Saturday, 28 March 2009

Challenge to Clarissa by E M Delafield

In this slight, but amusing, 1931 novel, Delafield creates another monstrous, controlling mother, facing the consequences when her family move beyond her control. The novel opens with Clarissa's pursuit of, and eventual marriage to, the impoverished, limp and dissipated Reggie Fitzmaurice. Clarissa has been widowed during the first World War, and has inherited her husband's property and her father's money. Fitzmaurice is already married, to the daughter of the Princess de Candi-Laquerrière, adulterous Aldegonde, but is not seriously inclined to divorce her until Clarissa forces his hand. We get an early taste of Clarissa's belief that all obstacles can be removed with a liberal application of cash when she offers to settle £5,000 on Aldegonde once the divorce is completed, an offer that is gently turned down by the Princesse. Fitzmaurice makes one condition before agreeing to the divorce: to keep in his care his daughter Sophie.

The narrative jumps ten years. Sophie is newly grown up and being circulated vigorously by Clarissa on the marriage market. Clarissa's son by her first husband, Lucien, is a year or two older than Sophie, and has been brought up to view her as his sister. During a summer house party at Mardale, their country home, Clarissa engineers a visit from a rich young lord, the hilariously named Bat Clutterthorpe, who proposes to Sophie; she obediently accepts. However, the Princesse and her retinue have arrrived in the area and meet Sophie and Lucien. Lucien quarrels with his mother, rushes from the house and immediately encounters the Princesse, who correctly diagnoses his problem: he is in love with Sophie. With his true feelings brought to light, Lucien proposes to Sophie, who accepts and immediately breaks off her engagement to Bat, who is decidedly unbothered. They announce to Clarissa that they intend to marry. Her response is to throw an impressive tantrum; refusing to countenance the marriage, she sets about arranging to send Lucien abroad and to ensure that Sophie becomes re-engaged to Bat. The Princesse, realising that Clarissa's only vulnerability is her abiding love for Fitzmaurice, bribes him to intervene. Unable to refuse the temptation of £300 a year of his own, Fitzmaurice threatens to leave Clarissa unless the marriage goes ahead. Clarissa is outraged, but defeated, and soon she is managing Lucien and Sophie's wedding plans as if it had been her idea in the first place.

The novel is based around doubles and opposites. Clarissa, the vulgar, materialist autocrat, is balanced against the Princesse, aristocratic and sensitive. Lucien's genuine love for Sophie is doubled by Bat's need for a suitable wife. The rakish and fairly useless Fitzmaurice is doubled by Cliffe Montgomery, part of the Princesse's circle, her fixer and organiser with a robust moral core. The doubles are not necessarily opposites, however; the Princesse is as controlling as Clarissa, in her way, but uses love and charm to manage her friends and family, and is not above using money to achieve her ends. The miserable household at Mardale is set opposite the happy home of Clarissa's agent, Mr King; his two children have been given the names Orlando and Rosalind, another couple eventually united after many trials and oppositions. These two minor characters echo Lucien and Sophie and point towards the happy ending.

Delafield works in a great number of minor characters, some more successfully than others. As well as the Kings, there are Olivia King (the agent's sister) and Elinor Fish, who share a house in the village; Miss Silver, who appears briefly to let her house to the Princesse and charm Cliffe Montgomery; Catiche, the Princesse's old governess who still looks after her; Alberta, the Princesse's younger daughter; and Radow, the dead Aldegonde's second husband, a violinist. Elinor Fish is a kinder satire of the Oxford-educated middle-aged feminist than is Miss Pankerton in the Diary, but of the same type. Alberta exists mainly as a warning to Sophie of how she might turn out. Radow is a distracting interruption who serves only to rouse Clarissa to greater heights of autocracy. While the characterisation of several of these is excellent, and they also allow some good jokes, a little pruning would have harmed neither the plot nor the satire.

The affectionate satire that Delafield employs for most of the characters contrasts strongly with her handling of Clarissa. We are told again and again how vulgar and domineering Clarissa is; she uses "ugly words", is over-made-up, has hard lines around her mouth and eyes. Delafield's ironic mockery is replaced by direct criticism. Social climbing seems to be the only motivation for Clarissa's behaviour, coupled with an innate taste for domination, but sometimes I wondered why she was bothering to control a family she considers stupid and useless: "I have to do everything for you, think of everything for you" is the constant refrain. Clarissa is certainly bad enough to join the ranks of Delafield's monstrous mothers, but she is something of a cardboard villain, in the end quite easily defeated.

The oversupply of minor characters, and the awkward switches between irony and excoriation, limit the effectiveness of the book, but it is still an entertaining read with well-drawn and amusing characters.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

This was a present, and I doubt I would have come to it independently, so I'm grateful to the giver for introducing me to a rewarding, if depressing, book. Grenville's story begins, after an Australian preview, with the childhood, apprenticeship and marriage of William Thornhill in impoverished nineteenth-century Borough. Thornhill is initially successful, becomes a boatman on the Thames and marries his master's daughter Sal. But through bad luck he loses his own boat and must find work as a lighterman. Lightermen do not earn enough to support a family, but the opportunities for petty theft are many, and Will and Sal make do for a while. But Will tries one job too many, and is caught in the fog stealing timber; his brother Rob dies during the ensuing scuffle leading to Will's arrest. I had rather taken to simple Rob and was sorry to see him go over the side of the boat. Will is sentenced to death, but his sentence is commuted to transportation, and his wife and child - children, by the end of the voyage - go with him to Australia.

At first, things go relatively well. William works his sentence and gains parole; Sal sets up a makeshift pub in their hut in Sydney. Will gets work as a boatman with Blackwood, who travels up the Hawkesbury River to transport goods to and from the settler farmers. On one of these journeys Will falls for a piece of land, a headland the same shape as his thumb, and, besotted with colonial lust, persuades Sal to move the family there. Once there, they live in an uneasy truce with the original residents for a while, but eventually are unable to take the advice of Blackwood to "give a little, take a little" with the Aborigines, leading to greater tension and, in the end, an act of unspeakable violence. Thornhill's subsequent bourgeois comfort is dearly bought.

Grenville's style is neutral, letting Thornill's thoughts and actions speak for themselves. The depiction of Thornhill's gradual descent into criminal or depraved activity, first in London and then in Australia, is skilfully handled. Thornhill is always human, his reactions to his circumstances often complex and ambiguous; he grows to value the Aborigines as people, to recognise their status and power, but simultaneously resents and despises them as a group. While there are obvious lessons to be learned from this colonialist's story, the book is not a moral treatise; the characterisation is strong and realistic, from the robust Sal to the enigmatic Blackwood, and Grenville has a deft touch with incidental characters that makes them real and memorable. The book is, however, immensely sad; the circumstances of Thornhill's life are difficult in the first place, his few opportunities turn bad through ill luck and bad judgement, and all parties pay a dreadful price for his eventual establishment as a landowner. Probably best read on a sunny day when things are going fairly well, or as a penitential act when enjoying a luxurious holiday.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Where Three Roads Meet by Salley Vickers

Another in the Canongate series of works inspired by myth (which gave us the marvellous Girl meets boy), this time addressing the story of Oedipus. Sigmund Freud is seriously ill with oral cancer and undergoing a series of painful operations, able to talk and eat only with the aid of a prosthesis called the Monster. In hospital and at his Hampstead home he is visited by Tiresias, who tells him the story from his perspective, from his first meeting with Oedipus at Delphi, to the end of his life. The book begins with Freud's own retelling of the story, then a short description of the diagnosis of his cancer, his move to London following the annexation of Austria by the Nazis, and his death. The remainder of the text is constructed entirely in dialogue between Tiresias and Freud, Tiresias revealing his identity slowly to the reader and to Freud. The result is a fascinating account of Tiresias's life, the stories of Oedipus and Jocasta, and of Freud's protracted final illness. Vickers has a certain amount of fun with Freud, at one point allowing him to recount a dream stuffed with phallic and Oedipal imagery, and letting Tiresias gently mock his atheism by pointing out Freud's superstiitious attachment to objects, and his affection for the goddess Athena. Vickers finds parallels like the relationship with Athena between the stories that construct the narrative, creating an intricate and expansive network of connections between mythical Greece and Europe in the 1930s. All of this adds up to a satisfyingly crunchy and thought-provoking book, that will definitely be added to the 'to be re-read' pile.

Nuns: A History of Convent Life 1450-1700 by Silvia Evangelisti

This is an excellent book, well-written and thorougly researched, on a fascinating topic. Evangelisti's central thesis is that nuns, although separated from society by the convent walls, were nevertheless integrated and connected to that society through social, policitical and economic as well as spiritual bonds. In the introduction she asserts the place of the convent as a familiar part of both urban and rural landscapes; the remainder of the book goes on to demonstrate how nuns themselves formed and contributed to the societies around them.

The main historical event of the book is the Council of Trent, which required the stricter enclosure of nuns as part of its responses the reformation. Walls were built higher, grilles installed in windows, and the nuns' choirs in their churches often screened from public sight. Convents had two doors separating them from the world, with the keys to the outer door held only by a priest. These reforms also required that convents were answerable to the Bishop, in an attempt to maintain male dominance over women and thwart women's self-governance. This met with mixed results. Some women embraced the enclosure as a spiritual opportunity; others met the Bishop's emissary, come to discuss enclosure, by attempting to drop a large lump of marble onto his head from a high point in the convent. It's hard to imagine the Bishop's authority having much sway in the governance of that particular convent.

Evangelisiti shows how nuns participated in the life of society through participation in the arts, including writing, painting, music and acting, and through the convent's position as a centre for spiritual and social support. On a saint's feast-day, a procession would carried around the convent by local people and then continued inside the convent by the nuns; people would come to the convent church, and wait outside the building, to hear the nuns singing from behind the enclosure. Many nuns wrote memoirs, often at the behest of their confessors, and their published works gave them a relationship with readers across the world. Convents were important as educators of girls, providers of save retreats for widows, and, more contentiously, as homes for unmarriageable daughters. The convent dowry was often considerably less than the marriage dowry, and consequently many women without vocations entered the convent because it was expedient for their families. Convents usually perpetuated external social divisions, recruiting choir nuns from the upper classes, servant nuns from the lower classes; social mobility within the convent seems to have been limited, with few nuns from the lower classes learning how to read and write, and only choir nuns being able to vote in chapter and be elected to senior offices.

The final chapter is devoted to orders established to working beyond the enclosure as nurses, teachers or providers of social care. Some such orders, such as the Ursulines, were obliged to submit to enclosure and limit their community activities. However, as war and increased urbanisation meant that societies had a greater need for the support provided by such orders, such orders were better tolerated and increased their membership and activities significantly. This gives force to Evangelisti's assertion that religious communities are necessary to, and integrated with, their wider society: we get the nuns that we need and want. The argument is persuasive.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Ladies, Please Don't Smash These Windows by Maroula Joannou

Subtitled Women's writing, feminist consciousness and social change 1918-38, Joannou's book considers issues of feminism, pacifism and socialism within the work of some well-known feminist writers, such as Vera Brittain and Virginia Woolf, and some now quite obscure writers including Leonora Eyles and Katharine Burdekin. The book is arranged thematically but also traces a chronological journey from the Great War, with a critical evaluation of Vera Brittain's feminism as evinced in Testament of Youth, to the eve of the second World War and a consideration of Woolf's feminist and pacifist Three Guineas. These opening and closing chapters mirror each other to a certain extent, with Joannou identifying the class-bound and individualist nature of Brittain's experience which limits her radicalism, and opposing them with a reading of Three Guineas that draws out its greater radicalism, showing how Woolf used this book to align herself with those outside her class and removed from her Bloomsbury peers. During the journey through the inter-war period we look at the socialist-feminist works of Leonora Eyles, a new name to me and a middle-class writer who attempted to depict and critique patriarchal and industrial society; the portrayal of the spinster in works by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Winifred Holtby and F M Mayor; lesbian representation in Orlando and The Well of Loneliness; and the relationships between femininity and feminism in Bowen's The Death of the Heart and Lehmann's The Weather in the Streets. The chapter on lesbianism argues that the non-traditional narrative structure and elements of fantasy in Orlando enable Woolf to offer a much more trenchant critique of masculinity and patriarchy than is possible for the more realistic and more obvious (and, in its day, more shocking) Well of Loneliness. A similar argument is used to compare STW's Lolly Willowes, whose escape from respectable middle-class life into life as a witch in rural Bedfordshire, and FMM's Rector's Daughter, which may take a light ironic tone when describing the life of Mary Jocelyn, and show ambivalence about Mary's self-sacrifice, but cannot achieve the critical bite of Lolly Willowes; it lacks the latter book's scope and internal freedom to do so. The introduction and conclusion point to the need for socialist and Marxist analyses of the 1930s to take account of and incorporate feminist critiques if we are to gain a full understanding of the period, and also argue strongly for the study of traditional, non-modernist writers alongside the modernist interwar women writers; Joannou exemplifies this type of comparative study extremely well throughout the book. A thoughtful and provocative critique, then, that places the lesser-known and traditional writers within an expansive canon of interwar literary production.