“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” (H. G. Wells)

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 😊

“People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” (Rebecca West)

A definite theme of the blog this year has been me being late for reading events. This will probably be my final post of 2018 so it’s apt to end on yet another belated entry, this time for Rebecca West Day in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, which was 21 December.

I’d hoped to do a post on two books, but the second half of this year has also seen me sluggish in both reading and blogging, so it’s just the one novel, The Fountain Overflows (1956), the first in the trilogy about the Aubrey family.

The story starts in 1900 and is narrated by Rose, one of four children of Piers and Clare. Piers is a gambling addict, and so although he and his wife are from genteel backgrounds, they survive on the brink of absolute destitution. The children grow up moving from place to place.

“We were experts in disillusion, we had learned to be cynical about fresh starts even before we ourselves made our first start”

Despite this, the children are not timid or anxious, but rather self-reliant and independent. Their mother is devoted to their father, as they all are, and the children clear-sightedly see their struggles.

“But I did not trust her. I loved her. Still I could see that she had been tripped by the snare of being grown up, she lay bound and struggling and helpless […] we children could always deceive her. Had it not been so we could not have provided for her happiness half as well as we did.”

West achieves a delicate balance in the portrayal of the Aubrey adults. It would be very easy to create to caricatures of a selfish, wastrel father and downtrodden female victim:

“ ‘Oh I am getting old and ugly, but it is not that. I cannot compete with debt and disgrace, which is what he really loves.’ “

Yet Clare never seemed especially weak to me. Her focus is music, and this takes priority over everything else. Rose and her sister Mary are gifted and practice incessantly, their brother Richard Quin is also talented but more interested in juggling and sports; their poor sister Cordelia has no talent and refuses to acknowledge it, egged on by a music teacher who is in love with her and so blind to her faults.

The Aubrey household is an intellectual one, with priorities very different to those around them in the south London suburb where they live.

“’You are allowed to read the newspapers now. I hope you will not attach too much importance to them. They give you a picture of a common-place world that does not exist. You must always believe that life is as extraordinary as music says it is.’”

West can be a colourful writer and there are elements of that here, with supernatural events and poltergeists related as matter-of-factly as trips to the House of Commons and music concerts. There isn’t a strong over-arching plot but enough to pull the reader along. The story has sadness in it, as any family with an addict in it will know, but it is not depressing because Rose’s voice is strong, unapologetic and funny in it’s unblinking assessment of those who surround her:

 “Her colouring recalled a doll left out in the rain, she had the dislocated profile of a camel”

However, as a reader I found it very hard to indulge Piers as much as his wife and children did. To me he was utterly selfish and self-focussed even without his gambling, without the slightest scruple as to the risk he placed his family in.

“I had a glorious father, I had no father at all.”

The Aubrey’s practical cousin Rosamund and Aunt Constance frequently live them as they are also subject to a husband who refuses to provide, although in a very different way to Piers. There is plenty here about what led to first-wave feminism in the UK without being didactic. The men are fairly appalling but not judged harshly (except by me). Rather, West’s focus is the constraints which prevent women being able to sort things for themselves. There’s also a recurring focus on women’s clothes and how the start of the twentieth century saw female oppression made explicit through the fashions:

 “ ‘Any tragic scene in those days necessarily appeared grotesque, because of the clothes worn by the women […] Today she would have the right to look like that, plain and distraught and like a hen, but she was compelled by the mode of the day to make herself as absurd as a clown by wearing a hat the size of a tea-tray, which dipped and jerked and swayed as often as she did, which was perpetually.”

Hence the Virago cover:

All in all I greatly enjoyed meeting the idiosyncratic, independent-minded Aubrey family. The characters were wholly believable, the evocation of a lost time done without nostalgia, and West had plenty to say about wider Edwardian society. I’ll look forward to spending more time with the Aubreys through the two sequels.

“We had very often been sharply warned against sentimentality, and though we might have been able to define it only vaguely as the way one should not play Bach, we recognised it.”

And so it just remains for me to wish you all the festivities of your choosing and leave you with a non-Christmassy song (because you may well be sick of them by now) from a great Christmas film which I watched yesterday, Scrooged:

“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

Image from here

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: