November is full of wonderful reading events and I’ve been through the TBR pulling out possibilities for Novellas in November, German Lit Month, Margaret Atwood Reading Month and AusReading Month. Given my current reading and blogging pace it’s highly unlikely that I’ll manage them all, but I’m starting today with a post for Nonfiction November hosted by Doing Dewey.
In many ways this is the least likely of all the events for me to take part in, as I read practically no nonfiction. However, last year I read the first two in Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ trilogy and absolutely loved them. The bibliophile’s crack-den that is the charity bookshop across the road from my flat never lets me down, and when saw the third instalment in there recently of course I swooped.
Real Estate (2021) sees Levy still living in the flat she moved to when her marriage ended, but as her children leave for university and beyond, she is trying to work out what makes a home, and whether she wants one.
“I was also searching for a house in which I could live and work and make a world at my own pace, but even in my imagination this home was blurred, undefined, not real, or not realistic, or lacked realism. I yearned for a grand old house (I had now added an oval fireplace to its architecture) and a pomegranate tree in the garden. It had fountains and wells, remarkable circular stairways, mosaic floors, traces of the rituals of all who had left there before me. That is to say the house was lively, it had enjoyed a life. It was a loving house.
[…] The odd thing was that every time I tried to see myself inside this grand old house, I felt sad.”
The themes from The Cost of Living and Things I Don’t Want to Know continue, as Levy considers how to live in a way that supports her work and enables her to authentically create her own space in middle-age, in a society that undervalues ageing and especially ageing women.
In Real Estate Levy is looking at the spaces she creates both internally and externally, and the challenge to have both reflecting and supporting the other.
“An extended family of friends and their children, an expanded family rather than a nuclear family, which in this phase of my life seemed a happier way to live. If I wanted a spare room for every friend, my flat could not support this idea. If I wanted a fireplace in every room, there were no fireplaces in my flat. So what was I going to do with all this wanting?”
She takes a fellowship in Paris for a while, living in an apartment she barely furnishes, knowing it will be transitory and focussing on her work. She visits Berlin and Mumbai and holidays in Greece. The various changes of scene don’t enable Levy to reach any conclusions about where to live, or how to reconcile her desires and needs with the practicalities entailed in bricks and mortar. But that’s not the point of these exploratory, reflective living autobiographies. Perhaps the point is that there is no answer – as we evolve and change, so do our needs, and perhaps so does the best place for us to be.
With this volume as with the previous two, Levy is a witty and challenging writer, so much fun while not shying away from serious issues and a strong feminist sensibility:
“Are women real estate owned by patriarchy?… Who owns the deeds to the land in that transaction?”
I particularly enjoyed this encounter at a literary party which she gatecrashes in London:
“A male writer of some note, but not in my own hierarchy of note, had knocked back a few too many gin cocktails. This liberated his desire to find a female writer in the room to undermine […] The truth was that he viewed every female writer as a sitting tenant on his land.”
Real Estate has been marketed as the final volume of Levy’s living autobiography and I really hope that’s not the case. She’s wonderful company.
To end, my own perennial real estate quandary is: do I leave my little London flat for somewhere cheaper so I can have a garden? I’ve been debating this for years and I will leave in the end, but here’s a warning about the perils of leaving London for a trip to the Home Counties (a bit sweary so do avoid if you’re not keen, but the lyric ‘Could you be my big spoon or are you just a bigot in Wetherspoons?’ meant I really wanted to share 😀 )
Two Women in One – Nawal el-Saadawi (1975 trans. Osman Nusairi and Jana Gough, 1985) 124 pages
Nawal el-Saadawi is a ridiculously impressive individual; if you ever want to feel like a total underachiever, just read her wiki page. A big part of her work is as a campaigner for women’s rights, and this is very much the theme of Two Women in One.
The novella concerns Bahiah Shaheen, who is studying to be a doctor.
“She stood with her right foot on the edge of the marble table and her left foot on the floor, a posture unbecoming for a woman – but then in society’s eyes she was not yet a woman since she was only eighteen. In those days, girls dresses made it impossible to stand like that. Their skirts wound tightly around the thighs and narrowed at the knees, so that their legs remained bound together whether they were sitting, standing or walking, producing an unnatural movement.”
Bahiah doesn’t walk like other women, she strides. She isn’t interested in men. She isn’t interested in her studies. She struggles to connect with her family. She often thinks of herself as split in two: the outwardly obedient daughter and student, the inwardly restless and rebellious young woman.
Bahiah likes art and drawing, and she meets a young man Saleem at an exhibition. He begins to open her eyes to life beyond her home and studies and her internal reflections start to result in external actions.
“Bahiah Shaheen’s mind was not her own. But she had another mind. She could feel it in her head, a swelling thing that filled her skull, impishly and secretly telling her that all these things were worthless and that she wanted something else, something different, unknown but definite, specific yet undefined, something she could draw with the tip of her pen on the blank sheet of paper like an individual black line, But when she looked at it, it became a long line stretching far and wide as the horizon with no beginning and no end.”
This is what el-Saadawi captures so well in Two Women in One: not knowing what you want, except you want something different. Another writer would have Bahiah’s awakening coinciding with a sexual awakening with Saleem, or a driven ambition to be an artist. But el-Saadawi doesn’t fall into those clichés, although Bahiah experiences sexual pleasure and is motivated by her art. Rather Bahiah has that late adolescent feeling of restlessness and disconnect, without knowing enough about yourself or life to know what you want to fight for.
For Bahiah, this adolescent awakening has significant ramifications, because she lives in a society that circumscribes women’s choices and activities and under a government that clamps down forcibly on any dissent.
“Ever since she first became aware of life, she had wondered why all the things she loved were taboo.”
Two Women in One is simply plotted and told, but it is a story that asks big questions about the freedom of the individual, the role of women, societal responsibility and the price paid for living authentically.
“Bahiah now understood the tragedy. She knew why human beings hide their real desires: because they are strong enough to be destructive; and since people do not want to be destroyed, they opt for a passive life with no real desires.”
Unusually, just one book from me this week, because it’s a looooooong post, about a reading choice inspired by this post from Ali.
I don’t really watch dating shows, but when I catch a bit of them, I can feel nicely smug listening to people who have tick box criteria for potential mates. It leads me to a tick box list of my own:
You’ll never find anyone who ticks all the boxes
If you do, I guarantee that for some indefinable reason you’ll feel they’re not the right person for you
So of course, the same applies to the love of my life, books. My tick boxes:
Strong female protagonists
Ideally older women
Strong moral centre but not one that is preachy or dominates the narrative
Flawed but likable characters who don’t always behave impeccably
Unlikely but believable friendships
Romantic relationships must be presented non-romantically but without bitterness
Evocative sense of place but not overly flowery descriptions
Hopeful but realistic ending
Novella length or so brilliantly paced and plotted that it feels novella length
I’m never going to find that novel am I? Or if I do, for some indefinable reason it’s not going to work for me…
I loved, loved, loved South Riding by Winifred Holtby (1936). I loved it so much. It was one of those gorgeous bookish situations where you’re racing through it because you can’t bear not to be reading it, but you also don’t want it to end. I’m kind of angry that I’m not reading it at this very moment… 😀
Sarah Burton, worldly and travelled, returns to her home of South Riding in Yorkshire to take up the position of Headmistress in the local girls school:
“This was her battlefield. Like a commander inspecting a territory before planning a campaign, she surveyed the bare level plain of South Riding. Sarah believed in action. She believed in fighting. She had unlimited confidence in the power of human intelligence and will to achieve order, happiness, health and wisdom. It was her business to equip the young women entrusted to her by the still inadequately enlightened State for their part in that achievement. She wished to prepare their minds, to train their bodies, to inoculate their spirits with some of her own courage, optimism and unstaled delight.”
Her position will bring her into contact with the local council as she tries to get the school up to scratch. Alderman Joe Astell, somewhat incapacitated by TB, will become a friend:
“He had become a Socialist through love of his fellow men, not through dislike of them, and now he felt an emotional barrier between himself and his neighbours which no logic could remove. He saw himself, an awkward priggish man, with a harsh voice and tactless manner, tolerated simply because illness had reduced his fighting powers, weakened his quality.”
Both he and Sarah feel an antipathy towards the local landowner, Robert Carne of Maythorpe. Carne is in debt up to his eyes, trying to keep his estate running and finance his wife’s exorbitant private mental health hospital bills. His daughter Midge – who may not be his biologically – seems to have inherited her mother’s vulnerability. Carne has a weak heart and is not sure how long he will live. It says something for the complex characterisation of him that as a reader I still felt for him, despite his admission that he raped his wife – the only time that Midge could have been conceived by him.
“He was Robert, elder son of Thomas Carne, steward for one generation of two thousand acres. He felt humble because he knew himself to be an unworthy steward.
He had endangered the farm for his wife’s sake. The shadow of her thin imperious beauty crossed that hot firelit room where rested the two old men who had served Maythorpe better than its owner.”
When Sarah sees him and thinks this:
“I dislike, I oppose everything he stands for, she told herself – feudalism, patronage, chivalry, exploitation…We are natural and inevitable enemies.”
There are no prizes for guessing what happens…
The plot of the novel is centred around local politics and how the decisions taken have a wide- reaching ripple effect. But although Holtby has plenty to say about the state of society and the responsibilities of those in power, what carries the novel are the people behind the positions, the committees and the decisions. She effortlessly weaves together the lives of this disparate group who happen to all live in the same town in the north of England.
A piece of wonderful characterisation is that of Alderman Snaith. He is not a major character although he has a significant part to play, and in a lesser writer’s hands this borderline-corrupt, self-serving aesthete who despises Spring for its fecundity could be out-and-out repulsive. Yet in a wonderful chapter titled Alderman Snaith is Very Fond of Cats he is shown to be damaged in the most horrific way and subsequently a complex man.
But far and away the best characterisation is Mrs Beddows, supposedly based on the author’s mother. She is the first female alderman of the district, in her seventies and age shall not wither her:
“So cheerful, so lively, so frank was the intelligence which beamed benevolently from her bright spaniel-coloured eyes, that sometimes she looked as young as the girl she still, in her secret dreams, felt herself to be. Her clothes were a compromise between her spiritual and chronological ages. She wore today a dignified and beautifully designed black gown of heavy dull material; but she had crowned this by a velvet toque plastered with purple pansies.”
Mrs Beddows adores Carne, is a good friend and advisor to Sarah, and endures her tight-fisted husband as best she can:
“The one commodity with which he was prepared to be completely generous was his unasked opinion.”
There’s plenty here about the position of women too; presented not only through Sarah’s relentless pursuit of opportunities and education for her pupils, but in light-hearted ways such as through the contents of Mrs Beddows gift drawer:
“The indictment of a social system lay in those drawers if they but knew it – a system which overworks eight-tenths of its female population, and gives the remaining two-tenths so little to do that it must clutter the world with useless objects. Mrs Beddows did not see it quite like that; presents were presents; bazaars were bazaars, and Sybil was teaching the Women’s Institute raffia work and glove-making.”
South Riding is a rich, passionate novel, full of ideas and peopled with idiosyncratic, believable characters. It’s immediately become one of my all-time favourite books.
“I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.”
The BBC adapted South Riding in 2011. I watched it but I can’t remember much about it, so it obviously didn’t captivate me as much as the book. I’m going to re-watch it and looking at the trailer now I do think Anna Maxwell Martin is excellent casting for Sarah Burton:
Happy Valentine’s Day! Whether you are single or romantically attached, I wish you all a day filled with the greatest love of all:
Last year on Valentine’s Day I looked at novels by a famous couple: Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and I thought I’d do it again this year. I’ve picked Rebecca West and HG Wells, who must have been a formidably intellectual couple; I for one would have been terrified to go to theirs for dinner. They had an affair for ten years (one of many for Wells, done with his wife’s knowledge) and a son together; they were friends until Wells died.
Firstly, The Thinking Reed (1936) by Rebecca West. Set in 1928, Isabelle is two years younger than the century and widowed after her beloved husband Roy dies in a plane crash. She is an American in France:
“Her competent, steely mind never rested. She had not troubled with abstract thought since she left the Sorbonne, but she liked to bring everything that happened to her under the clarifying power of the intellect.”
At the start of the novel she is having an affair with Andre de Verviers “He was an idiot, but his body did not know it”, a shallow man who likes his women to be goddesses to worship, not real in any way. Isabelle knows she must be rid of him:
“the generic woman in her who loved the generic man in him should have endless opportunities to betray the individual woman in her who loathed the individual man in him”
I thought that was a really unflinching summary of the end of their love affair, and West continues with this clearsighted view throughout the novel. Isabelle ends up marrying Marc Sallafranque, in a strange situation which arises from her trying to save face in front of the man she wants to be with, the cold Laurence Vernon. Thankfully these convoluted machinations soon stop, as she realises she does actually love Marc.
“ ‘He looks the funniest thing in the world, but inside he has a lot of the goodness and sweetness of Roy.’ She paused, because she had suddenly felt a click in her brain, as if these words which she had spoken for a false purpose had coincided with the truth.”
What follows is a simply plotted novel which tracks Isabelle and Marc’s marriage from Isabelle’s point of view, over the next few years. That’s not to say it is pedestrian, because West is a sophisticated writer of considerable intellect, and so what she creates is a careful character study of a woman and her relationship, with plenty of opportunity for wider social commentary:
“every inch of a woman’s life as she lived it struck her as astonishing, either because nothing like what she was experiencing had ever been recorded, or because it had been recorded only falsely and superficially, with lacuna where real poignancy lay.”
I love that about the lacuna. There’s centuries of women’s history lost in those places.
For me The Thinking Reed could have been shorter, but then I think that about anything over 200 pages 😊 In fact, I wonder if the fact that it dragged a bit in places was part of West’s art. It was a portrait of a marriage, and Isabelle was bored at times in it, so at times the narrative became a bit pedestrian too. If so, it was an audacious choice for a writer.
There was also plenty of humour in The Thinking Reed, more than I’ve noticed in the other novels by West that I’ve read. This ranged from the witty:
“ ‘I am not yet twenty-eight, and this man will be my third husband and fourth lover.’ She was aware however, that in making this objection she was insincerely subscribing to the fiction that sexual relations, while obviously offering certain satisfactions, are so inherently disagreeable that persons of fine taste, especially women, are obliged to treat them with the remote precaution which they apply to garlic […] but Isabelle knew quite well that she did not find sexual relations disagreeable.”
To the downright bitchy, especially where fine society is concerned:
“she had in all her life never stopped talking long enough to give anyone time to approach her with any proposition regarding sexual irregularity”
All in all I enjoyed The Thinking Reed. Sadly I don’t think the skewering of the idle rich has dated at all and the two main characters were believable individuals who had a clearly loving but tricky relationship. The ending was surprising and touching, without being sentimental.
Secondly, Ann Veronica by HG Wells (1909) and one of the few male authors published as a Virago Modern Classic. Wells’ titular heroine is 21, beautiful, and feeling utterly stifled at the start of the twentieth century.
“She wanted to live. She was vehemently impatient—she did not clearly know for what—to do, to be, to experience. And experience was slow in coming. All the world about her seemed to be—how can one put it?—in wrappers, like a house when people leave it in the summer. The blinds were all drawn, the sunlight kept out, one could not tell what colours these gray swathings hid. She wanted to know.”
She is the youngest in her family, and lives at home with her aunt and overbearing father. Wells is careful to make her father a monster though; rather he shows that Mr Stanley is as he is because so far the world has never challenged him to be otherwise. But this is a time of first-wave feminism, and he badly needs to catch up:
“He was a man who in all things classified without nuance, and for him there were in the matter of age just two feminine classes and no more—girls and women. The distinction lay chiefly in the right to pat their heads.”
Ann Veronica is friends with the liberal minded Widgett family and they open her mind to ideas of socialism and votes for women. Ann Veronica also wants to study biology at Imperial College, of which her father disapproves.
Early in the novel, she runs away from her suburban home with the help of the Widgetts, and finds lodgings in London. It is her naivety which enables her to do this. She has no idea the real risk she is taking, what is required in practical terms, or how she will be judged as a single woman alone in the city.
Although she learns quickly, she also takes a loan from a man who believes he has bought a right to her body, a fact which Ann Veronica remains oblivious to for an extraordinarily long time. Somehow, she survives in London and carries on her studies, at which point she falls in love with her married instructor, Mr Capes.
Ann Veronica was written at a very specific time. Suffragism was on the rise, World War I was yet to happen. Wells supported the idea of the New Woman, conveying through his young romantic heroine how constricted women are at this moment in time, and the forces for change that are being exerted. As Ann Veronica’s friend Hetty Widgett observes:
“The practical trouble is our ages. They used to marry us off at seventeen, rush us into things before we had time to protest. They don’t now. Heaven knows why! They don’t marry most of us off now until high up in the twenties. And the age gets higher. We have to hang about in the interval. There’s a great gulf opened, and nobody’s got any plans what to do with us. So the world is choked with waste and waiting daughters. Hanging about! And they start thinking and asking questions, and begin to be neither one thing nor the other. We’re partly human beings and partly females in suspense.”
Wells makes Ann Veronica intelligent, but she is not swept along by any one idea. This is a clever approach, because if Ann Veronica became an ardent Fabian, or suffragist, or bohemian, the story would become weighed down by polemic. Instead Wells is able to introduce all these approaches without the novel becoming tediously didactic.
“It did begin to fall into place together. She became more and more alive, not so much to a system of ideas as to a big diffused impulse toward change, to a great discontent with and criticism of life as it is lived, to a clamorous confusion of ideas for reconstruction—reconstruction of the methods of business, of economic development, of the rules of property, of the status of children, of the clothing and feeding and teaching of everyone”
What Ann Veronica is swept along by – and the reason I think the novel was so scandalous on publication – is sexual desire.
“And as she sat on her bed that night, musing and half-undressed, she began to run one hand down her arm and scrutinize the soft flow of muscle under her skin. She thought of the marvellous beauty of skin, and all the delightfulness of living texture. On the back of her arm she found the faintest down of hair in the world. “Etherialised monkey,” she said. She held out her arm straight before her, and turned her hand this way and that.
‘Why should one pretend?’ she whispered. ‘Why should one pretend?’
‘Think of all the beauty in the world that is covered up and overlaid.’”
Ann Veronica grows up a lot in the course of the novel and begins to understand how her own wants will have to be negotiated within societal constraints. She also learns when she will need to conform and when she will need to go her own way, even when the price is a high one.
“A woman wants a proper alliance with a man, a man who is better stuff than herself. She wants that and needs it more than anything else in the world. It may not be just, it may not be fair, but things are so. It isn’t law, nor custom, nor masculine violence settled that. It is just how things happen to be. She wants to be free—she wants to be legally and economically free, so as not to be subject to the wrong man; but only God, who made the world, can alter things to prevent her being slave to the right one.”
Although the character of Ann Veronica is somewhat idealised, I still really enjoyed the novel. The story flows along and is immensely readable. I’ve actually never read Wells before and on the strength of this I’m encouraged to try his more famous novels, despite not being much of a sci-fi reader.
“Am I becoming reasonable or am I being tamed?
I’m simply discovering that life is many-sided and complex and puzzling. I thought one had only to take it by the throat.
It hasn’t GOT a throat!”
To end, my favourite Prince Charming… well, it *is* Valentine’s Day after all 😊
I’m not a big follower of book prizes although I like the Bailey’s Prize and usually try & read the Booker winner. However, the annual Stella Prize, which started in 2013 and awards outstanding Australian women’s writing, has lists which always look fascinating and wide-ranging. Currently the 2018 long list has been announced and the shortlist will be revealed on International Women’s Day, 8 March. I hadn’t read any of the winners and obviously this enormous oversight needed correcting. Also, Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest’s wonderful reviews of the last two winners convinced me I needed to rectify this sooner rather than later.
The 2017 winner was The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. You can read Kate’s review here. It is an extraordinary novel, centred around the real-life event of The Artist is Present by Marina Abramovic, a 2010 performance art installation at MoMA in New York, which you can read about here.
Arky Levin is a film score composer, estranged from his wife and devoted to the city:
“When he moved to New York… and found the stars in their gaping darkness were nowhere to be seen, eclipsed by SoHo apartments and Midtown high-rises, Chinatown neons and flashy Fifth Avenue commercial buildings…he felt he had won. That humanity had won. New York was brighter than the universe bearing down on them. For this alone he had decided that he could live here forever and entirely expected to.”
Arky attends the installation for each of the 75 days it is in situ, and during this time he witnesses the profound effect the installation has on people. Marina sits one side of a table, and the public volunteers sit opposite her one at a time, gazing into her eyes. They can stay for as little or as long as they want, but they must make eye contact.
“Here in New York, where time was everyone’s currency, and to gaze deeply into the face of another was possibly a sign of madness, people were flocking to sit with Marina Abramovic. She wasn’t so much stealing hearts, he thought, as awakening them. The light that came into their eyes. Their intelligence, their sadness, all of it tumbled out as people sat.”
Such a simple but incredibly powerful idea, and the installation was a smash hit. Similarly, Rose uses a simple writing style to explore massive themes: love in many guises, loss, art, the desperate need for meaning in life and how we locate it. Arky learns about other and himself simply by sitting and watching the installation.
“Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity, you must be fearless.”
The Museum of Modern Love, as the title suggests, is a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It is not a romance between two people. Instead it is a love story about people and all they can give to one another, as lovers, friends, relatives, artist and spectator. It is life-affirming without being sentimental. Rose acknowledges there is pain for people, but suggests that we have to get out there anyway, engage in acts of love in a myriad of ways, find connection and transcend.
“She was watching Marina Abramovic in her white dress on this final day of her enduring love. For hadn’t it been that for Abramovic? An act of love that said, This is all I have been, this is what I have become in travelling the places of my soul and my nation, my family and my ancestral blood. This is what I have learned. It is all about connection. If we do it with the merest amount of intention and candour and fearlessness, this is the biggest love we can feel. It’s more than love but we don’t have a bigger word.”
And here she is, on the last day, in the white dress:
In 2016 the winner was The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. You can read Kate’s review here. I wish I’d read The Museum of Modern Love after this, as it would have been a good aid to recovery. The Natural Way of Things is brutal, shocking, urgent and without doubt one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years. It has absolutely stayed with me.
A group of young women are kidnapped and held hostage in a large, bleak piece of land in the outback, surrounded by an electric fence. There is no escape, and gradually they realise no-one is coming for them.
“Nobody knows. They have been here almost a week. Nobody has come, nothing has happened but waiting and labour and dog kennels and DIGNITY & RESPECT and beatings and fear and a piece of concrete guttering, and now perhaps infection is coming too.”
Gradually it emerges that all the women have a sex scandal in their past. These are never fully explained but enough information is given for the reader to realise that in each case, the power lay with the men involved, and in each case, the women are the vilified parties. Possibly they have been taken by a moral fanatic, who we never see. Their heads are shaved, their clothes taken and replaced with basic garments, including Handmaid’s Tale style bonnets, which come to represent both a coping mechanism and gradual institutionalisation for some of the captives:
“they depend on them for the snug containment of their heads, covering their ears, the obscured vision. Verla can understand it, though only from a distance. She used to hold them in contempt for keeping the bonnets; not anymore. But still, for her herself, that limp, stinking thing felt more like a prison than this whole place.”
As food supplies dwindle and illness threatens, the women fight for survival in their various ways. Their jailers are pathetic and inept, but also men and they hold the power.
“He frowns down and Verla knows he is thinking ugh at the two filthy girls, that he is freshly fearful of the lice eggs in their matted hair, of Verla stretched white with illness, of Yolanda and her rusted weaponry. He fears their thin feral bodies, their animal disease and power.”
The Natural Way of Things is about how society figures men and women, where power lies, how that is wielded and how predator and prey lies barely concealed in human relationships. It is beautifully written, perfectly paced, and absolutely terrifying.
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:
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.
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
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:
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.
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?”
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:
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.
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…
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: