“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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“My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.” (Winston Churchill)

A friend of mine got married last weekend, and most lovely it was too. But enough about them; it gives me an excuse for indulgence of an enduring crush (who I planned to marry when I was six –  with hindsight I suspect the age gap was insurmountable):

To celebrate I’ve picked two novels which explore the theme of marriage. Firstly, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011). Set at Brown University in the early 1980s, it tells the story of three undergraduates, Leonard, Madeleine and Mitchell, as they try and find their way through life, while realising that their academic and intellectual achievements have not prepared them in any way. As an English graduate, I particularly enjoyed Eugenides’ evocation and gentle ribbing of this area of study:

“That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical- because they weren’t musical, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.”

Of course I disagree 🙂 Eugenides is very good a skewering the intellectual trends in academia, which at this time was semiotics, while not undermining idealistic Madeleine’s belief in ideas and search for meaning. Unfortunately “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” and she finds the theories don’t really account for the messiness of real world relationships. In one pivotal scene, the writing of Roland Barthes is used to break her heart:

I Love You je-t’aime/I-love-you. As she read these words, Madeleine was flooded with happiness. She glanced up at Leonard, smiling. With his finger he motioned for her to keep going. The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry. Suddenly Madeleine’s happiness diminished, usurped by the feeling of peril. She wished she weren’t naked.”

The Marriage Plot is comic but remains grounded in the three vulnerable characters trying to become the best versions of themselves. Once they leave university, the novel shifts from satirising academia to focus on the characters’ relationships with one another. Eugenides uses a typical romantic plot (no-one is in love with anyone who can love them back) to create a metafictional commentary on how romance and marriage have been presented throughout the ages, particularly in novels. If this sounds truly dreadful, rest assured the novel stops short of being too smug about its own cleverness, and what emerges in the second half is a truly sensitive portrait of mental illness.

 “That was when Leonard realised something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up.”

Whether or not this is true, Leonard is both brilliant and extremely unwell, and the exploration of his bipolar disorder is non-sensationalist and balanced, showing the effect on Leonard and those around him; the price paid for something devastating which is no-one’s fault.

“it was as if her own heart had been surgically removed from her body and was being kept at a remote location, still connected to her and pumping blood through her veins, but exposed to dangers she couldn’t see: her heart was in a box somewhere, in the open air, unprotected.”

I didn’t find The Marriage Plot quite as effective as Eugenides’ debut The Virgin Suicides, and although I haven’t read Middlesex, his lauded second novel (it’s buried in a TBR stack somewhere…), I doubt this novel concerned the Pulitzer judges to the same extent. However, it is a novel with much to offer, and I recognised and cared about all the characters in it. The Marriage Plot plays with ideas and even destabilises itself with metafictional nods towards novels and novel writing, but never at the expense of a recognisable humanity.

“the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance, In the days when success in life had depended marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had a subject to write about. The great epics sung of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?”

Pasta eating dogs melt even this non-romantic's heart

Pasta eating dogs melt even this non-romantic’s heart

Secondly, The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler (2004), which portrays the marriage between Michael and Pauline, from their courtship under the shadow of World War II through to old age. Their fledgling relationship is shown through the eyes of the small town where Michael has grown up:

“She had her read coat on, which is how they could all spot her from such a distance. They said ‘Michael! Look!’ and Michael turned at once in the right direction, although Pauline herself had not called out. When she came nearer they could see why. She had no breath left, poor thing. She was gasping and tousle-haired and flushed – really not her prettiest, but who in the world cared? She was holding out her arms, and Michael dropped his belongings and started running too, and when they collided he swooped her up so her feet completely left the ground, Everybody said ‘Ah’ in one long satisfied sigh – everyone except his mother, but even she watched with something close to sympathy.”

Once the war – and its accompanying heightened experience, drama and uncertainty is over, the marriage is shown through the eyes of the couple, who realise they are entirely mismatched:

“by nature, Pauline tumbled through life helter-skelter, while Michael proceeded deliberately. By nature, Pauline felt entitled to spill anything that came into her head while Michael measured out every word. She was brimming with energy – a floor pacer, a foot jiggler, a finger drummer – while he was slow and plodding and secretly somewhat lazy. Everything to her was all or nothing…while to him the world was calibrated more incrementally and more fuzzily.”

This being Anne Tyler, it is not a huge tragedy, but rather a psychologically astute portrait of two people and their family with the attendant hurt, frustration, disappointment, love and affection:

“Another time, Michael might have felt annoyed by this rouged and lipsticked version of the truth. Such concern for the looks of things even within the family! But today he was touched. It occurred to him that his wife had amazing reserves of strength, that women like Pauline were the ones who kept the planet spinning. Or at least, they made it appear to keep spinning, however it might in fact be wobbling on its axis.”

If you’ve read any of Anne Tyler’s 20 novels before, you’ll know what to expect in The Amateur Marriage: set in Baltimore, concerned with ordinary people leading ordinary lives, with no huge dramas. This is not a criticism, however. She is brilliant at well-observed detail, of the meaning found in small moments, of what we learn to live with and the solace imperfect human beings can give one another.

“He believed that all of them, all those young marrieds of the war years, had started out in equal ignorance…Then two by two they fell away, having grown wise and seasoned and comfortable in their roles, until only he and Pauline remained, as inexperienced as ever – the last couple left in the amateurs’ parade.”

To end, a little something for another friend who was also at the wedding, and who I think will be the next bride I see. She has an agreement with her partner for a certain man to be her celebrity allowance:

“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.”

Zora Neale Hurston, Class of 1928, Chicago, Ill., November 9, 1934

Zora Neale Hurston

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

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: