Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith

Sheila Kaye-Smith was a prolific writer who lived for most of her life in East Sussex, and set many of her books there, drawing on the dramas of agricultural life;  Joanna Godden, published in 1921, was her first big literary success.  Joanna, "a mare that's never been properly broken in", inherits her father's farm on Romney Marsh, in 1897.   Failing to heed advice to get a manager to run it for her, she insists on managing the farm itself, and begins by sacking her shepherd when he fails to heed her advice.  She suffers some setbacks; a poor replacement shepherd and her own project of breeding giant sheep cause her to lose her flock, but after a few years the farm recovers its success, and she is grudgingly accepted as a guest (but definitely not a member) of the local farmers' dining society.  Joanna is a curious mix of the deeply traditional and the unconventional; she overturns class barriers when she and the local squire's son, Martin Trevor, fall in love, but she will not drive to market or anywhere else without a farmworker beside her.  Joanna's love affairs do not run smoothly, and her project to make a lady of her sister Ellen, through education at a school in Folkstone, has some decidedly unexpected and disruptive results.  However, Joanna is tough, resilient and not at all discouraged by the challenges life presents; she believes almost unwaveringly in the prospect of her own success.

Sheila Kaye-Smith was compared to Hardy in her lifetime, and the obvious Hardy counterpart for Joanna is Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd.  They have some similarities; their determined independence, the way they are distracted and misled by sexual attraction, and their carefully-achieved status in a patriarchal community. Kaye-Smith is not above mocking her heroine's old-fashioned  Joanna Godden is a less subtle and much less tragic book than Hardy's, however, although Kaye-Smith's lyrical praise of the Sussex countryside is as vigorous, if not quite as evocative, as that of her Wessex colleague.  The pleasures of this novel are in the depictions of country life, in anticipating the obstacles life will put in Joanna's path, and wondering how she will overcome them - while remaining convinced that she will.  The ten years or so of the novel also track changes in farming practice and technology, the slow development of an ancient way of life, in a sympathetic but not overly nostalgic way.  I could have done with less of the transcribed dialect from the yokels, but that is a minor quibble.  The Virago edition of this book is still in print.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Mariana by Monica Dickens

Years ago, I read my mother's library copies of One Pair of Hands and One Pair of Feet, as well as her Follyfoot series as a horse-mad child, but I'd never read any of her novels for adults until now.  Harriet Lane's introduction to the Persephone edition places this book alongside other iconic novels of young womanhood like I Capture the Castle and The Pursuit of Love, and thematically there are certainly similarities.  In the opening chapter, our heroine Mary, during a stormy night in World War II, hears that her husband's ship has been sunk.  The phone line to her isolated Essex cottage has blown down and any telegram will have been sent to her London home.  While she waits out the hours before she can find out whether her husband is dead or alive, she thinks back over her life to date.  

Mary has been brought up by her mother, her father having died in the first war when she was a baby, and her mother's brother, Uncle Geoffrey, a jobbing actor specialising in "silly-ass" parts.  They live in a flat in London's Olympia, but Mary loves best her long holidays at Charbury, the Somerset home of her paternal grandparents, where she can lead a country childhood, riding, hunting, and staging mock hangings in the playhouse with her young cousins.  One cousin, the handsome Denys, will be Mary's first love, until he scuppers his chances by getting off with a blonde at his college ball.  Mary is uninterested in education or a career, telling her mother that schoolwork is pointless because she just wants to get married and have twenty-six children, their names going right through the alphabet.  However, she is forced through a good school, has a short-lived flirtation with drama school, before being sent to Paris to learn dress design.  In Paris, she acquires some sophistication and a glamorous French fiancé.   Will Mary make a good wife to an upper-class Frenchman, or will her love of England prove disruptive to Pierre's plans?

 One of the things this book has in common with I Capture the Castle is its profound expression of love for England, particularly the English countryside, which is imbued with a beauty and authenticity that cannot be achieved by London smartness or Parisian elegance.  I wondered if it had been written in exile as Dodie Smith's book was, but it seems not - except to the extent that anyone in wartime Britain was in exile from the country they once knew.  It is the episodes at Carbury that no doubt prompt comparisons with The Pursuit of Love, but Mitford's children are tougher,more heartless and much funnier than Mary and her cousins.Hannah Stoneham's review draws out the similarities between Mary's growing love for Denys, and Cassandra's romantic awakening.  But Mary is, to me, less interesting than Cassandra, more ordinary and rather aimless, although I don't doubt that she is extremely representative of some girls of her period.  I was more interested in her mother, a sparky, energetic woman who makes a career for herself and maintains an independent life when she could probably have lived off her in-laws; in Uncle Geoff's slightly seedy theatrical world which blossoms into unexpected success; and in her ghastly maternal grandmother, self-dramatising, critical and repellent.  I agree with Hannah Stoneham that Mary is most interesting in her worst moments, asserting her sense of entitlement, disrupting a drama school examination, moping about with jealousy when Denys takes a friend out shooting; she acquires a bit of drive and vigour at these times, even if - or perhaps because - she is being irritating.

As the introduction warns, there is some outrageous snobbishness on display in the novel, and some very ouchy anti-Semitism, probably entirely typical and realistic, but it's as well to brace yourself.  One of the things I found slightly odd about the narrative is that Mary's memories are not presented as such; there is no reflection from the older, married Mary on her younger self as we see her move between Charbury, school, London and Paris, or any sense that these stories are being remembered by her rather than told to us by Monica Dickens, and only the chapters that bracket the novel remind us that times have moved on.  This book is definitely comfort reading, a "hot-water bottle book" as Harriet Lane has it, but I'm not sure it would keep the chill out for me as effectively as some of its literary peers do.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

Esther Hammerhans, a library clerk at the House of Commons in 1964, is looking for a lodger.  The lodger who arrives to rent her box room is surprising: he is Mr Chartwell, a huge, shaggy and smelly black dog.  For a dog, he has some surprising habits, including talking, walking on his hind legs, and having some sort of job that brings him to Esther's part of London.  That job has to do, tangentially, with Esther's job.  Mr Chartwell is Winston Churchill's famous 'black dog', a reification of his metaphor for the periods of depression, and needs to be near Westminster to make sure he is present during the last days of Churchill's political career.  Esther has her own relationship with depression, and the drama of the book turns on whether she will succumb to Mr Chartwell's charms.

This book is incredibly delicately balanced.  It could so easily veer off into twee whimsy or overdramatic horror, but Rebecca Hunt has built up her narrative with great care, balancing the comic and the sinister to create recognisable accounts of living with, and struggling against, the realities of life with depression.  Nowhere is this care more evident than in the characterisation of Mr Chartwell himself: he combines human characteristics of humour, insight, and cunning, with a manifest doggishness, leaving vast clumps of hair everywhere and destroying the fabric of Esther's home.  Charismatic, amusing and persistent, it becomes increasingly easy to understand why Churchill has continued to tolerate him.

Despite its underlying sombre theme, the book is also very funny.  I was particularly amused by the appallingly rude Head of the House of Commons Library, John Dennis-John, who utterly fails to intimidate his staff, even when he suggests that a glimpsed bra-strap makes a woman look like the Whore of Babylon, and by the cheerful, inventive Corkbowl, a new recruit to the library.  Mr Chartwell singing to himself "a bone in the fridge may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl's best friend" has given me a permanent earworm.  Churchill and his wife Clementine get some excellent lines, and Esther's stubborn evasiveness and perplexed responses to an increasingly strange world have their own gentle humour.  This novel blends the fantastic expertly with the everyday, and is a stimulating and ultimately inspiring read.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

People Who Say Goodbye by P.Y. Betts

This little memoir, republished by Slightly Foxed Editions, describes an early twentieth century childhood with great verve and humour.  P.Y. Betts was born in Wandsworth in 1909 and grew up there, in a house on the road between a military hospital and a cemetery and opposite the undertakers; during the First World War her days are punctuated by military funerals.  Feeling a  need to formally acknowledge these, the young Phyllis takes to standing on a street corner and raising her blue woolly hat to the passing corteges.

Betts's memoir is a blend of ironic reflection on her childhood from a considerable perspective - the book was first published in 1989 - and the authentic representation of a child's experience and understanding of her world.  Smells are terribly important; the noxious smell of boiling cats' meat - once experienced, never forgotten - the fusty and unpleasant smell of wool clothing from the days before dry-cleaning; the clean, soapy smell of a successful washing day, her mother's particular passion.  Food is another significant matter; Phyllis is permanently hungry and her mother's insistence on vast quantities of animal fat in her diet does nothing much to assuage this, particularly during the lean years of the War. Her first sustained experience of sugar - shared with her friend Marion and eaten out of a blue bag - makes them "drunk, plain intoxicated with the unaccustomed charge of sugar into the blood.  Phyllis's childish logic helps her puncture the hypocrisy of the adults around her, particularly her maternal grandfather and aunts, who live in upper-middle-class splendour not far away.  Politically Liberal, they are intensely socially conservative, and when Phyllis, lost in Wandsworth with her friend Percy, finds her way to their house, they are only briefly admitted before being sent home.  Phyllis detects this is "something to do" with working-class Percy,

Phyllis's father is affectionately portrayed, with his fondness for his felt bootees at the end of the working day, and his agonies when his wife rises at four to get the copper going.  But it is Phyllis's mother, her "brutal parent" with the "radiant smile" who dominates the narrative.  Unimpressed by formal education, a traitor to her class background, and determined to keep all the knives in the house sharp as razors, her child-rearing approach is summarised by Phyllis as "learn-while-you-burn". The world is a hazardous place, and her children need to cope with its dangers from an early age, rather than being sheltered from them.  She brings a lot of the humour to the story, pressing lettuce on Phyllis's tutors to help cure their scurfy eyelids, declaring that "there were no millimetres when I was young", sportingly agreeing to wear a frilly boudoir cap while scrubbing the doorstep in a sacking apron.  But she can be ruthless, too; when Phyllis's brother gets diphtheria, then a notifiable contagious disease, she somehow manages to nurse him at home, despatching Phyllis to her paternal grandparents in Kent where, if she develops the disease, she will be sent to a fever hospital.  Phyllis realises she has been "thrown to the wolves" by her mother.

But her grandparents' cottage is Phyllis's idyll, her place of love and security.  She celebrates her grandfather, a former chef, who always makes sure there is a glow-worm in the posies of flowers he brings his wife, and her cribbage-loving grandmother, who bakes delicious pies to give to a toothless and incomprehensible neighbour, down on his luck.  Her exile from Wandsworth is a golden time: "The lamplight spread a pool of tranquility over the supper table, over the white cloth, the yellow butter, the food illumined as if by some unsought blessing.  I saw the two old worn faces in that blessed light and wanted never to leave them, never to say goodbye."  The title of the book comes from the young Phyllis's realisation that people who say goodbye seldom return, but her memoir preserves all those who disappeared from view in her life.

This is a beautiful book within and without; P.Y. Betts's other book, a novel called French Polish, seems to be very hard to get hold of, unfortunately.  For another perspective on this book, try Simon's review at Stuck-in-a-Book.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Nicola Beauman

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Nicola Beauman, part of the Clifton Montpelier Powis Festival in Brighton, on rediscovering lost writers.  She told us a great deal about the mechanics of publishing, how she came to start Persephone Books (an unexpected legacy provided the capital) and how she goes about finding and publishing the Persephone titles, choosing the fabrics for the endpapers, and generally running the business.

She talked a lot about Dorothy Whipple and the now notorious "Whipple Line" operated by Virago; Dorothy Whipple exemplified bad writing for Virago, and Carmen Callil in particular, and writers who came below the Whipple Line were not published by Virago.  A recent BBC Radio 4 programme about women's writing interviewed both Carmel Callil and Nicola Beauman, and this debate was given another airing.  I'm with Nicola Beauman on this one; she said she couldn't see what the problem was with Dorothy Whipple's writing, and neither can I.  I have a sneaking suspicion that those who criticise her books have only read the opening chapters; when I read High Wages recently I thought I could detect stock characters and a predictable plot in the first few pages, but the novel didn't turn out as I expected at all.  Nicola pointed out that there is no critical writing on Whipple, and suggested that she may be impossible to write about; I like a challenge, and High Wages fits well with the theme of the third chapter of my thesis, so I'll be giving it a try.

For DPhil reasons I am interested in the notion of the middlebrow, and Nicola used this word a few times in her talk, but shied away from it rather, locating her texts somewhere in a category slightly above the middlebrow; however, she say that she hoped Persephone would have the effect of those engines of middlebrow culture, the interwar Book Society and Boots Lending Library.  I wanted to ask her whether she thought the term "middlebrow" was reclaimable, if we could use it to describe books without shame, but we ran out of time for questions.  She was much more robust about the notion of Persephone Books as feminist, but exemplifying a non-separatist feminism that includes a space for men - hence the male writers included among Persephone authors.

During questions, Nicola raised the awful prospect of an end to Persephone, and hinted that she might sell the company to the right buyer.  Should there be any millionaires or venture capitalists reading this who'd like to preserve Persephone, I hope they will reflect on the possibility.  If you get a chance to hear Nicola speak, do take it: she is a very interesting and entertaining speaker with lots of things to say.