Thursday, 31 January 2013

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

 I came to this book through a recommendation from Kate Macdonald in her excellent series of podcasts, Why I Really Like This Book.  I'm with Kate on this one - I really like Miss Pym Disposes.  Published in 1946, but clearly taking place in interwar England - the Second World War is never mentioned or hinted at - Tey's novel is a good companion read to Gaudy Night.  Before the novel starts, Lucy Pym has escaped via a timely inheritance from her work as a full-time French teacher; having leisure in which to read and think, she has - much to her own surprise - written a popular and best-selling book on psychology.  Now something of a celebrity, she has been asked by her old school friend Henrietta Hodge to deliver a guest lecture at the Leys Physical Training College, where Henrietta is now Principal.  Lucy at first finds the environment of the College intolerable - the first bell of the day rings at half-past-five, and the food is revolting - but as she gets to know the students she is rather seduced by the Leys and the opportunity it gives her to spend time with the young.  It is the end of the academic year, and the students are tense under the pressure of examinations and the annual Demonstration of their gymnastic prowess; the graduating students are also anxious about getting a job.

Henrietta, as headmistress, allocates her students as she sees fit when the Leys is asked to fill a vacancy; the drama of the novel revolves around her choice to give a plum job, teacher at a prestigious girls' school, to Barbara Rouse rather than Mary Innes.  Barbara Rouse is a brilliant athlete but no scholar; Mary, with her intriguing face, the sort of face "around which history was built", is that tiresome thing, a high-achieving all-rounder.  Everyone at the Leys thinks that Mary should have been given this job - except Henrietta, who obstinately insists it will go to Rouse (the students are habitually known by surnames in the novel).  This decision causes an initial row and an eventual tragedy, and Miss Pym finds herself with knowledge that might change many lives.

The title comes from a quote from Thomas a Kempis, "Man proposes, but God disposes".  Miss Pym has several opportunities - all of them unwelcome to her - during the novel to acquire information and to choose whether and how to use it - in short, to take upon herself the responsibility for disposal.  Will she - because of or despite her knowledge of human psychology - get it right?

The atmosphere of the Leys is both appallingly healthy - all the girls and most of the staff are fit and well-nourished - and emotionally strained.  The Anglo-Brazilian student Teresa Desterro, known in the College as the Nut Tart because of her origins and her glamorous clothes, tells Miss Pym that "you cannot expect them to be normal", that the stress of the final term sends all the girls somewhat insane.  Sometimes this can be a little sinister: when the girls hear that Miss Pym is going to stay on for a few days, she hears a chorus of voices through her bedroom window: "Miss Pym, we are so glad that you are staying [...] Yes, Miss Pym.  We are glad.  Glad.  Miss Pym.  Yes.  Yes.  Glad, Miss Pym".  No wonder she then hears an inner voice suggesting she get away from the Leys by the first available train.  In a novel of this period set in an all-female establishment, it's impossible not to wonder if lesbianism is implicit, and indeed powerful affections between women are an important part of the plot, but Tey approaches this so subtly that I'm still not quite sure what she was really implying, and her implications are mediated through Miss Pym, who may have her own reasons for further obscuring the meaning.

This is an artful, fascinating little book that resonated with me for a long time after I finished it, and I quite want to read it again now to see how it was done.  The book is full of charming and interesting characters and Lucy Pym is not the least of these; she is a long way from the starchy spinster the title might lead you to expect.  When her hand is kissed by a famous actor, "somebody behind tittered, but Lucy liked having her hand kissed.  What was the good of putting rose-water and glycerine on every night if you didn't have a little return now and then?" The Nut Tart herself is a joyful and exuberant character, and the sub-plot involving the famous actor shows Miss Pym off to good effect.

The narrative is witty and combines light and dark to great effect.  This was my first Tey and I see there are lots of others (and a series of books in which she appears as a detective) so I have plenty more to enjoy.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

Greenbanks the novel is the story of the Ashton family of Greenbanks the house, a stone house of "no particular style or period" in the fictional Lancashire town of Elton.  We're plunged into full family life in the opening chapter, joining the Ashtons for Christmas dinner a year or two before the outbreak of the First World War.  Robert Ashton is the handsome head of the family, still an enigma to his wife Louisa; their grown-up children and grandchildren surround them.    The family's prosperity comes from the timber trade, and the overall picture is of solid, middle-class Edwardian comfort and ease.

Dorothy Whipple's narrative is episodic, perspective shifting between family members, and it shows how social change and family drama gradually erode that comfort.  Indeed, some of that comfort has been dearly bought: Robert Ashton is a committed philanderer and has brought his wife Louisa shame and humiliation, although she is no longer bitter about this, preferring to take pleasure in her children.  Death and war will bring change and conflict to the family, and there will be further disruption as the women of the family start to reject their husband's expectations and do more with their lives.  There's no real polemic here, however; Dorothy Whipple simply allows the family stories to develop, exposing the love and the resentment that often co-exists between relatives.

Louisa is the central focus of the narrative, but not quite the unchanging point in a changing world; she is capable both of weathering change and initiating it herself, and of disrupting convention in her own way, as when she takes a notorious local "fallen woman", Kate Barlow, to be her companion once all the children have left home.  Louisa loves Kate, but Kate does not really want her love or her pity, and Louisa's well-intentioned act does not end as she might have expected.  Louisa also loves Charles, her rather useless but charming son, and Rachel her granddaughter.  Rachel is the child of the century, living through the First World War as a schoolgirl and entering the 1920s eager for the new opportunities open to women.  I found Louisa and Rachel's mutually affectionate, uncomplicated relationship very moving, and Whipple signals their easy understanding from the first chapter, when little Rachel is enjoying her Christmas dinner:

She considered her grandmother, then removed the spoon from her mouth and, in spite of potatoes and gravy, smiled widely.  Louisa bent her head and smiled back.  moth wrinkled their noses slightly as if to say: 'Isn't all this nice?'
There is a lot of lightly ironic humour throughout the novel, especially at the expense of stolid, pompous Ambrose, Rachel's father, who "always had a great deal to see to", is given second-best cigars by his father-in-law, and is silently resented by his wife Letty, who persistently wonders why she doesn't like housekeeping.  Louisa also has a comic turn of phrase: Charles at the piano has, she considers, hands "as stiff and inadequate as a couple of pork chops".   Rachel's naive and enthusiastic interactions with the world are also often gently comic.  But sad and even tragic things also happen; Dorothy Whipple's flat, almost toneless style allows the narrative to express both humour and sorrow without awkward changes of gear.  The characters are treated with even-handedness: Charles is ineffective but loveable and eventually heroic; Ambrose becomes a high-handed Victorian father, forbidding Rachel from taking up an Oxford scholarship, but is an object of pity at the end of the book. 

With High Wages, this is the Whipple I've enjoyed the most, for its episodic style and its gentle interest in the lives of women throughout this fascinating historical period.  There are affinities, I think, with E.H. Young's William and Lettice Cooper's The New House, especially in terms of intergenerational relationships and the provincial setting.  The Persephone edition is, of course, beautiful and has a fascinating Afterword by Charles Lock.

Book Snob has written an enthusiastic review of Greenbanks; Lyn at I Prefer Reading wasn't so sure.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

I'm a bit of a Sayers novice, having only got around to reading Whose Body? last year.  Gaudy Night fits in with the theme of my current PhD chapter, so I had an excuse to finally read it.  This is one of those books that I've read a lot about, as it crops up frequently in critical works, so much so that I was well aware of whodunnit before I opened the book.

Gaudy Night starts with Harriet Vane's visit to her old Oxford college, the fictional Shrewsbury College, which is holding the titular Gaudy, a reunion dinner for former students.  Harriet has, somewhat unwillingly, agreed to go to meet an old friend she hasn't seen for many years.  Harriet's enjoyment of the Gaudy is mixed; the old friend proves bland and disappointing, but she is pleased to renew her acquaintance among some of the dons.  Harriet has a certain notoriety about her; she is a writer of crime novels and she has been previously implicated in a murder case.  Both of these matters bring some unwelcome attention and involve her more deeply in Shrewsbury affairs.

It emerges that unpleasant practical jokes are being played on the inhabitants of Shrewsbury.  Harriet herself received an anonymous note during the Gaudy, and found an obscene drawing blowing about in the quad.  Summoned by the Dean of the College, Harriet finds that the anonymous letter-writer has been busy at Shrewsbury and now proofs of a new book have been muddled and damaged beyond use.  The Dean is unwilling to call in the police, but perhaps Harriet can help.  She returns to Oxford on the pretext of doing some academic work, and begins to investigate.  Off-stage for much of the novel, Lord Peter Wimsey nevertheless makes his presence felt; Harriet's thoughts are caught up by his reiterated proposals of marriage.  He also appears occasionally to help Harriet and charm the women of Shrewsbury.

The theme of this book is really the question, what should women do with their lives?  Should they marry, work or both?  If they work, what work is suitable?  Is being a wife really a job in itself?  Harriet is caught between these choices, drawn to the academic life but pulled back again by the idea of marriage to Peter.  It is this theme that both drives the plot and Harriet's emotional journey.  Sayers has a good look round it, with voices raised in support of women's work in general and women's scholarship in particular, but also antagonism towards the working woman and especially the working mother clearly on display from some characters.

Compared to Whose Body?, this book is vastly more sophisticated in terms of structure and style; the characters are more developed and there is much less comedy, although I think Sayers must have been quite keen on the farcical crime scene; Peter's nephew Lord Saint-George also provides a touch of humour, as does the undergraduate who falls in love with Harriet.   The plot evolves fairly slowly (a previous reader of my library copy has written "STILL NO CRIME" on page 39) but the book is very absorbing even when you do know how it turns out.  Now I plan to read Strong Poison and get the first part of Harriet Vane's story ...

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

A Diary without Dates by Enid Bagnold

This little book is an episodic, fragmentary account of Enid Bagnold's work as a VAD nurse during the First World War.  Based at a hospital somewhere on the outskirts of London, she tries to soothe and cheer the patients, sees her talents for bandaging and splinting improve, chafes under the authority of the professional nurses, and listens to the stories of the men under her care.

Her hospital is a separate, calm, quiet place, with dimly lit corridors and wards, a place of retreat for healing, recovery and sometimes death. She describes her patients, their often hideous injuries, without flinching but with compassion; she is sharply critical of the lack of pain relief that is given to them, especially to those who will soon die.  The men under her care sometimes talk about the war, but more often talk of their lives away from the war: jobs, sweethearts, families.  The men appear briefly, tell their names and a little bit of their story, and then fade away, but Enid seeks out their brief variety:

Watchmakers, jewellers, station-masters, dress-designers, actors, travellers in underwear, bank clerks ... they come here in uniforms and we put them into pyjamas and nurse them; and they lie in bed or hobble about the ward, watching us as we move, accepting each other with the unquestioning faith of children.
Enid, of course, has also been plucked out of her natural sphere, covered up by a uniform and set down in a hospital, managed by women not of her own class.  There are elements of comedy in Enid's account of her relations with a managing Sister who does not much care for her, and in Enid's frequently-expressed sense of her self as rather ridiculous:

I lay in my own bath last night and thought very deep thoughts, but often when we think our thoughts are deep they are only vague.  Bath thoughts are wonderful, but there's nothing 'to' them.

The narrative, such as it is, deals with Enid's own attitude to the war and its effects, and her views are complicated.  She has great compassion and sympathy for her patients, and likes to talk to them, but she has no time for those who would bring the war to a premature end and by the end of the book she asserts that "every sort of price must be paid" so that the war may be won.  But at the same time she recognises that the army is training more men "to fill just such another hospital as ours".  Her book makes no attempt to reconcile her understanding of the futility of war with her belief that this war must be fought and won.  These contradictions are part of the "divine astonishment" that she can now only feel occasionally; otherwise there is no astonishment, only acceptance of the contradictory emotions and thoughts of wartime.

This book is almost the opposite of Testament of Youth, not only in terms of Enid's thoughts on the war but in terms of length - my copy is 125 pages long - and style, which is fragmented and impressionistic rather than detailed and realistic.  Lovers of Testament of Youth will, however, find much of interest here, as will anyone interested in women's experience of the Great War.  This seems to be out of print, although there are print-on-demand copies available and the Virago edition (which has a sympathetic introduction by Monica Dickens) is available second-hand; you can also read it online at Project Gutenberg.  

Book Snob's review tells us a bit more about Bagnold and the consequences of her writing this book; reviews have also been written by Fleur Fisher, Geranium Cat, and Just One More Page who shares my astonishment that patients were allowed to smoke as much as they wanted - a full ashtray is a sort of achievement.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

2012 reading challenge

I'm sure you're on tenterhooks about my reading challenge. I read 25 of the 50 books I hoped to read, discarded a couple because I discovered there were good reasons that I hadn't read them, and found that another couple of books were more reference titles than books to sit down and read from cover to cover.  

Of the ones I did read, there were a few undiscovered gems, some that went straight on the Oxfam pile, but a lot of generally enjoyable reading ensued from the challenge.  However, I haven't really reduced the proportion of unread books in my library, thanks mainly to a bumper year for book tokens, something I find very difficult to complain about.  I have got more into the habit of returning charity shop finds to the charity shop they came from, especially for crime and modern fiction.  Possibly having 10% of your books unread is a healthy proportion, a useful resource to draw on should funds dry up or libraries close.  Possibly I'm just better at acquiring books I want to read than I am at actually reading them. 

There are a few blog posts to come about the books I did read, but there will be no 2013 reading challenge as 2013's big challenge is to finish writing my PhD thesis.   A very happy new year to anyone reading this, and best of luck with any challenges you may meet in 2013.