I hate housework! You make the beds, you do the dishes and six months later you have to start all over again. (Joan Rivers)

I mentioned in my last post that the end of last year had been a total wash-out blogging-wise, as I lived in total chaos. In honour of that time, I thought I’d look at two books (both lovely Persephones) concerned with domestic order. I should out myself from the start as being most definitely of the Joan Rivers school of housekeeping. If only I could do it with this much aplomb:

Firstly, The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1924) which is Persephone No.7. I had hoped to join in with December’s Literary Wives reading of this but it wasn’t to be. You can read more about the Literary Wives group and what they made of The Home-Maker on Naomi’s blog.

I found the start of this book a tough read and I wasn’t sure I could keep going. Eva is a mother to three children and she is abusive, although she doesn’t beat them, she doesn’t starve them, she doesn’t neglect them:

“Her heart swelled with an angry sense of how far beyond criticism she was. Come what may she would do her duty to the uttermost.”

But I do think she is abusive. One of my friends with a… shall we say, complex mother, has recently been doing a lot of reading about narcissistic parenting.  I think this is what Fisher is portraying in The Home-Maker. Eva is deeply unhappy; she hates her titular role which women are supposed to accept unquestioningly. This unhappiness expresses itself in a determined perfectionism, and absolutely no interest in who her children are as individuals, only how they appear to others and reflect on her:

 “ ‘Good heavens Henry,’ said his father, laughingly. ‘I never saw anybody in my life who could ask as many questions as you. You wear the life out of me!’

‘He doesn’t bother me with them,’ said his mother, her inflection presenting the statement as a proof of her superior merit.

Henry shrank a little smaller. His father hastened to explain what a tragedy was and what a comedy was.”

She also congratulates herself on never criticising her husband Lester, who also works at a job he hates. Yet he manages not to take out this hatred on his children but be a kind and loving father. Of course, both Lester and the children feel the full force of Eva’s unspoken contempt:

“ ‘Oh, that’s awfully good of you, Evie,’ said Lester, kissing her cheek and feeling another ton of never-to-be-redeemed indebtedness flung on his shoulders. He felt them bend weakly under it like a candle in an overheated room.”

The entire household tiptoes around trying to meet Eva’s needs – which they never will – while she martyrs herself on the altar of housework, believing that she is sacrificing it all and making sure everyone knows it. They are all unhappy, and this manifests in physical ailments: Lester has indigestion, Eva has weeping eczema, Henry has vague but severe digestive problems, Helen barely speaks and Stephen is generally seen as an uncontrollable tyrant by all who cross his path.

Eva has talents though. She is hugely respected by her Ladies Guild friends for being dynamic, organised, and having impeccable taste. She has little money but a nice home, including a sofa she reupholstered herself:

 “Her children would not have recognised her face as she sat there loving the sofa and the rich fabric on it and thinking gratefully of her friend.”

An unexpected turn of events sees Lester and Eva swop roles. He stays at home and looks after the children, which he loves:

“ ‘I never saw one of my children just living before,’ he meditated. As he lay in bed, a book was usually open before him, but he looked over it at the far more interesting spectacle of his undiscovered little boy.”

Meanwhile Eva goes out to work, which she loves and unlike Lester, is very good at. As Eva became happier and less concerned with rigid perfectionism, my feelings towards her did moderate somewhat. I did feel some sympathy for this woman who had been forced by societal expectation into roles for which she was entirely unsuited:

“There was no sacrifice in the world which she would not joyfully make for her children except to live with them.”

Everyone benefits. All the physical ailments disappear, which Lester still manages to attribute to his wife:

“Wasn’t it all a piece of her bad luck to have had them during that trying period and turn them over to him just as her wonderful cooking and nursing had pulled them through. What a splendid nurse she was!”

And little Stephen’s behaviour completely changes. Fisher has a wonderful way of describing the children’s psychology and emotions, showing deep understanding without being patronising:

“It was as though something that had ached inside him so long that he had almost forgotten about it were melting and running away. He could feel it hurting less and less as the tears fell on his hands. It was as though he were being emptied of that ache.”

The Home-Maker is an extraordinary novel in that it has a lot to say but does so with a remarkably light touch. Fisher challenges gender roles and assumptions via fully realised characters and a simple but effective plot, so it doesn’t feel preachy but still makes its point.

This point is broadened towards the end, showing how gender restrictions are a price paid as part of the materialism that underpins the American Dream:

“That was the real business of life, of course. He had always known it. That was why men who did other things, teachers, or poets, or musicians, or ministers, were so heartily despised by normal people. And as for any man who might try to be a parent…

Why, the fanatic feminists were right, after all. Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, society is really based on a contempt for women’s work in the home.”

Both images from www.persephonebooks.co.uk

Secondly, How to Run Your Home Without Help by Kay Smallshaw (1949) which is Persephone No.62. This isn’t a novel, but a manual for how to manage housework when you’re a middle-class housewife without maids or cleaners because it’s the end of the Second World War and no-one is in domestic service anymore.

“Almost every woman sees herself as a good home-maker. Before marriage she pictures herself in a dream house or flat; a charming hostess, clever housewife and adorable sweetheart all in one.”

Oh dear. None of those descriptors or roles could remotely be applied to me, so it’s a good job I’ve never aspired to any of them 😀

Yet I was really surprised how readable How to Run Your Home Without Help was. I expected to just dip into it and maybe skim a few bits, but I actually ended up reading it through. Although of course I’m not actually going to do any of the activities it outlines because its bloomin’ hard work and I hate housework:

 “That mending! When you’re longing to relax with a book it seems like the last straw, but what man doesn’t expect his wife to take it in her stride? Buttons on shirts, darns to socks, patches to curtains, bed-linen, table-linen, kitchen cloths. They all take their share of time. And, of course, there’s always personal sewing, making over and freshening up.”

The book would get priority with me I’m afraid…

It’s written in a chatty, engaging style, and gives a great insight into just how hard post-war housewives worked. Having just replaced several appliances in my kitchen, I had been moaning at the astronomical cost of it all (and why do they all go kaput at the same time?!) No more! Now I thank the gods of white goods for each and every labour-saving device.

The descriptive writing is balanced out with lists as Smallshaw goes through the different rooms and tasks:

“(a) Brooms, brushes and floor mops.

Long handled hair broom, stiff carpet brush, soft brush, long-handled cornice brush, upholstery whisk, blacklead brushes, silver brush, dusting mop, self-wringing mop, long handled scrubber, scrubbing brush.”

Not only do I not own anything like that number of brushes, I haven’t a clue what half of them are?

Smallshaw shows just how versatile housewives had to be. They had to do all the manual labour of cleaning, be creative decorators and cooks, and manage the household finances.

“If meals are taken in the kitchen, do be realistic and use some of your furnishing money on it, rather than only on the bedrooms or lounge, which don’t get nearly as much use.”

Of course this is a period piece, and so much has changed. Yet while she is promoting traditional roles, in another way Smallshaw is taking a feminist standpoint, even though it wouldn’t have been seen as such. By writing the book she highlights how housework is taken for granted and overlooked; how incredibly hard women worked in the home; how much is drudge when you’d rather be doing something else; what a wide variety of skills are employed; and she takes it all seriously.

“The joy of creative work, exhausting though it can be, is that it enriches the personality. Running a home may seem unspectacular and ordinary, but making a success of it, so that the home is a happy one for all who live in it, is creative work to rank with the best.”

I’ve been lucky enough to have had women of that generation in my life who meant a lot to me and I’d always thought they were formidable. After reading this book I realised I didn’t know the half of it.

To end, when I was thinking of 80s pop songs about housework (!) the one that immediately came to mind was Sheena Easton’s Morning Train. But I’ve always hated that song about a woman whose entire life revolves around waiting for her baby to get home while she does the vacuuming. So I thought I’d post the Not the Nine O’Clock News parody of it instead, but I couldn’t find a clip. Here’s the Gerald the Gorilla skit instead (‘Wild? I was absolutely livid!’ 😀 ):

“There are few pleasures like really burrowing one’s nose into sweet peas.” (Angela Thirkell)

Hello lovely bookish blogosphere and a very Happy New Year to you all! May 2020 bring you lots of reading joy.

I disappeared from the interwebs for the last few months of 2019 because pesky real life got in the way. Work was hectic and I had renovations going on in my tiny flat which although minimal, still somehow involved turning my home into a dusty, dirty assault course for weeks on end and all my books piled up in boxes. Definitely #FirstWorldProblems and I’m not complaining, but it did put paid to my blogging, and catching up with all your blogs.

Now my books are back on brand new shelves (grand total of sacks cleared out to the charity shop: 22! Effect on my bookshelves: none whatsoever!) and my computer isn’t under a layer of filth I’m looking forward to posting again and reading all your wonderful words.

While all this was going on I found it hard to read anything too demanding or stressful. This was not the time for reality, especially with the election being part of that reality ☹ I needed escapism. I needed rescuing. And rescued I was, by a woman who died in 1961.

Angela Thirkell was born into privileged circumstances (as can be guessed from the portrait) and was connected to lots of famous types including pre-Raphaelite painters, Kipling, JM Barrie and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Her life wasn’t all roses though, and I think her novels set in Trollope’s  fictional Barsetshire are fully intended to be a pleasant distraction rather than any attempt at portraying reality.

In High Rising (1933) widowed writer Laura Morland arrives in the titular village with her brattish son Tony to spend Christmas (they have a London flat for the rest of the year, obvs). What immediately won me over was that Tony was an immensely irritating child and at no point are readers supposed to find him sweet or endearing:

“Laura wondered, as she had often wondered with the three older boys, why one’s offspring are under some kind of compulsion to alienate one’s affections at first sight by their conceit, egoism, and appalling self-satisfaction […] He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more, and, if possible, less interestingly. Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive.”

Tony is awful, but he’s not a bully or spiteful, and he is unintentionally funny. There’s no sentimentality here about motherhood, or widowhood, as the dear departed is described thus:

“Laura’s husband, that ineffectual and unlamented gentleman”

The death of Laura’s husband meant she had to earn a living and she decided to do so by writing sensation novels:

“I thought if I could write some rather good bad books, it would help with the boys’ education.’

‘Good bad books?’

‘Yes. Not very good books, you know, but good of a second-rate kind.”

 I know Angela Thirkell didn’t rate her own writing, so it’s hard not to see that as an autobiographical touch, but I think High Rising is a bit better than that. It’s a funny, warm and affectionate portrayal of the village inhabitants and plotted with the lightest of touches.

Laura has a friend, fellow writer George Knox, who lives in Low Rising with his daughter Sibyl. He has a new secretary, Miss Grey, who is viewed with suspicion by all. More suspicious to me was the fact that George was published, because if he wrote anything like he spoke he’d be absolutely unreadable:

“ ‘My dear, dear Laura,’ he cried, sweeping her into a vast embrace, ‘this is divine. I must kiss you, on both sides of your face, owing to my French blood. I was half asleep upstairs, desiccated in mind, ageing in body, and now you are here and everything lives again.”

Can Laura rescue George, foil Miss Grey, find Sibyl a husband and stop Tony from falling on the railway tracks? What do you think? 😉

Secondly Wild Strawberries (1934) which was given to me by Sarah from Hard Book Habit, who sadly don’t seem to be blogging anymore and are much missed for their funny and insightful reviews – fingers crossed for their return.

I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as High Rising, but I did still find it diverting at a time when I really couldn’t manage anything heavier. Matriarch Lady Emily Leslie is absent-minded in the extreme, causing mild-mannered chaos and disarray wherever she goes.

“At her daughter Agnes’ wedding to Colonel Graham she had for once been on time, but her attempts to rearrange the bridesmaids during the actual ceremony and her insistence on leaving her pew to provide the bridegroom’s mother with an unwanted hymn book had been a spectacular part of the wedding.”

Agnes is now mother to a brood of young children and thank goodness she has nannies and maids because she is flaky in the extreme:

“She now lived in a state of perfectly contented subjection to her adoring husband and children. Her intelligence was bounded by her house and her exquisite needlework, and to any further demands made by life she always murmured ‘I shall ask Robert.’”

The Leslie family live in a country pile “its only outward merit was that it might have been worse than it was” where all the children arrive for the summer – kind John, rakish David, their nephew Martin, a callow youth of 17 who will inherit; and Agnes’ niece Mary who is 23 and enjoying a country summer with relations she hasn’t met.

There is no real plot, except a vague momentum towards Martin’s birthday party. The romantic focus comes from Mary falling for David, who is entirely unsuitable, while a more suitable match remains seemingly out of reach… This is not a novel of subtle characterisation, or complex unpredictable plots. In other words, it was just what I needed and I do recommend it for when you find yourself in a similar predicament.

In recent years, as the overprivileged classes in my country seem so intent on bringing us to ruin with a total disregard of anyone who gets in the way of their acquisition of power, I’ve found it hard to stomach my usual comic reads of Wodehouse and Mitford. I still like both those authors, but I just can’t laugh at daft toffs right now, when they’re so dangerous. I think the reason I could still enjoy Thirkell was that her characters are a bit more concerned with reality, such as the need to earn money (for some of them), and she asks us to laugh primarily at human foibles, who happen to be portrayed amongst the upper classes in this instance, but are by no means exclusive.

However, I should include the warning that there are some repugnant racist views and language expressed in both books which, although short-lived, are really horrible.

To end, I’m starting the year as I mean to go on, with rubbish 80s pop videos. Usually there’s a highly tenuous link to the post and I was going to go with Strawberry Switchblade, but I recently discovered the shocking news that my mother has no memory of this duet, so this is for her. I can only assume Gene had the better agent, because he gets chauffeured about in a snazzy tie and cummerbund combo, while Marc has to hang around by the bins:

“Give me a whisky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” (Anna Christie, (Greta Garbo) 1930)

You may remember, back in the mists of time (14-20 October), the 1930 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Although I took part, I’d hoped to do two posts, but was far too disorganised with the second one. Karen kindly said I could sneak in a late entry, so here it is, very much overdue and very much overlong!

My excuse is I’m having renovations done in my tiny flat and the whole place is in disarray to say the least. It has made me clear out 19 sacks of books to the lovely charity bookshop, but the overall effect on my shelves has been negligible. Which makes me think I should just give in and accumulate books until they take over entirely and smother me. A good way to go in my opinion.

Back to 1930! Do have a look at all the wonderful posts from people who managed to post on time – it turned out to be a great year 😊

Firstly, some cosy crime courtesy of the British Library Crime Classics series, The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton.

The titular village is a pretty place in East Anglia, but somewhat isolated and insular “with that curious half-mistrustful air not uncommon among the natives of East Anglia.” 😀

Strangers are not welcome in High Eldersham, and Samuel Whitehead, retired police officer and local publican, was one such stranger. Still, he seemed to have settled in relatively well right up until the point that someone stabbed him to death. Inspector Young is called in from Scotland Yard and immediately suspects one of the locals:

“He knew from experience that brutal murders, inspired by some entirely inadequate motive, were not uncommon. They were nearly always due to the workings of an unbalanced mind, brooding over some fancied grievance until the lust of blood was awakened. Then the hitherto harmless and peaceful individual became a criminal… He would await his opportunity and deliver the blow. And, the deed once perpetrated, he would return to normal sanity. It was not unlikely that the murder of Whitehead was due to such causes.”

It’s hardly a robust theory. Young is not an idiot though, and he quickly unearths the titular secret, although that doesn’t tell him who murdered the pub landlord, or why. He decides to call on his old friend Desmond Merrion “a living encyclopaedia upon all manner of obscure subjects which the ordinary person knew nothing about.”

And so the professional and amateur detective set about solving the mystery, which to modern readers won’t be much mystery at all – its very clear what’s going on. That’s not a criticism though. I suspect in 1930 it wasn’t quite so obvious, and it doesn’t matter now – the comfort of these plot-driven golden age stories is watching everything play out exactly as it’s supposed to, and I enjoyed following Young and Merrion as they discovered the extent of the dastardly deed.

While it’s not the most sophisticated in terms of plot or characterisation, The Secret of High Eldersham still has enough about it to pull you along. It also doesn’t fall foul of many of the prejudices of GA detective fiction either. Despite the bizarre opinion of East Anglians that I quoted at the beginning, in fact the residents aren’t made too yokely; there’s no racism/anti-Semitism that I can remember; and the loveliness of the female love interest isn’t dwelt upon and she’s actually allowed to have a personality.

Burton doesn’t hang about – there’s very little filler here. He gets on with telling the story and once that’s done, it ends. So, a quick, cosy crime read, perfect autumnal reading as the nights get longer for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

Simon also reviewed TSOHE for the 1930 Club and you can read his review here.

In my last post I looked at EM Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady which included this entry:

August 31st.—Read The Edwardians which everybody else has read months ago—and am delighted and amused. Remember that V. Sackville-West and I once attended dancing classes together at the Albert Hall, many years ago, but feel that if I do mention this, everybody will think I am boasting—which indeed I should be—so better forget about it again, and in any case, dancing never my strongest point, and performance at Albert Hall extremely mediocre and may well be left in oblivion.”

Although I don’t have much in common with the Provincial Lady’s life of ease, like her I enjoyed The Edwardians, which Sackville-West told Virginia Woolf she was writing to ‘make my fortune. Such a joke it will be, and I hope everybody will be seriously annoyed.’

Although she saw it as a joke, its not really a comic novel. It tells the story of Sebastian, heir to the country estate of Chevron, and his sister Violet. Chevron is VSW’s beloved Knole, which she couldn’t inherit due to having ovaries, and which Virginia Woolf also immortalised as the home of Orlando.

The chapters are told from the point of view of different characters, beginning with adventurer Leonard Anquetil, who is not of the same class as the rest but has been invited to Sunday dinner because they think he will be amusing.

“And now the rest of the day must be got through somehow, but the members of the house-party, though surely spoilt by the surfeits of entertainment that life had always offered them, showed no disposition to be bored by each other’s familiar company, and no inclination to vary the programme which they must have followed on innumerable Sunday afternoons since they first emerged from the narrowness of school or schoolroom, to take their place in a world where pleasure fell like a ripened peach for the outstretching of a hand. Leonard Anquetil, watching them from outside, marvelled to see them so easily pleased. Here are a score or more of people, he thought, who by virtue of their position are accustomed to the intimate society of princes, politicians, financiers, wits, beauties, and other makers of history, yet are apparently content with desultory chatter and make-believe occupation throughout the long hours of an idle day. Nor could he pretend to himself that on other days they diverted themselves differently, or that their week-end provided a deserved relaxation from a fuller and more ardent life.”

Through Anquetil, our introduction to the lives of the privileged class is a sceptical one at the least, scathing at most. Yet VSW adored Knole, and through Sebastian’s feelings for Chevron we learn how feelings of home run deep, even when that home is a vast estate populated by many.

“Everybody, from Sebastian downwards, obtained exactly what they wanted; they had only to ask, and the request was fulfilled as though by magic. The house was really as self-contained as a little town; the carpenter’s shop, the painter’s shop, the forge, the sawmill, the hot-houses, were there to provide whatever might be needed at a moment’s notice. So the steward’s room, like the dining-room and the schoolroom, was never without its fruit and delicacies.”

Meeting Anquetil has an enduring effect on both Sebastian and Violet. Sebastian’s conflicted feelings about his class, privilege and the society he operates within are brought more to the fore.

“One half of Sebastian detested his mother’s friends; the other half was allured by their glitter. Sometimes he wanted to gallop away by himself to the world’s ends, sometimes he wanted to give himself up wholly to the flattering charm of pretty women. Sometimes he wished to see his whole acquaintance cast into a furnace, so vehemently did he deprecate them, sometimes he thought that they had mastered the problem of civilisation more truly than the Greeks or Romans. “Since one cannot have truth,” cried Sebastian, struggling into his evening shirt, “let us at least have good manners.” The thought was not original: his father had put it into his head, years ago, before he died. But this brings us to Sebastian’s private trouble: he never could make up his mind on any subject. It was most distressing. He had, apparently, no opinions but only moods,—moods whose sweeping intensity was equalled only by the rapidity of their change.” 

We follow Sebastian as he has affairs, becomes a fashionable man about town, and tries to figure out what he wants. In the background of this is his younger sister Violet, who seems a more determined and clear-sighted individual:

“She felt inclined to say, “Very well, if you want the truth, here it is. The society you live in is composed of people who are both dissolute and prudent. They want to have their fun, and they want to keep their position. They glitter on the surface, but underneath the surface they are stupid—too stupid to recognise their own motives. They know only a limited number of things about themselves: that they need plenty of money, and that they must be seen in the right places, associated with the right people. In spite of their efforts to turn themselves into painted images, they remain human somewhere, and must indulge in love-affairs, which sometimes are artificial, and sometimes inconveniently real. Whatever happens, the world must be served first. In spite of their brilliance, this creed necessarily makes them paltry and mean. Then they are envious, spiteful, and mercenary; arrogant and cold. As for us, their children, they leave us in complete ignorance of life, passing on to us only the ideas they think we should hold, and treat us with the utmost ruthlessness if we fail to conform.””

The plot is slight but I think it’s meant to be – one of VSW’s points is that nothing much happens to these people. I came away with a mixed picture of aristocratic life; on the one hand there is an unflinching portrayal of wasteful, privileged lives, but on the other hand, they are never entirely condemned. I suspect this mirrors VSW’s conflicted feelings on the issue, and it also stops the novel from being too judgemental and bitter.

I didn’t enjoy The Edwardians as much as the other Sackville-Wests I’ve read ( All Passion Spent and Family History) but maybe that’s because I didn’t find Sebastian particularly engaging. I felt Violet was off having a far more interesting time, living in her own flat, hanging out with Bohemians and falling in love. I would have liked to hear more about that, or even some more about their wonderfully bitchy mother. But that’s just personal preference and I do find VSW’s writing to be a great read.

To end, the classic musical Puttin’ on the Ritz was released in 1930. Imagine if you’d never heard that well known ‘reasonably straightforward syncopated 5/4 time signature’, you might struggle with it…

“Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.” (Capt. Spaulding, Animal Crackers (1930))

This is my (incredibly long – apologies!) contribution to the 1930 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s running all week so do join in if you have a chance!

The two novels I’ve chosen are lovely Virago Modern Classics both concerned with the role of women in society, specifically the work that they do, but beyond that they could not be more different. I’ll begin with a scathing indictment of war, before moving on to some light relief via a comic presentation of upper middle-class privilege…

Helen Zenna Smith’s Not So Quiet was written as a response to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, from a female perspective. It is a work of fiction but Smith aims to narrow the gap between fiction and reality by calling the narrator Helen Smith and writing from a first person perspective.

Helen has gone to France to volunteer as an ambulance driver, leaving behind her comfortable middle-class existence, much to the delight of her jingoistic mother. Helen and the other young women she works with share no such illusions, as her friend Tosh points out:

“No Smithy, you’re one of England’s Splendid Daughters, proud to do their bit for the dear old flag, and one of England’s Splendid Daughters you’ll stay, until you crock up or find some other decent excuse to go home covered in glory. It takes nerve to carry on here, but it takes twice as much to go home to flag-crazy mothers and fathers…”

In this short novel Smith documents the experience of war for those not engaged in trench warfare but shockingly, dangerously close to it. Her gaze is unflinching:

“We hate and dread the days following on the guns when they boom without interval. Trainloads of broken human beings: half-mad men pleading to be put out of their misery; torn and bleeding and crazed men pitifully obeying orders like a herd of senseless cattle, dumbly, pitifully straggling in the wrong direction, as senseless as a flock of senseless sheep obeying a senseless leader, herded back into line by the orderly, the kind sheep-dog with a ‘Now then, boys, this way. That’s the ticket, boys’,  instead of a bark; men with faces bleeding through their hasty bandages; men with vacant eyes and mouths hanging foolishly apart dropping saliva and slime; men with minds mercifully gone; men only too sane, eyes horror-filled with blood and pain…”

Not So Quiet is not a plot driven novel as such.  Instead it documents one woman’s experience, and how she is utterly destroyed by it. In addition to the horror of the men used as machine gun fodder, she sees England’s Splendid Daughters live infested with fleas, eating slop, needing illegal abortions and desperately trying to find some reprieve. For a whole generation the war wreaked absolute devastation of land, industry, mind, body and soul.

“We young ones doomed to live on without belief in anything human or divine again are the ones to be pitied.”

Not So Quiet is not a subtle novel. By that, I don’t mean it is badly written, its extremely well written. Smith is furious, and not interested in presenting a considered, moderate view. Some things do not warrant a moderate response, and the horrors of war are one of those. The world she depicts is unrelenting and nightmarish.

“I become savage at the futility.  A war to end war, my mother writes.  Never.  In twenty years it will repeat itself.  And twenty years after that.  Again and again, as long as we breed women like my mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington.  […]

Oh, come with me, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington.  Let me show you the exhibits straight from the battlefield.  This will be something original to tell in your committees, while they knit their endless miles of khaki scarves,…. something to spout from the platform at your recruiting meetings.  Come with me.  Stand just there.”

Reading Not So Quiet recently meant I was reading within a context of our Prime Minister pandering to the fascist fringe using inflammatory language around Brexit. This offensive rhetoric encourages people to forget that the EU was set up to promote peace and co-operation in Europe, after two twentieth century wars tore it apart. I wish more people would read things like Not So Quiet to remind themselves of experiences they’ve been lucky enough not to have to live through.

”What is to happen to women like me when this war ends … if it ever ends. I am twenty-one years of age and I know nothing of life but death, fear, blood, and the sentimentality that glorifies these things in the name of patriotism”

Deep breath… enough politics from me. But I hope I’ve shown how No So Quiet is still a relevant novel and an urgent one.

Secondly, a chance to recover with a light, fun novel about no greater tribulation than how to plant indoor bulbs. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield is not fluffy though – it is witty and incisive about social mores and the knots people, especially genteel British people, tie themselves in to avoid appearing rude. Again, it’s not a hugely plot driven novel, having been written as a weekly serial for Time and Tide magazine. It documents the titular lady’s experience of genteel middle-class life, with her disinterested husband Robert falling asleep behind The Times, son Robin away at boarding school, and daughter Vicky in the charge of Mademoiselle, the French governess.

“Robert takes the boys back after dinner, and I sit in hotel lounge with several other mothers and we all talk about our boys in tones of disparagement, and about one another’s boys with great enthusiasm.

Am asked what I think of Harriet Hume but am unable to say, as I have not read it. Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it.”

One ongoing source of tension in the Provincial Lady’s life is her aristocratic neighbour, Lady Boxe, who is self-dramatizing and unable to conceive of any situation other than her own:

“Why not just pop into the train, enquires Lady B., pop across France, and pop out into Blue Sky, Blue Sea, and Summer Sun? Could make perfectly comprehensive reply to this, but do not do so, question of expense having evidently not crossed Lady B.’s horizon. (Mem.: Interesting subject for debate at Women’s Institute, perhaps: That Imagination is incompatible with Inherited Wealth. On second thoughts, though, fear this has a socialistic trend.)

The Lady’s days seemed to be filled with social events she finds tedious, writing innumerable letters, negotiating with servants and managing debt in a most peculiar way:

“Robert startles me at breakfast by asking if my cold—which he has hitherto ignored—is better. I reply that it has gone. Then why, he asks, do I look like that? Refrain from asking like what, as I know only too well. Feel that life is wholly unendurable, and decide madly to get a new hat.

Customary painful situation between Bank and myself necessitates expedient, also customary, of pawning great-aunt’s diamond ring, which I do, under usual conditions, and am greeted as old friend by Plymouth pawnbroker, who says facetiously, And what name will it be this time?

Visit four linen-drapers and try on several dozen hats. Look worse and worse in each one, as hair gets wilder and wilder, and expression paler and more harassed. Decide to get myself shampooed and waved before doing any more, in hopes of improving the position.”

The Diary of a Provincial Lady could so easily be tedious but its so well written that instead it is an utter delight. I would generally have very short patience with well-to-do ladies with very little to fill their days, but the Provincial Lady knows that a lot of what she expected to concern herself with is completely frivolous, and she’s taking an askance view of it all, while not really putting anyone down (not even Lady B).

“Lady B. amiably observes that I, at least, have nothing to complain of, as she always thinks Robert such a safe, respectable husband for any woman. Give her briefly to understand that Robert is in reality a compound of Don Juan, the Marquis de Sade, and Dr. Crippen, but that we do not care to let it be known locally.”

The Diary of a Provincial Lady is a quick read, and one that can be dipped into, given its episodic, diary structure. It’s a welcome bit of escapism in these troubled times!

“Lady Frobisher, who would be so delighted if Robert and I would come over for tea whilst there is still something to be seen in the garden. (Do not like to write back and say that I would far rather come when there is nothing to be seen in the garden, and we might enjoy excellent tea in peace—so, as usual, sacrifice truth to demands of civilisation.)”

Jacqui has also reviewed The Diary of a Provincial Lady for the 1930 Club and you can read her excellent post here.

To end, I was tempted to choose a clip from Anna Christie as it was released in 1930 and I love Greta Garbo. But instead I’ve gone for this anthem about female working life from the only person who can convincingly rhyme ‘kitchen’ with ‘ambition’:

“I advise nobody to drown sorrow in cocoa.” (Winifred Holtby)

Unusually, just one book from me this week, because it’s a looooooong post, about a reading choice inspired by this post from Ali.

I don’t really watch dating shows, but when I catch a bit of them, I can feel nicely smug listening to people who have tick box criteria for potential mates. It leads me to a tick box list of my own:

  • You’ll never find anyone who ticks all the boxes
  • If you do, I guarantee that for some indefinable reason you’ll feel they’re not the right person for you

So of course, the same applies to the love of my life, books. My tick boxes:

  • Strong female protagonists
  • Ideally older women
  • Left-leaning politics
  • Interwar setting
  • Strong moral centre but not one that is preachy or dominates the narrative
  • Flawed but likable characters who don’t always behave impeccably
  • Unlikely but believable friendships
  • Romantic relationships must be presented non-romantically but without bitterness
  • Evocative sense of place but not overly flowery descriptions
  • Hopeful but realistic ending
  • Novella length or so brilliantly paced and plotted that it feels novella length

I’m never going to find that novel am I? Or if I do, for some indefinable reason it’s not going to work for me…

I loved, loved, loved South Riding by Winifred Holtby (1936). I loved it so much. It was one of those gorgeous bookish situations where you’re racing through it because you can’t bear not to be reading it, but you also don’t want it to end. I’m kind of angry that I’m not reading it at this very moment… 😀

Sarah Burton, worldly and travelled, returns to her home of South Riding in Yorkshire to take up the position of Headmistress in the local girls school:

“This was her battlefield. Like a commander inspecting a territory before planning a campaign, she surveyed the bare level plain of South Riding. Sarah believed in action. She believed in fighting. She had unlimited confidence in the power of human intelligence and will to achieve order, happiness, health and wisdom. It was her business to equip the young women entrusted to her by the still inadequately enlightened State for their part in that achievement. She wished to prepare their minds, to train their bodies, to inoculate their spirits with some of her own courage, optimism and unstaled delight.”

Her position will bring her into contact with the local council as she tries to get the school up to scratch. Alderman Joe Astell, somewhat incapacitated by TB, will become a friend:

“He had become a Socialist through love of his fellow men, not through dislike of them, and now he felt an emotional barrier between himself and his neighbours which no logic could remove. He saw himself, an awkward priggish man, with a harsh voice and tactless manner, tolerated simply because illness had reduced his fighting powers, weakened his quality.”

Both he and Sarah feel an antipathy towards the local landowner, Robert Carne of Maythorpe. Carne is in debt up to his eyes, trying to keep his estate running and finance his wife’s exorbitant private mental health hospital bills. His daughter Midge – who may not be his biologically – seems to have inherited her mother’s vulnerability. Carne has a weak heart and is not sure how long he will live. It says something for the complex characterisation of him that as a reader I still felt for him, despite his admission that he raped his wife – the only time that Midge could have been conceived by him.

“He was Robert, elder son of Thomas Carne, steward for one generation of two thousand acres. He felt humble because he knew himself to be an unworthy steward.

He had endangered the farm for his wife’s sake. The shadow of her thin imperious beauty crossed that hot firelit room where rested the two old men who had served Maythorpe better than its owner.”

When Sarah sees him and thinks this:

“I dislike, I oppose everything he stands for, she told herself – feudalism, patronage, chivalry, exploitation…We are natural and inevitable enemies.”

There are no prizes for guessing what happens…

The plot of the novel is centred around local politics and how the decisions taken have a wide- reaching ripple effect. But although Holtby has plenty to say about the state of society and the responsibilities of those in power, what carries the novel are the people behind the positions, the committees and the decisions. She effortlessly weaves together the lives of this disparate group who happen to all live in the same town in the north of England.

A piece of wonderful characterisation is that of Alderman Snaith. He is not a major character although he has a significant part to play, and in a lesser writer’s hands this borderline-corrupt, self-serving aesthete who despises Spring for its fecundity could be out-and-out repulsive. Yet in a wonderful chapter titled Alderman Snaith is Very Fond of Cats he is shown to be damaged in the most horrific way and subsequently a complex man.

But far and away the best characterisation is Mrs Beddows, supposedly based on the author’s mother. She is the first female alderman of the district, in her seventies and age shall not wither her:

“So cheerful, so lively, so frank was the intelligence which beamed benevolently from her bright spaniel-coloured eyes, that sometimes she looked as young as the girl she still, in her secret dreams, felt herself to be. Her clothes were a compromise between her spiritual and chronological ages. She wore today a dignified and beautifully designed black gown of heavy dull material; but she had crowned this by a velvet toque plastered with purple pansies.”

Mrs Beddows adores Carne, is a good friend and advisor to Sarah, and endures her tight-fisted husband as best she can:

“The one commodity with which he was prepared to be completely generous was his unasked opinion.”

There’s plenty here about the position of women too; presented not only through Sarah’s relentless pursuit of opportunities and education for her pupils, but in light-hearted ways such as through the contents of Mrs Beddows gift drawer:

“The indictment of a social system lay in those drawers if they but knew it – a system which overworks eight-tenths of its female population, and gives the remaining two-tenths so little to do that it must clutter the world with useless objects. Mrs Beddows did not see it quite like that; presents were presents; bazaars were bazaars, and Sybil was teaching the Women’s Institute raffia work and glove-making.”

South Riding is a rich, passionate novel, full of ideas and peopled with idiosyncratic, believable characters. It’s immediately become one of my all-time favourite books.

 “I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.”

The BBC adapted South Riding in 2011. I watched it but I can’t remember much about it, so it obviously didn’t captivate me as much as the book. I’m going to re-watch it and looking at the trailer now I do think Anna Maxwell Martin is excellent casting for Sarah Burton:

“I’ve always stood up for myself.” (Kathy Burke)

I’ve recently been watching Kathy Burke’s All Woman on Channel 4 and absolutely loved it, partly for Kathy’s habit of greeting any nonsense like vaginal steaming/vajazzling etc with an incredulous ‘Faaaaaaack off!’ but mainly because she is so warm, funny and non-judgemental. I highly recommend it, not only for women although she is a brilliant female role model:

“’The thing with me is that I’m quite arrogant. I’ve got faith in my own talent and I always have. And if anyone turned around and said to me, ‘You’re never going to work again’, I used to say, ‘I will’.”

Here’s another quote from Kathy which I enjoyed, included here especially for confirmed Darcy adorer Fiction Fan:

“‘Who wants to get up at five every morning? I did four days on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and by the end of it, I was bored. I thought, ‘I’m over this now. Let’s go home. I’ve met Colin Firth, and he’s lovely. Now, where are the sandwiches?’”

I tried to find a copyright-free picture of Kathy to include but of course there aren’t any, so in honour of her TTSS experience, here are some copyright-free sandwiches instead:

This post is rapidly in danger of becoming Reasons I Love Kathy Burke and thus rivalling War and Peace for brevity. On with books! In honour of the programme I have chosen two novels around the theme of women’s rights and female friendship.

Firstly, a book I probably wouldn’t have picked up if it wasn’t for the recommendations from so many bloggers I trust, Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (2018). Mattie Simpkin was a militant suffragette, but now its 1928 and she’s looking for something to channel all that energy into.

“She couldn’t remember a time when her path hadn’t been lined with startled faces; they were her reassurance that progress was being made.”

So Mattie decides to startle her well-to-do neighbours in Hampstead by setting up a club on the Heath for girls: to learn fitness, politics, history and self-defence, amongst anything else Mattie thinks will be useful for the modern woman.

Mattie is hugely likable but her drive means she can be a bit oblivious to those around her. Her sweet friend Florrie, known as The Flea, lives with her in Mattie’s house in Hampstead, utterly devoted. Mattie relies on her to keep the domestic side of things running smoothly, without realising that The Flea has feelings for her, until a repugnant Mosley-loving acquaintance, Jacqueline Simpkin, points it out to her. It is the fractious relationship with Jacqueline that leads to one of the pivotal moments of the novel, where Mattie’s group is pitted against the Hitler Youth-lite that Jaqueline is involved with.

 “The battle is not yet over; ever day brings fresh skirmishes.”

Unfortunately Mattie makes a huge mistake in a matter moments, which has significant ramifications. Mattie has to reassess her understanding of some of the people she knows, and herself. This takes place without ever being worthy or moralistic. The situation evolves in such a way that I felt desperately sorry for Mattie, even though she was entirely in the wrong.

The historical detail is beautifully observed and presented almost incidentally. There is no nostalgia here: The Flea has worked as hard as Mattie for women’s suffrage, but doesn’t get the vote until the end of the novel, when women’s voting rights became equal to men’s (all over the age of 21). Until that point, only Mattie voted because she was over 30 and owned property. The victory of the suffragettes was, for 10 years, a middle-class victory.

For all the period detail, the central questions of the book remain relevant: what do you do when the thing that galvanized you no longer exists? How do you decide where meaning lies, and what if lies in difficult to reach places?

“ ‘We were a battering ram,’ Mattie was wont to say. ‘Together we broke down the door.’ But beyond that splintered door had been a dozen more doors and, scattered by their momentum, some women had tried one and some another, and some had given up and turned away, and it seemed to The Flea that all that unity and passion, all that wild energy, had dissipated. And she herself and her ilk, trudging soberly behind, had somehow ended up the vanguard…”

Old Baggage has a wonderful central character in flawed, individualistic Mattie and plenty to say without ever being heavy handed. The plot pulls you along and the ending is really moving without being sentimental. A treat.

Secondly, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988) which is set in Zimbabwe, and so forms another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of this, as since reading it I’ve discovered it’s considered a modern classic and was voted into the top 12 for Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. It’s a powerful tale of postcolonial female experience, written beautifully and certainly deserving of its classic status.

The tale is narrated by Tambudzai, known as Tambu, who is unflinching in what she tells us, opening with “I was not sorry when my brother died.” The reasons for this lack of remorse are personal – her brother was arrogant and unpleasant; and societal – his death opens up opportunities to Tambu that she was denied as long as there was a male child older than her.

“I was quite sure at the time that Nhamo knew as well as I did that the things he had said were not reasonable, but in the years that have passed since then I have met so many men who consider themselves responsible adults and therefore ought to know better, who still subscribe to the fundamental principles of my brother’s budding elitism, that to be fair to him I must concede he was sincere in his bigotry.”

Ouch!

The opportunity Tambu has is to leave her rural home and be educated alongside her cousin Nyasha at the convent school her uncle and aunt run. This side of her family could not be more different to Tambu’s mother and father; they have travelled, are educated and her cousins have forgotten essential parts of their Zimbabwean childhood:

“I had not expected my cousins to have changed, certainly not so radically, simply because they had been away for a while. Besides, Shona was our language. What did people mean when they forgot it?”

Tambu and Nyasha still forge a deep bond despite the differences that have opened up between them, but Tambu sees the price her cousin pays for her international upbringing.

“I missed the bold, ebullient companion who had gone to England but not returned from there. Yet each time she came I could see that she had grown a little duller and dimmer, the expression in her eyes a little more complex, and though she were directing more and more of her energy inwards to commune with herself about the issues she alone had seen.”

As Tambu settles into city life and her schooling she begins to understand more not only about herself but her country, and there are some wonderfully pithy observations about colonialism:

 “They had given up their comforts and security of their own homes to come and lighten our darkness. It was a big sacrifice that the missionaries made. It was a sacrifice that made us grateful to them, a sacrifice that made them superior not only to us but to those other Whites as well who were here for adventure and to help themselves to our emeralds…With the self-satisfied dignity that came naturally to white people in those days, they accepted this improving disguise.”

But really Dangarembga’s focus is human relationships, and how the patriarchy impacts on the most intimate of these. Her uncle, Babamukuru, enjoys enormous status at home and at work. Her aunt, Maiguru, is highly educated and capable, but only ever a second-class citizen. Their daughter Nyasha struggles with these constraints and her behaviour is loud and rebellious, and emphatically punished:

“Babamukuru condemning Nyasha to whoredom, making her a victim of her femaleness, just as I had felt victimised at home in the days when Nhamo went to school and I grew my maize. The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I thought it had depended on. Men took it everywhere with them.”

Ultimately though, Nervous Conditions is a hopeful novel. Tambu is resilient and this is her coming of age story: with who she is, fitting in with neither family easily; with her desires for education and independence; and with her country. I started this with the opening lines of the novel, and I’ll end it with the beautifully constrained, considered final words:

“Quietly, unobtrusively and extremely fitfully, something in my mind began to assert itself, to question things and refuse to be brainwashed, bringing me to this time when I can set down this story. It was a long process for me, that process of expansion.” 

To end, Kathy as part of Lananeeneenoonoo with French & Saunders and Bananarama, for Comic Relief in 1989. Beatles fans may want to look away now:

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.” (John Steinbeck)

This is my second post for Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) hosted by Meytal at Biblibio, and I’m hoping its also a sign that my blogging slump is coming to an end – fingers crossed! This week I’ve chosen two books linked by the theme of travel.

Firstly, Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (2007, trans. Jennifer Croft 2017) which won the International Man Booker Prize last year.

Flights is quite a hard book to review, as it’s aptly titled and resists being pinned down in any way. It’s fiction, non-fiction, essay, philosophical musing, travelogue, digression… yet this fragmentary style still holds together and works as a whole. The unity is found through the recurring themes of travel, movement, restless and flight; and also of the human body at its most visceral – the collection of bone, muscle, skin and blood that enables human locomotion.

“A thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.”

The fiction sections include a man whose wife and son disappear when they are on holiday in Croatia; the wife of an elderly professor who is taken ill on a cruise; a woman who leaves her young family to live on the streets… all in perpetual motion. There are also historical sections looking at the fate of Chopin’s heart; the first naming of the Achilles tendon; cadaver preservation techniques, among other bodily concerns. The focus on the organic reality of living stops Flights from becoming too flighty, grounding all the fragments in a corporeal existence.

The consistent voice also ties these different pieces together, the sense that we are being told these stories, historical fragments and observations by the same narrator, a female traveller. She sets the focus on travel as she describes the airports, planes, buses and terminals she finds herself waiting in, and her conversations with those who cross her path:

“She says that sedentary peoples, farmers, prefer the pleasures of circular time, in which every object and event must return to its own beginning, curl back up into an embryo and repeat the process of maturation and death. But nomads and merchants, as they set off on journeys, had to think up a different time for themselves, that would better respond to the needs of their travels. That time was linear time.”

Flights is a book you can dip into or read in a linear fashion. I did the latter and I’m glad I did as I could pick up the echoes across the different narratives that give a sense of unity to the book and to the world it evokes. However, it could work just as well by reading a section and focussing closely on it, as Tokarczuk’s writing is so rich. She has described her style as one of constellations, and the reason behind this individual approach is noted in Flights:

“Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth.”

Not a book for when you want a good meaty plot, but I still found it a compulsive read as well as a thought-provoking one.

 

Secondly, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenstrom (1981, trans. JM Coetzee 1983) which is set in South Africa and so forms another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

I felt a bit conflicted when I started this: the story of a young slave girl told by a white South African was problematic for me. I looked on Goodreads and no-one else seemed to have this issue. Then I thought that at the time of writing, when black South African voices were so thoroughly suppressed, maybe writing this was a huge political statement.

(I once attended a debate about queer/transgender stories being staged. One side felt only those who identified as queer/trans should tell those stories. The other side felt it was fine for straight/cis artists to tell such stories so long as they did their research and the resulting art was sensitive. The wider issue is something I often come back to and think about, and something I’m still thinking through, as I did with this novella.)

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is beautifully written and certainly a sensitive portrayal of a woman finding autonomy for the first time as she lives in the hollow of the titular tree on the southern African veld.

“I know the interior of my tree as a blind man knows his home, I know its flat surfaces and grooves and swellings and edges, its smell, its darknesses, its great crack of light […] I can say: this is mine. I can say: this is I. These are my footprints.”

The woman has ended up stranded in the veld as a doomed commercial expedition by her last owner has failed spectacularly. With no-one making demands on her for the first time, the woman is free to think and reflect:

“If I could write, I would take up a porcupine quill and scratch your enormous belly full from top to bottom. I would clamber up as far as your branches and carve notches in your armpits to make you laugh. Big letters. Small letters. In a script full of lobes and curls, in circumambient lines I write round and round you, for I have so much to tell of a trip to a new horizon that became an expedition to a tree.”

Like Flights, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is not a straight narrative. It moves back and forth in time, with no named places or persons, It has an almost hallucinatory quality – and the narrator may be hallucinating at times, given her exposure and lack of food –  but this never detracts from the horrors she has experienced. There are times she was treated well, but she was also repeatedly assaulted, raped, and had all her children taken as babies. We are the witnesses to her experience, recounted poetically but unflinchingly.

“One time I fled from the tree. I ran aimlessly into the veld, trying to get out of its sight by hiding behind a high round rock, and I opened my mouth and I brought out a sound that must be the sound of a human being because I am a human being and not a wildebeest […] but a human being that talks and I brought out a sound and produced an accusation and hurled it up at the twilight air.”

This is a short, powerful read with a distinctive female narrator who demands to be heard.

To end, a tenuously-linked 80s video as usual 😉 Well, the title offers travel advice! I’ve chosen it especially for Kate as she’s seeing a-ha soon: