“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:

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“Everything being a constant carnival, there is no carnival left.” (Victor Hugo)

Today is May Day, and I was thinking about the traditions of this time: celebration, revelry, pastoral fertility.  Please note I said thinking about, not participating in.  Confession time, reader: even though I’m in Oxford I didn’t want to do an all-night pub crawl/ball or get up at ridiculous o’clock to go to Magdalen Bridge for May Morning.  I lay in bed, and because Oxford is so quiet I could hear the choir and bells anyway, and it was beautiful.  Better warm in bed than in an inebriated crowd, I told myself.  Before I seem too virtuous, I should tell you that I’m really just lazy, because an hour or so later I got up for a champagne breakfast.  If this post seems even more waffly and incoherent than usual, you know why.

So, the traditions of May Day, and choosing books for this post made me think about the carnivalesque in novels.  Mikhail Bakhtin said that the carnivalesque (this is a shockingly rough paraphrase) is a time when social hierarchies are overthrown in energetic riot: as norms are disregarded, reversed and subverted, anything can happen.  Sounds like the spirit of May Day to me. Hence, for this post I’ve picked two novels that are carnivalesque/subversive in some way.

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The Battle Between Carnival and Lent – Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1599 (Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Bruegel_d._%C3%84._066.jpg )

My first choice is Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (1984, Chatto & Windus).  The minute I started to think about carnivalesque, this is what sprang to mind. I thought the summary on the dust jacket was spot-on, so here it is:

Fevvers: the toast of Europe’s capitals, courted by princes, painted by Toulouse Lautrec, the greatest aerialiste of her time. Fevvers: somersaulting lazily through the air, hovering in the moment between the nineteenth century and the twentieth, between old dreams and new beginnings, born up by the spread of wings that can’t be real! Or- can they? Fevvers: the Cockney Venus, six foot two in her stockings, the coarsely lively and lovely heroine…Obsessed with Fevvers, constantly bamboozled by the anarchist sorcery of her dresser and confidante, Lizzie, the dashing young journalist Jack Walser stumbles into a journey which takes him from London to Siberia via legendary St Petersburg and out of his male certainties, into a transforming world of danger and joy, the world of Colonel Kearney’s circus…Featuring a cast of thousands, including : the clown’s requiem, the tigers’ waltz, the educated apes, the bashful brigands, the structuralist wizard. Not forgetting Sybil, the Mystic Pig.”

Just brilliant. I’ve said before that there’s no-one like Angela Carter, and Nights at the Circus is her writing at her very best.  Fevvers voice leaps of the page at you in the first paragraph:

“Lor’ love you sir!” Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. “As to my place of birth, why, I first saw the light of day right here in smoky old London, didn’t I! Not billed the ‘Cockney Venus’ for nothing…Hatched out of a bloody great egg while Bow Bells rang, as ever is!”

If that all sounds a bit “cor-blimey-luvvaduck-rent-a-cockney”, don’t worry.  With Angela Carter you are never in the land of the stereotype, but in an exuberant world of characters the like of which you will never have met before, or since.  She is master of the original and evocative image (“like dustbin lids”) and while her work is carnivalesque and destabilising, it’s also great fun.  The circus is Carter’s world, which means anything can happen.  But beneath all the sparkle and pizzazz, she creates a world of substance.  Buffo the clown reflects:

“We are the whores of mirth, for, like a whore, we know what we are; we know we are mere hirelings hard at work yet those who hire us see us as beings perpetually at play. Our work is their pleasure and so they think our work must be our pleasure, too, so there is always and abyss between their notion of our work as play, and ours, of their leisure as our labour.”

Carter uses magic realism to explore how we construct reality, and how easily it can be deconstructed.  Where better to do that than the circus? She plays with notions of gender and sexuality, challenging the idea that they are fixed entities, and explores how identity can be constantly created and recreated.  Jack falls in love with Fevvers, unsure of who, or what, it is he loves: if he gets behind the image of the Cockney Venus, who will be there?  Is she part bird?  And who will he be in response?:

“When Walser first put on his make-up, he looked in the mirror and did not recognise himself. As he contemplated the stranger peering interrogatively back at him out of the glass, he felt the beginnings of a vertiginous sense of freedom , that, during all the time he spent with the Colonel, never quite evaporated; until that last moment where they parted company and Walser’s very self, as he had known it, departed from him, he experienced the freedom that lies behind the mask, with dissimulation, the freedom to juggle with being, and, indeed, with the language which is vital to our being, that lies at the heart of burlesque.”

Angela Carter clearly had a fierce intellect and something interesting to say about how we make our worlds.  But she also didn’t let that get in the way of a good story.  Nights at the Circus is a fantastic read, in all the senses of the word.

Secondly, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, full text available online).  Obviously, this novel is hugely famous (even if you haven’t read it I bet you know what physical feature distinguishes a Lilliputian).  Lemuel Gulliver relates fantastical tales of his travels, and in the process Swift offers a satire on travel narratives (which were hugely popular in the eighteenth century as people travelled further and wider) and on the human condition.  I chose it for this theme as it is full of inversions and reversals; Gulliver travels to Lilliput, where he is a giant, then to Brobdingnag where he is minute; to Laputa which he considers crude and unenlightened, then to the Houyhnhnms who consider him a “yahoo” barbarian.  Gulliver’s Travels is episodic, so I’m just going to pick out a couple of events.  Firstly, one of the most famous ones: many writers at the time were obsessed by bodily functions, and Swift is no different, though thankfully not nearly as scatological as some of his contemporaries.  Here is Gulliver putting his urine to good use in Lilliput:

I was alarmed at midnight with the cries of many hundred people at my door; by which, being suddenly awaked, I was in some kind of terror….her imperial majesty’s apartment was on fire, by the carelessness of a maid of honour, who fell asleep while she was reading a romance.  I got up in an instant; and orders being given to clear the way before me, and it being likewise a moonshine night, I made a shift to get to the palace without trampling on any of the people.  I found they had already applied ladders to the walls of the apartment, and were well provided with buckets, but the water was at some distance.  These buckets were about the size of large thimbles, and the poor people supplied me with them as fast as they could: but the flame was so violent that they did little good… this magnificent palace would have infallibly been burnt down to the ground, if, by a presence of mind unusual to me, I had not suddenly thought of an expedient.  I had, the evening before, drunk plentifully of a most delicious wine called glimigrim, (the Blefuscudians call it flunec, but ours is esteemed the better sort,) which is very diuretic.  By the luckiest chance in the world, I had not discharged myself of any part of it.  The heat I had contracted by coming very near the flames, and by labouring to quench them, made the wine begin to operate by urine; which I voided in such a quantity, and applied so well to the proper places, that in three minutes the fire was wholly extinguished, and the rest of that noble pile, which had cost so many ages in erecting, preserved from destruction.

And just to finish, here is a bit of the more heavy-handed satire for you, when the king of Brobdingnag responds to a summary of British politics:

“He was perfectly astonished with the historical account gave him of our affairs during the last century; protesting “it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce.”

I’ll leave it to you to decide if such motivations have left politics these days…

Gulliver’s Travels is a complex book, and one that is very hard to pin down: it is funny, it is sad, it can be read to children, it is baffling to adults.  It shifts meaning and genre according to who is reading it: truly carnivalesque.

I was hoping to end with a clip of Bellowhead performing One May Morning Early: apt, no?  But YouTube failed me.  So here they are singing about a carnival romance instead:

 

 

“I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” (Jerome K. Jerome)

This weekend is the May Day Bank Holiday in UK.  For those of you who don’t have this celebratory tradition, it’s very simple.  A young woman is dressed in diaphanous clothing and flowers and carried through the village.  Traditionally she would have been a virgin.  Yes, in Britain we like celebrate the purity of young girls by parading them as some sort of Springtime woodland sex fairy.  Then we get children to dance with ribbons around a giant phallic symbol – nothing inappropriate there.  Then grown men strap bells to their ankles and don knickerbockers to dance with each other (women are banned from this so inherently masculine of pursuits) and whack each other with well, that would be phallic symbols again.  It’s not as weird as it sounds.  I did the mammoth cock ribbon dance (not its technical name) as a six year old and it didn’t do me any lasting damage – my therapist promises me it’s all reversible.  The traumas of May Day aside, 1st May is also International Workers Day, and so I’ve chosen a play that picks up on themes of May Day, and a novel about workers politics.

Firstly, a disclaimer. Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth is set on St George’s Day (23 April), not May Day.  But hey, what’s a week? I decided to go ahead with it anyway as it lends itself to May Day – ideas of ritual, tradition, Springtime and revelry run throughout.  Seeing Jerusalem was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had in the theatre;  Mark Rylance in the lead role of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron put in a performance that was literally breathtaking – and that’s not a misuse of the word literally, at one point I realised I’d forgotten to breathe. I loved it so much that when a friend offered me the chance to interview Mark Rylance I turned it down – I couldn’t bear the thought that I might not like him off-stage and that I’d lose that performance. Even if you didn’t catch Jerusalem, which ran 3 times in London and also on Broadway, I still recommend the playtext.  Jez Butterworth is a highly rated playwright and his original voice and great skill mean it is an enjoyable read.

Rooster Byron lives in a mobile home in a wood.  The local council plan to evict him.  The local teenagers love him (and sort of despise him), as he supplies them with drugs and alcohol.  A local girl (dressed as a fairy) has disappeared and her psychotic step-father believes Rooster is involved, and plans to do him serious damage. Amongst these various pressures, Rooster remains resolutely upbeat and self-aggrandizing, with tall tales such as this one of his conception, whereby his philandering father is shot by his wife:

JOHNNY….The bullet passes clean through his scrotum…where it hits the number 87 tram to Andover. The bullet passes through two inches of rusty metal, clean through an elderly lady’s packed lunch and lodges in my sweet mother’s sixteen year old womb. Eight months, three weeks, six days later. Out pops him. Smiling. With a bullet clenched between his teeth.

GINGER. First of all. Babies don’t have teeth.

JOHNNY. All Byron boys are born with teeth. Thirty two chompers.  And hair on thems chest,…

Hopefully it’s apparent that Jerusalem is very funny.  Traditions surround the characters, such as the local Flintock Fair taking place, but are made resolutely current, such as when a Morris dancer arrives, talking about how his participation is due to a “Swindon-level decision”, and needing drugs to get him through it – hardly a bucolic idyll.  This take on England’s green and pleasant land lends the play a slightly surreal air, as Rooster’s outsider status gives him an askance view of the traditions, both wholly entangled (he was once the main attraction of Flintock Fair, performing daredevil stunts) and yet undermining them also.  The surreal quality exists in fairly straightforward exchanges:

JOHNNY. …Two weeks back, your brother Daffy comes round here, tries to buy three grams of whizz with a tortoise.

LEE. That weren’t his tortoise. That’s my sister’s tortoise.

JOHNNY. Well, now it’s my fucking tortoise. Little bugger pisses everywhere. It pisses pints.  It’s like the TARDIS.

LEE. He’s right. That tortoise pisses like a shirehorse.

But as well as humour, the surreal quality is unnerving, and you feel anything could happen.  When Byron claims he met a ninety foot giant “just off the A14 outside Upavon. About half a mile from the Little Chef. I’d been up for three days and nights playing canasta with these old ladies in a retirement home outside Wootton Bassett.” you don’t entirely disbelieve him.  What is real, what is fable, merge until you are not sure whether you watching a man in a mobile home in a wood in the West Country or a mythic being inextricably bound to the legends of the land. Maybe both. I can’t recommend Jerusalem highly enough.

Secondly, and I’ll make this brief, as my love for Jerusalem means I’ve wittered on too much already, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell.   Published in 1914, 3 years after the death of its author from tuberculosis, TRTP is a classic of socialist literature.  Frank Owen, described on the back cover of my copy of the novel as a “journeyman-prophet”, joins a group of workers who are renovating a house known as The Cave.  He encourages them to consider their role within a capitalist system and how they engage in their own economic suppression.  It’s a long novel, and highly polemical, but it’s also very readable and engaging.  In one of the most famous sequences in the book, Owen uses a loaf of bread to explain his reasoning. The bread is raw materials, cutlery is machinery, the cut pieces of bread the goods made.

‘You say that you are all in need of employment, and as I am the kind-hearted capitalist class I am going to invest all my money in various industries, so as to give you Plenty of Work. I shall pay each of you one pound per week, and a week’s work is -you must each produce three of these square blocks…..

‘These blocks represent the necessaries of life. You can’t live without some of these things, but as they belong to me, you will have to buy them from me: my price for these blocks is–one pound each.’

As the working classes were in need of the necessaries of life and as they could not eat, drink or wear the useless money, they were compelled to agree to the kind Capitalist’s terms. They each bought back and at once consumed one-third of the produce of their labour. The capitalist class also devoured two of the square blocks, and so the net result of the week’s work was that the kind capitalist had consumed two pounds worth of the things produced by the labour of the others, and reckoning the squares at their market value of one pound each, he had more than doubled his capital,…as for the working classes,… they were again in precisely the same condition as when they started work-they had nothing.”

This occurs in a chapter called ‘The Reign of Terror. The Great Money Trick’. As you may have guessed, TRTP is quite a bleak novel. Nothing changes and the workers are so indoctrinated in the system that Owen fails to raise their consciousness, turning his attention instead to George Barrington, a middle-class socialist who plans to overturn the system through elected representatives in the House of Commons (argue amongst yourselves as to how that’s working out). The Philanthropists of the title are the workers, doing so much for so little their labour must surely be an act of philanthropy towards their capitalist employers. This bitter irony captures the attitude of the novel towards the complicity of all society in a capitalist system, but although it is an angry book, TRTP doesn’t lose sight of its story amongst the politics.

Here are the books garlanded in May Day fashion:

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