Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Regiment of Women by Clemence Dane

Clemence Dane's 1917 novel attempts to persuade the reader that lesbianism is inferior to heterosexuality and that single-sex education should be avoided.  The former position is not particularly radical for 1917, and while Dane's representation of lesbian relationships might seem unusually frank to 21st century eyes, it is worth remembering that, for many of her readers, nothing sexual would have been imputed to the "friendships" her novel describes, however "unhealthy".  The latter position is, of course, informed by the former, and it is lesbianism that is the main target of Dane's critique.  Unfortunately for her, she chooses to do this by creating a monster: Clare Hartill, second-in-command to the ageing Headmistress at Utterbridge Girls' School, is manipulative, vain, egotistical and utterly ruthless.  She also joins that large group of monstrous characters who are far more interesting than their righteous opponents. 

The plot of the novel revolves around Clare's love for Alwynne, a young teacher at the school; Alwynne returns her love, but Alwynne's Aunt Elsbeth is determined that her niece will not dedicate her life to Clare.   The women's relationship is complicated by Louise, a young girl that Clare has singled out for attention, and turned into one of her most devoted worshippers as a result.  Louise's story and its repercussions will, eventually, bring about the end of Alwynne's regard for Clare.

The narrative wants to condemn Clare, but also needs her to be charismatic and attractive.  This sets up a permanent tension between the need to prove Clare to be bad but to also keep the reader's attention on her.  Clare is certainly bad and often terribly cruel, but when tragedy strikes, the narrative apportions the blame; Clare is certainly partly responsible, but not - as Alwynne's heterosexual rescuer suggests - wholly so.  Roger, who appears in the last third of the novel as Alwynne's suitor, is an inadequate foil for Clare, and in fact they never meet.  It is another woman - Elsbeth - who is eventually able to put Clare at a disadvantage, although, as Alison Hennegan's introduction to the Virago edition points out, the end of the novel is very ambiguous about Clare's future.

I found the writing very uneven.  There are some fantastic sections, such as Alwynne's vision of a calendar year as a path leading through "a wide country", from the snowy fields of January, through the glades of spring and the stony hill of autumn to the brightly-lit welcoming house of Christmas.  The narrative makes frequent excursions into interior monologue, but broken up with ellipsis which makes it jerky and fragmented.  Alwynne's scenes with Roger are marked by an arch, artificial style that contrasts unfavourably with the direct and open communication she shares with Clare.  The text is also littered with symbolism that reads like a Freudian primer - Roger shows Alwynne a hiding-place produced by splitting open a tussock of grass that is long, like women's hair; Alwynne breaks Clare's bell in a fit of temper; Roger's conquest of Alwynne is achieved in a railway train.  The introduction tells us that Dane was famous for her naivety regarding sex, and perhaps this is a symptom of that, but her unconscious mind was certainly working overtime when she selected her metaphors. 

While the book is not an easy read for many reasons, it's undoubtedly interesting, anticipating much of the sharpened anxiety of the interwar period about unmarried women and the renewed promotion of marriage as the proper career for girls.  The other interesting aspect is the way in which the narrative, and the characters, escape their author's agenda, complicating her meaning in surprising ways.  This is less surprising if Dane herself was lesbian, as a book I've just been reading suggests; if this was so, the novel begins to look more like a way to contain and interrogate her own fears and doubts about her sexuality. 

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Suburban Young Man by E M Delafield

E M Delafield wrote The Suburban Young Man in seven weeks, and ten years or so after its publication suggested she should "never have perpetrated" the novel.  It gets a footnote to itself in Q D Leavis's Fiction and the Reading Public, as an example of the use of the 'surburban idiom' which QDL deplores for its lack of seriousness.  These are inauspicious omens.  However, the book isn't as bad as all that, and its theme is interesting: Antoinette, daughter of the aristocracy driven by post-Great War poverty to work in an insurance office, falls in love with the married brother of her employer.  Peter, the object of her affection, is a fiction writer doing mainly serial work but hoping to improve the quality of his output.  He lives in Richford, a generic London suburb, with his Scottish wife Hope and their twin sons.  The resolution of the affair between Antoinette and Peter will engage with issues such as inter-class love and marriage, the significance of divorce, and the relationship between the suburb and the city.

Peter is slightly anomalous in the suburb; he does not leave for the City every day like his neighbours, and is involved instead a world of creativity and fiction.  In Antoinette's world, he blends in reasonably well on the surface, while always aware of the differences between them.  Antoinette's working life is seen by her family as a caprice, although her widowed mother cannot afford to support her daughters; the family relies on a wealthy uncle.  Antoinette's different attitudes to work and class set her apart from her family; even her sister Sheila, who does not have the excuse of belonging to an older generation, is shocked by Antoinette's willingness to consider a marriage outside of her own class.  Peter is contrasted with his brother Sydney and sister-in-law Norah, who epitomise the vulgar stereotype of the suburbanite.  Peter, Antoinette and, surprisingly, Hope, however, all find that real people live either side of the social and geographical barriers that usually separate them.

Unfortunately, the effect of the speed of writing of this novel is rather evident.  Characters are broad and undeveloped, making them nearer to caricature.  This is particularly true of the frightful Norah, depicted as a vulgar, greedy and amoral slattern, and also to some extent of Lord Halberton, a family friend of Antoinette who appears to be a stuffed shirt entirely devoid of personality.  The description of suburbia relies on stereotypical devices which are snobbish in effect and undermine Antoinette's frequent assertion that good things can come from the suburbs. The plot developments are often awkwardly achieved and there is far too much of Antoinette's musings on whether it would be right to pursue a relationship with Peter.  Several times in the novel Antoinette determines to "have it out" which then leads to three pages discussing how this should be achieved before any actual conversation takes place. Dramatic events are deferred for days by illness or bad weather, stretching any suspense very thinly.  Peter and Antoinette themselves are often less interesting than the supporting cast, which made it hard to care that much about the outcome of their story.

On the positive side, Antoinette's mother Lady Rochester is an amusing creation; attractive, high-handed and also vague, the fond relationship between mother and daughters is an unusual one.  Hope is also interesting in the way she approaches the problem of Peter's love for Antoinette, although the token Scottishisms in her vocabulary grated on me after a while.  On the whole, while it's not without merits, seeking out this book may only be for Delafield completists or those working their way through all the books Q D Leavis couldn't stand.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Other readers

I've been reading a lot of library books lately, and have therefore been exposed to the marks and traces of other readers.  The most amusing example I've found is above: this is the first page of F R Leavis's Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture, first published in 1930.  I particularly like the fourth commentator, who either can't resist the temptation to instruct while insulting, or vice versa, and adheres to a high standard of punctuation even when writing graffiti.  Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture is a short book and there is only one copy in my university library; it's therefore particularly heavily inscribed with other readers' marks. Paragraphs are underlined, starred, marked with arcane groupings of vertical lines and curly brackets, and key words are noted across the top of pages.   Page corners are creased where they have been turned down.  There is something ironic in this accumulation of evidence of mass readership on a text concerned with the preservation of a cultural elite.

In other books, readers have corrected typographical errors; one reader of a Delafield novel had carefully corrected the author's grammar.  Unfortunately, their grasp of the use of the subjunctive was less sophisticated than EMD's, and the correction itself was wrong.  Sometimes you get a sense of the reader's response through their marginalia, an exuberant "YES!" against a provocative statement or a bracing "Nonsense!".  Changes in our sense of what is acceptable provokes readers to label racism and sexism where they encounter it. 

I never, now, write or mark books, although I was encouraged to by previous English teachers: my A level copy of Keats is covered in pencil scribblings.  Instead, I'm addicted to the use of page flags and post-its, which leave no trace for later readers.  While I find it distracting when people have underlined bits of text - the eye is inevitably drawn to that sentence at the expense of others - the written annotations can be amusing, as above, and sometimes enlightening.  They remind me that reading is not necessarily a solitary, individual activity, but can be a communal one, and that my understanding of a text draws inevitably on that of other readers, be they critics or marginal commentators.