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)