Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Miss Buncle's Book by D E Stevenson

Another Persephone publication, Miss Buncle's Book is a highly entertaining story of a rural English village in the early 1930s, with some unexpected excursions into metafiction.

Barbara Buncle, spinster, lives in a cottage in the idyllic village of Silverstream. Her income depleted following the Wall Street Crash, she turns to writing to prop up her finances, having gone into the options of fiction and chicken farming as possible money-spinners with her maid, Dorcas. Dorcas is not keen on hens' feet, so Miss Buncle writes her novel. Mr Abbott (chosen because he is the first publisher in the London phone book) knows a winner when he sees it: Miss Buncle's book, can be read both as a straightforward romance of rural life or as a satire. She has taken characters from Silverstream and depicted their unvarnished foibles and characteristics. In the second half of her book, a mysterious Golden Boy with a pipe passes through the village, and under the spell of his music, the villagers act in odd ways: a woman throws over her cruel husband for a new lover, a pair of home-loving ladies set off for Samarkand, and two long-single villagers realise their love for one another and marry.

Published as Disturber of the Peace, and under a pseudonym, Miss Buncle's book is a runaway success. Its enigmatic qualities lead to controversial reviews which stimulate sales. Once it is read in Silverstream, however, and the villagers begin to recognise themselves, it generates real controversy. A stream of villagers visit Mr Abbott and call for the book's suppression. A village meeting is held to try to discover the author, and have him or her horse-whipped. Lawyers are pestered about libel cases. But, under the spell of the book, strange things begin to happen. The bullying Stephen Bulmer is suddenly much nicer to his put-upon wife and cowed children. Major Weatherfield, enjoying the book in his bath, is inspired to visit his neighbour Dorothea Bold and propose marriage to her. Ellen King and Angela Pretty, longtime companions, are persuaded to travel to Egypt for the sake of Miss Pretty's health. Miss Buncle's book itself is Silverstream's Golden Boy.

But Miss Buncle needs to write another book, and thankfully a second Golden Boy appears in the shape of Sally, a neighbour's grand-daughter sent to the country to rest. Pretty, seventeen and self-possessed, Sally works her own magic on Silverstream: the Vicar is made to realise that his fiancée loves not him, or his charitable ways, but his money, and Barbara is much improved by a new hat and hairstyle. Barbara's second book draws on the effects of the two Golden Boys and describes the effects of Sally, and the publication of Disturber of the Peace, on Silverstream and on the book's author. Mr Abbott remarks that he "had never before read a novel about a woman who wrote a novel about a woman who wrote a novel - it was like a recurring decimal". The reader of Miss Buncle's Book can move the decimal point further back. Cleverly, Mr Abbott's criticisms of certain aspects of the plot echoed this reader's own; D E Stevenson has anticipated the claims of improbability that might be raised. In Miss Buncle's Book, we read Miss Buncle's book again and again through the eyes of different readers, creating a multiple perspective and multiple layers of fiction, and challenging and reforming our own impressions and opinions.

Aline Templeton's introduction points out the very surprising "warmly described lesbian relationship between gruff Miss King and pretty Miss Pretty" and indeed, their relationship seems to be well accepted and even admired by Miss King's old friend the village doctor, who counsels her against leaving Miss Pretty. Unfortunately he does this by explaining that, as Angela Pretty is weak and feminine and will wither unless strong, masculine Miss King is by her side, but you can't have everything. Interestingly, Miss King makes the same sort of allusion to The Well of Loneliness as appears in EMD's Challenge to Clarissa; the book caused worry to women living together, but they decided to ignore its implications. In both books, this ambiguous reference can either be read as a denial or an avowal of a lesbian relationship; but in Miss Buncle's Book there seems to be little ambiguity elsewhere.

This is a book that will bear re-reading, as Mr Abbott spots; it is funny as well as clever, describing a variety of characters effectively, and keeping them well in play. D E Stevenson was a best-seller in her day, and I hope we may see more of her work from Persephone.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Making Conversation by Christine Longford

This coming-of-age story, reprinted by Persephone, is both witty and touching. We meet Martha Freke, a schoolgirl during the first World War, and follow her through adolescence and on to Oxford. Martha is continually beset by the problems of making conversation: a misunderstanding of the meaning of "adultery", caused in part by her headmistress, leads to her eventual expulsion from school; it is never clear whether she should argue with adults or simply agree with everything they say. The narrative is slightly episodic, and we see Martha take up and drop religious, philosophical and romantic interests, greatly influenced by her peers. She has the advantage of a rather glamourous mother, separated from her father and taking in interesting, sometimes foreign, lodgers; the local Vicar supplies a number of camp young aesthetes and pacifists; and at Oxford she is distracted from her studies by the pleasures of new frocks and hats, and hamfisted flirtations. Unsuprisingly, this ends badly, and Martha is dispatched to Prague as an au pair, her Oxford place given to "the better woman" Martha was keeping out.

The book is slight, but funny; the scene in which Martha, parroting uncomprehendingly the hints given by her mother, suggests that her Headmistress is pursuing a lesbian affair with a fellow teacher, is highly amusing, with Martha mystified by the outrage her comment generates. The depiction of Martha's interview at Oxford will make anyone who has been through this process cringe with recognition. Martha's various useless suitors and her fellow students are wryly observed. It's not quite up there with Nancy Mitford in the humour stakes, as the introduction suggests, but it's good fun all the same.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Happy birthday, Persephone Books

Persephone are 10 years old this year. They were celebrating at one of their London bookshops on Thursday last week, and as I happened to be in London for work, I went along. The place was thronged with readers lured by the three-for-two offer and the promise of champagne and buns. Perhaps they'd all be consumed by the time I arrived, because tepid mineral water was the order of the day, but I made good use of the special offer, and went home with:

William - an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton, playwright, suffragette and author of Marriage as a Trade and the lyrics to March of the Women, which I've had the pleasure of singing this year. This was Persephone's first book and I've been hankering after it for some time.

Plats du Jour by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd, a book that brought continental food within reach of British cooks during the late 1950s, or at least within reach of their imaginations.

and finally Miss Buncle's Book which tells of the impact on a small English village when one of their number publishes a bestseller which consists of thinly-veiled portraits of the local characters.

Despite the cock-up on the catering front at their birthday party, I can wholeheartedly recommend Persephone's output to anyone interested in women's writing and the 20th century - although there are some earlier books too for diehard Victorianists. There are some marvellous books to be found in that elegant grey livery, and Persephone are responsible for leading me to some inspiring work, particularly Leonard Woolf's The Wise Virgins which gave me the theme for my MA dissertation, the marvellous Every Eye by Isobel English, and Marghanita Laski's tense, powerful Little Boy Lost, the book that led me to Persphone after reading Nicholas Lezard's review in the Guardian. Happy birthday, Persephone, and here's to another shelf-ful of French grey spines.

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Nightingale Wood uses the conventions and structures of the fairy story to narrate the lives of three women, each chafing in her own way against the restrictions of her circumstances. Romantic, superficial Viola is Cinderella, hoping that the local Prince Charming will rescue her from her excruciatingly dull life with her late husband’s family, the Withers. Tina, her sister-in-law, might be Sleeping Beauty, hoping that Saxon the handsome chauffeur will be able to cut through the thickets of social convention and be her friend and lover. Hetty could be a bookish Rapunzel, waiting to be twenty-one so she can escape the prison of middle-class social life and devote herself to literature.

If the metaphors in that paragraph seem strained, imagine them extended over the length of a novel, and you’ll get a sense of the problems with Nightingale Wood. In Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons demonstrated a mastery of the pithy character study, a light and economical touch, that is mostly absent from the later book. Instead, we get pages of exposition, of psychological explanations of characters, and very obvious setting and springing of plot traps and twists. For example, there is the local hermit. He is lavishly introduced and described, we learn of his previous married life, his current relationship with Saxon’s mother, his tendency to arrive unexpectedly at the Withers, drunk and ranting. His sole plot function is to give away the subversive lovers, Tina and Saxon, which would have happened anyway since they have secretly married by the time he bellows the news at the Withers. This would not be a problem if he were amusing, or interesting, but unfortunately he comes across only as a dull, self-indulgent bit of local rural colour.

The plot takes a good while to resolve itself, with many digressions into the little ways of other minor characters, before our three heroines get their heart's desires, or something very similar. The author even has recourse to a house fire near the end of the novel to move the plot along, always a sign of desperation. The good are, eventually, rewarded: Tina and Saxon get a handsome legacy to help their transgressive marriage along; Hetty is rescued from debutante hell by a previously undiscovered uncle who has a second-hand bookshop and a stern Communist wife; and superficial Viola, through an act of charity on behalf of an elderly friend, touches the heart of her Prince Charming at exactly the right moment - when his shrewish fiancée is throwing an impressive tantrum - leading to their eventual marriage.

Some of these happy endings are quite satisfying. Tina is an attractive character and it is pleasing to see her work her way through the difficulties of her feelings for the chauffeur, naming and owning her desire, and for the success of an inter-class marriage to be recognised and articulated. Hetty, mature beyond her twenty years in the Flora Poste manner, gets to lead the literary life she idolises. To an extent, these are women of some agency, with the courage and ability to make their own lives, although each is dependent on a male deus ex machina. Viola is more problematic. She has always dreamed of marrying Victor Spring, and eventually does. She shows plenty of spirit along the way, returning Victor's kisses ardently, rejecting Victor firmly when she realises his intentions are not honourable, but still pines after him. We are told so many times that Viola is superficial, that her dreams and affections are shallow, that perhaps we are not supposed to worry that Victor is quite dim and boorish; Viola seems unworried by his baser qualities. But the happy endings are a little bit pat, and the three of them suggest an attempt to provide a vicarious happy ending for any reader, whether she yearns for companionate marriage, intellectual stimulus or social success.

There is still good, witty writing here: I particularly liked the description of Victor's endlessly scolding fiancée as "keeping up a continual splutter like a catherine-wheel", and the description of the same person, dressed in black and yellow, as resembling a "slim, ill-tempered, handsome wasp". If it wasn't for Cold Comfort Farm, this book would seem a lot better. But then, if it wasn't for Cold Comfort Farm, it would never have been revived at all.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

I spotted this in a secondhand bookshop, and was inspired to give it a try because a) Nancy Mitford was in love with Robert Byron, and I thought there was a good chance that it might be amusing; and b) because Bruce Chatwin was inspired by Byron's writing. This book describes, in diary form, a haphazard journey through and around Persia and into Afghanistan. Byron and his travelling companion, Christopher Sykes, struggle against authoritarian bureacracy in imperial Persia, and no less effective state control in Afghanistan; permits are capriciously issued and withdrawn, they acquire endless state escorts who attempt to prevent them drawing, taking photographs, or indeed noticing anything that might lead to criticism of the Shah, Islam, the government. Byron is a wily traveller, however, and knows both when to accept these constraints and how to outwit them. His encounter with Herzfeld at Persepolis, during which he flouts, flagrantly, the prohibition on photography there, is typical of one of his ways of dealing with authority: ignore it and do whatever you want.

Byron is immensely knowledgable about Islamic architecture, and much of the text is given over to mouthwatering descriptions of mosques and palaces, their tiles, domes, minarets and squinches. Interestingly, he visits the massive statues of Buddha since destroyed by the Taliban; he doesn't care for them, or for Buddhist art in general. Added to the varied, beautiful but often harsh landscapes he describes, this makes the book something of a feast for the inner eye. This is contrasted with the comic encounters with minor potentates, ambassadors, the military and servants. Byron's attitudes to the locals are fairly typical of the time, and can be uncomfortable for the modern reader, but his genuine respect for some, especially their guide and chauffeur Seyid Jemal, tempers this a little. Compared to Chatwin, this is a traveller less anxious to be liked, more purposeful and less haphazard, but his abilities to take pleasure where it may be found certainly seem to have been taken as a model.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten

No, it’s not a book, but it is definitely twentieth century and worth writing about. I was lucky enough to see the last performance of the current ENO production of Peter Grimes on Saturday. I didn’t know the piece at all, but was intrigued enough by Alex Ross’s chapter on the opera and Britten in The Rest is Noise to ask for tickets as a birthday present. I’m enormously glad that I did, because it was the best production of an opera that I have ever seen.

Director David Alden sets the opera in post-war austerity Britain; clothes are drab and grey and uniform, literally in a few cases, and the sets are austere, apparently made from cheap materials like corrugated iron. The lighting is remarkable, making expressionistic shadowplay that sometimes emphasises and sometimes subverts the action; Ellen Orford’s shadow, for example, sometimes dominates those of the chiding townspeople, while at the very end she has no shadow at all. The faces of the chorus gleam out from grey hats and coats like the glitter of the sea or of a shoal of mackerel, and sometimes they drift in and out of the stage like waves. While Mrs Sedley rouses the mob that will drive Peter Grimes to his death, they are constrained by the set in a wedge of stage, and sway and roll like a rough sea, equating the mob with other unstoppable forces of nature.

The austerity setting gave the opera an extra twist; after years of pulling together as part of the war effort, the tensions between the individual and the collective may now be at such a pitch that rupture and trauma are inevitable. This version of the opera is sympathetic to Grimes, while not masking the violent and aggressive aspects of his character; there is genuine regret and emotion as he recounts the death of his first apprentice, and John’s death is clearly indicated as an accident, caused in part by Grimes’s fright at being persecuted by the Borough. The choral repetition of “he who despises us we’ll destroy” emphasises that Grimes’s separation from his community is his crime, rather than his involvement in the death of two children. The portrayal of Auntie as a lesbian of the Radclyffe Hall type, in a rather elegant pinstriped man’s suit, problematises this. One critic suggests that her wardrobe may be due to her role as a businesswoman in a man’s world, but her rejection of one woman, and leading of another off on a lead, during the dance scene suggest to me that she’s not just coded as lesbian. A lesbian can be as antithetical to small-town life as an uppity fisherman, but Auntie is not harried to her suicide.

Perhaps this is because she knows where the bodies are buried. Auntie’s nieces, dressed most of the time in identical schoolgirl uniform, moving in a disturbed and disturbing robotic way, are harassed and assaulted by Swallow, although their status as prostitutes (which I understand is the usual interpretation) is unclear. But Auntie the innkeeper sees and knows the licentious behaviour of otherwise respectable townspeople; she helps to focus the hypocrisy of those who judge Grimes, as does the girlishness of the nieces, who can be equated with the young and vulnerable apprentice. If Grimes is an exploiter of children, he is not the only one in the Borough. Auntie is a fascinating counterpart to Grimes: both are complicit and stigmatised, but she is more powerful because of her inside knowledge and her ability to accept the townspeople.

Other commentators have seen the Ellen of this production as not caring particularly for Grimes, over-ready to reject him when she suspects he has beaten John, and suggest that this emphasises her own complicity in the eventual tragedy. I didn’t read it like this – and indeed thought she was remarkably sympathetic to Peter after he clouted her – but this idea gives another twist to her grief in the final moments. Is she crying for Grimes, or because of her own guilt and its implications for her future in the Borough? I thought the former at the time, and found Amanda Roocroft's performance very moving, but now I wonder ...

So – a hugely fascinating and thought-provoking opera. I’m not enough of an expert to criticise the singing, but I will say that I thought the choral work was excellent, although I was pleased to notice that even the ENO chorus has the same problems sounding a simultaneous final “s” as any other choir. Gerald Finley as Balstrode was particularly fine, and I feel very guilty for having failed to spot from the upper circle that he was playing the part as an amputee, with one arm strapped down. I did wonder why he always had his overcoat thrown over his shoulders. The orchestra seemed utterly marvellous to me and, judging by the applause, to the rest of the audience. The piece was recorded for broadcast on Radio 3, so those not lucky enough to make one of the nine performances can enjoy at least part of the experience.