“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:

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“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.

Novella a Day in May #28

If I was being facetious (which I never am 😉 )I might compile a Jean Rhys checklist:

  • Heroine is displaced, either in France from the Caribbean or in England from Caribbean and/or France
  • She is emaciated and constantly on the brink of starvation
  • For some reason, getting a regularly-paid job never occurs to her
  • And so she has casual employment as a model/actress/any job vaguely associated with prostitution in the early 20th century
  • She uses men for financial gain and is in turn used by them
  • She has a judgemental landlady
  • She owns at least one piece of really expensive clothing left over from a better time
  • She self-medicates with alcohol
  • She is highly sensitive but weirdly passive, so things don’t generally go well

Not including Wide Sargasso Sea, this seems to be the form things generally take in a book by Rhys. Yet I’m happy to keep reading her because she writes with such precision and insight, and at moments is capable of absolute brilliance. Here are two novellas by her.

Images from here and here

Quartet (1928, 144 pages, originally published as Postures) is a fictionalised account of Rhys’ affair with Ford Madox Ford.

“ ‘I bet that man is a bit of a brute sometimes,’ thought Marya. And as she thought it, she felt his hand lying heavily on her knee.”

Marya’s husband Stephan has been put in prison for fraud and she is left alone in Paris. She seems to have been both aware and unaware of the nature of his business.

“Stephan disliked being questioned and, when closely pressed, he lied. He just lied. Not plausibly or craftily, but impatiently and absent-mindedly. So Marya had long ago stopped questioning. For she was reckless, lazy, a vagabond by nature, and for the first time in her life she was very near to being happy.”

She will bring this dissonance into the affair that she has with a man named Heidler. On the one hand she seems to know that she is being manipulated not only by him but by his wife Lois. On the other hand she still seems to plunge into this situation, living with them both and sleeping with Heidler, making  herself both materially and emotionally vulnerable. A lot remains unexplained. We’re not entirely sure why Marya does what she does, although Rhys suggests, as she does in her other writing, that morals are a luxury not everyone can afford.

“Poverty is the cause of many compromises.”

Marya may also have done it just for the sheer hell of it. Heidler and Lois seem to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and so it could be that Marya wanted any experience rather than a mundane existence:

“Her life swayed regularly, even monotonously, between two extremes, avoiding the soul-destroying middle.”

Certainly this may explain why she falls in love with Heidler when he seems so thoroughly horrible.

Quartet is morally ambivalent; Marya seems deeply unhappy for the entire book and she is powerless, so it is hard to judge her even though I felt frustrated at her seeming lack of agency. Rhys simply presents people and situations, and asks the reader to assign their own values.

“The value of an illusion, for instance, and that the shadow can be more important than the substance.”

Quartet was adapted into a film in 1981 by Merchant Ivory. I’ve not seen it but the cast is stellar:

Secondly, Voyage in the Dark (1934, 159 pages). Anna is freezing in England, unable to acclimatise after a life spent in the Caribbean. She is orphaned and earning a living as a chorus girl in a touring theatre company. Life is a procession of dingy B&Bs and while she gets used to England, she misses home:

“the smell of streets and the smells of frangipani and lime juice and cinnamon and cloves, and sweets made of ginger and syrup, and incense after funerals or Corpus Christi processions, and the patients standing outside the surgery next door and the smell of the sea-breeze and the different smell of the land-breeze.”

She meets an older man, Walter, and they begin a relationship. Although she is not being manipulated to the extent of Marya in Quartet, Anna is also powerless in the relationship. She is young, naïve and penniless; Walter is none of these things.

“Perhaps I’m going to be one of the ones with beastly lives. They swarm like woodlice when you push a stick into a woodlice home. And their faces are the colour of woodlice.”

When the relationship breaks down, Anna spirals into despair. She drinks too much, is depressed and has to seek a backstreet abortion.

“I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that – lived in a few rooms and gone one to another. The light is a different colour every hour and the shadows fall differently and make different patterns. You feel peaceful, but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall.”

It’s difficult to say why I don’t find Rhys utterly bleak. Her protagonists are always despairing, but I think for most there is hope. They cling onto something, and while that may be an entirely unsuitable lover or a destructive circumstance, they have a determined streak, even if they allow themselves to be buffeted by forces they could have easily avoided. Rhys is also a writer that constantly brings me up short with startling images, like this one of trying to communicate with a lover who won’t listen:

 “It was like letting go and falling back into water and seeing yourself grinning up through the water, your face like a mask, and seeing bubbles come up as if you were trying to speak from under the water.”

Reading these two novellas means I’ve now read all of Rhys’ novels and short stories and I’m truly sorry to have reached the end. She may only have one main theme, but it is a richly explored one that rewards careful reading.

Novella a Day in May #19

The Pumpkin Eater – Penelope Mortimer (1962) 144 pages

The Pumpkin Eater begins with a woman speaking to her psychiatrist, a silent interlocutor with whom she reflects on the pressures her unhappy marriage exerted on her mental health. We come to know her as Mrs Armitage, wife of a successful screen writer, Jake Armitage, who is selfish and unfaithful. Although Mrs Armitage has been married before, she feels as trapped in this marriage as any 1960s wife who would be reluctant to ask for a divorce.

“It must have been then, I think, that Jake and life became confused in my mind, and inseparable. The sleeping man was no longer accessible, no longer lovable. He increased monstrously, became the sky, the earth, the enemy, the unknown. It was Jake I was frightened of; Jake who terrified me; Jake who in the end would survive. He rolled over, his mouth slightly open, and began to snore.”

Mrs Armitage lives in London while they are building a big glass tower of a family home in the countryside. Jake frequently travels, leaving her with their ever-increasing number of children.  As tensions between them increase, Mortimer brilliantly portrays  “the complex, subtle and occasionally tragic conversations which are the last resort of communication between men and women.”

It is thought that this novel was semi-autobiographical, detailing the disintegration of the author’s marriage to John Mortimer, and it is absolutely scathing in its treatment of the male protagonist:

“His eyes were still quite empty, and I realised now that they never changed, even in love.”

However, Mortimer does not just tear Jake/John apart, The Pumpkin Eater is better than that. She is interested in the destructiveness of human relationships, with those we claim to love.

“We should have been locked up while it lasted, or allowed to kill each other physically. But if the choice had been given, it would not have been each other we would have killed, it would have been ourselves.”

I’ve made this sound heavier than it is; I think Mortimer writes this unflinching dissection of a marriage with a heavy dose of bone-dry humour. Ultimately, The Pumpkin Eater is, if not exactly optimistic, about how we survive such pain and how it possible to endure.

 “I began, very tentatively, to believe in myself. It was as though I were feeling my own face with my fingertips in the dark.”

Novella a Day in May #4

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – Barbara Comyns (1950, 195 pages)

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is the first Barbara Comyns I’ve read, attracted by the whimsical title and it being a Virago. I’m so glad I picked this up. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was a compelling read, and not nearly as whimsical as I had assumed.

our_spoons_cover_image_2048x2048

The NYRB edition

It tells the story of Sophia’s marriage at a young age to Charles, an artist, in the 1930s. They are painfully naïve, and Charles especially has no idea about money:

“He said Eva had told all her relations about the coming baby, and they had asked him masses of questions about how he was going to support a wife and family. They had given him some money, though, four pounds in all. I was glad to hear this as we only had one golden guinea left in the dresser drawer, but my gladness did not last long, because it turned out he had already spent the money on some paints, brushes, books and an enormous walnut cake from Fullers.”

With the arrival of the baby, the poverty becomes even more pressing. Charles is monumentally selfish and self-absorbed, but not quite despicable. He’s just clueless and self-centred, and this means his actions are inadvertently cruel.  Although the situation is quite desperate, Comyns’ voice is matter-of-fact and never asks for sympathy.  There is a light, almost surreal humour present:

“Charles said he had borrowed some money to send telegrams to his relations saying we had a boy of six ounces. I told him it was six pounds not ounces, but he said a few pounds either way wouldn’t make any difference. But Charles’ telegrams caused a huge sensation, and his family was most disappointed when in due course they discovered we had quite a normal baby.”

But the humour always highlights the bigger picture, such as Charles’ disregard and disinterest in his children. While Comyns is unsentimental, this does not mean she is unaware of the power of her story. She has plenty to say about the role of women in interwar Britain and the hypocrisies that meant they were expected to marry and then make the best of it, with little means of support beyond their husbands. She also shows how this is bound up in sexual politics, with male infidelity so much more accepted than female, yet women deserving an equal right to happiness:

“Some time later, when I realised I had been unfaithful, I didn’t feel guilty or sad, I just felt awfully happy I had had this experience, which if I had remained ‘a good wife’ I would have missed, although, of course, I wouldn’t have known what I was missing. I felt quite bewildered. I had …been a kind of virgin all the time. I wondered if there were other women like this, but I knew so few women intimately it was difficult to tell.”

The story is also an indirect plea for a welfare state. What Sophia and her children endure would not be life-threatening after the end of the Second World War, with a social safety net established to protect them from absolute destitution and starvation.

But I worry now I’ve made Our Spoons Came From Woolworths sound very heavy, which it isn’t. Comyns knows how to say serious things with a lightness of touch that is quite remarkable.  You’re not left in any doubt as to Sophia’s desperation, but it remains a hopeful novel about human resilience. It’s generally thought to be thinly-disguised biography (Comyns was married to the painter John Pemberton between 1931-5 and had two children with him) and Comyns makes her point about these types of stories – concerning women and poverty – desperately needing to be heard at a time when no-one really wanted to listen, in deadpan comic style:

“This book does not seem to be growing very large although I have got to Chapter Nine. I think this is partly because there isn’t any conversation. I could just fill pages like this:

‘I am sure it is true,’ said Phyllida.

‘I cannot agree with you,’ answered Norman.

‘Oh, but I know I am right,’ she replied.

‘I beg to differ,’ said Norman sternly. That is the kind of stuff that appears in real people’s books. I know this will never be a real book that business men in trains will read, the kind of business men that wear stiff hats with curly brims and little breathing holes in the side. I wish I knew more about words.”

Although I understand from other bloggers that Comyns’ other novels are very different, I am now officially an ardent fan.

Image from here