Friday, 22 May 2009

Sea Legs: hitching alone around the coast of Ireland by Rosita Boland

I read, a few years ago, Rosita Boland's A Secret Map of Ireland, in which she visits a monument, oddity or spurious magical place in each county of Ireland. This is her first book, and describes a journey chosen following the purchase of a map of Ireland in Stanfords. Boland was born in Ennis, County Clare, but has lived away for enough time for the Irish people she meets on her journey to ask her where in England she is from. The real draw of the journey for Boland seems to be a need to reconnect with her Irish roots, to understand the country better, and perhaps, through her act of circumnavigation, to encircle and possess it. Lack of money makes hitching the only way to travel, and a B&B is an occasional luxury, most nights being spent in hostels of variable quality. Travelling in autumn and winter, she meets relatively few tourists, and has ample opportunities to enjoy the melancholy of off-season resorts. This is a looser, baggier book than A Secret Map; the contained nature of her individual journeys to castles and fairy trees in the latter book make for tighter, more focused writing. The pace of Sea Legs drifts and then hurries, replicating the nature of her slow-quick-slow journey rather well.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Body Parts: essays on life-writing by Hermione Lee

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

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

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Our Hidden Lives edited by Simon Garfield

Derived from Mass-Observation diaries, this book comprises entries from five writers in post-war Britain, and records their thoughts and reactions to the protracted end of the war, the Labour landslide, the beginnings of the welfare state, and to the austerity period. Having recently read Austerity Britain, I was prepared for negative views on Atlee's government, Utility furniture and continued rationing. However, the vigorous antisemitism expressed or recorded by the correspondents was surprising for a group of people who must all have seen the newsreels of the death camps. One correspondent's husband only regrets that the "Nuremburg thugs were not able to finish the job". This prejudice, and other illiberal tendencies, can make some of the authors hard to like. However, they remain fascinating. B Charles, a gay antiques dealer and superlative snob, gives glimpses of the lives of gay men in provincial cities; his opaque tone when discussing sexuality and attraction to others (the latest object of desire is always described as having "possibilities") is evocative of a strictly closeted life. We never learn his first name. Maggie Joy Blunt is a more attractive character and her diaries explore the opportunities and risks for a single woman trying to make a living as a writer. Best of all is pensioner Herbert Brush, labouring on his allotment, creosoting his fence, tolerating neighbourhood bores and composing really awful poetry to amuse the Mass-Observation readers.

I was interested in the number of Germans, mainly refugees or former prisoners of war, that several of the correspondents seemed to know and like; one correspondent seems to have many German neighbours and records their efforts to trace their relatives. She meets the mother of a German friend, miraculously retrieved from post-war Berlin and brought to Sheffield. These encounters seem to be without rancour, and POWs are received sympathetically. I have Don't Mention the War in my to-be-read pile, and hope that this will provide more insight into this facet of post-war life.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Barry's story of the life of a beautiful woman in Sligo makes use of two narrative voices. We have Roseanne Clear (or McNulty, her surname is elusive and problematic), now very old, a longstanding inmate of the local asylum, who is writing the secret scripture of the title, her memories captured on hoarded scraps of paper and hidden beneath the floorboards of her room. Roseanne's narrative is episodic and impressionistic, punctuated with her descriptions of incredible, often very visual, happenings; the flight of the German bombers across the coast being the obvious example. Roseanne is aware of her frailty as a narrator, the fallibility of her memories, and reminds us of this. Dr Grene, Roseanne's psychiatrist, has a more scientific and objective approach in his narrative of Roseanne, which weighs the evidence and tries to achieve some form of truth. There is a third narrative of Roseanne's life which we cannot read in its entirety: Father Gaunt's testimony, found by Dr Grene in ancient medical records, which has shaped the course of Roseanne's life and led directly to her long incarceration. This narrative contradicts Roseanne's own words, and provides alternative readings for some of the more inexplicable events of her childhood, but serves eventually to reinforce the view of Roseanne as a victim of a deeply conservative society and the pervasive power of the clergy.

The book is beautifully written, the two narrative voices distinctive and fully realised, and the two main characters charming. Roseanne's reminiscences of her girlhood, the pleasures of being a young attractive woman with friends to laugh with, of being part of a social group, are particularly poignant given her later life. The way in which the discrepancies in Roseanne's story inform Dr Grene's understanding of his own life, especially his marriage, is touching. However, as Barry remarks in a discussion of this book in the Guardian, you may have to forgive the ending its huge coincidence and deus ex machina in order to love the book. No doubt many other readers got two-thirds of the way through, saw how the land might lie, and thought that the author surely wouldn't do that, only to have their worst fears realised. A month or so after finishing the book, I can now almost forgive it; at the time I was so cross with it that I lent it out immediately.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther

I've meant to read this for a while, mainly as a companion piece to The Provincial Lady in Wartime, but also because Alison Light devotes a chapter to the work in Forever England which whetted my appetite. Like the Provincial Lady books, originally serialised in Time and Tide, Mrs Miniver first appeared as a regular newspaper column , but in the rather more conservative Times. Jan Struther already had a reputation as a writer of comic journalism and poetry, and was commissioned to create short pieces describing the life of an ordinary mother and housewife like herself. Jan Struther is describe as "unconventional" in Valerie Grove's introduction to the Virago edition and Mrs Miniver is not really all that ordinary; as well as living in bohemian 1930s Chelsea and enjoying hop-picking as a recreation, she has an expansive, worldly wisdom about social encounters, child-rearing and household management, and a vitality that drives her to wring the last drops of benefit out of any encounter or experience that happens her way. Unfortunately Mrs Miniver's harmonious domestic life and admirable sagacity make her just a little annoying and really quite smug. Reading with the Provincial Lady in mind, her children are too perfect and rather predictable - never likely to be found on the back stairs eating cheese - her management of servants too exemplary, and her social ease lacking in self-doubt. However, as a period piece, as a possible exemplar for middle-class British women in the tense times around the beginning of the second World War, Mrs Miniver retains a fascination. Perhaps the perfection and unity of her family and her life were what was required to inspire and fortify her readers. Alison Light suggests that Mrs Miniver was a utopian vision for her readers; her ability to manage life lightly leaves her acres of time for thinking in solitude, for reading, for recalling her favourite poetry. I confess to feeling quite envious of the episode in which she sits on a bench for an hour, enjoying the activities in the park around her, apparently unharried by domestic or professional duties.

I can't be the first reader to notice that the opening of Mrs Miniver is a mirror image of that of Mrs Dalloway. Mrs Dalloway leaves her home to buy flowers and takes a plunge into the vitality of "life, London" on a June day. Mrs Miniver brings her autumn chrysanthemums into her house, closing the door on London and exulting not in the diversity of the city but the sensual and tactual (a favourite Struther word) beauties of her home and its familiar security. Alison Light points to the book's celebration of domestic privacy as a key attraction for its readers; Mrs Dalloway, both character and novel, are more concerned with connections with others. It would be too simplistic to read Mrs Miniver as a simple opposite of Mrs Dalloway, however, since Mrs M is also interested in the connections, the understandings she can make with other people, including those outside her class; her search for an emergency charwoman, leading her to Mrs Burchett, a woman with a zest for life to match her own, shows an expansive interest in others that dilutes the impact of her solitary tendencies. And Mrs Dalloway shares Mrs Miniver's interest in domestic elegance, in the social oil which makes a party go well.

I've never seen the film of Mrs Miniver, but will try to track it down. I was wondering if Mrs Miniver's personal charm operates better when she is made flesh by Greer Garson; but a quick look on Google Books suggest that the film had a very mixed reception among British cinema-goers, some of whom thoughtfully recorded their views for Mass-Observation. Alison Light relates some of the abuse heaped on the character by readers of The Times, including a wish that a bomb would drop on Mrs M and her husband run off with another woman. This reminds me greatly of some of the hatred that attaches to characters from The Archers, which in itself shows that the characters have achieved a life beyond their medium. Part of Struther's achievement is to create a recognisable, individual character who nevertheless is able to stand for important, symbolic aspects of the national character and its aspirations; despite her smugness, Mrs Miniver retains this power, and that makes her, and the work that produced her, sustain our interest.