“The 1920s were a great time for reading” (Bill Bryson)

A little while ago I wrote about Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, her novel set in the 1920s, which I took refuge in as I was trying to grow my hair into a bob (well, it made sense at the time). Rest easy reader, I know you must have been worrying about it, but a friend proclaimed this weekend that my hair looks most definitely bob-like so I’m walking around like a fabulous flapper:

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Maybe not. But regardless, to celebrate I’m looking at two novels from the 1920s, as recommended by Sarah Waters at the end of The Paying Guests. Choosing from the list of ten was a serious business, involving shortlists, consulting with various bookish types, taking votes…. OK, I just picked the two I had on my TBR mountain 🙂

Firstly, The Judge by Rebecca West (1922) which Sarah Waters describes thusly: “Suffragism, illegitimacy, motherhood, melodrama: like lots of West’s fiction, this is sprawling, brilliant, funny – and a little bit crazy.” The story begins in Edinburgh, where Ellen, nineteen years old, beautiful and a suffragette, meets Richard Yaverland:

“For sufficient reasons he was very sensitive to the tragedies of women, and he knew it was a tragedy that such a face should surmount such a body. For her body would imprison her in soft places: she would be allowed no adventures other than love, no achievements other than births.”

Later in the story it will emerge what those sufficient reasons are, but against her better judgement Ellen falls in love with worldly, handsome Richard.

“She was not sure that she approved of love. The position of women being what it was. Men were tyrants, and they seemed to be able to make their wives ignoble. Married women were often anti-Suffragists; they were often fat; they never seemed to go out on long walks in the hills or write poetry.”

Alongside this humour and Ellen’s naivety “I will have nothing to do with any man until I am great. Then I suppose I will have to use them as pawns in my political and financial intrigues” West does have something serious to say about relationships between the sexes at that moment in time. The Judge presents detailed character studies of Ellen, Richard and his mother Marion, and how society has influenced the nature and capacity of their love. This is not a rose-tinted view of young marriage by any means.

“Perhaps something like fear would have come upon her if she had known how immense he felt with victory; how he contemplated her willingness to love him in a passion of timeless wonder, watching her journey from heaven, stepping from star to star, all the way down the dark whirling earth of his heart; and how even while he felt a solemn agony at his unworthiness he was busily contriving their immediate marriage. For there was a steely quality about his love that would have been more appropriate to some vindictive purpose.”

 The second half of the novel sees Ellen leave Edinburgh to live with Richard and his mother in the Home Counties. More emerges about the circumstances of Richard’s illegitimacy and subsequently complex family dynamics. It is at this point that the melodrama mentioned by Sarah Waters really starts to ramp up. I think it’s here that the novel may start to lose readers, but although it begins to spiral somewhat, I still thought the novel had a lot to say about women’s position and the ramifications of moral absolutes. Marion and Richard have a relationship Freud would have found great mileage in, teetering on the edge of impropriety. Ellen is understandably somewhat befuddled by this brittle woman and her weird family, but she decides they suit her:

 “The rapidity with which she had changed from the brooding thing she generally was, with her heavy eyes and her twitching hands perpetually testifying that the chords of her life had not been resolved and she was on edge to hear their final music, and the perfection with which she had assumed this bland and glossy personality at a moment’s notice, struck Ellen with wonder and admiration. She liked the way this family turned and doubled under the attack of fate. She felt glad that she was going to become one of them, just as a boy might feel proud on joining a pirate crew.”

The Judge is somewhat overblown, but I enjoyed it for that reason – sometimes it’s nice to indulge in a bit of mad melodramatics alongside the serious issues.

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Secondly, Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim (1921) which Sarah Waters describes as “a brilliant depiction of a sinister, suffocating marriage, this novel also features one of the most likeable spinster aunts in British fiction.” Sinister is right: this is a very different tale to the delightful The Enchanted April. Definitely not escapist, Vera is rather one of those novels where you want to reach into the book, yank out one of the characters and shake them until they listen to you, the older, wiser reader. Maybe I get over-involved in my reading…

Lucy Entwhistle, young and naïve, finds herself almost alone in the world after her beloved father dies. Blundering into her grief moments after the death is the older, good-looking Wemyss, also grieving a loss, as his wife has recently died in possibly murky circumstances:

“‘How good you are!’ she said to Wemyss, her red eyes filling. ‘What would I have done without you?’

‘But what would I have done without you?’ he answered; and they stared at each other, astonished at the nature of the bond between them, at its closeness, at the way it seemed almost miraculously to have been arranged that they should meet on the crest of despair and save each other.”

Vera is extremely clever, as at first we don’t like Wemyss, but like Lucy’s beloved spinster Aunt Dorothy, it’s not totally clear why: “whatever she felt about his legs she welcomed him with the utmost cordiality”. The more time he spends with Lucy, the more unpleasant he reveals himself to be – a wholly self-centred, arrogant, ignorant bully. Aunt Dorothy is wise enough to realise that if she registers her objections, it will only push Wemyss and Lucy closer together, and so she keeps quiet, though distressed, as she watches the tragedy unfold.

“His way of courting wouldn’t be – she searched about in her uneasy mind for a word, and found vegetarian. Yes; that word sufficiently indicated what she meant: it wouldn’t be vegetarian.”

Von Arnim’s lovely humour stops the tale being bleak, but it is a tense tale, increasingly so after Wemyss and Lucy marry less than a year from the death of the titular wife. The scales begin to fall from Lucy’s eyes:

“One learns a lot on a honeymoon, Lucy reflected, and one of the things she had learned was that Wemyss’s mind was always made up.”

But Lucy doesn’t realise the extent of what is going on in her marriage. We are living at a time of fourth-wave feminism, and in a post-Freudian world, so I would say Lucy is in a psychologically abusive marriage with a narcissistic, megalomaniac sadist who seeks to destroy her.  But she cannot see it.

“the mood of tender, half-asleep acquiescence in which, as she lay in his arms, he most loved her; then indeed she was his baby…You couldn’t passionately protect Vera. She was always in another room.”

Wise Vera.  There is a glimmer of hope, and that hope is the wonderful Aunt Dorothy. Never underestimate the clear-sighted spinster Wemyss, you have no idea who you’re dealing with.

Joan Hickson, the greatest Miss Marple - 5 points if you can spot the wardrobe malfunction in this picture

Joan Hickson, the greatest Miss Marple – 5 points if you can spot the wardrobe malfunction in this picture

Vera is a brilliantly written psychological study of the dangers for women in a society that seeks to position them as economically and socially dependent on men, particularly when this dependency is wrapped up in romantic notions. It made me furious and it made me sad. It also made me glad that although we have some way to go, I live where my rights as a woman are enshrined in law.

To end, what Lucy needs is a Lesley Gore classic cranked up to 11, sung by the perennially awesome feminist icon Joan Jett:

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“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May” (William Shakespeare)

Last week I looked at The Enchanted April, so this week for May Day I thought I’d look at another Virago that helpfully has the current month in the title, Frost in May by Antonia White (1933). Virago was founded in 1973, with the Modern Classics imprint starting in 1978 “dedicated to the rediscovery and celebration of women writers, challenging the narrow definition of Classic”. Frost in May was the first Modern Classic title, so for this post I’ve paired it with the first Persephone title, as Persephone, founded in 1998, have a similar remit to publish lost or out of print books which are mainly written by women.

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Frost in May is Antonia White’s autobiographical first novel, telling the story of Nanda Gray and her schooling at the Convent of the Five Wounds from the ages of 9 to 14. Nanda begins school as a devout child, finding her way in Catholicism:

“St Aloysius Gonzaga had fainted when he heard an impure word. What could the word have been? Perhaps it was ‘belly’, a word so dreadful that she only whispered it in her very worst, most defiant moments. She blushed and passionately begged Our Lady’s pardon for even having thought of such a word in her presence.”

White charts Nanda’s development throughout her school career.  She is from an ordinary middle-class family, her father a recent convert, and the other girls from aristocratic European Catholic families are glamorous and much more worldly:

“Leonie and Rosario were seasoned retreatants. They went into this solitary confinement with as little fuss as old soldiers going into camp. Rosario supplied herself with a great deal of delicate needlework if a vaguely devotional nature, while Leonie announced frankly that she was going to use her notebook to compose a blank verse tragedy on the death of Socrates.”

As Nanda becomes older, she begins to struggle with her faith, although there is never a sense that she will abandon it all together. Rather it is the story of a young person trying to find a true sense of meaning within her faith, rather than without it.

“She had often been rewarded by a real sense of pleasure in the spiritual company of Our Lord and Our Lady and the saints. But over and over again she encountered those arid patches where the whole of religious life seemed a monstrous and meaningless complication.”

If this sounds like it has no place in today’s secular world, I’ve not done Frost in May justice. The novel is about a young person’s growing realisation of self, explored with sensitivity. As a heathen book lover, I related to Nanda’s discovery of poetry:

“She read on and on, enraptured. She could not understand half, but it excited her oddly, like words in a foreign language sung to a beautiful air. She followed the poem vaguely as she followed the Latin in her missal, guessing, inventing meanings for herself, intoxicated by the mere rush of words. And yet she felt she did understand, not with her eyes or her brain, but with some faculty she did not even know she possessed.”

Frost in May is a short novel and a quick read, and I can see both why it was marginalised and why Virago chose it to launch its Modern Classics imprint. It is easy to overlook: a school story in which little happens, five years in a young girl’s life and no intrusive authorial voice to proclaim any wider profundity beyond the immediate story. Yet it has plenty to say about what is profound for the individual, the influences and experiences that shape us and leave an indelible mark. White’s light touch should not be mistaken for a lack of something to say.

“Do you know that no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely? Broken and reset in God’s own way. I don’t think your will has quite been broken, my dear child, do you?”

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Secondly, William – An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton (1919) who was a suffragette and wrote this novel during the last year of World War I. The eponymous Mr Tully is a young man who prior to the war is a socialist, fired less by idealism and more by the need for something with which to occupy himself.

“The gentlest of creatures by nature and in private life, he grew to delight in denunciation, and under its ceaseless influence the world divided itself into two well-marked camps; the good and enlightened who agreed with him, and the fool and miscreants who did not…in short, he became a politician.”

William meets and marries a similarly dim suffragette, Griselda, and Hamilton’s satire of their unthinking politicking is relentless.  They are shown as well-meaning but avoiding any challenge to their ideals and any opportunity for genuine original thought. When a certain archduke is assassinated in Sarajevo, they pay it little mind as it does directly affect their parochial politics, and they head off on honeymoon to Ardennes. When they emerge from the Forest of Arden three weeks later, they are captured by soldiers and face a traumatic awakening as to the state of the world:

“So they trotted down the valley, humiliated, dishevelled, indignant, but still incredulous – while their world crumbled about them and Europe thundered and bled.”

Hamilton does not baulk from the realities of war – of which she had first-hand experience – and it is shown as bloody and brutal. The satire falls away as William becomes the everyman caught up in circumstances far beyond his control.

“It had not seemed to him possible that a man could disagree with him honestly and out of the core of his heart; it had not seemed to him possible that the righteous could be righteous and yet err. He knew now, as by lightening flash, that he, Faraday, a thousand others, throwing scorn from a thousand platforms on the idea of a European War, had been madly, wildly, ridiculously wrong – and the knowledge stunned and blinded him.”

Hamilton’s master stroke is that the things she satirised – William and Griselda’s lack of understanding, ignorance and youthful certainties – become the very things that drive home the human tragedy of the war. They are ordinary people who just wanted to live the life they imagined for themselves, and their powerlessness and profound losses are what makes this so very sad. The devastation of World War I is left in no doubt.

After all this talk of devastation, let’s pick ourselves up with some love poetry: the wonderful Harriet Walter reading the sonnet from which this post takes its title:

A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #69)

Today’s post is  the latest in a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

A Room of One’s Own grew out of lectures Virginia Woolf was asked to give at Newnham and Girton Colleges, Cambridge, in 1928. You can read the full essay in various places online. Women were only officially admitted to the university in 1948, and the fact that these talks were given 20 years previously shows just how ground-breaking Woolf was.  A Room of One’s Own is a vital proto-feminist text that remains relevant today.  The fact that you can buy bags, pillows, tea towels, deckchairs, mugs, notebooks ad infinitum with the book cover on is an indicator of how much the central image continues to speak to people, as well as the arguments themselves.

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(Image from: https://www.pinterest.com/particularbooks/postcards-from/)

The central image is: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  In other words, she needs a means to support herself, and space to reflect and think; she needs liberty, and these things have been traditionally denied to women.  They have been dependent on the men in their family for financial support, and not supposed to concern their pretty little heads with intellectual endeavour.  Woolf argues her points forcefully but wittily, you never feel you are being bludgeoned by polemic.  Take for example the opening paragraph:

“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what, has that got to do with a room of one’s own? I will try to explain. When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant. They might mean simply a few remarks about Fanny Burney; a few more about Jane Austen; a tribute to the Brontës and a sketch of Haworth Parsonage under snow; some witticisms if possible about Miss Mitford; a respectful allusion to George Eliot; a reference to Mrs Gaskell and one would have done.”

The paucity of women writers Woolf has at her disposal to refer to speaks volumes about the male dominance of writing up to this point, and the reliance on male point of view for literary portrayals of women:

“women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time — Clytemnestra, Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Phedre, Cressida, Rosalind, Desdemona, the Duchess of Malfi, among the dramatists; then among the prose writers: Millamant, Clarissa, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Madame de Guermantes … Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater.”

Of course, Woolf was a highly accomplished and inventive writer herself, and this is reflected in the lecture which is not traditionally academic but instead illustrated with fictional characters such as Judith Shakespeare, sister of the more famous William:

 “his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. […]She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face […]who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? [She] killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.”

As my extensive quoting shows, I think this is a fantastic essay, well worth reading. It isn’t flawless, it’s culturally biased towards the speaker and her audience: middle-class, white, Western women.  But Woolf never claims to have all the answers: “women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems.” (I think the idea of women as an unresolved problem is ironic and assertive, not derogatory?) A Room of One’s Own highlights enduring problems, relevant to both genders, of how to claim societal freedom that will permit individual voices to be heard. It also makes me very glad that I am a woman in this day and age; I may be embarrassed at how ridiculously over-educated I am (a perennial student) but at least I had the choice to become so.

To end, a picture of a room I wish was my own – it could do with a few more books, though…

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(Image from http://pawilson.ca/are-there-some-books-you-keep-reading-over-and-over/ )

“Why do people say “grow some balls”? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.” (Sheng Wang, probably)

I didn’t plan for the theme for this week’s post to be feminism, but then my weekend consisted of thinking of little else, so I decided feminism it had to be. So, what happened this weekend?  I watched Caitlin Moran being interviewed by India Knight as part of this year’s Hay sessions, Beyonce’s Chime for Change concert was televised, I read an interview with Joss Whedon talking about Buffy as a role model and why he didn’t want her turned into a doll, there was an article about feminist activism in the digital age. Then I switched on Radio 4 for Book Club and the author was discussing his creation of strong female characters (more of that later).  Once I’d decided on the theme for this post, I wondered if this meant branching out from discussing fiction, as I gazed at my bookshelves trying to decide between Germaine Greer, Susie Orbach, Caitlin Moran, Naomi Wolf, Natasha Walter…  but then I realised I was being incredibly short-sighted.  I wanted this blog to be about fiction and there was no reason to change (but I still wanted to name-check a few authors, please check them out if you haven’t already).  Feminism is about the world we live in, and fiction writing and reading is part of that – for some of us, a huge part… So, fiction it is. I’ve chosen one classic of feminist literature and one less obvious choice.  Also, one by a female author and one by a male, because I don’t think feminism is about the exclusion of men (that’s just made me think of another recommendation, Feminist Ryan Gosling by Danielle Henderson, a great gift for the feminist Gosling fan in your life, of which surely there are many). Let’s smash the patriarchy!

Firstly, The Women’s Room by Marilyn French (1977, my copy Warner Books 1993). Written during the 1970s feminist movement, this was French’s first novel and has become one of feminism’s classic texts.  It’s a huge tome – just shy of 700 pages in my copy, but it has a very readable style and isn’t an arduous “but-I-know-this-is-good-for-me” experience. The central protagonist is Mira, a baby-boomer who grows up to live the domestic idyll, married to a doctor (called Norm, geddit?) and with 2 children who she raises in middle-class suburbia. Her friends are all like her, and discontent and extra-marital affairs abound as they come to terms with the limitations of the lives they’ve wandered into.  After the breakdown of her marriage, Mira attends Harvard and plans to become a teacher.  Here she has her consciousness awakened by Val, a feminist.  It is this character that voices the more extreme views within the book, the most famous probably being “all men are rapists”.  Eek.  Don’t let that put you off though, as the novel generally has a less extreme approach to issues, and as an insight into militant 1970s feminism the character of Val is worth sticking with.  There is a lot of angry polemic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and here there is enough narrative drive to make you feel you’re not being battered over the head with it.  Mira is a character you root for, and she’s not a victim:

“Ever since the divorce, she had grown more and more bitter at that injustice, at the injustice of the way the world treats women, at Norm’s injustice to her.  And all she was doing was getting more bitter, destroying her own life, what was left of it.  There is no justice . there was no way to make up for the past. There was nothing that could make up for the past.  She sat stunned for a while, freed of a burden, feeling her mouth soften, her brow unline. […] There was no justice, there was only life. And life she had.”

In some ways The Women’s Room has dated. Things are different to how they were in 1977.  In other ways it hasn’t dated at all and the things that its angry about are still a source of inequality today; as a novel that looks at how “women’s work” is undervalued, it is entirely current as long as gender pay gaps persist, which they do. The Women’s Room is an approachable way to start to look at feminist issues through narrative.

Secondly, Quarantine by Jim Crace (1997, Penguin).  This may not seem an obvious choice, but it was the novel discussed on Radio 4’s Book Club this week, where Crace identified himself as a feminist:

“I guess it’s a question of being a right-on bloke, that’s lived in through the seventies and eighties […] what I do want to do with the women in my books though, is not have Hollywood type heroines, in which good looks are the gateway to being virtuous and having good luck, and having good fortune, and having long marriages and lots of handsome children. That seems to me to be a very pessimistic view of the world, that only very good-looking women are going to do well in the world. So what I want to do in all of my books, is to present women who are admirable for other reasons. They are strong women, and I like that, and in a way if you’re spending as many hours alone in your house as I do, then you might as well have the company of women that you’ve created who you like.”

So, who are the women of Quarantine?  They are Miri and Marta, living in Judea around 2000 years ago.  Miri is married to Musa, a truly evil man to the point of possibly being the embodiment of Satan.  He is a trader, one who exploits and commodifies all: “He looked each of them in the face as if they were for sale.  He could tell at once what they were worth.”  Miri doesn’t even pretend to like him. Marta enters the desert to fast for fertility:

“Husbands were amusing, too.  At least, they were amusing when they were out of sight.  Their vanities and tempers could be joked about among women friends at the ovens or the well.  Grumbling and laughing at their curdy husbands made the bread rise and the yoghurt set.  But Marta could not find the comedy in Thaniel.  He’d made her and his first wife barren, she was sure, with his dry heart and sparking tongue.  They were like millstones without oil.  But – Marta was an optimist – she still believed everything would be a joy if she could have his child.”

Set 2000 years apart, The Women’s Room and Quarantine both highlight the marriage laws remaining resolutely on the man’s side.  Quarantine however, is resolutely on the women’s side, as they fight to find their way in a society that is not built for them. The women are the strongest characters in the novel, and this may be somewhat surprising when you consider there is another man in the desert too, a young Galilean:

“He was open mouthed.  He looped his tongue from side to side, circling his lips, tasting the atmosphere for smells.  In fact his sense of smell had been so bludgeoned by the heat and by his thirst that he could not detect the sulphur even. He was parched and faint.  His lips were cracked…he was a traveller called Jesus, from the cooler, farming valleys in the north…”

The word quarantine comes from the Italian quarantena, meaning 40 days, and so the title takes on a layered meaning.  The characters are in quarantine from the rest of society for various reasons, including Jesus spending forty days in the desert as part of his spiritual journey. Quarantine is a haunting, beautifully written novel about characters on the outskirts, who are given a space of their own within this story.

Here are the novels, hanging out with Germaine Greer:

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