Sunday, 18 March 2012

Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay

I'm not that familiar with Rose Macaulay's work, having only read The Towers of Trebizond which I enjoyed enough to re-read a couple of times.  Dangerous Ages, first published in 1921, is very different to that book both in theme and in style.  The dangerous ages concerned are all the possible ages of woman, as experienced in one English family during the summer of 1920.  Neville Bendish celebrates her forty-third birthday in the opening chapter; Neville is married to Rodney, a Labour MP, and has two fairly grown-up children, Gerda and Kay.  Neville has two sisters: Pamela, a social worker who lives in London with a woman friend; and Nan, the youngest, who works as a writer.  Their mother, Mrs Hilary, is sixty-three and very bored and fretful; she lives in a seaside town with her mother, in her eighties and always known as Grandmamma in the text.  Gerda, Nan, Neville and Mrs Hilary will all go through forms of crisis during the novel, while Pamela and Grandmamma seem to have the secret of enjoying life without despairing over it.

Neville's crisis is over her need for work.  She was a promising medical student when she married, and determines to return to her studies, desperate to avoid becoming like Mrs Hilary.  Her family are generally discouraging and assume she won't be able to do it; there are lots of portentous comments about the inability of a woman in her forties to do serious "brain-work".  I'm even older than Neville, and frankly I found this discouraging.  Family circumstances, as well as her decrepit brain, scupper Neville's plans, but the novel ends with a glimmer of hope for her.  Most of the women in the novel, even old-fashioned Grandmamma, are keen on the idea of work (paid or otherwise) as a means to promote energy and interest in life; Mrs Hilary's tragedy is that she feels the need of this, but has not the intellect or the drive to achieve it, and sinks into ennui while criticising her daughters for dissipating themselves in social work or literary endeavour.   She hopes for rescue through psychoanalysis, an expensive form of attention-seeking at a guinea a session.  Nan, a successful writer,  and the ingenue Gerda have a shared crisis over the rather unlikely love object Barry Briscoe, energetic administrator of the Workers' Educational Association; this crisis provokes another, as Nan flees to Rome and the attentions of a married, consumptive artist, and her mother seeks to repair the damage.

Rose Macaulay's narrative tone through the novel is archly humorous, mocking her characters when they deserve it, and shining a light on their petty egotisms and vanities.  Sometimes this goes a bit far; her handling of Gerda, who writes awful poetry (we get to read a little of it) and is firmly committed to a set of fashionable principles, was not unlike an upper-middle-class version of Cold Comfort Farm's Elfine.  I wasn't sure if Gerda was really supposed to be that ridiculous.  Compared to The Towers of Trebizond, the novel is considerably more detached and ironic, although that may be because of the third-person narration, and the mostly English setting gives fewer opportunities for quirky comedy.  The satire of Mrs Hilary's psychoanalysis is, however, extremely funny, as is Nan's hazardous challenge to Gerda's love for Barry.  There is a lot more detail in the text than I've been able to do justice to here, as Macaulay lets her satirical eye rest on the tastes and choices of four generations of women.

Great War Fiction reviews this novel favourably, as does Frisbee: A Book Journal.  Unfortunately, the book is out of print, but it is available online at Project Gutenberg.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Do Shrimps Make Good Mothers?

Delafield fans will remember the Provincial Lady asking herself this odd question, and I came across another reference to it yesterday in Winifred Holtby's Women and a Changing Civilisation and was finally inspired to look it up.  "Do Shrimps Make Good Mothers?" turns out to be the title of a comic song that was popular in the 1920s.  Here are the Two Gilberts (neither, apparently, actually called Gilbert) singing it, from 1924:

As you'll hear, the answer to the question is an emphatic "Yes, they do".

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

An expansive, exhilarating history of walking, Rebecca Solnit's book encompasses walking as transport, as pastime, as pilgrimage and as protest.  She moves between her own experience of walking, theories of the evolution of walking and philosophies of walking, stopping off to look at the key thinkers and writers who have shaped our understanding of this everyday activity.  Inevitably, a history of walking also becomes a history of the places we walk, and the people who did (and didn't) walk there.

The breadth and depth of her research is remarkable and she pays close, critical attention to the theories she reviews, drawing out some of the ironies of trying to think about walking as well as presenting her own theories of the symbolism of walking.  She describes artists who have used walking to form their works, as well as writers who have relied upon walking to drive their literary endeavours, with a whole chapter devoted to The Legs of William Wordsworth.  Walking in streets, parks, gardens and the wider countryside are all considered.  Walking can seem elemental and free, but has of course been as much constrained as any type of activity; Solnit tells the story of the struggle for access to the countryside and the struggle to preserve urban environments that can be walked.  She also links the act of walking very strongly to the notion of narrative, and to the narrative of human history in particular: "Part of what makes roads, trails and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once by a sedentary onlooker.  They unfold in time as one travels along them, just as a story does as one listens and reads, and a hairpin turn is like a plot twist [...] Roads are  a record of those who have gone before, and to follow them is to follow people who are no longer there."

This notion connects walking intimately to the idea of creativity, and the book reiterates its insistence on the psychological value of walking as a means of producing contentment, understanding, creative energy and new ideas.  "Musing" she writes, "takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination, a part of the imagination that has not yet been ploughed, developed or put to any immediately practical use.  Environmentalists are always arguing that those butterflies, those grasslands, those watershed woodlands, have an utterly necessary function in the grand scheme of things, even if they don't produce a market crop.  The same is true of the meadowlands of the imagination; time spent there is not work time, yet without that time the mind becomes sterile, dull, domesticated.  The fight for free space - for wilderness and for public space - must be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend wandering in that space." Solnit does not over-stress her argument, but her passing references to unwalkable places - towns that have no pavements or no road crossings, or places that have lost their walkers and are perceived as dangerous as a result - show us the consequences of marginalising such a fundamental activity.

Solnit's prose is elegant and her arguments compelling.  I enjoyed this book hugely, and found I was quite envious of her for having written it, for being able to combine a pleasurable activity with a fascinating research process.  Any admirers of Roger Deakin or Robert MacFarlane's books on similar themes will get a lot out of this book.  Solnit has written several other books which I look forward to exploring.