Saturday, 28 January 2012

Loving by Henry Green

It's Henry Green Week in literary blogworld, prompted by winstonsdad, and my choice from Green's nine novels is Loving, a 1945 novel set in an Irish country house during the Second World War.  Like most Irish country houses at that time it is owned by an English family, the Tennants, and mainly staffed by English servants.  Only widowed Mrs Tennant, her daughter-in-law Violet and Violet's two little girls are in residence, since Violet's husband Jack is serving in the British forces.  This little family requires a small army of servants to care for them and the house, and the narrative shows us much more of downstairs life, the adult Tennants being in England for a good stretch of the text.  At the start of the novel the butler, Mr Eldon, dies; his place is taken by the footman Raunce, much to the disgust of the housekeeper Miss Burch.  Housemaid Edith is not so repelled by Raunce, however, and the novel traces the development of their relationship through the tensions and anxieties of wartime life.  If you are being reminded of Downton Abbey at this point you are not alone, but don't let that put you off.

Tensions run high at the house; there are fears of German invasion, fears of the IRA, and many of the servants struggle with the guilt of having evaded war service in England.  Raunce is disliked by many of the servants; Kate, another maid, is jealous of her friend Edith's closeness to him, and Albert the pantry boy suffers both from unrequited love for Edith and from serving under Raunce.  The cook's nephew, another Albert, who comes to stay as an evacuee, is a powerfully disruptive force.  A valuable ring goes missing just before the Tennants leave for England; the combination of this loss with the prevailing wartime tensions creates an atmosphere of intense paranoia.  This is brilliantly evoked in Green's unique narrative style.

Green apparently disliked being called a modernist, but I'm not sure how else I would describe his prose.  There is no internal monologue; we only very occasionally hear a character's thoughts; and the narrative voice is flat, never commenting on how characters say or do things, simply describing plainly what they say and do.  Winstonsdad quotes James Woods on Green, showing how this was a deliberate strategy:

Green was obsessively concerned with the elimination of vulgar spoors of presence whereby authors communicate themselves to readers : he never internalized his characters thoughts hardly ever explained a characters motive ,and avoids the authorial adverb, which so often helpfully flags a character’s emotion to the reader (“she said grandiloquent” ). Green argued that dialogue is the best way to communicate with one’s reader and that nothing kills “life ” so much as explanation”.

As the reader, you are set down in the middle of dialogues or situations that you may not fully understand, where speech alludes to something you cannot know. The novel builds up layers of allusive meaning that you must interpret, driving the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps and colour the narrative with detail.  For me, this made the novel a compelling and satisfying read.  Green's prose might be flat but it is also frequently beautiful.  I particularly enjoyed the description of Albert the pantry boy playing blind man's buff:

Then it was his turn.  There was only Edith tall enough to tie him and as 'I love you I love you' was knotted over his eyes he quietly drew a great breath perhaps to find out if Edith had left anything on this piece of stuff.  He drew and drew again cautious as if he might be after a deep draught of her, of her skin, of herself.  He was puffed already when his arms went out to go round and round and round her.  But she was not there and for answer he had a storm of giggles which he could not tell one from another and which went ricocheting from stone cold bosoms to damp streaming marble bellies, to and from huge oyster niches in the walls in which boys fought giant boas or idled with a flute, and which volleyed under green skylights empty in the ceiling.  He went slow.  He could hear feet slither.  Then he turned in a flash.  He had Edith.  He stood awkward one hand on her stomach the other on the small of her back.

Blind man's buff is a fairly good metaphor for the position of the reader in this text, unable to see, needing to pay attention and interpret confusing sounds and actions.  The setting for this scene, a mock Greek temple, also brings out another aspect of Green's writing; throughout the novel I had the sense that there was a symbolic meaning to most of what I was reading, although like Albert I'm not sure that I grasped the half of it.  

Karyn at A Penguin a Week has also reviewed Loving.  Six of Henry Green's novels are still in print, in two compendium volumes published by Vintage.  I have Living and Party Going still to enjoy.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair

This 1919 novel is a strongly autobiographical Bildungsroman that takes Sinclair's heroine from rural Essex in the 1860s, the youngest child of middle-class parents, to middle age in Edwardian Yorkshire.  On the way she will live through the difficulties of getting an education, the possibilities of marriage, and above all the demands and complexities of family life.  Mary has three older brothers and her mother has hoped for a dutiful daughter, encouraging her from the early pages of the text to give up her own will.  But Mary is never entirely convinced that God really wants her to give up her will, and begins to speculate that it is more her mother's idea.  Despite her tendency towards autonomy, Mary is never entirely able to separate herself from her mother; they live on together through Mamma's widowhood, loving and hating each other in fairly equal measure.  But Mary, in her way, succeeds in preserving her own sense of self, and the novel closes on a personal, triumphant epiphany.

There is a lot to enjoy here.  There is the character of Mary herself, who turns from an engaging child to an engaged woman, and is never less than interesting, with her individual view of the world and her strong sense of beauty; there is a whole range of other fascinating characters, some who appear only briefly but still make their mark; there is the impact of philosophy and psychology, particularly Freud, on the text; and there is May Sinclair's prose.  The novel is structured episodically, in short sub-chapters that tell of key events in Mary's life and sometimes of dull, insignificant days.  Sometimes years pass in a few pages; other periods of time are expanded and considered in minute detail.  The narrative switches between Mary's first person interior monologue, another interior voice which uses the second person, and a third person narrator who is nonetheless narrating from Mary's point of view.  May Sinclair is known for her early engagement with modernism, both as critic and as artist, and the evidence of this is clear in this novel.  But she is not simply dabbling; her techniques are effective and sustained.

As Jean Radford points out in her introduction to the Virago edition, the novel is a bit long, possibly due to autobiographical fidelity, and some of the Freudian references seem a bit obvious to the modern reader.  While I'm not sure if the way Mary resolves her difficulties with life is a way I would choose myself, she remains for me an entirely believable and rather admirable character.  This is partly due to the remarkable number of difficulties that she has to face through her forty-five years, difficulties which often make the book rather sad reading.  Mary's story does provoke both pity and anger, particularly as the narrative reveals how much she has been betrayed by those who claim to love her.  However, the ending is redemptive for Mary, and left me with a sense of hope about the second half of her life. 

The Virago edition of this book is still in print and still has the same lovely George Clausen painting on the cover; there are also secondhand copies easily available.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

This collection, aside from the title story which takes us back to Howling before Flora Poste tidied up the unruly Starkadders, is rooted in the middle-class world of 1930s England.  Spinsters retire to country cottages, bohemian types are satirised, fey girls find suitable husbands, and intergenerational tensions simmer in suburbia.  This might be to do with the magazines that first carried these stories; The Lady, Good Housekeeping and Bystander were not - and are not in the case of the first two - known for their social radicalism.  Although the volume first appeared in 1940 there is no reference to the war, nor any intimation of it; I wonder if the book had a nostalgic appeal for those readers who opened it on publication.

There are two Christmas stories here: as well as the hilarious return to Cold Comfort, in "The Little Christmas Tree" novelist Rhoda Harting's first Christmas in her country cottage is interrupted and then taken over by some children who spin her a yarn about their wicked stepmother.  Stella Gibbons is rather good at awful but somehow charming children. I also enjoyed "Golden Vanity", in which a dreamy library assistant discovers that her favourite author, handsome Geoffrey Whithorne, is really a middle-aged woman called Alice Little, not least for its echoes of Secret Lives.  The stories have excellent shape and structure, and if the narrative voice is sometimes a little archly superior, it is never without humour.

However, I was slightly disturbed by the story called "Cake", in which modern career girl Jenny meets ageing militant suffragette Maud Allworton, and is inspired by her to take back her slightly drunk and adulterous husband so that they can have children.  I've read it twice now to try to work out what is going on.  The narrative point of view switches between Jenny's own, which shifts from complacently judgemental through utter self-doubt into hectic resolution through the story, and the omniscient narrator who is wearing an audible frown.   The narrator disapproves of Jenny, who initially cares only for money and self-advancement; Jenny and the narrator both disapprove of Miss Allworton, who gave up the chance of marriage for the suffragette cause.  Jenny is sarcastic about the gains made for women by the suffragettes, thinking them "such fools", but the suffragette's life story precipitates her rush to Victoria Station to take back her husband before it is too late.  She gets him back, but he rewards her change of heart by slapping her face - which she acknowledges she deserves.  This seems to me to be more than the small c-conservatism that Nicolas Lezard noted in his review of the book.  However, Jenny's nascent friendship with Miss Allworton, a mutual liking that transcends the prejudices of both women, warms what could be a chilly, depressing tale.  The ironic tone and ironic evolution of the characters make this story puzzling even when I find elements of it distasteful.  The title comes from Jenny's belief that 1930s women can have their cake and eat it too; unhappiness like Miss Allworton's comes from inefficient cake-management.

This seems to be a general problem I'm having with Stella Gibbons - the writing might be beautiful, the story well-crafted, and the jokes good, but there always seem to be things that make me wince studded through her work, like finding a bit of nutshell in a mouthful of well-managed cake.  For some alternative views, here are Desperate Reader and I Prefer Reading on the same book.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Secret Lives by E.F. Benson

This 1932 comedy of manners is set in Durham Square, a respectable if not yet fashionable London address populated with exactly the sort of people you might expect to find in an E.F. Benson novel.  Chief among these is Mrs Mantrip, who owns most of the freeholds in the square; her clergyman father, with reformist zeal and deep pockets, bought up the property in order to evict the prostitutes who were lowering the local moral tone.  Her neighbours (who are often also her tenants) include Elizabeth Conklin, who breeds Pekinese dogs; playful Jimmie Mason, with his extravagant musical parties and exotic guests; and lately Miss Susan Leg, who has furnished her house extravagantly and is irritating the Square with her love of writing to the accompaniment of very loud gramophone music.  The source of Susan's apparently vast income, like her social origins, is obscure.  Mrs Mantrip is the highbrow social arbiter of Durham Square but she nurtures a secret passion for the decidedly lowbrow works of Rudolph da Vinci which feature kidnappings, swarthy foreigners and an unusually large amount of flagellation.  Through a complicated dance of pseudonyms, impersonations and revelations, Rudolph's true identity will eventually be revealed.

Besides this main narrative runs a series of sub-plots extracting the maximum humour from the Square's residents, their snobberies, allegiances, quarrels and reconciliations.  Benson has a lot of fun with a campaign to enforce the rule against walking dogs in the Square's private gardens, as the opposing sides canvass opinion, co-opt supporters, and rig ballots, as well as depicting a vast number of dogs, some of which are made of wood and have wheels.  The Square has its fair share of quirky eccentrics: there is Mr Gandish with his overwhelming enthusiasm for badminton, Lady Eva who can see a halo around the head of any person, and read their character accordingly, and the Vicar who is devoted to yoga and theories of reincarnation.   All this will be familiar to readers of the Mapp and Lucia books; if this book doesn't reach the comic heights of those works, it is still very funny, and it also reaches beyond the upper-middle-class householders, bringing in Susan's admirable butler Bosanquet and her erstwhile colleague Minnie Mimps as players in the comedy.  Benson is particularly good at showing how forgiveness of slights and offences is much easier when it is socially expedient, because a neighbour has influence or just a very good cook.

Most interesting to me is the way Benson deals with lowbrow writing in a comic middlebrow text. His depiction of the self-important MP and literary critic Arthur Armstrong, who denounces Rudolph da Vinci's Rosemary and Rue in the strongest terms, suggesting it should be "annihilated", and is rewarded with a satirical portrait in Rudolph's next novel, is both funny and ironic, pointing out the hollowness at the centre of Armstrong's loudly-voiced opinions.  Rudolph's publisher reflects sadly that it would never do if his author "began to long for the appreciation of educated people, and in the effort to attain it might seriously imperil the gusto with which [he] wrote".  Even the lowbrow writer, Benson suggests, hopes for critical endorsement, although critical censure proves to be much better for sales.  By the end of the novel Mrs Mantrip's secret shame about her reading preferences is no longer, and she is able to speak frankly about her love for the works of Mr da Vinci, and remove the little curtain that has kept them out of sight in her library.

This book seems to be out of print although copies of the Hogarth Press paperback are available secondhand.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

2012 Reading Challenge

A happy new year to anyone reading this.  New Year's Day has turned my thoughts to good resolutions.

While adding my Christmas book bounty to LibraryThing, I've been made forcibly aware of the number of unread books in my collection.  There are 138 of them in a library of just under 1100 books - so about 13% of my books have yet to be read.   I've selected 50 of these titles to read during 2012.  Some of them are relevant to my PhD studies; some of them are linked to holidays I hope to take during 2012, in Venice and Suffolk; others are just things I thought it was really time I read.  I've included a few novels by male writers, definitely a neglected category in my reading.

The other side of this challenge, of course, is to acquire fewer books during 2012 so that the percentage definitely goes down as a result of my efforts, and to Make Better Use of the several libraries at my disposal.  We'll see how that goes.

There's a widget showing a random selection of the chosen 50 on the right, and I'll post quarterly updates, but here is the full list:

Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth
Julian Barnes, Arthur and George
Deirdre Beddoe, Discovering Women's History: A Practical Manual
Adrian Bell, Corduroy
E.F. Benson, Secret Lives
Edward Frederic Benson, The Oakleyites
Ronald Blythe, Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village
Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day
Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September
Patricia Fortini Brown, Art and Life in Renaissance Venice
A. S. Byatt, Ragnarok: the End of the Gods
A.S. Byatt, The Biographer’s Tale
Patricia Craig, Elizabeth Bowen
Denis Diderot, The Nun
U.A. Fanthorpe, Selected Poems
Joanna Field, A Life of One’s Own
Tibor Fischer, The Collector Collector
H.W. Freeman, Joseph and His Brethren
Stella Gibbons, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm
Stella Gibbons, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm
Stella Gibbons, Westwood
Sandra M. Gilbert & Susan Gubar, No Man's Land v.1: The War of the Words
Sandra M. Gilbert & Susan Gubar, No Man's Land v.2: Sexchanges
Sandra M. Gilbert, & Susan Gubar, No Man's Land v.3 : Letters from the Front
Henry Green, Loving; Living; Party Going
Radclyffe Hall, Adam's Breed
Barbara Hardy, London Rivers
Gerry Holloway, Women and Work in Britain since 1840
Sheila Kaye-Smith, Susan Spray
Molly Keane, Young Entry
Madame de Lafayatte, The Princesse de Clèves 
Beatrix Lehmann, Rumour of Heaven
Penelope Lively, City of the Mind
Margaret Llewellyn (ed), Life as We Have Known It
Michael Longley, Snow Water
Rose Macaulay, Keeping Up Appearances
Keith Miller, St Peter's
John Julius Norwich, A History of Venice
V.S. Pritchett, The Essential Pritchett: Selected Writings of V S Pritchett
Angelique Richardson (ed), Women Who Did: Stories by Men and Women, 1890-1914
E. Arnot Robertson, Cullum
Joan Shelly Rubin, Middlebrow Moderns: Popular American Women Writers of the 1920s
Robin Skelton (ed), Poetry of the Thirties
Liz Stanley, Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison
Andrea Weiss, Paris Was a Woman: Portraits from the Left Bank
Dorothy Whipple, Greenbanks
Evelyne White, Winifred Holtby as I Knew Her
Leonard Woolf, Autobiography: Volume 1
Leonard Woolf, The Village in the Jungle
E.H. Young, The Vicar's Daughter