“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” (Shirley Jackson)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that 2020 has been a big old pile of pants. Initially I felt guilty about seeking some escapism – it seemed to be another facet of privilege that escapism was available to me – but now I think if it keeps you sane, do whatever works to come out the other side (and I need to keep reminding myself that there will be the other side…) So here are two enjoyable, light comic novels that have helped me keep possession of my remaining marbles.

Firstly, Kate reminded me that the Lucia novels by EF Benson are perfect for this sort of read. Having read Queen Lucia back in April for the 1920 Club, I was keen to read the sequel Lucia in London (1927), especially as fans of Mapp and Lucia tell me the novels get better as they progress.

It opens with the death of Lucia’s aunt by marriage, who had been very unwell for many years and lived to a ripe old age. All things considered:

“it had been generally and perhaps reasonably hoped among his friends and those of his wife that the bereavement would not be regarded by either of them as an intolerable tragedy.”

But to do so would deny Lucia a chance at self-dramatisation, so of course she goes all out for grief. Her donning of black and a pained expression is wonderfully satirised by Benson, as are the social niceties of bereavement when no-one genuinely cares for the departed:

“Georgie held her hand a moment longer than was usual, and gave it a little extra pressure for the conveyance of sympathy. Lucia, to acknowledge that, pressed a little more, and Georgie tightened his grip again to show that he understood, until their respective finger-nails grew white with the conveyance and reception of sympathy. It was rather agonising, because a bit of skin on his little finger had got caught between two of the rings on his third finger, and he was glad when they quite understood each other.”

It soon becomes clear that Lucia plans to decamp to London, to the aunt’s very swish home, leaving Riseholme reeling. Georgie understands the impulse but is surprised that Lucia is quite so keen to leave:

“He wanted, ever so much, to have a little flat in London (or a couple of rooms would serve) just for a dip every now and then in the life which Lucia found so vapid. But he knew he wasn’t a strong, serious character like Lucia, whose only frivolities were artistic or Elizabethan.”

As readers we know that Lucia is entirely frivolous of course, and she throws herself into the contemporary London scene with gusto.

“What she wanted was the foam of the wave, the topmost, the most sunlit of the billows that rode the sea. Anything that had proved itself billowish was her game, and anything which showed signs of being a billow, even if it entailed a vegetarian lunch with cocktails and the possible necessity of being painted like the artist’s wife with an eyebrow in one corner of the picture and a substance like desiccated cauliflower in the centre.”

As a Londoner myself it struck me that nothing changes: 93 years on and the silliness of the fashionable London scene is still ripe for satirising. Benson pokes gentle fun, nobody is truly despicable or utterly destroyed. Personally I enjoyed the ongoing saga of Georgie’s Oxford bags, bought during “a moment of reckless sartorial courage”. Not everyone can carry off Oxford bags with the aplomb of Buster Keaton, after all:

Life at Riseholme continues at its usual pace – that is, a snail’s. It is a life they all enjoyed, one filled with enough little dramas and crises to keep them all amused. Now however, something is missing:

“Yet none of these things which, together with plenty of conversation and a little housekeeping and manicuring, had long made life such a busy and strenuous performance, seemed to offer an adequate stimulus. And he knew well enough what rendered them devoid of tonic: it was that Lucia was not here, and however much he told himself he did not want her, he like all the rest of Riseholme was beginning to miss her dreadfully. She aggravated and exasperated them: she was a hypocrite (all that pretence of not having read the Mozart duet, and desolation at Auntie’s death), a poseuse, a sham and a snob, but there was something about her that stirred you into violent though protesting activity, and though she might infuriate you, she prevented your being dull.”

Will Lucia make a splash in London? Will Riseholme find their way without her? Will she ever return? What do you think?

“Aren’t you feeling more Luciaphil? I’m sure you are. You must enjoy her: it shows such a want of humour to be annoyed with her.”

You can read Lucia in London online here.

Now a musical interlude, but one of which I’m certain Lucia would not remotely approve. You can’t get more London than Chas and Dave:

Secondly, Ali’s lovely post 10 vintage books of joy reminded me I had Something Light by Margery Sharp (1960) in the TBR, and so I dug it out forthwith. I adore Margery Sharp and her well-observed but gentle humour was just what I needed.

It opens “Louisa Mary Datchett was very fond of men.” Unfortunately for Louisa, this means she keeps running round after various wet blankets, helping them keep on track, buying them yogurt and mopping their brows. She’s getting older and her profession as a dog photographer only just keeps her afloat, so she decides she needs to get married.

“ ‘It’s not the suffragettes who’d be proud of me,’ thought Louisa bitterly, ‘it’s the Salvation Army. I may be the modern woman, the femme sole with all her rights, and I’m very fond of men, but it’s time I looked out for myself.  In fact it’s time I looked out for a rich husband, just as though I’d been born in a Victorian novel…’”

It’s a brilliant piece of characterisation that Louisa doesn’t come across as either a doormat or as mercenary. She’s a kind person, a wee bit lost, and trying to take the best decisions she can for a happy life.

We then follow Louisa’s various adventures trying to gain what she thinks she wants. She spends a week trying to secure a rich husband, another seven days rekindling an adolescent devotion and a further week acting as a housekeeper for a man whose ready-made family are appealing.

That’s pretty much it, plot-wise and there are no real surprises. In no way is this a criticism. A comfort read for me has a nice predictability to it and I enjoy watching things play out as I expect in an entertaining way.

What further makes this such an enjoyable read are the fond portraits of the various characters, and the little details. One suitor is frequently likened to a Sealyham terrier; bamboo framed spectacles are given far too much importance; Louisa wears a “rowdy housecoat, zebras on a pink ground”; the milkman is a constant source of sympathetic wisdom as well as dairy products; Louisa has to try and sell ugly beechnut jewellery on behalf of her Bohemian artist neighbour. Everyone is flawed, believably human, gently ribbed by the author. It’s an absolute delight.

“She was constantly being either sent for, like a fire engine, or dispatched, like a lifeboat, to the scene of some masculine disaster”

To end, an 80s pop classic as always, but presented in a lip sync scene of sibling bonding that makes me smile, and we all need things that make us smile right now:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #19

The Postman’s Fiancée – Denis Theriault (2016, trans. John Cullen 2017) 197 pages

(This post contains spoilers for The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman so don’t read on if you’ve any plans to read that novella.)

As Naomi pointed out, last year’s NADIM didn’t include a single Canadian author, so I’d planned on a few this year. But as my first post for NADIM 2019 explained, the best laid plans… Still, I have managed to include one, and here it is 😊

I really liked The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman when I read it a few years back. This sequel is told from the point of view of Tania, the waitress who loves Bilodo (the title character of the first book) and picks up the story shortly before Bilodo’s accident, carrying the tale on further.

As readers of the first book will know, Bilodo’s quiet, gentle existence appeals to Tania as she brings him his lunch each day:

“Tania could happily imagine him leading a monastic existence dedicated to calligraphy, saving himself physically and spiritually for the fortunate pilgrimess who would know how to find a pathway to his soul – a role for which Tania considered herself eminently qualified.”

Unfortunately Bilodo has no idea of her feelings until a cruel practical joke. Before they can talk it through, Bilodo is hit by a truck. This is where the first novella ends. In this sequel, he is given CPR by Tania and ultimately survives, but with no memory of recent years. Tania convinces him they were a couple, and engaged to be married.

“For that was the way she saw the matter: a case of confusion on the part of Destiny. In Tania’s eyes, she and Bilodo had been fated to meet and fall in love, and their botched romantic union stemmed from a karmic dysfunction which she felt it her legitimate right to remedy.”

And this is where my problems with this sequel begin. I wasn’t happy that the weird, metaphysical ending of The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman seemed to be undermined and explained away, but Theriault does rescue this by the end of The Postman’s Fiancee, so I can let that go…

My main reservation was with what Tania is doing. In The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman Bilodo isn’t behaving well: he’s steaming open people’s private letters and reading them before he delivers their post. Not great, but within that novella it’s sort of OK. But Tania is manipulating and deceiving someone she professes to love, while they have amnesia. There’s really nothing that makes that OK. While I don’t mind reading about people not behaving well, here it made me uncomfortable because I think we’re supposed to be rooting for Tania and for her and Bilodo to get together. And while Theriault is a highly accomplished and subtle writer, I couldn’t quite embrace the circumstances in this story.

Tania isn’t despicable so she does have reservations about what she’s doing:

“Wasn’t she wrong to interfere with his mind that way, and by doing so wasn’t she committing some kind of mental rape?”

But she finds herself unable to stop. What readers of the first novella know, and what Tania comes to realise, is that Bilodo’s life was a bit more complicated than the monastic existence she’d imagined for him. As the circumstances of Bilodo’s life start to catch up with them, how much longer will Tania be able to sustain the fiction of the life she desperately wants? And will Bilodo ever regain his memory?

The Postman’s Fiancee is about loneliness and the fantasies we project for ourselves and on to others. It’s about recognising people for who they are and all their complications, rather than who we wish they were. It’s well written, nicely paced and with excellent characterisation and so I do still recommend this both as a sequel and as a stand-alone novella, but the actions of poor despairing Tania did limit my enjoyment of it somewhat.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #12

Two More Pints – Roddy Doyle (2014, 115 pages)

Last year as part of NADIM I looked at Two Pints by Roddy Doyle, so I thought this year I’d look the sequel. Like its predecessor, it is written entirely as dialogue between two friends meeting for the titular drinks, and set on specific dates, this time between September 2012 and June 2014. Once again, a warning for swearing – well, it is Roddy Doyle after all 😀

The issues in this period, lest we forget, include the financial crisis, horsemeat in burgers, elections of the new Pope and the deaths of various celebrities. All this occurs alongside family events and disagreements over football.

 – Fiscal cliff.

– He’s shite.

– Wha?!

– He’s just copying the other fella.

– Wha’ the fuck are yeh talkin’ about?

– The rapper.

– Wha’ rapper?

– Fiscal Cliff.

The humour doesn’t detract from the realities though.

– My young one is in trouble. An’ her fella.

– Ah, no.

– The mortgage, yeh know.

– They can’t handle it?

– They’re fucked, God love them. They’ve been into the bank an’ tha’, to try an’ sort somethin’. But –

– No joy?

– It’s fuckin’ madness.

I was disappointed not to hear more about Damien, the grandson from Two Pints who was fracking in the back garden with a magimix, but I think at such a turbulent time, Doyle chose to focus very much on current affairs. The dialogue still felt entirely authentic though, and never heavy-handed.

The conversation is wide-ranging, and even poetry gets a mention, despite the short shrift it was given in Two Pints:

– See Seamus Heaney died.

– Saw tha’. Sad.

– Did yeh ever meet him?

– Don’t be fuckin’ thick. Where would I have met Seamus Heaney?

– That’s the thing, but. He looked like someone yeh’d know.

– I know wha’ yeh mean – the eyebrows an’ tha’.

– He always looked like he liked laughin’.

– One o’ the lads.

– Except for the fuckin’ poetry.

– Wha’ would possess a man like tha’ to throw his life away on poetry?

– Although fair enough – he won the Nobel Prize for it.

– He’d probably have won it annyway.

– For wha’ – for fuck sake.

– I don’t know. Football, plumbin’ – annythin’. Tha’ was what was special about him.

Another affectionate portrait of the people of Dublin, and Ireland at a particular moment in time.

Colette Week: Day 7 – The Last of Cheri (1926)

I thought it would be apt to finish Colette Week with a novel concerned with endings: The Last of Cheri (La Fin de Cheri). Here’s a reminder of my decidedly kitsch edition because it’s just so bad:

Thankfully I’m not quite so shallow as to let a hideous cover affect my enjoyment of Colette’s glorious writing (almost shallow enough, but not quite). The Last of Cheri is set 6 years later than Cheri, just after the end of World War I. He is no longer quite the callow youth he was: his affair with Lea and his experience of fighting in the trenches have left him cynical and damaged.

“he had come to scorn the truth ever since the day when, years ago, it had suddenly fallen from his mouth like a belch, to spatter and wound one whom he had loved.”

But, as the French wisely say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Cheri is still directionless, still without anything to live for beyond himself. Meanwhile his mother and wife have found purpose in war. Edmee is a nurse and consumed by her work at the hospital and extra-marital affairs, which Cheri agrees to.

“Cheri pulled out the small flat key on the end of its thin gold chain. ‘Here we go. In for another carefully measured dose of love. …’”

Cheri’s old friend Desmond is here too, still reprehensible, but like the women in Cheri’s life, having found purpose, setting up a popular nightclub where people try and forget what they and France have been through:

“They danced at Desmond’s, night and day, as people dance after war: the men, young and old, free from the burden of thinking and being frightened — empty-minded, innocent; the women, given over to a pleasure far greater than any more definite sensual delight, to the company of men: that is to say, to physical contact with them, their smell, their tonic sweat, the certain proof of which tingled in every inch of their bodies — the certainty of being the prey of a man wholly alive and vital, and of succumbing in his arms to rhythms as personal, as intimate, as those of sleep.”

If Cheri was told primarily from Lea’s perspective, The Last of Cheri is from Cheri’s perspective and Colette captures this wonderfully. Given that Cheri is so lost and directionless, the novella never appears so. The writing is insightful without being heavy-handedly psychological, and although set in town, Colette’s feel for the natural world remains:

“He noticed that the rosy tints of the sky were wonderfully reflected in the rain-filled gutters and on the blue backs of the low- skimming swallows. And now, because the evening was fresh, and because all the impressions he was bringing away with him were slipping back perfidiously into the recesses of his mind – there to assume their final shape and intensity — he came to believe that he had forgotten all about them, and he felt happy.”

This feeling of happiness is brief though, and occurs after a distressing meeting with Lea, so the reader knows Cheri is deluding himself. Like everyone else, Lea has moved on and is in a very different place, happy and fulfilled.

Poor Cheri. He is utterly lost and ricochets around without any idea as to how to remedy his emptiness. The crisis of meaning of a rich, good-looking playboy could test the reader’s patience, but Colette’s writing meant I had real sympathy for him. His life from the start meant he didn’t stand much of a chance:

“His childhood as a bastard, his long adolescence as a ward, had taught him that his world, though people thought of it as reckless, was governed by a code almost as narrow-minded as middle-class prejudice. In it, Cheri had learned that love is a question of money, infidelity, betrayals, and cowardly resignation. But now he was well on the way to forgetting the rules he had been taught, and to be repelled by acts of silent condescension.”

So, that’s the end of Colette week on the blog. I’ve really enjoyed submerging myself in her writing this week and I hope I’ve managed to convey just a tiny bit of how good she is. She has a deep understanding of people and a wonderful sympathy with the natural world. I find her evocative and capable of great artistry but with a real lightness of touch. Plus she wrote a lot of novellas, which always gets my vote 😊 She was a prolific writer so there’s plenty more to explore, which I’m really looking forward to.

Image from here

Colette Week: Day 4 – Claudine and Annie (1903)

In Claudine and Annie, original title Claudine s’en va (trans. Antonia White 1962), we hear someone else’s impression of the free-spirited heroine, as the novel is told from the point of view of Annie, a very different woman to Claudine.

“I don’t know anything…except how to obey. He has taught me that and I achieve obedience as the sole task of my existence…assiduously…joyfully.”

He is her husband, Alain, who she has loved since childhood and has left her for many months in order to travel to Brazil and claim a legacy. We never meet Alain but he seems fairly repulsive, including saying that she shouldn’t take his rare compliments to heart, as:

“It is my own work I’m admiring; a lovable child, fashioned little by little into and without great difficulty into an irreproachable young woman and an accomplished housewife.”

He is controlling and has left her a list of instructions, including:

“Only one call on Renaud and Claudine, too fantastically unconventional a couple”

Thankfully, for those of us who are so fond of Claudine from the previous novels, Annie ends up disregarding this advice. She and Claudine get on well, spending time together as Claudine is part of Marthe’s, Annie’s sister-in-law, social circle.

“I was animated by an indiscreet curiosity, as if, by questioning Claudine, I was about to discover the secret, the ‘recipe’ of her lucky disposition that detached her from everything, and made her indifferent to gossip, petty quarrels, even to conventions.”

Claudine is attracted to Annie, but she and Renaud have an agreement to just have two people in their marriage since the Rezi drama, so nothing romantic occurs. From Annie we learn they are a devoted and very happy couple. Annie’s marriage, by contrast, is crumbling:

“Shattered, I searched obstinately for one memory in our past as a young married couple that could give me back the husband I believed I had. Nothing, I could find nothing – only my whipped child’s submissiveness, only his cold condescending smile.”

Marthe and her social set are not a happy bunch (apart from Renaud and Claudine). There are infidelities, relentless bitching, worries about money… and yet Annie has her eyes opened to the nature of her relationship with Alain and she cannot turn back.  Realistically, Annie is not ecstatic at her new life; she only knows it must happen.

“In those days which seem strangely far away I was more meek than terrified and almost happy in a timid, colourless way. Is my lot any better today, wandering hither and thither, demoralised yet more self-willed? It’s a very arduous problem for such a tired brain.”

Although I missed Claudine in this novella as the focus is very much on Annie, I still enjoyed this greatly. It was entertaining to see a character we know so well from a first-person point of view depicted through the eyes of Annie. I thought the voice of Annie was distinct from Claudine and of course I was rooting for her to leave Alain.

The story is fairly slight, but at just over 100 pages it is well-paced and suits its novella length. The final sentence was pitch perfect and such a satisfying ending to Annie’s story despite – or perhaps because of – many  unanswered questions.

And so I bid farewell to Claudine and I’m so sorry to see her go. Tomorrow, a stand-alone novella – is it any wonder I love Colette so much when her novels are so blissfully short? 🙂

Colette Week: Day 3 – Claudine Married (1902)

*This post contains spoilers for Claudine in Paris and Claudine Married*

Claudine Married, original title Claudine en menage (trans. Antonia White 1960), continues the story of Claudine after she and Renaud return from honeymoon. It begins:

“Definitely, there is something wrong with our married life. Renaud knows nothing about it yet; how should he know?”

Claudine is finding it hard to adapt to married life, much as she loves her husband. It’s hardly surprising, given that she is young and inexperienced – though not naïve – and has married a man twice her age. She is growing up, and I found her more likable in this novel than the previous two, as she acknowledges her cruelty and disregard for others’ feelings in the past, particularly poor Luce. But she still has her childlike moments:

“Without listening to him, I suddenly put the ruby in my mouth, ‘because it ought to melt and taste like a raspberry fruit drop’! Renaud, baffled by this new way of appreciating precious stones, bought me sweets the following day. Honestly, they gave me as much pleasure as the jewel.”

The start of the novel has some particularly unsavoury scenes to my twenty-first century sensibilities, when Claudine and Renaud return to her old school and sexually tease/demand kisses from the young adolescents there. It was really unpleasant, but thankfully soon over, and Renaud’s voyeuristic enjoyment of Claudine’s lesbian encounters sets the scene for later in the novel.

Claudine has to learn to adapt to a shared life, and she struggles with this. Renaud is not quite what she hoped he would be:

“I hoped so ardently that Renaud’s will would curb mine, that his tenacity would eventually overcome my fits of rebellion; in short, that his character would match the expression of his eyes, accustomed to command and fascinate. Renaud’s will, Renaud’s tenacity! He is suppler than a flame, just as burning, just as flickering; he envelopes me without dominating me, Alas! Are you to remain your own mistress forever, Claudine?”

They are also temperamentally incompatible: Renaud is urbane and sociable and enjoys travelling while Claudine likes being at home in the country.

“There is nothing nomadic about me, except my mind.”

They enjoy their sex life, but even at these moments of closeness there are distances to be traversed:

 “To him [sexual] pleasure is something gay and lenient and facile, whereas it shatters me and plunges me into a mysterious despair that I seek and also fear.”

Colette is candid about sex in Claudine Married. It is not portrayed explicitly but it is dealt with directly. This includes when Claudine meets the charming Rezi:

 “All her movements, the turn of her hips, the arching of her neck, the quick raising of her arm to her hair, the sway of her seated body, all described curves so nearly circular that I could see the design of interlacing rings, like the perfect spiral of seashells, that her gentle movements left traced on the air.”

They begin an affair, fully endorsed by Renaud, who provides somewhere for them to go. This is partly because he is titillated by it, and partly because his view of sex is phallocentric and so he does not take same-sex attraction between women seriously (while he is homophobic towards his gay son):

“You women can do anything. It’s charming and of no consequence whatever…”

The change from menage to menage a trois with the shallow Rezi has disaster written all over it, and Claudine knows it:

“I know that common sense, because it is my own particular brand; it allows me, precisely one minute before fatal blunders, to enjoy the lucid pleasure of telling myself: ‘This is a fatal blunder.’”

When the inevitable blow comes, Claudine returns to her beloved Montigny and Colette’s beautiful depictions of nature are once more to the fore:

“I had been able to bathe my bear hands and trembling legs in thick, deep grass, sprawl my tired limbs on the dry velvet of moss and pine-needles, rest without a thought in my head, baked by the fierce, mounting sun…I was penetrated with sunlight, rustling with breezes, echoing with crickets and birdsong, like a room open on a garden”

Claudine Married is a witty novel about the ways we blunder about in our close relationships. Claudine loves Renaud but is bored in their marriage; she admits she doesn’t love Rezi but is in sexual thrall to her. How it all plays out is believable and sad, without being tragic or overblown. The ending wasn’t to my taste but is probably more in keeping with the early-twentieth century time of writing.

The novella also has plenty to say about gender roles and how male and female sexuality is treated differently by society, but does so lightly and I really enjoyed this aspect of the novel which seemed remarkably forward-thinking.

Colette is such a beautiful writer and Claudine’s voice was as distinct as ever. I’ll be sorry to leave her behind after Claudine and Annie, of which more tomorrow 😊

Colette Week: Day 2 – Claudine in Paris (1901)

As the title of Claudine in Paris (Claudine à Paris trans. Antonia White, 1958) suggests, Claudine has left Montigny for the capital. She is recovering from a severe illness which has seen her long hair chopped off due to matting, and she is finding it hard to adjust to her new looks and new home:

“I can’t conceive that people live in Paris for pleasure, of their own free will, but I do begin to understand that one can get interested in what goes on inside these huge six-surveyed boxes”

Some things haven’t changed: she and her father are still bonded by affection but talk at cross-purposes:

“No doubt he neglects Moliere as not being sufficiently concerned with slugs”

Claudine could be annoying: she’s precocious and pretty self-obsessed in the way teenagers can be, but I still liked her. She’s funny, she’s witty, and she’s aware of her own shortcomings:

“Claudine, old thing, will you never cure yourself of that itch to meddle in things that don’t concern you, that rather despicable little wish to show you’re artful and knowledgeable and understand heaps of things beyond your age? This urge to astonish people, this crave to disturb people’s peace of mind and upset too-placid lives will play you a nasty trick one of these days.”

Claudine finds her claims of broadminded libertarianism butting against her experience in Paris. Although she is fine with her cousin being gay, she is shocked to find an old school friend with very few prospects deciding to be kept by her old, overweight ‘uncle’.

“In your heart of hearts Claudine, you’re nothing but a common everyday decent girl.”

This short novel follows Claudine getting to know her extended family, gaining in confidence as she negotiates the city, and working out who she is growing into. It’s an affectionate portrait of someone on the brink of adulthood, showing how its possible to be childlike and a knowing adult at the same time, moving between the two in an instant.

Claudine falls in love in Paris, with someone who, as a reader, I thought wholly unsuitable. Was I right? Tomorrow I’ll let you know when I look at Claudine Married

“There is nothing more tedious than a constant round of gaiety.” (Margery Sharp)

Today is Margery Sharp’s birthday, which I know thanks to Jane from Beyond Eden Rock; I’ve joined in the celebrations with Jane the last few years and I find starting the year with Margery is a sound way to begin if ever there was one 😊

Two years ago I looked at The Eye of Love, which introduced the character of Martha, a strong-willed, self-possessed child. Sharp continues Martha’s story in two sequels, which I thought I’d look at today. These short novels work well individually but also when read together, as I did, the second giving more satisfying conclusion to the story.

Firstly, Martha in Paris (1962) which sees Martha aged 18, pursuing her art under the patronage of her childhood friend Mr Joyce, who recognises her for the genius she is and the future star she will become. He feels that to develop as an artist, she must go to Paris. Martha isn’t keen on Paris, but the prospect of staying forever with her sweet-natured Aunt Dolores means she agrees to go:

“Contrary to Mr Joyce’s prophesy, she learned to speak practically no French at all. She learnt to understand it; but […]it wasn’t as though she had anything she particularly wanted to say. The power of expressing thoughts, or emotions, was unnecessary to her; and not to be able to answer questions a positive advantage.”

Martha is still very much the stolid child we met in The Eye of Love. She is single-minded and focussed entirely on her work. She has feelings for a few people but they are deeply buried, clear-sighted and unsentimental. She is inexpressive because in the main other people are of no real consequence to her; she is indifferent to them and so has no need to seek an understanding with them.

She seems an unlikely candidate for love, but fellow Brit, bank clerk Eric Taylor falls for Martha. Or rather, he falls for who he thinks Martha is: a shy, self-effacing virgin like himself. Martha doesn’t deliberately mislead him, because she doesn’t really bother with him at all.

“Eric Taylor, in love, still wasn’t ready to make love. He felt himself he hadn’t yet quite got the hang…a parting pressure of the hand was the most he attempted; which upon Martha, who had a grip like a navvy’s, left no impression at all.”

Despite these inauspicious circumstances, their relationship develops because Martha is drawn to visit Eric and his mother at their flat, due to the prospect of nice bath. Now onto huge SPOILERS – if you don’t want to know, you’ll need to skip to the end of the post.

Inevitably, these two naïve people end up in a predictable fix: Martha gets pregnant. She carries on going to art class and doing well; she is overweight and wears baggy smocks so her pregnancy is easy to hide. She also decides that although she enjoys sex, she loves her work more, and so she is done with that side of life.

“It was time for Martha to gather her forces. No prospect had ever appalled her more, not even that of painting Christmas cards at Richmond, than this loyally-offered prospect of honourable matrimony.”

Martha is not an easily likeable character, as she disregards almost everyone she encounters. However, she never does this out of cruelty and never intends to hurt anyone. If you like Saga Noren from The Bridge (which I do), you’ll like Martha.

Some things have dated in Martha in Paris: a rather flippant treatment of the prospect of rape and a horrible racist phrase used in passing by one character. But in its treatment of sexual politics and gender roles it is remarkably progressive for its time. Martha is shown to find joy in sex without love. She is also shown to prioritise her career over all else. Sharp suggests that Martha behaves as men have done for centuries, and asks if we judge her harshly, are we doing so because she is a woman who resolutely fails to fulfil traditional gender roles?

Sharp continues to expand on the theme of gender expectations in the sequel Martha, Eric and George (1964); as a comic writer she does this explicitly but with wit so it’s never didactic.

“Young men are not accustomed to being loved and left, abandoned to bear alone the consequences of their folly, just as if they were young women.”

But this is exactly what happens to Eric Taylor. Martha leaves the baby with him and his mother to be raised, while she returns to England to focus on her painting.

“No dashing hussar abandoning a village maiden could have behaved more cavalierly. Not that Martha was in any other sense dashing, far from it; her outstanding characteristic was rather a blunt stolidity which only Eric in his innocence could have seen as virginal shyness.”

His mother, as Martha foresaw, embraces this new challenge to become a doting grandmother. She also revels in her status as rescuer of a poor abandoned baby.

“There were no such compensations for Eric. For once, it was the man who paid.”

Martha meanwhile, has become a hugely successful artist. Events conspire to send her back to Paris ten years after she left her son on the Taylors doorstep. She has no plans to see Eric or her son ever again, but of course things work out otherwise. George has grown up very much like his mother in temperament: self-possessed and single-minded. Martha has no maternal feelings whatsoever.

“She desired neither husband nor lover, nor to be admired, nor to make other women envious. All she wanted was to be unencumbered.”

What will happen to this disparate trio? I think Sharp is brilliant at endings: things work out well, without diminishing the characters or retreating into sentimentality. Martha, Eric and George was no exception to this.

To end, a sentiment with which Martha would certainly not agree:

“We look before and after, and pine for what is not” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

My lovely friend H feels I take life too seriously & this is reflected in my choice of reading matter.  As such, she keeps lending me light reads in the hope that I’ll chill out & stop living my life like I’m a some sort of doomed Hardy heroine (which I dispute: I harbour no plans to start bedding down at Stonehenge.  Far too cold, I prefer central heating. Probably just as well as they’ve restricted access to the monument now.) But because she is a good friend & I love her (and she’s probably right in general), I read the books she gives me.  This week it was Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James (Faber & Faber, 2011), so I decided to write about it here, making the theme of the post prequels and sequels.

Death Comes to Pemberley is a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, set 6 years after the end of Austen’s novel, where Darcy & Elizabeth are happily married with 2 sons. I’m not a big crime reader, so I hadn’t read any PD James before, but I know crime aficionados who highly rate her.  To me the crime element of this novel was its weakest link – the plot was very slight and there’s no detective work as such, the crime is solved as the murderer confesses.  But I never wanted to blog about books in a critiquing way, so I’ll stop and look at what is to celebrate, as I planned.  James has great fun with the concept of a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, with comments on the backstory like: “If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome?” (Answer: Yes).  She also explains potential problems in the original, like why Darcy’s first proposal and following letter were so rude (he was trying to make Elizabeth hate him so he wouldn’t have to deal with his attraction to her).  Whether or not you like this explanation depends on how you’ve read the original, and while it’s a shame to pad out the room for interpretation which helps readers feel a sense of ownership over a novel, James is as entitled to her view as anyone else. She is obviously a huge fan of Austen and characters from Emma also make an appearance thorough a verbal report: a child is adopted by Mrs Harriet Martin nee Smith, friend of Mrs Knightley.

Part of modern scholarship on Austen is to look at what is hidden in her work: the slavery hinted at in Mansfield Park, for example. Writing from a 21st century perspective, James can make explicit certain factors like feminism and the Napoleonic War which readers today may pick up on but are only shadows in Austen’s works:

“We have entered the nineteenth century; we do not need to be a disciple of Mrs Wollstonecraft to feel that women should not be denied a voice in matters that concern them.  It is some centuries since we accepted that a woman has a soul. Is it not time that we accepted that she also has a mind?”

“The war with France, declared the previous May, was already producing unrest and poverty; the cost of bread had risen and the harvest was poor. Darcy was much engaged in the relief of his tenants ..”

In this way James’ novel offers a chance to view well-known characters in more well-rounded way, taking into account their social and political circumstances in a wider perspective, beyond that of the Regency marriage market.  However, and I realise this is an obvious point so I won’t linger on it, PD James is not Jane Austen, and as such the novel reads a bit flat.  The effervescent wit is gone and there’s not really anything to replace it.

It was a brave decision that James made with Death Comes to Pemberley, as writing a sequel to Pride and Prejudice is really a thankless task.  Austen and her characters are so greatly loved I doubt any author other than Austen herself could do them justice.  While placing them in genre fiction like crime is probably a good idea so that its clear you’re working within conventions other than those of the original novel, I can’t help feeling that Death Comes to Pemberley may prove disappointing for both crime fans and Austen fans.

For the prequel part of this post I’ve chosen probably the most well-known of all prequels: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966, my copy Penguin 1993). Wide Sargasso Sea looks at the events that occurred prior to Jane Eyre, and how Rochester’s first wife became the madwoman in the attic. Rochester marries the Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway in the Carribean.  There is a strong sexual attraction between them as Rochester describes:

“Only the sun was there to keep us company. We shut him out. And why not? Very soon she was as eager for what’s called loving as I was – more lost and drowned afterwards.”

But this is not enough to cover the differences between them “It was all very brightly coloured, very strange, but it meant nothing to me. Nor did she, the girl I was to marry.” and the cracks in their marriage soon start to appear, with distrust, jealousy and violence on both sides.  The result of this we already know…

What happens to Antoinette is a commentary on both men’s exertion of power over women, and the coloniser’s power over the colonised.  Rhys takes the “other” of Jane Eyre and gives her a voice, placing us alongside Antoinette and showed how flawed and racist notions of “other” are.  Rochester, the rich white Englishman, seeks to control Antoinette and does so by renaming her and confining her – the parallels with slavery are clear.  As a woman, she is also subjugated by a society that is on Rochester’s side:

“When a man don’t love you, more you try, more he hate you, man like that…”

“I cannot go…I am not rich now, I have no money of my own at all, everything I had belongs to him…that is English law”

However, by giving the narrative voice to Rochester as well as Antoinette, Rhys ensures a balance to Wide Sargasso Sea that means you can’t write it off as limited perspective polemic. It has had a huge influence on how Jane Eyre is read, and I think this is because it is so sensitive and subtle a reading and portrayal of the characters.  Rhys succeeds in creating a backstory that is wholly believable and recasts the frames of reference through which Jane Eyre is viewed, without ever undermining the original work.  This can be seen in interpretations such as the BBC’s 2006 version of Jane Eyre which emphasised Bertha’s (as she is then named) sexuality, associated her with the colour red as in Wide Sargasso Sea, and had her played by the beautiful Claudia Coulter to make Rochester’s physical attraction to her easy to understand (the BBC also filmed a version of Wide Sargasso Sea the same year). The fact that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s behemoth of feminist literary criticism took the title The Madwoman in the Attic (1979, Yale University Press) shows how the character of Bertha (and characters like her) are being reassessed, and I think it’s reasonable to assume Wide Sargasso Sea played no small part in that.  Unlike Death Comes to Pemberley, Wide Sargasso Sea stands alone as a great novel, and simultaneously hugely enhances reading the source work.  I recommend the latter unreservedly, and the former as a point of interest and a quick, throwaway read.

I was wondering how to photograph the books in a way that represented the theme, then as I looked at the covers I realised they sort of represented a before and after already – la petite mort followed, inevitably, by le grande mort.  What a depressing note to end on – I think H has got her work cut out…….

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