“I’ve always been in love with Melbourne.” (Kerry Greenwood)

Well, we’ve reached the end of November and contrary to my plans but entirely in keeping with my expectations, I’ve barely managed to blog at all despite all the wonderful reading events that take place. Still, I’m delighted that I am at least managing to join in with AusReading Month 2022 hosted by Brona at This Reading Life. (Even if it is at the eleventh hour and I’m conveniently ignoring the fact it’s already 1 December in Australia right now – I really must do better.)

I chose two novels out of the humungous VMC pile and they both turned out to be entertaining considerations of the roles of women in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Melbourne.

In reverse chronological order, Painted Clay by Capel Boake (1917). Set in 1913-14, this coming-of-age story follows Helen Somerset as she tries to forge her own way in a society that places considerable strictures on women.

At the start of the novel, lonely and isolated Helen is only a few years older than the century, as she living in a suburb with her distant father:

“Several women had watched carefully and had made sure their curtains had not been down for months. They always took their curtains down, washed them, and put them up again, every four weeks. The end house did not do this. Therefore there must be something very wrong with the occupants of the end house.”

Determined for change, she makes overtures to the young women who live next door, and finds herself invited in. She is shy and awkward, but the family is warm and welcoming.

“She knew that if she were alone she could have carried on the most brilliant conversation with everybody, but now she seemed to have nothing to say.”

Belle is engaged to sleazy Bert, while her sister Irene moons over the picture of a matinee idol. They are full of life and show Helen another way to live. She joins Irene in working in a shop, suffering under the deliberately unpleasant work given to her by the jealous supervisor. We follow Helen from shop to office work, as she learns to wrestle with the bullying of women and the unwanted attentions of men, struggling to work out what she wants when it seems to be so different from other women her age:

“She fled from the thought of sex; it horrified her – but it came back and back. She tried to close her mind against it, but it came insistent and whispering, distorting her view of life full in despair she went to her books again.”

Helen is not a wet blanket though, or a naïve and priggish beauty which can sometimes make heroines of this era hard to warm to. She’s quite determined to live her own life, away from the life paths everyone seems to expect of her.

“Helen had a soft, but unyielding obstinacy against which all argument beat in vain.”

Things begin to change for her when she is taken into a bohemian artistic set. She falls in lust with Alick Russell, and one thing leads predictably to another … what is less predictable is Helen’s reaction to sleeping with a man outside marriage:

“She wondered why she did not grieve over it, why she was not overcome with sorrow and repentance. She puzzled over it with frowning brows, but could reach no satisfactory conclusion.”


“I can’t see the difference between being married and not. It doesn’t seem to me to matter very much, and yet it does. I wish I were either a very bad woman or a very good one. If I were a bad woman nothing would bother me, and if I were a very good woman I wouldn’t think about it. I would just be married, and that would be the end of it.”

Painted Clay is a carefully non-didactic exploration of women’s roles and choices at this moment in time. Female characters are not judged for choosing unsatisfactory marriages, when the alternative may be worse for them. Older unmarried women are not shown as leading happy lives due to how limited their choices are, yet Helen is consistent in her belief that marriage is not for her.

Although not explicit, female desire is dealt with frankly, as is the fallout from its expression – fallout which lands disproportionately on women rather than men, despite their equal involvement.

What struck me most though, was not the attitude towards female sexuality or marriage, but towards sex work. It is referred to more than once in the novel and Boake is determinedly non-judgemental of those who undertake it. There is this interview Helen undergoes with a recruiting Madam:

“Helen shook her head, ‘No’ she said. ‘I can’t.’ Her tone was final, and the woman recognised it, though she made a last effort to persuade her. ‘Why not?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know why not,’ answered Helen. ‘It’s not my way, that’s all.’”

Then later in the novel she takes a woman from the street for a hot meal:

“Helen looked round with a frown. She found that everyone in the room was staring at them. She looked at them with bitter scorn. She hated them for their smug complacency. She felt neither love, liking, or even pity for the girl she was with, but she preferred her to the smug suburban women with their intolerable air of conscious virtue.”

I expected a much more judgemental attitude for the time, and it was refreshing to have this assumption undermined. (Also on the subject of the streets – the urban setting and changing seasons are wonderfully evoked. Sadly I don’t know Melbourne but I’m sure those who do would find much to enjoy in this evocation of it in the early decades of the last century).

Painted Clay was Capel Boake’s first novel and on the strength of this I would definitely be interested in reading more. It’s not the most sophisticated novel but it’s concise, well-paced and very readable.  Boake died in her 40s having published three novels (one further was published posthumously) and some poetry.

Secondly, The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge (1891) which I was encouraged to take off the shelf by Emma’s escapism list. Although depicting a far more conventional life of middle-class mores and marriage than Painted Clay, The Three Miss Kings still manages to cast an askance, humorous view at late Victorian life.

At the beginning of the novel the titular heroines Elizabeth, Patty and Eleanor – find themselves all alone in the world after their father dies.

“It was a curious position altogether. As far as they knew, they had no relations, and they had never had a friend. Not one of them had left their home for a night since Eleanor was born, and not one invited guest had slept there during the whole of that period. They had never been to school, or had any governess but their mother, or any experience of life and the ways of the world save what they gained in their association with her, and from the books that she and their father selected for them.”

Cambridge is at pains to stress the young women’s refinement and ‘breeding’ to an extremely tedious degree. However, later in the novel she stops banging on about this quite so much, which was certainly a relief, and gets on with telling an oft-told tale in a very readable way (excepting a couple of clunky passages with characters voicing long opinions on topical issues such as the role of the church).

The women travel from their rural home to Melbourne to be shocked and then embraced by city life, under the guiding light of their self-appointed guardian Mrs Duff-Scott:

“The only drawback to her enjoyment in them was the consciousness that, though they were nobody else’s, they were not altogether hers. She would have given half her fortune to be able to buy them, as she would buy three bits of precious crockery, for her absolute possession, body and soul—to dress, to manage, to marry as she liked.”

Three comely young ladies, refined of manner and naïve of just about everything – what will possibly happen? Mrs Duff-Scott has an idea, and lines up potential suitors for all of them with alarming ineptitude. I particularly enjoyed her assessment of Mr Westmoreland:

“He was the richest of them all, and the most stupid, and therefore he seemed to be cut out for Patty, who, being so intellectual and so enterprising, would not only make a good use of his money, but would make the best that was to be made of him.”

Cambridge does undermine some of the conventions she is focussing on, or at least mocks them lightly. For example, how to describe her heroines:

“like a tall lily, I feel I ought (and for a moment was tempted) to add, only that I know no girl ever did look like a lily since the world was made, nor ever will, no matter what the processes of evolution may come to.”

She’s also very pragmatic alongside the romance, such as the consideration of marrying for money:

“If these motives seem poor and inadequate, in comparison with the great motive of all (as no doubt they are), we must remember that they are at the bottom of a considerable proportion of the marriages of real life, and not perhaps the least successful ones. It goes against me to admit so much, but one must take things as one finds them.”

She even allows some feminist commentary regarding commanding male heroes:

“’Who would marry a chicken-hearted milksop if she could get a splendid tyrant like that?’ exclaimed Patty, fervently, for the moment forgetting there were such things as woman’s rights in the world.”

So although a romance in many ways, The Three Miss Kings is not unwaveringly romantic. I’ve never read Ada Cambridge before and I really enjoyed this first encounter. She brought a different voice, humour and interesting characterisation to make a familiar story include some surprises.

The story is firmly rooted in 1880 and in Melbourne, with descriptions of the International Exhibition. Melbourne Cup, public gardens, streets and crowds which were very evocative. If I’ve not said much about the plot it’s because I don’t think it’s really needed – you get the idea!

“I don’t think it is that things are going wrong, dear. It is only that we have to manage them, and to steer our way, and to take care of ourselves, and that is so trying and perplexing.”

To end, forward a century for service as usual with a 1980s pop video, from a Melbourne band:

“All is vanity, nothing is fair.” (William Makepeace Thackeray)

Despite the fact that Fiction Fan announced today’s Vanity Fair review-a-long back in June, I have of course ended up writing this right up to the wire. Ah well, ‘twas ever such. Or certainly has been for the last few years on my faltering blog…

It’s probably a good thing though, as my usual verbose, stream-of-barely-conscious style is likely to have been even worse as I try to work out what on earth I could say about this enormous tome, such a well-known classic novel that despite having not read it before or seen any adaptations, I already knew the plot and lead characters.

So I’ve decided to focus just on one element of the novel: satire. Although published in 1847-8, Thackeray set Vanity Fair earlier, during the Napoleonic Wars, enabling him to point out to society how appalling and self-serving everyone is, without alienating his readers. Clever Thackeray.

Thackeray proclaims that Vanity Fair is “a novel without a hero”, and by the end of the novel, he has so thoroughly painted a picture of a materialist, corrupt, self-serving and shallow society, that heroism seems nigh on impossible. What we do have is the main protagonist of Becky Sharp:

“Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.”

But if all this is sounding pretty grim, it really isn’t. I enjoy satire, particularly that of the century preceding Vanity Fair, but it can often leave rather a bitter taste. Thackeray largely avoids this because firstly, he seems to quite enjoy his characters, and secondly, he doesn’t aim for the moralistic teaching of some satirists. He never suggests there is a way for this world to be other than it is. Which is bleak, but also stops the tone being too heavy.

He also doesn’t make the reader feel too implicated. Regency England is even further removed from us than the original readers, and in setting it amongst the upper classes, he skewers a stratum of society very few inhabit.

“The whole baronetage, peerage, commonage of England, did not contain a more cunning, mean, selfish, foolish, disreputable old man. That blood-red hand of Sir Pitt Crawley’s would be in anybody’s pocket except his own; and it is with grief and pain, that, as admirers of the British aristocracy, we find ourselves obliged to admit the existence of so many ill qualities in a person whose name is in Debrett.”

So while amoral Becky climbs from very humble origins, as the daughter of an opera singer and a artist, by any means necessary with no concern for anyone other than herself, we can sit back feeling pretty smug, yes? Well, no. Thackeray positions the reader very cleverly by making Becky the most entertaining and compelling character. I certainly felt the novel was pointing out very clearly what it meant that I would rather hear about Becky and all her conniving, that about simple, kind Amelia (Emmy) or upright Captain Dobbin.

I didn’t like Becky, but I enjoyed her. While she could be spiteful and a bully to Amelia:

Women only know how to wound so. There is a poison on the tips of their little shafts, which stings a thousand times more than a man’s blunter weapon. Our poor Emmy, who had never hated, never sneered all her life, was powerless in the hands of her remorseless little enemy.

She also used all the vanities and weaknesses of not very pleasant people against them, was clever and entertaining, and was out to ensure her position and security in a world where everything was stacked against her. I would far rather hear about Becky than Emmy, who spent her time simpering over her repulsive husband, spoiling her revolting child, and crying whenever she wasn’t otherwise engaged.

“In two days he has adopted a slightly imperious air and patronizing manner. He was born to command, his mother thinks, as his father was before him.”

I’m not sure we’re supposed to think Emmy particularly misguided here. Thackeray is pretty scathing about those in charge. Those with privilege are those who lead, and there is nothing in their personal qualities to suggest this is wise. Sadly this has not dated.

Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are not these the great qualities with which dullness takes the lead in the world?

Thackeray exposes how these weaknesses of the ruling classes are indulged in a way that poorer members of society are not:

When we read that a noble nobleman has left for the Continent, or that another noble nobleman has an execution in his house—and that one or other owes six or seven millions, the defeat seems glorious even, and we respect the victim in the vastness of his ruin. But who pities a poor barber who can’t get his money for powdering the footmen’s heads; or a poor carpenter who has ruined himself by fixing up ornaments and pavilions for my lady’s dejeuner; or the poor devil of a tailor whom the steward patronizes, and who has pledged all he is worth, and more, to get the liveries ready, which my lord has done him the honour to bespeak? When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed.”

Certainly along with the bullying, it was the financial exploitation of her staff that made Becky most problematic and unlikeable for me. However,  it’s very clear that Becky’s options, and Amelia’s, are limited and I thought Thackeray was surprisingly sympathetic to the position of women in society.

Although frequently compared to War and Peace, the writer Vanity Fair most put me in mind of was Jean Rhys. I think both she and Thackeray agree that morals are a privilege of the comfortably off, and those with choices (mainly men).

“And who knows but Rebecca was right in her speculations—and that it was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman? If you take temptations into account, who is to say that he is better than his neighbour? A comfortable career of prosperity, if it does not make people honest, at least keeps them so.”

I really enjoyed the humour and social commentary of Vanity Fair and I’m so glad today’s reviewathon prompted me to finally take it off the shelf. For those of you thinking about giving it a go, I should warn you that there are racist portrayals of some characters and countries primarily at the beginning, but these are thankfully short-lived and Thackeray doesn’t seem to be asserting that whites hold any kind of moral authority.

Frankness and kindness like Amelia’s were likely to touch even such a hardened little reprobate as Becky. She returned Emmy’s caresses and kind speeches with something very like gratitude, and an emotion which, if it was not lasting, for a moment was almost genuine. 

I’m not sure who else is taking part but I’ll add links to the other bloggers posting today as I find them 😊

Fiction Fan’s review

Rose Reads Novels

Jane at Just Reading a Book


Sandra at A Corner of Cornwall

To end, for some reason I’ve been thinking a lot about Stevie Nicks lately. So I’ve decided to shoehorn her into this post by claiming that at the start of Vanity Fair, Becky and Amelia are almost definitely – ahem – on the edge of seventeen… (#sorrynotsorry)

“If you were gay, I’d shout hooray” (Avenue Q)

London Pride, the LGBT+ festival which runs for 3 weeks in June, culminated with a parade this weekend. The Orlando shootings had already given this year’s festival an added poignancy, and after the week we’ve had in Britain, a joyful parade celebrating diversity warmed my battered heart. My favourite thing at this year’s festival is undoubtedly this – we should keep it all year round.

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Image from here

In this post I’m going to look at two classic novels which explore an experience of being gay at the start of the twentieth century. They are both set in Britain, where at the time being a gay man was illegal (repealed in 1967). Lesbians weren’t acknowledged in law, but being gay of gender was broadly speaking, socially taboo.

Firstly, Maurice by EM Forster, which was written in 1914 but not published until after Forster’s death in 1970. Maurice grows up in an England where sex education involves conversations like this:

“To love a noble woman, to protect and serve her – this, he told the little boy, was the crown of life. ‘You can’t understand now, you will some day, and when you do understand it, remember the poor old pedagogue who put you on the track. It all hang together – all – and God’s in his heaven, All’s right with the world. Male and female! Ah wonderful!”

Good grief. Maurice blindly follows the path laid out for him: prep school, public school, Cambridge. Forster is rather scathing towards his protagonist, emphasising his lack of intellect and inability to question his life in any way. Events force him out of this spiritual somnambulism when his best friend makes a confession:

“Durham could not wait. People were all around them, but with eyes that had gone intensely blue, he whispered ‘I love you.’

Maurice was scandalized, horrified. He was shocked to the bottom of his suburban soul, and exclaimed, ‘Oh, rot!’”

Gradually however, Maurice realises what the reader already knows, that he is sexually attracted to men and loves his friend. This is the start of him living consciously and becoming generally more pleasant:

“After this crisis, Maurice became a man. Hitherto – if human beings can be estimated – he had not been worth anyone’s affection, but conventional, petty, treacherous to others, because to himself. Now he had the highest gift to offer.”

Maurice isn’t totally redeemed: he can still be selfish and a terrible snob. This is one of the novel’s strengths – he isn’t idealised, he isn’t better or worse than most people, he is just an ordinary person with the need to love and be loved, but because “England will always be disinclined to accept human nature” Maurice suffers greatly, because he is forced to try and supress such basic human needs.

“He lived on, miserable and misunderstood, as before, and increasingly lonely. One cannot write these words too often: Maurice’s loneliness: it increased.”

Meanwhile, heterosexual couples are welcomed and celebrated, able to live openly.

“They loved each other tenderly. Beautiful conventions received them – while beyond the barrier Maurice wandered, the wrong words on his lips and the wrong desires in his heart, and his arms full of air.”

However, this isn’t a sad novel – apparently Forster was determined it would not be so as he didn’t want a gay protagonist to appear to be punished. It is about how accepting who we are enables us to live better lives not only for ourselves but for those around us, and it is about the damage that can be done when society attempts to force a predetermined conventional ‘norm’ upon people. Maurice is also beautifully written and highly readable; never preachy and emotionally affecting.

There was a Merchant Ivory adaptation of Maurice in 1987, which I’ve never seen, but looks like a faithful adaptation, starring many of the Merchant Ivory regulars:

Secondly, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928). Unlike Forster, she published at the time, but given the novel was subject to an indecency trial, it seems Forster judged correctly that Maurice would cause outrage. The Well of Loneliness tells the story of Stephen Gordon, a daughter to landed gentry who were so convinced she’d be a boy that they give her a masculine name. As Stephen grows up, she struggles against the gender expectations placed on her.

“And Stephen must slink upstairs thoroughly deflated, strangely unhappy and exceedingly humble, and must tear off the clothes she so clearly loved donning, to replace them with the garments she hated. How she hated soft dresses and sashes, and ribbons, and small coral beads, and openwork stockings! Her legs felt so free and comfortable in breeches; she adored pockets, too, and these were forbidden”

The novel follows Stephen through her young life, isolated from her peers, distanced from her mother who is revolted by a difference in her daughter she cannot name. Stephen’s solace is her kind father and her horses. She gradually realises that she is attracted to women, and that this is unacceptable to the society in which she lives.

“What remained? Loneliness, or worse still, far worse because it so deeply degraded the spirit, a life of perpetual subterfuge, of guarded opinions and guarded actions, of lies of omission if not of speech, of becoming an accomplice in the world’s injustice by maintaining at all times a judicious silence”

The wiki page about this novel tells me it’s been criticised by people who see the difficulties experienced by Stephen as encouraging shame, but I think this is a bit unfair. Written in 1928, I suspect living in a society where you had to hide a fundamental part of who you are, where “Love is only permissible to those who are cut in every respect to life’s pattern” could be a bit bloody at times. Stephen is never portrayed as needing to be anything other than she is: the fault is society’s not hers, and she remains defiant to the end.

“She must show that being the thing she was, she could climb to success over all opposition, could climb to success in spite of a world that was trying its best to get her under…Yes, it was trying to get her under, this world with its smug rules of conduct, all made to be broken by those who strutted and preened themselves on being what they considered normal.”

The Well of Loneliness could do with being about 100 pages shorter (Sarah Waters judges The Unlit Lamp as a much stronger novel) but I still found it very readable and whizzed through it. It’s somewhat depressing stance may mean it’s controversial amongst critics, but love it or hate it, it remains a highly significant novel of the time.

To end, a chance to indulge my slightly baffling but most enduring Danny Dyer obsession. Often cast as the stereotypical uber-straight macho man, here he is getting an opportunity to perform gender in a much broader way:

“I want my limits to be drawn by my own sensibilities, not by my melanin count” (Zadie Smith)

This post is my second contribution to #DiverseDecember, which was brought about due to there being no books by BAME authors on the World Book Night list. Please head over to Naomi’s blog for an excellent, thorough discussion about this.

This week I thought I’d look at a classic novel by a Black American writer and a highly acclaimed first novel by a Malaysian writer now living in Britain, linked by portrayals of marriage. Sadly neither feature an Impressive Clergyman:

Firstly, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937), a much loved classic – my copy comes complete with effusive cover quotes from Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Oprah Winfrey. I recommend this Virago edition: it has an interesting introduction by Zadie Smith, from which I took the title quote for this post, and an afterword by Sherley Anne Williams.

Beautiful Janie lives with her grandmother in the early part of the twentieth century:

“You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways. You in particular. Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfil my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do. Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothin’ can’t stop you from wishin’. You can’t beat nobody down so low till you can rob ‘em of they will.”

When Janie is caught kissing a local bad boy, her grandmother arranges a marriage with a much older man who has land. It is an empty, lonely relationship and Janie runs off with her second husband, Jody. He is glamorous and exciting, but wants a trophy wife and is given to violence towards her:

“Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see where it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over.”

This is really what TEWWG is about: a woman’s search for self-fulfilment. Although the narrative drive comes from her three marriages, Janie is searching for a situation that will allow her to express who she is. She finds it with her third husband, Tea Cake:

“He drifted off into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.”

Janie is a compelling character, a spirited woman who strives for her voice to be heard and respected at a time when being a black woman meant there were few opportunities available. Hurston is undoubtedly a politically engaged writer, and her style is direct but not didactic. Rather, she has an unflinching gaze and a dry humour:

“Mrs Turner, like all other believers, had built an altar to the unobtainable – Caucasian characteristics for all….Behind her crude words was a belief that somehow she and others through worship could attain her paradise – a heaven of straight-haired, thin-lipped, high-nose boned white seraphs.”


Their Eyes Were Watching God is sad and hopeful; it is wise and affecting.

“Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”

Secondly, The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw (2005), which was longlisted for the Man Booker, the Guardian First Book Prize and the Impac, winning the Whitbread First Novel award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It tells the story of the marriage of Snow to Johnny, a merchant/mechanic/mercenary, during the Second World War.

The tale begins with their son Jasper, attending his father’s funeral.  Jasper’s feelings towards his father are complex to say the least:

“As we drove away I knew that I had been mistaken. That tender moment had been a mere aberration; it changed nothing. My father was born with an illness, something that had eaten to the core of him; it had infected him forever, erasing all that was good inside him.”

Snow’s diary from the early days of her marriage to Johnny makes up the second part of the novel and gives a different picture of Johnny as a quiet, conflicted man, perpetually displaced from his surroundings “I saw Johnny gathering himself to reply. He had an expression I had come to recognise, his broad face set in nearly cross-eyed determination.” Jasper sees his father as a thug, and while Snow doesn’t necessarily understand Johnny any better, she complicates the portrait drawn by her son.

Johnny and Snow honeymoon with an enigmatic Japanese professor for whom Snow feels a deep attraction; a displaced Englishman, Peter Wormwood; and the misnamed Honey, a mine-owner. This part of the novel sees relationships shift and change, reflected within an unpredictable tropical climate, during a strange suspension of reality prior to the Japanese invasion of Malaya:

“They ran through the towns and villages, barely pausing to plant flags of the Rising Sun before moving on. The red dust kicked up by the soldiers’ boots hung in the air, turning it crimson before settling on the leaves of the trees; all along the roads the trees turned red, and in some parts of the valley it was said that the streams ran deep scarlet.”

The third and final part of novel is narrated by an elderly Peter, looking back on that time while planning the new garden for the care home he lives in. As the answers to mysteries within the story emerge, we are left with contradictory accounts and loose ends. It is not so much unreliable narration, as a demonstration of how we are all unreliable narrators; we all have our own truth.

The personal story is bound up in issues of imperialism and displacement, expressed in Peter’s determination that his garden will be resolutely English, despite being planted in Malaysia:

“Not just lily-of –the valley, but ox-eye daisy, foxglove, cranesbill, snake’s head fritillary: I will plant them all in this hot earth… no longer will I have to wait for summer to enjoy its scent, for here it is summer all year long”

Tash Aw, who grows Malaysian plants in his London garden

Tash Aw, who grows Malaysian plants in his London garden

(Image from https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/140377.Tash_Aw )

The overall impression I have on finishing The Harmony Silk Factory  is  captured by a comment the professor makes to Snow:

“Life is a palimpsest.”

Layers upon layers, each leaving their trace on people, places and memories. The Harmony Silk Factory manages the impressive feat of demonstrating how people remain unknown, stories unfinished, and yet still providing a satisfying resolution in itself.

Unfortunately I can’t think of a satisfying resolution to this post, so when in doubt, end on a song. Take it away, Freda:


“L’anglais n’est que du français mal prononcé”/“English is little more than badly pronounced French” (D’Artagnan in Vingt ans après / Twenty Years After – Alexandre Dumas)

Sunday was Bastille Day (La Fête Nationale /Le Quatorze Juillet in France) and so in honour of my friends across La Manche I thought this week I would look at two novels by French writers.  Unfortunately, being a typical Brit, I’m useless at other languages – even one with a 60% overlap with English – and so je regrette, I will be discussing the novels in their English translations. Both are novels, classics of French literature, and both concern adolescents, but other than that they are very different. J’espère que vous apprécierez!

Firstly Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier (1913, my copy Penguin 1987).  Alain-Fournier was the pen name of Henri Alban who died in 1914, fighting in World War I.  He was only 27 when he wrote Le Grand Meaulnes, and I think this is a case where it’s very hard not to read the novel biographically with regard to the author’s own life story.  Le Grand Meaulnes has an elegiac quality, a mourning for a lost France, a golden time which has passed.  It is a story of young adulthood and sexual awakening being told by a narrator looking back on events, and as such it has a nostalgic, idealised tone.  Knowing the author died so quickly after writing it adds to this atmosphere of loss.

The novel is narrated by fifteen year old Francois, who attends the school where his parents are teachers.  He is lonely, and when seventeen year old Augustin Meaulnes arrives at the school, Francois finds a hero (hence le grand…).  Not long after his arrival, Meaulnes finds fireworks left over from Le Quatorze Juillet celebrations (apt for this post):

“He was showing me the two fuses with paper wicks which the flames had bitten into, seared, and then abandoned.  He stuck the nave of the wheels into the gravel, produced a box of matches – this to my astonishment for we were not allowed matches – and stooping carefully held a flame to the wicks.  Then, taking my hand, he pulled me quickly back.

Coming out of doors with Madame Meaulnes…my mother saw to great bouquets of red and white stars soar up from the ground with a hiss.  And for the space of a second she could see me standing in a magical glow, holding the tall newcomer by the hand, and not flinching…

Once again, she had nothing to say.

And that evening a silent companion sat eating at the family table, his head bent over his plate, paying no heed to three pairs of eyes that saw nothing but him.”

A little while after this, Meaulnes disappears for three days.  He returns without explanation, wearing the waistcoat of a Marquis.  Eventually he tells Francois what happened in those missing days, and the adventure is somewhere between reality and a dream.  He lost his way on a journey to the village, and ends up in the grounds of a large estate.  The house has the feeling of being abandoned, and he discovers a box of old clothes, rich costumes, which he dresses in.  He follows a “young dandy”, also dressed in clothes of a bygone era, into the “farm, chateau, abbey, whatever it might be” and finds himself in the middle of a fete where everyone is dressed oddly, feasting and dancing.   In the garden, he sees a young woman, and follows her onto a boat:

“And now on shore, everything fell into place as in a dream.  While children ran about shouting and laughing, and their elders broke up into groups and moved away through the woods, Meaulnes kept to the path where the girl was walking only a few steps ahead. He came up with her before he had given himself time to reflect and said simply:

“You are beautiful.””

And so le grand Meaulnes becomes the romantic hero, as he returns to school and he and Francois attempt to find the chateau, and the young woman, Yvonne, again.  As Meaulnes searches for her in Paris, Francois discovers where the chateau is. Meaulnes and Yvonne are reunited and marry, but not before Meaulnes has had a crisis over the fact that things can never be as they once were:

“Once she laid a hand on his arm gently, in a gesture of trust and helplessness.  Why was le grand Meaulnes at that moment like a stranger, like a man who has failed to find what he sought and for whom nothing else held any interest?  Three years before such a gesture would have overjoyed him to the point of terror, perhaps even madness.  Why then this present emptiness, this aloofness, this inability to be happy?”

And therein lies the rub of this novel – le grand Meaulnes can behave like a bit of an idiot.  He is the eternal romantic, but life cannot be all romance.  As he tries to live out his fantasies, he actually behaves quite badly toward the women in his life.  The women in this novel are not fully drawn, they exist as vessels for le grand Meaulnes’ romanticism, and as such this novel can be a frustrating experience for 21st century readers. But as a portrayal of the time when childhood has been left behind but adulthood is still to be realised, and of a time when a person has an all-consuming romantic sensibility before it becomes tempered by experience, Le Grand Meaulnes is brilliantly evocative.

Secondly, and with a protagonist very different to Meaulnes, Zazie in the Metro/Zazie dans le Metro by Raymond Queneau (1959, my copy Penguin, 2000). Zazie lives in the country, but when her mother wants to have a few days alone with her lover, Zazie arrives in Paris to spend time with her uncle Gabriel, a female impersonator.  Zazie is excited to ride the Metro, but there is a strike on. Undeterred, she explores Paris and has adventures.  And that’s about it, really.  But despite an outwardly simple plot, Zazie is a hugely enjoyable and compelling read.  Zazie is worldly wise and foul-mouthed, and has a great time rocketing around Paris on her own.  Here she is chatting to a police constable about her missing uncle:

“He added with a nostalgic air:

“Words don’t have the same meaning as they did.”

And he sighed as he looked at the extremity of his beetle-crushers.

“None of this gives me back my unkoo,” said Zazie.  “they’ll start saying I got a phobia again and it won’t be true.”

“Don’t worry my child,” said the widow.  “I shall be there to bear witness to your good will and to your innocence.”

“When people are really innocent, that is,” said the constable, “they don’t need anybody.”

“The bastard,” said Zazie, “I can see him coming a mile off. They’re all the same.”

“You know them well as that, then, my poor child?”

“Don’t talk to me about ‘em, my poor lady,” replies Zazie, simpering. “Just fancy, my mamma, she split open my papa’s skull with a chopper. So after that, cops, talk about getting to know them, my dear.”

“Well I never,” said the constable.

“Cops though, they’re just nothing,” said Zazie. “But judges. Well now, that lot…”

“All swine,” said the constable impartially.

“Anyhow, the cops and the judges too,” said Zazie, “I fooled ‘em.  Like that (gesture).””

This scene shows a lot about Zazie: the heroine is no idealised infant, but a manipulative, savvy, funny, independent being who seeks to please no-one.  The novel has a lot of dialogue and as such a lot of slang, like unkoo, or the opening word “Howcanaystinksotho” (how can they stink so?) which according to Wikipedia, in the French original was “Doukipudonktan”  to represent “D’où qu’ils puent donc tant” (“Why do they stink so much?”).  This gives the novel a unique voice and a real feel of stepping into a pre-teenager’s world (although we’re never told exactly how old Zazie is).  It almost reads like a script, particularly when it uses devices like “(gesture)”, and in fact it was made into a film by Louis Malle just a year after publication. But there are times when Queneau takes on a stronger authorial role, and the voice has a light comic tone that is wholly in keeping with his heroine’s dialogue:

“Perceiving her uncle a prey to the victualing mob, she bawled out: Come on, unkoo! And grabbing hold of a carafe full of water, threw it at random into the fray.  So strong is the martial spirit among the daughters of France.  Following this example, the widow Mouaque disseminated ashtrays all around her. So powerful is the spirit of imitation which can cause even the least gifted to act. Then was heard a considerable fracas: Gabriel had just collapsed into the crockery, carrying with him into the debris seven waiters who were completely out of control, five customers who had been taking part and one epileptic.

Rising to their feet with simultaneous impulse, Zazie and the widow Mouaque approached the human magma which was struggling in the sawdust and crockery.  A few judiciously applied blows with a syphon eliminated from the competition several persons endowed with fragile skulls.  Thanks to which Gabriel was able to pick himself up…”

Zazie isn’t necessarily likeable, she’s a self-serving brat, but I love her.  I urge you to spend three days with Zazie as she gets to know the great city of Paris and some of its more idiosyncratic inhabitants.

Here are the books with one of France’s greatest products, fromage bleu.  Ah, Roquefort, je t’aime, je t’aime beaucoup….