“Isn’t it confoundedly easy to think you’re a great man if you aren’t burdened with the slightest idea that Rembrandt, Beethoven, Dante or Napoleon ever lived?” (Stefan Zweig, Chess Story)

Yet again I’m posting late for a readathon. I hope Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life I will allow for my tardiness with this late entry for German Literature Month 2018.  I really need to get a grip on my blogging!

I had a couple of DNFs in my reading for GLM 2018, which really isn’t like me. One novel I suspect will never be for me, the other I think just the timing was wrong. Either way, it was with some relief that I turned to the safest of hands, Stefan Zweig, to finish my GLM reading on a high.

Image from here

In Fantastic Night and Other Stories (1906-1929 trans. Anthea Bell 2004) the wonderful Pushkin Press have collected together five of Zweig’s short stories which are compulsively readable. I don’t want to say too much as Zweig is such a subtle writer that the joy, I think, is going into his writing without an idea of plot or subject, to just see how he unfurls a story of such beauty and psychological insight before you. So I’ll just give a flavour of the first two, the longest in the collection.

In the titular story, a series of events in one evening sees a nihilistic playboy learn the value of living beyond one’s own pleasures:

“Those yearnings that then stirred unconsciously in me at many moments of half-realisation were not really wishes, but only the wish for wishes, a craving for desires that would be stronger, wilder, more ambitious, less easily satisfied, a wish to live more and perhaps suffer more as well.”

Such is the skill of Zweig’s writing that this spoilt and vacuous man undergoes a transformative experience without it seeming rushed or contrived.

“Life is a great and mighty phenomenon and can never be hailed with too much delight. It is something only love grasps, only devotion comprehends.”

Letter From an Unknown Woman I knew from the Max Ophuls 1948 film, starring the luminous Joan Fontaine (some kind soul has uploaded the whole thing to YouTube here); I had no idea it was based on a Zweig short story.

The premise is as simple as the title suggests: a man receives a letter from a woman he has no memory of, proclaiming her enduring love for him. Her young son has died from influenza and she is writing a letter to him to be sent after she has also succumbed to the virus.

Once again, Zweig manages a feat of characterisation. A woman spends her life devoted to a man who does not know of her existence: how is she not a doormat, the tale ridiculous and sentimental? Primarily because the woman is determined and unapologetic. She has a strength that comes through so clearly and is undeniable.

“I know that what I am writing here is a record of grotesque absurdities, of a girl’s extravagant fantasies. I ought to be ashamed of them, but I am not ashamed, for never was my love purer and more passionate than at this time. I could spend hours, days, in telling you how I lived with you though you hardly knew me by sight.”

She never makes excuses, for her life spent in this unrequited state or for her work as a prostitute, which she views as reasonable and profitable for her. She also does not make excuses for the object of her affection, who she sees clear-sightedly:

“You did not recognise me, either then or later. How can I describe my disappointment? This was the first of such disappointments: the first time I had to endure what has always been my fate; that you have never recognised me. I must die, unrecognised […] I understand now, (you have taught me!) that a girl’s or woman’s face must be for man something extraordinarily mutable. It is usually nothing more than the reflection of moods which pass as swiftly as an image vanishes from a mirror.”

She is also never bitter. There is no regret or rancour in her words. She chose her love, and lived it as fulfilled as it could be, given the man it was for:

“You care only for what comes and goes easily, for that which is light of touch, is imponderable. You dread being involved in anyone else’s destiny. You like to give yourself freely to the world – but not to make any sacrifices.”

These words are not angry, but just stating fact. Zweig demonstrates why she loves him, what makes him compelling to her, and why these same traits mean he can never love her back.

Zweig’s short stories are masterful. How he manages to get so much telling detail, such beauty and such insight into such economical writing is truly astonishing.

Secondly, Beware of Pity (1939) which was Zweig’s longest work, telling the story of the soldier Anton Hofmiller, who asks a young girl to dance at a party in the second decade of the twentieth century, unaware that she has a spinal cord injury which means she walks with braces and crutches.

“I had never been deeply moved by anything…Now, all of a sudden, something had happened to change me – nothing outwardly visible, nothing of any apparent importance. But that one angry look, when I had seen hitherto unsuspected depths of human suffering in a lame girl’s eyes, had split something apart in me, and now a sudden warmth was streaming through me, causing mysterious fever that seemed to me inexplicable…All I understood of it at first was that I had broken out of the charmed circle within which I had lived at my ease until now, and I was on new ground which, like everything new, was both exciting and disturbing.”

Out of pity, he repeatedly visits Edith Kekesfalva and is drawn into her life, and that of her father, a rich man driven to distraction over the fate served to his daughter:

“His obstinacy, his egocentric obsession, as if nothing in this world, which is full to the brim of unhappiness anyway, exists but his own and his child’s misfortune”

Hofmiller is callow; he doesn’t know what to do with the situation he finds himself in. The family doctor, Dr Condor, tries to warn him:

“pity is a double-edged weapon. If you don’t know how to handle it you had better not touch it, and above all you must steel your heart against it.”

But Hofmiller blunders onwards into more than one “compassionate lie” which will see all their lives unravel. How he behaves is completely believable, completely understandable, and completely devastating. For the modern reader who may not make such ableist assumptions as Hofmiller, certain situations that he crashes into seem to a certain extent avoidable, but he is naïve and well-meaning and completely oblivious.

Beware of Pity is a devastating read. The title warns of impending tragedy, but Zweig takes it a step further, by framing the story as a man looking back over what happened to a time before World War I, when World War II is just about to start. He shows how such notions of pity, honour and tragedy become swallowed whole under the terror and mass devastation of mechanised warfare. Ultimately though, Zweig suggests the need to keep hold of our humanity in such circumstances, however painful it may be.

“There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one’s own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only one at counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.” 

To end, an Anglophone artist who was hugely influenced by German culture, singing one of his most famous songs in German:

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“It’s as much fun to scare as to be scared.” (Vincent Price)

Happy Hallowe’en Everyone! I’m not really one for scary fiction as I’m far too easily spooked, but I have managed to find two books in the TBR that were perfect Hallowe’en reading and not too much for my delicate sensibilities.

Firstly, I finished The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979), her collection of short stories which rework the classic tropes of fairytales into Carter’s own disturbing, sexual, feminist, Gothic stories. I’ve written about The Snow Child, The Werewolf and The Tiger’s Bride before, but somehow not got round to finishing the collection. This year of the book-buying ban (nearly finished!) is all about ploughing through the TBR pile so this was a good opportunity to get the collection dusted off and finished.

Angela Carter is a writer people have strong feelings about, so I’ll start with a disclaimer: I am firmly in the ‘for’ camp. I think she’s brilliantly inventive, political, funny and deeply unnerving. I never find her comfortable read, and I love that. So if you’re in the ‘agin’ camp you might want to skip through to my second choice of David Mitchell 😊

If you’re a fan like me, The Bloody Chamber will give you all you desire. The titular story is a heady mix of sexual awakening and mortal danger as a young woman marries an older French Marquis (natch):

“For the opera, I wore a sinuous shift of white muslin tied with a silk string under the breasts. And everyone stared at me. And at his wedding gift.

His wedding gift, clasped around my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.”

The story is a retelling of Bluebeard, but as the woman is a Carter heroine, she is not a naïve virgin wandering blindly into a danger but someone who understands more than she knows, and she knows that there is something very wrong with her husband:

“I felt a strange, impersonal arousal at the thought of love  and at the same time a repugnance I could not stifle for his white, heavy flesh that had too much in common with the armfuls of arum lilies that filled my bedroom in great glass jars, those undertakers lilies with the heavy pollen that powders your fingers as if you dipped them in turmeric. The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you.”

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say Bluebeard doesn’t quite have things work out for him the way he hoped. Carter uses the retelling of familiar tales to give women agency: they are not there to be eaten by wolves, seduced by royalty when unconscious, or rescued by a heterosexual love interest. Neither are they the pure-as-snow heroines who survive to enter marriage; when they survive it is as women with complex motives and strategic means of never relinquishing control. They are to be reckoned with.

If this sounds didactic, it really isn’t. Carter never loses sight of spinning a good yarn, and she does so with humour. This is most apparent in Puss in Boots, a first person narrative voiced by the eponymous feline, a cheeky servant who does his master’s bidding while never losing sight of his own ends:

“So Puss got his post at the same time as his boots and I dare say the Master and I have much in common for he’s proud as the devil, touchy as tin-tacks, lecherous as liquorice and, though I say it as loves him, as quick-witted a rascal as ever put on clean linen.”

Puss also recalls The Barber of Seville, in comic exuberance, machinations, and names:

“Figaro here; Figaro, there, I tell you! Figaro upstairs, Figaro downstairs and–oh, my goodness me, this little Figaro can slip into my lady’s chamber smart as you like at any time whatsoever that he takes the fancy for, don’t you know, he’s a cat of the world, cosmopolitan, sophisticated; he can tell when a furry friend is the Missus’ best company. For what lady in all the world could say ‘no’ to the passionate yet toujours discret advances of a fine marmalade cat?”

While she’s undoubtedly burlesque, Carter is a writer with serious concerns, and plenty to say about the position of women, both in the fairytale tradition and society as a whole. It’s far from all she has to say, but for me at this time, it was the main message I took away. For this reason I’ll finish with a quote from The Erl-King:

 “When I realized what the Erl-King meant to do to me, I was shaken with a terrible fear and I did not know what to do for I loved him with all my heart and yet I had no wish to join the whistling congregation he kept in his cages although he looked after them very affectionately, gave them fresh water every day and fed them well. His embraces were his enticements and yet, oh yet! they were the branches of which the trap itself was woven.

Secondly, Slade House by David Mitchell (2015); it was Cathy’s recent review which prompted me to get my copy down from the shelf. Like Carter, Mitchell is clearly having fun with this work. It’s not typical of him – for one thing, at 233 pages its about a third the size of his usual tomes – but it does still have many of his trademarks: references to his other works, interconnected stories, time shifts. It’s a companion piece to The Bone Clocks; that novel remains buried in my TBR somewhere but I didn’t find that not having read it affected my enjoyment of Slade House at all. You’ll be pleased to hear this is a short review as I desperately try and avoid spoilers…

The first story, The Right Sort (which began life as a Twitter story, which you can read here) is set in 1979 and is told by Nathan Bishop, who is accompanying his mother to Slade House. Nathan is lonely and isolated: his father has left and he doesn’t really have friends. He may be on the autistic spectrum:

“Mum lets go of my wrist. That’s better.

I don’t know what her face is saying.”

Once they arrive at Slade House, Nathan’s mum goes into the vast pile with Lady Grayer, while Nathan spends time with her son Jonah. The experience has a blurry, unreal quality, possibly due to the fact that Nathan has taken one of his mother’s Valium:

“A dragonfly settles on a bulrush an inch from my nose. It’s wings are like cellophane and Jonah says ‘Its wings are like cellophane’ and I say, ‘I was just thinking that,’ but Jonah says ‘Just thinking what?’ so maybe I just thought he’d said it. Valium rubs out speech marks and pops thought-bubbles. I’ve noticed it before.”

In the following story, Shining Armour, corrupt copper Gordon Edmonds is half-heartedly investigating the disappearance of Nathan and his mum, as a man has awakened from a coma and was the last person to speak to them, nine years earlier. Another nine years later and a student paranormal society are interested in Slade House:

“Todd the mathematician works it out first. ‘Christ, I’ve got it. The Bishops vanished on the last Saturday in October 1979; fast-forward nine years and Gordon Edmonds vanishes on the last Saturday in October 1988; fast-forward another nine years and you get…’ He glances at Axel, who nods. ‘Today.’

I can’t help feeling things are not going to work out well for the curious students…

What is going on at Slade House? Why can’t it be found on maps? What happens every nine years? Who is responsible? And is anyone going to stop them?

“ ‘That’s the only prize worth hunting. And what we want, what we dream of. The stage props change down the ages, but the dream stays the same: philosophers’ stones, magic fountains in lost Tibetan valleys, lichens that slow the decay of our cells, tanks of liquid that’ll freeze us for a few centuries; computers that’ll store our personalities as ones and zeroes for the rest of time. To call a spade a spade: immortality.’”

The wackometer needle is stuck on 11. ‘I see.’”

Mitchell’s legions of fans might be a bit disappointed with Slade House; as I mentioned, it’s definitely not typical of him. I really enjoyed it though. As a quick, fun, slightly spooky read for autumn, it was spot-on.

To end, a song which I only found out this week was once banned by the BBC, who hilariously thought dancing monsters were ‘too morbid’ for impressionable young minds:

“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.” (Neil Gaiman)

This is the second of two posts where I catch up on the reading I did, but the blogging I failed to do, for the wonderful Persephone Readathon hosted by Jessie at Dwell in Possibility. Thankfully Jessie said I could post late, so here it is, a month overdue *shameface*. Both my choices are short story collections, which I find really hard to write about so apologies in advance for not doing either of these wonderful books any justice whatsoever.

Firstly, Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes by (unsurprisingly) Mollie Panter-Downes which is Persephone No.8. It features 21 stories which Panter-Downes wrote for The New Yorker between 1939 and 1944.

I wish I had picked up this collection when I had my reading slump, it would have been perfect. The pithy, concise portraits are a quick read, highly entertaining and insightful. Panter-Downes shows how human foibles don’t just disappear at the onset of war. The stories are amusing but never seek to trivialise the conflict. Rather they show how domestic life is driven by huge national change and small personality traits.

Meeting at the Pringles captures the organisation of women who find their raison d’etre during wars, and find themselves “happier, as a matter of fact, than they had been for the last twenty-one years” as they arrange a bandage-knitting party for the Red Cross. Similarly, an elderly Major in It’s the Real Thing This Time is overjoyed at the thought of conflict “[looking] up for the falling body of a German soldier like a lover watching for a sign from a stubbornly closed window”

Family life continues, but is subject to greater pressures than ever. Mrs Ramsay’s War sees a young mother taking in evacuees and being shocked by the realities of motherhood for the first time:

“On the afternoon the nurse went out, the harsher facts of infant life were concealed from her by the nursery maid, who let her have fun pretending to fool around with two little dears who were always perfectly dry, perfectly sweet-smelling, and done up in pretty organdie tied with ribbons.”

Her naivety is subject to the onslaught of the Clark family, and she can’t close her eyes to other, less agreeable, lives any longer:

“there didn’t seem to be a disinfectant invented that could drown the Clark smell of grinding, abject poverty, very different from the decent, cottagey variety with a red geranium on the window sill, which had been the worst Mrs Fletcher had encountered up to now.”

In As the Fruitful Vine another young mother, this one expectant, rues the fact that she has fallen pregnant during a time of international conflict: “In her mother’s day a pregnant woman spent a good deal of time on a sofa, thinking beautiful thoughts and resolutely avoiding unpleasant ones; people took care not to speak of anything shocking or violent in front of her”

All these small events will lead to irrevocable societal changes. This is perhaps most apparent in Cut Down the Trees where an elderly retainer is deeply disturbed by the changes being wrought on a country house: “the conspiracy against Dossie’s way of life, which they called a war and which had taken first the manservants and then the girls one by one, which had stopped the central heating, made a jungle of the borders and a pasture of the lawns, marooned the two old women in a gradually decaying house with forty Canadians, and made Mrs Walsingham stop dressing for dinner.”

Good Evening Mrs Craven is a wonderful collection of highly entertaining stories, showing what went on at home – what women, the very young and the very old got up to –  while the soldiers were away. It’s a brilliant work, and if you think you don’t like short stories but want to give them another chance, I would say this is a perfect place to start.

Secondly, The Montana Stories by Katherine Mansfield, which is Persephone No.25. This remarkable collection contains everything Mansfield wrote between July 1921 and her death in January 1923, while she was being treated at the Chalet des Sapins in Montana, Switzerland, for the tuberculosis which would ultimately kill her.

The stories in this collection are of various length, some unfinished but still an enjoyable read. Unusually, they are collected chronologically, which is highly effective here, giving a sense of Mansfield’s preoccupations and creative focus in her final years. I’m just going to pick two which really stood out for me, though the whole collection is a strong one.

In Marriage a la Mode, a young couple find themselves in bewildering conflict, as Isabel is influenced by modern-thinking friends and William can’t work out how on earth to reach her. He’s unsure what toys to buy his children:

“ ‘It’s so important,’ the new Isabel explained, ‘that they should like the right things from the very beginning. It saves so much time later on. Really, if the poor pets have to spend their infant years staring at these horrors, one can imagine them growing up and asking to be taken to the Royal Academy.’

And she spoke as though a visit to the Royal Academy was certain immediate death to anyone…

‘Well, I don’t know,’ said William slowly. ‘When I was their age I used to go to bed hugging an old towel with a knot in it.’

The new Isabel looked at him, her eyes narrowed, her lips apart.

Dear William! I’m sure you did!’ She laughed in the new way.”

The story ends with Isabel doing something incredibly cruel. Yet I felt sorry for her and for William. Isabel isn’t happy but is looking for fulfilment amongst vacuous people and missing what is truly important. William is baffled and desperate. A sad story, all the more so for portraying its tragedy as so small and everyday, yet devastating.

In The Garden Party, the Sheridans are a well-off family planning the titular event when they learn a working-class neighbour has been killed. Their daughter Laura wants to cancel the party while the rest of her family find this ridiculous.

“They were mean little dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans’ chimneys […]

‘And just think what the band would sound like to that poor woman,’ said Laura.

‘Oh, Laura!’ Jose began to be seriously annoyed. ‘If you’re going to stop a band playing every time someone has an accident, you’ll lead a very strenuous life.’”

The story is about beginning to forge your own way beyond all that is familiar; it is also about deciding what is truly important. Mansfield writes with wisdom and insight, and a deceptively light touch. She’s masterful at the short story form and her stories absolutely stay with you.

To end, some highly impressive mascara-wearing and a song which tells a short story:

“Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.” (Nawal El Saadawi)

August is Women in Translation month, hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. Do head over to her blog to read more about WITMonth and join in!

This week I’m looking at two authors who are titans of literature: Marguerite Yourcenar and the one-woman powerhouse that is Nawal El Saadawi.

Firstly, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951, trans. Grace Frick 1954). Yourcenar worked on this novel on and off for over 20 years and spent around 3 years writing it as her main focus. It is a letter from the Emperor Hadrian to his successor Marcus Aurelius when he knows time is limited. It is not a dry recounting of Yourcenar’s extensive research though, or a cringe-making attempt to dramatise historical events: “so I said to the Roman Senate, as we sat in the Roman Forum: I’m going to build a wall to keep out those pesky Scots who refuse to be subdued under the yoke of Roman Imperialism. And Scotland’s going to pay for it.”

Instead, Yourcenar uses historical events as a frame for an extended consideration of life and death. Hadrian is about as likable as the leader of a huge oppressive military force can be; he is focussed on peace wherever possible, and interested in the arts and philosophy. At the same time, he is politically astute:

“A prince lacks the latitude afforded to the philosopher in this respect: he cannot allow himself to be different on too many points at a time; and the gods know that my points of difference were already too numerous, though I flattered myself that many were invisible.”

His humility is believable, and I think Yourcenar’s master stroke is having Hadrian know he is facing an imminent death. Staring into the void, even a Roman emperor is bound to question what impact he has had, and whether he was a force for good. Reflecting on his role as leader of imperialist suppression is a bleak business:

“It mattered little to me that the accord obtained was external, imposed from without and perhaps temporary; I knew that good like bad becomes routine, that the temporary tends to endure, that what is external permeates to the inside, and that the mask, given time, comes to be the face itself. Since hatred, stupidity, and delirium have lasting effects, I saw no reason why good will, clarity of mind and just practice would not have their effects too.”

But Hadrian-the-man comes across just as clearly as Hadrian-the-politician. His grief at the death of his young lover Antinous is never maudlin or indulgent, yet the overwhelming grief that Hadrian clearly felt (he established a cult in Antinous’ name) is very moving.

“This simple man possesses a virtue which I had thought little about up to this time, even when I happened to practice it, namely, kindness.”

Memoirs of Hadrian is only 247 pages in my edition but it took me much longer to read than a novel of that length normally would. This is not because the prose didn’t flow: Hadrian’s voice is crystal-clear and the narrative is easy to follow, being mainly chronological with some deviations. It is however, a densely written book with so much to consider. Hadrian doesn’t waste a word: he’s a dying man, and an erudite, philosophical one. He’s got a lot to say and I had to think hard about most of it.

“Death can become an object of blind ardour, of a hunger like that of love”

[…]

“the time of impatience has passed; at the point where I now am, despair would be in as bad taste as hope itself. I have ceased to hurry my death.”

Secondly, the short story collection She Has No Place in Paradise by Nawal El Saadawi (1987, trans. Shirley Eber 1987) Set in Egypt, it is another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

If you ever want absolute confirmation that you are an under-achiever who is wasting their life, go and check out Nawal El Saadawi’s wiki entry. The first paragraph alone is enough to inspire deep feelings utter inadequacy 😀

I always find it hard to write about collections of short stories, but I thought She Has No place in Paradise worked well. El Saadawi has an excellent understanding of the form and each story felt complete in itself, yet still contributed to the collection overall painting a picture of late twentieth-century Egyptian society.

Some of the stories captured the determinedly everyday. In Thirst, a young servant girl running errands lusts after a cool drink from a kiosk:

“The tarmac of the street beneath her feet had softened from the intensity of the sun’s heat. It burned her like a piece of molten iron and made her hop here and there, bumping and colliding, unconsciously, like a small moth against the sides of a burning lamp. She could have made for the shade at the side of the street and sat for a time on the damp earth, but her shopping basket hung on her arm and her right hand clutched at a tattered fifty piastre note.”

It’s a simple tale conveying just a few moments in time, but El Saadawi is able to address big issues: the position of women, the class system, economics, how and where freedom of choice is exercised, how we weigh up choices when we have very little to lose. None of this is heavily executed; El Saadawi trusts the reader to draw wider conclusions than just the immediate situation.

“She had a salty taste in her mouth, as bitter as aloes, acrid and burning. She searched for some saliva with which to wet her salty lips, but the tip of her tongue burned without finding a drop. And Hamida stood in front of her, her lips surrounding the ice-cold bottle, each cell of her body absorbing the drink.”

Other stories are more ostensibly political, like the man being tortured to reveal the location of a printing press in But He Was No Mule.

“The press turns in your head, the lead letters chatter together like teeth and the word is born. It is only a word nothing but a word, yet the point at which all things begin, the point at which his life began and stretched throughout the years until this moment which he was now living. A long thread beginning at a point and stretching up to that gelatinous minute point around which his self was wrapped, enclosed and protected like a foetus in its mother’s womb.”

By having the victim in a state of near-delirium El Saadawi avoids having to present gory, gratuitous violence, but still manages to convey the brutality of the situation and the oppression taking place.

El Saadawi manages to maintain a light touch in addressing huge themes throughout the tales. The titular story treats the position of women in society and how religion is used as a means of control with a degree of humour, but it is humour with bite: a devout woman realises that her devotion to entering paradise is to enter somewhere which does not benefit her.

She Has No Place in Paradise is a masterclass in making the personal political and in doing so simply, without being didactic or losing sight of the story. Hugely impressive, much like Nawal El Saadawi herself.

To end, I was tempted to finish with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall in honour of Hadrian, but frankly the video creeps me out. So here’s something much more pleasant: Donia Massoud, born in Alexandria, spent three years travelling all around Egypt collecting folk songs. She then toured with her band playing traditional instruments. Here she is performing in Spain:

“Courage calls to courage everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied.” (Millicent Fawcett)

Today is the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act in Britain receiving Royal Assent, which enabled all men and some women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time (it would be another 10 years before women got equal voting rights). There are lots of events going on this year to commemorate the centenary, but it’s also worth noting that the suffragettes argued for equal pay for equal work, and yet 100 years later (last week) Carrie Gracie has been giving evidence to MPs over pay discrimination at the BBC. This is just one example. The fight for equal rights worldwide is ongoing.

Suffragettes,_England,_1908

For this post I’ve picked one novel written by a suffragette and a short story from the twentieth-first century portraying suffragettes.

Firstly, No Surrender by Constance Maud (1911), who was a member of the Women Writers Suffrage League. I read a crusty copy from the library which had that pleasing old book smell, but Persephone have published it as one of their beautiful editions too, and if you’re on a book-buying ban like me, they also offer it as a free e-book.

Maud looks at suffrage primarily through the story of young cotton mill worker Jenny Clegg. Jenny Clegg’s father has all the power in their home while her mother does all the work:

“Her voice took on its usual apologetic tone with her lord and master. For Mrs Clegg was imbued with a spirit of such humility that she apologised not only for rising early and late taking rest, while fulfilling her manifold obligations towards her mate, such as bearing and raising his ten children, cooking, washing, mending, cleaning for the family, but even for her very existence up to the age of fifty-five in this strenuous service without pay.”

Mr Clegg squanders the money earned by the women in his family such as Jenny. He is selfish but supported by law and society in his behaviour:

“Mr Clegg regarded his daughter sternly, but without wrath. He answered her in measured tones, strong in his sense of his impregnable position, backed as he felt himself to be, not only by the law of the land, the tradition of generations, his own physical force and intrinsic superiority of sex, but by the innermost conviction and consent of all right-thinking womankind.”

Jenny’s political awareness is given direction when she encounters Mary O’Neil, a moneyed society girl who rebels against her class’ expectations of her and supports the suffragettes. There is humour in her mother’s friend Lady Walker’s attitudes towards her own gender:

“ ‘Can you suppose for one moment that a man like Horace Boulder, or even Penhaven, would have been attracted, had Helen or Cicely shown a tendency to independent interests and original thought?’ “

There were plenty of women against the suffragettes, and Lady Walker’s dismissal of them as “ ‘hysterical, unsexed creatures, with a mania against men.’” was not unusual. The character provides some much needed levity, but is never presented as ridiculous, as this internalised misogyny had a major impact on the lives of women at the time, helping maintain the limitations of their rights and freedoms.

Maud covers the main events of the movement up until that time, and uses various scenarios to get across the arguments of women’s suffrage: speeches from carriages, dinner party conversations, arguments between lovers. This is both the strength and weakness of the novel. No Surrender is an issue-lead novel, despite Maud placing a romance between Jenny and Joe Hopton, Labour party candidate, as the driving plot. As such, it sometimes falters under the weight of its intentions. Much as I dislike Dickens, he is an absolute master at dramatising his social commentary. Maud is not so gifted and sometimes No Surrender is overly didactic, with poorly realised characters and a sentimental tone. But I must stress that this is not all it is. It is also able to dramatise how:

“Courage, self-abnegation, forethought, invention, and a keen sense of humour marked the tactics of the militant movement.”

bringing a unique, personal perspective to balance the reportage (and lack thereof) regarding the movement. While at times I found the characterisation of the working classes a bit ‘gor blimey guv’nor’ (or perhaps I should say ‘ee by gum’ as its northern stereotypes) it’s still commendable that Maud roots the story in the working classes, and shifts the focus from the middle class suffragettes.

 “’there’s a good many ladies who’d be doin’ far more good in the world if they thought more about their womanhood and less about their ladyhood’”

So all in all, a flawed novel but a fascinating one, written contemporaneous to the movement by someone who was directly involved.

 

Secondly, A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing, the final and longest story in the short story collection The Apple by Michel Faber (2006), in which he revisits the characters and setting of his hugely successful novel The Crimson Petal and the White. I’m going to ignore the links to TCPATW to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read it (it’s great – you should definitely read it!)

The story is narrated by an elderly man in a nursing home in the 1990s, recalling his life when he was very young, with his artist father, bohemian mother, and Aunt Primrose (who dresses in men’s clothes and shares a bed with his mother, but the menage a tois arrangement is never explicitly stated).

“You know, because I was a child in what’s now called the Edwardian era, and because I was born the day Queen Victoria died, I always think of the Edwardians as children. Children who lost their mother, but were too young to realise she was gone, and therefore played on as before, only gradually noticing, out of the corners of their eyes, the flickering shadows outside their sunny nursery. Shadows of commotion, of unrest. Sounds of argument, of protest, of Mother’s things being tossed into boxes, of fixtures being forcibly unscrewed, of the whole house being dismantled.”

Amongst this change, there is a conflict between old and new which is obvious to the small child on a daily basis:

“Bureaucrats, tradesmen, doctors, postmen, parsons, waiters, porters, the whole pack of them; they ignored my mother and Aunt Primrose, and directed their remarks to my father.”

But he is a preoccupied artist and it is the women who drive the lives of the household, with energy, fun, and strong political convictions:

“She an Aunt Primrose worked as a kind of music hall duo, Mama getting by on charm and disarming honesty, while Aunt Primrose supplied the sardonic touch. My father was – if you’ll excuse what’s definitely not meant as a pun – the straight man.”

The story culminates on Women’s Sunday, the Hyde Park rally of 21 June 1908 which was the first major meeting organised by the WSPU. A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing covers a great many themes in its 60-plus pages: being part of stories we can’t fully comprehend, the flawed nature of memory, how history is made, the need to attach a narrative to our lives looking back. Faber is a brilliant storyteller, able to cover all this within a driving plot, authentic voice and lightness of touch. He’s said he won’t write any more since publishing Undying in 2016 following the death of his wife, and I sincerely hope he changes his mind. All the stories in The Apple were highly readable, they worked individually, as a whole, and as a sort-of sequel to TCPATW. He’s a great writer.

To end, a silly portrait of a suffragette but not one I can dismiss because it was probably the first time I learnt what a suffragette was:

 

“Adventure is just bad planning.” (Roald Amundsen, leader of the first expedition to reach the South Pole)

Happy New Year! My 2018 is rubbish so far but I’m hopeful of improvement – I’ve caught the horrible virus everyone is down with at the moment. According to fellow sufferer Rev. Richard Coles on twitter, it’s God’s way of telling you to watch a boxset.  My virus-addled brain can’t focus on the plot of a single episode of something at the moment, never mind a whole boxset (so this post may be even less coherent than usual). I’m fed up and bored and so I thought I’d look at people pushing themselves to physical extremes when I can’t even get off my sofa at the moment without a 5-point plan.  It will also be another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Off to Antarctica!

Firstly, The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge (1991) which tells the story of Scott’s disastrous attempt to reach the South Pole. Five sections are narrated by different members of the party with Scott in the middle. It’s an effective approach, building a picture of the different personalities involved and the disintegration of their hopes.

Petty Officer Evans begins the tale, full of military loyalty to their leader.

“Being down a crevasse together is no excuse for stepping out of line. All I know is I’d die with the man, and for him, God help me, if the necessity arose.”

However, through Dr Wilson, Bainbridge articulates the changes taking place in society at the time of the expedition, just into the second decade of the twentieth century.

“All the things we were taught to believe in, love of country, of Empire, of devotion to duty, are being held up to ridicule. The validity of the class system, the motives of respectable, educated men are now as much under scrutiny of the magnifying glass as the parasites feeding off the Scottish grouse.”

The men are clinging onto ideas in the face of unstoppable forces, both societally at home, and environmentally in the Antarctic. They are doomed to failure.

Scott takes up the middle portion of the book and Bainbridge brilliantly captures all his contradictions. He is arrogant yet doubtful, single-minded yet insightful.

“justifying my actions would have been simply no good for morale. Like it or not, and God knows, half the time I don’t, someone has to take the decisions – along with the consequences.”

His motivations are mixed. He claims it as a scientific expedition for Empire, yet is furious when he is beaten to the Pole.

“I came to sanity under Bill’s tuition. He wisely said I must continue as if nothing happened, as if Amundsen didn’t exist. It was unthinkable that our scientific projects should be sacrificed in a vulgar scramble to reach the Pole.”

Yet Bainbridge never allows us to despise his hubris. To do so would mean we lose our empathy with the men who he led to their deaths, and the novel would lose its enormous emotional power. As Lieutenant Bowers observes:

“I think I know what ails the Owner. He’s absolutely sound as regards what’s right, but he lacks conviction. He simply isn’t stupid enough to be convinced his is the only way. In the circumstances, it’s a dangerous trait.”

That’s not say that by the time we get to sceptical, reticent Oates, I wasn’t pleased to hear someone expressing their anger and frustration at their leader.

“I’ve never known such a man for making mistakes and shifting the blame onto others.”

However, as the nearness of death, their body parts rotting, the tedium of days desperately clinging to life in an inhospitable landscape starts to send them all insane with desperation, even Oates admits:

“Truth to tell, I think he was the only one among us capable of making any decisions.”

Bainbridge is a wonderful writer and even though we know what happened, she still manages to create tension and drama from the men’s horrific situation. She is also able to capture the landscape as beautifully and evocatively as she does the men’s psychology.

“Those who envisage this place as nothing more than a godforsaken plateau of ice and snow are mistaken. For one there are outcrops of jet-black rock about which the wind blows so fiercely the snow can never settle; and for another, the ice, being subject to reflections of sun and sea, is never purely white but tinged with rose and cobalt-blue and every shade of violet, the whole set against skies, days or night, that run through all the colours of the spectrum.”

The Birthday Boys is a short novel (181 pages) but none the less for it. It is Bainbridge at the height of her powers and as such, it is immense.

Secondly, a quick foray into Antarctica by Claire Keegan (1999) because I’ve got quite carried away with Beryl. This is Keegan’s first collection of short stories and it’s remarkably assured with a strong narrative voice. I actually found the titular story the weakest, but I suspect maybe it’s dated a wee bit. My favourite stories in the collection were those set in rural Ireland. The Ginger Rogers Sermon was devastating. The narrator is a young girl on the cusp of adulthood, living on her parents farm in a place where there’s not much to do.

Don’t ask me why we called him Slapper Jim. My mother stamped his image in my head, and I was at an age when pictures of a man precede the man himself. The posters verify: Thin Lizzie with a V of chest exposed, Pat Spillane’s legs racing across my bedroom wall…I was the girl with the sweet tooth and a taste for men.”

The taste for men is problematic when you have feelings and knowledge, but not a great deal of understanding. Adulthood is approaching rapidly but childhood also lingers:

“Now that I am thirteen I am sectioned off from men. It happens in school too, in gym class. I play basketball and jump over hurdles and come back all red-faced and sweaty and talk non-stop in class. Nobody sits beside me because I smell like an afterbirth. I wear the pads and Lily of the Valley and go dancing down the pub. Slapper Jim is always there with the bantam. I waltz around in the cigarette smoke with old men my father knows.”

This is the tone of The Ginger Rogers Sermon exactly: matter-of-fact, unsentimental, funny and sad. A tragedy occurs, arising from disturbing circumstances, yet the ending contains some hope. As in many of Keegan’s stories, things are unresolved and the story is stronger for it.

Keegan has spent time in the States and some of her stories are set there. The final one, Passport Soup, is one of these, a sad tale of the parents of a missing child. Keegan is brilliant at capturing deep feeling without melodrama, in beautiful but sparse prose:

“Frank Corso has lost his appetite. He pushes his plate aside and gets up and puts the milk carton with his daughter’s photograph back in the refrigerator and goes to bed. The sheets are cold. He hears a wedge of snow fall from the eaves of the roof onto the drift beneath the window. Snow falling, compounding cold. Daylight bleaches the walls before he finally sleeps.”

This is a powerful collection of stories, and if you’re not keen on short stories but want to give them a go, it’s a good place to start. Keegan absolutely understands the form, she doesn’t waste a word. Unfortunately, she seems to publish rarely: her second collection came 8 years later, followed after another 3 years by a stand-alone ‘long short story’. That’s not a criticism though – quality like this is worth waiting for.

To end, a tasteful video for once (clearly I really am ill), narrated by the insurpassable Sir David & full of arresting images (normal cheesy service will resume next week):

“Merry Christmas, I don’t want to fight tonight” (The Ramones)

Happy Christmas everyone! I’ve picked 2 undemanding festive reads this week, as I for one am already finding my brain overtaxed – I blame all the twinkling lights.

 

To start, the irresistably titled Christmas With Dull People by Edwardian satirist Saki (republished this year by Daunt Books). This is a perfect stocking filler: 4 stories amounting to 48 pages, little bite-sized witticisms for when your brain is dribbling out of your ears trying to comprehend the inanities of Christmas telly as your stomach tries to digest a week’s worth of calories in one sitting.

The stories are so short I just want to give you a wee taster of what to expect, I can’t really say more or it will amount to paraphrasing the whole thing. Saki is wonderfully witty and contained but it does make the stories hard to review!

In the first story ‘Reginald’s Christmas Revel’ the titular man is trying to get through Christmas games with his relations.

“On Christmas evening we were supposed to be specially festive in the Old English Fashion. The hall was horribly draughty, but it seemed to be the proper place to revel in, and it was decorated with Japanese fans and Chinese lanterns, which gave it a very Old English effect.”

In the following story ‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’ he treats us to his opinions on the difficulty of festive gift-receiving:

“Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really long enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.”

We leave Reginald for ‘Bertie’s Christmas Eve’ in which Bertie, who “had in early life adopted the profession of n’er do well” treats his whole family appallingly in a farcical fashion.

Finally in ‘Down Pens’ a couple struggle with the thank you letter writing that inevitably follows the revelries:

 “I’ve come to the end of my capacity for expressing servile amiability. Eleven letters today and nine yesterday, all couched in the same strain of ecstatic thankfulness”

I hope this has given you enough of an idea of Saki’s wit and humour to convince you. A real treat, and calorie-free to boot!

Creepy snowmen break:

Secondly, Arrest the Bishop? By Winifred Peck (1949) which I picked up after reading Ali’s review. This is a lovely golden age mystery set in 1920, at Christmas time, although the festivities are not lingered over.

Dr Broome, the Bishop of Evelake, has various people arriving at his Palace where he lives with his second wife, their staff (minus Moira the housekeeper who is in hospital) and Bobs, his secretary. Joining them are Judith, his flighty, adulterous daughter from his first marriage; Sue, his sensible daughter from his second; Dick,  ex-military police and now a deacon; a Chancellor; a canon; and a group of young clerics. It is snowing heavily as you’d expect in a country house murder mystery, when the despicable Reverend Ulder arrives:

“when he focussed those eyes on you, with the secretive state of all creeping, slimy things and when his too oily manner stiffened into threats… the sensitive shuddered as if turning over a stone which conceals maggots”

This charmer is corrupt in just about every way you can imagine and having added blackmail to his repertoire, there is no shortage of suspects when he is poisoned. Dick helps out Chief Constable Mack with the investigation, but everyone seems so unlikely a murderer:

“Motive and opportunity alike seemed to point skeleton fingers at such preposterous figures – Judith – the Chancellor – Canon Wye – the Bishop himself!”

“Dick…was aware by now that his activities in the war would always seem to outsiders that of a sort of glorified policeman. Nor could he very well explain that til this day he had no experience whatever of suspecting Church dignitaries of murder.”

Mack seems determined to arrest the Bishop, while for Dick, the chief suspect is obsequious butler Soames:

“Had this chap been reading Wodehouse as a guide to butlers? For occasionally he would throw out such Jeeves-like sentiments with oily rectitude, in startling contrast to his usual sulky, aggressive manner.”

Despite their biases and their motley crew of suspects, of course they get there in the end. To be honest, the murderer is completely obvious, but this was part of the fun. I could just watch the investigation play out and enjoy this good-natured golden age mystery as a perfect comfort read for this time of year.

I contributed greatly to our team win at my work’s Christmas quiz this year, due to my specialist subject coming up: questionable late-20th century Christmas tunes. The clincher was knowing that this wasn’t Elvis Presley (trigger warning – creepy puppet):