This is a contribution to Reading Wales 2022 aka the Dewithon, hosted by the lovely Paula over at Book Jotter. My VMC pile is reaching ridiculous proportions so I googled “Wales Virago” and was delighted to find that there were two authors I could take off the TBR for this year’s Dewithon.
Firstly, I chose Penelope Mortimer, as I’d enjoyed Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting and The Pumpkin Eater a great deal, finding her writing spiky and incisive. Mortimer was born in Rhyl, Flintshire and My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof (1967) was her sixth novel.
Muriel Rowbridge is a journalist on a trip to Canada, the only woman in a group of men, warned by her editor:
“Don’t go wandering off in one of your Virginia Woolf fits.”
She is very much the outsider, wanting to focus on her writing while the rest of her group view it as a bit of a jolly:
“they were pleased with themselves, thawing toward each other, throwing out remarks about wives, children, secretaries, which were immediately understood, as though they were giving a particular handshake or flicking back their lapels for identification.”
This is the working world of the 1960s, which we’re all familiar with from Mad Men at least. Her colleagues think it’s totally acceptable to comment on what she’s wearing and the attractiveness of her legs. Thankfully Muriel doesn’t spend much time with them, or indeed much time working. The trip is a time of reflection and recuperation for her, as she recovers from a mastectomy for breast cancer.
“How to deal with it, except with vague attempts at courage and acceptance, she had no idea.”
Although Penelope Mortimer did have lung cancer later in life, I’m not sure she had personal experience of breast cancer at this point. But I thought this was a sensitive exploration of a woman working out who she is after a life-changing experience. Muriel isn’t remotely self-pitying, but she does need to find self-compassion.
”the anger against herself raged brightly, a clear fire. She had never felt this anger before; she could never remember feeling it before. It was enlivening, making her very defined and sharp, as though she had become a weapon.”
She had left her married lover Ramsey when she was diagnosed, and he is back with his wife Flora, a situation neither Ramsey and Flora are sure they want. This led to some of the pithy observations on relationships between the sexes that I expect from Mortimer:
“Between us, he said, he was being eaten alive. If this was so, I don’t know why we were both starving.”
While in Canada, she meets Robert: “what had been an indeterminate distance between their hands, knees, faces, was now measured exactly: they were accessible to each other.”
While she feels ambivalent about their relationship, the sex does lead her towards a new acceptance of her changed body.
“She leant against the lift wall and slowly remembered the night; then realised that this was the first time she had woken, and dressed, without any sense of mourning.”
Amongst the sexist or paternalistic colleagues; the self-centred married lover; and the surgeon who possibly took an entire breast when a lumpectomy would suffice without considering what it would mean for Muriel, Robert is a reminder of what can be positive in male/female relationships. This doesn’t necessarily mean that its happily ever after either… Mortimer is determinedly realistic.
I didn’t think My Friend Says Its Bullet-Proof was quite as strong as the other two Mortimers I’ve read, but it was an interesting examination of the choices available to women in the late 1960s. It questions how to navigate independence in a world that marginalises and objectifies you both professionally and personally.
Secondly, a new-to-me author despite the vast number of novels she wrote; Rhoda Broughton, who was born in Denbighshire. Belinda (1883) was written roughly in the middle of her career, and my edition tells me she was alongside Mary Braddon as ‘Queen of the Circulating Library’.
Belinda is a satire, but that double-edged royal appellation did make me wonder if it was always read as such. Maybe I’m doing the fare of circulating libraries down, but I would have thought a tale of simpering Victorian virgin lovers was more typical of their stock than a satire of such stories. Regardless, if you read it straightforwardly as a romance because that’s what you were looking for, or as a satire because you were sick of such stories, Belinda would deliver.
The titular heroine is in Germany with her feckless, charming sister Sarah at the start of the novel:
“Away they go to Moritzburg, when the noon sun is warm and high; away they go, handsome, gay, and chaperoneless. There is no reason why their grandmother, who is a perfectly able-bodied old lady, should not escort them; but as she is sixty-five years of age, has no expectation of meeting a lover, and is quite indifferent to spring tints and German Schlosses, she wisely chooses to stay at home.”
Sarah is hugely popular with young men and is on her seventh fiancée. Belinda is unpopular, except with student David Rivers (aptly named, as he’s totally wet). The sisters wonder if Belinda’s nose is behind her lack of societal success:
“It is not case of measurement,’ says Sarah gravely; ‘I have seen noses several hands higher that were not nearly so alarming. It is a case of feeling; somehow yours makes them feel small. Take my word for it,’ with a shrewd look, ‘the one thing that they never can either forgive or forget is to feel small’”
It isn’t Belinda’s nose, unsurprisingly; it’s her fairly dull personality and her social awkwardness, matched only by that of her love interest:
“Is it her fault that all strong emotion with her translates itself into a cold, hard voice, and a chill set face? With other women it translates itself into dimples and pink blushes and lowered eyes. Ah! but do they feel as she does? Sarah, for instance. When do men ever leave Sarah’s company with the down- faced, baffled, white look with which Rivers has more than once quitted hers? Preening themselves rather; with sleeked feathers and cosseted vanity.”
As you can see from the quote above, Broughton uses Belinda to poke fun at romantic mores, the silliness of them and the uselessness of them. She demonstrates how those who cannot master the light-hearted conventions end up tied in knots.
“‘And you were — and you were — one of the heavenly host up there!’ ends the young man, baldly and stammering. But love is no brightener of the wits.
One of the heavenly host?’ repeats she, justly infuriated at this stale comparison. ‘An angel, in short! Must I always be an angel, or a goddess? If anyone knew how sick I am of being a goddess! I declare I should be thankful to be called a Fury or even a Ghoul, for a change!’
So saying, she turns her shoulder peevishly to him; and leaving the garden, begins to walk quickly along the road by the water, as if to make up for her late loitering. He keeps pace with her, dumb in snubbed contrition, stupefied by love and, unhappily for himself, fully conscious of it; burningly aware of the hopeless flatness of his last simile, and rendered by his situation quite incapable of redeeming it by any brighter sally.”
The course of true love inevitably does not run smooth for the young lovers – ‘twas ever thus. However, Belinda’s understandable frustration with Victorian female conventions leads her to make some very questionable choices. For those of you who have read Middlemarch, these questionable choices will be most familiar. I don’t know what Oxford Rector Mark Pattison did to the women writers of late Victorian society but whatever it was, he really, really annoyed them. He provided the model for Casaubon in Middlemarch and here he is rendered as Professor Forth:
“She had known that she did not love him, but she had not known that he wore carpet slippers in the drawing-room.”
Belinda is well-paced and witty, but I think I would have like the satire to be slightly more explicitly evoked. At one point there seemed a never-ending round of cheeks blushing, lips whitening, words stumbling… and a pretty major suspension of my disbelief that Belinda and Rivers could really be in love, given they had barely spoken to each other but only mumbled vaguely while experiencing various body temperature changes.
I would have liked a slightly sharper authorial voice, or more scenes with witty, pragmatic Sarah and the frankly reprehensible grandmother, with whom I could only agree when she observed:
“Belinda is too everything, except amusing.”
I did enjoy Belinda though, and there was broad comedy too, including some nice scenes with pug dogs, and with social bull-in-a-china-shop Miss Watson:
“I shall certainly mention it to his mother. Lady Marion, when next I meet her,’ says Miss Watson resolutely; I do not think it would be acting a friend’s part not to do so. I do not actually know her, but there is a sort of connection between us; I was at school for six months once at Brussels with a cousin of hers, and there is no doubt that there is something uncommonly louche about it.’”
To end, the BAFTAs earlier this month featured a performance from an 85 year-old Welsh singer/legend: