his eldest daughter pursuing an unsuitable potential lover in her pyjamas, and in his enthusiasm about his new job. I also like the minor characters who form Claudia's office staff; the office girls could easily be middlebrow stereotypes, and at first it seems that they are, with their fascination with slimming and clothes, but they have real wit and a generosity that opens out their characters and makes them memorable. My only complaint is that there is too much of Mrs Peel, Claudia's mother; a peevish woman given to repetition moves quickly through humour and into dullness.

This novel, Mrs Peel's views aside, is much less conventional on the topic of working women than Delafield's earlier fiction. It is taken for granted that girls will need a career, that women need interesting work to support themselves, and that women can work well and efficiently, providing a professional service; only Claudia among her staff is tempted to martyrdom and overwork. Her office manager, Mrs Ingatestone, combines work with caring for a daughter, albeit one at boarding school. Claudia's friend Frances, whose return to England and reacquaintance with Claudia frames the novel, naturally turns to work as a young widow, not only from financial reasons but also to gain the satisfaction of work well done. Claudia's problems are nothing to do with work in itself, but stem only from her inability to understand herself or to relinquish control.

I was lucky enough to find a copy of this with its dust-jacket intact. The spine shows a slim woman, the world balanced on her shoulders, admiring herself in a pool of water. This image of Claudia as Atlas recurs throughout the novel, and was suggested by EMD herself for the spine. It's rather ironic that the spine of the book (which is holding it all together) should use this image of a woman whose attempts to hold it all together will go so disastrously wrong, for her and for her family.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett

I've read other ICBs before, but not this one, and was inspired to turn to it by Stuck-in-a-Book's group read. Compton-Burnett's novels are often accused of being all the same, and it's true that they revolve around similar themes, in similar settings and similar forms. ICB's themes are the cruelty family members practice on each other in familial hierarchies with fathers at the top and children at the bottom; how the oppressed internalise their own misery and oppress in their turn; the novels are usually set in an upper-middle-class home and vaguely Edwardian in period regardless of when they were written; and her distinctive style, in which plot and character are delivered almost entirely through dialogue, is given full rein in Manservant and Maidservant.

Reliance on dialogue allows the unsayable to be spoken in this novel's oppressive home, and the result is painful and sometimes embarrassing, as when Horace, the autocratic father, attempts to make peace with his browbeaten children on what he imagines to be his deathbed; he gets better, of course, but cannot take back his words or expect them to be forgotten. The dialogue reveals ICB's unquestionable skill as a writer; it conveys each character distinctly as well as progressing the plot, but never says too much: the unspoken is as important as the spoken. It also allows the introduction of some excellent jokes.

One of the interesting elements of this novel is that an important revelation of a secret is managed through a letter, which we never read, rather than dialogue; and that revelation is only possible because the letter has been sent to Miss Buchanan's shop, which she allows to be used as a correspondence address. Miss Buchanan is illiterate, and cannot tell that the letter has got into the wrong hands. The read and the unread in this novel are as significant as the spoken and unspoken. Miss Buchanan, interestingly, speaks relatively little and her responses are described by the narrator more than articulated by herself; because she would not be able to read these descriptions of her speech and actions, this seems a piquant way of allowing her to communicate, underlining the restrictions of her life. Miss Buchanan's story, in which she is rescued from illiteracy by the household servants, who have discovered her secret and propose to teach her to read, has a note of hope and redemption in it which I found unusual for Compton-Burnett; that the kitchen-maid Miriam, raised in an orphanage and now oppressed by Cook, is to be her teacher gives a touch of hope to Miriam's future, too.

However, reading this book reminded me why I find ICB more admirable than enjoyable. Her prose has a chiming quality to it which makes reading one of her novels like attending a five-day glockenspiel concert, or like being tapped on the forehead repeatedly with a teaspoon. Whatever I read next has to have a woodwind tone, I think.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Book memories meme

Stolen from Kirsty at Other Stories

The book that’s been on your shelves the longest.

I think that is probably The House at Pooh Corner, an ancient hardback copy formerly owned by someone called Quainton from Harrow, who crossed out another dedication on the inside cover: "To Peter, from Audrey". Most of my early childhood books are at my parents' house, for some reason, including a full set of Beatrix Potter that I really ought to liberate from them.

A book that reminds you of something specific in your life (a person, a place, a time).

Barbara Trapido's Brother of the More Famous Jack was tremendously important to me when I was seventeen and working Saturdays in my local bookshop. My colleagues there were all women of about my mother's age but with very different experiences, attitudes and approaches to life. Like the Goldmans do for the young Katherine in the novel, these women opened my eyes to ways of living that my unsophisticated rural upbringing hadn't encompassed. I read the novel again and again and still know chunks of it by heart.

I read What a Carve Up! during a godawful storm while staying in an equally godawful holiday complex on Rhodes, just next to the airport. I remember the circumstances better than the book, but Jonathan Coe's name still makes me want to check that the windows are firmly shut.

A book you acquired in some interesting way.

Most of my books have been acquired in the usual way by handing over cash in a bookshop. I have a copy of The Importance of Being Earnest which dates from 1919 and is in the Lancing College binding, with a College bookplate inside, but no "Withdrawn" stamps or similar. I like to think one of the Lancing boys stole it. I also have a couple of books that were dished out to me at school, and that I never returned - a Macmillan edition of Hardy's poems is one. Sorry, nameless West Oxfordshire secondary school; I do still read them, if that makes it any better. I worked for a while at a Well-Known London Bookshop, where, it was rumoured, staff used to pilfer the books when the working conditions got overly irksome. I couldn't possibly comment on that.

The book that’s been with you to the most places.

I have a Penguin Classics copy of Pride and Prejudice that I got one Christmas as a teenager which has probably been with me everywhere I've ever lived.

Your current read, your last read and the book you’ll read next.

Currently halfway through Ivy Compton-Burnett's Manservant and Maidservant; the last book was The Dark Tide; and I have Sheila Rowbotham's biography of Edward Carpenter to look forward to.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

The Dark Tide by Vera Brittain

This was Brittain's first published novel, appearing in 1923 a couple of years after she had left Oxford. It had a difficult route to publication, rejected by many publishers before Grant Richards took a calculated risk with it - calculated because Brittain contributed £50 towards the costs of its publication. The book tells the story of two young women. Virginia Dennison has returned to Drayton College (a thinly disguised Somerville) after several years of war service as a nurse, mostly overseas. Daphne Lethbridge, a little younger, contributed to the war effort in the more genteel role of naval officers' driver in Portsmouth. They are physical opposites: Virginia is small, dark and immaculately dressed, while Daphne is tall, fair and has disastrous taste in clothes. Both are intelligent, but Virginia is more devoted to her work. Forced into proximity by shared history tutorials, their initial opposition develops into frank dislike. Virginia, scarred by her war service, finds the College atmosphere frivolous and its students immature; Daphne despises Virginia's superior attitudes, and colludes with a College plot to humiliate Virginia at a debate. She is successful, but unsurprisingly their friendship does not prosper as a result.

Both are coached by Mr Sylvester, a youngish don, who conceives a passion for Virginia. She rejects him, and later that day he proposes to Daphne, who has been in love with him for some time, on the rebound. Virginia does not tell Daphne about his earlier proposal. They marry, but Sylvester has no real love for Daphne and their marriage founders very quickly. By chance, Daphne, tired and pregnant, meets Virginia outside Marshall and Snelgrove, and they begin to rebuild their relationship, both seeking to make amends for earlier cruelty and vindictiveness.

The book divides into two halves. The first part, dealing with Oxford life, is acidly witty, with the reader privy to many of Virginia's bitchy opinions of her fellow students, the light banter between the younger dons, and the general air of lightheartedness prevailing among the younger students. It is strongly reminiscent of other Oxford novels, in the tradition that probably began with Zuleika Dobson, and the descriptions of Drayton life are echoed in Making Conversation, especially the undergraduates' interest in cocoa, flirtation and hats (Christine Longford, at Somerville between 1918 and 1921, must have been a contemporary of Vera's when she returned to her studies after the war. Perhaps she was one of the trivial undergraduates who drove Vera mad). Class is important, and we are never allowed to forget the humble origins of Daphne's mother; Daphne comforts herself with the knowledge that Virginia is "only" the daughter of a china manufacturer. Farce erupts occasionally, usually because large-fingered Daphne has been embarrassingly clumsy.

Daphne's wedding, a moment of snobbish high comedy, marks the turn of the book towards the serious matter of personal relations and into melodrama. Daphne suffers greatly for her impulsive marriage; Virginia is tormented with guilt for not telling what she knew of Sylvester; and Sylvester's treatment of his wife descends from cruel remarks through humiliation and into outright violence which leaves Daphne and her son permanently damaged. Daphne considers divorce, but eventually sacrifices her freedom so that Sylvester's career will not be hindered (apparently the press will not find out that he is separated from his wife and disabled child, but a divorce will be disastrous). Her self-abnegation is praised at length by Virginia, pursuing a nursing career despite her First, as an act of self-realisation: "You'll always be able to believe in yourself now, because you've done a good thing and a great thing, whatever people may say about it" (228). Daphne's sacrifice is all the more powerful, Virginia believes, because Sylvester is not worth it.

Brittain's stylistic shift from comedy to melodrama underlines the narrative arc, allowing her characters to atone for their earlier mistakes, purified by suffering. As Mark Bostridge points out in his introduction, the end of the novel is curiously wedded to retrogressive ideals of self-sacrifice as the high point of any woman's life, which undermines any feminist point the novel might hope to make. I would go further and suggest that the tone of the novel is generally anti-feminist. The narrative views most of Drayton's students as trivial and unacademic; male characters assert that women are not worth educating without contradiction or even ironic criticism from the narrative. Value and worth are ascribed to women based on their physical appearance; the narrative is much kinder to Daphne once she has learned to dress well. At Drayton, Daphne and Virginia have potentially bright futures ahead of them; both are viewed as intelligent students by their tutors, and they may go on to challenge male bastions, as Ruth Alleyndene does in Honourable Estate. By the end of the novel, both have been subsumed into traditional female roles, (abandoned) wife and mother and nurse.

Even the professedly anti-marriage Patricia O'Neill, a Drayton don, has been married off by the end of the novel, and Brittain's preface recounts how she met the man who was to become her husband because he sent her a fan letter about The Dark Tide, linking the story of the novel's production and reception to the narrative itself. Both the preface and the Patricia O'Neill sub-plot work to emphasise that marriage itself is one of the proper ends of women's lives; Daphne's marriage fails because of the shortcomings of those participating in it, not because marriage itself is in any way problematic. It is perhaps fair to read Patricia O'Neill's story as an assertion of a feminist approach to a marriage of equals, blending love and work and mutually beneficial, but as she and her husband Stephanoff are minor (and sometimes humorous) characters, they provide a limited challenge to the overwhelming trend towards female self-denial. One other possible feminist reading of the text would be to consider its endorsement of self-sacrifice as n the type of feminism that argued for women's worth and value to be recognised as equivalent to that of men, rather than pursing legal and economic equality - "different but equal", if you like.

The novel is enlivened by a (probably unintentional) subtext of same-sex desire. Daphne and Virginia's physical opposition is described in gendered terms. Daphne is tall, broad-shouldered, slightly masculine about the nose and chin, large-handed; Virginia is small, fragile, "as light as thistledown", fragile and feminine. Their differences are underlined by their clothing; Daphne's is usually characterised as garish, while Virginia chooses darker and more tasteful clothes. Virginia is more sexually successful, attracting male attention at dances and tea-parties as well as inspiring Sylvester's passion; Daphne is better at attracting female friends within Drayton society. Their initial mutual loathing, Daphne's humiliation of Virginia, and Virginia's revenge and atonement, are clichés of romantic fiction and can be read as a simultaneous sexual attraction and social repulsion. Daphne's face and wardrobe are changed by later grief, and she begins to resemble Virginia more, wearing black and developing hard lines around her mouth. This physical change is accompanied by their growing affection; once they resemble another a little more, they can move from initial sexual attraction into romantic love.

The Dark Tide is an odd but fascinating book, likely to suit anyone interested in women's lives in the inter-war period, women's education or with an addiction to Oxbridge novels. It's still in print, published by Virago, so more accessible than a lot of the books I seem to have written about lately.

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.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Honourable Estate by Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain's 1936 novel blends family saga and political analysis. Divided into three parts, the novel opens with a description of the lives of Janet and Thomas Rutherston. Janet marries Thomas, a clergyman, too young and too hastily; appalled by the realities of birth and motherhood, and desperate for an outlet for her talents and intelligence, Janet turns enthusiastically to the suffrage movement. Her commitment to this cause will mean the end of her marriage and destroy a close and significant friendship with Gertrude Ellison Campbell, a playwright, although her son Denis comes to admire the sacrifices she has made. The middle part of the novel concerns the Alleyndenes, owners of a factory in the Potteries (readers with longish memories may be reminded of this television series by the Alleyndenes), and their daughter Ruth, whose early achievements at Oxford will be cut across by the first World War. In the final part of the novel, Denis and Ruth meet by chance while undertaking voluntary work in Russia, and through their marriage some of the frustrations and difficulties of their parents' generations are transformed and resolved.

Mark Bostridge's introduction explains that, after the success of Testament of Youth, Brittain sought to write a novel with the same scope and emotional impact. To do this she married together two existing draft novels; the story of the Rutherstons, which drew heavily on the diaries of her husband George Catlin's mother Edith, and the story of the Alleyndenes which derived in part from her own family background. Sometimes, the reader can see the joins, although some aspects of the novel - the re-appearances of Gertrude Campbell, for example - work well as a thread running through the work and connecting the characters. The defining characteristics of the work, however, are earnestness and exposition. We are treated to long, carefully scripted internal monologues from key characters; the characters all write to each other at great length about their feelings and intentions, and we are privy to a great deal of this correspondence; Brittain is at great pains to ensure that all the motivations and reasonings of her characters are explained in full, whether in their own voices, or through the narrator. This not only makes the book very long but ensures that it mainly lacks the subtleties of ambiguity or subtext. Brittain is also over-fond of the use of adjectives; hair is not just brown, it is sleek and shiny as well; eyes are not just blue-grey (two for the price of one there!) but watery and dreamy. This can make the text seem cluttered with detail that distracts from the narrative and from the political points it is trying to make. For me, it also gives the lie to Brittain's assertion in her Foreword that the characters are not based on real people, an assertion clouded still further by the appearence of real historical figures in the novel and the autobiographical content that will be familiar to readers of Testament of Youth.

Brittain's celebration of her feminist mother-in-law, who died young and without witnessing the achievements of the suffrage movement, is touching, as is the story of Ruth's suffering and eventual triumph. However, both are used to deliver often intrusive polemical statements about suffrage, feminism and socialism that can sometimes seem cut and pasted from Brittain's own journalism, and diminish the strength of the characterisation. The narrative is very frank about sexual matters, although Brittain is not enlightened enough to avoid the stereotypes of the embittered spinster or the repressed lesbian. I found the scene between Ruth and her dead American lover's fiancée, who expresses her joy that he and Ruth had sex before he died, so that he did not go to his grave a virgin, wholly ridiculous and unbelievable. I assume it was included to mitigate Ruth's shame at her descent into what she sometimes sees as fallen womanhood; to help sanctify the act, remove any sense that Ruth has wronged another woman, and separate her from those women who gave soldiers a lighthearted 'bit of fun' before their return to the trenches. To be fair to Brittain, the narrative's difficulty in coming to terms with sexuality is mirrored by Ruth's own feelings about sexual matters; there is often a sense that we are viewing the repression of the Edwardian generation from the perspective of the more enlightened 1930s. Denis is often the mouthpiece of this enlightened view, apparently unworried by such vexed questions as abortion, extra-marital sex and homosexuality.

Personally I found this book more interesting than enjoyable, mainly because of the style of the writing; but it hasn't put me off and I may have a go at The Dark Tide in a little while.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Bazalgettes by E M Delafield

The Bazalgettes is something of an oddity. Published anonymously in 1935, Delafield's work is a spoof Victorian novel, set in the 1870s, but dealing with a theme, as the preface says, that might have been chosen by "the most modern of present-day novelists". Twenty-year-old Margaret Mardon, a cheerful product of an unhappy marriage, has agreed to marry local widower Charles Bazalgette, considerably her senior at sixty-four. As his bride, she will take on his large house, Castle Hill, its long-established staff, and his five children. Despite the misgivings of her unmarried Aunt Mardon, the marriage takes place, and Margaret sets out to make the best of things with reasonable success.

Margaret is very likeable, and if she is disappointed in the lack of companionship she finds with her spouse, whose preference is to spend as much time alone as possible, she does not let it bother her. She deals sensibly with the less amiable of her stepchildren, and with those servants who prove somewhat difficult; she is not much taken aback when she discovers that she is, in fact, the third Mrs Bazalgette, and that she has an unexpected stepson a few years older than herself. She is only seriously disturbed when she she comes to know Charlie, this stepson, and realises what sacrifices her light-hearted marriage of convenience actually entails. Alongside Margaret's story runs her sister Julia's sub-plot, in which she falls for, and eventually marries, a rather limp poet who favours the Chaucerian style.

Mr Bazalgette is a slightly Bluebeard-like character, although this is undermined rather by Margaret's lack of fear of him, and his perpetual worry about draughts; Bluebeard combined with Mr Woodhouse, perhaps. In his failure to provide his wife with companionship and entertainment he is an archetypal EMD husband. Margaret is not the archetypal EMD mother, however, perhaps because she is a stepmother; she admits to favourites among the children, but is also genuinely interested in all of them and willing to spend time playing and caring for her instant family. She, in her turn, is more effectively mothered by her aunt than her own mother, brow-beaten by her perpetually raging father. The Mardon parents, mostly off-stage, are played for comedy; the novel makes use of Victorian linguistic convention to heighten the comedy and establish its credentials as a genuine Victorian artefact. Mr Blunden, the Chaucerian poet, is an early example of the young aesthete, and all the lesser characters are well (and humorously) delineated. Even where stereotypes are used - the cringing governess, the stern nanny - EMD adds enough detail and colour to lift these characters out of cliché; the governess's violent enthusiasm for Margaret being one such detail. Aunt Mardon, witty and acerbic but also kind, is also well-established despite seeing very little of the action.

The book is highly entertaining, with EMD's ironic tone well-deployed, if fairly slight, and there are some awkward moments - Margaret's sudden invocation of Christian faith when she must break with Charlie, for example, sits uncomfortably with her previous light-hearted attitudes to church and religion. I haven't been able to establish why the publication was anonymous; it is partly due to the fact that EMD was under contract with Macmillan when Hamish Hamilton issued The Bazalgettes, but had Macmillan turned it down? Was it a little joke at the expense of the critics, to see if they could spot her handiwork? It seems unlikely that it was a real attempt to fake a Victorian novel; the publisher's preface certainly undermines this.

My copy was a present, and I feel very lucky to have received it - it's very rare and quite often very expensive too. I haven't found the book online, although there is a copy in the British Library for very determined EMD fans.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room is a place of exposure and seclusion, safety and vulnerability, love and evil. The eponymous room is at the heart of the Glass House, the masterpiece of modernist architect Rainer von Abt, built as a family home for newlyweds Liesel and Viktor Landauer in 1920s Czechoslovakia; the room will adapt to use as a place of love, of safety, of joy, of horror and of healing as the novel moves through key eras of Czech history, taking us from the hopeful days of the new nation at the start of the novel through to the consequences of the Velvet Revolution in 1990.

Mawer has cleverly woven his narrative into the history of the country, and the novel has many links with genuine historical figures. The Glass House itself is based on the Tugendhat House designed by Miese van der Rohe (according to Peter Gay, the design and development of the real house was much less harmonious than the version Mawer gives us; van der Rohe took little notice of the desires of his clients); Hedy Lamarr makes a brief appearance, as does the composer Vitěslava Kapràlovà. As soon as we realise that Viktor Landauer is Jewish, we know that twentieth-century history will be driving the plot of this novel. However, the narrative is not predictable or formulaic, and this is partly due to the complex set of human relationships that also inform the plot. Viktor and Liesel's marriage is companionable, but both seek passion elsewhere. Viktor falls in love with a Viennese prostitute, Katalin, who eventually comes to live with the family, a Jewish refugee from the Anschluss; Liesel maintains a complicated relationship with her best friend, the sexually adventurous Hana.

The tone of the novel is infused by the ambiguities of the Glass Room; some parts of the stories are clearly exposed to the reader, others are hidden from us. Large periods of time elapse between the novel's sections; some characters disappear, their narratives lost in the appaling circumstances of Central European history. These ambiguities are often amplified by the frequent play between the languages of the characters: German and Czech, sometimes Russian and English. The Glass Room becomes Glasraum in German; Raum has, as we know, a different meaning, one of space; the Czech pokoj, Mawer tells us, has the double meaning of tranquility or peace. By the time it is known primarily in Czech, it has become a place of healing, a gymnasium where disabled children do their physiotherapy exercises. By playing with language in this way Mawer preserves the ambiguities of his central symbol and ensures the engaging, unexpected quality of the writing.

The historical setting and range of characters reminded me a lot of Die Toten Bleiben Jung (The Dead Stay Young), a novel about Germany at the end of the second world war, and Part 4 of the novel seemed to be a homage to Kundera in its depictions of young lovers in Communist Czechoslovakia. Despite these echoes, the novel is anything but derivative, the writing fresh and crisp and often very beautiful. Mawer may have missed out on the Booker, but hopefully being shortlisted will make more readers aware of this book.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Another meme

Stolen from the Victorian Geek:

Do you snack while you read? If so, favourite reading snack?

I'd like to think that I don't. Favourite would be crumpets, I think.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?

I never mark books, even with pencil - I prefer to make notes as I go along or use page flags. Writing in library books will be punishable by death in Catalpa's Republic.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears?Laying the book flat open?

Usually a bookmark, although I do have a bad habit of putting books face down to keep my place. It never works, as the cats invariably knock them off the desk or sofa.

Fiction, Non-fiction, or both?

Both. I go through phases of being unable to read fiction at all. I read a fair bit of history and biography.

Hard copy or audiobooks?

I've enjoyed audiobooks in the past, but generally prefer to read than to listen.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you able to put a book down at any point?

I can stop anywhere, but prefer to stop at a natural break in the text. Most of the modernist claptrap I read doesn't have chapters, anyway ...

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up right away?

Yes, if the means are at hand - otherwise I'll try to work it out from the context.

What are you currently reading?

I seem to be between books. Time to browse the unread pile ...

What is the last book you bought?

The Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien.

Are you the type of person that only reads one book at a time or can you read more than one at a time?

Usually one at a time, although if the book I'm reading at home is too heavy to take out with me, I'll have a more portable title on the go as well.

Do you have a favorite time of day and/or place to read?

I suspect my favourite time to read is whenever I should really be doing something else.

Do you prefer series books or stand alone books?

I haven't read many series books, so stand-alone is probably my preference. I quite like authors who reuse characters from novel to novel, like Barbara Trapido.

Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over?

Cold Comfort Farm. I wish more people read Sylvia Townsend Warner.

How do you organize your books? (By genre, title, author’s last name, etc.?)

Divided by genre, alphabetical by author's last name within genre. A few oversized books have to be stored out of sequence, which is most irksome.

The Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien

I confess to picking this up because I know that Kate O'Brien was a friend of EMD's in her later years, and then to buying it because it turned out to be about nuns, but I'm very glad I did. O'Brien's novel, set in a fictionalised Limerick at the beginning of the 20th century, deals with the relationship between Mother Mary Helen, Reverend Mother of a Catholic boarding school in a fictionalised Limerick, and Anna Murphy, sent there at the early age of six because her father's drinking is disrupting family life. Reverend Mother, at the start of the novel, considers her work in Ireland to have failed, and doubts her original motivation for becoming a nun. But through her distant and reserved love for Anna, and their evolving friendship, she comes to reconsider her position.

The book is excellent on the politics and diplomacies of the life of a senior nun, managing parents, bishops and her fellow sisters in an atmosphere of self-abnegation and the rejection of pride in her own achievements. While Reverend Mother occupies much of the narrative space, Anna appears regularly as a narrative viewpoint, giving us another perspective on the school and the nuns but also underlining the similarities between her story and Reverend Mother's. The schoolgirls, often ebullient and silly, point up the quietness and restraint of the nuns who care for them. The book is structured around two key events which it would be unfair to new readers to reveal; around these high points the pace of the work is measured, its prose calm and contained, evoking the restraint of convent life.

There is some feminist polemic here regarding the education of women. The young Anna wishes only for time and space in which to think about how she will earn her living, but knows that these are luxuries likely to be denied her by a controlling family. She reckons without the support of Reverend Mother, however. Clare Boylan, in the introduction to this book, suggests that O'Brien's polemic inclinations prevent her from producing a work of art; there probably would have been ways to resolve Anna's story less intrusively, however agreeable the polemic concerned. Having said that, I found the depiction of an older and powerful woman campaigning for the freedom and education of a vulnerable girl very moving. Equally moving is Anna's epiphany, towards the end of the novel, explaining Lycidas to a beautiful but empty-headed fellow pupil. As well as the revelation that the flaw is essential to art and to beauty, this passage seems to me to hint at a sudden realisation of beauty's erotic potential; both understandings appropriate to Anna as she edges into adult life.

There are several other Kate O'Brien novels to look forward to: perfect displacement activity for a newly minted research student.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The War-Workers by E M Delafield

EMD's second novel, published in 1918, concerns the Midland Supply Depôt (EMD always uses the circumflex), a war support effort managed by its Director, Charmian Vivian. The daughter of the local squire, Charmian runs the operation (and, apparently, other operations that may not be her concern) with a combination of ruthless autocracy and cult of personality; her manifest self-sacrifice in working long hours and missing meals excites the admiration of the women who work for her. These women, mostly young and middle-class, live near the Depôt in a rather uncomfortable hostel, sharing bedrooms and providing each other with early morning tea. Charmian is joined by a new secretary, Grace Jones, who turns out to be the daughter of a Welsh Dean and of Charmian's own class. Grace is good at her job, and popular with the other hostel-dwellers, but does not participate in the mass admiration of martyred Miss Vivian. When Charmian's father is gravely ill after a stroke, she is beset by the conflicting duties of home and war-work; Grace, in the mean time, grows closer to Char's charismatic mother, Lady Joanna, and her cousin John Trevellyan, recovering from a war injury.

The book is a fascinating portrayal of women working and living together. It discounts the clichés of squabbling and bitching among women forced into close proximity; the war-workers of the hostel are mutually supportive and kind-hearted, covering work duty for sick colleagues, for example, sharing treats, and entertaining each other with music and chat. The rather different Grace Jones, possessor of a blunt frankness as well as an upper-class background, is accepted by the group and her characteristics accounted for by the term "originality". There are sometimes High Words. Miss Delmege, Charmian's other secretary, more than once attempts to assert her status and greater gentility and gives offence; and occasionally the workers simply get on each others' nerves, but on the whole this is an endearing picture of women working together and enjoying it. Charmian, for all she is admired by her staff at the start of the novel, is no feminist heroine, however. We are told that it is "part of Char's policy to always disparage her own sex. It threw into greater relief the contrast which she knew to exist between herself and the majority of women-workers" (141). The narrative is faintly admiring of her powers of stamina, direction and organisation, but the plot and other characters are critical of her motives: Char loves the limelight more than the cause. Char's mother, in a lesser way, also creates a cult of personality around herself, although this is presented as a benign and positive influence on those who admire her.

EMD uses an objective third-person narrative throughout the text, and the multiplicity of characters, and the use of their views and opinions to construct plot and character, approach modernist effect. There is no single protagonist: key plot developments revolve equally around Char, Lady Vivian and Grace, and the minor characters are well-described and characterised, although these characterisations are occasionally repetitive. EMD was a Voluntary Aid Detachment worker in Exeter, and it seems likely that she drew on this experience - perhaps her first encounter with girls not from her class - to inform the work. Char Vivian is said to be a rather unflattering portrait of Dame Georgina Buller, the only woman appointed to the post of Administrator of a military hospital in World War 1; there is more about this in Violet Powell's biography of EMD.

Kessinger Books publish a facsimile edition of The War-Workers. If you succumb to a copy, be warned that pages 284 and 285 are missing, presumably in a scanning error - Kessinger do warn of this possibility in the front of the book, to be fair. You can fill in the gaps, or read the whole thing, at

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Tension by E M Delafield

At the “Commercial and Technical College for South-West England”, a new Lady Superintendent has been appointed. Pauline Marchrose is the successful candidate, a woman claiming to be 28 but probably in her early thirties. Lady Edna Rossiter, wife of Sir Julian, one of the College directors, remembers that a woman of that name jilted her cousin Clarence after he was thought to be paralysed by a hunting accident. Edna is an inveterate meddler in College affairs, attending Board meetings and attempting to shape the characters of the staff by inviting them to her graceful home and taking them on nature-study outings. Sir Julian's agent Mark Easter also does some work at the College; Mark's wife is confined to a home for inebriates. Miss Marchrose (she is never called Pauline) and Mark are attracted to each other, and this attraction is fostered by Mark's sister Iris, lately engaged herself. Edna discovers that Miss Marchrose is indeed the woman who was engaged to her cousin. Although Miss Marchrose is very capable, and excellent at her job, Edna manages to cast doubt on her suitability, and an atmosphere of suspicion develops around her. Sir Julian admires Miss Marchrose's abilities, and becomes her confidant, but his support is no match for Edna's whispering campaign, and Miss Marchrose resigns, admitting to Sir Julian that she loves Mark, and would have become his mistress were he not too afraid. Immediately after her resignation, she agrees to marry Mr Fuller, the College Supervisor, another admirer of her work.

Tension opposes, rather interestingly, the roles of women in public life. Lady Rossiter typifies feminine influence, rather than power. Her social position gives her an entrée into the governance of the College, and she feels herself fully entitled to interfere where she desires; her position and her gender also allow her to manipulate the less intelligent and the more credulous when she cannot achieve her ends by more formal means. Miss Marchrose stands for the professional woman, well-qualified, diligent and successful at her job, whose evident attributes cannot withstand the effects of gossip and intrigue. The novel is harshly satirical about Lady Rossiter, with a wit that moves well past EMD's usual irony into sharp waspishness. Edna presents all her activities as motivated by love of her fellow human beings, but the third person narrative makes it quite clear that she does not always believe in this motivation. She is made to look ridiculous and patronising, inviting the College staff to Sunday tea; her frequently professed religious faith is shown to be shallow, and her husband's negative view of her is the most commonly heard narrative voice.

However, Miss Marchrose is not a straightforward exemplar of the professional woman, able to make her contribution to society through work rather than influence. Her relationship with Clarence, as explained to Sir Julian, shows her as less harsh than the bare facts appear; believing himself to be permanently paralysed, Clarence offers to release her from her engagement. Knowing that their relationship is based on Clarence's infatuation, which will not last, she agrees, but only after much soul-searching, and she continues to view her actions as shameful and to be concealed if possible. From a professional middle-class background, the death of her architect father forced her to seek paid work, and she describes her loathing of this way of life to Sir Julian; hostel life, with girls not of her class, left her lonely and unsatisfied, and she feared becoming like the older women around her, "pinched and discontented, always worrying over expense, and why there weren't two helpings of pudding at dinner, with nothing to do, nothing to look forward to - knowing themselves utterly and absolutely unnecessary in the world." (154). Her fears of this life pushed her into her engagement with Clarence. She enjoys her work at the College, and takes on more and more of it as well as helping Mark Easter with his estate work, but eventually escapes this to marry Fairfax Fuller. It is hinted that they will set up a branch of the College abroad, but will Miss Marchrose's professional skills be used, now that she has wifely influence at her disposal?

The historical setting of the book is not precisely given, but it appears to be before the first world war, as no reference is made to the war as a current or recent thing - and presumably the several men running the College would simply not have been there during the war. I wonder if Miss Marchrose's rejection of Clarence, to the post-war reader, would have been more shocking; many women must have had to make similar decisions and there would have been even more pressure to stand by your man, now a war hero, under those circumstances.

There is a tendency for the characters to assume that dull, repetitive work and food, and uncomfortable lodgings, are acceptable to those lower down the class scale, and the novel does relatively little to challenge this, although there is one humorous moment when Lady Rossiter encourages her Sunday visitors to enjoy her sea view, for "a draught of blue distance" (43), only to discover that one of them has taken rooms with a sea view and can look at it whenever she pleases. Lady Rossiter's ambitions to extend the cultural interests of the lower-middle-class College staff are presented as laughable, but then the only member of that group who is interested in personal improvement and long walks, Mr Cooper, is equally laughable. This ambiguity means that the book can take no position on class issues any more than it can on gender.

There is no feminist polemic here and in fact the rounded nature of the characters probably makes any sort of polemic impossible. Edna Rossiter's recollections of the circumstances in which she accepted Sir Julian's proposal of marriage show her as closer to Miss Marchrose than she cares to admit: she agreed to a marriage of convenience, for companionship rather than love, and to escape the fate of the old maid. Miss Marchrose has had, at least, the option and the ability to earn her living. Sir Julian's admiration for Miss Marchrose is rooted in his perception of her self-knowledge and integrity; he is not shocked by her love for Mark and her avowal that she would have defied convention to be his mistress if Mark had matched her courage. But her courage does not enable her simply to find another job at the end of the book; she too escapes into what must be in part a marriage of convenience to a man she may esteem but does not love. The regular use of Sir Julian's point of view in the narrative frames any challenge to established class and gender orders in a deeply conservative way; his mocking attitude to Iris and her fiancé Douglas, a rather shallow couple with more than a whiff of Bloomsbury about them, emphasises an enduring conservatism in relation to marriage and culture that is upheld even by the younger and more modern characters.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

I've come late to Elizabeth Bowen. Apart from a few short stories, the first thing of hers that I read was A House in Paris. That was odd and interesting enough to tempt me to more, and I've been picking them up in secondhand bookshops ever since. The Death of the Heart revolves around sixteen-year-old Portia, billeted on her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna in their elegant home overlooking Regent's Park. Thomas's father was, messily, divorced from Thomas's mother and obliged to marry his mistress Irene; after his death Irene and Portia lived in hotels around Europe, staying in cheaper north-facing rooms, until Irene too died and Portia arrived at Windsor Terrace. Portia, naive and awkward, uncomfortable at her day-school for young ladies and at home, takes solace in the company of Matchett the housekeeper and in her diary. Portia falls for Eddie, a rather camp young flirt who has been rebuffed by Anna, and who can only ever disappoint her. Discovering that Anna has read her diary precipitates Portia's inevitable crisis.

This book, too is odd and interesting. It's a slippery narrative, shifting between characters' points of view and between a third-person narrative, stream of consciousness, and extracts from Portia's diary. The prose is very densely packed with meaning; the events of the plot cover a few months at most, but we learn a great deal about the histories of the major characters; Bowen seems to excel in concentrating meaning in fleeting memories and snatches of conversation. Every character is rounded out, including those who never appear such as Portia's late father and mother, by a range of views and opinions, thoughts and memories. We learn along with Portia, of course, puzzling her way through various alien environments, but we learn more that Portia, being privy to the internal monologues of other characters.

The claustrophobia of Portia's environment, at Regency Terrace and at school, and also at the seaside villa owned by Anna's former governess where Portia is sent for a few weeks while her guardians are abroad, makes her attempts at escape through her diary and her relationships with Eddie and with Matchett believable; once Eddie has let her down and the secret of her diary has been lost, her flight from her uncomfortable family to Major Brutt, an acquaintance of Anna's who has been kind to her and lives in the hotel environment she knows well, is entirely credible. Portia is clear-sighted and quite tough, standing up to Eddie's criticisms, for example, but she cannot see any way out of her situation beyond appealing to a kind stranger for rescue.

Other than Portia, the women in the novel seem to me to be constrained by loyalty rather than love. Anna is loyal to the memory of her first lover, which unsurprisingly compromises her relationship with Thomas, and also seems to be a late but passionate convert to social convention. Matchett is fiercely loyal to Portia's late father and this locks her into a relationship with his children and to employment by Anna, who she finds less than congenial. Mrs Heccomb, Anna's old governess, remains loyal to her former charge, even when this disrupts her own houshold. Her stepdaughter Daphne is loyal to a peculiar local moral code, in which outward jollity and disinterest is all; flirting may take place but this must never be acknowledged publicly. This rigid network of loyalties forms part of the claustrophobic atmosphere and emphasises Portia's awkwardness; she has grown up in a world where the cast of characters changes daily, and enduring loyalties and their associated conservatisms are unknown.

Nicola Humble has written about The Death of the Heart in The Feminine Middlebrow Novel; the contrast between Regency Terrace and Mrs Heccomb's seaside house, in terms of decor, inhabitants and entertainments, delineates quite clearly the highbrow home from the middlebrow one. It is interesting that only Eddie, a young man with a lower-class background who has become socially acceptable in upper-class circles through education, is able to move freely between these worlds and to mock them both; but then Eddie is at home nowhere.

I've thought a lot about this book since I read it and it is still mysterious to me. I can understand why people become slightly obsessive about Bowen's work; it has an elusive quality combined with a frankness and an intensity which makes for very unusual and unsettling reading. Sylvia Townsend Warner's novels can be similar, although I find her more affectionate towards her characters. I still have The Demon Lover and The Heat of the Day on my unread pile, so look forward to further opportunities to explore Bowen's odd and interesting world.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Life according to literature

Stolen from Stuck in a Book:

Using only books you have read this year (2009), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It's a lot harder than you think!

Describe yourself: Body Parts (Hermione Lee)

How do you feel:
Still Here (Linda Grant)

Describe where you currently live: Fun Home (Alison Bechdel)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Wildwood (Roger Deakin)

Your favorite form of transportation: Sea Legs (Rosita Boylan)

Your best friend is: The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)

You and your friends are: Gay Life (E M Delafield)

What's the weather like: Waterlog (Roger Deakin)

You fear: Our Hidden Lives (Simon Garfield)

What is the best advice you have to give: Ladies, Please Don't Smash These Windows (Maroula Joannou)

Thought for the day: The Rest is Noise (Alex Ross)

How I would like to die: Somewhere Towards the End (Diana Athill)

My soul's present condition: Not I (Samuel Beckett)

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

This rather slight novel draws together Rotherham, an Anglicised German refugee with a Jewish father, working for British intelligence and cross-examining Rudolf Hess; Karsten, a German POW struggling with the shame of surrender; and the eponymous Esther, encountering foreigners (including the English) for the first time. The parts of the novel dealing with Hess, while interesting, seem a little bolted-on and disconnected from the main narrative which focuses around Esther. Esther is an interesting character, drawn to transgressive acts but ultimately returned to something like convention, although this is built on half-truths and deceits. It's all beautifully written, but a bit too much like three linked short stories to make a satisfying novel.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters remains in the late 1940s for her latest work, which revolves around a country house, Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire, the Ayres family who live there, and their doctor, first-name-less Dr Faraday, whose mother was once a housemaid at the Hall and who has traversed, but not forgotten, several social boundaries. Initially called to the Hall to treat the current housemaid Betty, the doctor gradually develops an intimacy with Mrs Ayres and her adult children Caroline and Roderick. Through this friendship, and his uneasy romance with Caroline, he becomes party to various strange events at the Hall; a fire, rappings and knockings, writing appearing on walls. The Hundreds Hall he remembers from his boyhood is decaying before his eyes, the estate mostly sold off, rooms closed up and paper peeling away. Dr Faraday is the voice of rationality in the book as the Hall's inhabitants become increasingly convinced that the odd events are supernatural in origin, but he cannot prevent tragic consequences through rational argument. I'll try not to spoil the ending for those who have yet to read the book.

Although Sarah Waters has returned to a chronological narrative order for this novel, there is still much that is interesting in her narrative choices. Dr Faraday, as first-person narrator, is often absent from the strange and unsettling events at the Hall. Sometimes he hears about them directly from witnesses, so the reader encounters them in Caroline's voice, for example; at other times he recounts them himself, using reportage that increases the reader's distance from the events themselves and ratchets up the sense of ambiguity. His narration of the uncanny is flat and scientific, highly reminiscent of the dry academics who so often narrate the ghost stories of M R James, but - the uncanny aside - the lives he depicts are generally flat and limited, with few options in a period of deep austerity and financial constraint. The first-person narrative and the focus of the novel on a house are something of an homage to Rebecca, but there are other similarities too; the influence of a long-dead character, the awkwardness of Faraday as his friendship with the family grows, and his increasing power and agency as the mysterious events pile up. I wondered if the choice of a doctor as narrator was a hint, given the famously unreliable narrator of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; when I went to hear Sarah Waters speak about this book, however, she suggested that a doctor was chosen because he would have access to the house and permission to ask impertinent questions. His position as the voice of material rationality - during the course of the novel he conducts a research project and writes it up for presentation at a conference - is also an effective contrast to the variety of levels of belief in the supernatural he encounters at the Hall.

Every book I read at the moment seems to be partly about class, and this is no exception. Of working-class stock, Faraday has moved through several social classes to get a grammar-school education and then qualify as a doctor. The seriousness of his mother's final illness was kept from him to ensure his studies were undisturbed, and his move into middle-class professionalism damaged his relationship with his father irreparably. His later transition into friend of the Ayres, and would-be lover of Caroline, proves equally disruptive and damaging. For the Ayres, Faraday personifies the rapid social change of post-war England, but he is also affected by it; the nascent NHS is both a threat and an opportunity for him. The Ayres are trapped and tormented by their social role as they attempt to preserve it in impossible circumstances. The barriers of class infect the narrative, limiting the freedom of conversation and preventing Faraday from asking questions, and the Ayres from giving away family secrets.

It's probably not giving anything away to say that the end of this novel is ambiguous; readers can draw their own conclusions. Is the Little Stranger a genuine manifestation of the uncanny, of shared hysteria, or of individual neurosis? Is Faraday's interest and influence on Hundreds Hall benign, or does he somehow contribute to the sinister happenings there? What of Betty the housemaid, convinced that the house itself is somehow bad? I have my own theory, and you'll probably have yours too.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

A Party in San Niccolò by Christobel Kent

A murder mystery set in Florence links the expatriate community with the local underworld, subverting the beauty of a dolce vita in sunlit Renaissance gardens by reminding us that criminality and corruption lurk even in the loveliest of places. Gina, taking a much-needed break from the demands of suburban family life, is our guide to this new world, introducing us to an oddly assorted group of characters. There is Gina's old friend Jane, married to Niccolò, a successful English-Italian architect; Jane runs a cookery school and is strongly controlled and perfectionist, her life superficially without flaw. There is generous and kindly Frances, in her seventies and planning her annual birthday party; and Frank, a journalist who has long since abandoned the search for a major scoop. In the first two pages of the book, however, two young women are found dead: Evelina, a Nigerian girl trafficked into prostitution, and Natasha, a beautiful English girl thrown through the plate-glass window of a local antique dealer. Natasha is the best friend of Beatrice, Niccolò's daughter and subject of Jane's unwilling stepmothering, and it is this younger generation that links the rest of the expats to to the local criminals centered around grey-haired Stefano, dealer and pimp.

Kent constructs a complex plot, with blind alleys and several plausible suspects for the murder, and into this weaves a good many observations on the nature of love and marriage, and the proximity of apparently perfect lives to seedy degradation. The plot resolution is reached after deftly built suspense, and in Frank, Gina and Frances Kent creates genuinely appealing and rounded characters, who stop the novel becoming formulaic.

New Grub Street by George Gissing

New Grub Street details the lives of those attempting to earn a living from writing during the 1880s. A group of writers, journalists and scholars, linked together by professional and family connections, are at work in London: we have Jasper Milvain, who looks on the production of literature entirely as a trade, and at the other extreme is Mr Biffen, quietly starving in his garret as he works at his realist novel Mr Bailey, Grocer. If the novel has a main protagonist it is probably Edwin Reardon, whose view of culture is placed somewhere between these two points. A published author, he is struggling to produce another novel; with a wife and child to support, he is finally persuaded, in part by his wife Amy, to compromise his aesthetic principles to produce something sensational that will sell. However, the money he is able to earn from his work continues to dwindle, and he returns to his former work as a clerk, causing a major rift in his marriage. Unacknowledged in print, but working daily as a researcher for her father is Marian Yule, Amy’s cousin, who contributes to the support of her small family through her efforts at the British Library.

The novel’s main interests are the effects of the business of writing. Is it possible to make a decent living from writing culturally valuable work? Or is it only possible if artistic integrity is compromised? Based on the fates of the various characters, the latter is true – only Jasper Milvain achieves any sort of financial success. The novel also criticises the constraints of the publishing industry and the tyranny imposed on the writer required to produce a three-volume novel by the circulating libraries. Reardon in particular is tormented by the need to stretch a story out to three volumes, and there’s a certain amount of evidence of Gissing’s own torment in this respect. The novel is definitely padded in places, and makes use of cliched plot devices, although this gives insight into the validity of Reardon’s complaint. The book is also interesting on matters of class. Marian Yule’s parents have married across the class boundary, to the everlasting regret of her father; Amy and Edwin separate when his move to clerkdom threatens to declass Amy. Lack or loss of social status results in social isolation and degradation, and limits opportunities for advancement and connection. The Reardons are increasingly isolated when their increasing poverty makes it impossible for them to accept the hospitality of others, since they cannot return it; the threat of compounding this isolation through crossing a class boundary is too much for Amy. Unmarried men may attempt to challenge that social status: Mr Biffen lives like a pauper in a garret, in a poor (and, it turns out, dangerous) area; but women and married men cannot transgress class boundaries without serious consequences. Those serious consequences are played out in the tensions of Marian Yule's home and the lack of opportunity in her life. While the book celebrates, to an extent, the joys of bachelor life in a dingy garret, it also reinforces rigid social stratification.

Like the other Gissing novel I've read (In the Year of Jubilee), the book deals ambiguously with its female characters and with attitudes to women. Some misogyny might be detected in the way wives are presented as a curb to literary and creative ambition, millstones around the neck of writers who might otherwise create works of genius. Although Amy is not entirely sympathetic to her husband's desire to create better-quality work, focusing more on what will sell and support her and her child, she is portrayed as strong and enduring, helpful to her husband and struggling to manage on the little money they have until they separate. This view of Amy is, however, undercut by her (probably unwitting) contribution to Mr Biffen's final decline, and her marriage to Jasper Milvain at the end of the novel. Hard-working Marian Yule might be a proto-feminist character: at first undertaking scholarship to support her father's work, she progresses to writing published under her own name. But her self-sacrifice in order to support her family, and her passivity in the face of Jasper Milvain's reluctant and reduntant courtship, undermine her agency. She is whisked off to run a library in the provinces, solving her family's financial hardship and Gissing's problem of how to end her story at one stroke.

This fascinating book foregrounds the labour of literature and locates writers, socially, as workers - but workers continually attempting to balance society's demands and their own aesthetic principles. This reminds me of the continual tightrope walk performed by members of the lower middle/upper working classes, attempting both to preserve their gentility and make enough money to live on. Throw artistic aspirations into that mix and you have a triangle that is impossible to reconcile.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Nothing is Safe by E M Delafield

Nothing is Safe, published in 1937, recounts the effects of divorce and remarriage on a family from the perspective of a ten-year-old girl. The third-person narrative is always from precocious Julia’s point of view, always clear that, even if the reader has grasped what is going on, Julia has not. Julia’s parents separate at the start of the novel, and she and her brother Terry, older, vague and clumsy, return to their boarding schools not knowing where or how they will spend the next holidays. Julia is fiercely protective of Terry, who comes in for a good deal of adult criticism, and attempts to manipulate situations so that he is not exposed to difficulty or fear. Unfortunately her ability to do this is entirely compromised when both parents make new marriages: her father Alick to the much younger, bohemian Petah, and her mother Daphne to Captain Prettyman. The vigorously masculine Captain is unimpressed with Terry, and the novel follows the children about as they are shuffled between parents, grandparents and impromptu babysitters. Terry experiences a series of nervous crises which culminate in his treatment by a child psychologist, and the end of the novel sees Julia finally realising that she is to be separated from her brother.

The narrative voice of the novel is well-sustained, making effective use of internal monologue – thankfully for the reader, Julia is a bright child with a good vocabulary – and cleverly managing to convey meaning that Julia cannot grasp from her perspective. Delafield deploys a very careful, delicate tone here, ensuring that Julia does not tell us things that she could not possibly know or understand, and making effective use of dialogue that the reader can interpret without Julia’s intervention. The tone also allows the use of light irony which relieves some of the emotional tension of the book. I’m not sure if the paragraph which implies that the Captain is making excessive sexual demands on Daphne is intentional, but there are similar, if less controversial, effects elsewhere in the novel. Julia’s concern about the regularity and quality of her meals, the simplicity of her interpretations of events, and her ability to live in the moment, help to reinforce her childishness and prevent her being unbelievably precocious. Her narrative role also makes the novel rather timeless, since she is not much interested in current affairs.

This is the only Delafield novel I’ve read so far that is much interested in masculinity. Terry’s vagueness and sensitivity, his perceived childishness, his clumsiness and lack of interest in machines or sport, as well as his dependence on Julia, all contribute to a view among the novel’s adults that he is insufficiently masculine and that this must be corrected. The difference in the generational view of girls and boys is also brought out through Daphne’s relationship with her parents, who have stricter ideas of gender roles and appropriate behaviour. However, it is Captain Prettyman who causes most of the crises in this respect, criticising Terry’s lack of dexterity and his unwillingness to take physical risks. All the adults fear that Terry will not be tolerated by men when he grows up, and will be unable to endure public school, an inevitable rite of passage for him; Julia’s influence is seen as feminising him, making him unacceptable to other men. This is ironic, given her position in the family as a bossy, articulate tomboy, more comfortable in shorts than the dresses her grandmother prefers. The siblings represent a challenge to established gender norms. While the challenge is played out mainly in intergenerational terms, affronting the senior family members but not their parents, this is acceptable. But Terry’s problems, and his expression of them (high-pitched screaming, vomiting and fainting) are eventually portrayed as illness rather than rebellion. Once his parents are convinced of his problems, an imposition of greater gender norms is made: Terry will be treated at a small school for sensitive boys; Julia will go to a much stricter boarding school which will inculcate feminine behaviour.

This analysis of the development of masculinity, expressed through the thoughts and words of a small girl, could be read as an ironic critique. The novel is certainly critical of a model of masculinity that cannot accommodate Terry’s talents and demerits; Captain Prettyman, its adult manifestation, is a fairly ridiculous character, with a surname that carries overtones of effeminacy and a head that is too small for his body. Feminist voices in the novel, which might challenge models of masculinity, are limited to Peggy, a friend of Daphne’s who is willing to challenge the Captain’s view of Terry and theories of childrearing, and possibly to the capable Julia herself; she can be read as challenge incarnate to gendered behaviour, combining tomboyish robustness with a strong urge to nurture. But the end of the novel leaves the reader uncertain whether the critique of conservative gender roles is sustained. Julia’s “management” of Terry is sometimes over-bearing. Terry’s voice is heard little in the novel, because he seldom speaks; however, in the final pages, it becomes clear that he has been told earlier of the plan to separate them, and has not confided in her. This hints at a desire for independence from Julia, which is achieved, but the plot cannot reasonably conclude with a sustained challenge by the children to the roles they are required to take up – they do not have the power or agency to undertake this.

It is also interesting that the novel is not particularly critical of divorce itself – the children appear to acclimatise fairly quickly to this – but the effects of remarriage and the lack of a settled home are presented as much more serious, as is the failure of either parent, caught up in new relationships, to prioritise the needs of their children. There are no good mothers in Nothing is Safe: Daphne cannot manage her children and her new husband, and chooses him; her own mother disagrees with her violently about her approach to parenting, and is strict and disapproving; the brief appearance by Petah’s mother, pressed into giving Julia a bed, and quite incapable of dealing with her painful earache, completes the trinity of ineffectual mothers. Petah herself treats the children as tiny adults, feeding them cocktail snacks and ignoring conventions such as bedtime. These are types of mothers typical of their class and generation, controlling (a favourite EMD type), loving but ineffectual, distant or uninterested. There are two caring mother figures: Peggy, who only has to do this from time to time, and Annie, the housemaid who comforts Julia when she is ill. Their openness and warmth with the children can be read as a moderate critique of conventions of motherhood, both good and bad.

This is a rather complex novel, the simplicity of its narrative deceptive, and its judgements and values ambiguous. The development of Delafield’s technique is easily discerned, and the subtleties of her tone are probably only equalled in the Diary of a Provincial Lady. Recommended, if you can track down a copy or if Persephone resurrect it.