Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson

In The Great Silence, Juliet Nicolson sets out to describe the two years following the Armistice in the terms of the cyclical sequence of emotions that accompany grief and mourning.  In chapters headed Wound, Shock, Denial, Release, Resignation and so on, she draws on personal and establishment archives, diaries and letters to bring us the authentic voices of the times.  The social and political uncertainty, and sometimes unrest, of the era is also clearly narrated.  Through this dense and detailed account, forgotten stories of this period are retrieved and celebrated.

As in her previous book, the highly enjoyable A Perfect Summer, Nicolson draws on the writings of the celebrated and eminent, and also on those of the obscure, so we get a range of voices and opinions from the most powerful - the King and Queen - to the least, in the form of the memories of those who were small children at the time.  Often Nicolson uses key figures - T E Lawrence and Nancy Astor are good examples - to exemplify the ways in which a wounded society sought to repair and rehabilitate itself through establishing heroes and forcing change.  She also retells some of the stories of hope from the period, particularly the story of Harold Gillies, a plastic surgeon who did pioneering work to repair soldier's damaged faces; Gillies's cousin Archie McIndoe started the more famous Guinea Pig Club after the second world war, drawing on the techniques and approaches Gillies had established, which included using artists such as Kathleen Scott and Henry Tonks, Professor of the Slade, to help draw and model reconstructed faces. She is also very good on the position of women, who had achieved the vote and could get an Oxford degree, but were being encouraged back to the home to make way for returning war heroes in need of jobs.

Nicolson has created a narrative of this two year period in which the shock and grief of the first World War are gradually accommodated and accepted, and in which the possibilities of hope for the future began to be permissible. Her last chapter, which describes the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920, suggests that this funeral helped to heal the scars of the war, and her ending, which quotes Winifred Holtby, exuberantly in love with life, suggests an open doorway to a new world.  However, she does not overstate her case; the ongoing problems left by the war are recognised, as is dissent from the establishment view of the meaning of the war and its value.

In A Perfect Summer, Nicolson had the advantage of diaries and letters which were maintained throughout the period of her narrative, giving her a continuous set of voices to draw on.  In this book, voices appear only briefly, or disappear altogether, often because the writer has died.  This can be seen as a disadvantage in narrative continuity and maintenance of an argument, but is perhaps an advantage in depicting the uncertainty of the times she describes, the suddenness of loss, the fragmentation of identity suffered by so many.  It also helps remind the reader that the cycle of mourning is not a machine that runs in order; some people will be stuck forever in Denial, which some will move backwards and forwards through painful emotional states before reaching the promised land of Acceptance. The discontinuity of voices also speaks of the social divisions between those who sought to restore a pre-war society and those who sought the opportunity for change.  This book is, understandably, much less humorous than its predecessor,but it brings into the light a period heavily overshadowed by the war and the Twenties, and is a careful, nuanced account of the people who lived through this interval between times of more revolutionary change.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution by June Rose

Over fifty years after her death, Marie Stopes's name remains synonymous with contraception.  There is a chain of private sexual health clinics in the UK that is still called after her.  Most people will also be aware of her pioneering work in sexual guidance, which first articulated for a mass audience idea that good sexual relations were at the heart of happy marriages, and indicated frankly how these were to be achieved.  This book contextualises her work on sexuality and fertility control among her other achievements and her complex personal life.

Marie's mother, Charlotte Carmichael, was a suffragette and a scholar in her own right, although unable, during her own youth, to undertake formal study at a university.  Charlotte was in some ways a detached mother, with exacting standards that Marie found impossible to satisfy, but committed to the education of her daughters. Affection came more from Marie's father Henry, but her parents' marriage was not harmonious and Henry died when Marie was in her early twenties.  Marie was something of an academic prodigy; she completed her undergraduate degree in Botany and Geology at the University of London in two years, moved to Munich to undertake a PhD, and followed this up with a Doctor of Science again in London; at the time she was the youngest person in Britain to gain this award. Her specialism was paleobotany, in particular the fossils to be found in coal, and this specialism took her down many coal mines and on a research trip to Japan where she undertook long and arduous journeys in search of specimens.

Working in Manchester as a lecturer, with several complex romantic entanglements involving both sexes behind her, Marie began to write poetry and prose with a strongly autobiographical tone.  June Rose quotes enough of her poetry to give the reader a sense that, despite her facility with rhyme and metre, poetry was not really her metier, but at this time she was already working on a text that would eventually become Married Love.  Invited to Canada to study the carboniferous flora of New Brunswick, she met, and within a few days had agreed to marry, Reginald Ruggles Gates, a fellow scientist specialising in genetics.  Their marriage was unsuccessful, both emotionally and successfully, and was eventually annulled, but in its aftermath, and drawing on both her scientific knowledge and her own personal experience of unsuccessful marriage, Marie published Married Love to instant acclaim. Shortly afterwards she married the wealthy Humphrey Roe, who was to support her writing career and her crusading zeal for contraceptive advice with money, time and unconditional affection.

Rose is very good at evoking Marie's immense self-possession and overweening self-confidence.  She had no respect for the boundaries that kept women out of politics and science, and crossed many of them herself, but this was achieved only by maintaining a self-belief that can seem unbearable or ridiculous.  She can also be self-serving, making use of people and organisations while it is of advantage to her, and passing on from them when her need or interest has faded.  This tendency is perhaps at its most acute in her relationship with her son Harry.  Marie had longed for a child for years and, after giving birth to a stillborn baby, was overjoyed at Harry's birth when she was 44.  She was an attentive, if sometimes eccentric, mother. Until he went to boarding school, Harry wore only knitted trousers or kilts, because Marie believed ordinary trousers would damage the development of his genitals.  But when Harry proposed to marry a girl Marie disapproved of, for an entirely petty reason, she cut him out of her life.

The biography is very fair, however, in identifying Marie's achievements and recognising that her less attractive characteristics enabled her to break new ground and contribute hugely to the conditions of women's lives.  Her unbearable self-confidence was necessary to allow her to write, as a woman in the early 20th century, about contraception and women's entitlement to sexual pleasure.  It also allowed her to withstand and to counter criticism from such establishment forces as the Church of England, the Catholic Church and the British Medical Association.  Even if she had been self-deprecating and kind, her enthusiasm for eugenics and the improvement of "the Race" would make today's readers uncomfortable.  However, her books changed many people's lives greatly for the better, helping women take control of their fertility, and heterosexual couples achieve happier sex lives; June Rose includes many letters of thanks from enlightened readers.  Marie's sexual radicalism ended there.  Despite some emotionally charged relationships with women, she characterised homosexuality as a disease, and was at endless pains to demonstrate that her advice and guidance was for married people.

Rose's book is well-crafted and gives a balanced, nuanced reading of Marie's life, her successes and her failures. It presents her as a flawed but determined individual, sometimes using her grandiose ideas to propel her to greater achievements, sometimes going too far and doing damage to her own reputation.  Rose is particularly good at understanding and explaining the rather mystical nature of Marie's attitudes to sex, which led her to announce herself as a prophet and to publish A New Gospel, which she claimed had been dictated to her by God.  If I have one criticism it is that the latter part of Marie's life is given less attention than her early years; but to be fair, her early years are so packed with incident that it would be difficult to summarise.  The book is also very entertaining, particularly when Marie's self-assurance leads to unusually egregious acts of self-promotion.  It also gives a very good introduction to the context for Marie's work, particularly in terms of political, religious and social attitudes to sex and contraception.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

Miss Ranskill comes home, after four years on a desert island, to an England utterly changed by the second World War.  She shared the desert island with Mr Reid, the remarkably capable man Miss Ranskill always calls the Carpenter.  But at the start of the novel, the Carpenter has died and Miss Ranskill must bury him.  Inadvertently, she also buries their only knife, without which survival on the island is impossible.  This decides her to attempt an escape in the boat the Carpenter has built.  Reaching England after no little difficulty, she finds her problems are only just starting.  Lacking an identity card and a ration book, she cannot buy new clothes to replace her decayed tweed suit.  New, incomprehensible terms have invaded the English language. She is also, inconveniently, officially dead.

Miss Ranskill is used to great humorous effect by Barbara Euphan Todd to satirise the more ridiculous aspects of wartime life; I particularly liked her reaction to the painted line round the bath, intended to save water.  Miss Ranskill, in the house she is sharing, has the last of three baths, and simply fills the bath with as much hot water is left, whether it rises above the line or not; otherwise, the fuel that heated the water would have been wasted.  This view, unsurprisingly, is not shared by her housemates; Miss Ranskill has failed to Do Her Bit.  There is also some gentle challenge to the boundaries of the English class system.  Her friendship with the working-class Carpenter is suspected on all sides; even on the island Miss Ranskill knows that she could never bring her friend home to meet her sister: "The man is neither fish, fowl nor good red herring now that you've made a friend of him."  The two friends shared many stories of their home lives on the island, and Miss Ranskill conceives of a mission: she will visit the Carpenter's widow, and give the boat he built to his son.  But her overtures of friendship are as inappropriate in a working-class home as they are in her middle-class one.

The Carpenter and his son point to some unassuming Christian allegory.  Miss Ranskill is always (reasonably enough, I thought) furious whenever anyone hints, with prurient delicacy, at a possible sexual relationship between the two friends on the island, and invests their chaste affections with a strongly spiritual, transcendent quality.  She pursues her mission with the diligence of a pilgrim, and in doing so discovers another that will help her fit less awkwardly into the War Effort.

Satire and allegory are achieved with great subtlety in the book, which is also hugely funny.  I particularly enjoyed Miss Ranskill's schoolfriend Marjorie, now an officious ARP warden and having the time of her life in the war, puzzling over why there had been no black-out on the island: "I should have thought you'd have rigged up some kind of screen ... unless you wanted to be neutral?", and sister Edith's inability to comprehend that the Times had not been available to the castaways.   Miss Ranskill is an endearing heroine, resourceful and assertive, and her passage from bewildered refugee to woman with a plan is rather inspiring.

This is another Persephone retrieval, and one of the best of the Persephones that I've read.  I'll be recommending this, tiresomely and repeatedly, to anyone I think might possibly enjoy it.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

That Lady by Kate O'Brien

Apparently, at this year's Hay Literary Festival, Antony Beevor suggested that "novelists ought to mark in bold type the bits they made up".  He might be mollified by Kate O'Brien's forward to That Lady, which states firmly that "what follows is not a historical novel. It is an invention arising from reflection on the curious external story of Ana de Mendoza and Philip II of Spain."  O'Brien extracts from her reflections a novel that deals with a complex blend of political intrigue, love, jealousy, religion, and humour.  

Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli and owner of many other complicated titles, is a widow at the start of the novel, but still probably the most powerful woman in Spain.  Rich in her own right, the friend and confidante of Philip II, she is able to rise above the scurrilous and unfounded rumours which suggest that she is the King's mistress.  Her appearance - she is thin, not traditionally beautiful, old at 35 by the standards of the day , and wears a silk eyepatch following a fencing accident when she was a child - confounds the gossip about her; many believe her virtuous because they find her ugly.  Ana, knowing she is both committing a sin and taking a significant political risk, takes as a lover the King's Secretary of State, Antonio Perez.   It is not long before their affair begins to excite gossip and political intrigue, which adds to the already complex and personal political situation centred around Philip and his government of Spain.   The lovers are denounced by Juan de Escovedo, a political enemy of Philip, who endorses his elimination.  After Escovedo's murder, the King becomes aware of the true nature of Ana's relationship with Perez, and the consequences for the lovers are terrible.

Philip's intransigent desire to punish Ana and Perez is only part of the story.  Buoyed by her wealth and status, Ana is overconfident about her power and her ability to manage Philip.  Perez has similar faith in his invincibility.  Both, eventually, suffer at the hands of an absolute monarch who has no need to invoke the law to imprison and torture.  Ana is a faithful Catholic, and denies herself the consolation of the church while her affair with Antonio continues, but her story shows us that we need to beware of earthly powers as well as heavenly ones.  At the heart of Ana's story is a rather modern theme - the right to a private life.  Ana is a political figure, a landowner, a manager of estates, but she continually asserts that her private relations are nobody else's business; they dishonour nobody, they threaten nobody, because nobody has the right to be interested in them.  This assertion will lead to her imprisonment and eventual death.

It is often said that historical novels are really about the period in which they were written, and in this 1945 work it's possible to read the Spain of Philip II, exhausted by wars, wealthy but unable to feed its people, and struggling to maintain its imperial conquests, as a metaphor for Britain at the end of the Second World War, especially Ana's reaction to the decay of her estates during her house arrest.  Ana is forced to cede the management of her estates to the King's representative: "When Ruy lived and in the six years after his death that I was in nominal charge of Pastrana, this estate and its people were prosperous.  Now it's being run by the government, and I can tell from looking out of that window, walking through my own garden - even if none of the people ever came to see me - that for some reason that no one can quite fix on, that is no longer true."  The fear of the ascendant middle-class bureaucracy so common in novels of the interwar and war years is clearly indicated here.  There are also echoes of Franco's autocratic rule over Spain: Ana's power is not threatened by increasing democracy but by a greater despotism.  But the politics of the novel merge with echoes of fairy tales; Ana is imprisoned and, like the Sleeping Beauty, her house decays and her garden becomes overgrown.

There is also a personal reading of this work: Kate O'Brien based her characterisation of Ana de Mendoza on her friend, E M Delafield.  At first it is somewhat hard to reconcile a one-eyed sixteenth-century Spanish aristocrat with the author of the Provincial Lady, but Ana's unfailing good humour, affection for her friends and (most of) her children, and endurance of suffering are all reminiscent of Delafield's biography.  Kate O'Brien spent a lot of time with Delafield during her last illness, and perhaps her friend's stoicism inspired Ana's:

"Ana was feeling ill that evening, in pain all through her body, but this most exquisitely tragic-comic piece of news, which she refused to accept as more than some travelling man's fantasy, roused her to a mood of mockery that was rejuvenating and even analgesic."

This is a detailed and complex book; the political machinations of the key characters, the back story which must be conveyed to help the reader make sense of the present, and the many dramatic events make it a demanding read, especially for a reader who (like me) knows practically nothing about this era in Spanish history.  But it is a rewarding book, opening up many ideas and images to the reader, who cannot fail to be charmed by Ana, her bravery and her wit, or moved by her eventual decline.