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of Being Earnest which dates from 1919 and is in the Lancing College binding, with a College bookplate inside, but no "Withdrawn" stamps or similar.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.