“A Persephone cover is a guarantee of good reading.” (Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books)

After a month of daily posting about novellas I was planning at least a week’s break from blogging, but I couldn’t resist joining in with Jessie at Dwell in Possibility’s Persephone Readathon. Here are two short Persephones that just missed out on being part of Novella in Day in May as they were over 200 pages (but not by much).

Firstly, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson (1937) which is Persephone No.53.

This is the story of a young Scottish heiress from childhood to young adulthood, framed by the visit of three tourists to the estate of Keepsfield.

“This transition to the atmosphere of another world is bewildering to modern personalities. The three strangers were conscious of a nakedness of spirit that made them uneasy spectators of a grandeur which was more than material. The old caretaker had slipped into the background, as caretakers do.”

The caretaker, Mrs Memmary, has been on the estate since she was a girl, and she tells one of the Tourists, Mrs Dacre, the story of Lady Rose. Rose is a child filled with joy, and a passionate attachment to her homeland, so far so that she names her kitten after a mighty clansman:

“Rose went out onto the sun-drenched west terrace, cuddling Rob Roy, who by now wore a small pink silk handkerchief round his head to protect him from the sun.”

She is a debutante and presented to the Queen, who takes a shine to her. It is at this moment, stepping into society for the first time, that she realises what her wealth and position truly mean:

“She was important? She, Rose Targenet aged eighteen, who had done so little but rejoice in the beauty and happiness of life. Of course her importance was not her own quality; it was because of her Papa.”

However, while she is important, she has no power. This is Victorian Scotland, and she must make a good match, securing the future of her lands and providing a male heir. We know that she managed this, as Mrs Memmary tells the tourists early on that all the splendour they see in the home is entailed to the heir, and Lady Rose is seeking a rich tenant to help pay for the upkeep of the estate.

The Victorian marriage market is poked gentle fun at during this overheard conversation between Rose’s mother and a family friend, regarding the Poet Laureate:

“If poor Alfred must write about what he calls love, he might at least explain that it is an emotion to be openly enjoyed by the middle classes.”

Although Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary could be seen as a light novel, it actually has serious points to make about the role and rights of women in the period. (It was written in in the 1930s and was apparently a great favourite of the Queen Mother, which I find fascinating. Makes me see her in a whole new light.)

Rose ends up in a loveless marriage to someone who is not horrible, but just completely cold and repressed:

“She had cried on her bed all the afternoon, realizing bitterly that in 1874 married women had no rights, even if they were countesses. She didn’t cry now, for she had the children, and in any case crying did no good after 10 years.”

Meanwhile, her friend Susan is in no better position having avoided marriage altogether:

“But what have I got? Just a piece of needlework and two disappointed elderly minded parents, and all the time in the world on my hands. If I had my way women would be free to do the same things as men; come and go as they wished, and read and talk, and be doctors and lawyers and financiers, and Members of Parliament, and newspaper writers, Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

So what happens? We know Lady Rose is a strong character who at times is willing to defy authority, and we know she has been abroad for a long time. Mrs Dacre isn’t at all happy with what Mrs Memmary tells her:

 “ ‘You mean – that was the end of Lady Rose’s story? It seems a vague, disappointing ending.’

‘Vague?’ The old woman thought for a moment and said, ‘But in real life things go like that. Our stories have no ending. We come into the light for a little while, and then we move away into the shadows and nobody sees us anymore. It is better that way.’”

A good point, but Mrs Memmary has held something back. I don’t think I’m a great genius in guessing what it was in Chapter 2, but this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the novel at all. I promise you it’s not a vague, disappointing ending.

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is in some ways a romantic novel: the country house and Scotland are both described with ravishing beauty, and it is a novel about being true to yourself and following your heart. But Ferguson also doesn’t shy away from portraying the price that is paid for these things, suggesting the price may be worth it but it can also be a high one.

Secondly, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer (1958) which is Persephone No.77. Ruth Whiting lives in a commuter town with her husband Rex. Their two sons are away at boarding school and their daughter – whose conception necessitated their marriage – is studying at Oxford. Ruth is not happy:

“In all the years of her marriage, a long war in which attack, if not happening, was always imminent, she had learned an expert cunning. The way to avoid being hurt, to dodge unhappiness, was to run away. Feelings of guilt and cowardice presented no problems that couldn’t be overcome by dreams, by games, by the gentle sound of her own voice advising and rebuking her as she went about the house.”

Rex and Ruth aren’t together very much – he has a flat in London during the week and comes home at weekends.

“For Rex and herself there was no longer any hope or possibility of change; there was no longer any choice to be made. They lay, fully grown, capable of every crime and every greatness, paralysed by triviality.”

Mortimer’s unflinching eye and scathing attitude is cast wider than the intricacies of marriage; it also takes in the other couples in the area:

“The relationships between the men are based on an understanding of success. Admiration is general, affection not uncommon. Even pity is known. The women have no such understanding. Like little icebergs, each keeps a bright and shining face above water; below the surface, submerged in fathoms of leisure, each keeps her own isolated personality. Some are happy, some poisoned with boredom; some drink too much and below the demarcation line are slightly crazy; some love their husbands and some are dying from a lack of love; a few have talent, useless to them as a paralysed limb.”

Ruth seems on the verge, if not in the midst of, a breakdown. She is struggling to get out of bed and Rex engages a housekeeper/nurse.  However, what begins as a dissection of suburban 1950s marriage develops into something more political when Ruth’s daughter Angela tells her she is pregnant. The father, fellow student Tony, is selfish and callow:

“It was obviously not going to be necessary to impress on him the seriousness of the situation. He looked like a curate settling down to discuss dry rot in the organ loft.”

So Angela, unlike her mother, does not want to tie herself into marriage to an unsuitable man for the sake of an unwanted baby. The rest of the novel follows the hoops both Ruth and Angela have to jump through in order to secure an abortion. (This  particularly resonated at the time I read it given the recent vote in Ireland). What Mortimer demonstrates is the ways in which women’s lives are circumscribed and the huge fallout this can have: on mental health, physical health, participation in society, participation in our own lives.  Although she is acerbic, and undoubtedly it is a resounding cry for women’s rights to be acknowledged and given their due importance, I think above all, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a plea for kindness.

“He would probably go through his entire life imagining that he was real; but not one person would owe him gratitude, remember his comfort.”

To end, I said when Novella a Day in May was over I’d go back to shoehorning late 20th century pop tunes into posts at every opportunity. So here we go, a 1980s celebration of those beautiful Persephone covers:

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Novella a Day in May #31

The final post of Novella a Day in May! It’s time for dancing Brad:

No-one is more surprised than me to be here. I never thought I’d manage to post every day for a month. Massive thanks to everyone who has read, liked, commented and shared these posts, you are all fab! I never expected people to read this blog on such a regular basis.

I’ve really enjoyed my month of novellas and I hope I’ve managed to spread some novella love along the way.

I’ve never done a summary post before but then I’ve never posted every day for 31 days before, so here’s an attempt to squeeze all those novellas into a few stats before I go on to my final choice for the month.

The gender split in authors was fairly even: 15 female authors and 16 male. Pointless pie chart time:

The novellas ranged across 3 centuries, from 1860 to 2017.

The shortest novella was Journey into the Past at 84 pages and the longest was After Claude at 206, because I cheated my own criteria by 6 pages. The average number of pages of the novellas was 142. None of them were actually this long, which goes to show there’s no such thing as average 🙂

It was a good opportunity to read some of my favourite publishers: I read 9 by Virago, 5 by Pushkin Press, and 2 by Peirene, as well as novellas published by AndOtherStories, and New York Review of Books.

I visited 13 countries including France 3 times (4 times if I count Jean Rhys) and Denmark twice. Two countries were new stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit: Libya and Kyrgystan. Thirteen novellas were in translation and the rest were by English, Irish and American authors. The southern hemisphere was sadly neglected, but this does give me a reason to justify even more novella reading 😉

And now the bit I found hardest: trying to pick out favourites. I planned to try and pick out a top 5 but it’s proved impossible. However, special mention has to go to William Maxwell, who I wrote about yesterday. I thought They Came Like Swallows was a work of restrained beauty. He had a perfect understanding of the novella and used sparse words to convey a story at its absolute essence. Not a word was wasted and no further words were needed. It’s made me keen to hunt down the rest of his work.

And now, onto my final choice! A novella that the blogosphere told me was great last year and then I forgot about until Susan’s post reminded me of the paperback release, so off to the library I went…

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (2016, trans. Misha Hoekstra 2017,188 pages)

Sonja is single, in her 40s, a translator of thrillers she finds gruesome and misogynistic. She is trying to build bridges with her distant sister, manage her massage therapist’s more esoteric suggestions, and learn to drive.

Sonja’s driving instructor Jytte screams instructions at her and won’t let her change gear, so she goes to see Folke, the head of the school,

“Sonja’s on the verge of tears. It happens unexpectedly; the sob sits in her throat and wants to come out. Folke’s hands move efficiently from side to side across the desk, and she longs to grasp one of them. Squeeze it, say ‘Thank you,’ from the heart. It doesn’t escape Sonja’s notice that she gets red in the face, because this sort of thing rarely happens. It almost never happens anymore – that someone wishes Sonja the best. She’s used to dealing with everything herself, and she’s reasonably good at it too.”

This captures much about Mirror, Shoulder, Signal: Sonja is muddling through life and doing it more or less competently, but she feels awkward and displaced. She’s from Jutland (Folke observes “All the Jutlander’s I’ve met are a bit quirky” and a Danish friend tells me this is a common stereotype ) but has lived in Copenhagen for years, long enough to not feel at home in either the countryside or the city. She’s doing OK but she could be doing better, struggling with “the things she cannot find the language to say and the people she most wants to say them to.”

Sonja’s a strong character and immensely likeable with all her idiosyncrasies. She goes her own way and always has, but reflects that this may cause more harm than good:

“Mom did me a disservice believing I could just be myself. If I hadn’t been allowed to, then I’d be sitting right now with the whole package, but that train’s left the station. And if anyone does, Mom should know that you have to adapt if you’re going to entangle yourself in an intimate relationship. Kate knows that too. And Dad.”

There’s plenty of humour in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. Not only at Sonja’s slightly blundering way through life, but also at the madness of Jytte screaming out her driving lessons; the awkwardness between Sonja and Folke; the flaky assertions of Ellen, the masseuse. But it’s not a whimsical novel and much of the humour is pretty sharp:

 “while Sonja does miss her sister, at the same time it ignites in her a yearning for fire”

I really enjoyed the short time I spent with Sonja. Nothing much happens, as in much of life, but there is a believable character arc for Sonja whereby things remain unresolved but improving – a happyish, unsentimental ending which made me smile.

To end, normal service will now be resumed on this blog: intermittent, unnecessarily verbose posts on two books linked by a theme, most likely with a cheesy late 20th century pop song shoehorned in. Here’s one such video to ease us in, chosen in honour of the fact that while Novella a Day in May is now over, I’ve enjoyed it so much I’m wondering if I’ve got it in me to do it again next year… what better way to express this than through song, while dressed in a flared satin and spangles jumpsuit twinset? Take it away, Gloria…

Novella a Day in May #30

Yesterday I wrote about Eudora Welty, today I’m looking at a novella by her editor, William Maxwell. Maxwell was fiction editor at The New Yorker from 1936-1975 and a contributor until his death in 2000. He was editor to extraordinarily successful writers as well as a writer himself.

Image from here

I’ve abandoned the two novella posts I was ending this series with, because I loved this one so much I wanted it to have a post all to itself.

They Came Like Swallows (1937, 140 pages)

The title of this semi-autobiographical novella is taken from WB Yeats’ Coole Park:

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a Swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air,

A woman’s powerful character is the central compass-point of this story. Elizabeth Morison is mother to Bunny and Robert, wife to James. The 3 parts of this novella are told from the point of view of each of the male members of the Morison family in turn.

It begins with Bunny, aged 8 and a sensitive child who takes things to heart, would prefer to be indoors than out, and suffers under his older, more rumbustious older brother. He is still of an age where his mother has the power to change everything and make it alright.

“Somewhere in the front part of the house a door opened so that his mother’s voice came up the stairs. A spring inside him, a coiled spring, was set free. He sat up and threw his covers to the foot of the bed. When he was washed and dressed he went downstairs. His mother was sitting at the breakfast table before the fire in the library.”

“While he stood waiting before her and while she considered him with eyes that were perplexed and brown, the weight grew. The weight grew and became like a stone. He had to lift it each time that he took a breath.

‘Whose angel child are you?’

By these words and by the wholly unexpected kiss that accompanied them he was made sound and strong. His eyes met hers safely.”

I thought Maxwell effectively captured a sense of childhood and just how hard it can be day-to-day, without ever lurching into sentimentality. He writes in a constrained way yet captures moments in their entirety; he shows the profound in the everyday.

That’s not to say he can’t be poetic, but it is a restrained poetry. When he chooses an image it is startling and evocative. Every word in this novella works hard, yet overall it flows with deceptive ease. I particularly liked this description of Robert reading:

“It began the way Robert liked books to begin, and by the second page he was submerged. The lamp cord was his only means of contact with the upper air. He clung to that, and shaped his words in silence as he read.”

Robert also adores his mother. Under Bunny’s point of view he seemed somewhat brutal, but in his section we learn how much he also relies on maternal love as he enters adolescence:

“With his mother Robert was almost never constrained or ill at ease. It seemed easy and natural for her to be talking about whatever was on her mind. She didn’t stop what she was doing. Hardly ever. And that way he felt free to tell her all sorts of things. Because he always knew she would go right on sorting the sheets and pillowcases.”

I’m about to go on to a massive SPOILER so skip the remainder if you don’t want to know, although I knew this at the start of They Came Like Swallows and it didn’t affect my enjoyment of it at all: Elizabeth Morison dies. She succumbs to the flu epidemic that swept through after the First World War, and so these 3 people are left reeling without their centre. Maxwell’s restrained style effectively captures the numbness of grief, and how the inexpressible is articulated in a society that does not encourage outbursts of emotion, particularly from men. James blames himself for taking his wife on a crowded train:

“He read the letters while he walked back and forth between the fireplace and the windows – read them over and over without retaining what he read. Then he threw envelopes and letters upon the library table and stood perfectly still, pressing his shoulder against the mantel.

For two days now (ever since they came into his room at daybreak to tell him) he had been getting on that train. And there was no way, apparently, that he could stop.”

I thought They Came Like Swallows was perfectly written. Part of what focussed me on novellas in the first place was exasperation at the baggy, overlong, overly-indulgent novels I kept coming across, that had me muttering to myself how they ‘needed a heavier edit.’ If Maxwell is an example of what happens when editors decide to write, more should do so.

Novella a Day in May #29

It’s thanks to this mini-project that I finally read Eudora Welty, as I had two of her novellas in the TBR. I’m glad I did, as the latter of these two has definitely whetted my appetite for more of her work.

Eudora-Welty-1962

The Robber Bridegroom (1942, 185 pages)

I enjoyed this reworking of The Brothers Grimm tale which Welty sets in eighteenth century Mississippi. Clement Musgrove arrives back home:

“As his foot touched the shore, the sun sank into the river the colour of blood, and at once a wind sprang up and covered the sky with black, yellow, and green clouds the size of whales, which moved across the face of the moon.”

With this foreboding change in the weather, he finds himself sharing a room with real-life keelboater Mike Fink, and Jamie Lockhart, a gentleman robber. Lockhart saves Musgrove’s life, and so is invited back to his home, which he shares with his horrible wife, who predictably is wicked stepmother to the beautiful Rosamond. Rosamond isn’t perfect though:

“As for Rosamond, she did not mean to tell anything but the truth, but when she opened her mouth in answer to a question, the lies would simply fall out like diamonds and pearls.”

The tale unfolds along familiar lines, with theft, mistaken identity, illicit love and people thought to be dead when they’re not, all in the surrounds of a forest. While I thought The Robber Bridegroom was vividly told and entertaining, I wasn’t sure what Welty was really doing with the tale. Rosamond is given sexual agency which would be a departure for many fairytales; and it’s grounded in a historical reality which adds to the mythology around the Southern states pre-Civil War. It’s an interesting tale but I felt Welty could have done more with it, pushed it a bit further into something truly original but still grounded in fable.

“The only thing that could possibly keep her from being totally happy was that she had never seen her lover’s face. But then the heart cannot live without something to sorrow and be curious over.”

The Ponder Heart (1954, 132 pages)

This, however, I adored. It featured a truly idiosyncratic, distinctive narrator and was funny, unsettling and compulsively readable.

Edna Earle Ponder lives in Clay County, Mississippi, and is proud of being a Ponder and running the town hotel. She is telling the tale of her Uncle Daniel to a silent interlocutor.

“I don’t run the Beulah Hotel for nothing: I size people up: I’m sizing you up right now. People come here, pass through this book, in and out, over the years – and in the whole shooting-match, I don’t care from where or how far they’ve come, not one can hold a candle to Uncle Daniel for looks or manners. If he ever did thing to be sorry for, it’s more than he ever intended.”

Her Uncle Daniel dresses all in white and has a tendency to give away money. His father tries to get him committed; Daniel has a lovely time in the institution and his father ends up committed instead. Then there is an ill-fated marriage to the wonderfully monikered Teacake Magee.

“As for Uncle Daniel, he went right ahead, attracting love and friendship with the best will and the lightest heart in the world. He loved being happy! He loved happiness like I love tea.”

Teacake Magee proves impervious to Uncle Daniel’s charms after 2 months and they split up (we’re never quite sure why) and then Daniel marries Bonnie Dee without his family knowing.

“I wish you could have seen Bonnie Dee! I wish you could. I guess I’d known she was living, but I’d never given her a real good look. She was just now getting her breath. Baby yellow hair, downy – like one of those dandelion puffballs you can blow and tell the time by. And not a grain beneath. Now, Uncle Daniel may not have a whole lot of brains, but what’s there is Ponder, and no mistake about it. But poor little Bonnie Dee!”

And from this marriage the trouble starts. Welty builds her story expertly: you know something bad has happened, you don’t quite know what, by whom or to whom. As it is revealed, it is totally believable and an awful comic tragedy, told in the inimitable style of Edna Earle.

“I’m the go-between, that’s what I am, between my family and the world. I hardly ever get a word in for myself.”

She’s vain and arrogant about her position as a Ponder; she looks down on people and is racist; she’s appalling in lots of ways but Edna Earle spins a good yarn.

“What Uncle Daniel did was just bestow his [love] all around quick – men, women and children. Love! There’s always somebody wants it. Uncle Daniel knew that. He’s smart in way you aren’t, child.”

I was truly sorry to leave The Ponder Heart behind.

Novella a Day in May #28

If I was being facetious (which I never am 😉 )I might compile a Jean Rhys checklist:

  • Heroine is displaced, either in France from the Caribbean or in England from Caribbean and/or France
  • She is emaciated and constantly on the brink of starvation
  • For some reason, getting a regularly-paid job never occurs to her
  • And so she has casual employment as a model/actress/any job vaguely associated with prostitution in the early 20th century
  • She uses men for financial gain and is in turn used by them
  • She has a judgemental landlady
  • She owns at least one piece of really expensive clothing left over from a better time
  • She self-medicates with alcohol
  • She is highly sensitive but weirdly passive, so things don’t generally go well

Not including Wide Sargasso Sea, this seems to be the form things generally take in a book by Rhys. Yet I’m happy to keep reading her because she writes with such precision and insight, and at moments is capable of absolute brilliance. Here are two novellas by her.

Images from here and here

Quartet (1928, 144 pages, originally published as Postures) is a fictionalised account of Rhys’ affair with Ford Madox Ford.

“ ‘I bet that man is a bit of a brute sometimes,’ thought Marya. And as she thought it, she felt his hand lying heavily on her knee.”

Marya’s husband Stephan has been put in prison for fraud and she is left alone in Paris. She seems to have been both aware and unaware of the nature of his business.

“Stephan disliked being questioned and, when closely pressed, he lied. He just lied. Not plausibly or craftily, but impatiently and absent-mindedly. So Marya had long ago stopped questioning. For she was reckless, lazy, a vagabond by nature, and for the first time in her life she was very near to being happy.”

She will bring this dissonance into the affair that she has with a man named Heidler. On the one hand she seems to know that she is being manipulated not only by him but by his wife Lois. On the other hand she still seems to plunge into this situation, living with them both and sleeping with Heidler, making  herself both materially and emotionally vulnerable. A lot remains unexplained. We’re not entirely sure why Marya does what she does, although Rhys suggests, as she does in her other writing, that morals are a luxury not everyone can afford.

“Poverty is the cause of many compromises.”

Marya may also have done it just for the sheer hell of it. Heidler and Lois seem to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and so it could be that Marya wanted any experience rather than a mundane existence:

“Her life swayed regularly, even monotonously, between two extremes, avoiding the soul-destroying middle.”

Certainly this may explain why she falls in love with Heidler when he seems so thoroughly horrible.

Quartet is morally ambivalent; Marya seems deeply unhappy for the entire book and she is powerless, so it is hard to judge her even though I felt frustrated at her seeming lack of agency. Rhys simply presents people and situations, and asks the reader to assign their own values.

“The value of an illusion, for instance, and that the shadow can be more important than the substance.”

Quartet was adapted into a film in 1981 by Merchant Ivory. I’ve not seen it but the cast is stellar:

Secondly, Voyage in the Dark (1934, 159 pages). Anna is freezing in England, unable to acclimatise after a life spent in the Caribbean. She is orphaned and earning a living as a chorus girl in a touring theatre company. Life is a procession of dingy B&Bs and while she gets used to England, she misses home:

“the smell of streets and the smells of frangipani and lime juice and cinnamon and cloves, and sweets made of ginger and syrup, and incense after funerals or Corpus Christi processions, and the patients standing outside the surgery next door and the smell of the sea-breeze and the different smell of the land-breeze.”

She meets an older man, Walter, and they begin a relationship. Although she is not being manipulated to the extent of Marya in Quartet, Anna is also powerless in the relationship. She is young, naïve and penniless; Walter is none of these things.

“Perhaps I’m going to be one of the ones with beastly lives. They swarm like woodlice when you push a stick into a woodlice home. And their faces are the colour of woodlice.”

When the relationship breaks down, Anna spirals into despair. She drinks too much, is depressed and has to seek a backstreet abortion.

“I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that – lived in a few rooms and gone one to another. The light is a different colour every hour and the shadows fall differently and make different patterns. You feel peaceful, but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall.”

It’s difficult to say why I don’t find Rhys utterly bleak. Her protagonists are always despairing, but I think for most there is hope. They cling onto something, and while that may be an entirely unsuitable lover or a destructive circumstance, they have a determined streak, even if they allow themselves to be buffeted by forces they could have easily avoided. Rhys is also a writer that constantly brings me up short with startling images, like this one of trying to communicate with a lover who won’t listen:

 “It was like letting go and falling back into water and seeing yourself grinning up through the water, your face like a mask, and seeing bubbles come up as if you were trying to speak from under the water.”

Reading these two novellas means I’ve now read all of Rhys’ novels and short stories and I’m truly sorry to have reached the end. She may only have one main theme, but it is a richly explored one that rewards careful reading.

Novella a Day in May #27

Today I’m looking at two novellas by Willa Cather, which were my first encounters with this legendary author of frontier life.

Willa_Cather_ca._1912_wearing_necklace_from_Sarah_Orne_Jewett

Alexander’s Bridge (1912, 176 pages) was Willa Cather’s first novel, although she was already an established journalist, poet and short story writer.  Apparently she didn’t think much of this first attempt at long-form prose, but I thought it had much to recommend it.

Bartley Alexander is an engineer who, it will surprise you to learn, builds bridges.  He has a huge project happening in Canada, but it is when he is London on business that he runs into an old flame, Hilda. Although he is married, an affair begins. The focus is not the romance or betrayal, but rather Alexander’s futile attempt to recapture his youth that is the focus of Cather’s writing:

“Solitude, but not solitariness; for he walked shoulder to shoulder with a shadowy companion – not little Hilda Burgoyne, by any means, but someone vastly dearer to him than she had ever been – his own young self, the youth who had waited for him upon the steps of the British Museum that night, and who, though he had tried to pass so quietly, had known him and came down and linked an arm in his.

It was not until long afterwards that Alexander learned that for him this youth was the most dangerous of companions.”

I think had I known what this was about, I would have been put-off reading it. A deceitful man having a mid-life crisis is not a subject matter that I have a great deal of patience with. What engaged me was Cather’s beautiful writing and her psychological insight.  She also managed to bring an impressive depth to the story considering its short length.  Overall I was left with a sense of the sadness of lives wasted in a search for meaning when not knowing where to look.

“Something had broken loose in him of which he knew nothing except that it was sullen and powerful, and that it wrung and tortured him. Sometimes it came upon him softly, in enervating reveries. Sometimes it battered him like the canon rolling in the hold of the vessel. Always, now, it brought with it a sense of quickened life, of stimulating danger.”

I suspect if you’ve read some of Cather’s  classic work such as My Antonia or O, Pioneers! you might find this a disappointment. However, it left me eager to read more of her work to see how she developed into a writer so greatly loved.

 

A Lost Lady (1923, 178 pages) was where I went next. It tells the story of the beautiful Marian Forrester, a rich (at first) young woman married to the older Captain Forrester, living in the West in a town called Sweet Water:

“She never stopped to pin up a lock; she was attractive in dishabille and she knew it. She had been known to rush to the door in her dressing-gown, brush in her hand and her long black hair rippling over her shoulders, to welcome Cyrus Dalzell, president of the Colorado & Utah, and the great man had never felt more flattered. In his eyes, and in the eyes of the admiring middle-aged men who visited there, whatever Mrs Forrester chose to do was lady-like, because she did it.”

However, following crop failures, the town starts to go downhill. It is close to the Transcontinental railroad, but the trains start passing through. Captain Forrester has a lot of money sunk into the railroad and an idealised view of this capitalism:

“All our great West has been developed from such dreams; the homesteaders and the prospectors and the contractors. We dreamed the railroads across the mountains”

Niel Herbert, from whose viewpoint the story is mainly told (although it remains in third person) has a different view of these dreamers:

“The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence, a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold. Now all the territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything… The space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable bits, as the match factor splinters the primeval forest.”

Ivy Peters represents the move to a capitalist industrial economy and he is truly despicable. At the start of the story he is a young boy too, slightly older than Niel, and he commits an act of vindictive cruelty on a bird; it truly made me feel sick. As an adult he sexually blackmails Mrs Forrester. Niel witnesses this as he witnessed Marian’s affair with a man named Ellinger. The feeling this raises in Niel are complicated; he does not quite have a crush on the woman, it’s more that he idealises her as a representation of the pioneer spirit, and so when he feels she is debased, he is angry that she has let down this broader ideal.

“It was not a moral scruple she had outraged but an aesthetic ideal”

The presentation of Marian Forrester is intriguing. Her beauty mesmerises people and places her in the more elite society, but Cather shows that she is a woman of flesh and blood, with both sexual desires and a desire to live. She will do what it takes.

This meant that while I could not embrace the romanticised notion of the pioneer (I think we now know enough of what happened to First Nations Peoples during the period for any romanticism to have well and truly died –briefly touched upon in this story) I thought there was a great deal of interest around the role of women. Marian is a lost ‘lady’ but she is a woman who knows herself and knows that as a woman in this period she does not have the freedom or choices of men. They will use her, but she is not a victim, although she self-medicates with alcohol at times. She endures, and so as a representation of the west, and pioneer spirit, I think Cather chooses to personify how times change and are lost forever, but the only choice is to keep on.

 “It was what he most held against Mrs Forrester, that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms.”

It’s a bittersweet novella, and Cather packs huge themes into a small space. Truly impressive.

Novella a Day in May #26

Less than a week left of Novella a Day in May and I’m feeling quite giddy 😀 So much so that I’m upping my game for the last few days and looking at authors who seemed to favour the novella as they wrote more than one. Today: Nell Dunn.

Nell Dunn came from an aristocratic family, somewhat incongruously as the two novellas I’m going to look at portray working-class life. But Dunn wasn’t a class tourist; she left school at 14, moved to Battersea (now an expensive area of London capturing the overspill from the highly salubrious Chelsea, but in the 1960s before the slum clearances it was fairly dilapidated) and worked in a factory. Her writing always seems absolutely authentic.

Up the Junction (1963, 133 pages) is a series of sketches of life in 1960s south London for three young women, Lily, Sylvie and Rube, living in an area filled with the workers of the local factories.

“The sweet smell of cow-cake from Garton’s blows up the road with the violet smoke from the Power Station…Sylvie and I walk up the summer evening road to the Prodigal. An old lady in slippers comes out of the off licence with a zip bag weighing her sideways. From open windows the tellys call.”

 

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Life is hard for these women, but it is also vibrant, eventful, and energetic. Dunn has an unflinching eye (there is a horrible episode detailing an illegal abortion) but she has affection for the people she portrays and although there is no sentimentality in her writing, there is sensitivity:

 “Ada opens the door crying: her little brother had burnt all her clothes. ‘He set fire to the pram where I keeps them…’ …In Ada’s room the floor is covered in clean newspaper…In the middle of it all stands the smouldering pram. Out in the passage ten pigeons fly about. ‘Aren’t they beauties? Aren’t they darlings?’ says her dad. ‘I have to keep the windows sealed in case one escapes.’”

Dunn effectively captures the voices of the area, humour sitting alongside poverty and desperation:

 “ ‘So I went along to tell his daughter. ‘He’s just dropped dead!’ Of course I didn’t tell her about the bacon puddin’. ‘What have you done with his clothes?’ she says. ‘You’re not havin’ them,’ I says, ‘what about me rent?’ So I takes them round to the rag man and I got twelve shillings and I buys meself a quarter of whisky and a packet of fags…I had a drop of whisky what me brother gave me last night and I meant to save the rest for Christmas and then I thought well I mightn’t be here for Christmas…’

Up the Junction is a fascinating insight into a life that in many ways has passed: the swinging sixties, the dominance of factory work, women seeking emancipation before the arrival of the Pill. At the same time it still has plenty to say about power relations on small and large scales and about human resilience. As a voice of working class women, it is unfortunately still a voice which remains rarely heard.

Up the Junction was adapted for TV in 1965 by Ken Loach (which you can see in its entirety on YouTube) and into a film in 1968. It also inspired this 1979 song by Squeeze:

Unlike Up the Junction, Poor Cow (1967, 141 pages) has an overarching narrative to it, detailing Joy’s attempts to survive as a young single mother when her criminal partners are in jail. The story begins with Joy going out for something to eat in her maternity gown, because her husband forgot to bring any of her clothes to the hospital [contains swearing]:

“Outside in the street a young woman passed pushing a pram, a fag hanging from her lip. ‘Now I look like that.’ She ate the dark brown cottage pie, mixing the mash in with her fork, a great relieving warmth filled her stomach and the sweet tea lifted her spirits. Above her head an ad with a lot of golden girls in bathing suits read COME ALIVE. YOU’RE IN THE PEPSI GENERATION.

‘Fuck that,’ she said as the snow fluttered thoughtlessly against the window pane. She put a penny in the Fortune Teller DON’T REGRET. TRY AGAIN.”

Joy’s life isn’t easy, but she doesn’t seem ground down by it. She gets on with what needs to be done and loves her son Jonny, even though she’s not happy with her husband, Tom.

“He didn’t really want to be happy, or be married like we was. He always wanted more out of life than what he had.”

When Tom’s sent to prison, Joy finds happiness with his friend Dave. However, Dave is also a burglar, and so their happiness is short-lived.

 “Joy was back in Fulham. She’d moved in with her Auntie Emm, who lived in one room, off the National Assistance, and pills.”

In Fulham she gets a job in a bar, and this leads to soft-porn modelling. Joy doesn’t feel degraded by this and refuses to follow a friend into prostitution (sort of…), but she does end up sleeping with quite a few men, discovering that she enjoys sex. I was surprised at how much sex there is in Poor Cow. It’s not detailed but it is referred to and I’d be interested to know if this was scandalous in 1967 or seen as just part of Swinging London?

Joy’s an interesting woman, who doesn’t really know what she wants. Part of her would like a settled life, another part of her acknowledges that all her bad choices were consciously made and perhaps more truly what she desired:

“I’d just like to be secure. You know, something out of life that everybody else’s got. When I’m walking down the road I see people happy, I want that, but when I come to think of it I can have it one day and I may not want it.”

Poor Cow somehow isn’t as depressing as it should be, despite the rather bleak existence of Joy and the nihilism of her lifestyle:

“that night Joy lay entangled in Dave’s arms and thought ‘Even if it’s only for six months that might be six months of happiness and anyway it’s six months of life got through.”

The narrative is mixed, switching between third-person, first-person and Joy’s letters to Dave. This works well, capturing the fragmentary nature of Joy’s life and her conflicted personality.

“ ‘I’ve got a lot to give up,’ thought Joy. She looked round the room. ‘At the same time I haven’t got a lot to give up.’”

Poor Cow shows all the conflict, confusion, freedom, constraint, joy and drudgery for a young woman at a point where a particular society is going through considerable change. It’s neither wholly happy or sad, but it felt wholly real.

Like Up the Junction, Poor Cow was also adapted into a film by Ken Loach, the same year it was published: