“I loved Mr. Darcy far more than any of my own husbands.” (Rumer Godden)

Today is Rumer Godden Day in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I’m so grateful that this prompted me to read the two by Godden I had in the TBR, as she’s quickly become a new favourite.  Godden is such an accomplished writer; her books are so readable and her use of language is stunning.

Image from here

Firstly, Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953), which I started reading with some trepidation. I expected a novel about a 1950s English woman living in India to be filled with white entitlement and comic/exoticised portraits of the locals. Thankfully, Godden is far too sophisticated an author to do anything so crass, and the comic portrait is resolutely reserved for the clueless but well-meaning white foreigner, Sophie.

“To the Pundit, Sophie was precisely like any other European or American, only more friendly; the friendliness alarmed him. ‘These people are poor and simple…’ he began, but Sophie interrupted him.

‘We shall be poor and simple too,’ she said with shining eyes.

‘But madam, the peasants are rapacious…’

To that Sophie would not listen. Like many people there were some words about which she was sentimental; one of these was ‘peasant’. ‘Peasants are simple and honest and kindly and quiet,’ she said. ‘They don’t want what they don’t possess. They have the wisdom to stay simple. They don’t want to change.’”

This idealistic young woman crashes into Kashmir with her two children, estranged from her husband and determined to establish a life for herself. Yet the portrait of Sophie is a subtle one: she is oblivious to the needs of her children and to the cultural differences between her and her neighbours, but somehow not arrogant, just hopelessly naïve.

“Teresa could not count how many times they had moved, but each time the small ballast of hopes and plans they had collected was thrown overboard and everyone they had known was left behind.

Moo did not care. Like a little seed that is blown and can grow anywhere, on a rocky ledge, in a crack of earth, he lived a contained contented small life of his own no matter where he went. To Moo it did not matter but Teresa had roots, they were tender, soft and trailing…”

Poor Teresa. She is sensible and understands so much more than her adult parent. She also cares for Moo, who is probably on the autistic spectrum and in his own world.

In describing how Sophie and her children live in Kashmir, Godden adopts an interesting approach by having the story interjected with later reflections from Sophie and her family. So the narrative will be interrupted with comments like “‘But you were not qualified to teach Urdu,’ said Toby afterwards.” It’s not a technique I’ve seen before and it doesn’t jar as much as I would expect. The effect is to temper Sophie’s idealism and blind actions. It works to offset what sceptical readers (ie me) might be thinking: ‘but that’s just ridiculous, she’ll never make that work…’ etc. It keeps the story grounded even when the main protagonist ricochets from one ill-conceived action to the next.

Godden wrote Kingfishers Catch Fire based on her own experiences of India and her love of the land is obvious:

“There were no ceilings, only cross beams stuffed with dried furze as in most Kashmiri peasant houses. There was no glass in the windows, only hanging window shutters, no water system of course, no lighting, but it was a rarely beautiful little house. In summer it was hung with vines and honeysuckle and white-scented roses, and all around it were flowering trees….Above it all the mountain reared its head while below, lay the lake and its reflections and, far, the horizon of snow peaks.”

The plot is a deceptive one. I was enjoying what I thought was comic novel about the escapades of a fairly clueless woman; then suddenly things took a very dark turn and I found myself racing towards the end, desperate to know what happened and for things to work out well.

I loved the ending. This pithy comment on stealthy imperialism summed it up for me:

“The missionaries worked for the people but did not respect them. For all their love and zeal the wanted to bend them, bend them out of their own truth”

The message I took from Kingfishers Catch Fire was one of resolutely sticking to your own truth, whilst acknowledging and respecting other people’s. I just loved it.

Behold my slightly battered, kitschy-covered editions:

Secondly, China Court (1961). This is another story of a dilapidated house and the woman who loves it, but otherwise very different to Kingfishers Catch Fire. The titular pile is the Victorian home of five generations of the Quin family set in the Cornish moors and built on the proceeds of china clay works.

“When one of the…rose bowls or vases is rung it gives off a sound, clear, like a chime, the ring of true porcelain, so China Court gives off the ring of a house, a true home.”

The story begins with the death of Mrs Quin, the matriarch who has resolutely stayed in China Court against all her family’s wishes (except her granddaughter) and looks at what happens after her death as her family besiege the house for the reading of the will.

The story moves back and forth across the generations. There is no indication when this will happen; scenes cut between the various family members, all in present tense. Again, this stylistic experiment doesn’t jar nearly as much as I would expect. Instead it captures a sense of the house holding all the members of the family at any one time, the echoes of their steps and their voices all layered upon one another.

“Homes must know a certain loneliness because all humans are lonely, shut away from one another, even in the act of talking, of loving. Adza cannot follow Eustace in his business deals and preoccupations as she cannot follow Mcleod the Second or Anne or Jared – no one can follow Eliza. Mr King Lee, kissing Damaris, has no inkling of the desolation he has brought her, just as Groundsel only half guesses Minna’s; Jared hides himself from Lady Patrick, and John Henry and Ripsie, in their long years together are always separated by Borowis

[…]

Loneliness can be good. Mrs Quin learns that in the long companionship of the years after Tracy goes, when she and Cecily are alone in the house; companionship of rooms and stairs, of windows and colours; in the gentle ticking away of the hours, the swinging pendulum of the grandfather clock. ‘I was happy,’ Mrs Quin could have said. Contented loneliness is rich because it takes the imprint of each thing it sees and hears and tastes”

This for me was the central theme of China Court: the value of everyday domesticity. The characters who recognise it are fulfilled and live rich lives that outwardly appear narrow but in reality connect with something fundamental that enables a wider kinship with others.

The portraits of the individuals run seamlessly and as the novel progresses they weave together for a complex depiction of family, and how histories are cyclical, building on what has gone before.

Mrs Quin is an avid gardener, and as in Kingfishers…there are beautiful descriptions of the natural world, but also of food and the various meals the family have taken together over the years.

“Now Cecily brought in saffron cake, buttered scones hot in a silver dish, brown bread and butter thin as wafers, quince jelly and strawberry jam from China Court quinces and strawberries; she had made shortbread, fruitcake and because Tracy likes them as a child, thin rolled ginger-snaps filled with cream.”

Gradually the family histories build towards a brilliant denouement in the present day of the novel. It’s dramatic but believable and once again I found myself racing towards the end. And the end is where I encountered my first reservation about Godden’s writing. To discuss it I’ll have to include a SPOILER so skip to the end of this paragraph if you don’t want to know. Here it is: an act of domestic violence takes place, an act which is quickly forgiven and leads to sex. I think it’s a dramatic device to shock a couple who aren’t communicating well (a recurring theme in the novel) towards honesty and resolution, but reading this almost 60 years after it was written, times have changed and it was just horrible. I know from films of the time that slaps and spankings were freely given, but I’d be very surprised if this worked for modern readers.

This one incident aside, China Court is a wonderful portrait of a house and a family, beautifully evoked and fully realised with fondness but without sentimentality.

“ ‘We were truly kin,’ says Mrs Quin, and it is true that Tracy is like her grandmother in many ways; for instance, both, from the moment they first see it, are enslaved by China Court.”

To end, regular readers will know there are no depths to which I won’t sink in order to shoehorn in an 80s pop video. So please pardon the pun that has enabled my childhood hair icons to be this week’s choice:

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“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:

“Books have to be heavy because the whole world’s inside them.” (Cornelia Funke)

Oh dear, I still haven’t quite got my blogging momentum back. I planned a few posts for German Literature Month 2018, hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life but here we are at the end of the month and this is my first. Somehow I have a feeling improving my blogging is definitely going to feature on my New Year’s resolution list…

It certainly isn’t lack of good reading that is the cause of my blogging dip, as I really loved Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon (2010, trans. Donal McLaughlin 2012), from the ever-reliable publisher AndOtherStories. It also fits with my love of novellas at only 172 pages long, and is one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit, as much to my own surprise, I’ve not been to Switzerland yet.

The premise of the novel is incredibly simple: octogenarian widower Lukas Zbinden is walking down the stairs of the retirement home where he lives, holding onto the arm of a new carer, Kazim. As they make their way down seemingly interminable flights, Lukas recounts his life. Kazim is a silent interlocutor, as you feel many people are with Lukas Zbinden. He was happily married, to a woman who converted him to the joys of walking, although she preferred country walks and her irrepressible husband prefers sociable city walks:

“Emilie always said the one really essential thing was to remain lively, active and interested, and always open to whatever’s going on both in nature and within oneself. We could talk much more about that Kazim, if we went for a walk.”

“Emilie liked trees standing randomly in a landscape; I like trees in rows. I’ve nothing against cow pastures being built on, even to be replaced by hangars and shopping streets providing free entertainment. I yearn for tranquillity but can’t actually bear it.”

Lukas is an entertaining, endearing man although not without his faults. He is still fully engaged with life, enjoying the people he shares the home with, poking his nose into their business, and trying to convert everyone to the joys of ambulation.

“Do you know what it means to go for a walk? Going for a walk is acquiring the world. Celebrating the random. Preventing disaster by being away.”

He’s also aware of his own failings, and the progress of the title is psychological as well as physical. He misses his wife, he knows his relationship with his son isn’t that great, and he’s trying to be a better person.

“Emilie was so full of beautiful things she could share with others. Her whole life was sharing with others, just as I wish that for my own life. Believe me when I say that, it’s why I’m working on becoming inwardly rich. So that every time I’m with someone, I can share something with that person.”

Zbinden’s Progress was just the right book at the right time for me. Things are pretty bleak right now – watching the news is an endurance task. This novella is sweet but not sentimental, life-affirming but realistic. The overall message is that it’s never too late to reach out to people, to enrich your life and theirs with a connection. It’s also about how love, in its many forms, endures. And it’s about finding the right hobby:

“What counts is that you have the right leisure activity. An activity with which you can live when it gets very dark; that gives you support in the face of major challenges; for which there are no requirements in terms of age and ability; that requires no proof of an unimpaired ability to think; an activity during which you can die peacefully.”

Sounds like reading to me (so long as the dark is metaphorical not literal).

Zbinden’s Progress is funny and sad, but more the former than latter. It is about simple joys, and about finding what for you makes a life well lived.

“the end of my path is becoming more and more identifiable. I’ve started taking my leave of people, but they tell me it’s still too early for that.”

If I’ve failed to give you a good sense of this book, perhaps this will help – a pictorial representation by the author, helpfully enclosed with my copy:

Secondly, a book I read mainly for curiosity value, ThreePenny Novel by Bertolt Brecht (1934, trans. Desmond I Versey with verses trans. Christopher Isherwood, 1937). I know Brecht mainly as a playwright, and I’ve seen ThreePenny Opera a few times so I was curious to see what he did with the characters in novel form.

Macheath, ‘Mack the Knife’ is still the main focus, his famous activities of the ThreePenny Opera shrouded in rumour as he has established himself as a businessman, running a series of ‘B Shops’ which sell stolen goods incredibly cheaply.  Brecht was a Marxist and his work is undoubtedly didactic, but he does it with bone-dry humour:

“years obscured by that semi-darkness which makes certain portions of the biographies of our great businessmen so poor in material; ‘giants of industry’ usually seem to rise, suddenly and astonishingly, ‘straight up’ out of the darkness after so-and-so many years of ‘hard and necessitous life’ – but whose life is usually not mentioned.”

Another businessman is Peachum, Polly’s father, who manages a group of professional beggars, ruthlessly and cynically:

 “After a victory one must send out mutilated, dirty, miserable soldiers begging; but after a defeat they must be smart and clean and spruce. That’s the whole art.”

Polly marries Macheath, and Peachum is not happy. He wanted her to marry a man named Coax, who is organising a shipping scam to rip off investors and the Navy.

“His daughter was to blame for everything. Through her boundless sensuality, doubtless inherited from her mother, and as a result of culpable inexperience, Polly had thrown herself into the arms of a more sinister individual. Why she had immediately married her lover was a mystery to him. He suspected something terrible.”

Everything and everyone is terrible in ThreePenny Novel. The corruption is relentless. The coveting and accumulation of money is the only motivator and is pursued without scruple, facilitated by the bankers and financiers. It is incredibly bleak: sociopathic Macheath rises to the top through entirely legal means.

In this world there is no room for morals, compassion, or consideration. I didn’t find it depressing though. ThreePenny Novel is a satire, and so it’s wry portrayal of people and events lightens it enough. I thought it was a bit overlong (as I nearly always do for anything over 200 pages) but on finishing the novel I did find myself questioning what I could do to be less of a cog in corrupt capitalist machines so it was certainly effective from the political point of view, comrades 😊

Brecht’s work may seem dated: a Marxist treatise set in late Victorian London. But I really don’t think it is. Judge for yourself if this still seems relevant:

“There are some people who have the capacity for remaining entirely uninfluenced by the feelings of others, who can remain completely immune from actualities and can speak their thoughts openly and freely, without regard for time and place. Such men are born to be leaders.”

To end, there was only one song I could possibly end on. Here it is in the 1989 version of The ThreePenny Opera (trigger warnings for mentions of rape, murder, blood, assault, and stylised violence):

“The problem with current [marriage] vows is their optimism, which should be radically tempered, so as to avoid rage and resentment.” (Alain de Botton)

Last week I got an invite to a friend’s wedding. I know you won’t judge me, my bookish friends, when I say that I was pleased to get the invite and looking forward to it, but only became truly excited when I saw it was taking place in the birthplace of a favourite poet – roll on October!

Anyway….. me being a selfish friend aside, this prompted me to think that June is traditionally a month for weddings and so a suitable theme for this week.

Firstly, The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946), which tells the story of twelve-year old Frankie over a few sultry days in late August, around the wedding of her older brother:

“She knew that her only brother, Jarvis, was to be married. He had become engaged to a girl in Winter Hill just before he went to Alaska. Frankie had not seen her brother for a long, long time and his face had become masked and changing, like a face seen underwater. But Alaska! Frankie had dreamed of it constantly.”

Frankie is a misfit – very tall for a girl (I thought she sounded entirely normal but then I was 5’10” by age 14), with hair she’s just shorn into a crew cut, kept company by her housekeeper Berenice and her cousin John Henry, who is half her age.  Her mother died in childbirth and her father is a distant presence. She is deeply unhappy and pins all her hopes on her brother and his new wife taking her with them when they leave.

McCullers creates the stultifying atmosphere perfectly:

“The clock ticked very slowly on the shelf above the stove, and it was only quarter to six. The glare outside was still hard and yellow and bright. In the backyard the shade beneath the arbor was black and solid. Nothing moved. From somewhere far away came the sound of whistling, and it was grieving an August song that did not end. The minutes were very long.”

I don’t think it’s putting too much of a modern interpretation on the novel to say a dominant theme is about gender and identity. Frankie has a gender-neutral name and does not conform to a feminine ideal. John Henry wears a dress. Markers of identity shift: Berenice is African-American but has one blue eye, she knows a dark-skinned woman who has vitiligo, and she tells of a man who became a woman. Frankie’s name changes to F Jasmine in the second part of the novel. Both children feel their ideal world would not contain gender binaries:

“She planned it so that people could instantly change back and forth from boys to girls, whichever way they felt like and wanted. But Berenice would argue with her about this, insisting the law of human sex was exactly right as it was and could in no way be improved. And then John Henry West would very likely add his two cents’ worth about this time, and think that people ought to be half boy and half girl”

At core though, it is a tale of a sad, lonely, misunderstood child who desperately wants to be seen and heard, and believes the wedding day will give her this chance:

“And since it was the day when past and future mingled, F Jasmine did not wonder that it was strange and long. So these were the main reasons why F Jasmine felt, in an unworded way, that this was a morning different from all mornings she had ever known. And of all these facts and feelings the strongest of all was the need to be known for her true self and recognised.”

What Frankie needs to recognise is what she already has: a deep intimacy with Berenice and John Henry who both love her.

“The three of them sat silent, close together and they could feel and hear each other’s breaths.”

The Member of the Wedding is an atmospheric, touching story that has many layers to it. It’s a tightly contained novel (188 pages in my edition) which still manages a remarkable richness of characterisation and setting.

The Member of the Wedding was a Broadway production and then a film with the same actors in 1952. I’ve not seen it but I believe it was acclaimed, although the claustrophobic quality probably worked better on stage:

Secondly, Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker (1962). Like The Member of the Wedding, the story centres not on the couple but on someone with a strong emotional investment in the proceedings. Cassandra is writing her PhD at Berkley and has to return home because her twin sister Judith is marrying a doctor she met in New York. The sisters are exceptionally, unhealthily close and Judith’s move to New York had sent Cassandra into a tailspin. At the start of the novel she is considering the Golden Gate bridge in term of a suicide vehicle:

“I think I knew all the time I was sizing up the bridge that the strong possibility was I’d go home, attend my sister’s wedding as invited, help hook-and-zip her into whatever she wore, take over the bouquet while she received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it, and hold my peace.”

Their mother is dead and their father is an alcoholic. It becomes apparent that the twins’ claustrophobic relationship was an extension of the elitist, exclusive culture their parents encouraged. But Judith has realised that this was not a helpful way to live:

“as a family we’d always been something of a closed corporation…we had our own pinnacle to look down from. But when we went away to college we couldn’t quite keep it the way it was on the ranch.”

Judith has dared to want the ordinary: to be out in the world, to get married and to set up a home. The few days when they are both back at home will bring the twins’ differing needs into direct conflict.

“[I] stood up and looked down at Cass and knew I loved her, but that it was not the same thing as being married and feeling married, and that now it never could or would be. I felt very solemn about it, and solemn words came into my mind. ‘Whom God hath split asunder, let nothing join them together. Ever.’ “

Cassandra is an intriguing character: bright, funny, acerbic, incredibly vulnerable (she’s anorexic since Judith moved east) and monumentally selfish and self-centred. Her obsession with Judith is in many ways an extension of self-obsession:

 “To be like us isn’t easy, it requires constant attention to detail. I’ve thought it out; we’ve thought it out together. I’ve tried to explain to my doctor that it’s a question of working ceaselessly at being as different as possible because there must be a gap before it can be bridged. And the bridge is the real project.”

All the same I was rooting for Cassandra – not to get what she wanted, because that was a continuation of the destructively claustrophobic relationship with her sister – but to find a way through, for all involved.

Cassandra at the Wedding is a psychologically astute, funny and sad novel. Dorothy Baker balances the differing tones expertly; I’d definitely be interested to read more by her.

To end, The Dixie Cups in remarkable 1980s dresses (were wired hems a thing?), and looking like they’ve not bothered aging since their 60s heyday:

“A Persephone cover is a guarantee of good reading.” (Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books)

After a month of daily posting about novellas I was planning at least a week’s break from blogging, but I couldn’t resist joining in with Jessie at Dwell in Possibility’s Persephone Readathon. Here are two short Persephones that just missed out on being part of Novella in Day in May as they were over 200 pages (but not by much).

Firstly, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson (1937) which is Persephone No.53.

This is the story of a young Scottish heiress from childhood to young adulthood, framed by the visit of three tourists to the estate of Keepsfield.

“This transition to the atmosphere of another world is bewildering to modern personalities. The three strangers were conscious of a nakedness of spirit that made them uneasy spectators of a grandeur which was more than material. The old caretaker had slipped into the background, as caretakers do.”

The caretaker, Mrs Memmary, has been on the estate since she was a girl, and she tells one of the Tourists, Mrs Dacre, the story of Lady Rose. Rose is a child filled with joy, and a passionate attachment to her homeland, so far so that she names her kitten after a mighty clansman:

“Rose went out onto the sun-drenched west terrace, cuddling Rob Roy, who by now wore a small pink silk handkerchief round his head to protect him from the sun.”

She is a debutante and presented to the Queen, who takes a shine to her. It is at this moment, stepping into society for the first time, that she realises what her wealth and position truly mean:

“She was important? She, Rose Targenet aged eighteen, who had done so little but rejoice in the beauty and happiness of life. Of course her importance was not her own quality; it was because of her Papa.”

However, while she is important, she has no power. This is Victorian Scotland, and she must make a good match, securing the future of her lands and providing a male heir. We know that she managed this, as Mrs Memmary tells the tourists early on that all the splendour they see in the home is entailed to the heir, and Lady Rose is seeking a rich tenant to help pay for the upkeep of the estate.

The Victorian marriage market is poked gentle fun at during this overheard conversation between Rose’s mother and a family friend, regarding the Poet Laureate:

“If poor Alfred must write about what he calls love, he might at least explain that it is an emotion to be openly enjoyed by the middle classes.”

Although Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary could be seen as a light novel, it actually has serious points to make about the role and rights of women in the period. (It was written in in the 1930s and was apparently a great favourite of the Queen Mother, which I find fascinating. Makes me see her in a whole new light.)

Rose ends up in a loveless marriage to someone who is not horrible, but just completely cold and repressed:

“She had cried on her bed all the afternoon, realizing bitterly that in 1874 married women had no rights, even if they were countesses. She didn’t cry now, for she had the children, and in any case crying did no good after 10 years.”

Meanwhile, her friend Susan is in no better position having avoided marriage altogether:

“But what have I got? Just a piece of needlework and two disappointed elderly minded parents, and all the time in the world on my hands. If I had my way women would be free to do the same things as men; come and go as they wished, and read and talk, and be doctors and lawyers and financiers, and Members of Parliament, and newspaper writers, Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

So what happens? We know Lady Rose is a strong character who at times is willing to defy authority, and we know she has been abroad for a long time. Mrs Dacre isn’t at all happy with what Mrs Memmary tells her:

 “ ‘You mean – that was the end of Lady Rose’s story? It seems a vague, disappointing ending.’

‘Vague?’ The old woman thought for a moment and said, ‘But in real life things go like that. Our stories have no ending. We come into the light for a little while, and then we move away into the shadows and nobody sees us anymore. It is better that way.’”

A good point, but Mrs Memmary has held something back. I don’t think I’m a great genius in guessing what it was in Chapter 2, but this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the novel at all. I promise you it’s not a vague, disappointing ending.

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is in some ways a romantic novel: the country house and Scotland are both described with ravishing beauty, and it is a novel about being true to yourself and following your heart. But Ferguson also doesn’t shy away from portraying the price that is paid for these things, suggesting the price may be worth it but it can also be a high one.

Secondly, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer (1958) which is Persephone No.77. Ruth Whiting lives in a commuter town with her husband Rex. Their two sons are away at boarding school and their daughter – whose conception necessitated their marriage – is studying at Oxford. Ruth is not happy:

“In all the years of her marriage, a long war in which attack, if not happening, was always imminent, she had learned an expert cunning. The way to avoid being hurt, to dodge unhappiness, was to run away. Feelings of guilt and cowardice presented no problems that couldn’t be overcome by dreams, by games, by the gentle sound of her own voice advising and rebuking her as she went about the house.”

Rex and Ruth aren’t together very much – he has a flat in London during the week and comes home at weekends.

“For Rex and herself there was no longer any hope or possibility of change; there was no longer any choice to be made. They lay, fully grown, capable of every crime and every greatness, paralysed by triviality.”

Mortimer’s unflinching eye and scathing attitude is cast wider than the intricacies of marriage; it also takes in the other couples in the area:

“The relationships between the men are based on an understanding of success. Admiration is general, affection not uncommon. Even pity is known. The women have no such understanding. Like little icebergs, each keeps a bright and shining face above water; below the surface, submerged in fathoms of leisure, each keeps her own isolated personality. Some are happy, some poisoned with boredom; some drink too much and below the demarcation line are slightly crazy; some love their husbands and some are dying from a lack of love; a few have talent, useless to them as a paralysed limb.”

Ruth seems on the verge, if not in the midst of, a breakdown. She is struggling to get out of bed and Rex engages a housekeeper/nurse.  However, what begins as a dissection of suburban 1950s marriage develops into something more political when Ruth’s daughter Angela tells her she is pregnant. The father, fellow student Tony, is selfish and callow:

“It was obviously not going to be necessary to impress on him the seriousness of the situation. He looked like a curate settling down to discuss dry rot in the organ loft.”

So Angela, unlike her mother, does not want to tie herself into marriage to an unsuitable man for the sake of an unwanted baby. The rest of the novel follows the hoops both Ruth and Angela have to jump through in order to secure an abortion. (This  particularly resonated at the time I read it given the recent vote in Ireland). What Mortimer demonstrates is the ways in which women’s lives are circumscribed and the huge fallout this can have: on mental health, physical health, participation in society, participation in our own lives.  Although she is acerbic, and undoubtedly it is a resounding cry for women’s rights to be acknowledged and given their due importance, I think above all, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a plea for kindness.

“He would probably go through his entire life imagining that he was real; but not one person would owe him gratitude, remember his comfort.”

To end, I said when Novella a Day in May was over I’d go back to shoehorning late 20th century pop tunes into posts at every opportunity. So here we go, a 1980s celebration of those beautiful Persephone covers:

Novella a Day in May #30

Yesterday I wrote about Eudora Welty, today I’m looking at a novella by her editor, William Maxwell. Maxwell was fiction editor at The New Yorker from 1936-1975 and a contributor until his death in 2000. He was editor to extraordinarily successful writers as well as a writer himself.

Image from here

I’ve abandoned the two novella posts I was ending this series with, because I loved this one so much I wanted it to have a post all to itself.

They Came Like Swallows (1937, 140 pages)

The title of this semi-autobiographical novella is taken from WB Yeats’ Coole Park:

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a Swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air,

A woman’s powerful character is the central compass-point of this story. Elizabeth Morison is mother to Bunny and Robert, wife to James. The 3 parts of this novella are told from the point of view of each of the male members of the Morison family in turn.

It begins with Bunny, aged 8 and a sensitive child who takes things to heart, would prefer to be indoors than out, and suffers under his older, more rumbustious older brother. He is still of an age where his mother has the power to change everything and make it alright.

“Somewhere in the front part of the house a door opened so that his mother’s voice came up the stairs. A spring inside him, a coiled spring, was set free. He sat up and threw his covers to the foot of the bed. When he was washed and dressed he went downstairs. His mother was sitting at the breakfast table before the fire in the library.”

“While he stood waiting before her and while she considered him with eyes that were perplexed and brown, the weight grew. The weight grew and became like a stone. He had to lift it each time that he took a breath.

‘Whose angel child are you?’

By these words and by the wholly unexpected kiss that accompanied them he was made sound and strong. His eyes met hers safely.”

I thought Maxwell effectively captured a sense of childhood and just how hard it can be day-to-day, without ever lurching into sentimentality. He writes in a constrained way yet captures moments in their entirety; he shows the profound in the everyday.

That’s not to say he can’t be poetic, but it is a restrained poetry. When he chooses an image it is startling and evocative. Every word in this novella works hard, yet overall it flows with deceptive ease. I particularly liked this description of Robert reading:

“It began the way Robert liked books to begin, and by the second page he was submerged. The lamp cord was his only means of contact with the upper air. He clung to that, and shaped his words in silence as he read.”

Robert also adores his mother. Under Bunny’s point of view he seemed somewhat brutal, but in his section we learn how much he also relies on maternal love as he enters adolescence:

“With his mother Robert was almost never constrained or ill at ease. It seemed easy and natural for her to be talking about whatever was on her mind. She didn’t stop what she was doing. Hardly ever. And that way he felt free to tell her all sorts of things. Because he always knew she would go right on sorting the sheets and pillowcases.”

I’m about to go on to a massive SPOILER so skip the remainder if you don’t want to know, although I knew this at the start of They Came Like Swallows and it didn’t affect my enjoyment of it at all: Elizabeth Morison dies. She succumbs to the flu epidemic that swept through after the First World War, and so these 3 people are left reeling without their centre. Maxwell’s restrained style effectively captures the numbness of grief, and how the inexpressible is articulated in a society that does not encourage outbursts of emotion, particularly from men. James blames himself for taking his wife on a crowded train:

“He read the letters while he walked back and forth between the fireplace and the windows – read them over and over without retaining what he read. Then he threw envelopes and letters upon the library table and stood perfectly still, pressing his shoulder against the mantel.

For two days now (ever since they came into his room at daybreak to tell him) he had been getting on that train. And there was no way, apparently, that he could stop.”

I thought They Came Like Swallows was perfectly written. Part of what focussed me on novellas in the first place was exasperation at the baggy, overlong, overly-indulgent novels I kept coming across, that had me muttering to myself how they ‘needed a heavier edit.’ If Maxwell is an example of what happens when editors decide to write, more should do so.

Novella a Day in May #29

It’s thanks to this mini-project that I finally read Eudora Welty, as I had two of her novellas in the TBR. I’m glad I did, as the latter of these two has definitely whetted my appetite for more of her work.

Eudora-Welty-1962

The Robber Bridegroom (1942, 185 pages)

I enjoyed this reworking of The Brothers Grimm tale which Welty sets in eighteenth century Mississippi. Clement Musgrove arrives back home:

“As his foot touched the shore, the sun sank into the river the colour of blood, and at once a wind sprang up and covered the sky with black, yellow, and green clouds the size of whales, which moved across the face of the moon.”

With this foreboding change in the weather, he finds himself sharing a room with real-life keelboater Mike Fink, and Jamie Lockhart, a gentleman robber. Lockhart saves Musgrove’s life, and so is invited back to his home, which he shares with his horrible wife, who predictably is wicked stepmother to the beautiful Rosamond. Rosamond isn’t perfect though:

“As for Rosamond, she did not mean to tell anything but the truth, but when she opened her mouth in answer to a question, the lies would simply fall out like diamonds and pearls.”

The tale unfolds along familiar lines, with theft, mistaken identity, illicit love and people thought to be dead when they’re not, all in the surrounds of a forest. While I thought The Robber Bridegroom was vividly told and entertaining, I wasn’t sure what Welty was really doing with the tale. Rosamond is given sexual agency which would be a departure for many fairytales; and it’s grounded in a historical reality which adds to the mythology around the Southern states pre-Civil War. It’s an interesting tale but I felt Welty could have done more with it, pushed it a bit further into something truly original but still grounded in fable.

“The only thing that could possibly keep her from being totally happy was that she had never seen her lover’s face. But then the heart cannot live without something to sorrow and be curious over.”

The Ponder Heart (1954, 132 pages)

This, however, I adored. It featured a truly idiosyncratic, distinctive narrator and was funny, unsettling and compulsively readable.

Edna Earle Ponder lives in Clay County, Mississippi, and is proud of being a Ponder and running the town hotel. She is telling the tale of her Uncle Daniel to a silent interlocutor.

“I don’t run the Beulah Hotel for nothing: I size people up: I’m sizing you up right now. People come here, pass through this book, in and out, over the years – and in the whole shooting-match, I don’t care from where or how far they’ve come, not one can hold a candle to Uncle Daniel for looks or manners. If he ever did thing to be sorry for, it’s more than he ever intended.”

Her Uncle Daniel dresses all in white and has a tendency to give away money. His father tries to get him committed; Daniel has a lovely time in the institution and his father ends up committed instead. Then there is an ill-fated marriage to the wonderfully monikered Teacake Magee.

“As for Uncle Daniel, he went right ahead, attracting love and friendship with the best will and the lightest heart in the world. He loved being happy! He loved happiness like I love tea.”

Teacake Magee proves impervious to Uncle Daniel’s charms after 2 months and they split up (we’re never quite sure why) and then Daniel marries Bonnie Dee without his family knowing.

“I wish you could have seen Bonnie Dee! I wish you could. I guess I’d known she was living, but I’d never given her a real good look. She was just now getting her breath. Baby yellow hair, downy – like one of those dandelion puffballs you can blow and tell the time by. And not a grain beneath. Now, Uncle Daniel may not have a whole lot of brains, but what’s there is Ponder, and no mistake about it. But poor little Bonnie Dee!”

And from this marriage the trouble starts. Welty builds her story expertly: you know something bad has happened, you don’t quite know what, by whom or to whom. As it is revealed, it is totally believable and an awful comic tragedy, told in the inimitable style of Edna Earle.

“I’m the go-between, that’s what I am, between my family and the world. I hardly ever get a word in for myself.”

She’s vain and arrogant about her position as a Ponder; she looks down on people and is racist; she’s appalling in lots of ways but Edna Earle spins a good yarn.

“What Uncle Daniel did was just bestow his [love] all around quick – men, women and children. Love! There’s always somebody wants it. Uncle Daniel knew that. He’s smart in way you aren’t, child.”

I was truly sorry to leave The Ponder Heart behind.