“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:

“I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a Billingsgate fishwoman blush!” (Agatha Christie, The Murder on the Links)

You might be able to tell from my gravatar that my hair was worn in a very short pixie crop. I decided to grow it into a bob, and it’s taking approximately eleventy billion years to get there. The result of this is that despite my love of all things art deco, and indiscriminate detective show watching, I cannot watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries due to serious hair envy.

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Thank goodness Poirot is bald. And I don’t mind the fact that his moustache is (marginally) better than mine. So for now my experience of a fictionalised 1920s needs to be limited to novels where I can pretend that all the women have crew cuts.

Firstly, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I don’t read many thriller-type novels, and Waters wouldn’t wholly fall into this category, but she can certainly write a page-turner and I find myself reading compulsively to reach the end as soon as possible. Set in 1922, The Paying Guests is set amongst the hardships and fallout of World War I.  Frances Wray and her mother live in the mildly oppressive south London suburbs, grieving the loss of Frances’ brother in the trenches and the subsequent death of her father, which has resulted in the need for them to take in paying guests (Mrs Wray’s suburban sensibilities baulk at the term ‘lodgers’). Frances had been a suffragette and in a loving relationship with another woman before the war, but had given up both to support her mother, and live a kind of half-life:

“She was young, fit, healthy. She had – what did she have? Little pleasures like this. Little successes in the kitchen. The cigarette at the end of the day. Cinema with her mother on a Wednesday. Regular trips into Town. There were spells of restlessness now and again; but any life had those. There were longings, there were desires…”

The paying guests arrive in the form of Mr and Mrs Barber, and Frances is drawn towards the colourful and artistic Lilian:

“And that was all it took. They smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them. There was a quickening, a livening – Frances could think of nothing to compare it with save some culinary process. It was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. It was as subtle yet as tangible as that.”

Frances and Lilian begin an affair, and the brilliance of Waters’ writing means this is set within meticulous – but never overwhelming – period detail, and is simultaneously erotic and yet with a sense of foreboding that draws you onwards:

“Only when Frances’s lips began to travel to her knuckles did she draw one of her hands free – the left hand, the one with the rings on it. She set it down to steady herself against Frances’s embrace and there was the muted tap of her wedding band, a small, chill sound in the darkness.”

I won’t say much more for fear of spoilers, except that The Paying Guests is Waters at the height of her powers, achieving a compulsive plot-driven story that is also humane and moving:

“Making her way back to the yard, looking again at the rosily lighted windows of her own and her neighbours’ houses, she had the stifling sensation that she was putting herself beyond the reach of those warm, ordinary rooms, cutting herself off forever from all that was decent and calm.”

One of my favourite things from the 1920s

One of my favourite things from the 1920s

Secondly, Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. A fictional biography of Charles Carter, golden-age stage magician, Gold’s first novel follows Carter from his childhood discovery of his vocation, through his apprenticeship in seedy sideshows, to his zenith performing the titular spectacle.

“The rarest need in life is the one met suddenly and completely. This is how it was with Charles Carter and the art of magic.”

For much of the novel, Carter is in existential crisis (not as tedious at it sounds) having lost the love of his life. There’s also the small matter of being pursued by the Secret Service who suspect him of having killed President Harding and having an arch nemesis lurking in the background, waiting to strike. The 1920s setting is perfect, perched as it is on the cusp of a new world – technology is growing apace and the old theatre traditions are dying out, while the aftermath of the war adds an extra dimension to the audiences’ need for magic:

“Six nights a week, sometimes twice a night, Carter gave the illusion of cheating death. The great irony, in his eyes, was that he did not wish to cheat it. He spent the occasional hour imagining himself facedown in eternity. Since the war, he had learned how to recognise a whole class of comrades, men who had seen too much: even at parties, they had a certain hollowing around the eyes, as if a glance in the mirror would show them only a fool having a good time. The most telling trait was the attempted smile, a smile aware of being borrowed.”

As with magicians, Gold’s art is visual, he creates such vivid scenes that this was one of those novels that I could clearly see being filmed. Although a chunky novel, it doesn’t flag and, like Carter’s show, builds to a satisfying denouement.

Carter Beats the Devil is about the illusions we accept, those we refute, the role of marvel in our lives, and when to take the leap and abandon the need to know how it all works.

“Faith was a choice. So, it followed was wonder.”

To end, the most tickety-boo, spiffingest flapper of them all, the divine Josephine Baker, who truly is the cat’s meow:

“Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.” (Dorothy Parker)

I’m hopelessly late with this post, which was prompted by 17 May being the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. At first when I was looking at what was going on this past week for a theme for this post, I was resistant to choose this, as it seemed I would be attaching the potentially reductive label of “gay writing” to literature.  I’m not sure about this label for the same reason I’m unsure of the label “women’s writing” – while not necessarily inaccurate, it seems to suggest its somehow not “proper” writing, that it can only appeal to ready-designated group and have no meaning outside of that. Bullshit.  To quote Maya Angelou, we are all more alike than we are unalike, and so great writing is great writing. Who a writer chooses to sleep with is their own business, and if this informs their writing I don’t see why it should be picked out as “gay writing” unless we have the label “straight writing” which, of course, we don’t. And I guess that’s my main objection.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with literature being labelled as gay, except that because the sexuality is marked out when straight isn’t, it seems to be suggesting a deviation from some sort of norm.  And as Dorothy Parker pointed out….. So why did I decide to go ahead with it?  Because we still need an  International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, because the city I live in has seen a rise in homophobic attacks over recent years, because this sickening hate crime still exists, and so I wanted to recognise 17 May as an important day.  I hope one day it is no longer needed.  And now I’ll climb down off my soapbox to talk about books, no more ranting, I promise…

Firstly, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (who doesn’t mind being labelled a lesbian writer, so maybe I should stop being quite so precious about it) (1998, Virago).  This was Sarah Waters’ first novel and was widely well received; she has gone on to forge a successful literary career with four further novels.  I enjoy her work greatly, because she writes evocatively of the past (in TtV its Victorian London) and is a beautiful writer who also has a great command of plot.  The plot of TtV sees Nan King fall in love with a male impersonator, Kitty, and she leaves her home and family to work with Kitty in the theatres and music halls.  They begin a relationship, but when this disintegrates Nan leaves her and works in London, selling her body as a boy, becoming a rich woman’s plaything, and getting caught up in politics through her friendship with a neighbour.

“The Palace was a small and, I suspect, a rather shabby theatre; but when I see it in my memories I see it still with my oyster-girl’s eyes – I see the mirror-glass which lined the walls, and the  crimson plush upon the seats, the plaster cupids, painted gold, which swooped above the curtain. Like our oyster-house, it had its own particular scent – the scent, I know now, of music halls everywhere – the scent of wood and grease-paint and spilling beer, of gas and of tobacco and of hair-oil, all combined.”

Waters often describes settings through smells, and it is a technique that works well, creating a vivid earthiness that engages with Victorian literary tradition but pushes far beyond it, giving a voice to those largely unheard in the literature of the time:

““You say I know nothing about you; but I have watched you upon the streets, remember.  How coolly you pose and wander and flirt!  Did you think you could play at Ganymede , for ever? Did you think, if you wore a silken cock, it meant you never had a cunt at the seam of your drawers?….You’re like me: you have shown it, you are showing it now! It is your own sex for which you really hunger!””

“Tipping the velvet” is Victorian slang for cunnilingus, something I don’t remember occurring in Dickens…

Secondly, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891, my copy 1994). I won’t go into this in great detail, because I think it’s one of those novels that everyone knows even if they haven’t read it.  A beautiful boy named Dorian Gray has his portrait painted, capturing his first flush of youth.  Under the influence of the hedonist Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian offers up his soul to stay beautiful forever.  He gets his wish, and the portrait ages in his place, growing more hideous with each passing year as a reflection of Dorian’s corrupted soul.  This was Oscar Wilde’s only novel and was hugely controversial at the time, but as my plot summary has hopefully captured, it’s actually a highly moral work.  It’s also gorgeously written, with Wilde bringing his aesthetic sensibilities to his prose, and full of typically Wildean aphorisms to raise a smile amongst the dark subject matter:

“You have a wonderfully beautiful face, Mr. Gray. Don’t frown. You have. And beauty is a form of genius -is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it….. People say sometimes that beauty is only superficial. That may be so, but at least it is not so superficial as thought is. To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”

TPoDG is a great read, with something for everyone: wit, morality, amorality, the Gothic, adventure, and almost pastoral in places with its detailed descriptions of nature.  It also, like Dorian, hasn’t aged one jot.  In this age of celebrity obsession focussed so much on appearances, the enormity of the cosmetics industry, of plastic surgery and of so much style over so little substance, TPoDG has as much to say about our society today as it did about late Victorian society.  We all have to face our portraits at some time…

Here are the novels wearing a rainbow, symbol of LGBT Pride (and surrounded by cat hair, sorry about that):

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